Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Out of my way

I’ll often go out of my way while driving through my hometown, especially since Toledo has only two seasons:  winter and construction.  Especially this summer, there’s no easy way to get from point A to point B without encountering orange barrels, narrow passageways, and a log-jam of angry drivers, all hell-bent on getting somewhere fast.  It doesn’t matter if it takes a bit more time.  I’ll gladly take a longer detour to keep moving and avoid getting stuck in traffic.
It’s not just construction I’ll avoid either.  I can tell when a driver is distracted by their cell phone, driving under the influence, or having a heated argument with a passenger.  They’re either moving too slow, too fast, darting in and out of traffic, or having extreme difficulty choosing a lane, so at the first opportunity, I’ll take an alternate route.  If I'm in a really bad mood, sometimes I'll even think, Go have your accident somewhere else.  Then I’ll whisper, “Bless you and everyone in that car.”   I’ve witnessed enough instant karma on the road to know that what goes around comes around.  
My heightened sentience is not without merit, however, for back in 2010, I was in a serious car accident when a young woman t-boned my purple Pontiac while preoccupied on her cell phone.  Had she hit me a split second earlier, the impact could have broken my neck, yet she never apologized, never even admitted it was her fault.  After the police officer took our statements, he said to me privately, “This isn’t the first time she’s done this, so I know she’ll be held accountable. Her insurance should be contacting you this afternoon.” 
In the aftermath, I was able to choose holistic treatment, and went to an acupuncturist for help with the ongoing PTSD I struggled with when behind the wheel.  After several months, Diane said to me, “I finally figured it out…you’re a wood element person, not fire.” 
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“There are five elements in Chinese medicine,” Diane explained.  “Wood, fire, metal, earth, and water.  Everyone has properties of each, and at first, I thought your predominant element was fire.  But now I know for sure you’re wood, which means you’re versatile and have the ability to grow around any obstacle that’s put in your way.”
“That sounds about right,” I nodded.
“It also means you can be prone to anger when under stress.”
“Yep…that rings true, too,” I replied.
“The good news is that your second dominant element is fire,” Diane continued.  “And fire has to have something to burn…wood, which is best in your case.”
In traditional Chinese medicine, springtime celebrates the wood element.  New life flourishes, and it’s a wonder to watch tenacious plants sprout up in the most curious of places:  in-between cracks in the sidewalk, in-between two bricks on the side of my house, and even in-between the floor and wall of my sun porch.  The obstacles of brick and mortar, or cement and cedar don’t deter the healthy, flexible energy of wood from its desired path.  Somehow it always knows how to find an opening through which it can grow.

There are also obstacles on the road of my life when I’m anxious to move from the here and now to a new and different destination.  I don’t consciously choose these roadblocks, for they’re often an annoying obstruction (like the huge sinkhole that opened up on Secor Road last week and shut down the right hand lane for a quarter mile) or a hurtful encounter (like experiencing the strikingly bad behavior of a person who took advantage of my kindness and forgiveness one too many times).  Even so, I always choose my own behavior in response to the problem; and I’m always responsible for the karma it creates or balances. 
During the past several months, the ongoing process of becoming more aware of a repeated paradigm has allowed me to consciously let go of old habits, thoughts, and beliefs which may have been helpful in the past, but now only create roadblocks as I struggle to gain forward-momentum.  Perhaps the best lesson I’ve learned this year is to come to terms with the people and circumstances I cannot change.  For truly, the only things I have control over are my perceptions…my choices…and how I respond to the choices of others. 
Recently someone told me, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” 
This was in reply to my comment that I could both see and accept the person's shadow and light.  While I would never throw a fit, hindsight being what it is, I wish I had said, “Please do not mistake my compassion for weakness.  You are being who you are, but the way you have chosen to treat me has been consistently disrespectful.  Now I know for certain that I cannot trust you.”
Nevertheless, I believe actions speak louder than words, so I’ve made the difficult decision to set stronger boundaries between us.  It’s similar to the netting I had placed over my raised bed to keep the birds, squirrels, and stray cats out of the tender seedlings until they grew strong enough to stand on their own.  Likewise, I've needed to place a net of protective energy around myself to help me discover why I rationalized someone’s callous behavior toward me, all the while holding out hope for some peaceful resolution between us.  There never has been any real closure, because the other person won’t allow it, and that dynamic mirrors my past in more ways than I can count. 
But this time, I've refused to become enmeshed in the drama. 
This time, I’m stepping aside and letting karma finish it.
This time, I’ve chosen to get out of my own way and heal that which attracted the whole situation in the first place.

It's a curious thing, striving to find a balance between having healthy boundaries and being open to healthy opportunities in all aspects of my life.  It's a day by day, moment by moment experience, and I find it's similar to pruning dead wood from my garden so a tree or bush can reawaken itself.  Over the weekend, while cutting back a gorgeous, yet overgrown lilac in my front yard, I was delighted to discover that new growth was already emerging from its base.  This morning as I stood at a distance, gazing at the lilac through my picture window, my first thought was, I can see you more fully and you’re beautiful.  Now you can breathe again.  With that gentle, yet profound awareness, I took a deep breath, then let it go with the hope that next season, the lilac will bloom more fully, and the new sprouts will be transplanted to my new home, wherever it might be.
During this season of rapid growth, I’ve learned that it’s best to simply bloom wherever I am.  No matter how it might appear to anyone else, no matter how many significant obstacles are on my path, there is always an opportunity for fertile awareness to take root…everywhere.  It may take a little more time.  It may take me away from the log-jam of life.  But it will be worth it.
All I need to do is go out of my way to embrace it.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Stone of sorrow

