Author Archives: lesliewaugh67@gmail.com

The art of adjustments

My nine surya namaskars for Day 25 of the Kiss My Asana yogathon for Mind Body Solutions are dedicated to the art of adjustments. The fundraiser ends April 30, and although my fundraising goal of $1,000 has been exceeded, more is always welcome. Read more about why here.

“You reveal the inner body, you don’t fix it.” ~ Matthew Sanford

This simple profundity is one of the keys to understanding the role of adjustments in yoga, particularly for adaptive students, those with substantial mobility impairments.

As I move this year through a 300-hour teacher training course in Purna Yoga, I’m realizing just how much I’ve learned from Matthew about the art of touching and assisting students. In the first four years of my teaching, I’ve not been hugely confident about giving strong hands-on adjustments, mostly because I don’t have much experience, and I have been taught that firm adjustments are last resorts if a student isn’t quite “getting” it. When you move in to touch someone who is trying to figure out a pose for himself, you better know what you’re doing and why. Intention is everything. But, like anything else, the practice gets better with practice.

As I start to write this while sitting at my desk, our 1-year-old kitten is clamoring for my attention, my touch. He is clawing at my leg and climbing up into my lap. I can’t type like this, however, so I have to pick him up and let him go. He pulls one of the cat beds closer to my chair, turns it over and settles himself onto it. He sleeps.

Last month, during the first of three two-week TT stints I’ll attend at the Alive and Shine Center near Seattle, we learned a five-part adjustment for shavasana, the corpse pose of final relaxation. I have been practicing it in my classes back home, with nice results. Students have told me that they really appreciate the extra sensations, which allowed them to relax even more. One student asked me after class if she was crooked and needed adjusting (certainly one reason to do the movements) ~ in other words, why did I do it? No, I said. There was nothing to fix, nothing wrong with her. I just wanted to help her get more out of shavasana, from within her own body.

Aadil said this last month during a discussion about integrity and respect for the practice and each other and our duty as teachers to cultivate a vigilant sense of awareness: Remember that “what is in front of you is a whole life, not just a body full of pain.”

Matthew’s teachings helped me greatly when I taught young people (ages 10 to early twenties) in treatment for eating disorders. Almost all of them loved receiving adjustments in shavasana (their favorite pose anyway) and frequently asked me for them. I was surprised that they wanted to be touched at all, so this was a huge lesson for me in how a fractured mind-body connection often wants to heal: by being seen, heard, acknowledged, cared for, held. They loved simple leg traction and neck massages, along with just being allowed to lie still and quiet in the dark for a while. Since this was not a typical yoga teaching situation, I would ask if anyone didn’t want to be touched. The one time ~ the one time! ~ during a class (not in shavasana) that I didn’t ask a patient before offering a light adjustment in child’s pose, she turned out to not want to be touched. She very politely told me so the next time I saw her. I have to say, I was really proud of her. Mortified for myself, but proud of her for voicing her needs and creating a boundary.

Yoga teachers don’t ~ or shouldn’t ~ give instructions or offer props and adjustments to fix anyone or force a movement or a cookie-cutter shape. In alignment-based yoga, yes: For able folks, we work to align bones and joints through the use of muscular actions. This creates vitality in the spine and, by extension (literally and figuratively), throughout the whole body. Bringing the spine into the body brings us into the present moment and more into our true ourselves. It pushes our heart forward and up and out. If we can learn how to reveal our personal Self to ourself, then we can share it with others. This is a deeply healing approach to profound trauma and, as the Buddhists call it, the trauma of everyday life.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Mind Body Solutions photo.

Several adjustments that I’ve learned from Matthew emphasize that point. One is in tadasana, the basic standing or mountain pose: The “giver” places her right hand between the “receiver’s” shoulder blades, the back of the energetic heart center. This helps to teach awareness of the back body ~ which we can’t really see or access very well ourselves ~ with a sense of deep support. With help, we can let go. This translates into a softening of the upper shoulders (the trapezius muscles) and a lift in the front chest ~ the heart center. The release of unnecessary tension frees up energy for creative and constructive use elsewhere. At a workshop with Matthew in August 2014, he gave these instructions for tadasana:

“Balance rolling the traps back and down. Lift the chest. Lengthen the neck. Charge the legs. Reveal who you are.”

The techniques that Matthew teaches for adaptive yoga are tectonically subtle, more subtle than adjustments common in traditional classes. Sometimes a nail just needs a hammer. But for folks with disabilities, it’s crucial to “move in to move out,” he says, because that layer of subtlety is more accessible for them. I would say that is a key element of yoga, for anyone who practices, regardless of ability. Work in, not out.

Matthew talks about teaching the experience of a pose, not simply the shape. Because how would you teach triangle pose to someone who is paralyzed from the chest down? We assist people ~ and sometimes each other, student to student ~ to uncover sensations, to cultivate attention and awareness, not to fix or force. To feel and to heal. However, although adjustments from other human hands and bodies can leave marvelous imprints and uncover long-buried truths,  the real work is still personal and individual.

Matthew also talks a lot about not making an adjustment about you, the giver ~ don’t whip around and bore into the receiver’s eyes, asking, “How’d I do, huh-huh-huh?” Of course, both parties need to communicate to some degree. But adjusting is “about the universe, not ego,” Matthew says. An adjustment or an assist is an energetic exchange. There may be a doer or a giver and a somewhat passive receiver, but there’s nothing passive about the dynamic. If the student is receptive to the touch ~ which is more often than not offered without words ~ the giver receives the sensation of release as well.

One way to feel this is to sit spine to spine in sukhasana (cross-legged) or dandasana (staff pose). Work the basic actions of the poses, but feel the warmth and support coming from your partner’s back while letting the groins soften. Then move away from each other and feel the effects of gravity. Parting is such sweet sorrow! Keep doing the actions but try to re-create the sense of relief. Then try to translate this into every pose, into any challenging situation in your life in which you feel unsupported or ungrounded. A supported spine, Matthew says, helps the mind open and relax. “Support the spine, ease the mind.” With that sense of relief and focus can come even more expansion into a pose, into yourself, the space around you and your life. Safe structure creates freedom.

“The spine is more connected to the universe than your mind.” ~ MS

Whether an adjustment is energetically asymmetrical (one person’s hand to another’s back) or symmetrical (two people sit spine to spine), the main ingredient for “success” is safety. Props and assists can help create physical boundaries that help us locate ourselves in space. Boundaries create structure and add to our foundation or base in a pose, connecting us more deeply to the essential sense of grounding, to the Earth ~ to the silence that reveals the deep inner hum shared by all humanity, as Matthew describes it. From that sense of security, we can feel safe to be vulnerable.

“Our minds are afraid of how connected we are. It only sees absence.” ~ MS

At the heart of the matter, as yoga teachers it’s our job to cultivate and create conditions of safety so that students can explore themselves, not to impose a system of shapes, especially shapes that some folks will never achieve. As such, all yoga is fundamentally about adaptability, about being open to transformational, sometimes painful but liberating and hearth-opening truths.

