My First Valentine

It’s almost Valentine’s Day.  Growing up, my mom always made Valentine’s Day a special day for her only daughter.  Even when I was in college, she would send me a little care package of gifts filled with girly things:  a pretty nightgown (red, of course), a pink bear, hair accessories, fun jewelry, and chocolate.  Always some chocolate.  It was something she did just for me, her little girl, and I’ve never forgotten that.  I do the same for my little Valentines, but there isn’t as much pink.

Mom has been on my mind a lot lately.  It’s been thirteen years since she’s passed, and I’ve aged from 39 to 51.  A lot has happened in those thirteen years:  kids growing (Turner was 7 and Jackson was 4 when she died) and leaving, life-changing accidents, milestone birthdays, career changes, friendships gained and lost, deaths, births.  

Her not being here has gotten “easier;” that is, it’s become more the new normal.  But in many ways, it has gotten harder.  At 39, with two young boys, I pretty much had my adult life ahead of me.  I was secure in the knowledge of my place in the world.  I didn’t have many limitations, physical or otherwise, money was good, being a mom was still relatively new.

Thirteen years later, I don’t have her here to talk about how it felt to say goodbye to me, to watch me grow and leave home, and how she coped with that new normal.  She’s not here for me to apologize to for not being more aware of how painful that likely was, as it is for me.  

She’s not here for me to ask how she dealt with becoming older.  Yes, my hair is, by choice, gray now, but there’s so much more.  It’s coming to terms with life going on despite that, despite feeling more tired, gaining weight by thinking about food, not sleeping, hot flashes, regrets, and realizing that for certain things, the time has simply passed and they are out of my grasp.  

It’s going on in spite of all this and having the energy and positivity to do it.  Some days are harder than others, and I miss having that woman, who loved me more than anyone ever will, tell me it will be okay, that I’M okay.  I miss not having the opportunity to hear how SHE managed it:  the empty nest, marriage to my dad for the majority of her life and the difficult later years due to his alcoholism, the aging, the regrets.

I have a feeling that if I did have the opportunity to speak with my mom, her response would not be especially insightful or earth-shattering, but it would be this: “Sometimes it sucks, but you go on.”  You keep going, you keep looking for, and finding, opportunities to laugh and be grateful.  You keep loving and praying.  You be with what is.  And you always send valentines on Valentine’s Day.  And eat the chocolate.  Definitely eat the chocolate.

Thank you, Mom, for being my first and Valentine, and for always making me yours. Thank you for showing me love in all the phases of your life.  Even now.

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Everything Else

Today was a good day. I decided to take advantage and head to our house on the lake to enjoy the last few days of my summer break.

My summer break hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations: a working mission trip, no family vacation or time to enjoy our lake house together, my oldest leaving for college, rounded out by four weeks battling the symptoms of a concussion from a biking accident. Truth be told, I haven’t had many good days recently and I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for myself. 

On the highway en route to said lake house, a car in front of me was swerving a bit from lane to lane. I thought to myself that I might be a witness to an accident, and cautiously held back. 

This got me thinking: if I were a witness to an accident, it would have been because I was at that very specific place at that time. Which meant if I hadn’t had a concussion that sidelined me, I probably wouldn’t be driving to the lake on this particular day at this moment in time. 

This further got me thinking: this applies to everything in life, not just potential accidents. Every experience we have, every choice we make, leads us to the present moment and impacts not only us, but our world. Different choices, different moment, different world.

Thankfully there was no accident. I happily made several stops along the way, one of them at a pottery gallery that I had always passed on the way but never explored. On one of the walls was a wooden plaque with a photograph of bicycle handlebars and the phrase, “Everything else can wait.” I had to buy it. It encapsulated everything I had experienced since that bikeride.

Everything else did wait while I recovered this past month. But I watched the trees moving with the breeze, I observed ants scurrying on the sidewalk, I sat in our dark living room cradling a warm cup of tea listening to the rain through the open windows. I felt the love of friends and family. 

