"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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Rest of the Story

Two classes in a row now she hasn't shown up. At first, both times, I was a little disappointed because I've gotten curious about what's going to come next with her. Then I got focused on what I was there to do and forgot about her. It would appear that Late Woman school is finished.

Here's the back story, the facts that have fed my lessons with her:

Her name is Diana, which I learned from listening to the teachers, as in, "Well, Diana, at least you're predictable."

The first time I noticed her, months ago, it was because she came in late. She seemed familiar to me, but I couldn't figure out why. It took me weeks to find her in the recesses of my late-middle-aged brain. She was a mom at the school where I taught for nine years, a school not that far from the yoga studio. I remembered her as being a difficult mom, someone no one liked much because she complained constantly and stalked people like a hungry lioness. I had a vague memory of her son as being small, smart and sad. Once I made the connection (and I cringe as I write this), I tucked her in a box of someone-I-don't-like-for-a-really-good-reason. I also assumed (based on nothing in particular) she probably would not remember me fondly if she even noticed me.

That would have been that, except at some point she started setting up in my space every single class, and she was always there. Several blog posts later and hours of "what am I going to do with these feelings?" brought me to class a week ago Tuesday.

Diana came in late as usual. The class was small so there was space all over the room, even in front where she likes to be. I was in the middle row. She set up to my left, leaving me no room to  move my arms without clocking her (which, thank God, I wasn't compelled to do - this time). There was some room to my right, so at the end of warm-up, I shifted just a little. She. Followed. Me. Moved her mat to stay close to me. Like we were bound by some magnetic force field that couldn't be broken.

Pat noticed this time and mentioned it was clear to her that Diana felt some really strong attraction to me. And that's when a small bit of new memory rose to the surface. I was kind to her once. I remembered talking to her about her son and advocating for him with the principal and his teacher. Not much else, but enough for me to completely change my picture of her behavior.

So the story I told from her side of things is a very possible truth. It might not be, but that doesn't really matter at this point. What does matter is that my heart now sees a more complete picture - one that allows me the freedom to love both myself and her.

Photo from Flickr

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Story From The Other Shoes

"Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes." 

She thought the gray-haired woman looked familiar, but didn't really have time to investigate. Late again, she hurried to an open spot on the other side of the room from the woman. The yoga class was already on the second set of breathing exercises and the teacher gave her a stern look as she settled in.

What's the big deal? It's only breathing and the closed sign wasn't up yet. I'm not hurting anyone. Her thoughts verged on irritation with the teachers who always made her feel like she was doing something wrong. She paid for these classes, needed them to keep her head clear, didn't appreciate the looks and snide comments. "At least you're predictable." That didn't sound very yogic to her, but she'd heard much worse before and wasn't going to let anyone change her in any way.

Over time she found a second here, a moment there, during and between poses to check out the woman whom she grew more and more convinced she knew from somewhere. And finally she remembered. The hair had been dark brown and longer, the clothing the uniform of an eccentric fifth grade teacher, but the face was basically the same. Her heart did a flip of happy remembering - this woman had been kind to her.

Those years with her son in elementary school had been so hard. No one understood how smart he was, how his behaviors were from boredom and being misunderstood - not because he was bad. She knew no one liked her, saw how all the teachers turned away, suddenly busy and unavailable to listen to her. She knew the principal often told the secretary to have her make an appointment or come back later. She didn't want to sound crazy, be annoying, complain all the time. But she wasn't going to let her son fall through the cracks.

Someone told her to talk to this fifth grade teacher, who apparently had some experience with kids like her son. This teacher listened. Understood. Promised to get help, and followed through. The relief was indescribable, only to be replaced by a deep disappointment when the teacher left the next year.

