January 28, 2014 § 30 Comments
The number forty is highly significant across all traditional faiths and esoteric philosophies. It symbolizes change – coming through a struggle and emerging on the other side more enlightened because of the experience. – Dr. Habib Sadeghi
Usually, I begin my yoga classes with child’s pose or a simple seated meditation, but really, meditation is too strong of a word. We breathe in. We breathe out. And inevitably, a Marine in the back of the class is trying so hard not to laugh out loud that he is silently shaking. Usually, I have to close my own eyes and press my lips together so that I don’t start laughing myself.
It’s always a bit awkward in the beginning when I’m asking them to come into cat cow pose and then downward facing dog. Some people are looking around and vigilance pulls up the chins of others. No one is breathing and you can feel the tension rising off bodies like steam.
Then I ask them to come into plank pose, and like magic, all the giggling stops. After about ten seconds in plank, the vibrations in the room begin to settle. After thirty seconds, the disparate streams of energy begin to gather. After a minute, the quiet comes down like a curtain falling.
I don’t have them hold plank to prove anything, or even to quiet the laughter. There is something so familiar about that pose for Marines and athletes – something almost comforting about being in a high push-up. And yet there is something else about plank that gets right to the heart of our own vulnerability. Maybe it’s that our pelvis wants to collapse in a way that would showcase our weakness. Maybe it’s that plank pose demands us to soften the space behind our hearts. Or maybe it’s the quiet of the pose itself, the stillness required to hold ourselves straight and stare at a single spot on the floor.
After plank pose, it’s different in the room. I can say inhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe in. I can say exhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe out. I can place my hands on someone’s shoulders and they no longer want to flinch.
It was my birthday this week and I have been thinking an awful lot about vulnerability. 41 is a year that lacks the spunk of the thirties but also the dire nature of that four-oh milestone. 41 is not yet old but definitely no longer young. 41 is a bit like jumping into the shallow end of a freezing cold pool and hopping up and down, your arms over your head. 41 is about being in it but just barely. It’s about stopping by the mirror and knowing that you still look much the same as you did at 20, but undeniably, your skin is thinner and creased. What is left may look the same, but it’s only a veneer of who you used to be, and soon that will be gone too, and the true self – the real face that reveals our own creased and softened souls – will emerge.
41 feels a lot like being in plank pose.
Most of my fortieth year was spent on my back, staring up at the clouds that seemed to be rushing by too quickly. Last winter, I woke up in the cold sweat of panic attacks and during this past summer, I couldn’t sleep. 40 required waking up to the fact that I was living in a way that was not sustainable, that I couldn’t forego rest anymore in the name of getting things done, that I needed to stop saying yes when I meant no, and that I desperately wanted to stop asking for permission. Chocolate and wine were no longer staving off that terrifying feeling of fragility, and the warning hum underneath was becoming so loud I felt a little crazy. Last year, a line from Hamlet wove its way into my days: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
For 39 years, what I wanted more than anything was to be tough. I would rather be angry later than vulnerable now. It’s easier to be the master of my own fate than to place it into someone else’s palm and close their fingers around those thin shards of glass. I had thought that toughness would scare the fear away. But it turns out that fear stays anyway and makes you want to giggle. It makes you want to yell or run or it wakes you up in the middle of the night and squeezes at your heart.
People talk about vulnerability now as this great thing and I suppose it is. But what they don’t often tell you is that one part of vulnerability is to take a good and honest look at yourself, which feels a bit like sticking your head into the mouth of a monster. Asking the questions is only one part of the equation. It’s sitting still with the answers that’s the kicker. There is the way that I think I am in the world, and then there is the way I actually am.
Sometimes I wonder how on earth I became certified to teach yoga. Of all the experiences in my life, teaching renders me the most vulnerable. It feels like taking off my skin. Before each class I feel like Hanuman, when he ripped open his chest to show Ram his devotion. Ram, Ram, Ram beat his heart.
I am working with Rolf Gates on my 500 hour teacher training, and in our last meeting via Skype I shared some of my challenges with teaching, mostly, that I don’t feel I am up to the task. Rolf laughed after I was finished and said,”Welcome to your first ten years teaching yoga,” which I found oddly comforting. He could have easily been saying, Welcome to your forties. And then he told me that teaching is like pointing at the moon. What’s important, he said, is that our students understand the moon.
The way I see it, there is no way to understand the moon without first standing alone in the dark. There is no way to understand anything unless you pay attention to the way it waxes and wanes, to the way it turns its back to you or slips behind a cloud. The glow and the radiance: it’s only a fraction of what it really is.
