how changing my mind opened my heart.

One month ago, I told most of my friends, colleagues and close relatives (and anyone interested in listening) that I was not at all interested in getting another dog. Not even close to interested. Our beautiful dog Emma died last spring after years of painful decline, and my heartbreak and grief slowly manifested into an appreciation for the freedom that not being a dog owner allowed.

Without a dog, I could ride my bike home from work without rushing or worrying. I took my time, noticing things that didn’t enter my sensory experience when I was hurriedly making my way to check in on our geriatric girl. Without a dog, our small condo no longer needed extra space for dog food, snacks, toys, or a dog bed (though we did have some of these due to our continual dog sitting stints and our visiting neighbor dogs). Without a dog, I only needed to drag the vacuum out once a week at the most, and I could wear black clothing and fleece without needing to pretend that I was wearing mohair.

I was in awe at the new-found peace that existed in our pet-less home space as I spread out on the floor to soak up the entire sun spot on my own or ate popcorn without having two (or more) begging eyes glued to my bowl. I loved the spaciousness that not walking a dog afforded me, and for a few months I worked hard to use my time wisely, filling side tables with books that I planned to read and breaking into impromptu yoga sessions (just because now I could do such things without distraction).

Without a dog, though, my partner moped around dropping hints at her longing for another canine companion. Without a dog, what did we have to talk about or take pictures of? Without a dog, where was the meaning in our lives?

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic. But there is truth in the fact that we are inherently animal people. Our identity as a couple has been as pet owners for the entirety of our relationship. Not having a pet to focus on shifted the way we responded to one another in the silent emptiness of our home- in both good and challenging ways…

So, just less than a month ago, we bit at a friend’s anonymous link notifying us of the need for a home for an 8 year old beagle/ cattle dog mix. Within minutes of seeing this little dog’s picture and description, I had the application filled out and emailed to Vashon Island Pet Protectors. An hour later, we had set a time for the weekend to meet her.

Junebug

Fast forward to today: here I am typing happily away with a little dog snoring at my feet. The couch is covered in wiry dog hair, there are animal shaped toys strewn around the floor along with a gnarly looking bone, and there’s a leash hanging near the back door with a small plastic bag tied to the looped handle. We are officially the happy companions to “Junebug”, a little dog with a loud bark and a huge ability to make us smile. She’s by no means “perfect”, and she has some issues that I could live without. But I’d rather not live without her.  Largely, I’m thankful for Junebug’s imperfections. They mean she’s unique. They remind me that she can love me despite my own issues. We can be perfectly imperfect together.

Mostly, I’m thankful for the ways Junebug reminds me to wake up to the world around me; the sounds and smells that fill the park near our house, the significance of structure, and the importance of making time for play. It took this little dog to remind me to wake up just in time for spring blossoms. And it took this little dog to remind me that I can love bigger and stronger than I gave myself credit for.

Luke
               –  Mary Oliver

I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head

and her wet nose
touching
the face
of every one

with its petals
of silk,
with its fragrance
rising

into the air
where the bees,
their bodies
heavy with pollen,

hovered-
and easily
she adored
every blossom,

not in the serious,
careful way
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom-

the way we praise or don’t praise-
the way we love
or don’t love-
but the way

we long to be-
that happy
in the heaven of earth-

in memoriam

In one of the stars, I shall be living. In one of them, I shall be laughing.
And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery  The Little Prince

three goodbyes in one year’s time

A year ago, our humble little condo floor was covered in small, washable rugs and we had a cat- scratched sea foam 50’s era sectional in the living room. It smelled like a mix of old dog and pee, and we didn’t care. Our geriatric cattle dog Emma was still making her way in the world, despite having no control of her bladder and a limited ability to walk further than a few blocks. She still had a spark in her eyes, though, and we were glad to have her around. A year ago, we spent a good portion of every Sunday drinking tea at our elderly friend June’s house. We spent hours and hours listening to stories about The Great Depression, hidden places to find booze during prohibition in Seattle, and sailing the Puget Sound. June enjoyed spinning a yarn with her stories and loved nothing more than an engaged friend or two who were willing to make a pot of tea and sit with her. A year ago, I was waking up early every Monday to dash off to yoga class, but not before hearing the phone ring and chatting briefly with Reen’s mom Patsy who called like clockwork at 7:00 am. Patsy had a gift for gossip and a wickedly good sense of humor that I cherished. Even in a few minutes on the phone, she created a connection that many people can’t craft in hours.

Funny how so many things can change in one year; the absence of a canine companion, the adjustment of furniture, the shift in Sunday schedules and the silence of the phone on Monday mornings, to name a few. One year passed, and three beings who meant so much to our days and weeks are gone. One year passed, and we aren’t the same people we were before.

