Do Your Om Thing

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I’ve been practicing yoga, with a frequency that has varied between daily and weekly, for over 15 years.  I’ve read parts of the Bhagavad Gita, I used to know the primary series by heart, and I’ve been on a week-long retreat that featured long periods of silence, a lot of vegetables, and 45 minutes of pigeon pose at a time.  All of this is to say that I’m somewhat familiar with yoga.  I’m not an expert, by a long shot.  But I’ve read a lot and practiced a lot and even written about it from time to time here.

Rebecca Pacheco’s Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life is my favorite book about yoga that I have ever read.

Rebecca makes yoga tradition clear and compelling and unpacks things like the chakras and the koshas that I’d previously found confusing enough to be entirely off-putting.  She asserts something that we all know to be true but that I posit most of us have lost touch with: that yoga is about far, far more than the asanas.  But taking yoga beyond the physical poses is frankly hard, because the literature about yoga’s traditions and philosophy is opaque and difficult and because, especially in these days, we are all more distracted than ever.  In this book, Rebecca changes all of that.  These two quotes summarize what Do Your Om Thing is all about.

Yoga doesn’t manufacture a feeling of completeness; it offers tools for becoming present enough to realize it’s been there all along.

Internal quiet and connection to our deepest self form the essence of yoga.  It’s not fancy. It doesn’t balance on one arm.  But it’s the plain truth of yoga’s purpose, and it will change your life.

Do Your Om Thing is structured in four parts.  Part I, Yoga: Ancient and Modern, briefly covers Rebecca’s own story and path to yoga and then describes the famous “eight limbs” of yoga.  Over and over again, Rebecca shows how the sometimes dusty-sounding limbs of yoga have relevance to today’s life, and reminds us that being a yogi in 2015 is about understanding yogic tradition in order to apply it to modern life.  She quotes Zen master Sheng Yen, reminding us that “practice should not be separated from living and living at all times should be one’s practice.” In Do Your Om Thing she emphasizes that while yoga may be a series of sexy poses that will give you sculpted arms, it is far, far more than that.

Yoga is a way of being in the world.

Rebecca discusses each “limb” of yoga briefly and offers concrete guidelines for readers wanting to incorporate them into their regular lives.  This is one of things I love most about Do Your Om Thing: the way Rebecca makes something as diffuse and difficult to grasp as yoga philosophy utterly understandable, real, and actionable.

Part II, The Body, talks about the chakras, the seven energy points that reside along our spines, and the koshas, the body’s five layers.  Once again, Rebecca shares specific intentions, mantras, and asanas (with beautiful photographs) to go with each chakra.  As in the rest of the book, Rebecca’s clear, lucid writing renders understandable (and fascinating) something that I’d previously found challenging.

Part III, The Mind, discusses meditation.  Rebecca reminds us that “the quality and direction of your attention is the greatest determinant of the quality of your life.”  This section, and the brief discussion of meditation in part I, showed me that much of what preoccupies me in my life is in fact quite yogic in nature.  When I read this, I shivered:

It will always be tempting to fidget, flee, or Facebook update instead of inhabiting the present moment, which can be challenging and uncomfortable, even tragic and terrifying, at times, but it’s this lack of consciousness that leaves us feeling like we need yoga in the first place.  The feeling of missing our own lives, as they are happening.

Oh, yes.  This feeling, of missing out on my own experience even as I live it is one I’ve long felt and often written about.  Rebecca shares some helpful tools for beginning meditators and describes several meditation styles.

Part IV, The Spirit, which makes suggestions for “spiritual sustenance,” is my favorite part of the book.  Rebecca tells personal stories, including about her grandmother, to whom the book is dedicated and who believed that “life itself is a spiritual practice.”  Parts of this section of Do Your Om Thing brought tears to my eyes and goosebumps to my skin.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”  This doesn’t mean that life won’t be difficult of painful, characterized by change and loss; it means that a higher power, the wellspring for your spiritual life, whether you realize it or not, is holding a candlelight vigil or perhaps a roaring bonfire for you all hours of the day and night. It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t leave.

Is the loneliness of which I’ve written, whose shadow limns my everyday experience, an ache for this higher power, a longing to trust in that candlelight or bonfire?  I suspect so.  Rebecca shares nine “suggestions for spiritual sustenance,” each of which I found profoundly moving.  She incorporates quotations from literature, stories and thoughts from others living an engaged life, and questions from ancient texts (such as the Bhagavad Gita).

