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.
March 11, 2012 § 17 Comments
To receive is to accept, not to get. It is impossible not to have, but it is possible not to know you have.
A Course In Miracles
Lately, I have been consumed with thoughts of moving from northern Virginia to North Carolina, which we will be doing in early June. It’s not like it’s a surprise of course. Because my husband is in the Navy, we move every two years, like clockwork. And yet, each time we think about packing up, I am shocked by how attached I am to the place I am living. Even if I don’t like it all that much.
I am insanely great at complaining about moving. Honestly, I should get some kind of award. “You did know I was in the Navy before you married me?” my husband sometimes asks me, “Right?”
Scott will have a great job on Camp Lejeune, which is the biggest marine base in the country. It will be nice to be close to the ocean again and I am looking forward to leaving the fast pace of DC. But still, all I can think of are the public schools and the fact that there aren’t any yoga studios down there. I keep thinking of all that I am not going to have.
When I went to Kripalu for 3 days at the end of December for a yoga workshop with Rolf Gates, I knew it was too big to understand right away. It was wonderful and difficult. It was nurturing and confronting. It felt like home and it felt like the middle of nowhere. In a small way, it reminded me of what it’s like to be me, always on the go, always looking ahead, preparing to leave while we are still unpacking the boxes.
On the first day of our workshop, Rolf had us do an exercise I have done with him before a few times. “Spend the next 5 minutes,” he told us, “Writing about who you want to be and what you want that experience to be like.” I remember the first time I did it during the first week of my yoga teacher training with Rolf last April. Then, I had picked up my pen and paper with a sense of panic. Who do I want to be? Yikes.
What eventually made it onto paper that first time was that I wanted to teach yoga to military wives, like me. This idea had been in the back of my mind for a while, but seeing it on paper for the first time made my hands shake a little. It seemed like more than I was allowed to ask for. Most likely, I would not be up to the task.
As I prepared to do the exercise for a third time on that cold December day at Kripalu, I thought I knew who I wanted to be. I still wanted to teach yoga on a military base. What else was there to say? I paused, with my pen in the air and looked out the floor to ceiling window. Brown leaves sailed against the colorless sky and I thought about how wonderful it was at Kripalu and how far it was from North Carolina.
And then I sat up and felt a rush of something like lightning fill my insides. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I got exactly what I wanted.” Here I was, complaining about moving to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, to the biggest marine base in the country, and yet, what had I asked for six months earlier? Who do I want to be? What do I want that experience to be like?
My heart was pounding and I looked around the room at so many heads bent over notebooks. There was the huge purple wall of the studio. There was the bare winter day outside. And then there was me on my mat, feeling as though I had just won the lottery. I felt my face turn up into a grin and tried to stop it. Eventually I gave in and just allowed myself to be happy, to be a little bit ecstatic, to believe if only for a little while that miracles happen, that sometimes, you get exactly what you ask for.
When I returned from Kripalu, I went online and found the web site for the gym on the Camp Lejeune base. In true military fashion, it took 12 phone calls to finally get in touch with the group exercise instructor and I had to leave a message. She called me back right away and I told her I was interested in teaching yoga.
“When are you moving?” she asked.
“Well, that’s perfect timing,” she said. “We’re opening up a mind body studio in July with a big yoga studio on base and we’re going to need instructors.”
What’s been so interesting to me over the past few months is how I keep refusing to receive what I am given, even it it’s exactly what I wanted. What’s almost comical is how my mind keeps turning to fear rather than gratitude, how it keeps spinning towards panic rather than joy.
Even now, after 21 months of despising Washington DC, I am thinking of all that I am going to miss here: the amazing, bigger than life yoga scene, the Baptiste-style power yoga studio I found in Georgetown, right along the canal, the Dean & Deluca micro-ground chai tea I have become addicted to, the mountain bike trails and the museums and how just when you think winter is never going to end, you wake up and see that the cherry blossoms are already pink against the cold sky.
On my way to yoga yesterday, my usual route around the Pentagon was closed and to get to the Key Bridge, I had to take the George Washington Parkway, and then zip up past Arlington Cemetery. I drove by the back side of the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is probably my favorite landmark in the city. This strikes me as odd as I am usually not a fan of anything war-related, but there is something about all those men leaning in to put that flag in the ground. Driving the way I did, I had a clear view of the only man not touching the flag, the one reaching with outstretched fingers, the one whose hands never touch the flag, who is forever holding onto the air.
