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.
The Main Hall at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health becomes a vessel with Tara Brach at its helm, as she navigates the passengers through the waves of the present moment in a sea of breath, rising and falling with 300 sighs of recognition, tossled by sprays of laughter, rippling, lapping, splashing, then stilling on silent tears like soft rains, until one by one we step off the ship and walk on water, riding the next wave of consciousness to the shore of our own belonging.
In recent years many of my beloved practitioners have moved away, retired, even died.
This is how I found myself driving an hour south for bodywork which I squeezed in on my way to assist a weekend meditation program at Kripalu, thinking it was worth the squeeze to feel more at ease in my body which had been tightening in all sorts of new and improved ways.
As is often the case, I left the table with a deeper sense of wellbeing but as I drove west out of the Pioneer Valley and into the Berkshires, I noticed that the softening in my body had opened me to a deluge of grief that I couldn’t quite place and didn’t want to feel.
Perhaps my body had been so tight as a form of protection, I said to myself, and the bodywork served to remove the armor which is why I’m feeling so tender.
Soon the tenderness was replaced with a mounting anxiety which led to double arrowing myself, ie. Why am I anxious after getting bodywork! How am I going to assist a meditation program! What is wrong with me!
There used to be a temporary tattoo for sale on the counter of the shop at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. It was one I thought would be best on my forehead or across my heart, inked there permanently.
What if nothing is wrong with me?
Maybe that wasn’t it. It seems too long. But that’s the idea which led me to my breath and eventually to a softer place with my anxiety until I was increasingly at ease again, driving over the last mountains, recognizing how much fear I felt around experiencing grief, and understanding that anxiety was another form of protection.
R-recognize A-allow I-investigate N-nurture
Seated across from Tara, beside the sound system, I often take a seat on the floor, so as to be less visible, and in one instance, while attending to my breath, I sensed something behind my lower back as I sat cross-legged, more insistent than a pillow, and so I put one hand behind me, feeling around to discern–something hard? something separate or something built into the wall?–I wanted to turn around and look but felt that I should at least “appear” as if my attention was on my heart given that I was on stage right, and still my hand left its assigned place on my lap, insisting on further probing, like a tongue around a rough tooth… something plastic? something round?… until I was certain that whatever it was had a sound, as insistent as Poe’s ticking, only to discover when the meditation came to a close, that what had been pressing into my lower back, (and into my mind and into my life) was my own sense of time or in this absurd reminder of limited thinking: a small round wall clock, left behind on the floor.
I’m not sure how I ended up in the backseat of my car this afternoon like I was as a girl. I must have been looking for something.
My parents were so broke when I was baby that in order to drive from the trailer park outside the city (where my father was in school) to my grandparent’s home at the shore, they would have to scrounge under the seats of the car in order to pay the parkway tolls.
There’s my missing purple water bottle under the driver seat! And here are a couple quarters and a dime and a nickel and a few pennies. (I wish I knew they were there last weekend when I stood empty handed at a meter.)
The bigger question is: Why am I sitting in my car in a parking lot on this first spring-like day during a brief interlude before I head back inside the building?
And the answer is, I suppose: Meditation.
All that presencing this morning in meditation led me in search of something more familiar.
Like composing a thought and tidying my car.
Some understandings come slow, and then all at once. Meditation for instance. So boring (and aimless), like Savasana.
This perspective persisted despite the absolute bliss I once oozed after a gentle afternoon class in my early years at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, which was followed by an optional 30-minute meditation where no doubt I rode the current of the master teacher who was seated in front of the tiny group who chose to delay dinner.
And what of the silent retreat at Garrison Institute a few summers ago which I scheduled just ahead of my soul retrieval mission across the Hudson? That silence came effortlessly and had been such a necessary part of preparing for my return to West Point.
Or what about my very first introduction to meditation through the chakras–back in 1989, where my mother, in the gown she’d donned for my sister’s Christmas nuptials, spun in the color red at the base of my spine?
And what, of course, about the weekends spent assisting Tara Brach’s program not to the mention the weeklong assist of Dani Shapiro at Omega Institute, and the countless weekends assisting her writing & meditation program at Kripalu over the course of the past 5 years.
Some things come slow or not at all.
I have places to get to, things to do, and sitting gets in the way.
I’ve noticed of late that I’ve relinquished my embodied teaching practices–in the reverse order of their arrival. First I stopped teaching yoga. Then yogadance.
