between deaths we dreamed together

Stephen Levine left his body two days ago. I’ve known of him for a few years because Chris has told me about him and his wife Ondrea, who have spent their lives thinking about and writing about how to die consciously. Chris tells me about a lot of things – the man is endlessly curious about everything from hunter gatherers to better accounting systems – and so not everything he tells me “sticks.” Admittedly, the Levines did not entirely stick. Still, I vaguely knew there was this couple who were both older and in poor health residing in the desert of New Mexico and waiting to die, while still very vividly living. (Ah, Paradox!)

So when I learned that Stephen had died, I finally found myself on their web site where I sat rapt with this video of the two of them. I’m not sure when it was made – I suspect in the past year. They are bright of spirit here, even though there is a sense of an end being close at hand.  Besides from the generous, wise words they share, there is so much to love about the video. I love, for instance, how at the :50 mark he pretends to eat her toe with gusto – making her laugh. I love their vibrant red shirts and their tattoos, which appear to be pretty fresh. I love the cat that comes and goes. Her snappy manicure and long tresses. His insouciance. The clutter of blankets and pillows on the back of the sofa.

Most of all, I love that they hold hands through almost the entire hour. And though they are not looking at one another, they are in total sync, complete harmony. They have clearly lived in deep respect, learning one another and coming to a place where love lives well beyond the realm of the physical container. I imagine that Ondrea is now both sad, missing this lovely and cunning companion’s physical presence, but also at peace, feeling him everywhere.

Here is a poem that Stephen wrote. I have no idea if it is intended as an homage to God, but I certainly hope that it is, at some level, a love poem for Ondrea.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

There is a silence between breaths
when the heart becomes a sacred flame
and the belly uncoils which reminds me
how remarkable it is to wake
beside you another day.

Between deaths we dreamed together
between breaths, in that stillness,
which has joined us ever since.

In that first breath
we step onto the dance floor,
and waltz unnoticed through the void.
The sacred everywhere we turn
and turn again, as form so generously dissolves
and only the Beloved remains.

In this moment which lasts a lifetime
there is nowhere to stand
where you are not beside me
where you do not accompany me within.

-Stephen Levine

 

Pacific calling

9b12768612690bf728cdb84d7417ae40I am sitting more these days. Listening in. My anxiety – an ancient friend – has been hanging around quite a bit. That pulsing feeling in my chest is how I know it’s there. Tap, tap, tap. I come downstairs this morning after a long night of staying up with my daughter who is working on a speech. Chris tells me that North Korea detonated a hydrogen bomb and that the temperature in the Arctic Circle was warmer than that in Southern California yesterday. I moan. Tap, tap, tap.

He laughs and I turn on him:  “How can you laugh???”

He is quick and kind and generous in his words:  “Is the world a better place by your unhappiness? Will global warming change because you’re worrying about it?”

We’ve started allowing ourselves to dream toward the coast. A slow, unfolding dream. Two nights ago, both of us had dreams about California – of the hills and the ocean and the sweet feel of the sea’s breath. It’s a creeping hopefulness that embraces the possibility of a full, long life.

My friend called yesterday and mentioned his 20-something’s son return to Brooklyn after two weeks at home. “The house is quieter now,” he says, and I can hear the missing in his voice, the gap left by his son. I know I will feel this gap so strongly one of these days – too soon. But I try to lean into the adventure and learning, the beauty and newness that awaits my kids. Falling in love. First apartments. New foods. Sharing stories – about me, no less – with new friends. So much is out there. And while they are on their adventures, I am starting to see a possibility of mine. Of ocean. Of future creative collaborations. Of a larger vision of yoga and myself as a teacher. It’s hazy still, this vision, but it’s out there.

