To Be Human

Pollen frosted close up of roadside chicory flower.

Pollen sparkled stamens of common roadside chicory: delicate and tough together.

I’ve been off the grid for many months, in terms of writing posts, due to some health issues.

It’s been hard to let go of the happy disciplines I crafted over time in favor of other, uninvited ones: from days of writing and hiking and yoga studies and business building, to pain management, miserable medication interactions, diet changes, self-care regimens and (even though it was minor surgery) post surgical rehab.

Unable to sit on the floor and do my yoga in its usual way, I had to figure out what part of my practice “transfers.” Sometimes I couldn’t look ahead into the future, or even the next thirty minutes, so the asana practice simplified into breathing in the moment, then breathing into only-the-very-next moment.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: barely head out of water, plagued by flies.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: head barely out of water, plagued by swarms of flies that just wouldn’t leave.

Until I’m consumed by Being-Ill Time, I don’t recognize that my usual experience is Relatively-Healthy (even though I’ve done this being-ill thing before). Since February, I’ve stepped out of ordinary time–like the final months with my friend J. Because it went on for a while, illness became my ordinary time. I had to give up activities I was attached to, like honing essays for this blog.

I stayed with the disappointment, frustration, and unexpected physical weakness. I centered on curiosity, listening to what was actually going on in my body, instead of anticipating procedures with dread or remembering previous ones with trepidation.

I had to bring my self-care tools with me into Being-Ill Time, and develop some new ones. (More on that in later posts.)

Daisy--closed, preparing for bloom.

Daisy–closed, preparing for bloom.

As humans, we often have to respond to what happens that we don’t choose. To glory in the pain-free moments. To become comfortable in “waiting to see” and not making plans. Here I thought I was moving so much more slowly than in my old perfectionistic, A+ Student self. Now I have been taught to go even slower.

Of course initially my mind went crazy with thoughts: How long will this last? How bad will it get? Am I a wimp?—justifying myself to loads of imaginary detractors.

Then one day on the way to replenish my medical supplies, I ran into an acquaintance who asked about what I was up to.

I’ve been ill lately, but I teach writing and movement workshops—and I’ll be doing yoga with hiking at a local nature area this summer.

But what do you DO?

With my sister, I’m working on a book about meditation and the creative process. Progress continues on the memoir. I’ve been enjoying my nature photography as well.

But what do you DO?

Hearing these persistent questions, I could have become discouraged. No, I’m not working a typical nine-to-five job with a fancy title or perks. I’ve been sick, so certainly my business’s forward movement has been disrupted.

However, for the first time, instead of self-judging, I noticed how her thought patterns and expectations of how I measured my life were upsetting HER. The chosen flexibility and unconventional schedule of my life—which made her uncomfortable—were getting me through some tough times. My response? I didn’t take it personally. I merely wished her well and went on my way.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

It reminds me of what I used to ask my adult literacy students: Not Where do you work? but rather How do you spend your days? The question delved into who they were as people, and acknowledged that personal value is not based on how much money we make or our job descriptions. Some of us raise children, make a community, rest in retirement, volunteer, enjoy our professions or, alternatively, do meaningless repetitive things in order to pay the bills.

The better questions: How do you feel about how you spend your days? What’s important to you? What have you learned about being a human?

I’ve spent my days lately paying attention to what’s happening in my very human (concurrently fragile and powerful) body, researching, breathing, undergoing, recovering. I am living in my moments, honing skills of survival that I also tuck away for when I might need them next.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

 

Advertisements

To Be A Student Again: Falling into the Pond, Repeatedly

Monk's Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying all parts of the exploration of balance.

Monk’s Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying the exploration of balance. Especially taking in the part I’m most scared of initially: getting wet.

April’s training at Kripalu once more flung me deep into non-ordinary time, like the months of grief around my friend J’s death*; with much to say afterwards, and yet so much unprocessed and unwritten-about.  I’m stymied in the richness of my adventures, and exhausted again, still.

Information, information, poured in for twelve days. From the senses: exotic dishes on the buffet, hiking to jade-green ponds and a blue mountain lake, new faces to learn, voices, expressions, chanting, body movements and stretches and muscles micro-damaged then self-repairing;  loosening of muscles and expectations.

From the emotions: old frustrations hidden in the back and neck, released!, even-older habits of perfectionism popping up and rejected repeatedly.

From the intellect: how to memorize? how to rework language? philosophy to examine and reject or accept, examples to wonder at and incorporate.

We fifty-some students were fed and watered on a regular schedule:  yoga now, eat now, learn now, more yoga now, eat now, learn more, sleep now. Sometimes I opted to sleep instead of eat, as the fifteen hour days wore on.  We studied (or not), absorbed information, wept, breathed in new ways, chattered, practiced asanas, laughed, walked the labyrinth, mused, closed our eyes a lot, danced, practiced teaching, meditated, listened to each other’s life stories.

