Friday, July 29, 2016

Betty Draper's Eyes

Earlier this year, I was told that in order to find my place in the publishing world I should write a vampire or zombie novel.  “They’re really hot right now,” he said.
I replied that those types of genres don’t appeal to me and I wouldn’t sell out just to find an agent.  Yet recently, I realized that I've already written a book about the clandestine life of a vampiress, albeit one circa 1969.  She’s not a monster, but a manipulative woman who drains the life force out of whomever she can, all the while endlessly sucking on her filtered-tip cigarettes. 
Twenty-two years ago, Annie Schreiber appeared as a supporting character when I wrote Surfacing.  Twelve years later, her own narrative revealed itself to me in the early drafts of A Tapestry of Truth.  Six years and nine revisions later, the final manuscript was published.  Throughout the writing process, I endlessly struggled with Annie’s darkness, her denial and dysfunctions.  It’s taken more than two decades for me to fully accept that some characters may be completely unlikable, yet there is intrinsic value in telling their story. 
So here’s a repeat of a blog I wrote in 2014 for all the Betty Drapers out there…and their children.

Betty Draper’s Eyes
Originally published in May, 2014

Now that the sun is rising earlier, so am I.  No longer spending my mornings shivering beneath a pile of blankets listening to furnace blow, I wake to feel fresh air breezing through the windows.  I hear the sounds of birds twittering in the treetops.  I revel in the sight of blooming columbine that brightens my garden.
Solomon must have felt as I do when he wrote:  "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard on our land."  Now, I'm not sure what a turtle would sound like.  Perhaps it's all a metaphor anyway...turtles rising from the sea to lay their eggs on the land before returning once again to their primordial home.
It's peculiar to imagine it -- turtles having voices, but I'm very familiar with the energy of this most ancient of creatures.  Native Americans call our earth "Turtle Island" as it represents our primordial mother, our source of sustenance.  Turtles take their time.  They carry their homes wherever they may travel.  They instinctively know how to protect themselves.  Possessing both an incredibly hard outer shell and an exceptionally soft underbelly, turtles can never shed their protective layer, for if they did, they would perish.
In retrospect, I can clearly see why I chose the name "Turtle Island" as one of the primary settings in both my first and third novels.  In fact, for three years, my former agent pitched one of my books with that title.  I've recently changed it as I returned the manuscript to its original premise, but the core of the symbolism remains the same.  
The newly re-titled A Tapestry of Truth will be released on June third, and it's been a long journey to get this novel out of the sea and onto dry land.  I created the narrator, Annie Schreiber, in 1994.  Started writing the manuscript of her story in September of 2006 and finished the first draft the following June.  Now, seven years later, you'll have the opportunity to read a book that has been the most difficult for me to write as Annie is by far the most unlikable character I've ever had worming her way around my imagination.  
Still, I imagine some of you may readily recognize this uncommon protagonist, particularly if you're a fan of "Mad Men."

In the winter of 2011, I came across an article in a magazine entitled something like "Shows We Love That Keep Getting Better."  I've always loved period piece movies and television, so when I read about how the writer was enthralled by the fourth season of "Mad Men," I was intrigued. Having never heard of the series, I readily found the DVD's at our local library.
Starting from season one, I was hooked.  By the third episode, I called my agent and said, "People are going to think I ripped off Matthew Weiner.  Annie Schreiber is another incarnation of Betty Draper, right down to her blonde hair, ruby red lips, and her tight-lipped, narcissistic sarcasm."
"Don't worry about it," my agent said.  "It's a good shows you've written an authentic representation of the time."
But by the time I finished watching the third season, I started to worry.  I called my agent again.  " I get that women of the sixties had a certain look and manner, but I just watched a scene in the Draper kitchen that could have been directly lifted from chapter six in my novel."
"Don't worry about it," my agent echoed.  "I'm actually pitching your book by describing Annie as being very much like Betty Draper.  'Mad Men' is hot right could really work in our favor."
"Yeah, but she does some of the exact same things I wrote about years ago," I replied.  "That's too weird...even for me."

Since then, three years have gone by.
Now "Mad Men" is in its eighth season.  I've watched Betty Draper get divorced.  Remarry.  Gain weight.  Lose it.  Have a brief affair with her ex.  And all the while, she continues to lie, manipulate, and subjugate her feelings.
In that time, I've edited A Tapestry of Truth at least nine times, but with each rewrite, I realize that perhaps there's a bit of Betty Draper in all of us.  We may not manifest it in the world.  We may not act on our childish emotions or our desire to "get exactly what we want when we want it”.  But I imagine one of the reasons people love Betty (or love to hate her) is because they see a little of themselves in her experiences...or pray they never have to encounter a person like her.
Neither Betty nor Annie would win Mother of the Year awards, but I believe that, in the end, they did the best they could with what they had.  Our reaction or response to their behavior is ultimately colored by our own character.
For as Rumi once said, "Delight in someone else is simply something you've suddenly remembered about yourself."
I wonder if the same is true about revulsion.

