Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Year of the Spider

This past summer I relocated and now live half the year in Portland, OR.  The costs of living and the proximity to family made the "half NYC/half Portland" idea make sense and so here we are, embarking on yet another lifestyle experiment. 

So far I have found that Portland is a city very interested in what’s “in season” and what’s coming up “next season,” which is kind of ironic, because Portland doesn't really have seasons. It’s a temperate climate. It has two seasons; rainy and cold or sunny and warm.  Coming from New York where the weather is like the extreme mood swings of a toddler, the relative calm of Portland doesn't exactly scream “seasons” to me. But, perhaps that is why people are so interested in seasons here. They like to imagine that talking in variables will make noticeable changes in their environment. 

Whatever the reason, one of the seasons we have experienced thus far is Bug Season.  August is spider season. It comes after wasp season and before stink bug season. Of all the seasons, Bug Season has been my least favorite. And of the bug seasons, spider season ranks last. In August spiders were everywhere.  In bushes, in trees, between trees, on the grass, in the flowers, on our ceiling, in the corners, on the car door, in the sink, in the tub, hanging mid air from who knows where, if you can name it, a spider had claimed it. 

One morning a spider spun a web between the posts of our front porch and I came within an inch of getting a face full of web and squiggly spider. I was an inch away from panic attack level screams of “get it off me!” hysteria when I noticed this little punk tiger striped arachnid sitting there upside down in middle of his web staring at me. Just sitting there watching and waiting.  He must have thought he was pretty clever.  Why build a web in the rhododendrons and blackberry bushes when you can bag a human? He must have thought “enough of this small time game hunting! Capture bug, ruin web, eat bug, fix web, and capture another. What a waste of time.  I’m gonna kill a person and be done for the season.”  

It had been like this for days so it was not a surprise when, outside my window, I saw a spider spinning a web one morning. I’ve seen spiders spin webs before, or rather, I thought I had.  I know I’ve seen it on nature shows.  But, until that morning, I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a spider work.

It was fascinating.

The web she was making was huge. She’d picked a spot between two large tree limbs that were pretty far apart so the circumference was about the size of a garbage can lid.  And this was a little spider. She was about the size of a nickel. That something so small could make something so big was quite a feat of engineering.  How many times did she leap from one branch to the other before she got it right? If she fell to the ground, would she climb all the way back up and start all over again? And if she made a lot of attempts, did she go back to that same spot?  

And the way she worked was so interesting.  There was so much power in her. It looked like she was hovering in the air; flying from one end of her invisible web to the other, spinning line after line in an intricate, specific pattern.  She was deft and fast and worked with clean precision. She knew exactly what to do next, which direction to go. She’d make a line somewhere and then double back to the center of the web to reinforce it and then head back out again.  Her long, fuzzy, little legs would make the minutest adjustments to the thread, making the web stronger, more exact.  

Her life is basic: catch and kill, eat, survive, reproduce. Wash, rinse, repeat.  She works away, busily engaged in the practice of just doing what she’s doing.  She’s not straying from her task she’s just at it, busy and focused. It’s cyclical and repetitive, but it’s leading towards something.  Completely focused on the task she was a great example of controlled concentration.

Yet, she is so fragile. She’s literally hanging on by a thread.  This fine line of invisible stuff, if I wanted, I could wipe it down with one finger.  On the other hand, it suits her needs.  Her web is as weak as any other spiders, but unlike the ill-planned web of my would-be captor, she’s built it well.  She’s picked a great spot; high in the trees near the fruit where bees and bugs will fly by.  It’s partially covered under the eaves of the house so it’s sheltered from the wind and the rain.

Watching her work made me wonder, “Is my life really that different from a spider’s?”  Life is fragile and cyclical and ultimately, it is redundant.  We do the same things over and over again. Our bodies do the same things over and over again. It is amazing and fascinating, but it is not unique.  It is mundane. This kind of plodding focused, dogmatic dedication to her work isn’t really that dissimilar to mine.  When I pay attention to how I deal with the mundane it guides me towards a life I want.  Likewise, I’ve noticed that when I act like the spider on the porch, making poor choices and living a disconnected life, regardless of how beautiful the dream is, will draw me further away from what I am seeking.

