Groundlessness

I have a warm spot in my heart for the old Looney Tunes cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Wile E. Coyote, and Roadrunner. The schtick is well-known by this point, but I always enjoyed the Roadrunner and Coyote. As a kid, I imagined being able to run off cliffs and avoid the law of gravity simply by not looking down. I would never have been so silly as to look down like Coyote–he never learns!–and end up plunging into the canyon below.

That’s the image that pops into my head when I think about the concept of groundlessness. Pema Chodron speaks wisely and at length about “the fundamental groundlessness of life” in many of her books. Groundlessness is the idea that the act of living is an ongoing situation of impermanence. Life doesn’t stand still and sometimes the ground gives out beneath you. When that happens, the feelings of uncertainty and upheaval can lead to clinging to old ways and routines.

I’ve struggled with groundlessness, and I don’t think there is anyone, even the freest of free-spirits, who doesn’t struggle with wanting to avoid calamity, danger, or a future that might not turn out the way you wanted. What could be more human than to seek warmth, familiarity, shelter, and safety? But this cozy narrative of what it means to be human leaves out a big piece of our story and our drives.

What could be more human than to seek opportunities and adapt to them? What could be more human than to discover and explore, to try to understand something never seen before, to be open to the unexpected, the uncertain? This is groundlessness in its purest form. It can find us or we can find it, but either way, the loss of certainty is inevitable and repetitive.

I have a theory that the real reason Coyote plummets to the bottom of the canyon when he looks down has nothing to do with seeing where he is. It’s the panic and rush to go back to how it was that causes Coyote to fall and end up as a splat. You will notice that Roadrunner never has this issue, because the bird never panics about where they are in three-dimensional space.

It’s a cartoon. I’m stretching the metaphor to its limit, sure, but it’s not a bad interpretation. Roadrunner speeds over the edge, never looks down, keeps that fuck-you stride, and doesn’t fall. Coyote speeds over the edge, looks down, panics, reverses course, and falls. Over and over again. He doesn’t learn.

But you do. Embracing groundlessness as a natural force in this life is the only way to keep going forward. Keep going forward into the unknown, and sometimes say “Meep! Meep!” just for effect. Y’know, if you feel like it.

What Would You Do If You Were Immortal? That’s What You Should Be Doing Now.

The dinner conversations around my home can vacillate wildly between fart jokes and “What superpower would you pick?” to that’s-what-she-said jokes and questions about who invented money, the violin, or any number of objects. Many times this calls for someone to look up the answer on a phone or smart home device.

Recently, my daughter asked us at dinner, “What three things would you do if you were immortal?”

Unlike some questions (like, “Mom, what was the Cuban missile crisis about?”), I found this one pretty easy to answer without the help of Google.

  1. Learn all the languages.
  2. Travel the planet experiencing people and places.
  3. Write about all those experiences.

Given all the time I could care to imagine, I believed I would choose endless communication, travel, people, and writing. And I felt pretty great about my answers. That is until I compared it to my current mortal life pursuits.

I wasn’t working on any languages, wasn’t initiating travel for myself, wasn’t trying to meet the people around me, wasn’t writing anywhere near my capacity. Where was my sense of adventure? Where were my leaps of faith? Where were my friends? Where was my passport?

Just because I didn’t have the luxury of an immortal life was no reason to squander the pretty amazing handful of decades that I could reasonably expect. By using my limited time for my immortal pursuits, I’m finding that I can achieve moments of timelessness and deep fulfillment. But without the horrendous accusations that I’m a supernatural being.

Now. Excuse me while I practice my French on Duolingo. I’ll need to know how to speak it the next time I’m in Europe.

Trying Something New: Barre Class

Like many little girls, I imagined being a ballerina. The flowing movements, the lithe bodies, the pink satin slippers–I saw them as a perfect mix of elegance and athleticism. I still do, but now I have a better understanding of the punishing work ballet dancers do in order to turn their bodies into one long, lean muscle.

These things were all on my mind when I went to my first barre class at a studio near my home. The class was only 45 minutes, shorter than most of the ones on the schedule. I hadn’t been to a fitness class of any kind in several years, so I had no idea how much stamina I would need for even a short class.

When I signed the waiver for the first session (free!), the instructor asked, “Have you done a barre class before?”

“No, but I’ve done barre and pilates videos at home,” I said. Which in my own head now sounds like, “No, but I’ve watched Black Swan.”

The instructor, S, made a noncommittal interested noise and said, “Well, take your time and watch for any modifications.” I appreciated her lack of judgment.

I changed into a pair of clean grippy socks available gratis for the class. The tops of the socks were made of netting and woven through with sparkly bits that caught the light. I instantly felt more elegant and began to get into my ballerina mindset, making a mental note to get my own sparkly socks if I liked the class.

Other women arrived, all of them familiar with the set-up routine. I followed their cues and tried to mimic the vibe. We each demarcated our own working space in the studio with the equipment that S had listed on the wall: weights, bands, a ball. The studio floor was completely covered in grey mats, and two of the walls were mirrored floor to ceiling. Waist-high bars bracketed three of the walls. I began to relax and stretch as a bright, energetic pop song played over the room’s speakers.

