I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Category: Yoga

Striving For Contentment

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Summer Vacation

We have done some variation on the family beach trip every year. My daughter is 19 and my son is 16. That’s a lot of memory-making. Each year we bring the previous years with us, hanging on to our favorite experiences and recreating what we can of those good times. Each year, though, we are a little different, a little older, a little shifted in a new direction. Last year’s trip, or that really fun one from years ago, cannot be recreated. Each year builds on the past and is a bridge to the next year.

The week always puts the kids growth and maturation into sharp – shocking – relief. Remembering a year ago, or five years ago, stuns me. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was sitting in the shade of an umbrella with an infant son and a bright little girl? Now I am going for long walks with my daughter, a beautiful young woman who amazes me with her bright light. Listening to her sort out her thoughts and aspirations. Counseling her when I can, but mainly listening and loving her, in awe of her humanity.

It’s humbling to have lived through 53 summers. I feel every one of them this year, each making me who I am – the quiet and sensible one who occasionally surprises everyone by dashing spontaneously into the ocean – not the funny one, not the gregarious one. A little sad, a little more relaxed than I was as a young woman, but a little more urgent about not wasting time. After all, how many more summer beach trips will we have together?

When I travel, I make a point of taking a yoga class at a local studio. No matter where I go, I feel at home in a yoga studio. The rituals are the same. Take off your shoes. Set up your mat. Breathe. Move into the familiar poses. Listen to the teacher. I usually hear something in a new way from a different teacher as I listen to my body. Be. Me. This particular beach vacation morning, I knew I needed the grounded familiarity of yoga and snuck off to a class. The studio had Angel Cards. I had never experienced Angel Cards before. I figured it would be fun and was mildly curious as to what I would get. You close your eyes and reach into the bowl and pick a card. What would it be? Wisdom, Birth, Healing? Something powerful and inspirational I was sure. I closed my eyes, stirred the cards, and picked one. Contentment. Contentment? Contentment?! Boring. I laughed and said, “Well, that was not the card I was expecting.” The teacher wisely said, “It usually isn’t.” Indeed.

But, that’s my work. Especially on vacation. How can I be content? Happy with what is instead of unhappy with what isn’t. How can I appreciate where we are right now and not wish for it to be different, longer, more joyful and not dread the end of vacation and the return to another busy busy busy school year and the constant challenge of work.

My 16-year-old son, who likes to stay up late and sleep in, made a firm determination that he wanted to see the sun rise while on vacation. The youngest of the extended family group sharing the beach house this year, he was the one who had (perhaps) most changed, at least in obvious ways, shifting from boy to young man in the last year and taking his place with the men of the family. The first morning, he came down to the porch around 6:45 and learned that you can’t see the sun rise from our porch view. He took some photos on his phone but was teased that he must have taken these photos at noon because the day was already so bright.

He set his ambition with more commitment. He researched the time of sunrise. 6:42 am. We discussed whether this meant the sun would emerge at 6:42 or whether the sun would be fully above the horizon at 6:42. We shared some stories of sunrise watching and sunset watching, considering the benefits of each. He resolved that he would get up at 5:30 so as not to miss a speck of the dawn. I insisted that that was too early, but he was quite adamant. His plan was set. Everyone wished him well and went to bed, pretty sure none of us would be joining him at 5:30 and pretty sure he would not emerge that early either.

Around 6:20 am, I jolted awake, the slight shift in light through the window rousing me. I tiptoed out of bed and down the stairs to get him. He was already gone! Really? Proud and excited, I gazed out from the porch and saw a slender figure in the distance sitting on the beach. He had made it. I headed down the stairs and over the dunes toward that lone figure. When I got there, we knowingly smiled at each other, sharing in the quiet beauty of the moment. The clouds at the horizon were gray, purple, pink, orange, the light gently spreading across the expanse. We gazed. And waited. Waited and waited. Like watching a pot of water prepare to boil. We waited some more. The clouds were heating up with a burning glow. You could see where the spot would be. We gazed and stared and waited some more. Finally – suddenly – the crescent sun peeked above the clouds. Then steadily and quickly rose. There it was! A new day, new hope, new beginnings. I did a sun salutation dance and babbled on about how this was the real meaning of “awesome.” But my son put it best, using a word I had never heard him say before. Majestic. The rising of the sun was majestic.

Filled with awe and love, how could I not be content?

Another vacation, another year is behind us. It was an important week. A week of growth and love and sadness and nostalgia and intimacy and connection and hope. With glimmers of an elusive contentment. It was the kind of week that builds memories as we all grow older by another year.

Photo Credit:  Aidan Murphy

Wisdom

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Or Maybe I’m Just Lazy

August is here. My favorite month. Slow. Heavy. Delicious. It’s like Sunday – a pause before the busy, busy, busy-ness kicks back into high gear. September used to be my favorite month. When I was young. I loved the start of school. A new year full of hope for reinvention and ambitious achievements. My ambition is quieter now. I’m a little less jealous of other people’s success and wealth, a little less determined to achieve some kind of fame or greatness, a little more comfortable with me.