“Yoga brings hope at an unspoken level that precedes all trauma, loss and disability. At this level, yoga is not taught, but only shared.” ~ MS

Kiss My Surya Namaskar

Today, April 1, is the first day of the Kiss My Asana yogathon to raise money for Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit that seeks to heal trauma, loss and disability through yoga. I am participating by bumping up my yoga practice to include nine rounds of sun salutations (surya namaskar, in Sanskrit) each day.

I just did my first round, dedicated to all of my amazing donors. Here is my fundraising page: http://bit.ly/19e9cdk.

I love it when I get a clearer answer about the choices I’ve made in retrospect. I had decided when I set up my fundraising page a few weeks ago to fire up my home practice with more sun salutations, knowing that they would tie in nicely with an intense 300-hour training course in Purna Yoga with Aadil Palkhivala that I have since begun. Two bumps in one! Yesterday in class, Aadil went over surya namaskar in some detail. I am so grateful for the refinements that this course is bringing, along with tons of new information.

So here is what Aadil had to say about the classical surya namaskar that we practice in Purna Yoga (no chaturanga dandasana!):

* “It is the most important yoga sequence in the human race.”

* It is the only such series that has stood the test of time: It’s about 5,000 years old.

* Research is being done on how the brain entrains with the body during this sequence. It takes nine daily rounds, practiced consistently for quite some time, to shift into this alignment. (And nine is a cosmically magic number for reasons I can’t explain here just now.)

* With mastery of surya namaskar, the ability to move forward in life becomes easier and clearer.

* Surya namaskar helps us move from the past and the future into the present. The movement throughout ~ in the temporal plane ~ is simply up and down, backward and forward, and always back to the center. Never out to the sides. The linking element between the parts in the sequence is the breath.

Who doesn’t want more of all that?

And here is why the work that MBS founder Matthew Sanford dovetails so nicely with my plans for surya namaskar and my bumped-up training in Purna Yoga. Words from Matthew, during the All Humanity Class that he led on March 22 in Minneapolis to kick off the yogathon (thanks for the video, MBS!)

* “In life, in yoga, you are rising and falling in every moment of every day of your life. An asana is a reflection of this existential truth.”

* “Our work is humanity disguised as yoga. It’s humanity connecting.” And: “You share yoga, you don’t do yoga as much as you think.”

* Surya namaskar incorporates the four principles that Mind Body Solutions focuses on in teaching adaptive yoga: Grounding, Balance, Expansion (or Extension, in sun salutations) and Rhythm.

* In terms of our temporal and spatial relationships to ourselves and each other: “This is the fundamental insight of yoga: That you’re supposed to complicate your movement and stay connected to the greater whole.”

BUT!

* “Complexity is worthless if the simplicity that’s inside of complexity isn’t realized. That’s why more complicated yoga poses don’t mean more yoga.”

Yay, yoga. More anon.

Namaste and thank you.

The shortest distance between two people is a story

WHAT AND WHO

kissmyasana badgeFor the month of April, I’ll be participating in the Kiss My Asana yogathon sponsored by the Minnesota-based nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, helping to raise money to support their efforts to teach adaptive yoga. If you’d like to donate, please visit my fundraising page here. I’ll be posting updates and thoughts here as the spirit moves my asana.

In the first workshop I took with adaptive yoga teacher Matthew Sanford, in Raleigh in October 2012, I met a woman who told me a story that ended with this: “He will change your practice.” Whatever my practice was at the time, I believed her, and she was right. Profoundly right. He didn’t just change my yoga; he changed my DNA.

This woman, Ann Richardson Stevens, was the first person I met that Friday afternoon at the studio. I set my mat down next to hers and we started chatting. She had come down from her studio in Virginia Beach to help Matthew during the weekend. She told me about the work she does with wounded veterans, helping them cope with massive physical wounds and PTSD. I asked her a little about what to expect from the workshop. She looked right at me and said those words: “He will change your practice.” I believed her because I’d read Matthew’s own beautifully expressed story in his memoir “Waking.” In it, he shares how “healing stories” helped him after he became paralyzed:

“A healing story is my term for the stories we have come to believe that shape how we think about the world, ourselves, and our place in it. … Healing stories guide us through good and bad times; they can be both constructive and destructive, and are often in need of change.”

What are your stories?

I’m still working on mine. The next chapter will begin this month, when I embark on a 300-hour teacher training course in Purna Yoga in Seattle. The program will unfold throughout the year in three two-week immersions. I’m not especially nervous or anxious (okay, maybe a little), just curious. I worry that I’ll come back asking everyone I’ve taught in the past four years for a Mulligan: “I’m sorry. I’ve been doing this all wrong!”

I am already homesick (present moment awareness!) for my husband, family, friends, students and kitties but am boundlessly grateful for the support that is carrying me to this next stepping stone on my circuitous path. I’m excited for the chance to study in depth with Purna Yoga founder Aadil Palkhivala and his wife, Savitri ~ to drink at the source, as it were.

In the Purna tradition, stories are very important. Aadil is a master storyteller. In the 200-hour training that I completed in 2014 with Catharine Eberhart and Bob Maiers at Purna Yoga East in Clayton, N.C., we talked about the importance of incorporating storytelling into our teaching, as a way to inspire or educate our students, or both.

For me, this is “an area of growth.” I tell a lot of stories to myself, in my journal or in my head. Some are too private to share, and others just seem meh. I enjoy social media as a platform for sharing small stories but try to be selective about how I use them. As a lifelong lover of words, I am a sponge for other people’s stories ~ and everyone has them.

Just the other day, I received a short story from a man in line in front of me at a McDonald’s. (Don’t judge. I was on a four-hour drive. Just try getting a green smoothie along a rural interstate.). We’d both ordered and were waiting with a few other people for our food (Egg White Delight McMuffin for me). He was about six feet tall, wearing a red flannel shirt and jeans.

“How’s your day going so far?” he asked me. He seemed a little tired.

“Oh, fine,” I said. “Are you having a Monday?” It was a Monday.

“Well, it really started on Saturday, but yes.”

He told me that he works in construction but that over the weekend he had gone with his daughter on a wedding dress outing. “She’s getting married,” he said. He was working on a $30,000 kitchen somewhere, and one of his guys had just torn up the recently laid linoleum floor while installing a fridge, so his crew was having to backtrack a bit. “I hate having to do things twice,” he said. And: “I wish I could afford a kitchen that nice.” Well, I said, you are contributing your part to it. We wished each other a good day and went our separate ways.

It’s a gift to receive other people’s stories, especially the unsolicited ones, which means being a listener. This can be difficult, because in our attempt to connect with others, we often “reload” while the other person is speaking, to use Aadil’s phrase, and don’t fully hear what is being said. I’m certainly guilty of this. In his workshops, Aadil teaches us how to cultivate the skills of listening and receiving stories. After he spends ten, twenty or thirty minutes telling stories ~ about his decades of study with B.K.S. Iyengar, about the latest findings in neuroscience and yoga, about a conversation he had with his wife or daughter ~ he asks us to find a partner and summarize what he has said, taking turns for just a few minutes. Whoever goes second is not to repeat what the first person said but must fill in the blanks, adding anything that was left out.

Matthew Sanford, an Iyengar teacher, is also a great storyteller and encourages his students, many of whom are yoga teachers and health-care professionals, to mine their lives for their own stories. “Wake up and see your story,” he has said. “Come home to yourself so you can help others do the same.”

