The Pearl, vol. 83: Too good to be true

Dear Oysters, 

Last weekend, Susan and I went to go see an apartment we'd found listed on Craigslist. We weren't sure if we wanted to leave our current place, and we weren't intending to move until September. Still, it was the first floor of a beautiful Victorian house. The listing had a photograph of a bamboo garden and a little Buddha pond in the back. It seemed stupid not to at least go see it. 

We walked up to the house—a blue-and-red gingerbread house in a perfect location in Takoma, D.C.—and rang the bell. Rebecca, a friendly, redheaded woman in her early forties, greeted us and led us into the apartment. Casually, as she was showing us around, she said: "This used to be a yoga ashram." 

"It was like ... yoga, the religion," she clarified.

They'd knocked out the wall between the living and dining rooms to teach asana classes on the first floor. When we went out to the backyard, we found a round, concrete structure. "This was a temple," Rebecca said. "The feet of the guru are imprinted in the cement."

Behind the temple structure was a little man-made pond, surrounded by stones, and an overgrown bamboo garden. The Buddha statue's head was starting to crumble. 

I began to get funny prickly feelings in my gut. I wanted to straighten up the fallen bamboo, to clean the temple walls, to repair or replace the poor crumbling Buddha. As we walked back through the apartment into the front entryway, I could picture the students arriving for yoga in the 1970's, taking off their shoes, stepping into the shala.

("Shala means house," I heard my teacher Cory say recently to another student in the Mysore room. "A yoga shala is a yoga house.") 

Walking away from the house with Susan, I couldn't stop laughing. "I can't believe that place," I said to Susan. "I can't believe that we just saw that place."

On the train ride home, I texted my friend Anna. It's like the universe is slapping me in the face and saying, "So this is what you want?" 

Anna replied: Well, is it what you want? (She's a good friend.)  

Have you ever had the experience, Oysters, of being presented with precisely what you've said you want? And, instead of the imagined glee and satisfaction, what you feel in your body is mostly fear?

I'm afraid I'll hate the house, that I'll fall in love with the house, that the house will get taken away from me. I'm afraid I'll make space for friends and clients and no one will come. I'm afraid because the house reminds me too much of where I played as a child; the shady, ivy-covered section of the yard that we called "The Island." I'm afraid because it looks frighteningly similar to the photographs I pinned onto a secret Pinterest board called "I Dream" six months ago.

I'm scared of all of it. 

So ... we signed the lease yesterday. 

Stay salty, Oysters. And I'd love to hear your stories of how it felt to get something you really wanted. 

xo,
Ellen

 

The Pearl, vol. 82: Simplicity.

Dear Oysters, 

The word that's been coming to me a lot these days is simplicity. Honestly, it's easier to embrace simplicity now that it's spring in D.C. The best things in life are free—and blooming on every corner, in every color, under balmy blue skies. 

Everything in our culture turns us against simplicity. We are encouraged to do more, buy more, possess more. After all, as Jerry Colonna said in a recent interview, "our economy depends on it." Colonna goes on to articulate not only the economic pressure to acquire, but also the existential one. Often, in our quest for material security, we are trying "to build an impenetrable wall of security, so that nothing can ever hurt us." 

If that's what we're trying to do, it's no wonder we always feel like we're failing. No matter how much we accumulate, we'll never shake life's uncertainty or impermanence. We'll never make ourselves, or our loved ones, invincible or immortal. 

Material simplicity has always come pretty naturally to me. But allowing simplicity to characterize my daily activities often leads my ego to freak out. As I shop for groceries, cook, sweep the floor, answer email, or pet the cat, a pesky inner refrain will arise: "Does this mean I'm not special? Not important? Shouldn't I be saving the world or praying in a monastery or having a deep conversation or writing a Pulitzer-prize-winning ... something!?

Easy there, tiger. 

Don't take yourself too seriously ... or forget who you work for. 

Don't take yourself too seriously ... or forget who you work for. 

So there it is again: the desire to prove that I'm worthy. But for me, true simplicity can only come when I've embraced my own worthiness. Then, I can be still. I can belong. I can be slow, steady, uncluttered, undistracted. And funny enough, in the midst of the unglamorous rhythms of a simple life, that's when I'm likely to do the creative work I'm most proud of. 

I once heard a great Jack Kornfield quote about spiritual practice. He said: "Practice is not a shopping mall. It's the dump." 

In other words, it's not about treasures that you gain on the path. It's about what you're willing to leave by the roadside.

May we drop of all unnecessary items—inner and outer—at the dump, and enjoy more lightness and freedom. 

Stay salty and much love,
Ellen 

 

PS: Get The Pearl in your inbox weekly by subscribing here. 

The Pearl, vol. 81: A birthday with the Buddha

Dear Oysters, 

Friday was my 32nd birthday. It's funny how certain numbers "sound" when you say them out loud. While 30 sounded quite different from 29, 32 doesn't sound that different from 31. Nonetheless, I can't help but notice a certain fatness in the number of years on Earth that I'm accumulating. 

For me, birthdays are simultaneously a celebration of life and a reminder of mortality. The heart-rending tradition of singing a song and blowing out candles—the little flames extinguished, the familiar smell of melting wax—speaks to the tender fragility of our lives. We make a wish, expressing hope for a future that is not guaranteed. Birthdays bring to my mind a sobering calculus of life and death: when my mother was 32, she had only eighteen years of life left, although none of us knew that then. My cousin Patrick, who died last year, was 31. For the first time since 1985, when we were born just two months apart, I've surpassed him in age.

With each birthday, I know it could have been different. I have been blessed to remain on this planet. 

I wanted to find a way to celebrate my birthday in the Mysore room, where I practice yoga on Friday afternoons. First, I shopped around for vegan treats that are easy to hand out to sweaty yogis, but nothing quit fit the bill. So finally, I decided to buy a small bouquet of flowers—cheerful yellow-green daisies with bright orange centers—for the altar. Before most of the class had arrived, I placed my flowers by the Buddha statue. They beamed beside my teacher, Cory, as he led our opening chants from the harmonium. 