Stone of Sorrow
Originally published, Memorial Day, 2014

Both of my grandfathers served in the military during the Second World War.  Two men from what has become known as The Greatest Generation were thankfully never involved in combat, and I'm grateful that I was able to sit on their knees as a child and listen to their stories of what the war was like from where they were stationed.  Pa-pal was a cook at a military base and Granddaddy served as a driver for the USO. 
More recently, my friend's father often told me tales of his multitude of experiences on a destroyer in the Pacific Ocean...right up until he passed away on Veteran's Day.  For it was the war that constantly lingered in his memory...the horror and the aftermath.
As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, I find myself looking back to World War II and why it's become known as the most necessary of wars.  A few months ago, a friend suggested I read The Book Thief, a story told by Death that takes place during the Holocaust and the unbelievable crimes against humanity that took place during those long, unspeakable years. 
After exploring this more modern depiction of this period in history, I finally watched "Schindler's List," a film I had consciously avoided for two decades, for I knew it wouldn't be easy to witness.   When I was a child, I spent almost an entire week in my basement watching the mini-series "Holocaust," and a host of the images were burned into my brain.  But "Schindler's List" took my understanding of why World War II needed to be fought to a different level. 
While I believe in striving for peaceful resolution when possible, I now clearly comprehend that that was simply not realistic at a time when the world was confronted with the murderous actions of a mad man.  The annihilation of eleven million people is unthinkable now...but I wonder if, in this culture of extremism and intolerance, could we be on the brink of another mass scale destruction of human life?

Last weekend I was talking with my friend, Shirley, about how I've been spending a lot of time reading about and researching slavery, the Civil War, and the Holocaust.  "I'm not quite sure where all of this well lead," I told her.  "I'm not ever sure why it's coming up for me now.  But I do know they're linked in the way that human beings were degraded and abused -- used as chattel or forced to dig their own graves before they were mercilessly killed."
"Have you read Night by Elie Wiesel?" Shirley asked.  "I read it more than ten years ago and I still remember it clearly."  She went on to describe the memoir of a young man who had survived the death camps during the war.
"I started it years ago," I replied.  "But it was too difficult...I couldn't handle it then."
"You might want to pick up a copy at the library," Shirley suggested.
And so I did.
Last Monday, I opened the book and began reading.  From the very first page I could feel, touch, sense, taste, and hear all of what Elie was illustrating through his haunting language.  The destruction of his community.  His separation from his mother and sisters.  The agony of being transported to Auschwitz. When he arrived with his father at the concentration camp, Elie clearly describes the fire and smoke rising from the crematoriums.  The overwhelming stench.  The indescribable fear rippling through his body.
It was then that I remembered more than ten years ago a friend's sister had been traveling through Europe and collected tiny stones from each of her destinations.  She had visited Auschwitz and was able to bring back a small rock which she gave to me in 2003.  When I first held it, a strange feeling passed through my hands and into my heart.  Overwhelming grief is the best way to describe it.
This week, after I found the stone nestled among rocks from Greece, Paris, and Italy, I held it in my hand whenever I read more of Night.  It was incredibly sorrowful to know the rock that was touching my skin was in Auschwitz when Elie Wiesel and his father suffered unspeakable torture.  It was left in the aftermath as a talisman to never forget what happened there.  It possesses the memories, the energy of that time and it's difficult to hold it...knowing how many people suffered and died in its presence. 
In personally revisiting this time in our history, I've been thinking about the countless souls who died and their unborn legacies that will never be.  I think about the soldiers who gave their lives in World War II.  Their families.  Their legacies still unfolding.  And I pray for them all.  The stone of sorrow that I've placed on the altar in my yoga room will now be in the company of good people.  Will be imbibed with peace and love and gratitude.  Will be a reminder of a dark period in our world's history and its long journey into the light.
But there's hope...there's always hope.  And always, I cling to Ghandi's beautiful words of faith: "When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always." 

This blog eventually led to the 2015 publication of THE LACE MAKERS.
The second edition is now available here on Amazon.com.  

Monday, May 23, 2016

Twenty years later...

Twenty years ago, when I turned thirty, I attended my first yoga class after a summer of heightened anticipation quickly led to extreme disappointment.  It wasn’t entering a new decade that had me distressed.  In fact, I couldn’t wait to be thirtysomething, for I knew that leaving my twenties behind would allow me to enter a period in my life when I could have credibility, find a life partner, have a child or two, and finally settle down.  No, the stress that led to my actively seeking relief revolved around another person I had trusted to be forthright and faithful, but in the end, treated me with contempt and made my professional life a living hell.
All the plans we had made to teach together fell apart within six weeks and by Thanksgiving, I was contemplating either quitting my job or losing my mind.  Neither happened, thanks to my willingness to meet myself on the mat class after class.  Week after week.  Month after month.  By the end of the school year, I was getting stronger, both physically and emotionally.  The following year, I went back into a self-contained classroom, but knew for certain that my time as an elementary school teacher was soon coming to an end, for I had learned that to stay stuck in anything that’s not reciprocal, that doesn’t bring a sense of purpose or balance into my life, that doesn’t allow me to reveal all of who I am will only serve to keep me stuck in patterns that hold me back. 
I learned that I didn’t need to settle down.
I needed to learn how not to settle.
Through it all, my yoga instructors guided me on my way to practicing headstand.  I challenged myself to attend two, then three classes per week, as my yoga mat became a comfort, a place to let go of the world for a while, a portable sanctuary I could carry with me everywhere I went.  For a couple of years, I diligently did dozens of dolphins, hundreds of down dogs, a plethora of pigeons.  Finally, in the spring of 1999, I finally got my legs above my pelvis and balanced against the wall, terrified I’d fall, but elated that I could finally overcome my fear of turning myself upside-down.
Of course, a few months later, I made the choice to turn my life upside-down by quitting my job with no other prospects on the horizon.  Yoga became my anchor, my respite, and eventually, my source of income. 

