Atonement

September 18, 2013 § 19 Comments

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Yom Kippur: Going into the innermost room, the one we fear entering, where fire and water coexist like the elemental forces in the highest heavens our ancestors, the ancients, observed in awe. - Jena Strong

Last week was Yom Kippur, which is a holiday I love even though I am not Jewish. My parents are Catholic – my mom the only one practicing – but growing up, we were invited to enough Passover Seders that hearing the words: Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha’olam instantly reminds me of spring. I don’t celebrate Yom Kippur but I wish I did. We should all have a day to look inside, to take stock and be quiet with what we find.

As a Catholic, I went to confession. I always hated confession, the way I had to pull that velvet curtain back, kneel down and tell the priest my sins. I lived in a small town and it was a pretty good bet he could recognize my voice. Bless me father for I have sinned, I always began, and he usually gave me an Our Father and three Hail Marys to say for penance, which I did after I left the vestibule. This time, I would kneel in relief, bowing in the bright light that filtered through the stained glass windows of the church.

In the chakra system, the element of atonement is in our throat, where we express our ability to choose – what we say yes to and what we say no to. Do we choose our own will or a divine will? The fifth chakra is a yogic version of Yom Kippur, or as Caroline Myss so beautifully describes it, a place where “we call our spirits back.”

Two weeks ago, I got into the car after a yoga class I taught at the fitness center on base. I truly love teaching on base even though we practice on the gritty floor of a cold, group exercise room. Before class, I turn off the flourescent lights and the fan, the strobe lights that are usually still flashing from the Zumba class that ends right before my own. I place 12 battery-operated candles at the front of the now-dark room and unroll my mat. I plug my iphone into the stereo and play Donna DeLory or Girish – music that does nothing to tamp down the blare of Taylor Swift from the gym or of the sound of weights being racked right outside the door. I love teaching in that gym, which smells like an old boxing ring and is always jam packed with Marines. My Tuesday yoga class is usually full due to prime scheduling time, and I leave there feeling buoyed up and overflowing.

That Tuesday, two weeks ago, I sent a text to my babysitter from the gym and then got in the car and headed home. For some reason – maybe because I felt particularly immune that day or maybe because the boys weren’t in the car – I hit the redial button on my phone and put it on speaker. Scott had ridden his bike to work that morning because his car battery died, and I thought I would be charitable for a change and see if he needed me to bring him anything. I picked up the phone and said hello and 30 seconds later a police car was behind me, his lights flashing. I pulled over, instantly beginning to tremble. Oh my God. Oh my God. Ohmygod. A few months ago, one of Scott’s guys had gotten pulled over for talking on his phone while driving and he lost his driving privileges on base for 30 days. I couldn’t lose my driving privileges. How would I take Oliver to soccer? How would I get to the grocery store? How would I teach yoga? Losing driving privileges on base is pretty much like house arrest.

I watched in my side mirror as the Marine police officer got out of his car and ambled over to me, pushing his sunglasses onto the top of his head.

“Ma’am,” the officer said, and nodded at me through my open window. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“Because I was speeding?” I asked hopefully.

“I’m afraid not,” he said and then asked for my driver’s license and registration. With trembling hands, I handed him my credit card. “Ma’am?” he asked again, and I fumbled for my license. I gave it to him and he held it up for a second. “You were using your cell phone without a hands-free device and that’s illegal on board Camp Lejeune.” I watched the muscles in his forearm twitch. He couldn’t have been older than 25, and he looked as though he could crush my Prius with his bare hands.

And then I did it. “I wasn’t talking on my phone,” I lied, my heart racing, thinking about what it would be like to not be able to drive for 30 days, to be stuck way out at the end of Camp Lejeune. “I was plugging it into my stereo system.”

I looked over at the passenger seat where my yoga mat rode shot gun next to the blankets and blocks I bring for the pregnant woman who comes to class. The lie sat there like a hairball.

The officer nodded graciously. “Maybe that’s the case Ma’am,” he said. “I saw you holding your phone up and your lips were moving, but maybe you were singing along to the music.”

I closed my eyes and felt my face get hot.

“This won’t affect your driving record,” he said kindly. “But you will have to go to traffic court. The judge will decide if you’ll lose driving privileges or not.” He gave me a tight smile. “Your record is pretty clean, so my guess is not.”

He let me go with a pink slip of paper and a number to call and I drove home, feeling shame rise up to my scalp. Who was I?