Sitting there watching that spider I realized a well balanced life is mundane.  A balanced life is not a string of passionate love affairs, but a monotonous cycle that helps draw me back to the middle.  It’s about how I spin my web. When I live on the fringes of it, when I over extend, spin too wide, spin to small, when I lose focus or pick a bad spot, people walk through it, the bugs avoid it, the wind rips it to shreds and I go hungry.  When I focus and am consistent, when I do the work of learning how to deal, life begins to reveal itself, it lays out a pattern. It tells me where to go and reminds how to get back, it reinforces the learning.  

For good or for ill, it is not the grand gestures that make us who we are but the mundane.  The routine itself reveals the Self.

With this idea in mind, I embarked on an experiment. My goal was to cultivate a more consistent meditation and writing practice. I am not very good at either, but both are important to me. When I meditate it helps clear my head and I write better. When I write it’s a form of meditation.  So, I decided I would meditate and write every day for 45 days. My plan was to get up in the morning, meditate for 30 minutes and then sit down and write for 30 minutes. 

Like any well made plan, it was a good one.  It was the new car of plans; shiny and bright, I was excited about it and I wanted to take my New Plan out for a spin as soon as possible. But, just like a new car, the New Plan lost 20% of its value as soon as I drove off the lot. I found that a new plan gets banged up pretty quickly when you are in the middle of a move.  It is also really hard to keep a New Plan going when you have children on summer vacation who want a lot of your attention.  And of course there were just the days.  Days when I was simply too tired, sick, stressed or distracted, days when I sat there and nothing came and nothing worked.  And there were days that I just didn’t care anymore. Like my little friend’s web, my link to my process is fragile. It is tenuous and slips out of my grasp quickly.

But, I keep at it. Sitting as often as I can and writing as often as I can after. It’s becoming more and more a part of my life.  It’s almost, almost a routine. I have learned through the mundane process of just getting up almost every day and doing it, that even if there is a break in the routine; I am laying down the foundations for what I am seeking.   

The "holiday season" just ended and now we're in the season of resolutions and new beginnings.  We are constantly inundated this time of year with messages telling us that now is the time to make those changes you've been wanting to make! So often we start off the new year thinking "yes! This year gonna be It!" only to get frustrated and disappointed when the days come that don't turn out to be It.  We lose faith in ourselves and the process.  Whether you start a New Plan today or next month doesn't matter. What matters is starting over.  And then starting over again. And then starting over again and again.  My New Year's resolution is the same one I've had since I started this project six months ago. To be routine. To go back to the process again and again. To stick to the practice. 

The results will take care of themselves. 

At least spider season in Portland isn't as bad as this!
http://www.viralnova.com/spider-fields/

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Birthday


I turn forty years old this year. Forty. It’s weird being forty because forty is supposedly nothing these days. Forty is the new thirty! People live to be 110 and have babies in their 50s. I can pump my face full of Botox, veneer my teeth and pretend I am young until I’ve got one ancient foot in the grave.

and yet… I think there is a point when, regardless of how you spin it, we all know that we are no longer young. There is a point when we have to face facts. Time waits for no one. Forty is pretty much that point.  It’s the threshold to Old Age. Forty is “young old”. Forty’s got lots of good years left, but let’s face it; retirement is closer than our high school graduations.

I remember when I realized my mom was 40. She seemed like the oldest woman in the world.  Who lives to be 40? It was a number I could not wrap my mind around. I knew in some vague way that my grandma was older than my mom, but that didn’t really mean anything. My grandma wasn’t a person who did stuff.  She just made really good pickles and showed up for recitals and holidays.  My mom, on the other hand, lived at my house. She was the librarian at my school. She bought my groceries and did my laundry. She was a real person. And she was forty years old. How did she live with stretch marks and wrinkles? Wasn’t she embarrassed? How does she live through ever day knowing that she’s so. very. old?

Then I realized my dad was forty and that was terrifying.  At forty he had a bad knee and ankle and walked with a slight shuffle, he was missing his middle finger on his right hand and had severe arthritis in his arm, he was overweight and basically blind without his glasses. How did these two geezers get into my house?  

