Sunday, December 31, 2017

Burn the ships

There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.
C. S. Lewis

It’s the last day of 2017 and I couldn’t be more thankful to say goodbye to a year that has revealed both the best of times and the very worst.  Still, even the most difficult challenges I’ve endured this year have allowed me to change and grow in ways I probably wouldn’t have if the past twelve months had brought only the status quo.  Even so, as 2018 dawns tomorrow, I’m affirming that what lies ahead will be infinitely better than anything I leave behind.
For Christmas I compiled a book of photographs for Steve.  In classic Virgo style, every time we took a trip or celebrated an event, I sat down at the computer, opened Shutterfly, and uploaded a ton of pictures.  It wasn’t all smooth sailing between us, for there were several times throughout 2017 when I was tempted to delete the book out of anger or frustration.  Thankfully, I never did.  During those incredibly painful times, I didn’t know how we would ever work through them, but I had faith that if our relationship was meant to be, we would find a way out of the darkness and into something brighter. 
Thankfully, we always did.
On Christmas Eve Steve and I had plans to visit the Sharmas, but an unexpected snowstorm blew through Toledo right before sunset, so we spent a cozy evening at home, sitting by the tree, sipping coffee, and playing Christmas Trivial Pursuit.  One of the topics was “Songs and Carols” and when it was my turn to ask Steve a question, I smiled, “Oh!  You’ll know this one for sure.” 
A few days previous we had been tooling around town with the radio on and I’ll Be Home for Christmas was playing.  “That was my dad’s favorite song,” Steve told me.
So on Christmas Eve, I read from the card:  “What 1943 Bing Crosby song had soldiers longing for home?”
Steve’s eyes filled with tears.
“You don’t have to say it out loud."
Steve swiped at his cheeks.  “I don’t know why I’m such a crybaby.”
“You love your dad,” I said.  “And you miss him.”

My own father died in May of this year and during the holiday season I found myself driving through Toledo Memorial, looking for his headstone.  When I found it in a quiet place near the mausoleum, it was hard to know what to feel.  At the time of his death, Dad and I hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in nearly nine years.  My mother asked that I not sit with the family during the funeral, so Steve and I didn’t attend the burial.  Now there I was, seven months later, gazing at his grave, thinking about all the things I had learned from him, all the things I needed to unlearn.
By example, Dad taught me to be responsible with money.  He modeled an amazing work ethic and dedication to doing a job well.  He loved music and movies and my mother.  Perhaps because of my father my checkbook is balanced, I have a little money in my savings account, and I always strive to do my very best when teaching a yoga class or writing an essay or novel.  But as the new year dawns, I find myself yearning for something else…something more.
As I drove away from the cemetery, something my father used to say rang in my head:  Keep your options open.  I’m not sure when he initially said it, but I think it may have been when I was interviewing for my first teaching position.  Keep your options open, Kate, he told me.  A better offer may come along.
At the time, I wanted to escape Toledo, so I ignored my father’s advice and took the first job I was offered and taught fourth grade in Troy, Ohio.  Dejected and bored with small town life, I moved back to my hometown nine months later, then taught for ten more years, all the while pining for a series of men who wouldn’t commit to me.  Since I quit teaching in 1999, I’ve spent the next eighteen years teaching yoga classes in a host of venues…all of which have ended due to low enrollment, lack of funds, or a consolidation of extra-curricular classes.  In 2011, I signed a contract with a literary agent who spent six months unsuccessfully pitching my work, then seemingly lost interest in trying to find a publishing house for my novels.  She’s since left the business and is now selling real estate. 
In truth, the only common denominator in all of these unfulfilled endeavors is me. 
At the time, none of them worked out as I thought they should have and I wondered why I kept falling into situations in which no one would really make a commitment.  Now I realize that my subconscious wanted to keep my options open, to keep a back door available for something better that might eventually come along.  All along it was me who couldn’t fully commit, so I attracted people and situations that reflected my inability to totally give of myself, for there was always a part I unintentionally withheld because I was afraid to fail.
Until now.
I don’t blame my father, for in the past, perhaps keeping my options open or partially investing myself kept me safe from falling into circumstances that would have been harmful.  But this year I’ve learned that to try and fall short is not a bad thing.  To try and fall short again does not mean I won’t ever find success…whatever that means.  I simply need to remember that failure is not an option, because even in the midst of trial and error, I’m still learning something new. 
Tonight there’s no turning back the clock, so it’s best to burn the ships that got me where I am today in order to finally relinquish the past and fully commit to a new life.  It may not be easy.  Things may not go as planned.  The outcome may be different than I imagine it.  In the end, it doesn't matter, for letting go of what has been is always the best first step forward into what will be.







