"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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Daddy's Smile

Here is my response to the writing prompt from the class Carrie and I are taking together. The prompt: Write a story about a child or very young adult's notion of the spiritual, the magical, or the religious. I encourage you to make the child the "I" in the story--but it can be fiction or memoir or a hybrid. Include in your story a hot beverage, a specific kind of tree, and something that has or is believed by someone in the story to have some magical property.

Daddy’s Smile

The squeak-scrunch, squeak-scrunch sound of Daddy’s boots in the snow makes me a little sleepy. We’ve been walking in the woods for a while now looking for our Christmas tree. It’s just him and me. No Mommy. No pesky little brothers. He picked me up when I said my toes were cold. They’re still really cold, but I don’t tell Daddy that. The rest of me is so toasty warm, my arms and legs wrapped around him piggyback, his whiskers tickling my cheek. I like breathing in his cigar and sawdust and green soap smell. He’s so strong, holding me up with one hand under my bottom, the big axe swinging from his other.

Daddy tells me the names of trees whenever we’re in the woods together. He cuts trees down for his job and he knows every tree there is. Ponderosa Pine trees are our favorite. We like them because of how they smell, and their pretty red and black bark, and the needles that are soft and poky all at the same time. Those are not good Christmas trees, though. We’re looking for a fir tree. Those are the best. I used think fir trees had real fur on them, like bears. Not any more though. I’m a big girl now.

Mommy tells me all the time what a big girl I am. “You’re too big to be carried around.” “Big girls eat their peas.” “Mark is just a baby. You’re a big girl. He needs me more than you do right now.” I’m not so sure I like being a big girl.

Daddy just says I’m his special girl. When he smiles at me I feel like I could fly – it feels that good. My heart gets jumpy. I get warm in secret places. I am so happy I want to laugh and laugh and laugh. No other thing ever makes me feel like that.

This morning Mommy got me up extra early so I could be ready for our Christmas tree hunt. She even made me hot chocolate to warm my tummy, but she wasn’t smiling at all. Until Daddy patted her bottom and gave her his smile and then she was happy, too. She gave me marshmallows for my chocolate, even though before Daddy’s smile she said marshmallows are not for breakfast. I was my best good girl because if I made her mad she might not let me go with Daddy, and also I want Santa to leave me presents under our tree. I said please and thank you. I didn’t cry when I burned my tongue on the chocolate. I ate all my oatmeal, even though I hate oatmeal.

This is the first time I get to help pick out our Christmas tree by myself. Last year we all went, but it was just Daddy and Mommy and Frankie and me. Baby Mark was still in Mommy’s tummy. Daddy pulled Frankie and me on a sled. Frankie got to sit in front because he’s littler than me, but I didn’t care so much because Daddy let me pick out the tree. This year Frankie has a cold, and Baby Mark is too little, so Mommy has to stay home. I couldn’t act too happy that it’s just my daddy and me, or she would have made me stay home, too.

We need this tree because soon it will be the birthday of Baby Jesus who is God’s son, like I am Daddy’s daughter. Christmas is when we celebrate how God sent Jesus to earth to save everyone from their sins. I guess I need to be extra nice to Jesus because Mommy says I do a lot of sins.

Jesus had a mommy and daddy besides God, but they were really poor and people were mean to them. I wonder if Jesus minds not getting to be in heaven with His real daddy. If I am a really good girl, Santa will bring me presents on Christmas, and that means God is happy with me and not sad because I wasn’t nice to His Son. If I’m not a good girl, Santa won’t bring me presents and God will be sad and so will Jesus. If I’m really bad I will have to go to hell, which is worse than no presents.

So I try hard to be good. I know I’m the best good girl when I see Daddy’s smile. It’s easy to make him smile. He taught me how, and I’m good at being his special girl. It’s not so easy to make Mommy smile. She hardly ever smiles at me any more, no matter what I do. I wish I could smile at her like Daddy does. I hope God listens to Daddy more than He listens to Mommy.