Suddenly it dawned on me....my parents were going to be really, really old one day. Like Grandma old. And some day they were going to die.  My teen brain made calculations and realized once you hit forty you were basically dead. You were just a few short moments away from standing in line at the gates of Hades.

Happily, my parents made it past this mythical landmark and lived to see me graduate college. It was the first time they’d come to see me in New York and I was excited. I was 22 years old, living on my own, living in NYC and full of pep and vigor and vitality. One of the first things we did was go for a walk in Central Park. As we sat on bench taking in the view of people and trees and squirrels, my dad let out a big sigh and said, “You know I envy you. You wake up every morning excited about the day.”

I felt a little awkward, guilty even. I wasn’t sure what to say so I mumbled a feeble, “Yeah I guess.”

And then he said, “I remember that feeling. When I close my eyes I am where you are. I feel young. I forget some times that I don’t have that body anymore. It’s confusing. It’s confusing to be in this body when my mind is still young.  In my mind I am still 22, but in my body…. well, I’m not.”

My dad was 48. He was only eight years older than I am now.  If I take his experience as an indication of the aging process I can expect that in less than eight years I will be looking back on my life and sighing.  

and yet…  I cannot relate to my dad at all. I simply do not look back on my youth wistfully.  I have fond memories, but I don’t long to go back there. I’m wrinkly and fatter now but, I don’t feel disconnected from my body or my mind.  In fact, I feel quite the opposite.  I am calmer, more peaceful and much happier than I was in my youth.

Youth is a temperamental, moody brat who is never satiated.  There is never an end to her need or want. She is a swirling, dive bombing carnival ride of insecurities, a vain, silly bimbo who will never, ever love you back. Youth is the ultimate gold digger.  She is only using you for your time and once it is gone, she will leave you.   

Age can never be enjoyed if we are chasing after Youth. Age is like getting off the ride and gaining our equilibrium. Our lives after we leave the carnival. It’s walking back to the car in a quiet parking lot full of stars holding your lover’s hand and enjoying the sounds of the carnival in the distance. It is wisdom and grace. It is deep, rumbling laughter. It’s the time you have to think and be alone.

One of my teachers is working up to being able to hold plow pose for an hour. She wants to do this so that when she “is old and no one wants to talk to her anymore” she can be with herself and be interesting to herself. That’s what aging is all about. It’s about finding out how to be without. First people lose interest in you and then you lose interest in the world so that you can go in and get interesting. Youth takes everything from you and asks you to give it all away, Age gives back and restores. 

But, it can only give what we are willing to take. 

Now, I normally shy away from “lists of things that you can do to make your life  happy” kind of writing, (I’m pretty sure life’s lessons can’t be summarized in pithy little bullet points), but I do have this list of reminders I keep in my head and so far it’s been working for me.  And so, since I am crossing into my golden years and it's my birthday, I’m going take part in the time honored tradition of old women everywhere. I am going to give away some unsolicited advice (via pithy little bullet points).

My Unsolicited Advice on How to Better Enjoy Getting Older:
  1. Find old people to teach you how to be old. This is the biggest one. I recently had a conversation with a friend who is training to be a lactation consultant. She was saying that breast feeding in many ways is a lost art because it needs to be handed down from mother to mother. Since we lost two generations of women to formula feeding, we've had to relearn how to do it and how to teach it. I think the same can be said for aging. In a country where we glorify youth and vilify aging, we’ve lost some basic common sense how-to. Seek out wise, funny older people and make them your friends. Listen to their advice and do what they say. (side note: I highly recommend “mature” yoga teachers, especially if you are a woman. Nothing is more inspiring that seeing a spry, intellectual, spiritual woman on a regular basis. It's one of the greatest gifts you will ever give yourself.)
  2. Meditate or pray or do something contemplative. Besides the fact that it has proven to increase gray matter which will help your brain stay fit, it's also the best way to get acquainted with the internal landscape of your mind and spirit.  
  3. Read books. Trashy novels, classic lit, medical journals, magazines, kid’s books, e-books, hard copies, it doesn’t matter. Just find stuff you like and read. (One caveat: do not read fashion magazines. That shit’s toxic at any age.) 
  4. Find something physical you like to do and do it regularly.
  5. Enjoy your food. Do not be a glutton. Do not starve. Enjoy your food.
  6. Find things and people that make you laugh and keep them around. Seek out the laughs.
  7. Help others. Be generous with your time and disposable income. Be helpful.
Birthdays are a reminder that we were brought into this world to participate in it. Youth is not your last chance to contribute so do not limit you experience by believing that all possibility has passed with the passing of time. And no matter how old you are, try and be as awesome as this lady:





Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Cabin

Many, many years ago my grandparents bought a cabin in the woods near a lake in northern Idaho to commemorate one of their many wedding anniversaries.  They paid cash.  I think my grandma said they paid $5,000 for it. It was a summer cabin, just one step up from tent camping and small; about the size of most modern suburban living rooms with a small alcove off one end that could fit two twin beds, one along one wall and the other at its feet along the opposite wall.   

It didn’t have a heating system and wasn’t insulated. It sits high in the mountains where, even in the middle of summer, the temperature can easily dip down into the 40s. My grandpa was a furnace repair man so he built a wooden stove out of sheet metal. This was the cabin’s sole source of heat.  The only other amenities were a kitchen sink with running water, electricity, a hot plate and a refrigerator.   
It did not have a bathroom.  There was an outhouse.  The outhouse was smelly, dark and creepy.  As such, it was a constant source of fascination and repulsion to us kids.  We hated it, but couldn’t seem to stay away from it. We found seemingly endless ways to tease each other over it.  There was the time my sister and my cousins convinced me that a chicken had fallen in and that we were gonna have to send down the skinniest kid (me) to save it. Or the time my uncle lined us all up under a tarp and made us stand in line in the rain while everyone peed before going to bed.  Or the countless times we took flashlights so that we could stare down into the pit of poop.  If you were trying to do your biz, there was a 99.99% chance that someone would materialize outside the door to tease you saying things like “don’t fall in! Wipe fast and don’t look down!” or promise you that something creepy was going to come out of the ooze and drag you down with it.
I am pretty sure I spent much of my early childhood summers constipated. 
Eventually my grandpa built a “bathroom” in the cabin.  He installed a little toilet and sink off the side of the miniature bedroom. It was the size of a broom closet. Being a frugal man, he refused to open up additional fields of the septic system, which to this day no one in my family quite grasps the logic of, but in doing so everything made the little toilet back up. You could sneeze near it and it would need a couple of hours to settle down.  