Seeing that man always brings tears to my eyes, and yesterday I realized it might be because he reminds me so much of myself. I wish I could just relax into all the good things in my life, but I have never stopped being the girl who is always waiting for something bad to happen. I keep thinking that if I win, I’ll be safe, but what happens when I win is that I immediately begin to fear losing.
A few weeks after repeating “Soften” like a mantra, I stopped making my bed before leaving the house. (This was a teeny bit difficult as I am a compulsive bed-maker).The boys and I spent so many cold and decadent afternoons huddled under our fleece sheets and down blankets reading books. Gus and I fell asleep sometimes while Oliver slipped out to play, and once or twice, in the evening, instead of going to yoga, I went back under those covers. It was delicious. It felt like more than I was allowed to have, and yet, it had been there all along.
Now that spring has arrived and the daffodils are coming up everywhere, I am trying to let go of my habit of reaching with my fingers outstretched. I want to enjoy what I have already received, which turns out to be a lot.
Yesterday, Gus and I went to Whole Foods to get a slice of vegan pizza (again, not likely to be available on Camp Lejeune) and in the parking lot, he stopped by a pothole filled with white confetti and pointed to it. “What is all of this Mommy?” he asked and my first reaction was to try to swoop him away. “It’s trash Gus,” I said, “Don’t touch that.”
But then I looked again and saw that the pothole wasn’t filled with trash at all. It was overflowing with cherry blossoms.
PS In my quest to “lighten up” I am participating in a 21-day cleanse with Laura Plumb, my yoga teacher in San Diego. She and her husband are amazing and together they founded the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts. Laura will be leading the cleanse which will be completely supported with 3 group phone calls, emails, recipes, and if you choose, a care package full of Laura’s Ayurvedic spices, jam, and kitchari mix. The food-based cleanse (so you won’t be starving and eat half a cake by your third day) begins on March 20th, so if you would like to join me click here. There are 3 very affordable options.
January 23, 2012 § 26 Comments
My yoga studio has a program twice a year called “Commit To It” in which you practice yoga and meditation for 40 days. The studio is a Baptiste-style power yoga studio and I am sure this program is inspired by Baron Baptiste, who claims that doing 40 days of yoga will transform your life. I am dubious of claims like this, probably because I don’t really like commitment very much. But early in December it seemed like everywhere I looked, people were doing “Challenges.” Even a book I was reading – Sacred Contracts, by Caroline Myss – had a section on how 40 days is the time necessary to manifest an intention.
I don’t really understand any of this. But because I am so crappy at commitment, I thought I would try out a 40 day yoga challenge of my own just to see what would happen. It was simple. From December 2 until January 9, I would do yoga. And since I really like yoga, I figured it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Most of it, in fact, was quite easy. Leaving for yoga at 7 pm – when my kitchen counter is stacked with dirty dishes and the bath is filling and my kids are pretty much running on fumes – is not a difficult thing at all. Most days, I bolted, a smoothie in hand, my yoga mat riding shotgun as I peeled out of the driveway. Even when I was going to power yoga, which is new for me and pretty much kicks my ass every time, I was happy to flee, to run away from the messiest part of my day and allow my husband to do the dirty work.
But I had other days as well. There was the morning I woke at 5 am to do Rolf Gate’s video and was so stiff I could barely move. Halfway through, I saw my reflection in the windows against the pre-dawn sky, and I looked so horrible – so un-yogalike- that I burst into tears and went back to bed. Another afternoon, I was practicing at home while the boys had some quiet time, and I heard them arguing between their rooms. “BOYS!” I yelled up the stairs, “NO FIGHTING!!” I looked down for a moment, at my hands in prayer position over my heart, and I sighed, chagrined.
Ironically, the most difficult part of my 40 days was after my trip to Kripalu for New Year’s. As is always the case, I brought myself to Kripalu too, which was unfortunate. I balked at sharing a bathroom with twenty other people. I wanted to turn the heat down in the room but I couldn’t find the thermostat. I wanted a cup of coffee but had to wait in line behind a woman who decided that no one could move until she finished cutting up her apple. There was something so human about my New Year’s Eve weekend there, so bare and raw, that I have been feeling a bit unraveled ever since.