“Look, Squirt!” Daddy’s voice is quiet and excited all at the same time. He’s stopped and points the axe just ahead. It’s a deer. So close I can see her eyelashes. I know it’s a girl, a doe, because she doesn’t have antlers. She looks right at us with her big ears and her black tail up. She’s so pretty. A deer ate out of my hand once. I wonder if she’ll come closer. I know to be very still. Daddy will not smile at me if I make noises. You have to be very quiet and careful with wild animals or they run away or maybe even attack if you scare them enough.

The deer and us watch each other for a really long time. Then she snorts at us, kind of like a goodbye, and wanders away into the woods. “Isn’t that something?” Daddy’s voice is still really quiet, and I’m not even sure he’s talking to me.

His hand isn’t under my bottom any more, and my arms are tired, so I slide down his back. I stand really still, not sure what to do next. Then Daddy turns around and smiles his best and biggest smile at me. “Good girl, Squirt. You didn’t scare her away. I’m really proud of you.” He pulls me into him and hugs me hard and picks me up and kisses me. I wonder if Jesus wishes he had a daddy with a smile like my daddy’s, and who doesn’t give him away. I hope God sees what a good girl I am to make my daddy so happy. I think Santa will be bringing me lots of presents this year.

“Let’s get that tree, Squirt. Mommy’s going to think we’ve gotten lost.” My wool-mittened hand disappears into Daddy’s leather-gloved hand, and we walk toward a bunch of firs, smiling.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Do You Like It?

"Do you like it?" This is the question I hear most often when I tell people I've started practicing Bikram yoga, and that I'm now a month into the classes. Generally when I start something new, that I stick with, I am able to gush about how much I love it. With this yoga, however, I'm always stopped by the question.

Each class is an hour and a half of rain forest sweating, trying to push my too often ignored body into positions a contortionist would be proud of, and looking at my rolls of fat and many imperfections in the mirror.

Some classes are so hot my primary goal narrows to just breathing and staying in the room. Progress happens in micro units, and being able to do a pose one day is no guarantee I'll be able to do it again. I fall out of the balance poses over and over again. Camel is still my nemesis - the dizziness and nausea sidling up to me even before I'm all the way on my knees. All around me people are completing with grace and beauty poses I'm still trying to start.

Why would I say I liked that? Why do I keep going back? Why do I look forward to going back, even on those days I'd rather do just about anything else.

Perhaps it's the challenge. Every class I'm able to do at least one pose a little bit better than the class before. This week I surprised myself by being able to grab a knee - two classes in a row - that had been previously completely inaccessible to me.

Maybe it's because no matter how hard I work, I'm never sore after. I'm breathing more easily. My hip is healing. My posture is stronger, more effortless.

It might be the teachers. All three are very different from one another, so every class is different. Each brings a very unique energy to class, but all are deeply respectful of our efforts and our presence.

Some days on my way to class I think about how delicious water will taste afterwards. Like the first sip of coffee on a camping morning, water after a Bikram yoga session is ambrosia.

For certain, it's the feeling I get at the end of class and beyond. After the final breathing asana, and we're all in savasana, the teacher will give us a gentle thank you and hopeful message to return to the world with. "Namaste," and sometimes the clear voice of bells, wash the air clean as the teacher leaves the room.

Namaste. The light in me sees the light in you. My spirit recognizes and honors your spirit. I feel like I have more consistent access to my own calm loving light. And from that place I am better able to recognize the light in my fellow travelers.

A practice that stretches mind, body and spirit. A practice that honors exactly where I am and asks no more of me than I can give. A practice that is at once demanding and accepting.

Do I like it? Yes. I like it. A lot


photo from Flickr

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Three classes in a row now, the temperature in the studio has been well above the optimum one hundred five degrees. I saw three ones on the digital read-out as I staggered out of the studio yesterday.