My grandpa was obsessed with the toilet. It was as if he felt like he’d spoiled us all by putting in this small piece of modern plumbing. What was the point when there was a perfectly acceptable and useable outhouse 10 feet from the cabin? He simply did not want anything to go to waste. Not even an outhouse. So in order to appease his frugal nature, the toilet came with a set of very specific rules:
1.     No pooping in The Toilet until night time. If you had to do #2 during the day, go in outhouse.
2.     No peeing in The Toilet until night time. During the day, use the outhouse.
3.     If you pee in The Toilet at night, DO NOT FLUSH. Wait until morning and flush everyone’s pee at once.
4.     If you poop at night, you may flush the toilet.  ONCE. Any left overs could wait with the pee or the next poop. 
Basically it was a nocturnal toilet.
These rules created a weird sneakiness amongst my family.  I am pretty sure, although no one has openly admitted it, that everyone at one point sneaked in and made a clandestine deposit in that toilet. I definitely remember slipping into the cabin after everyone had gone to the beach and making a mad dash, praying that no one would catch me and that damn thing would fully flush my crime away. 
But, despite the hassle of the Toilet, the cabin itself was a bright, cheery, cozy little haven.  White washed pine walls and gingham curtains, a large red kitchen table, a huge oval red and grey rag rug and a front porch with two rocking chairs and a little hibachi.  It was homey and sweet and simple.  Everyone was welcome (provided they obeyed the Toilet rules) and everyone had fun.
The cabin was the sum total of all my summer vacations as a kid.  Every summer we went to the Lake. We’d play cards, read, swim, hike, pick berries, build bonfires, roast marsh mellows, skinny dip, have epic pillow fights, put on vaudeville shows, eat piles of junk food, laugh until our sides hurt, see moose, deer, elk, bear, rabbits, squirrels, collect bugs, rocks and pinecones. 
Looking back now I realize just how lucky I was to have the cabin.  However, at the time I felt like I was missing out. The cabin was small and cramped, it wasn’t on the water, we didn’t have a boat, our beach was communal and not private, we had the outhouse and the Nocturnal Toilet and it was the only place I ever went on summer vacation.  I wanted Disneyland and Hawaii, a European vacation or even a trip to Yellowstone.  Something I could take back to school and say “THIS is what I did on summer vacation!”
Now that I have children of my own I take them to the lake every summer. It is the sum total of all our vacations.  We hike, swim, pick berries, play cards, eat junk food and have a great time. When my mom inherited the cabin she opened up the septic fields, put in a full bathroom, a washer/dryer and built a small bedroom.  She knocked down the outhouse and put a shed over it that now houses all the water toys and bikes.  We are very lucky.
One day while we were at the (public) beach, I was struck by the unbelievable beauty of the lake. I was overcome with sweet childhood memories and a wave of gratitude. I couldn’t believe how amazingly fortunate I was to have grown up coming to a place like this and that I was now sitting here with my own children.  I felt like my heart was going to burst from pure, uninhibited gratitude and joy. 
And then, I had a moment of contraction. Suddenly I was struck with a numbing fear.  We were going to be leaving soon. I may never see the lake again. I panicked.  I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to lose this moment! I didn’t want it to end!
But then it occurred to me, it’s already gone.
The minute I started to panic, it was gone. The depth of my gratitude, my peace and tranquility were gone. And I did it. I was the cause of both my peace and my panic. 
And then I had one of those moments that comes when you are truly lucky. I realized that contentment is something you can actually practice.
This is revelatory to me.  Up until this point I have always thought of contentment at something you achieve, something you earn. Work long days, put in hard hours, study and keep your nose to the grind stone and some day you will get to retire and spend all your hard earned money contentedly sitting around.  It never occurred to me that contentment is something I could actually practice right now.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the second of the “observances” (Niyamasa) is santosha: contentment.  The Sutras say that in order to become enlightened one must  practice being content.  I am sure oft over-used yoga catch phrase of "acceptance" could be used as another way of saying "contentment" but to me that would be incorrect.  Acceptance implies a kind of acquiescence, a rolling over and letting the world pass over you.  To practice contentment means that you are actively choosing to engage in the world according to your own terms. It means acknowledging when you have enough and being satisfied with it.
In conversations with my friends and students the question of being depleted and being dissatisfied has been coming up a lot. And while I am by no means above the fray, I can’t help but wonder, how often do we think our needs are not being met when in fact they are?  How often do we actively practice being discontented and how drastically would our lives change if we did the opposite? Americans are constantly being encouraged to crave, to be constantly dissatisfied, to hunger so that we keep consuming. The fabric of our economy seems to depend on us remaining discontent, believing that we are too fat, too ugly, too old and too poor.  But are we? What would happen if we didn’t believe that?  What would it look like if we looked at our tiny cabins, and our outhouses and nocturnal toilets and said things like “Wow, this place is perfect. I get a respite from my life and time alone with my family. I need to take a crap and here is a place to do it. It satisfies my need. I am content with that.”

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Break-Up


I recently ended a 20 year love affair.  It's been an open, shameless, torrid thing.  We would meet any time of day; mornings, evenings, afternoons, sometimes multiple times a day.  There were times when I would go to bed thinking only of her, times when I would jealously guard her against anyone, refusing to talk to people or look at them until I saw her. She is my crutch, my addiction. She is my sweet, smooth lover. She is Coffee.

The first time we met I was 14.  I was manning the donut and coffee table at my junior high school's basketball tournament.  I drank a pot of Coffee and despite the sweats, the constant running to the bathroom and nervous jitters, I really liked her.  It was just a passionate one day stand though.  We didn’t get hot and heavy until I was 18.  That summer I had a job as an office go-fer.  Being an office bitch is, at its very best, mind-numbing. At its worst it's soul sucking.  Coffee was the perfect distraction.  She was a cheap whore in a Folgers can who would dress up real slutty in heaping spoonfuls of Coffee Mate and sugar. We’d slink off to my desk and she’d get me all overheated and pepped up while ensuring a constant need for bathroom breaks.

