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.

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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. 

Different = Good

I’m a yoga teacher.  But I’m also a yoga student.  In my real life, I work for an elementary school, meaning I have summers off.  From June to August (far too short, in my opinion), I have the opportunity to be more a student than a teacher.  I can take a class in the morning, afternoon, or night, or maybe all three.

Whenever. I. Want.

And I love it.  Best part of summer vacation.  

In doing this, I have come to realize how wonderful it is to experience different teachers.  Even if they are your friends.  Especially if they are your friends.  So, I thought I’d sit down and share, “What I Learned on my Summer Vacation.”  Here’s my top ten list of why it’s important to mix your practice up.

Number One:  Different is good.  The yoga tradition is ancient and vast.  So vast, that a teacher certification, while a noble accomplishment, cannot possibly touch on every aspect.  There is so much to learn from over 2,000 years of teaching and most of us have less than a hundred to learn it all. The path each teacher takes after certification is as individual as the teacher herself.

The individual teacher’s motivations and values are the determining factor in their class style.  Each teacher’s focus is different and it comes from their own light:  what has spoken to them through their yoga.  Their own personal interpretation.  And that’s a beautiful thing to see and be inspired by.

Number Two:  Special teachers for special needs.  We are all different, people and yoga teachers (‘cause they are one and the same).  No two are alike, and no two teach alike.  Some teachers focus on alignment, others focus on mula bandha, still others ride the breath.  Some are peppy and talkative, others are slow and keep their instructions brief.  

You may find a certain teacher resonates with you more than another, or, depending on your mood, you may want a different kind of class from one day to the next.  Having a “working knowledge” of the teachers at your favorite studio will make it simpler to decide what will benefit your body and soul based on your particular need.

Number Three:  Some teachers swear (really, they do).  Yes, teachers are human.  They are real. They may say “left” when they meant “right,” or forget the sequence they put together and have to teach on the fly.  They are not enlightened, or possessing of special spiritual powers.  And the more you meet, the more you can celebrate that they are all guides sharing your journey, doing the best they can, just like you.

Number Four:  The students are different.  Most teachers have “regulars:” folks who are there more often than others.  They are there likely because of coinciding schedules, but, schedule or not, you need to like your teacher to keep going back.  

So…the class reflects the teacher, who can be as different as, well, another teacher (see Number Two).  It’s cool to meet new yogis.  You can learn as much from a fellow student as you can from the one in the front of the room, trust me (Note:  while you can learn from fellow students, we should always be practicing astaya.  In yoga we honor our own body and don’t compare.  And it is possible to learn from others without berating ourselves, with practice).

Number Five:  You force yourself to move inward.  By trying something new, you are faced with the unfamiliar, but you always have the familiar that is within you.  Your light is always there, no matter who you practice with.  It is unchanging.  Changing the outer stimuli reminds us of this.  

Number Six:  You learn new ways to express a pose.  Every teacher has a different way of explaining a pose, what to focus on, mentally or physically.  Because we are all different, we teachers, we feel poses differently.  And we teach from our experience, either what we’ve personally felt or what we’ve seen in our students.  

You may just walk away from that class almost nailing crow pose because of a few tips you hadn’t heard before (thanks, Tracy).

Number Seven:  It shakes things up.  If you’re in an emotional rut, go take a class with a new teacher.  Someone once said, “Do something every day that scares you.”  Going to a new class takes you out of your comfort zone.  And creates a little crack in the mind that allows strength and self-reliance to seep in.  

Breathe that sh*t in (Oh, my…did I just swear??).

Number Eight:  Teachers like to have things mixed up, too.  Because students are also our teachers, we instructors have much to gain by our classes being “mixed up,”  by seeing different faces, different bodies, different needs.  Thanks for coming.

Number Nine:  Some teachers actually like people (really, they do).  Especially new people.  

Number Ten:  You are happily reminded how wonderful yoga really is.  How it brings people of all ages and sizes and ethnicities and religions together and we’re all cool with those differences.  We yogis see and honor the light in all.  

And as a yogi, you know that no matter who you practice with, or who that person is in the front of the room, you always, always, always feel better after yoga.  You walk out a different person.  And different is good.

Namaste.

 

Open Mic Night at the Coffee Shop

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.

One of my dear friends has a very talented daughter who writes her own songs, plays guitar and ukulele, and sings. She plays whenever she can, and tonight she was performing at an open mic night at a coffee shop. Kristen invited me to come, but “warned” me that the clientele there would be, um, different, from her daughter’s usual gigs at the Hard Rock or the places in our respective suburban communities. Being a lover of all people, especially Kristen and her daughter, I happily went.

I had no idea what a special night it would be.

Upon my arrival, a sixty-something man was reading poetry, his own. Throughout the next three hours, I witnessed a young girl singing “Fallen to Pieces” a cappella, and a man who courageously attempted to sing “Fulsom Prison Blues,” off-key and without rhythm. A woman, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, read a poem about her “Wide-Smiling Daughter” who was her inspiration for fighting her battle. A blind man, shouting each performer’s name as they approached the stage (“Caroline!!”), and clearly was VERY comfortable with the mic, got up twice to do a “comedy” routine. Another man, who revealed that his wife left him two days ago (“I tend to drink too much…”) sang and played his own song about how perfect she was. A published poet recited a poem entitled “F U Cancer.” An accomplished duo sang together, he on guitar, her playing an ordinary saw with a violin bow. Amazing.

And Caroline sang. Beautifully, as usual.

I saw all this but here’s what else I saw: regular people experiencing suffering, pain, and joy; humans (strangers, no less) supporting one another’s courageousness to get up and express these emotions, no matter their ability, mental faculties, or appearance (no American Idol idiocy, here). I saw emcees encouraging each and every performer and insisting on respect from the audience.  And I saw the power of art to ease that suffering, or celebrate that joy, whether it is through song, speech, or playing.

