Monday, February 29, 2016

Big Sur

"Big Sur"

I'm on my third flight today, a small commuter jet that will land in Monterey in just ten minutes.  The man who sits next to me in this little puddle jumper is friendly and talkative.  I know all about his wife, his children, his business growing and selling organic produce all over coastal California.  He says he does this all the time...traveling.
I tell him this is the first time I've made it past the mighty Mississippi.
"Where are you headed?" Victor asks.
"Esalen Institute in Big Sur," I reply.
"Never heard of it."
"It's a spiritual community...I'm taking a workshop there."
"What do you do?"
"I used to be a yoga teacher," I say.  "But now I'm focused on writing novels."
Then Victor asks the question I often hear when I reveal this part of myself.  "Are you published?"
"Not yet," I tell him.  "It's taking longer than I thought."
A lot longer.  In the past year since I gave up the yoga business, I've contacted no less than seventy literary agencies.  I've sent writing samples of both Surfacing  and its sequel, and while a few agents showed an interest, in the end, the mail carrier delivered only rejection letters. 
Now I'm hoping that a change in venue will eventually change the course of my life.
As the plane lands, Victor carefully folds his newspaper and slides it into his briefcase.  "I hope you have a wonderful time here in California."
", too."
Victor smiles.  "I have to say...when I first sat down, I thought you were Sandra Bullock."
I get this a lot. "With shorter hair, right?"
He nods.  "I thought to myself, 'How lucky am I to get to sit next to a real celebrity!'"
I bounce my eyebrows.  "I may not be a real celebrity, but I'm a real something."
"I'll bet you are," Victor chuckles.
Gently gliding onto an open runway, the plane comes to a stop in the middle of the tarmac, dozens of yards from the terminal.
Victor notices my confused look.  "We'll deplane here and then walk."
"Oh...I've never done that before," I say.  "In the Midwest, it's jetbridges all the way."
We exit the plane and Victor invites me to step down the narrow stairs ahead of him.  The moment my feet touch the blacktop I feel my heart quickening.
I turn to Victor, a blissful smile on my face.  "Is it always like this here?"
"Pretty much," he nods.
"Oh...I'm home," I beam, feeling wholly grounded for the first time in my entire life.

Two hours later I sit in the back of a shuttle bus as it winds its way around the twists and turns of Highway One.  Desperately nauseated and in need of something ginger-flavored, I feel my stomach lurch as the driver takes another hairpin turn at forty-five miles an hour.  He may have driven this precarious coastline countless times before, but this is a first for me. 
Even though I feel the need to dump everything out of my purse and use it as a barf bag, the setting outside the window is certainly stunning.  I keep my eyes on the horizon line where the Pacific meets the sky and marvel at the infinite shades of blue.  The way the sun glints on the waves, making them sparkle like diamonds on ice.  The lush landscaping covered with succulent plants I've never seen before in Ohio.
Big Sur is a wonder with the enormous Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, the vast ocean to the west.  I've met people who have traveled all over the world, but say that Big Sur is the most beautiful place they've ever visited.
Now I know why.
The shuttle pulls off the highway, just past a non-descript sign announcing:  "Esalen Institute:  By Reservation Only."  Trundling down a narrow road, it rounds a green space then comes to a stop in front of a ramshackle building. 
As my feet touch the soft earth, I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with the moist, sea-scented air.  "I'm here," I think.  "I'm finally here."
And I am.  But where "here" is, I'm not yet certain.  From what I understand, Esalen is a place where people like me are not considered to be a nut or a novelty.  Where we are of like mind and spirit.  Where I can fully be myself.
I will be in Big Sur for a week and hope that it will be enough time to discern if my unquenchable thirst to move west is simply a self-deceptive desire or the certain promise of a new way of being.

We are soul sisters, California and I.  A few weeks before my first trip to Big Sur in 2006, I discovered we have the same birthday.  Every year since then, I have gratefully acknowledged my connection to a place that I experienced to be both breathtaking and heartbreaking...a setting for the events that indelibly changed the course of my life forever.
The spectacular landscape of Big Sur is home to the enormous Santa Lucia Mountains and the high cliffs bordering the roaring Pacific.   While I lived there, nestled between worlds, I was the farthest west one could travel in the United States, and still face the East, the Orient.   In the summer before my first visit, like Big Sur, I stood sandwiched between two worlds:  my past and my future.  I contemplated the next move, deeply hoping it would involve a permanent drive to places unseen and unknown.  For months I sat with open hands, having no idea what would await me as time moved on.
Thanks to one of my friends and yoga students, I was able to travel to Big Sur to attend a workshop at Esalen Institute.  I had never heard of Esalen, but John had been there and raved about the wonders of life on the edge of the Pacific.  He gifted me with the trip and as the weeks passed, I couldn't wait to open it.  

