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

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.

Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods: Yoga and Intention

The Long Path, John Boyd Thacher Park

The Long Path, John Boyd Thacher Park

When I first committed to creating a personal daily yoga practice, I quickly became frustrated.  I want to do the asanas and breathing, but it seems so overwhelming to go into the room and practice for an hour every single day–even though I know it feels good, I am very happy at the end, and I WANT to do it.  

“Life” kept getting in the way. My mind and body fought me.

Luckily a friend who’s been doing yoga many more years than I suggested:
Every day, just stand at the yoga room door and bow. If you are capable of additional effort, go in and do thirty seconds on the mat. Once in the space, if you feel drawn further, then follow that inclination.

It worked. Some days I bowed at the door, physically acknowledging the desire and the simultaneous inability or lack of time to do more than bow. Other days I went in and sat and breathed and moved, not paying attention to the clock, just following my body’s needs and desires. Now once in a while, I take the computer in and stream a class.

I am developing a practice, not a routine.

And I admit–I’ve still had a hard time overcoming that initial inertia; sometimes my disinclination to move wins the argument. Then I remind myself: you don’t need an argument, just set the expectation and do your best to fulfill it. Even if you just bow at the door.

Candles in the yoga room; snowy street outside.

Candles in the yoga room; snowy street outside.

So–I’ve been sick for several weeks with what is usually called “a nasty cold.” It has been especially disheartening since before I was felled by the virus, I’d just experienced a wonderful streak of physical strength building in anticipation of Yoga School–hikes and walks and weight lifting and yoga classes–which dribbled down to nothing as my sinuses did the opposite.

All the ongoing projects–writing of every kind along with the apartment clearing–lumbered to a stop, and are just now rumbling back to life.

Coughing hard while tucked under covers and unable to do anything physical, I comforted myself with memories of Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods.

Snow storm on the Escarpment; Thacher Park.

Snow storm on the Escarpment; Thacher Park.

My hiking companion and I have been venturing to remote parts of well-known local nature areas; one week she brought sticky home-made baklava, which we ate in a snowstorm while peering over unguarded ledges of the Helderberg Escarpment. The next week I unpacked Carrot-Nut Bread (my absolute-favorite-quick-bread-on-the-planet) to munch along the sunny aqua-blazed Long Path.

To have such fancy food–What an indulgence! we giggled. We keep turning our human requirement for exercise into photo safari adventures and seasonal meditations, and now even our snacks have become more than just nutrition: they are flavorful, exotic even. And delightful!

Baklava in the snow.

Baklava in the snowy wilderness.

The first day I could stir from my sickbed, I turned on the lights in the apartment, in case I felt like washing the loaf pan from the Carrot-Nut Bread or organizing papers.

Pretty soon I switched the lights off, but did stand at the yoga room door for a moment.

Then I heated some chicken soup and, dizzy, sat on the futon for a while before heading back to bed.

I had to trust that this illness-induced inertia would pass, even if it was difficult to imagine; that there would be experiences again that felt like Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods, Baklava in the Wilderness. That I would eventually speak without hacking uncontrollably, get back to the yoga mat and the kitchen.

All the empty time in bed gave me time to realize: I intend to do these activities, intend to do them thoughtfully and gloriously, and then they will became part of my Life, not just another thing to add, or schedule into a routine.

And so it happened. Vinyasa class and gentle machine workouts in a colleague’s gym became realities. Buttermilk Banana Bread with Currants as well as Home-Fried Hushpuppies ventured to the beaver lodge at Dyken Pond. I did more than just bow at the door, most days.

My yoga practice is blossoming, in spite of everything.

Actually, my practice is blossoming because of the setbacks. And continuing intentions, yes, to bow at the door every day.

Carrot-Nut Bread on the Long Path.

Carrot-Nut Bread on the Long Path.

Carrot Nut Bread from The Joy of Cooking

This recipe is nice because you don’t need butter; the hardest part is grating the carrots and grinding the nuts. I use a hand nut-chopper to grind the nuts. Produces a crunchy surface and moist interior.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and sift together:

1 1/2 cups flour (half white, half whole wheat). Sometimes I substitute 1/4 cup almond flour or mix in other tasty flours.
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (I often put in a little more).