In college we became the perfect couple.  She effortlessly teased me into wakefulness through all four years of college and together we ventured into the steamy, aromatic world of Coffee Houses.  Our tastes started to change.  We dated baristas and fraternized with coffee people who introduced us to sexy, worldly ladies like Espresso Maker and Roasting Techniques.  I was becoming more discriminating in my choice of venues for her services and she was becoming more refined and expensive.  She no longer tolerated sugar or Coffee Mate, demanding that everything should be organic, fresh pressed or at the very least, it shouldn’t cost less than $9.99 a pound.

By the time I left college she was my mistress. Someone I couldn’t imagine living without and never imagined giving up. I’d bought her a penthouse in my body and I was going to continue to enjoy her aroma until I died.   

Then I had a week of debilitating migraines.  Now, I’ve had headaches all my life.  I’ve had headaches that last a week many times.  There was technically nothing different about this week of headaches than any other week of headaches I've had before.  The only thing different was that I’d finally had enough.  I’ve known for years that Coffee wasn’t serving me. I knew she was draining me. She’s horrible for my skin, terrible for my head and causes me more problems than she solves, but I could never cut the addiction because I never wanted to.  

Now I want to.  I want to because even though I love Coffee, like really, really love her, I hate my headaches more.  I simply hate my pain more than I love my Coffee. And that’s it. If Coffee didn’t give me headaches or cysts I would be all over her. Every. Day. But, she does so I am out.   

Happily, kicking Coffee out of my body has been pretty easy.  I started off by allowing her mother, Decaf, to move in. I made them share a room for awhile. Then I invited the healthy, super stable Cafix, to come over and let him share a room with Coffee and Decaf.  He’s not as sexy as Coffee and doesn't smell nearly as good, but he's respectful and quiet and I never feel jittery or crabby after hanging out with him.  Plus, he's been great about cleaning house. He pretty much did all the work of moving both Decaf and Coffee out for me.  

In the end, Coffee was really receptive to the transition.

I think in her heart she knew it was over too. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Study Group

This time of year, the end of winter into the beginning of spring, where nothing seems to be changing but everything is groaning for it is one of the hardest for me.  As winter yawns on and my gloves become mismatched sets of lost and displaced, my mood plummets.

Try as I might to hold onto the idea that this too shall pass, I find it very difficult not to indulge in my flight response.  I have a really bad flight response. It’s not just a “get out of town for a week to some place warm” flight response but a full-blown flee my life and everything in it response.

In my adult life I have moved back and forth from the west coast to New York five times. Each time it was on my own dime and each time I lacked a clear vision as to why I was moving.  The first time my aunt offered me a job for the summer, I took it and stayed.  The second time I moved to Oregon because I was tired of NYC and I thought Oregon sounded like a cool place to live. The third time, my then new husband wanted to move back to NYC so I agreed. Then we had kids and I thought we should live closer to family, so we moved to California (click here if you want to see what a train wreck that was!). I hated California so we moved back to NYC.  

Before each move I was always overcome with crippling anxiety and frustration. A feeling that nothing was ever going to be OK ever again and there was nothing I could ever do about it. These feelings were so intense I had to get away from them.  Each time I moved hoping that it would make the anxiety go away, hoping that it would be the defibrillator to get my life beating again.

The problem is, you just can’t outrun yourself.  No matter where you go, there you are. And emotional baggage never gets lost. It’s like the world’s most efficient airline employee.  It always makes it to the gate on time. It’s always waiting for you when you land.   