Sidebar: Many of the Mind Body Solutions students in the Minneapolis area share their stories during teacher trainings at the studio and volunteer to be students in our training classes. You can read more about them in their own words in the Adapt This blog here.

In a recent public forum filmed for Twin Cities Public Television, Matthew and fellow panelist Kevin Kling talked about the power of stories as healing tools. “People don’t recognize their own stories,” Matthew said. Part of the goal of that discussion and of his work, he said, is to encourage folks to “think about your life in terms of a narrative.”

WHY

“You have to know your own story to serve others,” Matthew said during the forum. “If you don’t know your own story you’ll get consumed. You’ll get eaten up by the wind by giving yourself away. The need for your own story and your own narrative is a boundary, and the world needs you to know your story, because it needs you.”

Matthew also frequently talks about the power of being a good listener, which, for a yoga teacher, is as important a skill as seeing bodies and tuning in to what is not seen or heard. Absence can be a profound presence ~ anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one or a loss of any kind knows this (which, eventually, is all of us). “How do you sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix or be consumed by it?” Matthew often asks. “Do you know how to support someone else’s silence? To sit and listen someone into speech?” He attributes the idea in that last line to Parker Palmer, who attributes the idea to theologian Nelle Morton, who once wrote of “hearing human beings to speech.”

Sidebar: Do you see the lineage with attribution, which is also a key aspect of yoga traditions? That’s another great thing about great words and stories: The respected and timeless ones never die.

Receiving stories is an act of grace, the kind of grace that Matthew talks about being open to in yoga poses. The practice is to pay attention to what’s going on in your body, so that when alignment or inspiration or a bolt of truth or an authentic connection occurs, you have the grace to land it. So why tell stories? As Matthew said during the forum (which is also available in audio format here), healing stories can forge compassion and underscore our shared humanity. But “every story needs a listener,” he said.

“A good story is when the reader or the audience recognizes their struggle in your struggle. So you tell a story not for catharsis for yourself, not to brag, not to boast, but to offer an invitation for another person to participate.” In the way that a skilled yoga teacher helps people along their own paths ~ not the teacher’s path ~ “a good listener helps people recognize their own stories.”

WHERE AND HOW

Writing can of course be incredibly cathartic, therapeutic and healing in the privacy of one’s own head and heart or a journal, but sharing a story publicly requires crossing what can be a deep and wide crevasse. There should be a point and an illustration of a transformation. The decision to share is entirely personal and requires careful word choice and discernment. In either case, the exploration requires a great deal of often difficult svadhyaya, the yogic principle of self-study.

As a journalist, I have read thousands and thousands of stories over the years, many inspirational, many more horrific. As a copy editor, I have helped to shepherd stories about other people, crafted by other people, into light. I was paid to be a neutral witness for a long time, ensuring that the questions of What-Who-Why-Where-How-When were answered fairly and accurately, but I couldn’t help but ingest the content of what I was reading. Over time, it became harder and harder to metabolize the horrific parts, to borrow a concept expressed by Eve Ensler. Yoga is helping me delve into my own stories, and my time studying with Matthew and Aadil has been invaluable in supporting me in that work.

The body receives and creates, holds and tells stories. It remembers everything that ever happens to it, the good and the bad, even if we think the mind does not. Some stories fester, get stuck and hold us back, causing dis-ease. These are the ones that especially need to be stretched, expanded and released ~ owned, as Anne Lamott says: We own everything that ever happens to us. By rewiring ourselves through unraveling such stories, it’s possible to begin to heal a fractured mind-body connection.

But here’s the thing, a big thing: It’s one thing to identify and study your own stories; it’s another to get stuck in them, to stay in the same grooves or yogic samskaras and remain in perhaps unnecessary agony (See: “Groundhog Day“). Years ago I took a workshop with senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos, who was suffering with chronic back and hip pain. He was trying to cope and heal himself to avoid surgery. In so many words, he said, according to my notes, “So I’m the guy with the bad back. That’s my story.” But don’t get attached to your own stories, he said. “Watch to see how upset you get about things. Change your perspective. Every day we practice is an experiment, and some days are failed experiments. Keep mining the little kid in you as you grow older and resistant to change.”

Yoga provides a toolbox for not just identifying your stories but changing them. I’m still figuring out how to do that for myself, how to get my right sacroiliac joint and left trapezius out of their seriously irritating and soul-sucking co-dependent relationship. Many of us are drawn to yoga first as a way to experience the outer body, the physical self. I certainly was. But over time, if you are paying attention, your body starts to tell you stories. Your quadriceps and hamstrings might talk to each other. Your neck might scream at you. Your lower back might ache. You might notice areas that are dull and lifeless, areas that lack intelligence, as Iyengar teachers would say. On the plus side, your upper chest might blossom. Your heart might crack wide open. It’s a process not so much of learning but unlearning, of uncoiling stories that might not even be true anymore, if they ever were. Matthew’s mission and that of his nonprofit is to transform trauma, loss and disability into hope and potential. That has universal application, and yoga is one way to explore that level of healing. Sharing stories is one of yoga’s many tools.

Sidebar: To learn more about Matthew’s story and why he is working toward “a health-care system where it didn’t take me 12 years to reconnect my mind to my body,” watch this five-minute video.

Some stories surface immediately through blunt triggers. Others take time to excavate. The oldest and deepest ones often require silence and space, a retreat from noise and our data-overloaded world. The second of Patanjali’s yoga sutras is an invitation to this journey: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. But there are 194 sutras after that! Part of the practice involves tuning in to your own silence, a subject that Matthew talks about with poetic artistry in his memoir. By allowing ourselves to sit in quietude from time to time with our silence, our stories can bubble up in the pauses ~ the gaps between breaths, between heartbeats. (Although I often find that they bubble up while I’m doing dishes, walking around a lake, driving or lying awake at 4 a.m., wondering what I’m going to teach that day.) Yoga is in large part the art of paying attention. In my experience, this journey inward ~ even if it begins by studying your legs in supta padangusthasana ~ unavoidably requires listening to the heart. That is where the mind-body connection is ultimately healed. It is where we often really need to get unstuck, where the silence can sing. As Matthew once said, “Trust what you feel in your body. Don’t be afraid of your heart.”

I really don’t know where my teaching will lead me, or how much of my story I will continue to share. But I know that I must continue to keep digging for it and moving forward so that I can help others do the same.

 “Concentrate in the heart. Enter into it; go within and deep and far, as far as you can. Gather all the strings of your consciousness that are spread abroad, roll them up and take a plunge and sink down. A fire is burning there, in the deep quietude of the heart. It is the divinity in you — your true being. Hear its voice, follow its dictates.” ~ The Mother of Sri Aurobindo’s ashram

WHEN?

NOW.

“Lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice … ”

My husband and I saw Fleetwood Mac in concert on Saturday. We’d never seen them before, and, truth be told, they probably aren’t on my list of my Top 5 All-Time Favorite Bands (no offense). But I figured they’d put on a great show, and I’ve enjoyed many of their songs well enough, so we got tickets for the Charlotte concert. The band is on a sort of reunion tour, since Christine McVie decided to rejoin them after doing her own thing for 16 years.

