Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
–From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats
The line “the centre cannot hold,” has been running through my mind for several weeks, through all the time I’ve been sick with COVID and whatever nasty virus followed in its wake, and my slow recovery. “The centre cannot hold.” I found a quiet moment and looked it up. I knew it was poetry, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it or what the poem was. Thank you, Google!
W.B. Yeats, of course.
I suppose it’s a common experience to feel we’ve lost our center, our groundedness, when someone significant in our life dies, as my mother just has. I’ve fought against the feeling because over the years I’ve worked so hard to individuate from my mother, to reclaim my right to center my life around something other than her. If she was not the center of my life, why do I feel things have fallen apart since she died in August?
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Did I fail to reclaim my power, define myself and my value apart from our relationship? Has all my work been for nothing? Are my healing and growth an illusion?
I have been afraid of answering these questions.
When I reread the first three lines of the poem, I first imagined myself as the falconer and the falcon as … my soul? My joy? My wisest self? My intuition? All those and none of those, exactly. The falcon seemed like a piece of myself I lost a long, long time ago when I was child, a piece I struggled through many years and miles to find and reclaim, and now is lost again. It can’t hear me, and I can’t hear it. It feels unbearable. My center didn’t hold. Why didn’t it hold? Did I do something wrong? How do I call it back to me?
And I want to call it back, not haul it back by its jesses. In fact, why is the falcon restrained at all? If it’s truly mine and we belong together, why is it leashed? The idea disturbs me. I want it to be free. I’ve worked too long and hard for my own freedom to relish restraining any other creature. I note I assume the falcon is leashed. The poem doesn’t explicitly say so. Interesting.
Maybe my assumption of leash and jesses reflects all the ways I’ve restrained myself. As a child I internalized restraint. I had to. Everyone else felt free to throw self-control to the winds. Is my feeling of my center not holding asking me to release myself further? Is it time for deeper faith and trust in myself?
As I typed those three lines onto the page to begin this post, I imagined another picture in which my mother was the falconer and I the falcon. She no longer holds the leash. I am free. I have flown away from the only center I was allowed to have and now I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. I don’t know how to be wild. I don’t know how to live without the restraining leather jesses around my slender legs. What if I can’t? What if I perish? Must I find a new falconer to hold the end of my leash? What if my freedom is a mistake and I’m not fit to be free? What if I’ve lost the ability to fly free?
Don’t get carried away, I say to myself. Slow down. We’re talking about emotional freedom versus physical freedom. You’ve been flying in an ever-widening gyre for years.
What’s changed is that leash, woven of blood and bone and love, woven of years and empathy and need, guilt and shame and obligation, too strong to ever be severed … except, it turns out, by Death.
What do we center around?
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It changes, doesn’t it? In my first 20 years I centered around my family of origin. When I was in my 20s and beyond I centered around a man and my children. Work was in there, too. And my family of origin, particularly my mother, who was not pleased to be sharing the center. The proverbial 3-ring circus. It went on like that until my children emancipated and, to be honest, for some time after. Then, as they slowly faded out of my center, being far away and engrossed in their own lives, I centered around some man (but not the same one; I’m a slow learner) and my mother. Slowly, writing began to nudge for a place in the center as well.
This created real problems. Mom could never tolerate sharing. I was used to her competition with the kids and whatever man I was involved with but the writing would have created a real threat, so I hid it. The more I hid it, kept it inviolate and safe from outside sabotage, the more I centered around it, and the more I centered around it the more threatened she felt, though I’m not sure her reaction was conscious and she had no idea what she was fighting against. She just knew she didn’t have all of me anymore.
She was right to feel threatened, because writing eventually tore me away from her physically and geographically, a thing that had never happened before and a last betrayal she never forgave.
In the stresses and strains of the last couple of years, I lost writing out of my center. Oh, I still did it. I blogged and serial published. I journaled. But as Mom’s health and sanity crumbled, she became my center once again, this time to the exclusion of everything else. Work (generally part of the center for all of us) competed, keeping me sane, physically fit, and anchoring me into a community of friends, but Mom once again became the primary gravitational pull in my center. My days and nights were full of her. I had less and less respite and the intensity increased daily, winding around my life more and more tightly, and then …
She died. In the middle of the night, a night in which I lay awake in Maine while my brother sat vigil with her halfway across the country in Colorado.
