Practice

The theme of my life this winter can be summed up in a word: practice. Two-thirds of the way through a memoir, with another four chapters to go and a deadline less than two months away, I have made a commitment to writing practice.

But I am a slow writer, never certain of the way forward, and so I have no choice but to practice patience.

Waiting for words to come, trusting that if I stay here long enough, the next sentence will find its way home to me, requires a certain kind of faith. Faith in mystery and faith in the process — and so I practice faith, too. Faith, it turns out, takes quite a lot of practice.

Yoga practice makes my writing practice possible; in order to sit for hours on end, I must first get up and really move.

Breathing practice fuels the yoga practice; without the union of breath and movement, yoga is just exercise, and I need a little more sustenance from my practice these days than a few leg lifts would provide.

Meditation practice guides me back into my writing, for before I can write so much as a line, I must listen. And in order to listen, I must practice stillness.

Stillness is a challenge, possible only when I practice discipline, for stillness is so not my nature. Discipline practice returns me to my yoga mat day after day, and then it hustles me right back upstairs, to my spot against the bedpillows and my laptop balanced on my knees, and the words on the page, and the view out the window.

I look at the dark curve of mountains against the winter sky, hear the whoosh of wind curling around the corner of the house, the ticking clock, the soft, steady breath of my dog asleep on the rug, and I practice gratitude, for really, what could be better than this – this life, this moment, this practice of pausing and noticing and saying “thank you”?

I used to think of my life in terms of the various roles and responsibilities that made me me: there was motherhood, house work and editing work and writing work, marriage, exercise, spirituality, friendship. Lots of expectations to juggle and jobs to tackle and experiences to either embrace or endure or reject. And never, ever, enough time to fit it all in or get it all done.

Writing was always the first thing to go. How could I sit alone in a room typing words on a screen when there were so many more “important” things I should be doing instead?

But with only a slight shift in imagination, everything has changed. I’ve come to see my life for what it is — not some elaborate story I’ve told myself a thousand times, but simply this: an opportunity to practice.

And suddenly, there is plenty of room and all the time in the world for me to do the only thing I need to do — keep practicing.

A little background: I wrote this post quickly, at the invitation of memoirist and writing teacher extraordinare Marion Roach, who is guest-editing this week over at SheWrites, a terrific site that empowers and informs women writers. (You can read her brilliant “Memoir Manifesto,” in which this little piece is included, here.) When I read Marion’s email, asking if I wanted to contribute something, my first impulse was to say, “Thanks, but no, I’ve got way too much on my plate already.” I was actually about to type just that into my “reply” box, when this started to come out instead. I think it is the first time I’ve ever written anything without thinking about it first. The first time words have ever “just come” to me. (I hear this happens quite often for OTHER writers, but not to me, not ever.) And yet, surprise, there it was. An answer. An affirmative answer rather than the “thanks but no thanks” I was intending to write. And this, I guess, is the benefit of practice. Do anything long enough, regularly enough, and eventually it starts to do you. Even writing practice.

A word about “Unimaginable,” last week’s post: Your comments made me cry. They made my heart overflow with gratitude. They reaffirmed everything I already believe in and cherish about the connections between women, between writers and readers, between friends who have never met. I wanted to answer every single one personally — but I also realized that I couldn’t; all I can do, for now, anyway, is keep writing and hope that you understand. I read every one, though, and I particularly loved the way conversations even sprung up between you, readers reaching out and finding one another right here, in this space. That is nothing less than a dream come true. Thank you.

And finally, in answer to some questions I got about about the Wholeheartedness Playlist widget: If you receive this blog as an email, you won’t see the widget. It’s on the website. Just click on the title in your email, and it’ll take you to my website, where the playlist can be found on the bottom left sidebar. (It’s also a bit easier on the eyes to read the post on the website!) Many thanks, and a Happy Wholehearted Valentines Day to all!

