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With a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction degree (Goucher College, August 2014), I am looking at a new phase in my life. From 1992 to 2009, I served as Founding Executive Director of Miriam's House, a residence for homeless women living with AIDS. I left this position when Chronic Migraine Disease overtook my ability to do my job. Now I hope that a writing career will both accommodate the migraines and give me a creative, productive outlet. And soon, September 4, I will launch my Inkshares author page in a bid to hit the 1,000 pre-order goal in 90  days. The book I want to publish is "Nowhere Else I Want to Be," a memoir of ten of my years at Miriam's House.

29 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Balancing Our Energy

"Nurture the spirit, be sparing with energy,
As though holding a full bowl." Sun Bu-er

This saying of Sun Bu-er, a Taoist Master(ess?) in the 12th century, reminds me of the Buddhist concept of equanimity, about which I have posted before.

I think of equanimity as being about balance: Sun Bu-er advises me to balance my energy as though holding (balancing so as not to spill) a full bowl. And when we live with chronic pain, or even are going through a particularly difficult time emotionally or spiritually, balance is key to staying healthy and not making pain worse through suffering.

(I make a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is what happens to us as part of life; we have no control over it. Suffering is that which we layer on top of pain; fear, distress, upset, anger, feeling victimized, etc. It is a choice; we have control over how we regard our pain.)

Instead of layering suffering over our pain, we can allow pain to transform our ability to be conscious, alive to the Now; read this post for more about this.

The balancing that Sun Bu-er and Diane Mariechild (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) are writing about has to do with energy. Our response to pain may be to push through it, denying its reality. This is a good strategy for sudden, non-recurring pain like a stubbed toe, but it is not a remedy for chronic pain, which requires our ability to name it and see clearly how it feels and how it affects us so that we can go on to good management practices. On the other end of that scale is the strategy of giving in completely to the pain. Again, this is often helpful when the pain is acute and won't last; it can also be the only thing to do when the pain is really terrible. But for chronic pain, giving in completely is the kind of imbalance that leads to depression and despair.

Each of us has our own formula for balancing our energy, like pacing during a workout or a distance race. We find that balance by trial and error. There's no other way than to let that pendulum swing back and forth from one extreme to the other until we find where it swings gently from a mid-point, arcing enough to allow us some freedom of choice but not so much that we bounce to one extreme or the other.

Diane Mariechild gives us the example of a fine dancer: "She is sparing with energy, using just as much effort as needed for each movement, no more and no less...We can put this wisdom into practice by making our bodies strong, flexible and balanced through a movement practice such as yoga or tai chi."

For myself I have learned that the exercises I do for my back (I have two degenerating discs in my lower back) have given me flexibility and stamina that I did not have before. I also do the exercises as though they are yoga: with mindfulness.

Mariechild talks about emotional energy as well as physical energy; I'll address that in my next post.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

27 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Part II -- In Union We Cannot Harm

"The feminine energy, Buffalo Woman's energy, is very strong in many of our hearts at this time. Buffalo Woman is willing to shine out through each of us who quiet ourselves and call."  Brooke Medicine Eagle

In my previous post I wrote about this feminine energy in relation to how we live in this world. Today I want to talk about Buffalo Woman energy as it might relate to living with chronic pain.

Brooke Medicine Eagle says that this energy will shine out when we "quiet ourselves and call."

One of the most effective pain management techniques I know is meditation: quieting myself in body and mind and spirit, then allowing the vastness of life to dwarf the pain into perspective. In the sense of the words above, I call into life beyond me, larger than me.

It's not a miracle cure: the pain does not go away. But the expansion of my spirit into a broader realm is both calming and energizing, accepting and creative. And it is joyous.

In other words, it's an awful lot like Buffalo Woman's energy as described by Diane Mariechild (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful): "energetic, creative, caring connection with all of life." "We must go beyond ego to a more subtle state of consciousness, one of realization or communion with the circle of life."