More to come about the food--but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Yum.

More to come about the food–but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Including breakfast. Yum.

I’m groggy coming out of school, as evidenced by my writing:  incomplete phrases dangle, run-on sentences jackrabbit ahead.  Regular life assaults me while I self-challenge not to leap recklessly into the old hurry-hurry. Yet requirements push impatiently through the door as I bring my luggage in:  lists, schedules, topics internal and external: what for dinner? hmm, those piles of unfinished projects, cleaning; oh, and here come other people, can I handle interaction?

Another fact reverberates in this bumpy integration: I return to Kripalu in June for a second round, and preparation is required in the form of teaching practice, absorbing a three inch binder full of materials, memorizing Yamas and Niyamas (Character Building Inquiries of Restraints and Observances), becoming familiar with even more poses (seventeen asanas down, twenty-six more to cover in June).

And most important for me: the internal dialog shift.  Teaching is not giving a performance, it’s having an experience. Breathe and meditate first. Breathe and don’t take yourself so seriously. What do I experience in the moment of teaching? How can I flow with self-awareness along with students’ needs to understand? What about timing the various sections of the class, and whoops! I need to use a new kind of language–not the language of anatomical teaching from my former days in massage therapy but rather directive, guiding phrases to move the participants to internal sensations and lack-of-self-judgment–yes, language cleaner yet more poetic.

Months ago, coming back from Kripalu, I didn’t realize how painful it could be to re-enter regular life.**  So this time I moved back into the world deliberately and slowly.

I let other people take care of me a bit with:

–A zen motorcycle ride to Saratoga Spa State Park; moving meditation different from the yogic variety, world going by but not attached to it:  smells of cut grass, newly manured fields, flowering crabapples and Japanese plum, all cascading inside the helmet, forced up my nostrils; the call to give as little input as possible to the bike’s movement, merely shift with the driver’s body to stay upright or angle to make turns.  Then crunching along gravel, smelling the sulfur-y carbonic acid water when we pulled up to the springs, hearing toddlers in shorts giggle along the paths to the spouters.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

–An hour’s amble to Jumpin Jack’s hamburger shack on the first hot day of the season,  for a cheeseburger topped by coleslaw, finding a long but quick-moving line of post-baseball league families and tattooed Harley Davidson riders, everyone patient but happy-bouncy like little kids because of the warmth.  A measured amble afterwards to settle dinner on the way to Stewart’s for dark chocolate ice cream.

–Another day: the sun was golden at John Boyd Thacher Park where a bald eagle rode troughs of air over the escarpment, along with turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, ravens circling–and then three rare Blue Karner butterflies indigo’d the path in front of my hiking companions and I.

Rare scarlet trillium, imperfectly framed AND glowing deliciously.

Rare scarlet trillium at Thacher Park, imperfectly framed and yet glowing deliciously from the sun behind.

–Talks on the phone caught me up with family and colleagues as I put in window screens  to catch the cooler night air, then re-stocked the fridge.

Finally I could bring myself to clean out the email queue, a hundred messages at a time (a task not yet complete), unpack the suitcases and put down the new green yoga mat.

And to the garden: Planting has begun in the actual garden plot, in addition to my life plan.***  An entire row of three varieties of carrots!, stringless pole beans, lacinato kale, peas, radishes, and this year sweet pansy-faces smile on the row ends, with bachelor button and cosmos seeds strewn in. The little girl and boy who live in the house next to my community garden begged for seeds when they saw the activity; we tossed a packet of zinnias over the fence.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked and covered with sphagnum peat, watered. Growing underground where we can't see it. growth occurring that we can't see yet.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked, rows covered with peat moss, thoroughly watered.  Growth, that we can’t see yet, already occurring.

These May mornings I rise at 5:30 just like at school, loop mala meditation beads around my wrist to remember my sangha (study community) and chant along with the grainy video I took of my instructors singing the Student-Teacher Mantra. I listen to my own body’s needs on the yoga mat, and study how to teach others, giving myself hours a day to learn.

Of course I overextend in studying, and other parts of my returned-to life. Then I remember the Niyama I am practicing of Ishvar-Pranidhana: softening and opening to the play of the universe. I kindly, gently and compassionately, rein myself back in.

April's full moon, called the Awakening Moon in some traditions, certainly appropriate for this period of learning for me.

April’s full moon, called The Awakening Moon in some traditions, over the lake at Kripalu. Awakening, indeed.

*See posts Sep 14 & 28, Oct 8 & 19, 2012; found in the category “Death and Grief”

**See “Confidence that I Know Nothing: The Labyrinth” posted November 2, 2012

***See “To Plant a Garden–And a Life” posted February 1, 2013

Sighing into spring, and school

Golden now, not grainy-gray, the quality and angle of morning light has definitely shifted in the kitchen. Come 5:30 a.m., I hear returning songbirds chipping and chirping outside my urban bedroom. It is spring again–and still–despite the almost-blinding gusts of snow that assaulted my windshield after dark the other night.