We don’t know the plans that God (or the universe, or whatever it is you believe) has for us. But if we trust and stay present, maybe we can learn to be more content knowing that where we are is exactly where we need to be. 

Everything else can wait.

A Little Bird Told Me…

Funny things happen when you stop. Really stop. Like when you have a concussion and can’t read, use your phone or computer, watch TV or deal with noise.

One morning while sitting outside doing not much more than sitting (see above), a robin landed in the grass in front of me. I watched her as she proceeded to walk through the yard, quickly starting and stopping, patiently waiting for the movement of a worm beneath her. After traversing almost the whole yard, she suddenly and swiftly poked her beak into the earth and pulled up a worm. According to various studies, robins use a combination of primarily visual and auditory cues to find their meal. Imagine being still enough and able to hear a worm moving through dirt!

It was amazing. She stopped, she listened, she felt, and she kept going despite several failed attempts. And in doing all this, she was fed. What a lesson for all of us.

When you truly can’t do anything but listen and be still, you hear a lot. You hear your inner dialogue more clearly. Truth be told, that inner dialogue was not so pleasant the first few days of my “confinement.”

In the Hatha Yoga tradition we strive to practice Ahimsa, both on and off the mat. Ahimsa means non-violence, or “do no harm.” This can have many meanings, and is most often associated with vegetarianism, but it actually is the idea of complete and total absence of violence from one’s body, mind and spirit.  One of the ways we can practice Ahimsa is showing compassion towards ourselves. Violence can come in the form of self-talk, much of which, lets face it, can be negative. And, when you’re laid up after a concussion, plentiful.

There is a discussion going around the internet that we have on average 70,000 thoughts a day, some estimates going as high as 600,000. If you go with the former, that amounts to almost 49 per minute. Considering where my head’s been this week, that number seems exceptionally low.  And imagine if the majority of those thoughts are negative.  That’s a lot of violence.

Jon Westenberg, founder of Creatomic, says this: “When you start to consider how finite your existence and your time and the processes of your brain actually are, you can see how precious the level of mindfulness that requires us to sit up and pay attention really is.”

As fortune would have it, I came across an article (blessedly short – the reading thing, you know) in a Buddhism magazine about love, specifically self-love. In the article the author suggested a meditation that goes something like this:

“This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is a part of life.

May I be kind to myself at this moment.

May I give myself the compassion I need.”

These words can be altered to fit your own experience, but basically each sentence brings to the forefront that yes, you are in pain – This is a moment of suffering / I am having a hard time right now – that suffering is part of the human experience (no one escapes it, folks) – Suffering is a part of life / Others have been through this – all while keeping you in the present moment – May I be kind to myself at this moment / May I be present with this feeling without judgement –  and setting an intention to be self-compassionate – May I give myself the compassion I need / May I speak to myself as I would speak to a good friend.

As I sat with these words, and breathed them into my heart, I felt released. I didn’t have to beat myself up for my injuries. I still had my faculties. I was worthy of compassion. This would pass.

Then another question arose: When this does pass, what will I have to show for it? What is the lesson? Because there always is one, if (and this is key) you look for it.

I’ve heard it suggested that you are closer to “you” in the time you meditate than in all the other minutes of the day. Those minutes when you are working, serving, rushing and planning aren’t really you, your essence. Your essence is what you touch when you’re still. It’s always there, the light is always shining, but we allow the clouds to cover that light. We allow our busy-ness, our self-talk to take center stage and we lose sight of “you.”

So I have decided to be like that robin. When my soul needs to be fed, I will still myself and listen. I will open my heart, breathe in and speak compassion over and over and over again, remembering the “you”  I really am. I will remember my light.  I will rest in the knowledge that wherever I am is exactly where I need to be. And if all this doesn’t work the first time, I’ll do it again, and again, and again.

I draw the line at worms, though. You know, Ahimsa.

