Yoga Toes Revisited

I lay on my back in my yoga class, legs sticking straight up in the air. “Rotate your ankles and find every number on the clock,” said the instructor. I automatically sent each ankle rotating in opposite directions, unable to get them to agree, and the clock image dissolved in confusion.

“Now flex your feet and fan out your toes,” she continued.

I looked at toes and willed them to move. Up and down, yes, but sideways? I imagined them staring back at me in bewilderment.

“Now, for many of you your toes won’t move,” Inez said reassuringly. “That’s fine; just keep on sending that message. Someday, believe it or not, your toes will start listening.”

I concentrated hard on my toes like a fledgling mage trying to learn telekinesis. “Agite, molesti digiti!” Latin commands work in Harry Potter, after all. But my Latin is in my brain, not my toes, and there’s no connection in any language.

“Now hug your knees into your chest.” I breathed deeply in relief and earned an approving smile from Inez. Breathing is good too. But my mind wasn’t ready to move on.

“Keep sending the message, and someday your toes will listen.”

What a great analogy for parenting, I thought.  My children are grown now, and finally my husband and I see some of those toes responding to the messages we’ve been sending. All of them value education, travel, and new experiences. They are loving, open-minded people passionate about making the world a better place. I see those messages blossoming especially as I watch my son with his son—reading to him so much that he’s had to get new copies of the books he grew up with, and immersing him in music. And yes, they all even learned to like vegetables; my green-averse daughter told me recently that she now likes Brussels sprouts, which are still beyond my tolerance level. The most important message I have tried to send is that they should follow their passions and find their true talents, and they are well on their way to doing that.

And now that I’ve sent my children out into the world, I’m finding that it’s time to take another look at the messages I’m sending my own toes. Maybe I don’t really care about perfectly performing Vivaldi’s virtuoso concertos; perhaps what matters is inspiring others to fall in love with music. And I suspect that novel I keep starting isn’t going to happen because I’ve wandered into songwriting instead. Songs actually get finished and I may even have the courage to launch them in public. I don’t think I’m going to finish reading the Aeneid in Latin, because I need to learn Farsi to keep up with my bilingual grandchildren. It’s ok to change the message when it feels right to do that.

The important thing, when looking at toes, is to keep sending those positive messages (and to ignore self-critical thoughts, like darn, those nails really need trimming). Because yoga does teach us that what seems impossible truly can happen.

After the Laundry, the Ecstasy

As a freelance musician, writer, and tutor there are days when I have nothing scheduled, and rather than taking joy in that I descend into the depths of despair, feeling I need to justify my existence. Why bother getting out of bed? Never mind that I’m still exhausted from my summer of almost nonstop travel and performing. Today is a new day and I need to accomplish something useful.

After way too much time (almost an hour, possibly?) of reading Facebook and finishing a book, checking my credit card balance (not as bad as I thought) and translating a passage of Ille Hobbitus for my online Latin group, I finally decide that at least I can do laundry. There is an initial momentum needed here, since I have to walk up the stairs to get the laundry. Then I progress to a whole minute of action when I put the clothes into the machine so it can do the work for me.

At this point I am actually on my feet, so I take out the recycling. There are weeds (see previous comment about a whole summer of traveling). There are also dead things in the garden, mostly plants. Pulling weeds and dead things out of my garden helps me pull unwanted and dead thoughts out of my brain.

Coming back inside to take the momentous step of transferring laundry from the washer to the dryer, I notice  the dishwasher. I take a moment for gratitude, since during my month in Scotland I had neither dryer nor dishwasher. I did have good ale, whiskey, music, theater, and friends, for which I also remembered to be grateful. I put the clothes in the dryer, unload the dishwasher, and vacuum the stairs for good measure.

By the time I remember the clothes are dry, my husband is there to help fold them and put them away. Gratitude again.

And so the day goes, with laundry leading to joy and thankfulness that I have days I can putter, accomplish small things, and come up with an idea for an essay. I’m pretty sure that’s what Jack Kornfield said in his book, so I think I’ll go back to bed to read it again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forget-me-not

114-1485_IMG“Think of a flower, one special to you, “ said Veronica at the beginning of my yoga class. “Think of it unfolding on each outbreath…”

An image of an alpine forget-me-not came to mind—a tiny flower that I see only when I hike in high elevations, usually in the Beartooth range of Montana. I remembered a strenuous hike to the Red Lodge Creek Plateau with my father, forty years ago now. Making it to that alpine plateau was his test of recovery from a serious illness, and when I left for college soon after that, he gave me a photograph of a clump of forget-me-nots that he had taken that day. He’s been gone fifteen years now, and the grief has faded to good memories that make me smile.