A couple of times during yesterday's practice, I considered whether I was going to be able to stay in the room. Sweat fell from my face like a Northwest rainstorm whenever I leaned over. I had to make myself not groan with effort - in part because the guy next to me groaned at everything and it was bugging me more than a little. I just did what I could, as quietly as I could, and stayed.

No one complains about the heat. I'm not about to be the first. Which means I can either give up yoga because of the discomfort and my fear of not being able to measure up, or I can accept what is and see what happens.

Acceptance has been a hard won prize for me. For a lot of my life, I've seen acceptance as settling, giving up, weakness. Once I understood it's none of those things, the challenge has been to see acceptance as a strength. Much like it's difficult to truly believe that savasana, being a corpse, is the most advanced yoga pose.

How can resting, doing nothing, just allowing things to be, be enough?

Doing nothing feels irresponsible, lazy and passive. Powerless.

In her new book, Marriage and Other Acts of Charity (to be released next January), Kate Braestrup talks to a man about falling out of an airplane, and how terrible - hopeless - that would be. She wonders whether the no hope could be liberating. "If there's nothing you can do, there's nothing you should do." She goes on to propose that no hope leaves only curiosity.

Acceptance is release of expectations - no hope. Without expectation, there is nothing to be afraid of. Only a sense of wonder at what unfolds from minute to hour to lifetime.

Driving away from yoga class with the late summer wind dancing through my open windows yesterday, deeply relaxed and cleansed, I began to feel a glimmer of that wonder.

Nearly a month into the school-year-that-isn't, I'm just now beginning to see that my lack of production, my lack of routine, my lack of structure are all okay. Necessary even. I expected to be full of energy and focus the minute summer was over - as measured in school time. I wasn't. I did what I could, fretted over what I wasn't doing, and frustrated myself with what I considered a dangerous trend of not working hard enough.

I love being home. I love deciding how I'm going to spend my time. I even love doing the domestic things that will make life easier for Walt at the end of a long school day. Toby's company is enough to make me laugh and keep me entertained. I feel connected to an amazing web of friends. And while I'm not particularly thrilled at each new agent rejection, even those make me feel real - only real writers get those rejections.

There is deep magic in the air right now. The wind blows hot, but with a cool voice that promises change. It gently lifts the apricot leaves from the delicate purple ash so that it's entering the new season naked. Standing under the blanket of stars at the end of night I hear our owl for the first time since spring. A single cricket chirps his elegy to summer in a duet with a towhee's buzz-whirr.

All of that happens without my help or work or effort. All I have to offer is my attention and gratitude and faith that all is exactly as it is meant to be. Seasons turn. Change is inevitable. Trust is safe. I only have to show up, be present, and accept the gifts as they happen.

picture by SteelNat from Flickr

Friday, September 18, 2009

Three Degrees

The session was brutal. By the end of the standing poses I was so dizzy I had to sit out the last two. I haven't sat out any poses since the second class, and I'm at the end of my third week now. If I could have pushed through, I would have, but my body made it clear in no uncertain terms if I didn't sit down, I would be going down one way or the other.

My usual relief at the arrival of the floor poses was replaced by a continued struggle to keep the dizziness at bay and to pull enough air in through my nose to fuel what was being required of me. More than once I found myself on the verge of gasping through my mouth - an act I've been told will trigger my body's flight mechanism. Running panicked from the room is not considered good yoga form.

I made it through, but stayed in the last savasana longer than usual, trying to bring my breathing back from Darth Vader gasps to something more human. As I finally gathered myself to leave the studio, my eyes found the digital thermometer in the corner. One hundred eight.

Only three degrees beyond optimum for Bikram yoga. But it might as well have been thirty or three hundred for the extra difficulty I had because of the difference.

Three. Such a small number. Yet such a huge impact.

I have a tendency to discount the little things. Five pounds too many. A couple of hours of sleep too few. One angry response unmended.

I've expected my heart and my body to absorb those little things without complaint - ignored the warnings and complaints when they came.

"It's no big deal."

"I can handle this."

"I just need to try harder."

