October 28, 2013 § 40 Comments
“Apprentice yourself to yourself, welcome back all you sent away.” – David Whyte
I am approaching this space with chagrin, a sense of hands wringing in the space at my center. In August, I vowed I would write here more, and once again I have broken my word, those promises I make to myself that are more fragile than they should be.
In the spirit of true disclosure, September and October have been a bit of a boondoggle around here, and when things get tough, I tend to hide. Or, I tend to make myself so busy that I have no time to sit still, or to think, or to begin the clumsy and tedious process of sorting through words, picking them up and throwing them back as if they were tiles in a box of Scrabble.
I love the month of October, but it has an edge to it for me now as it is the month when we begin to get a hint of our next orders – Scott’s next assignment – the place to which we will be moving next. Every odd year in October, I get a whiff of endings as the leaves fall down and I need to prepare myself for the leaving and then, for the arriving. This year, I was relaxed about it and far too confident. We had thought this would be the move where we prioritized where we wanted to live rather than the right career move. This was going to be a move for family and not solely for the job, and I was excited about the liklihood of us moving to either The Netherlands or back to California, which is the place where I feel most at home.
So, it was a bit of a sucker punch that the Navy came back with two options, each requiring Scott to deploy for a year. He will choose between Bahrain and Djibouti and then the Navy will send him to one or the other, regardless of his choice. “Jabooty?” I said to Scott when he called me from work. “I don’t even know where that is.” It sounded like the punch line to an old Eddie Murphy joke.
“It’s in Africa,” he said, “Near Somalia,” and I said what the hell.
For the last month or so I have been wondering how on earth I will parent our two boys alone and how I will shore us all up enough to get through a year without Scott, whom we all adore and lean on to a ridiculous extent.
Right now, I can’t imagine it.
Two weeks ago I went to open the fridge in the garage and had a strange sensation of being watched. I glanced up and saw the beady eyes of a tree snake, its body wound around the freezer door. I ran back into the house calling, “Scott! Scott you need to come out here now!!!”
Last Friday, I discovered there was a mouse living in the seats of my car and I almost had a heart attack. I called Scott who was on his way to give a speech and cared not a wit about the fact that rodents were living in my car, so I texted the strongest and most stalwart of my neighbors. “I’ll be right over,” Tammy texted back, and together we tore apart my Prius and found that my emergency granola bar stash in the trunk had been raided, the wrappers shredded and stuffed into the interior of the back seat.
My other neighbor across the street, Miriam, drove by on her way home and leaned out the window of her minivan. “What are you guys doing?” she asked. When we told her, she parked in her driveway and walked over with her four-year old daughter and her yellow lab. “If it were me, I would get a new car,” she told me and I explained that getting a new car would require driving this one someplace first, and I wasn’t about to get in.
“Really?” Miriam asked. “But you’re so brave.”
“What gave you that idea?” I asked, and she shrugged. “I don’t know. You had a snake in your garage. Or maybe it’s because you have boys.”
“No,” said Tammy, who has a daughter and a son. “Boys are easier.”
And so the conversation turned again to the every day ordinary, as it always does, and Gus circled around us on his bike. We were gathering up the shredded paper and my reusable grocery bags, now ruined with mouse droppings, and I felt a tide of panic begin to ebb in. I am used to this now, the anxiety that seeps and slides until it rises up to my throat. “How on earth am I going to get through a year on my own?” I asked the women next to me and instantly felt silly because these women were Marine wives. Scott was gone for 8 week intervals during the first two years of our marriage, but these women have already been through more than five deployments each, their husbands away more often than they are home.
“You’ll call us,” Tammy said matter of factly as she slammed my trunk shut, and I felt something sink down and land.
“Yes, you’ll call us and you’ll get a dog,” said Miriam and then told me about the time a raccoon jumped out of the garbage can at her while her husband was gone. “If you’ve ever wondered why I take my trash out at noon, now you know.”
Gus once again circled our piles of seat fluff, and then the school bus pulled up and all of our children spilled out. Oliver and Gus got on their scooters and rode over to their friends across the street and Miriam’s girls were excited to add another “nature story” to the newsletter they are creating for the neighborhood, entitled The Saint Mary Post. “Mrs. Cloyd,” Miriam’s oldest said breathlessly as she pulled a notebook out of her backpack. “What was your reaction when you discovered mice were living in your car?”