Emma died at home this spring and we were fortunate to be there to hold her paws and kiss her sweet fur as she breathed her last breath. Patsy died in the same hospital she retired from as a psychiatric nurse so many years ago. She suffered a brief but painful decline at the end of summer, leaving us with the scent of fallen leaves as we departed New England for Seattle with tear soaked cheeks. Our dear tea companion June died just a few weeks ago while her husband and I held her hands and talked her into her next adventure. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to read June her favorite Truman Capote story A Christmas Memory the day before she died. I like to think it brought her comfort. It certainly brought that to us.

heart stretching, soul expanding, life altering grief

2012 was a year of major losses and a year that taught me more about love and of spiritual connection than any I have had so far. Even my dealings with cancer could not prepare me for the heart expanding experience of sitting vigil with our beloved dog and with two women who taught me in immense ways about love, faith and friendship. Even nine years of experience working in grief support with a hospice agency did not prepare me fully for the immensity of my own grief and the ways I would be physically, mentally and spiritually stretched by these losses. That’s the thing about grief, though. Every loss is unique. Every person is unique. Every situation…unique.

One of the many ways my yoga practice has helped me in the past year (aside from my little bits of midnight asana and meditation in the confined space between the hospital bed and the radiator) was to recognize that it doesn’t help to judge any experience or any thing or any one as fundamentally good or intrinsically bad (and yes- I need to remind myself of this often). Sometimes things are just the way they are. And the one thing that can be counted on, thank goodness, is that every experience, thing, and person not only can, but will change.

So, here’s to a new year of experiences and connections, losses and gains. As much as I love new beginnings, I also love pausing to think about how I’ve been blessed and transformed by the souls in my life; living and deceased. Right now, I light three candles and pause for Emma, Patsy and June. These three remarkable souls brightened my life and reminded me in equal measure to listen from the heart, to laugh from the belly, and to get up from time to time to shake it out and play.

IMG_0050 100_1944 IMG_2891

an open letter to the helpers

 When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
-Fred Rogers

After learning about the devastating school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, I was at a loss for words. Like so many people, I was stunned and sad, trying to figure out what to do with my sense of helplessness. I went to Brené Brown’s Ordinary Courage blog and found the above quote, and then continued to see it posted on social media sites. It spoke to me.

I was raised with the wisdom of Mr. Rogers, but at the time, I had no idea how profound and wise his words were. I just found him comfortable and predictably steady. I liked that. Life can be so complicated, and someone as calm and wise as Mr. Rogers can provide exactly what a kid from a divorced family needs (or any kid, for that matter).

Mr. Rogers was a helper.

Disasters so often make people focus on what’s wrong in the world; guns, violence, poverty, hatred, ignorance, the lack of social services, etc. And these are all facts. There are lots of things wrong in the world. But there are also some amazing and beautiful and freaking incredible things right with the world, and that’s what Mr. Rogers’ mother was so keen on pointing out. There are always helpers somewhere. In any challenging situation, you can focus on the darkness and the pain, or you can focus on the people who are willing to sift through the pain to go directly to the source of healing. In other words, you can be a part of the solution, or….you can be a helper, neighbor.

I want to be a helper.

And I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who know how to be helpers: People who aren’t afraid to stand in the muck for a cause or be spat at for being or thinking differently. People who are capable of sitting with others who are struggling with despair without trying to make it better for their own comfort. People who get that sometimes helping is letting others suffer, but not having to go it alone. People who drop what they’re doing to bake a pie in your kitchen so you don’t have to cry alone, but who don’t force you to eat a damned thing. People who go to the homes of dying people and offer to read, give a massage, watch TV, sit in silence, pray. People who offer their gloves to a homeless person or give a gift card for coffee. People who work with chronically mentally ill people and are willing to see beyond a deficiency and toward wholeness. People who don’t judge other people because of their past or the way they look or the way they talk. People who teach other people. People who continue to learn about how to be a better person. People who open the doors for other people, not because of gender or age, but because of pure kindness. People who spread love and light and joy.

I have known so many helpers, and I have been honored to be mentored and loved by them. Helpers love. Helpers listen. Helpers witness. Helpers heal.

Thank you to all the helpers.

choose love

choose love

Context

 I was sitting in a coffee shop with a fellow yogi sipping chai and discussing my latest interpersonal frustration. I was feeling discouraged and lost, and I was looking for some honest advice about what to do next. I knew my friend could be counted on to cut through the crap with her laser-like perception and ability to say the right thing. I looked at her over the cardamom scented steam, waiting for some words of wisdom.