“If you celebrate your differentness, the world will, too. It believes exactly what you tell it—through the words you use to describe yourself, the actions you take to care for yourself, and the choices you make to express yourself. Tell the world you are one-of-a-kind creation who came here to experience wonder and spread joy.” ~Victoria Moran, Author of “Light From Within: Tending Your Soul for Lifelong Beauty”

 

Speak Life

 

This morning I was sitting on my back patio with my coffee, watching the summer’s morning rituals on the field below: cheerleaders practicing routines in the end zone, track and fielders running laps, and a group, out of my line of sight, drilling to the constant prodding of their coach. 

You see, our home is situated on a hill directly above our high school football field. This means we are privy to all the activity, and noise, that occurs throughout the school year: band practice and football, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and track and field practices and games.

The field below is basically a bowl, and sounds echo up to our home endlessly. Some sounds are pleasant and some are like nails on a chalkboard. Sometimes the words are clear, and sometimes, due to sound traveling, they are muddled.

I can’t help but be affected by what I hear, positive or negative. There is always a reaction. There have been times when I’ve needed to leave the comfort of my patio chair to escape the verbal tirade of an angry coach or the cacophony of a cheering crowd. 

And I’m an outsider to the activity. I’m not on the team. I’m not cheering anyone on. I’m not even on the field. But I’m still affected. 

As I sat with my coffee, I thought, “Isn’t this true for all words?” Whatever we say doesn’t just affect the person we are directly speaking to, but everyone else that person comes in contact with. It may not be words at that point, but like echoes in a hillside, those initial interactions create a feeling, an energy. And it spreads, like ripples from a stone thrown in a lake.

I’m sure an angry coach has no intention to be a downer in my day, he’s just doing his job. But I can’t help but wonder, if his words impact me, on a patio drinking coffee with no interest (or, let’s face it, ability, at this point) in being on his team, how can they not impact those kids, and everyone else they will meet this day? 

I have a framed quote in my kitchen from William James: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” I’m sure Mr. James would agree that what we say makes a difference, too.

Spread love. Speak life. 

Being the Bow

At our lake house I have a Kahlil Gibran quote in a frame flanked by photos of each of my two boys.  They are smiling from the pumpkin patch, young and sweet.  Gibran was a favorite of my brother’s, this excerpt especially, and after his passing it became even more special.

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with His might

that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

~Kahlil Gibran

I have always loved the imagery in this piece:  God as The Archer, parents as the bows, the child the arrow.  The idea that He is ultimately in control; that as parents, we don’t own our children, but Life does.

One of those boys in the pumpkin patch will be starting college in a few weeks and “The Day We Say Goodbye” is marked on the calendar.  It’s a phrase that has permeated my summer.  It has dictated my mood, my interactions with people, my interactions with my son.  It’s like a cloud always hovering, darkening my days.  

Most days I can channel the sun, the clouds part, and I realize I am blessed, and I am grateful.  I know I am.  But some days I unexpectedly get this random glimpse of him at the age of three, or ten, or even right now, and my heart feels like it’s literally being torn from my chest.

Yes, I know it’s not “Good-Bye” in the permanent sense.  I will still be his mother; I will always be his mother.  But after “that day,” as we drive away, everything will change.  He will be embarking on a glorious adventure that will take him to places I cannot even imagine, within and without.  Places I “cannot visit, not even in my dreams.”  He will discover himself, apart from us. He will chart his own course.

More than anything, he will have the time of his life. He will create memories and friendships and relationships that will last a lifetime. He will expand his mind and world and, most importantly, he will discover himself.  He will set his course and even though it may change, and change often, he will be blessed with the opportunity to take charge of his own life.

And for that, I am so, so grateful.  

But along with the gratitude comes the realization that he will have hard days, and hard nights.  He will get sick. He will question himself.  He will be disappointed, by others and probably by himself.  He will meet girls and maybe fall in love with one (or two) of them.  Or maybe get his heart broken.  In the midst of finals.  