Saturday, December 23, 2017

The greatest gift

Last Friday Steve and I sat in an exam room, waiting for the surgeon who had operated on me in the fall.  A few weeks ago, I went through a battery of tests and an ultrasound to make sure all of the kidney stone fragments had been removed and was looking forward to getting a clean bill of health.
The doctor walked into the office with a grim look on his face.  “The ultrasound found a seven millimeter stone in your left kidney,” he said.  “I don’t know how we missed it, but medicine isn’t a perfect science.  We’d like to schedule you for surgery the day after Christmas unless you want to wait until after the new year.”
I couldn’t look at Steve because I knew I’d burst into tears.  “Let’s do it as soon as possible,” I replied.  “I’m on a break from teaching during the holidays, so it makes sense.” 
“Okay…we’d like to have you go to x-ray before you leave to get a clearer picture of the stone,” the doctor added.  “And you’ll need to go on a low calcium-oxalate diet.”
I nodded, having restricted my eating habits since I came home from the hospital.  It was bad enough to realize that the seemingly healthy vegan diet I had been on for four years was loaded with high-oxalate foods and was probably the reason I had stones in the first place.  Now I realized that no matter how I ate, I was probably doomed to deal with the issue for the rest of my life.
Steve walked me down to x-ray and we were soon on our way home where I was weepy for most of the afternoon.  I told Steve, “I don’t want another surgery, but I don’t have cancer and this isn’t fatal.  But I’m feeling so much better and don’t have any symptoms…so how could I have another stone?  It’s just frustrating.”
“I know, honey,” he said softly.  “But I know for a fact that you’re going to be just fine.  And you’ll get to learn once more that I’ll always be there for you.”
“I’d like to learn it another way,” I cried.
On Monday, the doctor’s office called.  “Kate, can you come in for another x-ray today?” his secretary asked.  “We couldn’t find the stone on the one you had last week and we’d like to get the results before your pre-op appointment tomorrow.”
My heart lightened.  “Sure…I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Cautiously optimistic about the outcome, I called Steve and told him the good news.  “I’ll keep you posted,” I said, smiling.  “I can’t believe it.”
That night we talked about what the results might bring.  “I think they’re going to call me in the morning and say, ‘Merry Christmas…no stone.’”
“Well, no matter what happens, we’ll deal with it together,” Steve said. 
Sure enough, the next morning the doctor called me himself with the good news.  What was thought to be a stone on the ultrasound was simply a shadow left over from the surgery in October.  “You’re good to go until your follow up appointment in July,” he said happily.  “Until then, drink a ton of lemon water and watch your diet, but don’t go too crazy.”
I’ve not been his patient for very long, but he knows I do my best to always follow the rules, dietary and otherwise. 
Still, this year I've learned that some rules are meant to be broken.

Since last January I haven’t done much time writing, for I’ve been spending most of 2017 building a relationship with my significant other.  I broke a few of my own rules in getting involved with him, but looking back on it now, I’m glad I did.  Some people say the honeymoon period can last up to two and a half years, but because Steve and I were friends before we got together, and because we promised to always be honest – even when it’s uncomfortable -- we moved through the elation stage in two and half months. 
For me, the wheels started to wobble in February and finally fell off in August when I walked away to get some clarity.  A couple of weeks later, Steve and I reconciled, then a couple of weeks after that, I ended up in the hospital with sepsis and pneumonia.  During a long recuperation since late September, I’ve taken the time to reevaluate what I want in a relationship and what I need for myself.  It’s been the most complicated, rewarding experience of my life to merge it with another person who is wholly unlike me in fundamental ways, yet nearly identical where it means the most.  Steve and I eat differently, speak differently, interact with the world differently.  But our spiritual beliefs are in harmony with each other, even though don’t manifest them in the same way.
Nearly a decade ago I reconciled with the fact that since we all get wounded in relationships, we need to heal in relationships…but not necessarily with the people who did the initial maiming.  That’s a great hypothesis…in theory.  In practice it has been incredibly difficult to be met with painful pieces from my past mirrored to me by someone I love.  Yet, Steve’s wholly unlike anyone I’ve ever known, for he's consistently determined to change his life for the better...and I’m not talking about the surface stuff either.  It’s a lot easier to change the way we dress than change the way we speak.  It’s easier to lose physical weight than lose the emotional weight we often drag around our entire lives.  
Shortly after my second surgery, Steve and I got into it.  Afterward, he went back to his place and I went to the gym.  In the evening Steve came over to sincerely apologize and tell me how he worked through it for himself.   But I interrupted and angrily lit into him, going on a tirade about all of the issues from our past that we’d already worked through.
For an hour.
The next day it was my turn to apologize, for I’d come to understand my reasons for ranting and promised I’d try to never do it again.
“I’m sure in the future I’ll do something to piss you off,” Steve smiled.
“And I’ll try to keep it about that and nothing else,” I laughed. 
Since then, our relationship has deepened into something neither of us can quite define, for there aren’t really words that accurately explain the love, respect, and dedication we feel for each other.  We take the time to talk, to listen, to help each other when we can, and to be supportive when we can’t.  A year ago I would never have guessed that we’d have to go through so much or that we would have grown together in the ways that we have.  Yet being with Steve has taught me the value in standing up for myself, the gift of perseverance, and the blessing of knowing I’ll spend the rest of my life being cherished by someone who sees everything about me…and loves me anyway.
During the holidays, we often hear that the best presents aren’t found beneath the Christmas tree.  At first I thought that maybe Steve is mine…or that I am his.  But truly, it's the indescribable, ever-expanding love between us that is our constant star, our humble birth, and the greatest gift I’ve ever known.



Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pivot!

On a Thursday night at the end of August, my yoga students and I were having a discussion about aging.  As most of the ladies are in my generation or a bit older, we’ve been noticing subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our bodies over the past decade.  Still, in looking back over my life, I’ve realized that despite the lines on my face and the fact that I can’t always remember trivial information, this has been the best decade so far. 
As class ended, I thought for a moment about my imminent birthday.  “I feel pretty lucky,” I commented.  “Not everyone gets to be fifty-one.” As soon as the words escaped my lips, another thought popped into my head:  Yeah, and you might not either.  Not sure exactly where that came from, I quickly brushed it off as just a non-consequential thought. 
But twenty-four hours later, I went septic in the emergency room. 
Twenty-four hours after that, even though they were doing everything they could, my doctors weren’t sure I would survive.
Of course, after a long stay in the hospital, I came home with the promise that I would soon make a full recovery.  It’s been pretty slow going, but after a second surgery in October and a lot of time to rest, I’m finally feeling more normal…at least what a new normal is like these days. 

In the week after my hospital stay, I could barely go up and down the stairs.  Washing dishes wore me out.  Changing the sheets took all the energy I had.  But I didn’t really care.  All I wanted to do was sleep or spend a few hours binge-watching reruns of Friends on Netflix.  Not wanting to add to my post-hospital melancholy, I chose to stay away from shows themed with espionage, drama, and heavy emotions.  Instead, I deliberately decided to spend a considerable amount of time with Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Joey, and Phoebe, knowing a light comedy was exactly what I needed.  For much of the month of October, spending time with Friends allowed me to forget the long, often tedious road of recovery.
Every single day, I chuckled at Chander’s wry wit, playfully rolled my eyes when Phoebe or Joey said something particularly absurd, and laughed out loud whenever Ross found himself in a sticky situation.  (Remember his “paste pants”?)  Still, my favorite episode by far is “The One With the Cop” in which Ross, Rachel, and Chandler valiantly try to move an oversized couch up several flights of stairs. 
Every step of the way, Ross gives very specific (and annoying) instructions, shouting numerous times, “PI-VOT!  PI-VOT!  PI-VOT!!!”
Infuriated, Chandler finally shouts, “Shut up!  Shut up!  SHUT UP!!!!”
I’ve watched that short scene more than a few times while writing this blog and it never gets old.  I even found the outtakes on YouTube and laughed even harder.  

It’s not that I haven’t come a long way in the past couple of months.  Still, I don’t feel the same…and not only about my physical health.  In spending endless hours alone in silence while I rested on the couch, I did a lot of  soul searching about here I’ve been.  Where I am in the present.  Where I want to be in the future.  I used to think that by now I would have a lead on a salaried job, or at least part-time work that could supplement my income.  But lately I’m often up in the wee hours of the morning, as my days and nights are inverted and I'm not sleeping well.  While a part of me would like to line up an interview and start working outside of my home, a larger part is incredibly thankful to have a flexible schedule so I can get some much-needed rest.
In climbing my way up the winding staircase of healing, I’ve often had to stop and wait for pain to cease.  Wait to have a stent removed.  Wait for test results to arrive.  I’ve had to pivot my plans in order to accommodate my energy level, which frustrates me to no end, for I’m usually highly productive this time of year.  Sure, I still get things done, but my priorities have changed, particularly where my health is concerned.  I’m not hauling an over-sized couch up the stairs, but I have been hauling a lot of false perceptions about success, abundance, and productivity.  
So, as autumn slowly turns to winter, I’m choosing to slow down and appreciate even the simplest of blessings…a soothing afternoon nap, a mug of something warm and wonderful, a quiet evening spent with good friends.  After all, now more than ever, I know how blessed I am to enjoy this contented, peaceful life.


You can watch Ross, Rachel, and Chandler do their best to
PIVOT here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n67RYI_0sc0









Thursday, September 28, 2017

That's enough

In August, Steve and I spent a gorgeous week on the shores of Posey Lake near Hudson, Michigan.  While I worked in the gardens around the cottage, Steve trolled his friend’s fishing boat around the lake, searching for bass and bluegill.  The days were long and lazy, the nights cool and peaceful.  It was a far cry from the often stressful summer we’d been having.  I’d spent the majority of July and early August sick with an unrelenting fever, and Steve had been dealing with a lot of stuff in his personal life, so a week away was a welcome relief from life in Toledo. 
One sunny afternoon, Steve and I were boating around the lake when we saw a man working on his dock.  Steve admired the man’s luxurious ski boat, so we stopped to chat for a bit.  In less than five minutes, the man regaled us on all of the bells and whistles, saying that since the boat was last year’s model it only cost him a certain amount of money.
While I kept a straight face, I thought to myself, Good night!  That boat costs more than my house!
“Of course I added some more stuff to the tune of $20,000.00,” the man continued.  Then he proceeded to describe the extras he and his family couldn’t live without.
Later on when Steve and I were alone, I asked him, “Why in the world would he tell complete strangers all that stuff?”
“Because he identifies himself with what he has,” Steve replied. 
“I think that for him, nothing will ever be enough.”
“Probably not.”
For the rest of the week, I didn’t give the man and his luxury boat much thought…until I came home from vacation.

