Baby (Snapping Turtle) Steps

 

Look at its determined eye. At John Boyd Thacher Park (North), 2016

This newborn snapping turtle, along with its siblings, had come out of the nest in the gravel not a minute before we walked up on it, on the yellow Perimeter path at Thacher North. Coated in wet clay from under ground, it scrambled quickly for the nearby pond. Though only an inch and a half long, this baby was already fully itself, and on its way.

That’s me.

Right now I feel messy, roiling in the gunky mud of fears and expectations about the unknown. Half-baked, incomplete. But I will trust it’s about perspective: I am a baby snapping turtle, destined for size and strength I cannot imagine from my sticky clay birthing place, called to a future of sun-warmed water.

***

For the last eleven months I have been working half time.

In May of last year, a week or two before I leapt in to that job, I finished my initial Forest Therapy Guide training. On duty at the local library, I learned to scan and shelve materials, while at home I concentrated on the six month certification process, and graduated in November.

Back then I was pretty worried about taking those twenty hours a week for paid work away from my well established practices, and then the addition of the Guide training. Was I crazy? For almost seven years, I had had a much freer schedule, during which I became a serious writer of memoir and nature essays and a serious photographer. I also worked as a personal chef, accompanied a friend who was dying, trained as a yoga teacher, and created workshops for writers and artists.

Yes, I was pretty worried eleven months ago, but those who know me well were right. It all turned out fine—and in fact, excellently. Not only in my job, but in figuring out balance, even if it wasn’t the fully realized balance I so desired. Questions popped up, and I answered them as they came.

How to write? Request a work schedule primarily noon to 8 pm and then do the vital observations and editing while most of the world sleeps, between 4:30 and 8 am.

How to continue and increase my nature connection? Walk alone before dawn. Make walks and photo sessions with my hiking partner a happy requirement. Walk with friends sometimes at dinner break (mid-afternoon), and observe the seasonal changes in my city.

How to manage the inevitable exhaustion? Alternate those days of dinner walks with dinner nap days! Cry as I needed to, which turned out to be a lot.

Nesting eagle pair, Peebles Island State Park, glimpsed on a sunset self-care walk with a good friend.

***

The past eleven months, I haven’t posted any blog essays.

But I remind myself I am closing in on completion of the final draft of my first book-length manuscript.* I have written poetry for two small collections and for myself. Two of my photographs were chosen for the Thacher Nature Art Show this March, even though unfortunately I was too sick to attend the opening, see the exhibition, or even publicize it. This summer, I plan to be offering forest therapy walks in at least one place. And finally, I kept my promise to myself and posted this essay today.

I’ve been persevering, with self-compassion. Yes, alternating with panic and frustration and fallow periods, but those freak-outs allow me to come back, repeatedly, to self-compassion.

April’s first Oxalis (shamrock flower) with its fuzzy stems, searching out sun at Thacher North.

***
Now, next week—tomorrow! I begin a full time job with the state of New York.

I am feeling those same anxieties as when I started my half-time job last June: about performance, self care, managing my tendency to perfectionism, creating a new balance with forty hours a week gone, plus a commute by car now.

This challenge has been taking up quite a bit of time and energy, as at first I delved into the test taking within Civil Service, then interviews and decision making—while I maintained that half-time job.

This is not a place I ever intended or planned to be, taking an office day job in my mid-50s. I’ve loved my decades of creating a personalized daily and weekly schedule with its many layers of paid and unpaid work. I loved to be a parent, then a homeschooling parent, to run a massage therapy business and before that a tutoring business, manage a household and house and rehab of said house, cook nutritious local food tailored to multiple dietary requirements. And as part of the fabric of my life, to organize and work for social justice and community.

But in those early years, I also left no space for myself as writer and naturalist—didn’t even know I WAS either one—or for myself as a physical being who needed much more regular exercise and connection with the outdoors, along with moving meditation.

I took care of many people but not enough of myself.

When I started my half-time job I was very afraid of returning to that place of self disregard. Again, I acknowledge than in almost eleven months, I’ve done pretty well.
I also had some unexpected surprises.