When I write it all out like this, I can understand why I’ve felt so dazed. I can feel some grace for myself.
The one thing that’s always been in the center is gone.
“The centre cannot hold …”
Being too old to have any desire to put a man back in the center (been there, done that), and loving my job while realizing it’s not big enough to define me, I turn once again to the truest, most joyful, wildest part of my life: writing.
And that’s scary. If I let writing take all the space, time and energy in the center, what will happen? I don’t even make money with it!
I make joy with it instead. Joy, connection, contribution, authenticity. Writing is not a black hole of failure. It does meet my needs. When I write, I actually feel good enough and sometimes even better than that! No wonder I feel bewildered.
As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time to not only allow things to fall apart, but to participate actively in the falling away, falling down, falling apart. To dance in the ruins, even as I weep. I’m reminded of a Rumi quote:
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
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Things fell apart. The center did not hold. Change, in other words. Life. Which is to say Death.
So, an unexpected ending to this post. Things are falling apart. I’m ready to stop trying to hold them together. It’s time to let go. Mom already has. Now it’s my turn. What lives in our center changes as we change. It’s time now for me to choose my center, choose it freely without guilt or shame.
Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
So we find a new one.
- What’s in your center?
- If you were free to choose your center, what would you chose?
- How many things compete for your center? Could you reduce the gravitational pull of your center?
- If your life changed in some dramatic way and you were forced to find a new center, how would you go about doing that?
- Is your center all about others, or do you have something there for yourself, too?
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After years of interest, last autumn I finally found a Tai Chi teacher. I approached learning Tai Chi with hopes and expectations about the benefits it could provide, but I was unprepared for the power of the practice and how important it would become in my life.
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Tai Chi is a form of Chinese martial art intended to teach defense and support health. It’s a multilayered practice, elegantly complex. Learning the gross motor movements is only the first baby step. One layer is connected to and leads to the next. Tai Chi is not a linear activity to learn from beginner to master, but a dynamic, fluid practice best approached with humility every time. It’s constantly challenging in new ways, depending on what my state of mind, body and spirit is on any given day.
The Tai Chi I practice is called 24 forms, all of which gradually blend into one smooth, flowing whole with practice. The forms have delightful, poetic names like The Crane, Windmills and Clouds.
Tai Chi is about finding one’s center, physically and emotionally, and building on the strength and balance residing there. In order to facilitate this, one crouches slightly with bent knees throughout the whole routine. This is obviously quite challenging, and for some people impossible. However, with proper foot position, body dynamics and a crouched stance, we can immediately feel the solid, stable center at the core of every Tai Chi form. Crouching for long periods of time immediately informs us about the strength of our ankles, knees, hips, hamstrings and quadriceps, information we might not otherwise receive as we move upright through the world.
Crouching assists with balance because it lowers the center of gravity. Many people take up Tai Chi to support balance issues, in fact. Several forms require balancing on one foot or another with the supporting knee bent. This, too, can be unexpectedly challenging. Once again, our body has a story to tell we might not otherwise hear as we move normally. I’ve always been aware I have sloppy posture, but I’ve been habitually lazy about doing much about it. Tai Chi demands I stack my bones on top of one another and tuck in my tailbone. If I don’t do that, I can’t balance. I notice I now move through the rest of my life standing tall, with more grace and confidence and better posture. I don’t slump, crowding my lungs and abdominal organs. I don’t tilt or lean. I know where my pelvis is and I stay over it. My back is happier. I feel better.
Every movement counts in this practice. Each foot is placed just so in order to support a fully centered crouched stance. Shoulders, wrists and elbows stay in line with several of the forms, which necessitates holding arms straight out from the shoulder. My arms ached for months as I built strength, and I’m a strong swimmer who works out in the pool once a week. One form requires placing toes down and heel up, and another the heel down. At times we turn on our heel, and at other times our toe. In one form we turn one foot on the heel and the other on the toe at the same time. Everything about Tai Chi leads me inward on a spiraling journey of deeper focus and mindfulness.
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It’s amazing to practice over time and begin to feel the forms smoothing out into a cohesive routine with some kind of elegance and grace. Such fun and so rewarding. Then, however, the instructor started to talk to us about our eyes. It turns out every form requires a very specific eye gaze, often on our hand movements. I was doing well with balance, but when I took my gaze off the middle distance and looked at my hand in front of my face, I lost my balance. This was advanced balance. I added in the appropriate eye gaze and started all over again with balance.
