August 26, 2013 § 16 Comments
The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you. – Hafiz
I had mixed feelings about leaving Oregon last Saturday and coming home. As we rolled our suitcases out of the cozy Victorian house in Ashland and shoved them into the trunk of our dusty rental car, I felt a deep sense of being pulled away from a place that felt more like home than my actual home in Camp Lejeune does. I was looking forward to getting back to my stuff, of course, to my routines, but living on a military base has never felt like home to me. Or maybe it feels a bit the way a house in another country might feel: the smells are different, the language is strange to my ears, and still, after a year, I feel like an interloper, sometimes a spy, and occasionally, a hostage.
We had an easy trip of it, flying from Medford to San Francisco and then on to Charlotte where we boarded a tiny plane to Jacksonville. We had to walk way out onto the tarmac to board and then up those steep narrow stairs. I paused at the top and looked out at 20 rows of Marines on board, their haircuts shocking after two weeks in Oregon. Welcome home, I thought.
The flight attendant had such a strong Southern accent that I could only understand every third word. “What did he say?” I asked Scott, who was across the aisle with Gus. Scott shrugged and said “Got me,” and then we both turned forward to watch the flight attendant shake a young man seated in the exit row. “Hey my brother,” he said loudly, “Hey, wake up!” The flight attendant’s eyes were kind as he stood and asked two boys sitting near the sleeping Marine if he had been drinking in the airport. They shrugged too.
Soon the flight attendant was slapping the sleeping boy’s face, until finally, he sat up. The plane was silent by then, all of us watching, and the flight attendant was speaking slowly to the boy. “Do you want to sleep here in Charlotte or do you want to sleep in Jacksonville? This plane is leaving for Jacksonville.” The woman in the seat ahead of me turned to her husband with a wide-eyed look, and the flight attendant steered the dazed soldier out of the exit row and to a seat just in front of us, where he fumbled with his seatbelt. I turned to Scott and made my own wide-eyed expression, which meant Can we please, please, please not go back there?
“I don’t think he’s drunk,” Scott whispered back, “As much as he’s probably exhausted. He’s probably been flying for 48 hours straight. And maybe he had a beer and now he’s just out of it.”
“We have to give him a ride home,” I whispered back. “We can’t just leave him at the airport,” and then Scott made his own face back at me. “He’ll be fine,” he said.
And he was fine. It turned out that the bags on our flight weighed so much that many weren’t even loaded on the plane. About 20 of us had to wait in line at the Jacksonville airport to file claims for lost luggage that wasn’t so much lost as it was sitting on the wrong tarmac in the rain. Waiting in line ahead of me was the sleeping soldier, and I heard him talk in a clear voice on his phone. “You’re outside?” he said and then, “I’m in line right now. I’ll be out soon,” and I felt my shoulders relax with relief. You see these men and women in their camouflage and helmets, their machine guns in their hands and you think: Soldier. And then you see those young shoulder blades under their tee shirts, those pale scalps on their shaved heads and you realize they are the ones who need protection.
We landed in Jacksonville after midnight, and before we even knew our luggage was lost, we stumbled through the tiny airport, all of us bleary-eyed except Gus, who loudly announced, “I didn’t even go on any naps!” Waiting at the security gate was a woman in a coral maxi dress with a big smile, her make-up fresh and her hair curled. Four young children crowded around her. “Do you see him?” they asked, and “Where’s Daddy?” The woman was holding the handles of a stroller and a photographer stood nearby to record the homecoming. As we walked by them, the children bouncing on their toes, I felt that tenderhearted feeling that is so common to me now that I live on base, the way life here is so close to the surface: way too vulnerable and so, so fragile.
This winter, it seemed that artillery practice on base was non-stop. We live a few hundred yards from a bay, which is really the mouth of the New River, just one turn shy of the ocean. All day, the booms echoed off the salty water, shaking the house, and rattling dishes. The anxiety I felt was a bonecrushing kind, but I could operate on a level where everything was just fine. And then spring came, and the rabbits began to appear on our lawn. One cool morning, Gus was crouched in our flower garden, staring at a tiny, baby rabbit nibbling the dahlia shoots and suddenly it was just too much. I could handle living in a place that sounded like the Gaza Strip. I could suck it up. But to live in a world where there are both bombs and baby rabbits felt like more than I could handle. Goddamned baby rabbits, I thought, as Gus turned to me, his face lit up like magic. I wasn’t sure I could do it.