I fell in love with my community again, through people I met as they came for books, DVDs, and music. I fell in love with my historic and struggling town again, through those walks before dawn. At the library I got to glory in organization and creation of order, in the quiet and in the chaos of deliveries from other libraries. I experienced kind, patient, and interesting co-workers.

A wide variety of humanity walked through the heavy wooden doors of our building and gasped at the Tiffany window behind the circulation desk. They also fought with their children, suffered daily frustrations without some of the skills I’ve been lucky enough to develop, showed me patience and compassion, and thrilled with their first library cards.

I handled a lot of books but didn’t read many at first. Then I took out piles of them, like raiding the candy store. Now I’ve settled into 20 to 30 books out at a time, and gotten to enjoy popular items along with dusty volumes pulled from the stacks. After a couple years of illness and depletion and a very sad inability to read long-form writing, I can stick with a whole book and read it over time or in an afternoon.

I hope to still work some hours at the library, because of these gifts I have found.

Post-March blizzard, curls of heaped snow compete with the curlicues and angles of the library’s 1897 architecture.

***

Now I’m going into this full time day job. I was fretting, anxious, anticipating the worst, as I pursued the actual getting of the job. I was also able to observe, feel, analyze what spoke to me, what didn’t, and know I had a choice—not something I’d really felt before.

I hate that I’ve been so wrapped up in learning these balances I haven’t been able to do the essay writing, finish all books I’ve been writing, sort and enjoy my photos.

I try to listen to those around me, those who love me, who again say I will be fine. I return to leaving behind perfectionism and fear of Armageddon brought on by my own mistakes. The details of learning how to follow all my goals will be familiar AND unexpected. I will attempt not to anticipate all the problems or things I might dislike, and be open to the surprises.

In the muck to come, I will remember my turtle-ness and my snapping-ness. My completeness and my newness. I will remember that I’m just starting on this part of the journey, and that I am well on my way.

I will hike and take photos and guide walks. I will do yoga and meditation. I will do my personal writing and my creative writing. I will travel, close in and far away. I will cherish my friends and beloveds and attend to my own wisdom.

The pond awaits.

And the sky above….

*I am presently editing the first book of essays, poems, and photos that Carole Fults and I are co-authoring, gathered from years spent together at Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, in Berne, NY. More news soon!

Doing this book editing, I realize—I have been through all this before. For example, my blog post entitled “January Thaw.” Guess what! I have been stuck in my writing when my attention just had to go elsewhere, my creative energies spread into a job search, a business build, a health crisis. I forget. Then I return to myself, and remember. Thanks to my readers, for waiting and for encouraging me in the remembering.

Part the First: Wherein the Butterfly Arrives

My unexpected visitor.

My unexpected visitor.

February 11, 2015.  I’m talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

At first I thought it was a moth. My internet research indicates it’s a butterfly, and might be something called a Dainty Sulphur. I have no idea how it materialized in an upstate New York brownstone in the middle of winter.

Could it have been hiding in my apartment and if so, where was its chrysalis? Could it have traveled from another part of the country, the pupa attached to the dried moss of my December birthday amaryllis? Or did I carry it in with my bags of produce from the Niskayuna Coop?—after all, bananas, grapefruit and even paper bags come from far away.

Further investigating Dainty Sulphurs, I find its arrival proves somewhat unusual—they are not native and don’t overwinter here or fly in every year like an immigrant species; in fact, they are considered a vagrant species, one that only rarely comes up from the south.

It seems to be a summer phenotype, too, because of the yellow hindwings. In a winter individual, the hindwing would be greenish-gray, with additional black patches to absorb solar heat.

Sun-seeking.

Sun-seeking.

If I were to anthropomorphize—which as a scientific person I tend to avoid—right now it looks like the perhaps-summer butterfly is perched staring out the window, yearning for the sun, a whole-insect-body aching for outside, to move and flutter and find nectar and other butterflies.

When I go to bed, the butterfly is still there.

February 12, 2015. I know if I let it outside, it would freeze. I know inside, it will not survive, though how long does a butterfly live anyway? However, it certainly won’t mate, and I don’t quite know if and what it needs to eat and drink.

My sentimental heart, in spite of my lack of knowledge about butterflies, caused me yesterday to put out a little water-honey mixture, like you would for hummingbirds. This morning she—further research indicated it’s definitely a Dainty Sulphur but probably a female because she doesn’t have the reddish-orange hindwing scent patch of a male—this morning she was still resting, midlegs and hindlegs on my peeling paint window ledge, forelegs on the icy glass, peering out with her compound eyes.

