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.


“You have what I want.”

Every morning, I come downstairs and do the same thing: look out the window and greet the mountains, put on a pot of coffee, flip open my laptop, check the weather, scan my email.

The first letter I see today is from a reader, a mother who had written me some months ago with what I considered the highest of praise: she called my books “yoga for the brain.”  Of course I’m delighted to find her name in my in-box again.

“I have a personal question for you,” Sarah’s note begins,  “and please feel free not to answer it.”  I read on, intrigued.  “If I have a bad parenting day,” she continues, “or if I’m stuck in a rut, I pick up one of your books and it calms my spirit. . . . Your words exude a deep sense of calmness, and a connection to your spirit.  Where the heck do you get that from?  Really, I want to know.”   Her letter ends with words that bring me up short:  “I just feel like you have what I WANT.”

Someone out there wants what I have?  How strange to think that, while I’m struggling along here, feeling neither wise nor terribly calm, and certainly not very sure of myself, someone else seems to think that I have things all figured out and squared away.

The truth is, I’ve spent most of January sitting in a chair, trying in fits and starts to write a new book proposal and judging every paragraph.  I spend an hour on a sentence, then throw it away, certain it’s not worth reading, wondering why my writer friends seem capable of knocking out great stuff without breaking a sweat while I agonize over every word.  I look around the house at all the tasks that are undone: the pile of stuff on my desk that I promised to plow through before the end of the month; the exhausted paperwhites, deep in their post-holiday forward bends, dropping petals all over the floor (way past time to throw them away and get the vacuum out!); the blinking light on the piano pulsing “tune me”; the pile of laundry in the basket, waiting to be folded. I think of the friends I’ve been meaning to call, but haven’t, because I’ve been glued to my desk, feeling the pressure of my own self-imposed deadline.

I think of the painful conversation I had the other night with my husband, his admission that he feels a little lonely these days even when he’s with me;  his accusation that I’ve been oblivious for weeks, so focused on my work that I seem to have checked out of my life.   Each day of this cold, snowy month, my neighbor Debbie has come by my house, quietly doing one good deed after another:  replenishing my birdseed supply, taking Gracie for a walk, leaving me her copy of Yoga Journal, even hauling the snowblower out of the garage and doing our walkways after the last storm.  I keep meaning to write her a thank you note, to invite her out for blueberry pancakes at our favorite cafe.  But I haven’t done either.

All these lapses, my own failures of presence and attention, leap to mind as I read Sarah’s  letter.  If only she knew how easily I lose sight of the beauty of the world.  How easily I wander off track, get lost, and flail about, rather than staying balanced in my own quiet center. If only she knew how overwhelmed I often feel myself.

I gulp down a bowl of cereal and head downtown to yoga class. Alexandra greets every one of us by name as we enter the room and roll out our mats.  Her humor, her grace, her presence never fail to lift my spirits. Today, I’m so soothed by her quiet way, by her stillness leavened with a kind of inner light, that I find myself thinking, “Well, I want what SHE has.”

We began in a reclined hero pose.  Long experience has taught me to move into this one slowly, and with care.  So, while my classmates plop their butts down easily between their spread calves and lay back, I futz around: a block under my rear end, a bolster beneath my back, a slow progression through my tight hips and thighs and calves, to a supine position.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be flexible enough to do this pose without props; what I have learned, though, is that if I’m patient with myself, if I take it slow and breathe my way down on to my back, I’ll be ok.

And so, I set up my little arrangement — block, bolster, blanket — and ease myself toward the floor.  One breath, two.  Allowing rather than doing.  Letting go rather than holding on.  Laying there, listening to Alexandra’s quiet instructions, I feel something I’ve been holding on to for days begin to release.

Why have I been making this all so hard?  For weeks I’ve been muscling my way into Writer Pose, trying to force words onto paper, while ignoring the protests of my spirit.  And what do I have to show for it?  A very few pages wrought at considerable expense — I’m tired, frustrated, insecure, behind in everything, and on top of all that, I’ve hurt my husband’s feelings by being so wrapped up in my own.

No wonder Sarah’s letter makes me feel  uncomfortable. What I have, after all, is nothing special.  In fact, I know all too well the trap of assuming that what’s hard for me is easy for everyone else, whether it’s writing an essay or flowing through a vinyassa in yoga class.  I look around the room — at my lovely teacher in her self-contained wisdom, at the young women whose limbs are as flexible as pipe cleaners, at the friend who has just lost fifteen pounds and looks great — and recognize a familiar old emotion in myself.  Inadequacy.  The sense that who I am, what I’m capable of, is never quite enough.

And yet, lying in my fully supported hero pose, I know that my challenge in this moment is not to get my bottom onto the floor, but to quiet the noisy buzzing in my mind and tune in to my own body instead, to trust that who I am really is ok, and that, contrary to that negative, nattering voice in my head, I already have everything I need — to do my version of hero pose, to write my next book, to live my own good life.

“Be content with what you have,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching, “rejoice in the way things are. When you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” The quiet center, the calm place I seek — it has been right here all along.   I can tie myself up in emotional knots, trying to write from sheer force of will, judging myself for what I haven’t done, comparing myself to others and coming up lacking every time.  Or I can ease back into my life the way I’ve finally learned to ease my middle-aged body into this most challenging yoga pose: by offering myself the kind of compassionate acceptance I so easily extend to everyone else.

Perhaps the only way to achieve wholeness is to embrace our own fragility, to acknowledge our weaknesses and broken parts, and to minister to those parts with tenderness.  And perhaps our real work as humans is not to become more like someone else, not to look at what another person seems to have, and try to figure out how to get it for ourselves — but rather to discover that which is unique and precious to us, and to lovingly attend to that.

And how lucky we are, to have the support of the universe as we embark on this transformative work of caring for our own souls:  books to inspire us on our journeys, role models who can point the way, poems that give voice to the words in our own hearts, teachers willing to meet us where we are, friends who appear at our sides offering encouragement and companionship, loved ones who patiently wait for us to look up and to remember that we are loved.

It is, in fact, a great honor to know that something I’ve written has shone a light on someone else’s path.  What I want, what we all want, is to feel that our gifts, whatever they are, have been of some use.  Our lives become meaningful in service to others.  First though, we must be able to see, and to honor, the light within ourselves.  Perhaps today, as I do the dishes, fold that laundry, sit at my desk waiting for words to come and then, later, reach out over dinner to take my husband’s hand, I’ll remember that nothing is lacking, that the whole world already belongs to me, if I can simply allow myself to receive it.