“Choose love,” my friend said.

I sat there, feeling stunned by this basic suggestion truth. I knew she wasn’t trying to push my concerns aside or wave some positive thinking bullshit in my face. Rather, she was telling me that the loving path is the path the shows up, faces fear, states the facts (even when they’re hard), and exposes the soul when it’s the right thing to do. It’s the path that Brené Brown describes as the courageous path:

What we know matters, but who we are matters more. Being rather than knowing requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable.

Perspective

To choose love is to choose the audacious and most daring path; the path that requires being willing to be seen and to swallow the needs of the ego (to be right or to be perfect, etc., etc.).  For me, choosing love demands that I stay present rather than closing off. When I’m stressed or sad or hurt, I tend to defend myself by acting like nothing happened- all along having the expectation that ignoring the problem will cease all conflict (often, however, this creates conflict, in myself and in others).

What I’ve noticed in my week of dedicating to choose love is that showing up and being loving might seem harder at the time, but it almost always makes things easier overall. It’s a basic principle in yogic philosophy, too- the idea of Satya, or commitment to truth. I notice all too often that I hold back telling someone my irritation/ disappointment for fear that I will hurt their feelings or that I would be judged for my own feelings. I don’t give others the benefit of the doubt that they can take care of themselves. I know I’ve said it before here, but it’s worth saying again (and I’m speaking as much to myself as I am to anyone who needs the reminder):

You do not always have to take care of other people. They are more often than not able to take care of themselves.

Agreed- there are always exceptions to the rule, but the basic principle is that human beings are resilient and capable. Most people grow best when challenged to show their radiant selves through hard work and dedication rather than over-nurturing. Think about it: those times in your life when you worked hard at something and had something to show for your effort are often the most pride inducing times. Yes, maybe you had guidance along the way, but you had to strike out on your own and often times had to face fear and failure before success happened (I’m thinking of my most recent love of handstands- never would have happened if I had my legs held up every time or if I didn’t topple over a few times). It takes a loving and supportive person to give us the space to grow.

Moving from Choosing Love to a Guerrilla Love Revolution

One of my yoga teachers, Molly Lannon Kenny, reminded me lately that love can be a revolutionary act- that we can actually step outside of our normal way of loving and being in the world to expand love in the community. She created a Facebook group dedicated to this mission, where people can post their acts of “guerrilla love”, and I took it as a personal assignment to spread as much love as I can through the month of December (and possibly- hopefully– beyond).

I began by chanting “Lokah Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu” out loud  on my bicycle all the way home (a mantra meaning, loosely: may all beings everywhere be happy and free of suffering and may my own words and deeds contribute to the happiness in the world). I loved it. It made my bike ride feel joyful and lighter than usual. It also helped me to feel connected more positively with everyone along the route- even the cars felt less intimidating and more a part of my community (that’s really saying something, because I often find myself praying for safety from them rather than wishing peace and happiness for them).

My next act of guerrilla love (also bicycle related) was to wish everyone along my route to work a good morning. I started by smiling at the people at bus stops, but I realized that most people don’t look up at people passing by. I felt a bit deranged, straining to smile at people looking down at their smart phones or staring at the street where the bus would be arriving soon. I also noticed how much of a cultural shift it was for me to try to make eye contact with people in a city where that doesn’t happen a whole lot. I decided instead to say “good morning” to the people I could, and it turned out to be stunningly enjoyable connecting to fellow bike riders, construction workers, and people waiting at crosswalks. A small act, but something I wouldn’t normally do without a nudge.

This weekend, my partner and I enjoyed time away at a cottage on a beach. Because it was just the two of us, my guerrilla love act was to pick up trash as we wandered along the shore. I held the idea of loving the planet and doing my small part to care for the sea birds and animals that live in that ecosystem. I assume nobody will notice the lack of bottle caps or plastic junk that littered the driftwood lined beach, but it felt good to me to know that the next person to walk the beach might not be distracted by trash and could instead focus on the beauty that is naturally there.

Loving is a choice: it’s about connecting, nurturing, and growing as human beings. I like the way Hafiz says it best (translation by Daniel Ladinsky):

Plant
So that your own heart
Will grow.

Love
So that God will think,

“Ahhhhh,
I got kin in that body!
I should start inviting that soul over
For coffee and
Rolls.”

Sing
Because this is a food
Our starving world
Needs.

Laugh
Because that is the purest
Sound.

musings about life…from a boat

hope floats…and the mind wanders

In the warmer month of September, my salty wannabe partner and I bought a sailboat. This wasn’t quite a whim as much as it was a compromise: a boat could be cheaper than therapy and it’s something we could do together or with friends and family (once we re-learn the fine art of sailing). And, in fact, having the boat has been a lovely blend of wonderful and challenging, which is exactly like therapy, right?

