The Urban Yoga Den

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Yoga Class Focus: Gratitude Trumps Adversity November 27, 2014

SunRaysForestPathSometimes, gratitude does not come overnight. Sometimes days, weeks and months can pass before thankfulness finds its way into a broken heart. But from experience (and lots of it), I know there will be a silver lining to every story of challenge, hardship and adversity. If you’ve read my blog before, you are familiar with my efforts to use yoga, addiction recovery, therapy and related resources to heal from past trauma and cultivate a life of balance and wellness. I’m also devoted to sharing these experiences and tools with others. I’m not perfect; still, I do believe in every being’s potential to heal, grow and change.

And for that – the faith, the belief, the hope – I am grateful.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for two specific things.

 

*  *  *

“Humility and gratitude go hand in hand.”
~ Swami Sivananda Radha

#1: I don’t know where my father is.

You may have read my past blogs about last year’s family fiasco. I’d moved from my hometown of DC to Dad’s retirement city of Nashville to support him as he ages. There were major issues with his house, his health and his finances. Although I was able to help successfully in many ways, my time there was challenging from every angle – work, health, home, community, family. The most difficult was watching my father fade with dementia. The most damaging was my sisters’ hostility toward me. I became financially, physically and emotionally depleted. After gaining counsel, I made the very difficult decision to return to DC, where – with the support of deep roots and caring communities – I could rebuild from scratch.

Over the past year, I have been ostracized by my sisters and by my father’s community. I understand where their blurred perspectives originate, and know that my side of the street is clean. I was the one who showed up for him devotedly and dependably since my mother died more than a decade ago. Because throughout our lives, Dad and I have shared an authentic love beyond description. This October, he told me he was having surgery for skin cancer on his head. Our last conversation was November 9th, the day before his procedure. And now, I can’t reach him, he’s not reaching out to me, my sisters and his friends are not contacting me, I have no idea how he is, and I can only guess where he is.

And…I AM GRATEFUL? How?

PathWithHeartThis is a case where I cannot (yet) see the positive in the situation itself. And so, to lighten my heavy heart, I choose to give thanks for related gifts:

  • I am not the only one who loves my father. Dad has his own higher power(s). I must have faith that he is being cared for. Plus, I have the chance to utilize my own toolbox of wellness resources in order to love him, forgive my sisters and cultivate compassion about the family dissonance. My prayers are for his whole health, and, for a joyous Thanksgiving, wherever he is.
  • My friends are my family. This year, I was invited to multiple Thanksgiving meals. There is an “Orphans Dinner,” a “Vegetarian Friendsgiving,” a “Gluten Free Thanksgiving” and assorted gatherings in communities I’ve been part of for years and years. My “family of choice” has also chosen me – we share similar roots, shared experiences and a yearning for healing and growth.
  • What a difference a year makes. Last winter in Nashville, I accepted a Second Harvest food donation for my family. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life – but, that box of food went a long way when resources were short. This past week, I joined a group of volunteers at a DC nonprofit, giving turkeys and groceries to families in need. This experience widened my gratitude for where I stand today. Things are far from stable, but thanks to seven months of recent steady work, I have food in my fridge…thanks to returning to DC, I’ll share holiday meals with dear ones…and thanks to gleaning the best from a past of hardship, I am able to serve others in ways that I once needed.

*  *  *

“Once you know that suffering is for your benefit… You’ll gladly go through it.”
~ Swami Satchidananda

#2: I was recently fired from my restaurant job.

Exactly four weeks before, my boss sat me down for a glowing progress review. A month later, she scornfully scolded and terminated me. I’m a willing, honest and dedicated worker. When I make mistakes, I take responsibility and seek solutions for improvement. Over that last month, however, there was scrutiny. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And then, bam…see ya.

And you know what? I AM GRATEFUL.

Oh, sure, I’m also feeling a mixture of injustice, anger, financial worry and general upset. With slight hints of self pity. I’m human. But in the end, this is clearly a case (as many friends have remarked in their own ways) where “god” or “the powers that be” are doing for me what I could not do for myself.

LifeIsBeautifulAbsolutely grateful:

  • It is a blessing to be free. I have been liberated from a place that handles professional affairs in a manner that I will not accept.
  • When one door closes, another one opens. Since being fired, I have received numerous offers to teach yoga in studios, at schools, for birthday celebrations, for nonprofits and more.
  • My confidence is boosted! I still must look for sustaining work (because teaching yoga does not pay the bills). And that last job – my first as a waitress/server – was at one of the most popular and busy restaurants in the city. So I am thankful for seven months of training and experience. Even while navigating interpersonal challenges with staff, I honed all of my past professional skills in customer service, marketing, event coordination, catering and more to become an awesome server. And I can take that anywhere. In the meantime, generous friends at a family-owned restaurant are giving me a few shifts, so I can keep up my chops.
  • That job was a gift. One of the managers knew that I’d had a tough year away and – knowing that I had little restaurant experience – gave me work, so I could come home to DC and start strong. Over those seven months, I was able to get on the road to financial recovery. And for these next five months, thanks to generous landlords, I have a roof over my head, and the potential to continue chipping away at bills and debt through new work.
  • I have some healing to do. I believe that I am a healthy woman. Truly. In body, mind and spirit. Thanks to that workplace experience, I am tackling yet another layer of sacred inner work. I had the opportunity to see how staff dynamics can trigger my PTSD – particularly now, after such a tough year with family dysfunction. Thanks to being healthy enough to take accountability for my part and see where I need to grow, I am venturing on a fresh direction toward wholeness.

*  *  *

“…she learned that surrender is quiet.” 
~ from “Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling,”by Becca Stevens, founder of Thistle Farms, a nonprofit serving women recovering from addiction and sexual trauma.

I’m a fighter.

That’s exactly why the recent job termination meeting was such an ironic victory. I had good reason to defend myself. However, I was silent. As the list of “wrongs” was aired, I squirmed internally and took mental notes. At times, I couldn’t help but look surprised. Although frustrated, I pursed my lips. I kept my feet firmly on the ground, my hands resting on my legs, my mind clear and my mouth shut.

Surrender is quiet.

Funny – I’d read the above line from “Snake Oil” on the bus ride to the meeting with my boss. Chapter 3, “Seeds of Healing,” introduces us to a number of Thistle Farms program participants, who work producing healing balms, bath salts and oils for the nonprofit. “Val, like every employee of Thistle Farms, began every morning in the meditation circle before she began to work. She said during her time at Thistle Farms she learned that surrender is quiet. She says in order for her to heal and forgive, she has to surrender everything. Through the journey of surrender, she learned how much quieter it was than all the fighting in prison, with family, with the world.”

Interesting timing, eh? The evening after being fired, it hit me – I had been fighting a lot at that job. Fighting my own fear of failure and financial insecurity; fighting my own negative voices; fighting other’s accusations; fighting for consistency; fighting for staff accountability. After that much battle, it’s clear: the job simply wasn’t meant to be.

As for the family situation, I’m not as quiet. My grief tends to shout, and, I’m having a tough time quelling that voice. There’s still a bit of wrestling; but I know most of it is within my own soul.

