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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“…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.

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.

 

Muse Waking

Make an offering of your life.
Outside the narrow confines of other’s approval.
Risk judgment. Risk ridicule. Risk adoration.
Let it all be. Beyond you.
Let your life pour like a drink, quenching the thirst of the parched earth.
Pour and pour and pour until you and the earth and all others are one.

~

Problems give way to clarity, pave the way for new beginnings, force long-needed change.

~

Resentment is lazy.

~

You are not here to be your family’s cup of tea.

You have a purpose beyond their pleasure.

The challenge is to love them (and especially yourself) while displeasing them.

Even Jesus disappointed his mother for Christ’s sake.

~

“Go away! I’m too tired. Leave me alone,” I say, when She arrives like she has of late, composing, even before my eyes are open.

And then I take it back, too afraid am I She won’t come back…

The heat inside rises like a wave up the breadth of my back and over the curve of my breast up toward my face.

The air condition in the hotel room, set low, is no matter. There is a steady fire beneath me.

I consider pouring cold water on the mattress like we did on our pillows when the sticky nights kept my sister and me from sleeping.

But water is no match for the child with the chemistry set inside; though I have taken to cool showers before bed and sometimes upon waking during the night.

Some nights she plays just a little; other times she is tireless; and I wake like I do today, barely rested, but hewing closer to Her because there is less of me.

“There! Are you happy!” I say aloud.

I’ve listened and written, dutifully Her servant these 36 years.

“Please come again.”

First journal entry, August 22, 1982

~

Language has power.
Be discerning.
Our words, like our lives.
Are prayers.

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