The conundrum is that while this breaks my heart, and his absence will be profoundly felt by all of us, I know it is what needs to happen.  It’s what every parent wants, for their child to fly.  On their own.  If I am honest with myself, my children are my gift to this world.  They have given me purpose beyond myself.  And I need to give this gift away, no matter how much I love it.  

I thank God for the blessing of being this young man’s mother and the opportunity to raise him.  It has been my greatest challenge, my greatest joy.  But for now, I will pray to trust The Archer and the mark He sees on the path of the the infinite, bending as much as I can and feeling myself held in His arms.  

 

Presence Under the Tree

Merry Christmas, Dear Friends!

This past year I interviewed for a few different jobs with our school district. During this process, I was given a compliment by my current principal. He told me he’s never seen me rattled. Ever.  

Now, my work as a teacher aide (currently in my fourth year) is admittedly not stressful in that I have no deadlines, no one reporting to me and nothing to bring home at night. However, I am required to wear many hats and be able to change them at the drop of a… you get the picture. This is accomplished surrounded by hundreds of children under the age of ten who are under our care, with the expectation they will be taught the three R’s, along with manners, self-respect and respect for others. Things happen. It’s unpredictable. And it’s loud. But Ron is right. I rarely do get rattled.

My meditation practice has grown since I began two-plus years ago. I have been practicing yoga for over ten years now and have been teaching a little over two. Still a beginner in many ways. I have a morning routine that gets me up at 5:30 during the week and helps me to ease into my day. My meditation practice is a key element of this routine. While this may sound admirable, you must know that many mornings I go through an entire laundry list of what I need to accomplish (usually it IS laundry) when the chime goes off and I realize I did not meditate at all.  

I do not berate myself or judge how “good” my practice was. I accept it as it is. I practice presence. And this is what meditation does. It teaches you not to stop your thoughts, but train your mind to be present and still. It is not easy. The beauty of it is, however, if you practice quieting your mind in silence at 6AM on a cushion with the scent of bergamot diffusing in the air, you will slowly learn to be present and still when it’s 2PM in a classroom full of third graders a half-hour before their Halloween party in a room that smells like, well, third graders.  

This past year, we went on several college tours and trips with our oldest, to North Carolina, Virginia, Washington D.C., Gettysburg, Bethlehem, and Chicago. Yes, next fall we will be sending him off to begin this new chapter of his, and our, lives. Some trips involved the four of us and a few were just he and I. Precious, precious time.  

My goal is to be present. Not nostalgize the past and worry about the future, but be here now. So often I find myself reeling myself in. When I start spinning, thinking about how I will get through the transition of having one less spot at the dinner table, or being fearful of some event in the future, I stop and “return to my cushion.”  

When I find myself rushing, arms full of bags and papers, holding a hot cup of coffee with two fingers while I search for my keys, and feeling like I just can’t…do…one…more…thing, I recognize that I am spinning, that I am not present. I remind myself to notice my breath. I ask myself, “What can I do now?” Then I do it if I can. If I can’t, I can be comforted knowing I am practicing living in a way that is compassionate and accepting. Remember, the only people finished with everything are dead. Truth.

Presence can also be practiced with your interactions with others. Lord knows, we need it now more than ever. We are a culture bombarded with information, texts, tweets, posts, emails and voicemails, all demanding our response. Release the vice grip on your phone, put the internal dialogue aside and focus, really focus on the one you’re with. Listen and respond, whether it’s your first-born who will be leaving your home in a few months, the harried cashier at the grocery store or a seven-year old (who seriously needs a tissue) telling you about her loose tooth.

Be where you are. Wherever you are. Feel the warm water on your hands when you do dishes. Notice the steam rising from your coffee, dancing in thin air. Feel your feet gently touching the Earth when you walk. Feel your feelings, whether they are comfortable or not. Listen to what they are telling you. Slow. Down.

This all takes practice. Sometimes years of it. But keep practicing. Most importantly, be forgiving with yourself when it’s hard.

Pema Chodron, one of my most favorite people, says it best:  

“Being present is not something that happens once and then you achieve it; it’s being awake to the ebb and flow and movement and creation of life, being alive to the process of life itself.”  