For months I knew that, come September, my financial life was going to change.  Big time.  My part-time work would end, and that meant a significant loss of income I would somehow need to recoup.  While I’m not frivolous and have lived within my means for decades, I realized that with the cost of living continually inching up, my income needed to be proportionate. 
In a last ditch effort to get my work into the hands of a new literary agent, I rewrote query letters, then sent more than a dozen in the hopes that one of my novels might appeal to someone. In less than a week, five rejections had piled up in my inbox. 
“I need to find work...now,” I told Steve.  “I don’t want to quit teaching yoga, but that might be inevitable.  I just can’t get ahead doing what I’m doing.”  Tears ran down my cheeks when I said, “After seventeen years of trying to get published, after hundreds of query letters, after writing ten books, it just doesn’t seem worth the work anymore.  I've not made a penny's profit in all the time I've been self-publishing and I don’t want to write if it’s not going anywhere.  It’s just a waste of my time.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “I need to take some time and figure it out.”
I had planned to spend the month of September writing my resume and looking for meaningful work.  But life had other plans.  On Friday the first, I went to the gym for a fitness test.  The week before I had been running a low-grade temp and knew I had lost some weight due to lack of appetite.  Even though I was in pretty good shape, I wanted to see where my weaknesses were and how to improve them.  After being put through my paces, it was surprising to learn that for a woman my age, I clocked in at athlete status. 
I decided to get a workout in before I went home, so I hit the weight room.  But half an hour into it, a relenting ache in my lower abdomen forced me to cut it short and go home.  Two hours later, I called Steve and asked him to bring home some ginger ale as I’d developed an upset stomach.  Shortly after sipping some soda and nibbling on corn chips, I was projectile vomiting.  An hour after that, the pain was excruciating and had radiated to my back.  On top of all that, my temperature had spiked to 105.4 which terrified me.  By six thirty, Steve and I were at the ER where I was immediately taken not to a triage room, but to the surgical corner at the far end of the floor.
After being poked and prodded by a host of doctors, after enduring the hell of drinking what seemed like a gallon of barium for a CT scan, after lingering in pain for a few hours, I was diagnosed with a kidney stone that was blocking a ureter. 
“You’re septic,” one of the ER doctors told me.  “We’re going to treat this as quickly as possible.”
So at two in the morning, I went in for emergency surgery to move the stone aside so the infection could drain.  Inserting the stint only took twenty minutes and afterward, the surgeon talked to Steve in the waiting room.
After explaining what had happened and that I would soon be moved to ICU, the doctor told him, “We sometimes lose patients like this.”
Of course, it devastated him and when Steve told me a few days later, I cried because during the first day in the ICU, I wasn’t sure I would make it.  I was in and out from the anesthesia, but when I was awake, I could hardly move.  The sepsis was pretty severe and my blood pressure kept falling.  After having a central line put in, I was given a lot fluids to stabilize my vitals and in the end, developed pneumonia because my lungs got too wet from being on bed rest.
By the third day, I could only sit up for an hour or so before needing to lie back down, but had gone from critical status to stable.  By that night, I was moved to a step-down room.
“You’re really lucky to be young and healthy,” one of the nurses told me.  “I’m sure it’s what pulled you through.”
But I didn’t feel lucky when all night long, I woke up coughing from the pneumonia.  When I could hardly roll over, let alone sit up and slide on my flip-flops.  When standing up took an eternity.  When walking to and from the bathroom seemed like a marathon.  But I did it anyway.   Every so often, I made myself walk up and down the short hallway outside my room.  The first day, I could only do it three or four times, and always with the help of the railing or Steve, who supported my snail’s pace.  Every time, I came back to my room exhausted, even though I had only been on my feet for less than ten minutes.   
By the third day in the step down room, I had been on antibiotics for nearly a week and felt stronger.  When the doctors came in for their morning rounds, I asked if I could go home that day.
“I don’t see why not,” the internist replied. 
After calling Steve and letting him know I was going to be released, I packed my duffle bag, then went for a walk.  After shuffling up and down the short hallway, I was heading back to my room when I stopped for a moment.  Looking down the long corridor past the nurse’s station, I thought to myself, Try it…just try it once.
So I did.
Scuttling along, I gradually made it all the way to the end of the hallway, then was able to make it back to my room.  Along the way, I marveled at the fact that in six days I had gone from being a seemingly healthy athlete to being utterly septic and unable to move.  Now, here I was, on the slow road to recovery, grateful beyond words to be on my feet.  I could finally walk on my own, and that was more than enough to know that eventually, I would be just fine.