Still, it can feel good to give up. To wave the white flag, and accept what’s here, now, real and true. That job is gone, and it’s time to move on. I can’t reach my father, so I must focus on other joys. For me, acceptance is the 1st step toward Samtosha – one of yoga’s five Niyama, or value-based observances, as described by the Eight Limbs in the Yoga Sutras. Samtosha means complete contentment with whatever exists. And such contentment has the potential to transmute into GRATITUDE for the silver linings or lessons. With consistent observance and practice of surrender, acceptance, contentment and gratitude comes the mindful serenity that yoga promises.

I have to ask myself:

Do I want to walk around in misery and resentment about my adversity; or, do I want to cultivate inner peace despite hardship and nurture forgiveness despite hurt – and therefore contribute to harmony around me and in the world?

*  *  *

Aside from mentioning it in the August Yoga Class Focus blog, I never officially wrote about the September and October theme of GROWTH. I reckon I was too busy growing, and encouraging the process in others. So here we are in November, jumping on the GRATITUDE bandwagon! It simply cannot be helped. C’mon, aside from being connected to Thanksgiving marketing, it’s the perfect tie-in to yoga philosophy. Not to mention, exploring GRATITUDE invites us to take stock, offering an inroad toward New Year’s Intentions.

Nearing the end of 2014, I might say that my last year included a doozy of bumps and bruises. Justifiably, I could focus on the family problems, the job loss, my ongoing PTSD issues and my related fears about the future. On the other hand, I could exercise the yogic tenant of Pratipaksha Bhavana, and replace those negatives with the positives listed above.

The act of being grateful gives me something warm to hold in my heart, even when the chill of adversity breaks it. Gratitude softens me enough to squarely face my wounds. It keeps my mind open to – eventually – giving thanks for what initially shut me down.

No matter where you are in the world, I wish you a day of THANKS-GIVING. Heck, with yoga’s guidance, we could enjoy an entire lifetime of gratitude. I’m certainly aiming for that.

*  *  *

Thank you for reading; and, thank you for practicing with me – even if/when you are miles away. OM Shanti.

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Surrender, Recovery and Death January 22, 2014

“OUR TIME ON THIS EARTH IS SACRED,
AND WE SHOULD CELEBRATE EVERY MOMENT.”
~ Paolo Coelho

This morning I am saying goodbye to a treasured DC friend, Sovani Meksvanh. Since before Christmas, I have been posting on my personal and Urban Yoga Den Facebook pages about his battle with late-stage cancer, and how touched I’ve been by his balance of strength/action and acceptance/surrender. Last night, I posted my final thoughts about this beloved soul…

*  *  *

ON SOVANI’S PAGE:

I know that Sovani is not reading this, but his beloved family is. Your father/son/brother has always been a very special being to me. I will never forget our first social outing. Somewhere around 2005, he hustled up and down the ramps of RFK Stadium at one of the 1st Nationals games, taxing the heck out of his lungs, and putting up with my crazy baseball fandom the whole day. Over the years I’ve seen him help dozens (if not hundreds!) of people who are in recovery…from many different “ailments.” He is, to me, the perfect example of a Spiritual Warrior – one who shows up for life and all of its trials knowing that his Higher Power has simply sent him to live out a purpose more significant than his own human will, to strengthen from that ultimate surrender, and to use that strength to be of service to others.
All this time, over the past few weeks, I’ve never “cheered him on,” encouraging him to fight. Not because I want to let go of him, but because I want him to let go of fighting – I’ve wanted Sovani to give himself a break. And then there was a point where he started writing about feeling safe in His hands, and I exhaled so profoundly, knowing that Sovani finally melted into the care of his HP instead of fighting so hard…
Well, that’s how I perceived it. And it helped me so much, to observe what I saw as pure surrender and devotion.
I have been meditating and praying and crying and loving for weeks…and all of this is a tiny fraction of the support and commitment and effort that you have offered him, consistently and honorably. What an amazing family you are. I send my love and my comfort from Nashville…I wish I were there…

FROM MY PAGE:

I dedicate this song (Te Extraño by Marta Gomez) to the strong spirit of my dear friend in DC, Sovani, whose cancer battle I’ve been writing about since before Christmas. His condition has worsened – since Saturday, he has been on life support, and today his organs started to fail.
Bless his beautiful young daughters, mother and family members who have been by his side through this journey, and updating us on Facebook the entire time – which to me, has been precious, since I moved away from DC in September. Despite the weeks of meditation, prayer, tears and love in his honor, I am feeling a bit useless. And I miss him. I wish I were there…
Bless Sovani, who – as everyone knows – has been the strongest fighter one could ever meet. I mean, he was diagnosed with cancer 17 years ago, folks. And all along, he has insisted on, taken risks with and surrendered to the most experimental and progressive treatments available. But the surrender that impressed me the most was over the past week or so, when Sovani started posting about his surrender to the loving care of his Higher Power.

Photo: Michaela Ringerson

Photo: Michaela Ringerson

So, this song is for Sovani, and, for his amazing family. Sending so much love to DC tonight, through the wind, through the cold, through the snow. 
Sometimes, for me, all love songs are simply conversations with god. LOVE LOVE LOVE.

Pero te extraño hace tantos días

que las palabras se confunden con la voz
los sonidos ya no hablan de tu amor
no imaginas la melancolía que se cuela en mi ventana si no estás
y el silencio que me obliga a recordar
tantos años de vivir
toda mi vida junto a ti
tanto tiempo, tanto espacio para ti.
¿Cuánto tiempo hay que esperar?
¿Cuántas miradas recorrer,
para sentirte en un abrazo
y no verte envejecer?

But I miss you
It’s been so many days that words and voice have been confused
And sounds still can’t speak of your love
You can’t imagine the melancholy that creeps into my window when you’re not here
And the silence that obliges me to remember.
So many years of living all of my life with you, so much time, so much space for you.
How long must I wait? How many visions must recur…to feel you in an embrace…and to not see you grow old?

*  *  *

What could I add to that today? Hmmm…one thing. I am in the midst of a new phase of adult life, having moved to Nashville from DC to be closer to my soon-to-be 86-year-old father, who is struggling with dementia and increasing physical challenges. I am also deepening my relationship with my sister, from whom I was separate for decades, due to my addict lifestyle. As most of you know, I have now been clean and sober for more than 11 years. And thankfully, over the past few years, my sister has graciously invited me back into her life. She lives a bit south of Nashville, and we are teaming up to support Dad. So, this new phase is not always comfortable – but the three of us are doing our best.

My biggest challenge during this new phase of adult life? Dwelling in and acting from love and faith.

And so, to Sovani and his family, I say: THANK YOU.

CoelhoOurTimeOnThisEarthIsSacred(Jan14)

Image: Journey to Peace

I am grateful to Sovani and his family for Facebook-ing their journey over these recent months; I am grateful to Sovani for always sharing about his family so lovingly; I am grateful to have witnessed the gracefulness and transparency of his daughters as they navigated this process; and, I am grateful to Sovani and his family for sharing about their Faith so openly. I have learned so much from all of them; and I thank them for teaching me the best way to step forward in the journey with my own father.