And here she was again, in a yoga class of all places. There was never any easy way to talk to the teacher, and besides what would she say? But she could be close to her and maybe the teacher would see her and remember and somehow offer kindness again. So even when there were other places to stand in class, she made sure she chose the one that was closest to her old ally, happy to be near her, hoping to be noticed.

photo from Flickr

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dream Come True

A young woman leaves the east coast and the life it represents, driving across country until she finds herself in Portland. Not even her original destination, but a place of new beginnings and green everything and her sister's presence. She has little but her dogs and a cat and big dreams. Before long she finds herself with a multitude of friends, a developing plan, and a feeling of flow–finally.

Yesterday, six months from the beginning of her pilgrimage, my friend Jennifer Lynch opened Portland Smoothie Company in Portland. I'm tempted to say she did it on her own, and in a way she did. It was her dream, her determination, her heart that made it happen. However, she also asked for and received help from anyone who had the expertise to move her closer to the manifesting of her goal. Her sister became her partner in this endeavor in ways many of us can only imagine might be possible.

So, the next time you're downtown Portland, on Southwest Third Avenue between Stark and Washington, stop by the sweet pineapple colored stand. Treat yourself to the best smoothie you'll find in these parts, and to Jennifer's joyful energy.  Not only will you be feeding your body and your spirit, you'll also get to be a small part of this amazing miracle.

Jennifer and Carrie on opening day. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

Life and Death

The new growth of spring is so exuberant right now it's almost possible to forget that death exists. Life explodes into the air: Blossoms that were tight and protected yesterday are unfurled into bright shreds of color today. Pollen floats and collects everywhere. New Sword Ferns, no longer quite fiddleheads and not yet full fronds, look for all the world like tiny pelican heads tucked against green-feathered chests.

The air is thick with bird song, the drone of a single fat bumble bee, and moisture. A millipede, glossy black with yellow racing stripes, shines against grass that redefines green with each passing hour. Dogwood blooms glow like giant white stars against the gentle gray of today's sky.

I wander behind Toby along a trail so familiar to us both I know exactly where I'll see the single Corydalis bloom - pink fairy hats extended above soft fingers of green lace, and the small clump of Fawn Lilies. A single Trillium blossom, unusually large, is losing its pure white to the blush that means its season is already over. This is the beginning of a death, but so beautiful an untrained eye might believe it to be the beginning of a life.

A single Pintail Duck squawks his way up the river - he's a regular, his mate most likely sitting on eggs somewhere close by. Toby, like a bloodhound, tracks the deer whose hoofprints dot the soft soil, then gives chase when a rabbit veers across his path into the bushes–never successful, but always hopeful.

In the midst of this holiness I consider an erupting volcano, collapsed mines, countries ravaged by earthquakes - all miles and miles away, yet feeling in this moment as close as the bright yellow Wood Violets scattered at my feet.  What am I to do with the abundance of life surrounding me while there is so much suffering in the world? So much death.

I breathe in air that tastes a bit piney, and a bit sweet–redolent of Oregon Grape blossoms, and a bit tainted. As though something died far off in the bushes and the wind is just now mixing its scent into the complicated perfume of the day. This death is undeniable–no beauty to mask the shadow here.

With as much consciousness as I'm able to muster, I soak it all in–every bit of this glorious afternoon. I tuck it into the nooks and crannies of my cells and my heart, accumulated and bundled with ribbons of gratitude, then I shoot it all out into the sky as comfort and love to everyone for whom death has eclipsed the light for now.  I don't know what else to do but be fully present and then offer it all up. To be as fully alive as possible, knowing death waits for us all in one form or another.

photo from Flickr

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Holding Ground

Less late than usual, she slipped into the room right behind the teacher. There were a dozen or so of us spread around the room, and the back of the room was almost empty. I was a little left of center, in the middle row – my friend and counselor, Pat, on one side, lots of open space on the other. We stood to begin the breathing exercises while Late Woman, after a quick survey of the room, put herself exactly between Pat and me.

I did a quick inner check to see if I'd be spending class fighting internal drama dragons, and was pleased to discover a light and laughing calmness at my center. Grateful for the reprieve from my shadow self, I focused on my forehead in the mirror and entered into the flow. Then during the third warmup pose I discovered myself far to the right of my mat – crowding Late Woman's space. Hmmm. Maybe not so centered after all.