About three years ago, I wrote that I felt as if I was on the precipice of something, but couldn’t see far enough down to know what it was. Now, I see that what I was gazing into was the mysterious space that houses our hearts. That my task is to simply crouch in the doorway and pay attention to the storm, to the call of the wind and the violent lashing of the branches. My job at 41 is to sit in the eye of the hurricane, rip open my heart, and listen.
August 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you. – Hafiz
I had mixed feelings about leaving Oregon last Saturday and coming home. As we rolled our suitcases out of the cozy Victorian house in Ashland and shoved them into the trunk of our dusty rental car, I felt a deep sense of being pulled away from a place that felt more like home than my actual home in Camp Lejeune does. I was looking forward to getting back to my stuff, of course, to my routines, but living on a military base has never felt like home to me. Or maybe it feels a bit the way a house in another country might feel: the smells are different, the language is strange to my ears, and still, after a year, I feel like an interloper, sometimes a spy, and occasionally, a hostage.
We had an easy trip of it, flying from Medford to San Francisco and then on to Charlotte where we boarded a tiny plane to Jacksonville. We had to walk way out onto the tarmac to board and then up those steep narrow stairs. I paused at the top and looked out at 20 rows of Marines on board, their haircuts shocking after two weeks in Oregon. Welcome home, I thought.
The flight attendant had such a strong Southern accent that I could only understand every third word. “What did he say?” I asked Scott, who was across the aisle with Gus. Scott shrugged and said “Got me,” and then we both turned forward to watch the flight attendant shake a young man seated in the exit row. “Hey my brother,” he said loudly, “Hey, wake up!” The flight attendant’s eyes were kind as he stood and asked two boys sitting near the sleeping Marine if he had been drinking in the airport. They shrugged too.
Soon the flight attendant was slapping the sleeping boy’s face, until finally, he sat up. The plane was silent by then, all of us watching, and the flight attendant was speaking slowly to the boy. “Do you want to sleep here in Charlotte or do you want to sleep in Jacksonville? This plane is leaving for Jacksonville.” The woman in the seat ahead of me turned to her husband with a wide-eyed look, and the flight attendant steered the dazed soldier out of the exit row and to a seat just in front of us, where he fumbled with his seatbelt. I turned to Scott and made my own wide-eyed expression, which meant Can we please, please, please not go back there?
“I don’t think he’s drunk,” Scott whispered back, “As much as he’s probably exhausted. He’s probably been flying for 48 hours straight. And maybe he had a beer and now he’s just out of it.”
“We have to give him a ride home,” I whispered back. “We can’t just leave him at the airport,” and then Scott made his own face back at me. “He’ll be fine,” he said.
And he was fine. It turned out that the bags on our flight weighed so much that many weren’t even loaded on the plane. About 20 of us had to wait in line at the Jacksonville airport to file claims for lost luggage that wasn’t so much lost as it was sitting on the wrong tarmac in the rain. Waiting in line ahead of me was the sleeping soldier, and I heard him talk in a clear voice on his phone. “You’re outside?” he said and then, “I’m in line right now. I’ll be out soon,” and I felt my shoulders relax with relief. You see these men and women in their camouflage and helmets, their machine guns in their hands and you think: Soldier. And then you see those young shoulder blades under their tee shirts, those pale scalps on their shaved heads and you realize they are the ones who need protection.
We landed in Jacksonville after midnight, and before we even knew our luggage was lost, we stumbled through the tiny airport, all of us bleary-eyed except Gus, who loudly announced, “I didn’t even go on any naps!” Waiting at the security gate was a woman in a coral maxi dress with a big smile, her make-up fresh and her hair curled. Four young children crowded around her. “Do you see him?” they asked, and “Where’s Daddy?” The woman was holding the handles of a stroller and a photographer stood nearby to record the homecoming. As we walked by them, the children bouncing on their toes, I felt that tenderhearted feeling that is so common to me now that I live on base, the way life here is so close to the surface: way too vulnerable and so, so fragile.
This winter, it seemed that artillery practice on base was non-stop. We live a few hundred yards from a bay, which is really the mouth of the New River, just one turn shy of the ocean. All day, the booms echoed off the salty water, shaking the house, and rattling dishes. The anxiety I felt was a bonecrushing kind, but I could operate on a level where everything was just fine. And then spring came, and the rabbits began to appear on our lawn. One cool morning, Gus was crouched in our flower garden, staring at a tiny, baby rabbit nibbling the dahlia shoots and suddenly it was just too much. I could handle living in a place that sounded like the Gaza Strip. I could suck it up. But to live in a world where there are both bombs and baby rabbits felt like more than I could handle. Goddamned baby rabbits, I thought, as Gus turned to me, his face lit up like magic. I wasn’t sure I could do it.
