Sunday, October 31, 2010

Girls' State, Years Late

I’ve just been to my first High School State Meet. Ever. For girls.

My freshman daughter’s high school girls’ 2010 cross country team made it to State. We all traveled out to Terre Haute this weekend for the big spectacle. And a big spectacle we got. Thousands of people scurrying from one viewing point to another, multiple fields of endless car parking, cities of colorful team tents and suburbs of port-a-potties, media on ladders and miles of fences loosely corralling runners and watchers into interconnecting human rivers.

My own freshman high school girls' swim team would have made it to State in Minnesota in 1974, and well might have won it. If there had been one. Only 2 years after the enactment of Title IX, the “Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act,” the gains for women’s athletics were still modest.

But significant. Growing up in frigid South Dakota, a young girl’s athletic choices boiled down to ballet or tap, swimming, and summer softball, only the last of which involved team spirit and competition. Hopelessly out of place in a dance studio, I swam, moved to a larger community, and swam competitively; I began to discover the power and pleasure at the heart of the athletic experience, feeling muscles grow strong, exploring the new-found psychological confidence that springs from gaining physical strength and control of one’s body.

High school girls’ team sports, however, were truly transformative. As we 1970's swim girls trained, competed, partied, sang on the bus, banqueted, mangled our unsingable national anthem, and crushed our competition together, solidarity flourished, individual agendas fell away, and barriers to more positive girl connections dissolved in the water. I can only imagine what ascending through a state tournament system might have forged among us.
My first season on the Girls' Cross Country Ski Team was even better. When we stripped off our outdoor gear and showered naked together, it was the most constructive body image revelation I could have hoped for, as we all realized that no body is “perfect,” that each of us is self-conscious about some perceived flaw. There was no snow that year, so we ran and ran and ran in winter twilight, although none of us was a runner first. That unasked-for group exertion under difficult circumstances hammered us into something hard and shiny and beautiful, a glittering gem of memory I treasure.

Watching my daughter’s team run in this elite, demanding event was thrilling, and deeply healing. We left after the girls’ race (to attend the other daughter’s concert), so we could even pretend that all the fuss was about the girls alone.

Hurrah for Girls’ High School Sports! Thanks, Patsy Mink! And congratulations to both BHSN and BHSS Girls’ X-C Teams, for putting your hearts into your sport, for all the selfless support and love you have offered one another, and for seizing an opportunity most girls throughout history never imagined.

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Eight Seeds is nowhere
except underfoot, moldering
in that black subterranean castle
of unobservable mysteries - roots and sealed seeds
and the wanderings of water...

– from Fall Song, by Mary Oliver

This underground theme is real for me right now. Last week I dreamt eight miners appeared at my door, still in muddy clothes and smelling of earth. I invited them in, offered them seats in my living room, and busied myself getting water for them to drink.

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, the subterranean castle of consciousness where we work out our human conundrums. I wonder about the riddle I was working out in this dream. It ended before I had a chance to interact with these 8 messengers, but it was clear that I wanted to offer them hospitality, to comfort them. My heart went out to the Chilean miners during their time underground, and this dream offered me a rewarding release, a sense that yes, there was something I could do: get them fresh water.

I ponder the symbolism of the dream. The number eight feels significant. One guidebook suggests that eight is a number of change and inspiration, a change in mood from what has gone before and an entrance into some new phase that comes directly out of past experience. This makes sense. I’m in one of those human phases where external conditions haven’t been lining up. Perhaps the miners are telling me that (once again) it’s time to shift my focus from external circumstances to what lies underneath.

I like Mary Oliver’s metaphor of a subterranean castle – because there are jewels deep below the surface: jewels of insight in the form of sealed seeds to bring back to the surface. Yet how many of us resist entering this castle? “I don’t want to go there. It’s dark, it’s unpredictable, I’ll go broke in the process, my lover will leave me, and everyone else I care about will be gone when I return.”

After darkness, seeds sprout when water and sunshine are added. In my dream, perhaps the miners represent eight seeds in need of watering. Maybe this time I don’t have to get muddy. Maybe that work is already done. Maybe I just forgot to gather the seeds. Maybe it was an act of grace that the seeds came to me.