61u7hek8jkl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Bella has been working for days on a speech about a book. She’s nervous – speeches aren’t her thing (though it’s a really good speech, so she needs to stop telling herself this story!). Listening to her as she reads me snippets of what she’s written has been kind of wonderful because the book is my biography of Dan Eldon! I’ve gotten to hear her falling in love with Dan’s  life and spirit. And last night when she read me the ending of her talk, I knew that she’d gotten it. She ends by wondering about her own future safaris and asks, what will you do on your safari? Not unlike the Mary Oliver poem, What will you do with this one precious life?

Indeed, so much precious time awaits me. It’s so easy to feel that this is it – I’ve done my work –  I’m settling in for the long haul. But how hurtful to my spirit. Instead, I turn toward the Pacific and listen to the waves.

 

 

dark woods

campfirewhat is it i feel today, this last day of the year?

melancholy – expectations – fear – a calling

all are mixed in together

part of me so eager to go – the mind churning, churning with lists and ideas of what is next, what to start, what to try! ….

and then a rope drops down to some very deep place and I hear a prayer-like voice:  be still

this pull between the two is where the discomfort arises

the ongoing ‘problem’ that i now see is unsolvable of how to be a mom-yogi-writer-incomer earner-wife-housekeeper-daughter.

the friction is so intense in that mix, it’s combustible.

another year of trying to be all of this ends

and another chance to try to conceive a different relationship to it all begins.

the unraveling of a knot i tied myself into

a new formation – a new approach – I’m not sure – but my eyes and heart are open.

Today I read: “Walk without a stick into the darkest of woods.”  Here I come.

morning prayer

Bella paintingI awake next to my daughter. We were up until midnight making art – me a little collage box, slightly clunky but full of heart, a late present for my husband; her a series of tiny paintings based on sky photos she’s taken during the year. Exquisite. Awe-filled.

At last, we’ve awakened to snow. It wasn’t a pretty one yesterday – more rain than snow, heavy and full of drudge. But for those of us used to Winter in bold and capitol letters this morning’s white blanket is a relief – the world is not totally askew, not totally lost.

Lying in bed, I switched on my phone and read a beautiful poem about the presence found in the forest – the idea that we are always Here – just listen, just look, settle in and feel yourself at Home. But then I scrolled down to the section of the daily email about what happened on this day in history. Wounded Knee. A history I’ve ready before but not internalized. Peacemakers murdered. Women and children murdered. Bodies strewn on a -40 degree frozen creek bed. The hubris and fear-induced villainry of our younger nation laid bare. See this – this fear, this greed, this hatred.

jean_louis_thc389odore_gc389ricault_-_la_balsa_de_la_medusa_museo_del_louvre_1818-19Yesterday, looking through The New York Times best photos of the year section, Tobey asked, “Didn’t anything good happen this year?” He paused over a two-page spread of photos of Syrian refugees – majestic images, their composition and lighting worthy of an enormous frame in the Louvre. I’m reminded of The Raft of the Medusa, a giant of a painting of suffering and longing. I’d studied it in art history books, but encountering it in massive form, its imposing heft demanding LOOK HERE was a whole other experience. Like reading Gertrude Stein versus hearing Gertrude Stein. Like listening to Nirvana on CD versus seeing them at the Crocodile Cafe, circa 1992.  … Tobey studied the page for awhile and then continued, still searching for a happy image. The backsides of Obama and Pope Francis standing on the Washington mall was the best he could do.

tumblr_nkjqocxcuo1unigu6o1_1280He has spent his break between video games – shooter videos that drive me crazy and that we spend a lot of time in conversation around – and repeatedly listening to, singing, and choreographing the music from Hamilton. It is an odd odd juxtaposition – playing “madcap” versions of US military missions – I’ll hear him in his room laughing hysterically with his friend Gage, “Don’t shoot the chicken!” – and a hiphop, African American/Latino re-imagining of early American history. The same boy who just shot up a biotech lab in Antarctica that is run by Kevin Spacey (yes, really Kevin Spacey) is minutes later pirouetting to “I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot” and gushing about Lin-Manuel Miranda, an idol any mother would love.