In looking through Annie Schreiber's eyes one last time, I've seen a lot more of my hidden shadows.  But what's a shadow if something that's lacking light?  It's not necessarily good or bad.  It's just waiting in the dark for the next sunrise to reveal its true nature.
So as I embrace the longer days that springtime brings, I'm also celebrating a new awakening of much more than the earth's rebirth.  I'm learning that, like a Annie Schreiber...and even like Betty Draper, I too have a tough outer shell, but a vulnerable interior.
To accept and honor both places has been both difficult and delightful. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

One of a kind

For the past month or so, there’s a scene from season four of Mad Men that I cannot get out of my mind.  Faye Miller, the newest addition to Sterling Cooper Draper Price, had been hired as an expert strategist in consumer research.  During her initial meeting in which she asked the powers that be to fill out personal questionnaires, Don Draper abruptly left the room.  Of course, those of us who had been following his story for three years knew that the last thing Don wanted was to be found out for who he truly is.  He could certainly run, but he couldn't hide from Faye.
Later on he lamented to her that he was divorced and it was his first Christmas away from his children.
“Don’t worry,” Faye told him.  “You’ll be married again within a year.”
Don frowned, so she apologized for calling him out, saying something to the effect of “I forget that no one wants to admit they’re a type.”
Ain't it the truth?
Then again, as I look around my corner of the world it seems to me that most people want to fit into some kind of group, if only to find commonality or a common purpose.  Whether it be a religious or political affiliation, social, financial, or even marital status, there are clusters of all kinds of people who simply want to be in a place where, if not everybody knows their name, they at least know their motivation for being there. 
There’s not a thing wrong with that.  I teach my yoga students that we all need healthy “tribes”, groups of people who work symbiotically, giving of their individual strengths in order to strengthen the whole.  We were all born into a little tribe, then expanded it exponentially when we went to school, made friends, joined clubs, moved out of our childhood home, explored different places of work, perhaps had a family of our own.  It’s a very human desire to want to fit in somewhere.
But what if you come to realize that you don’t fit in anywhere?

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it more than a hundred times:  I’m not one to be typecast.  Every single teacher I’ve had, every health care practitioner, every healer – be it an acupuncturist, massage therapist, or counselor – has told me, “You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever worked with before.  I can’t figure you out.”
“Join the club,” I usually reply.  “I’ve been trying to figure myself out for a long time.”
Early in young adulthood, I knew I wasn’t like the rest of the kids in my neighborhood.  While I played games with them on occasion, I was much happier riding a bike by myself or reading a book in the backyard.  In high school I joined a few clubs, but was easily bored and didn’t participate beyond what was required.  In my late teens, I spent a lot of time volunteering at church, yet secretly questioned every single thing I thought or believed…and everything that was taught to me.
After college I moved out of my parents’ house and have been on my own ever since, nearly twenty-eight years.  I’ve never had a room-mate.  Never lived with a boyfriend or have even been engaged.  Yet because I've spent so much time alone, for the past two decades I’ve been engaged with living an uncommon life, making peace with the fact that, no matter how often I tried to fake it, I don’t really belong anywhere.  It’s been a terrible blessing, this coming to terms with who I thought I was supposed to be in light of who I turned out to be instead.
Through it all I've learned that faith and spirituality are not about belonging, but about sacred transformation.

Steven Spielberg once said, “All of us every single year, we’re a different person.  I don’t think we’re the same person all our lives.”  
God knows that’s been true for me.  Before I knew better than to conform to anyone else’s ideas about who I am, I tried on a plethora of personalities.  So last month, when I once again watched Faye Miller call out Don Draper about his propensity to fit a certain mold, I wondered, What type am I these days?  I may be a vegan and practice yoga, but I’m much more grounded than the stereotypical “woo woo” hippie like Pheobe on Friends I may like to get down and dirty in the garden, but I also like to get dressed up and paint my fingernails, just for fun.  I may peacefully live alone with my pets (and love it), but I’m not a crazy cat lady, contrary to what my next-door-neighbor says when he teases me if I’ve been AWOL too long. 
It’s been an incomparable experience to learn how to stand in my own authentic center.  To find the courage to be confident in the present moment, no matter what anyone else is doing.  To stay curious, creative, and conscious every step of the way.  To fully embrace the fact that, even though I may have once longed to be, I’m not a type at all.  Mine is the uncommon life, the road less traveled, the journey that began with one step in the fall of 1995 and has led me here to this still-undefined place of being.  It’s been a godsend to be sure, sometimes a tough one, but I’ve discovered that it’s more than a gift of grace to be a square peg. 
I’m not limited by what others think I am…or even what I think I am sometimes.  Be it teaching a yoga class, attending an AA meeting to support a friend, donating items at Savers, working out at the gym, or spending time with Satish and Danta, I effortlessly glide through each day, open to whomever and whatever crosses my path.  It’s taught me a lot about humanity, about difficult life lessons that I may have already learned, but need to be experienced by someone else.  I’m also more clearly aware of how very far I’ve come and where I’d like to set my sights for the next half of my life. 
Sure, I’ve noticed the differences of the many groups in which I’ve been immersed for the past few months, the contrasts between me and the people I’ve met.  But mostly, I’ve come to discover the similarities.   Since I no longer feel the need to identify with the group itself, I can more intimately connect with the individual people.  What I’ve discovered is that most of us want the same things -- to be seen, heard, and loved.  And I’ve also noticed these fundamental needs are often masked with excessive posturing, with lots of make-up and muscles and manipulative behavior.  
Even so, I’ve embraced every experience, every person as one of a kind, never to be repeated again, for in every moment, there’s always something to learn…and something to teach.  Like our fingerprints, each one of us is a unique individual.  Yet here we are...together on this earth, all of us having a collective life experience.