The last section of the book, titled love, opens with one of my all-time favorite quotes: “In the end only three things matter: how well we have lived, how well we have loved, and how well we have learned to let go” (Jack Kornfield).  Rebecca closes with reflections on love, for the self, for other, for the world at large.  She reminds us that while yoga doesn’t have to be our sole workout, it is our soul workout.  “Find a way to make life the practice – one of humility, gratitude, and awareness,” Rebecca urges us.  And with this beautiful, thoughtful, wise book, Rebecca has given us an incredibly powerful tool to do just that.

Do Your Om Thing comes out tomorrow.  I can’t recommend Rebecca’s book highly enough.  I hope you’ll read it.

 

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Some folks hide, and some folks seek

How can one person be more real than any other?  Well, some people do hide and others seek.  Maybe those who are in hiding – escaping encounters, avoiding surprises, protecting their property, ignoring their fantasies, restricting their feelings, sitting out the pan-pipe hootchy-kootch of experience – maybe those people, people who won’t talk to rednecks, or if they’re rednecks won’t talk to intellectuals, people who’re afraid to get their shoes muddy or their noses wet, afraid to eat what they crave, afraid to drink Mexican water, afraid to bet a long shot to win, afraid to hitch-hike, jaywalk, honky-tonk, cogitate, osculate, levitate, rock it, bop it, sock it, or bark at the moon, maybe such people are simply inauthentic, and maybe the jackleg humanist who says differently is due to have his tongue fried on the hot slabs of liar’s Hell.  Some folks hide, and some folks seek, and seeking, when it’s mindless, neurotic, desperate, or pusillanimous can be a form of hiding.  But there are folks who want to know and aren’t afraid to look and won’t turn tail should they find it – and if they never do, they’ll have a good time anyway, because nothing, neither the terrible truth nor the absence of it, is going to cheat them out of one honest breath of the earth’s sweet gas.

– Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker

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A blur of otherworldly white

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I’m not going to lie to you: it’s been a difficult month.  My professional life has a very busy few weeks every year (very busy – as in round-the-clock, 3-hours-of-sleep, can’t-leave-desk) and they happened to coincide with the relentless snow in Boston. In some ways that was a blessing: since 2011, I’ve gone to New York for what is for me a long stretch away from home to be there during this busy season, but this year, in part due to the blizzards, I stayed here.  In other ways it was hard.  I felt far away from the team I work with and it was difficult to really immerse myself into what could have been a joyful time at home.

In January of my sophomore year in college I broke my ankle.  Because of this, instead of joining my friends for a week in Mexico as planned, I went home and got my wisdom teeth out.  This past month has felt like nothing so much as that: challenge piled on unpleasantness, a cast on top of an ice pack on my mouth, aching and pain and a deep sense if isolation.  More than once, Whit woke up in the night to go to the bathroom and found me sitting at my desk, a pool of light overhead and snow falling outside.  More than a few times, when I finally did go to bed I couldn’t sleep, amped up with exhaustion and anxiety, which just added to the sand-in-my-eyes feeling the next morning.

I’ve been snappier and more cranky with my family than I want to be.  I haven’t been able to go sledding when the children wanted to.  Matt did a lot - a lot – of shoveling all by himself.  I am as tired as I can remember being in years.  I have barely exercised in a month.  I have been wearing yoga pants or snowpants, and often both simultaneously, for as long as I can recall.

But at the same time, these weeks have been so removed from real life they have had a magical quality to them.  It has been a blur of white, inside and out, snow on both sides of the glass, a time historic and difficult and, I’m already aware, unforgettable. I am grateful, most of the time, that I got to experience these historically snowy weeks here with Grace and Whit.  I don’t think it’s bad that they see their mother working hard, and they have witnessed both laughter and tears – often daily.

I suspect part of what I love about snowstorms is the obvious: weather reminds us of how small we are, and how little true control we have. The endless snow actually cut away a lot of life’s BS.  Just getting around Boston was so hard for a while that it felt like life had been distilled to its essence: my family, our house, and what we could walk to.  Knowing I wasn’t able to leave my desk to really be with Grace and Whit the way I would have wanted makes me sad, but at the same time, I was here, and I am grateful for that.  Sometimes what we have has to be enough.  This is a lesson I’m learning over and over again.

The last month has stripped away any hard skin I had, and left me exposed, raw, exhausted, emotional.  I read Oliver Sacks’ beautiful piece about learning he has terminal cancer, and the whole thing made me cry.  But this last line, oh, it made me sob out loud:

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

This is love to me.  Recognizing the beauty even when it appears in the midst of a crabby moment, 74 new emails in a half hour, snow so thick it covers the windows, an ice berg hanging off of the roof, and another snow day.  I’m already aware of how golden and glazed with special-ness the last month has been, even as I emerge from it slowly, creaky and exhausted.  It has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

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What is love?