What most astounded me about Kripalu was the sense of camaraderie, maybe even equality. You might find yourself in the dining room scooping slices of lemon caper tempeh next to your teacher. You may see your classmates coming out of the shower. You might take a walk and find someone sitting on a bench, crying. For me, there was such a powerful sense that not a single one of us is better than another. At first, I was ecstatic and comforted by this idea. And then, I became depressed. If there wasn’t a perfect person out there, then who was going to save me?
A few days after I returned from Kripalu, Colin, one of my yoga teachers said. “Yoga is a process of subtraction. It is not a process of addition.”
I finished my 40 day challenge, but I pretty much staggered over the line. On Day 41, I didn’t go to yoga. Instead, I poured a glass of wine and was looking forward to eating a dinner that wasn’t a liquid. And then: “Mommy?” Oliver called from the top of the stairs, “I had a big leak in the bathroom and I can’t clean it up.”
I put down the wine and picked up the paper towels and the Mrs. Myers. “Mommy?” Oliver called again. “Gus has a stinky diaper and he won’t get out of my room.”
Afterwards, I remembered that earlier in the day, when Oliver had a friend over, I reached into the pantry-slash-broom-closet to grab a bag of pretzels for their snack and knocked a bottle of maple syrup onto the heavy mixer below. That evening, as I reluctantly opened the closet door and stared at the broken glass and syrup that lay before me, it hit me that nothing had changed. Nothing had been transformed. 40 days of yoga and I was still incredibly annoyed at the fact that some days, my biggest work is to clean up messes, to wipe noses and bums and clean pee off the floor. Fuck transformation, I thought. Fuck yoga. All those poses, all that sweat, all that holding reverse warrior for ten breaths while my thigh muscles tried not to explode.
As I scrubbed the mess in the broom closet, I realized how terrified I am of subtraction. I thought with embarrassment of how confidently I wrote about standing in my own emptiness, about creating a clean well-lighted place for myself. It was so easy to say those things in early December, before winter set in. It was so easy to say I would be as empty as the trees when it was still autumn, when the ground wasn’t covered in snow and ice and sleet. It’s easy to be confident before the storm hits and the power is lost. You think you’ll be so eighteen hundreds with your candles, but then the lights go out and you crack your shin on the coffee table.
The other night in yoga, Patty, the owner of the studio had us do one-legged planks and chaturangas (push-ups) for the first twelve minutes of class. A thought went through my head that I was going to die and then another that there was more than an hour to go. I was already shaking and in the 98 degree heat, rivers of sweat dripped from my forehead. From my position just over the floor, I saw Patty’s bare feet stop my me. No, I thought, Please God no, just before she rapped on my back, right behind my heart.
“Soften,” she commanded and I tensed up. “No,” she said firmly, “Soften. Right here.” The room was full, all 62 spaces holding a person on a mat. “Look,” Patty said, “Everyone around you is softening because they want it so badly for you.” I felt myself lighten. We had all paid to be here, in plank pose for what seemed like a million years, because each of us wanted to be stripped down, melted through the heat. We wanted the sculpture inside the stone and this is how we were going to find it.
There is something about subtraction that feels like losing. There is something about not wanting that feels like not having. There is something about letting go that feels a little too much like giving in. There is something about taking everything away that feels a lot like staring at a closet full of broken glass.
“Go,” Patty says after she asks for a second Eagle Pose. “You can write your story about the pose or you can just do the pose.”
“Fold,” Colin says as we move into Parsvottanasana and for some reason, I lose my balance even though both feet are on the floor. I see his bare feet next to me and again, I think No, go away. And then I feel his hands on my hips, steadying me, his palm on my back, right behind my heart.
Before my 40-day yoga challenge, I thought that yoga was going to fix me. Now instead of having that hope, I have my practice, which is kind of the opposite of hope. I have no idea what I learned during the 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
I am guessing it’s somewhere between Go and Fold.
January 5, 2012 § 27 Comments
The biggest, most persistent fear in my life is that there will not be enough for me. I worry that there won’t be enough money or time or luck. I worry that what I love has already been taken. I worry that I will have to keep proving myself worthy again and again and again.
Lately, my life has proven this fear to be absurd. If 2011 was the year of anything, it was The Year of Gifts.