It's a gift of grace to be surrounded by a circle of people who accept me just as I am.  They revel in the parts they know very well and the parts that are just beginning to come to light.  They respect the experiences they cannot relate to and the ones that are intimate reflections of who they are.  They lovingly embrace my ego that desperately wants to find my place in this world, and my spirit that fully understands I don’t need to worry about it because the only thing I’ll take with me when I leave the Earth is my karma. 
What an amazing thing to finally understand that I'm truly not meant to fit in anywhere, so I can more fully embrace life...everywhere.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

An evening with John Williams

Well, the dog days of summer are certainly here in my hometown, and by that I mean I’m dog tired of the heat and humidity.  The air is so thick, you can cut it with the proverbial knife and the heat index is supposed to reach over 100 degrees this weekend with temperatures soaring well into the 90’s.  God knows how you folks in the southwest endure it all season long.  While I’m no big fan of air conditioning as I prefer fresh air wafting through open windows, I’m infinitely thankful every time it kicks on during hot spells like the one we’re having right now.
This time of year reminds of the endless summer vacations from my childhood.  Unless it was raining, most mornings I rode my bike up and down Eastwick Drive, making sure I gleefully bounced over every single rut and filled-in pothole.  While our mothers were chatting over cigarettes and afternoon cups of coffee, the neighborhood kids grabbed our balls, bats, and gloves and played baseball in the field until the church bells rang out, telling us it was five o’clock and time to go home for supper.  At twilight we slapped at mosquitoes while playing “Red Light, Green Light” or “Kick the Can” until the stars came out.  On occasion my sisters and I roasted marshmallows on the grill or caught lightening bugs in a jar.  Sometimes we even slept in a pup tent in the backyard. 
On super-hot days my sisters and I were lucky to enjoy Mr. and Mrs. Barton’s pool…only two doors down and an incredible respite to beat the summer heat.  The Bartons were school teachers, so they had the summer off as well and often joined us as we floated around or played games in the water with sunlight glinting on the surface like diamonds on glass.  When our fingers and toes were reduced to raisins, we sat in the shade, enjoying frosty glasses of 7-Up or root beer or iced tea as well as a spicy Chex Mix Mrs. Barton always seemed to have on hand.
Perhaps my favorite summer memories come most often when I’m driving through south Toledo and pass by what used to be the old Glenbyrne I and II.  When the heat and humidity became unbearable, my little sister, Greta, and I loved to sit in the air-conditioned theater, watching blockbuster movies.  Nearly every week, we eagerly asked our mother for an odd job that might earn us a dollar and a trip to the Glenbyrne for an afternoon matinee.
The summer Star Wars came out, Greta and I saw it no less than eleven times, each viewing just as exciting as the last, for we never tired of watching Luke Skywalker meet Han Solo for the first time.  We never got bored with the dialogue, often murmuring the lines to each other, then giggling when we flubbed a word or two.  We never failed to understand that with patience and courage, good will always conquer evil.  At the end of the film, we whispered the words that Obi Wan Kenobi said to Luke once he'd destroyed the Death Star: “Remember, the Force will be with you…always.”
And we always left the theater wanting to turn right back around and see it one more time.
My childhood is steeped in memories of the Glenbyrne and theaters around town – the Maumee Indoor, the Jesse James Drive-In, and a host of others that have been reduced to rubble, but in my mind will live forever for the thrill they provided a hot, bored little kid in the midst of summer vacation.  Even now, I still have a soft spot for those epic movies of my childhood that at the time seemed larger than life.

