"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

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Change of Plans

I had a plan for today, Monday, the beginning of a new week, the semi-official end of summer. Walt starts with kids on Wednesday, had to be in his classroom today. So I was going to start my new schedule. Today.

I spent much of last week getting ready. My desk is organized, my piles sorted and put away. Friends have been visited, my calendar cleared, days carefully laid out for the next four months. Walt and I had one last perfect and delicious day at the beach. The collage of themes that will be the focus of my book is done and ready to be hung.

Nothing was going to get in the way of today's new beginning.

Except I slept later than I planned, because I couldn't get to sleep last night. I didn't want to be busy at my computer while Walt left for work. The floors needed sweeping. The cats needed petting. Toby needed to play. There was laundry, and the litter box, and dinner to be planned and  shopped for. Returned phone calls that couldn't wait. And as I was putting Walt's clean hankies away I found myself sorting and tossing until the drawer was more organized than it's been in maybe forever.

I have a list of tasks to accomplish - starting the rewrite of my book, advertising fall online memoir classes, reading student pages are at the top. Cleaning hankie drawers is nowhere on the list. I have a daily schedule set for myself where writing gets my primary energy in the morning and everything else waits until afternoon. I answered e-mails this morning, which is exactly not what I was going to do on this new schedule. I have the next four months free and clear to focus on my book and teaching. After that I need to add a job of some sort to the mix.

Four months. Such a huge gift in so many ways, and such a short amount of time, really. I've held the possibility of that time in eager anticipation  for weeks now. "As soon as Walt goes back to school," has been my mantra.

In fairness to myself, I did anticipate a time of transition this week. What I wasn't counting on, and perhaps should have, was the siren song of busy-ness. My floors need mopping. The linen closet could use an airing and organizing. And all those books I didn't get to this summer need to be restacked in order of need-to-read.  See?

Perhaps if I adjust my plans for a start date of September 1, the day many schools begin in this area, the first day of a new month - perhaps with one more day to get the busies out of my system - perhaps then I'll be ready to start this second year of my new life in the way I have planned.

For now, Toby and I are headed to the river. Where I'll breathe, and pray, and let go.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Year of Yoga

A year ago this coming Saturday, I attended my first Bikram yoga class. For most of those twelve months I've practiced three times a week. I practiced when the voices in my head told me repeatedly to turn the car around and go home. I practiced when it seemed like no amount of heat or stretching would convince my body to let go. I practiced when it became clear that most people in late middle age seemed to find other less killer paths to health.

For the first few weeks, I wrote a lot about the experience. In part to create perspective for myself (translated: to force myself to keep going back), and in part because things were so challenging they made great story material. The heat. My fellow practitioners. Rusted tight body parts.

Somewhere along the line I stopped even thinking about the heat, except to notice on the days when it's not hot enough in the studio. I stopped listening to the teachers urging us to try harder, to push ourselves, to give 110%, and focused entirely on what my body was willing to offer at any given time. When classmates set up in what I consider my space, I give a mental shrug and figure we're either going to bump something, or they'll adjust.

Today I had the opportunity to practice concentrating and staying even, while the woman next to me pitched relentless shit at the teacher, meaning to be funny but coming across as critical and rude. He handled the situation with his usual humor and grace.  I breathed and focused on myself and quietly celebrated the absence of angry energy.

Even though if you were to practice next to me you probably would not assume I've been practicing for a year, I am deeply aware of how far I've come in these last months. Some poses I feel competent in. Some I manage good form if not much depth. Some I still can only point my body parts in the general direction of. I no longer actively hate any of the poses, and until a month ago I felt like every single class I made progress in some significant way.

For the last month, my practice has become irregular, to say the least. Being out of town for two weeks, having company, all the work getting ready for and recovering from those things. The first time I went back after two weeks with no class at all, I was afraid. Afraid in the same way I remember feeling after being home from school for three weeks with the mumps in sixth grade. So I made the same deal with myself that I did for the first weeks of class: go, breathe, do what you can. That counts as success.

And it worked. My face was redder than usual, but beyond that, class wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it might be. I went one more time, then missed another week, went twice, missed several more days, and went back today.

My biggest fear letting go of a strict routine was that I'd find a way to quit. That hasn't happened, and for now at least, it's not looking like it will. Yoga has changed me and I want more of those changes. While I haven't lost weight, my shape has changed and firmed. I sleep better. I breathe deeper and hardly ever catch myself holding my breath any more. My arms have shape (lumpy doesn't qualify as a shape) for the first time in recent memory. I have not been sick in a year. I can pull weeds for hours and be upright and pain-free the next day. The world feels like a lighter place to be.

Ironically, the place I see the biggest change is in my face. I still look like I've earned my white hair and laugh lines, but I look happy. Serene. Alive. Like someone I'd like to know. That's worth some sweat and humbling. It's worth everything.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


A friend who practices at a different yoga studio shared this story recently: The teacher had run the session fifteen minutes beyond the usual ninety. Students were upset, and exhausted. The teacher, someone just out of training, responded by pointing out that dealing with the unexpected is part of the practice. And then she said, "One of the good things about a yoga practice is that it makes you appreciate change. Every time I say change at the end of a pose, you're grateful to move on."