And now the meaning unfolds. For the past two months, I had been working hard to manifest a new circle of young women writers. I went down to the basement of the schoolhouse to create a space for us to write together. The space smelled of earth and was connected to the roots of the trees in the back yard. Allison, my teaching partner, and I worked with that space, teaching it our intent. I was afraid at times, it was dark, it was unknown. I faced those fears, many of which remained from childhood, when I was a girl afraid to venture into the basement of our home alone.

In my studio, directly above, I found eight nasturtium seeds, saved from a packet we planted during the very first writing workshop I held for girls two years ago. I placed the seeds in a small container to symbolize the seeds of our circle. To my disappointment, the circle didn’t manifest according to the timetable I planned. Yet, the miners affirm for me that yes, the seeds are present, they just need some more nourishment: I need to get them some water.

I am grateful for this opportunity to work through my dream. Once again, the process of writing has loosened meaning behind symbols. I’m sure there’s even more to it than the writing circle. The writing circle is probably a metaphor for something even deeper. It’s like looking into a mirror, and seeing another mirror, and another. I wonder how many people have worked with underground metaphors in their dreams these past few weeks. Have you?

-- Kim for the Poplar Grove Muse

Special note: I'm gathering a list of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade girls who might like to spend time exploring their creativity and inner life in the nurturing environment of a writing circle. Please have parents contact me at

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sinning Against the Light

Sinning Against the Light

The past snuck up on me on a rainy Saturday afternoon while I was cozied up on my couch. I had a cup of pomegranate tea, a comfy fleece blanket and my latest Netflix selection. It snuck up on me as I was watching All Passion Spent, a movie, based on Vita Sackville-West’s novel, about Lady Slane, who was widowed in 1930, at the age of 85. She was very much a product of the Victorian era, who married young to a rising star in the British diplomatic corps, raised six children, and served with her husband, a Viceroy of India, all very proper. A life lived in the service of others. While she was keeping vigil over her husband’s body, her family was gathering to plan the rest of her life for her. It was obvious they cared for their mother, but they assumed that she would neither be able to nor want to make her own plans. Wrong.

She already had a well thought-out-plan which she executed quite well on her own. She moved to Hampstead, rented and renovated a house she had fallen in love with 30 years earlier and surrounded her self with only the people and things she wanted in her life. Of course, not without a lot of protesting and accusations of impropriety from her family, but she prevailed. She gardened and started painting again. Her eyesight was failing and as a result, painting just frustrated her. Her life-long passion for putting brush to canvas was spent.
One afternoon, while having tea with an old friend, she told him of her passion for painting and how she allowed her family and duty to her country to take precedence over her desire to create art. The friend told her, “You have sinned against the light.”

Lady Slane took me right back to the person I was at 18. I didn’t have the family support I needed to realize my dream of going to college and becoming a teacher. My mother decided that I was going to be a hairdresser, because that’s what she had done when she graduated high school. I gave it a try, but it wasn’t for me. So I chose the next best thing. At 21, I married my high school sweetheart. He rescued me from my mother and moved me away from my hometown. Like Lady Slane, I did what women have done throughout the centuries. I chose marriage because my options seemed limited. I loved my husband and we had a good life for many years, but the best thing to come out of that marriage was our son.

The problem with that choice was that I had married into a family of soul killers, where only hard work was valued. No encouragement was given to any other pastime. I was put in a box to be observed, my accomplishments measured, tasks completed and catalogued, my personal inventory taken daily.
Every morning promptly at 7:30 my mother-in-law called me to crow about the work she had completed so far that morning. “What have you done?” was the inevitable question. I mumbled, “Um…answered the phone?” She was not amused. Every afternoon she called to see what I had been doing all day. I decided to start making stuff up because I knew that reading a book or writing were not acceptable answers. One day, fed up with her third-degree interrogations, I told her I had waxed the driveway. She thought that sounded like a good idea.

My father-in-law believed that any one who slept past 5:00 a.m. was lazy and would never amount to anything. I have always been a night person, so you can imagine how he viewed my nocturnal wakefulness and early morning snoozing. I didn’t fit into their mold and they never quit trying to hammer square me into their round hole.