On Sunday, we slept in until 10, all of us still on Oregon time. And then Oliver’s friend Ella, who lives across the street came over with our mail and I took all three kids down to the water, to the river that’s practically the ocean, and Ella used my iphone to take everyone’s photos. We went to the park and the neighbors came out and said they missed us and I met all the new people who moved in while our old neighbors were en route to Seoul, Fort Leavenworth, Guam, and Camp Pendleton. Somehow, in two weeks, my orange cosmos were almost 6 feet tall, a pine tree was growing behind the hothouse roses and the hyacinth dropped its blooms and had flowered again.
And then something took my breath away: my dahlias had opened. I read that it was almost impossible for a first-time gardener to have any success with dahlias but there they were anyway, all heads high and proud, as white and fluffy as that baby rabbit’s tail. This too is home, I realized, feeling that heartbreak again, my inability to reconcile extremes, the staggering amount of wonder necessary just to get through things in one piece.
Three days later, school started, and all the kids met in my driveway at 7:45 to wait for the bus. They showed up gleeful and shiny, swinging stiff backpacks and trying to kick each other with their new shoes. That morning Oliver woke up early, and found me finishing my yoga practice. “Do we have time to play Legos?” he asked and I told him we did, and then I started to cry about the end of summer, at the way everything changes too quickly. I brought my hands to chest and imagined my heart was as big as an ocean. I told myself that the heart can hold everything, that there is enough room, but still it felt like the shards were slicing through.
After school, Oliver had a meltdown because he didn’t want to go to his first soccer practice. I knew he was just nervous, I know that he doesn’t like anything new, that he’s been through so many big changes in his life that even a tiny change is terrifying. I was wiped out myself, having taught 5 yoga classes already that week, which was a first for me. “I know that it’s a little scary,” I tried and before I could say more, Oliver put his hands on his hips and yelled, “I HAD A BIG DAY,” through his gritted teeth. Regrettably, I tossed water bottles into a bag and told him to get in the car.
On the way to soccer, we stopped at a red light at the turn to the fields and watched the flashing lights of four police cars, which were parked at a house near us. Before the light could turn green, military police walked a young officer out of his house in handcuffs. This happens everywhere I told myself, but still, I never lived in those neighborhoods back when I was a civilian. I didn’t go to those parts of town. And now I live in a place that has no neighborhoods, a place that is more like an outpost, a colony, a tribe with an island sort of transparency, all of us knowing more than we want to know about each other. Even this small fact stretches my heart, and I realize how narrow it gets sometimes and how dangerous that is.
The day before school started, I taught a yoga class just for spouses of deployed soldiers, which is one of my favorite things in the world. On Wednesday morning, we met at a pavilion across the street from Onslow Beach at the very end of Camp Lejeune. I got there early to sweep out the sand, and when the women arrived, we arranged our mats in a circle. We did a practice for self-care and for trust. During pigeon pose, I read the Hafiz quote I love: The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you, and it occurred for me – not for the first time – that I teach what I need to learn most. Afterwards, we sat on the beach and did a meditation I “borrowed” from Elena Brower on open-heartedness, and we listened to the waves echo our breath, although probably it was the other way around. If you could meet these women, if you could see who shows up to my classes with their shining eyes and their willingness, you wouldn’t believe it. It amuses me that I teach on a base where I am almost always the student.
We live about 25 minutes from the beach, and it’s a beautiful drive through pine forests. Then, it’s fields full of shooting ranges and a large cluster of buildings built to look like an Afghani city so soldiers can train for what awaits them. Before the pine forests, just past the movie theatre, and across the street from the Protestant chapel, there is a large field dotted with groves of oak trees. Sometimes at noon, I see soldiers sitting there in the shade, eating lunch. That morning, I saw a cluster of them standing under the trees, looking in one direction as if they were waiting for something. A split second later, another group of soldiers came bursting out into the sunlight. In the middle of the pack, protected by the others, four of them ran with a stretcher on which a soldier was lying back, secured with one of the reflective belts they wear in their pre-dawn PT sessions.
If you could see the fierce commitment in the way these soldiers train and the sweetness in the way they sit in the shade together and wait for the next thing, your heart would burst. And then you realize what they are training for, and you might want to bring your knees down to the ground.
A year ago, when we were moving and all of us were living in a single hotel room for almost 4 months, Claudia Cummins sent me a beautiful email describing a time in her life when she felt homesick and then an epiphany she had that as long as she was in her body, she was home. That her body was her true home. I haven’t had this epiphany yet or anything even close to it and perhaps that is why I am here. Perhaps this place where I am, the one that was circled on the map for me, is where I will learn how to prop open the doors of my heart and keep them that way. Perhaps I am here to create a tangram out of these pieces that don’t seem to fit. Or maybe what I am supposed to do is just leave them alone in the shapes that don’t make any sense and make room for them anyway.