While I have gone through my life thinking I never win anything, this fall I won a $100 bill during a random drawing and a few weeks ago, the Fairy Hobmother granted me a $50 Amazon gift card. This afternoon, my neighbors brought over the biggest stuffed dog I have ever seen. It’s bigger than Oliver and Gus put together and is now sitting on the couch in the funny back room of our house that is neither a porch or a sunroom. My neighbors are older and I am guessing that they have forgotten what Christmas is like with small children, when your house is strewn with new plastic toys and you keep running out of batteries. A giant stuffed dog is the very last thing I need and yet, it fits in perfectly amid the excess and the clutter. To me, it’s a sign of all I have. When they brought it over I imagined the universe laughing at me. You think there’s not enough? Well then get a load of this!
Gus birthday is January 3rd and pretty much the last thing anyone wants to do on that day is eat cake. And still, there I was, cracking eggs into a mixing bowl and melting heavy cream and chocolate for the frosting. So much sweetness, I thought as I poured in the vanilla.
The night before I made the cake, my mom and I drove to my house from the Berkshires, where we spent a New Year’s together at Kripalu. Another gift, getting to spend the end of 2011 with both my teacher, Rolf Gates and my mother. “Your mom is like another you,” Rolf told me after he had lunch with her. “You guys are like Thing One and Thing Two.”
The other big gift of Kripalu was getting to meet Katrina Kenison in person. Not only do I admire and love her writing, but her first book, Mitten Strings for God, literally changed my life. I bought the book from a library book sale when Oliver was nine months old. We were living in Coronado, a small island off the coast of San Diego, and I remember the August afternoon I opened the book. It was warm and sunny and I was rocking in the blue denim glider, nursing Oliver. When Oliver was born, I was not really prepared to become a mother and even after nine months I was still surprised by my position in life. Katrina’s book was both a lighthouse for me and a map. She showed me another way to do things. Reading her book, I discovered that motherhood wasn’t something to achieve or plow my way through. On page 72, she writes, “To begin, we need only create a “listening” space, tune in to the world around us, and have faith that our own inner storytellers will guide us.” To me at the time, this was a revelation. That I even had an inner storyteller was news to me.
The second day we were at Kripalu, my mom woke up with a stomach bug. Although my mother will tell you I overreacted drastically and was preparing to LifeFlight her out of the Berkshires, I was a little worried. My mom never gets sick and on the handful of times in her life she has been sick, it’s been serious enough to warrant a visit to the ER. Vertigo. Inner ear infection. Strep throat. In our tiny cinderblock room at Kripalu, I followed the advice of WebMD and waved my finger back and forth in front of her face. “Really,” my mom said, rolling her eyes at me. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t just have a stroke.”
The previous night, in Rolf’s yoga class, he asked us, “Where in your life do you draw the line between good and bad? Right and wrong? Okay and not okay?” I thought of my own line, the thick black thread that grants a tiny space for Okay and an infinite depth for Not Okay. I thought of how my own body becomes a line sometimes, tense and rigid when things don’t go the way I want them to. “What if,” Rolf continued, “There was no line?”
After I was pretty sure I didn’t have to rush my mom to the hospital, I thought about Rolf’s words. If there was no line, then falling out of tree pose didn’t mean that my yoga class was ruined. If there was no line, then my mistakes in life didn’t automatically qualify me as a failure. If there was no line, then my mom having a stomach bug wasn’t going to ruin her trip to Kripalu. Such relief.
The relief was instantly followed with terror. If there was no line, then I couldn’t pack all the moments I labeled as Wrong into garbage bags the way I took old toys to Good Will. If there was no line, then I would need to allow everything in. I would have to feel it all.
On the night of January 3rd, after we were home, after Gus’ birthday cake was eaten and the candles blown out and the presents opened, I went out for a run. Usually, I am a morning runner, shuffling down the sidewalk before the sun comes up, but on Tuesday night, I was restless, sick to death of cake, and floating in a sea of Too Much. Sometimes, only a run will do, no matter that it’s bedtime and twenty-one degrees out.
I headed down my favorite route along Russell Road where the bright streetlights lead to the King Street Metro in Old Town Alexandria. On my way, I passed a creche that was still up and it was so beautiful that I stopped right there, my breath steaming in the frigid air. A baby was in the manger and two wooden figures covered with beautiful cloth were kneeling beside it. In the wind, the figures were rocking, almost as if they were weeping.
