Tuesday, February 24, 2015

No House but a Pine

Birds Bathed in Snow by Robin Stevens Payes (c) 2015
No House but a Pine 
// || \\  
Plucky birds who
balance bravely across
the branched wings that
met at the trunk of the pine.
Like tightrope walkers hunkered
against the wind. Chirping feverishly as streaking

sleet slashed all exposed. Barely sheltered in the nesting
sanctuary of that scantily needled, wavering pine swaying  so

perilously in the wintry wind. Was it terrifying to be so exposed I wondered? 
Watching from my window, coffee steaming, snug in the safety of this strong 
house protecting me from exposure

lucky me whose thin 
skin would never 
withstand the 
buffeting slashing. 

I whose soul 
with fear for 

those ruffled 
weathering all 
elements with 
no house but a pine. 

Robin Stevens Payes | (c)February 2015

Monday, January 27, 2014




When I leave this body, do not look for me in the things I have owned or worn, for I am not there.
Memory may serve as only a dim reminder of the times we have shared together. Songs we sang together (or that you suffered me to sing in your presence), jokes and experiences may live beyond me through you. But I am not there.
I cannot know this with certainty, but I feel it is true that I will remain with you as long as the moon shines and the sun rises, in the wind and the blossom of the orchid, in the birdsong and in the beating of your heart.
My breath will live on though my lips can no longer shape it. You will feel me in the ocean’s foam, the spring breeze and the sun’s warming rays.
For the essence of me—of all of us—continues on while our planet pulses and spins around our humble sun in this far corner of the Milky Way.
And you will find me as close as your heart, where I will live forever.

For Ben, Dana and Ari 
All My Love, Mom 
by Robin Stevens Payes  |  ©February 2, 2013

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reconciling Me

My email box is full. Helpful tips for holiday shopping. Soothing advice for stress relief. Ways both material and spiritual to part me from my money--of which less and less is coming in. Congress gives the present of sequestration, furlough, giving less and less until my cup runneth over with tears but not contracts.
Give. Take. Buy. Do unto others. Take care of yourself. You're too late. You're not enough. You are too much. It's never too late.

Other messages beckon from the spiritual inbox: I am taught, cajoled, comforted by the teaching that all that I need in this moment is here, now. All it takes is becoming aware of the bounty that fills my every waking hour. How wise. And these, too, I can purchase, download, gift and share. Wisdom for the masses.

Contrast email abundance to the droning news of mass lack, of mass loss, of mass less: typhoon destroys Philippines city; cyclone rains torrents on Italian island; tornadoes ravage American Midwest. Droning drones miss their targets. Hit small children. Where amid this devastation lies abundance?

From the personal to the global to the political. Right vs. Left, a battle for our times. Since when is selfishness a Tea Party? Al Qaeda operatives destroy Iranian embassy in Beirut, collateral damage in Syria's brutal civil war. Is it any wonder that Toronto's mayor and a freshman member of Congress escape to the ravings of cocaine?

And how can we warn teens off that trap of escape that even their would-be elders and wisers can't resist, teens with their flourishing of brain cells firing, misfiring, rewiring. Miley Cyrus is doing it. The Olsen twins are pushing it. Let the wind blow and me inside it: the pressure is too much.

It is our parents' fault. And ours to our children. We couldn't hold on. Didn't know how to pass on the strength to carry on. Forgot that the anthems they marched to in the '60s taught: the answer is blowing in the wind.

Just breathe. In-and-out. In-and-out. Go within. Tune out the noise. This is what the gurus teach an ever wider, more needy audience. But all these prepositions mean nothing when the typhoon twists all around us. When the wind is blowing this strong it is hard to breathe.

It's getting darker day-by-day, but the holidays are coming. We're all supposed to be merry and bright. Families give us strength, and tear us apart. We have trouble holding ourselves together. We don't have the answers, for they lie within. Hidden.

Silence the noise. Our thoughts are not who we are, they are just stories we tell ourselves. Change the story. (I am trying).

Be thankful. Abundance lives in the fact that I am here. Breathing. At this moment alive. Right now the sun is shining and the sky is blue. The skeletons that were recently leaf-covered stand straight outside my window. I am here now.

Just breathe.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Amber Eyes

March mornings wear amber eyes under
which I, a flyspeck, am trapped in morning’s
honey-thickened glaze. I long to fly but my
wings are congealed, sticky-thick.