On Sunday, we slept in until 10, all of us still on Oregon time. And then Oliver’s friend Ella, who lives across the street came over with our mail and I took all three kids down to the water, to the river that’s practically the ocean, and Ella used my iphone to take everyone’s photos. We went to the park and the neighbors came out and said they missed us and I met all the new people who moved in while our old neighbors were en route to Seoul, Fort Leavenworth, Guam, and Camp Pendleton. Somehow, in two weeks, my orange cosmos were almost 6 feet tall, a pine tree was growing behind the hothouse roses and the hyacinth dropped its blooms and had flowered again.
And then something took my breath away: my dahlias had opened. I read that it was almost impossible for a first-time gardener to have any success with dahlias but there they were anyway, all heads high and proud, as white and fluffy as that baby rabbit’s tail. This too is home, I realized, feeling that heartbreak again, my inability to reconcile extremes, the staggering amount of wonder necessary just to get through things in one piece.
Three days later, school started, and all the kids met in my driveway at 7:45 to wait for the bus. They showed up gleeful and shiny, swinging stiff backpacks and trying to kick each other with their new shoes. That morning Oliver woke up early, and found me finishing my yoga practice. “Do we have time to play Legos?” he asked and I told him we did, and then I started to cry about the end of summer, at the way everything changes too quickly. I brought my hands to chest and imagined my heart was as big as an ocean. I told myself that the heart can hold everything, that there is enough room, but still it felt like the shards were slicing through.
After school, Oliver had a meltdown because he didn’t want to go to his first soccer practice. I knew he was just nervous, I know that he doesn’t like anything new, that he’s been through so many big changes in his life that even a tiny change is terrifying. I was wiped out myself, having taught 5 yoga classes already that week, which was a first for me. “I know that it’s a little scary,” I tried and before I could say more, Oliver put his hands on his hips and yelled, “I HAD A BIG DAY,” through his gritted teeth. Regrettably, I tossed water bottles into a bag and told him to get in the car.
On the way to soccer, we stopped at a red light at the turn to the fields and watched the flashing lights of four police cars, which were parked at a house near us. Before the light could turn green, military police walked a young officer out of his house in handcuffs. This happens everywhere I told myself, but still, I never lived in those neighborhoods back when I was a civilian. I didn’t go to those parts of town. And now I live in a place that has no neighborhoods, a place that is more like an outpost, a colony, a tribe with an island sort of transparency, all of us knowing more than we want to know about each other. Even this small fact stretches my heart, and I realize how narrow it gets sometimes and how dangerous that is.
The day before school started, I taught a yoga class just for spouses of deployed soldiers, which is one of my favorite things in the world. On Wednesday morning, we met at a pavilion across the street from Onslow Beach at the very end of Camp Lejeune. I got there early to sweep out the sand, and when the women arrived, we arranged our mats in a circle. We did a practice for self-care and for trust. During pigeon pose, I read the Hafiz quote I love: The place where you are right now, God circled on a map for you, and it occurred for me – not for the first time – that I teach what I need to learn most. Afterwards, we sat on the beach and did a meditation I “borrowed” from Elena Brower on open-heartedness, and we listened to the waves echo our breath, although probably it was the other way around. If you could meet these women, if you could see who shows up to my classes with their shining eyes and their willingness, you wouldn’t believe it. It amuses me that I teach on a base where I am almost always the student.
We live about 25 minutes from the beach, and it’s a beautiful drive through pine forests. Then, it’s fields full of shooting ranges and a large cluster of buildings built to look like an Afghani city so soldiers can train for what awaits them. Before the pine forests, just past the movie theatre, and across the street from the Protestant chapel, there is a large field dotted with groves of oak trees. Sometimes at noon, I see soldiers sitting there in the shade, eating lunch. That morning, I saw a cluster of them standing under the trees, looking in one direction as if they were waiting for something. A split second later, another group of soldiers came bursting out into the sunlight. In the middle of the pack, protected by the others, four of them ran with a stretcher on which a soldier was lying back, secured with one of the reflective belts they wear in their pre-dawn PT sessions.
If you could see the fierce commitment in the way these soldiers train and the sweetness in the way they sit in the shade together and wait for the next thing, your heart would burst. And then you realize what they are training for, and you might want to bring your knees down to the ground.