I left the coffee shop feeling more connected to my fellow humans sharing this journey.  I may not have anything in common with the people in that coffee shop, but we are all part of this human experience. We all experience love, and loss, and have a need to express what we feel; some of us may simply have a harder time expressing it than others.

I am grateful for people who express it, even if they can’t see, or have hard time holding the mic, or sing off-key. How wonderful that there is an outlet like music, or poetry, or writing to share the human experience. For the rest of us, we can witness it, and nod our heads, and understand that we are not alone. And be inspired.

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Making Pies with Mom

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When my parents passed away eight years ago, they left a house full of memories and lots of, well, stuff.  Stuff that my brother and I had to sift through, trying to decide what to keep, what to toss and what to donate.  It was a very difficult task, saying good-bye to these pieces of my parents.  There was a great deal of stuff that I didn’t necessarily like, but because of their preciousness to mom and dad, couldn’t part with.  These were put in the attic, to be sifted through a second time, maybe years later and maybe never.

Undoubtedly, their most treasured possession was an assortment of crystal that they collected over the years, at estate sales and on their many jaunts across the country.  It was not mine.  Most of it we donated, but I have a few pieces that sit in a curio cabinet in my dining room, not to be used.

As the years have passed and I have been able to set aside more of their stuff, I have found that one of my most treasured possessions from my mother is her mixing bowl and dough cutter, two items that most likely cost much less than the crystal in my curio cabinet, and, compared to those pieces, surely would have been considered expendable as far as my mother was concerned. The bowl is yellow on the outside, fairly scuffed from years of use, and white on the inside.  It’s a heavy bowl that makes a large dinging noise when I place it on my kitchen counter.  The dough cutter is simple; a couple of the blades are bent so it’s perfectly imperfect.

When my mom was dying, my dad and I, in a hospital waiting room, were sharing what we loved most about her.  Among many other things, he loved her pies.  She was not a fancy cook, often serving dinner from the freezer or a can, but she was a mean baker.  Even though it was usually just the five of us at Christmas, I remember plates upon plates of cookies, nutroll, nut tossies, coconut tossies and kiffles.  And pies.

I never baked a single pie until after my mother’s death.  I felt the need to carry on the tradition.  I bought a large book – an encyclopedia of pie-baking – and dived in, using her yellow bowl and imperfect dough cutter.

I don’t bake them often, but my husband and friends request a pie every now and then, and I always try to make a few at Christmastime. 

When I’m making the crusts, I imagine the many crusts that were created this same bowl, her flour-covered hands gripping the dough cutter and the bowl’s rim where I now do the same, and creating magic.  I feel closer to her when I make pies.  She is working through me and I can’t help but feel her instructing me and, sometimes, cursing with me when the dough doesn’t want to cooperate.

Perhaps that’s why my husband and friends enjoy my pies.  They are filled with love.  They are made with love.  And sometimes a little cursing.

I see my pies as a way to continue her legacy, to ensure she is never forgotten, that she lives on.  It’s such a blessing to have that yellow and white bowl and a simple dough cutter that’s a bit bent.  She would probably tell me to go buy myself a new bowl and cutter, for God’s sake, but I think they’re perfect.  Just like a mother’s love.

Living for the Dead

I lost a friend to cancer this past weekend.  Her battle was brief, having been diagnosed with leukemia this past July.  She leaves behind a husband and six year-old daughter.  Unfortunately, I am no stranger to death and grieving.  Seven years ago, in the span of nineteen months, I lost my older brother, mother and father.

Because of this loss I feel a deeper connection with the human condition, but mostly, I live for those I’ve lost.

Losing someone obviously makes things you shared with them more poignant: a bracelet bought together, a song on the radio, or simply preparing a recipe in a mixing bowl where countless other recipes were prepared.  And I miss them.  Terribly.  I consider myself a recovering griever, because I don’t believe you’re ever “done” grieving.  It just takes different forms.

The thing that surprises me most, though, is that, years later, I’m inspired by their deaths.  I appreciate my life more and want to live it better because I know they would want to have had the opportunity to do the same.  I am a Christian, and believe in an afterlife, but who really knows?  I like to believe that whatever is on the other side is far superior to what we have here, but when you start to look, really look, it’s not too bad here, either.

My brother ran cross country in high school and college, and when I run, he inspires me.  I feel my heart pumping, and listen to my breath; I feel the sweat on my brow.  My mom was a kind soul and she is with me whenever I deliver food to a sick friend or drop a birthday card in the mail.  My dad was a fixer and when something breaks, I do my damndest to figure out how to put it back together again.

All my friend Kate wanted to do, after having received three rounds of chemotherapy and being in a hospital room for over two months, was see and be with her precious girl and husband.  She didn’t want a fancy car, or new clothes.  She only wanted time with those she loved and who loved her.

Every morning I wake up I’m given 24 hours.  Time to run, time to enjoy good food, time to work, time to feel all the good and all the pain, and time to be with loved ones.  Time to smile at a stranger, time to watch the leaves move in the wind, to feel the sun on my face.  I’m painfully aware that my brother, my mother, my father, Kate and countless others don’t have that opportunity and that my time is also limited.  Hell, I may not make it through the 24 hours.

So I live for them.  Because they can’t.  Because I know they would want it to be that way.  They would want to be an inspiration, not a source of sadness.  They inspire me to soak it all in, to take chances, to write.  And I love them even more for it.

See you on the other side, Kate.  Until then, I will live my life for you and every time I kiss my precious boys, you will be there.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Jalal ad-Din Rumi