As I began my sun salutations, the daisies were a burst of color and hope. My energy buzzed. These are my birthday sun salutations! I realized, feeling a childlike excitement. With a rush of emotion, I thought of my mom, the person who gave me life, and all the sun salutations she did in her lifetime. I never quite imagined I would turn 32 this way: motherless, childless, happy and free, inhaling and exhaling in a small, steamy room in Washington D.C. And I'm so grateful.

Photo via the wonderful Flow Yoga Center.

Photo via the wonderful Flow Yoga Center.

I once heard Cory explain that Surya Namaskar—usually translated as "sun salutation"—could also be translated as "denial of ego; affirmation of faith." Every once in awhile, as I practice yoga, I feel the meaning of those words. I feel myself disappear. There is no more "me," no more Ellen with her stories and her questions and her insecurities. There is just pure being. There is just this body that I inhabit. There is just this life, one breath at a time. 

Stay salty, Oysters, and here's to another trip around the sun. 
xo,
Ellen

PS: I don't post every volume of The Pearl online—some go only to subscribers. If you'd like to receive each letter, you can subscribe here. 

The Pearl, vol. 79: Dispatch from the multi-green magic forest

Dear Oysters, 

Last weekend I spent three wonderful days in Portland, Oregon. I was visiting my friend Anna Schaum to explore how I might be able to support, and be part of, a growing initiative of hers called the Center for Sound Relationships. We had a fantastic time, and many coffees, and exciting brainstorming meetings with multi-colored Post-it notes and a-ha moments. 

I confess, in many ways this is the life I have dreamed of: to travel to beautiful places with a mission; to be welcomed as a guest by fascinating artists and human beings with whom I share a common dream, calling, or aspiration. I love the sense of expanded community and increased potential that comes from long-distance collaborations. My brain craves that feeling of wide-open sky and limitless possibility.

As an added bonus, while blasting through the air at 30,000 feet, my creative impulse is often stimulated in a way that it isn't on the ground. On the way to Portland, I scribbled in my notebook for pages and pages; eventually, physical pain forced me to stop. I felt I finally had enough distance—literally—to start writing about some of the transformative events that took place in my later years in Chicago.

This is the third major collaboration I've undertaken with a Portland friend: the first was a touring show with a the amazing Holcombe Waller; the second was a Moby Dick-inspired show I co-wrote with Doug Detrick for his AnyWhen Ensemble. Portland keeps drawing me back into its green, misty, magical web, and I don't mind one bit.

I also had the chance to:

  • hear some great jazz with Doug at one of Portland's precious (endangered) live music clubs, Turn! Turn! Turn! (It's also right next door to In Other Words, the famous feminist bookstore that launched the famous Portlandia sketch, although now the bookstore and Portlandia aren't talking anymore, and that's a story worth checking out.)
  • catch up with my friend Leander Star, who—in addition to being a world-class horn player—is doing amazing work supporting the queer and trans community in Memphis, Tennessee. Thank you, Leander.
  • meet the amazing coach, mystic, and all-around badass Krayna Castlebaum. (Happy birthday, you fabulous wild woman!)
  • took 3 fabulous walks in Tryon Creek State Park. Happy place.

Stay salty, dear Oysters, and may your travels always remind you of who you are and what you love.

xo,
Ellen  

 

PS: As always, you can show love for The Pearl (and get the editions I don't publish online) by subscribing.

The Pearl, vol. 76: Please don't make us feel things

Dear Oysters, 

Several days after the 2016 presidential election, I attended a full weekend of yoga teacher training. One would think that this would be the perfect antidote, a fabulous idea, to help recover from the shock and horror of Trump's victory. But in my mind, the prospect of being asked to "go inside"—to dwell within my own mind, body, and heart—was actually pretty terrifying. Stretch? Breathe? Meditate? Are you kidding me?

"Please don't make us feel things," I joked to one of our teachers. 

In these "shock and awe" days of Trump's early presidency, I'm feeling much the same way. Inundated daily with news of our democracy's downward spiral, I want to numb. I want to scarf junk food, to work compulsively, to curl up in a ball, to fill my silent apartment with noise. Within my own mind, I have the sense that I'm running away from something that's actually a part of me. 

On Thursday, I managed to roll out my yoga mat and practice. I pulled up a Seane Corn yoga video on my laptop and eyed it warily. Honestly, practicing yoga felt like the very last thing in the world I wanted to do. In fact, I procrastinated by doing all my dishes. And I hate doing dishes. 

The only thing that got me to practice was this pesky idea—which sometimes seems abstract—that, when we practice, we practice for the benefit of all beings. What does that even mean? How can someone else benefit from us stretching, or breathing, or singing, or running, or whatever else we do to stave off the rapid approach of despair? 

In our current crisis, the answer seems clear. It's nothing glamorous or exciting. We need to practice—to do basic maintenance work on ourselves—so that we can witness what is happening. This is the bare minimum, but it would be pretty easy to miss. We need to stay healthy and strong so that we don't burn out, turn away, or crumble. I need to protect my mind so that I can listen to my brothers and sisters in distress. I need to protect my body so that I can continue to show up in the streets. I need to protect my spirit so that I can continue to have hope, in spite of devastating circumstances, that we can overcome the evil that is manifesting in our nation. 

Today, I am thinking about Henri Nouwen again, and his understanding of discernment. One thing that Henri advocated paying attention to was "the signs of the times." He encouraged us to examine critical current events, and inquire as to what these events might be saying about our call to serve the world. He used Thomas Merton's writings on peace and nonviolence, and his situation within the 1960's, as an example: 

If you claim nothing as your own, including your own life, you can expose the illusion of control and the false basis of war and violence by refusing any compromise with evil. Thus the self-emptied person is the true revolutionary in the world. How might we stand aside from all our demands and desires in this age of consumerism and militarism and seek peace within—peace for our immediate community and peace in the world?

