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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.

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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.)

 

To Rock or Not to Rock December 11, 2009

It IS difficult to please everyone, eh?!

What is “appropriate” (or non-) music during yoga classes?

Coldplay

As a yoga student, I’ve been through phases of liking/disliking lyric-based or non-devotional music during class.  Pop music, like Coldplay, for example.  Sometimes I felt “put-upon” by the teachers’ tastes or moods.  Many, many years ago, I even wrote a similar complaint to the owner of DC’s premiere yoga studio stating this opinion!  I’m quite certain these complaints pop up in studios around the world.

These days, I simply understand and accept music as part of the teacher’s unique voice and spirit.

As a teacher, during the Integral Yoga classes taught at Past Tense Studio, I typically do not use music during Asana – just a meditative sound CD if anything, then something meditative or devotional for Nidra.  The studio is on the first floor of a city intersection, so I like to dull the street sounds with yoga sounds at times.  IY teachers are trained to not use music, so I try to follow suit out of respect for Satchidananda’s teachings.

However…

…lately I am choosing lyric-based Yoga Nidra songs to match our “comfort” theme for December (see set list in the “Comfort…” post).  I admit that I could be forcing my idea of “comfort” onto the class!  But I’m letting them know ahead of time that we’re trying it out for this month only.

On the other hand, for this month’s special Sunday Seva Nidras (see “Events” page), I’m using relaxing devotional Sanskrit chants only.

When I choose music for sub-ing non-IY classes, I use set-lists of rhythms and lyrics that support the feel of the class style.  For example, swinging and groove-y for Vinyasa’s dance; or driving and energizing for Hatha’s longer holds.  Indeed, a mix of genres – singer/songwriter, folk, Brazilian, Latin pop, R&B, Sanskrit devotional, American gospel, and so on – but all themed to a spiritual and encouraging nature.  (In my opinion, of course!)  Even on most current yoga-mix CDs (i.e. Shiva Rea’s collections), there is a mix of genres – from reggae to new age to chant – that are mostly devotional songs.

I recently attended a very intense Iyengar class where the teacher matter-

B.K.S. Iyengar

of-factly instructed a crowded list of detailed anatomical directions with little space to breathe (I’m out of breath just typing that sentence) – but with a soundtrack of beautifully moving Sanskrit chants of many styles.  Eventually, the odd juxtaposition faded and I melted into his amazing yogic knowledge and authentic yogic sounds.

And not so long ago, I attended an Anusara-inspired class where the teacher played Cuban “Timba” (like Puerto Rican Salsa, but better) – with lyrics that might be inappropriate for a yoga atmosphere.  But the energy of the music drove the class, who probably didn’t know Spanish!  I loved it, honestly.

Then there was the time I was outside the door of a Jivamukti class and heard the teacher blasting “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.  I figured it was a heart chakra focus!

All that to say – lord only knows what people think of our music at any time!  I know one student who cringes when he hears Krishna Das – a well-respected yogi and Kirtan musician!  To this friend, it’s over-used and really distracts his peaceful practice.

Go figure!

There is probably world-wide debate on the subject of “yoga music.”  Frankly, as a yoga teacher AND musician, I can have a very liberal opinion of what’s “appropriate” music for a yoga class.  But mostly, I try not to analyze it too much – instead, I trust the teacher’s intention to pass on teachings and share vibrations.  I hope others can allow that freedom, as well.

If not, there are millions of classes and teachers to choose from!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.