They didn’t disappoint. It is a glorious thing to see artists (or anyone) in their element ~ to watch people who are apparently aligned with what they were put on this Earth to do, and loving it. Living their dharma, in the yogic sense. Cynics would say that Bands of a Certain Age often reunite simply for money, but that’s another story ~ and I doubt it’s the story of the 2015 version of Fleetwood Mac. They didn’t have an opening act and played ~ intensely ~ for nearly three hours. As Stevie Nicks said, the show on Saturday was the 62nd of this tour. It’s hard to fake committed artistry 62 times (and counting), never mind for 40 years.

With four decades of well-documented up-and-down history, the band has plenty of stories, and Stevie Nicks shared several on Saturday night. One had to do with the genesis of the song “Gypsy.” A YouTube and Google search shows that she has told versions of this story many times, including to Entertainment Weekly in 2009, but here’s the essence of the one she told in Charlotte:

In the mid-1960s, when she was a young and parent-subsidized college student in California, she became romantically and musically involved with Lindsey Buckingham. Their band accelerated quickly, opening for some of the biggest acts of the day ~ Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Santana. Stevie said she’d heard about this great store in San Francisco where the big rock stars shopped called the Velvet Underground. She saved up money she was making in the band and made a pilgrimage.

Once she arrived, she realized she couldn’t afford a single thread. But she had a Moment: Standing on the floor in the store, she realized that she might have been in the very spot where Janis Joplin had stood. Or Grace Slick. Or Joni Mitchell. Or any of her female idols.

“I don’t really know what happened in there,” she told the Charlotte crowd, “but I was a different woman after that.” She knew that her fate as an artist was sealed.

http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/9997399

Vintage poster for the Velvet Underground shop in San Francisco.

I love that she let go of her quest for shiny hippie objects and absorbed the energy of the lineage around her. (Of course, some folks in that lineage met some pretty horrible ends, but these were the earlier, halcyon days.) When she wrote “Gypsy” about a decade later in the fully formed Fleetwood Mac, she was looking back on those more innocent, budding-artist days.

Her point on Saturday: When you realize you are standing on your path, don’t let anyone try to pull you off it. If you have a dream and believe in it, don’t let anybody stand in your way. If you don’t stick with it, she said, you’ll regret it.

My takeaway: Hold on to your own Velvet Underground moments. Have the grace to land those flashes of lightning and follow them, with gratitude and joy. Put yourself on your own path.

[Sidebar, true story: I was a fan of the band the Velvet Underground in college, because it seemed compulsory, and I liked the Andy Warhol banana album cover. During one of my fall breaks, I made a pilgrimage to the punk mecca shop Commander Salamander in Georgetown. Bought a T-shirt. Did not become a rock star.]

“Gypsy”

So I’m back to the velvet underground
Back to the floor that I love
To a room with some lace and paper flowers
Back to the gypsy that I was, to the gypsy that I was

And it all comes down to you, well, you know that it does
Well, lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice
Ah, and it lights up the night
And you see your gypsy, you see your gypsy

To the gypsy that remains faces freedom with a little fear
I have no fear, I have only love
And if I was a child and the child was enough
Enough for me to love, enough to love

She is dancing away from me now
She was just a wish, she was just a wish
And a memory is all that is left for you now
You see your gypsy, you see your gypsy

Lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice
And it all comes down to you and it all comes down to you
Lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice
And it all comes down to you

I still see your bright eyes, bright eyes
And it all comes down to you
I still see your bright eyes, bright eyes
And it all comes down to you

I still see your bright eyes, bright eyes
(She was just a wish, she was just a wish)
And it all comes down to you
Lightning strikes, maybe once, maybe twice
And it all comes down to you

Thank you, B.K.S. Iyengar

A gratitude map:

Thank you, Jane Barrett, for firmly grounding me in detailed alignment and for giving me an early teaching nest.

Thank you, Jan Campbell, for your cheerfulness and eureka! instructions in urdhva hastasana.

Thank you, Rodney Yee, for your mystical exploration of padmasana.

Thank you, Erich Schiffmann, for a groovy partner foot adjustment in ustrasana, for hosting my first adult attempt at a handstand, and for the invitation to cultivate interest with passionate calm.

Thank you, Roger Cole, for cradling and adjusting my neck in utthita trikonasana.

Thank you, Cindy Dollar, for the rolled-up mat behind the knees and under the feet in virasana and for being so welcoming when I randomly drop in to your studio.

Thank you, Julie Gudmestad, for your humor, unhurried instruction and fun tricks with shoulder straps.

Thank you, Bryan Legere, for the Great Yoga Wall and your love of the sutras.

Thank you, Manouso Manos, for your five layers of instructions for lower-back therapeutics in a chair version of ardha chandrasana.

Thank you, Ray Long, for an introduction to the popliteus muscle and for your willingness to explain why it’s worth going deeper.

Thank you, John Schumacher and Unity Woods teachers, for sharing your collective decades of wisdom and reverence for your beloved Guruji.

Thank you, Kim Weeks, for cittavrtti nirodhah on Day One and for holding the spaces for my first 200-hour training.

Thank you, Kristen Krash, for your spunky dedication and for telling us to move our skin.

Thank you, Liana Brooks-Rubin, for your warm kindness and encouragement.

Thank you, Lois Steinberg, for your frequent laughter and engaged and engaging presence.

Thank you, Patricia Walden, for your crisp and joyful guidance in standing poses.

Thank you, Joan White, for having eyes in the back of your head and seeing my wonky hip in upavishta konasana from 50 feet away in a crowded room.

Thank you, Bobby Goldin, for suggesting that I take your teacher training course, for your book about perky groins and jokes about jewels, for Raleigh and Sanibel, for bhramari, for helping me find a non-bug-eyed setup for salamba sarvangasana, and for telling me to just keep doing what I’m doing.

Thank you, Aadil Palkhivala, for sharing your three decades of study with Mr. Iyengar and for developing and transmitting Purna Yoga. Thank you, Catharine Eberhart and Bob Maiers, for growing Purna Yoga in North Carolina.

Thank you, Matthew Sanford, for sharing your huge heart, your embracing wingspan, your self and your stories, and for adapting Mr. Iyengar’s teachings in a transcendent, transformational way. You have seismically changed my life.

♥ ♥ ♥

bksiyengarThese are some of the clearest moments and feelings I cherish from years of studying with people close to the teachings B.K.S. Iyengar, who died August 20, 2014. Yoga can be a lonely and isolating pursuit ~ but of course, it is meant to be shared. Yoga is an endeavor that connects us and shows us that we are already connected. Thank you to all of my teachers for sharing and connecting many dots for me. In doing so, they embody, honor and sustain an indelible lineage.

♥ ♥ ♥

That time I met B.K.S. Iyengar … 

 

 

 

 

 

14 Words for Love

Little morsels I wrote (and am still writing) for a brilliant poetry project created by Jodi Barnes at 14wordsforlove.com. Fun for Valentine’s Day, and the other 364.

I don’t want
to just fall in.
I want to be caught,
held forever.

It is always Now —
every second a cusp
of goodbye,
the beginning
of unbecoming.

Spring shoots us with possibility.
Leaves lick the sky ~
so many flavors of green.

Words reach out
like hands
hugging my heart.
Our shared language
of sustainable losses.