The Esalen people were caring and open-minded.  The garden and grounds, absolutely amazing.  There was even a sign posted on the front gate that emphatically announced:  “No dogs allowed.”  I chuckled to myself when I saw that cats were free to roam all over the campus.  On my first night at Esalen, a huge tomcat named Rufus befriended my roommates and me.  He even curled up and kept me company while I slept. 
The next morning before sunrise, I went down to the baths and discovered no one else was there.  I took a luxurious shower, then steeped in a tub for over an hour.  Some of the women from my workshop came down and we chatted for a bit. I found myself wanting to pull up my knees to cover my body, but reminded myself that I didn't have to hide in the presence of anyone.  The energy and the environment were genuinely respectful and honest. 
 Being in Big Sur surrounded by the wilderness, bordered by the ocean, I felt like a woman for the first time in my life.  One afternoon, surrounded by others who were at Esalen, but attending different workshops, I spent a few hours by the pool sunbathing.  It was not about showing off; it was about showing up for what I really wanted to do.  The whole Esalen experience became a process of letting go of old illusions and embracing new friends and new experiences.  A necessary, uncomplicated collapse followed by a joyous, celebratory only six days.  I was delightfully surprised by the health and wholeness my body was reflecting.   So well nourished by the environment, I only needed to sleep for four or five hours a night.  I needed little meditation and yoga to stay centered. 
The week passed by all too quickly...yet there were still more lessons to learn, even on my last day in Big Sur.

 Before I left Esalen to catch a flight back to Toledo, I stopped by the gate to see Levi, a man I had met at the baths the day before.  He gave me a big, bear hug.  “How was your group last night?”
“It was great," I smiled.  "But I’ll tell you, I really needed something that I couldn’t get from the women.”
“I felt like I needed a man to just put his hand on the back of my heart.”
Wordlessly, Levi gently placed his hands on my back and over my heart.  It was as if I were being touched by the most loving person on the planet, an amalgamation of spirit and humanity.  There was something so innocent and so authentic about the way his touch changed me.  In that moment, he simply wanted to give me something I needed and I allowed myself to receive his gift with grace. 
“You seem like you belong here now,” Levi said.  “Can you stay?”
“I’d love to,” I said honestly.  “But I can’t.  I need to go back to Toledo and finish what I started.  I know I’ll be back...I just don’t know when.”
Levi smiled.
I looked into his eyes and took a deep breath.  “I have to tell you something...I want to thank you for being who you are.  Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah…I do,” he nodded. 
“I’ve always felt like I had to hide myself in front people…men in particular...and I don’t know how to say this any other way, but there’s something about you that makes me feel like I can just be myself.  That you’re okay with whoever I am.  I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not.  You know?”
I looked around the green space, at all the different people, different ages, different backgrounds.  A host of diversity.  I had made wonderful connections with so many of the women that week.  I wondered why Levi had been the only man. 
“Why is it that most of the men around here won’t talk to me?” I asked him, tears filling my eyes.  “They won’t even come near me.”
“Because they can’t touch you, Katie,” Levi replied, nudging my shoulder.
“What do you mean?”  I thought that he was saying what every other man had told me...that I had an indestructible wall around myself that no one could get through.
Levi’s face softened.  “Look at you, Katie.  You’re beautiful in so many ways, and I can tell just by being with you how much spiritual growth you’ve had.   You’re honest and bright and attentive.  I think a lot of these guys take one look at you and think, ‘that woman has her life so together, I can’t even touch her.’”
“But you can,” I said gently.  “You can see me.”
Levi nodded.  “I can because I’ve been where you’ve been and I’ve done the work, too, so I know what it’s like to come into the kind of power you are.  I’m not afraid of it.  I really love it.  You're not walled're evolved.”

Leaving Big Sur was harder than I thought.  I sat in the Monterey airport, a string of blooming jasmine in my hand.  Waiting for my flight, I brushed the delicate blossoms against my skin, breathing in its soft fragrance.  Tears fell all the way back to Ohio as I longed to stay in an environment in which I felt supported and encouraged to move outside of my old self and into a new, more authentic expression of who I am.   
Taking the leap of faith and landing in Big Sur allowed me to reframe the future and open the door to even more possibilities.  "Dear God," I prayed on the night of my fortieth birthday.  "Please don't let the next forty years be like the first.  I want to live a more abundant, fruitful, and honest life."
I had no idea how powerful that prayer was until a year later, while living at Esalen, I was awash in a sea of torment, an endless battle with both my external and internal worlds.  Facing the ultimate battle between the light and dark within myself, there were still colossal lessons awaiting my grit and determination to confront and conquer by one.

