Saturday night in the Berkshires


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.

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“…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.

Just One

Spring dreams reverberate with the call of the fox and the cry of the hawk and the song of the peepers…

Dreams of a barren desert landscape, and in the distance—twin shimmering cities.

Dreams of a hollowed out tree, out of which revolves the full and attentive face of an owl.

Dreams of being handed a thousand dollars, (cash wrapped in lined paper) in the hallway of the highschool, outside the science labs, with the promise of monthly patronage that leaves me weak in the knees with humility and relief.

Dreams of two handheld mirrors, lying on a surface, side by side.

I went to sleep with an uncomfortable effervescence in my chest, checking to see, should this be my last, had I any regrets. Just one: The neglect of joy.

Springing Forth…

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 thought I said that with such dignity.”

Because I am a mother and my mother is dead

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Tidal pools of rage and grief release into composition as my husband hangs the first load of the season out on the line.

He came to me like this.

33 summers ago, I hired him as a waiter because I had been obliged to do so (his mother sold us ad time), but I soon came to recognize, not only the fullness of his pleasure/presence ((oh, the gifts of a second son)), but his ability–to be male, and to be aware, of the world around him.

You’ve heard the joke, right?

How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Because my husband likes routine and the physical world, and because I like systems and the world of contemplation, we complement one another, which, as we were once told, is the hardest relationship to thrive.

(Perhaps that first therapist had been wrong, but there’s still time.)

Because I did not marry my first love who adored me and “placed me on a shelf,” I was not only lucky in second loving, but wise.

If not for the man my husband is, I would not have space to be who I am ((rediscover who I am)) alongside being a wife and mother; though my mother found ways didn’t she–abandoning everything and starting over again, and then abandoning herself for that crime, almost entirely, until she arrived, near death, closer toward the center of her own life, where the men we love reside, with permission implied, just about everywhere…

How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Just one.
While he waits
for the whole world
to revolve
around Him.

Which is to say that the mother I am, the writer I am, the thinker and teacher I am, is in large part because of the man in the yard hanging the laundry, and because of that, I am fortunate and grateful and angry, hoping my granddaughter won’t need to rely upon the good nature of yet another man to carve out a center of her own.

(mothers day 2019)

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TRANS-GENESIS

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?

To move or be moved…

After 2 winter nights in a room crammed with two dozen aging and restless women, rolling back and forth in a narrow, fragmented, fraudulent sleep on metal-framed bunks, my husband gave up his spot in our Queen back home and I took up all 360 delicious degrees, like da Vinci’s L’Uomo Vitruviano.

Kripalu.

Similarly, but like a pinball, I expanded at Kripalu in 360-degrees, multi-dimensionally, dropping down under the fault line of my marriage, beneath the lush hills and clear pools of Love.

Established, 1986.

Simultaneously, I moved across and down and around a carpeted floor with high ceilings, 4 microphones, 109 guests, 5 fellow assistants and 1 NY Times bestselling author whose program I’ve tended from Still Writing to Hourglass to Inheritance while continuing to plug along on a single work of memoir of my own.

Devotion.

Sometimes, too close to the light, hers and other luminaries, like a moth to a flame of conflicted desire, I overheat and arrive or depart with a migraine, so afraid am I of surrender.

Dharma.

Afterward, I fling myself as far out as possible, repelling from consciousness to—caffeine or chardonnay or shopping—or as was the surprising overshot this time–to all of that, one upon another—followed by a margarita served while sitting on a swing.

La Casita.

~Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

I don’t know…
Maybe this life of mine is too small.
Always was.
Or has become.

~Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m gettin’ older, too.

While in the bright lights, big city, of Kripalu, in sharp contrast to my hermitage on 8-wooded acres in Vermont beside a woodstove, I move my bowels and brush my teeth and bathe in the dark basement beneath the hum of yoga mats and healers and seekers.

~I’m getting older too.

“Tender,” I said, on Friday night as the mic moved through 116 hands and arrived in my own.

The Stories We Carry.

“Questioning,” I said on Sunday morning as the mic moved around once again.

~I took my love, I took it down
Climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
‘Til the landslide brought me down.

Though I departed the Berkshires in the early afternoon for the two-hour return north, it wasn’t until the sky grew dark that I found myself rolling up a dirt and snowbound road in the Green Mountains that I have these 14 years called home.

~Well, I’ve been ‘fraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m gettin’ older, too.

Mother. Wife. Teacher.

~And if you see my reflection in the snow covered hills,
Well, maybe, the landslide will bring it down, down.

~

I can trace the lineage as far back as my great-great-grandfather and his daughter and her husband, followed by their son and his son, both surgeons.

“Born to Cut,” says the t-shirt in the old photograph of my father on his 40th birthday.

Like them, sometimes I think of myself as a healer, wielding the pen instead of the knife, but this month, instead of crafting, I find myself dissecting each of the previous drafts of the body of work I began 7 winters ago.

More than a dozen casualties are lined up, and I’ve heard that this many is a sure sign that the work is fatal.

Like the organs stored in separate containers on the shelves of the morgue where I worked the summer I was 16, I continue to sort parts by date or theme or person or place, like the plane accident that resulted in the largest jars that I looked at each afternoon, while I rinsed formaldehyde from surgical tissue, occasionally coming across a thyroid or a prostate, a fetus or a breast.

Cutting into the work like this makes me uncertain. Am I a murderer, a madman, a mortician? Or am I a doctor, an artist?

After the surgeon cuts, the lab tech dissects, preparing a specimen for testing–benign or malignant?

I’d like to think that no such test exists for art, but I’d also like to think that I might find myself, as my ancestors did, mastering craft in service to a higher calling.

 

Winter Winds

I came of age in a Captainless ship. We all went down one by one. Which may be why these wintry nights with wild winds evoke terror inside. Or maybe too, in another life, I perished at sea, and I’m almost certain that’s true because I don’t want to know. Just the thought of it almost extinguishes me, while I write at the kitchen table with the sun rising over the mountains, a wave of light cresting the satiny snow, as the tea kettle whistles and the woodstove ticks and the timbers of this frame raised by neighbors creaks with the last few gusts before the sap on this hill begins to run.