"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Congregation




We arrived at Christmas Eve service late. The seats we found were in the back of the large church under an overhang, and because the service was so full, the five of us shared four chairs. The man directly in front of me was huge, so I spent the hour shifting constantly to see around him.

I usually love this service. Singing carols from my childhood on Christmas Eve, sitting with family, I feel loved and connected to the divine energy that I've called God most of my life. It's how we've started our Christmas together for the last several years and I find myself looking forward to that time as much as the food and the gifts and the games we play.

I have become an Easter and Christmas church-goer. I go with my brothers to their churches. One church, the Easter church,  is friendly and warm and the music is uplifting and glorious. The pastor tells stories that make me laugh and cry, often at the same time. And while I don't agree with all that's said, I feel love in that congregation, from the front and all around.

The other church, the Christmas church, is more formal and I feel surrounded by strangers who are also surrounded by strangers. Usually I don't mind because it's about the singing and the candles and my family.

This year things did not feel the same, and it was only partly because of the physical discomfort. We didn't get to sing as much. I was working against claustrophobia. And the sermon was long and full of threats of hell and a pedantic teaching bent on proving the reality of Mary's virginity. Three times the pastor said, "and in closing" before actually ending. There was no sense of hope or revealing of light. There was no offering of love. There were no stories.

When the pastor ran out of words and we lit the traditional candles, I felt a divine presence for the first time that evening. My youngest brother, our host, received a flame from the usher. His wife lit her candle from his. My husband lit his from hers. I lit my candle from my husband's. My middle brother lit his candle from mine, and then passed the flame on. By that time the church was full of stars, each one representing the hopes, dreams, and divinity of each person in the room. We sang together, carols as familiar and comforting as the family surrounding me. At the end everyone lifted their candles up, the stars ascending to a heaven that was this congregation of people acting in one accord for those few moments. That time was far too short for me. I wanted to stand in the twinkling light of those candles, and the congregation of common focus, for so much longer.

On the way home, my sister-in-law asked if we'd heard of the Bothell crows. She talked about a phenomenon of crows gathering each evening at the University of Washington campus in Bothell where there is a mitigation wetlands. She told us thousands of crows come in from the surrounding countryside. It seemed a worthwhile thing to see.

The next afternoon on the early edge of dusk, while SIL put the finishing touches on our Christmas dinner, five of us headed for town. Youngest brother drove, middle brother in the front seat with him. I sat in the back, in the middle, between husband and niece's fiance. Right away we saw trees full of crows, hundreds of them maybe. When we got to downtown Bothell, there was an apartment building covered in crows, all cawing and calling to each other. We could see more arriving from the distance, and as we watched and listened, we talked about the movie, The Birds. We wondered how it might be to live in that place and to be in the midst of that invasion every evening.

I thought that was it. Youngest brother said there were usually more than we were seeing, but I thought we were going back. I'd forgotten how stubborn my little brother is, and we continued to drive around. And around. And around. For long stretches we saw no crows at all. Or we saw clumps of them in the sky far away.

Just as it was on the edge of full dark, we pulled into the cemetery. The scene was movie perfect: The air was full of black shadows shifting here and there, like giant leaves being blown by a giant wind. Giant leaves that settled back into the waiting skeletal arms of winter trees. The ground was covered with crows, as were the headstones. The sound of those multitudes of crows was both chilling and awe-inspiring at the same time.

As we pulled away from the cemetery we could see crows in the sky arriving from every direction. We continued to drive around while the sky around us thickened with crows. We were on campus, heading up a hill, crows swirling and wheeling and calling all around us. Youngest brother pulled into a lot at my request. We marveled at a roof covered in crows arranged so symmetrically that it looked like each crow was honoring the personal space of each of his neighbors.

I got out of the car. For a short time I was alone outside at late dusk on Christmas night with hundreds of thousands of crows for company. The few sitting in the bushes closest to where we parked shifted to more distant branches. Otherwise there was no change. My presence had no impact. I wasn't afraid, or even nervous. Apparently, neither were the crows. Alert for danger, but sensing none. Only feeling a huge sense of wonder at the privilege of standing in the midst of this amazing congregation of corvids.