August 13, 2013 § 12 Comments
I know some of my struggles come from my thinking, not from my being. – Jackie Borland
Lately, I have been so inconsistent with writing. However, having been inspired by the discipline of Kristen at Motherese and Lindsey Mead Russell at A Design so Vast, I am going to try to put up something on a more regular basis, regardless of whether I have anything to say, or not. (You are officially warned).
We are on vacation for almost 2 weeks, just the four of us, sprung from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and set free in southern Oregon, where we all feel a bit more at ease and more at home. I swear, something happens to me as soon as I cross the Mississippi River, and if I had my eyes closed for the entire plane flight, I could probably tell you when I was officially in the West. There is a settling, an ease, a deep sigh of relief. We all spent five days with Scott’s parents where we were treated to a ride on a 1973 firetruck, hiking in Crater Lake, and visits from Doe-zer, a neighborhood deer who is more tame than the horses who graze nearby. Scott’s mom made numerous batches of snickerdoodles, homemade strawberry jam, and a quilt for our home that is so breathtaking I cried when I saw it.
Today and tomorrow, my husband and I are in Ashland, Oregon alone while Oliver and Gus stay with their grandparents in nearby Klamath Falls. At noon today, Scott and I checked into the little house we rented and caught up with one of my oldest and dearest friends. We went out for a hike and then came “home” and read our books outside in the shade. When we were hungry, we walked to dinner downtown, which was a tremendous treat after spending a year in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where the nicest restaurant is an Outback Steakhouse. It was a decadent day full of what I love most.
And yet, I was also a bit startled by the vulnerability inherent in vacation itself, whether it’s because the feelings we normally tamp down finally spread their wings in this new space or whether it’s the very raw aspect of traveling itself: the uncertainty, the risk, the unfamiliarity of a place that is beloved but yet unknown.
Yesterday, I shared an email conversation with a fellow blogger I greatly admire and we were talking about what Lao Tzu said about the great way being easy. We agreed that while our hearts often easily recognize the “great way,” our minds become confused about how exactly to get there. Like travel, it’s the logistics that seem to cause the most trouble. For me, the “great way” is easy, but keeping my heart propped open widely enough to see it is often excruciating. Today as Scott and I drove through the Siskiyou mountains, the windows of the car open – the smell of pine and cedar and cold wind – we saw an RV backing up on the opposite side of the road, and curious, we stared until we saw a tiny fawn lying dead on the asphalt. There was the bright blue sky and the tawny grass and the ancient green of the trees, and there was also blood.
Sometimes vacation feels like this too, as if it is dangerous to feel so happy, that even as our hearts swell with the deliciousness of life, we simultaneously remember that we are only here temporarily. At dinner with my husband tonight, I heard stories I have never heard before, and suddenly, this man I have spent the last decade with became new again, and I became as nervous and thrilled as I was on our first date.
Tonight seemed to be the epitomy of summer, of freedom, of joy and the long rays of the sun that extend far past an appropriate curfew. And of course my first instinct was to want to bottle it up or tamp it down. To jump off because it feels a bit scary to feel so magnanimous, so at ease. Perhaps this too is part of the great way: remaining open no matter what, which is what I find most terrifying and glorious about the whole thing.
Recently, a woman named Jackie, who reads this blog, sent me a note and a poem she wrote. I hope she too starts a blog, but until then, I will share her words with you. She wrote them on New Year’s Day, but for me, they capture what I want to remember during the entire year.
New Year’s Day – 2013 by Jackie Borland
What do I know now, as this new year dawns?
I know Grace and Gratitude are two of the most important words in my life and in my beingness.
I know I am very blessed in my life to be so connected to my children and grandchildren. Even though distance separates us, and I cry frequently as I miss them so very much, I am grateful for the gifts of their presence in my life.
I know how fortunate and blessed I am to have circles of woman in my life that are REAL friends. The beauty of this also brings tears to my eyes and wishes for all women to be so blessed.
I know I want to have more love for myself. By loving myself more, I will be able to love others better.
I know I love inspiring poetry, books, music and conversations that feed my spirit.
I know I am very sensitive and finally like that about myself. Not only does that enable me to feel my own sadness and joy, but to hold the world with much compassion.
I am also learning that I can only do what is mine to do and fix what is mine to fix.
I know small things I do matter. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that.
I know it is important for me to be authentic and true to my own beingness.
I know I cannot always say “YES”.
I know I will make mistakes, and that I can say I am sorry.