With this family’s example as my inspiration and motivation, I shall aim straight and high to celebrate every moment of this sacred life.

From Sovani’s family this morning: “After careful and thoughtful consideration of the medical team’s advice, the Family has decided to remove Sovani from life support to relieve him of needless pain and suffering. God Almighty, Our Father in Heaven, Creator of the Universe please forgive his sins and receive his Gentle Soul into Your Arms.”

*  *  *

This is my 1st formal blog since before September, and my move from DC to Nashville. The intensity and quantity of challenges that have arisen over these five months prompted me to use Facebook more often, for briefer and more expedient updates. So much has happened since September. Sometime in late Fall, I drafted an update blog called “Shalom, Y’all.” But it fell to the wayside as more important priorities – my job search, my care for dad, my general adjustment to TN and my grieving of my beloved DC – took precedence. I didn’t realize that grieving a long-time friend would also become a priority.

I am posting “Surrender, Recovery and Death” on my Urban Yoga Den blog, because I like to pass on spiritual lessons as they happen in my life. Plus, there is so much yoga in the story of Sovani’s dying days…

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, “Isvarapranidanani” (there are many alternate spellings) is the 5th virtue discussed in the 2nd limb of yoga. The 2nd limb, or “Niyama,” suggests 5 ethical values to follow if one wants to live the yogic life. “Isvarapranidanani” has been described as “surrender of the self to God,” “offering everything to the Lord or to Humanity,” “sacrifice of all to the Lord”… You get the picture.

I yearn for this kind of surrender. I know it would help me when I feel frustrated with and harmed by my father – who can be quite hostile due to his illness. I know it would help me when I feel scared of losing my dad. I know it would help me when – due to such heightened vulnerability from the move, from my lack of sustaining work, from my family situation – my old core wound of being a problem rears its ugly head while dealing with my father, my sister, and others in my life…causing me to react like a threatened child.

When I look back at the peacefulness and grace that Sovani and his family portrayed through their process, I am compelled to reach deeper into my own soul for the surrender that I crave…or, should I be reaching more widely beyond my own self for that surrender? More will be revealed.

From experience, I do know this – like the 12 Steps of recovery programs, the 8 Limbs of yoga are in order for a reason. And for me, there have been many parallels in my practice of both the Steps and the Limbs.

So in this case, if I want to access the surrender I seek, I must re-commit to study and practice of Limbs 1 & 2 – the Yama and Niyama (the 10 suggested virtues). And, I must broaden that commitment to include Limbs 3-8…a process of reaching my most ideal way of living, which includes: Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises), Pratyahara (regulation of the senses), Dharana (single-focused concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (“enlightenment,” or in my own simple terms: when my actions and behaviors portray the intentions and virtues that I have been aiming for since Limbs 1 & 2).

I must also energize my commitment to integrating the 12-Steps into my daily life. As Step 12 suggests, I aim to practice the program’s principles in all of my affairs, in order to carry a healthy message and be of service to others.

Photo: Sovani Meksvanh (I loved his shameless selfies...especially these, while I was so far away.)

Photo: Sovani Meksvanh
(I loved his shameless selfies…especially these, while I was so far away.)

And so today, I am saying out loud: I re-commit to the deepening of my spiritual practices, so I may replace my fear-based reactions with a god-based surrender, faith and love…and therefore, act toward others with love and in service.

Let’s see how that goes (she says with a slightly mischievous, quite human and very forgiving smile)…

I’ll close with another timely parallel between the tools of yoga and recovery:
In his commentary on the Niyama (yoga’s 2nd Limb and collection of 5 virtues to observe), Sri Swami Satchidananda says: “All spiritual life should be based on these things. They are the foundation stones without which we can never build anything lasting.” And, in the two primary texts for 12-Step recovery, Bill Wilson and his co-writers say: “There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation and prayer. …when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life.” And, in relation to the 3rd step, which invites me to turn my will and life over to the care of god (and I’d say that’s the surrender I’m seeking!), “…this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom.”

I am grateful for both of these influences on my life, and that they both led me to a very significant relationship with an amazing man named Sovani. May god bless you and keep you, my friend. Love love love.

*  *  *

HAH! In true Holly fashion, I just spent the morning side-stepping my grief…expressing it in a very structured and intellectual manner…writing, quoting, analyzing, learning, sharing…  And later, I’ll read everybody’s loving and honoring posts on Sovani’s page.

NOW, in true honor of Sovani and my relationship with him, it’s time to get messy, surrender to my heart, and let the tears flow (oh, god – even as I proofread this piece – here they come)…into music and nature I go.

Thanks for reading. And thanks for your love. OM Shanti.

{PS – Please forgive WordPress for posting inappropriate advertising at the bottom of my posts…I can’t afford to upgrade, and they need to survive!}

 

Letting Go and Moving On? August 30, 2013

RockCreekBridgeGreenSpringAlthough I did not plan things this way, it’s no fluke that the next New Moon and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) coincide with my move from DC to TN.  I have been letting go of DC since the last Full Moon.  On Tuesday, September 3rd, I’ll get in my U-Haul, drive south, and let go completely.

The 2nd-half of my trip falls on Wednesday, September 4th – so I will arrive at my new home in East Nashville on “New Year’s Eve.”  This is the 1st year since September 2001 that I will miss attending Rosh Hashanah services.  Next week, I’ll be observing the opening of the Book Of Life by carrying boxes and furniture up two flights of stairs to my sweet little flat.

Sounds appropriate to me.

Thursday morning, the New Moon will peak and I will rise at 5:36am CST.  I will continue my personal Rosh Hashanah observances by reflecting on my previous year, and considering any amends, resentments, unfinished business to address.  I will repeat “I’m sorry, I love you” many times and probably cry a lot.  (For many reasons.)  And I’ll spend ample time moving things around my new space, deliberating each placement’s energy and meaning.

If that’s not a great way to begin anew, I don’t know what is!

In packing up my books, I’ve left out six, so I can access them readily upon arriving in TN: The Makhzor (a guide-book of prayers and practices for the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, know as the Days of Awe); “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” (the most utilized text in my collection); “The Golden Present” (Swami Satchidananda’s collection of daily reflections); Alcoholics Anonymous (an important recovery text); Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (another); and my journal.

This collection represents the foundations of my life: spiritual and religious ritual and practice, the Eight Limbs of yoga, and the 12 Steps of recovery.

*  *  *

During August, we’ve been exploring the Eight Limbs in my yoga classes.

Swami Satchidananda’s commentary on Yoga Sutra I.50 says, “In this state <the 8th Limb, samadhi> you become a jivanmukta, a realized saint.  Jivan means one who lives; mukta means liberated…”  He goes on, “A jivanmukta may be doing anything.  He or she need not be sitting in samadhi in some cave; this person may be in Times Square, but is still a jivanmukta.  A jivanmukta is involved in the world for the sake of humanity without any personal attachment.”

Judaism’s prayers and recovery’s steps also speak of healing and growing – in order to be of service in the world.