Eventually the guys joined me, one at a time, and I was glad for the human company. Marvel and wonder are much magnified when you have someone to share them with.   I didn't want to leave, but dinner waited at home, and pie and dominoes.

A little research revealed that this phenomenon, while larger than many, is not unusual. Crows gather at roosting time in part for the protection of each others' company. They sit together in trees, in a hierarchical arrangement. Anything disturbing the branches alerts everyone in the tree. Crows are smart. They have a culture. They use tools. They take care of each other. They play. So their choosing the safety of congregation seems to be more than just instinct.

As we drove home from the holiday, I thought about the two congregations: the church and the crows. I am able to experience wonder in both, but I definitely felt more alive and connected and open in the midst of the crows. I wanted to go back and spend more time with them - want to go back and watch them depart at dawn.

Traditional church feels heavy, oppressive, full of rules impossible to follow and contradictions so hard to reconcile. I've spent a lifetime trying to find the right church, trying to find a congregation to fit in with, trying to find a sweet spot of spirituality that feels like home. But when I pay attention to when I feel most connected to the divine energy that is love and grace, it isn't in church.

Walt and I went to yoga on New Year's Day. This was a special class done to music: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. In a regular class there are anywhere from 8 to 20 students, depending on the day. There were nearly 60 people in the room on this day. We were set up with no more than an inch or two between mats. Many had never done yoga before, and many people were there with their kids. Several times during class giggles were heard from the back of the room. Because we were so crammed in, there was a lot of accidental bumping into each other which resulted in smiles and reassuring pats.

Several times during the class, when we were all in a posture together, regardless of how deep, it seemed we all breathed the same breath at the same time. As with my brothers' churches, I don't know many of the people who practiced in that class on New Year's Day. It didn't seem to matter. We breathed together, moved together, laughed together. While not religious or even officially spiritual, that gathering was a congregation that felt like home to me.

I keep thinking I need to find a church. That need is a leftover one from my childhood, my years in the cult, and pressure from my brothers. Maybe this is the year that I find church in whatever congregation of living things that evokes wonder and love. Maybe it is time to accept my own soul's longings as real and enough. Maybe it's time to listen to the rustle of wings and breathings of hearts that tell me without doubt I'm not alone.


Image from www.cascadia.edu

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Break in the Clouds


I walked out of yoga last Monday into a damp gray morning that was only slightly lighter than when I'd gone in at 6:00 A.M. One of the teachers has said she likes to watch us leave the studio on these early winter mornings because steam rises from us as we move into the day. This particular class left me not only steaming, but sore and frustrated.

Three months of four-days-a-week practice has resulted in some pretty big changes. None that show on the outside necessarily, but I'm occupying my body very differently these days. It doesn't hurt to stand after sitting for a while. The chronic hip flexor pain I've dealt with in the three years since my hip replacement has improved dramatically. And when I bend over to pick something up, nothing hurts.

Some postures are much easier than they were all those weeks ago. Some I still can't do the full expression of. Most classes, I focus on my breathing and the form of the postures and don't worry about how far I get into them. When I get farther that I did the week before, it's a lovely surprise. As long as I don't expect my body to do more than it can, all's well.

Last week there were two classes in a row where amazing things happened. I did camel twice, the second time actually seeing the floor under me. I did the sit-ups with no pain at all. I was able to grab the sides of my feet for the forward bending posture where before I was lucky to reach the floor in front of me. It felt like I'd moved into new territory, was practicing from a new normal.

I walked into class Monday feeling like I do for most classes, nothing out of the ordinary, only maybe a little more eager because of last week's successes. The temperature in the studio was not overly warm (meaning it stayed around 105) and the humidity didn't seem oppressive. As is usually the case for the early morning classes, the atmosphere was serious and focused, calm and rhythmic.

From the beginning, however, I was stiffer than normal for me. I had to keep coming back to my breath because assuming my body would go back to where it had been two days before wasn't working. I fell out of postures I hadn't fallen out of for a long time. I started to get frustrated, and I could feel tears gathering in my chest, working their way up my throat. I was so glad when the standing series ended and we moved to the floor. As we settled into savasana the teacher said, as she often does, "Let the ground hold your weight." On this day the relief of that almost brought the tears all the way to the surface.

