I’m Back!

I’m back after a long hiatus. It’s good to be home.

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many blessings, many thanks

As I write the delicious earthy scent of roasting potatoes mingles with the heady aroma of fresh-made chai, tempting odors wafting leisurely and sensually through my house.  My kitchen is redolent of spices and ghee, olive oil and garlic: comfort smells from my past mingling with comfort scents of my present.  My mouth is watering in anticipation while somewhere deep in my recesses an inner smile has formed.

Since last Thanksgiving – even a few months before – I’ve been on one incredible roller-coaster ride.  There’s no way to sugar-coat it.  From a devastating breakup to recurring bouts of illness to my sister’s sudden and serious hospitalization to my mother’s decline and death to my uncle’s death days later to my thyroid cancer diagnosis to increased certainty that my job will be eliminated in the upcoming year…hell yeah, it’s been a whirlwind of chaotic and emotional messiness.  Just writing out that torturous run-on sentence – the breathiness of which befits the tidal wave of events churning one upon the other – makes me sigh with weariness.

And yet…

This post is not about indulgent woe-is-me whining.  It’s about gratitude, and about giving thanks for the goodness, the grace, the strength, the courage, the hope, and most importantly, the love, that infused this past year.  It’s about the lessons learned, and of the ups that made the downs bearable.

This is the year I finally accepted that I stand alone.  That’s not a negative; it doesn’t mean I don’t have friends, family, and a wonderful circle of people whom I love, and who love me.  It simply means I no longer hold my breath waiting…for a soul mate, an elusive partner.  I still dream, I still long, I still believe in future promise, in connections and in love of all kinds, but these thoughts no longer color my actions.  I’ve learned to live in a more fully-realized present.  And, by embracing my aloneness, I’ve firmly taken control of my own life, my own destiny: my finances, my health, my career.  For becoming empowered, I am grateful.

This is the year I made peace with the past.  I found compassion for a parent whose compassion for me had dissolved long ago; in the end, I could not turn away from a scared and dying woman who had parented me the only way she knew how, and whose actions helped shape the person I’ve become.  I looked my brother in the eyes and explained why I couldn’t forge a relationship with him, not now – maybe not ever – and he, surprisingly, seemed to understand.  And I discovered unexpected friendship in a former lover after a breakup so traumatic that I landed on a therapist’s couch, grappling with my grief; I never imagined we’d eventually refashion ourselves as loving friends.  But during the height of this crazy year, when every event seemed to converge into an unmanageable chaotic frightening jumble, he was the one who extended his arms, offered his ear and his shoulder, and opened his home, giving my bruised and battered soul a respite from the world. For learning there is sweetness and love after pain and loss, I am grateful.

And this is the year I fully comprehended how truly fortunate I’ve been, how truly fortunate I am.  I have my beautiful family.  I have my health, I have my friends, I have my yoga practice.  I have everything I need and everything I want, right here, right now, as I sit in my kitchen writing and enjoying the aromas while my children sleep; even in silence their joyful energy fills my home.  The past year has taught me to take nothing for granted, to live in the moment, to love with abandon, to let go of that which does not serve me.  And for that, most of all, I am grateful.

Many blessings to you on this day of giving thanks.  Namaste.

the color of my dreams

Orange.  Lately it’s been all about orange.

I visualize oranges in shades ranging from big and bold to gently faded and barely there: the warmth of sunset as dark shadows creep into the corners of the sky; the patina of saltillo tile worn thin and matte by age; the vibrancy of terracotta, bleached pure by sun and washed soft by rain; the mottled brightness of showy male monarch butterflies; the variegated stripes of my sleepy-eyed marmalade cat; the glorious last hurrah of nature’s brilliant autumn finery.

Golden sunbeams radiate through my orange world, suffusing it, bathing it in shimmering light that sparkles and glows, dancing merrily across the rich and saturated hues.  My thoughts drift to filling this world with easels and paper, pens and charcoals, my piano, my clarinet.  I imagine a sunlit world in which to meditate, to think, to dream.  In which to create.  Orange: the color of inspiration.

This seductive color, color of my dreams and desires, is also the color of the second chakra, Svadhisthana. Located in the space between the belly button and the pubic bone, the second chakra is elemental and primal, the source of gut feelings and instinctive wisdom.