Tending the garden by the sea with lovely Simee, October 2008

Thursday, February 25, 2016


This morning's Midwestern snowfall reminds me of the winter of 2014, when I spent most of my time shoveling the driveway, chipping ice from the downspouts, and watching films late at night.  Nearly every week, one or more yoga classes had to be cancelled because of inclement weather, so I was housebound until I could escape to the library in-between snowstorms to pick up a few DVD's.  First I watched Schindler's List, then Twelve Years a Slave, then The Book Thief  and The Reader.   Next came the entire Roots and Holocaust mini series. 
"This is totally depressing,"  I thought to myself.  "Why are you watching films about two of the most harrowing times in history...and during the worst winter since 1978?" 
I couldn't figure it out.
So, for a couple of months I checked out books about the Holocaust and the Civil War, compelled by the similarities between the impetus behind slavery and the concentration camps.  Once springtime finally arrived, I was preparing my gardens for planting when the thought occurred to me, There's a novel in all of this.   It took another two months before I was inspired to create two female characters, one a young slave girl, and one a teenager imprisoned in Bergen Belsen.  I knew the story would take place on only one day of their lives, but which one? 
While on my friend's Rolfing table, I talked with Tony about the idea.  "I'm thinking it should be the day before their liberation," I said while he adjusted my neck.
"Right...and then take it to the day after when they're free, but nothing's really changed...not yet anyway," Tony added, gently pulling on my head to lengthen my spine. 
And so The Lace Makers had its genesis in a little office in Lambertville, the location of many of my greatest revelations. 
 Still, it would take a while before I really understood who Sapphire and Karin were, what they sounded like, what they felt.  Even though I had completed nearly nine months of research, I was still at a loss.  One night, while preparing for an evening yoga class, I lit a candle and wordlessly asked for some inspiration.  During final relaxation, I was meditating while my students rested in silence. 
Suddenly, a little voice echoed in my right ear.  She said,  The sun be peeping over the old barn where I hear the cow moaning to get milked.  I watch the sky turning the color a egg yolks Mama like to break jest to watch 'em get runny.  She do that sometimes.  Break them egg yolks for Massa and keep on frying 'em 'til they be hard as shoe leather. 
What's that? I wondered.  And who are you?
I's of the girls in your book and that's the first paragraph, the little voice replied.  Write it down.
So I did.

Nine months later the first edition of The Lace Makers was finished, ironically enough on Mother's Day.  I gave birth to my eighth literary child on a peaceful Sunday morning in May and was overjoyed to have finally found the perfect book cover to bring Karin and Sapphire to life.  Not that it was easy.
Thank God for Google.
After a long night searching pictures of wildflowers and knitting and piles of yarn, I finally typed "lace makers" into the search engine.  Because I needed to narrow the search for images I could use free of charge, the selection was especially limited.  What a blessing to find a black and white, turn-of-the-century photograph of two girls sitting together, making lace.  Their clothes are tattered and torn.  The child on the right wears a dress that's much too small for her...just like Sapphire's.   The one on the left wears her hair pulled back, just as Karin does.  Studying the photo more closely, I noticed the shape of their hands, the focused intent with which they practiced their craft.  It was as if Karin and Sapphire had come to life in that simple picture. 
It won't be a surprise to many of my friends to learn that when I read the description of the photograph, it revealed that the girl on the left was named "Katie".  So, of course, it was meant to be, just like everything else in the entire process of bringing the novel to life.

This month I've taken a closer look at the manuscript and have just completed the second edition which is now available for digital download and in paperback on   Sapphire's voice is easier for me to hear now than it was a year ago and I've learned how to listen with different ears that can understand more than just what she's saying out loud.  For in one of the early chapters, she reminds herself (and me):  Now I figure maybe my ears need to perk up when they ain't no words to be heard.
That's a bit of childlike wisdom as I venture forth into the world both professionally and personally, for sometimes the most precious things are told with a smile, a look, a gesture, a kindness.  Sometimes they come in the middle of winter when everything feels cold and dark and lonely.  Sometimes they surprise us with their intensity or gentleness.  Often they come in ways we couldn't imagine. 
But most of the time, the best things come when we least expect them. 
The Lace Makers is not a novel I had planned to write, but it was revealed to me over time and in ways both subtle and insistent.   At the end of all things, I look back on the process and see how much it's changed me for the better...and will soon change my life in ways unimaginable right now.  I often think of a passage from Sapphire's last chapter when she realizes she's no longer a slave: Now I get to be jest Sapphire...but it ain't at all the way I thought it would be.
Freedom often comes with discomfort, with letting go of the past, the future, and everything in-between.  While my life isn't at all the way I thought it would be either, it feels better than who I used to be, who I thought I was supposed to be.  Who I was told to be.
Like Sapphire, now I get to be just Kate...and see what mystery and enchantment that will bring.