Some days I felt as if my throat had been slit and my voice box removed. My voice, saying what I wanted, what I valued never to be heard. My husband and I were in business together with his parents. We all worked in the family business. The control was complete.

I spent 24 years sinning against the light. I pushed down my creative side. The only time I let it surface was when I worked with my son on his interests and his art, but those were his interests and his art. I cherish the memories of my time exploring dinosaurs and sharks with him, of sitting with him while he drew amazing pictures of those creatures. That activity was permissible because it meant I was being a good mother, nurturing my child. What I resented was the unasked for judgment that was put on everything I did.

My marriage ended after 24 years. It needed to end. We had nothing in common and our world views were at the opposite ends of the spectrum. I did not grieve for long. With the dissolution of the marriage I received a bonus. I was free of my in-laws. Free to start building my life the way I wanted it to be. Free to decide who and what I wanted to be. I began re-inventing my self, step by painstaking step. It took years, but I was worth it.

What has emerged is a writer. It’s not just something I do, it’s who I am. I’m no longer sinning against the light. I follow my passion for writing, reading, opera, poetry, travel and growing spiritually, the list goes on. I’m no good to any one else if I’m not the best person I can be. You wouldn’t like a stifled me. The analogy of the oxygen mask on the airplane works for me. I can’t help any one else, if I can’t help myself.

So I leave you with a little food for thought: Who gets to decide what is valuable?

Rebekah for The Poplar Grove Muse

Monday, October 11, 2010

Greening in the Desert

Somewhere I read that the Sonoran Desert is one of the greenest deserts in the world. And this is probably true. I was there once years ago in the springtime. The desert was a-bloom; life in relief against what was greening at that time was visible to me in abundance. On a recent re-visit to the area outside of Tucson, late September, still officially the tail end of the extremely hot summer season, I had to work harder to orient to the environment; to find a little “green” in the midst of so much taupe, ochre, mauve, and rust . Even as I fled a Midwestern drought, I longed for the lushness of my Indiana home during the first 24 hours at the White Stallion Ranch.

I arrived prickly; resistant to the landscape, the moisture evaporating from my own body, and initially, I was unable to settle. The "watch for rattlesnakes" communique at the front desk didn't help matters. I’d gone to attend a strategic planning, communications, and leadership workshop and partake of Dude Ranch hospitality. I went because it seemed that my life and my work required it of me and I knew we’d be doing something with horses. This part was a mixed bag for me, since having been a girl who welled up with longing at the sight of horses from the window of our Rambler station wagon on the back roads of rural Ohio so long ago, I carried both that longing, and some trauma from a spill taken on a runaway mule 40 years ago that forever after made me completely anxiety-stricken around horses. I knew by now that the horse-sense I’d acquired as a kid (when I woke up in a rocky ditch in Southern Colorado bruised and bewildered), had something to do with humility. I actually thought I could ride the animal only my cowboy cousins rode successfully and in no uncertain terms, I learned that I was nowhere near as tough or steely in the saddle as they.

Fast forward to the round pen exercise we did at the workshop. This was the “horse sense” part of the week where, as aspiring leaders, we were each invited to go one-on-one with a horse in the pen, show our leadership moxie in the unspoken language of horses, summon the alpha mare inside of us, and convince, in my case, the fabulous, feisty 1200-pound A.J. to move her feet per my instruction. I’m skipping the talk beforehand, when twinkly-eyed Frank, the horseman told us about herd dynamics, alpha mare leadership –always-and the unspoken dance that happens in horse world and in the relationships between horses and humans. In horse language, the horse that gets the other horse to “move its feet” will be the lead animal. Once you prove yourself the alpha mare, once you assure the animal you will lead it and mean it no harm, the horse will believe you, will trust you, and will follow.

Against a dusty backdrop of the livery, a memorial cactus garden, grey hills in the background wavering dully in bright desert light, something happened in the round pen for me. Something greened in me as I brought gentle but clear intention into the pen, moving , dance- like, but with so little effort and not a single word, first one way, then another, turning A.J. first left then right around the perimeter, marveling at her pirouettes as I pointed a short crop at the ground to guide her movements. People watching told me afterward I was smiling, beaming with joy and purely focused on A.J.. I wish I could say I was completely in my body, but I felt my energies encircling the whole pen. No fear. I was barely there anymore; though my observers all told me what they saw was a kind of pure presence. To say I got out of my own way is a massive understatement.

