Was it intentional that yesterday, with the growing stack of hand-scrawled note paper tucked into the back pocket of my bag and the deadline for their neatly typed untanglement gnawing at my mind, that the Residency schedule handed me first a lecture on breath in writing and then a seminar on meditation and chant? Yesterday, Day 7, was a gift of non-linearity.
In both classes yesterday morning, I planted my feet firmly on the ground, shifted my spine upright and away from the chair back, closed my eyes and breathed long and slow. The second seminar, led by one of the writing mentors who is also a Kundalini yoga teacher, was a solid two hours of kirtan dance, kundalini chant, pranayama and mantra. Not counting the Metallica I blasted down the 405 on Saturday, it was the first time I'd heard music all week. I closed my eyes and let the rhythm and song sway my bones that have been folded into right angles. We chanted Ong Namo, Guru Dev Namo, and the tight lines of sentence and story structure slackened into ribbons and streams. Afterwards, in a fevered rush to write faster than our minds could race, we pushed our pens across the page without agenda, prompted by "Disco" and "Zebra", unleashed by the meditation and chant that came before, and fell into uncharted territory, pulling from hidden nooks of memory and desire. It was like rolling down a grassy hill, laughing and falling into a pile of daisies at the end. It was like eating ice cream before there was any mind chatter about calories and clothes. It was like playing music when the notes just sail from the horn. It was like riding a bicycle home.
Later, while standing on line for a salad at the little shop across the way, a classmate said to me, "You sounded like the ocean." I told her about ujjayi pranayama, victorious breath. I asked her about the little aluminum-backed book in her purse, and she showed me her bible, all dogeared and doodled with colored pencil. She told me how in love she is with Jesus, how he has saved her and loves her. I told her about Rumi and Hafiz, and how they felt the same way. We ate our lunches together and spoke with open-hearts about life and spirituality, without fear of difference or coldness of ego.
I got home late last night, but Darby and the girls did too. It was a lively house at ten. Emerson was still dancing because her holiday choir concert had just ended and she was wired and hungry and happy. Esme was dancing because Emerson was dancing. Darby was happy because his girls were happy.
I was, of course, exhausted. I've finally succumbed entirely to the cold that has been threatening to settle in my lungs. The cough has deepened, the sneezes sudden and loud, my voice barely over a whisper at the end of the day. But, the girls were wired and giggling, and they would not let me crawl into bed. They flung the covers off me, yanked at my arms, tickled my feet, pushed and pulled and twisted me in knots, until I finally surrendered to their love and threats, crawled up with them to the birdsnest and tucked them into bed.
Last night I slept for the first time since last Thursday. I laid on my belly, pushed away the pillows, and didn't move for hours. In the morning, just before the alarms sounded, Darby lay next to me, listening to my sleep. He watches over me, I know, sends me love in those quiet hours when I'm still deep in dream.
Was it the breath or the chant? The meditation or the music? Maybe it was the fierce love and laughter that tugged at my weary limbs, and pulled me despite my protests, out of story structure and back into the home I adore and the family I love.
It's a strange thing to leave the comfort of a perfect life to reach into unknown territory for unknown riches. It's a beautiful thing when the perfect life pulls you back in from the abyss. Sometimes it tickles you halfway to death, and then insists that you kiss it goodnight. Jesus, Darby, Kundalini chant, girls, music... whatever it is that gives you the love you need at the moment you most need it is perfect, perfect, perfect.
I'm thankful for my swim lessons earlier this year. They taught me how to breathe while in over my head and overwhelmed with sensation -- and how not to drown. This summer, the metaphor of breathing, learning how staying afloat, and understanding when to open my mouth or keep it closed helped me immensely during the most challenging moments of my stepparenting life so far. The lessons I learned in the pool were invaluable in my home, and in helping me to soften into the turbulence of teenage-hood in a blended family. The child who once laughed and loved me easily is growing, testing, changing. She is a glorious being and I am endlessly honored to be one of her parents, but being a stepparent is an interesting role. Sometimes we have it easier than anyone, but many times it's the most thankless role there is. Every Saturday when I returned to the pool, the lessons I learned there solidified. How do you go with the flow when the swimmer in the next lane is doing butterfly laps and churning up whitewater? You learn when to open your mouth, and when to keep it closed.
Now, on the cusp of a new adventure -- this week I begin the course work for my MFA in Creative Writing -- I am again thinking of the pool. I am thinking of the fear I had the first time I jumped in, of the self-consciousness I felt floundering in my beginning strokes, the fatigue that each session wrought in my limbs, the strangeness of showering and undressing in the locker room.
The 10-day residency that marks the official beginning of my work begins tomorrow at 6 p.m. I have been reading like a fiend, trying to get through the required reading and pre-residency assignments, but I have also been taking conscious time with Darby and the girls. Even as I type here, there is an unfinished game of Shrek Monopoly precariously open on the coffee table, inviting the pounce of little paw feet. I have a date with the family to finish this game tonight right after work, and hopefully the cat will not disrupt the properties. Over the next ten days I will miss bedtime stories, choir concerts, and acting class demonstrations. I will miss dinners and early morning dream-swaps with Darby.
Oh, but what will I gain? That is a mystery that is only beginning to unfold.
Meanwhile, since this is what I have been doing lately, I thought I would share with you some of the books I have been reading. Perhaps, if you have just finished your latest novel and are without another on the nightstand, you will be interested to try one of these. Never fear, my copies will be back at the library shortly.