A year ago, when we were moving and all of us were living in a single hotel room for almost 4 months, Claudia Cummins sent me a beautiful email describing a time in her life when she felt homesick and then an epiphany she had that as long as she was in her body, she was home. That her body was her true home. I haven’t had this epiphany yet or anything even close to it and perhaps that is why I am here. Perhaps this place where I am, the one that was circled on the map for me, is where I will learn how to prop open the doors of my heart and keep them that way. Perhaps I am here to create a tangram out of these pieces that don’t seem to fit. Or maybe what I am supposed to do is just leave them alone in the shapes that don’t make any sense and make room for them anyway.
July 4, 2013 § 34 Comments
Before I can talk about the book Warrior Pose; A War Correspondent’s Memoir, I must first tell you about the writer, who was one of my first yoga teachers. When I met Brad Willis (now Bhava Ram), I was still shocked by motherhood and by my very challenging 15-month old son, who regularly bit me hard enough to break the skin, threw epic tantrums, and stole other toddlers’ toys. I missed my old life in Palo Alto, I missed living alone, and I didn’t like being a Navy Wife. I longed for old my job and resented that now, I was the one cleaning the toilets and dealing with this impossible child while my husband was off in Guatamala and Thailand and South Korea.
One day, I was so overwhelmed by Oliver’s tantrums, with his hair pulling and his hitting, that I put him in his room behind his baby gate and retreated in tears to my own room, so I didn’t do something I would regret. Already I had done things I regretted and I needed help, which may be the two most humbling words in the English language.
Bhava taught at the San Diego yoga studio I went to and he lived a few blocks away from me in Coronado. When I told him my reasons for my visiting him in his home office, I had to concentrate on sitting upright in my chair, because what I really wanted to do was to throw myself down on the floor and sob. “Can you give me a yoga practice for patience?” I asked him. “I really want to be a good mom.”
Bhava regarded me for a second and at first, I thought he was going to tell me to leave. Instead, he told me that I was doing more yoga while cleaning the toilets and taking care of my son than I would ever do on my mat. He said that the first person I needed to take care of first was myself and that of course there were things that we could do. He created a practice for me, full of forward folds and inversions, hip openers and gentle twists. The practice only took about 20 minutes and I did the poses in our moldy old apartment while Oliver napped. Every time I practiced, it was like visiting someone I wanted to be someday. And so I continued to visit Bhava and take what I thought of as his “lessons.” One day, he told me the story of the Bhagavad Gita. He told me about Arjuna, who didn’t want to fight in the civil war that was ripping his family apart and how Krishna told him his life depended on it.
“Why on earth would Krishna want Arjuna to fight?” I asked, interrupting him. “How can a yoga text be about war?”
Bhava gave me a look he often gave me, which was a mixture of befuddlement and frustration. He explained that this was a metaphor, that the real battle was with our egos. He looked at me pointedly and still, I wouldn’t let up. “Yes, but why is a yoga text about war?”
“You know,” he said then, “you are a bright person. You could be great if you would apply yourself to this.” Like many of Bhava’s comments, I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or an insult. He challenged me, sometimes baiting me. Once he told me that I was emotionally stuck which at first made me furious, but later felt as though he had given me a gift. He gave me permission to feel what I was feeling, if only because he became cross when I didn’t. Bhava was an unlikely teacher for me, but also perfect. He must have known that to come at me softly was to lose me. I was cynical of yoga, of all this feel-good, unscientific fluff. I was so defensive, so resistant to changing, that when Bhava gave me a mantra to try, I told him I wouldn’t use the word surrender. “I hate it,” I said. “Surrender is like giving up.”
Finally, I did give up, or I began to, anyway, because it could be argued that I am still a bit of a curmudgeon. I kept signing up for his workshops because when I left them, I felt closer to the person I wanted to be than to that old self, who angered so quickly. I often cried during his classes, which was embarrassing, and once I did his 21-day Journey Into Yoga program, which was uncomfortable because as a group, we decided to refrain from alcohol and sugar.
One day, during Journey Into Yoga, I stayed after a vinyasa class to wander through the studio’s boutique, looking at the soft yoga tops and the Ayurvedic oils that Bhava’s wife Laura makes. Bhava walked up to me, said hello, and smiled, which is to say his whole face lit up. “Hi,” I said back.
“I just wanted to say that I see you,” he told me.
I panicked when I heard this and felt everything become very still. Did he think I was shoplifting?
“I see who you really are,” he said, pointing at my heart. “And you’re an amazing person.”
