Magical (and giveaway!)

January 14, 2013 § 40 Comments

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If your journey brings you to a choice between love and fear, choose love. – from Magical Journey, by Katrina Kenison

I do this weird thing when I find books I love, which is to believe that the writer somehow knows me, and – even more odd – that we are friends. It happens with some writers more than others. For example, I never thought Hemingway and I could be close, but that Mary Oliver and I would have so much to talk about! For years, I have been talking to Judy Blume, Michael Ondaatje, and Charlotte Bronte. Once, my imaginary conversations translated into a real, physical meet and a genuine friendship. And it happened with the writer who might have influenced my life the most.

This is a bold statement to make, but it’s also true. I discovered Katrina Kenison’s first book, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, when my first son Oliver was a baby. This was a challenging time in my life, not because of Oliver but because of motherhood itself. When I found out I was pregnant, I had a job I loved at a biotech company in the Bay Area while my boyfriend (now husband) was stationed in Philadelphia. We were in our early thirties and had talked about getting engaged, but we both knew we weren’t close to being ready. I had always hoped that someday I would be a wife and mother, but still, marriage and parenthood caught me off-guard.

One afternoon when Oliver was about 9 months old, we headed to the library, which was always a cool haven for almost any tattered feeling. Mitten Strings for God wasn’t a title I would normally gravitate towards but I picked the book off the shelf anyway. I flipped open the pages and read: We can learn to trust our maternal selves and to have faith in the innate goodness and purity of our children.

Trust our maternal selves? I didn’t even think I had a maternal self. I took the book home and read half of it while Oliver nursed and then napped, folding down almost every page, feeling elated and also deeply at peace for the first time in over a year. If new motherhood was like walking alone through a desert, Mitten Strings was an oasis. Katrina’s words made me see that there was another way to be a mother that neither repressed who I was nor necessitated a reinvention. From her stories, I began to realize all that was really required of me was to be present, to stay.

Katrina’s books are guides for me, roadmaps and talismans, flashlights and food for when the road becomes dark and I find myself utterly alone. As soon as Magical Journey arrived in my mailbox, I dove into it, flipped to a random page and read these words: I am learning how to stay. And just as they did seven years ago, her writing soothed my ragged edges.

As I continued Magical Journey, I was struck by Katrina’s bravery in facing both her feelings and herself during such a challenging and new time in her life: her boys leaving home too early, her best friend dying too soon, the years passing by too quickly.

And yet, this is not a book about wanting to stop the clock or live in the past so much as it’s about how to stay in the present and be grateful. It’s a book on how to be sad or surprised by life, or maybe a little bit lost, and still find our way back to love, to the big kind of love, or maybe even the biggest: a love great enough to hold and welcome all the sadness and shock and terror and confusion in our lives, and still outshine them all.

For me, this is a book on how to love ourselves, even when that very idea seems repulsive. Katrina writes:

So much of my energy these days seems to go into managing disappointment in the way things are, staving off worry about what might be, fearing that who I am, at my core is not really enough. I want things to be one way, and then, when they turn out differently, I struggle, as if desperate not to fail whatever test I’ve constructed out of the moment.

I read these words and came face to face with the part of myself I try to hide from every day, the same way I whip away from a mirror or my reflection in a shop window. But confronting myself through Katrina’s words has a delicious quality to it, the same way peering into a dark closet becomes less scary when your own sweaty fingers are entwined with someone else’s. She continues:

But making the choice to just hang in there with my own rather pathetic self for a while demands a different sort of perseverance altogether, a kind of strength that lays bare all of my weakness … I have to trust that being right where I am is some kind of progress and that there is a reason I’ve been called to visit this lonely darkness.

Magical Journey closely follows the journey Joseph Campbell outlines in Hero With a Thousand Faces, therein honoring the messy, inglorious, and difficult experiences we endure as we age, change, or get hit in the gut with another of life’s unfair punts. As Katrina begins her month of yoga teacher training at Kripalu, her teacher tells her, “You are not here to remake yourself but to remember yourself.”

Just as yoga is not about fixing ourselves but about becoming more of who we already are, for me, Magical Journey is about going to the places inside of us we dread most in order to love ourselves better. Near the end of the book, Katrina realizes:

Now I see that the journey was never meant to lead to some new and improved version of me; that it has always been about coming home to who I already am.

But rather than a paradox, this process is simple if we remember what Katrina’s friend Margaret told her as she set out for Kripalu. “I forgot to tell you the most important thing,” Margaret says in a low voice, as if what she has to say is top-secret information. “Just remember: It’s all about the love.”

To celebrate this amazing book, leave a comment and I will randomly choose one winner to receive a copy of this book on Friday, January 18th. Don’t miss Katrina’s other books: Mitten Strings for God, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and Meditations from the Mat. 

Holiday

December 21, 2012 § 24 Comments

Happy Holidays!

I have never been a big fan of Christmas although I wish I were. I wish I were the type of person to buy presents in October, like my neighbor or write lists in a little notebook, like my husband. Instead, I am the one who waits for someone else to bring home the tree and then finds a reason to be upstairs while the lights are hung. I ignore my mother when she tells me I need some greenery on the mantle and later pretend I don’t notice her walking through the side door with an armload of pine branches.

Sometimes, Christmas makes me lonely. Occasionally, it makes me feel greedy, and a little anxious as I wonder where we are going to put all the new Legos, the Erector set, the Matchbox cars that we stick in the bottom of the stockings. I worry that I don’t have the right sort of traditions, the same way I used to wonder why I could never get my hair to feather or find a boy who would want to take me to the Christmas dance. The holidays seem to be made of extremes: brilliance and shadow, joy and sorrow,  twinkling lights and the longest darkness. Last Friday’s news has made this year difficult for all of us, I think, even the most joyous. We’ve been knocked down by a certain type of grief, the kind that makes you want to fall to your knees and shove your fists into your mouth.

