Shattered by kindness

Two open windows: One is a crime scene; the other, a symbol of rest and a world temporarily out of reach. Each is a bittersweet source of solace.

I was robbed last month. My rental car was vandalized, and my purse was stolen. I was in Bellevue, Wash., for yoga teacher training. That Monday, Sept. 11, was our only day off during our intense two-week session. These single free days are highly prized. I had lined up a full slate: Errands in the morning before a lunch date at noon, followed by a salt spa session and a massage, then a group dinner arranged by friends in the training to celebrate my upcoming birthday and those of two other women in the class with September birthdays. It was a beautiful, bright, warm day. I had some extra time in between my errands and meeting my lunch date, so I stopped at the Bellevue Botanical Garden to walk around and call my parents. It’s one of my favorite oases in the area, and its dahlias are especially spectacular. The three-hour time lag from the East Coast is just weird enough to make it tough to stay in touch in real time, so I was looking forward to making the connection and hearing the news from home in my mom’s and dad’s voices.

In fuzzy hindsight, I might have seen a gang of six or eight young people walking along the edge of the parking lot. I can’t remember if I actually saw them or conjured up the image later. As I parked at the edge of a row on the far side of the lot, I was preoccupied with time ~ how much did I have before I needed to leave for the restaurant? ~ in addition to thinking about the training, about something I wanted to share with a friend when we resumed, about my aching hip and my struggles with the course, about my upcoming surgery and all that it might entail, about being far from home, and about how the rest of the year might unfold during my extended siesta.

The robbers must have watched me park and stow my purse. I placed it on the floor of the front passenger seat, under the glove box, and covered it with a fleece jacket. It felt as if I had put it into a safe cave, because the interior was black and the nook was deep. They must have seen me leave the car holding only my phone and putting the keys in my jeans pocket. When I walked back through the lot no more than 40 minutes later, I was shocked to see that the front passenger window had been smashed out. Although “shocked” feels like an inadequate adjective. Time stopped for a few heartbeats as I stood still and stared at the yawning hole. My thought spiral, along with some earthy and unyogic language, went something like: Really?! Is that what I think it is?! I’m seeing it, but I don’t believe it. Seriously?! I walked the remaining 30 feet or so to the car, realizing more with each step that yes, indeed, that was MY car. My little bubble had been smashed, along with the poor Yaris’s window. And yet, my reaction boiled down to just two thoughts: How could I have been so stupid to leave my purse in the car? And, BUT I HAD PLANS!

After freaking out for a minute that felt like an hour, I stopped to plot the next best steps. No one else was around, although there were plenty of other cars in the lot. Calling 911 seemed like a good idea, if a bit extreme and futile, so I did that. Then I called my husband to break the news. I was pick-pocketed several years ago on our vacation to Madrid, so I was dreading having to tell him that I had yet again been irresponsible. But I knew that he had an organized system of tracking our credit cards, so he could cancel them quickly. And I know that I can always count on him, in an actual crisis or a manufactured one. He lovingly told me to calm down and started taking care of business.

One of Bellevue’s finest arrived a few minutes later. Officer Martin was so incredibly gentle and kind. I don’t know what I expected, mercifully never having needed to call the cops or 911 anywhere before, but he seemed genuinely offended on my behalf. Seattle and its burbs are friendly enough, but not in a Southern “Come see us” kind of way. He said that the garden lot was a known target, and that a family had been arrested for “car prowls” a few weeks earlier. He took my story and cleaned off the glass shards that had fallen onto the driver’s seat. The robbers did a professional job of breaking out nearly the whole passenger-side window, so glass was everywhere. Fun tidbit: Shattered car glass is the color of swimming-pool water. It’s kind of mesmerizing, apart from the fact that it’s always the result of violence.

Officer Martin gave me his card in case I needed to add anything to the report. It was a clean break-in. The robbers were single-focused, taking only my purse ~ not the jacket that had covered it, not my truly priceless teacher training manuals and notebooks (thank you, Jesus), not the gifts for other people that I had in the back seat. I was mildly panicked about how I’d fly home without any ID, how I’d get money to get through the rest of the week, how I’d drive without my license (with the incident report number, as it turned out). How I’d get to lunch. Lunch!!! My wallet and its contents were all I was worried about at the time. I had been back home for a week before I realized what else I’d lost: All of my keys, my prescription eyeglasses, and a collection of cards, including those for medical insurance, Social Security and museum memberships.

The robbers successfully charged about $3,000 in two transactions at a Fred Meyer store, and they made attempts on other cards. A detective called me at home about two weeks later to get more information about the transactions, in hopes that authorities could spot the suspects on video feeds. He said that gangs such as the one that likely busted into my car had been targeting parking lots at area gardens and trailheads, watching people park and doing quick work of stealing cash and credit cards. They use the loot to buy gift cards, which they take to drugstores to convert into cash to be wired.