This move to TN would not be happening without these foundations.  Many years ago, when I lived without these influences, my self-centered ego drove all of my attitudes and actions.  I was neither willing nor capable to serve anyone or anything beyond my own needs and desires.  Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would one day move to Nashville, Tennessee to be closer and of service to my aging father.

Today, I can’t imagine NOT going.

So thank you.  Thank you to all of the friends, family members, communities, teachers, healers, helpers, strangers and others who – unwittingly or intentionally – pointed me in this direction.   Who generously offered their authentic selves over these decades and helped me become who, how and what I am today.

As I let go of being physically and geographically close to my DC-area community, and move on to join and cultivate new community in TN, I don’t feel like I’m leaving anything behind.  On the contrary – I feel like everything is coming together…

Much love.  OM Shanti.  h*

 

My Mother is My Guru November 2, 2011

Mom’s been on my mind a lot lately.

And y’know, it makes sense.  I’ve been singing a lot (my mother taught me to sing).  It’s Autumn (October 2nd would have been her 81st birthday).  Thanksgiving is approaching (my family celebrated our last holiday season with Mom 10 years ago).  And I recently celebrated my 9th year clean and sober (my mom died as a result of long-term alcoholism).

I miss her.  I miss her right now.

Nearly a decade after her death, she still taps me on the shoulder at times.  She taps me when I’m playing percussion with bands, chanting devotional prayers at Kirtans, singing Gospel standards at open mics and lighting the Chanukah candles.  She taps me when my yoga instructor asks me to think of my most important life teacher.  She tapped me this morning while I was meditating.  She taps me when I’m pruning plants or arranging flowers.  She taps me when I’m decorating my home.  She taps me when I’m cooking a soup.

There are times when I reach out to tap her, too.  To hear her opinion.  To ask for her embrace.  To thank her for my life.  To apologize for any harm I did to her.  To grieve the pain of her life.  To send her the love she deserves.

I didn’t always love my mom the way I came to love her later in my life…later in her life…and then after she died.

*  *  *

I’m about to tell you some very personal and difficult stories.  Some are smiling and shiny; some are gritty and rough.  All are bittersweet.  I’ve selected these stories because they specifically prove that, indeed, my mother is the greatest Guru ever.  For me.

When I was young I hated my mother for being an alcoholic.  As an adult, I would learn more about the disease of alcoholism and honor the tragedy of her life.  But while growing up, I simply resented how drunk she got.   I was constantly afraid that my friends and the community would see her drunk; and because they frequently saw her, I was frequently embarrassed.  One time I spilled out the drink that she intended to take in the car on our way to Shabbat services – and she slapped me.  It was a gin martini.  To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of gin.

There were times when she came through as a great mother.  She was a hard worker, had full-time jobs, and did not drink during the day.  She truly wanted to show up, and when she could, she did.   But what I understand now is that her efforts to parent were overshadowed by the neglect.  In the end, alcohol always won her attention and became her priority.  Spill it out, and you became a threat.  So I learned to keep a distance.

*  *  *

During my college years, I grew to appreciate my mother.  My attitude shifted after I took my family to see a friend’s concert.  The next day at lunch, my friend said, “It was great to meet your mom.  For the longest time, I thought she’d died before we met.  You always talked about your dad – you never mentioned your mom.”  Whoa.  I had no idea I’d erased her so completely.  And then my friend said, “Y’know, you get a lot from her.”  I was so pissed off!  I argued, “No way, I have nothing in common with her!”  So he stated the obvious, judging by what I had told him in the rare instances of speaking about my mom, and his impression the night before.  She grew up singing; music is her passion; she gravitates toward soul music; she loves talking with other musicians; and, she was so comfortable backstage – it was the most natural place she could be.

That day, I surrendered my resentment and admitted that my mother had been an ally and soul-mate all along.  Clearly, I got a lot from her!  The passion for music, for soulful cultures, for gardening, for cooking, for interior design, for spirituality.  My mother taught me to sing, primarily through chanting the Sh’ma, a Jewish prayer, in harmony.

My mother did so much to inspire and encourage creativity.  Every morning, she’d have her coffee and cigarette while listening to WMAL-AM, when it was a jazz station.  Over breakfast I was exposed to the music that my mom had sung in talent shows and concerts – great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and more.  Although a blue eyed farm girl from the capitol of country music, my mom gravitated toward jazz and gospel.  In fact, I have her 1948 song book of Negro Spirituals.  This immersion in soulful music influenced me to write my own songs and perform them at my parents’ frequent parties.  Mom enrolled me in voice lessons.  On beach trips, she’d blast the radio and we’d all sing along.  She invited my high school New Wave band to hold a house concert.  When I was a little older, my drummer boyfriend invited me to tour California with his band – Dad said a firm “no” but Mom fought for me.  (I went to Cali.)  And so on.

At the same time, many opportunities were missed.  For example, there was a lot of self-taught musicianship and talent that was never deepened with consistent instruction or plans for ongoing development.  I do regret this and often feel that music education might have been my best choice for college.  Looking back, I don’t blame my mom for any of this, because I am certain she would have guided me in that direction if she could have.  I blame the disease of alcoholism.

*  *  *

As my mom became progressively ill, my love for her grew immensely.  Alcoholism and related troubles continued to take its toll in more serious ways.  In her 60s, Mom had cancer three times.  On the outside, she remained the strong-willed woman who could get through anything.  She continued planting gardens, harvesting herbs, cooking from scratch, building an art studio in her bedroom, doing crafts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, drinking gin.

But there were points where I witnessed her heartbreaking vulnerability.  With each cancer, my mother never completely healed – more and more complications arose.  She became scared.  I once heard her crying in bed the night before one of her many surgeries.  When she was diagnosed with emphysema, she quit smoking and remarked with self-disgust, “I could have done that a long time ago.”  She would willingly try my yoga and diet suggestions, but was so sick that she’d end up feeling worse.  Toward the end, I remember laying next to her tired body on yet another day that she woke up with a “bug” that left her vomiting and weakened.  I will never forget the terror in her eyes when I urged her to go to the hospital.  Perhaps she knew she was dying and wanted to stay at home as long as possible.

That was Thanksgiving, 10 years ago.  I think the family dinner included Mom, Dad, two of my sisters, three of their kids and me.  That night, in my mom’s art studio, I drew an abstract of the scene.  My mother and father were angels at the heads of the table – Mom’s garden spade and a green vine enveloped us on one side; Dad’s cigar and its smoke on the other.  To me, both the vine and the smoke represented protection.  I sensed it was Mom’s last Thanksgiving.  I was right.

*  *  *

After my mom died, I developed a deep, knowing compassion for her.  Interestingly enough, I got sober six months after her death.  I’d started drinking at age 11, to calm the childhood chaos and hush the deep resentments.  Twenty five years later, as I came to understand the cunning, baffling and powerful disease that nearly killed me, I also came to understand the disease that succeeded in killing my mom.  Listening to other recovering alcoholics’ speak, I heard my mom’s story.  I saw how the disease had destroyed her life and consequently affected mine.  And I loved her even more.