Last fall my friend, Nancy, invited me to join her for an evening with the Toledo Symphony.  Without even knowing what music would be played, I eagerly took her up on the offer.  When I discovered that the theme for the pops concert was “The Music of John Williams”, I was thrilled!   As the evening unfolded, I soon came to realize that every selection brought back more than just memories.  Each one recalled an emotion, a connection, a visceral response to the fanfare and flourish that Mr. Williams weaves into his incredible body of work. 
“Raiders’ March from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark” instantly took me back to my thirteenth summer when my parents took me to the theater because they thought I would like the fast-paced action film.  From the the opening scene, I was literally on the edge of my seat, particularly when Indiana perilously climbed into the rescue plane only to discover something wholly unexpected weaving around his legs.
“Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie,” Jock grinned.  “Come on!  Show a little backbone, will ya?”
I tried to show a little backbone of my own, but it was pretty difficult while witnessing the perils of Indy and Marion who were stuck in a tomb with slithering snakes and dozens of dead bodies in their midst.  Still, by the end of the film, I knew I had seen a real treasure…a film that would stay with me for a lifetime.  A few years later, my father gifted the family with our first VCR, and Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first film we watched in our very own home with John Williams' amazing score echoing off the walls of our den.
When the symphony played “Shark Theme from Jaws”, I was reminded of all the afternoons my sisters and I would chant, “Da dum…da dum…da dum” in the Barton’s pool with a hand perched above our heads like a shark’s fin, mimicking the bass line that warned of approaching doom.  Even though it was all in good fun, it took me a while before I’d venture out into the ocean too far when we headed to South Carolina for our week at the beach.
The “March from Superman” reminded me of my older sister’s school-girl crush on Christopher Reeve and the calendar she received for Christmas with full color shots of the superhero in all his glory.  “Hedwig’s Theme” took me back to the wonderful afternoon I spent with my friend, Helen, who cajoled me out of the house during a particularly sad period in my life and drove me to the theater to watch that magical first Harry Potter film. 
As the first strains of “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial filled the auditorium, I thought of my grandfather who took my sisters and me to see the film while we were visiting him in West Virginia.  Granddaddy looked more like Yoda (he could even wiggle the tips of his ears), yet he had a warm heart light just like E.T. that never waned, even as he grew older.  That year I found a small tin box in my Christmas stocking that was full of shiny new dimes.  On the back of the tin, my mother had taped a little note that read:  K.T.  Phone home.  I kept it in my backpack for emergencies when I needed to use a pay phone at the mall or at school to call my mother for a pick up.  Believe me, in the days before cell phones, dimes were a precious commodity.
When the haunting “Theme from Schindler’s List” echoed from the stage, tears filled my eyes as I thought of the two and a half years I spent writing and researching The Lace Makers.  I remembered the stories of the Holocaust survivors, the tales of those who could not speak from the grave, but whose memory lived on in those who were left behind.  Perhaps that’s the one piece of music that stays with me the most, for it is the background not of a fantasy film, but of a reality endured by millions of human beings.
Of course when the “Theme from Star Wars” blared from the stage, I felt the entire audience burst with enthusiasm, just as Greta and I did every single time the lights dimmed at the Glenbyrne and the Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare blasted from the speakers.  For someone who’s seen every Star Wars film at least a dozen times, it was a thrill to have memories of each story line filter through my mind as the music filled the auditorium.  Memories of those wonderful summer afternoons with my sister came back as well, images of sharing such seemingly innocent experiences, yet ones that would last a lifetime.

A couple of weeks ago while I stood at the flag ceremony for Danta’s Cub Scout Camp, Raiders of the Lost Ark music blared from the speakers.  An hour later, some of the boys were humming Darth Vader's theme while we hiked around Camp Miakonda.   Every single time I’m at a public pool, some kid is chanting the “Shark Theme from Jaws”, while maneuvering around the water, playfully scaring his friends.   Glen Frey once said of the Eagles, “We set out to be a band for our time.  But sometimes if you do a good enough job, you become a band for all time.”  The same is true for John William’s incomparable body of work.  He’s scored more than 100 films, dating back to the 1950’s and has created iconic music that continues to be recognized by generations of people around the globe.  
I’ve spent more than an evening with John Williams, for it seems I’ve spent most of my life being entertained and inspired by his incredible talent.  He’s become more than a composer for his time.  John Williams is an innovative artist for all time, and his unique expression of the Force will be us…always.