Near the end of the exercise, the instructions were to completely withdraw your energy, put your head down, withdraw any eye contact with the horse and wait. Theoretically, at this juncture, the horse would stop moving and might make its way over to you. You could also choose to walk around the horse, close in behind –even into the dreaded kick zone and, with eyes still downcast, move to the horse’s head, keep walking, and she might follow.

I made my way to the gate with A.J. walking just behind my right shoulder. The desert bloomed inside of me at that moment.

While I was soon shaken back into my body as I left A.J. in the pen, I shed tears for time gone by and the girl who wanted to ride like a boy. Tears for greening the women, the Alpha Mare who would continue to lead and mean no harm.

BLR for the Poplar Grove Muse

For more information about the workshop Dialogue in the Desert, led by Joe Williams of Joe Williams Communications visit the website.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What would you do…JUST TO FEEL GOOD?

This is a question that started rambling around for me in 2004. I was living in New York and my life’s partner had just died at age 47 from a heart attack. In what seemed like an extreme gesture of self-care at the time, I joined the brand new Equinox gym—an expensive, inspiring facility where beautiful people trained with celebrity fitness gurus. Those who know me will tell you this is NOT my usual scene, but I was desperately sad and craving beauty, strength, and inspiration. My first class was with one of the aforementioned gurus. The description read, “IntenSati—exercise to build physical, mental, and spiritual muscle.” Sign me up.

Patricia Moreno’s philosophy involves intention—using affirmations and personal mantras—combined with action, so that one feels the synergy of claiming something verbally while pursuing it actively in the moment with the body. And by the way—it’s an ass-kicking workout. I was about 20 minutes into my first class, chanting “All I have is within me now,” sweating profusely and struggling with some type of lunge or squat, when she turned to look at the class. I felt her looking right at me as she asked, “Can you be here in this moment? Can you stay with the pain, choose to be here now, choose to do whatever it take just to feel good?”

I cannot describe the feeling this invitation gave me. When one is deep in grief, the very last thing one wants to do is “be here now.” But here she was inviting me to stay with the pain, work it, and move through it JUST TO FEEL GOOD. I wept through the remainder of the class and over the next few months I returned on Saturday mornings. For that hour and a half each week, I was present for all of it. In every muscle ache and stretch, every look into the mirror, and every breath, I was proving to myself that I could live, I could be strong, and I could feel good.

It has been six years. And because grieving and healing rarely happen in a linear fashion, there have been long periods of me being unable to be present, of wallowing and hiding in food and alcohol, and ignoring the needs of my body. There have also been periods of celebration and new relationships that have healed my heart. Over the years, the question of what makes me feel good has changed and evolved. It is a very different thing to ask oneself this question when NOT in a crisis, and I find that doing so now has activated some old feelings around how much goodness I deserve.

Undoubtedly rooted in the “there are starving children somewhere” tactics of making children eat brussel sprouts, I developed a kind of zero-sum belief regarding getting one’s needs met. In other words, there’s only so much “need-getting” to go around, and if I ask for more than my share someone else might not get theirs. Worse yet, it could mean that I am selfish, narcissistic, or undeserving. But what if I’m wrong about this? What if the airline attendants have it right, and we need to strap on our own oxygen mask before attending to the needs of others?

For now, I’m going with the airline attendants. I’m strapping on my own mask and seeing what happens. It’s scary and I have way more questions than answers at this point but I suppose that is how most journeys begin. I have some sense that if I can muster what I am now referring to as the 3 c’s – curiosity, compassion and courage – the answers may be just as interesting as they are scary.

One of the scariest things is putting this in writing – on a blog post no less. But I believe that sharing this is part of my process—putting it out there and risking what comes back. Risking that what I have to say might not be interesting, well written, or relevant, but risking also that my story is enough, and that I have the same divine right to speak it as anyone else has a right to speak theirs.

And so it begins… I look forward to sharing some of my journey with you, and to your comments about your own efforts JUST TO FEEL GOOD.

--Stacey for the PGM