What is my reaction to anything? I thought to myself. Out loud, I said, “EEEEEEEEEK!” which Laura Fern wrote down, her pencil pressing hard into the paper.
I’ve started running again after a slew of injuries, but I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I jog slowly for a few miles. The other morning, after the boys got on the bus and the tide of panic was rising up my ribcage, I laced up my shoes and set out. I thought about my reactions, how usually they are negative, because most of the time I am afraid. Most of the time, I am the opposite of brave. On that morning jog I was angry about the deployment, angry because this was supposed to be the move where I got to choose. This was supposed to be my turn. Mine. Not the Navy’s.
Well then, said a small voice inside me, Choose this.
“No,” I said back, but then I felt that softening again, the landing and I wondered if I was allowed to choose something I didn’t want, if it was even possible, if maybe, choosing has nothing at all to do with wanting. I don’t want a mouse in my car or my husband to leave. I want what I want and inside me, wanting has always been fierce, its claws always pulling me away and out and up. Look at this, wanting says, racing up to me on scurrying feet. Isn’t it lovely?
And now I am trying to put the wanting aside, which is something new for me. Shh, I am telling it, Not now. I use soothing words like hush and sometimes a firm word like stop. I am practicing.
Yesterday I had to teach yoga, which requires me to drive. I went out and stood in front of my car. I opened the door and removed the empty mouse traps Scott had set the night before, but their emptiness proved nothing to me. “I think it’s gone,” Scott had said as he looked under and around the seats, but I wasn’t buying it. You never know when those feet will scrabble up your spine, when those sharp teeth will sink in, grabbing your attention away and out and up.
I got in the car and fastened the seat belt. “Hello mice,” I said into the meaningless quiet and then I got the willies just thinking about them. I wanted a new car. I wanted another option. I wanted things to be different.
And then to myself I said, Shh. Not now. Drive the car.
I am still practicing.
September 18, 2013 § 19 Comments
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.
September 9, 2013 § 13 Comments
Wake me up, when September ends. – Green Day
It’s September in North Carolina. The pool is already closed for the year, but stepping outside is like walking into a sauna while wearing flannel pajamas. Yesterday at the bus stop, it was 90 degrees with 97 percent humidity. The other mothers and I shaded our eyes with our hands and had to open our mouths to breathe.
September to me is a bit like March. It is a month of waiting for things to change but feeling that mostly, things are exactly the same. The leaves are turning brown and gold at the edges, but we are still in shorts. Kids are in school, but everything else shouts summer: smoothies and ice pops, Saturdays at the beach, fireflies and cicadas, and butterflies as big as baseballs.
September has never been a good month for me. Now it’s a month of transition and restlessness. In the past it’s been the month of breakups and disasters, and one year it was endless rain. When I was 28, I lived in Mission Hills, an old part of San Diego that overlooks the bay and Coronado. Our apartment was built into the hill high above the airport. My roommate and I used to sit on our faux leather couch watching the planes land and make those cumbersome, heavy turns once they were on the ground. The roar of their engines was comforting to me. It sounded like things happening.
On the morning of September 11th, the planes were halted. The airport was motionless for days, the stillness terrifying. For days I have been writing and rewriting this post, trying to tell my story of that day and what was lost. In the end I just deleted it because we all have a story of that day, and trying to tell it now seems a bit like hijacking a tragedy: Pay attention to me. Feel sorry for me.
I wasn’t quite sure what to do in my yoga classes this week. It’s been twelve years so perhaps I should just go about my business of telling people where to place their hands and feet. But that didn’t feel quite right either. A few weeks ago, in my own practice, I did one of my Seane Corn yoga videos in which she said, “The body remembers everything. And that includes hate, heartbreak, loss.” Loss. The thing I am learning as I get older is that time really doesn’t heal all wounds.
Perhaps time gives us some distance, maybe a little space, but time also makes things complicated in that we begin to layer our tragedies, or at least I do. September 11th is not just the catastrophe of a day but the sum of all heartbreak from a lifetime of Septembers, the same way that JFK’s assasignation now symbolizes not just the death of a president but the loss of a certain glamour and promise, hope and prestige. We remember the Challenger not just as a shocking tragedy but also as the sucker punch, the explosion of innocence. Now, it seems, rather than being united by a horrible day, we are united by our grief. As in so many other instances, the universal has become personal and the personal universal.