Winter ebbs, teases with the promise of spring yet-
to-emerge. Green-helmeted buds erupt, setting out
tentative antennae to one day sprout
their joy at life. They are frozen in time.

Crocus, daffodil, narcissus: I whisper their names.
For they are as stuck as I under winter’s heavy coat,
Stilled by snow's tempered passions, trembling
To melt in mud season's messy embrace.

The sun is pointing in the right direction.
Even hunched under the weight of gray gel,
life burbles, planning patiently a return to life.
I long for a glimpse: Crocus, daffodil, narcissus!

“Rise with us, robin,” they urge me. For I, too,
emerge with spring. "Open your wings.” Icy
memories last an unearthly moment until
Dawn's new amber eyes illumine my wakening.

~Robin Stevens Payes
March, 2013        

Friday, January 11, 2013

No Time like The Present

I am completely fascinated by the concept of time and how relative our experiences in it are. Not as Einstein experienced relativity, perhaps, but according to how we live in "real time." As marked by the Atomic Clock on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., right next to the Vice President's house, it is exquisitely metered to match the most minute changes, marked to the infinitesimal and mostly unobserved interactions of atoms. This is, in fact, Washington time: moving faster than the eye can see.

So tied today are we to the unfolding of our devices, that my young adult children cannot even imagine wearing a watch. Why rely on such an unfashionable accessory when the time is as close as your cell phone or tablet that signal and ring to tweets and texts as your friends and family clocks in? Most of the clocks in our house measure time in hours, minutes and seconds -- like most of yours, I'd imagine. But, except for timepieces in my bedroom and kitchen (all the better to time the microwave oven, my dear), most of those sporting long-dead batteries are only accurate two times a day. Not a reliable timepiece for the incalculable meetings, class schedules, phone calls and appointments that govern any of our lives. And, of course, we have daylight savings time, an arbitrary adjustment twice a year to give us more daylight around the edges.

This is of more than academic interest to me: having just completed a time travel screenplay that juxtaposes Washington, D.C., today to the slower rhythms of 15th century Florence, Italy, it was not just modern ideas that proved alien as our heroes found themselves moving back 500 years; but even any urgency to act in any given moment that separated my time travelers from their unwitting Renaissance hosts.

It turns out, we've been measuring the pace of life in this way since the 18th century, as a way to bring some order to the chaotic speeding-up of life around us. Prior to that, grand cathedrals featuring astronomical clocks timed with mechanical movements show that day's version of animation sounded the hour and quarter hour in and around towns that centered on their regularity, but these soundings may have varied from town-to-town and even church-to-church, making meetings tied to their appointed chiming approximate, at best.

Here is the daily show at the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Strasbourg, France, where you will even hear roosters crowing as the angels proceed on their mechanical march of time, as they have done since the 12th century.

The clock-keeper of the cathedral played an important role in the community; once overtaken to Swiss perfection by the wind-up clock and watch, to electrical wall socket and, increasingly, in the past half-century or so, by battery. At the same time, the mechanisms that govern its functioning have moved to analog to digital with increasing precision.

So not only has our conception of time evolved, but the instruments of measurement have moved from the town square to inside our homes, wall-to-wrist, and finally wrist-to-digital pocket. But I am interested in a larger question: are we better off today, governed as we are by the ever-changing second hand? Has increasing reliance on chronology led us away from healthy circadian rhythms?

For those of us pondering how our sense of the present has grown so divorced from even recent pasts here is a novel re-creation: The Present. An beautifully elegant new timepiece that marks the passage of seasons may help us renew our appreciation for that most elusive of all moments: the present.

Despite the much-hyped 2012 winter solstice, and apparently inaccurate Mayan predictions of end-times, perhaps we are now ready to usher in this new time, The Present, with the calm and wonder it deserves.

Thinking that, whatever time zone you're living in and whatever system you use to measure that, now is the only time we've got. So here's to now: all in good time.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Being Right Where I Am

I have been discovering the virtues of mindfulness for quite some time. I define this as the art of observing what's on my mind but not attaching to it. Watch your worries and let them pass.

For those of us Westerners uncomfortable with Eastern practices of meditation, or who associate contemplation with religion and all the baggage that institution conjures, we define this practice as metacognition: thinking about your thinking.