About a year ago, I started to get the urge to flee again and I finally began to wonder about this destructive habit of mine.  It was clear it was time to engage in some serious svadhyaya.  In yogic philosophy there guiding principles called the Yamas and the Niyamas. The Yamas are “restraints”, similar to the Ten Commandments.  They are the “shall nots.”  The Niyamas are the “shoulds,” the actions one does to align oneself with the Yamas.  Svadhyaya, self study, is the fourth Niyama.  To practice svadhyaya means to look at oneself and say “huh, that’s less than helpful. Why am I doing that?” If this sounds like modern psychotherapy, it should.  Psychotherapy is a form of svadhyaya.  (Yogic thought is blessedly broad in its scope and never says exactly what self study should look like.  It just says you need to do it.)  Svadhyaya means looking at your life, seeing the big piles of poop you’ve stepped in, acknowledging that your shoes stink and then deciding to clean it off properly.  Or as this lovely website so eloquently puts it: “It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations… to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies.”  (http://www.expressionsofspirit.com/yoga/eight-limbs.htm)

My father died around this time of year sixteen years ago. He was bipolar and had been in and out of mental institutions and on and off medication for most of my life.  At the time of his death his current medication was destroying his nervous system and, under the advice of his doctor, he was trying to wean off them. In the process he slipped into a manic state, wandered off, got lost in the woods and died from exposure.

I am haunted by his death and the trauma of growing up with a mentally ill father.  He is like my own personal Leviathan, constantly thrashing around in the ocean of my psyche.  At some points he’s my playmate, a person who taught me to be brave and bold and challenge conventions. At other times he’s a monster, a fearsome creature that fills me with shame and dread. Highly intellectual yet lost in delusion, extremely funny, yet ruthlessly sardonic, loving and cruel, a religious zealot, an angry atheist, a cheating, lying SOB and a loving, caring, attentive father. In the end he was like most people, an anathema; impossible to reach and never truly understood.   

Over the past two years I have been actively engaging in a conversation with my dad through a lot of svadhyaya.  It has not been easy because, 1. phantoms are painfully silent and withholding and 2. svadhyaya is rarely enjoyable. It usually comes with a lot of resistance, confusion and tears.  Trying to parse out answers to the Daddy Mystery has left me raw and often times unbearable to be around.  There are days when my urge to flee is so bad I have to go for a run to get away from myself.  Those are the days when I wonder why I even bother doing this at all. But then, something great happens. I get a light bulb moment like this one: 

Every time something happened to my dad, he ran away.

Now, it would be stupidly simplistic of me to say that my flight response is just something I was taught, that it’s just bad parenting.  Nothing is ever that cut and dry. But this little connection has given me a piece of the puzzle and this piece has afforded me peace.  Rather than sprinting through my life with blinders on I'm starting to slow down and experience the life around me.  Yogic philosophy is constantly reiterating that this moment is ephemeral.  If you get mired in the minutia of things as you think they "should" be you will miss the beauty of what is.  This kind of thinking is easy to talk about in the abstract, but without practical application, it becomes poetry and wishful thinking. That's where svadhyaya comes in.  Svadhyaya forces you out of yourself, out of self-pity and self destruction.  It forces you to see beauty in a very clear and practical way.  

To say, “I am cured! Halleluiah! Thank you Yoga!” would be ridiculous. I’m not.  But, through svadhyaya I have curbed my flight response considerably and I grow more and more confident that I will be able to slow down even more - maybe to a fast walk or a stroll. Who knows, maybe I’ll stop all together!

But, until then I intend to keep on studying.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Meal

I love Thanksgiving, but it's a relatively new relationship for me. When I was younger I had a fear of food so Thanksgiving was like the ex I who wouldn't leave me alone.  He'd drunk dial me about the same time every year and leave embarrassing messages like "Don't you remember how much you used to love my stuffing?! Don't you want my gravy?" It was torture. The table of fattening, taboo food made my heart sink. I'd turn away from my gluttonous family with embarrassment, bereft because they didn't understand, resigning myself to a day of sneers, misunderstandings and comments like “Oh Puh-leez! You could use some meat on those bones! Don’t be ridiculous!”    

