"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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Tremor of Love

Birthday, 2011 - Frank, Deb, Mark, Geoff

As with so many things in life, it's hard to identify exactly where things started to change. Hindsight is providing many clues that seem like they should have carried more importance. It's not like they were ignored, the little shifts from what had been normal. It's more like they were absorbed as part of aging and a life slightly off the rails.

The tremor in his arm became the turning point. A tremor he denied even as he was holding his arm to keep it still. That got people's attention in a way the many more subtle behavioral changes did not.

My brother, Mark, has Parkinson's Disease. He was diagnosed two weeks before his 60th birthday on April 6. That news created a whole new tremor, one that continues to ripple through both the family and each one of us individually as we adjust to a much-altered future.

Previous to Mark's March diagnosis, I could have brought little to a conversation about Parkinson's. Our paternal grandfather had it, but we were young enough when he died that Parkinson's was a disease old people got and had nothing to do with us. Michael J. Fox brought a younger more hopeful face to the disease. L-dopa I knew I bit about just from general reading. That was it.

I know much more now. Each answer I've found leaves in its wake a dozen new questions.

At first the diagnosis was a relief. An explanation for changes in my brother that were distressing and confusing to his siblings if not to him. He has maintained such an emotional and mental distance from the changes that he seems able to believe they don't exist.

The changes. So subtle at first. Cells dying in the center of his brain, parts of my little brother blinking out with each tiny death.

He grew quieter and quieter, and it was harder and harder to draw him out. He stopped smiling and joking. He'd stare into space, or stare at a face, with no emotion or expression. His grooming grew sloppy. His handwriting grew illegible. The house he was so proud of started to look like a hoarder who'd lost control lived there. The antique business he'd worked so hard to create, a life dream, slowly fell apart from lack of attention.

The weirdnesses started to accumulate to the point it was clear something was wrong. We thought depression. There was plenty of reason: losing his job, loneliness, a death that knocked his pins out from under. He swore he was not depressed. He said he was fine.

And then there was that tremor. And a diagnosis. And medication. And hope.

An answer to the question, and solutions offered.

Mark is the middle child of four. I'm the oldest, the only girl, and do not share the same father as my brothers. Our two brothers book-end him both chronologically and in their personalities. That we are close in adulthood is something of a miracle. A lot of that closeness is because of Mark.

Nearly ten years ago, he was released from prison, an experience he's written about at length. He went in angry and judgmental and disconnected from us all. He came out loving and wanting relationship, saying that was the most important thing. "We know God through our relationships with people." And he acted on that.

Mark's love became the glue that bound our family - four siblings with not-always-positive history, who loved each other, but whose lives had taken very different directions. He sang in his church choir and we would go to the holiday performances to support him. He organized brothers and my husband into a team for an annual charity golf tournament that I tagged along on. We became Team Lyons and a fixture at the tournament. He invited both brothers and their wives to surprise me for a birthday dinner one year, the first time we'd all sat at a table together for years. That birthday dinner celebration has become a tradition, and the best gift I receive year after year.

Before the diagnosis, as we watched Mark fade away, it seemed that all might be lost. With the diagnosis I felt a surge of hope that while things would be challenging, the essential Mark might be returned to us. I was ready to fight. So were our brothers. Mark's response was the opposite.

He took his medication and went to physical therapy. But he did not find a way to exercise, the one thing he was told provided the best chance of slowing the progression of the disease. For a time everything got worse: grooming, communication, attention. He stopped answering texts and his phone. His contribution to conversations was flat and one word at a time. The only thing that improved was the tremor in his arm, which grew quieter. He continued to insist he was fine.

Last weekend, younger brother and his wife, Mark's best friend, and I spent a day helping Mark in his yard and house. Despite the reason for our presence, it was a good day. Five of us working together, chatting in the spring sunshine, restoring beauty and order. SIL brought food so we ended the day on Mark's deck eating sub sandwiches and a homemade pie. We talked. To Mark. He said little. Blunt truth was spoken with as much love as possible. Mark needed to step up or he would lose everything sooner rather than later. If he wanted a voice, he needed to speak. We wanted to be there to support him, but could only do that if he told us how. When asked if he wanted to say anything, his only response was, "I love you."

We meet again on Sunday. This time all siblings will be present, and his best friend. Mark promised to come up with a plan for what he wants to happen, and how that might be put into action. I anticipate it will be a hard conversation. The other two brothers, who love Mark fiercely, have very different ideas about what helping him looks like. Decisions will need to be made about POA and medical POA and finances and estate planning - at the very least, that conversation needs to be started.

A tremor of hope shivers once more. I've talked to Mark twice this week. He said he's got his plan. He went to a support group meeting (and called to tell me). I've talked to both of our other brothers. We've all continued to inform ourselves about this disease that will ultimately take Mark from us. We're all committed to doing whatever we can to keep him as long as we can, and to help him walk this new path with as much independence and dignity as possible.

