Sunday, October 7, 2018

Listening for the birds

About ten years ago I was on a family nature walk in Seward Park. My daughter Lucia was about four-years-old at the time and the naturalist leading the hike was a young man who looked barely out of high school. I was a little disappointed. I wondered what I could learn from this young guy. The docent took us along the path pointing out the different barks on the trees, poison oak, variations of ferns and moss. Then he stopped suddenly and became completely silent. We all followed suit, even the kids. After about a minute he said, "No matter where you are in the world, if you stop, be still, and listen, you will hear birds. Even in New York City," he went on, "birds will be there. Birds are everywhere. You just have to stop, be still and listen."

I've followed that naturalist's words at least once a week for the last ten years. He's right. In New York, Chicago, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma..... the birds are always there.  Today I am completing the fifth day of a meditation training.* This particular training is about coming back to our true nature by welcoming all our experiences. We get to this, in part by opening all of our senses. The training is at a beautiful retreat center in Northern California.  There are deer everywhere, wild turkeys, snakes, lizards, jack rabbits, hawks, owls and so many other birds. For this training, most of the time we're sitting or lying down so every morning for the last five days I've gotten up at 6:30am to walk the hills to prepare my body for the long days of stillness. At 6:30am, when I leave my dorm, the sky is still dark and the sounds of the birds are loud and clear. They too might still be just waking up. In the dark I can't see any of the other creatures, but I can hear the birds.

As I walked the hills at sunrise these last few days, as the sun illuminated the golden grass of the hills, I have spotted deer and a few times, a lucky jack rabbit. I stepped on a snake yesterday and the squirrels, lizards and hawks have been everywhere. This morning I noticed that, as my visual senses came alive with the sunrise, I stopped hearing the sounds of the birds. So as I got to the top of a hill, I closed my eyes and stopped. I stood still. I heard the wind in the grass. I heard the highway in the distance. But I couldn't hear any birds. Just as I began to worry, I heard one.  Then I heard many. They were there. They always are.


*Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra is a form of yoga and mediation. If you're interested in learning more, sign up for one of Laura's workshops at The SweatBox Loft.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Growth

People throw around the term ADD a lot. I hear many adults, myself included sometimes say, in reference to being distracted, "I'm so ADD" or "I probably have ADD." My nephew and many other people I know truly have ADD or ADHD and it's not a joke, so I've really tried to temper my use of that term. What I have, and what I think many people have, is a lack of focus. I believe this is exacerbated by the easy access to distraction via our smart phones, tablets and laptops. Yesterday I was writing my mom and email about coming to visit. As I was driving home I thought to myself, "What ever happened with that email?" A few hours later when I opened my laptop, I saw it, just sitting there half-written, abandoned mid-sentence.

About a year ago I felt strongly that I needed to move on from owning and running The SweatBox. I wasn't feeling inspired or motivated. I felt distracted and unsettled. Then my landlord called me to tell me that a new space was opening up in the building and did I want to look at it. It was the day before I was to leave for Chicago for a long family trip, but something made me say yes and I met her to look at the space. Of course I loved it. The building my yoga studio is in is old and filled with character. In this new space, there are original wood floors and brick walls. The ceilings are 13 feet high and the windows look towards a beautiful patinated church spire west of the studio.

I spent the week in Chicago meditating over the idea of expanding. How could I go from uninspired to excited in such a short time? What did this mean? I tried to process this and figure out if this was just my lack of focus taking over or if there was something bigger. I told my landlord that I was unsure but to tell me right away if anyone else showed serious interest. I hemmed and hawed for a few more weeks until one day I talked to my friend Vanessa in New York. Vanessa is an old friend. I've known her more than twenty years. She's also a therapist and we've had many conversations dissecting both of our psyches. I told Vanessa of my challenge making this decision. I shared my concern that I had flip-flopped from being ready to sell my business to wanting to expand in such a short time. Was I being impulsive? Was I losing my mind?

Vanessa listened. And listened. And listened. And then she said, "Laura, for as long as I've known you, you've craved risk. You've always needed some element of risk in your life. It's okay. It's part of who you are." The MOMENT I heard these words it was as if the final piece of the puzzle had been placed. She was right. My lack of motivation was not for lack of passion, it was that there was something missing. Adding this element of risk and creativity, was what I needed. So I said yes to my landlord and The SweatBox Loft was born.