When millions of people experience the same event of series of critical events in the world, these events become, according to Merton, occasions to to discern the signs of the times. And the messages they contain are not only for the individual but also for the community of faith and the world at large. 


I personally feel that the rising darkness around us is indeed a message of some kind. Although I cannot yet hear the message clearly, the "signs of our times" have certainly placed us within a painful crucible. But I also know that I can only take right action one breath, one day at a time.

I am sending you the deepest wishes for peace, strength, and fortitude, and love.

Stay salty and RESIST,
Ellen 

 

If you enjoy The Pearl, you can show your support by subscribing. It's free. 

The Pearl, vol. 74: What holds us back

Dear Oysters, 

This past Thursday, I rose at 5:45am. I made a cup of tea, walked to the Metro in the dark, and found my way to an anonymous, beige suite on the 9th floor of a downtown office building. I put all my belongings in a tiny locker, sat down at a desktop computer cubicle, and took the GRE—a widely-required admissions test for graduate school.

I took the test because Catholic University, where I'm hoping to pursue my master's degree in social work next year, uses it as a metric for scholarship consideration. When I finished the test, I immediately learned that I'd achieved the score I wanted. I walked out of the building with a feeling of accomplishment, joy, and excitement that I haven't experienced in a long time. "I DID IT!!!" I texted Susan. 


But that moment—including the celebratory beer—almost didn't happen. In fact, three weeks earlier, I was on the verge of canceling my GRE appointment altogether.  

Back in October, when I first realized that I could attend Catholic—a reputable social work program just a few miles from our home—I was thrilled. I announced my intention on social media, and to friends and family. I started studying math, sitting outside with my textbooks in the warm Mid-Atlantic autumn. Feeling a sense of alignment, I started listening to podcasts about social work and diving deeper into the therapy-oriented books I already read regularly. 

And then, without really understanding what was happening, I felt the wind go out of my sails. Inner voices started hissing at me with their doubts and reservations. You're just trying to escape your failures as a musician, one particularly ugly narrative went. This is never going to work, another chimed in. Nothing you do will make you feel like less of a loser than you do right now. Consciously, at the time, I couldn't perceive the words of these inner messages. Instead, I just felt a cloud of doubt, heaviness, and confusion settle over me. Quietly, I stopped studying math. I started telling people I wasn't so sure anymore.

In December, as I shared with you, I discovered the work of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, like his friend Parker Palmer, was an advocate for "letting your life speak"—listening carefully to the feelings, signs, conversations, and experiences that gently point the way towards calling, towards vocation. In spite of my discouragement around returning to graduate school, this concept planted itself as a seed within my heart.

On Wednesday, December 28, two things happened. First, I got my hair cut in D.C. for the first time. My stylist was an incredibly smart and charming young, gay, black man named Collin. Over my hour-long appointment, we chatted about gender, drag queen culture, and the challenges that young, queer people of color still face. I walked out of my appointment feeling like maybe—as a someday-social worker—I could have something to offer to those young people we spoke about. 

Less than an hour later, I was on a coffee date with my friend Lou. This was our first real hangout. Out of the blue, Lou mentioned that his girlfriend Rachel was about to begin her MSW at Catholic. 

I heard a thunk, way deep down in my psyche. I'd been considering that program too, I told Lou, but I had stopped studying. That ship had sailed.

Hadn't it?

That night, I burst into tears trying to explain to Susan why I'd stopped studying—and why I wanted to start again. I realized that I'd been obeying some pretty dark inner messages. "It's like there's a monster whispering in my ear," I cried to her. "Saying that nothing I do will ever make a difference."

That settled it. I'd uncovered the deep pessimism—and frankly, the profound hopelessness—that lay behind my ambivalence. And there was no way I wanted that energy driving my life. The next day, I busted out my math books again and didn't look back. 

I'm sharing this story not because there's anything particularly enlightening or special about it, but because I think it demonstrates how challenging it can be to move in a new direction. We may face inner resistance we're not even fully aware of. We take a step forward, and then a step back. We feel certainty, and then we feel doubt. We pay close attention to the signs around us, hoping for the courage and the wisdom to make the right move.   

In my experience, what really helps is to have people walking along the path with you. So I've decided to create a program that I've dreamed about for a long time: a ten-week virtual support group for people undergoing shifts in their careers and vocations. This is something I wish I'd had access to over the past few years, and I'm really excited about it. Because in times of deep questioning, we all do better when we're not alone.

If you think you'd be interested in such a thing, or know someone else who might, you can learn all about the group here. We will read some great writers together, too.

Meanwhile, Oysters, stay salty. And may it always be easy for you to heed the inner teacher, not the inner asshole. Y'know ... if you've got one. 

Lots of love,
Ellen

The Pearl, vol. 72: A mystical, revolutionary New Year

Dear Oysters, 

Happy New Year's Eve! It's a special Saturday edition. I hope you've been enjoying as much relaxation, snuggles, and cheese-eating as I have. 

This year, I published 21 editions of The Pearl. I wasn't the most loyal weekly correspondent, but all things considered, this little email gathering is still one of my favorite projects. It puts me in heart-filled conversation with all of you, and that means a lot to me. Thank you so much for reading, responding, and sharing. 

As the year wraps up, lots of publications are sharing Best Of 2016 lists. What I'd like to share with you is the work of just one person, whose books have really transformed the end of my year: the Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen

Recently, while I was hunkered down on a four-day writing retreat, I started taking a daily walk to clear my head. It was on the first walk that I discovered The Potter's House, one of those magical bookstores that becomes a place of pilgrimage. 
 