This one -- The Awakening by Kate Chopin -- was one I have been intending to read for years. My singer/songwriter friend Rebecca Loebe claimed it was her favorite, and urged me to read it during our Berklee days. Later she later wrote a lovely, moody song titled "The Awakening by Kate Chopin" so you can probably guess this was my soundtrack through the week of reading. (Listen to the song here. Buy it here -- support indie artists!).
I think ideally I would write a blurb about each book I list, and this is something I may do in the future, but for now I have more writing/reading to finish before class tomorrow night. For now I will leave you with images, and the urge to read books.
On a fairly normal Tuesday a few weeks ago, when the cloudy morning daylight was beginning to lighten the bedroom windows, Darby crawled out of bed to awaken the girls for school. The girls' bedroom is off the hallway, tucked behind a secret door and up a flight of stairs in what we call The Birds Nest. The room was once an attic, now a cozy space littered with colorful tween clothes, glow-in-the-dark stars, and books. It has a birds-eye view of the backyard, and the moon often shines through the big picture window as we go through our bedtime ritual of stories and back rubs. The night before, after reading our latest chapter in the Anne of Green Gables series, we'd turned out the lights and had a big snugglefest. On Tuesday morning, though, when Darby stood at the bottom of the stairs calling that it was time to wake up for school, we heard an angry grumble from Little E.
"Grrrrrr. I don't wanna," our little 4th grader growled from the top of the stairs.
Darby was compassionate. A few minutes earlier he had probably also said something like, "I wanna stay in bed." Any day, I'll agree. I'm a morning person, but it's a rare 6:30 a.m. that I spring out from the comforts of our flannel sheets.
"I understand, boo-boo," he called back up the stairs sweetly, "but it's time to wake up and get ready for school."
"Grrr," came the angry response from the top of the stairs. And then the soft sounds of blankets and clothes, and two girls getting ready for school.
Darby came back into the bedroom a few minutes later with steaming mugs, and as we sipped our coffee (sugar, black for me; sugar, vanilla soy milk for him) Little E poked her head through our doorway.
"Introducing... the Grumpasaurus who lives with the troll under the bridge!" and with that, Little E bounced into our room, giggling as her arms flung wide and she flopped on our bed.
Where a few minutes earlier we had been dreading a difficult morning, now there were smiles and laughter. We all cheered Little E's transformation. How many times have I held on to a bad mood on principle. Here, Little E, not even in her double-digits, flip-switched her way out of a grumpy state by calling on the oldest trick in the book - laughter. This is a skill I feel that I am just learning, and she's already a master. And she did it before 7:00 a.m.!
I was reminded of the Grumpasauraus again last weekend. Both our girls have been riding horses for several years now, but we recently switched barns where they take lessons. The new barn - Shadow Hills - is a slice of serenity. The property is tucked in and around shady foothills, and is the home for many interesting animals - two miniature donkeys, a parrot, a potbelly pig named Bacon (which I don't find funny at all, but that's me), llamas, several dogs and cats, and of course horses. On a small cliff above the main arena where the girls ride there is a quiet sitting area and a shaded gazebo for visitors to observe the lessons.
On this particular day, Darby and I were sitting in the gazebo watching Little E take her second lesson with the new teacher. Big E was off at the stables getting her horse ready for riding. Maybe it was the new teacher, maybe it was that Little E was still getting over a cold that had kept her out of school earlier that week, but midway through her lesson she stopped her horse in the shade of a nearby tree and began to cry. We could see her from across the arena, her head turned downward, little gloved hands wiping at her eyes.
The girls have both told us how they love their new teacher, and we still aren't sure why Little E was upset that morning, but like yoga and running is for me, sometimes horseback riding shines a light on an internal struggle. The teacher let Little E rest under the tree for a few minutes, and then instructed her to start riding again -- but this time, to sing Happy Birthday while she rode. The teacher jogged alongside the horse as Little E trotted the perimeter of the ring, the two of them singing Happy Birthday together. Later, as Little E untacked her horse, the teacher explained the reason for the singing. While I can't recall the exact term she used, this is what I call it: pratipaksha bhavanam.
Pratipaksha bhavanam is a term that comes up in the Yoga Sutras. It means flipswitch. Yoga was a practice developed to ease the suffering of the mind, something that we humans tend to do naturally. The Yoga Sutras distill the human tendencies that cause us to suffer down to their very essences -- how we can suffer when we mistake one thing for another, when we attach our egos to temporary identities, when we become attached to past pleasures or build our life around avoiding our dislikes, and how we suffer under our fear of loss.
Luckily the Sutras do not only explain where suffering comes from. They also illuminate some techniques on how to relieve suffering. Breath. Meditation. Moving the body. And pratipaksha bhavanam. It means "reframe your perspective". Take another view. Pratipaksha bhavanam is the practice of substituting a positive thought in order to quiet a negative one. It is the very act itself.
Despite my years of yoga practice on the mat, and my years of teaching the yoga practice in my classes, I must admit that some of my greatest lessons have come in the early morning hours before I've even gotten out the front door. Also, my guru is not an aging teacher in India. My guru - one of them - is simply counting down the months till her 10th birthday. She begs me to measure her inches on the kitchen door frame. She tells the same joke nine times in a day -- "I'm so good at sleeping I can do it with my eyes closed" -- and then begs for another bite of chocolate.
Also, when my guru wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, she laughs and sings her way back to joy. She teaches me how to do the same. I try to remember how a nine-year-old master can do it, so that I can do it too. Yoga is not really backbends and pretzel poses. It is not Lululemon or a particular body type. Yoga is bouncing out of your Tuesday morning blues with a joyful laugh and a flop on the bed. And it is also being non-reactive and allowing the flipswitch to take place.