On Dark Days & Making Choices

 

framed woman 3 tony rubino
Framed Woman 3 by Tony Rubino

 

I close many of the Yoga classes I lead by bringing people into the fetal position for a few breaths. This is the pose that our bodies first encountered, as we developed in our mother’s wombs. Here, I like to remind them—and myself—that one of the beautiful things about being a human is our ability to choose, and in so choosing make each moment new. Continual rebirth.

What I don’t talk about in those restful moments is just how goddamn hard that idea is to put into practice.

I had a dark day recently. The first day of my cycle is always challenging. I’m in pain, I’m exhausted, I’m navigating a veritable shitstorm of hormones. My go-to coping mechanism is marijuana and movies. I’m well-versed in all the things I can do to make the day go more smoothly: gentle Yoga, journaling, drawing, going for a walk. But when it hits, all that stuff seems to be almost impossible to actually accomplish. Yesterday, my shining moment was walking to the grocery store, and I nearly passed out at a couple points during that adventure, which made me feel incredibly insufficient and weak.

child sarah
The author, before my fear voice had developed to the point where I started questioning my own worth. With my older twin brothers.

Feeling weak is both anathema and constant companion for me. One of the loudest and most persistent voices in my head is the one that tells me my methods for handling my life aren’t nearly as good as they should be. I should eat healthier. I should exercise more. I should be more social. I should write more, draw more, pick up an instrument, clean my room, make more money, etc etc etc. Sound familiar to any of you?

 

I’m betting yes.

When I am in a situation where my whole self is weakened, especially by circumstances out of my control (my cycle, getting ill), that voice gets louder. It’d be super nice if it would recognize that, hey, I’m already laid out, maybe you could back off a while, but no. It’s like a relentless hunter, waiting for any bit of wobble in order to double down its attack.

My counselor calls this voice the Inner Critic. It is ever-present, always talking, and rarely useful. But, like all things in nature, it’s not entirely useless. This voice stems from our protective instincts. It’s the voice that said look out, I smell a saber-toothed tiger. It’s the voice that said don’t go any further down this alley. It’s the voice that said this guy is going to hit you if you stay with him too long. It has a place. It can keep us safe.

trappedProblem is, it doesn’t know how to tell the difference between life-threatening, and literally everything else. Elizabeth Gilbert describes this voice’s refrain as a monotonous, unending no. That’s the answer to every possibility: no. Am I doing enough? Am I worthy? Am I okay? No, no, no. Can I succeed? Do people love me? Will this work? No, no, no.

It’s stifling. It can be debilitating. But dammit, above all it’s so. Fucking. Boring.

So. We have the incredible ability to choose, it’s true, and that is a beautiful, wondrous thing. It is the only instrument we have when we want to change our lives. Everything else flows from this ability.

Riding next to the ability to choose is this occasionally useful but often just awful distillation of fear. For me, more often than I’d like, that voice has its hands firmly on the steering wheel, while my ability to choose is left riding shotgun, or even relegated to the backseat. It’s not that it isn’t there, it’s just that this mean, chattering monkey is in the driver’s seat.

But, but—this voice says—you let me get behind the wheel. All you have to do is tell me to move.

sunAnd this is the same message I get from many self-help books, articles on self-care, and discussions with well meaning people. It’s just a matter of taking control. Making those choices.

Only, this rhetoric reinforces the voice. If it’s that easy, and I don’t do it, that must mean I’m weak, broken.

And round and round she goes.

I don’t have an answer. Not of the magic bullet variety, at any rate. It seems to me, though, that it all comes back to love. Those times in my life where I’ve felt most in love with myself are the times when making those healthy choices have been easiest. In turn, making those healthy choices helped me more deeply recognize my love for myself. The cycle moves in both directions, towards darkness and towards light. Too, those cycles are never-ending.

Life is the constant miracle of joy triumphing over despair. And the constant heartbreak of despair overcoming joy. So it goes. So it always has, so it always will.

Continual rebirth.

Which is to say, if it’s dark now, hang on: the sun will rise again, and there are lessons in the night. And if you’re basking in the glorious light, give thanks, give thanks, give thanks.

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Existential Crises On The Road

nacho
Our valiant steed, Nacho. Look at the tires on that baby. Rawr.

“The people who are crazy enough to think they

can change the world are the ones who do.”  