A little.

So when I woke up this morning and thought about my usual Sunday activities (Yoga! Laundry! Grocery Shopping! oh my!), I felt tired. And a little sad. Anticipating the end of August before it’s hardly begun. I’ve been operating at my usual relentless pace and along about now, August to be exact, my body and my soul say STOP! I used to get migraines – forcing me to get into bed and slow down. Or I would get depressed, crying and overwhelmed, unable to get out of bed. Now, I feel the warning before it gets too bad. Slow down. Change up the routine. Do something different.

I decided to take a Restorative yoga class. Slow. Heavy. Delicious. You sink into props, focus on your breath, and float. Savasana all the time! What could be better? I felt guilty. Negotiating and arguing with myself. What’s the matter with you, you lazy slacker? Where’s your enthusiasm for Downward Dog and multiple vinyasa’s? You’ll get fat! Come on! Get out of bed and go to yoga! NO. My body and soul said. I need rest. I need to give myself permission to rest.

When I got “into” yoga, at midlife, in my mid-forties, I latched onto Ashtanga yoga. It was the perfect practice for an aging ballet dancer Type A personality. I loved the vigor, jumping back and forth, flinging myself upside down, contorting myself into twists and binds. I adored my teacher Constanza. ADORED. Like a loving, but stern ballet teacher with a whip, she would insist “You must put your whole palm on the floor!” Lying on me to get my head to my knees or pressing my arm clasp to the floor behind me or wrapping herself around me to get my arms into the proper bind. Exhausted, I had no breath to chant the closing invocation. I would collapse, drenched in sweat, into Savasana at the end of class. Emotionally drained, I had a few sobbing savasanas. Midlife was hard. She would hug me, look me in the eye. “Sally, (which she pronounced “Solly” in her low voiced Colombian accent) you must breathe. Yoga is a breathing practice.”

With some regret, I decided Ashtanga yoga was not good for my chronic neck pain and I gave it up. But I can’t quite give up an athletic practice. However, I am now so tuned into potential neck pain, that I am more and more the person in the class who rests in child’s pose instead of striving for another vinyasa. These athletic classes are filled with ego.  Filled with many younger-than-me people ambitious to be thin and strong, to achieve a high level of skill in the pose, to win praise from the teacher. Oh yeah, been there done that. When one of the younger men in the class said to me something like: “It must be good to be your age and know when to rest.” I was flummoxed. My age? Surely I am no older than you? But, the truth of the matter is that he is easily 10-15 years younger than me. Wisdom? Enlightenment? Self-knowledge? Or maybe I’m just lazy?  Or worse, OLD.

At the same time that I discovered Ashtanga yoga, I also discovered Restorative yoga. It was a January and the studio was filled with new years’ resolutions yogi’s. The active vinyasa class I planned to take was full. My heart sank. I rolled my eyes. Oh okay, I’ll take Restorative. I reluctantly placed my mat, annoyed, waiting to be bored and unimpressed. Instead, one of the wise “old” people in the class was friendly and introduced me to my now-favorite yoga book, Meditations from the Mat. Then class began and I floated off into bliss, not boredom. Reminding me that you learn something from every yoga class, every yoga teacher, if you listen. I still hear Constanza’s voice, “Yoga is a breathing practice!” But more and more, the teacher’s voice that I listen to is my own.

Slow. Heavy. Delicious. Breathe and enjoy August.

I Write Because

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My Heart Is Full

I write because it is the best way for me to express what I believe, deep in my soul. Talking is too fast. The other person impresses me with their articulate point of view. I can’t find my words quickly enough. If it is a person I care about, my worry about what they think of me gets in the way of being fully honest and centered, grounded in knowing and expressing my point of view. I want to please and be loved. So I sweeten my words, or shift my argument, or become agreeable, nodding in sympathetic understanding. Sometimes I don’t always want to please. Sometimes I want to be funny. Or smart. Or biting. Or right. Yes, I frequently want to be right. But usually, highly conflict-avoidant, I want to please.

When I write, I go inside. The words pour out. The words I do not have the nerve to say. Those are the words I write. It is intense. So intense that I do not, cannot, do it every day. No, in a good month, I post about three essays a month. Reflective and prone to introversion, that is all I can muster without becoming exhausted with the intensity and the emotion of writing from my soul, my truth. Besides, I am busy busy busy with my non-writing life. Working, parenting, cooking, cleaning, commuting, caring, reading, learning, achieving, yogaing, and measuring.  Measuring my spoken words, making sure they are the right words to please, or to impress. Anxious and horrified when they are not.

