Summer Zen

In two previous blog posts, I wrote about celebrating a zen, self-care mindset: How Does Your Zen Garden Grow? and Zen Toolbox Redux. My busy life, like the lives of all modern women, scream out to me from time to time to pause, to ponder, to notice and wonder, to take a deep breath and focus on myself. What is good for me and me alone? What do I need. How can I nourish myself?

This COVID school year posed many stressors: masks, plexiglass barriers, six feet distancing, virtual, hybrid and in-person learning, weekly COVID tests (we lovingly called “Spit Tests”) and finally the vaccine. The would also posed many stressors – political upheaval and social unrest with no signs of resolution any time soon. All these things have made my students anxious, angry, and worried. So all year, I focused on helping them find calm and purpose . Right around May, I realized I had forgotten to focus on myself. I forgot to pace myself, to keep focus on creativity and nature – two areas that restore my sense of well-being. But I did hold on to faith.

We are now hurdling towards the end of June. I am trying to put the reigns on summer: “Hold up, Summer! Don’t go running wild. Slow and steady, now!” I cajole as if speaking to a spooked horse. I am just beginning to unwind, just beginning to take a long slow breath, look up into the impossibly blue June sky and be grateful for this season, for this time away from work, for this time to spend with friends, family and myself.

I’ve been telling my friends that I’m naming this summer – Project Jojo. I’m planning to do things that restore and replenish my body and spirit. When I reached the end of the school year, I found myself completely exhausted. I usually make lists of all the professional development courses I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the school projects I need to get done by August. “No!” I breathe out. No frenetic pace this summer. This time I will return to the lazy summer days of my childhood: sleep late, make beautiful salads with treasures from nearby farm stands, brew peach tea and let it steep in the sun, read nothing that has anything to do with education – a romantic novel, a mystery, a memoir, a cookbook perhaps.

I’ve been frequenting our local botanical garden and nature preserve. I am grateful that I live in a place with these natural resources. I miss walking among the trees and flowers, watching the birds flit from branches to branch and bees sip summer nectar. Immediately my shoulders drop, my heart rate slows, I find myself smiling. Slowly, ever so slowly I am re-learning the zen of summertime. And I know it is necessary. And I know it is sweet and brief.

Zen Summer

Today, I came to the garden
And walked the gravel paths,
Among the white rhododendron
And soft pink hydrangea.
I follow the path to the burbling creek,
Which flows into the pond laden with water lilies.
This morning I face my lone and tired shadow,
Let it sink into the grass to be restored.

I continue along the path in the noon sun,
Swollen bumble bees sip nectar from the peonies.
I try to capture them with my camera;
They are too fast, dipping from flower to flower.
White clouds drift slowly in the blue, 					
Reflecting on the surface of the pond.
The weight of my body lifts,
Free from earthly troubles,                                                                                                     
What cares can vex my mind?

Clear water sparkles like crystal over the rocks
You can see through easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free now from every thought,
Nothing can ever move it.
I am here in the present forever.
The sweet summer outside has come in,								
I have regained calm, I welcome peace.
I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

How Does Your Zen Garden Grow?

As I look towards the end of August, cognizant that my new school year is on the horizon whether it is virtual or in-person, I am committed to keep cultivating my own garden.  By this I mean I want to keep in the forefront of my mind, my health, my writing, my artistic expression, and my connection to friends and family.  It has not always been easy for me to have clear boundaries between work and my personal life.  For decades, I put my work before everything else.  Oh sure, I talked about balance, but I really didn’t know how to achieve it.  How do I juggle a great jumble of responsibilities?  How do I prioritize?  What do I need to do to be successful?  I struggled and struggled with these questions.  I read about how to reduce stress.  I practiced tai chi and yoga.  I drank gallons of steaming chamomile tea.  I smiled. I sang several choruses of, “Let it Go” loudly in the shower.  Still, I felt like the sword of Damocles was constantly dangling over my head. I talked to family. I talked to friends.  Everyone felt the same way.  Everyone had the same strategies. They worked on the surface, but I still felt stressed and anxious.