So for the last few times I attended class, I paid attention to how I felt when the teacher said, "Change." And it's true. At that moment I feel gratitude, relief, and more and more a sense of accomplishment that I've managed to stay in the pose for the 20 or 30 or 60 seconds required.

I've always loved change, but with conditions.

The transition time between seasons. The shifting of light from dawn to day to dusk. New territory, both geographic and cognitive. My soul sings and soars during these times of change.

In these late summer days when the wind and slant of light both warn of waning days, I feel the most alive. The sky is a kaleidoscope of texture and color, a feast of visual manna. The air rests on skin like a benediction. Every day feels like a full and finite gift, unique, never to be repeated or duplicated.

It's the ambush changes that are harder to embrace. The strange older face looking back at me from the mirror. Death in any form. Plans that don't follow the plotted route.

I think the key is to hold expectations lightly, and to expect change rather than to try to prepare for it or resist the possibility of it. To reach a point of trust that all change holds equal potential for dark and light, and that my power rests in acceptance.

And to breathe. In yoga we're told constantly to breathe normally, to return to our breath, to breathe through our noses to stay calm and present. Somewhere in the space of breathing, the rhythm of it, the no-brain part of it - that's where the strength to flow with change, both expected and unexpected,  can be found.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Most of my remembered childhood was remarkably small. Our world was the eighty acres of the dairy that was both home and work, and while it was a world that offered much to explore, it was bound by barbed wire fencing and the fear of my parents. A fear which settled into my cells without my invitation or clear awareness.

Town, seven miles away, was full of hidden dangers. People waiting to take advantage. Endless streets to get lost on. Mysterious temptations lurking in the shadows hoping to snare unsuspecting innocents into sin.

Even school, where I eventually learned that being smart was a way to be safe in a certain way, contained hidden dangers at every turn. Unspoken rules for behavior, dress, friendships - most of which I either didn't understand or didn't have the means to meet. Salvation Army clothes, saddle shoes and too-short bangs were not the uniform of coolness and popularity.

Without television or newspaper to offer a wider world view, my only lens to the world was my parents' paranoid and narrow belief that no one could be trusted, from The Government to Big Business to The Neighbors who were only looking out for themselves. Occasional old Life and Look and National Geographic magazines would find their way into the house. I read them cover to cover, with longing and hope, determined to someday find my way into the magic those pages and pictures offered.

The fear rooted itself deep and dark, invisible tendrils spread to every part of my being. Even in the light of a life  marked by success and overcoming and respectability, it whispered, "You can't." and "You're not enough." and "You don't belong."

Like the light of a sun rising through softening layers of clouds, a new awareness has brightened my sky this summer. I no longer believe fear's lies.

Navigating our way to and around Iowa City, making wrong turns and ending up where we were headed anyway. Feeling like family in the midst of perfect strangers. Confident that my smile would get me something good, even if it was just a smile in return.

Driving away from a new friend's house, the route home not a perfect reverse, and believing without hesitation that I could (and did) figure out how to get myself to the freeway.

Making the huge leap a year ago from the security of a safe career into the great unknown of dreams beckoning from my soul, then embracing the gifts the year offered that were so different from the ones I expected.

I've watched my brothers conquer their own fears to make dreams come true. Frank, the oldest of them, finally living on and traveling in the boat he designed and dreamed and for which he's sacrificed much. Mark, the middle, in the face of daunting loss, more kind and gentle and loving than ever, moving slowly but without hesitation toward the light of a new life whose nebulous form requires a constant faith. Geoff, the baby, finally owning his own home after years of renting, an ownership that shouldn't have happened, but did because he wouldn't believe in No.

A new school year starts soon. My second with no new first-day dress, no closet full of new sticky notes and purple pens and bulletin board borders, no certainty of what the next nine months will hold. I face the unknown of it, holding the power of dreams-that-will-not-die and believing, hoping I'll be able to remember when fear comes with new warnings of woe.

I can. I am enough. I do belong.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Shooting Stars

It was a little after 2:00 AM when I stepped out the back door into the damp summery darkness. The screen door scritched closed behind me and a few careful steps across concrete brought me to the edge of the patio. I looked up to find a skyful of stars welcoming me to their dance.

Bundled in Walt's winter flannel jacket, my feet protected by flipflops, my legs bare to the night air, I moved across the lawn toward the open field where the sky would be biggest. All my senses were on alert - the smallest frisson of fear heightening everything - so when the first meteor flashed overhead I jumped and ducked.

I stepped carefully to the middle of the field, our field, the open space that makes me happy just because it is. Facing south and east, I tipped my head back, decided that wouldn't work, then stretched my body full length on the ground. As I lay in the stubble, the sweet aroma of childhood summers rose around me, and the wonders of the universe spread out above.

First one small flash, then two huge arcs of light left shadows behind my eyes. Then nothing for a while. And as I waited under the umbrella of timeless eternity - scanning, breathing, listening - the past joined me, as though it were she who invited me to this star party in the first place.