Yesterday, I took the boys down to the bay alone, without the other neighborhood kids. The sun was dropping quickly towards the water and the sky was heavy and low with rain. In front of us, a blue heron silently unfolded himself from a rock and beat his wings in a sure and steady rhythm. It was warm enough still for frogs, so we stood under a dripping tree for a few moments and listened to them.

On the way home, the light was so dim, I could barely see Oliver as he walked next to me, talking about Christmas traditions around the world, which he is studying now in first grade. He told me about the poinsettias from Mexico, the picnics in Australia, the way Jews everywhere light the eight candles of the menorah and remember their ancestors.

It was after five and the darkness was falling hard as it does in December, as it does every night, no matter how much we try to stop it. Time moves on, and eventually the menorah is snuffed out, the Christmas tree is hauled to the curb. It’s February or March and we are no longer hoping for snow. We turn on the news or talk to our neighbor and again learn that we humans can be more wretched than even the most horrible fictional monster.

And still. Nevertheless. I feel drawn to light a fire in that unfathomable space between my ribs, although I have no idea how to even begin. Maybe we are all hoping for a spark, striking whatever kindling we can find, fumbling foolishly in the dark for a candle or a match even as the sodden floor of our grief squanders our efforts.

After dinner last night the boys were too rambunctious, too high on Santa and red hats, the hope of a Pez dispenser this year. They asked me to make cookies and I said yes. I hunted down the cookie cutters and scraped off the Play-Doh. I melted molasses and butter on the stove and stirred in ginger and cloves, cinnamon and allspice.

I thought about what Oliver said about our ancestors and then I thought about mine. I wondered if my grandparents ever sat in front of a radio in Queens, their heads in their hands as they listened to news broadcast from so many of the wars they lived through. I thought about their grandparents who sailed to Ellis Island before the Irish Revolution and the ones before them who suffered the famine and the plagues, Oliver Cromwell and the Romans. I thought of the horrors they witnessed and the rituals they celebrated, and I wondered if maybe that’s the point of the holidays, if we keep them because they remind us how to move forward. Start by lighting the first candle. Begin by decorating the tree. Stop and watch the moon rise on the darkest night.

And so we continue. On the shortest day, we tell each other the light will return, even if we don’t quite believe it yet. We pound our anger into smooth rounds of dough, hoping the heat will transform it into something we can swallow. We consecrate the temple, laying our grief on the altar as if it were our most sacred offering. As incense wafts over the pews we make the sign of the cross and anoint ourselves with sadness. Dona nobis pacem, we sing, even though we might only be mouthing the words. Grant us peace.

 

Faith

November 19, 2012 § 18 Comments

Gus in the rain

But I have no faith myself. I refuse it even the smallest entry. – David Whyte

I haven’t written much in a while, mostly because of something my Buddhist friend once told me: “If you don’t know what to do, the wisest thing is to do nothing.”

But now that we have been in our house for two months, I am able to think about this summer more clearly, or at least with less fog. This move from Alexandria, Virginia to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this transition from a 100-year old house inside the Beltway to a 1950’s home on a Marine base has been a long haul from normalcy to the absurdist take on the suburbs that all military bases are. More than a move, it has been a shift;  a transformation more than a transplantation. This summer dislodged something I hadn’t even noticed was loose. I think what really happened is that my definition of faith – faith with italics and quotations and capital letters – was shown to be rather flimsy and breakable, a saccharine version of something that was never meant to be sweet.

When I left the Washington, DC area, I also left a life of comfort – of Waldorf schools and yoga studios and civilian normalcy – and moved into a single room of a hotel in the saddest town in North Carolina. Every day, I had to drive by the men sitting on the curb outside the unemployment office, the woman who reeked of gin and pulled a shopping cart behind her, the harried mothers in the grocery store who slapped their children with a startling ferocity. I was only 9 hours from DC, and yet I might as well have been 9000 miles away, in this town where Spanish moss hung from the branches and the sky shimmered with heat. After pursuing comfort for almost 20 years, I had finally gotten myself to the most uncomfortable place I could find.

At first, I tried everything I could to make the feeling go away. I did a lot of yoga. I started to meditate. I tried to pray. I longed for more faith. I wanted to lean into belief as though it were a cushion, a pile of feathers, a clean bank of snow. And yet, what faced me every time I stepped on my yoga mat or drove to the grocery store was the sour knowledge that to have faith meant believing in a god who allowed horrible things to happen.

In a way, living on base has been a balm for the raw grief of this summer. I live on a street with one hundred identical houses, varying only in the color of the shingles or the doors. There are no criminals on base, everyone has a job, and no one is hungry. Our neighbors are lovely and three of them now have labrador puppies. Oliver adores his first grade teacher, and often, six children are playing soccer in our front yard. It’s as though I have traveled back in time to 1956, to a world so stable and secure and idyllic, I sometimes have to doublecheck the date.

But then artillary practice begins, and the house rattles. I see one of the five children on my street born with special needs. I drive through the base gate, by the guards with their enormous machine guns, while on NPR, there is more news from Gaza. Another neighbor ties a yellow ribbon to the giant oak in her front yard, signaling that her husband too is gone, en route to a place where the air smells like burning garbage and bombs are buried underground.

And then that feeling returns, the muffled howl that a divine god is at odds with the tragedies occurring every day. It’s so convenient to believe that everything happens for a reason, it’s so comforting to have this thought as the morning sun streams through the kitchen window, the scent of coffee and cinnamon in the air, but then I open the blinds and see the ambulance outside my neighbor’s house. I realize with a wave of nausea that her son is on the stretcher and is being loaded inside.