You can find THE LACE MAKERS on Amazon and CreateSpace.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Stronger every day

When I lived at Esalen Institute, a friend asked if I would do some yoga therapy with him.  Kevin's knees in particular were challenged, so he wanted me to help him gain a greater sense of flexibility and stamina.  After looking at his posture and watching him walk, I said, "First you've got to go push some weight to build strength."
"I play baseball and hike all over the place," Kevin replied.
"That's good," I nodded.  "But you've got to do some resistance training or anything I'll be able to share with you will get lost in the shuffle and won't get integrated."  I went on to explain that in my yoga classes, we aim to balance strength, flexibility, and relaxation.  "You've got to have stability before flexibility, though," I told Kevin.  "Because without strong roots, there's a greater chance of over-stretching or injury."
"I don't want to lift weights," Kevin admitted.  "I'd rather just play sports."
"Okay," I shrugged.  "If you change your mind, let me know."
As the months passed by, Kevin continued to play ball, hike, and participate in weekly Dance Church, but his knees dogged him at every turn.  Eventually he went to the gym and worked on developing strength in his legs, core, and back.  Then he asked me once again to see what yoga could do to help him.  After a few sessions, I saw great improvement, but reminded him to keep up with resistance training, no matter what.
"Being strong and long go hand in hand," I said.  "The stronger you are, the better I can work with your muscles...and the more flexible you are, the easier is it to mix things up in the weight room."
Nowadays I'm taking my own advice, both in the gym and as a writer.

This weekend I had the opportunity to rise to the challenge given by a prospective literary agent who asked me to rewrite the first fifty pages of THE LACE MAKERS.  How ironic that this experience came on the heels of Harper Lee's death, for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD cracked open my consciousness, allowing me to see the world from a very different perspective.  I reread the novel every year or so, and every time I learn something new.
I once thought I was more like Scout -- scrappy, fierce, and a lover of mild, yet mirthful profanity ("Pass the damn, ham, please" being one of my favorite lines).  But as I peel back the layers of my life, I've come to understand that I'm much more like Boo who prefers the shelter of solitude, even to my own detriment...which is why the daily challenge to put myself out into the world has been unbelievably worthwhile.  It's like mental resistance training to stand firm against my tendency to shift back into Hermit-mode whenever positive change is imminent. 
The other day I was talking with someone about the possibilities of publishing and he said, "One day your novel will be made into a film."
Without missing a beat, I replied, "Then where will I hide?"
He smiled.  "You'll have to change your name again."
I've given it some thought, but I don't really want to do that.  I need to own it all...not only the novel, but my propensity to retract whenever good things come my way, for I've learned that exceptional challenges always bring the best things to light.
When I first started lifting again last November, I couldn't do too much, but I've stuck with it and am now mixing it up in the weight room three times a week.  What a surprise to now be able to pull a 100 pound plate off of the leg press!  And even more surprising to be able to do wind sprints on the treadmill at a pace I haven't been able to accomplish in over twenty years.  The momentum takes over and I can barely feel the movement of my legs, for it's as if I'm weightless, effortlessly flying, which is often how I feel whenever I come into my office to work on a project.  
After nearly seventeen years of writing, editing, and resiliently moving forward, I've been able to focus and rework half of a manuscript in three days.  And even though I just found a rejection email from the literary agent in my inbox, I'm getting back on the starting block and will try again.

Perhaps all of this time I've spent rewriting and reworking THE LACE MAKERS is preparing me for the challenges and surprises the future will bring.  Developing endurance, flexibility, and lightening quick reflexes, I can welcome the unknown with confidence and the strength to meet every experience as it comes, be it on the track or in the publishing world.  I'm striving to trust the process of the training and my ability to act in the moment, for I've discovered that the practice and the execution are inherently one and the same.  In the end, I'm getting stronger every day...for it's all preparation for the next step.

Whatever that might be.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Get closer

One of my favorite gifts as a child was a microscope.  I was in third grade when my parents presented me with a compound version, complete with glass slides and a book (Greg's Microscope) which encouraged me to closely examine everything from a strand of dog hair to a carpet fiber.  Eager to get started, I magnified almost everything I could sandwich between the slides: a smattering of spit, a speck of dirt, even a drop of blood.  I'm not quite sure what happened to my miniature microscope, but I do recall enjoying Botany lab in college where I observed tiny bits of flora that often reflected the structure of the entire plant.
Perhaps all this examination was the genesis of a reoccurring dream I had throughout my thirties.  In a host of different settings I'd try to put in contacts that were way too big for my eyes.  No matter how much I moistened them, folded them, or tried to cajole them into place, they never fit.   Guess I was too focused on seeing the bigger picture and not the details therein. 
These days I usually try to strike a balance.  I'll hyper-focus on something, then take a step back and see the forest for the trees.  I've come to understand that through simple observation, that which is being watched will always undergo transformation.  It's simple quantum physics that I first discovered in the film, What the Bleep Do We Know?, and in application, it's not so difficult to see the fruits of letting go of the labor and playing in that interval of "no time and space".
Still, there's something to be said for getting closer to the heart of that which we can consciously alter. 