In a childhood remembered more for pain than anything else, there were moments, nuggets of pure light like the stars overhead, in which I knew hope and connection. Summer nights under a sky even more vast than this one, lying in fragrance even deeper than this night's, I knew wonder and believed in a Being far different from the one being used to control my behavior. Each shooting star invited me to travel with it, promising freedom. Venus, the closest thing to sun in the night sky, twinkled her allure and my mind invented a life in her arms. The dippers, big and little, seemed magical somehow - I couldn't imagine that their perfect form was accidental. And I pondered the possibilities of life beyond my knowing.

Another series of streaks across the sky brought me back to the now. The dog that had been barking in the distance the whole time went suddenly silent. The hum of cars on the nearby highway stopped. The random squawks and snorings of night birds paused.

 I was surrounded by stillness, as soft and blurred as the Milky Way stretched directly over my head. One moment, then two, then enough that I lost myself in the silence and the night and the perfection of being one small earthbound star enjoying the company of my brothers and sisters traveling the night sky.

Photo from Google Images

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Big Picture

We were in our second day of traveling the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, doing a slow slalom around remote islands, when I realized the source of my discomfort.

Walt and I were guests onboard my brother Frank's (and his wife, Clare's) 53' catamaran - a floating condo with all the amenities of modern living, including a fully stocked galley, flush toilets, and room enough for the four of us, and two delightful pups,  to relax comfortably.

Frank, who is an accomplished cook, took pride in feeding us well, referring often to the menu he had tucked in a pocket, and asking his sister from time to time what her preferences for certain recipes might be. The only discomfort there came from eating too much.

I love being on the water with Walt. Was thrilled to be able to share in my baby brother's pride in his dream-come-true floating home. Enjoyed girl time with his brave and spirited wife. Relished the soft rhythm of ocean waves rocking big boat under my bare sailor feet. There was not one bit of edge to be found in my company or the environment.

It was actually a Bald Eagle sitting atop an ancient Douglas Fir, and his nest, a haphazard mess of branches in another equally aged fir several trees away that helped me identify the tilt. Because they were so far away, the eagle and his nest seemed tiny. As had all the Bald Eagles we'd seen so far on the trip. And the seals. And the dolphins.

Even the craggy Coast Mountains showing bright bits of glacier from the mainland seemed miniature in their majesty.

Everything seemed so little and far away, and because of that the world seemed so huge. I prefer my adventures in texture-exposing close-up, not in panoramic splendor. I prefer one Bald Eagle flying directly over my head to the dozens in the distance we saw on this trip. I prefer the intimacy of hiking a mountain's flank over the breath-taking beauty of an entire range hovering on the horizon.

In that dawning awareness, I took another look at the vastness we motored our way through and toward. What did this new vista have to offer me? While I don't think I have the whole answer just yet, a part of it came on our return home.

Traces of adrenalin were still bubbling in my bloodstream from our last wild rolling ride over stormy seas to the port where our car waited when I read the news at home. A former neighbor was lost at sea from the opposite side of the island we had just left,  along with three companions - their fishing boat found floating hull-up. They'd been missing for days.

We are a very small part of existence - as tiny as the eagle in the distance. Our lives hang in a tenuous balance that can tip at any time, one we have little control over. The sky and the ocean live and breathe by their own rules and we visit at our own risk. Yet not immersing myself in the miracle and magic of their power, seems to me a life only partially lived. Not seeing the big picture, staying safe in close-up, doesn't  provide safety. Knowing that I'm a part, however small, of the larger whole - somewhere in the vast spaces of that knowing is the safety I've been seeking all these years in smallness.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Slack Water

Early morning whispered possibilities, turnings, changes in a gentle voice. The sun up but hidden, offered light only from a palette of grays. Fog filled the air, muting the bright summer colors, damping and dampening everything. As I watched hummingbirds dart in and out of the bee balm, I had a sense of being underwater.

Verbs generally associated with beings of sky and earth were replaced in this misty time by words of the water. Birds don't seem to fly, soar, and flit so much as swim, float, and paddle. What fills my lungs is so moist it seems like my body is able to take oxygen directly from the water. Schools of starlings dip and whirl in eddies of their own making.

The buddleia spikes, fuschia aglow in the fog, become anemone arms pulled by the tide toward unseen sustenance.

In this ocean world I ponder the tides. There is neither the sense of ebb nor flood, push nor pull. I am in slack water, that time of no tidal current, just before it turns. The time of breathing that is not exhale and not inhale. Pure stillness.

And in that stillness I hear the song of a season ripe for change. Summer no longer explosive and lush, beginning to lose its uninhibited glory; fall waiting patiently for her turn in the coolness of the mists. Change is promised and inevitable. But in this singular moment there is nothing but knowing. I wonder how many of these magical pauses I've missed over the years. I offer a prayer of gratitude that I'm not missing this one.

After a year of ebb tide in which hidden treasures and bodies alike were exposed by retreating waves, I sit in the slack. Vulnerable. Exposed. Hopeful. Ready for the richness of renewal that will be delivered by new waters flooding their way home. The tide is ready to turn, urgency building even in this still space. Ready.