Because it is early January, I have been thinking about the birth of Jesus for weeks, but never once did I think of Mary going through the labor of birth. I never thought of her as having those searing contractions or going through the moment of transition, when the world heaves and rolls itself upside down. Standing there in the cold under three layers of lycra and fleece, I thought of the night Gus was born. I made Scott walk with me, up and down the bike path near our townhouse in Ventura. I had to keep stopping, and I leaned against the eucalyptus trees that lined the path and inhaled their scent. When my own transition came, five minutes after we got to the hospital, I thought for a moment that the reflection of the lights on the linoleum floor was really the night sky. “I can’t do it,” I told the nurse, “I want the drugs after all,” but she shook her head. “You’re doing it,” she said. “You’ve already done it.”
I thought that the gift of January 3, 2009, was the birth of my second son, whole and healthy, swaddled in his pink and blue blanket. But maybe the pain of labor was also the gift. I thought that the gift on the first Christmas night was that Jesus was born and was lying in a manger. But of course his death was the gift as well.
I have no resolution this year, only the usual questions and worries and wonders. The gifts I received in 2011 are piled too high for me to wish for anything for this year. My two boys. My husband. Our home. My friends who live everywhere and my loneliness in this city. My yoga practice and all the suffering that brought me to my mat in the first place. The joy and the pain. The light and the shadows, all of them gifts, equal in measure.
My wish for you in 2012 is that your year be filled with gifts. Even more, I wish that everything you receive be a gift, if not at first, then someday. “I always say that things will work out,” Rolf told me, “And that’s only because they always do.”
If you wish to be visited by the Fairy Hobmother, leave a comment here and she may bestow her gifts on you as well. And, I am giving my own gift of Mitten Strings for God to two people. If you read Mitten Strings for God, then I’ll send The Gift of an Ordinary Day. If you’ve read that, then I’ll send Meditations from the Mat (written by Katrina Kenison and Rolf Gates). And if you’ve read all of Katrina’s books, then you are a very lucky person.
Happy New Year!
December 17, 2011 § 22 Comments
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver
Gopi read us this quote before a yoga class this October during an unseasonable cold snap. I didn’t really want to be a yoga that night as I was fighting a cold and I was feeling tired and maybe a little depressed that already it was beginning to feel like winter. On that October night, Gopi explained that she was in the midst of celebrating the feast Duwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, which involves lighting oil lamps to signify the triumph of good over evil.
I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but in the last few months, my writing has been stuck. Although I started this blog as a way to write freely, my tendency towards perfectionism is even creeping into these hallowed grounds. This morning, I had the humongous pleasure of getting to meet Jena Strong of Bullseye Baby. We went for a run from Old Town (Alexandria) and finished with omelettes at Pain Quotidian. “Just give yourself permission to write and don’t even reread it,” she told me. “Liberate yourself from wanting it to be good.”
Last winter, I decided I wanted to explore my own darkness, which, let me tell you, is not something I advise. It’s like asking for patience. Or tolerance. Ask for those things and you are guaranteed to have a difficult day. And last winter was difficult. The most vivid memory from last winter is of the grey view from my kitchen window as I stood there, waiting for the water to boil, watching the clock crawl from 2:23 to 2:24, hoping that the boys could play together without shrieking before I finished measuring the tea. Last winter was interminable. Picking my way through my own darkness was like turning the knob of a closet that hadn’t been opened in 38 years. It wasn’t pretty.
But then again, the monsters that I expected never appeared. I was afraid I would find a nest of beady-eyed rats or a never ending abyss of blackness, but all that was there was dust. There were cobwebs and a view of the world that was no longer accurate. There were old stories and beliefs about myself that had never been true to begin with.
This October, when Gopi read Mary Oliver’s words, I realized that what I had given myself last winter was a gift. When you sweep out the closets, you discover what you packed away in boxes so many years ago. I had to get my hands dirty but it is clear to me now that an excavation took place. What I discovered last winter was that the darkness in my life was of my own making, and if it was of my own making, it could be of my own dismantling as well.
I wish I could say that what rushed in to fill the void darkness left was golden light thick as honey, but that was not the case. Instead, what stood in the closet of my heart was emptiness. Space. A clean sense of nothing, which turned out to be as scary as the blackness.
This October, I suffered from a rather acute case of anxiety, strong enough that Scott gently suggested I go to the doctor. Instead, I called up Laura Plumb, my former yoga teacher in San Diego and an Ayurvedic practitioner. I told Laura that I constantly felt the need to outrun whatever was chasing me, that I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with a racing heart, that I was afraid of something that had no name.
