On knowing when

I am writing this from my living room in Chicago. I am surrounded by shelves of yoga books and small bronze Hindu statues perched on the window sills. When I moved here with my husband and son two years ago, we not only moved out of a four-bedroom suburban house, but we also moved out of our yoga studio filled with numerous altars and art and crystals and books and all the various artifacts that made that space feel sacred.

For two years now, my bedroom has looked like a makeshift Hindu temple. I wake up to a three-foot bronze statue of the goddess Saraswati. She once stood like a maternal guardian at the helm of the yoga studio and for years she watched over students practicing yoga. We lit candles and incense around her and chanted her name. At the time, I wasn’t sure what the rules were around caring for statues of this size. It felt like it was important to nurture this prominent thing who seemed to raise the vibration of the space she inhabited. Now, she sits a few inches from the foot of my bed where my husband and I drink coffee, watch tv, read, and sleep.

I found Saraswati when I was in India over thirteen years ago. It was a transitional time in my life. I was newly divorced, a young mother of two, and amidst (or thinking I was amidst) a kind of spiritual awakening—case in point, I was in India shopping for Hindu statues that I knew so little about. Saraswati stood hidden under a white sheet next to a crowd of large Shiva and Ganesha statues. I walked around the store eyeing each statue as if I were trying to get to know them on a personal level.
“I want to find a deity,” I said to the shop clerk.
“You don’t find deities,” he said, “deities find you.”

That was exactly the kind of response I loved back then. I was besotted with all things I didn’t yet understand but was pulled by this inexplicable force to keep searching, keep questing, keep trusting what was underneath this undeniable pull. What was guiding me? What was I looking for? I was fueled by a feeling. I peeked under the sheet and there was that feeling.
“That’s Saraswati,” the store clerk told me. “She is Goddess of speech, the Goddess of art.” Bingo.

Saraswati took a month to arrive at a shipping port in Queens, Long Island. She spent another week locked away at some mafia owned dock until I paid a large fee to release her to a delivery company who would drive her fifty miles to the front door of my first yoga studio. I placed her inside the practice space spotlighting the side of her crown. She was a curvy bronzed mesmerizing thing, and she added antiquity and an air of mystique to the shiny new floors and Halogen lighting. When students asked about her I always said, “She made quite the journey to get here,” thinking about her boat ride from India and the shipping port and the container she was packed in for weeks; but I was also referring to my own journey from stable wife, mother cared for and secure to a kind of irrational, free-spirited, fanciful (and emotional) dreamer. I had no idea where I was going, but I was going.

Saraswati became the subliminal inspiration for everything I taught. When I heard her origin story—that she was once a river who dried up and became your breath—I understood what the shop clerk meant when he said deities choose you. Here she was, perfectly placed, and inspiring the many breathing, flowing bodies that came to practice yoga and find themselves. Here she was, a muse, a beacon, a sure-footed form who seemed to move elegantly with the pace of her art. She reminded me of all that lit me up in life — personally and artistically. Her story teaches me that the art of our lives is to be discovered amidst the making of them.

Last week, seemingly out of nowhere, I walked into my bedroom and said to my husband that I thought it was time to sell her. Here she was now, crowded between an orange love seat and a dresser of drawers. I had that feeling that something was misplaced. I investigated that feeling. I recognized it. That pull to move.
“She doesn’t belong in here,” I said to my husband looking around my bedroom. I knew she should be among artists and music makers and poets, somewhere she can nurture the many and not sit here like a stagnant relic of my past. I wasn’t so concerned with keeping her form with me anymore and I have no idea why I knew that for sure. It was just time. Just that feeling.
       

Trust me. Go this way. Hold steady. It’s okay. These are the words I hear right now when I close my eyes, put my hand on my heart and take a breath. Perhaps I heard these words all along. The words that have been guiding me to do, to go, to move, to stay despite not knowing why or where I would end up. The words that helped me recognize that Saraswati was the deity I would take home, the same words that I heard when I recognized she now needs to go. Saraswati has always been to me about finding the words. I kept her close by as if she was responsible for dispensing some kind of verbal transmission.

It’s time. I wince at the thought of this statue collecting dust. It’s as if she is looking at me and saying remember my story— one I know that does not end up in a private bedroom watching over my husband and I as we check our email and get ready for the day. Hers is a story that lives on in the hearts of the artists of the world and in the voices of those willing to see their lives as the offering.