There is tension and fear and disagreement among us. There are family dynamics that threaten to overwhelm. There is Mark, trying to keep as much distance between himself and this hard hard truth as possible. And there is love. We, four siblings whose history could easily have broken their ties forever, end every conversation with, "I love you." That won't be enough to cure Mark's Parkinson's,  or to stop the losses, or to prevent the grieving that's already begun. But it is the only glue that has the power keep us together though what's to come.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ready


This first year of retirement is almost over. The school year for Walt is being counted down in weeks. Summer plans are bubbling on the back burner. And for more moments than could be considered random, I've begun to feel a gentle pressure. I am happier than I've ever been. Life is full of choices and travel and love. The one thing I haven't honored in the way I expected is my writing, and my writer self has begun to nudge against my heart with ever increasing impatience.

Finally, almost too late to complete the application process, I decided to pursue a training that would make not-writing impossible, and open new doors for guiding other writers. Ready to take a step, but without commitment to any need beyond my own.

On paper the week looked loaded with potential for powerful magic, great learning, and adventure. A Franciscan retreat center in the Malibu hills overlooking the Pacific sounded like an ideal place for learning how to lead others in a method of writing based on gentleness, kindness and a firm belief that everyone has value. Practices rooted in the belief that everyone is creative and has a voice that deserves to be heard.

The weather forecast offered brisk beach weather, with mostly sun. The list of participants, seven of us in all, included women from Ireland, the east coast and all over California. The instructors came with a strong list of credentials. I was ready for this new challenge after months of take-it-easy retirement.

I arrived at Serra Retreat in a flurry of stress and anxiety. Issues with the shuttle bringing me from the airport and L.A. traffic and a surly guard at the gate conspired to deliver me at the top of the hill 15 minutes after the training was supposed to start. I don't do late, especially for something that felt as important as this. Once I set foot on the grounds, however, everything heavy and pointy fell away. I was greeted by our lead teacher with all the warmth and ease of a friend not seen for much too long.

In another flurry, this time getting a key, settling into my room, and finding my way to the space that would be home for the next five days, I released my fear and the events of the morning, and settled in.

Our classroom was originally a garage for the family who owned the place before the Franciscans bought it decades ago. A garage covered inside with gorgeous tiles worth a small fortune and imbuing the space with an earthy warmth that held us all as we opened our minds and hearts and souls to the learning we were there to receive. When I walked into the space for the first time, other women were seated in the circle that very quickly became sacred space. We greeted each other as though we'd known each other for a very long time. There was never a moment of unease or uncertainty or posturing for position. Our love of AWA, and our desire to be messengers of the method, were enough foundation for easily granted trust and a willingness to be vulnerable quickly.

During the next few days, the on-paper potential was realized and exceeded beyond all expectation.  The method of writing that had brought us together was applied to life with incredible success. Kindness, clarity, common sense, creativity, communication - all took on much deeper meaning as I watched them modeled again and again.The inevitable problems and challenges (a snoring roommate, a participant with an alternate agenda, fatigue) were solved in ways that only added to the learning and the laughter and the bonding.

And oh how we laughed. Great swooping belly laughs. Soft girly giggles. Bursts of joy and delight that left us all feeling lighter.

We talked and listened and wrote. We shared and read and listened some more. We asked questions and brainstormed and shared some more. We wrote and shared and offered feedback, marveling that our writing was so powerful, so clearly from our deepest places. We took turns leading groups and writing and receiving feedback. We learned from each other. We held safe space for each other as we took our first tentative steps into new territory. We fell in love with each other.

There were so many bits of miracle throughout the week, I was left with no doubt that this time was a gift of extraordinary value.

Serra Retreat can host more than a hundred people at a time. We were the only group there for most of the week, and never had to share with more than a half dozen others at a time. That meant we had the beautiful grounds to ourselves for morning strolls to the point overlooking the Pacific, or walking the labyrinth in the shade of giant eucalyptus trees, or sitting quietly on a bench surrounded by the fragrance of pink roses and the multi-versed song of a mockingbird. My first mockingbird experience. The complex and joyous music coming from the throat of that simple gray bird was a wonder to behold. A perfect soundtrack for the week.

The weather got more beautiful as the week progressed. While cool, our wanderings were sun-kissed. By Wednesday, we would pour from the building during breaks and find places to bask like the many lizards we shared the grounds with.

Because our group was small and our teachers wise, we had time two afternoons for trips to the beach. We walked the warm California sand in bare feet, marveled at pelicans diving pell mell into the waves, admired the skill and sleek seal bodies of surfers. There were long spaces of comfortable silence, and long girl conversations about everything and nothing.

The parting at the end of the week was bittersweet. I was full to overflowing, ready to be home and sleep in my own bed. I also didn't want to leave ever, and missed my new friends even as I was saying goodbye to them. I traveled home with a pretty piece of paper that certifies me to lead writing groups in the AWA method. I can call myself an affiliate. And as is always the case with an intense experience like this, I am changed in ways that I expect will continue to reveal themselves in the months to come.

In these first days back I continue to feel the Southern California sun on my skin, to smell the roses and the ocean. I hear the voices and see the faces of each of the women who became my sisters for that week. Ideas fill the air around me like the squawking and tropical flashes of green that the parrots of Malibu punctuated our days with. The mockingbird's song echoes still, a reminder of joy and full-throated expression of the voice he was born to share. A reminder that my voice matters. A reminder that no one is ever served when any voice is silenced.

I am ready. For exactly what, I'm not sure yet. But I'm ready.


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.