This practice of non-attachment has done wonders for my normally unquiet mind, where I was wont to grab on to every grievance, wrong or seizure of self-doubt and worry it to death.

I don't miss these obsessions with what is only, after all, a passing thought.

But another piece of the mindfulness puzzle still eludes me. It is the idea that wherever I am, that's where I'm supposed to be. I think this means that any situation provides an opportunity for learning. I like that idea, in principle, but that my brain apparently thinks otherwise. Or is it my ego that has grabbed hold and won't let go?

After all, I am the person who has always known she could change the world. Yet, no one else seems to be signing on for that experience, wherein, I save them. I used to receive a modicum of satisfaction in sheltering my impressionable children from experiencing the hardships of life. Yet, as young adults, even they seem impervious to my magical incantations to wish away harm.

So either I have failed greatly in what only I have long understood as my God-given mission, or I have been focused on the wrong goal. Perhaps, in distracting myself to believe I can save everyone else, I have unconsciously distracted myself from appreciating that things don't always turn out the way you want them to. That, perhaps, bad things exist for good reasons - like teaching us to cope in the game of life.

Trying hard to appreciate that, in this moment, I am in the right place, even if it is different from where I have always thought it should be. And that learning to be here, now, IS the lesson, despite my unsalved ego's insistence that I have somehow failed.

Just watching now, to see if I can allow the wind to carry away my attachment to being the one who protects others. And accept that I am right where I should be.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Going From Shame to Joy

University of Houston Researcher Brené Brown on why staying vulnerable and owning even those parts of your story that may be shameful is essential to a joyful life.
April 26, 2012
Psst: don't tell anyone my secret. I spent last weekend immersed in shame. Struggling to maintain my openness. It’s a tough combo that makes most of us want to run and hide. 
The setting: “The Anatomy of Joy,” an Omega Institute workshop, offered lessons from research on vulnerability and shame done by University of Houston social science researcher Brené Brown. In the past year, since going public with her research in a 2010 TEDx talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," viewed now by more than 6 million people, she has lived through feeling ashamed and exposed talking about topics that nobody wants to discuss: shame and vulnerability.  

So Brené and I spent the weekend together. Virtually, as is the way of all modern relationships. “Women and Power” gave me a live streaming video window into a heart she shared freely. Here she was talking to me and 8,500 other virtual friends in New York and around the world about how leaving yourself open, suffering yourself to be vulnerable despite the fear of being humiliated, is what ultimately leads us to joy. 
A paradox.
I was watching with something other than journalistic detachment. Having suffered my own humiliations recently—suffering the limbo of a project I passionately believed in going unfunded, profound misunderstandings with a colleague, a relationship on the brink, I wanted to learn from her. Like you, perhaps, I long for joy. 
If you've listened to her most recent TED talk, "Listening to Shame," you know that the response to her “vulnerability” led to her having what she called a "breakdown", and her therapist characterized more positively as a “spiritual awakening”.

What was the source of her awakening? Finding in her research, after six years and thousands of hours spent conducting interviews with people, that the secret to getting to joy, to embracing life and all its imperfections wholeheartedly is accepting yourself, imperfections and all
Wholeheartedness means self-acceptance despite shame, failures, needing others—and not having to be perfect. 
Love and acceptance. The very things we are all looking for. 
This simple findingadmitting your vulnerability could lead to joy--so shocked the “take no prisoners,” former University of Texas party girl-turned-social work researcher that Brown had to step away from her research and go into therapy for a year to figure out this "vulnerability thing", describing her own aversion to admitting she might be less-than-perfect by confessing she “didn’t even hang out with people like that.” 
Coming to Terms
Happiness,” says Brown, “is circumstantial; joy is internal and very deeply spiritual. The things that bring us the most joy in the long run may not always make us happy in the moment.” 
The things that bring us joy may not make us happy. 
Another paradox. 
It turns out that those people who were truly joyful, wholeheartedly “all in”, had one thing in common:  
“I came across a group of people who were fundamentally different. They woke up every day and acknowledged, ‘I am enough.’” Self-compassion, self-acceptance, these are not just words to those wholehearted people, but a way of life. For most of us, in a society that worships perfection, we are never enough—and think others judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves.
How does this lack shape us and contribute to a culture marked by shame? “We live in a culture of deep, deep scarcitynever enough...relevant enough, popular enough, rich enough...there is "never enoughness". I call these the shame Gremlins: you are never good enough, and who do you think you are!”