Equanimity and loss

I am writing this from my couch in my living room. I am looking out the window at a dark day. The temperature dropped twenty degrees. Yesterday, when the sun was shining my dog of ten years was still alive. I spent most of the day home lying on the floor with my him and saying thank you. My husband and I took turns crying and thinking about what this big black beautiful creature with the droopy eyes and perfect face had given to each member of our family just by doing what he was doing right at that moment – being there through everything. This morning I woke up with that thud of awareness that he is no longer here anymore. His dog bed is stripped and vacant. The shift in weather is so right I want to hug mother nature for giving me the exact sky that matched my gloom.

In the last few months of Walter’s life, when his body was declining, his back legs dragging and paws bloody, his hips sloping. his city walks cut short by his refusal to take another painful step, I asked my husband, “He will let us know, right? When he’s ready?” And I looked at Walter curled on his dog bed in the kitchen which was one of the only places he could get comfortable anymore.

This past week, for an assignment of a course I recently enrolled in, I was to reflect on the word equanimity. Joan Halifax describes equanimity as “The stability of mind that allows us to be present with an open heart no matter how wonderful or difficult conditions are.”
Most of the students posted photos of their beautiful drawings and poems and gorgeous notes reflecting on what they felt equanimity was. I kept thinking of Walter.

“I think he is ready”, my husband said two days ago. “We are the ones holding on.”

Ram Das’ guru the great yogi Neem Karoli Baba was a famously large man. It was said that his love was so strong that he had the power to absorb people’s pain and diseases so they would no longer suffer.  Dogs are like that — great absorbers, keepers of all our stories, big-hearted gurus who could care less how we show up. Only that we do.

Walter’s passing was quick. We brought him from the car to the vet. We were ushered into a quiet room. There was a jar of square turkey treats on a table and a green blanket on the floor. I was expecting candles or some prayer on the wall but there were only posters of dog anatomy and warnings about getting your animal tested for this disease or that. Walter was panting and nervous and we were already sobbing before the catheter and the medicine and the sudden way his bloated chest went from shallow heaves to no movement. “His heart stopped beating, the vet said and Walter’s head lopped onto my husband’s lap.

We walked outside and the bright cheer of sky was too much. So were the happy people sitting at a cafe next to the vet’s office. Being home without Walter was inconceivable yet it was a reality we would I presume come to accept. I tossed arugula into a wood salad bowl for dinner — a task that felt absurd but it was no less of a reminder of life and the way its current keeps pushing our open hearts along.

Quality not quantity.

My son is here. Here is the two bedroom apartment in Chicago where I moved over a year ago with my husband, my eight-year-old son, the two dogs and the cat. Here is not where my middle son lives but here is where he visits on school vacations, and a few long scattered weekends throughout the year. Before he arrives I make sure he has his own toothbrush in his bathroom, I buy him shaving cream and a razor and the 2-1 shampoo he likes. I buy his favorite cereal.

Last spring, he had his junior prom and I was not there to take photos with the other moms. His dad sent me the photos via text. Look at our boy! He texted. And there he was in a tuxedo with a red vest handing a rose corsage to his prom date— a girl I didn’t recognize. When I received this text I was at a friend’s house for dinner and I showed the picture to my husband. “Look!” I said. “Look at him,” and he did and smiled and went back to his conversation but for me, the ache of not being there for this lasted well into the next week.

Every day I have to get used to not having my son live with me full time. Some days it feels okay enough. I justify me being here and him being there by telling myself it is good for him to live with his dad, to live in one place for his last two years of high school. He spent most of his entire life living in two homes. His dad and I divorced when he was barely three and while he and his older brother were shuttled back and forth, I practiced adapting to time away from them. After dropping them off at their dad’s, I would eventually appreciate returning to a much quieter house for a few days. By Sunday afternoon, I would be ready for them to come barreling into the house with all their noise and sports equipment and backpacks and boy smell.

There are days where the weight of not living with my boys hits me hard. When I fill out certain documents or school forms I hesitate to write that my son’s’ primary address is not my own. A low point: I once lied and refused not to write my own address on the line that asked for “address of primary caregiver” or “permanent residence of child.”

When a student or new friend asks me about my other sons’ whereabouts, I say they are in college which is only half true. It feels more reasonable to admit out loud that I moved to a different state at the same time that both of my boys went off to school. It feels less complicated than having to explain that one still lives back east with his dad.

When I speak with my friends and their young children whine for them to get off the phone and pay attention to them, I hear my friends’ frustration for having to get off prematurely, but they do not hear my slight envy. It’s the middle of the day and my apartment is as quiet as an ashram.