Ten years ago I was about to turn forty when a yoga student asked if I was afraid. 
“Of what?” I said.
“Of still being single,” she replied.  “Who’s going to take care of you when you’re old and decrepit?”
Her question pushed on a serious bruise, but I made light of it, saying, “First of all, I don’t plan on getting old and decrepit.  Second of all, if I’m still single when I’m older, my friends and I will take care of each other.  I’d rather be single than settle for a relationship with a man I don’t really love just because he can take care of me.”
At the time, I had been working with another woman with whom I had consolidated all of the yoga business I had spent nearly six years building.  Emily had been one of my students for a while and was eager to start a wellness center with little more than a willingness to paint the space and a lot of high hopes.  After only a few months, Emily had given up trying to run the yoga center and was dumping it all in my lap so she could go back to her high-powered job and financial security while I was left holding the bag.  Once again, I had trusted too soon, given too much, and sacrificed a lot in the process.
Still, I was resilient and tried to make a go of the space, but it soon became evident that I couldn’t afford to run both the yoga business and keep up with personal expenses.  So I let it go and lived off of my savings for a year, writing A Tapestry of Truth, and teaching yoga classes on the side.  It was then that I fell out of headstand more often than not.  I fell down the stairs.  Fell into a ravine.  My whole life seemed to be falling apart, so I visited Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, hoping for new doors to open.
And I found them…sort of. 
When I first arrived at Esalen, I didn’t know that to trust too soon would cost me more than a lot of money.  Eventually it would cost me my pride, my integrity, sometimes my sanity.  Oddly enough, when I lived in Big Sur, my body would scream every time I set foot on a yoga mat, so I took a year off and let myself heal in other ways.  I gardened, I danced, I sang, I hiked, I spent a lot of time on my own.  I met kindred spirits who often knew me better than I knew myself.
One morning when I was walking through the strawberry field on the way to work, I passed my friend, Chris.  We chatted briefly, and I didn’t need to say much for him to know that I was hurting.  He held me in his arms while we stood among the bright red berries, moistened with morning dew. 
“You’ll be alright, Katie,” Chris whispered.  “Give it time.”
I gave it a few more months before I realized that everything I was experiencing was a precursor to my return to Ohio, and so in November of 2008, I drove by myself across the country, unsure of what was coming next.  “Dear God,” I prayed.  “Help me to know where You are in this uncharted wilderness.”
Thus began a five-year journey into the darkest parts of myself which have revealed the most incredible light, and it only keeps getting brighter.

Now here I am, a few months from my fiftieth birthday.  I can look back twenty years and see how very far I’ve come, how far I’ve yet to go.  A lot of the things I’ve experienced since I turned thirty have repeated themselves with different people, differing circumstances, and yet the lessons remain the same.  What depleted my energy in my thirties is now a red flag I recognize and avoid whenever possible.  The things that caused me to stumble and fall in my forties have now become building blocks on which to stand and climb even higher.  What I mightily struggled with in Big Sur, I’ve now risen above with as much grace as I can muster. 
Now I’m no longer spending my precious time on things that no longer matter, or holding on to people whose behavior continually drags me into the past.  Life’s too short to keep spinning my wheels, hoping others will change for the better when I know I certainly can.
So I am…right now.
These days practicing headstand is effortless, and I've been challenging myself to go even farther, working with scorpion pose for the past several months.  Just last week, a day after I had finally given up on a situation that has been an albatross on my spirit, I was able to hold the pose off the wall...only for a second.  But it's a start, as my body is once again revealing the freedom that can come when I learn how to let go.
When I was about to turn thirty, I thought I was entering the best decade of my life, but I was mistaken.  My forties have been even better…harder…more rich and rewarding.  Now, as I embark on my fifties, I’m infinitely thankful for the lessons I’ve learned and remarkably optimistic about the future, for I’ve discovered that my life only keeps getting better as time goes by.
Twenty years later…I find I’ve only just begun.

Circa 1996, 2006, 2016

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Laugh, dance, be here now

Last Thursday night I had the rare pleasure of meeting a group of friends for dinner to celebrate the end of a yoga season at the University of Toledo’s Eberly Center.  We’d been trying to coordinate schedules for a while and somehow the stars aligned so that most of us could gather at KotoBuki for some amazing sushi and great company.  
“Look at all of these people you brought together!” Corrie beamed.  “None of us would know each other if we didn’t know you.”
I smiled at Edith and Brenda.  “Well, those two came as a set when we met in my yoga class at the JCC…what was that?  Fifteen, sixteen years ago?”
“At least,” Brenda smiled. 
I nodded at Michelle, Edith’s incredible daughter who just completed her first year in college.  “And I’ve know you since you were seven!”
As we went around the table telling stories of how we met (Beth and I took spinning classes together, Corrie was a student at a class I had taught at her place of business, and Melissa and I became fast friends this year at UT), I thought about the fact that in Toledo, we don’t have six degrees of separation.  It’s more like two at the most, and because I’m a teacher, the endless networking web only grows wider.  So it was interesting to listen to the multi-faceted conversations that bounced around the table.  Eventually, the topic of being able to create positive change bubbled up to the surface.  
“You’re not the same person you were when we met two years ago,” Corrie smiled.  “Before you were struggling to find something, but now you’re much more at peace.  You have a quiet confidence and have settled into the center of who you are. That’s a big difference.  I’m still learning to be my own skin.”
“You’re a healer, you know,” Melissa said.
I’ve heard that before,” I laughed.  “But we’re all healers.”
She shook her head.  “Not like you are…energy resonates from you and goes to other people and you don’t even realize you’re even doing it.”
“That’s right,” Corrie told Melissa.  “I need Katie’s healing words for guidance because whatever she says or tells my body to do…by the end of the class, I feel like I’ve cleansed all the bad out.”
“That’s some high praise,” I replied.  "Your body simply tells the whole story, and I've learned how to read between the lines."
"You're like my therapist, but I don’t have to say a word,"  Corrie continued.  “The peace you have now is what I want to find for myself in my own way, and it can take a long time.  But life is a dance…you learn as you go.”