What a lovely thought -- that in meditating to manage pain I am tapping into the Buffalo Woman's energy of creation, of nurture and transformation. It is, indeed, within me for I have been connecting without conscious knowing. I have been reveling in this feminine energy and can agree with Mariechild that in this connection with all of life, "we cannot harm."

We sometime feel alone and worse, irrelevant, in the life that is absorbed in managing chronic pain. Here is a healing reality that brings relevancy and even a peaceful urgency to our practice: when we quiet ourselves and call we become part of the connection of all of life; we bring the feminine energy of creativity and healing and nurture and strength into this fractured world.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

25 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: In Union We Cannot Harm

The reflection for April 24 (yesterday) begins with a verse from the writings of Brooke Medicine Eagle:

The feminine energy, Buffalo Woman's Energy, is very strong in many of our hearts at this time. Buffalo Woman is willing to shine out through each of us who quiet ourselves and call.

Diane Mariechild, in her reflection (Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) for the 24th, tells us that Buffalo Woman energy is "strong, creative, nurturing, and transformative feminine energy." It is within us, each of us, despite the language and the words sounding odd to our rational, Western minds. It arises from the Earth, it completes the integration of "the preconscious state into the present ego state" and then leads us to "a more subtle state of consciousness, one of realization or communion with the circle of life."

Buffalo Woman energy has power of the feminine order, something sadly lacking in our male-dominated lives. We women have in many ways allowed ourselves to be co-opted into thinking that the more aggressive, ego-driven, rational way of the male is to be emulated, is the highest and best use of our talents and time and gifts. We have come to celebrate the successful business woman over the loving mother: isn't that the origin of the "women can have it all" myth of today? What is "all"? Apparently, it is not motherhood or quiet lives of spirit and prayer or being simply joyous with life as it is. "All" in this case seems to only be ours when we assume male characteristics, get ahead and make a lot of money.

Not that this is bad in and of itself. Many of us women can benefit from a touch of aggression if we have been too passive. Many of us need to assert ourselves in the work place in order to be treated well and to earn a wage comparable to that of our male co-workers. Many of us need to come out of victim mode and into empowerment. In all these things, male energy can help us.

But I think that Mariechild and Medicine Woman are making a point about purely feminine energy, which has been denied and denigrated and thus hidden from all of us. I think they are asking us to reconnect with that which is purely feminine as a means to reconnect with the Earth and with one another.

"Connected with, in union with one another, we cannot harm."

Who can say what a renewal and revival of the feminine energy that cannot harm could do in the world that witnesses bombings in Boston, child murder in Newtown, suicide bombings in Kabul, drone attacks in Pakistan, starvation in Somalia?

We cannot say. We cannot know for sure until we try.

(In tomorrow's post, I will continue this subject from the point of view of living with chronic pain.)

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gail.com. Thank you.

18 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: A Meditation

(For pain.)

Imagine yourself in a favorite place in nature.

     The breeze off the ocean and the rhythm of the waves...the rustling leaves of forest trees...

Breathe. Slowly, softly, quietly. And deeply.

     Salty air fills your lungs...loamy scent from woodsy ground...clover meadows...pine...

Breathe in to your toes, fingertips, top of your head to soles of your feet.

Breathe out tension of muscle and sinew, thought and emotion.

And again.

Breathe in through the soles of your feet.

     Mother Earth...her waters...her soils...her life...her energy...Creation.

Breathe out tension of muscle and sinew, thought and emotion.

     Release to Mother Earth...to her waters...her soils...her life...her energy...Creation.

Breathe in Earth's energy.

Breathe out Love for Earth.

And again.

And again.

Receive Earth's Love.

Send Earth Love.

All is well. All is Peace.

(Inspired by the April 18 reflection in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful)

16 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Foremothers

My prayers today are especially with the people in Boston, where bombs killed three and injured 140; and with the people in Kabul, where bombs killed 25 and injured hundreds.

It is so hard to find beauty in a world where such violence is endemic.

Today's reflection in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful is titled, "Beauty."

She quotes from Hildegard of Bingen:

The earth is at the same time
she is mother of all that is natural,
mother of all that is human.
She is the mother of all,
for contained in her
are the seeds of all.