Laura explained that this was a very autumnal feeling, that October was a season of falling away and of letting go of what not longer serves us.
“It’s clear,” I told her, “That my anxiety is no longer serving me, but I don’t know how to be without it.”
“Well,” Laura said, in her voice, which always reminds me of bells ringing, “We can let go and know there doesn’t need to be the next thing yet. We can stand in our own emptiness.”
I get through each day by trying hard: to be a good mother, to keep the house clean, to keep up my spiritual practice, to nurture those around me. It’s as though I believe that things happen because I exert enough force. It’s as though I believe if I worry enough, the disasters will stay away. My anxiety is my talisman, warding away the suckerpunch that will inevitably happen as soon as I let my guard down.
I don’t know how to stand in my own emptiness. My existential fear of emptiness is perhaps what underlies all of my fears: If I let go, the next thing will never come. If I stand still, I will be left behind.
Laura reminded me of the trees. “They lose all their leaves,” she told me, “They stand bare all winter and trust that spring will come.”
This winter, I have no need to explore the darkness. This winter, I am standing in what Hemingway called, “the clean well-lighted place” (there are shadows of the leaves). I am going to practice trusting that the next thing will come: that the next word will appear, that the next idea will organically arise, that the earth will keep spinning even though I have stopped swatting at it with my hand. This winter I am lighting a clay lamp and admiring how clean the emptiness is, how ready it is for something beautiful. This winter, I will see what it means to belong to myself completely and have faith in my own human heart. In the words of Jena, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be good, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be anything other than what it is: this barren landscape, these empty trees, this waiting space.
As an aside I just want to mention what a fabulous time it was to meet Jena, whom I have only previously known here, in this alternative online universe. She emailed me yesterday to ask if I could bring an extra fleece for her to run in as she packed light. When she rummaged through the bag of clothes I brought for her this morning, she said, “Ooohh, I LOVE your wardrobe.” Ahhh, I thought, someone who appreciates my workout clothes: the jewels of my closet. We had such a fun run on this cold grey day, where the sun barely made it over the hills, except for one slim ray that pierced the Potomac. We had such a luxuriously long breakfast and I learned so much from this beautiful, wise woman. At Pain Quotidian, we ran into someone I know from the yoga studio and he assumed we were old college buds. This warmed my heart. Because while my tenure in DC has been lonely, this space here has been rich. To know that the people I meet here translate into friends in real life is the best Christmas gift I could receive. I am so grateful to this space and to my new, real-life friend Jena. Check out her blog at Bullseye Baby.
October 13, 2011 § 16 Comments
You should see Gus on his bike. Damn. My words are useless against the beauty of his little body on his pedal-less, birchwood bike. Every time he rides it, he turns heads. People do double-takes. Some of that might be because he’s only two and a half and he’s flying down the bike path, his legs swinging like pendulums. But mostly, it’s because of his command of gravity, even as he’s poised between two spinning wheels. The best way to describe the way Gus rides his bike is to tell you to close your eyes and think of Haile Gebrselassie finishing the Berlin Marathon or to remember Jacinto Vasquez, coiled tightly on the back of Ruffian as he rode her to victory in the Acorn Stakes.
Oliver is equally talented on his bicycle, but in a different way. You watch Oliver and you see each muscle at work, the beauty of a body engaged. Perhaps this is because Oliver learned to ride on a bike with training wheels. What he learned first were the mechanics, the how, and then he learned balance. Gus learned balance first, and the mechanics were secondary, which I believe is an important distinction. I may think I have balance because I can make three meals a day, host a multi-kid playdate, get Oliver to school in clean clothes, and get myself to yoga, but these are merely the mechanics. It may feel like balance but the fact is, some days, my stomach hurts.
Some Most days, I have tremendous momentum but zero stillness.
What I have noticed about all good athletes, is that no matter how great their velocity, there is always a still point somewhere near the heart. In the middle of all that motion, there is always a place that is motionless. Gus has that, even at two. I watch as he rides away from me, his back a tiny column of stillness, a fulcrum of quiet around which all else revolves.
Usually, autumn is a smooth season for me. For years, I reveled in cross-country season, in running through trails and fields scented with fermenting leaves and fallen apples. I met Scott in October and Oliver was born on Halloween. Normally, I cruise happily through October’s blue skies and red trees. This fall, though, has been a bit different. It would be accurate to say that I am struggling a little with the back-to-school routine, with the sudden playdates and calls to be a volunteer at silent auctions and bake sales. I am resentful that my solitary summer adventures with the boys have been exchanged for shorter days, endless rain and other people. This October doesn’t look like what October is supposed to look like and it bothers me. It is either 79 degrees and raining outside or 60 degrees and sunny. There are only these bold extremes and I feel yanked between the two.
