Recently a friend took the time to send me heartfelt appreciation for an earlier column. It’s lovely to receive kudos and helpful just to hear that I’m striking chords and not just throwing my words out into a black hole. Writing is a solitary act, following your own mind, spewing it out through pen or computer. Sharing your writing with anyone can feel risky, even if it’s only with other writers or people close to you. Sending it out into the public domain is kind of like tossing your beloved cat out the door, hoping it will catch a mouse or two, not annoy any neighbors nor encounter hungry coyotes, and find its way back home. You’ll never know where she went or what she saw unless a witness reports back to you. Readers are the witnesses who can let the writer know that her words moved them to tears or laughter, stirred decades-old memories, triggered some deeper thinking, angered or just entertained them.
Writers are typically readers, thinkers and observers, spending a lot of time in our own minds. An overheard comment, a remembered moment, a news story on the radio, a perceived injustice, a joyful celebration, an outrageous joke, all are potential fodder for reflection and commentary.
Readers are given the opportunity to follow a writer’s mind, to see how the tumult of thoughts and images become choreographed to the mental music. A thought, a phrase, a new perception will surface, but they’re elusive, like hummingbirds. They’ll hover for a moment, and before the “ah-h-h-h” of appreciation is complete, they’ll vanish, from stillness to gone at supersonic speed, leaving you grasping for the evaporated brilliance. To prevent such loss, you can try to always have a pen and paper nearby, perhaps a tablet strapped around your torso, or you can relax, knowing that some mental flashes will just dart in and out, not meant to be caught, even if you thought you had finally grasped the meaning of existence in that instant and if you could only retrieve it, all of humanity would be edified and grateful. However, you can create an inspiration-friendly environment in other ways.
If you want to attract hummingbirds, you have to provide a delicious attraction: they’re said to favor red, but they seem to like any brightly-colored, tubular flowers that hold the most nectar like columbine, daylily, lupine, foxgloves, hollyhocks, hibiscus and petunias. And you can provide a feeder, fill it with the sweetened water (DON’T use honey!), keep it clean and free from ants and bees and then wait with quiet patience. The patience might be the hard part.
So, if you’ll do all that for the hummers, you can carve out some space and time to write, a cup of tea or coffee on hand, a comfortable chair to encourage you to stay put when you want to jump up and start doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, paying the bills, anything to get away from your thoughts. Then you just start writing, allowing the thoughts to come into the quiet (or chaos) of your mind, spitting them out without judgment, allowing them to stay on paper or screen, even if you think they might win the Nobel Prize for Stating the Obvious. You know the old joke about the optimist kid who gleefully digs in the pile of manure, sure that there must be a pony in there somewhere. The judgment/editing comes later after you’ve had a bit of distance to discern whether there are any ponies ready to romp, and I guarantee you, if you give that critic free rein too soon, those wild and tender thoughts won’t come out to play at all or will soon disappear into the ozone.
Oh, yeah, that other hard part: how do we manage to find time in our busy-busy lives to write or paint, garden or bike or do whatever we’ve been yearning to do? It’s so easy to say, “slow down, simplify, take time, breathe, less is more” but the doing requires wanting it enough to change often long-established habits and thinking patterns. Ann Burnett, a professor at North Dakota State University, has studied our modern fast-paced lifestyle since 2002 and notes how being busy is often a “badge of honor”; that we feel guilty if we take time to ourselves. I’ve seen an edge of competitiveness in conversations about busyness like we’re needing to prove our worth through our productivity: “I’m just doing so much, I don’t have time to think…to breathe…to do one more thing.” Those words have often fallen out of my mouth and it can seem like time is the enemy, whipping us around in the tail wind. We cave into the demands for instantaneous responses to emails, texting, cell phone calls and just plain doing more when we really don’t have to. I’d like to suggest one simple practice to slow down time and share some very satisfying moments which I spent watching my cat breathe.
Cocooned within many layers of warm comfort and reluctant to eject myself into the 50º overnight chill of my house, I successfully hushed the oh-so-rational-sounding voice saying I should get up and start being productive. There were no demands on me from the outside world that I couldn’t ignore and my inside world is not nearly that disciplined, so I remained tucked in, gazing at the intricately frosted window the deep cold had designed. How close I came to missing the exquisite display, available for my sole enjoyment only until the sun erased all evidence that it existed. Savoring the way the light careened around the crystalline facets, the rhythmic movement of a furry, tawny mound in the cushioned basket on top of the radiator caught my eye. My orange tabby was lying on his side, only part of his belly visible above the basket edge, the rhythm of his breath rolling in waves under his skin. I kept my attention on his belly, unconsciously matching my breathing to his, slipping back into a peaceful rest.
Cats are exquisite role models for relaxation, so watch one for lessons on how to breathe, for becoming more conscious about your breathing is a simple, available, affordable and very satisfying way to improve your life in many ways. When you focus on your breath, bringing it deeply into your lower diaphragm (“belly-breathing”), allowing yourself the time to fill your lungs with life-giving breath and exhaling easily, completely and fully, you can almost stop time. If your complete attention is on your breath, following its path within you, you can be completely in the moment, which may have a new-agey twang, unpleasant to some ears, but the concept, the experience and the necessity for it are as old as human existence. Deep, relaxed breathing will bring more oxygen to your whole system and increase your energy.
When you are truly in the moment, breathing, meditating, walking, holding a baby, it is impossible to focus on those things that raise your blood pressure or give you ulcers, because as soon as you’re doing that, you’re either in the past with your regrets or in the future with your worries. This is so critical for us to understand for our health and well-being because it’s all we have; not in a metaphorical sense, but in reality. All we have are the moments, one after another, strung like pearls, creating our lifetime. Remember to breathe. You’ll be glad you did.