When I do carve out time for writing, I write about something that has absorbed me. Something in my life or something in the world that I care about that has affected me deeply. Something I ponder at 3 am. Something I think about when I close my eyes for the last 12 minutes of my commute. Something I want to have a conversation about but have not yet solidified my point of view. Something I want to reveal but haven’t had the guts to do so yet. Something that I think others are thinking but don’t have the guts to reveal yet. Or maybe it’s just something funny. Or maybe it’s something that has gotten easier in the last couple of years. Finally. Ease.

Sometimes, I am overwhelmed with all that I want to write that I cannot choose, I cannot focus, I cannot get the words out because there are too many words. Too many somethings that I care about.

June was too full. My heart was too full. Too full to write. I could not choose.

Why are some human beings evil? Nine human beings coming together on a spiritual journey were shot dead by a racist with a gun. I dragged my son to an exhibit of photographs showing portraits of human beings who have lost a loved one to gun violence. It was moving and opened several important conversations with my son. A human being can marry their loved one, whoever that loved one may be. Love wins. I am grateful. I am moved. Father’s Day. Sigh. I was reminded that even after lots of therapy, even after the profound realization that I am who I am because of all that has happened to me and all the choices I have made, I still feel shame and cry. Even though I laugh more and more and more, I still cry and cry and cry. I was reminded, not that I need reminding, of the power of yoga at an event honoring how yoga can prevent suicide. Indeed. Yoga has certainly reduced the suffering in my life, if not saved my life. July has begun with an equally full slate. My son has turned 16, which surely warrants its own essay, but my heart is too full. Love wins. Grateful.

Because I am now writing, finding my voice, more confident, both in writing and speech, I find I am less willing to sweeten my words, to be agreeable, to be swayed by the other person’s articulate and cogent argument. Sometimes, instead of being quiet or swallowing my words, I am provoked to blurt out, “I fucking can’t!” “I fucking won’t!” “I fucking must!” Like overexerting physically, I feel the effect of these outbursts for days. A headache, a nap, a retreat into silence. I do hope I will become more eloquent with my speech, moved by conviction, with less frustration and anger building to a hurtful or impotent outburst. Speaking in a constructive way, with increasing confidence, like my writing.  Is it true, is it necessary, is it beneficial, is it kind? 

In yoga, Matsyasana, or Fish Pose, is a big backbending heart-opener. I can’t do it. Years of self-preservation and self-protection have rolled my shoulders forward. Years of keeping my words inside, hiding, have rolled my shoulders forward. Years of not feeling deserving enough to take up my space have rolled my shoulders forward. I regularly practice a restorative version of the pose, stretching the front of my body and breathing deeply into my chest. But the full pose has eluded me. It requires great flexibility in the upper back, while stretching and exposing the throat, my throat. Exposing the heart, my heart, causing me fear and anxiety at such vulnerability. At the end of June, that full month, when my yoga teacher announced we were doing Fish Pose, I paused. Is it time to try it again? I asked her to help me. She gently came over and supported my back. I gently stretched my heart and my throat, releasing the crown of my head to the floor. I couldn’t see myself and whether I was doing the pose “right.” (Remember, I like to be right.) But I felt like I was doing the pose. It felt beautiful. And that is all that matters.

Full month. Full heart. I write because my heart is open.

Image Credit:  Matsyasana image from http://www.mindofpeace.com

I Did Not Know The Boy Who Died This Week

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Go Deep

I did not know the boy who died this week. The friendly, athletic, well-liked 23-year-old from our town. My kids are in different grades than his younger siblings. They play different sports and hang out with different people. I am woefully unconnected with the school and the town. I’m not unsociable but I am quiet and reserved and I work full time in Manhattan. I worry that my introversion is off-putting and has kept my kids from being more integrated with the community. I prefer smaller groups of family and close friends, so my path did not really intersect with him and his family.

I did not know the boy who died this week. While I thought about him and his mother and his father and his sisters and his friends and all those who were touched by him, I did not feel I had a place at the wake or the funeral. I don’t know this family. But they are part of my world. I feel like I could know him. He could have been any number of amazing, interesting, fun 20-somethings that I do know. With full lives ahead of them. I guess he was out with friends. I suppose alcohol was involved. I am sure he thought he was invincible. Don’t we all at 23? It could have been anyone. It could have been my child.

It takes some living and some near misses to learn that accidents do happen. I could die at any moment. You could die at any moment. My children could die at any moment. As babies, I held them close. Nursing, co-sleeping, baby-proofing. “Never let them out of your sight,” our pediatrician said, only half-jokingly when we asked him for the most significant things we could do to keep them safe. Well, that’s not realistic.  And so we have lived our lives. We put them on the school bus. We sent them on sleep-overs and on school trips. We taught them to ski and take risks and be independent. My daughter drives and my son will soon drive. Off they go. Out of the nest. More out of our sight these days than in our sight. As it should be. And yet, I grasp. I want to hold them close. I want to live forever. I want them to live forever. I never want to let them go.