Do butterflies sleep? She’s in the same position, and hasn’t touched the honey-water I dripped onto a tiny flipped-over plastic cup. (I thought it was a perfect shape, like a birdbath with an edge to rest on.)

Inside, looking out.

Inside, looking out.

Her position looks like: Mom, Mom, I want to go out and play! Like my kids used to sit on the back of the couch, heads in palms and feet warm on the radiator, looking out into the snowy exterior, thinking of all the adventures to be had later in the day, once breakfast was done and snowsuits were put on.

But this butterfly has no snowsuit and I have none to offer it. If nothing else, I will at least accompany this creature as we both look out the window, into the deep snow, into the near future. I don’t want to be a well-meaning idiot, like those who “rescue” baby birds from perfectly fine nesting areas when they have ventured a ways from their nest. So I’ve gone online and further studied forms and colors, behavior, size (yes at 22 mm she is a Dainty), and learned that the honey-water is perfectly acceptable food.

Mostly I marvel once again at the variety of things I have not seen, or did not look for, that I am discovering now, thanks to my Dainty Sulphur.

To be continued.

(Many thanks to my favorite insect information and identification website, Bug Guide.net, and in addition, the North American Butterfly Association website. I invite comments, especially from lepidopterists!)

Essay Tangles and Snarls

How I felt, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Feeling defeated, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Even with a short piece of writing, sometimes the initial story gets entwined in another.

The second small bit knots up with a third, maybe even a fourth and fifth, and all of a sudden you the author face thousands of words when you were only looking for a couple hundred. All the threads of connection seem intrinsically linked. Where can you slice so you aren’t left with a chopped up pile of confusion?

On top of it, the perfectionist editor-in-your-head won’t let go: The relationships between these things are amazing! amazing I tell you! She can’t allow the piece be simple and stand on its own.

That’s what happened to a blog-bound essay, then several essays, I planned to finish in October.
November.
December.

I did lots of other writing, for small groups and for the radio. I prepared to curate an evening of local memoir readings. I applied to artist residencies and photo exhibits.

Cut to the last weekend of January. I held one of my quarterly Move with Mindfulness/Write with Ease workshops. In the cozy retreat house, I led yoga and stretches for the writers and sun-on-snow hikes up the hill onto white pine lined trails. I cooked Mexican black bean soup and sweet rhubarb and blueberry coffeecakes.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Mexican Black Bean soup savory with cumin, multi-colored carrots,  cheese curds and fresh cilantro.

No internet or TV, no voice phone service, and only minimal housekeeping interrupted us; instead, session followed session, where everyone was writing, including me.

The themes of the weekend were phrases we use often on the yoga mat:
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

They apply equally well to writing.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

On the mats, in the welcoming morning warmth.

After one hike, I knocked the snow off my boots, made a cup of hot tea, and turned on my laptop. For months I’d averted my eyes, stomach aching, when confronted by the working titles on my computer screen. This time I clicked on the documents one by one to open them all together and finally faced down the matted tangle of five to eight potential blog posts.

I got mad when I saw how close I’d been to finished on several of them.
I got sad at how seasonal the topics “could have been.”
Then I got determined.

Over and over I learn the same lessons. That’s part of why I teach them.
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

See the pretty things hidden in the tangles?

See the pretty thing hidden in the tangles?

I can’t yank apart the knots between them, I thought; that will break the teeth of the comb, and accomplish the same thing as sharp scissors snipping haphazardly (remember to be grounded). How were the strands initially woven together? My previous efforts deserve gentleness (relax what you can) and not being in a hurry (be curious).

What do you do to a mental or writing knot?

Same as the visualization in yoga: straighten out, unwind, free, loosen, unclasp, release. Breathe!

Deep sigh after deep sigh followed, with shouts of “D’uh!” (often, embarrassingly, out loud) as I realized places to tease out a conceptual filament and drop it separate. The connections didn’t have to be quite so tight as first imagined; pictured it in medical terms, the conjoining was at the toe, not the chest, and therefore my surgical intervention was simpler, with fewer complications.