IMG_3640.JPG

I bought Nouwen's famous book, The Wounded Healer, because I'd been hearing his name for years from the wonderful Parker Palmer. I was astounded by the book's simplicity, brilliance, and heart-fulness. I took notes furiously, sometimes copying down whole pages ... and sometimes with tears dropping onto my keyboard. 

More than anyone I've read, Nouwen captures our deep human longing to be of service. And in these difficult political days in America—when we can feel that this world needs our engagement more than ever before—his words are deeply important. One of my favorite parts is when he names two "types" of changemakers, of healers, in the world: mystics and revolutionaries. 

The mystical way is the inner way.  … The increasing number of houses of meditation, concentration, and contemplation, and the many new Zen and yoga centers show that we are trying to reach a moment, a point or a center, in which the distinction between life and death can be transcended and in which a deep connection with all of nature, as well as with all of history, can be experienced. … There we come into contact with the center of our own creativity … There we touch the place where all people are revealed as equal and where compassion becomes a human possibility. There we come to the shocking, but at the same time self-evident, insight that prayer is not a pious decoration of life but the breath of human existence.”
 
[Revolutionaries] are tired of pruning trees and clipping branches; they want to pull out the roots of a sick society. … Only a total radical upheaval of the existing order, together with a drastic change of direction, can prevent the end of everything.

... Mysticism and revolution are two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. Mystics cannot prevent themselves from becoming social critics, since in self-reflection they will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, revolutionaries cannot avoid facing their own human condition, since in the midst of their struggle for a new world they will find that they are also fighting their own reactionary fears and false ambitions.

So whether you find yourself identifying more as a mystic, a revolutionary, or something else altogether, know that the world needs your particular flavor of caring, of creativity, of aliveness. In 2017, I hope we can keep scheming together about how to stay sane, engaged, healthy, and helpful in spite of the mess we're in. We don't have to do it alone. I'm lucky to have your ear and correspondence.

Now let's go drink some champagne, because we're still alive and we have each other.

Much love, stay salty, and Happy New Year.
Ellen 

 

If you'd like to join our little email circle of sanity in 2017, please subscribe to The Pearl!

The Pearl, vol. 69: Baseball and your feelings

Dear Oysters, 

Over the past few weeks, I spent many, many hours watching Cubs playoff baseball. This year, the National League series went to six games, and the World Series went to seven, which (at roughly four hours per game) adds up to about fifty-two hours in front of the television, biting my nails and cursing. For now, we'll leave aside the myriad other things I could have done with this time ... 

In spite of a childhood spent closely following both baseball and football, I don't know that I've ever done such an intensive "immersion" watching any sport. Even when my beloved hometown Red Sox broke their curse in 2004, I was a college sophomore with a lot of rehearsals and no TV. This year, I am an adult with a television, and few plans between the hours of 8pm and midnight. Given Susan's longtime Cubs fandom and the fresh wound of our former Chicagoan status, we found ourselves fully committed. We plopped down on the couch and implored our cat to cheer more loudly. (She was typically asleep by the second inning, although in later games, she perched mid-television to bathe.)

Some of what I discovered about myself, watching the Cubs, wasn't too pretty. For example, I realized that when watching my team lose, my highly critical self-talk—usually silent, and directed inward—becomes audible, and directed outward. When Javier Baez started swinging at terrible pitches, and seemed unable to stop, I found myself genuinely enraged at him. "You're swinging at garbage, Baez!" I snarled. "What the hell is wrong with you!?" 

I also discovered my inherent despair and pessimism when facing defeat, or when up against a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. If the Cubs squandered a huge lead (see: Game 7), I was immediately sure they'd lose. If a pitcher looked disoriented and wild (see: Lester, Game 7), I assumed he would fall apart and need to be removed. If the manager made a questionable decision (see: Maddon/Chapman, Game 6), I imagined the next day's headlines bemoaning his failure. Below is an illustrative text message exchange with my Dad:

In other words, I often assumed the worst. Fortunately for my personal development—and the entire city of Chicago—the Cubs proved me wrong. 

There's a style of psychotherapy in which you set up a group of people—or even just objects—around a room, to represent important figures in your life. If you're in a group, you'll choose people to  play various roles. Or, if it's just you and the therapist, you'll use objects: a domineering lamp as your father, an overbearing armchair for your mother. Then, you interact with them. According to proponents of the method, what comes out of your mouth can be quite astonishing.

This fall, baseball has revealed to me its potential to enact our psychological dramas. Perhaps that's what makes us care so much about a group of young, athletic, wealthy strangers. Little parts of yourself are on the television screen, playing out various roles: the pumped-up hero, the struggling rookie, the seasoned veteran, the stressed-out boss. If you can learn to root for them all, you're getting somewhere.  

Stay salty and happy weekend,
Ellen

PS: If you enjoy The Pearl, you can receive it weekly in your inbox by subscribing here.

PPS: In case you ever doubted Susan's longstanding fandom: 

The Pearl, vol. 67: The tiny achievement of true love

Dear Oysters, 

I have just a few words to share. Today, I'm contemplating a series of ideas which basically boil down this: I cannot do great things—only small things with great love.* 

This might mean throwing in the towel on trying to change the world. This might mean abandoning all hope of a charmed life.

For instance, instead of trying to reach the big audience of my ego-dreams, I can embrace and engage that smaller group who really cares about what I care about.

See also: this great interview with Seth Godin. For him, the mark of professional success is that if you stopped doing your work, someone would miss you. For him, the litmus test for professional activity is: "Does this interaction leave behind a trail that I can be proud of? Does this interaction make me glad that I did it, and make me want to do it again?" In a certain way, those questions are about love.

See also: Thich Nhat Hanh, whose beautiful book True Love was magically waiting for me in a Little Free Library. He writes:

To love, in the context of Buddhism, is above all to be there. But being there is not an easy thing. Some training is necessary, some practice. ... The question that arises is: do you have time to love? 