Back to the scene of the crime. Still alone in the parking lot, I called Thrifty to sort out what to do about the car. I talked with an amazingly empathetic voice on other end, attached to a man named John. Up until then, I had just felt angry, inconvenienced and ashamed. Thank God I at least had my phone. He almost made me cry, reassuring me that leaving my purse in the locked car was not a license for someone else to take it. Several times, he said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” I started to feel sorry, too, but I didn’t have time for a pity party. I HAD PLANS. He explained how to deal with the insurance and told me that I’d have to drive to the airport to get a new rental car. So much for the massage.

At some point during this wrinkle in my personal time-space continuum, I called my lunch date to bump our meeting from noon to 12:30. I said I’d explain why when I saw her. Amazingly, I made it on time, after a nice al fresco drive. I had to ask my friend to pay for a meal that I’d wanted to cover, however, which was awkward. Afterward our yummy Thai meal, I relaxed into my new plans and drove to the Seattle airport in the sparkling weather before the epically bad rush-hour traffic began. The sweet woman who greeted me in the Thrifty return lanes was, like Officer Martin and Roadside Assistance John, incredibly offended on my behalf. I was just chagrined to be returning a broken car. Looking at the shattered window and the pebbles of glass still covering the right half of the interior, she said more than once how sorry she was that this had happened to me, again sending me to the verge of tears. I honestly hadn’t felt that violated, but the adrenaline was wearing off. It was just a window, just a purse full of things that could be replaced, just an inconvenience. No one got hurt. This was not a tragedy. Worse things have happened to other people, are happening, will happen. BUT I HAD PLANS.

I made it to the dinner in plenty of time, picking up one of my birthday buddies along the way. It was a sweet gathering of several yoga friends, but a wee bit of PTSD started to creep in about halfway through. When I mentioned what had happened, I was showered with offers of empathy and assistance, offers that continued throughout the week and melded with birthday gifts. (I turned 50 on Sept. 13.) I’d been robbed of some replaceable stuff and a self-indulgent afternoon, but I received so many gifts of kindness. I was sad to lose the purse because it had been a gift from a friend a few years ago, but it was well used and falling apart. I’d been in the market for a new wallet, and I needed to upgrade my eyeglass prescription this fall anyway. I had enough lip gloss to supply a runway fashion show, despite hardly ever using it. All trivial stuff. My husband overnighted me some cash and my passport, and a new credit card soon followed. The woman I was staying with loaned me a fanny pack. One of the birthday gifts I received later in the week from someone who didn’t know what had been stolen: lip gloss.

I wasn’t surprised by all the kindness I received, just incredibly moved. The violation was exceeded by an exponential amount of compassion. I’m under no illusions that I’m immune from invasive opportunism, just as I’m under no illusions that my body is infallible. But when your personal peace is shattered, how do you react? As a yoga teacher, I often have to change my plans for a class, whether before it even starts or as it unfolds. As with so much else in life, plans must come with room for spontaneity and improvisation. We have to be ready to be nimble and able to appropriately adapt to change with equanimity. Rigidity is futile. You know the cliches: Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans. And: How do make God laugh? Tell him your plans. Granted, this shattering of my peace was not on a scale with a tragedy or any of the global disasters unfolding right now. But it was interesting. All life is yoga, as Sri Aurobindo said. 

The next day, when the training resumed, our teacher, Aadil Palkhivala, talked about the power of choice and change. He gave us a brief physics lesson about the nature of matter and the relationship of the nucleus of an atom to its electrons. Do not ask me to explain that part ~ I was a social sciences major ~ but it included the phenomenon that electrons sometimes disappear. He used the analogy of the difference between potential and kinetic energy to illustrate the power that we all have to pause before we act or react. It’s the same poetic power that rests in the natural pause between breaths ~ the crest between an inhalation and an exhalation, the trough between an exhalation and an inhalation. It’s the space between repeated chants of OM, space that is both resonant and expectant. In that space is the power to reflect before taking an action. In Purna Yoga, we further emphasize acting from the heart and soul, not the mind or the ego. “Be more conscious of what you are about to do rather than what you’ve done,” Aadil said. “You control the unexpressed.”

Have you ever wanted a do-over? I really wanted one at about 11:40 a.m. in Bellevue on Sept. 11. Oh, how I wished I’d not left my purse in the car. Such a simple thing I could have not done. Had I paused before getting out of the car at the garden, I might have made a wiser choice. But I was too much in the future. I broke the most woo-woo, cliched rule of yoga: mindfulness. Be in the present moment. “Wherever you are, be all there,” as Ram Dass said. Had I stopped to do a mental centering snack, a hallmark of the Heartfull™ Meditation practice developed by Savitri, Aadil’s wife and with him the co-founder of Purna Yoga, I might have made a more common-sense call. D’oh. I know this stuff!!! I do it every morning!!! In theory, also throughout the day and before I go to bed!! I teach it, for heaven’s sake!!! Three exclamation points mean I’m really serious!!! We also had an entire lecture from a visiting teacher exploring why we don’t use proven tools that we have at our disposal to make life a little easier. I suppose it’s partly because we love our karma ~ because repetitive patterns, or samskaras, are familiar, and familiarity is comfortable ~ more than we are willing to risk doing something different. I can’t count the number of times I’ve left my purse in a locked car at home, but usually for only brief periods. This time, the outcome was different. “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know,” Pema Chodron said. Perhaps we set ourselves up for the lessons that our souls most need to learn.