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One of my favorite recent pictures, from last October, with my parents, on the water.  I used the photo on this year’s Valentine card.

I’ve long believed that love – actually, life itself – resides in small things.  Yes, roses on Valentine’s Day are nice and weddings can be powerfully moving and the toast at a big birthday celebration carries all kinds of importance.  But day by day, hour by hour, we show people that we love them through our smallest acts.

There are three people in the world that I love the most.  You may have noticed that I write about two of them less and less (and one of them, almost never, though that’s not a change).  Grace and Whit are growing into their own stories, and it feels trickier and trickier to share them here.  In this case, I was very curious about what love looks like for them.  So I asked them.

Grace

Love is when Mum tucks me in at night and listens to me talk about my day.  It’s when she stops doing something important to help me when I need it.  Love is sacrificing some of the things she loves for us – like going out to dinner with friends or reading by herself.  Love is when she thinks of new recipes and makes something new for family dinner.  Love is keeping the kitchen stocked.  Love is sitting in cold rinks and cheering us on at hockey games (though not too loud).  Love is letting us go to sleep away camp even though I know she misses us.

Whit

Love is when Mum snuggles with me at bedtime every night.  It is when she reads me Harry Potter.  When she doesn’t pick up the phone so she can be with me.  When she makes us dinner.  I know 90% of her life right now is work but the other 10% is caring about us and that is love.  She does things that try to make our lives better.  Love is driving around the world constantly to get us places.  Love is when she goes to the library and picks out lots of books for me to see what I like.

******

I really enjoyed this exercise.  Sometimes the things we think mean the most don’t, and vice versa.  Nobody mentioned lunchbox notes, for example, which I write sporadically but not always, and nobody mentioned presents at all.  In fact neither of them mentioned things.  I recommend asking those you live with or love the most what touches them the most.  And then do more of that.

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our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time

If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.  The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay.  Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence.  What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?

– Stanley Kunitz

I’m not sure anyone better articulates this tension between now and then, forever and the moment, that animates so much of my life.  These lines from Kunitz about this paradox remain some of my favorite).

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My favorite quotes

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I really loved Jeanette Leblanc’s post, 10 Inspirational Quotes for Writers and Lovers and Speakers of Truth. The first time I read it, I marveled at the powerful passages she chose, and I’ve returned to the post several times since.  It’s no secret that I too love quotations.  I’ve written many times about that passion here, and wondered what mysterious alchemy causes certain lines and snippets of poetry to rise to my mind at specific times.  I’m sure there’s some deep reason behind that, but I haven’t yet discerned its pattern.  I’ve also noted the particular poets and lines that live on the walls in my office, where I spend most of my time, and within my skull, where I spend all of my life.  I even share a favorite passage once a week, on Fridays.

It’s impossible for me to choose favorite passages.  So I decided instead I’d share the first ones that come to mind.  Here are a few of those most familiar, well-worn, and oft-remembered words.

For when I lose touch with what matters most in this world.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

– Mary Oliver

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. – Annie Dillard

Ordinary life was laced with miracles, I knew that, had read enough poetry to understand that we are elevated with the knowing, and yet it was difficult to notice and be grateful when one was continually fatigued and irritated.  I suppose that unquenchable sense of wonder is what separates us dolts from the saints and the poets.  This was the lesson, perhaps, that I was sent to learn: the old life was worth having at any expense. – Jane Hamilton, A Map of the World

For when I feel lost.

There is no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it appears unrepetitive up close. – Louise Erdrich, The Bingo Palace

Life gives us what we need when we need it.  Receiving what it gives us a whole other thing. – Pam Houston, Cowboys Are My Weakness

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
We have come to our real work.
And when we no longer know which way to go,
We have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
– Wendell Berry

For when I cannot put anything into words.

There’s no vocabulary for love within a family, love that’s lived in but not looked at, love within the light of which all else is seen, love within which all other love finds speech.  This love is silent. – T. S. Eliot

Gratitude is one of the least articulate of the emotions, especially when it is deep. – Felix Frankfurter

For when life brings me to my knees.

In this moment there is life and food for future years. – William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey

Trust life, and it will teach you, in joy and sorrow, all you need to know. – James Baldwin

When I need to release my grip.

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. – Joseph Campbell

What are your favorite words, and which do you think of most often?

 

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Moments when time stands still

Where were you when you heard that the Challenger exploded?  I was in the hallway outside my 6th grade classroom.  The school receptionist told me the news.