It's becoming clearer to me than ever, Oysters, that we can make time to love. That we are teachers and helpers for each other. You may not know it, but someone out there needs what you have to give. And similarly, what you long to learn lives in the heart of another person, ready to be taught. Even the simple act of sending these little emails has brought me amazing opportunities to teach and learn. 

May you find those who need you, and those whom you need ... right in front of you. 

Stay salty,
Ellen


* People have long ascribed these words to Mother Theresa, but lately I've seen that questioned. Whoever said them first, these are words that resonate with me. 

The Pearl, vol. 66: No more Instagram yoga

Dear Oysters, 

I hope this finds you with warm shearling slippers on your feet and a rainbow of fall foliage before your eyes. I'm fending off a cold, gearing up for a big Steve Reich concert, and preparing for another weekend of yoga teacher training. So I'll be brief today.

This week, I listened to a wonderful interview with yoga teacher, psychologist, and researcher Bo Forbes on a podcast called The Liberated BodyOne of Bo's biggest teaching ideas is interoception, a concept that's gaining a lot of ground among neuroscientists. As I understand it, interoception is a way of "entering" the body with your attention; an inner listening to the body's sensations. Bo called it "mindfulness expressed in the body." 

One of the reasons that interoception can be challenging for people, Bo says, is a phenomenon she calls "Instagram yoga": the pervasive idea that what a pose looks like is what the pose is. As human beings, we're highly tuned in to what's visible. But the way Bo teaches yoga—leading with sensation, with interoception—is all about what's invisible. It's all about what can only be felt by the person practicing the pose. And yet Instagram, and all of our social media self-expressions, cannot include any of that information. I thought this was such a good point. Instagram is a hugely popular mode of expression for yoga folks, but it only tells the exterior story. 

Interestingly, I had just had the experience of getting my photo taken in all kinds of yoga poses. We did this during our first weekend of yoga teacher training, not as a way of judging or critiquing ourselves, but as a way of assessing our alignment and areas we may want to address. 


Looking at myself in yoga poses was not my favorite thing ever. Suddenly, my mind chattered away: Like, what's up with my Warrior II? My arms look kinda badass, but how have I never noticed that my stance is this short?! My front thigh is nowhere near parallel to the ground! 

Some yoga classes have mirrors. Some don't. This whole inner monologue is probably one reason why. It's helpful to see what you're doing, and challenge yourself to go deeper. But it can come with a giant heap of self-judgment. 

I've made a major commitment to learning about, practicing, and eventually teaching yoga in a way that I believe in. So today, I'm making my first declaration: this ain't no Instagram yoga. I mean, sure, I might post yoga poses on Instagram. But what really matters is what happens inside. 

Stay salty, Oysters, and much love!
Ellen

PS: My feet are so not parallel in Wheel. But I love Wheel! It's really exhilarating. Maybe we should just remove the L and call it Wheeeeeeee!

PPS: Get The Pearl delivered to your inbox weekly by subscribing here. 

The Pearl, vol. 65: When lifestyle hacks stop working

Dear Oysters,

Sometimes I despair that, in spite of all my efforts, I have not made much progress on the spiritual path. But in one significant way, I have noticed a change. It is in the different way I have approached my work since coming to Washington, D.C.

When someone asks me about my job teaching students through the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program, I say things like: "I feel better when I leave teaching than when I arrived." Or, "it gets me out of the house and into the world." Or, "the kids are wonderful."

In these moments, when I feel light-hearted about how I earn my keep in the world, I can tell that my attitude has changed. Gone is the sense that there is a "perfect job" out there for me, and that I have simply failed to find it. Gone is the sense of "not good enough" compared to whatever my colleagues may be doing. 

For once, I am not over-thinking. I am not fidgeting or squirming in my new role, craning my neck to see if I can see anything better around the corner. I am just settling in, working, doing the best that I can. 

In my hours spend working from home, things are not so straightforward. After the first few hours of each morning—during which I might write, or practice, or correspond with clients—depression, anxiety, and hopelessness creep into my consciousness. Once I no longer have the energy to apply myself to discrete tasks, things turn dark. I do chores, listen to podcast after podcast, trying to drown out this feeling. I think about why I have this emotional pain, and how to get rid of it. I consider going on more hikes, or switching to morning yoga classes, or taking a nap at the precise hour of the day that my existential discomfort usually reaches its peak. I wonder if the pain will go away once I have more friends here, or once I have more work here, or whether I'd feel better if Susan were around more. 

After all, doesn't pain mean there's something wrong with me? That is the toxic belief underlying my attempts to escape. We’re supposed to be happy; things are supposed to be easy—and if they’re not, we just need to tweak a few things. (Enter lifestyle hacks, productivity tips, and a heap of articles entitled 5 Simple Practices for a Peaceful Day.)

Despite my attempts to plot out a life without suffering, thanks to the Buddhist teachings, I know better. No little tweaks to my external circumstances can dissolve the suffering that is inherent in existence. It’s only inner transformation that can help with that. But man, inner transformation feels really terrible sometimes—especially when it involves letting go of how I view myself, and reality, and the world.

Over time, I've learned that a meditative life doesn't exclusively produce the calmer, happier, more productive outcome that's often advertised. In fact, meditation practice can be deeply unsettling and disruptive. Over time, the practice uproots what we usually hold onto, leaving emptiness behind. Although this may be called liberation, the process of integrating it isn’t always smooth or easy. 

These days, I am a little more prepared for the "bumps" of spiritual learning. And this week, thank God, I found this article by Pema Chodron. She actually describes enlightenment as the ultimate loneliness—but she describes it as a "cool loneliness," not the hot and agitated loneliness we may be familiar with. I'll share a favorite quote: 

 

[In life], we just don’t know. We have no reference point, no hand to hold. At that point we can either freak out or settle in. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength. Usually we have to give up this belief about a billion times, again and again making friends with our jumpiness and dread, doing the same old thing a billion times with awareness. Then without our even noticing, something begins to shift. 

