The Middle Distance 5.27.11: That Foundation of Softness

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Yesterday our yoga instructor told us to remember that this is the season of change, and we carry the changes around us in our bodies. Dry to wet, sunny to cloudy, cold to hot and back to cold, brown to green. Our world in flux.

Our instructor, a tall man, all legs, told us to close our eyes and imagine a seed in our heart center. He told us to notice as we moved, the tension, the muscular work of our poses and to remember that beneath that work lies the softness that grows from the seed in our hearts.

All around, the season of change. In Colorado, it comes late and fast. Winter to summer with barely a spring in between. The hideous old silver maple, half dead, that hovers precipitously over my back fence threatening to drop its limbs, is festooned with bunches of green and harbors a village of birds. Just two months ago I wanted it gone; now I’m grateful for its presence, however imperfect.

Last week swirled with graduation festivities. An elementary school principal commanded the attention of a group of wiggly fifth graders, insisting they hear how cherished each one of them is, how valuable their lives, how open their futures. At a local college convocation, an enlivened nursing school graduate gave a rousing speech, waving away the gold tassel that kept flicking into the corner of his mouth.

A year ago this weekend I moved back to Colorado after three years away, believing in the possibility, the wondrous power of change. This would be the year I decided who I wanted to be out here in the middle distance. In a world of endless possibility I would compose a life. I arranged my new household, a tiny rented cottage, as carefully as a still life — balanced and softly lighted with artful shadows. I cultivated quiet, filled the house with music, savored beauty. I cooked and ate well. I practiced yoga at a sweet little studio in the neighborhood. I rode my bike and walked the dog and got strong. Here came the new life, the person I would be: teacher, writer, friend.

The problem with change is it sometimes slams you upside the head when you’re not looking. One morning last August, in the middle of my brand new chosen life, the shock of sudden death — my children’s father, my oldest most cherished friend and former spouse — cracked open a door I had been through just three years earlier with the death of our son. Behind this door is darkness, thunder and lightning, horror, sadness, disbelief, fear. There is no floor or ceiling, only a fullness of grief that fills all space, until it doesn’t any more.

What changes is not the fact of death, the unavoidable unwanted absence of a beloved, but the heart’s capacity to hold its own pain and the pain of others. I don’t know how else to say it: from inside our hearts, cracked open and turned over, a seed begins to grow.

In one year, nothing and everything has changed. I imagined who I wanted to be and became something else. I thought I would be solitary and ended up hip deep in family, every day. Out of loss came an unexpected new family that has brightened and enhanced and broadened the old one. We tended each other’s hearts over a long winter and, come spring, found there was room in them to celebrate, to graduate, to remember.

I thought I would settle down to serious work and found instead that I needed asylum, sanctity, sanctuary. I found it in my dog’s eyes, in the treetops outside my bedroom window, in soup simmering on the stove, in Sunday evening dinners, in a church and a choir, in the backyard of bare dirt I turned into a garden.

A year ago, I thought a carefully arranged life would help me be the person I wanted to be. Now I know that no matter how carefully I arrange and cultivate it, natural and unnatural forces can bring it all tumbling down in the turn of a single day. It’s not the still life, the arrangement, the display that counts but what lies beneath. I can hold the pose with muscular strength and determination, but I won’t be able to hold it long without that foundation of softness that comes from heart center.

This gray morning on the wire beneath the half-dead silver maple, a western tanager, yellow body, scarlet head, a jewel dropped from the sky.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


4 Responses to The Middle Distance, 5/27/11: That Foundation of Softness

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    Oh, what a beautiful description of the changes that take our lives and slam-dunk them into a new reality. I’m liking the new me that has emerged through the pain of change and new direction. I’m also loving the warmth that comes from the new spring (where was it?) growth and the promise of a garden planted and tended.

  2. Liz says:

    Kathryn, thank you for sowing and tending the seed of our family in all of our hearts. I have been seeing the image of the small, green sprout emerging from the cracked, parched earth as we move into this season of new growth and warmth, and our hearts soak in the rays of acceptance and change. I love you.

  3. Paula says:

    An unexpected and fantastically awsome new family!

  4. Marty Arnold says:

    Kathryn,May I share this writing with our local Heartbeat group to which I belong. I will never forget, but your words are helping me to be more compassionate, to look beyond myself,and to accept what I can not change. Thank you. Marty


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