When we got to camel, the posture that is known as the emotional pose, I considered not even getting out of savasana. But I did a partial sit-up (those weren't working at all) and got to my knees for the set-up. I put my hands on my hips, breathed in and tipped my head back. And that's where I stayed. I was dizzy and my back hurt and my left leg wanted to cramp. When the teacher called us into savasana, I was already sitting on my knees in anticipation. Often, the second time (most of the postures are done twice) is easier. That was not the case for me on Monday. I got my head back, but didn't even try to reach my heels. I considered it a victory that the tears stayed inside.

When I finally walked toward my car after class, my mood matched the dark gray morning. The shame voice was ramping up, going from subtle to all-inclusive at the speed of light: All that time and work and you still suck. Is this really how you want to spend your retirement? And while we're on the subject of retirement, weren't you going to focus on your writing? What a joke.

I wasn't laughing. And I was trying hard not to listen. But it was hard, as it always seems to be with shame.

I had just put my sweaty pad in the trunk when something caught my eye. I looked up to see a break in the clouds where gold shone through. It was the first time in days that I'd seen anything but gray. That opening got larger as I drove home. Pink softened the gold and brightened into blue by the time I hit the freeway. The sky was still more gray than anything. My body was still sore. I was still discouraged. But I held that bit of light and color as a gift, and it was enough to sent shame scurrying back into the shadows.

Wednesday's class was easier. I got into camel both times. I was able to make breathing the priority, to return to my breath when the voice tried to get me to force my body into places it's not ready for yet. Places it may never be ready for.

Three months ago I made a commitment to myself to go to yoga regardless of how I feel, and regardless of how fast I see results. It's the one bit of structure I've imposed on this new retired life, the perfect amount. It may be time to add one other commitment to the mix. One, like yoga, that may not show much on the outside, but that will make worlds of difference for me on the inside. Like yoga, showing up consistently for this new commitment is how success needs to be measured. Just showing up with sincere intention, believing the light will find a way through.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Strength and Flexibility



"There are two gifts in life: strength and flexibility. Everyone is given one and then spends their life learning or being challenged by the other." The instructor's soft words during savasana rang particularly true in that moment. I'd just fallen out of tree pose again and again trying to get my leg to bend up enough to be where it was supposed to be, resting foot-up on my thigh.

I know myself to be strong - body, mind, and spirit. What has served me well in life so far, serves me well in yoga. Staying in the 105 degree room for ninety minutes, while challenging, is never an obstacle. Pushing through discomfort is automatic, and I have to pay attention to not push too hard, over the edge into pain. I don't quit.

It is definitely true in my case that flexibility was not included in the original package. Teaching helped me develop mental and emotional flexibility. It was either become flexible or be miserable, and misery is no place to live. I can look into my past and see that some of my hardest times came when I dug in and tried to power through situations that might have been eased with a softer, bendier approach. Marriage, one of life's greatest schools, has offered lessons in flexibility that came close to breaking me when I tried too hard to control the direction of things.

When I returned to Bikram yoga six weeks ago, I was shocked to discover how much physical flexibility I'd lost in the five years I was away from practice. Not that I had that much physical flexibility to begin with, but what little I had gained from that initial year of yoga was gone. Nothing wanted to bend - my neck, my back, my legs. There was not one single posture I could do the full expression of, no matter how hot the room, or how hard I stretched.

This was not something strength could help me with. Pushing harder just meant I lost my breath and my focus and I'd find myself looking around at everyone who seemed to be so much more successful (and thinner and younger and better-everything) than I was.

Fortunately, with age has come some measure of wisdom. I know I have choices, and that more often than not, the automatic choice will not get me closest to where I want to be. In this new adventure that is older age and retirement, I have the chance to do things differently. I have the chance to be differently.

I started yoga this time determined to focus on what I could do, and the benefits of that. On showing up regularly and being as fully present as possible when I did.  I promised my body I'd be kind and gentle and grateful. It didn't believe me at first, for good reason, but with each class I can feel it begin to trust that I've told the truth this time.