I know realizing my connection to God, the Ultimate Source of everything, is my purpose for being here. God is Love. God is Truth. God is Light. God is All . I can trust that the Universe will support me in this journey.
I know my life is short here. I do not always like the way I am living it. I know I cannot change the past, except by making amends where needed. I know that it is up to me to choose again. No one else can choose for me. Sometimes that is really scary. And I know that I am not alone, and that I can get help and support through the difficult times.
I know some of my struggles come from my thinking, not from my being. Some of my struggles just come as part of this life.
I know doing nothing is important- that listening is important-that silence is important –that speaking is important -that being in the present moment is important.
I know I can look back at my life and see the beautiful, the joy, the happiness, the passion, as well as the ugly, the sadness, the darkness; and I know all of my life is blessed.
“I know all that truly matters in the end is that I have loved.”
January 22, 2013 § 20 Comments
Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness. And feed the hunger. – Indigo Girls
I am not proud of how I felt when I first read about Asia Canaday. Katrina Kenison linked to this letter on Facebook which Jena Strong posted on her blog. The next day, Christa posted it too, these beautiful writers forming a circle around Jena and Mani and Asia, asking the rest of us for help in the form of a dollar or a prayer.
I am embarrassed to say that instead of joining the circle, I circled around it. I shut my eyes and shut my computer, feeling anger well up inside of me, maybe even fury. Just eat, I heard a voice in my mind say and then I was overcome by an emotion I can’t even name and I had to sit down.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that I was actually furious with myself for doing the same thing Asia is doing now. When I was 16, I ate as little as I could, getting so thin that sometimes my legs became bruised from sleeping. I try not to think about those days, about the pain and helplessness I made my family go through. I try not to think of the way people used to look at me, their eyes wide with a certain kind of repulsion.
I’m angry too that this is still happening. After I clattered catastrophically through my own disordered eating, I turned away from the topic entirely, choosing to believe that childhood obesity was what we had to worry about now, not anorexia. Mani’s letter made me open my eyes, reluctantly, to the truth that in addition to living in a country with epic obesity and great starvation, 24 million people suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Clearly, we are a nation with big issues around food.
And yet, this is not an issue about food or even hunger but about our beliefs of our own worth. Maybe I’m wrong but I think all eating disorders are slightly different manifestations of the same problem: a conviction that we don’t deserve to be here, a kind of longing to disappear, by either literally shrinking ourselves or by hiding under layers of fat. This is how much someone who is anorexic is suffering: starvation is preferable to the emotions she or he is feeling. The feelings are so enormous and out of control that self-inflicted pain feels better.
We can do the usual things I suppose. We can give money and support research and stop asking if this dress makes us look fat. But I think what might be even more powerful is to look at the ways we starve ourselves on a daily basis, even if we don’t have an eating disorder. Every time we tell ourselves that we can’t take a break just yet, or we don’t deserve that job, each time we eat a sandwich standing over the sink or resist the urge to sing out loud. When we tell ourselves that that we aren’t strong enough to enter that race or leave that guy, we send clear messages to ourselves and the world about what we believe we are allowed to have. Every time we ignore what Geneen Roth calls “the knocking on the door of our heart,” we are finding a way to disappear, to stay small, and we are passing this on to each other like a plague.
Of course I am not talking about you but about me. I still have very set ideas about what I need to get done before I can go to bed at night. I want to exercise and meditate and do yoga. I need to squeeze in time to write and time to make dinner, pack lunch. I have to clean the bathrooms and hey, are these pants getting tight? I received an email from a friend today whose family was recently taken down by the flu. She wisely told me she was going to try to find a way to get the space and the time she has when she’s sick so that she doesn’t have to get sick to have it. I felt my heart lighten as I read this and then grow heavy again at the ways I refuse to receive what is always on offer to me like an open palm: a breath, a kind word to myself, space and time, even if it is only a moment.
In Buddhism, there is a character called a Hungry Ghost, a creature with a tiny mouth and a bloated distended stomach, a narrow throat that makes eating so painful, the ghosts haunt each generation with their empty bellies, with their ravenous unmet needs, with their boundless, aching hungers. Some Buddhists leave food on their alters for the ghosts, delicacies that satisfy an unnamable longing. Learning about this brought tears to my eyes. Is it possible that we could be this compassionate to each other? To ourselves?