My greatest awakening about my mom’s life came about four years ago.  By complete surprise, I found out that she had a child before meeting my father.  Stories said that she’d been hanging out with musicians in her native Nashville, might have been drinking, might have been raped…and ended up pregnant.  Her parents sent her away, to a “home for women” in DC.  The home arranged the birth and subsequent adoption.  They say that Mom was so angry, she never forgave her parents.  And so I found yet another thing that my mother and I had in common – we both drank to kill life’s pain and drown our resentments.

The biggest difference is: I got lucky and got sober; she did not.  I take that very, very seriously.

*  *  *

So yes, my mother is my Guru.  Throughout all the phases of my relationship with her – dead and alive – she has been my most influential teacher.  She teaches me with the light, and she teaches me from the darkness.  She teaches me through what she did, and what she would/could/did not do.  Her influence drives my passions and my purpose.

I love everything about her.  The singing lessons, the slaps, the strong will, the vulnerability.  She is the ultimate model of the perfectly imperfect human that I strive to be.

It’s taken me a day to write this.  I started when I finished meditating this morning.  I stopped and started and stopped and started again.  I cried my heart out.  There’s so much more than what you’ve read above, so many more experiences and stories, so much more grief and love.

*  *  *

Back in 2009, I went on tour with a folk-pop band and I took along a photo of my mom.  I’ve heard that the picture was taken in DC, at the women’s home, some time after she had the baby. She is beautiful and glamorous; she is too thin and her eyes look cold; she stands tall and her hands fumble with each other self-consciously. So I wanted to take this version of her on this exciting musical journey. Every night before I went to sleep, I lit a candle and thanked my mom.  I now play percussion and sing sacred chants in an all-female Kirtan group.  I’ve noticed that Kirtan leaders and spiritual teachers typically create an altar with a picture of their Guru.  Coming full circle, I can think of no one more perfect to place on my altar than the woman who sang Hebrew prayers with me, every night at bedtime.

Good night, Mom.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Focus: Abundance – Love & Light December 31, 2010

I have long believed that people are beautiful beings, inside and out. Our humanness, our perfect imperfection, our state of constant growth gives me faith in the beauty of life as a whole.

Tonight a street drunk and I watched a meteor fireball together. I was walking to yoga class when a huge white comet-looking thing with a long firey tail burst across the sky then disappeared. “Wow.” We stopped dead in our tracks. “Ha lo visto?” I asked in my unpracticed Spanish. Yes, he saw it. He told me that it would keep going. We stood together for a few moments, faces lifted toward the sky. Then we went on our respective ways. Before we got too far, he yelled to me and gave two thumbs up. I waved goodbye to my new brother.

The gift of light and a moment of love between the two strangers who witnessed it. Seriously. Love.

This is how I experience humanity – when I’m not stuck in fear, distrust, anger and disgust, I look around and I love everyone. I love the street drunk, I love the pushy drivers, I love the grumpy shoppers, I love the crying babies, I love the lashing out friends. I love them in addition to the smiling, cheerful and sober people. So thankfully, it’s been a very loving couple of weeks.

Finally. The return of love and light.

I didn’t plan for the weeks to unfold like this. I didn’t will any of this beauty to happen. I simply wrote a decidedly revealing blog about pain and healing and bouncing back (see “Focus: Abundance – Growth”) a few weeks ago, and soon after, the fog started to lift.

Too simple to be true?

For me, the fact is, when I look squarely at and then honestly share my “stuff,” it’s no longer in the shadows. Writing out my “stuff” sheds light on it. I take action, I spark the flame. I turn my face toward the light. I stretch my arms out to it.

And the light reaches back to me in all kinds of ways…

*  *  *

It all started on Friday the 17th. I practiced a slow and prayerful Vinyasa with my 7am class. We were flowing to Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky,” a spiritual ballad about the power of fellowship on the long road of life. I paused to look outside – and the sunrise sky was a radiant orange! Of course, I was brought to tears.

And from there forward, I have been shifting away from past troubles and toward inner happiness. Hallelujah!

It doesn’t hurt that our December Class Focus has been Abundance, and in my own practice, I have been savoring the sweetness of a favorite Asana among the challenging. Dwelling on that instead of loathing the other poses. Knowing that somewhere along the set, that sweetness is coming. I can bank on it.

Just like life. I’ve been dwelling on light.  And love is coming. I can feel it.

*  *  *

The day after that beautiful orange sunrise, I curled up at a cafe for hot drinks with a friend, and mused about living in the solution of a spiritual life. We were both weighing out certain situations in our paths. I encouraged her to trust her instinct, to research rather than run away from seemingly risky situations. To live. And to discern.

And breath by breath, I am taking my own advice, diving in a little bit while exercising healthy caution.

That evening, I popped around the corner to DC Supersonic Kirtan’s monthly chant fest. Kirtan is like a can opener for my heart. No caution here! With everyone around me singing their lungs out to the gods, there is no room, no need for caution. I leave every Kirtan blissed-out with love. Fearless. It’s like rebirth.

Fueled by Bhakti bliss, the next day was deeply connective, relaxed and joyous. I felt I had more to offer the day, the world, my life. My tiny studio apartment (aka The Urban Yoga Den) became a wonderfully crowded house of chilled-out, indulgent women, celebrating a few rare hours of down-time together at my annual (pre-) Solstice gathering. I love to just stay in the background and soak in how these wonderful women relate, interact, connect.

People are precious! And spending carefree quality time with like-spirited pals is priceless.

Later that night a friend and I discussed the world of dating. He mentioned the sensitivity of navigating what we like and don’t like about our mates – or what they may or may not like about us. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I like everything about you.” He was stunned. “Perhaps even the things you don’t like about yourself.” He paused to absorb the news. “No one has ever said that to me,” he revealed.

We are all works in progress. Growing, stumbling, flying, crawling.  For me, it’s easy to love someone for all that they are. The way I would like to be loved.

The way I would like to love myself.

*  *  *

Moving along the holiday week, the good vibrations kept flowing. I started a temp job. Typically I spend my days alone, at my home office, working on my own projects. Deeply fulfilling, yet also primarily self-serving. There’s nothing like suiting up and showing up for a group of workers and supporting their goals. I am certain this interaction and service to something beyond my personal intentions has also encouraged my softening heart.

To end the week, I attended Caroline Weaver’s “Warm the Heart” workshop on the morning of Christmas Eve. I love Caroline because she’s not afraid to bring god into a yoga class. (Hello, god!) Or god as some personal concept of higher power or a virtue that’s worth our full commitment. The uplifting, devotional energy of her class was so enveloping, I don’t remember much about it, except getting to a point in Warrior 1 where Caroline reminded us, “Remember, you are dedicating all of this to your highest virtue.” I felt this breathtaking swell of gratitude in my heart.

“Thank You Thank You Thank You Thank You” I whispered repeatedly like a Mantra.

I strive to remember to dedicate ALL of this – not just my yoga moves, but my entire life – to something beyond me. When I remember that life is about playing a small role of service in the big picture of the universe, the great mystery, the infinite abyss, nature, Jesus, compassion, generosity – whatever name you pick for your god idea or highest virtue – I feel an abundance beyond “having.” I feel the abundance from giving.