The tenth posture in the series, standing separate leg head to knee pose, is one I've had to work at not dreading. Every single time I have had to quiet my mind and visualize the full expression while pointing my body gently toward that goal, knowing I won't even get close. It requires a tucked chin and choked breathing while rounding over and trying to touch your forehead to the knee of the leg stretched straight out before you.

The most important part of this posture is getting the forehead to the knee, so it's allowed to bend the leg up until that happens. The problem for me is that my forehead wouldn't touch my knee no matter how much I bent my leg. And I struggled so much with the choked breathing that I'd lose track of both my forehead and my knee.

Until one day last week. I followed the directions, one by one: arms overhead, hands in prayer, step over your mat four feet, pivot to the right, twist hips, twist, twist, twist, two hips in one line, tuck your chin, look at your navel, and with exhale breathing round over like a cat touching your head to your knee, bend your knee up if you have to but get your forehead on your knee, hands lightly touching the ground in front of you.

I followed the directions all the way through. To the full expression of the posture.

My knee was bent, but my forehead was definitely touching it. And then it touched when we did the posture going the other direction and it touched twice more when we repeated the posture. I wanted to do a happy dance, but we were already onto tree pose which required all my concentration, and which brought me back to myself as I fell out again and again.

My forehead touches my knee every time now, some days with more ease than others, but it's just there like it's been there all along. I still have to bend my knee, but I can feel a release that lets me know that might not always be the case.

Even though it's just one yoga pose, and one tiny accomplishment, what I'm left with is profound. That forehead on my knee offered clear proof that I don't have to work so hard. Not at yoga. Not at life. Persistence. Showing up. Being grateful for what's already there. Breathing. Focus on what's right in front of me. The rest, amazingly, takes care of itself.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Vashonista Celebration




THE SUMMER DAY

Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver.


For five days at the beginning of this month, a group of six bloggers met for our fourth annual gathering at Lavender Hill Farm on Vashon Island. For the first time we were all retired, and so we decided to meet longer and to use the time to write. The magic that happened during those days as we responded to prompts and allowed stories to emerge from our depths is hard to describe. As a way to celebrate that time, we decided to share our last writing in each of our blogs, and to link so that you, our lovely readers, can see what different and powerful responses a prompt can evoke. We followed Pat Schneider's AWA method as explained in her book Writing Alone and With Others.