As I pondered how I'd gotten myself there,  a question rolled through my head, like a banner flying behind an airplane, "How would you handle this if you liked her?"

My answer, "I'd smile at her, we'd each adjust our position a little, then I'd forget she was there."

But I don't like her. Besides she's careful to not make eye contact with anyone, including the teachers. And I'm done moving to make room for her. So that left me with one option. I decided to practice as though she wasn't Late Woman, but Diana, another regular in the studio I might not want to be friends with but who shares this desire for healing with me. I did move myself back to the center of my mat where I belonged, but beyond that did the poses as though I had all the space I had created for myself before class started.

I did sort of forget about her for a while. Until we came to the first pose that requires straddling our mats with our arms outstretched. I considered the possibility that when I extended my arms, my right arm might run into her extended left arm, and decided not to worry about it. I did do a small inner check to make sure the part of me that had decided to crowd her earlier didn't decide now that smacking her "accidentally" would be a good idea. I practiced as though she wasn't there.

And she moved back. At first she just stepped farther back on her mat, but then she pulled her mat back – twice, far enough that we would be out of each other's way for the rest of class. She was aware she was too close, and adjusted herself.

I didn't have to be mad, or make a big deal, or even say anything. I just had to stay focused on taking care of myself, which in this case included not giving way. I don't know what I would have done if we'd actually made contact. I hope I would have smiled at her and kept going. There's a good chance I'll get to find out before the Late Woman lessons are over.

Picture from Flickr

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Late Woman Lessons Continue

Since Thursday I've done everything short of an exorcism to get Late Woman out of my mind. I've prayed and meditated and sought advice from cooler heads than mine. But then I seemed to keep inviting her back in. Not on purpose, but my brain had decided this was a problem that needed solving–by me, and fast–and was not willing to let go.

I have lots of knowledge and I've listened to much wisdom. I could easily explain her presence in my life with every single one of my recent (and even not-so-recent) spiritual lessons. I tried to apply them all, from looking for my shadow in her to offering her compassion and forgiveness. And yet I woke up this morning (way earlier than I wanted) with the she's-messing-with-my-practice-I-know-it's-not-her-I'm-too-pissed-to-do-anything-that-would-help-heal-please-tell-me-what-to-do-and-how-to-do-it loop filling my brain.

If there's one thing I've learned in the last few years, it's that until my feelings quiet, it's best for me to wait before taking action. So I went to yoga this morning, praying she wouldn't be there on a Sunday (it's starting to look like she goes every day, or maybe she just has this crazy radar that sends her there only on the days I go). And if the answer to that prayer was no, sending a backup prayer that the Divine would create a miracle in which I became Mother Mary when Late Woman invaded my space again.

Then I rehearsed what it would look like, and what I would say, if I picked up my mat and walked out of class when she got too close to me again. Mature. Healed. Divine. The story loop in my head was not concerned with any of those things. Making her stop. Being right. Anger gone. That's what my brain was going for.

I was the second one in the studio this morning (and no, I didn't go early, thank you for asking). My favorite spot in the right front corner was open. Late Woman almost always goes for the middle, so I felt like I'd created a reprieve for myself.  The heat felt just right, the teacher was Eric who always makes us laugh, and I settled in to savasana happily to wait for the start of class.

I felt her energy the minute she opened the door, although I didn't believe at first it was her. She walked in with a smile, left over from the laugh she and the teacher had just shared in the lobby. Made her way front and center, plopped down her mat, forcing the woman on her right to shift toward me, and lay down in savasana. On time. Still no sense of personal space (the entire back of the room was empty). But on time. And not on top of me.