Winter sunrise over the hill

Winter sunrise over the hill

I think about going back to school and sigh, just a little. This will be a challenge. Normally spring is the time students think about freedom! if not the short burst of spring break, then the long open opportunities of summer. Instead, I am picking up books, “screwing on my thinking cap,” as some obnoxious teacher once pantomimed. Ouch.

I am also intrigued, excited, curious. It’s like sleep-away camp–not that I ever attended, just read descriptions in books and heard about it from friends. Supposed to be new kids to meet, a whole lake to swim in, lanyards to twist and knit. In my case, other interesting grownups, a lake to walk around (still too cold for swimming), forest paths and a labyrinth too and a healthy cafeteria: physical and mental growth to be had everywhere.

My problem is that very persistent A+ student who hangs on the edge of my mind, like a bully taunting from the field beyond the playground, Yeah, just try stepping over here. You’ll see what happens! Loser!

She/he interjects comments as I read my Kripalu Yoga textbook. Sometimes I am pulled in by the resonating philosophy, so I forget that voice; sometimes I sigh yet again, frustrated by my more recent midlife difficulties with memorization. Perhaps because I am creating new neural pathways along with the information, undoing old patterns of self-deprecating reaction, my mind has rebelled: This is too hard! I’m not cooperating!

I go into the yoga room and look at the book, the diagrams. Deep breath. I speak the pose names as I stretch out and position myself–

–on the belly, pelvis firmly anchored into the earth, arms and legs lifting up and behind me: I whisper “Nav-asana,” and think Naval, like a boat on the water, floating with waves of breath….

Kneeling, then flowing back over knees-wide-apart, arms reaching forward on the floor, Garbh-asana, Child’s Pose–I am garbed in the freedom and openness of the child-mind and child-body, I take what rest I need, when I need it.

Bala-kik-asana, Crane: a one-legged pose of balance, arms hovering, the staccato Ks remind me of the stick-legs of a bird in water.

Like a boat--or a dock--water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Like a boat, or a dock:  water softly lapping, the feel of Navasana

Ah, there, that’s a reason you do yoga. Space for creativity, not pushing and grunting along, not cramming yourself into a place that doesn’t fit. By its very definition, yoga is about expansiveness, room for yourself, who you are, at that moment.

Unwinding my body in Spinal Twist (Matsyendr-asanahow to remember THAT one?) I exhale and think: Snow flies yet spring comes. I can’t remember things, I can remember things.  Just because I suffered last time I learned, doesn’t mean I have to again. In fact, the intention is to do it differently now.

Welcoming carving on the Emma Willard School  "Alumnae Chapel"

Welcoming carved face on the Emma Willard School “Alumnae Chapel”

I enjoyed a marvelous Easter/post-Spring Equinox holiday with a colleague of mine. We tromped through cemeteries overlooking the Poestenkill and around the Emma Willard School campus, deserted on a Sunday; snacked on huge pink slices of watermelon radish with cups of hot tea and maple sugar; worked on individual writing projects while the local whole chicken stuffed with crumbled sausage, butternut squash and kale baked in her oven.

We took a first-course interlude of salad: more radish, avocado, walnut, mesclun and vinaigrette.

Spring salad to tease the appetite

Spring salad to tease the appetite

I sliced sweet potatoes into fries. Her least favorite chore for the day, the knife-work was a job that didn’t feel like drudgery to me at all; I hummed as I chopped along.  That’s something I am watching for in my future earning-a-living, ways of spending my hours that I so enjoy they don’t feel like “work.”

My companion rubbed coconut oil, cinnamon and a little rosemary on the wedges before oven-roasting them. As we tapped our keyboards in the living room, the smells of dinner intermittently tickled our noses and then slammed us lusciously when we re-entered the kitchen in search of more tea.

When all was ready, we ate until satisfied and no more, heaving happy groans nonetheless, and deliberately leaving some food on the plate to wrap up for later.  Sips of tart cherry juice with seltzer served as dessert, accompanied by more writing time.

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Paleo stuffing and sweet potato fries

Ahhh, we sighed, a holiday that wasn’t (as is typical) about overstuffing our stomachs or our schedule. As the day meandered, so did we; we took seriously our choices but made them only as we went along–Want to walk more? Turn this way or that? Whoops, the chicken isn’t done; oh, I see why it needs more time, ok, we’ll write for twenty more minutes.

She’s a future yoga teacher too, and we’re both applying the lessons on the mat to daily life: sometimes grappling, sometimes serene, knowing serene-plus-grappling is actually desirable.

Yes, I told her, I joke a lot about breaking into a sweat learning to love my life.