I don’t remember what happened next because my eyes filled with tears and I had to turn my head away and stare at a bookcase for a while. This comment from Bhava was so unlikely and so surprising, although if he had told me this any sooner, I wouldn’t have been able to accept it. I moved my hand up to steady myself and I saw that it was shaking, that my entire body was shaking. I stood in the corner of the boutique for almost a minute trying to regain myself, grateful no one else was around, and then I left. I stepped out into the San Diego sunlight and felt lighter, as if I had gotten out of something.
That was the last time I saw Bhava because we moved to Ventura shortly after, but I often hear his voice in my head. “But sometimes I just gotta do it,” a student once said to him about looking around the studio during class. “No,” he replied in his deep voice. “You don’t just gotta. That’s the whole point.”
To read Warrior Pose is to have Bhava’s voice in your head too, and it’s a wonderful voice telling an incredible story.
Bhava Ram used to be Brad Willis, a war correspondent for NBC, who used to work with Garrick Utley and Tom Brokaw (you can watch footage here). The first half of the book is a can’t-put-down account of his career from his start as a college student at Humboldt State, where one day, he walked into the local TV station and got a job as a reporter. He moves to Dallas and then Boston, where he interviews Oliver Tambo in South Africa, watches leaders of a drug summit in Cartagena do lines of coke after dinner, and covers child prostitution in Bolivia. Along the way, he breaks his back while trying to shut a window during a storm while vacationing in the Bahamas in 1986. Surgery is his only option, but because he doesn’t want his career to suffer, he opts to suffer instead, the pain increasing each year.
While he’s in Kuwait, covering the Gulf War in the early 90’s, his pain is constant, and becomes another character in his book: Pain and what Brad Willis does to avoid feeling it.
The introduction of the book states that Warrior Pose is a story about all of us, and while I was doubtful at first, underlying Willis’ crisp pose is a mythology that makes this statement true, in the way that all myths are about the indomitable spirit of the human heart.
Willis’ career takes off while in Kuwait, and I stayed up much too late reading the detailed accounts of his experiences as pool reporter, which means he was chosen out of all international journalists to cover dangerous and high security missions and then bring his notes back to “the pool” of waiting journalists. He bribes a Sunni guard and sneaks into northern Iraq, where he is later airlifted into a Kurdish refugee camp. He drives through deserts that rain oil, and while embedded with the First Marines, he crosses human carnage so horrible, he finds the upper lip of an Iraqi soldier on his pant leg.
And yet, his pain continues to trail him, despite the valium and vicodin and alcohol until finally, Pain brings Willis to his knees. Willis collapses in Manila, while covering the country’s corruption and poverty. When he is finally back in San Diego, he sees a doctor who tells him, “I don’t know how you managed it. You’ve spent seven years with a mildly broken back and now it’s a major break.”
Willis took a year leave from NBC to heal his back, which refused to cooperate. By Willis’ 50th birthday, he was confined to a bed or sofa or mobile lounge chair, addicted to pain killers and stout beer, which soothed his throat because guess what else? He had Stage IV throat cancer now too, likely a result from inhaling the toxic air during the Gulf War. Willis was pretty much dead man walking.
What ultimately saves Willis is his love for his son, Morgan. When Morgan is two, he tells Willis to “Get up Daddy!” when Willis is unable to play with his son. Shortly after, Willis’ wife and friends stage a bungled intervention that nevertheless lands Willis in rehab and then in the San Diego Pain Clinic, where he discovers yoga.
While the first part of Warrior Pose reads like a thriller, the second half, when Willis stays on his knees and then begins to rise, is more like poetry. Willis does not spare his ego and instead writes honestly about the harrowing climb up from the depths. What struck me the most was how small Willis allowed himself to become, how broken he admitted to being. And yet there is nothing pitiful about this journey. After 7 nights in rehab, when Willis gives up all of his pain killers cold turkey – which reads a lot like a visit to hell – Willis begins at the beginning. He takes a yoga class as part of his curriculum at the Pain Center which changes everything. This is it! he writes, and begins to study yoga with a startling velocity. At one point, he takes over 200 yoga classes in less than three months.
Ultimately, Warrior Pose is less about becoming a yogi, and more about listening to an inner voice, which, it could be argued, is really the same thing. It is a book about a father’s devotion to his son and a tribute to what is available to us, if only we are able to receive it.