This past weekend I was irritable and impatient. On Sunday night, Scott and I were awakened by a deafening thunder storm, and when I fell back to sleep, I dreamed of tanks in the Syrian desert, dust and ash falling like ticker tape. And then I was in the ocean, and the tanks were shaped like humpback whales, diving and surfacing in the black water.
Fear, grief, and anger have been shadowing me since the beginning of the month and I am trying to dodge them because I don’t want to be afraid and sad and angry twelve years later. I want to be good. I want to be fine. Instead, I have this unreliable, calcifying heart.
I have been doing a lot of yoga videos this week because I don’t have the energy to do my own practice, or maybe, what I am lacking is faith. Luckily, I came across this one with Sienna Sherman, in which she reminded me that the antidote to judgement is curiosity; a sense of wonder, even for our faltering hearts.
On Sunday I read this essay by Pico Iyer, in the New York Times, entitled “The Value of Suffering.” In it, a Zen artist tells the author that suffering is a privilege, that it shakes us out of complacency. I am not sure I share this view yet, but that’s probably because I am more neurotic than complacent. I think the privilege is being alive, and suffering is its byproduct.
In my own class – miles and miles away from Seane Corn and Sienna Sherman – we did a grounding practice, full of lunar namaskars and forward folds. And I decided not to say too much except to quote the master of wonder himself: Mr. Rilke. May you too have patience with all that is unresolved in your own heart.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet,” 1903
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.”
August 5, 2013 § 20 Comments
It took a lot of living, and the culmination of much suffering, and turning 40 nearly a year ago, to make me start forcing my own hand. I believed that honesty was a way of acting or enacting. I now understand that it is something far deeper. It is giving yourself the space to actually feel your feelings and be true to them. At all costs. So in that regard, I still have a ways to go. – Gwyneth Paltrow
I have missed being here and writing on this blog mostly because I feel so connected to everyone I’ve met in this space. But what I am discovering about myself is I can’t put together a post – or something even remotely coherent about an experience – while I am still living the experience. And since I turned 40 (in January!!) my experiences have been sharper and more cutting than almost any other time in my life. Each day seems to bring in something new: a new revelation, a change in perception, another piece of myself held up to the light.
Probably the biggest question I am living into right now is that of teaching yoga, which feels an awful lot like standing in front of a crowd and stepping out of my armor. I am working on a post about teaching but I’m not even close yet to finding the right words. Each class still feels like a question, a doorway, a dark room I have to feel my way into by running my hands along the walls.
For the past few months I have also been working on a post about turning 40, which was a bigger deal than I thought it would be. (Proof that I am the slowest writer in the world!) Initially I was writing about an indoor track meet in Boston in late January of this year, where my college 5000 meter record was broken two days before my birthday. It had a very quintessential “40″ quality to it in that I was handing off the baton to the next generation of girl-women, who are just beginning to bound into the world. There was a big element of joy to the experience and excitement but a bit of sadness as well. It had that sunset feeling that something was over. Not just speed but youth itself; that smooth skin, those exuberant friendships, the security felt then, that life was just beginning to unfurl.
Halfway through that bit of writing, I became ridiculously bored because life is nothing like a race and besides, I don’t even run anymore. 40, it turns out, is not a neat succession of days that loop around a defined center. Rather, 40 has been a year of ripping the center out. It’s been an evisceration, an evaluation of what I believe and what I know and what I hope for. It’s been a lesson in how raw it feels to long for something, how gorgeous and heartbreaking it is to look at yourself and say: “More of less, this is who I am.”
A week ago, I took a road trip with my boys, from the very bottom of North Carolina, up to northern Virginia to see Oliver’s best friend, and then farther north to my parents’ house in the mountains of Pennsylvania. On the way home, we swung through Delaware to see my dear friend while she was vacationing at the beach. It seemed like such a simple, and well-thought-out trip, a week of people and visiting and time with my boys in the car.
Oliver and Gus are amazing travelers and I loaded their Nooks with books and movies, I stocked backpacks with Highlights, National Geographic Kids and stickers, raisins and Tangrams, and I filled my iPhone with audiobooks like Frecklejuice and Superfudge and Henry Huggins. Then we hit the 95 near Quantico where traffic stopped. Soon after that, the rain came down in sheets and I was hunched over the steering wheel somewhere outside Stafford on the flooded highway, desperately trying to follow the car in front of me, which was flashing its hazards.