Where were you when you heard Princess Diana had died in a car crash in Paris?  I was in a bar in the Adirondacks.

Where were you when you heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center?  I was at my desk on the 31st floor of an office building downtown.  Matt called from LA to tell me what had happened.

I suspect that for my parents, when Kennedy was shot was one of these moments.  For my grandparents, perhaps one is when they heard the war ended.

What I’m not sure of is whether the experiences have to be brutal and sorrowful to have the power I’m describing.  If it’s true that Nana and Ba and Gaga and Pops could remember with pinpoint accuracy learning about the end of World War Two, that would suggest that positive news can have the same kind of stop-time power (though, maybe, when it comes to war, you’re already in a world so far removed from Good News that’s not true).  Unfortunately I can’t ask them, so I don’t know.

What will these moments be for Grace and Whit?  I always wonder.  For someone who believes so entirely in the importance of an ordinary life’s most mundane moments, I’m also aware that there are certain experiences that are so powerful and extraordinary that they create a different kind of awareness.  Time tilts off of its axis for a moment, and we never forget that shift.  These experiences also have the power of uniting us with our communities, countries, and the world.  I predict that anyone of my generation can tell you exactly where they were when they learned the three pieces of news I mention above.

If you’re approximately my age, can you?

 

 

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even as they are happening

Sometimes the most significant moments of your life reveal themselves to you even as they are happening …

– Pam Houston, Cowboys are my Weakness

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The Alphabet of Right Now

In 2009, 2011, and 2013 I wrote posts about the “alphabet” of my life at that moment.  I like the construct as a way to capture the specific nuances of a moment, and reading Deborah Copaken’s piece The ABC’s of Adulthood, reminded me of it.  Seeing that it’s 2015, it seems time for my bi-annual Alphabet of Right Now.

A is for Aquaphor.  I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Aquaphor is my duct tape.  The stuff holds the universe together.  I slather it on everybody’s faces, because we all seem dry and chapped and it fixes small cuts and bruises.  There are very few questions for which Aquaphor isn’t a great answer.

B is for Billy Collins.  I’m on a huge Billy Collins kick.

C is for coffee.  Every morning.  I am looking forward to my morning coffee by about 5pm the night before.  It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s one of the highlights of my day.  When Matt brings me a cup in the morning, made exactly the way I like it, I view that as the height of romance.

D is for dog walking.  Grace walks a puppy on our street twice a week.  She absolutely adores the dog and I love the responsibility she’s taking on.  I have decided that 12 is the perfect age to start having this kind of ownership; when Whit is 12 I hope he also has a job a couple of days a week.

E is for Exeter.  My alma mater just named a wonderful-sound woman to be the principal.  A graduate of Princeton who is a sholar of American literature.  Sounds good to me!

F is for family dinner.  We do it as much as we can, averaging probably 2 or 3/week.  I love setting the dining room table, lighting candles, and sitting down together.  The actual dinners sometimes include some bickering and people being annoyed at each other, but the memories are all absolutely golden.

G is for gratitude.  Not a word I love, but a practice I feel very committed to.  Sunday night compliments, talking before bed, noticing and making mention of things that touch and impress and move us: all priorities for our family.

H is for hockey.  So. Much. Hockey.  Grace has now started playing too, and that means all three of my family members are passionate hockey players.  Two kids playing on three teams between them results in a LOT of practices and games.  Not to mention a LOT of gear in our living room.

I is for InstagramTwitter remains my favorite social media, but Instagram is definitely #2 (and T is definitely taken).

J is for Just Be Here Now.  I wear a “be here now” necklace a lot.  I think of the Colin Hay line all the time.  It’s fair to say this is my mantra.

K is for Kilimanjaro.  An experience that Matt and I shared that I think about all the time, and wrote about recently.

L is for #likeagirlI loved the Superbowl ad that promoted the tag line and have loved that footage since I saw it for the first time a while ago.  I won’t lie though: I feel a lot of anxiety about the plunge in self esteem that happens to most girls in puberty.

M is for meditation. I meditate regularly – 5 minutes! – and which I’m happy to see Matt adopting as part of his regular routine.  We both read 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris this summer and adored it.

No is for no.  Learning to say it.  Maybe too well.

O is for On a Beam of Light My current favorite picture book (and Whit’s, too).  Love.

P is for poetry.  Poetry has been an important part of my life since before college, but there are certain seasons in my life when I feel its pull particularly strongly.  I’m in one now.