Rob Siltanen

We were wild. We were free. Just him and me and our truck full of Peruvian imports, touring the West coast in search of a new kind of life. That which we sought felt, too often, just out of grasp. Still, we reached, because what other option is there? Giving up and settling back into the familiar path of job, apartment, A to B to C and then you wake up twenty years later and wonder where your life has gone… it wasn’t tenable for either of us. We’d gone through our years of sleepwalking, and the process of crawling out of that comfortable deathbed was both painful and seemingly irreversible.

truck setup
Get yer alpaca here! Can’t imagine why so few people wanted super warm sweaters in 90° weather.

We spent the summer driving from one festival to another, volunteering our time in exchange for a ticket and, occasionally, food. When I wasn’t working, I might spend time hanging out with the tailgate of the truck open, our wares laid out for purchase. Thick alpaca socks, brightly colored alpaca hats, tiny alpaca sweaters—are you sensing a theme yet?

More often, though, I’d spend my off time reading. Most of the festivals we found featured music and crowds that I had little interest engaging with. I’d done a lot of the discovery footwork, and while I’d managed to find a couple shining exceptions, most of our scheduled work landed us at bluegrass festivals. Nothing against bluegrass in particular—the skill I saw on display was mind-boggling—it’s just not my jam.

By late July, I felt burnt out and discouraged. We hadn’t made much money selling alpaca gear, the people we were surrounded by were often drunk (we were at festivals, after all), and the strain of summer heat and long hours in the car was getting to both of us.

truck feet
Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of amazing. Like waking up here.

Wild and free didn’t feel so wild or free. It felt like scrabbling up a rock face, fingers bloodied and muscles quaking.

 

After yet another discouraging festival (which we left as soon as our volunteer shifts were completed), we drove to Colorado to spend some time with my family. Spending time at the old homestead is always a difficult endeavor, whether I’m with my partner or alone, and this was no exception. Morale continued to slip.

We drove north and spent the weekend working gate security at a bluegrass fest in beautiful Lyons, Colorado. The setting was spectacular, the festival itself left me feeling like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. The whole summer seemed pointless. Nothing was working, motivation had fled, and the prospect of a desk job had started to sound almost feasible.

This was, as we refer to it in the writing world, my long dark night of the soul. I was nearly ready to give up, pack it in, accept the ‘truth’ of what I’d been hearing all along: stepping outside the norm is ultimately a fool’s errand, and can only end in pain, destitution, and calamity.

We couldn’t leave Colorado, though. We had one more festival booked in the state before we would make the mad dash back to Washington what was slated to be our last festival of the year. So we rallied our spirits and headed up to Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, CO.

arise rainbow
Thank you.

We checked in, found a spot for the truck—and turned around to find a huge double rainbow stretching over the lake at the far end of the parking area.

 

Everything changed for me, for us, for our focus, in the next few days. While other festivals left us plenty of time to hawk our wares from the back of the truck, the Arise Festival was saturated with music, workshops, classes, and presentations that appealed to just about every aspect of who I am as a person. My partner, too, found himself poring over the schedule, circling so many options that there wasn’t a spare minute left in the day. And while we’d made connections with people at the other festivals, within half an hour of pitching our tent we’d found kinship with a fellow festie that felt more real and more enriching than any other person I’d met along the way.

I’d been looking for Spirit all along, aching to find some sense of the Divine in dusty makeshift parking lots, air-conditioned casinos, and other people’s empty beer cans. (No glass at the festival, please!) Of course, the Divine is in everything.

It’s also true, though, that you become the kind of people you surround yourself with, and we’d spent precious little time in the company of others specifically looking to engage with Spirit.

Until we got to Arise.

flowersA Sacred Fire burned throughout the festival, attracting Water Protectors from Standing Rock, Storytellers weaving joy out of words, elders leading ceremony, and, of course, people eager to get warm after chilly Colorado storms. This space made the festival for me. The music was great, the workshops and yoga classes I attended were lovely, but the Fire and the environment it created were what took me from hopelessness to having more ideas than I knew what to do with.

We drove away from Sunrise Ranch early one drizzly morning and spent the next few hours brainstorming all the ways we wanted to change the world. I filled the pages of our glittery gold notebook with ideas for new forms of education, ways to expand our business by following our passions of wildcrafting and creating, thoughts about community action and political activism. The world felt like it had opened up, after feeling so very, very small.

Finally, we were wild. We were free.

More than anything, we believed.