I feel grateful for the wisdom of our foremothers, whose gentle yet incisive spirituality reminds me of the essential goodness and beauty of Creation. I need, today, to be reminded that we are all contained in one vessel; we are the very seeds of Creation.

How very different this world would be if we lived this truth.

We who live with chronic pain must find beauty and life in ways unnecessary to those whose health is better. Today my pain is more spiritual than physical, but still I turn to the practices that are so ingrained in me -- quiet, reflection, meditation, music, prayer.

I have learned no better response to the pain of my migraines. And I know of no better response I can make, today, to the pain of this world.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

13 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Listen Without Judgment

"Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck." Natalie Goldberg

As I read this quote by Natalie Goldberg that begins today's reflection (in Open Mind: Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful), I realize that sometimes I don't even listen very well with my ears, let alone with my hands, face and neck.

I listen and I think about what I will say in response; or how bad this migraine pain is going to get; or whether I remembered to turn off the iron; or any of a vast number of things that I let distract me. The reflection draws me to see that real listening, deep listening, both puts me in the moment (in the Now, as Eckhart Tolle would say) and in a place close to meditation.

Diane Mariechild describes a pianist at a concert of the Women's Philharmonic:

"She played with her whole body. When she wasn't playing, she listened to the orchestra with her whole body. She lifted her head and drank in the music through every pore of her skin."

Imagine paying attention, being present, listening like that. It makes me want to go out and stand under the dogwood tree that my husband tells me is beginning to bloom; to drink in its presence with my whole body; to be so utterly present to the moment and that tree that I take it in through the pores of my skin.

What will you do to practice such listening, such presence?

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

11 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Wanting Things To Be Other Than They Are

Want to know how to make pain (either emotional or physical) worse? Wish it away. Fight with it. Tell yourself you don't deserve it, it's not fair, and let the frustration grow. Get mad because you have other, more important things to do and this was not on your list and life is just so damned unfair. Worry about what that other person did or said, try to figure them out, try to argue with them in your mind.

Feel your muscles tense, your heart pound. Let the adrenaline rush around your bloodstream, leaving you feeling weak and somewhat shaky.

There are alternatives.

From Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's Disease: "My happiness grows in direct proportion [to] my acceptance and in inverse proportion to my expectations. That's the key for me. If I can accept the truth of 'This is what I'm facing -- not what I expect but what I am experiencing now' -- then I have all this freedom to do other things." (from the April/May 2013 issue of AARP Magazine.)

From Diane Mariechild, Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful: "Can we accept [what is] without wanting it to be better, or be different from what it is?"

From Sylvia Boorstein: "So, in the first five minutes [of paying attention] you get a big lesson about suffering; wanting things to be other than they are."

From me: What Remains is Love.

If you have never worked with the present moment and its reality in this way, all this sounds counter-intuitive, I know. You think, "What, are you crazy? Accept this terrible headache?" or "No, there is no way I can accept this break-up. Accept failure? Mistakes? All the hurt?"


Accept that this is the reality of the moment -- the headache is worse; my heart is broken. But this kind of acceptance is very simple, uncomplicated -- now I am in pain as a statement of fact -- not now my heart is broken as a doorway to guilt, fear, shame and blame.

A simple statement of fact. An acceptance of the present moment with no judgment or shading into nuance and emotion.

I am really hurting today.

Once I have accepted that fact, I am freed to practice the many tools I have learned for pain management -- all of which work for emotional pain as well, in my experience.

Deep relaxation.

Chanting or repeating mantras on the breath.

Healing imagery and meditation.

Listening to calm, beautiful music. I especially like Deuter for this.

One last tip: The more I practice -- meaning daily -- these tools, the more handy they are when I am in pain and the less thinking I have to do to bring their process to mind.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

08 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Seeking Stillness

"So much of our thinking isn't fresh or original insights, it is habit. We spin around and around with our thoughts, digging ourselves deeper into self-created ruts."