Last weekend I was interviewing my friend, Tony, for a book we’re working on together.  Near the end of the session he said, “The Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh wrote over six hundred books about the journey of life, and in the end he said it’s really easy:  laugh, dance, be here now.  That’s it.”
“Six hundred books about that?” I smiled, lifting a brow.
“Pretty much,” Tony said. “Laugh, dance, be here now.”
I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Rajneesh eventually changed his name, for when I lived at Esalen, I didn’t know him thus, but as Osho, a mystical writer who cracked opened the door of my consciousness while I tended the garden, hiked the canyons, and practiced ecstatic dancing.  In those days, it was difficult to do more than keep my head above water, especially when in the midst of chaos and intense relationships.  Through it all, Osho’s wise council kept me sane, perhaps his most powerful teaching being, The greatest fear in the world is the opinion of others.  The moment you are unafraid of the crowd, you are no longer a sheep, you become a lion.  A great roar arises in your heart…the roar of freedom.
It would take months before I would find the strength to move back to the Midwest.  Years before I could finally find the courage to leave my family of origin.  And even longer before I would be able to walk through life as a lioness, not a sheep.  Finally, I learned how to align my heart, my head, and my spirit so that now wherever I go, whatever I do, I can find lightness in a situation, glide through it as gracefully as possible, and more fully embrace the present moment.
Not that it was (or is) all that easy. 
There were particularly intense experiences in which I was afraid I’d never laugh again, never find joy in any place or in anyone.  There were moments when all I wanted to do was crawl into bed and never come out.  Years when all I could do was put one foot in front of the other…never mind putting on my boogie shoes. So it’s been an incredible blessing to learn how to laugh and dance and be here now by practicing yoga.  
The other day I was preparing for some classes by doing advanced inversions in front of the floor-length mirrors at the gym.  It’s difficult to watch my alignment in the tiny one I have in my home studio, so now and again I’ll risk practicing headstand, handstand, and scorpion in front of a bunch of men who are shooting baskets, grunting their way through set after set of sit-ups, or beating the crap out a boxing bag.  I know I’ve come a long, long way when I can tune out all the distractions, take off my shoes, and turn myself upside-down.  
It’s one thing to be able to stand on my own two feet in the midst of tumult.  It’s another thing altogether to be able to stand on my head.  Even better when I can do it all the while remaining calm and centered.

Last Saturday a group of students and I were deep into an intriguing conversation about how practicing yoga has changed our lives for the better.  “I look at the wide variety of students in my classes and they’re all so different,” I said.   “I know I’m the common denominator in bringing them together, but I have to wonder…what’s the common thread?”
“Well, we love being together in this space,” Dana replied.  “The energy we create here is what attracts us to your style of yoga.  Each person’s identity feeds the whole, and even though we’re all different, everyone has something unique to offer.  There’s a level of consciousness that you have that’s felt by everyone on some level.”
"And the purpose of yoga is to raise our consciousness," Barb smiled.  "Then we can bring that awareness to the rest of our lives outside of this space."
I’ve been exceptionally fortunate this year to have the opportunity to take that consciousness out into the community and share the gifts I’ve been given.   There have been moments of light, moments of darkness, and while not all of it has been comfortable, every experience has allowed me to put the past to rest so that I can more fully be in the present moment.  Perhaps that’s what being a healer is all about – having the capacity, willingness, and strength to continue moving forward, releasing that which no longer serves me in order to more fully embrace and channel the light and love that is available to all of us.  
So this weekend, may you all find a little time to laugh, a little space to dance, and the ability to be in the present moment…wherever it might lead you.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Turn the page

Another school year is quickly coming to a close and I still wonder, Where did the month of March go?   It’s been an eventful nine months for my pals, Satish and Danta, and I’m overjoyed that this afternoon I’ll pick them up from school and bring them to my home for a long-awaited play date.  Then, while Satish is online taking a class, perhaps I can talk Danta into joining the fun with my 5:30 yoga students.  It’s been a while since I’ve taught children, and last weekend, I realized how much I’ve missed it when I spent some time with a darling little girl at the gym.  How wonderful to recently receive a call from my friend, Michele, who invited me to teach a class for little ones at her yoga studio in September. 
Until then, I’m sure the summer will bring lots of fun with Satish and Danta, shooting baskets and playing soccer in their backyard.  Time passes all too quickly these days and I want to savor every single moment.  So here’s a blog from 2014 that celebrates these two special fellas who’ve blessed my life with love and laughter.