Wholeheartedness

,“Wholeheartedness.” It’s a mouthful. It’s also the word that has been ricocheting around in my thoughts for a week. The word I keep coming back to when I imagine who I want to be and how I want to live. The word that is surely the antidote for the devouring self-doubt that’s lately been haunting my days and keeping me awake at night. What I suffer with in the darkness is this: My best efforts aren’t enough. I don’t have what it takes to be the mother my two sons need, the wife my husband desires, the friend my own friends deserve, the writer I want to be, the woman I still hope to become.

And in moments of light, when I can quiet the voice in my head long enough to listen to what my soul is trying to tell me, I hear this: It is okay to stumble. You are allowed to fail. Doubt your doubts. (Because in fact you are okay just as you are.) Know that you are worthy of your joy and strong enough to survive your pain. Wholeheartedness is what you’re here for.

I know that’s all true. It’s just that lately, I feel depleted, half-hearted, out of ideas and out of confidence. Not even quite up to the job of being me.

I packed quickly to go to Kripalu for the weekend; there wouldn’t be time for much besides the yoga workshop Henry and I were doing together, but I stopped by my bookshelf on the way out the door and threw a couple of books into my bag anyway, almost at random. And then I kissed Steve and Jack good-bye, climbed into the car with Henry and, for the first time ever, our family split up for New Year’s Eve.

Kripalu turned out to be a good place to usher in 2012. Many hours of yoga with my beloved, first-ever yoga teacher, Rolf Gates. A walk by the lake, particularly tasty kale for dinner, a long silent meditation at midnight, time to reflect on the year past and the one to come, deep sleep, early rising.

I loved the sense of belonging that washes over me as soon as I set foot through the door of Kripalu. I loved being in the very room this weekend that my month-long teacher training was held in last winter; the memories were fresh in my mind, the faces of my classmates easy to conjure. I loved not having to think about what to wear, or what to cook, or what to do at midnight, or how many glasses of champagne I should have. I loved having time in solitude and I loved meeting, at long last, my dear on-line friend Pamela, whose gorgeously written blog Walking on My Hands is one of the few I read religiously. And I especially loved it that my twenty-two year old son was so open and willing to sign on for the ride, to give yoga and meditation a try, to experience firsthand this place that’s come to mean so much to me, and even to spend a weekend as my room mate. I know he did it for me, and his presence at my side was a gift. Henry may be a beginner on the mat, but he is a yogi in spirit.

(My husband Steve was happy to be home alone on New Year’s eve, which is what he prefers anyway, and I’m sure Jack was quite relieved I wasn’t around to tell him to “make good choices” or offer up some other motherly platitudes as he headed out the door to spend the night with his friends.)

Very early yesterday morning, I sat down with one of the books I’d brought along, an odd little volume that’s been sitting, unread, on my shelf for a long time. A brief, unlikely meditation on unencumbered living, “Journeys of Simplicity” is essentially a collection of lists about traveling light: what Thoreau took to Walden Pond, what an 85 year old hermit needed to survive, what an anonymous Celtic woman prayed for a hundred years ago.

My book fell open to page 39, “Raymond Carver’s errand list.” According to Carver’s partner and companion, poet Tess Gallagher, he always lived according to what she calls Carver’s law. It was his practice, she says, “not to save up things for some longed-for future, but to use up the best that was in him each day and to trust that more would come.”

Even as he was dying of cancer at age fifty, Carver continued to write and plan and hope. Just after his death, she found this to-do list in his pocket:

Eggs
peanut butter
hot choc

Australia?

Antarctica??

Hope. Wholeheartedness. Ordinariness. How beautifully these three qualities intertwine in our best, most essential expressions of our humanity. To live is to hope. To live wholeheartedly is to trust that there is always more to come, to believe in the rightness of things as they are, to drink hot chocolate and dream of far-off continents even as you confront the loss of everything you love. It was not lost on me that someone else’s final, heartfelt errand list was the very first thing I laid eyes on as the first day of this new year dawned. The message from the universe seemed pretty clear: live fully, live here, live now. Wholeheartedly.