Mixed up times. Crazy. Bizarre. And yet here. Here. One day at a time.

I close out this year with a sense of vulnerability. The final year of my 40s – heading into 50. Just a few more years with Bella under this roof. Aging friends and parents. Nights of waking in fear and sadness. But also with longer and longer moments of clarity. And when joy comes, it is so exquisitely pure.

Now – right now – heading into the heavy snow to shovel some more. Pulling on thick wool socks. As I work, I will think of those at Wounded Knee. Pay some thin homage through the years. My heart sputtering with its soft, human being.

 

Lost

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

~David Wagoner

 

 

sky

evening skyThe sky was beautiful this morning. Not only did I see it and appreciate its salmon streaks – no small feat in the midst of my rather robotic and swift morning ritual – but I shared it with Bella, who was so taken with the colors that she dashed outside and snapped it on her phone. In the later afternoon, as the sky did another dance, this one worthy of O’Keeffe in its patterns and light, she captured it again.

The are many times when I doubt where I live. I yearn for the west coast to the point of pain – too often. It doesn’t help that this time of year Iowa can feel desolate – barren trees, colorless sky, and empty gardens. Errant trash tucked into the crevices of ditches and the undersides of shrubs adds insult to injury. It is home, though. Home. A word I don’t take lightly.

We can go anywhere – what a delicious truth. The person in me who chose American Studies as a field (thank you Sherman Paul), cherishes an umbilical connection to a single place, the place of my children’s birth, of my father’s grave, of houses where I once kissed and made love, of classrooms where I learned – all of this a home that roots me here repeatedly and requires that I see the beauty, no matter how thin, how quiet.

To notice the sky – a gift of patience, love, vision. To have a daughter who sees it, too – that is beauty abundant.

practice

yoga-hands-matIt was a grey day in every way. Post-Thanksgiving quiet. Chris and I testy at each other. Paperwork. Writing work. House work. Work.

In the late afternoon, not quite ready to start the next round of what felt like a list of “have-to’s”, I unfolded my mat. The mere unfurling of that piece of rubber – such an unlikely symbol of calm – is Pavlovian. Here. Now. Be. And there for 30-40 minutes — I couldn’t say exactly — not enough and yet just right — I moved — prayed — unwound — settled — and, finally, arrived. Beauty, right t/here all of the time.

What a gift is this practice that I happened on to twenty-five years ago to help cure a sore back. I got there by way of Julia – thank you, thank you Julia! – who had done it in New York. There were a handful of studios in Seattle at the time, and one was near my apartment on the top of Capitol Hill. Run by an Iyengar teacher named Denise – though “Iyengar” meant nothing to me at the time – with other teachers who I think were from different traditions. We did a lot of work in partners and even trios. There was a kind of roly-poly friendly glasses-wearing guy who often came to the same class and we would partner. There were folding chairs and lots of props. Not so much on breathing or meditating – I didn’t even get that this thing I was doing for my back – thanks to my long hours at Microsoft and an hour-long commute – had anything to do with the beginning meditation classes I was taking in a little bungalow down the hill.

I kept going when I moved to Iowa City, seeking out one of the only two teachers in town then. I started in the tiny studio space above the crunchy private school, and each class was saturated with the smell of baking cookies from the kitchen below. We meditated in this class – sitting facing the wall. I kept at it knowing there was something in it I craved, even if it had yet to entirely click. It felt good in my body but not in my heart.

And then I tried the other teacher. I arrived. Fully.

Jenny in the long church social room with the carpeting and the faint scent of potlucks. We brought our own mats – nary a prop. The class was laced with other traditions, as Jenny is nothing if not a curious experimenter. In particular, I’ll always remember the class just after 9/11 when we sat in two long rows, back to back, side to side, in meditation, tears flowing.

I only knew dimly at that time that Jenny had trained at Kripalu. Years later, at a packed holiday party, the two of us talking loudly over our sparkling waters and wine, l learned that she’d been an initiate of Swami Kripalu. I’d already been to Kripalu myself by then – she’d even written my letter of recommendation – and now she offered this so lightly, as though she were softly passing me a golden thread.