Lying there stunned, I found myself wanting to laugh, really laugh, for the first time in days. Just that fast, I had clarity and peace. Her coming late is not a campaign to drive me crazy, any more than her lack of personal space radar is. It's probable I'm not the only person who had problems with her behavior. She's not my problem to solve, or even my enemy. She's just a woman, like me, trying to find her way in the world.

During class she cracked a joke with the teacher that I appreciated and laughed at, even knowing it was her joke. 

I felt, maybe for the first time ever, that I was being offered a new way of learning. That perhaps the lessons I'm always looking for in life's events don't have to involve pain and suffering and huge gut-wrenching cold-sweat-inducing actions on my part. Maybe, just maybe, doing or being enough is way way less than I ever imagined.

I can't tell you for sure what I'll do Tuesday when she comes in late and sets up way too close to me, but I'm pretty sure I can promise the event won't hijack the entirety of my focus for the days that follow. Progress. Slowly. Slowly. 

Picture from Flickr. 
"Slowly. Slowly." from Carrie

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Not Okay

Spring break week this year found me at the beach for the entire week. That meant more than a week with no yoga - nine days to be exact. It's the longest I've gone without practicing since starting over seven months ago. I knew going back the first time after such a break would be challenging. The week off was rainy and cold and blustery. Much of the time was spent curled up with a book, or wrapped around my computer. Even the long walks on the beach I  managed every day did nothing for my yoga body. Not a lot of stretching, and no heat at all.

I spent Sunday trying to decide whether to go then, or wait until my usual Tuesday morning. I also spent a good amount of energy Sunday kicking myself for having paid for an entire year just before the break (it was a special that saves a bunch of money). If I hadn't paid I could think about not going back at all. And believe me, the last thing I wanted to do was to subject myself to the pain and discomfort I knew was coming.

My arguments were all rational: I haven't lost any weight. My hip still hurts. It takes so much time I could use for writing and I use a ton of gas to get there.

But I'd already paid. For a whole year. The longer I delayed, the worse I knew it would be.

Sunday afternoon at 4:00 found me in the studio, beginning the hour and a half session with the standard breathing exercises. I sort of enjoyed the heat, managed to stay in the room and to do all the poses, although my face was redder than usual. Okay. That wasn't so bad.

Then Tuesday morning I woke up with a slight headache, feeling not sick exactly, but not well either. Again I considered not going, but again got myself out the door and into the studio. I was not happy to see my favorite teacher because she's intense and it's so hard to slack in her classes. The room smelled like a filled vacuum cleaner bag had been opened and strewn about. And the heat was hot.

We had just begun the second set of breathing exercises when the door flew open and a woman scurried in. This woman is late every single time and has no sense of space, often crowding between two people so that it's impossible for them to do the poses - so those two people end up having to shift somehow. So far she's not invaded my space, in part I'm sure because of the energy I send her way. But on Tuesday, my force fields weren't working any better than the rest of me, and she set up just behind me and forward halfway up my mat. I wasn't happy, but managed to mostly ignore her until she reached down and moved my water bottle and towel so she could do a pose–instead of moving herself.

So here I was in a yoga class–headachy, nauseous and pissed off. I felt stiff as beef in cold storage, balanced as an embezzlers check book, and close enough to tears I was grateful for the sweat running down my face. All this after just a week away? And I've forced myself to be here for another whole year? What the hell was I thinking?


And that's where I ended yesterday. The story came to a halt and I had nowhere to go. I searched high and low for the lesson, a message, a way to end on a note of hope. Nothing. So I took Toby for a walk, cooked dinner, enjoyed American Idol with Walt. Thinking, okay, maybe the message will come in class tomorrow.

Instead, what came was Late Woman who set up in my space again, this time so close I had to move my mat. I fumed. I glared. I spent much of the time I was supposed to be focusing on my practice rehearsing speeches guaranteed to make her change–and pronto.

You're probably way ahead of me on this. Some lessons take longer than others to take hold. I have a habit of needing to be okay as quickly as possible. To do anything it takes to not feel mad or vulnerable or weak. Making someone else wrong. Ignoring my body. Discounting pain. I'm sure I could fill the page with a million other strategies for avoiding not being okay.