All that remains is writing and I’ve even given up leading that.
Writing as a personal practice is something I began in pain at the age of 18, some 37 years ago, and I have continued the practice ever since. Don’t mistake this for discipline, howeover, because writing feels as necessary as water and breath.
As I round the corner with a work of memoir, a labor of 7 years and counting, which is discipline and persistence and devotion and terror and flailing and despair, it’s the craft of writing that I want to plumb in consciousness.
This book grew out of the year that I studied yoga, a year in which the subject of the memoir led me to claim a spot as an NGO representative at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) (because my grandmother’s dream had been to work there), a year during which I also traveled to Asia (like her mother, my great-grandmother) to facilitate an international conference in Japan, in the exact city I found circled in my great-grandmother’s atlas which since her passing sits on my desk.
It seemed then as if everything was moving at a clip, which is my favorite way to move, of which I had been deprived with little ones at home, and yet 7 years after the clip, I find myself–at the age of 55–rocking back and forth in a rut, questioning everything… every one of my choices and goals.
This I shared over this past weekend, knee to knee, with my assigned partner, Amit, in a room filled with 300 others doing the same with their heart’s pain. I was back at Kripalu, assisting Tara again, appreciating how meditation rinsed my mind and tenderized my heart, finally understanding that it cut through the accumulated layers of defense that stood between me and ease with whatever comes.
“I am so angry.” I told Amit, as he remained in sacred silence. “I’ve arrived at this stage of life absent of the agency I once so fully possessed before becoming a partner and a mother.”
I went on to tell him how during my meditation, instead of comfort, I saw action on my heart’s behalf. “I sat at a table of Generals,” I explained, feeling somewhat sheepish with this admission. (Should Generals arrive in meditation?) “They sat in a tent like you might see near a battlefield,” I continueeed, and then I told Amit that it was my grandmothers and my mother who sat around the table, strategizing my next moves as I navigate the Patriarchy which had squashed their potential too.
If not for my writing practice today, I would have forgotten this “meeting with the Generals” and if not for my writing practice over the weekend (my notepad), I would have forgotten about the form of the Goddess who joined us at the table, her high forehead, so reminiscent of my own, particularly as I age and the mane of my youth recedes.
Lila. Mildred. Loretta. Durga.
These women have my back.
I’m coming to understand that what is required to remain on the path forward–in my life and in my work of memoir–is a light heart and a spacious mind. Otherwise, I will contract into the safety of what I already know no matter that I’ve outgrown it.
SpRiNg doesn’t come at all and then comes all at once, and the world is, for a moment, like a painting, into which you’d like to jump, Mary Poppin’s style, but if you blink, it is all gone, just like Bert’s sidewalk art in the London rain, and this is why, as the earth awakens, I practice awakening too, a challenge in my sluggish state, heavy with snow & rain & mud, and thus I begin in the shower, as if it’s my very first one, marveling at how the water streams out of the faucet at any temperature I’d like, enveloping my body like a womb, birthing me into another day anew.
May I be grateful.
May I notice.
May I get out of my own #%^@! way.
“Dislodge that one crucial boulder,” writes Hiro Boga, and sometimes, actually often, that boulder is me.
This morning I woke thinking about Jesus entombed after the crucifixion, sensing into myself as a guard at the mouth of the cave. As the boulder itself. Refusing to move. Protecting what is inside, when what is inside is ready to come out.
I have been an overzealous guard of my writing, that work of memoir that I’ve kept private, protected, for several years.
It was at one time necessary, wise, compassionate, and so I appreciate the tenacity of my inner soldier, however extreme.
But yesterday, she was especially courageous, not in guarding, but in stepping aside, releasing the gift to a group of women who will read it and respond around a table in a week’s time.
Any mother knows my vulnerability in this. That first time that you put your newborn, infant, toddler, preschooler, kindergartener in someone else’s care.
There is a lot of talk about trust, but the truth is that even though I carefully, consciously, intuitively chose this time, this teacher, this place, my act of courage is as much about desperation; this is what finally dislodged the boulder which blocked the path forward.
May it be so.
From 63 to 36 degrees, may SpRinG rock toward awakening on the land and in our lives, and in hearts across this nation.
“What would it be like to live without anxiety about non-perfection?” asks Tara Brach. This is my personal & global meditation.