Our poses moved from warm-up to more intense poses, and I found that even with the modifications I need for my curvy, stocky body that I was having more trouble today. I chalked it up to several months away from yoga and congratulated myself on showing up on the mat at a new studio with a new teacher. I reminded myself to be patient and true to my own needs, and I relaxed even further into the pose. Veronica periodically reminded us to visualize our flowers, and I kept seeing that sweet blue forget-me-not.

And then it hit me that I had intended to spend this moment of this day sending my thoughts to those gathered in Manhattan for a memorial service for Tom Zajac, an incredibly talented early music performer and teacher who recently left us too way too soon. Although Tom was from Boston, his service was happening at that moment at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. I think they needed the biggest and most beautiful cathedral available to hold all the people he had touched in his lifetime. I knew of it because Madeleine L’Engle and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine adopted each other, and she did much of her writing in the library there. Both love of music and the power of love are themes that run through all of her books. I can imagine her fictional Canon Tallis blessing the real Tom, who taught us to blend the two.

I spent the rest of that yoga session in tears, because the wonderful thing about yoga is its tendency to release emotions as well as physical tensions. I told Veronica briefly that it was a grief issue, and she encouraged me to stay, doing whatever felt right, and to particularly enjoy the restorative portion at the end. She dropped by my mat occasionally with lavender oil, a forehead massage, and a smile, and she gently incorporated comforting thoughts about grief into her dharma talk because of course no one is alone in suffering loss. I’m pretty sure I’ve found the right yoga studio to join.

But it’s really weird that the forget-me-not came to me before any of that entered my mind.

Appreciating the Power of the Dark Side

Costa Rica 344It’s a strange thing that the most awesome, talented, and intelligent people I know are also the hardest on themselves. Many of them have been more open lately about traits and conditions that everyone used to keep hidden, and suddenly I feel a lot less alone. Still, while I acknowledge that I have Issues, and you have Issues, and indeed everyone on the planet has Issues, it seems to me that the worst Issue we’re all struggling with is seeing only the dark side of our Issues. I know this isn’t a new thought (Self-Criticism), I should have written about it a long time ago (Procrastination and Laziness), and I’m sure that someone will be offended (Anxiety) or point out someone else who wrote the same thing in a much better way (Perfectionism), but I’m going to just stick it on my blog anyway even though no one ever reads my blog and nothing I do matters in the long run (Depression). Let’s start with…

Anxiety

What if Plan A doesn’t work? Hey, I not only have a plan B, I have plans C, D, E, and the mental capacity to come up with On Beyond Zebra if necessary. When I have to play music or speak in public I over-prepare, so I haven’t yet sunk through the stage floor in humiliation. I haven’t eaten anything yet that has killed me, because we all evolved to be suspicious of new foods that might be poisonous, especially green ones and raw fish, and some of us are still a bit cautious. I’m great at math, especially statistics, because I know how to calculate the odds of dying in any particular situation. In fact, I did very well in school because I knew I would totally fail in life if I didn’t get straight A’s. I have lived as long as I have because I never took up ice climbing or skydiving, and I haven’t yet traveled into a war zone. I always remember my sunblock, and I take rain gear and extra food with me even on a three mile hike in midsummer during a drought. Fear of change makes me value loyalty and stability, and I treasure the people whom I can trust. Best of all, I have a great imagination, which I really ought to use to write the screenplay for the next blockbuster disaster movie. Except there’s also…

Procrastination

First, I have a very good idea of what is crucial to get done and how long things really take if you cut to the chase. Five minutes to wipe the kitchen counter and make sure there’s toilet paper in the bathroom if guests are coming over. Twenty-seven minutes to get to the theater on time for call—leave an extra five minutes in case of traffic and ten minutes to tune the piccolo. Of course, the best thing about procrastination is being able to perform well on short notice. Ask me to substitute in a musical the morning of a performance? I’ll download the soundtrack and listen to it while driving to pick up the score, look through the music to find the greatest concentration of black notes to practice in the few hours I have left, and watch the conductor and count like Count von Count to avoid getting lost. Any missed notes can be chalked up to sightreading in performance, which is a nice remedy for over-the-top…