So I had a bad day in class (Tuesday). Today I felt well and back in the groove. Except of course for my inner drama with Late Woman. Which I allowed to be way too big a part of my practice. Here's what I think I know: Shit happens, I get angry, I feel intensely whatever feeling arises. That's okay, even though I'm not okay in that moment. I get sidetracked when I try to do something to change the outside circumstances (fixing Late Woman, denying wounds, building walls) rather than sit with the pain and discomfort long enough to learn what they might have to teach.

I'm assuming she'll continue to come late and invade my space until what I think I know becomes what I believe and can release. Until it doesn't matter any more what she does, and I'm okay with not being okay.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Borrowed Time

Festus came from a litter that included two sisters, both of whom still live with me. They'll be 18 this summer. Watching his fading away in the last months has made me very aware that my girls won't be living forever.

Emma, the alpha cat of the universe, is very bonded to me. Her sister, Cooper, is nearly feral despite living in an identical environment.

They're both really healthy. Except for not jumping as well, a loss of interest in hunting mice, and an increased preference for warm laps they don't seem like old cats. Cooper's gotten friendlier. Emma's grown increasingly vocal in her demands for attention. But I know we're on borrowed time.

Eighteen is often the age that kids leave the nest, for the first time anyway. So much happens in the lifetime of those two decades. As a parent (of real children or furry ones) you know going in that you only get a certain amount of time together. Their presence and growth become the hallmarks that form the boundaries for life's changes.

We had just moved into our current home the spring before that litter was born - a move to the country for peace and quiet, dreams of chickens and horses and a garden. All these years later we have lots of peace and quiet. No chickens. No horses. Only flowers.

I still believed that having an abundance of pets (and people in my life for that matter) would reduce the pain of loss when they died or left. A belief that had 19 cats and kittens swarming our home for a short time. I discovered the pain of loss cannot be avoided and also that my husband, who rarely objects to anything I want, has limits.

I hadn't yet met my daughter, whom I gave up for adoption when I was 18. She came into my life two years after our move, has been moving in and out of it ever since.

I hadn't yet met Pat, the counselor who helped me save my life. We met a year after my daughter appeared and is still my greatest teacher.

I was less than a year sober. And have since moved beyond sobriety into recovery into healing - from survival into thriving.

I thought I had it all figured out at 40: a loving, respectable, steadfast husband; a respectable secure career; a life designed to be safe, simple, and yes - immanently respectable. The box of respectability became too confining. I've since discovered that the element of respectability works well with a spirit of adventure. Safety and security are illusion. Change happens no matter how high the walls.

Emma disappeared one summer for over a week. I was sure she was gone, and just as I was about to fall hard into the arms of grief, she marched up the driveway yowling and thin. For a long time after that I lived in fear of another disappearance. Every time we'd go on vacation a part of me held my breath in anticipation of her possible disappearance while we were gone. I was so full of the fear of losing her there was little room for loving her or appreciating her fully.

That's been her biggest gift to me. She's lived long enough that I finally know without doubt I'm going to lose her. Every day with her is a gift of grace that will not be repeated tomorrow. She may still be here tomorrow, and next week, and maybe even next year and the one after that. She's already outlived the statistics that say a housecat's life expectancy is between 9 and 15 fifteen years. There are a number of cats who have lived into their thirties. So there's no predicting.

But each day is its own unique time with her. Because I know that, I make sure each day that I appreciate what is (even when I've had it with her using my lampshade as a scratching post). When she does join Festus wherever cat souls travel to, I will be left knowing I loved her as completely as I could.

Knowing that I'm on borrowed time with her reminds me constantly that all time is borrowed, to be used and experienced as fully as possible in its moment. There's no way to save it or protect it or use it as protection against an uncertain future. For now her purring presence in my arms as I write this is enough.

Top photo, Cooper. Bottom photo, Emma.