I am giving away a copy of Warrior Pose to one commenter, which I will choose at random. I am also giving away five copies of Bhava’s Gayatri Manta, which he performs with Hans Christian and Donna DeLory, Madonna’s former back-up singer. Bhava’s album is called Songs of My Soul. You can sample the Gayatri mantra and the album here or on iTunes.
May 28, 2012 § 15 Comments
I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. – from Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
I haven’t been here in a while. I haven’t been writing anything other than my bi-monthly column about chefs, mostly because of all the work that goes into moving to another state and trying to find a place to live given that it may be four weeks or four months until a home on the Camp Lejeune Marine base is ready for us. There is the packing of course, but there is also the getting rid of things, the collection of school and doctor and dentist records, the phone calls to turn off the power and the water, the endless calls to see if that home is still for rent, if that apartment is furnished, if we can sign a lease for fewer than three months. There is also the way the anxiety of moving turns my brain into static, and if I am honest, I have have been avoiding writing because of the way it forces me to face what is really going on.
At Oliver’s kindergarten drop-off, the other moms are very nice to me. “You look so great,” they say, “So relaxed,” and I laugh and lie and say, Thank you, it’s all going well.
This afternoon in yoga, while we held downward facing dog for what felt like way too long, Kelly, who was teaching, told us to press our thigh muscles onto our femur bones and I rebelled. I didn’t want to engage my legs, which is another way of saying I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in the present moment which is always right here. I wanted to roll up my mat and flee. I wanted to bolt from the 98-degree room and into the 90-degree day outside. I wanted to disappear into the crowded streets of Georgetown. I wanted to run into the air-conditioned haven of Dean & Deluca, to look for a new pair of shorts in J.Crew, to climb fully-clothed into the claw foot bathtubs in Waterworks.
Last Thursday, Oliver and my mom and I made the day-long drive up to Grand Island, New York, which is about a mile away from Niagara Falls. My cousin Jeremy and his wife graciously hosted us and Oliver was able to visit with his cousins and his godmother – Sister Mary Judith – who married Scott and I almost seven years ago, near a rocky beach just south of San Francisco. Sister Mary Judith is my father’s cousin and is in her mid-seventies, but she looks much younger. Before she became a Catholic nun, she was Homecoming Queen, and to me, she still has a sense of royalty about her. On our trip last weekend, she told me stories about when she helped run a school for African-American children in South Carolina in the late 1950’s. She told me about the time she spent in Africa, prior to that, and about my grandparents and aunts and uncles, whose own parents came over from Ireland and landed in Queens and Buffalo, New York.
On Friday, Jeremy took the day off from work and took us all to Niagara Falls. I was surprised by how accessible Niagara Falls is with the free parking in the state park and the easy walk in, just a few blocks from downtown Buffalo. It was a beautiful, sparkling day with bright sun and a cool breeze and we walked down from the parking lot onto a wooded trail which hugged the river. The river was so calm and quiet that I would never have guessed that it was about to jump off a cliff. The kids played on the wide, flat rocks at the edge of the river and they ran over the foot bridges that led us out to Goat Island. There was a small piling up of whitewater as the wide river bubbled around the boulders and the bank and you could tell the water was running fast, but there was a stillness at the surface that belied the drop up ahead.
Moving is kind of like that. You get word and then you wait, your life staying pretty much the same except for that static under the surface, which feels an awful lot like panic. The waiting itself becomes a kind of current, your life becoming flooded with the possibility that you are leaving it, until one day you look up and realize you are completely submerged in the leaving, so tired of the waiting that you just want it to be over already so your new life can start. According to some scholars, the name “Niagara” comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra,” meaning “point of land cut in two.”
I used to think of surrender as a kind of ease. I used to think that I would be able to surrender once I was a different kind of person: once I meditated more or had more time, or became more wise. But standing there, looking at the falls, feeling the cold mist on my face and listening to the rush of that water, hearing the rush of my own blood through my ears, I thought that maybe surrender wasn’t a matter of ease but of courage. I watched that water, as it moved steadily, unhindered by what was in its path until finally, the Niagara River pulled its knees into its chest and leapt, the water gathering up and then falling from that sharp, dolomite ledge.
After we left the Falls we were hungry and tired and Sister Mary Judith and my mom and I headed to a grocery store to get some snacks for our return drive back to D.C. I told her my thoughts on surrender and she nodded. “Surrender is an act of courage,” she said, simply, and I rested in that, confident in her half-century of spiritual commitment.