Then, the teacher began to talk about breathing. Crap. I hadn’t even thought about my breathing! Breathing is connected to energy, and Tai Chi was originally a practice for working with energy as well as defense. All the forms have to do with pushing, pulling, deflecting or defending. Now that we had some mastery of the physical challenges, we began to work on feeling our field of energy and moving it with our bodies and breath. A push is an exhalation. A pull is an inhalation.
Breathing then leads to pace and rhythm. We practice Tai Chi to meditation music — very slow. Balancing on one leg is not so hard when you do it for two or three seconds. Balancing for sustained periods of time, especially with a bent knee, requires a lot more strength and, well, balance! Every movement takes far more concentration when slowed down. This is one of the few activities I’ve ever done where the goal is to slow down. We seem to be running faster all the time, overstimulated, overscheduled, multitasking, trying to earn more money, perpetually on call via technology. We’re all in pursuit of … something. What? Does anyone ever find it? Is it worth the cost of the chase?
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Tai Chi demands we slow down. In that slowness we discover our fatigue, our aches and pains, our half-healed injuries, our distractions and our distress and unmanaged feelings. We remember our center. We recover our balance. We make time to breathe.
Some people call Tai Chi a moving meditation, and I now understand why. When I’m practicing Tai Chi, I’m not doing anything else. When I’m walking or swimming my mind goes right on with whatever it’s busy with. Those activities are good for creative inspiration, prayer and processing feelings. Tai Chi, though, takes me to a deep, restful, quiet place of no thought, focus and present mindfulness, so rich and so empty. It opens the door for awareness, too, of the degree to which I’m captive to distraction. The instant I’m distracted by a sound or a stray thought, I lose my balance and center, I lose my breath, I lose the flow and I don’t know where I am in the forms. I think of myself as fairly focused, but I’m just as susceptible to distraction as anyone else, and I don’t want my life to become an uncontrolled blur of noise and stimulation in which I forget there’s anything but distraction. Tai Chi brings a precious and necessary balance into my days.
All these layers have brought health and healing into my life, but the greatest grace Tai Chi brings me is the opportunity to be in the body. I’m saddened by the ever-more strident body politics in our culture. I don’t remember a time in my life when it seemed so many people were locked in self-hatred and hatred of others based on some kind of physical characteristic. It reflects in our suicide and addiction rates, and it touches each one of us. We no longer honor the sacred feminine and masculine, we have few invitations to fully inhabit ourselves physically, and no one encourages us to honor and respect our physical form as it is.
Just like dance, Tai Chi calls us home to ourselves. My home is not nipped, tucked, plucked, lipo-suctioned, dyed, shaved, made-up, compressed, surgically reconstructed or uplifted. My home is my oldest friend, my most loyal companion, the loyal record keeper and diary of childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause, a lifetime of Colorado sun, slipped kitchen knives and barbed wire fence. My home is lines and wrinkles, lumpy thighs, softened breasts, grey hairs and thinning skin. This amazing, adaptable, resilient, hard-working body is the shelter and haven for my spirit.
I often move a chair aside, open the windows, take up the sheepskin rugs lying on the wide plank floor in my attic space, shut the door at the bottom of the stairs, turn on music and take off my clothes to practice Tai Chi. I like to look down at my bare toes and toe ring on the sloping grey-painted floorboards. I like to glance at my strong knees and make sure they’re in line with my heavy ankles. I like the gentle slope of my belly, cross-hatched with silver stretch marks, under which two children grew into life. I like to stack my bones carefully, tuck in my tailbone and feel the subtle realignment that opens up my center and my balance. I like the clench, pull, stretch and relaxation of my muscles. I like the combination of strength and loosening skin and flesh as I move my arms. I’m grateful for the ability to breath deeply, and the ability to sweat. I relish the air coming in the windows and touching my bared breasts.
We started with a large Tai Chi class, and over the weeks and months people dropped out, one by one. I suppose for some it wasn’t a good fit. For others it wasn’t a priority. Still others were discouraged by their physical limitations, in spite of the fact that the instructor was and is eager to modify the practice to accommodate anyone. One lady had trouble with balance but was unwilling to stand next to a chair for safety and support. Others were ashamed of their weight, their muscle weakness and/or learning a new thing in public. It made me sad. I think many would have benefitted if they could have moved past their shame and self-consciousness, and if they’d been willing to work with their physical reality instead of resenting and arguing with it.