Passion rules this chakra – overwhelming, overriding passion – mind, body, soul.  It’s associated with creativity, emotional expression, sexuality – all juicy, vital, necessary life forces that cry out to me, pleading with me to forsake my everyday duties to come play in their essence.

No wonder my mind constantly drifts to such thoughts, to such spaces.

Orange unleashes my own fiery passions.  I long to wrap myself in its radiance; within its embrace, I yearn to write, to draw, to dance, to sing, to laugh, to cry, to make love, to give love, to be love, endlessly and without boundaries.

Some say the second chakra is where we find bliss.

And bliss is the color of my dreams.

outer light, inner light, let there be light

I’m back after taking a hiatus to deal with the deaths of my mother and her brother, my uncle.   Both had lived long, productive lives; they were close-knit to the end, spending their last years together in the same facility and dying within 12 days of each other late summer.  Because they were cremated, we were able to delay formal joint services until the entire clan could gather at the family plot in New Jersey.  Finally, this past weekend we did so, reminiscing and remembering in a perfect, warmly-lit Indian summer setting.

I received an antique lamp from my mother’s estate that was too fragile to ship.  Therefore, instead of flying to New Jersey, I set out in my little red car, embarking on a long, lone road trip armed with books on CDs, music, and my private thoughts.

I had a lot to think about.  My mother and I, at the end, struggled through a difficult relationship, eventually coming to an uneasy truce that involved not discussing the issues that were dividing us.  I was the last family member to be with her.  She died disappointed in me because of my lifestyle (unmarried, and worse – divorced) and because I was unable to reconcile with my brother, her favorite child.  I felt her disappointment blanketing me as her energy faded; still, I held her hand and sang hymns to soothe her as she called out for my brother.

Although only a few months have passed, already time is working its magic, sanding down the roughest edges of my memory.  My mother was no saint, but she was no sinner, either.  Like all of us, she muddled through the best she could.  She was, if anything, a victim of her own rigid upbringing, held captive by biases and weaknesses that she could not forsake.

With so many conflicting emotions in my mind, I had no idea what to say at the services, what I could say that would be honest and true and would honor both my mother and uncle.

Somewhere between Atlanta and Arlington, one of my favorite pieces, Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock, poured out of my car stereo.  As a once-serious clarinetist, I immediately flashed back to the days of playing this piece, feeling in my bones the absolute joy that twisted my heart over certain beautifully-turned phrases and achingly-perfect harmonies.  And I suddenly knew the direction my words would take.

My mother was the original Tiger Mom, waking me early to practice piano and clarinet, pushing and pushing, not necessarily with kindness, but rather with a grim determination.

My uncle, also a clarinetist, was the exact opposite.  He stoked my enthusiasm with his own kindness and encouragement.  He played duets with me, laughing as we (I) squeaked and squawked our way through Mozart, showing me how much fun making (even imperfect) music could be.

Together my mother and my uncle gave me an immeasurable gift:  My mother bestowed upon me the tools and technique to gain a modest mastery over these instruments.  My uncle imparted the love of music.  Without the physical mastery my mother required, I would be unable to play the notes.  And if I couldn’t play the notes, I couldn’t transcend the notes to fully understand and absorb my uncle’s love of music.

Mother and mentor.  Yin and yang.  Dark and light.

When it was my turn to speak, I thanked them both for giving me this intertwined gift.

Afterwards, as I packed my car to leave, I realized the contrast between my mother’s and uncle’s gifts had been manifested physically.  I was heading home with two fitting mementos: the antique lamp from my mother and my uncle’s sheet music.

From my mother I received outer light, the kind that casts its glow over and around objects.  My mother was like the lamp that was now mine: Her own energetic light bounced off her, flinging itself around those she loved like a cape, wrapping them tightly and holding them firmly through forceful deeds, not tender words.  Though she had difficulty touching hearts, she knew how to get things done.  So she showed her love through action; she knew no other way.  Had she been a yogini, Karma Yoga, the yoga of action, might have resonated with her.

My uncle, conversely, gave me his inner light, brought to life in the worn and faded music that he had loved. I could feel his joy as I perused the pages, my eyes falling upon every breath mark, every margin scribble, every creased corner.  I remembered our duets and something inside me broke loose and softened, yielding to the imprint of his music upon my heart.  Had he been a yogi, Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion, would have been ideal for my uncle.

In my mind, their two lights, inner and outer, combined into one whole, each needing the other to be complete.

In one perfect word: Namaste.