After two days of meditation and challenging yoga practice I was tired, a little sore, and more than a little raw when our last session began. As we moved through our final series of poses, I could feel the tears gathering behind my eyes, ready to spill. “You know,” Rolf suggested, as we eased down into child pose, resting foreheads to mats, coming into stillness, “it is okay to be vulnerable. In fact a willingness to feel our feelings completely, to show our vulnerability, to acknowledge our own tenderness and confusion, is really what living wholeheartedly is all about. To be wholehearted is to be vulnerable.”

And then, at that moment, a pair of knowing hands pressed down upon my back, smoothed along my spine, and rested there for a long, full minute. An assist in child pose, yes. But also, I’m pretty sure, some cosmic, loving gesture made on my behalf, just to make sure that the mail really was getting delivered: “wholeheartedness.”

The tears I’d been fighting off all weekend came then, tears of surrender and grace and relief. I didn’t have to make a new year’s resolution I couldn’t keep, or choose a word to try to live up to. The word I needed found me, hovered for a while, and landed. What better time than right now, the dawn of this new year, to give up my own unnecessary suffering, suffering that is all about believing I need to be someone other than who I am?

And so, gently and with great love, I say to myself – and to you, too – as we step into 2012: “Live wholeheartedly. Know that your vulnerability means that you’re alive. Remember who you really are. Use up the best that’s in you each day, and trust that it’s enough.”

Yesterday, on a gray, colorless January 1, this rose was a singular spot of color. Someone had placed it on an altar in the woods, and there it lay – exposed, vulnerable to the elements, yet, bravely, pinkly, wholeheartedly being itself, a rose in winter. May we, too, bloom with wholeheartedness in this new year.

Do you have a word that is your touchstone? Does the idea of “wholeheartedness” resonate with you? I would love to know!

Courage

Toward the end of my month of yoga teacher training at Kripalu last spring, each person in my class was handed a sheet of paper and a pen and asked to write the words “What I want to tell you is. . .”

The assignment, then, was to write a letter, a letter from the radiant, wide-open, yoga-saturated, heart-full self of that moment to some beleaguered, tired and doubting future self who might one day be in need of a little bucking up.

These letters, we were assured, would arrive in our mailboxes at the right time.

There were so many wild and wonderful and out-of-the- box experiences crammed into those thirty intense days of teacher training that I didn’t even remember writing a letter to myself. When a hand-addressed envelope arrived in my mailbox a week ago, I didn’t recognize the writing, which was much lovelier than my typical, hasty, printing-cursive hybrid. It seemed odd that the return address was my own. I sat down outside and read words that I had no memory of putting to paper. It felt as if I’d suddenly heard from my own best friend from long ago, a soul mate whose memory I cherish but who I haven’t seen or even thought about for a long time. To get a letter from her, out of the blue, was an unexpected gift. To realize that this distant, nearly forgotten person seemed to know exactly how I’d been feeling lately, and could say just what I needed to hear was like having an unspoken prayer answered.

“When it’s a choice between love and fear,” my wiser self told my struggling self, “choose love.” Tears rolled down my cheeks. Sometimes, when things are really hard and scary and not the way I want them to be at all, choosing love over fear seems crazy and impossible. But of course, love really is the only good choice. It’s just that choosing it can sometimes require so much more courage than I think I have.

In two days, both of my sons will head back to school. At our house right now, the bedrooms look like they’ve been ransacked, full of clothes and twisted bedding and backpacks and shoes and notebooks. (Both boys claim that what’s going on up there is a “deep clean”; to me it looks more like a deep shuffle.) The TV is tuned to the U.S. Open. The kitchen has been turned into Poster Rolling Central — Jack is working for his dad, earning money by stuffing hundreds of posters into mailing tubes. Steve is affixing labels. Henry is deleting two thousand songs from his iPod. The washing machine is running nonstop. The food is getting eaten as fast as I can cook it. As I sit here typing on the porch, I can hear the three guys laughing in the other room, commenting on the tennis, enjoying this last full day of summer vacation. Tonight we’ll go out for our ritual meal at Chili’s (democracy prevails on this front; alas, the vote for Chili’s is always 3 to 1) and to see the new Steve Carrell movie. It’s all good.