And if you go way, way back to when I was a little kid, Thanksgiving made absolutely no sense to me.  I didn’t get why I was supposed to be thankful for being forced to sit at a table full of breakable items with my boring family, eating food I didn’t like, only to be rewarded by desserts I liked even less (all varieties of pie, especially ones with tapioca in them).  It was impossibly stupid.  We'd go to my grandparent’s house where I would be sat next to my Depression Era grandmother. She would say things like “is that all you are going to eat? You know there are plenty of people who would be very happy with this meal. Here try some of this…” and drop some goopy thing, (usually jello-molded), onto my plate and failing to notice that I was in fact eating turkey and a roll, neither of which was touching each other, thank-you-very-much!

I’m older now, healthier and most of my taste buds have died so I love Thanksgiving.  I love it because it’s simple and sweet.  There aren’t any gifts exchanged or milestones commemorated, no religious affiliations. It’s a meal. That’s it. Sure, it’s a big meal. OK, it takes all day to prepare, but at the end of the day? It’s just dinner. It’s an invitation to sit around with people you like (or tolerate) and share a meal.  And the best part? Most of the food makes you sleepy.  So you have this big meal and afterwards everyone just wants to sit around, watch TV, and hang out. When you really break it down, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday.

To me, Thanksgiving is the personification of the word “abundance.” Abundance is overflowing, bountiful, plentiful wonderfulness.  It means more than enough.  It means trusting that there is enough for everyone. It means sharing. Within the ritual of preparing food to feed your loved (or tolerated) ones is the representation of a bountiful life. It is a reminder that a rich life is not one that is simply overflowing, but one in which that effluence is shared.

We’re in a weird state of contraction in this country right now. People are unhappy. There is a constant stream of “stop whining and get a job!” retaliated by “stop being such a greedy pig!” and it all points to a need to recalibrate the scales towards abundance.  Clutching and grabbing, saying “Mine! All mine!” or “Give that to me!” is just like someone who is afraid to come to the table and the other person shaming them for it.  The breakdown of the celebration isn’t on the shoulders of one person or the other, it’s both.
 
Because here’s the thing; the table has been set and the food is prepared. A bountiful life has already been laid out for us.  And abundance wants to be consumed. It wants be enjoyed in whatever way it is going to be enjoyed, but it cannot be done while everyone’s trying to figure out who spoiled the soup.  


The soup’s gone cold so just leave it on the sideboard. 


Just come to the table, pass the potatoes and say “thank you for coming.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Anniversary


“You do realize your relationship is epic don’t you?”  

I laugh a little and then nod.  Of course I do.  Who wouldn’t? 


I’ve been married for 15 years today. I am 38 years old. Do the math and you’ll see that I got married when I was 23.  To my high school sweetheart.

It’s ridiculously old school except for the fact that I moved 3,000 miles away when I was 18 and have lived in New York City off and on ever since. When I was very young (and married) I would sometimes be embarrassed that I was so young and married to my high school sweetheart in New York City.  I worked at a corporate law firm with a bunch of other young, single people who couldn’t fathom being married, let alone to the same person they dated in high school. I was kind of a freak show. 


But, John and I are both small(ish) town kids that left home as soon as we could and never looked back except when we were looking for each other.  Although we’ve tried on several occasions, we’ve never been as good apart as we are together. Together, we’ve traveled back and forth across the United States four times.  Together, we’ve seen the world, played too much, amassed piles of debt, gotten out of those same piles of debt, tried our hands at film making, screenwriting, acting, white water rafting, mountaineering, and several other enterprises I’d rather not admit to now that I am grown-up. We have been together through the best and worst periods of our personal histories. We have supported each other and stood by helplessly as we watched the other dismantle and re-build her/his life over and over again. We have two children together. 

Our relationship is epic because it is fundamentally flawed. We are a freak show. We’ve never done things in order, we’ve been ridiculously nomadic, made huge mistakes, been overwhelmingly cruel to each other and somehow, against all odds, we have managed to hobble into middle age together, intact and still in love. 

In fact, despite all the crazy, no one has ever been kinder to me.  John, for all his faults, is the truest, sweetest friend I’ve ever known.  He is impossibly positive, unfailingly patient, unbelievably loving.


My relationship with my John is my strongest expression of yoga. Marred by base humanity, it is a constant reminder that a life rooted in patience, diligence, constancy, kindness and a willingness to accept things as they are, is a connected life.

And for me, that’s been the greatest anniversary gift of all.