Our facilitator (me - what a joy that was!) read Mary Oliver's The Summer Day out loud, and the group responded to the question that ends the poem. We had ten minutes to write by hand the pieces you'll read, and we will all have done some revision before publishing on our blogs. You can read their responses here: Sandi, Jann, Linda, DJan, Sally. My response is below. 

~~~~~~~~~~~

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? 

I plan to be as fully awake as I can be and to bear witness to a life of joy earned through both suffering and grace. 

I plan to sing in full voice, not with my mouth, not in haunting melody or joyous carol, but through my writing. 

I plan to seek Divinity in the face of every person who crosses my path. I plan to let my light radiate and encircle and heal. 

I plan to seek both the wild and the precious in the birds of the air - my beloved bald eagle appearing out of nowhere, hummingbirds hovering before my face, robins ringing in the seasons. I will soak in the wild and the precious in sea breezes, sun filtering through brilliant fall leaves, the delight of the juice of a freshly picked apple exploding in my mouth. 

I plan to continue to seek beauty in the mundane, the painful, the broken and ugly. 

I plan to breathe gratitude deeper and deeper into my body, and to release it back into the world through my eyes, my smile, and whatever words are given to me to express all that's wild and precious.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Eyes Open


We're in savasana, the first of the session. Two glorious minutes spent lying on our mats after fifty minutes of standing postures that have us all dripping and breathing hard. A respite before the floor series which will challenge in a completely different way. Each teacher approaches this time slightly differently. Some are mostly quiet, making the time meditative. Some will offer instruction on postures. Some will tell stories about people who have healed lives and bodies with yoga, my favorite.

Every teacher talks about the importance of keeping our eyes open during savasana. We've already been reminded at the beginning of the day to practice with eyes open, but the instruction while we're in this resting pose is especially clear. "Keeping your eyes open helps you stay present and gain the most benefit. This time allows your body to absorb what it's just done. If you close your eyes you'll drift away."

Eyes open during savasana is easy. There is no struggle to stay present. Nothing is expected in those moments beyond being and breathing.

The only time I'm even tempted to close my eyes during a class is when I'm pushing too hard. My mind tells me my body stretched that far last class so it should this one. My body tells me no. And even though I've sworn I will not compete this time, I will only do what I can and be grateful for that, I start to feel like a failure. I need to close my eyes and go inside where it feels safe.

But closing my eyes makes me dizzy. I lose my balance. I can't do the posture at all, let alone as deeply as I think I should. I get frustrated, and catch myself at the top of a spiral I do not want to spin down. And so I open my eyes, focus on my breathing, and stand facing myself in the mirrors until the spinning stops.

My life right now feels like one long savasana. A savasana earned after years of sweating and pushing myself to and sometimes beyond my limits. There is nothing expected of me. Nothing. So I breathe. I am. I see.

In past years I staggered through autumn, exhausted from the start of another school year, grasping for moments of stillness and beauty. I longed for a time when I could drink in all of autumn's glories through eyes not clouded with stress and fatigue. That time is here, and I'm drinking it in like a blind woman seeing for the first time.

Everyday sights take on a brighter hue and have the power to delight so much more deeply than I ever imagined. It doesn't hurt that we're having possibly the most beautiful autumn ever.

My daily walks with Toby have become sacred ritual. While they've always been important, when I worked I used that time to process the day. That often meant I saw very little around me while I wrestled inwardly with whatever monsters the day exposed. I was also walking at the end of a day, exhausted and sludgy.

It's become our habit to walk in the early afternoon. The sun has warmed the air just enough, and accompanies us like a benevolent spirit. Toby sprints after deer, or the hope of deer, and I marvel every time at how beautiful and regal he is. Graying around the muzzle now, almost 8, he is still the best companion a wanderer of the world could hope for.

Our route rarely varies, and I anticipate parts of it eagerly. On clear days, there is an open spot where the blue blue sky meets dark evergreens in a storybook scene often enhanced with sheeply clouds. At a certain bend in the river the resident pair of kingfishers begin their clattering call. It feels like they're announcing our arrival, although Toby is usually in the river before I catch the flashes of white and black and blue shooting just above the water.

The river itself is both a soothing constant and a source of daily surprises. One day it was eleven mallards resting on the opposite bank. I watched them preen and dabble and sleep through a frame of big leaf maple leaves while the river chuckled over smooth stones and Toby dived for rocks farther upstream, completely oblivious.

Often after our walk Toby and I will hang out in the back yard together. He chases bird shadows as they race across the lawn. I sit on the patio with a book, sometimes reading, sometimes just watching. Toby's red coat against the bright green of lawn, his marcelled ears on high alert, his plumed tail curled skyward. A Red-tailed Hawk wheeling overhead, or his Sharp-shinned cousin swooping through the feeders in search of a Junco or Chickadee lunch. The newly arrived Evening Grosbecks like oversized Goldfinches crowding the feeders and filling the air with their distinctive piercing chirps.