Our Tai Chi group is small now, but we’re good friends. We laugh a lot. We learn from one another. We greet and part with hugs and affection. We enjoy the music; share our distractions, worries, aches and pains and support one another in centering, grounding, calming and mindfulness.
I’m entirely grateful.
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My partner has trained in Aikido, and he relates hearing the above advice years ago from his teacher. Ever since he repeated it to me, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
We lately found a Tai Chi teacher and joined a class. I’ve wanted to do Tai Chi for a long time, and it’s every bit as much fun as I always imagined it would be. I practice every day, and part of my practice is meditating on that wonderful piece of subtle Eastern wisdom: Don’t be where the blow lands.
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Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art focusing on energy manipulation, practiced for defense and health. Many of the people in the class we joined are there to address balance and strength. I’m happy to support both my balance and my strength, but I’m learning Tai Chi primarily as a grounding and centering tool.
We’re learning a series of specific slow, repetitive movements that flow into one another. Each movement is called a form, and each form has its own, often poetic name: The bow, the crane, windmills, the lute. Tai Chi emphasizes locating and moving from one’s center, and it’s interesting how difficult I find that.
Learning the forms and stringing them together is no problem for me. It takes a lot of repetition to get arms and legs coordinated and figure out proper positioning, but I like repetition and want to practice. What I notice, though, is how easily I lose my center. I reach or step too far. I find myself up on one toe or another when I’m not supposed to be. I put one foot directly in front of another, like a model on a catwalk, instead of maintaining a more stable, wider-based stance. My ankles are weak and unsteady. If I’m doing one form at a time in isolation, I can tighten my core and be solid, but Tai Chi is flowing movement, albeit slow, and after a few different forms my center is gone.
Losing my balance in this way is a perfect metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life until recently. My energy and attention were always directed outward. I had very little ability to support myself; I relied on external support and I didn’t distinguish toxic inputs from healthy ones. I was too hungry and had too many unmet needs; I took a lot of poisoned bait. Not only did I stand where blows landed and bullets sped, I made a camp there and called it home. I believed I needed those blows and bullets, that they meant love, that it was my responsibility to endure them, and that I deserved them.
We can’t avoid life. Harsh words, verbal attacks, physical violence and unexpected events like fire, flood, riots and sudden public violence are going to happen. Even so, there are ways in which to meet life’s blows with all the grace and elegance of Tai Chi, and as I practice the forms and movements, I think about the skills that allow me to absorb the blow, to flow with it, and to step away from where it landed before it can be repeated.
I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I always carry a knife. I’m not afraid to fight. One day soon I’m going to learn to shoot and buy myself a gun, which I will carry. That kind of self-defense is a separate thing from my practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not about any kind of an aggressor lurking in an alley or a parking lot; it’s about emotional and energetic safety.
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Tai Chi, along with swimming, dancing, ritual work, walking and writing, is a way to call myself home, back to the center, back to my bones and the source of myself. Maintaining my center absolutely requires my undivided presence. I can’t center properly if I refuse to know all of who I am. I can’t maintain balance if I refuse to love all of who I am. The minute I try to amputate bits and pieces of myself, deny my thoughts and feelings or start tearing myself down in any way, I’m standing (again) where blows are guaranteed to land. When I catch myself justifying; pleading; waiting for external validation; trying to please; choice-making out of fear, denial and self-doubt, I know I’m standing on the shooting range with a target pasted over my heart and head.
I’ve spent too much of my life staggering under loads of other people’s shit, carrying vampires and dragging chains. Confusion, fear, perfectionism, disempowerment and constipated unacknowledged feelings have all kept me standing where the blows land. Arguing with what is has cemented me in the path of bullets. Clarity, self-confidence, making friends with my feelings and reclaiming my power allow me to deflect, block or better absorb the blows that come my way.
I’m intentional about living with the wisdom of choosing not to be where the blow lands. Reclaiming my center and moving mindfully from danger, not only physically but creatively and emotionally, all but eliminates my fear and anxiety. Concentrating on grounding leaves no room for anything but strength and rootedness. The meaning of my life is not out there, in the noise and chaos of what others think, say and do. The meaning of my life is in here, centered within the container of my body, expressed by what I think, say and do.
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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can remember the windmills and the lute from yesterday’s class.
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except where otherwise noted