Turn the page
Originally published on May 21, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I was driving my little pal, Satish, home from a yoga session.  As many of you know, we met when he was four.  He joined my yoga classes when he was in kindergarten.  And now, as a third grader, Satish has been my stalwart assistant this year.  It's a joy to watch him grow from an apprehensive and shy little fella to a boisterous and hilarious part of our yoga practice.  Whether he's helping with a craft, passing out healthy snacks, or simply tying a little one's sneakers, Satish has been an integral part of our classes.
On the way home, he asked, "Can fourth graders do yoga at West Side?"
I glanced at him in the rear-view mirror.  "No...we've tried to get a class going for the older kids, but it's not been successful."  Seeing the disappointment on his face, I then said, "I know you'll be busy with schoolwork next year, but if you'd like, you're welcome to still assist me."
Satish nodded.  "Let's keep that open as an option."  He then went back to the Harry Potter book he was reading.
The car was silent for a while and every so often, I'd check the rear-view mirror to see his brow furrowed in concentration.  To watch him carefully turn the page of the enormous book whose binding needed repair.  At a stop light, I looked over my shoulder and was startled for a moment.
"Oh man, Satish," I said.  "You've really grown up this year...with your new teeth and your glasses...and you've grown at least three inches.  Where does time go?"
He shrugged and went back to his book.  I went back to keeping my eyes on the road, but for the rest of the ride, I kept thinking about how quickly the past four and half years have flown by.  How I've known Satish through preschool and primary grades.  Through countless haircuts and skinned knees.  Through a host of soccer practices and games.  Guitar lessons.  Watching him learn how to read.  I thought about our marathon Monopoly games.  The way he consistently beats me at chess.
In many ways, I'd love to stop time and simply enjoy him while he's young.  But I know I can't.  

When I was a first grade teacher, my kids would get antsy this time of year.  Summer vacation loomed large and spring fever was a constant diversion.  We'd count down the last ten days on the school calendar, all the while reviewing the year behind us.  I'd often ask my kids what they learned beyond the academics.  Beyond learning how to read and write and count by fives and tens.  Many of them talked about their love of learning a bit of German.  Others enjoyed the field trips to the Toledo Museum of Art and the zoo.  Some commented on how they learned to get along with each other, despite their many differences.  And one child even asked me what I learned from them.
The list is entirely too long to write here.
But I realize now the great sadness for me was letting them go...these six and seven-year-olds who had been in my care.  Sure they'd stop by my classroom in the morning for a hug and a "hello" on their way to second or third grade.  I'd see them at the Pumpkin Run in the fall and the carnival each spring.  But I wouldn't get to watch them grow up.  Not really.  And in many ways, my former students are lodged in my memory as children. 
That is until they "friend" me on Facebook and I witness what seems like an automatic transition into adulthood.  It's almost like ripping off a Band-Aid -- this instant realization that so many years have gone by.

Perhaps that's why I've been reveling in my time with Satish and his little brother, Danta.  I get to watch them grow up, week by week.  Month by month.  Year by year.  I'm right up front to see them lose teeth and write letters to Santa.  I get to drive them to soccer practice and cheer for them at school performances.  Like the flowers I tend in my garden, I get to be a small part in their growth...and I love every single moment. 
On Monday while Danta and I were standing in the field waiting for his practice to start,  I saw a child who looked familiar.  "Hey...that could be one of my kids," I said.
"What kid?" Danta asked.
"One of my former first graders," I explained.  Then I took a closer look.  "Nah...he's too young.  Some of my kids are in their late twenties and early thirties!"
Danta wrinkled his brow.  "How can that work?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well...they get older a lot, but you don't."
I shrugged.  "Every year we each add a number to our age."
"I know that," Danta replied.  "But they get a lot older, and you don't."
"Maybe that's because kids grow and I've been the same height since I was eleven."
Danta shook his head.  "No...what I mean is that they're old and you're not."
I gave him a playful smile.  "Well, thanks for that, pal.  Must be all the yoga I practice."
I've been thinking a lot about my kids this week.  The ones I taught at Heywood Elementary in Troy, Ohio back in the late eighties.  The ones I taught at Greenwood for ten years.  My yoga kids at West Side where I've been since 2000 sharing my love of the practice.  There have been hundreds of little ones I've had the privilege to teach...to learn from...to watch grow up right before my eyes.  I've known some of them from the time they were born.  Some of them I've met just this year.  But all of them are a joy and wonder, each child a blessing (sometimes in disguise). 
As I let go of another school year and look forward to a summer of teaching adult classes and writing another novel, I'm also looking forward to tennis lessons with Satish and Danta.  To afternoons fishing with them and my friend, Lisa.  To sleepovers and hours spent playing board games on rainy days.  And in many ways, our fun is just beginning as it changes shape from one form to another.
I'm so very thankful that as my little friends turn the page on another year in their lives, I get to walk along beside them, gently letting go of the things we once did when they were little and opening new doors of wonder that they will walk through in the experience of growing older.
And always I'll keep in mind Danta's wise words...to know that getting older is not a choice, but growing old certainly is.  Perhaps that's the greatest joy in working with children...the opportunity to be child-like and playful at any age.
What an incredible lesson.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Reviving Snow White