This thinking process that Diane Mariechild (in Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) describes as "spinning" is what I call "circular thinking" and another friend used to call "pacing." It seems we all do it, and giving it a name helps us begin to address it.

Circular thinking ensures that, even when we are alone and in a quiet place, we do not have silence. The chaos of noisy thoughts and the anxiety they produce make silence and stillness impossible.

Diane has a nice little practice to help us end circular thinking:

When you find your mind spinning in a rut:
     Stop and take a deep breath
     On the next inhale, think -- I breathe in clarity.
     On the exhale, think -- I breathe out confusion.
     Continue breathing this way: I breathe in clarity -- I breathe out clarity --

Chronic pain has its own circular thinking taking us down into spirals of regret and fear that mainly serve to make the pain worse as we tense up around our confused and agonized thoughts. I can't stand this again...No one understands...What about that task/meeting/event?...I hate spending so much time on the bed in pain...I have no life whatsoever... (I have posted before about how the stress of our response to pain makes it worse both physically and psychologically.)

When we have some measure of control over our wayward thoughts, and are sitting in silence (that means no music, even) and focusing on our breathing, we relegate the pain to a more realistic place. It never just goes away -- at least, it never has for me -- but it somehow seems less important. It takes up less real estate in my perception. That, although it doesn't sound like much, is a huge relief.

This is not to say that I don't take migraine medication when I can. But I end up managing about half of my migraines because insurance only allows 12 pills per month; that leaves me with another ten to fifteen days per month of pain.

Finally, I want to say that when we go into silence for meditation or pain management, we likely will come face to face with inner workings that we have been able to avoid in our busy, distracted lives. This is where a good counselor or spiritual guide come in. The effect of silence and stillness is profound, which for most of us means that we need accompaniment from a professional.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on "Comment" below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

06 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: The Hunger

I know and truly love someone who is so sunk in her misery and self-pity that I have had to make the terrible choice to stay completely away, at least for the time being. Perhaps if I were stronger spiritually, or more mature in some way, I might be able to be in relationship and maintain the integrity of my own spirit. But not now. And the being apart has helped me understand myself better.

Today's reflection (in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful) puts a new perspective on why a person might allow life to become so negative, so burdensome.

"My mother felt sorrow for those who had no spiritual practice or religious beliefs...Such people are often bitter and angry at what they term the unfairness of life."

But more important for me -- because I cannot get into the head of another person, and so cannot say for certain that this applies to my friend -- is turning the thought to myself and my relationships.

I think it's not enough to say I have a spiritual practice. There must be active searching for meditation time, disciplined dedication to setting aside everything else for complete focus on my spirit. In setting aside this toxic relationship, I have given space for the things of the spirit -- love, compassion, understanding, self-awareness -- to relax and make softer the unyielding and hurting place I was in.

With that space and softness, I begin to see how I was buying into the negativity in order to stay in the relationship; that there was something in the hurtful mix that served a purpose for me. I simply would not have become aware of this had I remained close to this person because remaining close to her meant remaining far from my Self.

My sister, Joan Sparks, sent me this text today: "We all have freedom. We cannot control our circumstances but we can choose how to deal with them."

Sometimes those choices for freedom are so hard. They can be inexplicable. The choice I have made to stay apart seems cruel, I know. Yet I now see that I had to remove myself from a destructive cycle for my own sake, and that is reason enough as long as I do so in the context of a deeply felt spiritual life and journey.

For now, I am glad that the circle of the old relationship is over. I pray that a new circle might begin, even as I know that I have no control over whether or not it does.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on 'Comment' below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

05 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: The Gift of Tears

"For the blessing of tears, I thank God I was born a woman."