Or, simply put: The light and Divine in me bows to and honors the light and Divine in you.

And so, to my mother and to my uncle, who gave me their Divine lights, I bow deeply before you, honoring all you have been to me.

Namaste.  And may you rest in harmony…and peace…and joy.

seven limbs + one

I received a phone inquiry today about my yoga class.  The woman on the end of the line was hesitant, stumbling over her words as she rattled through a slew of questions that seemed to lead up to her real reason for calling.  Finally she blurted, “I’m just so nervous about doing this.  I’m not at all flexible.”

I’m as guilty as the rest of the yoga community for perpetuating the myth of bendy-flexy practitioners at the expense of spiritual growth.  I’ll often post photos of myself in stretched-out, tricked-out poses, smiling serenely as I casually toss my leg over my head.  I’ll admit it: yoga PR wouldn’t be as sexy without the promise of physical perfection in the form of a tight yoga butt.

But the truth is that asana (physical practice) is only one small part of the full yoga experience; in fact, some would argue it ranks among the least important aspects.  Pantajali, in the Yoga Sutras, describes eight limbs of yoga in the following order:

  1. Yama:  Universal morality (how we deal with those around us)
  2. Niyama:  Personal observances (how we deal with ourselves)
  3. Asanas:  Body postures (the common Western view of yoga)
  4. Pranayama:  Breathing exercises and control of prana (life force)
  5. Pratyahara:  Control of the senses
  6. Dharana:  Concentration and cultivating inner awareness
  7. Dhyana:  Devotion and meditation on the Divine
  8. Samadhi:  Union and connection with the Divine, bliss

Check it out: Asanas lie near the beginning of the path toward Samadhi, not the end.  The real reason for developing a strong asana practice is to prepare the body to focus the mind.  Poses deliberately become more challenging in order to keep the mind fixed upon the task at hand.  Those who practice regularly know how easily one falls out of a posture as soon as the thoughts wander.  Still, under the tutelage of a good teacher, asanas can eventually be learned and their full benefits received, even if the execution never quite achieves magazine-perfect showiness.

Far more difficult for a teacher is passing on yoga’s enormous spiritual and emotional benefits.  What makes it especially tough is that internal growth simply can’t be demonstrated graphically.  I can post of photo of me in headstand, but I can’t post a similar one of me cultivating my inner awareness.  There’s no visual cheat sheet.  And truthfully, spiritual development eventually becomes a self-guided journey no matter how good the teacher; each of us must find our own way in our own time.

When I tried to convince the caller that physical flexibility didn’t matter, I touched a bit on yoga’s spiritual aspect.  That seemed to throw her off balance because she hung up fairly quickly.  I doubt I’ll see her in my class anytime soon.

No matter.  The fact that she called, reaching out to explore a new experience, is a sign that she is seeking and questioning, consciously or not.  One day, she will discover her personal inner and outer gurus, the ones that resonate with her, and she will, I hope, follow their call.

In the meantime, I’ll meditate upon how to effectively convey the significance of the other seven limbs of yoga – without showing off my own.

defining moments

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The first time someone hurled a racial slur at me and meant it playfully. I was confused, unsure whether to feel insulted or to laugh.

The first time someone hurled a racial slur at me and meant it hatefully.

The first time I accepted being called derogatory names…and even joked about it.

When my mother found and read my private journal and threw it at me when I arrived home, furious, calling me a whore and slut. I stopped writing for years.

When my father got falling-down drunk and talked to me candidly, as an adult and as an equal, about my mother.

The first time extraordinarily beautiful music emerged, silky and sensuous, from my clarinet. I remember the scene vividly: a simple challenge in the band room, yet my interpretation stilled the room.  Even the director had to “take a moment.” I was trembling, overcome with emotion, as the last note sounded.

My first standing ovation, flushed, hot, pumped, proud that my music had touched others, loving the thrill of performing solo.

The first time my brother threatened me and all I did was cry and acquiesce, scared by the menace on his face.

The first time my brother touched me and I didn’t say no. I didn’t even beg or plead. I just disappeared into myself.

The first time I had sex.  I wondered if I could enjoy physical play absent coercion. I could. I did.

The first time I made love, late into adulthood. Until then, I’d had affectionate sex, caring sex, even loving sex…but it was not making love and I refused to call it that until it really happened.

When my sons were born, inhaling their wonderful baby scent, eyes closed and dreamy, loving the feel of them, the weight of them, lying so warm and trustingly in my arms.