*  *  *

Earlier in the week, during Winter Solstice, I’d visited family in Nashville and experienced a totally spontaneous opportunity for pure service, for giving without expectation of receiving. Karma Yoga. I awoke on Solstice morning, after what is known as the darkest night of the year – maximized this December by the the full-moon lunar eclipse. I thought, “THIS is like New Year to me. I truly feel different.”

I continued to lay in bed, in and out of post-alarm clock dozing. My brain started to play that age-old “should” game – I should get up, should do Pranayama/Asana, should pray, should make tea – and then it locked in on one thing. The broken bird house and bottle of Elmer’s Glue sitting on the desk across the room. My dad’s fix-it project. But he’s never been a fix-it guy. Since childhood, I have always been the fix-it girl. If you’ve read my story in other blogs, you know that at times I had to be.

I admit that sometimes my “fix-it” nature is not productive in adult life and relationship worlds. But in this instance, looking at my dad’s broken bird house, “fix-it girl” was the appropriate role to play. My 1st preferences (Hatha Yoga and prayer) were all about my routines for well-being – which I do believe are essential to being able to show up for others. On this morning, however, lazying around in bed after a full night’s rest – I am fine, my well-being is intact. But Dad’s bird house – something that brings him great joy – is not. It’s broken. And I can fix it (and with strong staples, not Elmer’s Glue).

My dad was so excited. He filled up the bird house with seed, went out the back door, and shouted, “Hey guys, we’re back!”

Karma Yoga occurs when love sets the priority. When priority outweighs preference. When big picture beats self-centered routine.

*  *  *

There are many more little stories of heart opening, light shining, exhaling, melting moments from the past weeks. I’ve been basking in the small yet profound pockets of joy.

For instance, while driving to the airport early in the morning, listening to Paul Duncan’s “The Lake, Pt. 2” I watched streams of sunlight (aka “Jesus rays”) burst through the clouds. I thought, “Hmmm, last Friday the sunrise burned radiant orange, and now it’s bright and golden.” And at that moment, I felt a jolt of realization that the days, the universe, my world is getting progressively brighter! The lunar eclipse proves that it’s always darkest before the dawn. It dawned on me – there is personal significance to this year-end season, more than just “The Holidays” and gift shopping and programmed cheer. BRIGHTNESS RETURNS. And at that moment, driving and crying joyfully, it felt like the 1st time I’d ever recognized that significance.

Also, while on my Nashville trip, I felt my 11-month-old grand-nephew burrow his little body into my heart center in the most loving embrace ever. (Ever.) I reunited with my ex-brother-in-law (who has always been like a true brother to me, and my only brother) and got a big bear hug. I witnessed the passion for life returning to my big sister after a very heavy number of years.

And remember that friend who I like everything about? A few days later, during a different tone of conversation, he said he cares about me. “Yeah? How and why do you care about me,” I angrily snapped back. He then proceeded to list the ways and reasons that he cares for me. I was floored as I silently absorbed his penetrating truths. He told me he loves me. And we continued to dwell in that love all evening. I haven’t felt that loved in a long time.

To no fault of the people who love me – just my own obstacles.

On Christmas morning, snow swirled softly outside my window and the swirly songs of Sea & Cake warmed the air inside. My 1st 100% free day in what felt like forever – I flowed with the solitude here in my cozy little home…writing, lounging, being. (Milking that isolation as long as I can. Hehe.) Then I got my butt out the door to accept invitations from the loving and caring people in my life.

*  *  *

In my December classes, I have been encouraging students to concentrate on the space between poses. To take time to grow into each shape.  To be present with the transition, the process, the breath. To make room for discovering abundance where it was unexpected or unplanned. I guess my own instruction has been rubbing off on me. Bit by bit, I have been opening up where I was once firmly sealed shut. Leaving space for orange skies and Jesus rays. Allowing the darkness of an eclipse to reveal joyous Solstice light. Making room for love.

To be honest, it doesn’t always feel safe. But I’m opening up anyway.

For a few of my classes, to complement our Abundance theme and reinforce that we are all surrounded by a supportive community, I taught an Asana set that built to a group pose. We held hands in a big circle for a collaborative Warrior 3 (not my most stable balancing pose). As we leaned into the circle, I felt the entire group unite with a strong energy of responsibility toward each other. We floated into and held the pose for a few long breaths.

Now that’s love. The dedication to serving your neighboring yogi. Or maybe just your neighbor. Or maybe just the random stranger with whom you watched a fireball streak across the dark sky.

* * *

Thanks to friends, family, students, strangers for the beauty of life. Your humanness fortifies me. Happy holidays, merry new day, abundant being.

OM Shanti. h*

P.S. No kidding – after drafting this blog, I checked e-mail and found the following holiday wish from yoga teacher and writer Max Strom:

“Dear Friends, I hope that on this day you experience a rise of the sun within you, the return of the light within your life, the embrace of your family who surrounds you, and the knowing that you can begin again anew. I write this as I witness the sunrise out my window and hear the winds of change blowing the trees outside.”

(Photo credit: “This exceptionally bright fireball meteor trail was photographed with a fish-eye camera at a Czech Republic station of the European Fireball Network on January 21, 1999.” [GSFC, 1999])

 

Focus: Abundance – Growth December 10, 2010

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again. – Dorothy Field, 1930s Musical Lyricist

When I was around 6 years old, my mom would drive my sisters and I to a farm outside of DC for horseback riding lessons. A few weeks into our series, a horse threw me to the dirt! I remember bouncing along the ground (I was a chubby little gal), standing up, brushing myself off, and getting right back on the horse – before my teacher or mom could give that standard warning, “If you don’t get back on the horse, you’ll never ride again.” At that young age, I instinctively knew that getting back on the horse was my only option.

So, as I navigate the “throws” of life – even those that take a longer recovery – deep down I know I’ll bounce back.

Reaching the close of 2010, I wish I could promise friends, students and readers that THIS IS THE LAST TIME I’ll share about the betrayal I experienced this past summer. I, myself, wish this will be the last time that I dredge up that pain in this blog. The positive? Each time I write about the pain, I inevitably write about the healing and growth.

Thankfully I’ve been programmed that way from a very young age!

You must know that you can swim through every change of tide.  – This morning’s Yogi Tea bag message.

It feels like everywhere I turn these days, writers, teachers and songs are encouraging me to drop my guard and jump into life with abandon. I’d love to. And I appreciate the encouragement! But the truth is, I’m terrified.

Fears related to the summer’s emotional trauma (and its related past-trauma triggers) are bubbling up again for a few reasons. Lately I’ve received invitations to connect with human beings. (Go figure!) A little romance, some friendships. Gratefully, despite (or perhaps due to?) my history as a trauma survivor, deep in my heart, I adore humans, humanity and humanness. In addition, with 6 months between the summer’s emotional shell shock and today’s invitations, my trust in others is gradually reawakening.

So as new life beckons, I simultaneously feel like jumping in…and running away.

I have been taught – and so I believe – that there is great value in sharing about difficulty and the process of surviving it. Not just for my own release and rebirth, perhaps also for someone who has gone or might go through something similar. So here goes. And maybe, this will be the last time.