I am going to echo Jena’s request that you leave a dollar or a prayer here for Asia and her fiercely loving mother, Mani. I am also going to suggest that we take an hour or a minute to honor our own hungry ghosts. Maybe we can sit down to eat breakfast or drink the whole cup of coffee (while it’s hot!!). We can carve out a few minutes to gaze at the sky or down at our toes. We can tell ourselves that we are allowed to dance terribly, that what we write can be awful, that we deserve that job, that we can ask for that hug. We can gently remind ourselves that eating kale doesn’t make us a better person, that we are allowed to go to bed at eight o’clock, that we don’t have to finish the whole thing, that there will be more, always enough if we take time to listen to the delicate thrum of our hearts, if we pause for a second to tell ourselves – even if we don’t believe it yet – that we deserve for our life to be good, that we already are good enough.
September 26, 2012 § 16 Comments
I want to remember the way the butterflies here careen towards my head in their ridiculous flight and make me duck, every time. I want to remember my next-door neighbor, the way he came striding over to me in his camouflage and combat boots, the sun high and his shadow arriving first. “I’m Bobby,” he said, just as I was wondering whether to advance or retreat. “Let me know if we can do anything for you while you’re getting settled, anything at all.” The next day, the woman across the street walked over in the rain with a plate of cookies and her phone number and I felt something settle, despite the boxes we had yet to unpack.
I want to remember the way I feel in the morning, how in the half-second after my alarm goes off, I am still not sure where I am. I want to remember how much I despise yoga at five in the morning and how very much I need to throw down my mat, to hear the particular sound it makes on the wood floors when the house is dark.
I want to remember these days, when my insides feel full of the sharp click of needles. I stare down the street at the identical houses and realize I am both tourist and native. The morning after we moved in, I waited for the school bus with Oliver for the first time, feeling such camaraderie with the other mothers. After the bus drove off, one of them told me her husband had been to Iraq and Afghanistan five times, once for fourteen months. I went back into the house after that, into a different sort of day.
I want to remember the sharp taste of the ocean, the bitter reminder of a war, a heat so impressive that it sometimes feels as though I have landed on the tongue of a dragon.
I want to remember what it was like to run through the cornfield behind my house when I was nine, my hands slapping hard at the leaves. I want to remember leaning over the withers of the pony I leased every summer, the moment when she gathered herself up and then exploded into a gallop. Her exquisite speed made my eyes useless until finally I closed them and wound my fingers through her mane.
I want to remember what artillery practice sounds like on Camp Lejeune, the air imploding on itself and the windows rattling as if in an earthquake or a battle. I want to remember the way my new friend folded herself onto the floor of our house, the walls still smelling of paint. She talked about her autistic son, each detail a gift, beads carefully strung. I want to remember what she quietly called testimony, the way she turned her face briefly towards the ceiling and said that her son gave her faith, that he caused her to believe in God and trust in this life.
I want to remember the man with nine fingers who came to fix the air conditioner, whose Carolina accent sounded like a banjo playing in the night. He asked me if I was from Mississippi and when I shook my head he told me, like a prophesy, that I was going to learn to cook black-eyed peas. I want to remember the way he talked about getting injured in the first Desert Storm and how he alternatively called me Ma’am and Sugar. Shuguh.
I want to remember the soldiers in the field next to the post office and how they were taking turns carrying each other over their shoulders, wrists and ankles dangling towards the ground. I want to remember the way Oliver runs with his arms outstretched, pretending he’s a falcon and the way Gus throws his head back and laughs when anyone says the word “stinky.” I want to remember Oliver racing off on his bike, sometimes tossing his legs over his handlebars and how Gus rides away from me, his back straight, one training wheel perpetually off the ground.
I want to remember my college teammate tell me at breakfast one morning what it was like to live in Bosnia in 1992, how her mother made her sneak up the street and check for snipers before she went to school. I want to remember the camping trip to Mexico my second year out of college, how my friend calmly described what it was like to flee the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and travel to Turkey under the cover of night.
I want to remember my new yoga teacher reading from Meditations from the Mat, and how relieved I was to hear something so dear and familiar to me I wanted to cry, hunched over in child’s pose, my forehead pressed against the ground.
I want to remember every bit of how uncomfortable I am here because I am not someone who does uncomfortable well. I am someone who runs like hell from uncomfortable, who would rather turn away than look at the woman in front of me with the baby and the food stamps. I am not here to give testimony to a god but instead, to the way the world crouches between beauty and despair, each a tragic partner to the other. I can only bear witness to those dark and fragile moments before dawn, when it looks as though things could go either way.
July 31, 2012 § 18 Comments
I can’t read Jena Strong’s beautiful memoir in poetry, Don’t Miss This, without thinking of Jena herself, whom I had the pleasure to meet last December. Last year, after I read on her blog that she was in Washington, DC, I emailed her, and the next thing I knew, I was pulling up in front of her hotel and she was folding her tiny body into my car. We ran along the Potomac and later, went out for breakfast. And somehow, after that brief morning visit, I felt as if I had known Jena for years.