May we allow for imperfection but insist on forward motion.
May we lean into the voices of women, the three Mary’s who stood at the Cross, and at the cave, and to whom the Divine appeared Resurrected, and within whom he was conceived, delivered and nurtured.
May we recognize women as the life-givers, intimately interwoven with Creation, bleeding each month with the moon, or as is true for silver-haired women like me and those who no longer or never did bleed, storing the wise blood inside to make medicine for the tribe, as the hawk cries and the peepers sing and the grasses green, and the Earth turns toward its fertile peak, May Day, Beltane, the cross-quarter day of SpRiNg.
There was no mention of politics at the weekend meditation retreat which is not to say that there was an absence of reality. The dharma talks were interwoven with societal and environmental concerns which necessitated conscious attention and action. There was, however, an invitation to bring someone to mind. “It could be someone at home or at work,” the teacher said, “Or it could be someone in a more public arena, someone who you judge and blame.” There was a moment of silent receptivity before the entire room–300 meditators–opened into laughter, a wave that crested and crashed at the teacher’s feet, leading her to pause and reply before continuing:
I was a girl. There was a party. My grandfather sat down at the piano, already our hero. Who knew he could play! Who knew Heart & Soul had two parts! I sat down beside him on the bench and he showed me how. We played together, grandfather and granddaughter.
Didn’t this song stream over the radio just as I was writing about him today.
“Hi, Poppop!” I call out.
Those twinkling eyes. His height. His kindness. The way everybody loved him. EVERYBODY, except perhaps my grandmother at times. How he’d hurt her. How being female hurt her. How his life and light blossomed. How hers dimmed. How I adored them both. But saw in her, despite the increasing slurring, and the absence of societal mark, the greater power, the indomitable strength, the wind, the water, the earth, beneath his feet, our feet, as he smiled and wooed and flipped our pancakes into silver dollars, while she, who once held so much promise–French & Chinese at Rutgers–grew bitter with neglect.
A leading role came at 55, a tragedy, her dramatic exit.
And although his eyes did twinkle from time to time, he never stood as tall.
I’d like to go back in time and talk to myself about longevity. About the gift of organs, for instance, like the liver and the skin.
“A hangover doesn’t just steal a day,” I’d say, “There’s a hidden surcharge, like an insurance hike after a speeding ticket.”
And what of the adrenals.
Sure, I could burn the candle at both ends in my youth, but what if I knew then these overextensions came with a cost—tapping my immune system and reaching into the future to compromise resiliency.
And what of emotions. I was praised for not letting them get in the way of productivity and responsibilities then, but now I sit across from the therapist processing all that pain because encrusted, it blocks the flow of joy today.
Shouldn’t our early Ed & elementary & high school & college curricula be infused with the study of Anatomy & Physiology, Psychology & Consciousness so that the systems of our bodies might be revered, protected and nourished rather than neglected and abused?
Because neither the Earth or ourselves are commodities to be spent, but gifts to be treasured.
Imagine if, each life, like each body of water, flourished with respect.
What if we prayed not just Mother-Father God, but child God, Sister-Brother, Daughter-Son God and even great-great grandbaby God?
What if we prayed Water-Sun-Air-Fire God, Soil God, firefly-mosquito-tick God, traffic-shooting-gardener God, immigrant-racist-misogynist God?
What if Our Father wasn’t in the sky but in Everything, 360 multi-dimensional degrees of Creation–Dear Mother/Father/Daughter/Son/Great-great grandbaby…
How would we love? How would we care? What would we ignore? Who would we hate?
I used to joke that I had as many blogs as my mother had children, and I’ve since surpassed her fecundity, and yet a Google search with my name and this particular topic comes up empty.
Perhaps it’s always been too fragile a thing to share with others.
Perhaps what I felt then is what I feel now–that any telling would be unworthy.
The incident, if that’s what it’s called, or the miracle, took place before I’d begun writing publicly, and maybe that explains it, and yet I’ve scanned my journals from that time and there’s nothing there either. It’s as if it was all a dream. It would make more sense as a dream.
Source of all we hope or dread Sheepdog, jackal, rattler, swan…
Even the verse out of which the miracle sprung was more like a dream than a song.
We hunt your face and long to trust That your hid mouth will say again, let there be light…
I guess I’ll have to start from scratch in the telling.