And so I am trying my best to believe right now in what I can see, in the immense gifts that present themselves each day, like armfuls of flowers. I take comfort in bike rides and Anne Rockwell books and waiting for the school bus. The boys and I walk down to the bay with the neighbor kids, who pretend they are kings and wave sticks at each other. They shout at me to lookit as they balance on the rocks and then we are silent as fish leap from the water. I find refuge in looking both ways before crossing the street as we all head back home. There is comfort in the click of the heater as it comes on at night, in the golden light that pours from other people’s windows on my nightly walks. I find magic in the way the deer snorts from the woods along the path, right before he rushes out – a buck! – only a few feet from me. There is the love my husband gives me, the presents he doles out daily: the smile, the hug, the dash out to the store to see if they have Uggs in my size. And maybe there is even comfort in the sadness, in the immense relief that comes from no longer having to pretend that we are safe, that everything is going to be okay, that we are all going to live forever.

I linked arms with my neighbor as we took our kids trick-or-treating. We have only known each other for six weeks, and yet, her son’s illness and her need of my help – no her acceptance of my help – have made me feel as if it has been much longer, and I am grateful for this too. As the kids ran from house to house, the two of us peered into homes identical to our own and took stock of their decor, their lighting, the flower boxes beneath their windows. We talked about what it was like to move so often, to feel the ground shift under our feet every two years and I asked her how she managed it so gracefully. “I don’t think of this as home,” she confided to me. “This is just where my stuff is for now.”

Something lightened in me after she said this and I felt a divine sort of joy as we watched our children race in their costumes. I realized that this dark Halloween night, these bright autumn days, these years of parenting small children might just be the golden ones, the sweetest ones. I took refuge in the thought that perhaps faith is not as necessary as gratitude, that maybe they are even the same thing.

Don’t Miss This (A Review and Giveaway)

July 31, 2012 § 18 Comments

I can’t read Jena Strong’s beautiful memoir in poetry, Don’t Miss This, without thinking of Jena herself, whom I had the pleasure to meet last December. Last year, after I read on her blog that she was in Washington, DC, I emailed her, and the next thing I knew, I was pulling up in front of her hotel and she was folding her tiny body into my car. We ran along the Potomac and later, went out for breakfast. And somehow, after that brief morning visit, I felt as if I had known Jena for years.

While we were running, I rather obnoxiously asked about, what she calls in Don’t Miss This, “the shattering realization” that she was gay. “How did you know?” I wondered, wanting to know less about the specifics and more about how someone can so courageously make such a leap of faith. Jena graciously answered my questions and for the next six miles, we discussed what living authentically means, how much courage that takes, and how confusing it can be, how difficult it is to determine if we are doing it right.

In her memoir, Jena describes the “undiscovered rooms, the Chinese boxes I kept trying to get to the bottom of …There were the velvet boxes holding round golden promises, the dented cardboard boxes containing journals, crushed repositories of my existence.”

Reading Don’t Miss This is almost like sitting beside Jena herself. Her words on the page contain her warmth, her grace, her fearlessness. Her writing is mesmerizing and sharp, taut and fluid. In structure, the memoir in poems is divided into three parts: She Who Stays, Landmine, and What I’ll Miss.

For me, She Who Stays, was the most searing section of the book. She writes about what happens before the earthquake of her coming out, those days of so much suffering, of keeping so much inside. One poem in particular, “How the Light Gets In,” made me shiver in recognition:

Later, after the dishes and the laundry,
the diapers and the dishes again,
I felt the tightening in my chest,
martyrdom rising in me like an unstoppable wave
when the family breakfast ended
in spills and tears and anger
as I sat feeling powerless
to the shadow side of their closeness.

Jena writes of the harrowing task of telling the truth, of becoming who we are supposed to be, about who we have been all along, those parts of ourselves that we try to squirrel away and hide. In the second part of her book, Landmine, Jena writes with the stark discipline of a warrior, when, as she beautifully pens in “No Retreat”:

There is nothing left to do.
Only to look back
at the path of jewels you’ve walked
to arrive here at this place of no retreat.

In “When It Happens,” she writes about what no retreat looks like:

having learned to be calm
having learned to be patient
to stay still in a storm
that swept our houses clean.

Reading Jena’s poetry, it is impossible not to harken back to your own dear life, to call to yourself the times that you stayed when you should have fled, when you ran when you should have stayed, when you failed to listen to the small, insistent voice inside yourself that always tells the truth. And reading her poetry is to become at peace with that precious voice, to hear it ringing clearly in whatever tone and note is true for you. In “Night Poets,” you can’t help but be called to:

step out at 2:30am,
the moths banging against
the bare fluorescent bulb,
do as she taught and listen hard –

Jena’s final section of the book, What I’ll Miss, is a unromanticized narrative of what is gained when you tell the truth, and also, what is lost. In “Falling Seasons”:

Tonight is all flickering flame
and a prayer to the waning moon
high above my children’s beds,
a head bowed in gratitude
for the strong medicine
I received today,
all four directions
answering the quiet call
for a longing I couldn’t name.

This section, more than the other three, contains a hush, a silence, a heart that is at peace. This final part of the book is about the quiet after the explosion, the calm after the storm. It is a paen not to banging down doors and breaking into a new life but to moving through fear “An animal on all fours, quietly and with measured steps.”

More than anything, Jena’s poems open up the bottles full of emotions we have corked tightly, hidden in the back of the closet, buried in the recycling bin of a bright supermarket at midnight. She gives voice to everything that doesn’t quite fit, that refuses to be named in the light of day. And yet, Jena’s memoir is also full of unbridled joy and the victory that comes from staying present, even when that present moment aches.

Your shame, all those moments
when you wanted to hide,
to disappear, to retract and retreat –
these are your gifts.
Open them.
Look inside. Don’t run.

To win a copy of Jena Strong’s book, leave a comment below and I will pick a winner at random on Thursday, August 2. You can read Katrina Kenison’s review of Jena’s book here and Lindsey Mead Russell’s review here.