My favorite, however, is one particular hummingbird. Either a female, or more likely one of this year's fledglings, this bird has a singular buzz. More playing card on bicycle spokes than anything else. A much louder whirr-click than any of her counterparts. She is drab, with only the tiniest of hints of color at her throat. And she is fearless. She'll eat at the feeder to my left and then she'll move to the huge hanging fuchsia to my left, often stopping in the middle to study me. She hovers a few feet away and then moves closer, often getting close enough I could reach up to pet her without extending my arm. The first time she came to study me, I was nervous she'd get too close and I'd lose an eye. Over these last weeks I've relaxed. I pull my glasses down so we're looking directly at each other, eye to eye.

Even in a life that is now mostly savasana, where it's easy to be as open-eyed and open-hearted as my being is capable of, there are challenges that make me want to close my eyes. Both in denial and in an effort to cope. What's different now, just like in class, is that I am more willing to re-open my eyes and to face whatever is in front of me. I don't like being off-balance and dizzy, and I'd rather move through.

I'm in my third week back at yoga. I'm adjusting to the heat and the rigor and the routines. I'm learning to listen to my body and to push right up to the point where just right becomes too much. And perhaps unsurprisingly, I've begun to find savasana clarity in the middle of postures more and more. I stand before the mirror, body in correct form, breathing and concentrating. Eyes wide open. Heart wide open. Open to whatever comes next.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Inspiration


The tiniest sliver of moon and a few scattered stars provide the only light as I step out the door into the morning. I breath in air that holds both summer's warmth and autumn's promise. It's earlier even than if I were going to work, and being out at this hour is a surprising gift.

I'm on my way to a 6:00 AM Bikram Yoga class, the first time in over four years.

On the drive in I think about all that's happened in those years: I returned to teaching after a two year leave in which I intended to get my book published and become an income-earning writing, neither of which happened. I got a new hip, the old ruined one the reason I had to leave yoga. I taught for four more years and learned a lifetime's worth of new lessons, as much as I'd learned in all the years prior. I quit writing almost completely except for a random blog post and my daily journaling. I explored Belize, rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and toured Italy. I retired.

Finding the studio is easy. My beloved Pat whose buddy pass and gentle encouragement brought me here has given good directions. Plus I Google Mapped it, and read the directions on the website. I also read the entire website in the belief that the more I knew the easier the experience would be.

Few others are on the road this early and I arrive ten minutes earlier than I expect. That's on top of the ten minute cushion I gave myself - just in case. Only one other car is in the lot and I see a woman moving about the brightly lighted studio.  I don't want to be the first one in, so I sit in my car and wait until more cars arrive.

I walk in behind two people who are clearly regulars, and introduce myself to Mica, the teacher and owner of the studio. She is warm, friendly, welcoming. The place has a clean and vibrant energy. Pat arrives, we visit. Kay, who was our first Bikram instructor and now attends and teaches at this studio, gives me hug and we visit. And then it's time to move into the room.

The heat is a palpable force. 105 degrees. I tell myself that we had days hotter in the canyon last summer, but some inner voice responds that there is no 50 degree river to dip into here. The room is comfortably full of a variety of people. I realize I don't stand out one way or the other, and relax just a little. Mica welcomes us, tells us to stand with our feet together and bring our hands together and up to our throats. The words are familiar, and my body responds automatically.  Or at least tries to.

Over the next 90 minutes and 26 postures my mind is kept busy monitoring my body. I attempt each posture and discover that parts of me have frozen stiff in the last four years. I also discover that I feel no sense of competition with my fellow yogis - a change from my previous experience. I am here for myself. I am patient with muscles that had decided on an early retirement without telling me. I breathe gently through waves of dizziness.  I sweat, at first in annoying dribbles down my forehead into my eyes, and finally in one huge body-shaped film that covers me like a living being.

The final savasana comes as such a relief and with such a sense of accomplishment that I would dance if my body weren't a jellyfish blob on my mat. Just before Mica exits the room she offers us Namaste, which we return, a word and prayer that completes the sense of homecoming that has been building over the last couple of hours.

The lively and loud world beyond the studio door startles me and brings me out of myself. I breathe in the fresh morning air, pulling it deep through freshly cleared pathways. Something not fresh follows the morning into my lungs - acrid, thick, and familiar. The unique cleansing stench of a body purging poisons. The smell stays with me, even after a long shower, hovering like a malicious spirit.

I feel slightly ill the rest of the day, while at the same time feeling deeply relaxed. By the next morning I'm sore in places I've never been sore before: front neck muscles, upper back, triceps. But I'm also feeling a relief from other pains and tightness that have dogged me since my hip surgery. I feel alive in ways I haven't since last summer in the canyon.