Last Monday I was at a loss.  Literally.  Every few years (usually at tax time), I take a look at my books and ponder the choice of letting go of my yoga business and finding a job that will provide a reliable, steady income.  It's been seventeen years, so you think I'd get used to it by now.  But no.  This time around, I actually formulated a good time to end my classes and get back into the corporate world.  It's never been something I've wanted to do, but every so often, I feel the need to think inside the box of possibilities, if only to imagine a more secure future.  Yet every time I do, my inner maverick challenges me to obliterate the box, get on my knees, ask for guidance, then take one step forward into the unknown. 
So I did.
After three years of self-publishing, I recently sent out some query letters pitching The Lace Makers to literary agents in New York, figuring I'd hear back from their assistants sometime in the next month or so.  Then I went to meditation class with my friend, Matt, where I sat in silence, stepping back from the ongoing thoughts swirling in my head.  I didn't get trapped in them, but when I allowed myself to just observe, it was easy to see that one thought, one desire, kept rising up above the others:  I need a miracle.
On the way home Matt and I talked about the possibilities and the realities of living an unconventional life.  "It wasn't supposed to take this long," I lamented.  "'Everyone tells me to be patient, but I've worked hard and waited for more than a decade.  When's it going to be my turn?" 
"I know, Katie, hang in there," Matt replied.  "It's hard, but you'll be always have been."
After he dropped me off at home, I plopped my meditation bench on the floor, then sat down to check my email and phone messages.  What a surprise to find a reply from one of the agents who liked the book enough to request the first fifty pages!   Naturally, I sent them pronto and got ready for bed.  Around ten-thirty the agent wrote back with suggestions for polishing the story, saying that The Lace Makers is exactly the type of novel he's been looking for.  We emailed a bit more, and since then, I've been up at all hours working on the manuscript. 
Not that it's been easy. 

As I take a closer look at Sapphire and Karin's narrations, I've been asked to clear the dross of detail so that the girls can be more invested in telling their truths more fully.  There's a certain amount of introspection that each character brings to their experiences, and I don't want to poke holes in their authenticity, but it's not lost on me why I've been given this rare opportunity to get closer to the reality of what I was trying to write in the initial version of the novel.  Now I have the unique chance to go back in time and do it better, all the while knowing that I need to get closer to my own life, my own pain and pleasure, my own desires, struggles, and surrender.
And it's no longer enough to slice up the story in order to magnify it under glass. 
I forgot how challenging it was this time last year to stay sane in the midst of finishing the first draft.  Perhaps that's why the literary agent gently suggested that the characters are standing outside of their stories (just as I've been standing outside of pieces of myself for a long time).  To have the characters get closer means that I have to get inside of them, not just write what I see in my imagination.  So I've been asking myself, What does it feel like to be Sapphire?  To be Karin?  I can't clearly answer that right now...but I'm doing my best.
I've always wanted to work with an agent and an editor who will challenge me to get better, to dig deeper, to evolve more as a writer and a woman and a human being.  The miracle I asked for isn't only appearing as an agent showing interest in my work, but in his insightful suggestion to let go of that which no longer needs to be told in order to reveal more of who Sapphire and Karin truly are.   No matter what happens next, it's a gift to rediscover them both...and remember the endless blessings of being given this story to tell.
So to all of my yoga students, have no fear.  I'll continue to teach classes as I take one step closer to realizing the privilege of a lifetime, not only in the publishing world, but in the quiet spaces that allow me to know...and be...who I truly am.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A good death

I just got home from the gym where I spent a good, long time in the steam room, wondering when the results of my latest mammogram would be available.  Four years ago I had my third cancer scare, but in the end, everything turned out alright, and I don't let a day go by without being thankful for my health, my good friends, and my peace of mind.  When I got in the car and checked my messages, the doctor's office had called, giving the "all clear" for another year.  I wasn't really worried this time around, but every time I go in for routine tests, I remember the summer of 2012 and the moment when I finally accepted the fact that, no matter what happens to me in this life, all of it will lead to a good death. 
Here's one of the last chapters of my memoir for everyone who's been faced with the certainty of mortality...for Erin and Tony and Deb and Nan.  And for those of you who've shared your stories with me for the past few seems we're all going through something profound as winter slowly melts into spring.  

"A Good Death"
from OPEN ROAD:  a life worth waiting for 
Published January, 2013