I loved visiting my parents and my friends. I loved being with my boys, but it turns out, I am not someone who loves road trips. We stayed in hotels for three nights where the bed wasn’t like the one at home and the coffee was weak and burned. I don’t enjoy eating pizza two days in a row, I have a lousy sense of direction, and to be honest, I don’t even like driving. One night, after eating dinner in Virginia Beach in one of those fake town centers, I called my husband while the boys were throwing pennies into a fountain, and I felt as homesick as I’ve ever been.
I really want to be someone who digs road trips and adventures and surprises but guess what about that. I want to be someone who can have a glass of wine with dinner without wanting it to be two but I’m not that either. When I was 20, I thought at 40 I would have things figured out, that I would be confident and would make time to straighten my hair every day. I thought I’d have an office and wear shirts with buttons and watch my kids win ribbons in swim meets.
Instead, 40 is having a son who still doesn’t like to put his face in the water. It’s wearing cut-offs and converse most days, and having hair that is wild and turning grey around my ears. 40 is standing in my kitchen at two in the afternoon and realizing that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, whether I am thinking about dinner or parenting or marriage or writing. 40 is knowing I need watermelon juice instead of pinot grigio, walking rather than running, and a daily meditation practice. It’s finding out I am not very good at resting and that social events scare me. 40 has been a visit to a therapist to talk about the anxiety I’ve had since living on Camp Lejeune, it’s wanting to be a better friend to my husband, and it’s been the insistent thrum of truth that I am not as special as I thought I was.
40 has also been a bit of a relief. It’s been six months of molting, of shedding old skins, even though it means I walk around feeling fragile and lost half the time, and this is not something I could have done when I was 20. While I was at my parents’ house I got a massage from Ginny Mazzei, an incredible yoga teacher there. “How was it?” my mom asked when I got back home. She was filling water bottles for the boys because we were going to take them to Knoebels, an 87-year old amusement park in the middle of the woods.
“I feel awful,” I told her honestly. “I think I need to lie down.” During the massage, when Ginny dug her hands into my back, I jumped. Ouch, I thought, and then I felt a wave of grief break a levee somewhere near my heart and spill up and over the banks. While my parents and sons were riding an old-fashioned train and eating soft pretzels, I was drinking a cup of tea and sitting on my mom’s meditation cushion, with tears in my eyes for a sadness I couldn’t even name. Afterwards, I wrote in my journal and then wrapped a blanket around myself and watched “House Hunters” on HGTV.
This too is 40, this permission to do what I need to do in this lifetime, this permission to be honest. I used to be afraid of honesty, and now I see it as a gift, as a load off, as a big sigh of relief. At 40, we realize we probably aren’t going to be rock stars or Olympic athletes or supermodels. We are no longer going to three weddings each summer and our baby days are mostly finished. As women, we are out of the spotlight, elbowed to the side by those in their twenties and thirties and thank god about that.
In my twenties, I was too worried about what everyone thought to get much done and in my thirties, I was too busy with babies and little boys. Now that I’m 40, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
A few weeks ago, I woke up and wrote the word “Forgive” on the inside of my wrist, mostly because I wanted to forgive myself. Not for anything in particular but maybe for breaking all those promises to myself. I was tired of tugging guilt and shame behind me all the time and the way they pulled at my knees. Within hours, two people I never really ever wanted to hear from again called me. “Forgive everyone everything,” said the Buddha. “You haven’t forgiven anything until you’ve forgiven the unforgivable,” said Rolf Gates. Ha! said the Universe. You need some practice.
This too is 40, the knowledge that I will be humbled again and again, brought down to my knees by the devastation and beauty of life, and while I am there on the ground, I might as well pray.
My great-uncle Mart used to ask me riddles when I was little. “How far can a bear run into the woods?” he would say after I’d been in his house for five minutes. “Halfway,” I would answer with a grin, remembering the answer from the previous summer. This too is 40. Halfway, if I’m lucky.
If you haven’t read Lindsey Mead Russell’s “This is 38,” please do. I was inspired by her beautiful writing.
