Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Mrs. Putnam

My mom, still of the newspaper age, just sent me a clipping from the Hyde Park Herald, the weekly from the neighborhood where I grew up in Chicago. The clipping was an obituary for Maryann Putnam, my high school geometry teacher.  Mrs. Putnam had a thick New York accent. She wore denim every day--- denim vest and skirt set, denim jumper, denim slacks and jacket. Mrs. Putnam had dyed black hair, wore large framed classes and was always covered in chalk. Even though my friends and I teased her, she thought we were funny and I knew she loved us.

During our senior year when my girlfriends and I needed to create a service project to graduate, we formed a group called the Pink Ladies. It was 1986 and we were playing off the girl gang from the movie Grease. Mrs. Putnam readily agreed to be our club sponsor and we'd meet with her regularly to talk about what we were up to. In reality, we didn't do anything except talk about what we might do if we actually could get our act together-- tutoring, food bank collection, school clean up. Our biggest accomplishment that year was singing back up for a Rockabilly band that played in the school cafeteria during dances.

Mrs. Putnam's obituary said that she was 95 when she died. That means that she was in her early sixties when she was my teacher, just ten years older than I am now. It's been so long since I've thought about Mrs. Putnam but as I read her obituary, the image of her in her denim skirt and vest, standing outside her classroom door came into my mind as clearly as if it was yesterday. I can see her face--- pale next to her dyed black hair, partially hidden behind her big glasses--- smiling out at me with a hint of irritation as I walk by her, gabbing with my friends to get to our desks in class.

We were so annoying in high school-- especially to Mrs. Putnam. We made fun of her chalk covered clothes and her white roots growing under her black hair, of her big glasses and sensible shoes. But we loved her too because we knew that she loved us. Despite the Pink Ladies' profound lack of organization and productivity, she believed in us. She accepted the fact that, as seniors, not kids but not yet adults, we were doing the best we could to get our shit together. When I look back at it now I think she felt like our envisioning was enough for that moment in our lives. The process of thinking about what we were going to do, of talking about it, dreaming about it, was important, even if we didn't bring our ideas to fruition.

Those times with Mrs. Putnam, sitting in her chalk covered classroom during lunch, were incubator moments. Mrs. Putnam listened to us. She humored us and gave us her time and attention. As the mother of a teenage girl myself, I know how scatterbrained that species can be. I know how disorganized and chaotic their lives are. Being a teenager is wholly about transitioning- from child to adult.  I was surprised how affected I was to hear of Mrs. Putnam's death and I was so glad to know that she lived many happy years beyond her tenure as my math teacher. She deserved it. What Mrs. Putnam gave us, gave me those thirty-three years ago, was a quiet place to land for a moment or two during the maelstrom of my senior year in high school. Thank you Mrs. Putnam. I hope you knew that, despite my attitude and the fact that I was too self-absorbed during those years to tell you, I was (and am) grateful for your presence in my life.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Black Tank Suit


About fifteen years ago I was at a hotel in Palm Springs at a yoga teacher training. There were dozens of tight little bodies, yoga bodies swarming around the vast patio which was home to several pools and hot tubs. I was sitting on a beach chair reading when a woman, somewhere between 50-60, walked by me. On her average, healthy body, she wore a very simple black tank suit. At the time, as a body-conscious, never good enough, 35-year-old yoga teacher, I thought to myself, “I want to look like that when I’m 50.”  But her body wasn’t amazing. She wasn’t that different from me now. It wasn’t that I wanted to look like her when I’m 50, it was that I wanted to be like her. The woman in the simple black tank suit exuded confidence and she was unapologetic about her age, her body, and her place at the pool.

Now I am fifty. It’s been many years since I’ve felt like I was young. I recognize that I will never again be viewed as young. I am getting older, grayer, more wrinkly. I am in a stage of life where I should be grateful and happy for my wellness. I have lost one parent and have friends who have also lost parents, spouses, even children.  But still some days I lament my changing body and skin. I waste precious time trying to stay young instead of leaning into the next phase of life.


A few months ago, right after I turned 50, my partner Nancy and I took a vacation to Mexico. We were on a beautiful, very remote island and I was up early. There were only a few people on the beach and it was the perfect moment for a walk. Normally when I walk on the beach I put on a blouse or some shorts but I hadn’t brought anything with me from the hotel room. I was wearing a really simple black tank suit, just like the woman in Palm Springs. I was a strong, able-bodied, fifty- year-old woman. I decided to walk the beach in just my simple black tank suit.