Add 3/4 cup sugar, 2 beaten eggs, 1/2 cup canola oil (or other vegetable oil), 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Blend in with a few swift strokes:
1 1/2 cups grated carrots and 1 1/2 cups ground walnuts or pecans.

Bake in a greased 5 X 9 loaf pan about 1 hour. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack for further cooling.

I used mini loaf pans and baked about 30 minutes. Can also be baked as muffins. Exquisite with a little cream cheese spread on top.

Little creatures skip along the bumps on their created path, as we can do also.

Little creatures skip along and over bumps on their created path–as we can, also.

Living in the Moment: Friendship

Fire tower at Goodnow Mountain

My garden is end-of-season-neglected, but not because all the vegetables have been harvested.

I am not sure what I will find when I return to it, much like I was not sure what I would find when I sat last week in the front room of my friend J, who entered hospice three weeks ago.

Before that visit, she called me.

Hi, it’s Me. I’m really, really sick you know.

J, my dear–sick in the mind or sick in the body? Or sicker in both? Tee hee! Is there a prosecutable offense involved? Or lots of juicy drama?–

–Actually, the pulmonary fibrosis has progressed. A lot.

Oh.  Well, you and I knew that would happen eventually.

At 74, I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be intubated again.  I don’t want to be poked or prodded or in pain.

Your DNR orders and advance directives—we’ve made sure that won’t happen.

Oh, enough about me! What have you been up to?

J, I hiked a little mountain this weekend, Goodnow, near Santanoni. It took about three hours; the trail was full of tree roots and rocks.  And then I went up the fire tower.

I don’t think I could do it, climb that mountain.

Not with your oxygen tank, no. But perhaps we could get one of those things you sit on, a litter, with the four guys, to carry you up.

Only if they are hunky.

Ok. And fancy tassels will hang off this, waddya call it, palanquin, that’s it! With soft pillows for you to recline on.

And a scarf! I want to wear a white scarf, flowing in the breeze. But wait, what about that dancer, who got strangled by her scarf?  What was her name?

Isadora Duncan! Hmm. I will plan for a fifth guy, who will be there just to make sure the scarf swirls around artistically but doesn’t choke you.

How was it, the mountain?

You could see peaks all around for 360 degrees. The Adirondack lakes below were so cold and clear and blue. My knees were shaking while I climbed and then I was so scared of the heights I was growling like a wild animal to keep myself moving on the stairs! Hanging off the metal fire tower, that was perched on the rock, over those fall colored trees, up on the mountaintop–I was on the edge of the world.

Thanks for taking me there with you. But I’m going to lie down now.

Well, all right….I miss you. I love you.

I love and miss you too.

J, do you want me to come out to see you again?

Yes, please!….It’s been really good talking to you, but my memory is so bad, what if I forget what we said?

Well, are you enjoying yourself right now?

My side hurts from laughing.

All that matters is that we are talking. If you forget, I will remind you what we said. Or if I forget, we’ll do it all over again next time, and just laugh some more.  Wow–I guess that’s what they mean by living in the moment.  See you Tuesday.

Tuesday came, and I went for a week and lived in that space some call Kairos-Time, Meditation-Time, outside of our normal lives, in a place that is exhausting and sad, long and short.  I was glad to be there to say good-bye.

For now, J is at home, and comfortable, resting in her palanquin of quilts. Her bearers,  the many friends and family, come by to visit, waiting in her front room for the moments here and there when she is awake, to share their own memories of the hard climb, glimpses of silk scarves and long views of lakes.

***

While performing final blog-edits, I received word J passed away early this Friday morning.

So my dear friend has finished her own end-of-season harvest.  It may have looked spare and imperfect to outsiders–that’s just the messy way fall in the garden is–but whatever was there had matured and grown somehow perfectly ripe, sweetened even, by the inevitable change of season. I’m grateful that, for eighteen years, we got to hang out together in this part of the garden.

View from Goodnow Mountain fire tower