Last night during another rainstorm, I hit a bunch of traffic on the way into DC (huge surprise there!!) for my yoga class. I turned on a podcast of Tami Simon interviewing Tessa Bielecki, Christian mystic, former monk and Mother Abess of the Spiritual Life Institute. Of course, she was talking about balance. “I don’t like the word balance,” she said, “as much as I like the word balancing.” She talked about that crazy tightrope walker, Philippe Petit,who did a tightrope wire stunt between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. She said that we don’t so much find balance as we keep hovering between two fixed points.
For years, I have been trying to balance life as a stay-at-home mom with the fact that I grew up in the seventies when women’s lib was in its heyday. When I was little, I had books in my room with titles like “Herstory” and “Whatever Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better.” At some point, I decided there were two kinds of women in the world: those who raised children and those who did Important Things. Even now, I find it challenging to balance my own beautiful life with the one I thought I was supposed to live.
On Monday, I went to yoga and we did a lot of handstands, which was fine with me. For almost two years now, I have been wrapped in a notion that if I can learn how to stand on my hands, I can handle anything hurled my way. On Monday night, I kicked up a into a handstand, took my toes away from the wall, and stood on my hands for more than a few seconds. I have never been in a handstand for that long before and as my weight was shifting from the base of my palms to my fingertips, I was elated. But there was a steadiness too, a sense of being reduced to only a pair of hands and a heart, hovering over the earth.
After I listened to the podcast with Tessa Bielecki, I watched the YouTube video of Philippe Petit on his tightrope. You know the craziest part of it all? At one point in his stunt, he lay down on his wire, 1300 feet above the ground with no net below. He lay down, his long stick balanced on his chest and his legs dangling over lower Manhattan. Afterwards, the police charged Petit with trespassing and decided he needed to be handcuffed to a chair for his own safety. While he was sitting there, someone asked why he did such an insane thing as to try to balance between two skyscrapers. Petit shook his head and said, “There is no why. When I see a place to put my tightrope wire, I cannot resist.”
I pretty much resist everything. I realize that this takes a lot of energy, but it feels safer than throwing caution to the wind and lying down, although I am not sure why. Lately though, the mechanics are beginning to wear me out and maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps this is a call to stop pedaling like a crazy person and coast for a while. Perhaps I will find balance only when I surrender to the imbalance, to the unbending truth that balance can only exist between polarity, between gravity and a tiny body, between the jagged earth and the infinite sky.
August 24, 2011 § 16 Comments
What happens when you move every 2 years, as we do, is that you begin to make bucket lists of things to do before you move again. We made one this summer with the boys. It’s on a piece of red construction paper and most of the items are crossed off: “camping” on the foldout bed on the back porch area, taking a tour of DC in a double-decker bus, going to the beach. Yesterday, we were going to cross another one from the list: going to the top of the Washington Monument.
As we ate a late lunch yesterday, the boys and I talked about what it was going to be like to see the city spread out before us. What I love about the Washington Monument is not what it looks like, but what it does for the Mall. The Monument unfurls the sky, as if the Mall were a big circus tent with the most beautiful ceiling. I wanted to be inside that place and look out into all that blue air.
After Gus finished his lunch, he slid down from his chair and went into the living room to color by the window seat. Oliver and I kept talking until the floor began to shake and rumble. After spending 15 years in California, I have been through enough earthquakes to recognize one when it came. But still, my brain said no. I held onto the table as my mind told me, “This is Virginia. There are no earthquakes here.”
But the earth was saying, yes.
The floor began to roll and the heavy oak table splayed out from under me as if it were a young colt. I heard the kitchen cabinets bang open and the glasses fall out. “Let’s get Gus,” I told Oliver and we ran to the living room as the floor heaved beneath us. Gus began to cry and raised his arms to me. “The funder is hurting my ears,” he said. I picked him up and spun around, not sure what to do. I knew you are supposed to stand in a doorway, but I heard glass breaking and watched the light fixtures swing, so that didn’t seem like the greatest idea. Instead, I do what I do best. I ran. I took the boys out the front door and into our yard.