As I meandered, unencumbered by any extra clothes or hat or even sunglasses, I was reminded of my grandmother. Every year we’d go to Florida with my grandparents and my Nana would spend hours each morning trolling the beach for shells. She always wore a simple black tank suit. My Nana was a great companion to me and a fierce ally. I thought Nana was the most beautiful, glamorous woman in the world---whether she was fully dressed in a black turtleneck and white slacks in her fourteenth floor apartment on the Northside of Chicago or in a tank suit on the beach in Sarasota, Florida. As my sisters and I splashed in the ocean waves in front of the condo every morning, like clockwork, we’d see Nana walking towards us, her silhouette with the sun behind her, eyes down towards the sand, bending down periodically to pick up a shell. She’d stroll with her head down until she heard splashing and our voices yelling her name to look at us in the water. Only then would she look up from the beach with her beautiful sun-kissed skin and cat eye sunglasses and smile.


Nana owned that simple black tank suit. Her sixty-year-old body and leathered skin were so beautiful and perfect to me. Like the woman by the pool, it was her presence that embodied the beauty. As a fifty-year-old woman, I now understand that that presence, the ability to embody whatever body we inhabit, is the product of a life lived and the wisdom that comes from all of life’s lessons.


Wisdom comes with age. For me it has come from many struggles and the heartbreaks in my life, the unexpected changes in my body and the painstaking decisions I had to make in my forties that brought me to this new frontier. Somewhere along the way things shifted and I became wiser. I stepped into this wisdom  It happens to all of us. My simple black tank suit tells a story of the wise women before me who inspired me to recognize and embody this wisdom when my turn came. 


Sunday, October 13, 2019

Seeking Stress

I recently sold my business, a yoga studio in Capitol Hill, Seattle’s busiest neighborhood. I’ve had that business for eighteen years. It  went from three employees to twenty. From one location to two locations. And back down to one location with two spaces. 


It took me a couple of years to finally decide that selling the business was what I actually wanted to do. With the influence during the last few years of things like social media, yoga for dogs, goats, babies, thousands of new teachers flooding the market every year, I decided that I didn’t want to play the game anymore. I’d lost my competitive mojo. 


I loved running that business, but during those eighteen years, I was on all the time! Even when I went on vacation I brought my laptop. I checked my emails, stayed in contact. I was always the one who got called at 5:45am when the 6am teacher forgot their keys or overslept or had a migraine. When the studio had a break in, I was the one called. When a student complained about a teacher or a teacher complained about a student, I was the mediator. I worried every month about the bottom line-- rent, payroll, taxes, inventory, supplies. I had a method to managing the madness and I had support from my staff, but I was stressed and busy all the time. I didn’t realize how utterly hijacked by stress I was until I sold the business and surrendered all of that responsibility. 


It’s been two weeks since I officially stepped down from being the owner of my business--- now someone else’s business and here’s what I notice:


  • I keep waiting for something to happen.
  • I’m still worried I’m forgetting to do something.
  • I feel like I have somewhere I need to be.
  • I still set my alarm for 6am every morning.


Here’s the thing-- I don’t have another job. I’m taking a sabbatical to write and explore and figure out what I want to do next. What I realized this morning when I was writing was that, though I've let go of the responsibilities associated with stress, my body still seems to be seeking it out. My body is searching for it, like my phone searches for wifi service at the airport, roaming around until there is a connection.


The reality is that I don’t have somewhere to be. I’m not forgetting to do something. I’m doing what I want to be doing and no one is waiting for me to do something else. But my body is still programmed for stress. It’s still searching for that connection to the familiar buzz that I get when I’m stressed. It’s weird. I notice it clearly every time it happens. I feel a little surge of adrenaline and I start to worry or check my phone. And then, almost as quickly, I realize that I’m okay. I don’t need to make that stress connection because there is no stress. It’s intense and a little disorienting. I wonder how long it will take to reprogram my body and mind, to feel fully that I have let go of that stress, that those patterned brain surges are just old habits.


Whenever I do get the call to stress and I recognize that it is not real, I feel free, elated, like I’ve won Powerball. I have a moment of celebration that I don’t have to follow that stress. Instead I can walk the dog or bake a cake or clean my desk. I didn’t realize how truly stressed I was until I became not stressed. I don’t know how long this detox will take, but I’m not worried because every time I get that after-feeling it’s like a gift, a moment to truly appreciate how grateful I am to be here now.

What am I worth?

For the first time in my adult life I am in the position of not having a "real job." I am on a chosen hiatus from being fully d...