This afternoon, as I held downward facing dog, while I was wishing I was anywhere but in my legs, Kelly said, “We think we can find ease by relaxing into something, but really, it’s the pushing out of something that creates the ease.” She told us to press our palms into the floor, to squeeze our thighs back to lift our hips and I thought of those falls – their height, their majesty, their courage. I took a deep breath and pressed down and back, feeling an ache in my legs and also a tiny bit of ease in my heart. I felt an infinitesimal opening as if maybe there was a place for me after all, despite the fact that I am a moving target, despite the fact that as soon as I begin to get comfortable, it’s time to press on and move out again. I pressed back into the pain and the cracking open and the fear and called those falls back to me, those daring wonders with their willingness to drop their history and their loves and their beliefs about where they should be, and instead, press onward and over the edge.
In honor of moving, I am having a month of giveaways. This week, I am giving away 2 copies of Bruce Dolin’s wonderful book, “Privilege of Parenting.” Kristen wrote such a wonderful review of the book that I won’t even try to duplicate her efforts and you can read her review of the book here. Bruce writes compassionately and wisely about how to hold our children by holding onto ourselves first, by breathing through our own fear and shame and sadness in order to put an end to the karma we don’t want our children to carry. Unlike some parenting books, which give generic and unlikely scenarios, Bruce helps us deal with life’s messiness, and like yoga, shows us that the messiness is part of the beauty. Just enter a comment below and I’ll draw a name at Random on Friday, June 1.
April 6, 2012 § 14 Comments
“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:
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!
November 3, 2011 § 20 Comments
For the past few days, some of my favorite bloggers have been writing about self-care at Life After Benjamin, Chicken and Cheese, A Design so Vast, and Her Suburban Life. Also, Carry it Forward and Food: A Love Story consistently write about taking care of ourselves in an authentic way.
Self-care is a strange word. It sounds vaguely institutional and somewhat primitive and yet it’s a concept that has been rather fascinating to me for the past few years. It would not be inaccurate to say that I started out my adult life having no idea how to take care of myself. I knew the basics of course. I knew what I should eat and how much exercise and sleep I should get. But in times of stress, all those good ideas went out the window. In times of stress – which in my twenties and early thirties was about five days per week- I subsisted on less than six hours of sleep, cheese, green olives, and coffee.
It’s funny the things that didn’t work for me. “Treat yourself the way you deserve to be treated,” people would tell me, or “Become your own best friend.” The truth was, I felt like a slacker who had been given tons of opportunity and fortune but who had squandered it all away. I was treating myself the way I believed I deserved. And I had no interest in befriending as someone as lame and myself.
It’s funny what did work too. When I was pregnant with Oliver, I was unmarried and living 3000 miles away from my boyfriend (who later became my husband, poor guy). I was working in investor relations and it was a job in which even if I did everything perfectly, it was guaranteed someone would still yell at me at the end of the quarter. But one day, as I got off the train in Palo Alto and was walking down Emerson Street to my apartment, I passed a yoga studio that offered prenatal yoga. For years I had been meaning to go to yoga, but I didn’t want to be the only one in the class who didn’t know what she was doing. I peered in the window at the women, lumbering like elephants with their big bellies. I was only three months pregnant at the time. I figured I could do at least as well as them.
That was how I started with yoga: as a competition. But after my first prenatal class, I lay in savasana and felt quiet for the first time in years. Once you find something like that, you begin to notice its opposite. You gradually become aware of when you are not quiet and then you try to figure out how to get yourself out of that mess. You may try meditation next or getting more sleep. Or, if you’re like me, you may try to eat half the can of frosting instead of the whole thing.
To be honest, I am the least qualified person to write about how to take care of yourself. I have only recently started to get more sleep. And when the going gets tough, I often stop my meditation practice and start drinking coffee. Last week, during which I had to make a Halloween costume, plan and host a birthday party for six six-year olds, make a graveyard cake, take care of sick children, and finish up homework for my teacher training, I may or may not have eaten seven fun-size Twix bars one night and called it dinner. I know, you don’t have to say it.