While we were running, I rather obnoxiously asked about, what she calls in Don’t Miss This, “the shattering realization” that she was gay. “How did you know?” I wondered, wanting to know less about the specifics and more about how someone can so courageously make such a leap of faith. Jena graciously answered my questions and for the next six miles, we discussed what living authentically means, how much courage that takes, and how confusing it can be, how difficult it is to determine if we are doing it right.
In her memoir, Jena describes the “undiscovered rooms, the Chinese boxes I kept trying to get to the bottom of …There were the velvet boxes holding round golden promises, the dented cardboard boxes containing journals, crushed repositories of my existence.”
Reading Don’t Miss This is almost like sitting beside Jena herself. Her words on the page contain her warmth, her grace, her fearlessness. Her writing is mesmerizing and sharp, taut and fluid. In structure, the memoir in poems is divided into three parts: She Who Stays, Landmine, and What I’ll Miss.
For me, She Who Stays, was the most searing section of the book. She writes about what happens before the earthquake of her coming out, those days of so much suffering, of keeping so much inside. One poem in particular, “How the Light Gets In,” made me shiver in recognition:
Later, after the dishes and the laundry,
the diapers and the dishes again,
I felt the tightening in my chest,
martyrdom rising in me like an unstoppable wave
when the family breakfast ended
in spills and tears and anger
as I sat feeling powerless
to the shadow side of their closeness.
Jena writes of the harrowing task of telling the truth, of becoming who we are supposed to be, about who we have been all along, those parts of ourselves that we try to squirrel away and hide. In the second part of her book, Landmine, Jena writes with the stark discipline of a warrior, when, as she beautifully pens in “No Retreat”:
There is nothing left to do.
Only to look back
at the path of jewels you’ve walked
to arrive here at this place of no retreat.
In “When It Happens,” she writes about what no retreat looks like:
having learned to be calm
having learned to be patient
to stay still in a storm
that swept our houses clean.
Reading Jena’s poetry, it is impossible not to harken back to your own dear life, to call to yourself the times that you stayed when you should have fled, when you ran when you should have stayed, when you failed to listen to the small, insistent voice inside yourself that always tells the truth. And reading her poetry is to become at peace with that precious voice, to hear it ringing clearly in whatever tone and note is true for you. In “Night Poets,” you can’t help but be called to:
step out at 2:30am,
the moths banging against
the bare fluorescent bulb,
do as she taught and listen hard -
Jena’s final section of the book, What I’ll Miss, is a unromanticized narrative of what is gained when you tell the truth, and also, what is lost. In “Falling Seasons”:
Tonight is all flickering flame
and a prayer to the waning moon
high above my children’s beds,
a head bowed in gratitude
for the strong medicine
I received today,
all four directions
answering the quiet call
for a longing I couldn’t name.
This section, more than the other three, contains a hush, a silence, a heart that is at peace. This final part of the book is about the quiet after the explosion, the calm after the storm. It is a paen not to banging down doors and breaking into a new life but to moving through fear “An animal on all fours, quietly and with measured steps.”
More than anything, Jena’s poems open up the bottles full of emotions we have corked tightly, hidden in the back of the closet, buried in the recycling bin of a bright supermarket at midnight. She gives voice to everything that doesn’t quite fit, that refuses to be named in the light of day. And yet, Jena’s memoir is also full of unbridled joy and the victory that comes from staying present, even when that present moment aches.
Your shame, all those moments
when you wanted to hide,
to disappear, to retract and retreat -
these are your gifts.
Look inside. Don’t run.
To win a copy of Jena Strong’s book, leave a comment below and I will pick a winner at random on Thursday, August 2. You can read Katrina Kenison’s review of Jena’s book here and Lindsey Mead Russell’s review here.
May 28, 2012 § 15 Comments
I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. – from Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
I haven’t been here in a while. I haven’t been writing anything other than my bi-monthly column about chefs, mostly because of all the work that goes into moving to another state and trying to find a place to live given that it may be four weeks or four months until a home on the Camp Lejeune Marine base is ready for us. There is the packing of course, but there is also the getting rid of things, the collection of school and doctor and dentist records, the phone calls to turn off the power and the water, the endless calls to see if that home is still for rent, if that apartment is furnished, if we can sign a lease for fewer than three months. There is also the way the anxiety of moving turns my brain into static, and if I am honest, I have have been avoiding writing because of the way it forces me to face what is really going on.
At Oliver’s kindergarten drop-off, the other moms are very nice to me. “You look so great,” they say, “So relaxed,” and I laugh and lie and say, Thank you, it’s all going well.