When my son was little I did all the mom things. I sat with my mom friends in big backyards while our children played on jungle gyms and swing sets and I huddled over my son while I cut up his hot dog and squeezed the ketchup onto his plate and wiped his hands and face and deposited him into the bath with his bath toys and soapy water and read him Caps For Sale and kissed him goodnight. If you would have told me that this mother would be the same mother who 13 years later chose to pack up her home and live away from her children I would have said, not in a million years. When people ask why I moved, I look off into the distance and wistfully repeat, “It was just time.” The past few years of heartache and money issues and poor choices come flooding into the air. Perhaps my boys who watched me struggle more than thriving, perhaps they understood in their own way that it was time for me to make a change before it was time for them.

The weeks leading up to my move my son would come into my room and sit on my bed. “This is really happening?” He would say not sounding upset, just in mild disbelief. I stopped with the bubble wrap and tape and looked at him. “Mom,” he said over and over again those weeks, “I will be fine! It’s you who I am worried about!”

The day of the move I met both my boys for breakfast. We went to the same local diner where I used to carry a portable high chair in my arms and attach it to the table where my son’s legs would dangle from the leg holes and we would play tic tac toe on the paper placemats until his pancakes arrived where I would stuff huge forkfuls into his mouth and hand him his sippy cup from my bag.They were planning their day — Going off to the gym later that afternoon. I was relieved that the magnitude of me leaving did not hit them hard enough to distract them from their basketball game. That at the time they laced up their sneakers I would be crossing state lines, following my husband who drove the Uhaul which housed the entire contents of our life now. At this breakfast I handed the boys some of their winter coats and sweatshirts that had been hanging in my front closet; and despite trying to convince my husband we should have some of their stuff at our apartment in Chicago, he looked at me sympathetically and explained that the boys actually might need and want these things at their dad’s for the coming season.

I hugged my boys goodbye in the parking lot and held them longer and tighter than I usually do. They were smiling and shuffling me off like two normal teenagers who needed space from their mother’s coddling. “We’re fine mom!” And it seemed that they were as they walked together to their car already onto their future day.

It’s been almost two years since the move. I FaceTime weekly with the boys. I sit in my living room and watch their faces pop on the screen. I see the posters in their room hanging above their head. Often they are multi-tasking while we talk — but I don’t mind. For me, it’s less about the content and more about just being there with them while they are living their lives. They have both shared on occasion that they miss being able to just come to my house. “Why are you a plane ride away now?” My son asks almost hypothetically. We are still getting used to the way our family feels. I have to ward off the expectations I used to have about what now defines me as a good mother — a definition that certainly did not involve leaving. I have to stop comparing myself to other moms. I I put my hand on my heart most days to offer myself a little compassion.

The days leading up to their arrival my mood elevates exponentially.  My oldest couldn’t come this time but my middle arrived on Passover. It’s his third day here on a seven-day visit. We sit on the couch most of our first day together watching stand-up comedy, something that has become a kind of ritual for us. Inside my mind I hear my mother’s refrain, it’s the quality, not the quantity that matters. She worked full time when I was growing up and when I would lament to her about not being there when I got home from school she would offer me that line with a hug. Now, it is one of my mantras.

I absorb my son’s visit into my bones. The weight of his legs resting on my lap. He is now the entire length of my sofa. The sound of his phone chats drifting into the living room. His size 12 high tops by the door and the extra plates in the sink to be cleaned. My mothering — distilled down to the absolute essence, redefined, transplanted but no less of a calling.

I am no longer breathy or belabored by the physical presence of young children but now find solace and beauty in remembering even a sliver of what that life used to be.

Feedback

When I first moved to Chicago a friend asked me to give him feedback on his yoga class. I considered him asking a compliment. I was new to the community and was still realizing that runners stretch in Connecticut was a low lunge in Chicago. I took my friend’s class and was happy to oblige his request. Though, from the get go I realized his teaching was different from anything I had practiced before. In fact, that was true of many of the classes I sampled when I moved here. I was learning a new dialect.

For years I was schooled in a particular way of doing yoga. I was convinced that my practice was the only way, the best way, the absolute holy grail. Had my friend asked me a few years ago to give him feedback on his class I might have leaned his approach up against my model to point out ways it was not measuring up to what I believed was the best technique for teaching the best yoga class.

As I am writing this I am squirming. I was passionate and confident about my content and that was all true for me at that time. It is only in these past years where I find have no idea or strong opinion about what makes a great yoga class truly great other than the willingness a teacher has to know herself and stand in that to the utmost. Something that must steer clear of public opinion.