Our little (24 foot) boat’s name is Esther (named after the grandmother of the Episcopal Priest who owned her before). She’s not spectacular or fancy, and she needs a bit of work and tender loving care, but she floats beautifully and her sails get us moving (when the wind cooperates). Being on her makes me happy, and in the few times we’ve taken her out onto the lake, I’ve noticed so many different things about myself and the ways I navigate the world. So, as is my tendency, I made a list and I named it:

a yogi boater’s manifesto for life:

  • Plans are a nice start, but be ready to ditch or alter them to account for weather conditions, things that don’t work, things that go missing, or things that get broken. Crazy mix-ups happen. Be prepared for the crazy. Which leads me to;
  • Look around and know your surroundings. It’s as important to know the workings of the boat and the rules of the road water as it is to have a sense of what is happening outside of the boat. Obstacles could lie underneath the surface of the water, tides could shift, and wind conditions can change at any time. Be aware and be prepared. And then;
  • Let go of control. You aren’t in it. (Also known as the “Aparigraha” or “non- grasping” principal). It’s far more enjoyable to stay in the moment and recognize that I can’t control the wind or the experience of the other people on the boat. I can only be here now. And that’s really enough. In fact, it’s better than enough- when I let go and open up to the moment and what’s happening in it, it can be really fabulous. Worrying about what could happen only takes away from appreciating what is happening.
  • Not only is the world changing, but you are, too. I have to remind myself on a daily basis that I’m getting older (which means my body might not always do the things I’d like it to do). Despite the fact that I ride my bike to work, practice yoga on a regular basis, and feel relatively spry and flexible, getting on and off a boat isn’t as easy as it was when we lived aboard in our twenties. This is humbling, to say the least. And it’s a good reminder to continue to do the things that keep me moving as well as to slow down and pay attention.
  • The need for order (Shaucha, people). Just because it’s a small boat doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shipshape. As much as I crave and actually prefer smaller spaces, I go insane with chaos. And chaos is easier to spot in tighter quarters. Besides aesthetics, it’s also extraordinarily important to be able to find that thingamajig or the whatsamawho at a moment’s notice.
  • Being barefoot on a boat is as good as being barefoot on the earth. I have a friend who once told me that he could tell if I had gone more than a reasonable period of time without letting my feet touch the earth. I will now add the surface of a boat to that statement. If the sun is shining, I prefer to let my feet breathe in the air (even when it’s cold). This is why I keep wooly socks on board.
  • The body holds memory of movement. After being on a boat all day, one might notice the sensation of movement when standing still. A good reminder that what we do stays with us- so be thoughtful of how you treat your body (and mind, for that matter).

Voting as Duty (and another practice in living your yoga)

You may be pretty or plain, heavy or thin, gay or straight, poor or rich. But nobody has more votes than you. All human beings are more equal to each other than they are unequal. And voting is the great equalizer. It is important. It is imperative. There is no time for complacency.”
Maya Angelou, Winston-Salem Journal

I registered to vote the day I turned eighteen years old. It was 1989, and I was full of ideals and passionate optimism. I believed in my country. I believed in personal freedom. I believed everyone living in America had the same opportunities. I was naïve beyond belief, thinking, as many eighteen year olds do, that everything I needed to know I already knew. I was intelligent and free thinking, after all. Wasn’t I?

background

I was raised in a small town in Eastern Washington where it was commonplace to see more than one pickup truck on any given day outside the Feed and Seed with a gun rack and a “protected by Smith and Wesson” bumper sticker (located just above the mud flap women). My family lived on a gravel cul-de-sac in a house with a wrap around deck that my dad built by hand. From that deck, I could see the Interstate on one side and Idaho on the other. We had a vegetable garden and a freestanding garage in our yard where my dad fixed cars, built everything from furniture to dollhouses, and hung deer during hunting season. We owned a large, hand-built dining room table, but most nights we ate our dinner on TV trays while watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. I never went without food or fresh water and I always had clean clothes (though I didn’t always wear them…).

I spent countless hours of my childhood running with wild abandon alongside the river that flowed from the Idaho panhandle past my hometown on the way to the Columbia River. I loved nature and I had no fear when I was in it. Well, that’s not true. I was afraid of spiders. And there were plenty of spiders where I grew up, but the men in my life handled them. All in all, I had it pretty good.

voting: a brief personal history

I have several memories of being bundled up in the back of my parent’s car to make the ride to the elementary school where my parents disappeared into little booths to cast their ballots. From an early age, I yearned for my chance to take part in this mysterious ritual, and I loved the feel of a community gathering together (I also loved the free cookies and the flag sticker that I got from being there). I had no idea exactly how my parents voted, but I knew that they took this responsibility seriously, and that I was being primed to follow in their footsteps.