 

Stay salty, Oysters. And if spiritual nerding-out isn't your thing, please enjoy some cat photos below. (And to get these essays delivered to your inbox, click here.)

Love,

Ellen 

The Pearl, vol. 63: My inner screamer + Mercury retrograde

Dear Oysters, 

So, turns out Mercury has been in retrograde for the entire time that Susan and I have lived in D.C. Astrologically, this means that communication, travel, and technology all tend to get snarled up. Our experience has borne this out. In the past couple of weeks, there have been long Comcast waits and malfunctioning laptop batteries; colleagues with emergency tonsillectomies and unexpectedly towed cars; crossed signals and cancelled plans; and more than my fair share of wrong Metro directions. The coup de grace came Wednesday when I neglected to turn off a burner on our stove, and left the house for two hours. When I returned, I was greeted by the fire department, a house full of smoke, one burned pot of chili, and an alarmed cat. 

Nice to meet you too, neighbors.

Nice to meet you too, neighbors.

Thankfully, Mercury retrograde has ended and we are all still alive.

Tough times—much like meditation retreat—tend to reveal what's happening in your mind, on a level that's typically not accessible in daily life. On my most recent retreat, I discovered a voice inside me that prowls the perimeter of my experience like a cranky, strung-out junkie, spitting vitriol at anyone who passes.

I'd like to introduce you to her. I call her Louanne. (And I should warn you that she uses foul language.)

On retreat, I'd be waiting in line for tea, minding my own business, when suddenly I'd hear Louanne bulling the woman in front of me: "What are you doing? Move the f*ck along!" When I saw someone taking a break during walking meditation, Louanne snarled: "Well, some of us are actually serious about our practice." When someone walked into the meditation hall late, for the third time that day, Louanne barked: "Are you f*cking serious!?!" With each perceived offense, as Louanne exploded in rage, I felt a self-righteous flame leap up from deep within my gut, its edges wrapping around my heart.

At the beginning of the retreat, I felt like Louanne and I were the same person. When someone violated my preferences, she was there, unpleasant but loyal, ready to hold a knife to their proverbial throat. She was my sidekick.

I think this might be her.

I think this might be her.

As my mind and heart settled down, though, some space began to grow between Louanne's outbursts and "my" interior life. The process of witnessing Louanne's rage had made clear to me that kindness, towards myself and others, needed to be at the top of my priority list. During lovingkindness meditation, my heart cracked open when I realized that the phrase May I be safe and protected could actually mean being protected from characters like Louanne: those well-meaning, ultimately toxic buddies who prowl the streets of my mind.

I began to understand that Louanne's outbursts represented an ancient, lizard-brain fear of The Other, and that my inner system was trying to defend me by rejecting the people around me. As these realizations dawned, Louanne began to feel a little further away. Rather than being at my elbow, she was across the street, jeering; by the end of the retreat, she was a few blocks away. 

Louanne still says terrible things ("Stay to the right, grandpa!" she grumbles as I pass a perfectly nice old man). But when I've got the head space, I try to let her know that I actually don't need her protective services—I'm okay. I've got this. Let's leave the nice people alone. 

Now that I've told you about one of my inner creatures, you can totally tell me about one of yours. And also, all your worst Mercury retrograde experiences from the past 23 days. 

Stay salty and much love,
Ellen 

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The Pearl, vol. 62: No need to be somebody

Dear Oysters, 

This is the first-ever edition of The Pearl sent from my new home of Washington, D.C. 

Did I even mention this move in one of my few-and-far-between letters this summer?! I was probably waxing poetic about our wedding instead. Welp, let me back up a little bit here: in June, Susan won an audition and became the Associate Librarian of the National Symphony Orchestra. We moved just before Labor Day, and for two weeks now, she's been working at the Kennedy Center. I gotta say, it's a pretty sweet feeling to watch your partner go to her dream job each morning. We even bought a new couch, whose corners we are currently protecting with aluminum foil so Namine doesn't scratch them to hell.
 


Moving, despite all its challenges and stresses, offers the gift of a fresh start. I've landed in a new city, with an opportunity to reshape my life. The delightful and bittersweet fact is that I'm not 23 anymore, as I was when I moved to Chicago and hurled myself at the dual mission of (a) paying my bills and (b) taking the world by storm. I've got eight years of self-knowledge and experience under my belt. I've seen death and divorce, therapists and meditation teachers, success and failure.

So what will be my next quest? Perhaps it will be to give up on "being somebody."

Let me explain. In August, I was fortunate to attend my third meditation retreat at IMS, and one of the things the teachers kept saying there was that external conditions cannot make you happy. Only internal conditions—mind, heart, attitude, understanding—can. They always say this. It's is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism, and while it seems intuitive, it also flies in the face of much of our cultural conditioning. I kept sitting on my meditation cushion going: But what about work? But what about work?! Isn't work the life-or-death question that will determine my happiness!?!  

My blind spot was showing.

So, even as I plunge into the vulnerability of meeting new people, and taking auditions, and networking, and trying new things, and teaching new students, I vow to remember that my work does not define me. I vow to try to relax and lighten up around the whole career thing. Instead of building my career here anxiously—driven by the fear of "getting left behind," being a "nobody" or a "failure"—I will try to remember that I am whole, worthy, and lovable without a single further career achievement. 

Because our culture constantly demands that we do something, that we become somebody, it takes courage to rest in the understanding that we already are enough. My sense is that the work we do from this place of wholeness is not a scramble to save ourselves, redeem ourselves, fix or prove ourselves. Rather, this kind of work is a natural expression of our creativity and our desire to serve. We reach as far as we can reach, knowing that we are already where we need to be. 