When they were young, I thought being the mother of a newborn was the hardest thing I had ever done. The exhaustion, the worry. Are they eating? Are they pooping? Are they BREATHING? The mothers of children older than mine would smile indulgently. “Just wait. It gets harder.” What? What could be harder than a newborn?! Now I get it. Now the worries are: Are they safe? Are they happy? Will they live full lives? Will they love and be loved? For many years. For many years, long after I die.

I am a very cerebral and sensible and pragmatic person. Skeptical of the mysterious and unproven. Crazy hokum. And yet. Is it? Crazy hokum? I am fascinated and increasingly open to my intuition and the deep experiences I have had with meditation and Reiki. On Wednesday night, I was drawn to take a yoga class with Colleen Saidman Yee. I don’t know her very well, and I am not a regular student of hers, but she recently published a book, Yoga For Life, that is touching me right now. At Savasana, she said something like: “Dare to go deep.  Deep to the places within. The places that frighten you. The places that you touch and scurry away from.” I tried, but not much happened. Still, I knew shifts have been and are happening.

That night, returning home, the streets were blocked for the wake. The one I didn’t attend because I did not know the boy who died this week. We detoured around to my house. My home. That night, I woke. For my middle-of-the-night battle with my bladder. Should I get up and pee or can I make it through the night? I lay there. And saw something. Felt something. A presence. I laughed. Now I am seeing ghosts? I went to the bathroom and felt the night. Felt the presence. Who was it? I decided it was my mom. Who else would it be? Then that night I dreamt I had siblings. I was talking to my “sister.” She was 17 years older than me and she told me that we had two other brothers. Wow. A whole family of people I never even knew I had?! And then I dreamt I was flying! I was terrified of the sensation. It was exciting but terrifying. I touched the sensation and then scurried away, waking.  Afraid to go too deep.

Today, blessed weekend, I took one of my regular yoga classes with one of my yoga friend teachers with my yoga community in my yoga “home.” Heart-openers. Damn you Clare. As I lifted and expanded and breathed into my heart, I thought about the boy I did not know who died this week. And his mom and dad and sisters and friends. And I suppressed tears. Convulsive sobbing tears. I touched that space and scurried away. I wanted to shout to my yoga friends: A young man died this week! I am so sad!  But I didn’t. I went deep but not that deep.

There is a video montage of photos of this boy I did not know who died this week. I watched it. It could be my family photos. Beautiful human beings doing family things together. I saw him grow from a boy to a young man.  I cried. Cathartic heart-opening tears.

A young man died this week! I did not know him. And yet…I do know him.

Go deep. Love deeply. Live joyfully. We all die. And it might be sooner rather than later.

Image:  4th Mandala Heart Chakra, by Jennifer Christenson

Stop Looking At Your Feet

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Looking Up

Worn down by a seemingly endless frigid and snowy winter, I was carefully stepping my way across an icy intersection. There was another man in the intersection, an older man – though probably not much older than me – who almost slipped and fell. He recovered his balance and continued on his way, his shoulders hunched forward staring at his feet, hoping that his determined downward gaze would protect him from the ice and a dangerous, incapacitating fall. As we all were. I looked around. Everyone, including me, was tensely hunched, focused downward and inward, stepping carefully.

It’s been a rough winter, filled with loss and anxiety. I pride myself on being fit and healthy, impervious to mortality, but this winter has mocked my illusion that I am in control. I fell on black ice in January, deeply bruising my tailbone and my ego. The pain was so great that I had to take a nap. Seeking healing refuge in sleep because I had no energy for anyone or any activity. Good God! Is this what people with chronic pain deal with every day?

Two weeks later, I had the first of two skin excisions. No big deal, right? The skin cells were atypical and the dermatologist recommended a surgical excision out of an abundance of caution. I’m convinced it’s part of our overmedicalization and overprescription of procedures, but who am I to argue with the potential threat of skin cancer? I complied. I confidently said to the surgeon, “I can go to yoga this afternoon, right?” He laughed and told me I had to refrain from strenuous activity for two weeks. “You’re kidding, right?” He wasn’t. Good God! No wonder people become more sedentary as they get older. All these damn doctors slowing us down.

Two weeks after that, my gynecologist called me with the results of my over-50 baseline bone density test. Osteopenia. Serious Osteopenia. Oh, and she wasn’t particularly cheerful either. I am really looking forward to my upcoming colonoscopy.

And so, I found myself more cautious and humble this winter. Hunkering down, stepping carefully, staying inside more and opting for the cross-town shuttle in bad weather instead of walking. And so, I found myself more sympathetic and patient this winter. Pain saps energy and diminishes your ability to be generous. Fear narrows your world, keeping you in your box. I get it. My ambitious striving is subsiding, being replaced with more patience and understanding for myself and for others and our struggles. Funny, this winter of loss has made me appreciate what I do have. To treasure my health and strength and to not take it for granted. To not mind this hard season, because the sweetness of Spring is coming.