Her cupped hands
cradle hearts
with a butterfly’s grace ~
steward of words with wings.

Later I learned
where you’d gone.
You’d found your passion ~
it just wasn’t me.

I’ve devoured Barcelona
licked Rome
kissed Paris ~
yet I’ll always be hungry
for you.

Not on yellow bricks
but hills slick
with panic ~
many pilgrims, one path:
Home.

Diamonds collecting dust,
Chanel turning acrid ~
Wear them.
You,
each day,
a special occasion.

Asleep,
my bleached bones buried deep,
my dreaming marrow stirs
under your vermilion kiss.

Rose sea ~
red, yellow, orange ~
waves of frangipani, honeysuckle, gardenia ~
you, every sweet petal.

Your smile ~
dawn sun mirrored off the barn’s tin door ~
outshines the shadowed eaves.

Like walking across Spain ~
strictly forward ~
with less ~
when you have all you need.

From farthest arteries you resurface,
tourniquet around my heart.
The bind that unties me.

She collects him from preschool,
face bright as night on the Fourth of July.

Crystal goblet clatters to the floor.
Into how many pieces can the heart shatter?

I digest Lucille Clifton while stirring oatmeal for two.
Attention split, the poems burn.

Scarlet berries bleed against the snow.
The course of passion streams hot and cold.

A true test:
She reaches for the horse’s muzzle.
He nods in velvety assent.

“The Mikado,” 1993.
We met in the wings,
a quiet play outside the play.

Inadequate alphabet:
Twenty-six letters,
yet none can spell
what you are to me.

Saffron beads of pollen coat the tulip bowl.
I nose in, voyeur to life.

This close:
You note yellow flecks
in my blue irises,
seeing what I cannot.

Even when we’re apart
you’re with me,
cashmere
I wear from my insides out.

From snails to stars,
every grain of sand to Mars,
you are my universe.

I wake up
with the answer
to every question
you’ll ever ask me:
Yes.

See the sky in you, she said,
not the clouds: clear, infinite, divine, whole.

Not middle C or a major key ~
the grace notes, the silences in between.

Sunny Saturday, Bob Marley knocks from within.
I open my throat, belt him out.

“Apaga si quieres tu luz.”
My Spanish teacher’s lesson,
Tagore inked on a napkin.

In us, a room of Rothkos.
Endless reds, the feverish work of a lifetime.

Bécquer whispered your gift to me,
una perdida estrella.
I never felt so found.

Still a child herself:
“I’m getting a puppy tomorrow!”
One angel to receive another.

I know you’re a hot stove,
know I’ll get burned.
I lean in anyway.

I chase your image,
stealing light and time.
Failing, I shoot at the sun.

I’ll sit with your suffering,
try not to fix it.
I, broken; you, whole.

Light floods the path I
Often turn away from.
Voracious need
Entwines me still.

Birds peck for leftovers on the snowy deck.
Before eggs, he fills the feeder.

Him: Let’s see the world together.
Me: Fine, because wherever you are is home.

My rock, my cushion:
He’s always there for me,
even when I’m not looking.

I whimper for dessert.
“Crepes?”
With flour, eggs, milk,
he wraps me in sweetness.

Newlywed decisions:
Expanded lives, aquarium store.
“What kind of fish?”
My prince: “Happy fish.”

Sealed, stamped:
Her card, inky swirls of
“dearest,” “friendship,” “gratitude.”
Held close from afar.

Our “I do”:
Sealed not with a band, a spiral:
You twist, I turn.

Neighbor’s garage-door banner:
“You’re The Man
STEVE THE IRONMAN
GREAT JOB.”
Family hero.

With a surgeon’s finesse,
you scale the fish.
Later,
it is I who am deboned.

The six tastes ~
sweet sour salty bitter pungent astringent ~
our geography on my tongue.

In the folds of my ventricles and atria,
You: pulsing in a hidden chamber.

A bee will drink from any flower,
too busy to grieve the sweet forever.

Heal my wounds, I said.
No, he said: The light makes your scars shine.

My soul likes to wander.
When I can’t find it, I look for you.

Open secret:
Each of us thinks
the other one
is getting the better deal.

The piece of chocolate cake you brought me,
the one I never asked for.

You,
the middle of my seesaw,
hold me steady while I soar and sink.

As innocent as a sunrise,
my nephew asks:
What did you dream last night?

That time I met B.K.S. Iyengar …

Happy 95th birthday to B.K.S. Iyengar, born Dec. 14, 1918, in Bellur, India.

I met B.K.S. Iyengar in October 2005. “Met” might be a stretch, although I did stand in front of him for a few seconds, and I’m pretty sure he touched my forehead.

B.K.S. Iyengar, the "lion of Pune."

B.K.S. Iyengar, the “lion of Pune.”

My brush with yoga greatness occurred at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the arena where I would see U2 a few hours later. (Sorry, Bono, but B.K.S. was ~ and still is ~ the bigger rock star.) I lived near Raleigh at the time. I was in D.C. not only for the concert but also for final interviews for a copy-editing job with the Washington Post, which I would later be offered and accept. Mr. Iyengar was touring the United States and making an appearance at the store in conjunction with the release of his book “Light on Life,” so I went and stood in line with others of my tribe, some of whom I recognized from other workshops, even my own home state. (For a WaPo article on Mr. Iyengar’s appearance, click here.)

Ground to extend.

The several dozen of us who had gathered well ahead of the appointed hour, in typical D.C.~Type A~Iyengar fashion, quietly and calmly formed a line that went around the block and up a slight hill outside the bookstore. It was a crisp and clear afternoon, and we were on the shady side of the building. We had to get a (free) ticket to stand in line to be able to meet and greet Mr. Iyengar, although he had already signed a bunch of books ahead of time. In typical Iyengar fashion, this made efficient and businesslike sense, although it created a somewhat awkward situation. Since he wouldn’t be signing each book individually, how could we fawn without that built-in ritual? With what would we prostrate ourselves?

As the line began to move, we snaked our way inside the warm store. Mr. Iyengar, then 86, was sitting in a chair off to the left as we came in, near the children’s section. As best I remember, he was wearing a flowing, linen-like ivory outfit. His silver hair draped down to his shoulders, and his bristly salt-and-pepper eyebrows poked out every which way. To his right stood John Schumacher, his local host, longtime student, hugely influential teacher in his own right and owner of the Unity Woods studio where I would take classes and workshops after moving to the area. (To read a Yoga Journal interview that John did with B.K.S., click here.)

Root to rise.

When it was my turn, I walked into the clearing around B.K.S. and John as if to kneel for Communion. I approached Mr. Iyengar and mumbled something incomprehensible that was meant to sound like “Thank you for being such an inspiration.” I think I might have actually chirped. I smiled at him, and he smiled back, very broadly, with his whole face. He rubbed the center of my forehead with his thumb, like a priest marking me on Ash Wednesday, or perhaps as if to give me a Hindu bindi dot. We had a moment, or at least I did. I felt a surge, a warmth, as if I’d received his blessing ~ but for what, I didn’t know. And then it was over. I exited stage right to make way for the next devotee and to buy my signed book. On to U2′s “Vertigo” show, with “Light on Life” in my hands.

That’s how I remember coming face to face with Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, the man credited with bringing yoga to the Western world five decades ago.