Sending a big hug.

Stay salty,
Ellen

 PS: You can get The Pearl delivered to your inbox, so you never miss an installment, by going here.

The Pearl, vol. 61: Just Married

Dear Oysters, 

Almost two weeks ago, Susan and I got married. 

In the peaceful days following our wedding, as I scribbled thank-you notes and relaxed with friends—and even on our honeymoon, as we drove through the New Mexico desert and ate amazing food smothered in green chili sauce—a thought kept popping into my mind:

I can't believe things ended up this way. 

My wedding felt like the happy ending I hadn't quite believed was possible, and the beginning of a life that I'd hesitated to claim for myself.  

Through the loss of my mom, through the painful breakup of my first marriage, through the depression and confusion I felt around my career, a pessimistic mantra kept rising to the surface of my mind: What begins in chaos ends in chaos. My message to myself was: You really screwed this up; you can't be trusted; bad things happen; the future is a scary place.

Ouch. Not the best frame of mind in which to plan a wedding. 

Yet I did it anyway, holding a tiny kernel of faith and trust in my hands that I refused to relinquish. Despite the swirling inner shitstorm of self-doubt, something kept me grounded, kept me rooted in my place. Certainly, it was divine grace. Certainly, it was Susan's love and steadfastness and patience. But it was also a wordless, profound confidence that I held deep inside, as simple and essential as a mound of dirt waiting for something to be planted.  

So in spite of the fact that it made me cringe to invite my family back to Chicago for another wedding, and in spite of my internalized homophobia, and in spite of my hesitation to indulge and celebrate and spend money and "make a big deal" out of myself, we had our wedding. 

And it was like a massive downpour of love. On our wedding day, I didn't even miss my Mom, because the love and joy was so overwhelming, it was as if she was there. I am so glad we did it. I am so glad I didn't listen let my scared little ego, whining about this and that, stop me from seizing the day.

I've been given a gift that I surely haven't earned, but damn if I'm not going to enjoy it every day for the rest of my life.

In the meantime, my therapist and I have agreed that I need to work on going a little easier on myself and everyone around me. 

Stay salty, Oysters, and thanks for all the support you've given me along the way. 

Love,
Ellen

PS: NO SERIOUSLY, WE DID IT!!!!!!!! 

 PS: You can get The Pearl delivered to your inbox, so you never miss an installment, by going here.

The Pearl, vol. 60: Wading through hell together

Dear Oysters,

These days, it’s hard not to feel that the world is going crazy. In the past two weeks alone, we’ve seen the worst mass shooting in American history, the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union, and heartbreaking failures within our government.

When we joke about it, it’s pretty much to avoid crying about it.

In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, I grieved. I was deeply sad, confused, and heartbroken for several days. Isn’t this a perfectly reasonable reaction to have? These episodes of violence, punctuating our lives more and more frequently, are deeply disturbing on a human level. Although we may have been desensitized to the gravity of these events through repeated exposure, our hearts still know that it’s just not okay. The aftershocks keep coming in our hearts and minds.  

Lately, my discussions with close friends keep moving toward the same question: What can we do about any of this? What power do we have to keep our world from spinning off its axis completely?

My personal answer to this question feels surprisingly clear. I must continue the work of healing and understanding within myself, while simultaneously doing all I can to support healing and understanding for others.

It's not about "mental health" as a problem that other people have. It's about our mental health, our ability to care for ourselves and each other. We can’t advocate for the most vulnerable in our society if we’re barely hanging on ourselves. We can’t notice that our co-worker is acting strange if we’ve never learned to pay attention. We can’t truly ask our neighbor how they’re doing if we’re emotionally unprepared to hear the answer. We can’t engage in difficult political conversations if we don’t know how to listen to our “adversaries” with respect. All of these tasks require us to develop ourselves as thinking, feeling, soulful human beings.

Gun violence in America is complex. The Pulse shooting is even more so, weaving together the fatal threads of homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, toxic masculinity, social alienation, and easy access to weapons of mass murder.  The reaction to the Pulse shooting was another crisis in itself, revealing so many of our blind spots, limitations, and fears.

When I envision how we will turn the tide towards peace, in my mind, I imagine all of us together as a kind of army. Together, we can rise up against the tides of hatred and delusion. This could take so many different forms: expressing gratitude more often, going to therapy, training as a social workers and educators, learning to meditate, becoming a better parent, creating art that helps people remember their humanity, or a thousand other things.  

At the end of his life, the Buddha said: “Make of yourself a light.” I have come to believe that this is our task. It’s not hippy-dippy, or touchy-feely, or any of those words people use because they’re afraid. It is hard work, wading through this painful territory, facing our fear and our skepticism. But if we don’t do it, who will?

In a world as frighteningly and beautifully interconnected as ours, nothing that you do is irrelevant.

Yours,

Ellen   

The Pearl, vol. 59: Home, somewhere

Dear Oysters,

I didn’t expect to be moved the Van Gogh’s Bedrooms exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. Perhaps like many contemporary artists, I have an elitist aversion to the thing that “everyone” is excited about. I might even roll my eyes at the long line of people —whom I could easily label as sheep—waiting to see the latest money-making blockbuster exhibit at the Art Institute.

But during Monday morning office chatter, I learned that my co-worker Taylor had seen the exhibit over the weekend, and that my co-worker Mary really wanted to see it before it closed, and suddenly I was offering to meet Mary at 11am at the Art Institute, where we could flash my member card and breeze through the express line on the exhibit’s closing day.

Early for our meeting, I waited for Mary on a hyper-modern quadrangle sofa in the Modern Wing. Hundreds of people were pouring through the glass doors and make a beeline for the Van Gogh exhibit. Mary and I had a long wait ahead of us. I imagined myself ditching the line. Let the tourists have their Van Gogh; I’ve got to get to work on time, my imagined future-self snapped.