I’ve thought often about the shattered car window and the robbers’ surgical precision in liberating me of my credit cards and naivete. I almost envy their focus. Since having hip surgery on Sept. 26, my main daily view has been through our master bedroom windows. Our king-size bed has served many purposes in the past two weeks (G-rated, people), besides sleeping. It’s a good size to use for my twice-daily physical therapy exercises, since I can’t get down to and up from the floor yet. At 5-foot-3, I just fit. It’s close to a bathroom, so I haven’t had to hobble too far to the toilet, while wearing a brace and using crutches. It’s close to an electrical outlet, so in the first few days after the procedure, I could be tethered to the ice water machine that soothed the post-op pain and swelling. I can lie on it for my prescribed hip-flexor-releasing belly rest, while reading or napping. (Multitasking is a hard samskara to break). I’m not standing in a parking lot, in shock, like a lost electron 2,500 miles from home. Most of the time, on the bed, I’m lying still, peacefully at home, in my house and in my body.

It’s from that prone position that I can look outside, onto the external world. In the first week after my surgery, the weather was spectacular: warm, sunny, dry. These were perfect fall days, the ones that come in crystal bursts in North Carolina as summer tries to hold on, with crisp blue skies and a nice breeze ~ not unlike the day I was robbed. I opened the bedroom windows to allow the outside in. Normally, I’d have been out in all that gorgeousness. I’d be walking to the studio to take or teach a class. I’d go take a picture of the freakishly large, turmeric-colored brain-shaped fungi in our front yard, or the changing leaves on the dogwood in the back. But I’m on an extended pause, taking the time I need to heal properly from a long-standing painful and limiting situation. Now my view of an open window is different. My senses of time and space have been altered, but in good ways. I’ve had to let go of going and doing and planning and trying to prove myself and just BE. I’m limited, but it feels like freedom. I’ve left the house fewer than a dozen times in the two weeks since the surgery, and most of those excursions have been to physical therapy. While I wear the brace, I can’t flex my hip beyond 90 degrees, and I’m limited to about 30 degrees in the hip’s other motions. But that circumscription of my range in both the outer world and my inner world is actually liberating. I’m free to luxuriate in healing and receive the support to do so.

As I surrendered to a new afternoon plan after the robbery, I’m surrendering to a new plan of rehabilitation and healing more than just my hip. I am taking the time to show my hip, my body, the kindness that it needs to recover from a precise but nonetheless invasive procedure. Space was made in my hip socket to access the areas that needed repairs, and that cutting and spreading have left some interesting residue, such as a patch of numbness on my outer thigh (I’m told that this is normal and temporary). This was my third surgery under anaesthesia, so I’m used to unexpected post-op weirdness. From the photos taken during the procedure, I can see that extra tear (which the surgeon repaired) and the torn labrum before and after it was repaired. Below the opening around the labral tear I can see the inflammation and redness in the joint capsule, likely the source of a lot of my pain. I can see the congenitally abnormal bumps and sloped groove on my femoral head, and the “after” pictures of its smoothness. The doctor’s report noted that this part of the procedure “did leave the patient with stable smooth bony rims.” I have stable, smooth, bony rims! With commas! I like to think that he got rid of the troublesome excess bone the way the police officer swept the glass away from my driver’s seat. Both cleared me a new, less painful path. Like the long list of people who helped me after the robbery, my immensely kind and professional surgeon and his team took great care of me, fixing the labrum with an “excellent anatomical repair,” and I must honor his protocol ~ his plans ~ for recovery. I waited a long time to have this procedure ~ I planned a lot of things for it and around it ~ and I want the best possible outcome. I want to control the as yet unexpressed, or perhaps simply let some of it unfold on its own. But as Savitri said during this last portion of our 2,000-hour training that both the soul and the ego like to make plans. It’s part of our homework to discern which is in the driver’s seat. So to speak. To me, this is partly the meaning of Patanjali’s sutra II.16: Heyam duhkham anāgatam: “The misery which is not yet come can and is to be avoided.” Enlightenment in this lifetime, yay!!! Get out of karma now!!!

As I write this last bit from bed, a heavy rain is falling. I can see the drops splashing off the street as cars drive through them and streams of water cascade off our roof outside the window. Thunder rumbles in the humid air. The cleansing invites a slowing down. The water nourishes the yellow and purple mums that I’ve received as gifts in the stream of kindness that has washed over me during my recuperation, from friends, fellow teachers and students. Once the water stops falling, the view may be different. Clouds may clear. The future is uncertain, as is some of our control over it. A silvery crack of lightning suggests that what was shattered can be reassembled into something new. Electrons can reorganize themselves. Matter can take on new meaning. Kindness is an open window. The potential for giving and receiving is infinite.

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