It's well past midnight and I still can't sleep.  This morning, after a month of breast pain and discharge, after a month of worrying and wondering, I finally had a mammogram.  All the women's health books I’ve read said not to worry if I have breast pain.  Not to worry if I have discharge.  It’s all a normal process of hormonal shifting. 
Unless the issues are unilateral…which, naturally, mine are. 
For almost a month, my left breast has felt different and I’m scared.  But not scared enough to be paralyzed by my fear.  So this morning I did something about it.  Knowledge is power, but the results won't be available until tomorrow.  And today I learned the vital lesson of never asking the lab tech, "What do you think?"
"Does your family have a history of breast cancer?" she replied, gazing at the screen.
"No...not that I know of," I told her.
"Well, this could be something," she said, pointing to a cloudy image on my left breast.  "But I can't say for certain.  The radiologist will take a look and we'll let you know."
I haven't had a mammogram since I turned thirty, when I had health insurance that covered such things.  Now, even though I have great independent coverage, I still have a deductible to pay.  I haven't gotten one sooner because I've been fine...or so I thought.  I do monthly self-exams and started going to the doctor annually.  Last year, she said everything looked good.  Still, I never banked on incessant breast pain and the fear of what it might mean. 
For the past few years, it's always the left side of my body that’s been a challenge.  That Baker's cyst behind my left knee after the car accident.  The left eye that had a spot requiring special testing.  In metaphysics, the left side represents the past, the mother, the receptive side of who I am and what I want to become.  It's my body's way of reminding me that I desperately need to let go of the old tapes…the old ways of being. 
Tossing and turning, I try everything to help me get to sleep.  Reading a book.  Drinking a glass of warm soy milk.  Writing in my journal.  Nothing helps.  Nothing takes away the fear I feel deep inside. 
I think of all the work I've done this past year.  All the work my literary agent's done to pitch A Tapestry of Truth.  While editors all over New York City praise my writing style, the book has yet to find the right publishing house.  For over a year, I've lived with hopeful anticipation that is always met with immediate rejection.  Kelly keeps my spirits up, but it's hard to see other books on the shelves at the store and know that my work is just as good.  Just as worthy of being published. 
I'm prolific, if nothing else, having finished writing Common Threads last month.  Squirreling around in my head for plot points yielded some long-buried nuts and I'm thankful for the mental housecleaning.  Still, I’m curious to see if I can write a memoir.  Can I allow myself to explore something that real?  Well, what I'm feeling now is certainly real...and I don't much like it.
Then again, I didn't much like most of what happened to me in the first half of my life.  I wonder if that's all I'll ever have...a few peaceful moments sandwiched in-between a host of horrible illnesses, horrifying relationships, and the horrific challenges of financial stress.
My inner drama queen is instantly silenced by the fact that for over a year I had lived with the fear of imminent death when heroin dealers and their arsenal of handguns haunted the duplex next door.  If I do have cancer, it's not an imminent death.  I will deal with it.  I will get treatment. 
I will survive.
So I turn off the light and fall asleep, believing that no matter what happens, I will remember Ralph Waldo Emerson's quote that's posted on my bathroom mirror:  "All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
In the summer of 2012 I was knee-deep in purge mode.  Every year I spend hours in the basement, cleaning and gleaning that which I no longer need.  Since my return from California, I have little to sift, but I still make piles to donate.  Piles to give away to friends.  It’s a cathartic ritual I annually summon in the weeks before my birthday in order to start my solar New Year fresh and renewed.  But in 2012 I wasn’t purging tangibles.  I was ridding myself of emotional baggage I had hauled across the country and then back again, for in the back of my mind, I always thought I would one day return to Esalen...for a visit or even longer if the Garden Manager’s job was available.  Return to finish what I had started.  Return to create new beginnings.
The fantasy had faded over time, but it never fully diminished.  In the months leading up to the mammogram, I found myself revisiting Esalen in my journals.  In photo albums.  In dreams.  I wrote a novel about a young woman abandoned by her parents who eventually ends up living in an Esalen-esque setting.  By early September Common Threads was finished and I sent it to my literary agent.  That night I wrote in my journal about the loneliness I felt at the end of writing a book:  No one really understands how momentous this is…no one’s been a witness to this unfurling.  Maybe that’s how it is for a lot of writers.  Many of us embody the sound of one hand clapping.
A week later, I was anxiously awaiting the results of the mammogram.  Sleep didn’t come easily.  I lay in dread, thinking about the possibility of having cancer in my left breast, the one closest to my heart.  And I realized that I had been keeping my heart closed for a long time.  Afraid of hoping.  Afraid of setting myself up for failure.  Afraid of repeating the same old patterns.  I resisted being in the world.  Resisted asking for the recognition I wanted...the love I needed. 
Yet, I was loved.  I had Satish and Danta and their family.  I had my yoga students and neighbors and friends.  No matter what the tests results were, I knew I would be able to take care of myself; I would have all the love and support I might need.

That night I had a dream where I was standing at a distance, looking at a charming white house with a wrap-around porch.  I saw an old woman peacefully sitting in a rocking chair.  A young couple came out and covered her with a quilt asking, “Do you need anything, Kate?”
It was then that I realized the old woman was me.  Stepping closer, I felt a presence by my side…an angel or a spirit.  “That is you, Kate,” she said.
It was a beautiful sunny day.  A breeze blew across the porch.  The wind chimes sang in harmony with the rustling leaves.  I saw my older face, etched with lines.  My hair, white as snow.  My lips, rose red.  My eyes, still brown and bright.
Leaning closer, I was suddenly aware that this old woman, this version of me, was going to die.
“See how she relaxes into it?” the angel whispered in my ear.
One moment later, the woman was gone.
“Is it hard to die?” I asked the angel.  
“Easier than taking a breath,” she whispered.
Then both she and the dream vanished.