This quote from the Women's Haggadah fits so nicely with some of the reflections of yesterday. It's about choice, again, at the level of how we think about ourselves and our "mistakes" or obstacles. Today we have another example in Mariechild's Open Mind --  Women's Daily Reflections for Becoming Mindful.
"Women's wisdom is the wisdom of connection, but the tears that can easily flow from our eyes have been used against us as proof that we are overly emotional, irrational, and unrealistic."
Our emotions -- and the tears that flow for the sake of the connections those emotions help us make --  have been regarded as obstacles to the supposedly more mature wisdom of the mind, of pure cognition. To the extent we have been co-opted by that view, both for ourselves and for other women, we have some reflecting to do.
In my own spirituality of pain, I understand tears as being the way that compassion and emotion are given physical form; a body prayer, if you will. The chemical composition of tears changes when they are produced out of pain or grief. 
However, I have had to learn other ways of making tears when I have a migraine, because crying, with its straining of the forehead muscles and added sinus pressure, makes migraine pain worse. I sigh a lot. Sometimes I keen a soft, low sound. I wrap my arms around myself and gently rock. I have taught myself to see these not as indications of weakness (I was born into a "stiff upper lip" family), but as ways I hold my hurting self in a compassionate space.
One can feel terribly alone when in pain. Perhaps these methods also help to ease that loneliness by allowing compassion to freely flow. In that flow is God.
When practiced in this way, the tears or sighing or keening are certainly not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of forbearance, of an admission of pain that does not deny or pretend and thus holds the sufferer in an expansive space. They allow me to suffer with some dignity.
Tears show us the gift of expressing our emotions with immediacy and honesty. How can that be weak? Only when we feel ashamed of them, or deny the feelings behind them, are we weakened. The power and strength of tears allowed means we are facing "life on life's terms," as the 12-Step program says. That is strength.
I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

04 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: How We Choose

When I slow down -- thoughts, actions, reactions -- I am much more aware of how I am choosing. That's one of the spiritual gifts of chronic pain: it slows me so much that I can feel how a negative thought ("I just can't take another migraine this week.") affects the pain; how a positive thought ("I can decide to go through this with dignity.") shifts it.

So in today's reflection by Diane Mariechild in Open Heart -- Women's Daily Inspirations for Becoming Mindful, it is pain that I think of when I have been made to slow down. Migraine pain, of course, but also the pain of a fractured relationship, a mis-spoken or cruel word. I think that what Mariechild and St Teresa of Avila are saying is that when the pain of the obstacles and mistakes in our lives slows us down, we have an opportunity to reflect, decide to change and grow.

That process is complicated and made slower by shame, about which I have posted before, here.

But if we can derail the shame and get to the healing, we have Mariechild's reflection to guide us. I happen to enjoy outlines and lists, so have broken down her lovely meditation into a far more pedantic form:

1. Realize we can use the obstacles (mistake, sin) in our lives as opportunities to embody love.

2. Become aware of our thoughts; create a practice of looking deeply and honestly (I would add here, without shame and judgment) into our actions.

3. Make a choice to become more loving.

It takes practice, life-long practice toward an unreachable goal. But we can progress along the path to a purely loving heart and each step we take is immensely important to ourselves and to this world.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.

03 April 2013

Reading Mariechild Together: Just Today

A friend who follows my blog contacted me early this week to find out why I hadn't posted recently. I felt grateful for her thoughtfulness (I had a virus that didn't seem to want to go away) and kind of excited, really, because, from her home in El Salvador, she is maintaining connection with me. I just like the thought of that: my dear friend, Janet, reading my blog so faithfully that she notices when I don't post.

All this has nothing to do with today's entry in Diane Mariechild's Open Mind -- Womens' Daily Inspiration for Becoming Mindful. Aside from really liking the poem by Lynn Park  --

The fruits of consecration
are sweetness and patience
sureness in the middle of panic and confusion
when baboons put on business suits.

 -- and the way the unexpectedness of the final line makes me smile,  I cannot relate because the rest of the reflection is about greed. It's just that today, sitting up, without fever, aches gone but still pretty weak, I just feel grateful and content and happy. Maybe tomorrow I will deal with my greed -- which I know is there.

But for today, pleasure in the small things: a cup of tea, a clearer mind, sun pouring in my window, a far-away friend who cares.

I would love to hear from you. Please click on Comment, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com. Thank you.