The more I hunched forward staring at my feet willing myself to not fall, the more I appreciated my yoga practice and how it counteracts the fearful self-protection that can come with winter (or aging, or illness, or injury, or anxiety, or depression). One of my favorite poses is Vrksasana, tree pose. Rooting down to lift up. Rolling the shoulders back to open the chest and pecs, opening the heart. Balance. Happily taking up space, it’s the ideal antidote to anxious self-absorption. It’s a pose that shows you how lifting up, looking up, and opening your heart can change your mood.  Change your life.

When I first took up yoga, I devoted myself to the practice with ambition and zeal, wanting to please the teacher and perfect each pose. My approach was serious, disciplined, and tense. The more I achieved the more I came into contact with others who were better than me. More flexible, more strong, more adventurous, more serious, more spiritual, more more more. It was enough to make me cry. I began to try less hard. To stop comparing. To trust myself. To have more fun. After all, it’s only yoga.

On that icy day last week, when everyone was focused on their feet, you could feel Spring waiting in the wings. The light was longer. The birds were chirping. There was hope that this had to be the end of the dreary, messy, icy, slippy, frigid days, at least for now. To honor the joy and gratitude I feel for my imperfect yoga practice and the community I practice with, I did a happy imperfect tree pose with the first tree we planted when we moved into our house. The tree that will be covered in flowers in a few weeks.  Root down to lift up. Open your heart. Smile. Feel hopeful.

To Sleep

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Perchance to Dream

A funny thing has happened as I’ve gotten older (and kinder to myself). I am sleeping more. Maybe it’s the dark mornings of Winter. Maybe I am a little depressed. While I do feel subdued, I don’t feel depressed. Indeed, after the death of my mother, I feel an increased urgency to live authentically, say what I want to say, and not waste time. Sleep doesn’t feel like a waste of time. Sleep feels precious and restorative. I am less and less willing to drag myself out of bed, tired. Maybe it’s peace. Maybe it’s wisdom.

I used to drag myself out of bed. To exercise. To school. To work. Frequently to exercise. Years and years of my life, I have dragged myself out of bed in the cold and the dark for punishing workouts which allowed me to feel virtuous and smug and provided an excuse for eating quantities of food. In my disciplined way, on auto-pilot, I did not listen to whether my body needed rest, I simply got up and did whatever it was I felt compelled to do at 5 am.

Now, when I wake at 4:30 or 5:00, I go to the bathroom, marvel that I ever dragged myself out of bed so early, and go back to sleep. Sometimes I have anxiety and find it difficult to go back to sleep. I breathe, I chant (in my head – my husband would be quite perplexed if I chanted out loud in the middle of the night), I do self-Reiki, and I usually go back to sleep, grateful that I am past the awful, awful, awful (did I say awful?) years-long, chronic insomnia of menopause. And when I go back to sleep at 5 am, I dream. Wild dreams. Convoluted spiritual journeys. Dives of rebirth into deep, deep water. And of course my standby, the anxiety dream. Lately, however, I’ve caught myself mid-anxiety-dream and told myself not to go there. “Don’t go there!” I command myself. And the dream changes or stops before it gets too nightmarish. I take this as a good sign. Of kindness and acceptance of myself. I am grateful.

Being sleep-deprived used to be a badge of honor. Oh, I never sleep more than 6 hours a night! Oh, I am so tired! Oh, I have so much to do! Oh, I am so important! Funny, then, I was sicker, had more headaches, and carried the weight of the world on my shoulders. In fact, “I am so tired” was an automatic mantra. I said it all the time. Now, I catch myself when those words bubble up, usually out of habit. I pause. Am I tired? Why would I say I am tired? Is it an excuse? For what? I’ve realized that it’s usually code for I don’t want to do whatever it is I am about to do. So, I pause and check in. What am I feeling? Am I truly tired? Do I need to do something different? Maybe I need to tackle an obstacle and get through it. Maybe I need to ask for help. Maybe I need a nap.

When I stopped therapy last year, I gave myself permission to treat myself to a massage once a month. This permission is hard for me. Massages feel self-indulgent. But the truth is that I am healthier and more content. The funny thing about these once-a-month massages is that they make me realize how tense I am. On the weekends when I get a massage, I find I am more likely to cut out activities and more likely to take a nap. Rest breeds the need for more rest.

Of course, there is still that voice, that habitual voice, that whispers: “You’re going to get fat. You’re going to get out of shape. You’re going to fall behind on achieving your goals. You Are Lazy. You Are Bad.” But there is a new voice that says, Be Quiet! This is me. I feel better when I rest, restore, sleep. And when I feel better, I am more compassionate to myself, more open to others, more creative, more energetic, more able to live authentically. More myself.