Perfectionism

Obviously the bright side of being a perfectionist is that I’m now perfect, because I tolerate no flaws in myself. Well, I wish that were true. It is a trait that drives me to perform to the best of my ability, at least, and to appreciate that drive in others. Self-criticism goes hand in hand with perfectionism, of course. One of the most important insights I ever had concerned an acquaintance who shall not be named, well-meaning, I am sure, who had extremely high standards for herself and others. I listened to her criticizing others and imagined what she might be saying about me. I tried to be perfect whenever I was around her—until the moment when I realized two things. First, all that imagined criticism was really coming from me, from that little voice in my head that I sometimes call my inner Simon Cowell, and I had the power to turn it off. Second, a perfect person does not constantly criticize others behind their backs and therefore my acquaintance was not perfect. I stopped caring what she might think of my apparent…

Laziness

Snoopy War and PeaceI would much rather spend twenty-six hours in bed in my pajamas re-reading War and Peace than run a marathon. I speak from experience, because I did read War and Peace in one weekend in college due to procrastination, and I picked my nephew up at the finish line after he ran the California International Marathon a couple of years ago. I hurt less afterward than he did, and best of all I understand the references in many Peanuts cartoons. I would rather walk slowly than run; flower photography and trail running don’t mix well. I would rather ski downhill, cooperating with gravity, than cross-country; the latter doesn’t involve gorgeous views and good conversations while resting on the chairlift. I haven’t yet written a novel, but I do enjoy writing songs and essays, and perhaps they’ll reach more people and even help those struggling with…

 Depression

Finally, it is admittedly hard to find a bright side to depression. I can say, though, that my past bouts of prolonged depression have given me empathy with others who are in that dark spot now. I remember with such gratitude those who came along and reached out a hand to keep me from sinking, and I feel that now I can do that for others. I learned all the things that helped me, like exercise, forests, sunshine, music, re-reading good children’s books, and reaching out to friends, a therapist, and at times medication. And because life has tough times I haven’t forgotten those lessons. When grief comes along I go back to them and am gentle with myself because I know I’ll get through that too.

Spring 2009 033So let’s give all these negative traits different names: well-prepared, efficient, with high standards, observant, well-read, and empathetic. My mother recently told me that she saw in me a “quiet strength”. That strength comes from my problems and imperfections, not from my talents. It comes from feeling the fear and doing it anyway, knowing that I don’t have a choice sometimes. It comes from all those self-help books I’ve read, the people who have loved and helped me, and from Spock, Linus, Socrates, Jo March, and Anne of Green Gables. Most of all, it comes from knowing that without the dark times we would not recognize everyday miracles when they come.

Yoga Toes

I lay on my back in my yoga class, legs sticking straight up in the air. “Rotate your ankles and find every number on the clock,” said the instructor. I automatically sent each ankle rotating in opposite directions, unable to get them to agree, and the clock image dissolved in confusion.

“Now flex your feet and fan out your toes,” she continued.

I looked at toes and willed them to move. Up and down, yes, but sideways? I imagined them staring back at me in bewilderment.

“Now, for many of you your toes won’t move,” Inez said reassuringly. “That’s fine; just keep on sending that message. Someday, believe it or not, your toes will start listening.”

I concentrated hard on my toes like a fledgling mage trying to learn telekinesis. “Agite, molesti digiti!” Latin commands work in Harry Potter, after all. But my Latin is in my brain, not my toes, and there’s no connection in any language.

“Now hug your knees into your chest.” I breathed deeply in relief and earned an approving smile from Inez. Breathing is good too. But my mind wasn’t ready to move on.

“Keep sending the message, and someday your toes will listen.” What a great analogy for parenting.

My children are grown now; my youngest is about to graduate from college, the middle is a doctor who has the right to give us advice, and the oldest has just become a father. And finally my husband and I see some of those toes responding to the messages we’ve been sending.

I read to all three from day one, and they all learned to read fluently by age four. Tim had an argument with his kindergarten teacher; she wanted him to make his own alphabet book by pasting pictures on construction paper to go with each letter, and he wanted to go off in a corner to read Charlotte’s Web. He won. But the lure of television and later the Internet was major competition for mere books, and the high school curriculum of seriously depressing classics didn’t help matters. Jon agonized over Red Badge of Courage in 8th grade,  and Tim hated analyzing existential poetry. One year my daughter Robin listed the books she was required to read–every single one ended with the main character committing either murder or suicide. But the messages I kept sending did make it through. My sons did return to reading for fun after college, and Robin had an inspiring teacher in high school who opened her eyes to the world of film.  I can’t complain that she prefers film to books now that she is determined to become a screenwriter.