Opening The SweatBox Loft has been challenging, stressful and chaotic. It's definitely adding an element of risk to my life! But it's also made me feel complete, like all the parts of my brain are being attended to. I'm excited and motivated for this new adventure. Mostly I'm relieved to have this clarity. Sometimes my lack of focus and distraction is poor technology hygiene and bad habits. This time though, it was something else. It was that neglected part of my brain asking for some attention. I'm grateful to Vanessa for helping me shine a light on it.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Puzzle Time

I'm in a constant battle with technology in my life. I live everyday trying to be more conscious of when I'm using it, how I'm using it, the number of minutes I'm using it. I even have an app that keeps track of all of this and reports back to me. Technology feels like a vortex that I will fall into and never emerge from if I am not constantly vigilant.

To watch a young person experience this is frightening. As a parent, I have to toggle the line between being a full-time anti-screen-time nag and having a good relationship with my daughter. I can only lecture and lay down the line so much. I have to find other ways to connect and be together as a family, to make being off the screen engaging and fun. Going out of town to remote places together, with lack of wifi is always a good way to decrease technology's grip on our brains. Swimming for long periods of time works too. And of course, doing yoga is a solid solution to reclaiming a technology free hour for our bodies and brains.

At the beginning of the summer I had the idea to bring home a puzzle to engage my family in a non-competitive, technology-free activity. The puzzle home is our dining room table. During the summer this hasn't been a problem because mostly we eat outside, but as I look outside today at the grey sky and clouds I realize those days are over. And the 2000 piece puzzle, only 75% complete, has been on our dining room for five weeks.  I'll need to find another home for future puzzles if we're going to eat meals sitting down.

The first puzzle we did as a family was 500 pieces. It had a lot of color and writing, things I now know make puzzle-making easier. It was mostly my daughter Lucia and I that did it. My partner Nancy hadn't quite embraced the passion for puzzles but she'd hang around chatting, cooking, puttering while Lu and I did the puzzle. That first one was easy. We did in in a day.  The second one was 1000 pieces and was a bit more challenging but we finished that one as well. My plan was working. We were spending time together, slowing down, engaging and connecting without the distractions of screens.

This most recent puzzle is 2000 pieces. The image is of three hot air balloons floating above a lake with trees and mountains in the background. Each of the balloons has a reflection in the lake and their are vast swaths of solid green and blue. This puzzle is a beast. One night Nancy and I were home alone and I was working on the puzzle. "Do you want to try this with me?" I asked her.

"Sure. I'll try it" she said, surprising me. I was so excited to have her on board.  We spent a couple of hours and managed to finished to frame of the puzzle. We felt like geniuses, puzzle masters,  incredibly psyched and proud of our accomplishment. The next day we went out of town and our friends Simon and Nadine came from New Orleans to stay at our house. We left a note, "Work on me" sitting on top of the puzzle with the hope that they would know to at least not put the puzzle away. When we got home, there was significant progress on the puzzle. They shared that, every night for the four nights in Seattle, after eating at a great restaurant, instead of going out to hear music or have a drink at a bar, they'd come home and work on the puzzle. When they left, they laughed, pointing out the huge piles of solid green and blue that they'd avoided during their puzzle-time.

Simon and Nadine left over a week ago and we are now finally inching our way through the solid greens and blues. Yesterday, home alone, I spent three hours on the puzzle. Three hours I could have been planting bulbs, taking a walk, riding my bike, doing yoga, having coffee with a friend, cleaning my desk, binge watching Shameless. Several times, I really wanted to abandon the puzzle, to storm away from the table and yell in frustration, but no one was home and my dramatic outcry would just echo back to me, amplifying my angst.

So I stayed seated, tethered to the puzzle by some invisible, unbreakable puzzle force. I sat in front of the spread out pieces-- solid blues on one side, solid greens on the other. And as I looked at the pieces, minute after minute, I slowly began to notice the details that I hadn't noticed before. The tiny spot of red on the corner of an otherwise totally green piece. The unusual jagged cut out of another piece. The thin, almost undetectable white strip in the center of a blue piece. I sat there, moving only my arms and my eyes for three hours. When I finally got up it looked like I'd made no progress at all. But it didn't matter. I felt like the static on on my mental TV had finally been tuned. My mind felt dialed in, focused, and clear. The app on my phone that I use to record my screen time said I'd used 7 minutes for the day.