I’ve never taken a class with B.K.S., but over the years I have studied with many senior Iyengar teachers, several of whom earned their certifications in the early 1970s. Many continue to make pilgrimages to his thriving institute in Pune (which has a waiting list for students) and bring back the latest teachings from the oracle and his family (Mr. Iyengar’s children and grandchildren are also teachers). Such is his global influence that a documentary film about him is in the works, and there is a movement to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Becoming Iyengar-certified is anything but trivial: It takes years of study and mastery of a hierarchical assessment process, a system that is both prohibitive and excellent. According to the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, there are just seven Iyengar-certified teachers in North Carolina. SEVEN.

I have no intention of going down that rigorous path, but I implicitly have a baseline of trust in any Iyengar-certified teacher. Mr. Iyengar’s individualized and inherently therapeutic approach to the ancient art of yoga (some of which is not so ancient) is the bedrock of my practice and teachings and always will be. And if you have ever used a block, a strap or even a wall in a yoga class, you have Mr. Iyengar to thank. The attention to detail, to alignment, to paying attention simply to what is happening ~ that is what yoga is all about: yoking, uniting.

Press down to go up.

Iyengar yoga has been hugely influential for me as a student and teacher, although I have taken classes in many other styles. Starting in January 2014, I will be continuing my unofficial doctoral studies in yoga with a 200-hour teacher training at Purna Yoga East, a sweet studio in Clayton, N.C., where I have been fortunate to teach for the past year.

Aadil Palkhivala

Aadil Palkhivala

Purna Yoga is the tradition of Aadil Palkhivala, who began studying with Mr. Iyengar at the age of 7 and continued to do so for three decades. Aadil still clearly honors B.K.S. in his asana instruction, and he credits Mr. Iyengar for his very existence. In his book “Fire of Love,” Aadil writes:

“His powerful and authoritative teaching, balanced by his compassionate caring when I had crippling spinal injuries, taught me that love has many forms. With his teaching, he laid not only the foundation for the physical aspect of Purna Yoga, but also the physical foundation of me! His guidance enabled my parents to conceive after seven years of unsuccessful attempts. … Yoga gave me life, and I am blessed to be able to pass on this gift.”

I am grateful to be able to continue studying the endlessly educational practice that is yoga and to have found a style that incorporates but also expands on the revolutionary approach that Mr. Iyengar developed. The Sanskrit word “purna” means complete or whole, and the method is based on the integral yoga taught by Sri Aurobindo. As Aadil says, by incorporating instruction in asana/anatomy/pranayama, meditation, applied philosophy and nutrition (and poetry!!! yes, poetry!!!), Purna Yoga is designed partly to help students “surrender the intellectual and analytical abilities of their brain to the inner quest that takes place in the heart.”

I’ve studied with Aadil twice and am excited that one of our TT weekends will be a workshop with him at Purna Yoga East. He is magical teacher, a savant in many fields, and genuinely hilarious. On his center’s Web site, this is how he describes his approach:

“Through disciplined exploration of the mind-body connection, heart-centered meditation and a focus on abundant living, Purna Yoga students magnify the power of yoga in their lives and achieve more of the life-changing benefits that they are seeking.”

(Plus, in workshops he quotes Wordsworth and any number of other poets. I mean, how can I NOT study more of this stuff?!)

The lineage ~ so important, so crucial to understand and respect in any classical tradition ~ is essentially this: from Sri T. Krishnamacharya to B.K.S. Iyengar to Aadil Palkhivala to Catharine Eberhart and Bob Maiers and the community at Purna Yoga East. I’m excited to delve more deeply into the parts of yoga that have nothing to do (yet everything to do) with what happens on a mat and to learn how to share them. As Aadil says, “Yoga helps us discover our life purpose and then grow into it. The more comprehensive our approach, the more we can heal and grow.”

Can’t wait.

John Fogerty and That Guy

During his amazing concert in Durham on Sunday night, John Fogerty told a story about playing at Woodstock. He and his then-new band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, had released their second album, “Bayou Country” ~ the one celebrated during Sunday’s show ~ a few months before being invited to play at the 1969 festival.

Great, he thought. Good exposure for us. Sounds like fun.

He said he arrived at the venue at about 2 in the afternoon, having driven past cars abandoned alongside and even in the middle of the road. Around 5, he ate a light dinner and waited to go onstage at the promised ideal 9:30 p.m. slot. Ready to go. What he was not ready for was following the Grateful Dead.

“Thanks, Jerry!”

The Dead didn’t take the stage until midnight, so things were already obviously a little off-track in that hippie, devil-may-care way. CCR finally took the stage around 2:30 a.m., with as much enthusiasm as they could muster. When he looked down from the stage, Fogerty said, he saw a bunch of naked people. Lying on the ground. Asleep.

“Thanks, Jerry!”

What the heck, he thought, might as well make the most of it. As he and CCR cranked it up for a mostly catatonic crowd, he saw a flame flicker way out in the distance, the spark from a single lighter. He heard a guy yell out, “It’s okay, John! We’re with youuu-ouu-ouu!”

So he played to That Guy, the lone voice that he connected with across that dark field.

That was in 1969. More than four decades later, he’s still playing to That Guy.

Each one, reach one. Or 3,000. Same difference?

Sprawling on a pin

I’m taking a photography course. My third in about 20 years. I continue to be a beginner at a lot of things, partly because of my scattered attention span, which I like to think of as Endless Curiosity and the Enduring Lure of Shiny Objects. I am a chronic dilettante, and my brain functions more like a kaleidoscope than telescope.

Starting in the early 1990s, I took beginning pottery three times. I always felt like a newbie each time I sat down behind the wheel, daunted by the attempt to make art out of mud. Every lump of clay is different; every moment of wedging, of trying to keep the lumps centered and pliable (but not too smooshy) on the wheel, of glazing, firing and waiting ~ is a lesson in patience, concentration and stick-to-it-iveness. It’s like the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” You get better at something by … doing that thing.

“Do your practice, and all is coming.” ~  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Bringing beginner’s mind to tasks that might seem intimidating or overwhelming or otherwise unpalatable is useful, even for an experienced practitioner. It can ward off boredom and burnout, for starters. (Speaking of Zen, one of my pottery teachers encouraged us to kill our uglier babies, to smash our less successful pots against the cement-block wall of the kiln building. This I could not do. My lessons in nonattachment remain ongoing.)

Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that gives it value.” ~ Master Po in the TV series “Kung Fu” (paraphrasing the Tao Te Ching, chapter 11)

I try to remember to keep beginner’s mind in yoga, and I try with varying degrees of success to take my yoga off my mat into the realm of All Life Is Yoga. Every day is different, every downward-facing dog is different, even if it’s my thousandth. And my practice and teaching are no good if I’m an asshole to the Kroger checkout lady or my husband. The point is, as I tell my students, to notice what you notice as you practice. You don’t have to necessarily change the situation or even make a decision about it (unless acute pain is involved, of course) or, god forbid, strive for perfection; just neutrally take stock, file the thought or feeling away and move on without getting attached to your: Oh, tight shoulder or: Yay, loose hamstrings or: What’s for dinner?

