March 8, 2011

What You See is What you Get.

How to survive a winter in Maine without chewing off your arm.

We all go through periods of being discontent. Whether it’s with our job, our relationship or our wardrobe, we sit with this feeling of unease until we figure out that to do about it. Sound familiar?
My decision to move from the hustle and bustle of New York City to the summer town of Bar Harbor Maine was borne of the realization that I needed some good old fashioned space. After graduating from college I immediately moved to the city. After nearly 3 years I was ready for a change and I knew what I wanted: I wanted sun. I wanted to work on a boat and be on the water. I wanted to commune with nature and feel the wind in my hair! I wanted opportunity to think, feel and just be. New York City was full of life and full of stimulation and it left me feeling as though I was losing sight of the simple things in life.

After reading the book Journal of a Solitude (May Sarton’s chronicles of her year living on the coast of Maine) I thought, “that’s it. I need to get outta here.” and so I did. Being someone who goes for what they’re after, I dove headlong into turning my fantasy into a reality. That summer I got a job on a boat. I sailed around the harbor all day long and experienced the wonders of nature. I saw bald eagles and whales. I ate lobster and marveled at the natural beauty of my surroundings. “This is easy” I thought, “I love the simple life!”

Summer time in a summer tourist town is not unlike New York City in some respects. There are new people cycling in and out each week. Lines form at all the popular restaurants and there are plenty of bars to choose from. With Acadia National Park right in our backyard we (my future husband and I) chose a different hike to explore each weekend and by the end of the summer we still hadn’t explored them all. We swam in local swimming holes, kayaked around the harbor and explored the surrounding islands. The summer was full of excitement, nature and stimulation on a different (and more natural) scale. And then winter came. It was like God himself had pulled the drain out of my sink full of summer abundance and suddenly I found myself smack in the middle of the cold, dark and depressing Maine winter thinking “what in God’s name happened?”

By the time December came I was going for days on end without changing out of my pajamas. I set up a little painting studio and tried (and failed) to find my creative spirit. My future ex-husband and I tried to write a screenplay together only to discover that working together was like scraping fingernails on a chalkboard: intolerable. I thought about writing something on my own but quickly abandoned the idea thinking “what for?” What I did do is read. I read more books in that one winter than in my whole high school and college life combined. I read the book Winter by Rick Bass and chided myself for complaining at all. “Don’t be such a loser” I told myself “be grateful you’re not in Montana.”. Yet still some days I simply didn’t see the point of getting out of bed.

Then I read a book by Annie Dillard called Pilgram at Tinker Creek. The book is a non-fiction narrative of Ms. Dillard’s days living in the countryside. “Eh”, I thought. “I don’t need to read any more books on this stuff, I’m living it.” Still, I read and finished the book. Really, what else was I going to do during these dismal winter days? While reading these books which described the simple and wondrous life in the countryside I couldn’t help but feel that I had somehow failed. The whole thing seemed so inspiring and transformational as I sat on the F train and read through May Sarton’s chapters. Now I sat huddled around the wood stove in our freezing cold house and I missed New York City, damn it! I was a failure at living in nature. I was a failure at finding inspiration from someplace other than the distraction, stimulation and viberance of a city. I wasn’t strong enough to live in semi-solitude. Summer tourist towns shut down shop for the winter and without the stimulation of the hustle and bustle of summer I was simply alone and I felt there was nothing to see, do or be. I wasn’t going to be writing any poetically descriptive books on My Winter in Maine; it would be boring. I wasn’t deep.

The days crept by.

Sometime after reading Annie Dillard’s book I decided to pull myself up by my bootstraps and go for a wintry walk. Alone. I took my car to the edge of a dirt road, which I knew traveled through the woods. The road would end at the mouth of a cove that I had discovered one summer day. It seemed a century ago. I began my walk, huffing and puffing through the snow and ice. I was completely destination-bound. I had no sensitivity around the actual journey—the walk. My gaze at my boots, the huff of my breath and the passing minutes were my only points of focus. In what seemed like a hot second I stood at the clearing at the mouth of the cove. It was dead quiet. My gaze scanned the still and frozen water and came to rest on the handful of summer houses upon which I had stumbled that summer. The windows were boarded. No sign of life. “What a drag” I thought. Everything seemed dead and lifeless. As I looked around at my surroundings I saw what I found to be a reflection of myself. Emptiness.

I called to mind a chapter from Ms. Dillard’s book entitled Seeing. The basic gist of the chapter was this: We often look but we seldom see. Seeing involves stopping. Seeing involves creating space and quiet in which to notice. Seeing involves unseeing—shifting your focus from that which you have always focused in order for something new to present itself.

That winter in Maine, I was focused only on was what was wrong. It was dark, it was cold, days were short and I was tired. I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t write, I had no energy and I was bored. I was dull and I was empty. And the thing I focused on most—I had failed.

I stood at the mouth of the cove wondering how long I should stay in order for my walk to be worth the trouble. I wanted to head back to my car but this seeing business kept nagging at me. In that instant, I thought “what the hell” and instructed myself to stay a moment longer to look around. I looked around. I saw trees without leaves. I saw snow on the ground. I saw the sky. I heard some light wind and I saw my breath. “All is dead” I thought. “I don’t see anything because there is nothing around to see. Life has left this place. Bah!”

As I was about to head back I turned my head to the left and noticed a large bush. It had been next to me all the time but I hadn’t looked at it. Now I looked at it and remarkably, I saw. The bush was large and had no leaves. The bush had little berries. Down the length of each branch there was an abundance of berries and there, on every branch and through every inch of this bush there were birds! Tiny little chickadees purposefully hopping from branch to branch, from berry to berry. There must have been at least a hundred of these gorgeous little birds! The bush was teaming with life! I was awestruck. Where had they come from? Were they there all this time, going about their business of collecting berries? Could it be that all I needed to do was to stop focusing on what wasn’t there in order to notice this splendid display of life and beauty? It could and it was. At that moment I did not want to walk away. I became mesmerized by these birds and the life and beauty that they possessed. There was so much to see, so much to notice. I stood in awe as I watched their ceaseless bouncing from one branch to another and listened to their sweet chirping calls to one another. Each bird seemed so precious to me, the thought of walking away was incomprehensible. I could not believe that I did not notice this bush filled with and abundance of  life before this moment. The experience of witnessing their beauty touched my life so profoundly that words can not describe it. Where I once felt empty I was beginning to feel fully alive. It was astounding.

Though it was 20 years ago I still remember that moment as if it has just passed. As I teach my yoga classes I often speak of creating space to notice something new. “Breathe and slow down” I say, “and make space for something beautiful to present itself. Allow yourself to receive something.” As I say these words to my students I think of my moment with the birds in the bush. I remember that first winter in Maine as a time when I was stuck in the darkness of resistance and self-judgment. I had wanted to appreciate the simple things in life, yet my insistence in seeing only that which I did not want or did not like prevented me from accomplishing this. Not until my moment with the birds did I realize that I was blocking my own vision.

Each time I step on my yoga mat and take my first breath is like the moment I decided to remain at the mouth of the cove and take a moment to look. Each subsequent breath is like peeling away the mask covering my own eyes so that I may see what is there. Each practice leaves me able to see, feel and appreciate the simple yet miraculous and beautiful things in my life and the lives of those around me. Just like the little birds in the bush, they have always been there, waiting to be seen.

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