How wonderful to spend most of the past weekend playing in the dirt.  Spring has been a long time coming in the Midwest, so it was a real pleasure to haul compost, pull weeds, and prep the raised bed for a host of greens and herbs.  Seriously.  All winter long I live for the moment when I can don a pair of ripped-up jeans, plop a Life is Good ball cap on my head, pull on my Tuff Chicks garden gloves and get busy.  What a joy to know that in a few short weeks, I’ll be able to share the bounty of what will be growing all summer long. 
Now that warmer weather is here to stay, I’ve been visiting with the new neighbor next door.   On Saturday, Steve introduced me to a buddy who was going to help him soup up his daughter’s car.  “We’re going to make some noise," he said.  "So let me know if it bothers you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I replied cheerfully.  “I’ll be busy weed whacking and mowing the lawn.”
“Did you hear my new guitar when I plugged it into the amp last week?” Steve asked.
“Yeah…my whole house shook,” I said, lifting my brows. 
“Darn it all!” he replied.  “You let me know if it’s ever too loud for you.”
“As long as you don’t jam while I’m teaching yoga classes, it’s all good,” I said.  “And you let me know if I’m ever too loud for you.”
Steve nudged his friend’s shoulder.  “Yeah…I’m living next door to friggin’ Snow White.”
I laughed out loud.  “What does that mean?”
“You’re so quiet, I hardly know you’re here…unless you’re outside feeding all the squirrels and rabbits who hop around your yard.”  Steve pointed to the front lawn.  “Look-it there!  Everyone else has dandelions and crap growing in their grass and you’ve got flippin’ white and purple violets!”
As if on cue, Sam, the fat little squirrel who brazenly begs me for food darted over while a small flock of sparrows chortled in the cotoneaster bushes. 
“See what I’m sayin’?” Steve chuckled.  “I’m living next door to Snow White.”
“That story has followed me my whole life,” I smiled.  “I’m surprised you picked up on it.”
Steve hugged me.  “No surprise at all.  You don’t remind me of Snow White…you are Snow White.”
What Steve doesn’t know is the long, arduous journey I’ve taken to get to this place of joyful celebration of even the smallest moments in my life.  If you’ve been reading Open Road since 2013, you know a bit of where I came from…and where I’m headed now that my past has been put to rest.  Still, I imagine there may be more forests to explore, more enchanted places to discover as the rest of this year unfolds. 
Occasionally I remember my life twenty years ago when I first began to unravel who I thought I was supposed to be in search of someone for whom I had no tangible roadmap.  And in remembering, I remain thankful for all the things I had once desperately wanted, yet never received.  What a revelation to learn that empty hands are fertile soil for growing a life worth waiting for.
So here’s a bit of the introduction to my memoir…for Steve and everyone else who’s embarking on brand new adventures as summer dawns in your hometown.

Foreward to OPEN ROAD:  a life worth waiting for
Published January, 2014

My mother kept meticulous records in my baby book.  In the Famous Firsts section, she wrote:  "First cartoon movie:  April, '69 Snow White."  I was two at the time and, of course, have no memory of the event.  But when I turned six, Mom insisted that I have a birthday party and invite some girls from the neighborhood.  Not wanting any attention focused solely on me, I balked endlessly.  Finally, after some cajoling, Mom promised the party could be any theme I wanted.
Now satisfied that I could have some choice in the matter, I replied, "I want a Snow White birthday party." 
"What's that?" Mom asked.
"I want you to find a Snow White at the store and put it on the dining room table with all your little ceramic animals." 
My mother had a delightful collection of birds and fauna that decorated the corner shelves of our kitchen and living room.  I cheerfully explained that they could be like all the animals Snow White met in the forest before she discovered the seven dwarves. 
There's only a brief mention of this party in my baby book, accompanied by a short list of the girls who attended.  What I remember most is that I absolutely did not want to play games, so we went to the movies instead.  And I can also remember sitting in the darkened theater at Southwyck Mall relieved that everyone was paying attention to something other than the fact that it was my birthday.  Yet, I also felt disgusted that the movie I had chosen ("What's Up Doc?") was not about Bugs Bunny at all, but a tedious love story between Ryan O'Neil and Barbra Streisand. 
Enter the pattern of my life:  I can ask for what I want, but it rarely turns out as I imagined or hoped it would be.
Still, my favorite memory of that birthday is standing in the doorway of the dining room, looking at the table where Mom had carefully assembled Snow White in a makeshift forest surrounded by her collection of little animals.  Even now, I can see myself as a young girl wondering what those animals would say if they could speak. 
What would Snow White say? 
What would I say?

Longing to discover my own voice, I started keeping a journal in my adolescence and eventually became a novelist.  In the process, I've created dozens of characters who marginally personify pieces of myself.  Many of them have been written into a life I had once planned, yet never experienced.  None of them reveal my own life as it has truly been.  So in the summer of 2013 I began writing this memoir.
The process has been daunting...yet ultimately freeing. 
I tend to be more content with writing fiction.  Sculpting a story is much like sculpting clay.  I am free to do anything...create anything.  I can mold my characters in a variety of shapes and sizes, all the while directly touching the novel with my narrative hands, smoothing a plotline here, adding texture to the conflict there. 
In contrast, writing a memoir is much like working with an erector set.  It's limited and finite, since I can only use the components provided.  The tools of real life events are in my hands, creating a barrier between me and the object I'm constructing.  There are pieces I can't alter or influence, because their rigidity is unchangeable.  In every instance, I must tell my life experiences as they were, not as I would have liked them to be.
Through it all, I've been amazed that the story of Snow White continues to shape my life's lessons.  Like her, I have encountered wicked, green-eyed queens who have wanted to diminish or silence my existence.  I have escaped to the silence of a solitary forest in order to recreate myself beyond what I had been taught to be.  I have spent decades as a teacher, working with little people of all ages, unearthing jewels of learning while they mine their own talents and abilities.  I have been terrified of the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the endless search for who I am and where I belong. 
Naturally, my favorite part of the story of Snow White is when she enters the forest and all the animals befriend her.  They take her to a little cottage in the heart of the woods where she will be safe.  Where she will eventually meet the seven dwarves and face the trials of being the object of the Queen's wrath.  Deep in the forest, Snow White is nurtured by the natural world and it is through being in nature that I am continually healed.  Like Snow White, I live in a little cottage and tend to the lovely gardens which surround it.  What a blessing to touch the earth and experience more clearly the unspoken, yet profound life lessons flourishing in my own back yard. 
Throughout this conscious awakening, the tale of Snow White keeps me ever mindful to listen carefully to that which sparks my attention, which engages me beyond words or thought.  Which allows me to feel my authentic heart that has never been stolen.  This journey echoes a message I have spent a lifetime trying to decipher: my truth, my own enchantment is not what I had been taught to want, but rather a new reality that has risen from its ashes. 
This memoir is my literary phoenix. 
It reflects the life I have chosen to recreate in light of all that has happened and not happened.  Of all I had once dreamed and feared.  Of holding on and letting go.  Of seeing what is Truth and not necessarily what is true in the moment.  In its reflection, I hope you see yourself, a friend, a sister or an aunt, a lover or a wife.  Most of all, may you discover you are not alone in your journey, neither before nor after this moment in time. 
Those of us who are creating new paradigms are blessed to find each other along the way.