Colors

July 23, 2012 § 7 Comments

Another bumper sticker in Jacksonville

I am the ritual and the worship
the medicine and the mantra
the butter burnt in the fire
and I am the flames that consume it –

Bhagavad Gita 9.16, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

I first tried reading the Bhagavad Gita in high school. It was an old Penguin edition from the late 1960s and I couldn’t get through even two pages of the introduction. It was so disappointing to me that I couldn’t understand it. I had just finished reading Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which served as my introduction to eastern philosophies, and I was enamoured with Seymour Glass and even more so with his brother Buddy. I had an idea that the Gita held secrets or answers or at least smarter questions.

When I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia, before we moved, I was desperately missing my yoga teacher training so I went back over the reading list Rolf gave us. On the list was Bhagavad Gita, A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell. Honestly, if it didn’t say “New Translation,” I wouldn’t have ordered it, and even when it came, I waited a few weeks to open it. And then one night, I skipped the introduction completely and dove into poetry so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.

The story itself is simple. The Gita takes place on the battlefield at the beginning of a war between two clans in India a few thousand years ago. Arjuna is a warrior who has friends and teachers in both clans, and before the battle begins, he has his charioteer Krishna drive him out to the middle of the battlefield where he realizes the futility of such a war. In my mind I think of Kurukshetra as the Battle of Gettysburg – each side connected to the other – and of course, the ancient story symbolizes the war between our divine nature and our egos, our heads and our hearts, each of them both friends and enemies to the other.

Arjuna decides he is not going to fight in the war because it’s violent and wrong, and as a spiritual text, you would think this is where the story is going to go. But Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer – who also happens to be God (or the Divine) incarnate – tells Arjuna that he must fight and he launches into a long teaching about the nature of life and death, the inevitability of war, and the importance spiritual practice. Until I moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this element of the Bhagavad Gita  baffled me.

I am the butter burnt in the fire and the flames that consume it. Those lines in the Gita, when Krishna tells Arjuna that the secret to life is Faith, bring me to my knees each time I see them. And yet, this spring, I still didn’t understand them. I still puzzled over the connection between Love and War. Why did the Gita take place on a battlefield? How could God be in both the butter and the flames that consumed it? In May, I still thought that God should pick a side.

When I first came to Jacksonville, I was appalled by this town. If it had a smell it would be hot asphalt and cigarettes. If it had a color it would be a bruise, the blood-red of the Marine flag and the indigo of the ocean, the blue-black of the daily thunderstorms and the angry orange of the sun as it rises each morning, the heat both searing and liquid, like something squeezed from a bottle.

But slowly, the color began to subtly change and shift: I began to see the white undersides of the storm clouds, I detected the silver scent of ocean in the air and the  yellow stretch of languor in the heat. I took the boys to a park one day where grass-colored dragonflies the size of candy bars flitted around us. I discovered a tiny red market where the owner sold me fresh-caught scallops and called me “Sugar.” When I went into Barnes and Noble one day, a young Marine held the door open. “After you Ma’am,” he said. We sat near each other in the cafe, both of us on laptops, and soon, four other young Marines gathered in front of him and started talking quietly. I looked up at one point, surprised to see them standing the way children do around someone with a new toy. They were so young still, like puppies with oddly shaven heads.

“So how are they treating y’all?” the boy who opened the door for me asked them.

“Well, OK I guess,” said one of the newcomers.

“I’d have to say pretty good,” said another. “Except we have to listen to the speeches they give all the eighteen year olds about how we shouldn’t buy a BMW on a Private’s pay.”

As I listened, I learned the oldest among them was twenty-one, that a few of them were probably going overseas soon, that another one was having an elective surgery next week, the announcing of which made the rest of them stand quietly for a few moments.

There is a butt-naked quality to Jacksonville that is both exhilarating and terrifying, appalling and refreshing. I have seen mothers smack their children in the grocery store and have seen Marines riding high up in Humvees wave at my boys. One day at the beach we almost left because the cigarette smoke was so thick and on another day, while I was swimming in the warm waves, five dolphins popped up so close to me I could have touched them. I was mesmerized by their bright, clicking conversations, their small neat teeth, the speed with which they whipped and rolled under the waves.

The other day, driving behind a car with a bumper sticker like the one in the photo, I felt myself melt and soften into the sadness and salt of this town. I surely felt God – or whatever you might call It – while I was swimming with dolphins, but I felt it just as surely when I was sitting in front of those young soldiers in the bookstore, when I saw that mother hit her child, when I turn on the news and hear Syria, Aurora, Famine, Flood. I certainly don’t understand the Bhagavad Gita, but I do understand a bit better now that love doesn’t pick sides, that sometimes there is no side.

Kindness and hatred, faith and fear are so entwined with each other, each choice so near to the other that it can leave you breathless at times. But even in the darkest moments love is there, always, melting in the fire, willing itself to be consumed. It hovers over our heads like the black and gold butterflies here, like the heavy bodies of the MV-22 Ospreys, which lift up and into the sky, going off wherever it is they are going to go, doing whatever it is they are going to do.

Preemie (And Giveaway)

July 16, 2012 § 46 Comments

Kasey Mathews and her family

Your story and mine are sure to be different, but if hearing my story allows you a moment away from yours, if it leaves you with a sense of hope, then this story was worth writing down – from Preemie, by Kasey Mathews

So begins Kasey Mathew’s beautiful memoir, Preemie: Lessons in Life, Love, and Motherhood. I was in the passenger seat of my car when I first read this sentence and Scott was steering the car down the 395 out of Alexandria, out of Virginia, out of my life for two years and into North Carolina. We had left the boys with my parents for four days and were going down to try to find a house near the Marine base, Camp Lejeune. What I remember about that April day was the sun through the windshield and the blue sky and Mathew’s words: if it leaves you with a sense of hope, then this story was worth writing down.