When the plane landed and a beautiful baby girl, smiling, bright-eyed, cheery, was carried out to meet us, to join our family.

The phone call to let me know my father was dying. The sadness knowing he had barely lived, so controlled was he.

Finding the strength to walk away from a bad first marriage. Striking out on my own with nothing but optimism and faith in myself.

The moment my second marriage died in my heart, long ago, too long ago. I overstayed my welcome by about 10 years. I should have trusted my instincts.

The moment my second marriage died officially, sitting alone in a judge’s chamber with a box of tissues placed before me. I felt nothing. Not sadness, not happiness, not relief. Nothing. No tears, no tissues required. Dead. I was emotionally dead.

Coming back to life post-divorce, giving my heart, completely and forever, to someone, trusting his earnest words that he would care for it – and me – tenderly and always.

Reeling my heart back in, terribly slowly, painfully, and in teeny-tiny pieces when he no longer wanted it.

The first time yoga brought me peace and then awfully close to bliss.

The first time I overcame my horrific fear of public speaking to share my love for yoga.

Owning my first home with no co-signer, no fall back person, no safety net. I had vaguely expected bells and confetti with the stroke of my pen. What I’ve gotten, however, are bells and confetti everyday, wrapping me in the joy of having a place to call my own.

Discovering being alone is pretty darned wonderful. It’s far better than being alone in a relationship. And the covers are the perfect weight, warm, enveloping, just the way I like them.

YES to Everything

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My new motto, creed, mantra, what-have-you: YES to everything.

Of course that comes with a caveat: YES to everything – unless it is inherently destructive, unhealthy or deliberately hurtful.

But apart from that disclaimer, I say: Bring it on.

After bidding a final good-bye to the man I love desperately, I cried hard for several days, drenched in self-pity, wallowing in my misery, railing against fate.

And on the third day, I rose and did what any broken-hearted, self-protecting girl would do:

I baked a pie.

This was no ordinary pie.

It was the pie of redemption, it was the pie of acceptance, it was the pie of moving on, it was the pie of re-awakening.  As I patted and pressed and mixed and stirred, I could feel my mind shifting: first focusing solely on my action in the moment, then gradually releasing the immediate pain of the past few days and finally starting to let go of the longer, more lingering pain of the past eight months.

When the pie was finished, so was I.  The pain had diminished somewhat, but the love remained: like my pie, it tasted achingly sweet, but with a sharp tang.

It was time to move on.

And I suddenly found myself, post-pie, saying Yes to offers, invitations and suggestions that I would have declined in the past.

I said Yes to whatever came my way this past weekend, jumping from chanting and healthy mindfulness with one group to decadent late night hookah (my first attempt) with another. Toss in my visit to the psychic and you can see where the weekend was headed: crazy, fun, exciting, invigorating, filled with new people, unusual activities, a fresh perspective on the world.

Because I said Yes to a new Friday night activity, I met a new yoga teacher.  The teacher invited me to his Sunday class.  Because I said Yes to his Sunday class, I wound up with a pass to the spa in the hotel where the class was held.  There I spent a decadent afternoon lolling in the steam sauna and relaxing in the hammam, becoming closer to a classmate whom I’d always liked, but never really spoke with at length.

This is the power of Yes: So many unexpectedly wonderful opportunities unfolded, all because I said Yes to whatever landed in front of me.

So when Tantra Man sent an email Friday night, again inviting me to visit him, this time with an offer of financial assistance and the continued promise of no expectations, I said Yes.  After all, what’s the worst case scenario?  A relaxing weekend spent luxuriating in a hot spring, partaking of three available (free!) yoga classes per day and hiking in the mountains in the company of someone whom I find pleasant, attractive and easy to talk with?  Seriously – what did I have to lose?  Yes, yes, yes!

I’m learning Yes leads to more Yes, which leads to empowerment, confidence and taking charge.

My transition to Yes has been building slowly, I realize, without my conscious knowledge.  It may have started about two months ago, when I said Yes to something that loomed large and frightening in my mind: teaching a yoga class.  I survived, I learned, I even enjoyed.  And this is where Yes begat more Yes: Emboldened by my experiences, I said Yes to a reprise.  And that Yes led to taking charge: I volunteered to teach yoga to my fellow employees as part of the upcoming fitness challenge.  Their enthusiastic Yes upended my basic plan for a small after-work group and expanded it into a full-blown class located in a city park’s spacious community center.

