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.

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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.

 

Rose-Gold Solstice Tears

 

I am typing this morning on a rose-gold laptop, meant to be unboxed ritualistically with Solstice. 

But when my husband arrived home last night with the new purchase, I took it in my arms and said:

“Where is my old computer?”

Stunned, he said nothing at first, and then sensing my distress, replied: “They told me that it was on its last legs.”

He then proceeded to list all its ailments; of which, I was intimately aware.

Still, upon grasping this finality, I sat down on the stairs, with the box on my lap, and surprised us both.

I cried. I cried out loud as I had (or had wanted to) once when I watched from the curb outside our apartment as the tow truck pulled away with my friend.

That silver Mercury Lynx, a relatively unattractive car, without a single upgrade, did its best to transport me and my belongings to college and back home on weekends and vacations; and soon after, between homes with my younger siblings after our parents’ marriage came to a reckless end.

Sometimes I drove them to school, or to birthday parties, or to Easter egg hunts or out Trick or Treating. Later, when addiction split the 8 of us in half between parents, the Lynx provided for long-awaited reunions and adventures, near and far–the beach, the boardwalk, the Chinese restaurant, the pizza parlor, the historical village, the science center, the art museum, the zoo, the ballpark, the Berkshires.

That car accompanied me on solo trips too, riding the ferry across the Delaware Bay where my great-grandparents lived, and years later it brought me back to sit with my Nana in the hospital in her final days. (Or maybe that was the Honda.)

That little lemon of a vehicle from Ford took Casey and me across the country and back during our first winter together, spent in the Rockies, and the next winter, it went with me to my first teaching job; while long before that, it traversed the island and over to the mainland with friends on roadtrips to the mall or to concerts or back and forth to the waterside restaurant that I’d managed in the summertime.

I’d sobbed inside that car, after hours, to and from the restaurant in early July my first love proposed to another.

I sang at the top of lungs, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” on my drive home after graduation to which my mother, inebriated, never arrived.

I talked myself through difficulties and decisions; and from time to time, I thought about veering off my path to head somewhere unknown without telling a soul.

Despite the sputtering of its faulty carburetor, I learned to drive in that car with its manual transmission, and it became a part of me and my agency, of who I was, and who I wanted to be.

I can still see the Kermit the Frog decal on my back window on the morning my little brother helped me attach it. I can hear my little sister begging for some of my pizza goldfish from the back seat. I remember the tin of cookies between Casey and me that were baked for our two-thousand-mile journey to the Rockies, but which we opened before we’d left town. There was the cassette tape that I made for that trip, introducing him, to his dismay, to my childhood icon, John Denver, whom by the drive home, several months later, he loved too.

I began wearing glasses in that car, just at night.

Casey crossed the room and took a seat beside me on the stairs and patted my back as I wept.

“I started my book on that computer,” I said, and with that added realization, I cried even harder, leaving him a bit perplexed about the absence of joy given the expensive purchase on my lap, or maybe he understood completely, having loved me for so long.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m more attached to places and things than I am to people. Most of my photos, even the ones that I took when I was a youthful traveler, are of light and angles and objects, rather than familiar faces.

Maybe the experience of so much loss, so young, made me withdraw from the transient nature of human relationships.

“This new computer is a stranger,” I said, putting the box down beside me so that I could tuck my head under the railing of the stairs and lean my head against the wall while tears trickled down my cheeks.

I find myself there often of late, under the railing, shrinking life’s uncertainties I suppose, as I open into all the unknowns, no longer needing to be strong or clear or directed in this empty nest of ours.

I’ve felt deeply into this emptiness since August. I’ve grieved and been ill and wondered what the point–of me–was.

My entire life has been defined by care. In large part because I was born female. And because I was born the oldest. And because everything around me fell apart and someone needed to pay attention. And finally, because I chose occupations and careers that centered around the capacities cultivated in the face of tragedy and loss.

Even yesterday, while skating alone out across the frozen Retreat Meadows, I watched to be sure another skater returned from beyond the grassy mounds before I took another pass myself.

And still, I sense that I’ve reached some turning point, some great letting go, some tentative acceptance of an invitation–to lift my head out from under the railing and claim the space which was always meant to be mine.

This costly, rose-gold laptop is a necessity, I tell myself, much like a car. It’s how I get to work and back (even if I earn less now than I did when I was in school.)

My very first laptop was delivered much like this one, at the door, but unexpectedly so by a friend who had refurbished it, and thrusting into my arms, said:

“You’re a writer. Write.”

I left the classroom to do just that.

But Writing and I began our affair, decades earlier, just after my first year at college when my family fell apart, and I needed someone to turn toward too.