It turns out three degrees is a big deal. I couldn't just handle it. Trying harder was not the solution to surviving it.

When I was writing God Has No Daughters I became aware that there has always been a quiet, small voice in my life, offering me loving guidance and joyful possibilities. The large angry shame voice delivered through my mom, which I believed then to be the voice of God, drowned out the still one time and time again.

When I'm in that hot room, asking my body to do things it might prefer not to, there are only little things. Breathing. Stretching as far as I can, then a tiny bit more. Concentrating on one spot in the mirror. Listening to my body. And thanking her. Resting to absorb each new demand.

Three degrees. This one day - a sunny mild gift. Breathe in, breathe out. The look on my husband's face when he sees me. Words of understanding from a friend. Laughter at the antics of an eighty pound puppy. Little things, but added together they are the life that small gentle voice intended for me to have all along.

photo from Flickr

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


The studio was not quite as hot for the last yoga class I attended - a little over a hundred degrees rather than the standard one hundred five. I didn't start sweating in earnest until the third pose, when usually I'm nearly blinded by the cascading drops two stretches into the first pose.

As as become my norm, some poses were easier than previously, some were harder. It seems that I have no way to predict which will be which, or to control the difficulty in any way. My body, which I've either treated badly or ignored for much of my life, is taking full advantage of this new awakening. It cooperates at its own speed and own unknown-to-me reasoning.

On this day my body allowed me to almost complete the dreaded camel pose. I got onto my knees, placed my hands on my hips, took a deep breath through my nose, and looked up, expecting the usual wave of dizziness and nausea. Nothing. So I tipped my head back a bit, ready to lurch forward at the first hint of stomach spins. Still nothing. So I tipped further, and got so into being there that I almost missed the direction to come out of the pose.

And as I was lying in savasana after the pose, I found myself wondering if the reduced heat was what made it easier for me to open up my chest and bend backwards. Not my unfinished emotional work. Just a physical factor that impacted what my body was willing to do.

From there I began to consider the possibility that I might need to rethink my attribution of cause and effect to other events in my life.

As an abused child, I needed to absorb responsibility for what happened to me to feel any power at all over my life. If my parents were ashamed of me, it meant there was something wrong with me.

As an out-of-control adolescent, my anger and don't-need-anyone attitude kept me from feeling the pain of loneliness and otherness. If a boyfriend broke up with me, I didn't really love him in the first place.

As a born-again cult member, I turned everything over to God and worked hard to be a worthy servant. If prayers went unanswered, it was because I hadn't truly surrendered and my heart was not pure.

Once free of the cult, I returned to adolescent ways, but with a determination to prove once and for all that I was a good person. Marriage to a good man who loved me deeply. A career as an elementary school teacher. Efforts to be a good daughter, sister, friend. A cozy home in the country and pretty yard complete with Golden Retriever and multiple cats. Therapy, recovery, spiritual searching. If none of that seemed enough, it was because I wasn't working hard enough or I was still paying for all those years of wandering in the wilderness.

The pattern is clear. If life does not go the way I want, need, dream - it's because of a deficit in my being or behavior. I am not enough. I am not working hard enough.

What I'm learning from my body these days - my strong, resilient, patient body - is that it might be time to reframe my attributions of cause and effect. Sometimes a sore back is a sore back and nothing more. Sometimes I'm not going to understand why, and that's okay. Sometimes.

picture from Flickr

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Holding Back

After two weeks of yoga class, some things are getting easier. I no longer feel as though I'll drown in my own sweat. I don't have to think about breathing through my nose, and I can even laugh at the instructor's jokes. The 90 minute session feels like an hour and a half of elapsed time rather than a day and a half.

More of the poses seem less daunting, although there are a few I can only approximate. And often it's a really wobbly approximation. Anything involving balance is beyond my ability to perform consistently right now.

Because I'm feeling more comfortable and slightly more flexible, I'm pushing a bit harder to reach the farthest potential of the poses I can do. Carefully.