Monday, July 18, 2016


I spent yesterday doing something I almost never do:  absolutely nothing.  As a reforming workaholic, I’ve been diligently striving to find the balance between work, rest, and play.  Not that it’s been easy.  Whenever I’m stressed out by things I can’t control, my go-to pabulum of choice is always getting things done.  I could give Larry the Cable Guy a run for his money (not that I’ve ever watched his show) by all the stuff I can cram into twenty-four hours. 
Take last Thursday…
Up at five for morning meditation.  Then I did two loads of laundry by the time I had washed the dishes, fed the cats, scooped litterboxes, straightened up the house, and headed off to the Rolfing office.  From nine until three primed the woodwork in the waiting room, then gave it two coats of fresh paint.  Not to mention that after a ten-minute lunch, I did the same for three of the four walls so the fellas who were going to help me move furniture the next day could do so in a completed space.  
Even though I was whipped from rinsing out paint brushes, buckets, and rollers, the adrenaline kicked into high gear and I emptied the trash, hauled nasty, old vertical blinds to the dumpster, vacuumed the entire space, then sat at my desk and completed paperwork for the day.  By the time I got home, I barely had time to grab a quick shower before my evening yoga class.  All of this culminated in a jaunt to the gym where I swam and/or ran laps in the pool until I could hardly move.  Driving home as twilight fell, I thought, You’ll sleep well tonight, Kate.
Alas…it was not meant to be.  One of my yoga students recently taught me that our bodies need a certain amount of energy to fall asleep, and as I had exhausted all of my reserves during the day, I tossed and turned until two AM, only able to doze for a few hours before I woke with a start at 5:30.  Friday and Saturday were jammed packed from start to finish, but I did manage to get in a twenty-minute nap before I headed off to a graduation party. 
So when Sunday rolled around, I automatically woke up ready and raring to check a few things off of my endless “to do” list.  Still, I promised myself that once my trips to Target, the gas station, and the grocery store were complete, I could come home and do whatever I wanted.  Which I did…happily and open-heartedly. 

Years ago when I was in the final stages of healing an eating disorder, I admitted to someone, “Sometimes I wish I had been addicted to something I didn’t have to face three times a day in order to survive.  It’d be a lot easier to pass up alcohol or cigarettes than to have to sit here and make myself eat.”
These days I fully acknowledge that back then, I simply switched addictions.  Over the next several years, while my eating habits greatly improved, I worked harder.  Worked out more frequently.  Repainted every room in my house – three times.  Hiked incessantly.  Volunteered my time here, there, and everywhere.  Eventually I completely burned out and needed to start at ground zero.  I thought that moving to California would hit the reset button of my life, but all it did was reveal to me the areas that still needed more attention.  When the Basin Ridge Fires came to Big Sur and the majority of the people left Esalen, our work crew was down to brass tacks. 
“At least your work addiction has a purpose now,” one of my close friends told me while we cleared brush, hauled water, and tried to keep the farm and garden viable.  “We really need you ‘cause you’re a brick house.”
His comment reminded me of how much my high school classmates loved having me on their team when we were assigned group projects.  Especially when I was taking high doses of NoDoz or over-the-counter stimulants, I got a lot of stuff done, picking up the slack of anyone who fell behind in the assignment.  In college I switched to caffeine, drinking a two-liter bottle of diet pop…every single day.  Most nights I slept for four hours at the most and was up early, a can of Tab in my hand as I boarded the bus on the way to campus.  It’s no wonder that when I came home in the evening and laced up my running shoes, I could sprint a mile in under five minutes.  Not that I could sustain that kind of Tasmanian Devil-esque pace for long.   
Burnout has become as familiar to me as a Phoenix who allows itself to be destroyed in order to rise up from the ashes, renewed and reborn. 

A few weeks ago, my physical therapist showed me some exercises to help get my pelvis and spine back in alignment.  “Go really slow, Little Speedy,” Kim chided me.  “You need to really take your time with this one.”
“That makes it so much harder!” I chucked, but did what she said so that my hypermobile pelvis would stay still while I lifted one leg, then the other.  Smiling at her, I asked, “Can you image what I was like on coffee or diet Coke?”
“You were probably moving so fast, I would have never seen you,” Kim laughed.  “I imagine you nearly vibrated right off the planet.”
Which is probably the reason I became a workaholic in the first place. 
It’s easy to get things done when I’d rather not engage with a world that often confuses or confounds me or when I’m dealing with the aftermath of broken relationships or interpersonal struggles that follow no rhyme or reason.  As I’m my own boss, work is a solace.  A sanctuary.  A place that’s predictable and completely within my control.  I decide how many yoga classes I’ll teach.  I choose when and where they will take place.  I elect to write or not write on any given day and build my schedule around that which is most important to me.  It’s simultaneously a freedom and a huge responsibility, for if I’m not working, I’m not making money.  I have no paid vacations.  No built-in health insurance.  No retirement, other than what I set aside on my own. 
When there are golden moments, I readily bask in them. 
When the s%&t hits the fan, I’m the only one who gets splattered. 
At the end of the day, I need to work, not only to pay the bills, but to find a sense of purpose while living an unconventional life.  My legacy won’t be through the children I leave behind, but the footprints of the books I write, the lessons I teach in a yoga class, the love and kindness I share with my friends.  It’s important to me that I continue to earn a living doing the things I treasure so that I authentically embody the belief that work is love made visible. 