It was a no-brainer that I would register to vote the day I turned eighteen, even though the first Presidential Election I would participate in wouldn’t happen for another three years. I was now an official adult. I had my own car, my own job, and I was now a card carrying registered voter. Could I be more mature?

The first Presidential Election that I had the fortune to be involved in was in 1992. It was strange and exciting times. I was living in the big city of Seattle when more than half the residents were wearing ripped jeans and flannel. “Grunge” had become a style and a descriptor for a certain type of music. I was living in a rundown apartment that had wood floors that slanted from age and where more than one appliance turned on at a time blew a circuit. I worked in the circulation department at the local newspaper and I was hanging out with people who talked politics over coffee. My over-caffeinated head was spinning with enthusiastic idealism.

At the time, Bill Clinton was running against George H.W. Bush, and people were thinking about presidential candidates in different ways. Bill had proven that a candidate could be “cool” and could discuss his underwear preference on MTV. He talked easily with young adults as a valid audience and he spoke in a way that didn’t immediately turn off blue collar workers. In fact, blue collar workers seemed as smitten as I did (that is if they weren’t smitten with Ross Perot). President Bush (Sr.) seemed sweet and grandfatherly, but he wasn’t as exciting, different, or charming in the ways Clinton or even Perot were.

I was about to cast my first ballot in an election that mattered, and I was filled with pride and what I can only describe as a feeling of superiority. I knew best what this country needed, and I judged anyone who thought differently than I did. It was an “us” against “them” thing. My thought was that if you didn’t vote the same way I did, you were ignorant, uninformed and wrong. Or you just didn’t care. About anything.

present day (or “The Yoga of Politics”)

There have been several elections since my first, and my passionate belief in the process has never waned. I believe in democracy and I love that I have the freedom to participate in it. What has happened in the many years since my first election, however, is that I care less about how people vote (of course I wish they would agree with my choices..) and more about the importance that people contribute to the process by voting. I would go so far as to say that I think voting is not only a right, but a duty. And here’s why I think that:

  • People have literally been beaten, jailed, and killed fighting for the right to vote in America. People are currently struggling over the same right in some countries.
  • Government impacts everything from social services to roadways to health care to environmental and international policy. Nearly everything we touch has some connection to policies that are enacted by government; the food you eat, the roads you drive on, the air you breath, the doctors you see, etc. If you think in any way that it doesn’t matter or you aren’t impacted, I dare say (lovingly, of course) that you are mistaken.
  • Taxes are spent on services that impact communities. Politicians decide how that money is allocated. Our elected officials make spending decisions based on how we vote. If you don’t vote, your voice/choice isn’t counted.

If you care about your personal rights, your family, your community, your country, and the world (or even just one of those), you will vote. Voting is staking a claim in the future and participating in community. It’s giving a damn about something larger than yourself. And that’s pretty cool.

As a yogi, I view voting as just one more act where I get to live my yoga. Yoga doesn’t begin or end on the mat. It’s being in the world in a way that speaks to my values as a human being who is connected to all other human beings. It’s living intentionally and committing to action and service.

I know that there are a lot of people I care deeply for who have different values and beliefs than I do and who are voting differently than I am. What I can say is that I am voting from my own values and from my heart. I’ve been a bleeding heart liberal for as long as I can remember (which is shocking, given my upbringing), and no amount of yoga is going to change that. But yoga has softened my need to change anyone but myself. The fact that I am voting for Obama does not take away my ability to love my more conservative friends and family. In fact, yoga has helped to soften my reactions to dissidence and to respond in a less defensive and more open way (more proof that balance can happen off the mat, too).

If you’re an American citizen and you’ve already mailed in your ballot, I thank you. If you are waiting to mail it in, I encourage you to do that as soon as you can, because you never know what might happen, and isn’t it nicer to take the time to be thoughtful about it? Turn on some nice music, light candles, burn incense, pour a glass of wine or green juice- do whatever it takes to get in the mood. Think about the people you love and who love you. Think about your community. Think about your country and your planet. And when you’re done, you can walk a little taller knowing that you participated in an important civic duty. I bow to you.

And to those of you waiting to go to the polls, I hope all goes well for you. I hope the lines are short and the cookies plentiful. I hope someone smiles at you on the way in and shakes your hand on your way out. I bow to you, too. Thank you for taking part in this very important act. You matter.