Friday, May 6, 2016

"My Mother's Hands" revisited

Last weekend I had the unique opportunity to share The Lace Makers at a tea party held in my honor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Point Place, Ohio.  The ladies couldn’t have been more welcoming and I immediately felt right at home, especially when I accidentally dribbled some tea on my shirt, then darted to the bathroom to dab water on it.
“You’re really one of us,” the pastor smiled good-naturedly when I returned to our table.
“Yeah, you can’t take me anywhere,” I laughed.  “Oh, well…that’s just me.”
By the end of the afternoon I was overwhelmed by the ladies’ grace, generosity, and thoughtfulness.  They asked poignant questions and told me fascinating stories about their own lives.  I felt a kinship with each one of them, especially when a woman asked, “What do you think all of your books are really about?”
“The mother/daughter relationship,” I replied.  "Everyone here has a mother and is a daughter.  It's the primordial relationship and one I've explored in everything I've written.  In many ways, I think my novels are conversations I'm having with my own mother."
Still, many of us know that we can have more than one mother, more than just the children in our nuclear families.  This week I've been thinking about all the wonderful women in my life who've been like mothers to me and the children I've loved to nurture and support as they grow from little sprouts into young men and women.  So to celebrate Mother's Day weekend, here’s a chapter from my memoir Open Road: a life worth waiting for for all the infinite incarnations of mothers and daughters...everywhere.  

My Mother’s Hands

My mother and I sit on the loveseat, watching television on a rainy Saturday afternoon.   “Wild Kingdom” is on and I love this show.  I love animals.  More than that, I love that I have nothing to do but sit with Mom…just her and me.  My sisters are running errands with Dad.  They need new shoes.  I don’t.  So I get to rest with Mom and watch a lioness give her little cubs a bath while they laze by the Tanzania River.
I’m seven now.  Too old to be held on her lap, so I lean against her side and feel her breath move with mine.  We breathe in together.  We breathe out together.
A commercial break comes on and Mom takes a deeper breath, then sighs.  I’m surprised…then astonished.  In a split second, my mother separates her breath from mine as if she’s untying my shoes.  The laces of our breathing patterns are undone.  Suddenly I realize that what I’ve always believed to be true is false.
My mother and I don't breathe at the same time. 
I thought that since I once lived inside of her, we would always inhale together…exhale together.  But we don't.  And we never did.  Not really.
I try to catch the rhythm of Mom’s breath…to match mine with hers, but I can’t.  I am now separate from her – completely.  And that scares me.  I don’t want to be separate.  I don’t want to breathe on my own.  I want to stay connected to my mother for the rest of my life. 
But, of course, I know I can’t.

Years later I’m working in the gardens at Esalen.  My hands sift the chickweed and thistle, freeing the chard from those invaders that will choke the life out of them.  I’ve lived in Big Sur for nearly a year and I’ve come to love the garden as if it were my own.  Instead of jeans and t-shirts, I often wear jumpers and flowing dresses to work.  I paint my fingernails.  I wear a bit of make-up and some pretty earrings.
Ken walks by and tells me it’s almost time for group process.  “I’ll gather the work-scholars,” he says.
I finish the bed I’m working, then carry the weed bin to the compost pile behind the rose garden.  Jhoti frolics at my heels, batting at the hem of my dress.  I bend down and scoop her up, rubbing my face against hers.  An image tumbles through my memory and I see a photograph of my mother holding her tiger cat, Andy, in front of the house where she grew up.  I see her smiling face.  Her impeccable manicure.  Her quaint hairstyle.  Her stylish sweater set. 
I wonder what she’s doing right now.  Is she out watering her own garden?  Is she having a cup of coffee and doing the crossword puzzle?  Is she chatting on the phone with my sister? 
As I head toward the sprout house, I see Ken in the distance talking to Margie and Eva.  Margie laughs out loud and I think of my mother’s laughter.  I think of her witty sense of humor.  Washing my hands at the sink, I marvel at the crevices in my skin that never quite seem to come clean.  The way the soil has imbedded itself into my fingerprints and stays there, no matter how long I soak in the baths.  The memory of my mother’s laughter is the same…embedded forever in my heart.
During check-in I study my hands while the rest of the garden crew talks about their day.  How they’re feeling.  What they want to work on in group process.  I listen to Carl talk about his plans to move north and start a farm of his own.  Then Margie talks about her twin daughters and how excited she is that they will soon visit Esalen. 
Next it’s my turn and I softly say, “I’m noticing that my hands look just like my mother’s.  My fingernails, my knuckles, the way my little fingers are slightly crooked…even the veins on the back of my hands…they’re hers.  I’m noticing that the older I am, the more I see her in me.  And I miss her.”