I turned towards my faith. I prayed for wisdom and insight. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to deal productively with my stress, I would continue to damage my health and relationships.  I’ve watched the failing health of my parents and in-laws as they aged, and I know life is so fragile, so short, so precious.  By continuing to load up my life with endless activities and packed schedules, I was playing a dangerous game.  I was slowly and surely depleting my quality of life.  On the outside, I looked like I was handling my hectic life quite well.  But I knew I wasn’t.  I knew I was over-eating, not sleeping, constantly worrying. I knew if I really loved myself that I had to stop.  Stop immediately, stop without question.

So that’s what I did little by little, I learned to focus on myself, I began to write more consistently.  I read books that interested me, not just books for education.  I made an effort to eat nourishing food and get daily exercise.  In the months that followed, I felt more and more in control.  I stopped worrying about what people thought of me.  I asked myself:  What makes you happy?  What do you want to create?  What is important to you?  And as I pondered these questions, I stopped juggling all the unimportant, distracting minutia.

Even though I haven’t had a chance to travel as I normally would this summer, I have been productive.  I connected with old acquaintances, read books that I have wanted to read for a long time, began to draw and paint again, and began to organize my copious files of photographs. I also made time to walk and bike. I feel I’m ready for the gauntlet that will be this school year.  I’ve been thinking about how to ensure this inner peace I’ve sown will continue.  I want to stay mindful and positive.

I started compiling books and materials that will help me remember to keep my health first and to prioritize what’s most important to me in my life at this very moment in time.  I call these items my Zen Toolbox. If you’d like, take some time and create your own toolbox to help keep you calm, centered, and in the present.

ZEN TOOLBOX

1. The Little Book of Joy by Bill Zimmerman
A terrific little journal where I record my thoughts and insights to the writing prompts.
2. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
A wonderful book by Ryan Holiday on ways to surmount obstacles and make problems into possibilities.
3. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg                           
An invaluable book about how to write using the mindful, Zen approach getting to the heart of the story.
4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackery
A wonderful children’s book, but really a book for all ages about the resilience needed to live a joyful life.
5. Write the Poem (Piccadilly)
A little journal I found in a thrift store which has a poem topic and suggested vocabulary on each page.  It is a more structured way to approach poetry, and I was pleasantly surprised by the practice.
6. Drawn to Nature by Holly Ward Bimba
A journal and sketch set that focuses on drawing the natural world.
7. Buddha Board
A small painting easel that allows you to paint with water, so your masterpiece is fleeting, but very enjoyable.
8. Joy of Zen Tangles by Marie Browning
A way of doodling that is systematic and teaches how to create various perspectives.
9. A Collection of Notebooks
I love collecting beautiful notebooks.  I’m making a commitment to writing in them more consistently and thoroughly.
10. Music & Meditation: My favorites – King & Country, Lauren Daigle, Andean Flute music, and Guided Mindfulness Mediation – Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Zen Garden

Sitting low on a wooden bench

Looking out on the Zen garden,

My thoughts circle and release,

Circle and release,

Circle and drift

Around the islands in my mind.

A young girl runs to the edge of garden,

“What’s a Zen garden, Dad,” she asks.

Her father looks out,

Shrugs his shoulders and says,

“A Bunch of rocks…

A bunch of rocks.

His teenage son smirks,

Glancing at the garden and declares,

“They did a nice job making the rocks.”

And slouches away.

My mind settles on the center stone,

I take in its contours,

I memorize its lines and creases,

Its cracks and crevices,

Its shape, color, texture –

Every wrinkle.

I exhale one long, low breath.

Two young women walk in front of me,

Look out and pause for a moment,

“Do you feel Zen?” one says to the other

“Nope,” says the other with a giggle

And they bounce off.

I open myself to the sea of sand,

Perfect concentric circles,

A solitary island

at peace.