I never did get those jobs that I interviewed for, but all is still well. We are all healthy, riding the waves together.

May you receive the gift of presence this Christmas and in the coming year, and may you be awake to its ebb and flow, accepting all as part of your own personal journey.

Peace.

The Choice

Fear:  defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear these past few weeks. Many agree that the months leading up to last week’s election were centered on it.  Indeed, the candidates were counting on it, leveraging it for their own particular party.  Fear of losing jobs and the right to bear arms from one side, fear of taking steps back for human rights and the environment from the other, just to name a few.

Now that it’s decided who will be leading our country, the fear has unfortunately not subsided.  We are all still consumed by it.  And if you look at your newsfeed, we are all raw, even if our candidate won.  Fear is still winning.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who authored “Death and Dying,” asserts that there are only two primary emotions:  love and fear, “…for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear…We have to make a decision to be in one place or the other. There is no neutrality in this.”

The bible endorses the same idea.  “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” ~1 John 4:18.

One can presume, then, that all emotions can be traced back to either love or fear.  Anger, jealousy, envy, hate all stem from fear, if you dig deeply enough.  

Much of yoga involves working with students around the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  One of my many goals as an instructor is building awareness of these two systems and increasing students’ abilities to activate the parasympathetic.  The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” response.  Its purpose is to assist us when we sense danger.  Our blood vessels open, sending much needed blood to the extremities from the center, giving us the adrenalin to flee from the perceived attack.  The heart races and the breath becomes more rapid.  Activating the parasympathetic nervous system brings the blood back to the gut, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and activates the “rest and digest” response.  If you see a cougar on the trail when you are taking a morning jog, the former is helpful and potentially life-saving.  However, when we perceive “danger” in the form of a deadline, too many commitments, too many self-imposed expectations, a family gathering (Hello, Thanksgiving), or even a presidential candidate we do not like, this creates trouble, in our bodies and minds.  

Many of us are, sadly, in a perpetual “fight or flight” state.  Not only is this incredibly detrimental to our physical health, causing disease (and dis-ease), it also necessitates that we react as though anything outside of us is a threat.  If we think we are under attack, we will react accordingly.

In the case of our newsfeed, our words have become our weapons.  And how we wield them is in direct proportion to perceived size of the threat.  Remember, fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous.  That someone or something may not be dangerous until our mind believes it.  So, so many of our brothers and sisters believe they are under attack, that their families are under attack, that their very lives are at stake.  

So what to do?

Practice being a yogi.  I’m not suggesting that touching your toes or sitting cross-legged chanting “Om” will take away your fears.  I’m talking about self-awareness, noticing sensations in the body, and recognizing how emotions and the body are connected.  When you feel threatened, either by words, or ideas, stop and notice where you feel it in the body.  Does your gut tighten?  Does your jaw clench?  Do your hands squeeze into fists?  Begin to notice where you feel the fear.  You may not even be aware that your body is reacting.  Start there.  And breathe into that sensation, where you’re feeling it.  Feel the breath in the belly, allow the jaw to relax, open your hands and feel the breath at the tips of your fingers.  

Next, see if you can tap into what is specifically creating this fear, and recognize that it is probably perceived. It does not need to be a part of you and you have a choice, always, of how you will react to it.  

Consider this:  “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” ~ Rick Warren

Choose love.  Recognize that we are all afraid.  Of something.  We all want what’s best for ourselves, our children, our families.  Remember that hate and bigotry almost always stem from fear.  When you consider responding to someone whose views are different from yours or offend you, stop and check in.  Choose love.  

Once again, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:  “If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of either fear or one of its component feelings. Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.”

This is a challenge, folks.  Our country is being, and no doubt, will continue to be, challenged.  Half of us didn’t want to go in the direction we are going.  But how we rise above this challenge starts with us, in our own hearts, with our ability to recognize our fears and make the choice to respond with love.