That afternoon I called Scott in tears and I texted two friends who told me everyone lies, that it wasn’t a big deal, but it didn’t make me feel any better. The next day on the way out to the bus stop, my neighbor across the street called out, “Hey, you made the police blotter!” She seemed to think this was hilarious. My next-door neighbor’s husband was there too and he laughed.”You’ll be fine,” he assured me. “I know the magistrate at traffic court and he’s a nice guy.” The truth was, I didn’t really care about traffic court anymore or even about losing my driving privileges.

Last year, right after Christmas, I was practicing handstand against my bedroom wall before I went to teach a yoga class. Because I have been working on balancing in handstand for the last four years, this is not usually a problem for me. But for some reason, on this night, I totally freaked out once my hips were off the ground. Ohmygod, I thought and my legs began to flail before my foot banged on the dresser and my knee crashed into the floor. It hurt so much that I could only curl into a ball on the floor and try not to throw up. My pinky toe was black for a week and my knee still hurts if I put too much weight on it.

After leaving the bus stop that day – my neighbors calling our reassuringly that it would be OK and don’t worry – I thought about that handstand. That’s who I am, I thought. I am someone who completely loses her shit when her back’s against the wall.

On Monday, after I heard about the shooting at the Navy Yard, I texted and emailed some friends. My former roommate told me that her husband was OK but that he had been on the fourth floor and barely made it out. He spent a few hours that morning in lockdown with a woman who had collided with the shooter. She begged the shooter not to kill her, my friend wrote to me, and for some reason he spared her life. I thought about Scott, who was at the Navy Yard several times a month when we lived in DC. Even I had been there a couple of times to meet with a lawyer to finalize our will. It’s only a few blocks from the Metro stop on M Street, close to the ballpark, smack dab in the middle of the city.

For most of the day Monday, I tried to find a reason for the tragedy, for something to reassure me that we don’t live in world where survival is a total crap shot. But guess what about that.

On Monday night I had to teach yoga at 6:30 and I pretty much had nothing except an essay from David Whyte called “Ground.” Yesterday – a Tuesday – I drove to the fitness center after the bus left. I lugged my bag of candles into the cold group exercise room and turned off the lights. Because I am a mostly selfish person, I decided to focus the class around our throat chakra. When everyone was lying still on their mats, I told them about my day on Monday, about how my own attempt to find reasons for the senselessness of the tragedy at the Navy Yard looked a lot like blame: If only they had checked the trunk of his car. If only we had better gun laws. If only.

I also told them something I believe is true, which is that we are all connected. That the only way to change the world is to change ourselves. If we want more kindness in the world, we need to be more kind to ourselves. If we want there to be less judgement in the world, we need to stop being so hard on ourselves. Thoughout the class, we opened our throats and softened our jaws. We did side plank and arm balances, followed by child’s pose. “Notice if you are judging yourself or comparing yourself to someone else,” I said to them, but really to myself. “And if you are, then simply call your spirit back.”

I was shaky and a bit off in class. When I was assisting a student in Warrior III, we both stumbled. I kept thinking about the woman whose life was spared. I kept thinking about my lie. I kept thinking about how connected we all are, that there are no bad guys and no good guys. There is only us.

Last night, a chill slid into the air. September, which has been clunking along so far with its heat and its bad news seems to be slanting towards fall after all. Under the full moon, I watched a few leaves blow around in a circle and I thought of Macbeth. Let not light see my black and deep desires. And yet, it’s the light that matters. And for some reason, he spared her life.

Today, I had to report at traffic court at 7 AM. I had to stand in front of a judge with my pink slip and tell the truth. “How do you plead?” he asked me and I said Guilty. But it doesn’t really matter about traffic court or even the judge. In the end, there is only us.

Ground – David Whyte

Ground is what lies beneath our feet. It is the place where we already stand; a state of recognition, the place or the circumstances to which we belong whether we wish to or not. It is what holds and supports us, but also what we do not want to be true; it is what challenges us, physically or psychologically, irrespective of our abstract needs. It is the living, underlying foundation that tells us what we are, where we are, what season we are in and what, no matter what we wish in the abstract, is about to happen in our body, in the world or in the conversation between the two. To come to ground is to find a home in circumstances and to face the truth, no matter how difficult that truth may be; to come to ground is to begin the courageous conversation, to step into difficulty and by taking that first step, begin the movement through all difficulties at the same time, to find the support and foundation that has been beneath our feet all along, a place to step onto, a place on which to stand and a place from which to step.