A clear new day…
We lived in The Little House at the time, of that I’m sure, and the incident or miracle would have taken place sometime during the publication of James Redfield’s Celestine series but sometime after the release of James Taylor’s two-disc live cd.
My mother and I read The Celestine Prophecy together, albeit 300 miles apart. We’d begun reading the same books during the summers when I was in high school and college–everything from the classics to historical fiction to works centered around consciousness, particularly after she entered recovery, which was just after she needed two escorts to walk down the aisle at my wedding because she was too drunk.
My mother was sober when I left my home at the sea three years later following my first miscarriage. I settled at the foot of the Green Mountain National Forest beside a brook in an 1800’s Cape that the landlord called, “The Little House.”
By the time the snow began to fly that year, I miscarried a second time.
But when we thirst in this dry night…
The winter of ‘93-94 was one of the longest, coldest, whitest winters of the twenty-five years in Vermont since. There were still patches of snow on the school playground where I taught well into May.
“Why bother doing what nature will do herself?” the old-timer used say to my husband, in his thick Vermont accent, as Casey shoveled off the back porch again and again. Howard often lumbered past our backyard in his rickety jeep, living as he did up behind our place, a good mile or so in the woods, off an old logging road which passed by his hunting cabin.
In the softer seasons, and sometimes in the winter on snowshoes, Casey and I’d would hike up that road into the woods, about a 1/2 mile up, stopping at a little bridge that crossed the brook that ran past our house.
Everyone loved visiting us at The Little House, all those friends and relatives we’d left behind at the shore, and we all still reminisce about it despite its family of mice traipsing across the hearth and the squirrels in the ceiling and the dirt foundation in the cellar and the astounding hatch of black flies from the brook each June.
We arrived at The Little House in our twenties and by the time we’d outgrown it, I’d lived there longer than I’d lived anywhere, and something else, we’d become a family–with two boys–a five-year-old who called the landlords (as we still do) Uncle Lenny and Aunt Diane, and a newborn who doesn’t recall being born in the tiny bathroom upstairs.
I can still feel the embrace of the mountains around The Little House in Autumn, and the sound of the brook when the door to the small balcony off our bedroom was left open on summer nights.
Once at dusk, I approached a deer in the field until we were face to face, and then afraid, I was the one to turn away. Once I fell to my knees in the garden during a rainstorm, overcome with a sense of release I hadn’t known possible. Once I ran up the woods road behind the house, blinded by grief, and when I arrived at the small bridge, too out of breath to cry out, I discovered a profound communion with the brook and the light as if everything would always be alright.
Just before we left The Little House, we returned to the sea. My mother and I were in the middle of the most recent Celestine book which I would finish without her. I would sit beside her bay window on that visit, my youngest, barely a month old, at my breast, as my mother took her last breaths, her body poisoned by cancer.
We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children…
It was that line, from track 15, on the first cd of the 2-disc, live collection that once reverberated through The Little House, for months or years, like a haunting.
“Are you sure you don’t have the receipt?” I asked my husband, again and again. Casey had splurged on the collection as a birthday gift for me at a time when we couldn’t afford such indulgences.
He had tried wiping down the cd, cleaning the player, skipping past the song and returning to it, but track 15 continued to pause and repeat the same chilling place:
We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children…
“It doesn’t even sound like a James Taylor song!” I complained. “I wish it wasn’t even on the cd.”
Eventually, we remembered the order of songs so that we could stop the cd before the poison well, we remembered that after Shower the People, a song which was sung at our wedding as I brought a rose to my mother, came How Sweet It Is, a song which played on our recessional track, and after this, the jackal and the rattler and the poison.
Once to rid the Little House of squirrels, Casey placed poison in the crawl space above our bedroom only to later find the blue pellets in the drawer in the tiny bathroom and somewhere even more alarming–under the small pillow in our son’s crib.
“Quick, stop the cd!” we’d holler to whoever was closest to the cabinet that stood at the top of the stairs on the landing.
Sometimes we’d make it just in time to avoid hearing about the poison.
I loved that landing. I did so many firsts atop it. I practiced yoga and fashioned an “altar.” I read books about things that made no sense but which beckon me still—women’s circles and journeys and talking pieces. I labored on that landing too at the top of the stairs with both of my boys. I stood on the landing outside the guest room where we placed our son’s big-boy bed. “It’s okay,” I said. “Mommy’s right here.”