This summer has been a conundrum of sorts.  Usually my yoga schedule is either feast or famine, and this time around, thankfully I’m feasting.  I also have a trip to look forward to, but have been apprehensive about giving up a week’s stay-cation in order to hike in the Red Rocks of Sedona.  I’ve got a list a mile long of things that need to get done around the house and won’t have the time to do all of it before I head to Arizona next month.  
But, instead of fretting about it, last Friday I drew a bubble bath and soaked for a while, contemplating my ongoing propensity to keep moving like a whirling dervish instead of anticipating a wonderful week out west with my friend. 
Suddenly an old thought bubbled up to the surface:  If I’m not working, who am I?
Too often I’ve identified myself by what I do, not who I am.  Recognizing that knee-jerk reaction, I gently said to myself, You’re who you’ve always been. 
Who’s that?
”Keep finding out,” I whispered to myself.  “Find out in Sedona, then find out more when you come back to Toledo.  Find out in your garden.  In your meditations.  In your dreams.  Find out in your friendships.  In your fears.  In your hopes and wishes and unanswered prayers.”
Then I thought about a plaque a friend gave me years ago that hangs over my sink in the kitchen, so that every time I wash the dishes, I can read “The Real To-Do List”.  It has nothing to do with getting anything done; rather it has everything to do with enjoying the moment.  So this weekend I practiced letting myself become undone, open to whatever I was feeling or thinking or needing.  Some of it was familiar.  Much of it was a surprise.  Yet in slowing down, I was able to let go of the guilt I often feel when I’m not a busy little bee…
And learned to love doing nothing so I could more fully experience everything.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Don't deny the marshmallow

Last month, while attending the graduation ceremony for Satish's oldest sister, it was a joy to watch Leena walk up the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance”, to see the priceless look of pride on her family’s happy faces, to know that only wonderful things await her when she attends Ohio State University in the fall.  For more than six years, I’ve been a witness to all the hard work that Leena’s put into her studies.  I’ve taken her to Lacrosse practice and listened eagerly when she told me stories about drum line rehearsals.  I’ve attended the annual Girl Scout Halloween party at the Sharmas and was so proud of Leena when she earned the highly coveted Gold Award.  
Yes, she’s an incredibly hard worker, but Leena also knows a thing or two about having some serious fun.  I’ve seen the photos of her right before she daringly zoomed across a zip line.  She’s traveled to India with her grandmother and to a host of many other places with her family.  For years, Leena’s been an avid Harry Potter fan and has read all of the books more than once.  In fact, the last movie I saw in the theater was the last episode of “The Deathly Hallows”, with Leena right by my side.  
So it was a wonderful coincidence to watch the keynote speaker at Leena’s graduation begin his speech by passing a bag of marshmallows around the Senior class.  I grinned, knowing exactly what Tom Cambisios had up his sleeve.  “Each of you take one, but don’t eat it,” he told the graduates.  “Not yet.”
Years ago, I had read a Stanford study (1960) in which young children ages three to five were individually seated at a table with a marshmallow and a bell.  They were told that the researcher was going to leave them alone in the room with the treat, and they could eat it if they wanted.  All they needed to do was ring the bell so the researcher would know that was their wish.  But, the children were also told that if they could wait fifteen minutes and not eat the marshmallow, they would be rewarded with a second one.  Many of the children covered their eyes, or turned around so they couldn’t see the marshmallow.  Others “stroked it as if it were a stuffed animal” to distract them from seeing as an edible object.  The minority simply rang the bell, then ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room.  Of the children who attempted to delay their gratification, only one third did so long enough to get the second marshmallow.  
In several follow up studies with the subjects, the researchers discovered unexpected correlations.  Those who could delay gratification longer were described by their parents as more competent teenagers.  The children who instantly ate the marshmallow were more likely to be described as “troublemakers” or “difficult to deal with.”  Those who could delay gratification scored higher on their SAT scores and generally performed better in school.  When the children eventually became adults, the researchers found key differences in brain imaging between those with high delay times and those with low delay times.  Those who could control their behavior had a more active prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum when they were trying to control their responses to alluring temptations, which is a key factor in avoiding addictive behavior.
I was relaying this story to my friend, Badass Barb, and she laughed, “I would have told the researcher that I didn’t like marshmallows.  Now if it were a bar of chocolate, I might have had a bigger problem.”
“Yeah!” I laughed.  “I don’t like them either…unless they’re on a s’more.  If it were me, I think I might have dismantled the bell so I wouldn’t even be tempted to ring it.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah…don't you know by now that I’m a master at delayed gratification?” 
Then we both cracked up…because it’s the absolute truth.