Except for the moments in the past week that have been awful. The ones that have pushed me to the outer limits of my abilities as a parent. There have been some of those, too. If you’ve ever shared your life with teenagers, you can easily supply your own details. And you probably also know that giving an adolescent the space he/she needs in order to grow up is as necessary as it is risky. Kids make mistakes, and our job as parents is to step back and allow them to fall, and then to make sure, too, that they actually learn what it’s like to hit the ground.

“I feel completely lost,” my son Jack said to me the other afternoon. I knew what he meant. The truth was, I was feeling pretty lost myself. But then I suddenly realized that I did have something to offer him. “You know,” I said, “you don’t have to figure everything out now. All you need to do is make the next good choice for this moment. You can certainly do that.” And then I left him there to figure it out. I put on my sneakers and went out for a run.

Choosing fear would have kept me in my chair, talking, trying to repair the damage and make things right for him. Choosing love means allowing him to own the struggle that rightfully belongs to him. It means having faith that this, too, shall pass.

“Parenting requires courage,” my friend Bruce wrote in a profoundly affecting essay this week. “Courage to set limits and bear anger; courage to let go and tolerate fear that our kids may come to harm; courage to trust that we and our children are enough.”

That pretty much says everything I want to hold on to during these final days of summer. I could pray for all sorts of things as my children make their way out into the world, but I doubt that even my most fervent appeals for their safety, health, and well-being would do a single bit of good. Those pleas are born of fear, of my own sense of helplessness in the face of dangers and environments and situations that aren’t mine to control. And so, I pray instead for the only thing I can really hope for: courage. Because courage, of course, is love in the face of fear. Somehow, after a month of yoga and meditation, a soft, vulnerable part of me knew that very well. Back in the world, faced with problems I can’t solve and children I can’t protect, I forgot.

Put two parents and two nearly grown young men in a house together at the end of a long summer, and it’s probably inevitable that everyone involved will do or say something that they will later regret. On this peaceful, companionable Sunday morning, I can now cut us all that much slack. The good news is: choosing love over fear brings us back to one another. And as soon as we stop feeling afraid of the dark, we are free to enjoy the simple pleasures of a few moments of light. As Bruce writes, “To fully feel fear, and then manage it, quell it, contextualize it, rise above it . . . now we’re talking courage.”

Yes.

Never a Dull Moment

Unfortunately, there is still snow on the ground, even though it’s April. Fortunately, a robin convention is underway in my front yard and there are crocuses blooming alongside the stone wall.

Unfortunately, I thought I’d been left off the guest list to a dear friend’s surprise birthday party. Fortunately, it turned out that the hostess had an old email address and was wondering why she hadn’t heard from me — just as I was wondering why I hadn’t heard from her.

Unfortunately, I’d already made plans for that evening but, fortunately, I was able to stop by the party long enough to be part of the surprise, have a glass of champagne, and wish my friend a happy 50th.

Unfortunately, my son Jack and I had a horrible conversation on Friday that kept me awake, tossing and turning all night. Fortunately, he called the next day to set things right, and we both felt much, much better.

Unfortunately, a good friend is facing a frightening biopsy this week. Fortunately, he sat at our dinner table on Saturday night and was reminded how much love and support surround him as he takes the first step on this journey into the unknown.

Unfortunately, none of my son Henry’s many applications have resulted in a summer internship or job offer. Fortunately, he decided yesterday to take a leap and attend a meditation retreat for pianists — a big step outside the box that may take him right where he needs to go.

Unfortunately, the huge brush pile my husband and I were burning yesterday sent a wild spark into the field. Fortunately, friends and neighbors came quickly to our aid and together we were able to stamp out the fire before damage was done.