This afternoon in yoga, while we held downward facing dog for what felt like way too long, Kelly, who was teaching, told us to press our thigh muscles onto our femur bones and I rebelled. I didn’t want to engage my legs, which is another way of saying I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in the present moment which is always right here. I wanted to roll up my mat and flee. I wanted to bolt from the 98-degree room and into the 90-degree day outside. I wanted to disappear into the crowded streets of Georgetown. I wanted to run into the air-conditioned haven of Dean & Deluca, to look for a new pair of shorts in J.Crew, to climb fully-clothed into the claw foot bathtubs in Waterworks.
Last Thursday, Oliver and my mom and I made the day-long drive up to Grand Island, New York, which is about a mile away from Niagara Falls. My cousin Jeremy and his wife graciously hosted us and Oliver was able to visit with his cousins and his godmother – Sister Mary Judith – who married Scott and I almost seven years ago, near a rocky beach just south of San Francisco. Sister Mary Judith is my father’s cousin and is in her mid-seventies, but she looks much younger. Before she became a Catholic nun, she was Homecoming Queen, and to me, she still has a sense of royalty about her. On our trip last weekend, she told me stories about when she helped run a school for African-American children in South Carolina in the late 1950’s. She told me about the time she spent in Africa, prior to that, and about my grandparents and aunts and uncles, whose own parents came over from Ireland and landed in Queens and Buffalo, New York.
On Friday, Jeremy took the day off from work and took us all to Niagara Falls. I was surprised by how accessible Niagara Falls is with the free parking in the state park and the easy walk in, just a few blocks from downtown Buffalo. It was a beautiful, sparkling day with bright sun and a cool breeze and we walked down from the parking lot onto a wooded trail which hugged the river. The river was so calm and quiet that I would never have guessed that it was about to jump off a cliff. The kids played on the wide, flat rocks at the edge of the river and they ran over the foot bridges that led us out to Goat Island. There was a small piling up of whitewater as the wide river bubbled around the boulders and the bank and you could tell the water was running fast, but there was a stillness at the surface that belied the drop up ahead.
Moving is kind of like that. You get word and then you wait, your life staying pretty much the same except for that static under the surface, which feels an awful lot like panic. The waiting itself becomes a kind of current, your life becoming flooded with the possibility that you are leaving it, until one day you look up and realize you are completely submerged in the leaving, so tired of the waiting that you just want it to be over already so your new life can start. According to some scholars, the name “Niagara” comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra,” meaning “point of land cut in two.”
I used to think of surrender as a kind of ease. I used to think that I would be able to surrender once I was a different kind of person: once I meditated more or had more time, or became more wise. But standing there, looking at the falls, feeling the cold mist on my face and listening to the rush of that water, hearing the rush of my own blood through my ears, I thought that maybe surrender wasn’t a matter of ease but of courage. I watched that water, as it moved steadily, unhindered by what was in its path until finally, the Niagara River pulled its knees into its chest and leapt, the water gathering up and then falling from that sharp, dolomite ledge.
After we left the Falls we were hungry and tired and Sister Mary Judith and my mom and I headed to a grocery store to get some snacks for our return drive back to D.C. I told her my thoughts on surrender and she nodded. “Surrender is an act of courage,” she said, simply, and I rested in that, confident in her half-century of spiritual commitment.
This afternoon, as I held downward facing dog, while I was wishing I was anywhere but in my legs, Kelly said, “We think we can find ease by relaxing into something, but really, it’s the pushing out of something that creates the ease.” She told us to press our palms into the floor, to squeeze our thighs back to lift our hips and I thought of those falls – their height, their majesty, their courage. I took a deep breath and pressed down and back, feeling an ache in my legs and also a tiny bit of ease in my heart. I felt an infinitesimal opening as if maybe there was a place for me after all, despite the fact that I am a moving target, despite the fact that as soon as I begin to get comfortable, it’s time to press on and move out again. I pressed back into the pain and the cracking open and the fear and called those falls back to me, those daring wonders with their willingness to drop their history and their loves and their beliefs about where they should be, and instead, press onward and over the edge.
In honor of moving, I am having a month of giveaways. This week, I am giving away 2 copies of Bruce Dolin’s wonderful book, “Privilege of Parenting.” Kristen wrote such a wonderful review of the book that I won’t even try to duplicate her efforts and you can read her review of the book here. Bruce writes compassionately and wisely about how to hold our children by holding onto ourselves first, by breathing through our own fear and shame and sadness in order to put an end to the karma we don’t want our children to carry. Unlike some parenting books, which give generic and unlikely scenarios, Bruce helps us deal with life’s messiness, and like yoga, shows us that the messiness is part of the beauty. Just enter a comment below and I’ll draw a name at Random on Friday, June 1.