I took my friend out for coffee. He looked at me for guidance and I thought about his class. He wanted me to tell him something concrete about his instructions or his sequence or what he could possibly do better. But I couldn’t. I no longer considered myself an authority. I kept saying the same thing. “Are you teaching what lights you up? Are you able to share that from that place?”

I thought about how much my opinions had changed over the years. I thought about the recent workshops I taught. How vulnerable I felt showing up with my stack of poetry books leading a whole weekend without having the security to rely on any system. “We just want you!” they said and how much I questioned if that would be enough. My experience now has taught me that teaching has nothing to do with making students invest in what I think but more to do with finding the language and holding the space for students to invest more in what they think.
How hard it was for me to deem that worthy enough for a weekend workshop but then again. . .

A week ago I received feedback from students who were subscribers to a certain new phenomenon called ClassPass. Despite the perfunctory advice to take the feedback “with a grain of salt,” something no human can ever really do, I took a breath and read the twenty public opinions about my class. (I will preempt this to say that many were lovely but of course my fixation rest solely on the few reviews that stung).
Tracy overcomplicates things. Fair, enough.
Teacher talks through the entire class, I mean the ENTIRE class. This one had a sad face next to it. One star.

By the time I finished reading the reviews I worked out some ego stuff, and picked myself up by the collar. Sharon Salzburg has famously said. “We are not meditating to become better meditators. We are meditating to become better people.” Parker Palmer reminds me that what we teach is not as important as who we are when we teach. Presently, as I drift further away from any brand or prescribed system of yoga or movement preference I am left to do what perhaps any practice has intended all this time – to trust myself more than anything else and go with that.

This is your brain. This is your brain off Facebook (for a week).

       Seven days ago I took myself off Facebook and Instagram. I was sick of myself checking my phone for absolutely no apparent reason a billion times more than anybody needs to check on anything.

       This was after several complaints to my close friend about how bad I felt after I spent time roaming around on my feed. How stuck I felt in my life compared to the innumerable successes and parties and vacations and workouts and yoga poses and adventures that my peripheral social circle of Facebook friends seemed to taut. It’s not that I wasn’t happy for my friends’ new homes or babies or marriages or puppies or haircuts, but there was something about Facebook that dimished my ability to have sympathetic joy. I would log off and would feel more isolated and despairing than was warranted.

      I know I am not alone.

       My close friend has taken herself off social media for this very same reason. She is a stay at home mom of two very young children and finds herself aimlessly roaming her feed (while probably) sitting in a living room strewn with toys and a sink filled with dishes. I asked her once what did she think was underneath the need we have to reach for our phones and check? “Probably escapism” she said.

       It was funny that she said that since during the week of my break, I felt like I was on vacation. Gone was the impulsivity, the low level anxiety, and the subtle malaise that would drift into my belly after a moment of weakness when I would be looking to cause myself trouble like a junkie looking for a fix. Why the urge to look up old friends I don’t speak with anymore? Why the need to scroll through pictures of an old life? “Why would you invite that karma back into your life?” asked my husband who has never had a personal profile page on Facebook.

       My other friend who has a very popular and engaged page equaits her Facebook responsiblity to a kind of stealth mission. “I just move in and out as quickly as possible.”  And still another has told me that she feels bad about herself and her life when she spends more than ten minutes on the thing. And she is a very successful therapist and yoga teacher. It’s like a substance. We know it’s not good for us, but it’s hard to resist whatever weird part of our pyche it is stroking. Sure, there are beautiful things about social media and there are people doing beautiful things and connecting in beautiful ways, absolutely. I am not writing this to round up a global Facebook boycott (nor would I ever delude myself into thinking that I had that kind of influence). There was a time not to long ago, when I didn’t know a thing about how to use Facebook or how or when I would. I had a friend sit with me at my kitchen table and instruct me on the basics. That was maybe five, six years ago.
Somewhere between then and now, my ignorance turned to appreciation turned to probably a low level addiction. It was time for either a Facebook break or a psychotic one.

       In the absence of the time suck of Facebook and Instagam voyerism here’s what I can say:  I feel better being off of it. “You are not missing much,” my ninteen year old son told me. I smiled and thought, true. I was missing a lot a more of life before  thinking that I had to keep up with informing people (what people?) of things that seemed more self-important than important.