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” ~ Ferris Bueller

Polaroid from "March 23, 1981." I remember trying to capture the cool clouds. Trying, anyway. At our house in Hominy Valley, N.C.

Polaroid from “March 23, 1981.” I remember trying to capture the cool clouds. Trying, anyway. At our house in Hominy Valley, N.C.

Photography, like yoga, writing and so much else, is also about paying attention, about noticing what you notice. I’ve enjoyed taking pictures since I was a kid, especially with the nearly-instant-gratification Polaroid. I loved the View Master, with its cardboard wheels of images that came fully to life inside the machine. Click. Click. Click. I’ve especially grown to like “macro” photography, trying to capture close-up images ~ mostly of things that don’t move, like flowers, leaves, shells, sand, patterns. The minute details of life ~ Still Life.

Some of my favorite toys as a kid (besides my Johnny West cowboy set ~ yes, that barbed-wire fence in the 1981 Polaroid is for the horses we had) were Magic Windows, those clear-plastic ovals filled with colored crystals, and Lite-Brites and Colorforms. Somewhat passive “toys,” I suppose, but soothing and pretty. I love color ~ I used to just stare at a new box of Crayola 64s, opening the top to draw in the smell of the wax, feeling sad about messing up the pristine points of the crayons (OCD much?). But as our photography class instructor, Ted Salamone, is showing us, our cameras don’t “see” color, so we need to train ourselves to see shadows, gradations of black and white. Color distracts from detail, he says. I find that kind of tragic, but I can see what he means.

“Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen

No, I didn't go on eBay a few years ago to try to recapture my childhood. That was someone else.

No, I didn’t go on eBay a few years ago to try to recapture my childhood. That was someone else.

When taking pictures, I often find that while concentrating intently on the metaphorical trees, or one tree in particular, I miss the larger forest. I know it’s there; it’s just not as interesting to me. Everyone knows what a forest looks like, but what about the veins on the underside of leaf? The striations in color, the endless shades of green that are possible for a human eye to behold? But I sometimes feel weird sticking my nose and lens where they have not been invited, even in an otherwise public place. (This is probably one of many reasons I became an editor instead of a reporter, but that’s another story.) Gently trespassing, I figure I can ask for forgiveness later rather than permission first. Do I dare disturb a rose, a cotton field, a neighbor’s yard?

“Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?”

~ From T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Yes, I dare, to try to get the shot I want with my limited technical skills and often over-caffeinated limbs while not leaving too much of a disturbing mark: I want to capture a moment, not to create it or affect it. My feet, my knees might leave impressions in the grass or mud. I might stir something to life under its begrudging awareness of me. At the same time, while hoping that I remain invisible, I try to remain aware of the metaphorical forest around me and possible dangers to me and my camera ~ traffic, runners, slippery slopes, rain, seaspray, spiders, snakes. I try to follow the Hippocratic oath, the ahimsa of first-do-no-harm, while wondering how much my observing affects the observed.

Raleigh Little Theatre rose garden.

Raleigh Little Theatre rose garden.

For last week’s class assignment, I stopped by one of my favorite places to photograph, the rose garden at the Raleigh Little Theatre. I’d been there one rainy day the week before, in between light showers, and got a few auto-mode shots of beads of water on the many vibrant, intoxicatingly sweet blooms still on offer in early October, so I figured some worthy subjects would still be there. Our assignment this week was to play only with the ISO settings for indoor (400) and outdoor (100) shots, changing nothing else. Ted wants us to see how different settings affect exposure, how we can learn to control the computer in the camera to get the shots we want.

Baby steps. Wedge the air out of the clay. Play scales on the black and white keys. Learn to see the world, your subjects in black and white. Snap the shutter. Fall short, fail upward. Repeat. Try to kick up into a handstand. Fall short, fail upward. Repeat. Rest, study and try again. Explore the gray areas, the pauses between expenditures of willful effort. Study the results. Adjust. 

Surprise!

Surprise!

So, per Ted’s directions, with my husband’s Canon PowerShot G12 on “P” for program and the flash off, I set the ISO on 100 and went for a wander among the rows of towering rose bushes ~ the red, fuschia, pink, violet, lavender, yellow, orange, peach, cream and white flowers luring me in. It was again a cloudy day, about 4:30 in the afternoon. As I began to wrap up my visit, I noticed a tiny spider under a petal in a pale pink rose at the end of a row. I tried to focus the lens on it, which is hard, given my granny eyesight and the limitations of the LCD screen, even on a cloudy day. I looked at the first shot I took and noticed two skinny green triangles poking up on the other side of the petal.

Huh. Look at that. A dumpster-diving grasshopper, its head and most of its body burrowed deeply into the center of the flower. My eyes had zoomed in on one thing; the camera showed me what I’d missed ~ the bigger picture.

“Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.” ~ Minor White

Rest area.

Don’t mind me.

In my first photography class, back in the pre-digital Dark Ages, the instructor said that our eyes can see far more than any camera. I continue to prove him wrong. I was the only one (person) in the garden the entire time I was there, about a half-hour. As I saw the green legs sticking up, I caught my breath. Excited with my ~ or the camera’s ~ discovery, I tried to sneak up on the insect, raising the lens up and over the flower, since it was as tall as I. After a few shots, the grasshopper rose up out of the rose. I thought, Oh, now I’ve done it, he’ll hop off with whatever “Eff You” a grasshopper can manage, probably in French. But no, he slowly and deliberately ambled down a petal and perched on the edge. I don’t know if he even saw me. If he did, he clearly didn’t care. It was funny to have this relatively little but exquisite bug tower over me.

“And I have known the eyes already, known them all —
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?” ~ “Prufrock

Down under.

Down under.

I took a few more snaps, not really able to tell if any were truly in focus. Eventually the bright-green thing made its way down the flower and burrowed underneath a lower petal. I took a few more snaps and made my way out of the garden, exhilarated by the unexpected gift. The shots are meh (unlike like these here) ~ the color isn’t totally true, and the overall effect is flat. But I felt such a mix of things when I saw the grasshopper ~ surprise and delight, but also the sense that a decision needed to be made: I could passively enjoy the experience as it was unfolding, or actively document it. Plus, it was as if I was twice invading the insect’s privacy ~ by sticking my nose in its face and then the camera’s nose. It was not a difficult call to make.

What’s so alluring and magical to me about photography is the evanescence of it. It’s about the attempt to freeze a moment in time, a singular instant that has never happened before and will never happen again, because Now never happens again. It’s about the perhaps sometimes misguided but nonetheless heartfelt attempt to make the impermanent permanent, to record and preserve something meaningful.

See, look: I stopped time, and this is what I saw. Do you see it too?

Arrogant as it may be, it’s thrilling to try to capture more than my eyes can see, or more than I think they are seeing ~ to try to shape and capture an image, an irretrievable moment that occurs during an irretrievable second of light, preferably one that looks better and truer than what my own rods and cones show me. If I can just learn how to use the tools, to take the time to become still and focused, I may become more skilled at being able to receive and perhaps share moments of pure grace. Even if they come in the form of a grasshopper.

Master Po: “You are the new student. Come closer.”
Boy: “You cannot see.”
“You think I cannot see.”
“Of all things, to live in darkness must be the worst.”