I’ve been home from the hospital for a few weeks now and am back to teaching yoga in my home studio.  Still, I sleep a lot and rest and sit outside while I can.  I take walks, reminding myself that these days, it’s better to be the tortoise than the hare.  Just yesterday I slowly ambled through the local metro park, watching for signs of autumn.  After this week’s heat wave, we’re going to have to wait a while longer, but I don’t mind at all.
Time, I’ve learned, is the most precious thing we have…and I’ve been given more than enough to meander my way forward in this unfinished, uncertain, yet incredible life.  




Saturday, August 26, 2017

Plant a tree....watch it grow

Last month at a church rummage sale, I discovered a book by one of my favorite authors.  More than ten years ago, Sue Monk Kidd, who penned The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings, compiled a host of essays she had written for Guideposts magazine since the 1980’s.  Reading Firstlight has lovingly reminded me of Christmases long ago.  My grandmother always gave me a copy of Daily Guideposts from the time I was in eighth grade and I spent the better part of every holiday afternoon holed up in my room, eagerly searching through the book for Sue’s essays.  Each one was captivating because of her incredible attention to detail and open-hearted way of looking at life, from the simplest moments to the most perplexing.  Perhaps what struck me the most was the feeling of as she writes in Firstlight, “a soulful being together between the reader and the author".
Many of the essays I’ve been rereading remind me of some of the ones I have written for Open Road, so I now fully realize it was back then the initial seed of inspiration was planted.  A little more than a decade later, I would begin writing essays of my own.  One turned into a novel which turned into a sequel which turned into eight more books.  And I’m not done writing yet.
In one of my favorite essays, Sue writes about how growth takes time.  A seed must be buried in the darkness of the soil, releasing roots invisible to the eye, but necessary for the sprout to appear above the surface.  Over time the sprout becomes a seedling, and the seedling a sapling, and so on until a strong, healthy tree grows from what was once hidden in the earth.   A caterpillar begins its life cycle as an egg, then a larva, then a pupa where it completely transforms itself into an adult butterfly, never to return to its original state again.  It takes a butterfly only twenty-eight days to go from egg to its magical metamorphosis.  Sadly, it only lives for four to six weeks.  Of course a tree takes much longer to grow to its full height, but its beauty can last much longer than one human lifetime.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve and I were heading up to Posey Lake, Michigan for a much-needed vacation.  While I sat in the car waiting for him to fill the gas tank, I checked my phone for messages.  To my surprise, one of my former first graders sent me a private message on my professional Facebook PageRemember the trees you gave us and told us to plant them when we got home? Eric wrote.  Look at her now!
He sent a picture of a gorgeous pine tree that dwarfed a two-story house. 
Oh my gosh! I wrote back.  That’s amazing!  How old is that tree?
I planted it when I was six, he replied.  You gave it to me when I was in first grade, so it’s been going now for twenty-six years.
 I quickly did the math.  How in the world are there kids I taught who are now thirty-two years old? I wondered.  Then I realized that there are kids much older than that…and it made me laugh. 
Steve got back in the car and I showed him the picture.
“Who is that from?” he asked.
“One of my first graders…I gave them saplings on Earth Day the year Eric was in my class.  I think someone from a nursery donated a bunch of them.”  Smiling at the picture, I sighed, “That made my whole day.”
When I asked if I could use his photo in this blog, Eric enthusiastically replied, Sure!  I’ll get a better picture at my mom’s later today.  Can my daughter Mariah be in it?
What a joy a few hours later to see their smiling faces standing at the base of the tree and to read Eric’s profound caption:  I planted the tree with my dad.  I’m really proud of it and talk about it often.  I try not to be boastful about it, but I think that talking about it will hopefully plant a seed in someone to do the same.
Mariah is one blessed young woman to have such an incredible father.  I remember Eric fondly and am not at all surprised to know that he has loved and nurtured that tree for decades, much in the same way I’m sure he has and will love and nurture his daughter.

We can never know how our presence will impact another person.  I’ve not given birth, but I did spend my twenties and early thirties with hundreds of kids who I’m happy to still call my own.  Now every time a man or woman who I had the privilege to teach contacts me, it always lifts my spirits and connects me to the distant past in incredible ways which remind me once again that I didn’t have to have a child of my own to be a mother.  I’ve attended weddings of my former students, spent time with their families at graduation parties, and often run into people who ask, “Are you Miss Ingersoll?”
I laugh and nod.  “Yes.”
“You were my first grade teacher!” they smile broadly.  “You don’t look the same, but I could tell it was you from the sound of your voice.”
Then I laugh some more because that’s often how I recognize them as well…even the men.
They reminisce about stories from our classroom, and each one reminds me that even though teaching was incredibly demanding, it was time well spent…and then some, for many of the lessons I shared with them when they were little are now, decades later, being passed down to their children. What an incredible blessing to know that the seeds which were planted back then have magically metamorphosed into a soulful being together between what was once the teacher and the student, but has now transformed into something even more beautiful, yet indescribable.  