The science of sleep and deep rest (Restorative Yoga, Yoga Nidra, Meditation, Massage) is fascinating. The benefits of sleep are many. Sleep strengthens the immune system, allowing us to heal from pain and wounds. Sleep prevents us from over-eating, helping us to maintain a healthy weight. Sleep eliminates the stress hormones from our body-mind and clears negative emotions, supporting us to be happier and better friends/parents/lovers. Sleep is central to our cognitive well-being, assisting us to process new knowledge and store memories properly. Sleep is crucial for children and teens – growth hormones are more active in certain cycles of sleep. Insufficient sleep is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s.  That’s just the short list.

And of course there are all those magical dreams. Those dreams that only occur if you sleep enough to have REM sleep. I’ve started pausing between sleep and waking. Hanging on to my dreams. What was my dream? What does it mean? What can I learn from my dream?

Life is too short to spend it being tired. Go to sleep. Dream. Healing dreams.

Image:  Statue of Sleeping Ariadne

Breathing In and Breathing Out

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Alive

The death of my mother has cracked open my heart. With every emotion heightened, I feel impatient with the numb carelessness with which most of us approach our day-to-day lives. The holiday shopping honking at the slower and more cautious driver; the selfish crush of the commuter horde to find a seat; the eye-roll at the different: the slower aged elder, the awkward special needs child, the sad one. “Life is short! Life is precious!” I want to scream. We’re all going to the same final destination. Please be kind along the way.

I returned to New York and my life on Thursday. The familiar routine of work and household chores a distraction. But I find I don’t want to merely return to normal. I want to feel everything. I want to feel the sadness, the loss, the love, the compassion. It makes me feel human. Alive. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out.

Isn’t the breath amazing? We take it for granted, but it is what makes us alive from the moment we are born to the moment we die.

When I got home Thursday night, I shared the story of my mother’s last breath with my son. I cried. He cried. I held him. He said that he had been wanting to cry but couldn’t. I know that feeling. It’s painful. The chest tightens and constricts. You feel like your heart is going to break but you are too controlled, too embarrassed, too remote to let it go. Crying that night made him feel better. Catharsis. I whispered, “Live your life.” The best way to deal with death is to live.

My yoga practice has been immense comfort to me this week. Moving my body, focusing my mind, and breathing in and breathing out has kept me grounded and open-hearted. Yesterday, we focused on a sutra that goes something like: “The self must lift the self.” In other words, only you can make yourself feel better. We noticed the areas of our bodies and minds that were dull and brought energy to these areas so that every cell was shimmering with the breath. Alive. I’m breathing in. I’m breathing out.

In this time of grief and loss, all kinds of random memories have come flooding back. I was remembering that she had this gardenia plant when I was quite little. She nurtured this gardenia, so proud when it bloomed. The scent of the gardenia blooms was sweet and intense, permeating the house. I was thinking that we should have gardenia flowers at her memorial service. As this was rolling around in my mind, I arrived home from work on Friday where there was a box waiting for me. I opened the box and GASPED.

It was a gardenia.

Mysterious. Awesome. WILD!

I feel inhabited by my mother. Her body may have stopped breathing but she lives inside me. I really feel her with me, supporting me with love as I breathe in and breathe out.

“Hi Sweetie!”

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Celeste

I was in our local wine shop this morning, running my litany of weekend errands. I was in a contemplative and compassionate mood – always trying to bring the principles of Yoga and Reiki to my life off the mat, with mixed levels of success. Sundays are good days. I am rested and have more time to be patient, to be open, to listen.

The guy at the local wine shop knows me. (Really, I don’t buy or drink that much wine.) We chat. I tell him what wines I like and what wines my husband likes and he shows me new inventory. When impatient, more affluent customers come in, eager for their more expensive selections right away, I wink at him and tell him I am not in a hurry.  I go and browse while he helps the Very Important Person who lives in the Very Rich Suburbs of New York.

As I was browsing, I felt my cell phone vibrating. Hurriedly, I fumbled for it. It was my daughter! She’s been at college for 3 weeks now, and we all agree it feels like 6 months. Our textversations and conversations are truly the highlights of my days. I grabbed my phone, knowing I could go quietly to a corner of the store, welcome and undisturbed, to connect with my beautiful girl.

“Hi Sweetie!” I exclaimed in greeting.

Suddenly, the lovely old woman near me looked me in the eye and smiled.

“I thought you were talking to me!” She laughed.

I laughed at how my exuberant greeting must have come across to her.

I snuck off and had my delicious conversation and then went to the counter to pay for my wine. The old woman and her daughter, a woman of a certain age, like me, were finishing up. I waited. When they turned to leave, the old woman and I cried “Bye Sweetie!” and high-fived. The daughter, quite perplexed, asked her mother if she knew me. We explained our chance meeting and said our good-byes.

