There’s a storm rolling in this evening and I have box seats with a sweeping view of the mountain range circling the Stockbridge Bowl from my bunk bed in the dormitory at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.
The dorm was empty when I arrived back from the crowded dining hall and the world outside suddenly stilled, amplifying the humanity I’d left behind. It was hard to pull myself away from the dinner conversation, with the evening concert about to begin, and cafe and the gift store humming—But it was necessary. Residing, as I do, on a dirt road in Vermont, Kripalu is much like a city to me—with all its people and energy—magnified by my expanded role this week—assisting not one presenter, but a team of 9.
There was a time when I thrived on this kind of action, depended on it really—to distract myself from myself. The complexity still gives me a thrill–attending to presenters & participants, surround & sound, timing & content. I do this a little more than a handful of times a year and it allows me to resurrect capacities I’ve long since disowned (the restaurant I managed, the classrooms, the non-profits), but it’s also a resurrection of a deeper familiarity, I fear, of a childhood parentified, overwhelmed and traumatized.
By the time I left home as a young adult, the sound of silence terrified me, and in the absence of something to occupy my mind, I’d turn up the radio to drown out the noise, inside. I felt this familiar tensing when I arrived back to the dorm in the calm before the storm. Twice, maybe three times, I stood up from my bunk to go in search of something more interesting to do; it seems the more amped up I get, the more stimulation I crave. But in the hush around me, I found a deep exhale, and with that, a surrender, and a homecoming, consciously embodied, where I most belong.
There was a storm on my first weekend at Kripalu back in 2006, a wild, wintry one, taking down trees and power lines. I was a guest then in a program held in the cozy Orchard Room with its line of windows through which I watched the branches of apple trees collect snow. Almost a decade later, I was in the Orchard Room again just after I turned 50 and rounded the corner on a work of memoir whose corners alas are still rounding (at 55!) in what had become a spiral path instead of the linear one I had in mind.
Which is to say, I shouldn’t be surprised that on my way from the crowded dining hall to the empty dormitory, I passed the Orchard Room, and recognized there, somehow for the first time, three iconic representations from my childhood of which I’ve gone to great lengths to describe in my work of memoir centering as it does in my grandmother Lila’s home.
“…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” wrote Mary Oliver, “I do know how to pay attention…”
One of the presenters spoke that verse, and it’s lingered as a guidepost for me though I’m not sure where it’s pointing. I’d volunteered as the program assistant for Radical Listening: Narrative Medicine for a Polarized World out of curiosity and desperation and hope—not just for our country—but for my path forward. My youngest graduates this week and so it is that the day-to-day vocation of 25 years (or a lifetime—as the oldest of 8) comes to a close.
I’m after a new beginning, and I’ve long thought that I might find it in the medicine of narrative, finally claiming the legacy handed down through generations of family physicians before me. But alas after a 4-day immersion among those described as the “Mount Rushmore” of the field (including its founder from the program at Columbia), I am pointed back home where I am finishing this piece, in the quiet morning air beside the rock outcropping off my writing studio, attending to the slightest movement among the ferns, as the thrush sings and the balsam wafts, and I wait to see the return of my spring friends the fox kits who must have grown so much in the 5 days since I’ve been gone.
I can’t say that writing saved me when I began the practice at 18, but I know for certain that it was my companion through pain and loss and overwhelm, and I know it helped/helps shape my path forward.
“The quality of attention shapes the story,” the presenters said to the participants, and I imagine this is just as true with life.