S started us with deep squats, bicep and tricep curls, flies, and shoulder blade lifts. Then we moved into isolating the leg and thigh muscles. I learned quickly that every angle of a muscle would be forced to squeeze and release, moving from larger to smaller movements requiring tighter moves and increased intensity. When S moved us to the floor for abs and back work, I breathed a sigh of relief, but this part of the workout turned out to have the longest-lasting effects. My abs were sore for days any time I laughed, coughed, or sat up.

I went home and ordered my own grippy, glittery socks that night. Since then, I’ve learned something new at every class about what my body can do and been surprised at the strength and stamina that I am capable of. I’ve learned that soreness is part of the work, and it’s inescapable if you are truly pushing yourself. Out of necessity, I’ve made it a priority to stretch throughout the day to keep my muscles from growing stiff. Going to barre class has given me an appreciation for the way that trying something new adds vibrancy and passion to everything else in my life.

Snow Day Concessions

Why is it that I feel like snacking all day during snow days? No doubt it’s a survival mechanism to keep the body’s metabolism stoked and warm. However, possessed of a furnace and central heating, I have no need to consume extra calories. The opposite in fact since there is not a great deal of exercise to do right now. It is useless to begin shoveling the sidewalks until the snow stops. Hot Earl Grey tea with a little sugar and cream will keep me from crunching on carbohydrates all day. I cannot say the same for my pretzel-loving children.

From my dining room window, I can watch the slow progress of traffic running north and south through the snow. The plow trucks have made several passes this morning, and the snowfall hasn’t let up once. I have watched three police cruisers provide help when a semi was unable to make it up the hill and slipping backward every time it tried to move forward. With traffic stopped both directions, the semi finally turned around and went back the way it came. On the neighborhood side, neighbors help one sedan with tires stuck in the snowy ruts left by four-wheel-drive trucks. Snow is encrusting the screens on the windows, building up until its own mass knocks it down. 

I suffer from distraction and indecision on snow days. Should I read all day or watch a movie that I’ve been saving for a quiet afternoon? Housework projects catch my eye, and I end up spending more time than I would like talking myself out of assigning work for a snow day. I should get my kids to play games or bake with me. But they don’t want to and truthfully neither do I. We would only be playing or baking out of politeness to each other, an even more boring Gift of the Magi scenario.

Options flipbook through my mind. A nap, a hot bath, a blog post, researching a topic. I can’t make a decision. Whoops, a half hour disappears to Instagram. After I realize the danger of having my snow day absorbed by my phone, I turn it off for the morning and place it out of sight.

The snow day stretches horizon to horizon, a sandbox of possibilities. But snow days require their own discipline of intention. I have to settle on two or three things, shutting out all other possibilities or else I’ll be bogged down and buried by choice.

I choose a movie, a nap, and a novel to make my snow day worthwhile.

Change Your Hair, Change Your Life

My friend who works in the spa and beauty industry once told me, “Fate follows hair.” She said this after I went and chopped off all of my shoulder-length hair. My new pixie style felt free and wild, svelte and quick. Which translated to feeling all of those things about myself. And it’s a good thing too because I had quit my lucrative and stressful job only a month ago. I desperately needed to believe in myself and a new direction toward creativity and art.

Like many women, I’ve experimented with hairstyles and colors over my teens, 20s, 30s. Long and feminine, short and blunt, bangs, layers, asymmetrical, curls, pixie, purple highlights, silver strands, tinted henna, au naturel. When I get bored with the status quo of life, changing hairstyles is a low-risk way to freshen up routine or catapult into a completely new life. Sometimes the hairstyle causes the change, sometimes the change causes the hairstyle. Either way, it’s a physical signal that change is brewing.

The hairstyle that I have most wanted to dare but have been reluctant to plunge into is the shaved head. It’s a strong signal, often seen as a political act, to shave one’s head as a woman. Perhaps that’s the fascination and the fear: to take such total control of my own appearance in an irrevocable, in-your-face way. I would compare the feeling to vertigo, the dangerous what-if of jumping over the edge. There is no going back, and am I ready to know myself with a bald head?

So far my answer has been no. I’m not ready to face that fate or change my life in that direction. But I enjoy having it in my back pocket, an emergency hatch to a new life if I ever need it.

On the Passing of Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was the first person who told me I did not have to be good.

Using one-syllable words, she devastated and reconstructed me.

She told me and so many other young women that goodness was not a prerequisite for having a place in the world. Guilt and shame were not passports to personal worth.

She set many of us free when she slipped that smooth stone into our pockets: You do not have to be good.

The Book Buffet

For micro-post Wednesday enjoy the reading buffet I set up in my living room. Magazines, library books, an assortment of bookmarks, and an apple cider candle for ambience.

The vacuum cleaner in the background serves as memento mori: someday you must clean.