Friday, August 17, 2018

Forgiveness

Last week I was talking to a student at the front desk, something I do everyday when I teach. Sometimes we talk about the weather. Sometimes it's relationships. Sometimes it's even about yoga. On this day, this student, who's been practicing at The SweatBox for close to twelve years, said to me, "You know, I was really mad at you guys a few years ago when you kept talking about gratitude."

This was a compelling thought in itself, but even more so because I have been thinking about the overuse of the concept of gratitude in social media, in mainstream advertising, on t-shirts.  "Tell me more," I said to the student. "Well, " she explained, "it seemed for a while that teachers were just talking on and on about gratitude, but what about forgiveness?"

Forgiveness. The act of letting something go, of absolving, granting mercy, releasing, allowing. I got it. To forgive is to be able to make space for gratitude. If we are mired in the anger or holding on, being unforgiving, it is virtually impossible to have gratitude for what is there. The things to be grateful for are blurred by the static that comes from the energy it takes to hold on to anger or judgement or pain or whatever is in the way of forgiveness.

For the last several years, in my little village of Capitol Hill, I have watched the housing prices sky rocket. I have witnessed countless people-- customers, colleagues, friends--- being displaced into neighborhoods further north and south. I have seen everyday the proliferation of people literally sleeping on the streets. The same young man sleeps in front of our studio every night. We walk by him to get to our yoga mats. When we leave class, we walk by him, wondering what we can do. I've called the social service agencies the city tells me to call, but alas, the man still sleeps on the sidewalk night after night. I worry about the summer ending. Where will he go? How will he stay warm?

As a result, I have been really PISSED off at the City of Seattle. I am mad. How has a city so rich  and so smart allowed for our housing crisis to reach such a catastrophically shameful state? I am judgemental, frustrated, and ashamed. Last week the Seattle was electric with the buzz of Pearl Jam's two concerts- The Home Shows. I'm not in that scene. I'm a lifelong nerd.  I like quiet music. Big concerts give me anxiety. Then I started hearing about how twelve million dollars was raised from two concerts. At first I felt cynical. "Oooh. Great marketing for them." I thought to myself. "Seattle shouldn't be depending on concerts to house our homeless."

And then my wise student came into my mind. "What about forgiveness?" I thought to myself. And I tried it. I made an earnest attempt to forgive the City of Seattle. I talked myself through it. Bureaucracy is a bitch. Durkan is a brand new mayor. Amazon is a megaforce. Our city is growing  really fast. I let go of some of my anger and judgement and I forgave the City of Seattle. It worked. I was able to truly celebrate the gift of Pearl Jam, the gift of raising twelve million dollars to help people who need homes, rent subsidies, utility assistance, mental health care. Twelve million dollars isn't enough, but it's a damn good start. Thank you Pearl Jam and everyone who supported the Home Shows.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Man with The Duffels

There’s a man who lives in Seward Park. I’ve seen him for years. He’s very quiet. He walks very slowly and he always carries two duffel bags. He wears a dark parka all year long that looks navy but is shiny with grime and age so it's hard to tell the actual color. I often see him walking the south end of Lake Washington. I've seen him as far as Leschi but mostly I see him around Seward Park and inside the park. I often run the inner trails with my friend Kate and her dog Tucker and we've crossed this mans path multiple times.

This morning as I was walking around the Seward Park outer loop, I saw him walking in front of me. He was about 100 yards ahead and I could tell it was him from his distinctive gate and the two duffels. I’ve always assumed that this man lives in the inner sanctum of the park. There are arterials all around the loop that feed into the park. It's easy to get lost among the arterial paths. The inner sanctum is a wonderful, peaceful sanctuary from the chaos of the city. The old growth forest is magical and lush with centuries-old Douglas Firs, nurse logs and ferns. I never go on the inner trails on my own because I worry about getting lost. I also fear the mystery of the vast, beautiful, unknown park.