The next few pages took me surely and swiftly away from my life and onto the pitching and turning roller coaster that was hers in late November of 2000 when she went into the hospital halfway through her pregnancy because she hadn’t been feeling well. Mathew’s writing is clean and sharp with intense imagery and dialogue that makes you feel as though you are eavesdropping. Add to this that Mathews is a masterful story-teller, creating not just a narrative about what happened but a thriller that will whip you around sharp corners and through the blinding chiaroscuro of light and dark that was her life the during first five years after giving birth to her 1 pound 11 ounce daughter, Andie. Before I read Preemie, I knew that Mathews had set out to write this book to comfort other women who had or will give birth to premature babies, the ones who have to defy odds in order to take a single, unassisted breath. But what she did was to write a book that is both a comfort and a tribute to anyone who has had to stare disaster in the face. In the first chapter, she writes with shattering clarity about those early hours in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. when she found out that she wasn’t ill but in labor five months early.

“Why is this happening?” I asked. “What did I do?” My voice sounded far away.

“You didn’t do anything.” The nurse on my right held
my hand without looking at me. “This isn’t your fault.”

Their shoes squeaked as they jogged alongside me.

“I know I did something.” The nurses exchanged a look.

My body started shaking. I was so cold. “I never should have
played paddle tennis.”

“It’s nothing you did,” several nurses said at once.

I thought if I could figure out why this was happening, I
could make it stop. I searched for clues, chronicling the past
week’s activities and ingestions. The bath I took Saturday
must have been too hot. I ate sushi. Just vegetables, but
maybe it was the ginger. “I put ginger on some sushi.” They
gripped my ankles tighter. I could see their hands on my legs,
but realized I couldn’t feel them.

Finally, I clutched a nurse’s arm. She was walking back-
wards, facing me, guiding the gurney down the hall. I dug
my fingers into her flesh. I needed to know she was real. She
looked at me. Her eyes, framed in dark circles, softened. I
thought I’d found my sympathetic audience. “You don’t un-
derstand,” I said to her in a more coherent, controlled voice.
“This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me.”

She held my gaze for a moment, and I waited. A gold
cross swung at the base of her neck. She continued to look at me. And then she said, “It does now.”

The voice and structure of Preemie are as impressive as its pacing. Often while reading, I flipped the pages back, trying to determine how Mathews had managed such a skillful flashback, such sparse but evocative details, such humor, even as she depicts events that must have been excruciating to live through. She describes the smell of paint in the first house she and her husband lived in, the beer they drank in the summer, their conversations as they lied in bed, sleeplessly staring up at the ceiling. Her sense of structure is both subtle and precise. Mathews places a gentle hand on the reader’s back and loops us through the past and the future until we finally look up and realize we are back at the middle, right where we started. Preemie is a book that reads like a race car.

Preemie is also a book about growing up, about how we transform from a twenty-something into a grown-up and about how growing up is less an age or a decision and more about the choices we make, the steady accumulation of days until we realize we are no longer auditioning, but rather, that we have gotten the part. Throughout the book, Mathews writes with a raw honesty about how it took her days until she was ready to hold her newborn, how hard it was to leave her healthy, two-year old son Tucker and head to the hospital, how she was both overjoyed and overwhelmed to finally take Andie home. “We had so many dreams,” her husband says at one point. “And now everything’s changed.”

During the first precarious months of Andie’s life, Mathews and her husband remodeled their home in record time (because they could not do any construction  once Andie was home), suffered  a cancer scare, and navigated an almost-daily commute to the Boston hospital to visit Andie all while trying to maintain a normal life for Tucker. And yet, these challenges were only warm-ups for Mathew’s ultimate challenge, which was learning how to trust herself.

Mathews turns to alternative healthcare for reasons that are a mystery even for her. She pursues, Reiki, energy work, and cranial-sacral therapy first as a last resort and then later, as a believer, as someone who has learned that babies need to be protected from the bright lights of the NICU, that to truly heal requires more than hospital beds and prescriptions.

In one of my favorite sections of the book, in a chapter entitled, “Healers,” Mathews describes her first visit to Karen McCarthy, an energy healer. On the phone, McCarthy explains that we humans are not just physical bodies, that we have emotional and spiritual bodies as well. Because Mathews doesn’t understand this at the time, she tells her curious husband that they are going to “a mind-body kind of thing.” Mathews describes the Berber carpet in Karen McCarthy’s house, her turtleneck, and firm handshake. She writes about the sometimes mystical events that surround her life from the perspective of a doubter, who believes only because she can no longer disbelieve.

As Andie continues to grow, so does Mathews. She becomes in equal measures, softer and more fierce. In peeking down every dark alley that might somehow reveal a possibility for her daughter, Mathews details the elliptical journey of her own healing as she travels fearlessly into the center of her own beating heart. She writes about her own transformation with humor, grace, and gritty honesty. This is a story about what happens when the worst happens. It is not so much about rising from the ashes as it is about being reborn in the flames. It is about learning how to trust: in ourselves, in the unknown, and in impossible miracles.

To celebrate this beautiful book, Kasey is giving away a copy of her book to lucky someone. Leave a comment and I’ll randomly pick a winner on Thursday, July 19th.

War

April 22, 2012 § 26 Comments

When the soldier arrives,
bleeding in the doorway,
can you recognize him as yourself

and let him in?
– From Yoga Heart, Lines on the Six Perfections, by Leza Lowitz

There is something so strange about walking around inside someone else’s house and trying to decide if you want to live there or not. We do this every two years, each time we move, and I am always unsettled by the experience of being a voyeur as well as what people tend to tell you while you are peering behind their shower curtains.

We have never lived on a military base. As a single officer, Scott could always get a much nicer place off-base than on, and when he married me, I had absolutely no desire to live on a military installation. I am embarrassed to admit this, but after years of protesting wars, of voting for Gore and Kerry and Obama, being married to a soldier feels a bit like going to the dark side. The fact that my yoga classes and my children’s organic yogurts are paid for by the same money that funds the war in Afghanistan is a little too messy for me. So I avoid these feelings by living off-base, by pretending that I am not really a Navy Wife.