Who says I can’t be free
From all of the things that I used to be
Rewrite my history –
Who says I can’t be free?
– John Mayer

Falls from horses were not the only dangers of my childhood.  My family household was chaotic and violent, driven by addiction and emotional illness.  Through a certain age, I found solace in music and god.  I wrote and performed songs (escape), often sang myself to sleep (comfort) and craved spiritual experience (protection).  At the same time, I existed in a state of self-preservation and readiness – prepared for the sky to fall at any moment.  Witnessing the model of my three older sisters, who frequently ran away from home, I kept a small night bag packed with pajamas and toiletries, in case I ever had to run.

Eventually, the false strength of self-reliance and isolation won out over the gentle support of god and music.  I took care of myself and often had to play other family-members’ roles.  I learned to construct elaborate lies about the screaming fights, ambulances, lateness to school and other troubles.  And for relief from the hiding and responsibility, my own addictions kicked in by age 11.

My parents are not to blame.  The inevitable fallibility of lineage shaped them as parents, and they did their best with what they had.  As did my sisters, whose only choice was to protect themselves and therefore grow apart from each other and me.  Although I was resentful toward my parents beyond my college years, I eventually grew to see the bigger picture, and soulfully love and appreciate Mom and Dad for all they offered.

I share this family background to illustrate how it informed my adult life.  Self-reliance, isolation and addiction do not nurture “normal” maturity!  Poor decisions led to dangerous situations and more trauma.  My gravitation back toward spiritual reliance began around Easter of 1990 after I hit an emotional and physical bottom while living in New Orleans.  That summer I would teach myself to meditate by focusing on one sense at a time.  This was the beginning of my relationship with the present moment, with “what is,” and with inner peace.

Some believe we are here to work out our past karma.. i need to remind myself that karma is not punishment.. just consequence. – Ricky Tran, Yoga Teacher

For the next twelve years, I sought personal wellness – and to learn how to relate well with others.  I continued meditation, started practicing yoga (yay!), used therapy, experimented with different religious and spiritual traditions, changed my diet and pretty much tried anything that might make me feel better.  Despite my best intentions, I also continued manifesting different shades of the violence and chaos of my childhood.

Continued active addiction, associated behaviors and unaddressed past trauma cemented me in old patterns.  Not until 2002, when I had a moment of clarity and sought help for addiction, did life crack open and truly begin to change.

Our December focus is Abundance. I am sharing honestly about my past because for a long time, I felt ashamed of my journey of stumbles. Now I believe I have nothing to hide. And because of my own transformation, I have faith in every person’s ability to recover from the serious mistakes or conditions of their past.  All it takes is the willingness to ask for help. Abundant growth is possible for all.

Today, all of my positive influences from the past 20 years work in-concert to encourage productive relationships, wellness of body, mind and spirit, productive relationships and serenity.  At the same time, just like for everyone else on this Earth, life happens.  Sometime life throws some curve balls.  And sometimes we get hit by a pitch.

I was hit by a pitch this past summer.  The man I’d been seeing for 6 months revealed something shocking that he’d been hiding.  Not only did the lying hurt horribly, in addition, the nature of what he was hiding could have endangered my own well-being, and, it triggered much of my past emotional trauma. Sadly, I lost trust and love for everyone.  I lived in fear.

Thankfully, the week before that bomb was dropped, I had emerged from a week-long Off The Mat Into The World training at the Omega Institute. The “Yoga, Purpose & Action” Intensive taught self-inquiry, collaboration and activation as tools for cultivating a more sustainable approach to service work. These became the exact tools that I used to trudge through the relationship shock.  I didn’t run, I didn’t hide, I didn’t go back to addictive ways.

Despite the fear, I forced myself to reach out (ugh), and I got support (ahhh).

Always do what you are afraid to do. – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Poet & Essayist

At one point in the Fall, I was catapulted into an impenetrable state of anger and disgust after unexpectedly running into my ex. It broke my heart to harbor such negative emotions, when all I yearned for is to love and trust human beings again.  I gained counsel with Father Tom Ryan – a Catholic Paulist priest and Kripalu yoga teacher – who was firm with me regarding solutions.  He made concrete suggestions for ritualizing the transformation of anger/disgust into forgiveness/compassion.

While I was integrating those suggestions into my practices, I had a session with Polarity Therapist Lois Clinton, whose nurturing and skillful treatment awakened a sense of safety and trust. It’s hard to describe how Polarity Therapy works. In my experience, we identified certain grounding resources (i.e. deep three-part yogic breathing), constantly redirected to the present moment by working with open eyes (vs. getting stuck in the past with closed eyes), and discharged physically stuck trauma (i.e. vibrating hands, clearing lungs).  It was subtle and yet powerful!

With the clarity from my session with Lois, I followed through with one of Fr. Ryan’s suggestions. I wrote a brutally honest letter to my ex – with absolutely no intention to send it.  On the New Moon of Diwali, I burned the letter.  Sure enough, as I watched the ashes and scraps of paper float down a swirling, swollen creek, the negativity was released, I felt a thousand pounds lighter, and the shift toward complete healing was profound.

I couldn’t be more grateful to all of the teachers, healers and advisers who stepped up to the plate to support me through this tough time.  Decades of being willing and open toward these liberating processes have opened doors to immense transformation and emotional sobriety. When life happens, I am fortunate to have a huge tool box of resources, practices and people who support me through anything – from celebrations to disappointments.

Trauma is a fact of life; so is resilience.  – Hala Khouri, Off The Mat Into The World Co-founder

Earlier I mentioned that there are a few reasons my fears were recently triggered.  This week, I attended a spiritual gathering where the guided meditation was about forgiveness. Immediately, I acknowledged the potential risk of participating, and decided to stay anyway. The instructor asked us to recall an instance where someone hurt us…and then, to offer that person forgiveness.  It was tough.  I had to open my eyes to see I was safe, surrounded by (yes) trusted spiritual fellows.  I could feel my entire body vibrating.  Tears flowed.  I wasn’t sure if I was forgiving or releasing.  But I knew I needed to stay in the process.

Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try. – Ryan Bingham, Songwriter

This morning, I was struck with a note of sadness about the summer situation. I am grateful to say that, for the first time in months, I did not connect this morning’s emotion with all the sad traumas of my past.  It was, simply and specifically, sadness about the loss of my relationship and how much it hurt to be lied to.

Regarding the fresh fears from social invitations…I am rigorously honest with each person, letting them know the shakiness I feel about connecting, particularly romantically.  One day my heart will be ready to try again. I know that I must make myself humanly vulnerable again.  I’m just not there yet.  But I will be.  I will bounce back.

You will not find a spiritual master that will suggest you play it safe, or a sacred text that advises you to avoid pain at all costs. – Max Strom, Yoga Teacher and Writer

To me, some “self-help” messages sound like the old idiom “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”  That harkens of my childhood of packed bags and lonely songs.  But when I read firmly encouraging words like Max’s, I yearn so deeply for love, trust and emotional freedom that I cry.