Still struggling, I asked: What do you do with a physical knot of tightness in massage therapy? Breathe into the pain, stay with it and it will lessen. Your body (and your writing) will be happy you are paying attention. Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

I did that with my essay snarls. Over and over again. What a relief.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Thump! Bump-bump! Pine cone rides the wind over snowy ground. Can I fly free, like that?

I’m not finished. But during the next few months, thanks to that weekend of attention to body and attention to writing, I look forward to posting some completely out-of-season, close (if not finished), relatively unsnarled meditations.

The sun setting on my work, at Still Point Retreat Center.

The sun setting on my work, sparkling its light everywhere, at Still Point Retreat Center.

A radio essay, as your holiday gift

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Here’s part of why I have been otherwise-occupied the last month or so: one of several essays I’ve written for public radio.

The link is not direct, and as time goes on you will have to search through a couple layers on the website, but for your listening pleasure:

Go to http://wamc.org .  Search for Programs: The Roundtable, December 22, 2014 Listener Essay (11:35 am) and look for Diane Kavanaugh-Black, “God Rest Ye Merry, Elmo Doll.”

The A-plus student sighs in relief, that the only recording error was not her own; but it would have been fine if she had made mistakes, too.

Peace, stillness, and plenty of sparkling lights to you all.

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.

 

The Past, Preserved

The container that got me to thinking.

The container that got me to thinkin’.

In my continuing quest to clean out kitchen drawers and cabinets, today I came across a glass jar. When I lifted its clear pear shape to the light, sediment clumped on the bottom and its once luminously deep red contents read cloudy and brown. The faded Sharpie writing on the lid, in my hand: Sour Cherry Syrup 8-17-03.

That’s 2003, ten years ago this week.

It’s the very last jar, of the very last jars, of my Michigan and Illinois canning years.

I learned to make preserves in 1989, when I lived in mid-Michigan with one small child and another on the way, and a spouse in graduate school (soon to be in medical school). The trees in South Haven and along Lake Michigan were studded with peaches, sour cherries and other stone fruit; I’d drive east as each came into season, or search out flats of fruit in the local market.

Peaches were the first item I mastered how to slice, cook, pack into sterilized jars, and boil in a water bath: peach halves in sugar water, peach jam, peach-apple chutney. Next, I expanded my “putting up” to blueberry and strawberry preserves, then hot sauce, and bread & butter pickles.

But sour cherries were my favorite juicy treat.

After we moved to Chicago, I could still get cherries, thank heavens. Some farmers would bring their wares up to the north side where we lived and from one farmer in particular I would order a 40 pound box of pitted and frozen cherries, available for pickup in mid-August.

Defrosted cherries would bubble along with the pectin thickener and cup after cup of sugar in a huge cooking pot as the canning day progressed. Mason and Ball and “Atlas StrongShoulder” jars were filled with the concoction, screw-tops carefully put on and the jars lowered into the water bath. By early evening, rows of glistening glass had been pulled out and placed on a wooden rack, out of any drafts in the steamy kitchen that could crack a jar that cooled too quickly.

Within an hour, always to my great relief, lids began to thwip down in a vacuum seal; knowing at least a few had been made safe for long-term storage, I’d shower and go to bed as the thwips continued into the night. Next morning the lids were wiped off and, one by one, labeled with that ultra-thin black marker, then placed for storage in cardboard boxes.

In addition to dozens of finished sour cherry preserves, some jars would hold only syrup, scraped from the bottom of my white enamel saucepan, when the solids were gone but there was still thickening ruby-red syrup I couldn’t bear to waste.

This jar was just such a jar.

The week it was sealed was a usual week, back in 2003. My calendar tells me I’d weeded the hostas and wildflowers in the front garden and the kids’ long anticipated beach day was cancelled due to rain. I’d bought the pectin and sugar on Saturday, and picked up the cherries at the Skokie Farmers Market on Sunday after church. A third year medical resident by now, my spouse had been on 24-hour overnight call in the hospital Tuesday and then that Sunday.

Wild geranium from the garden.

Wild geranium (also known as Cranesbill) from my Illinois garden.