In journal after journal, I wrote to myself or to some larger aspect of myself, or to consciousness itself–through college and backpacking across Europe, to marriage and moving to Vermont, to becoming a mother and leaving the classroom.

Together we transcended relationships, locations, identities, vehicles, and even computers.

At first by accident, and then tentatively, I began submitting articles and essays until I felt the stirrings of a book.

“What will I write about?” I asked Casey. And in the absence of subject, and so ever-practical (and ever-so prematurely), I investigated the ins and outs of publishing, which pointed me toward something called “a platform,” ie. Facebook, Twitter, and blogging which fortunately or unfortunately better suited my need for self-direction until I was no longer submitting, in favor of writing what I wanted, when I wanted, in live-partnership with readers, ie. fellow soul seekers (but without a paycheck.)

You could say I’ve wasted many years here on Facebook, a decade, in fact, come 2019.

Or you could say that I’ve honed my voice and found new avenues of full-hearted participation.

Though I haven’t attempted to publish, I have written through three memoirs since that nascent stirring. The first in a single summer. The second during a school year. (Both shelved until my capacity for the craft matched my vision.) The third, written through again and again, over the course of what is now several years—the lifespan of a laptop that has lived past its time.

“They called it vintage,” Casey said, explaining how it wasn’t worth repair.

Earlier this month, he drove me to the sea, and there, at the hour of my birth, the largest or deepest essence of my book was revealed, like the small, but solid figure at the center of a set of nesting dolls.

“The beings that were un-manifest want to help,” an intuitive said just yesterday of the babies that I miscarried long ago.

And for the first time, since holding my newborn son in my arms, I felt the grief of those losses return, and something else–the gift of reconnection–and the space to occupy it.

And now, I discover that I have christened this laptop along with whoever is inclined to read something this long in the season with so much to do.

May this rose-gold light shine the way forward with all the accoutrements that accompany success.

Greedily, or better yet, full-heartedly, I want Everything—meaning, purpose, healing, publication, outreach, travel, income and wellbeing.

Thank you to each set of eyes and each heart and mind that helped me better understand my place in what amounts to a decade of live-journaling in this shared constellation of LOVE. Your light nourishes my own.

May your wishes rise in the dark in the certain embrace of Light’s return.

May it be so.

The Price of Blogging

Me at 8

I don’t make any money at blogging, but it’s cost me a lot. Several months ago, an old flame requested that I remove a post. When I refused, albeit compassionately, he ended our connection.

Now it’s my father’s turn.

I shouldn’t be surprised. It was only a matter of time before he joined others who visit my blogs each month.

…Though it did take him three years.

…And there have been countless phone calls, gifts, letters and emails sent directly to him that were evidently unseen, unheard or at least never acknowledged.

Apparently “a friend” sat him down to show him my words, the ones specifically about him.

I scan my brain.
What have I written that includes my father?

There’s the piece about the divorce. (Yep, that would be hard.)

Then there’s the one from childhood. (That one is kind of nice.)

There’s the poem about spanking. (That would be rough.)

Nothing else comes to mind, but then again, I’ve published over a thousand pieces in the past few years so I open my laptop and Google:

Kelly Salasin, father

And I’m surprised to see how little there is.

Just then, my teenager enters the room, and so I ask him:

10507997_607276816053570_297492840_n“Do you think I should just remove all the post that reference my dad?”

(If anyone knows the burden of being related to a blogger, it’s a sixteen year old.)

“No,” he says, and then adds in my defense: “They belong to you; they’re about your life.”

Still, I feel bad. I know it’s a challenge to have a memoirist in the family.  And what will happen when my book comes out? My father may  never speak to me again; though it might be hard to tell because he talks to me so little anyway. I guess I should be satisfied that I have garnished some of his attention… that he’s actually reading my work; hearing how I experienced my childhood; even feeling it.

The Star, Aquarius, Tarot art by Thalia Took

That’s a good thing, right?

Why does it feel so bad?

Why do I sit in bed, late into the night, staring out at the stars, feeling orphaned–again?

“I wish Mom was here,” I say, but then I retract it. She’d be reading my writing too. There’s an entire blog  inspired in the wake of her untimely death.

I guess I could have waited until my dad died to write anything that included him; that way he wouldn’t have to experience what he calls: my  daggers.

But they’re not meant to be daggers, they’re meant to be warning signs for others: Don’t spank your children. Don’t forget about them in the middle of a divorce. Don’t abandon them when you have a new family. Don’t think that your 30 or 40 or even 50 year old daughter doesn’t need her father. Doesn’t want him. Doesn’t love him even though he has hurt her.