Thank you gentle teachers and butt-kickers, skillful healers and wise advisers for the abundant encouragement, inspiration and motivation you have so generously shared throughout my life.  You assure me that all experiences – throws, stumbles and curve balls of all kinds – are opportunities for growth.

I am scared. And I am growing, too.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Oh Death April 15, 2010

“Well what is this that I can’t see, with ice-cold hands takin’ hold of me?”  – Traditional Folk Song

I’ve got Ralph Stanley’s rendition of “Oh Death” in one ear and cheesy music-on-hold in the other, as I wait for a Southwest Airlines phone agent.  I’m wondering if I can make it to a funeral in Nashville ASAP.  My Uncle Bill passed away yesterday.  On the 8th anniversary of my mom’s – his sister’s – death.

The automated voice says I have 22 to 35 minutes to wait for an SWA agent.  So I guess I’ll continue listening to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and write a blog.

(And as always, I promise to connect this story to yoga when Max Strom makes an important appearance further down the page.)

Bill was Mom’s favorite brother and my favorite uncle.  When my mom died in Nashville on April 13, 2002, Bill (and most of the Farley family) showed up without fail.  In fact, Bill was always there for my mother – in heroic ways at times…even when most of the siblings became estranged from Mom after she became pregnant out-of-wedlock in her early 20s.  That’s how she ended up in DC – my Grandma Farley sent Mom off to the Crittenden Home for Women in Washington for shelter until the birth.  Uncle Bill and wife Nita drove his silent and resentful sister, Peggy, up north.

Peggy Farley gave birth to a son and was instructed to give him up for adoption.  And she vowed to never return to Tennessee nor see her family again.

Somewhere out there, I have a half-brother who would be nearing 60 years old now.  I wonder if he does yoga.

Since Mom’s death back in 2002, Uncle Bill has been there for me, too, revealing more and more about his sister than I ever knew.  Through his stories and photos, I came to embrace how alike my mom and I are.  She was a singer from childhood, was entered in vocal contests, and – once her brothers and sisters vacated the home base for their own family lives and military assignments – branched out to perform in talent shows and hang out with Nashville musicians.

Unlike most female Nashville singers of her era, Mom preferred jazz and Negro spirituals to country and folk music.  I have a newspaper clip announcing her performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” in the 1950 “Shield Shenanigans” review.  I also have her music lesson books, full of traditional gospel songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”  While my three sisters and I were growing up in the DC area in the 1960s, Mom would start each day with a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a dose of WMAL AM-630, whose morning programs played only jazz vocals and big band music.  Thus began my musical education.

Mom met my dad in the bohemian Dupont Circle neighborhood where they lived.  Peggy Farley married Irvin Meyers and began her transition from Church of Christ to Judaism.  She enrolled in Temple Sinai’s program and converted before my eldest sister was born.  I have a hunch that part of my mother’s willingness to convert came from resentment toward her family’s religion.  But she didn’t completely shun her childhood roots.  Her Celtic/Pagan ancestry was apparent in her passion for adorning our home with seasonal decorations from nature – wildflowers in the spring, cat tails in the summer, milk pods in the fall, evergreen in the winter.  A farmer’s daughter, gardening became a spiritual practice later in her life.  Hands in the earth.  Growing and eating your own food.  And I am drawn to Farmer’s Markets and nature-based ritual.  Imagine that.

Now the story gets a little heavier.  Forgive me…

Aside from soulful musical preferences, artistic life and earthy spirituality, Mom and I had something else in common – we both started drinking alcohol very early on.  Sadly, she abused it through elder-hood and died with complications from alcoholism at age 71.  Bless her heart.  Her struggle with the disease of alcoholism was long and horribly destructive.  Just six months after Mom died, I was lucky to have a moment of clarity and accept support to recover from alcohol’s cunning, baffling and powerful grip on me.  One day at a time, I now live the life of a musician, yoga teacher, writer and regular old human being – without the compulsion to drink.

And for that I am grateful.

I am also deeply grateful to my mom for all that she was, all that she did, all that she shared.  But I’d never realized this until last weekend, during West Coast yoga instructor Max Strom’s workshops here in DC.  (Thanks to Caroline Weaver for the recommendation.)  Max is a big bear of a man whose firm and motivational tone is what the Voice of God might sound like.  At least, in my imagination.  After a vigorous heart-/breath-centric flow, we had a nice deep relaxation leading into the deepest silent meditation I’ve ever experienced.

Then, the Voice from Above (aka Max) said, “Bring to mind the person…

(dramatic pause)

or being or thing…

(another pause)

to whom you owe the most gratitude.”

And PING, my mom popped into my mind.

Immediately I inwardly battled, “Mom?  No.  Then who?  What?  Huh?  Shouldn’t it be a Higher Power?  Or…or…or…”

And then the Voice from Above said, “Choose the first being that popped into your mind.”

And I started sobbing.  Of course.  My mom.  I am grateful for her creativity, passion for music, talent in singing, active energy in gardening.  For her encouragement of and alliance with me regarding creativity, singing, drumming, having musician boyfriends, traveling with musicians, touring as a musician.  For her strength (although self-reliant and destructive at times), her perseverance, her work ethic.  For her beautiful blue eyes, perfectly penciled brows, stylish outfits.  And finally, for her humanness, her fragile self, her past, her pain, her resentments, her love, her illness, her silliness, her anger, her entire being.  I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed until I was snotty and puffy and drained.  Finally the Big Bear rang the meditation bells, I gathered my wits about me and life moved on.

Between Uncle Bill’s stories and Max Strom’s transformational yoga I am finally able to recognize my mom as my greatest life teacher – and the learning continues long after her death.

It’s been way more than 22 to 35 minutes and I now know that no airlines offer “bereavement discounts” as in the past.  But I owe it to my Uncle Bill to show up, just like he did – for his family, for my mom and for me.  So tomorrow morning, I’m off to Nashville.

In one particular visit with Bill after my mother’s death, he also told me more about himself than I’d ever known.  Woefully, he shared about his guilt and remorse about leaving Peggy in DC, his absence during her teenage years while he served in the military, his lack of familiarity with her backstage life and her experimentation with alcohol.  In addition, he spoke of his gratitude for the way my dad took care of Mom during their 46-year marriage.

Despite the remorse about his sister, Bill was a man of great faith who must’ve realized that we cannot control what’s beyond us.  People, places, things, time, history.  Imagine what would have happened if Mom had NOT come to DC.  I might not have been born!  I hope Uncle Bill realized that he was always the apple of Mom’s eye, that my Dad really loved and respected him, and that I adored him to no end.  I still have the Jew’s Harp that he mailed me when I was about eight years old – in the original box, addressed to “Miss Holly Meyers.”

I think I’ll take it out right now and jam along with the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Thanks for listening, y’all.  OM Shanti.

(P.S.  Appreciation to tonight’s yoga class at Past Tense, who spent their Yoga Nidra with a little Irish music – Damien Rice’s “Older Chests” – in honor of my Uncle Bill Farley.)

(P.S. again – With all due respect to the entire Farley family; I only have the pieces of Mom’s and Bill’s stories that my sisters, dad and Bill shared.  Please forgive me if something is inaccurate.)