Eric with his daughter, Mariah, August 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017

Counting crows

When I was a beginner yoga student, I despised cobra pose.  While it was one of the basic positions taught every week, I mightily struggled with it for more than three years.  Ironically, arching up into cobra made me feel as though I was choking, even though my throat and neck were lengthening upward, supported by my hands, arms, shoulders, and upper back. Yet practice after practice, I became more aware of how incredibly challenging it was to lift the front of my body off of the floor and extend the pose upward through my head.
I was stuck in my throat…literally.    
Over the years, I tried every variation, every modification.  Sometimes I pushed myself to do it.  Other times I skipped it altogether.  Even now I prefer to practice sphinx, or baby cobra, instead.  It’s much more stable to prop myself on my forearms and while my neck is in neutral position, I’m still able to stretch without feeling strangled.    
Having practiced for more than twenty years, I’m not surprised at all to recognize that my neck and upper back were incredibly tight, having held on to unspoken words for almost three decades.  And it’s not really a revelation to realize that through diligently working with a host of healing modalities, my ability to speak up for myself has been transformed.   While I’ve always been able to bang the drum for the underdog or any child in my care if I knew they needed a strong support system, I’ve not always been forthright in speaking my own truth. 
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I became a writer. 
Still, for a while now I’ve been practicing honesty…with myself and with others.  Not that it’s been a cake walk.  I’ve lost friends who couldn’t understand my reasons for setting boundaries.  I’ve lost work because I was outspoken enough to ask that my business policies be respected.  Like struggling to make peace with cobra pose, I’ve often grappled with the knowledge that, for me at least, it’s a risk every time I open my mouth to say how I feel.   To be really truthful, sometimes I have to push myself to find the courage to speak.  Other times, I still keep my mouth shut out of fear.
Conversations that begin with my saying to someone, “Can we talk?” are always like Forrest Gump’s proverbial box of chocolates.  I never, ever know what I’m going to get. 

A few weeks ago I noticed several crows circling over my neighborhood.  It had been a while since I had seen more than one, and that was years ago when a brazen bird angrily chased an unsuspecting cat out of my yard.  For days, three crows flew into the tall treetops across the street and silently sat there, fluttering their wings, surveying the territory.  One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on my porch next to a friend with whom I had recently argued.  The spat ended quickly, but because I needed time to sift out my angry emotions to get to the heart of what I was feeling, a day later I was still a bit bruised and didn’t know what to say. 
So, like the crows, I said nothing.
They nestled together, not moving an inch the entire time we sat on the porch.  As the person talked about the plans we had made earlier in the day, I listened, but I also noticed the crows and their silent, stoic posture.  Moments later, just as I was getting up to cut the grass, the crows instantly flew away.
Later that evening, I pulled Animal Speak from my bookshelf and looked up “crow”, remembering that the feisty black bird had shown up in significant moments in the past.  I read in part:  Crow’s voice is a notable characteristic which reminds us to listen for the ways creation is continually calling out to us.  Wherever crows are, there is magic, for they are symbols of creation and spiritual strength. 
The next evening my friend and I were sitting on the porch after having hashed out the better part of our disagreement.  As another round of conversation started, I noticed the three crows sitting in the treetop, but this time, they were cawing loudly…over and over again.  I don’t remember exactly what I said to my friend, but I do recall firmly saying what I needed to say, even though it was incredibly difficult.  For a long while, the cawing of the crows echoed around us as we talked past twilight, finally creating some common ground.
Oddly enough, since then I’ve not seen or heard another crow, and these days I’m counting humming birds, robins, and rabbits. 

I believe that everything in nature continually speaks to us, and if we know how to truly listen, magic can be a constant presence in our lives.  While I was jolted to discover that a group of crows is called a “murder”, it doesn’t really surprise me, for whenever they show up in my life, I know that a part of me has to die in order for another part to be born.  This time around the trio of messengers reminded me that while my truth might not always be the same as another’s, I no longer need to stay silent out of fear or apprehension...and that miracles spontaneously arise when I’m being my most authentic self. 
In the fall, I’ll be re-introducing preparatory work for the crow pose in my yoga classes.  While I’m still not able to hold it for long, I have found that being in it, even for a split second, arching my neck upward toward the sky has never made me feel more alive and free.
 