When we went to North Carolina last week, we assumed we would live in town, but what surprised me was that in Jacksonville, there doesn’t seem to be an “off-base.” Camp Lejeune only has housing for 25 percent of the soldiers who work there, so most people live outside the base in homes that were put together too quickly or in the apartment complexes that surround the gate.

Amy* opens the door of the first house for rent on our list.”Come on in,” she says in her delicate southern drawl. Her tanned feet are bare and she is wearing a bohemian tunic and a dark skirt. She looks like a shorter and younger Julia Roberts, her thick hair twisted on top of her head. Her home is immaculate and candles are burning in the dining room. There are flowers in the space above the fireplace where a TV would go, and Amy tells us that her children don’t watch television. She shows us the granite countertops and the hardwood floors and the walk-in closets, but all I can think of is the neighborhood, which looks vaguely apocalyptic. Coldwell Banker started building the subdivision in the middle of a field but then abandoned it partway through, perhaps because they ran out of money. All the pine trees have been cut down, but there are still flags marking lots that have not been sold and most of the homes have For Sale signs in front of them.

Amy then leads us up to the bonus room, which takes up half of the second story and she tells us about her 15-year-old son, Max, what a great kid he is and how the two of them were alone for years while her husband was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, she tells us about her six-year old daughter whose birth took place while her husband was deployed. She explains that her labor came on so quickly that when her friend came to pick up Max, she told Amy to get into the car too so she could take her to the hospital. When they were halfway there, her friend had to call 911 and the paramedics delivered Amy’s baby in the back of their EMS truck in the Wal-Mart parking lot. “You know,” Amy says, “The big one on the road into Jacksonville?” She laughs and smiles. “I kept asking for something for the pain. Just a Tylenol or something but they kept telling me it was too late.”

Her daughter runs into the house then and asks for a bag. “What will you be wanting that for?” Amy asks, laughing again.

“For my pet butterfly.” Emma says.

Amy hands Emma a plastic sandwich bag and rolls her eyes at us. “You know what it’s like,” she says to me and I smile.

A second later, Emma is back. “Mommy, I need a spoon!”

Amy hands her the spoon and asks her why she needs it.

“The butterfly is dead,” Emma says and Amy’s mouth forms a silent, “Oh.”

The second house we look at is next door which is awkward, but I have already spoken to Penelope on the phone and she is expecting us. We are greeted by an enormous yellow lab and then Penelope comes to the door and says hello. The dog barks at me and I jump. “Oh, he’s all talk,” she says looking down at the dog, who now has his hackles raised.

In Penelope’s house, the place above the fireplace does have a TV and Cartoon Network is blaring even though no one is watching. Penelope’s husband is in the kitchen. He’s still in his combat boots and his camouflage pants. He is staring at us with his arms folded in front of his chest, and he takes the big dog from Penelope and holds him by the collar. Even though it’s cool in the house, I am sweating. Penelope is wearing a pair of blue scrubs with a stain on the front and a photo ID badge, which says she works in the lab. They chose linoleum and carpet for their home instead of hardwood and granite and someone has left a blue duffel bag on top of the stove.

Penelope tells me they have to move to San Diego and she looks as though she might cry. “I can’t find a place to rent there,” she says. “Every place I call has 100 people looking at it. Well, not really but you know what I mean.” I tell her about Carlsbad and Scripps Ranch and she nods. “We really want a place in Poway,” she says, “So I can sign my son up for football there. I hear the school is good.”

I nod and ask her if she’s been to San Diego before and she smiles. “Just once,” she says, “Right after Matt graduated. I drove out to Miramar to see him and then we drove back to Ohio together. I had just turned eighteen and all I cared about was being with him.” There is silence for a moment as a one-eyed tortoiseshell cat wanders into the room. Penelope tells me that she and her husband have been married for sixteen years now but it doesn’t feel that long. “We were going to retire in Jacksonville,” she says. “But then Matt called me from Afghanistan and said, ‘How do you feel about California?’ I thought he was joking. I said, ‘get out of here.'”

We tell them we’ll be in touch and we go outside to our car parked on the street. A man with a short, short haircut is driving an old Willys Jeep around the development. Because there are no trees, we can see him the entire way around and he waves to us.

Scott tells me that we can also live on base, that it might actually be nicer there and after he says that, it feels like someone is grabbing my stomach and squeezing it as hard as they can. We drove on base earlier that afternoon and it was nothing like the Navy bases we lived near in San Diego and Ventura. As we drove onto Camp Lejeune, a convoy of tanks was driving out. Marines with helmets and goggles were manning the guns and staring straight ahead. We had to stop at a cross walk while another group of soldiers ran across the street. One of them stepped out in front of our car, his feet wide apart and his hands clasped behind his back. He stared at us, expressionless until his group was safely on the other side.

That night, we meet one of Scott’s Marine friends for dinner. Jeff is a company captain in his early thirties and when Scott was stationed in Ventura, Jeff worked for him for a little while. In passing, Jeff mentions coming back from Afghanistan last August and I ask him what it’s like over there. “How do you go from fighting a war to this?” I ask, gesturing at the restaurant, which overlooks the water, and to the people who are eating fish tacos or sautéed grouper.

Jeff smiles as if I’ve said something funny. “The first time I came back from Iraq, I stayed drunk for 6 months.”

I ask him what happened after that, and he tells me that he heard Tony Robbins one day on a TED Talk and that changed him. “For my 30th birthday I went to Fiji to do Tony’s workshop.” He completed Tony’s workshops twice more, including once in Australia.

I tell Jeff that I have made Tony Robbins’ green soup before in my Vita Mix. Jeff nods. “Yeah, Healing Soup. During one workshop I did Tony’s cleanse for a week.”

“Did you walk on the hot coals?” I ask.

Jeff nods. “Three times,” he says. “I kept thinking cool moss. Cool moss.”