This morning, the man with duffels turned off to go up one of the trails. I was still about 50 yards behind and as I approached the trailhead I could no longer see him, but I heard screaming inside of the forest. It was angry, aggressive. The voice was swearing. I stopped. I took out my earbuds so I could hear more clearly.  It was early, not even 7am and there was no one else around. I walked to the other side of the path, away from the lake so I could hear better. I heard the voice again, "Fuck you!" and then something unintelligible. There was only one voice. No one was responding to the angry outbursts.  I felt stuck, unwilling to go into the park to investigate and no one around to help me discern the origin or meaning of the yelling.

Finally, I yelled into the tree line of the inner sanctum, "Are you okay in there?" I waited. I heard nothing. I waited a few more minutes and a woman on bike came by. "Did you hear yelling?" I asked. "Yes" she said,  "I think he was yelling for his dog. There's a lot of bunnies in there and it's easy to lose your dog to the chase."

I knew there was no dog. I had seen the man turn in and I was pretty sure it was this quiet man's voice I'd heard. But I didn't say anything to the woman. I just nodded and she continued riding. After the woman rode on I waited a few minutes more and when I heard nothing else from the woods, I continued on my own loop. I kept my earbuds out so I could hear if there were any more voices.

What was this man's story? Maybe he was a person with demons who found solace in the woods. Did I interrupt his private experience by yelling into the trees. Maybe the woods is his home, his sanctuary and I witnessed a private moment that was supposed to be his alone.

We never really know a person's story, their emotional experiences, their inner demons. I wonder what kind of home the man with the duffels has made inside the park. Has he found a way to create a place where he can be who he truly is, sometimes quiet, and sometimes angry and loud.

As I walked on, I thought about my decision to not follow those yells this morning, to stay on my safe, paved path on the outskirts of the forest. I'm a city kid. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. My mom warned us about which train stations were safe. I knew what bus stop I should get off to avoid danger.  When my little sister was held up at gun point while sitting in a car a block from our house, I waited with my parents and sisters for the all-night locksmith to come change our locks. Sometimes when I'm walking and I'm alone on the path and I feel unsafe for some reason, I know it's my city dweller voice resurfacing. When I'm walking around the park and there's no one around or I get a weird vibe off of someone I pass, I think to myself, "I can always run into the water. I'm a great swimmer. Most people wouldn't follow me into the water. That will be my escape."

But I don't feel that way in the forest. For me going into the woods is not an escape. I'm scared of it. It's dark and closed. There are secret hiding places for the boogie man all over the forest. But maybe for the man with the duffels, the forest is a safe place. The darkness, the canopy cover, the mystery and the hiding places are his comfort. I'll never know what made the man with the duffels angry or if his yelling was even out of anger. I hope I didn't interrupt something that made him feel less safe in his home. I feel a little bit like I invaded his privacy, his safety zone.

When I think of the man with the duffels, I feel a sense of reverence for him, for his life in the forest. I love the beauty of the woods, the smells, the sounds of the birds, the variant greens, but he is a part of the forest. When I heard him yelling, I knew somehow that he had entered his home. In his yelling, he was letting something out that he doesn't when he's outside of the woods. We all need a place where we can feel safe and at peace. I often find that place near the water, on the periphery of the trees. I hope the man with the duffels finds his peace in the forest.





Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Triangle Then. Triangle Now.

Circa 2006
I started practicing yoga almost twenty-five years ago. I was twenty-four years old, ten years older than my daughter is now. I cannot remember what my body felt like that many years ago. I can't imagine not feeling a little something in my shoulder or a tiny kink in my hip, the chicken bone snaps in my knees.

During practice recently I've been modifying triangle pose. Sometimes I skip it altogether. Triangle pose is not the only yoga posture that's changed for me, but it's definitely the pose that's changed the most significantly-- I really notice how my body is a different body.

When my daughter was born almost fourteen years ago, my labor was long, 42 hours. I had multiple midwives during the course of my labor. The last one, Kelly, had to really push me. If I didn't progress, a C-section would be in my future. During hour 36, after putting some kind of gel on my cervix and walking the stairs of Group Health Cooperative for 90 minutes straight, Kelly told me to do triangle pose. And I did. Nine months pregnant, awake for almost two days, laboring for most of it, I dropped into triangle like it was no big thing.

The other day in class that image popped into my mind as I struggled to get my left leg into position. In days past, my left hip would just slide into place, but now it behaves like a rusty car door in a junk yard. It's not an injury. I'm just getting older and my body is the messenger. Sometimes my left hip feels more lubricated and cooperative and I catch a glimpse of my triangle from days past.