The guy at the wine store commented that I made friends so easily. Ha! Not really. At least I don’t think of myself that way. But maybe that is another aspect of my personality that is evolving. Softening.

As I was driving away, I spied the mother and her daughter walking home. I impulsively stopped and offered them a ride. After all, we were friends now! We introduced ourselves. Celeste is 97. She looks 77. I told her that she looks fantastic for her age (yuck, what a horrible way to say that I can’t believe I said that but she didn’t seem to mind). I told her that my mom was 92 and in rehab for a broken hip. Celeste reassured me that she will be fine. That her generation is strong and resilient. They’ve been through World War 2 after all. We parted ways, expecting to never see each other again, but grateful for the serendipitous connection. Of course, now I can’t get her out of my mind and I wish we had exchanged more than just our first names. Since I am too far away to help my 90-something mother, it alleviates some of my guilt to offer help to someone else’s 90-something mother. Though Celeste doesn’t seem to need a lot of help. She is not frail and has a good attitude. May we all live to be 97, as cheerful and healthy as she is.

I’ve never met a Celeste – it’s one of those lovely older names not in common use now. The only Celeste I know is from the Babar books. Babar tragically lost his mother to hunters. This always shocked and saddened me. Orphaned, he befriended an old lady who mentored him. Babar married his 2nd cousin, Celeste, where they ruled with lovingkindness. I loved the Babar books but kind of forgot them. I am feeling soon-to-be-orphaned.  Is this my old lady mentor?  And elephants always make me think of my daughter.  She is in awe of elephants after one waved his ear at her when she was a little girl visiting the zoo.

All in all I think my new friendship must be a good omen.

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking, By Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

Image:  Celeste from the Babar series  by Jean de Brunhoff

 

Savasana

savasana

Ready to Rest

If death is like Savasana, maybe we have nothing to fear.

Savasana, the deeply restorative “corpse” pose at the end of yoga class, at the end of practice, at the end of life, is when you put aside the ups and downs, the effort and the ease, the breathing in and the breathing out. You just be. Usually, it is simply a sweet break at the end of class. Sometimes, it’s an impatient pause, the anxious to-do list intrudes. Every now and then, it is bliss. Nirvana. Samadhi. It takes a long Savasana for me to reach this point. (Take note yoga teachers! A 2-minute Savasana is not enough!) I float into a state of consciousness that is not awake, not asleep. Sometimes I see colors, feel tingling, radiate intense warmth. But generally I hover, aware of my soul, but not really aware. At these moments, it is profoundly enough to just be.

If death is like Savasana, maybe we have nothing to fear.

But we fear death – for ourselves, for our loved ones – fighting our body’s evolution/devolution, attempting to stave off the inevitable with doctors, pills, and procedures, prolonging life until … until it is not life anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of life. I want to live to be old. VERY OLD! I am disciplined to the point of being obsessive with eating healthily, staying thin, keeping active. I plan to fight my evolution/devolution HARD!

But maybe, for the person at the end of life, they are ready to rest in Savasana. Maybe we should help them go peacefully to a place of bliss. Maybe we shouldn’t hang on to them so hard, with doctors, pills, and procedures.

My mother is nearing the end of her life. I visited her and my father last weekend, with my daughter. It was painful. Every aspect of their lives is focused on getting her to survive another day. He measures out her pills. He coaxes her to eat. He trains the aide on how he wants her bathed and dressed and exercised and which diapers are for the daytime and which for the nighttime. My mother has stopped speaking and spends most of the day sleeping, exhausted from being fed, medicated, bathed, dressed, exercised. It was the first visit where she was unable to exhibit much enthusiasm for my presence and none for my daughter’s.

As an only child, the aging and inevitable death of my parents is an unshared burden. No siblings to mull over what to do. No siblings to compare notes with. No siblings to mitigate the dysfunction. Just guilt that I am far away and not doing enough. Just anger that there are still so many unresolved issues and things unsaid. Just grief at my beautiful and vibrant mother’s deterioration and regret at the adult mother-daughter friendship we were never able to establish.

People tell me how lucky we are, how sweet it is that my father is so devoted to my mother. I smile and nod agreeably, not wanting to diminish his faithful attachment to her.  It is taboo for me to tell them what I am really thinking. He is terrified of being alone. It is an act of selfishness to keep her alive. Let her go. Let her go to her Savasana.

Every visit I am armed with good intentions to say more, to ask more, to do more. All with the goal of resolving the past, healing the present, trying to find more love and compassion for the future. I try. I never say, ask, or do as much as I intend. I tried waking my mother up in the mornings by offering her Reiki. If nothing else, perhaps it would be soothing to have someone she loves and who loves her offer her healing and loving touch.  I tried to not be judgmental and annoyed with my father.  He tried to not be judgmental and annoyed with me. Negativity begets negativity. In the midst of our awkward attempts to not succumb to judgment and annoyance, he tried to tell me I was a miracle. He tried to be interested and loving and not self-absorbed. I tried to appreciate his terror at being alone, his grief at losing his beautiful and vibrant wife. We tried.