I ask him what he did the last time he was in Afghanistan and he tells me that he was in charge of about 250 men who were fighting there. I ask him if his soldiers are scared when they go out into battle and Jeff shakes his head. “They’ve been trained to kill for 7 months so it’s like we let them out of a cage. They want to fight. The trouble happens when they come back home. They don’t know how to not do that any more.” Jeff tells me that the perfect soldier is between 18 and 24 years old. “What was that Michael Moore movie called?” he asks and none of us remember. “Moore got some of it wrong. He filmed a kid in a tank in Iraq listening to “Fire Water Burn” as loud as it can go and shooting people like it was a bad thing. Well who else do you want defending you?”

Jeff tells us that sometimes, after they get back, he has to help soldiers stay out of trouble. “One guy,” he said, “It took 6 months before he stopped fighting in bars because they’re so used to that.” Jeff explains that the programs that try to help soldiers when they are home are more of a bureauocratic nightmare than a help. He tells us that he comes up with his own programs for helping his troops. “I try to find ways to set goals for them and motivate them. I try to help them move forward because they can’t go back.”

“What people don’t get,” he continues, “Is that when a Marine is in a company, for the first time in his life, he’s with a group of guys who won’t let him down. No matter what. Then he comes back from Afghanistan after a year and his girlfriend’s cheated on him and his buddies don’t show up and all he wants to do is go back to his company. But he can’t because the company doesn’t exist any more. It’s all different when he comes home.”

Later that night, back at the Swansboro Hampton Inn, where we are staying, I start to cry and I have trouble breathing. My heart starts to race and it feels like I have no skin so I climb into the bathtub, where things seem a little bit better. I stare up through the shower curtain at the stacked white towels and the extra rolls of toilet paper and then down at my left hand, where during graduation from my 200 hour yoga teacher training, another graduate wound a purple thread around my wrist and then tied it. We did this to symbolize something we wanted to bring into our lives, and when it was my turn, I said, “Faith.”

It occurs to me then that it is hypocritical of me to believe I am a spiritual person when everything is going my way, and then to shake my fist at the sky when things get scary. I wonder if maybe the reason I am sitting in a bathtub trying to breathe has less to do with living on a Marine base and more to do with the fact that I am now having to face the part of myself I have avoided since becoming a Navy Wife.

Before I had anything to do with the military, I went to an Ivy-League school and was cross-country captain. I met Scott when he was going to grad school at Stanford and for a while we lived in Palo Alto and spent too much money on Thai food on Saturday nights just because we could. For most of my life, I put all my faith in being special, which may just be another way of saying I think I am better than everyone else. Even my yoga teacher training was another exercise in being special, in becoming more spiritual. But it’s one thing to think we’re all one while chanting Om and wearing Lululemon and it’s another thing entirely to think I am one with the 18-year old soldier who is shooting the hajis and with the enemy who is shooting back, with the man in the combat boots and the dog who is all talk. Maybe I was sitting in a bathtub because I was having to face the part of me that doesn’t want to recognize the soldier as myself.

The next day I tell Scott I’m ready to check out some of the homes on base so we drive out to the end of Camp Lejeune by Bogue Sound. It’s mostly pine forest and salt water rivers. I think in North Carolina, they call it low country. “Wow,” Scott says, “This is nice.”

I have to agree. A bike path winds next to the road and the neighborhood has sidewalks. “This looks more off-base than off-base does,” I tell him.

We are visiting our friends Chris and Paige. Scott will be taking over Chris’s job as the officer in charge of construction on base and we drive through their neighborhood, which is quiet and faces the water. The homes are two-story Cape Cods with blue shutters and sunrooms on the side. When we arrive, Paige is outside under a tree, reading with her 7-year old son. After we say hello, she gives me a tour of their home with the refinished oak floors and the curving staircase that leads to the big bedrooms upstairs. She tells me that by living on-base, Scott won’t have to go through the traffic to get through the gate, which sometimes can take over an hour. “But it’s stressful here too,” she continues. “The Marines come back from Afghanistan and their lifestyle is a little bit different if you know what I mean.” As if on cue, a police car drives into her neighbor’s driveway and Paige sighs.

We go back downstairs and I follow Paige to the kitchen where she makes a smoothie for her son, Sam, and then leads me outside to the backyard. “Sam’s tutor’s husband was on the Osprey that went down in Morocco,” she says quietly so no one will hear. “You see a lot here. You see guys with service dogs because of their PTSD and then you see the men walking around without an arm or a leg and it hits you.”

I tell Paige a bit about what I have seen over the past couple of days and how sheltered I have been from the fighting and the training and the deployments over the past decade. I think of how I tried to pretend that I wasn’t a Navy Wife as if it were possible to repudiate a war. I told myself that I wasn’t responsible for the war because I never voted for it, but really I am culpable if only because I live in the United States, because I expect there to not be a sniper at the end of my street, and because when I flip the switch, I expect the light to turn on. I am responsible for the war because these expectations necessitate a military that is ruthless and unflinching. They necessitate a service that trains 18 to 24 year olds how to fight so that I don’t have to carry a gun.

In the neighbor’s driveway, the police car is still there. We stare at it for a moment and then Paige shakes her head. “The war is right here,” she says. “It’s right here.”

*Some names have been changed

Pratyahara

April 6, 2012 § 14 Comments

Playdate Tree Pose

“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.” – Bhagavad Gita

“Where can you run to escape from yourself?
Where you gonna go?
Where you gonna go?
Salvation is here.” – Switchfoot

A few weeks ago, on a cold, rainy, Saturday, I was cleaning the bathrooms and washing our wood floors. Much has been written lately about the virtues of cleaning, but I am not convinced that these aren’t written by people with maids. By the time I was halfway through I was cranky, and I stopped in front of the upstairs window that looks out into our steep backyard to see if it was still raining. I watched the drizzle for a minute and was about to pick up the paper towels again but noticed two bright blue jays perched on a bare branch below. It’s not that blue jays are rare, exactly, but still, I don’t see them very often, especially not two, their wings too bright for this day, their bodies too fat for the thin branch they were bobbing on. As I stood, I saw a third jay perched high up in the sapling, and then, while I was still marveling at my luck, another one landed, its square wings folding under him. Despite the day and the chore and the remaining bathroom, I felt delight flutter in my throat. It felt like more than I was allowed to have.