Flashback to the perfect job, "acting" as director of external affairs for a nationally-ranked graduate school of public policy. Back in the '90s, before news was a blood sport, I started building the institutions public reputation from scratch working with a brilliant facultyupgrading "the best kept secret" of a school near the nation's capital into a nationally recognized institution that turned out some of the best-prepared up-and-comers in the worlds of policy, economics, and politics. I started a regular policy series by news makers, news reporters and policy makers, involving students in the process. I orchestrated a globally televised  Presidential Primary debate before that became an Olympic sport, inviting students and faculty involvement, that thrust the school and, indeed, the university, into a wider international arena.  

I so loved what I did that I wanted to make the position permanent. To be hired on permanently do my dream job, I had to interview; I had done my job well, raising the profile of the school and its faculty, developing rapport with my colleagues, trust from the faculty and increasing recruitment in the process of its growing public reputation.  Slam dunk, no?

No. I didn't get my own job. Then I was asked to train my successor, who didn't have the skills the position called for. I mean, are you serious!?

That hurt, of course, but I was ashamed to confess this. I hid away to lick my wounds. 

To mask our imperfections, to deny the very vulnerability that allows us to connect, expand creativity, allow intimacy, we armor ourselves to meet the day without showing our human chinks. It’s exhausting and isolating to live such a guarded life. 

Does the Mask Keep Us Safe?
 Brené argues no. Stuffing down shame, numbing the pain, also keeps us from feeling joy. ”We can talk about joy and happiness, but if we don't talk about what gets in the way…what gets in the way of us being ‘all in’?” To keep ourselves safe, for hiding all our imperfections under the skin we, as a society, have become the most over-medicated, surgically perfected, addicted, anxious, depressed and distracted adult cohort in the history of this country. So it would seem that guarding ourselves from sharing our pain with others—staying vulnerable—has resulted in stress, disease and lack of connection. In a word: shame.
As her data bore out, life is no less difficult for the people who saw themselves as worthy of love and belonging. “But this group,” Brené observes, “in the midst of struggle, said, ‘This is really hard, but I am still worthy of love and belonging.’ 

The whole-hearted folks she was talking to, "also made different choices than I was making. ...things like cultivating self-compassion; like they would talk to someone they care about. They let go of perfectionism. They'd cultivate play and rest and let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. Let go of anxiety as a lifestyle. 
“Here's what I learned is essential: love and belonging,” Brené attested. “These are irreducible needs. We are hard-wired for connection. It is why we're here. Love and belonging are two of the most powerful expressions of connection.” 
The common thread for the wholehearted people in her study was in practicing gratitude. 

Practicing gratitude—I could do that. Being thankful for all what is right here-right now: to wake up with my dog cuddled beside me. To listen to the rain from the warmth of my kitchen with a cup of tea and nowhere special to go. To talk to a friend. 

Everyday moments as the path to joy. Not one moment, but a lifetime of moments adds up to something joyful to celebrate. 
Learning this has been a profound awakening. To acknowledge, “I am good enough.” To own my story and share it—in all its glory and shame. To stay open and not succumb to numbness. 

Ah yes, back to that story of not getting my own job? I was shocked. Needed time to retreat and figure things out.  Out of the ashes, I set to work on a novel, Satan's Mortgage. Transformed my hurt, anger and embarrassment into creative output. Good therapy.

So, of course, it's not all about the defeats. There are triumphs, too. And moments that fill the everyday. Still, it is painful to admit my failings in the story I show myself and the world and not shut down. But, as Brené relates, telling the whole story and remaining vulnerable despite the shame offers our best chance at getting to joy. 

I am practicing. Despite the letdowns, my failures and imperfections, “I am enough.” Good enough. Kind enough. Pretty enough. Smart enough to find joy in life. I am doing the best that I can. 
It's a secret we can all share. And sharing secrets like that earns Brené Brown a standing ovation.

What moments in life have you been keeping secret? 
Digging Deeper:
Books, blog and more www.brenebrown.com
2012 TED Talk On vulnerability
More on the value of self-compassion