But I am working on it. At least I am passed the point I used to be, when I thought self-care was for wimps, for people with too much time on their hands. In the last couple of years, I have read a gazillion books on the subject. More importantly, I met with my yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson, from YogaWorks in LA and with Laura Plumb, Ayurvedic devotee, yoga teacher, and educator. They both offered invaluable advice and instruction. I still don’t do everything I wish I did, but below are some notes from the trenches, which sometimes get me out of my own way:
1. Start Where You Are: This first rule could also be called “Don’t Make Things Worse.” If you eat a pound of chocolate, do your best to avoid eating another pound to make yourself feel better. If you haven’t washed your hair in a week, then put on a hat rather than beat yourself up. If you are feeling badly about yourself, be gentle with your heart. As Geneen Roth writes, if you find yourself standing in front of the refrigerator eating leftover Chinese food with your fingers, pull up a chair. Be kind to yourself. Sit down. Just stop making things worse, and things will get a whole lot better.
2. Start Slowly: After I consulted with Laura last week and she told me about the Veda-reducing diet that would reduce my anxiety, I immediately wanted to roast vegetables, cook up a pot of kitchari, and buy lavender-scented oil. This was during the Halloween/Birthday Extravaganza Week, and I knew that if I went gangbusters, I would probably have a meltdown. So, for a change, I slowed down. Instead of cooking up a storm, I made one pot of tomato soup. I started meditating for ten minutes a day. I went to bed fifteen minutes earlier at night. I bought a single bottle of organic sesame oil to practice Abhyanga. Baby steps.
3. Plan: When I met with Jessica eighteen months ago, she told me that in order to keep herself sane and healthy she planned out her week. She decided how much yoga and mountain biking she needed and what food she needed to buy to make healthy meals. My first thought after she told me that was shock. I couldn’t imagine doing that. If I had enough time to sit and make a grocery list and a schedule, then clearly I was not getting enough done in my life. Clearly, that was a waste of time. I still don’t always plan out my meals or my week. Most weeks, I don’t get to yoga as much as I want to and I often forget to soak the beans the night before. But when I do take time to plan out my week … man, life is good.
4. Pretend: aka “Fake it Till You Make It.” Here’s the deal. Often, when we need self-care the most is the time we believe we don’t deserve it. Right after we yell at our kids for fooling around when they are supposed to be getting on their shoes or the house is a mess or we totally botch something up at work, it’s easy to beat ourselves up. However, we are probably yelling at our kids and making silly mistakes because we ourselves are depleted. I am getting to where I can see this is true even if I don’t always believe it. Then, I usually pretend I am someone else, like Oprah, or Laura Plumb or Jessica Anderson and I try to imagine what they would do if they were me. Chances are, they would take a deep breath, give themselves a pep talk, make a cup of tea. What happens then is that once you start treating yourself as the person you want to be, you start to become the person you want to be. It’s kind of revolutionary.
5. Create a Ritual: In our yoga teacher training, Rolf told us that anything can become sacred once we bring our attention to it. Laura last week told me about tratak, a candle meditation that is deeply calming and centering. She also told me about Viparita Karani Mudra, or lying down for fifteen minutes with your legs up the wall. It could be a yoga class or a run or meditation. It could be a walk with your kids or spending time with your spouse. It could even be eating breakfast in silence or listening to the birds. There is something about a ritual that is soothing to our souls, that reminds us that while we live in these limited physical forms, an aspect of us is truly unlimited and connected to something bigger than we can imagine.
I once thought that devoting some time to taking care of myself would make me into a different person, into someone who was more patient, who subsisted on kale and ginger tea, who wore yoga pants every day. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Most days I wear jeans with a hole in the right leg, because that is the knee I bend down on when I am tying shoes, wiping noses, and putting the chain back on Oliver’s bike.
Taking care of ourselves isn’t about a vegan diet or taking baths, although that may be part of it. Taking care of ourselves is about treating ourselves with a level of dignity so that we remember who we truly are. If you treat yourself like a queen, it becomes more difficult to get upset about the snide remark your friend made. If you give yourself enough time to get to yoga and play something uplifting on the car stereo, it is harder to honk at the third person who cut you off in Logan Circle. On the other hand, if you eat leftover Halloween candy for dinner, it’s a lot easier to get upset at your husband for taking a business trip and leaving you alone with the kids for four days, how could he do that to you, doesn’t he know that you won’t get a minute to yourself?
Last week, Laura said something that I have been thinking about every day. She said that even if our main job is to care for other people, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a little time for our own evolution and go inward every now and then. We deserve at least that, don’t we?
And that is why I am offering my first ever giveaway. I am offering Laura’s Maha Shakti Detox Protein Powder and a copy of the Kind Diet, by Alicia Silverstone. I’ll announce the randomly selected winner on Monday.