The following week 15 clients showed up to my massage practice, martial arts classes and a Renaissance Faire filled the kids’ days, and the spouse was gone for two more overnight calls. All that activity was, I am sure, flavored with the typical couple of jars that–darn! we’d joke–didn’t quite seal and–double darn!–had to be used up right away. We grinned over buttered toast topped with cherry preserves and later each day cherry syrup in seltzer or cola or on ice cream.

I put up preserves and syrup summer after summer until 2009, when I moved our family household to New York, and then the spouse left, to do permanent overnight call, with another woman.

My first response, finding that lonely jar this August? Oh no! This will be the end of it! No more, those golden summers, that delightful food, all gone, along with the family life before empty-nesting, before a new state, before divorce.

In fact, this last jar is probably useless, not safe to eat. I’ll open and sniff it, then pour it down the drain.

But my second response? I’ll dump and wash that jar and store it with the others up in my closet, boxes and boxes of clean empty jars waiting for fruits to ripen.

Perhaps something novel should be put up in those Masons and Balls and Atlas StrongShoulders: plums? pear butter? cinnamon applesauce?

Or maybe I’ll call that farmer who delivered in Skokie, and ask if he ships to New York.

This season's blueberries, floating on top of home-made blackberry preserves blended into Greek yogurt.

This season’s blueberries, floating on top of Greek yogurt blended with some home-made blackberry preserves.

Right Relationship with Food–Lessons from Kripalu

Sweet potato and hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Glazed sweet potato with hazelnuts, black beans, greens: a small window into the cornucopia of food at Kripalu.

Two problems:  we were on a schedule (breakfast at 8, lunch at 11:30, dinner at 6:15). And it was a buffet.

Granted, a buffet heavy on vegetables: kale and pepitas–kale and other steamed vegetables at every meal actually!–, saag (spiced spinach), curried cabbage, whipped squash, salsa and guacamole, and so on. Heavy on fresh fruit, too. Some meat if you wanted. Tofu baked and seasoned with sesame seeds, soft chunks in curry, cutlets, diced. Salads and soups at every meal.

Also more carbs than available in my kitchen: banana bread and pappardelle and rice, quinoa and egg rolls and kamut and millet and loaves and loaves of bread. Not to mention my favorite, the maple-nut scones. And the ginger ones. And those scones with the currants. Oh my.

Spanakopita, beans and greens.

At lunch, phyllo covered spanakopita, along with squash, saag, beans and greens.

–All food I didn’t have to research recipes for, shop for, haul up three flights of stairs, chop/slice/dice, sauté/steam/boil, measure then serve. No dishes to wash. No dealing with leftovers.

This was problem number one.

The second one? At home, the meal “schedule” is: wake with the sun, drink water and tea until fruit calls, usually around 10 a.m. Slowly prepare scrumptious dishes on the cooking days, nibble and nosh on them for lunch and dinner, attending closely to hunger and fullness.

At Kripalu we were up way before the sun, on the yoga mat at 6:30 for an hour and a half, followed by the first meal, morning session, lunch then afternoon session followed by afternoon yoga, dinner, then evening session, shower-bedtime-boom.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

Cold seaweed salad with toasted sesame oil, fine-chopped broccoli salad with red onion, carrot salad too! Must try them all.

With these unfamiliar food and time boundaries, desperation set in:

What if I get hungry? 

I am working very hard, after all, pushing myself physically, mentally, and spiritually!  Eating keeps me awake and alert.

I have paid for all these meals. 

Such nifty recipes deserve a taste; then if they’re good I can try them on my own.

What if I don’t like what’s served tomorrow? 

The cafeteria line closes at 7:30, then there are just things to drink. What if I get hungry before bed? In the middle of the night? Before morning yoga?

(Whining) Because I AM pushing myself physically, mentally and spiritually, I want to have fun food!

So I started having three full meals–breakfast just a little vanilla soy yogurt–and some granola and soaked prunes, that’s good for me. Of course the daily egg dish was comforting and warm. Ohhh, better try the scrambled tofu, it looks good. Don’t I need vegetables too?

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes.

Almonds with the yogurt and soaked prunes for breakfast–and then some.

Even though it was Silent Breakfast, I found myself shoveling in big mouthfuls, swallowing before really chewing thoroughly.  We only have an hour before class and I have to do my writing! 