The thread that had begun in Seattle continued – all the way to Kripalu – all the way to teaching – all the way to the many studios I’ve practiced in over the decades – and next, all the way to a new training journey. Each experience, each practice a blessed space. None more so that my livingroom floor and that thin, used piece of rubber mat.

saying yes

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Say yes and you’ll figure it out afterward. – Tina Fey

Yes. I am saying yes. And it’s an interesting journey. I recommend it.

This fall I spoke at a cocktail mingler about creativity. I was invited last minute and it would have been so easy to say no. There were hipsters and entrepreneurs and movers and shakers. “What should I talk about?” I asked the man who asked me to speak and who is himself in all of the above categories. Cool as could be: “Whatever you’re passionate about right now.” So I spoke about the writing project that is several years in the making – starting and stopping, with me sometimes believing in it and sometimes feeling faithless. And I spoke about the need to inject more creativity into our local schools — another topic that I keep pushing and pulling at, working from different angles as my own kids work their way up the educational ladder with varying frustration and ennui at the relative worth-less-ness of the endeavor.

I said yes to the last minute call for a private yoga session with the visiting couple. He was getting a divorce. They’d reunited, years past their college romance. He lived in California – had just been surfing less than 24 hours before on the beach where I’d gotten married. She lived in New York. They chose Iowa out of a quixotic love of the literary and an intention to meet in the middle. I taught from the hip, which is often the best way, and at the end of our 90 minutes they beamed.

I said yes to my husband’s proposition that we stay out on the beach until after dark under the stars. Which is how we got a little bit lost – or turned around, depending on who you ask, and ended up walking on a path in the pitch black, holding on to each other, singing loudly, and flashing our cell phone lights ahead and behind as we tried not to utter the words “mountain lion.” (“Don’t say ‘mountain.’ Don’t say ‘lion.'”) But at the end of the path was the hostel where a nice Dutchman named Anders who was cooking his dinner paused to drive us to our car — bless that man up and down and may all good things come to him. As soon as he drove away, we took a deep sigh of relief and then  had the best laugh – and have been laughing occasionally for the past two weeks at our selves. Yes to the stars! Yes to the ocean! Yes to fear!

Speaking of stars, I said yes to introducing an astrophysicist who spoke with verve about the heart of the Milky Way. The night before, she sent me a so-called layman’s article to read to familiarize myself with her topic. I crossed my eyes and turned it upside down and then tried reading it with a French accent, but it was still a smattering of chaotic, albeit awe-some star-studded nonsense. And yet I stood there the next day and introduced her and did not completely make a fool of myself. Rather, I said yes.

Which is what I did two weekends ago when we went to California and I joined a group of fifty people for a dance workshop. There were a lot of gray hairs among the dancers, but also lithe, young bodies. Several men looked as though they were draped in suits during the week. I took one woman to be a counselor at a community college. Another man had an IT air. One young woman seemed fresh out of a modern dance degree; another, covered in tattoos and beads, arrived from a commune. Who knows their true stories, their actual lives.There was a lot of quiet – people hardly spoke, just the music and the sound of feet on the wooden floor. What I saw were the selves they shared only as dancing bodies — people vulnerably and yet ecstatically being in their physical selves. Twirling. Leaping. Crawling. Eyes closed. Smiles wide. Tears.  Patches of California sun streaming in through the window of the Finnish Hall. Out on the fire escape, a row of potted plants — rosemary, basil, cacti.

I can’t entirely put my experience of the workshop into words. Which is how it should be — something so about the body should largely remain in that land beyond words. I can say that there were moments of pure pleasure and others of utter panic. It brought forth some mighty teachers — Judgement, Doubt, Boredom, and Impatience. But also Joy. Also Love.  I have no regrets. I said yes, and that took me far. I can’t wait to see what comes next.