Winter always drives me a little bit crazy. There is something about the gray and the cold and the onerous task of putting on coats and scarves that makes me feel suffocated and a bit desperate at the same time. By the time the forsythias bloom, their brightness isn’t even a consolation. I want to hurry them along. I want to usher in the daffodils and the cherry blossoms and then the tulips. I want to bypass spring altogether and get to the fat, fleshy leaves of summer. If I had a mantra, it would be hurry up. It would be get here already.

I signed up for a cleanse a few weeks ago. At the time, I signed up just to feel better. I am a pretty sensitive person, but then I go and forget this. I drink too many mugs of coffee and glasses of wine because it seems like this is what you do when you’re an adult. It’s comforting to hold something in your hand like a talisman. Some mornings, I carry my coffee from room to room like a sword. “En garde,” I want to say to the tedious tasks of brushing two foamy mouths, getting two squirming boys into coats, listening to the gossip in the school parking lot.

For the first few days, I was terrified of The Cleanse. What would happen when I took away the coffee and the sugar and the alcohol? And more importantly, what if I didn’t like what remained? Because really, it’s not about the caffeine or the chocolate, and that’s why cleanses can be such a bitch. It’s never about what you’re giving up, but about what you’ve already lost.

For over a month now, I have been reading Maya Stein’s luminous poem, “you will know (for T)”. The line: “Listen. The birds will teach you everything you need to know about flight,” has been reverberating inside my head and heart. I have been trying to fly through the drizzle with my own winter body. I have been trying to soar but something keeps pulling me back. I went to yoga one night, when I was particularly exhausted, thinking it would help, even though I know that’s not the point. I usually love Bakasana (crow pose), but that night, during the jump-back, I fell flat on my face. In Garudasana (eagle pose), I felt dizzy and nauseous, and by the time we got to Vrksasana (tree pose) I gave up completely. I bent down into Balasana (child’s pose) and felt my racing heart beat against my mat. It occurred to me then that maybe the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to fly, but that I hadn’t yet learned how to land.

After a 3-day headache and bone-crushing exhaustion, what I discovered was that being on a cleanse was easier than my normal life. There was something about a weekly call and a payment sent, a secret Facebook group and a recipe for kitchari that gave me license to take care of myself, to take an extra five minutes to apply Ayurvedic oil and make lemon tea. During the first week, Laura sent us an email about Pratyahara, which is one of the limbs on the eight-limbed yogic path. Pratyahara literally means “to turn inward.” In her email, Laura wrote: “Pratyhara is an invitation to drop into your heart, to come home to yourself.”

I have been spending so much time trying to soar that I have forgotten to come back to earth. So much of my life has been spent trying to prove myself, trying to earn a seat at the table. I waste so much energy trying to be twice as good in order to be considered as good as. I have been so busy plumbing the depths of what is expected of me that I have forgotten to listen to what I already know to be true.

In my yoga teacher training, we studied the ways a yoga class sequence follows both the chakras and the eight-limb path of yoga. Vrksasana (tree pose) is the part of our practice that corresponds to both the heart chakra and Pratyahara. It is the moment we leave the oceanic flow of the Sun Salutations and turn inward. We engage our core in order to open our heart. We begin to surrender our will and listen to the rush of blood in our ears. We balance our bodies on a single ankle bone and trust that it will hold.

If the birds will teach us everything we need to know about flight, then surely they can also teach us how to land. And what is landing if not forgiveness? What is turning inward if not an act of trust? One morning after I started the cleanse, as I awoke before dawn to do my Sun Salutations, I thought of those plump blue jays, landing on that skinny branch. I inhaled my arms high in my dark living room and bent my creaky body over my knees. I felt my feet on the cold wood floor. “I forgive L,” I thought and felt a tidal wave of sadness sweep me under and catch in my chest. I stepped back into downward facing dog and looked back at my knees. “I forgive myself,” I thought and felt myself land – wobbling, haltingly, shakily – on the thin branch of a new tree, not entirely trusting that it would hold, but wanting it to, more than anything.

Maya Stein’s full poem is below:

you will know (for T) – by Maya Stein

It will be all right in the end, and maybe even in the middle. You will not suffer as long as you think you will. You are not fated to be unhappy. You are not destined for failure. Remember who you are. Let me say it again. Remember who you are. Be gentle. Practice exquisite acts of self-care. You don’t have to be as strong as you think you do. You don’t have to be wise and certain about your path. Your frailty is beautiful, and your innocence too. Getting lost is another exercise in navigation. You can’t fix everything you touch. You won’t break everything you touch. Don’t apologize if you’re tired. Don’t second-guess your stomach. Maintain eye contact with everything, especially yourself. Fall to your knees at least once a day. Say yes at least twice. Love daringly, wholly, unapologetically. Believe in magic. Befriend your fear. Look up. Listen. The birds will tell you everything you need to know about flight. Forgive yourself your great sadness. Unlock what hurts. Make a prayer for loss. Unpen your words. Get messier than anyone thinks you should. You’ll know when you’re ready. I’ll say it again. You’ll know when you’re ready.

Receive (Moving Part II)

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.

“In June.”

“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.

My word this winter was “Soften,” (which I stole from Claudia Cummins, whose blogs First Sip and Inside Out I am obsessed with and read almost as soon as I get up in the morning.).

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.

Subtraction

January 23, 2012 § 26 Comments

Watching the Snow

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.

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