At the end of summer, my friend Kate and I are hosting a Yoga and Menopause Retreat. We're calling it Put Some Claws in Your Pause. Our goal is to find the power in this next phase, to step into menopause with fierce grace. To prepare for the retreat, I've been doing a lot of reading about menopause and peri-menopause. There's a lot of negative bullshit written about menopause but there are also realities about how our bodies change. It got me thinking about the comparison of my triangle pose during my young, fertile phase, literally when I was giving birth, and my triangle pose during this time in my life where I am recalibrating, physically slowing down a little. I've earned this time to put on the brakes and take some breaks. My body needs it and my soul needs it.

I'm not convinced that my triangle will stay as it is, but it is like this right now and I think I can learn from it. This incarnation of triangle, the more limited, creaky version is not worse than the badass hips down and open version of the triangle of my thirties. It's a reminder, an affirmation, that I'm entering a new phase. 

I'm excited about what's next. It's a reality that I as I get older, I will experience more limited hip mobility and likely other physical changes, but it's okay because I also get the wisdom that comes with age. In my thirties I would have fought hard against a sticky hip, but these days I have the wisdom to see these physical changes for what they can teach me, to embrace them as medals of honor for living a half-century. My triangle might look a little different, but I'm still doing triangle.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Counting days is not the answer.

Most mornings when I wake up Nancy and I talk about something that's happening either in our city, in our country or our world. Yesterday it was the 114  families in Ohio who were rounded up by ICE and separated from each other, the new American standard. When driving home from Fremont on Tuesday, coming off of my exit onto Rainier, I drove by a man with a sign that said, "My name is Brandon. I need your help." Before class yesterday, one of my students almost started crying when we talked about the current state of the American South. Two weeks ago a 17-year old getting ready to graduate from Franklin High School was shot and killed in one of my favorite parks a mile from my house. There is a mini-billboard hanging on a porch a few miles from my house that the homeowners hung after the 2016 elections. They change it every day to show how many days we have left.

We talk a lot about just getting through this. Waiting until this terrible darkness is over. We can see what's happening. It's happening in plain sight, before our eyes. We are no longer in denial. We can't be. There is too much and it is too big. We find ways to talk about it, to make ourselves feel better. I walk the Seward Park loop and smile at the different faces, taking pleasure in connecting with strangers. I cherish my time at the studio. I often say, "We're so lucky to have this community." I try to give what I can by contributing to my little circle, by making a kinder, more gentler world for people in my orbit, but when I look from the outside in, my influence is tiny. It's not enough.

My sister Katherine has dedicated her life to social justice. She works relentlessly, constantly for her cause, which is truly all of our cause. I used to feel sad, rejected because she never had time for me, but now I see that she's compelled. She's driven because her eyes are wide open. Our limited time connecting is not about me. It's about creating a better world. I've gone from being resentful to being grateful.

It's not that I do nothing. I volunteer. I contribute money. I hold fundraisers. I promote specific issues through the studio to raise awareness. I am raising a feminist daughter with extreme left-leaning tendencies. But it's not enough. I woke up today feeling stressed about my little work problems--personnel disagreements, retreat enrollment, summer class attrition. But when I sat down to my computer to write, a luxury I give myself in the early morning hours whenever I can, all I could think about was that I'm not doing enough.

What's stopping me? Is it the hours in the day? The fear of seeing more? Seeing too much? Knowing more about the bad in the world makes my breath catch. I am afraid. When Nancy was sharing the details from the article she read about the Ohio ICE raid, I said, "Honey, we have to make our home available to harbor people." We have to do more. I texted my friend Michelle who does pro bono immigration counseling at El Centro de La Raza and said, "Tell me what to do!"

It's not okay, the world right now. It's not enough to just be grateful for what I have, for the freedoms I experience. Right now my chest is tight. I can feel the fear that I will fail, that I'll never be able to make a difference. And then I think about these families who are being separated and deported. I imagine the fear they must experience. It must be beyond fear-- terror, trauma.  It's true--"No one is free when others are oppressed." I might feel the freedom because I am financially secure and an American citizen, but I'm not free. This tightness in my chest tells me as much. I don't have the perfect answer for what I should do. I don't really have any answers right now,  but I know that counting the days is not it.