awareness and mental clutter

Filtering flotsam and other debris

8:09 PM

Photo credit: Sara Browning

When I was in my thirties, I dreamt a lot. Maybe it was because I was parenting young children, and sleep was often interrupted, giving me an opportunity to catch a glimpse of those in-between twilight moments, the seconds that exist as a transition between the conscious and the unconscious mind. I love when that happens. 

In one of my favorite dream moments, I lay on a sun-drenched rock out in the ocean, maybe 50 yards from shore in a Caribbean style bay, with gulls flying overhead and ocean spray on my face. Perfect. 

I jump into the water, taking a deep dip downward, only to come up completely dry, my hair blowing in the soft breeze. A boat drifts slowly by as I climb back up on my flat rock, and a stranger greets me.

“Hey there! What are you doing out here?”

Without skipping a beat, I answer, smiling joyfully, “I’m diving for enigmas.”

I know, it’s just a dream, but the thing is, for whatever reason, I had yet to become acquainted at that point with the word, enigma. I remember looking it up later to solve the mystery. Ironic.

Enigma: something hard to explain or understand (Merriam Webster) A mystery.

Somewhere in the deep blue waters of my subconscious mind, I knew what it meant. 

I am spiritually curious, and there’s nothing that interests me more than stumbling over something both mysterious and illuminating. Ironically, however, I usually need to spend some quiet time praying in the murky dark in order to make room for the light to do its work. 

Prayer, meditation and journaling has afforded me decades of opportunity for casting my net into spiritual waters, and lately, a job shift  has poured out even more time than ever before to take mental snapshots of the flotsam and jetsam that I find floating out in the deep, writing and sorting what I find to enrich my personal journey, and perhaps, add layers of understanding.

So, what is flotsam, anyway, and why does it matter? 

Simply put, the terms flosam and jetsam serve as metaphors  for the miscellaneous items floating about in my stream of consciousness. I looked these terms up recently, diving for the enigmata I hoped to find under the surface. Apparently, human-created debris is always associated with ships in distress and classified by the method through which it finds its way into the ocean. 

Flotsam, from the French word for floter, is named for debris that, although discarded, was not intentionally thrown overboard, and can therefore be reclaimed by its owner. I would liken it to the bits and pieces of our constructed selves we lose track of along the way, pieces we never really mean to discard. But out of sight isn’t necessarily out of mind. In moments of awareness, perhaps it’s best to sift through our own floating debris, identifying which memes, thoughts or values belong back on board, and which deserve a burial at sea.

I find myself filtering flotsam and other debris when I am still and quiet, when thoughts pop up like duck decoys in a shooting arcade often attached to the subjunctive, like shoulds or could haves. Mental clutter has quiet but profound impact, causing angst or anxiety whether something can be done or not. 

“I should have saved more.” 

“I could have worked-out instead of reading that blog post.”

In particular, internal self-badgering about my lack of exercise recently grabbed my attention, reminding me that it isn't just about unnecessary guilt. It bugs me because I need full-body, heart-challenging activity; it's healthy and genuinely grounding. I have often opted for an hour of Netflix and  almond-butter-on-an-apple instead of time on the elliptical, but ultimately, noticing my exercise regret has brought me to  identify intentional movement as one of those important pieces of who I am, a piece that simply has to stay on board for the ship to sail steady. The draw toward active movement and exercise, embodied by my highly energetic and athletic father, has re-emerged as flotsam worth recovering.  

A similar discovery has come from filtering through the sense of loss and regret I feel when I don't make room for poetry and thoughtful prose.

The writing I abandoned  in my twenties, and renewed somewhere in my thirties, is a tool for processing emotions and spiritual clutter. Although I don’t always pay attention to the sometimes-gentle, sometimes-urgent impulse to capture the ideas that drift through my awareness, writing offers a mystical connection to the Divine, making it the cream-of-the-flotsam, salvaging very best and truest bridge to my better self and to the God of my understanding. 

Although free-floating flotsam can present itself like flies buzzing around my head when I’m trying to grab a quiet moment, I find it pays to give it some attention...to sift through the mental fluff and debris, identifying what’s useful and what isn’t. The cool thing about flotsam is that it can be recovered once we become aware that we have left it behind. We just refocus on the bits and pieces we want back in our lives, we write them in ink into the calendar, and start reclaiming the odds and ends, one at a time.

And what about jetsam, the bits and pieces that have been intentionally jettisoned in the interest of safe passage? I suppose some debris needs to be permanently discarded, clearing the clutter once and for all. 

 But...I think I'll save that for the next post.

listening deeply

Stories no one believes...

8:20 PM





This week, my country elected Donald Trump to our most powerful and respected office.

Many of us have been watching to see what the fallout will be, searching news networks, scanning Facebook, and reflecting with friends and family if we feel we can be honest about where we stand. Personally, I haven’t even wanted to talk politics with all of my people; my friend says it's wise to avoid  issues  that will most likely end in a food fight. Mostly, I seem to find myself oscillating between being irrationally frightened or just plain argumentative.

Now, I’m just shocked. Stunned. Truthfully, I didn’t believe this was possible, that the baseball-cap-wearing Trump supporters would throw caution to the wind, handing the car keys over to a man who barely has a permit to drive...voting not just for change but for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. How did this seem like the better option? What were these voters thinking?

More to the point, why is this the first time I am authentically asking this question?

We may be inclined to talk all day long about Trump’s indecent nature, his abusive issues toward women and his blatant self-interests. Or, we may prefer a discussion about how the Washington elite and the evil biased media are in cahoots with Hillary. We might even choose to dig a bit deeper, and talk about the state of the nation’s economics, global relations, the forgotten men and women who can’t get a break, or the ethics of immigration policy and human rights.

Clearly, there’s a lot to talk about.

These days, we text more than we talk on the phone, more than we write letters. It’s easy; we say what we need to say, and peace out. We text our neighbors instead of knocking on their door...saving time, I suppose.

And then there’s Facebook. We shove our emotional messaging into someone else’s feed, and logout. No discussion necessary, unless we feel like rolling up our sleeves and wading through the murky assumptive swamp of inflexible opinion slinging.

Well, we’re talking now. Yelling, weeping, gloating, raging, rallying, protesting and praying.

I, for one, haven’t been listening much. I have been too occupied with making an argument.

I’m listening now.

In Mark Nepo’s book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, he writes about the sacred practice of deep listening as “the doorway to everything that matters.”

In one inspired passage, Nepo looks at the words for listening in a variety of languages, sharing literal translations to look more deeply at the concept as it is interpreted by other cultures.

“In Afrikaans, luister. How long does it take to listen when pain is all around us?

In Albanian, degjoj. How do we listen to what lives below whatever name we give it?”

And my personal favorite:

“In Bosnian, slusati, How do we hear what waits in the stories no one believes?”

I didn’t believe this moment could be woven into our country’s story. I haven’t been listening deeply enough to the voices of people who shout that they’re fed up with the status quo. I never took the time to consider (although I have witnessed this firsthand) that when a person isn’t heard, he or she might break something just to get your attention.

Unfortunately, I have limits. I don’t listen well when someone is screaming at me, and I can’t change the tone of the voices shooting accusations at each other over the internet.

Here’s what I can do. I can step in when I see someone being disrespected or ignored.

I can listen to the voices of my friends who I have tuned out because I didn’t want to listen to them.

I can continue to actively love those I loved before Trump arrived at the White House even though I don’t yet understand all of their choices.

What’s waiting for us, for me, right here and now in the story of this election? I’m just going to need to take a minute to be still and listen.


Nepo, Mark. Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2012



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