Now I sit here, watching my hands on the keyboard as they write these words.  Watching as the images form in my imagination, then drift to my fingertips and onto the screen in front of me.  I see my mother’s hands writing these sentences…writing these stories.           
But are they truly hers?  Or are they mine?
My mother and I are very much alike.  She’s taught me lessons I will never forget…lessons about love and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness.  Lessons that have taken me far from where I came.  Lessons that will move me well beyond where I am now.
And yet, we are also different.
As I make my way into the second half of my life, it’s my turn to undo the laces of my past.  Now I often walk barefoot into the joy my life has become these past few years.  My hands are unshackled from my fear and trepidation, ready to touch the world with whatever grace can be channeled through me. 

When I was in first grade, my mother taught me how to type letters on her old grey Olympia.  When I was seven, she taught me how to knit mittens with a simple gusset.  At eight, she taught me how to meticulously weed her garden.  When I was thirteen, Mom taught me how to apply mascara and lipstick.
All my life I have watched her hands cook meals, sign permission slips, do the crossword, and make the beds.  They held books and dolls and packages at Christmastime.  Throughout the seasons, they shoveled snow and planted flowers and raked leaves.  Mom’s hands rolled out cookie dough, then rolled my hair up in curlers.  They ironed our clothes and mended the holes in the knees of my jeans.  They angrily spanked me when I misbehaved, but also gently rubbed my back when I was anxious or sleepy.
My memory is steeped in my mother’s hands.  More than her face.  More than her voice.  More than the things she’s told me.  More than the things she’s left unsaid.  I’m certain it’s one of the reasons I notice a person’s eyes first…and their hands second.  I've learned that hands can be a source of hurting or healing.
For through my mother’s hands, I’ve experienced both.

When I was little, I loved to trace Mom’s brightly lacquered fingernails with the pad of my thumb.  As I constantly chewed my nails and cuticles until they were bloody, I figured my fingers would never look like Mom’s with their delicate curves, their shiny tips.  I marveled at the ease with which she painted them a different color every week.  Her collection of nail polish was amazing.  Fuchsia pinks and rose reds.  Purpley plums and soft tans. 
Clear polish (that I thought looked like spit when applied) was the only choice Mom gave me until I was in junior high.  But there was an episode when I was in third grade when I swiped a soft pink bottle from her stash and took it to school.  It was a rainy day, so I sat at my desk during indoor recess and sloppily polished my half-bitten nails.   The results were messy, but foreshadowed what my hands might look like if I took better care of them.
When I got home, I dashed to the bathroom and quickly removed the polish, leaving a residue of color around my cuticles.  Slipping the bottle back into my mother’s drawer, I thought I was so slick.  Then she saw my nails at the dinner table and chided me for blatantly disobeying her.  I learned the hard way how nail polish remover stings when it comes into contact with chewed-open skin.  Much like my mother’s spankings would sting whenever I defied her.
 Years later, I was able to grow my own set of lovely nails and polished them regularly.  French Tip was my favorite, although it took forever to accomplish.  Still, every Saturday afternoon, I would give myself a manicure and look in wonder at the beauty of my hands.  At that time, it was rare that I would think of any part of my body as beautiful.  But this was before yoga or Esalen.  Before all the real work I was about to embark upon in my quest for healing.
 In the early nineties when I taught first grade, my instinctive sense of workaholism was full blown.  Arriving at school around seven-thirty, I worked most days until nearly 5:00.  I took papers home every evening and spent most of my Sunday nights planning lessons or preparing materials for the week ahead.  Since I was constantly shuffling paper and school supplies, my hands took a real beating.  My skin soon became chapped and bloody, as I was also constantly washing them to avoid getting sick.
On a cold winter day, one of my students' mothers visited the classroom with a small bag.  “This is for you, Miss Ingersoll,” Mrs. Ellis said to me.  “I noticed how sad your hands look…and I thought you might want to use this.”
Inside the bag was a jar of super-emollient hand cream.
Mrs. Ellis nodded to her son.  “Can you remind Miss Ingersoll if she forgets to put it on?”
Jonathon nodded. 
I smiled at both of them.  “Thank you so much,” I said, giving Mrs. Ellis a hug.  “I know I need to take better care of my hands.”
And so it was that every morning and every afternoon when recess was over, Jonathon or one of the other students would remind me, “Miss I…use your hand lotion!”
I did and soon my hands were healed.  It was a memorable seed, a first step in being mindful of my own self-care that would one day bloom into a life-changing path of yoga, Rolfing, and massage. 

To this day, I still take good care of my hands, for they are the vehicles through which I create my books and novels.  They knit toys for my friends' children.  They tend my magical gardens.  My hands demonstrate yoga poses for my students and gently assist them when needed.  They provide steadiness as I ride my bike all over the city.  They turn pages in books and gently stroke whichever cat is purring on my lap while I read.  My hands cradle the faces of the children I love and applaud for them when I’m present at a recital or a ball game.  
Now my hands are ready to gently harvest the seeds of all that has bloomed in the wake of the trials and misfortunes I have endured.  Ready to glean that which can be planted in the future to yield even more awakening and abundance.
They are a catalyst for all that is yet to be seen...
A channel for the mysteries of my life unfolding.