As a lifelong advocate for children, I feel it my duty to speak up. In fact, I’ve been like this since I was a child. Some of the biggest fights I had with my father were over my sisters; and before that, speaking up for myself:

“That isn’t fair,” I’d say, and he’d banish me to my room.

“Why…” I’d say, and he’d leave me in the car while the rest of the family went sightseeing.

“I’m too old to be told to go to bed,” I’d say, and he’d threaten me with his size. (I was 18.)

The truth is that he was the one who taught me to speak up. To be candid. To be bold. To be forthright.

“If she thought she lost her father at 19, just wait…

This is the most excruciating thing that he said about my writing.
This is what pings in my heart.
And this is what reveals the most… about me.

It’s taken the loss of my father’s love, the awful threat of that loss–again–to make me realize what my life is all about; and silence is a price I won’t pay for anyone’s love.

Kelly Salasin, January 2012

ps. Though not a week goes by without the blessing of a reader’s appreciation, I sincerely offer this to those my words have hurt:

If I have harmed you in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, please forgive me.

If you have harmed me in any way, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive you.

May you be safe.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

And

May you live with ease.

(the Loving-Kindness Meditation)

The Life of a Blog

nest by Irish--Eyes

I woke from a tumultuous night of dreams, drenched in sweat–and drugged–one foot still in the dreamworld, the other limping toward my day.

I dreamed of the arms of my first love, and the reunion was sweet, and complete, and wondrous. We were brought together for our daughter, just discovered, to collaborate on her education.

In real life that child had been aborted, and had she not, she’d be over thirty, well past the age of needing our help with school.

Details like that don’t matter in the dreamworld and so my love and I entered an alcove off the kitchen and began the dance of reunion. Only I had to tell him how to make me come. And that kind of ruined the mood, and the illusion, that in him, I would find “home”–and so as dreams often do, my first love morphed into my lasting love–my husband; and I continued on my way.

I moved through the kitchen, past the stove, and was joined by my best friend from high school. Together we walked through rubble strewn floors, just like the roads from Irene, and as we did, we smiled at friends, seated at tables in the restaurant where I worked in my youth; and then we headed downhill, past empty desks, in the classroom where I first taught.

We ended our journey together in front of a computer, and my blog was on the screen, and my friend helped me tweak its widgets.

In the morning, when I recalled this dream, it didn’t take my resident interpreter long to figure out its meaning. “It’s about the New York Times,” my husband says, referring to yesterday’s article, which launched me and my Vermont blog into a moment of a fame.

It was two and a half years ago that I began blogging, just for fun. At the time, I was searching for myself in the rubble of my years as wife and mother and homemaker. I looked behind them toward the restaurant and the classroom, but I had outgrown each; and so I began to explore new possibilities and in doing so discovered the worldwide web of connections.

Experts and teachers offered free tele-classes, and I gobbled them up each week. Blogging and Facebook and Twitter were touted by each one for networking and platform building; and despite the fact that I had nothing to network or a platform, I dove in.

Tentative at first, I soon found that blogging offered an opportunity to share my writing without worrying about contracts or copyright or fitting into someone’s format or making a buck.

“Focus on a niche,” the experts said, but I couldn’t choose, so in less than 9 months, I gave birth to 6–one blog for each of the things I love: my work, my children, my husband, spirit, healing and Vermont.

I wrote passionately for another year with life providing no shortage of material to fill each new home. And then, having fully satisfied myself with this orgy of expression, I wanted more.

Not more blogging, but more substance. A book. Something solid. And so during the winter months I wrote it, and in the spring, I let in sleep, and in the summer I shared it with friends–just to hear it in their voices, careful not to ask for anything more, not praise or critique–nothing to distract me from the work.

Afterward, I put the book to sleep again, and took a long end of summer vacation, intending on resting my voice and delving into the pleasure of reading others, but instead life delivered one crisis after another, and I found myself blogging in a fury–from my son’s accident, to my best friend’s, to the murder, and then the floods.

And now this, the New York Times. An interview, and a link to my blog. No wonder my dreams were tumultuous.

I both crave a larger platform and fear it–worried that I’ll loose myself in the waves of change.  The humility of my life as a mother in rural Vermont has tethered me for so long that I’m reluctant to transcend it–not wanting to let go of the earth and be trampled in the dust of ego.

That the Times and the sweat-filled dreams preceded the day upon which I was to re-awaken my book should be no surprise.  With the coming of fall, my plan was to dust off this second draft and begin reading again–this time by myself–to find if there was anything worth publishing.

In the midst of all this, company arrives, and friends in need ask for help, and my family comes down with the flu.

Apparently, life and love will be the ballast I need no matter where my work takes me.

Kelly Salasin, Autumn 2011