But ease is what I aspire to:  ease within challenges, like strength and lightness in a yoga pose, grounded in the earth and yet buoyant, willing to move and respond to the wind, and not let go of connection to who I am in my core.

False starts, shifts in weather, don’t indicate that spring won’t come. How days-off were acknowledged in the past doesn’t define how I celebrate them now.   I will allow myself to be not-so-good in school and not worry.

All of it will be delicious.  Especially the more I stand in each moment, Right Now, swaying and trembling perhaps, but over and over returning to curiosity, determination tempered with compassion, and gentleness toward myself.

Warm spring sunrise

Warm spring sunrise behind budding tree

The Value of Small Things

A droplet frozen as it traveled down the branch tip, bubbles of air and all.

Melting snow refrozen to droplet as it traveled down the branch tip–bubbles of air and all.

Exhausted in my illness, I half-dreamed–swirling textures, miniature scenes:  small things.

I woke at strange hours, blinking in the semi-dark, and dragged myself into consciousness. A few times I flipped on the computer and reviewed my personal visual library of the outdoors.

Photographically, it must be admitted, I often fail to capture The Big Scene. Views to the horizon should encompass not just a grand vista but also multiple items of interest–framing trees, layers of color, initially unnoticed figures–which the eye can move between while simultaneously absorbing the grandness. I usually hazard an attempt or two at digital reproduction, while shrugging at the results.

But when it comes to the diminutive, somehow the camera’s lens recreates what I see, and then some.  These photos lull me out of what otherwise would be a fast hike through the Big Scene of tree-tree-tree, sky and green, sky and brown, up the icy path, down the slippery path, tree-tree-tree.

Lichens galore at Dyken Pond; they loved the damp and cool of December there.

Lichens galore at Dyken Pond; they loved the damp and cool of December there.

Concentrating on the little buds or branches trains me to not just look at what is on the trail ahead–the overall effect–but also the detail that goes into the effect, or surprises hidden within the effect.

More shapes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss: a vehicle, a hairstyle, something from down in Who-ville?

More shapes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss: a vehicle, a hairstyle, something from down in Who-ville?

Flashes of my hiking partner’s cadmium red coat pop up on the computer screen–she and I openly acknowledge that pulling out a camera also acts as an excuse to catch our breath. Look at the little fern! Pant, pant. Oh no, I’m fine, just taking some photos. Wink, wink.

Sometimes I don’t realize I’m tired or in need of a snack of apple-and-cheese or Carrot-Nut Bread until I am enthralled by a leaf’s angle or juxtaposition of shapes in the lichens. Visions of the teensy help me to stop and take care of myself.

No wonder while I was sick I dreamed of the small.

Hints of pussywillows to come, Landis Arboretum, Esperance NY.

Hints of pussywillows to come, in the winter sun of Landis Arboretum, Esperance NY.

like a moth emerging under crystals, velvety/downy leaves like bat ears pressing snow between them, and more leaves unfurling, uncurling, not quite identifiable. Out of a hard stem, hardly able to see that it could create a delicate quivering leaflet

Velvety beech leaves like bat ears or a moth emerge under crystalline snow, Dyken Pond.

In yoga, we do adjustments called “micro-movements”, that make a pose our own, responding to the muscles’ and joints’ needs at the very moment we are holding the body in the defined way that creates the asana. We are in the pose and we are adjusting the pose, all at once–simultaneously ancient/universal and modern/mine.

As part of the adjustments, I am learning to giggle once in a while when I become too serious–How silly to think perfection is required or desired!; to note then let go of worry about the loudness of a knee pop, to feel relief at relaxing a jaw that, unbeknownst to me, became clenched. Micro-movements are responses to the small that call from inside the body, in order to properly choreograph the Big Scene, the vista of Warrior Two or Mountain Pose.

Perhaps my larger views will improve, eventually.

Early crocuses, Landis Arboretum.

Early crocuses, Landis Arboretum.

I saw my first crocus cups of gold this week, two days before the Spring Equinox and one day before a huge snowstorm.

Two seconds after the crocuses, snowdrops. Those squiggles of green, puffs of white, baby plants so clearly claiming their place in the world, popped up out of the snow and mud.

It’s the rhythm of the natural world that’s always there–the natural world that we separate ourselves from too easily, and the rhythm of growth and seasons working like breath; we forget they all continue twenty-four hours a day: in, out, in, out, winter, spring, summer, fall.

What did I take from my middle of the night studies? Exquisite tiny worlds can be seen, if I look. Micro-movements, the small responses in my body, teach me to own my yoga.  And I would do well to practice “micro-movements” in other parts of my life.

Back in the yoga room, the intake and exhale wash away distractions. Small expands to huge. Grains of snow outside the window glisten me into the Now.

Snowdrops, Landis Arboretum.

Snowdrops, Landis Arboretum.