For the past few weeks I’ve been slowly getting ready for a vacation I’ll be taking in August.  Every summer I take a week off to get some work done around the house and hang out in the baby pool, reading books in my back yard.  But I haven’t been on a trip in almost six years and I’m kind of nervous about it.  My youngest pet, Aditi, has never spent a night without me, and Forest is a total mama’s boy, so I’m concerned about the collateral damage they may do in my absence.  Sure, I’ve got a great pet-sitter who will stop by every day and my next-door-neighbor is going to take great care of my yard (“I get to water Snow White’s garden!” Steve laughed when I asked him if he’d do the honors), so it’s not that I don’t trust them to do what needs to be done.  It’s that I have a hard time letting go of the day-to-day duties of running a house and a business.  
Still, I know I need the respite.
While it’s not been a bad year, it has been an intense one.  I’m teaching more classes; my part time job has been great, but my body is weary of spackling and painting and moving furniture.  Some of the people I’ve met in the last few months have stirred the pot of my past and it’s often hard to sleep as nightmares and lucid dreams often haunt me during the night.  There have been many times I’ve wanted to ring a metaphorical bell and say to anyone who can hear me, “Can I just go and live in a cabin in the woods for the rest of summer all by myself?”
Now that’s my kind of marshmallow.
Last Friday I spent some time with Danta at Camp Miakonda’s Cub Scout Day Camp and it was like a mini-vacation from all the stressors summertime can bring.  The scouts and I hiked and went swimming.  We learned about butterflies and cicadas and a host of other insects, then were able to touch a plethora of animals in the nature building including a white rabbit, a couple of frogs, and even a corn snake.  Danta was pretty impressed that I wrapped the thing around my neck like a scarf!  At the end of the day, the only thing that could have made it better would have been sitting around a roaring campfire, roasting marshmallows on sticks before we sandwiched them in-between layers of graham crackers and chocolate bars.  Maybe we'll get to do that next year if I’m invited to tag along on a sleep-over weekend. 
I figure if I can wait six years in-between my travels, I can surely wait 365 days for summer camp.

When Tom was near the end of his keynote speech, he nodded at the Seniors.  “I guess what I’m saying is work hard, but enjoy your life.  Delay the marshmallow, but don’t deny the marshmallow.”
I laughed when he said that, but I also felt tears spring to my eyes, too, for I’ve denied enough marshmallows to fill up my entire baby pool.  Sometimes it was simply because I couldn’t afford it.  Other times I realized the temptation had too many strings attached.  Sometimes I was too afraid to experience something new.  Other times I felt that I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn it.
These days I figure I need to cut myself some slack.  
Recently, I made a list of all the things I’ve accomplished in the past three years, and I’m glad I didn’t do it beforehand as I probably would have been too overwhelmed by my ambition.  Yet I think of it like the road trip I took in 2008 when I drove solo across 80/90 on my way to California, not truly understanding what I was about to experience.  Passing through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa was effortless as the roads were flat and boring.  Once I hit the winding roads of Nebraska and Wyoming, I was more than a little nervous, but it was too late to turn back.  By the time I crossed the treacherous mountains in Colorado, I was mesmerized by the landscape, and that motivated me to motor on through Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada on my way to gorgeous Lake Tahoe.  At the end of that long week, what I felt when I crossed into California was better than eating a measly marshmallow.  It was better than gobbling my way through a big bag of Butterfingers.  It’s hard to describe the elation and freedom I felt to finally come to the end of a long journey that had been more than fifteen years in the making.  
In a couple of months I’ll turn fifty and I’m actually looking forward to it.  This has been a year of taking stock, of figuring out who I really am and what I want to create for the rest of the time I've been given.  What I’m willing to do to have it and what lines I need not cross again.  Through it all, I’m hopeful that for the next fifty years, I’ll be more like Neela…able to find a healthy balance between hard work and incredibly fun opportunities.  Able to remain  both stable and flexible as I journey into unknown territory.
Able to enjoy more than a s’more or two along the way.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Straighten up and fly right