And yet my inner skepticism was answered by another, quieter voice: Could there be something inside those exhibit doors for me?

I could only find out by crossing the threshold. Mary arrived, and my heart lifted as she told me how much the exhibit meant to her. The line was shorter than I’d anticipated, and suddenly we had made it through the doors. I read the opening text, painted in giant sapphire letters on a golden wall:

Vincent Van Gogh was an artist who spent his life in a constant search for home.

Instantly, a wave of emotion rolled through me, for one of the most important moments in my spiritual life centers on this very question of home-seeking, of homelessness.

At the end of a meditation retreat in 2015, I approached one of the teachers for an interview. After having spent just a few minutes with me, the teacher seemed to look right through me as he said: “You look as though you long to go home somewhere.”  

And so as I walked through the exhibit on Vincent Van Gogh, I was no longer looking at the works of a stranger, but the work of a kindred spirit, separated from me only by time and distance. I was no longer simply looking at “famous paintings.” I was in the midst of an intimate, tender, empathetic portrait of a human being who shared my longing for home.

Van Gogh wanted the things that all artists want: space, time, fellowship, and the inner stability that allows us to work. Like us, he sometimes felt depressed and cooped up; he took walks in the park in an attempt to lift his spirits. Like us, he longed for artistic companionship to pierce his isolation; he campaigned vigorously for Gauguin to come stay with him at his Yellow House. (Poor Van Gogh wasn’t the easiest roommate, though, with his intensity and his brokenness.) He felt homeless and untethered and restless and like a failure. He wanted to start over, and start over, and start over again.

Van Gogh “worked from home.” He painted his chair, his bedside table, his blue pitcher. These objects were filled with energy and aliveness for him. A room of one’s own. He tried to work, to live, to stay grounded and sane in spite of his poverty and his fragile mental health.

And there I was, 126 years after his death, standing in a replica of his bedroom. An artist's room. The space that is sometimes sacred, sometimes banal, often both.

Among the throngs of tourists, the hundreds of iPhones and iPads taking shitty photographs of his self-portrait, the self-guided audio tour murmuring into the ears of strangers all around me, I wept for him. In my mind, I composed a note to Vincent Van Gogh:

Dear Vincent:

I am sorry it was so hard.

You’re all right now.

And by the way, you weren't crazy. You really WERE onto something.

Love, Ellen

 

You can get The Pearl delivered to your inbox, so you never miss an installment, by going here.

The Pearl, vol. 58: Manifesto for a motherless Mother's Day

Dear Oysters, 

This letter is for everyone for whom Mother's Day is a difficult day. For everyone who lost their mother last week, last month, last year, or last decadeFor every woman whose child has died. For everyone who wants a child, but hasn't been able to conceive. For everyone who had to have a preventive hysterectomy.  For every couple waiting, and waiting some more, to adopt a child. 

There's a reason that Mother's Day is a big deal, and it's not just about the consumerism of flowers and brunch. Maternal love is a super-charged love; it is the energy of life. The mother-child relationship is the closest and most visceral bond that most of us will ever experience.

In an ideal world, we have safe access to this energy, this love, throughout our lives—sometimes as the one who is nurtured; other times as the one who nurtures. But for many people, it doesn't turn out this way. Our relationships with our mothers may be fraught with pain or difficulty; we may lose each other too soon; we may never have the chance to be the parent we dreamed of being. And the rupture and loss of those relationships can feel like the very heartbeat of life and love being taken away from us. We may feel robbed; we may feel that this was our birthright. We may feel cast out of the human community, stripped of our normalcy.

This is my fifth Motherless Mother's Day. For the previous four, I have felt bitter and angry and bereft. For some reason, this one is different. Something has profoundly changed. 

I have begun to realize that while my loss may have cast me out of one part of the human community—the part that skips blindly forward, oblivious to hair-raising fragility of life—it has also inducted me into another. I've been given access to one of the most deeply transformative, disruptive, life-changing transitions that a human being can go through. And because of my own experience, I have the privilege to touch into that profound transition with others.

Don't get me wrong; I still rage. But the walls of my anger have begun to crumble. I have seen that no one is exempt, no one safe from the fires of loss. I no longer want to use my rage to separate myself from others, for we are not separate. Although I am unique, and my mother was astoundingly great, and pancreatic cancer is fucking awful, and although my beautiful relationship with my mom will never be replicated on this earth, my loss is not only personal. It is also universal. 

Why does this Mother's Day feel so different? Because I no longer have the bitter luxury of pretending that I am alone. 

You see, I've been participating in a yoga-and-grief group. Each Tuesday night for the past few weeks, I've gathered with seven other women (and our amazing instructor, Nancy Perlson) to practice meditation and yoga, and to grieve our losses. My classmates have lost parents, children, spouses. They have faced the pain of illness, of deaths by violence, of becoming an orphan

Half of my classmates are younger than me by several years. They are the same age, or younger, as I was when I first faced my mom's death"I wasn't prepared for how much it would hurt," one of my classmates said regarding the approach of Mother's Day. Something in her voice, in those words, made my invisible jaw drop open. Another wave of motherless daughters is here. Another wave will follow after us. Sitting there, holding silent space for her with four years of grief under my belt, was like handing her a torch—while continuing to hold onto my own. 

Four years after my mom's death, sometimes I feel like a screaming infant and sometimes I feel like an earth goddess with a sword that cuts through bullshit. 

We are all of those things. We have survived. 

Stay salty,
Ellen

PS: Happy Mother's Day to all of you, and especially to my mom—that astounding singer, poet, activist, cook, yogi, builder, wife, sister, and friend whom I will fiercely miss forever. 

 

***

I began writing The Pearl in August 2013 as a subscriber-only, weekly email. I now cross-publish it online, but you can still become an official Oyster and get it delivered.