Unfortunately, I was so sore and exhausted after a long day of hauling brush and tending raging fires that I could barely move my tired body off the couch last night. Fortunately, Steve made his own dinner and emptied the dishwasher and said, “Let’s go to bed early.”

Friends keep asking me: “What is it like, coming back to the ‘real’ world, after a whole month away?” So far, I have no good answer to the question. Life is what it is, what it’s always been. I am who I am, the very same person I was before I had the lovely opportunity to practice yoga and meditation for eight hours a day. And yet, there is something going on here that feels a little bit different.

I think of a book that our family adored when Henry and Jack were small, a book by Remy Charlip called Fortunately, that we read aloud over and over again. “Fortunately,” it begins, “Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.”

The charm and appeal of this wonderful picture book is the speed with which Ned’s luck turns from good to bad to good again. He’s up, he’s down, he’s up, he’s down — until, of course, we realize right along with him that there’s no point at all in judging any of the crazy things that happen to him as either “good” or “bad.” They just are, and, at the end of the day, at the end of the book, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

And that, I think, is one thing I learned in my time away. I can continue to go through life keeping a tally sheet of the “good” stuff and the “bad” stuff, or I can let go of that kind of judging and comparing all together. As I practice simply being present, living in the moment that is right now, I come into a closer relationship with an inner self that is not at the mercy of every thought or fear or perception that passes through my busy mind, but that somehow stands apart, watching, abiding, and holding faith that everything will turn out fine in the end.

My “witness consciousness” is still a toddler, which is to say that this non-judging, non-reacting self is not terribly reliable yet. (That awful phone conversation did send me into a tailspin of worry and frustration, after all.)

Yet, I am growing fond of this quiet, less reactive part of me. I want to know her better, to encourage her presence. Sitting on my yoga mat, allowing my own breath to be a doorway into the moment, I realize how good it feels to place my trust in the rightness of things as they are. “The seed of suffering in you may be strong,” writes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, “but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.”

What a simple, radical idea: allowing myself to be happy. I don’t have to put happiness off, until some future day when everything is just as I want it to be. In fact, I can be happy right now, just by embracing what is — the whole messy, imperfect ball of wax. Instead of being buffetted about by a swirl of emotions, self-doubts, or fears, I can watch life unfold with an appreciative eye and a grateful heart.

The other day I had tea with my friend Pam. It was the first of April, and we were watching it snow — hard. “Never a dull moment,” she said, smiling. So true. So obvious. So profound. As soon as I stop judging, complaining, comparing then I am free to become a full participant in the great swirl of energy that is life itself, with all its close calls and wacky surprises and unexpected twists and turns. Unfortunately, things never really go as planned. Fortunately, they have a way of working themselves out. Never a dull moment. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A small gift from the sea

It’s a long way — in both miles and mindset — from the silent morning sadhana at Kripalu to my parents’ house in Florida, where my family convenes each March for our sons’ spring break.  By the time I arrived last Saturday night, fresh from my month of yoga immersion, Steve and Jack were already here and in full vacation mode — tennis, hot tub, read, swim, more tennis.  Henry’s plane landed an hour after mine, and then, for a couple of perfect, too-short days, we were all here, making meals, reading our books, playing Scrabble, hanging out with my mom and dad, and catching up in person for the first time since early February.

As usual, we found ourselves crowded into a booth at Chili’s.  Henry ordered a (legal) Margarita; the kids (I still call them that), in deference to me, agreed to vegetarian nachos; and we began to wax nostalgic, recalling the days when the annual visit with the grandparents also included Steve’s folks, as well as stops at every mom-and-pop variety store (in search of the newest packs of baseball cards), shell collecting at the beach, Little Rascals video marathons, mini-golf, and Peanut Buster Parfaits at the DQ.  The memories gave rise to lots of laughs, and I said something about how great it felt, how special it was, to have us all gathered here together. The boys reminded me that I say that exact same thing every single time we are together.  I suppose I do.  These days, when the four of us actually land in the same place at the same time it does feel like an occasion — always too short, always bittersweet, always special.