The next morning my cell phone rang.  The test results were in.  I was fine.  No cancer.  Everything was normal.
I went outside to sit on my front porch that overlooks the lush and lovely gardens which have been both my sanctuary and my salvation.
I took a deep breath.   I let it out.  
With that one breath, I died to the life I had wanted, so that I finally could enter a new one...a life that has been waiting for me with open arms.  In that moment, I let go of needing to be tethered to dreams which would never come true...a life I could never experience.  At last, I had finally crossed the vast sea of a tumultuous past and landed on an empty shore...a blank canvas of luminous existence.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Bless you, Buster

Every once in a while I'll head over to Satish and Danta's house early on a Tuesday morning to eat breakfast with the boys before it's time to drive them to school.  Lucky for me, their oldest sister, Amita, was there last week and we chatted a bit while Satish played on the computer and Danta finished his slice of bread with peanut butter and chocolate chips.  Amita's graduating this year and is actively applying to colleges.  Soon she'll have to make a decision about where she'll spend the next four years, but last Tuesday, I was more interested in how she's faring during her last semester of high school.
"It's still really hard," Amita admitted. 
"Yeah, I remember my Senior year being like that, too," I said.  "What classes are you taking?"
As she rattled of a list that included the letters A.P. (Advanced Placement) after nearly every class, my eyes widened.  "That's a lot of work!"
"It is," she nodded.  "I thought it might get easier as we got closer to the end of the year, but it's not."
I told her about my A.P. English class which challenged me right up to the last day, the Accounting class I took with my pal, Rick, and how Civics bored me to tears.  "But my favorite class that last semester was Human Relations because I loved my teacher, Mr. Oberle," I said.  "One day we were talking about male/female relationships and he asked the class, 'Why isn't love enough to keep people together?'"
Amita's eyebrows lifted, so I went on.  "None of the kids in the class answered, and I wanted to say something, but was afraid to because in Mr. Oberle's class, you had to stand whenever you spoke."
"What did you say?" Amita asked.
"I told him that love doesn't pay the bills or do the chores. He nodded and asked me to continue, so I said that while love is all well and good, you have to have trust and commitment and a willingness to work through stuff, even when you don't always love each other...which sometimes happens when you're mad or hurt or whatever." 
I remember feeling my heart pound in my chest while I stood there, all of the kids' eyes fixed on me as my face burst into flames.  But Mr. Oberle gently nodded.  "Very good, Katie," he smiled.  "You've got your eyes wide open."
What a wonderful thing to share with Amita as she crosses the bridge from being a teenager into being a young adult.  And what a wonderful thing to know that, even though I've walked through some situations with my eyes wide shut, I can still remember Mr. Oberle's kind words...and other profound lessons I learned in his class.
On the first day in Human Relations, Mr. Oberle introduced us to a little doll he called Buster.  He said that each one of us has a little Buster living inside that keeps us from being happy and healthy.  "Your Buster has two problems he needs to face," Mr. Oberle explained.    "One is fear of the unknown and the other is negative feelings about yourself."  In nearly every class for the rest of the year, somehow, in some way, Buster always surfaced in someone.
Mr. Oberle often reminded us that anything in life that's challenging, anything that causes stress or anxiety or an unwillingness to change can be traced back to either our fear of the unknown or some type of negative feeling we harbor about ourselves.  Whether it be lack of self-esteem or believing the shadowy things we may have heard from others about who they think we are, our responses to life are based on limiting viewpoints and an endless inner chatter that only recycles experiences until we have the strength to embrace our little Buster and reconcile ourselves with the child within. 
Since I began the journey into consciousness during my late twenties,  I've dealt with my own Buster again and again and again, so it's not difficult to recognize the stages of ego development in the world around me. I'm delighted to discover that after all the time, energy, and effort I've put into the past twenty years, I've progressed to the integrated stage where I lead not with my unconscious impulses, but with compassion and a willingness to make peace with myself, another person, or a situation that has the power to create a deeper recognition of my destiny.
All of this sounds pretty heavy, and it can be at times, but whenever I feel overwhelmed by emotions or life's endless opportunities for growth, I remember to check in with my little Busterette to see how she's doing.  These days I often call her Ramona (as in Ramona Quimby) as there's not much she's afraid of (except rush hour traffic and earwigs), and I've been mirrored with so much love and kindness, my self-confidence grows stronger every day.  How blessed am I to have friends who know me well, who've watched me evolve over the years, and don't hesitate to remind me to keep moving forward, creating my own footsteps, not walking in the wake of someone else's.
John Grisham once wrote:  Don't compromise yourself.  You're all you have.  This realization continues to challenge me to let go of being afraid of what I cannot see or know or experience right now.  One that encourages me to trust myself, commit to who I am and where I'm going, and act with a willingness to work through anything, even if that means doing it on my own. 
         A while ago, I thought, that like the second half of my Senior year in high school, life would get easier, but I've found that it doesn't.
It only gets deeper.
So bless you, Mr. Oberle, for teaching memorable lessons of a lifetime...and for showing me by example how to embrace my little Buster  with love, empathy, and kindness.   Only then was I able to grow into the woman I've now become...and still allow my often naughty, but childlike self to playfully dance into the light. 