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence Day

I’ve been waxing nostalgic a bit this holiday weekend.  While thumbing through a host of magazines while relaxing in the sun, I’ve seen s’mores and sandcastles and sparklers galore.  Children have been riding their bikes through the neighborhood and just this afternoon, a little one who lives behind my house pitched a tantrum that could rival any I threw as a three year old.  I’ve thought of a boy who lived across the street when I was a kid and how we used to celebrate his July 5th birthday a day early every summer. 
This afternoon while hanging out in my baby pool, Steve squirted me with the hose.  “Too bad, I’m already wet,” I told him.
“I’m thirteen and a half,” he chuckled. 
“No kidding,” I laughed back. 
“The first love of my life was the girl next door,” he told me.  “She was eight years old when she moved in and gave me my first kiss.  At the time I thought girls were icky.  But she ruined me for life because I liked it.”
“My first kiss was from a boy who lived up the street,” I told him, shading my eyes from the sun.  “We were in second grade together and Jimmy walked by my desk.  He said my name, and when I turned to look at him, he planted one right on my lips.   I really liked him because we were such great friends...it was sad when he moved away.”
It’s been years since I’ve thought of Jimmy.  Even longer since I remembered that first kiss.  Still, what an incredibly sweet thing to recall on the one day I have least looked forward to all year long…until now.
While I’m all well and good celebrating Independence Day, I’m not a big fan of fireworks…unless I’m at a professional display and know when the end is near.  Yet beginning in late June, folks in my neighborhood set them off at ever-increasing intervals until the 4th, when it seems as though the loud explosions last all night long.  With every searing bottle rocket and imploding Roman candle, my cats freak out, except for Forest (bless him) who sits in the window sill watching for the sparks of light in the night sky.  The house shakes, the windows rattle, and my ears ring for hours.
Thankfully, this year I’ve spent the past few nights at Steve’s apartment, for I find that when I’m with him, the noise doesn’t rattle me as much.  When I was getting ready to go home on Sunday morning, I sheepishly asked, “Can I stay here tonight and tomorrow?”
“I was going to ask if you wanted to,” he smiled.  “You can stay over whenever you like…I enjoy having you around.”
I let out a sigh of relief.  “Can I sleep over here until the 4th of July?”
He looked down at his dog and smiled gleefully.  “How fortuitous.”
“Good,” I nodded.
Then Steve hugged me, saying, “I’m happy to have you stay ‘cause I know how much those fireworks scare you.”
“They don’t scare me,” I replied defiantly.
“You sound like a little kid,” Steve chuckled.
“Well, they don’t,” I said, hugging him back.  “They hurt my sensitive little ears.”
Then we both laughed out loud…because it’s absolutely true.

I’m sensitive to lots of things:  loud noise, strong emotions, and bright light…just to name a few.  Looking back on my childhood, I spent the lion’s share of my time in the cool, dark basement or the quiet sanctuary of my room in the northwest corner of the house.  Sure, I played outside, but preferred to hang out in the shaded corners of my backyard or the limbs of the tree in our front yard.  And while I sometimes enjoyed playing with the kids in the neighborhood, the memories that stick with me the most are the ones when I was on my own.
I imagine that part of my independent streak was due to my being overly sensitive to a lot of things I couldn’t control.  At the time, I figured that if I removed myself from the situation, I wouldn’t have to deal with it…or at least deal with my feelings about it.  I could hide from the world while riding my bike or enjoying a picnic by myself or a quiet walk in the woods where I talked to imaginary friends who lived in the tree trunks.   The pattern stuck and as an adult, I’ve spent the majority of my time in solitude.
But no longer. 
Steve and I give each other space all the time, although I admit that today I interrupted him more than I should to share a silly squirrel story or a slice of watermelon.  And of course, when his inner-devil wanted to come out and play, he ambushed me with the garden hose.  Still, I find that I have time for everything I used to do before we got together…and hope he feels the same way, too.  Both of us are independent, yet we’ve become more interdependent as the months go by.  I can lean on him when I need to, and he can lean on me, too.  We share moments from our past, stories of the present, and dreams for our future, all the while continuing to be authentically ourselves.  I suppose we’ve learned the beauty in what Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet:  Stand together, yet not too near together, for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

I never thought I’d ever want to be with someone more than I have wanted to be alone, and yet that has been my one sign to know when a relationship is real.  For years I’ve been telling my friends, “I’ll know I’m with the right person when I’d rather be with him than alone in this peaceful life I've created.”
Just last night I sat on the couch, gazing out his living room window, in awe of the fireworks that exploded over the treetops in front of his duplex.  “Oh!  There’s another one!” I chirped.  “And another one!”
The sky darkened while Steve leaned over and looked out the window. 
“When I was kid, I’d sit in my bedroom window and watch the fireworks,” I told him.  “It was great to be safe in my room and watch from a distance.”
As Steve walked away to take care of stuff around the apartment, I marveled at how safe it felt to be with him, no matter how close the fireworks were being shot off, no matter how loud they were, or how I could never know when a loud boom would rattle the windows.  Later that night I went to bed while he watched TV and as I lay there listening to the crash and boom in the distance, surprisingly I didn’t mind at all…and was soon fast asleep. 
Tonight I’ll be writing while Steve goes to a meeting, but later on this evening I’m sure we’ll spend some quality time together.  The night sky will soon be lit up with light and I'll be snuggled in with Steve, quietly celebrating the uncommonly incredible life we're creating together.  


Friday, June 30, 2017

Pyromaniac

I'm taking the holiday weekend off, so I thought I'd share one of Open Road's most-read blogs from 2014, written shortly after the Fourth of July.  This one’s for all of us who love to play with fire…in the healthiest of ways.  