They all love to travel. I went to Europe for the first time when I was ten, a glorious romp through five countries with castles, cathedrals, and people speaking different languages. it cemented my love of all things historical, especially medieval; I’ll confess that I chose the University of Chicago for college because I fell in love with the gargoyles on the pseudo-Gothic buildings. I began studying Latin at age 12 and German at 15 because the two together are the basis of all European languages. I wanted to know what all those people were saying. So I made sure to plant the travel bug in all of my children. Jon went to Switzerland with his great aunt at 14; then he became fluent in Italian and cemented his friendship with his future wife Ramona on a trip to Italy.  They’ve been traveling together ever since. Next month Tim is off to Africa on a medical trip, and he’ll celebrate his 30th birthday on a safari in Zambia. That should be a bit less demanding than the time he cycled the coast of Italy and made up the calories eating pizza, and perhaps less dangerous than his adventures running with the bulls in Pamplona. Robin, who grew up along with Harry Potter, went on a People To People trip to Harry Potter sites in England and Scotland at 11 and to Costa Rica with her Spanish class at 13. She wants a trip to Europe for her graduation present.

Perhaps because of that traveling, all three are compassionate liberal progressives in politics. Travel shows that there are many ways to live and think, many ways to view the miracles of life and creation, and there is no one right way to journey through life on this planet.  My children came of age in a time of increasing acceptance for equal rights. Same sex marriage, increasing equality for women in the workplace, and Barack Obama are all signs that their generation is more accepting of differences and the future looks bright. We couldn’t be happier that Jon’s wife is a gorgeous Persian woman who has introduced us to a whole new culture, including gormeh sabzi and fesenjan, and that our red-headed Irish son has a baby who won’t sunburn as easily as he does.

But I hope the most important message I have sent is that they should follow their passions and find their true talents. I hope their searches are simpler than mine has been, but at least I’ve been a model of someone exploring many interests and finally coming to love who I am—someone who loves to keep learning and will never settle down to specialize in anything.

And with that, I announce the migration of this blog which has strayed far from Women’s Solo Retreats to another entitled The Eclectic Tutor. The adventures of this Renaissance woman continue at eclectictutor.wordpress.com.

Am I Safe?

Traffic jams are an excellent opportunity to exercise mindfulness and flick away those unhelpful thoughts as if they were annoying flies. Of course, I seldom remember to do that. My mind generally goes into catastrophe mode spinning a complex web of all the possible consequences of being late to wherever I’m going.

I am getting better, though. The first time I remember the light dawning that traffic jams aren’t a sign of a coming apocalypse, I arrived more than half an hour late for a rehearsal in Davis, California due to a clogged causeway coming out of Sacramento. I had my apologies all composed in my head, because I do try to be not only on time but early for music events. There was, of course, no one there to receive the apology. The conductor was stuck in traffic behind me.

IMG_3103Last August, I drove the Beartooth Highway at the northeast entrance of Yellowstone Park, from Red Lodge, Montana to Cooke City with a friend from Tennessee, just to show her our spectacular scenery. We passed some construction, but the flagman waved us through immediately. On the way back, we had just missed the pilot car and had to wait over half an hour to continue over the pass. We were stuck in traffic at one of the most beautiful spots on earth–and I had to remind myself not to be annoyed!

Clearly I was not fully enlightened, because the universe gave me another poke on the issue. Recently I hit a traffic jam caused by a serious accident while on my way to meet a friend to carpool to a music lesson. This time I realized that he would also be held up, so I didn’t stress about that, and we could easily call our teacher if we knew we’d be late. But while I was breathing mindfully, trying to lower my blood pressure, I noticed the sign on the truck in front of me. Instead of the common “How’s my driving? Call this number…” often seen on commercial vehicles, this one said, “Am I safe?”

“Am I safe?” Yes, I am, I thought, unlike the people in the accident that caused this mess. And those three, simple words have stuck with me to use in many crises. “Am I safe?” Yes, I just have to get through this latest obstruction, and I will.

Patience, appreciation of the beauty around us, and self-confidence. Even traffic jams have gifts to give those willing to receive them.