As we stepped into the grass, the earth became still again. It was silent. I could feel Gus shaking in my arms, or maybe that was me. I told myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, but there was an eerie sense of deja vu to the whole experience, as if I had done this before. As if this were not the first time I stood in my front yard after the earth shook itself off like a wet dog.
Down the block some kids had come out of their homes. Across the street, I saw my neighbor Paul huddled by his front door with his tiny little dog. Every neighborhood has a bright, happy person, the one in the old convertible who loans you his lawn mower and always gives you a big wave. Paul’s that guy. He’s not someone who hides out with a chihuahua.
I waved to him and he came out of his house. “What was that?” he asked.
Seriously, Dude? said the voice inside my head. “It was an earthquake,” I said out loud.
“Are you sure?” he asked, stepping forward and down his steps.
I could feel Gus shaking against me and I put my hand on Oliver’s head. “Yes,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Oh,” he said, looking relieved. He walked out to the edge of his yard. “When the plane hit the Pentagon on nine eleven,” he told me, “It felt like a truck hit our house.”
Ah, I thought. There it is. We each have our own unique epicenters of fear.
After a few minutes of dusting ourselves off, we all went back inside. The boys were excited and kept telling me they weren’t scared. “I not stared of earthquakes Mommy,” Gus kept saying, so I told them that earthquakes hardly ever happened in Virginia. That it was over and we were all just fine. Oliver wanted to know what caused an earthquake and I told him that sometimes the planet settles a little and then goes back to normal. I had no idea what I could say that would bring comfort. I couldn’t tell them it would never happen again because what if it did?
I went back into the kitchen to clean up the glass on the floor, but really, it was an excuse to take a breath and stop shaking. It didn’t work. For the rest of the day, I felt as if I were choking back sobs that had nothing to do with the earthquake. It took me until evening to figure out that maybe the strange sense of deja vu I felt had something to do with moving every two years. I am someone who wants to put roots down more than anything, but I guess what I am supposed to learn is this lifetime is how to deal with being transplanted, how to be shaken up a little.
It’s really so silly that I am afraid every time we move. We are given professional movers. We are given enough money to rent a new house and to move our cars and replace the food we always have to give away or toss out. But it’s the little things that throw me for a loop, like having to use a GPS the first few times I go to the grocery store. Going to the park for the first time and sitting by the sand box alone. Knowing that it will be months until someone in my new area code will call me on the phone. I have a Philadelphia cell phone number, a California driver’s license, an Oregon license plate, and a Virginia address. Last year, when we moved to Alexandria, the soundtrack of our first summer was, “Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-turn.”
All day yesterday, I kept telling myself how unfounded these fears were. That what I was afraid of had already happened to me: the earthquake, the difficult moves, the loneliness. Right now I am fine, I kept telling myself. We’re all just fine. We would move again and we would be fine there too. We always found a doctor when we needed one, a school, and enough friends.
I like to think that moving so often has made me into a certain kind of person. As Dominique Browning so eloquently put it, moving puts me on the other side of the desk. As I get lost in an attempt to buy milk or as my heart breaks as my son tells me that he misses his friends, that he is so scared of starting a new school that it feels like lions are chasing him, I become everyone who has ever been scared or lonely or lost. I become the woman who holds up the line in the grocery store because the cashier doesn’t know how to take food stamps. I become the elderly man who keeps asking you to repeat yourself. I become the child who is having a tantrum because he can’t tie his shoe. I tell myself that moving so often has made me compassionate. It has made me strong, good in a crisis. It has made me into someone who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, will grab the laptop and the diaper bag, the extra bottle of water.
Yesterday, as the boys and I stood in our front yard after the ground stopped moving, I looked down at the chipped polish on my bare toes. Oliver was in his socks and Gus had a dirty diaper. Apparently I am not the person I thought I was. It turns out, I am the person, who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, doesn’t even remember her shoes. It turns out that maybe the only thing fear has taught me is how to be afraid.
At three o’clock yesterday, an hour after the earthquake, they closed the Washington Monument. Today, all the buildings on the Mall were closed. The earth is still now, but they are checking for damages. They are looking for cracks and picking up rubble from the Cathedral floor.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment. It is clear that there is so much more work for me to do here, on this ground level. I am not ready yet to climb into a tall, slim obelisk and look out over the world. What I still need to learn is how to be comfortable with the earth shifting under my feet.