July 4, 2013 § 34 Comments
Before I can talk about the book Warrior Pose; A War Correspondent’s Memoir, I must first tell you about the writer, who was one of my first yoga teachers. When I met Brad Willis (now Bhava Ram), I was still shocked by motherhood and by my very challenging 15-month old son, who regularly bit me hard enough to break the skin, threw epic tantrums, and stole other toddlers’ toys. I missed my old life in Palo Alto, I missed living alone, and I didn’t like being a Navy Wife. I longed for old my job and resented that now, I was the one cleaning the toilets and dealing with this impossible child while my husband was off in Guatamala and Thailand and South Korea.
One day, I was so overwhelmed by Oliver’s tantrums, with his hair pulling and his hitting, that I put him in his room behind his baby gate and retreated in tears to my own room, so I didn’t do something I would regret. Already I had done things I regretted and I needed help, which may be the two most humbling words in the English language.
Bhava taught at the San Diego yoga studio I went to and he lived a few blocks away from me in Coronado. When I told him my reasons for my visiting him in his home office, I had to concentrate on sitting upright in my chair, because what I really wanted to do was to throw myself down on the floor and sob. “Can you give me a yoga practice for patience?” I asked him. “I really want to be a good mom.”
Bhava regarded me for a second and at first, I thought he was going to tell me to leave. Instead, he told me that I was doing more yoga while cleaning the toilets and taking care of my son than I would ever do on my mat. He said that the first person I needed to take care of first was myself and that of course there were things that we could do. He created a practice for me, full of forward folds and inversions, hip openers and gentle twists. The practice only took about 20 minutes and I did the poses in our moldy old apartment while Oliver napped. Every time I practiced, it was like visiting someone I wanted to be someday. And so I continued to visit Bhava and take what I thought of as his “lessons.” One day, he told me the story of the Bhagavad Gita. He told me about Arjuna, who didn’t want to fight in the civil war that was ripping his family apart and how Krishna told him his life depended on it.
“Why on earth would Krishna want Arjuna to fight?” I asked, interrupting him. “How can a yoga text be about war?”
Bhava gave me a look he often gave me, which was a mixture of befuddlement and frustration. He explained that this was a metaphor, that the real battle was with our egos. He looked at me pointedly and still, I wouldn’t let up. “Yes, but why is a yoga text about war?”
“You know,” he said then, “you are a bright person. You could be great if you would apply yourself to this.” Like many of Bhava’s comments, I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or an insult. He challenged me, sometimes baiting me. Once he told me that I was emotionally stuck which at first made me furious, but later felt as though he had given me a gift. He gave me permission to feel what I was feeling, if only because he became cross when I didn’t. Bhava was an unlikely teacher for me, but also perfect. He must have known that to come at me softly was to lose me. I was cynical of yoga, of all this feel-good, unscientific fluff. I was so defensive, so resistant to changing, that when Bhava gave me a mantra to try, I told him I wouldn’t use the word surrender. “I hate it,” I said. “Surrender is like giving up.”
Finally, I did give up, or I began to, anyway, because it could be argued that I am still a bit of a curmudgeon. I kept signing up for his workshops because when I left them, I felt closer to the person I wanted to be than to that old self, who angered so quickly. I often cried during his classes, which was embarrassing, and once I did his 21-day Journey Into Yoga program, which was uncomfortable because as a group, we decided to refrain from alcohol and sugar.
One day, during Journey Into Yoga, I stayed after a vinyasa class to wander through the studio’s boutique, looking at the soft yoga tops and the Ayurvedic oils that Bhava’s wife Laura makes. Bhava walked up to me, said hello, and smiled, which is to say his whole face lit up. “Hi,” I said back.
“I just wanted to say that I see you,” he told me.
I panicked when I heard this and felt everything become very still. Did he think I was shoplifting?
“I see who you really are,” he said, pointing at my heart. “And you’re an amazing person.”
I don’t remember what happened next because my eyes filled with tears and I had to turn my head away and stare at a bookcase for a while. This comment from Bhava was so unlikely and so surprising, although if he had told me this any sooner, I wouldn’t have been able to accept it. I moved my hand up to steady myself and I saw that it was shaking, that my entire body was shaking. I stood in the corner of the boutique for almost a minute trying to regain myself, grateful no one else was around, and then I left. I stepped out into the San Diego sunlight and felt lighter, as if I had gotten out of something.