We took pictures. Is this last time I will see her? Is this the last photo I will have of her? I smiled, because that is my habit. It was not all painful – there was some joy in the visit. I am no longer sucked into the dysfunctional triangle that is formed by my parents and me.   I can honor how who they are helped me become who I am.  I can love them for that.  My daughter was with me, thank God, and I am looking forward to being able to build, with her, an adult mother-daughter friendship. It begins now.

Image Credit:  Savasana sketch by Missy Briggs on her blog The Rascally Rabbit, used with permission.  Thank you Missy!

Hot, Crowded, and Awesome

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(I Almost Didn’t Go)

To celebrate the Summer Solstice and support the Mental Health Association, our community has an outdoor yoga extravaganza (which was indoors this year).  I wasn’t going to go.  It would be hot and crowded.  I’d have to leave work early.  I wouldn’t be home to fulfill my dinner-making duties with my family.  Besides, it promised to be awesome.  That is my cue to stay away.  I have honed my scorn for awesome, crowded events over many, many years.  Indeed, this scorn has been passed down from generation to generation.  I come from a family of introverts, where anything too popular or too crowded is to be avoided.  Join in with whole-hearted enthusiasm?  Nah ah!  Better to stay home and be safe and do one’s duty.

One of my yoga friends and teachers, who happens to embrace – joyfully – all things awesome with wholehearted enthusiasm, reminded me that Matthew Sanford would be the guest teacher at this event.  Oh!  Hmmm.  The author of the amazing memoir, Waking, that heightened my devotion to yoga?!  Oh well.  That’s okay.  I don’t need to take a hot, crowded, awesome class with a yoga teacher who happens to be a paraplegic and has written eloquently and with great insight about the mind-body connection…or lack thereof.  Besides, I am too busy.  Busy, busy, busy.  That mind of mine is going off in a million directions with Very Important Thoughts.

But this quiet voice in my gut said, “Sally.  What are you doing?  You have been profoundly and forever affected by yoga.  Matt Sanford’s book had a huge impact on you.  You know you want to meet him and take class with him.  Embrace this opportunity with whole-hearted enthusiasm!”  I decided to listen to the quiet, intuitive voice in my gut instead of the busy, analytical voice in my head.  I invited my friend Gina, the one who enthusiastically accepts my most spontaneous invitations with touching appreciation, kindness, enthusiasm, and support.  My friend Gina who thinks the best of me, who thinks I am better than I am.  Dear Gina said yes.  Off we went.

We arrived and there was an assortment of sponsors advertising their wares.  Marketing, I scoffed.  (Full disclosure, I make my living by marketing.)  Gina left me at the registration table in a hurry to get to the first table to chat up the sponsor and see what they were offering.  Within 10 minutes, she had gotten valuable tips from a nutritionist and found a photographer who did beautiful yoga stationery.  I, on the other hand, was wondering how quickly I could dump the goody bag and all the flyers.  Then, we entered the hot and crowded space where the class would be.  Music was playing.  I saw many, many yoga friends.  I smiled.  Aware that I was in this funny space where my mind kept me at a distance from the experience, from other people, from whole-heartedly and enthusiastically being All In, I decided to be there.  All In.  With my friend.  With my yoga community, those I knew and those I didn’t know.  We found a space in the middle of the hot crowd and became part of the hot crowd.

Matt Sanford was introduced.  He began.   Speaking, teaching, in his wheelchair, about the mind-body connection.  He was simply profound.   And he was an ordinary guy who was impatient with the uncooperative sound system and with the shortness of time.  Determined to convey the messages he felt were most urgent to deliver to this hot, crowded group of devotees who wanted to soak in every word he said in one short class.  He had us feel our breath behind our hearts, notice that we felt better when our bodies were energetically in alignment, and appreciate the touch and support of a partner.  Some of my paraphrasing of his words of wisdom include:

  • The body is driven to live.
  • The body is the best home for the mind (to rest).
  • Take up space with your body.
  • The distraction of the mind prevents us from feeling and being present.
  • The silence of his paralyzed body is like the silence we will all experience as we age.
  • Notice the humming of energy through your body.
  • Feel your body.  Feel connected.  Feel.
  • Life is a gift – enjoy it!

After the class, everyone in this hot, crowded space held hands and sang and chanted and felt connected.  It was truly awe-some.

And to think I almost didn’t go.  I would have missed so much.

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Me with Matt.  He is inscribing my copy of Waking:  A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.

Photos:  Gina took these photos.

 

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