At night, Casey and I would sit on the landing at the top of those stairs and look across at the built-in shelving that we filled with framed photographs of our extended family—his siblings and mine, grandparents and aunts and uncles, a nephew, our first niece. We’d lean on each other’s shoulder and talk about whatever needed talking about. Finances. New jobs. Is the house getting too small? Should we move to the town where we want Lloyd to go to kindergarten? Will he ever get to be a big brother? What if my mother has cancer? What if she dies.
Once I cried there by myself after I’d put the baby to bed, weeping to Casey when arrived home to find me seated the alone on the landing at the top of the stairs, “I can’t remember what it was like to earn a real paycheck,” I said. “To have a real job, a real life.”
There was a small window at the top of those stairs beyond the landing, small because The Little House didn’t have a full second story, so the window and its deep sill were right at floor level. When I sat at the top of the stairs, I could pivot and look out the window to the stonewall and our first flower garden, to the big evergreen and the swing, and beyond that to the brook as it arrived down the mountain in our backyard.
One early morning while practicing meditation at my window sill altar, I saw a black bear lumber by.
But I was seated at the bottom of that narrow staircase when it happened. The stairs the only place in The Little House that was carpeted, with a sturdy woolen-white fabric. It’s only now in this telling that I realize that the carpet was reminiscent of the one on my grandmother’s stairs, just as rugged, but in light shades of green, a favorite stilling place when I was a girl.
My memory is that I was alone in The Little House that day, which would have been rare, and my guess is that it was summertime and the front door was open so that the breeze caressed my bare shins as I sat on the bottom stair with soles of my feet on the tile floor.
It was in this moment, in this place, that the Celestine book that I had been reading with my mother met track 15 of the 2-disc James Taylor collection given to me on my birthday.
As the book instructed, I meditated on my experiences of “transcendent love.” I did this even though I barely knew what meditation or transcendence meant, and then needing someplace to direct the love that I was to gather at the crown of my head, I sent it up the stairs behind me, to the cabinet with the stereo, and in particular to the cd player, and specifically to disc one of the two-disc live collection, targeting track 15.
Source of all we hope or dread Sheepdog, jackal, rattler, swan We hunt your face and long to trust That your hid mouth will say again, let there be light
A clear new day…
Inside this meditation of love may have been the time I knelt in the garden in the rain finally knowing in my bones that I had loved my young son well enough that even if I died, he would be okay.
But when we thirst in this dry night We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children…
What I’m certain was gathered in the folds of that meditation of love as it unfurled from the crown of my head to the top of the stairs was my experience in the woods behind The Little House on the day that I ran sobbing up the mountain until I was out of breath. That day, I grieved for a loved one who had been betrayed, and bending over the small bridge that crossed the brook, out of breath with my hands on my sides, I suddenly found myself in a transcendent communion with the water and light.
And when we strain to hear a steady homing bee Our ears are balked by stifled moans And howls of desolation from the throats of sisters, brothers, wild men Clawing at the gates for bread…
I gave everything I was to that meditation, and I sent it swirling from my crown up the stairs to the cd player off the landing.
Even our own feeble hands Aim to seize the crown you wear And work our private havoc through The known and unknown lands of space…
When I finished the visualization, I stood up and knew for certain that everything had changed.
Absolute in flame beyond us Seed and source of Dark and Day Maker whom we beg to be Our mother father comrade mate…
And still, as I climbed the stairs and pushed play, I expected to hear what I had always heard, the haunting stutter of pain.
Til our few atoms blow to dust Or form again in wiser lives Or find your face and hear our name In your calm voice the end of night…
Even after I’d heard the New Hymn play all the way through more times than I’d heard it skip and sputter, each time without a skip was another surprise. Even now, when I think of it, I feel the echo of the haunting skip in my bones.
If dark may end…
On the early September morning that my mother took her last breaths and my youngest nursed at my breast, I felt that same sense of Everything being okay. That summer had been the hardest, rainiest, darkest ever of our years in The Little House, and I didn’t mind because that was how I felt inside with my mother’s impending death.
Wellspring gold of Dark and day…
In the intertwining of their two lives, my mother’s passing and my son’s arrival, I understood that there was no way to avoid loss or heartache or brokenness, that in abiding presence to what is, there is within the Mystery, bliss.