That was the last time I saw Bhava because we moved to Ventura shortly after, but I often hear his voice in my head. “But sometimes I just gotta do it,” a student once said to him about looking around the studio during class. “No,” he replied in his deep voice. “You don’t just gotta. That’s the whole point.”
To read Warrior Pose is to have Bhava’s voice in your head too, and it’s a wonderful voice telling an incredible story.
Bhava Ram used to be Brad Willis, a war correspondent for NBC, who used to work with Garrick Utley and Tom Brokaw (you can watch footage here). The first half of the book is a can’t-put-down account of his career from his start as a college student at Humboldt State, where one day, he walked into the local TV station and got a job as a reporter. He moves to Dallas and then Boston, where he interviews Oliver Tambo in South Africa, watches leaders of a drug summit in Cartagena do lines of coke after dinner, and covers child prostitution in Bolivia. Along the way, he breaks his back while trying to shut a window during a storm while vacationing in the Bahamas in 1986. Surgery is his only option, but because he doesn’t want his career to suffer, he opts to suffer instead, the pain increasing each year.
While he’s in Kuwait, covering the Gulf War in the early 90′s, his pain is constant, and becomes another character in his book: Pain and what Brad Willis does to avoid feeling it.
The introduction of the book states that Warrior Pose is a story about all of us, and while I was doubtful at first, underlying Willis’ crisp pose is a mythology that makes this statement true, in the way that all myths are about the indomitable spirit of the human heart.
Willis’ career takes off while in Kuwait, and I stayed up much too late reading the detailed accounts of his experiences as pool reporter, which means he was chosen out of all international journalists to cover dangerous and high security missions and then bring his notes back to “the pool” of waiting journalists. He bribes a Sunni guard and sneaks into northern Iraq, where he is later airlifted into a Kurdish refugee camp. He drives through deserts that rain oil, and while embedded with the First Marines, he crosses human carnage so horrible, he finds the upper lip of an Iraqi soldier on his pant leg.
And yet, his pain continues to trail him, despite the valium and vicodin and alcohol until finally, Pain brings Willis to his knees. Willis collapses in Manila, while covering the country’s corruption and poverty. When he is finally back in San Diego, he sees a doctor who tells him, “I don’t know how you managed it. You’ve spent seven years with a mildly broken back and now it’s a major break.”
Willis took a year leave from NBC to heal his back, which refused to cooperate. By Willis’ 50th birthday, he was confined to a bed or sofa or mobile lounge chair, addicted to pain killers and stout beer, which soothed his throat because guess what else? He had Stage IV throat cancer now too, likely a result from inhaling the toxic air during the Gulf War. Willis was pretty much dead man walking.
What ultimately saves Willis is his love for his son, Morgan. When Morgan is two, he tells Willis to “Get up Daddy!” when Willis is unable to play with his son. Shortly after, Willis’ wife and friends stage a bungled intervention that nevertheless lands Willis in rehab and then in the San Diego Pain Clinic, where he discovers yoga.
While the first part of Warrior Pose reads like a thriller, the second half, when Willis stays on his knees and then begins to rise, is more like poetry. Willis does not spare his ego and instead writes honestly about the harrowing climb up from the depths. What struck me the most was how small Willis allowed himself to become, how broken he admitted to being. And yet there is nothing pitiful about this journey. After 7 nights in rehab, when Willis gives up all of his pain killers cold turkey – which reads a lot like a visit to hell – Willis begins at the beginning. He takes a yoga class as part of his curriculum at the Pain Center which changes everything. This is it! he writes, and begins to study yoga with a startling velocity. At one point, he takes over 200 yoga classes in less than three months.
Ultimately, Warrior Pose is less about becoming a yogi, and more about listening to an inner voice, which, it could be argued, is really the same thing. It is a book about a father’s devotion to his son and a tribute to what is available to us, if only we are able to receive it.
I am giving away a copy of Warrior Pose to one commenter, which I will choose at random. I am also giving away five copies of Bhava’s Gayatri Manta, which he performs with Hans Christian and Donna DeLory, Madonna’s former back-up singer. Bhava’s album is called Songs of My Soul. You can sample the Gayatri mantra and the album here or on iTunes.