In early June my back went out.  It happens every once in a while, especially when I teach advanced classes or in the late spring/early summer when I spend a lot of time outside hiking and biking and gardening.  I’m lucky.  I don’t have chronic back problems and have been able to manage the ongoing pain with yoga, bodywork, and meditation.  It’s lingered a lot longer this time around…nearly a month…starting the day after I published “She speaks for me”
I’m not surprised. 
Whenever my sacrum seizes up, I know there’s something out of balance in my life or something that’s rising up for me to recognize, for I often tell my students, “Pain is your body’s way of letting you know where you’re holding on to suffering.”  These days, it's often been difficult to stand up at all, let alone walk, so I'm spending more time outside in the garden.  Even if I can't really dig in the dirt, I can at least put my bare feet on the soft grass in an effort to become more grounded.
I’ve been blessed as my new boss at the Rolfing office is a physical therapist and has been working on an incipient scoliosis in my spine for the past month or so.  Lately Kim and I have been spending our Thursdays painting and refurbishing the office space, then I get on the Rolfing table for some intense, yet extremely helpful adjustments.  The first week I went home and went to bed, unable to move or speak or think.  The second week I felt better and was able to hit the gym the next day, lifting more weight than I ever had. 
Recently, it's been “two steps forward, one step back”, as another wave of pain hit me like a baseball bat in my sacrum and it was difficult to play ball with Satish and Danta as I pitched with no problem, but could hardly bend over to pick up a grounder.  Earlier in the day, the discomfort was immediately exacerbated when I ran into someone I’d rather not, so that was the first clue as to how to deal with the tender places deep inside me. 
“Your L5 is out of place,” Kim explained while adjusting my tailbone.  “So your upper body torques to the right and your pelvis goes to the left.   This has been a chronic problem for a long, long time.”
I knew exactly what she meant.
We were in the very same room, the exact same place I had been more than eighteen years ago when I had my first Rolfing session.  Back then, I was very quiet when the work began, exposed and unsure I was doing the right thing.  My stomach churned.  My head ached.  All I wanted was to get off the table and get out of there fast.
Tony studied the structure of my body for a while, then walked around to my left side.  I was stunned when he said, “I can see you had a pretty severe trauma when you were younger.”
“How do you know that?”  I asked. 
“See this?” He pointed to my ribs.  “You were lying on your left side and whatever happened, you were surely holding your breath.”  He gently touched my rib cage.  “Let’s start here." 
I was stunned that, in less than a minute, Tony could see the visceral memory of the exact position I had been in the moment my body twisted itself into a posture that has taken decades to unwind.  At the time, my mind was still sifting through the pieces, struggling to put them together, yet my body was fully ready to tell the story.
Now, through working with Kim, I’ve discovered the incredible power in owning the pain, embracing the opportunity to work through my propensity to shift off center and split my body in two.  I’m no masochist, but I refuse to deny the discomfort any longer.  Every morning, noon, and night I’m on the floor doing my physical therapy exercises.  I hit the gym five or more days a week and do what I can.  I rest when I need to, propped up by a mound of pillows. 
I’ve learned that this time around, the pain is reiterating the fact that what I’m experiencing is not about the past; it’s about my body continuing to behave and manifest itself as if the initial experience is happening in the present.  Now, instead of treating the symptoms, I’m more than willing to treat the cause.  It’s time to finally straighten my spine, align my head, my heart, and my pelvis so that I can fly right into the future. 
Through it all, I stay vigilant for signs of healing…and they come in the most miraculous of ways.

A week ago, my friend, Angie, texted me after she had published her first mini-blog on her Facebook page.  She wrote in part:  Katie Belle, thank you so much for supporting me!  You have such a sweet heart, gentle soul, and a burning fire.  You inspired me to put my thoughts into words and share. 
My closest friends know I have a sensitive, tender heart, encompassed inside a fiery spirit, and it’s often difficult to find balance between the two.  For the past three years I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to share parts of my journey with you in Open Road, yet I keep the most intimate and intricate details private.  I’ve learned how to be honest and discreet, telling enough of the story to inspire others to share their own, yet am still discerning about the details.  Someone recently wrote to me:  I don't know you, but from your stories I have read, I feel I know you better than some of my close friends. Your stories are very honest almost to the point I wish they were fictional.
Sometimes I do, too.
Still, since “She speaks for me” was published, it’s been read more than any blog I’ve written, by people all around the world.  I’m humbled by the heart-opening response it’s received, by the notes and phone messages and emails sent by readers from near and far, who thank me for my honesty, share their stories, and reveal more of who they are in the process.  Some have come over for a visit, sharing deeply personal memories, revealing the truth of their own lives.  When they leave, they all seem lighter, more free, transcendent.  Each person has been a light in the darkness of the pain I’ve been enduring this summer, a beacon of hope that reveals I’m on the healthiest path, one that will lead me ever onward…no matter how long the healing may take.

It’s curious to note that all summer long, an unusually large round of robins has been flying around my backyard, playing in the birdbaths, twittering in the treetops.  They sing to me while I struggle to weed and water and wait for the right time to harvest greens from the garden.  As they hop from limb to limb feeding their babies, the robins chirp out a merry song of freedom.  
There’s one scruffy-looking bird that loves to take a late-afternoon bath near my front porch swing where I often sit and read until twilight.  When he’s done, the robin will fly to my mailbox, then whistle at the top of his little lungs until I acknowledge his presence.
“Hello, pretty bird,” I smile. 
He proudly flutters his feathers, then effortlessly flies off to the cherry blossom.  “Straighten up, Kate,” I imagine the robin saying as he chirps and lengthens his spine.  “Straighten up so you can fly right.”
This week, I'm doing much, much better.  Last night, as I was listening to him sing, I remembered an old photo from my baby book.  In the shot, I'm nearly a year old, sitting in the grass of my parents' backyard.  My face is expression I often see these days when I look in the mirror.  I'm sitting up straight, my tiny feet in goddess pose, my arms relaxed, yet poised.  Even though I'm decades older than the little one I used to be, she's still deep inside, reminding me of how it felt to be able to sit up tall.  Reminding me that one day, I'd be able to walk across the yard and water the vegetable garden with an impish smile on my face...and a spring in my step.
Just like I plan to do this evening in my own backyard.