I'm also beginning to hear a theme begin to emerge from the steady stream of instruction being provided.

"Lunge into it. Holding back will only make this harder."

"Go all out for every pose. Don't ration your energy. You won't know the limit of your potential, and you'll sell yourself short, if you don't give it your all."

"Kick as hard as you can. The harder you kick the easier this will be."

"Go to the point of pain (defined as stretching pain) and then go just a small bit beyond that."

And yesterday as I was on my knees, hands on my lower back, head tipped back, in the camel pose I've come to dread, a small airplane flew through my mind trailing a banner that shouted, "You hold back - always."

Completed, this pose involves bending all the way back until your hands hold your heels and you form a smooth circle with your body. I can never get beyond tipping my head back. Not because my back hurts - I don't get even that far into the pose. I get so dizzy the minute I tip my head, I'm sure I'm going to pass out.

Part of the teaching for this pose involves a warning about emotional involvement. The opening up of the chest that happens with bending back exposes the heart, and any unresolved feelings that might have been protected there.

My body has been so programmed to hold those feelings in, it would prefer my unconsciousness to opening up and letting them go.

I hear and accept the challenge: Caution only makes the journey more difficult. Being careful does not prevent pain. The safety of holding back is a lie. Now if I can only convince my heart, and my still sore back.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Life in Death

We're told the savasana pose is the most important. Savasana: corpse pose. Lying on the floor, relaxed, not moving, not thinking. Being a dead body - only with breathing.

While I really appreciate this pose, especially after nearly an hour of movement in one hundred five degree heat that feels like it might kill me, I'm having a hard time grasping savasana as the most important.

It appears first at the end of the standing poses, repeats after every floor pose we do, and is the last pose of the session. We're encouraged on the last one to stay in savasana until our breathing returns to normal - to not rush it - to give ourselves time to completely recover.

The teaching is that being in the corpse position allows a body to absorb the work it has just completed.

Allowing time to rest, to absorb, to simply exist, is more important than working hard? You can't rest if you haven't worked. I get that. But, really? The resting is the key element? It's not only okay but essential to stop from time to time, to die to the voices and demands and to do nothing but breathe and be?

It's an interesting process to be teaching my body lessons that the rest of me has such a hard time learning. Work without the balance of rest harms. Being is an admirable goal. Dying facilitates new life.

image from Flickr

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

First Day

I stood on the patio this morning breathing in the pre-dawn air while Toby ran pell-mell around the yard. A faint blush was just beginning to tint the tulle fog hugging the field beyond. One single robin chirped the arrival of a new day into the cloud-free sky.

Walt had just left for work. When I hugged and kissed him goodbye, I thanked him for making this day possible. The first day of school. His thirty-second. It would have been my twenty-third. Would have been.

I tucked that early-morning moment into the special memory place where all my other significant times live. Because when Walt's pickup left the driveway, I had the choice to do anything I wanted. I could even have gone back to bed.

I'm not at school, talking myself hoarse. I'm not having to tell my bladder to wait. I'm not wondering how an entire summer's worth of energy can be depleted in less than a day.

I'm also not getting belly-crushing hugs from last year's kids, or wearing a bright new first-day-of-school dress, or laughing with my friends. I didn't get to start the next best read-aloud book, or introduce a new group of kids to the joys of silent ball, or hear their summer stories.

Instead, I've been home all day long.

I played with Toby, solved a New York Times Saturday crossword with my last cup of coffee, and hung some laundry on the line. I was at my computer by 8:00. Lunch was fruit and cheese on the patio, with my latest O Magazine, more play time with Toby, and no concern about the time. My bladder is happy.

After way too many revisions and more fussing than a kindergarten mom sending her baby to school for the first time, I finally sent out my first query letter. Just one today. It's time to go to yoga now.

Tomorrow, on the second day of my new career, I'll send more.

I'm here. I'm really here. This is really and truly happening. I'm a full-time writer.

picture from Flickr