That first class was on a Wednesday. I went back Friday. The second day was so much easier. Not the class itself. That will never be easier because there will always be another level to aspire to, another posture to attempt more depth with. And 105 degrees requires full attention and focus every time. But I did a little more, the time went a little faster, and the potency of the smell was diminished significantly. And I felt both vibrantly alive and deeply serene for the rest of the day. A feeling that lingers still.

I'll go again on Monday. My commitment to myself is three days a week, maybe even four. My gift to myself, this time and this immersion in body, spirit and breath. In-spiration that will provide the light and energy for the inspiration I seek to live this new life to the fullest.




Monday, September 7, 2015

Reality


Pompeii was on the itinerary for our second day in Italy. In the months leading up to the April trip, that was the one thing I looked forward to the most. I first discovered Pompeii as a child in the pages of old National Geographic magazines, and so had waited a lifetime to experience the reality of the place.

I can conjure the memory: I'm 10, or 8 or 12. It's a North Idaho winter and I'm home sick with pneumonia or mumps or the flu. While snow drifts down outside, or blizzards as it so often did, and ice frames the inside of the windows, I'm tucked in on the couch in the living room surrounded by old magazines and Readers Digest Condensed Books, all donated by customers from our milk route. Mom and Dad are out working the dairy, my brothers are at school, and I'm left alone with that bounty of print, and my imagination.

I would study the detailed and lifelike illustrations of Pompeii endlessly. I read enough of the text to understand the basics of what happened to the residents on August 24, 79 AD, but it was the pictures that captured me. Vesuvius loomed large in my mind, an evil force with the power to wipe out an entire town in a day. Herculaneum was mentioned, but it was the streets of Pompeii I walked during those long winter hours.

Two years of high school Latin cemented my fascination with that ancient city. In the years that followed I read everything I found about Pompeii and was determined I would walk those streets for real one day.

The morning of our Pompeii day dawned cold and blustery with the sun and clouds wrestling for possession of the sky. Still slightly jet-lagged from our arrival in Rome and then Sorento the day before, and buzzing with the excitement of a ten year old's dream finally coming true, I saw Vesuvius for the first time from the train carrying us to meet our guide for the day.

That was the first clash of imagination and reality. Not even close to evil looking, Vesuvius sat serenely in the distance, a soft green mound, and the only landform to break the flat horizon. While it grew larger as the train approached Herculaneum, our first stop, the gentle slopes became more appealing rather than less. I found myself wishing we had another day so I could hike the mountain's trails.

I hadn't cared that we were seeing Herculaneum, but looked forward to it as a part of the whole adventure. The first view as we entered the gates and proceeded across the bridge brought tears to my eyes. The reality of the ancient ruins exposed in the center of the towering apartment buildings of an active town overwhelmed everything my imagination had created.

As Pina, our amazing guide with two PhD's in Pompeii history, led us through the streets and the homes telling stories the whole time, I struggled to absorb both the information and the sensations. I was walking the same streets, standing in the same courtyards, viewing the same mosaics and frescoes as the people who perished centuries ago. I was in Italy, in Herculaneum, with a group of incredible women, falling in love with this little town. And Pompeii was next.

Where Herculaneum was small and intimate-feeling, with only a handful of other people present, Pompeii was a production. The lines to get in were long. The city was huge, the streets crowded enough our progress in was often slowed. It was much harder to imagine life during the time of the eruption, to find the city of my childhood dreams in the crowds and endless walls and streets of stone.

And so I released the dream and fully claimed the reality. A reality that included both ruts in the stone roads left by chariot and cart traffic and a tacky modern cafeteria/bathroom built smack in the middle of town. A reality that included plaster casts of bodies and litter on the streets. A reality that included seeing the actual Cave Canem mosaic with my own eyes and souvenir stands tucked in random corners.

 I discovered that day following Pina through the streets of Pompeii that I no longer needed the dreams of childhood to sustain me. They had gotten me through unbearable realities. But I was, I am, no longer that powerless child. A child who found her power in the pages of books and magazines, in a past not her own, and in her imagination.

I am now a woman of a certain age, newly retired, just days into this new adventure. I didn't actually dream of retirement as a child, or even as a young adult. It was never my intention to live a conventional life, so retirement wouldn't have been a need. In the later years of my teaching career, in the midst of much more convention than I ever expected for myself, retirement became the light at the end of a very long tunnel. The dream of unlimited choices for my days, no schedule, and travel kept me going through some challenging times.

So here I am. With unlimited choices for my days. A schedule I set, or don't. More travel possibilities than I ever imagined possible. A dream come true. Yet I know, as was the case with Pompeii, that the reality will be both a bit disappointing and a far greater adventure than I can currently grasp. As I travel these new streets of my freed days, I will remember how the disappointment of the grit and crowds of Pompeii turned so quickly into wonder at what it meant to be standing in the sunshine on stone streets in the shadow of Vesuvius.