During other meals, I laughed and ate, chatted with one person and ate, got serious with someone else–and ate; at the end, surprised, each time my plate was scraped clean. Already? Is that all?

Comfort food after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce.

Comfort food  I gobbled down after our first practice teach session: spinach fettucine with mushroom cream sauce. Yes, I felt comforted. Very.

Feeling bloated the umpteenth day in a row (for some reason, I wonder why?) one breakfast I decided to take a small bite of yogurt-and-seeds, deliberately put the bowl back on the tray, pick up my keyboard and write a while while chewing; then lean over and pick up another spoonful, and so on.

With this slowed-down approach, I could feel tender resistance from the sunflower seeds between my front teeth, spreading sweetness from the soft prune, savory egg on my tongue. Ahh, this is better! Not just flavor but sensation, and a sense of fullness earlier than anticipated. Choosing to leave some on the plate, in the bowl, especially if it didn’t appeal.

Take some, just a little, a few.

Take just a little, some, a few. Space on the plate is OK.

Then to myself–Remember your old habits? YOU put your fork down between bites. YOU pay attention to the texture and flavor. YOU ask: am I full now? am I putting this in my mouth merely because it is on my plate?

Smaller portions each day, I took bowls instead of plates, so the meal wouldn’t look so overwhelmed by empty space around it.  The daily menu board helped: is the  emphasis today on lunch or dinner? Do I want the Thai lunch–or the Mexican dinner instead? 

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Tofu with kale and pea pods here...

Can you see how the choice was difficult? Sesame tofu perfectly crisped with kale and pea pods here…

Indian curry cauliflower and peas, here,

Indian curry cauliflower and peas with chutney here (note the kale)….

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper.

Coconut curry sauce, tofu, broccoli and red pepper (kale was in the other bowl).

I stopped eating the salads. Usually when dining out, I choose something I wouldn’t or don’t make at home–sudden lightbulb! I make leafy green combinations at home, easily.  So I took the things I don’t do as much on my own: julienned beets. Fresh peas. Risotto. Home-made naan (just one). Chilled cucumber soup.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad.

Beets and a cinnamon apple salad with raisins and walnuts.

I skipped lunch and took a stroll one day, after “hoarding” a scone from breakfast in case I got hungry. And a banana. Then I didn’t even want them, not until long after the hike, during the mid-afternoon break.

Next longer walks to the pond or around the lake settled my stomach, as I decreased the load of comestibles, helping my sleep as well as digestion. I began to feel more myself.

Then I realized I love interacting with people but actually need quiet and writing and aloneness to feel safe and sane.  Now at some mealtimes I chose a blanket on the grass, a nap in my room. Even photography on my own.

Heavy June rains on peonies outside Swami Kripalu's meditation garden.

Heavy June rain on peonies outside Swami Kripalu’s meditation garden.

Reflections at Monk's Pond

Variations of green at Monk’s Pond

More than half the days gone, to figure out the food piece, and then the personal space piece–I’ve had these revelations before.

But I hadn’t run into these particular challenges before–not for this long, not under these circumstances–with the skills I’d been developing for years.

At a certain point, I paid attention, saw the need for change, and acted on it. I celebrate finally seeing what I was doing, regardless of how long it took me. My knowledge is now reinforced.

But wait, there's more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables....

But wait, there’s more! Garlicky polenta with Italian vegetables and parmesan….

The colors were spectacular!

And a plate of pretty colors! I don’t have to eat them all–but I’m gonna be more aware of color and texture again, when I cook for myself.

School over, I am coming back to a home routine:  doing my own shopping, steaming my garden kale (yes, I still love kale!) and yellow beans, fiddling with local cheese and watermelon and new recipes. Being aware. Thinking about my choices, then making and enjoying them.

Maybe I’ll stop eating after 7:30 pm like at yoga school. Maybe I’ll soak prunes for my mid-morning yogurt.  Maybe–no, for sure–I’ll remember that “problems” are actually wonderfully sacred learning moments.

Clouds over the Mohawk River.

Summer abundance of plants and clouds at the Mohawk River.

**Recipes for many of the dishes here can be found in the series of Kripalu seasonal cookbooks or at http://kripalu.org/article/270/  .

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.