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.

 

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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.