Q is for quiet.  I prefer quiet.  It’s not always fair to my children, who are rambunctious and occasionally not-quiet.  But it’s simply my preferred way of being, and I’m sorry to say (for them) that that preference is get more pronounced as I get older.

R is for reading.  Fiction, non-fiction, essays, poems, Young Adult, graphic novels, magazines: anything.  Read it all.  Watching Grace and Whit read is one of the central joys of my life.  You can see what I’ve been reading lately here.

S is for snow.  It was a very dry winter and then, in the blink of an eye, Juno changed that.  We got 24 inches Over the 26-28 and it has continued to snow.  Another 16 inches with Linus.  Driving is a nightmare.  Even Grace and Whit are sort of over it (which is really saying something).

T is tween. Help.  This stage is proving complicated, and in no small part precisely because I don’t want to talk about it.

U is underneath.  How things feel right now.  Over 5 feet of snow and more coming.  In 3 weeks.  I’m a Bostonian and Matt is from Vermont and we do not generally find snow to be daunting.  But this is a whole new world.

V is for vacation.  We’re off soon on a trip to Europe with my parents.  I look forward to introducing Grace and Whit to the city in which I lived as a small child.

W is for writing.  I still struggle to own the title of “writer” but it’s clear to me at this point that I will write for the rest of my life.  Hopefully here, maybe elsewhere.  Writing for me means paying attention and marveling at what I see, turning the small murky stones of my ordinary life over in my hands to see the shimmer of mica on their surface, and it is integral to who I am in this world.

X is a really hard one.  X-ray?  Xylophone?  Any ideas?

Y is for yoga.  I’ve been a pretty-regular yoga practitioner for 15 years now, a fact that shocks me when I write it.  I recently read my friend Rebecca Pacheco‘s gorgeous book, Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life, and I’ll be sharing my review in a week or two.  Spoiler alert: the book is fantastic.

Z is for zzzz (sleep).  Turning off the screens half an hour or more before bed, going to bed at the same time, rarely drinking any wine, meditating.  All are helping me sleep.  Which is my drug of choice these days.

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Camp is tremendously valuable for both boys and girls

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Sunset at the beach at our camp, August, 2014

Camp was a very important part of my life.  I went to the same camp, on Cape Cod, for many summers, including four years of a junior counselor training program and two years as a counselor.  It’s a profound joy for me to watch both of my children attend and love the same camp now.  I couldn’t possibly be more of a believer in what camps offer children.

Camp is a place that kids can be away from their parents, a place they can be joyfully rambunctious and experiment with new activities, skills, and experiences, a place they can meet and get to know friends who are different from their friends at home.  I place tremendous value in the out-of-their-regular-life aspect of camp, and in both of our childrens’ cases they went without a friend from home.

I learned recently that our camp, which is coed, is full for girls but not yet for boys.  Apparently all-boys camps are also less full than all-girls camps.  I find this phenomenon fascinating.  What is it about?  Do boys want to go away less?  This is hard for me to believe.  Do parents feel camp is less vital or valuable for boys?  Again, this surprises me, but maybe it’s true.  Is there increased competition for sports-specific camps when it comes to boys?  This, there may be some truth to.

For us, and I speak for both Matt and me here, we feel that camp is equally as important for a girl as for a boy.  We didn’t hesitate to send Whit, as I had Grace, the very first summer he was old enough (8 years old).  Both of our children were excited about going away that first summer (and every summer since).  I didn’t feel different at all about sending my children to camp.  In both cases I felt some trepidation and sorrow about saying goodbye (not really about missing them, but more about the recognition that I’m already here in my life).  But more than anything, I felt excited for them, and downright delighted to watch them fly.

There’s also such huge value, in my opinion, in the relationships that develop between children and their counselors.  Where else in their lives do kids get to form close, loving bonds with young adults, particularly ones who are in aggregate such terrific role models? In my view this is equally as important for boys and for girls.

I did have one boy-specific moment when I observed Whit with his counselors, at pick-up, certainly, but even at drop-off.  I watched the boys play Gaga Ball and felt like I was watching puppies: they were freed to be physical and rowdy, to be joyful and affectionate, to run and jump and yell.  So much of modern life seems to tell boys to be quieter and softer and I distinctly remember watching Whit and thinking: oh, wow, at last, a place he can just be a boy (I realize this a stereotype even as I write it, but it is one that holds true in our family and thus I share it).

This reflection made me more convinced at the power of camp for my son, not less.  Both of our children are looking forward to the summer ahead, and so are we.

Are you a summer camp family?  Do you feel differently about camp for boys as you do about camp for girls? 

 

 

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