GROUND taken from the upcoming reader’s circle essay series. ©2013: David Whyte.

§ 19 Responses to Atonement

  • Jan says:

    What I needed to read, today. Again.
    Thank you for your honesty, your courage, your beautiful way with words.

  • i’m very happy that you write . the idea that i can share in your written life from afar is amazing to me, miraculous even, when i get right up to it. i hadn’t remembered about the ground, and didn’t know i’d forgotten, and here you were, ending with a ‘coming to ground’… ‘the support and foundation that has been beneath our feet all along, a place to step onto, a place on which to stand and a place from which to step.’ Thank you, Pamela… and also Mr. Whyte. . .

  • Jena Strong says:

    “Let not light see my black and deep desires. And yet, it’s the light that matters. And for some reason, he spared her life.”

    Oh, your writing. And the experiences you describe and share so beautifully. Thank you.

  • I love this piece, Pamela. What a gift you have for weaving together a story. I love the stories you offer from base life, how you blend it together with the other pieces of your life. It is such an interesting perspective. And I bet you are a fabulous yoga teacher, and that your classes are not full because of prime scheduling time but because YOU are a great teacher that students seek out!

    Did you know that David Whyte is going to be doing a workshop at Kripalu in November?

  • I have been reading your blog for a little while. Just want you to know how thankful I am to have found it. I am always left breathless by the way you bring me along in your writing….I love reading your posts and they always, always help me see my own stuff more clearly. I am sure that “prime scheduling” isn’t the only reason that yoga class is full…

  • Ground is amazing. Thank you for sharing.

  • powerful, Pamela. thank you :)

  • Nina Badzin says:

    This was an incredibly honest and thought provoking post. You’re right–in the end there is only us. Not that we can’t count on other people, but we can’t control other people. Only we can control whether we’re judgmental, etc. Thanks for the excellent words here.

  • “I kept thinking about how connected we all are, that there are no bad guys and no good guys. There is only us.” This statement is so sobering, and so true. I read this on Wednesday, but didn’t have time to comment then. I made sure to come back, though, because I couldn’t get your words, this post, off my mind. Riveting.

  • Oh, Pam. You are NOT a mostly selfish person; I know that to the core of my self. Honest. xoxo

  • This moved me deeply and I felt it in the sinews of my throat, my grasping fingers, my head pulsing dumb and alive. When I got to Ground I read it twice, finding myself substituting Love for Ground just to see what happened.

    Along the asphalt, in the throbbing glare of red sirens and adrenaline like a shot, the sparing of life, the dust and ash, the blackened toe, the pink paper the words guilty and honest ashamed and abashed redeemed and received… only us, only all of us.

  • Wolf Pascoe says:

    Atonement = at one ment

  • earthhuggy2 says:

    just sending hugs and gratitude for you in this world. xoxo

  • staceylo says:

    Oh Pamela… Somehow I am just coming to read this now. What a beautiful piece. I have been having a hard time with the Navy Yard shootings mostly because here they almost felt like a blip on the radar which really is just disgusting. Have these attacks really become so common place? I am so glad to have the chance to think about your friends. And to feel grateful for them. Thank you as always for your amazing words.

  • Last weekend we watched Epic – I thought of one of the lines throughout the week and again today as a re-read this
    Many leaves, one tree

  • Thekitchwitch says:

    You got me on all waves of emotion today. Cringing as you got pulled over, laughing that you made the police blotter, amazement as you described how that woman was spared for no tangible reason. And, of course, I cried near the end. Your words tend to do that to me.

  • This is breathtaking, Pamela. You are so painstakingly honest and I salute your bravery in showing up here and telling your story straight, warts and all. Thank you for your words. xoxo

  • As always, you touch the universal with your personal stories. Thank you for laying yourself bare for us.

  • I, too, have been thinking about the ground and its derivatives. Grounding. Grounded. How these words can sometimes feel blessed–“I am grounded in this moment” and awful — “My flight is grounded”. I guess, like all of life, it’s all about perspective.

    The judgement piece? Bow howdy. I have gotten a bit better about the harshness with which I view myself and my mistakes but when life’s stresses run high (as they do for me right now), my judgment serves a big wallop. I will, as I leave your space, remember to call my spirit back.

    Namaste.
    xo

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