Of course I can do this. Oh, Yes! I can.

Past Pleasures Present

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Flowers from my drawing-in-progress.

Drawing has a way of lulling me into a completely altered state.  For some reason, I very rarely take artistic pen to paper, maybe because it consumes me too much, or possibly because my mother’s disdain for my work echoes in my head whenever I draw.

Ironically, my last serious bout of drawing fever was about 25 years ago, when I was working my way through my first separation.  I would stay up all night if I fell into the right rhythmic groove and the perfect hypnotic, meditative trance.  I’d forget to eat, or, conversely, I’d call the local pizzeria, seeking gustatory satiation for my late night munchies via their scrumptious white pizza, heavily perfumed with garlic and basil, delivered hot and fresh to my doorstep.

At some point, my white pizza addiction must have spiraled out of control, for one night the owner took the phone: You are home alone too often, he said.  You sound  like a nice girl.  Come in and meet my son.  I’ll treat you to dinner.

I’m sure he could feel me blushing all the way through the phone.  I stammered:  Um… thanks, but no thanks…and, embarrassed to my core, I never called for another white pizza.  Shortly thereafter, consumed by the rigors of graduate school, I laid down my pens and inks, my charcoals and my pencils, and I didn’t pick them up again…until now.

This summer, I decided to take a break from writing.  I’d been feeling stale and uninspired; writing had become an obligation rather than a pleasure.  So I gave myself a break from my self-imposed dictate of writing every day and I signed up for a drawing class instead through the community school.

As it happened 25 years ago, once again drawing has renewed and invigorated me.

I’ve learned that drawing, like everything else, requires ongoing practice to keep the skills sharp.  So the first two weeks of class found me, taut and tense after a two decade absence, struggling through still lifes and exercises designed to liberate our imaginations.  I hated everything I drew; I cringed when the teacher posted our drawings for critiques.  My drawings were flat, lifeless, stilted and childish (not in a charming folk art way).

But two weeks ago, muscle memory finally kicked in and I began once again to find my artistic voice.  It’s not a voice that will ever earn me accolades or a style that is anything but imitative, but it captures my mind, liberates my senses, frees my soul.

Fortunately for my wallet, waistline and ego, I have yet to find the perfect white pizza to accompany my art evenings.  So the only change from 25 years ago is that these days I draw simply to the rhythm of my hand as it stipples and pounces and sketches.  No music, no food: just me, my charcoals and my pad.

It is only fitting, perhaps, that my first worthy attempt is of a worthy subject:

And even more surprising: now that I’ve rediscovered my drawing hand, my writing urges have returned in full force.

My biggest obstacle this summer, it seems, is time: finding time to do all I want to do, to burrow deep within my creative soul without mundane interruptions (like work).  It’s a problem I am only too happy to have.

And with that…off to sketch, to write, to dream.

Doing It

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I taught my first full-length class today.

Set against a picture-perfect backdrop of clear blue skies, untrammeled woods and soaring palm trees, my nervous mind both soothed and steeled by Snatam Kaur’s pure, soaring vocals, I began class with a short meditation focusing on the chakras.

Almost two hours later, the class relaxed contentedly into savasana as Ra Ma Da Sa floated gently in the background.  I moved silently through the class with drops of lavender oil, massaging temples and adjusting heads, legs, and shoulders into more comfortable positions.

Somewhere mid-class, I had found my voice…then my confidence…and finally, my wings.  I looked out over these people, people who trusted me to guide them through a physical, mental and spiritual practice, and I knew I had the ability to do it.  Even more importantly, I discovered I wanted to do it: I wanted, more than anything, to create an oasis of stillness and peace for everyone in the room.

The class erupted into applause as I offered my final namaste, shocking me out of the serene state I’d entered.  Afterwards, several people asked me where I taught regularly.  Another asked about the passage I read from The Prophet, intent upon studying it when he returned home.  Still others simply gave me a thumbs-up or a high five.

I am still feeding off the high of that positive energy: I’m radiant, slightly stunned, ridiculously proud of myself (my ego at play), and I’m grateful, so grateful.  The overarching feeling is one of pure gratitude to those who allowed me to share intimate pieces of myself with them.

And I’ve learned that, by facing my fear of teaching, I never had anything to fear after all.  Whatever I thought I might lose when I taught is far outweighed by what I gain when I step to the front of the room.