Monday we drove Jack across the state to meet up with his school tennis team for a bit of pre-season training, and this morning we dropped Henry off at the airport at 6:30 am for his flight back to college.  It was still dark when we pulled up to the curb, the remnant half of the fattest, closest moon on record lingering in the sky.  I watched my older son push through the revolving door and disappear into the bright terminal and felt a similar revolving effect in my own stomach, as the easy togetherness of these last few days was suddenly displaced by a wave of sadness.  It still gets me, just how alone alone feels every time we say good-bye to our sons.

With one more day here before our own flight home, Steve and I drove down the empty highway and up and over the long bridge to Sanibel, where we used to spend at least part of each winter vacation when our boys were little.  It’s been years since we’ve been back, but as we walked along the familiar stretch of beach and watched a new generation of young sand-castle-builders hard at work, every step seemed to give rise to a memory.

I’ve just spent a month practicing being fully present, and yet strolling along the water’s edge this morning I seemed utterly incapable of simply being in the moment.  Sanderlings scurried along at our feet.  The sun rose higher in the sky, the water was perfect, the beach filling with families and sunbathers and shell collectors, all intent on milking their varied pleasures from the day.

And I found myself fighting back tears, trying way too hard to savor a lovely walk with my husband while, at the same time, overcome with a swirl of emotions — missing my sons, missing the life we used to lead together, missing their vanished childhoods and our own younger, more innocent parenting selves.  How clearly I remember every bathing suit they ever owned; the big, cheap beach towels with hoods in the corners that could completely envelop a small, shivering boy; the bright, indestructible toys we stored at my mom’s house and hauled out year after year; the small, irresistible  plastic shark Jack once “borrowed” from another little kid and failed to return, and his tearful confession at the end of the day when his guilty conscience got the better of him; the smell of suntan lotion slathered onto a small bony back; the taste of gritty cheese crackers and warm iced tea; the scrim of sand in the rental car; the bags of prized shells ripening and stinking in the back seat as we headed back down the causeway, windows open wide. . . .

Steve and I walked side by side, mostly in silence, for a mile or so, waves lapping at our feet, and then we turned around and made our way back.  I stooped and picked up a pale gray piece of a shell, broken, unidentifiable, but worn smooth as satin to the touch.  Somehow it seemed like the right one to slip into my pocket at the end of this less-than-wonderful morning, a battered fragment, far from perfect, yet weathered and beautiful in its own right.

There is an abbreviation known to everyone at Kripalu:  BRFWA.  It stands for Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  In yoga class, this is a fine way to move into and out of poses, slowly and with awareness and compassion.  I think it is probably a pretty effective strategy for negotiating the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life as well.  I’ve been worried about how I can possibly incorporate all the learning of the last month back into my “real” life, how I can assimilate some of the changes I cultivated in class and turn them into new ways of being, even when I’m not on a yoga mat.  It was so easy to stay calm and centered while ensconced in “the bubble” of Kripalu, where all I had to do was show up and be myself in a room full of like-minded, equally dedicated souls.  But it’s so much more challenging to bring my “yoga self” back home and layer her onto my “mom self,” that self who seems at times to be comprised of equal parts of nostalgia for what’s over, worry about what might yet come to be, and yearning for the physical presence of grown children whose lives have (quite rightly) carried them away from home.

Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.  I wish I’d remembered these simple words at the beach this morning.  They might have given me a little more room to simply experience all my swirling feelings, without so much recrimination and self-judgment.  I might have allowed the sweet memories to wash through me rather than wishing for what can’t be.  I might have  allowed my tears to fall and then I might have taken a few deep breaths and allowed the sea air to dry my cheeks.  I might have held my husband’s hand and shared my feelings with him, and  allowed him to comfort me a little, instead of trudging along in silence as I did, convinced that I should somehow be doing a “better” job of walking on the beach.

So. Transformation doesn’t happen overnight after all, or even in a month.  And good-byes are always hard.  In the meantime, though, I will remind myself:  Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Allow.