       Since imposing these strong boundaries for myself I have had more ideas come to me and more space to cherish that make me go, “ahhhh.”
I have just about finished my first working draft of my memoir.
I have finished three competitive games of Monopoly with my family.
I have cooked three new delicious meals.
I have walked the dogs without putting my head down.
It’s not as if these things would not have happened before my self-declared break.              It’s more about how the life in between these things feels now. Somehow, they have become more precious to me than ever.
Mary Oliver writes, “I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance. A condition I can’t really call being alive.”  Pablo Neruda too has written, “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves…”

       Today would be the end of my Facebook/Instagram fast but, I will do without it for another month. I will be here living my life in Chicago. Going to the grocery store. Signaling left on the highway. Folding laundry. Walking my dogs. Feeding my cat. Exercising. Practicing. (Hopefully) buying new shoes. Thinking up fun new things to teach. Travelling. Writing in my journal. Reading with my newly purchased readers from Whole Foods. You won’t see selfies or fun hashtags about any of these things but that’s ok. I will do what my practice reminds me to do —  Trust that there is always something greater that keeps us connected.

The successful one

     I was once given this sort of advice from someone who I deeply respected in business. He said to me, “Your best revenge, is your success.”
     I knew what he meant. It was a time in my life when my yoga studio which I had co-owned for almost a decade was going through a sad divorce. My partner and I were breaking up. It was brutal. Traumatic. Devastating. On us. On our communities. On our friendships and families. On our business. This advice while well intended seemed to impress upon me that it was only when I surpassed my former partner in business that I will be free of the pain the breakup caused.
     As time passed and transitions have made that point in my life seem more distant and oblique, the regret of how it all went down and choices thereafter still claim its territory within. I have a hard time buying that it has much to do with where I ended up. Letting go I learned is a creative process as much as forgiveness is. It’s two steps forward where I might reach the pinnacle of calm acceptance, and three steps back where I might feel gripped by the burn of having no control over so much.
I repeated my mother’s advice as if it were that easy.  “We cannot look back, we can only move forward and learn from our past.” Of course, the lessons I have learned. Where would I be without them? The lessons I received about my own behaviors, my own shadows, my own weaknesses, they all came rushing forward as if they were begging for my attention. I may not be grateful for everything that happened, but I can be grateful in every moment for these lessons which have shaped me and are defining some of my finest aspirations today. I listen for the ways my present has benefitted from this kind of learning.
It is my body most of all that tells me how over things I really am. I wonder about that on days like today where I feel compelled to write about this or days like yesterday when I was triggered unexpectedly by a conversation I had with a dear loving friend and longtime student. She was filling me in about her life, her yoga practice, and mentioned innocently that my old partner’s classes “are packed.” “It’s so crowded there,” she said. “She is running a good business.”
While I wished to God that my first response was one of beauty, that the accrual of these lessons would have showed up when I told my friend, “Oh, I am happy for her. She deserves that success.” I said the words and wanted to stand by them completely. But, amidst that I could feel in my belly those small tentacles of my own ego catch hold of me and for several breaths in the conversation I felt the uprising of hurt and pain, jealousy and regret. I looked around at where I was in my life and started comparing. I started tragically asking, what if things had gone another way? What if I had done things differently? And the line up of questions that ran completely against the current of reality. Of the present moment. Of accepting what was. Of looking around at my life and embracing exactly where I am. I am starting anew. I am not sure how it will all turn out. I don’t yet know from where my stability will arise. I resisted the self-denigrating side of me that wanted to blurt out, I deserve where I am.  That according to my business advice, I was on the losing side of success.
There is a place within me that is at peace with all the ways my life has been led.  There is also a place within that longs to have a do-over. That wishes I can look back and take with me the centered, older clearer version of myself that sits in my bedroom in Chicago feeling humbled and softer. (Had I known then, what I know now…)  I know I am a better teacher now than I ever was. A better mother. A better friend. Possibly a better business woman. (I would hope).  I wish that my past could somehow know me as I am now becoming.  That I can bump into my old self and carry her along with me rather than chastise her for all the foolish things she did.  She is not a mistake. She is and will be such a huge contribution in me understanding, valuing and creating a life that is successfully lived.

 

What we expected

Two years ago around this time of year, I went on a silent retreat to heal from a broken heart. God, was it just two years ago? Had it already been two years? It’s funny how the passing of time offers such paradox. The reality that our lives are moving forward at lightening speed, and the illusion of how our near past can feel like we lived a different life a million years ago.

A year ago I was somewhere else. Recently, I ran into a student and a year ago she was in a coma. Today she was standing on the street holding a yoga mat. A year ago you weren’t a mother. Today you are nothing but. A year ago he was alive and now he isn’t. Ah, time and the way it presents us our newfound selves the way it surrounds us with nothing but a chance to adapt and look back in awe. [Read more…]