Pyromaniac
Originally published on July 7, 2014

After a simply gorgeous holiday weekend, I'm enjoying a cool, cloudy morning here in Toledo, Ohio.  It's like the calm after the storm...because for the past couple of weeks I've gone to bed listening to the boom and pop of firecrackers, bottle rockets, and Roman candles.   Loud, explosive racket is not my cup of tea, so it's really not until the week after the Fourth of July that I really begin to enjoy the summer season.
The anticipation of the holiday weekend is over.  Crickets and cicadas now serenade the city with their rhythmic cadence.  And I can fall asleep without the scent of sulfur and smoke drifting through my open windows.  There seems to be a peace that permeates the energy around my little house in the Heartland that's hard to describe now that the crash and boom of the fireworks is over.
Not that I don't like a small inferno now and again, mind you. 
Ever since I was little I've been fascinated by fire.  I can remember Sunday afternoons in the middle of winter when my mother would let my sisters and me light a candle in the middle of the kitchen table.  We'd meticulously peel back the wrappers of old crayons and melt them in the flickering flame to create colorful, waxy pictures on a paper plate.  I wasn't all that interested in what I was making; I'd much rather gaze at the transformation of something once solid into a gooey liquid that could burn my fingers if I let it.  And sometimes I did -- just to see what it would feel like.

Years later when my life was chaotic and unstable, I'd come home in the evening, turn off all the lamps and light a white candle on the coffee table, then sit and stare at the flame...studying the blue center...marveling at the way it would turn the tangible wax into vapor.
When I lived at Esalen Institute, a friend of mine casually observed the fact that I've always been attracted to fiery men.  "I don't know if that's what you really need," he said.  "You've got enough fire power for ten people." 
It was true.  I worked like a horse.  Plodded through a task with the tenacity to plow through and overcome any adversity.  Like the wildfires that slowly charred the Santa Lucia mountains during my stay in Big Sur, I was persistent enough to burn through old patterns of being in order to allow new growth to emerge from the ashes.
After all, I was born with Mars in Leo -- and for those of you who don't know much about astrology, that's a pretty powerful placement.  To combine the energy of the planet of ambition, fire, and power with the drive and determination of needing to be creative, no matter how many obstacles are in my way, I can understand why I was a workaholic for so many years.  It took a long, long time to transform my innate tendency from a raging bonfire to a hospitable hearth.
         
Now I realize the reason I'm attracted to fire is not for the heat and intensity of what it appears to be at first sight...but for the transformative power it has to create complete and utter change.  No other element can instantly reduce a stack of paper into ashes.  Water will take a while to dissolve it.  Earth will take even longer to create the pressure necessary to change paper into pulp.  Air may rip it to shreds, but even though it may take a different form and shape, it's still inherently what it is. 
Fire changes anything instantly.  It's one of the reasons I choose to use it as a ritual when I need to let go of something or want to create something new.  When I need to rid myself of old baggage or open the door to an alternate way of being.  I've burned old cards and letters.  Journal entries.  I've ceremoniously written out lists of what I want and then burned them, sending a silent prayer along with the smoke that an unseen force will get the message and deliver the goods.
Word to the wise:  like that old adage says, "Be careful what you wish for."  I'd amend it to "be careful what you write and transform with fire" because on several occasions, I've wished for something too specific and the results blew up in my face, burning me one too many times because I set an intention with too many parameters.  After all, fire knows no boundaries and can easily change direction as the wind blows. 

Every culture uses fire in celebration.  In honoring the dead.  As a symbol for light or enlightenment.  Fire is perhaps the most primitive element in our transformation toolbox.  And it's by far my favorite one. 
During this past deep-freeze of a winter, I was imminently thankful every time my furnace roared to life.  Thankful the hot water tank hummed along so I could take warm showers after shoveling mountains of snow.   As springtime emerged, I delighted in the rising sun, the warmer days, the return of brighter solar energy to our hemisphere.  And I'm certain as fall approaches, I'll light more candles in the evening and relax in my living room while the flames flicker and reflect off of the walls and hardwood. 
But today I have other plans. 
For a few weeks I've felt as though I'm on the cusp of something I can't quite describe.  Something's imminent and I can see my old hesitation to trust in the unknown.  To trust something new.  It's in moments like these that I'm reminded of a simple rite of passage that I use in times like these. 
A few years ago, I wrote someone a much-needed letter.  I said everything I didn't say when we were together.  Everything I needed to say to him now.  I opened a vein and bled my heart dry on the pages, draining myself of whatever sorrow still trickled through my veins. 
At the end I wrote, "I need to burn this so that I can have the freedom to move on.  To forgive.  To let go."
That night I took the letter outside and burned it in a glass bowl on the edge of my flower gardens.  Burned it until the paper had crinkled and curled.  Burned it until there was nothing left but a small pile of ashes.
Or so I thought.
The next morning I went outside to get the bowl and noticed that in the tiny heap of cinders, there were two minuscule scraps of paper.  One was blank.  The other had been charred, but not completely destroyed.  Browned around the edges, only one word could be easily seen:  "free." 
         
I'm not a pyromaniac in the literal sense, although I love the freedom fire allows me to embrace as I transform that which has been into that which is no more.  So tonight I'll write a few pages sitting at the very same table at which I used to melt crayons as a child, then burn them surrounded by the gardens in my backyard.  I'll be celebrating freedom on my own, and it will be a quiet, simple Independence Day.
One that will surely outlast any fireworks display on the block.