Mr. Oberle and Buster, Bowsher High School

Sunday, February 14, 2016

My little Valentines

Last night I went to a dinner celebrating the Chinese New Year and had the rare opportunity to watch my friend, Matt, receive a slap in the face.  This was not any ordinary slap, mind you.  He's been a student of Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and Shaolin Yoga at Temple of the Dragon for a year, so as a way of formally accepting him into the teachings, his Sifu (teacher) slapped his face, symbolically allowing him to accept the often painful path of moving forward in his spiritual journey. 
Not that there hasn't been any pain in his past twelve months of training.  Matt's been dedicated to Martial Arts for decades, but since he joined Temple of the Dragon, I've seen an incredible transformation in him.  What a joy to be invited to witness his ceremony, and to be delighted the he also received the Hardest Working Student of 2015 Award as well.  But that's no surprise to me, for where our work ethic is concerned, Matt and I are cut from the same cloth.
Perhaps I should have taken up Sifu Aaron Arden's playful offer to slap me, too, as the past twelve months have been filled with opportunities to test my strength, endurance, and fortitude in the face of challenging myself to move forward in all areas of my life.  Then again, in the process I've been metaphorically slapped in the face quite a bit (not by someone who is honoring and indoctrinating me in the process), and the sting has lingered a lot longer than I would have liked.  So once the ceremony had ended, I spoke with Aaron about joining his meditation classes, for as I told him, "I don't need more movement.  I need more stillness."
He smiled, inviting me to join his Wednesday night group anytime, and I look forward to the blessing of being in the company of open-hearted people who know that the conscious road to evolution is often taxing, yet we can find a still point of peace in the midst of the challenges.

It was a bittersweet thing to join Matt for the evening this Valentine's Day weekend.  Usually I don't get bumped and bruised by being around couples or watching them enjoy a nice evening out.  Those days were long gone a decade ago, but last night I found myself in an uncommonly vulnerable place while we walked through the Tea Tree restaurant on the way to the banquet room.  I was proud to support my dear friend.  Had put on my best dress and some make-up.  I truly enjoyed meeting his classmates and Sifu.  But in the back of my mind, memories of the past year kept bubbling over and it was difficult to hold my center while thinking of all the times people showed me what they thought I was worth both professionally and personally.
Over dinner Matt and I were talking about how it was pretty simple to discipline ourselves to show up and do the work necessary on the yoga mat or while sparring with a classmate or during seated meditation. 
"It's when other people are involved that I have problems," I admitted.  "Because their values and motives are often different from mine."
"Yeah," Matt nodded.  "I know exactly what you mean."
This year in particular has seen a downward shift in many facets of my life.  Book sales are slow.  Because of the boom in yoga studios around town, my business is holding steady, but not growing.  And one venue told me that they will be replacing me with a newly-certified yoga instructor who will work for free, so I suppose my years of training and experience aren't worth all that much to them. 
Lately, when I look to the outside world for validation and confirmation of my life's purpose, I'm sorely disappointed.  Thank God I've learned to look within at moments like last night when I needed to leave the room for a moment and take care of myself.  In the past, I'd stuff my feelings, put on a brave face, and smile to cover up my hurt.  Now I've discovered that to let myself have a moment to release the pressure will eventually allow more healing.  So last night, I stood in a bathroom stall crying silent tears until I knew I was done.  Until I knew I could go back to the dinner and be present for my friend without letting my own stuff bleed into his happy occasion. 
After wiping my eyes, I came out to wash my hands and there stood two little girls I immediately recognized.  "Hi, Lauren and Audrey," I said gently.  "Do you remember me?" 
As their lovely blue eyes found mine, they looked uncertain. 
"I was your teacher when you were in preschool," I said, making a silly face at Audrey (the very same one she and I passed back and forth when she was three). 
Recognizing me, her face burst open with light.  "Oh, yeah!  Hi, Yoga Katie!"
The girls' mother and I chatted for a bit, then we all walked back to their table together.  How wonderful to reconnect with two little ones I've known since they were teeny tiny, Audrey since she was an infant.  Now they're in grade school and growing up fast, but like all of my former students who I run into now and again, when I look into their eyes, I realize I know them by heart.
What a gift to serendipitously see Lauren and Audrey during a moment of grief, two sweet girls who allowed me to soak in all of the love and joy we shared when I was their teacher.  It was a balm to my spirit to remember how much time we had spent learning and growing and laughing together.  As I walked back to the banquet room, surrounded by couples out for a Valentine's dinner, I was soothed by the realization that, while I may not have a special someone in my life right now, there are infinite ways to experience love this holiday weekend. 
So here's to all of my little Valentines -- Satish and Danta, Kashti and Zakira, the little one who often visits her Granny across the street, Matt and his wife, Cheri, my pets and my friends and my Aunt Karen who loves me more as every year goes by.  As I move into meditation class in the weeks ahead to further my own spiritual journey, I'll be sending all of them peace and light in gratitude for reflecting back to me how very much I'm treasured. 
I hope they know  how much I love them, too...not only today...but always.