“Fear is the only darkness.”
….
“Never assume that because a man has no eyes he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?”
“I hear the water. I hear the birds.”
“Do you hear your own heartbeat?”
“No.”
“Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?”
“Old man, how is it that you hear these things?”
“Young man, how is it that you do not?” ~ “Kung Fu

This grasshopper was snapped at a rest area along I-40 in September. With an iPhone, which picked ISO 50, f/2.4 and a shutter speed of 1/1022. Someday my brain will be able to make those decisions that apparently a monkey can make.

This grasshopper was snapped on a sunny day at a rest area along I-40 in September ~ with an iPhone, which picked ISO 50, f/2.4 and a shutter speed of 1/1022. Someday maybe my brain will be able to make the decisions that an Apple monkey can make.

For my mom, on my birthday

Sept. 13, 2013

Dear Mom,

Happy birthday to me, and thank you to you.

Although “thank you” seems so inadequate. I’ve been a lucky girl all my life, and I am a million times more grateful than I am lucky. I am lucky to have been made by you and Dad and to have had you as parents. I hope the labor you endured 46 years ago today lived up to the cliché of being the kind of pain you forget. I’m sure I caused you other kinds of pain over the years, much of which I was probably oblivious to. Like ending a sentence with a preposition.

Mom and me, my baptism day.

Even though I never became a mom, I know how it must feel to send a part of you out into the world and wonder if it will be safe, if it will be loved. As I prepared to go to Costa Rica again last month, I looked back through my scrapbook, the one I assembled after my summer there in 1984. When I tell people that I spent a summer abroad in Central America at the age of 16, they say things like, “Wow, that was really brave.” At the time, as I prepared for the experience, I didn’t think bravery had anything to do with it ~ self-involvement, perhaps, but not bravery. But if doing something in the face of what at the last minute become white-knuckled terror counts as brave, then I win!

Dad (on the … donkey) in Turkey,
courtesy of the Air Force, 1963 or ’64.

It was probably brave of you and Dad to send me, and I wonder if you were as scared as I was ~ but maybe not, since Dad had traveled a good bit in the Air Force, and your family had moved several times as you grew up. I wonder if you were ever afraid when you moved from New York to Florida, or experienced culture shock?

I’ve been very lucky to have visited a lot of amazing places since my first trip out of the United States nearly 30 years ago, and that one was life-changing, so thank you for letting me have it. Thank you, and I’m sorry: For being, as I already told you, kind of an asshole that summer. As I looked through the scrapbook, I pulled out the letters you wrote to me. It’s funny how photos and mementos can jog the memory, which can be a Pandora’s box full of all kinds of crazy madeleines, to badly mix metaphors. I did not remember that I was remiss in writing to you once I’d safely arrived at my home in Puntarenas, and I apparently had also forgotten how to use a phone, in any language. In your first letter to me, dated June 28, you wrote:

My first international letter from Mom!

“Dear Les,
Hope that you have had some good experiences and we can hardly wait to hear from you. At least so far we assume that no news is good news!”

A few weeks later, I received a letter from a family friend, saying:

“I was really pleased to receive your postcard, but not half as much as your parents were to get theirs. Gerry was about to send the Marines out for you when she got word, Leslie is alive!”

Okay, okay! In my defense, as of June 28, I’d only been in Costa Rica for two days. As I told my AFS counselor in a letter I wrote to her on July 12:

“Met our families Tuesday the 26th. Mine is really great & I’m very happy w/them. … The people here are so nice. Very hospitable & patient, very warm & friendly. It’s a muy social pais. … I think I got really lucky w/my familia porque some [AFS] muchachas are really restricted — no leaving house, very little socializing, being bored at home, etc. I’ve gone to the playa, piscine, en pueblo, a picnic, en barco to una playa, & other stuff. … All I have to do as far as chores is wash my own ropas. The sun rises around 5:30 — sets at 6:30. Mom (& sister) do housework all morning — father comes home for lunch — then back to work & school.”

I’d like to think I was more help around the Valverde house than that, but it appears that I was consistent in both countries.

My Tico parents,
Arabela and Claudio.

Anyway, I hope I shared some of those early details with you. In the pre-Google era, AFS did an amazing job placing me with just the right family in just the right place at just the right time. You and Dad had a lot in common with Doña Arabela and Don Claudio. Like you, Arabela had been a schoolteacher. Like Dad, Claudio was a mechanic, a refrigerator technician. But beyond your occupations, you also shared many of the same values about family and life in general. And Western North Carolina and Puntarenas had a lot in common, too ~ natural beauty, small-town friendliness.

One of Dad’s shots from Vietnam, 1965.

In the months before I went to Costa Rica in 1984, AFS prepared me well, but I also remember Dad saying (at least I think it was Dad) that no matter where you go, people are more alike than they are different. I think that’s fundamentally true, even across very real barriers, such as language. As I learned that summer, some experiences transcend words.

I’m sorry I held back my words when I first arrived in Puntarenas and maybe even when I got back. In the early days, I probably assumed that you assumed I was fine, and I was probably nose-deep in a Spanish-English dictionary, trying to understand and be understood. But I know what it is like to worry about a beloved’s safety and well-being, and I know what sacrifice looks like.

In that first letter, you shared colorful details about your trip back home after you’d dropped me off for orientation in Miami ~ visiting Gramma and Granddaddy and David, Gram and Mark, Gap and family ~ and then getting together with friends after you got home:

“Dad and I are going out to Yesterday’s with John and Wanda tonight. It’s been a long time since we went dancing, so I’m sort of excited.”

I hope you did go out, and I hope you had fun.

Eventually I answered this letter, as you acknowledged in another typewritten note to me, this one dated July 27:

“Dear Les,
Thank goodness we finally heard from you. I was about ready to call in the CIA or take other drastic measures! Very cute all your Spanish ~ your Dad and Heather were ticked off at not being able to translate, but good old Mom came through for them.”

Good old Mom always came through, and you still do. Before I left, you’d helped me translate a letter from my Costa Rican mom-to-be, which I also still have. It pays to come from a line of hoarders ~ I mean, collectors ~ and the photos I’m using here also testify to that. We had fun parsing her words. I’m so glad I inherited your love of books and reading and research. I think most mothers are teachers by default, but your help over the years with homework (remember the Florida float?), quizzing me for spelling bees and telling me to “look it up” has served me well. You know I’m just letting you continually kick my ass at Words with Friends, right?

My Costa Rican sister, Arita, in the center,
and her friends Vanessa, right, and I forget
the name of the other one.

In Arabela’s letter, dated June 6, 1984, she introduces her family. She lists the names of their seven children and explains where they were living. At that point, she and Claudio already had a few grandchildren. She says that only their daughter Arita, who was 12, lived at home. She wrote:

“Esta es una de las razones que nos ha hecho sentir felices de tu pronto estadia aqui, pues tal vez asi se vuelve a sentir alegria en esta casa. … Ya ves, somos una gran familia y contigo pronto sera mas grande.”

Our crude but fairly accurate translation:

“One reason we’re happy you’ll be here soon is because perhaps feeling joy in this house. … It’s a big family, but you will make it bigger.”

I have no idea what sort of mark I left on the Valverdes, but I do know that I felt the special kind of unconditional love and acceptance that only comes from parents. They had hosted several exchange students before, so they were more prepared for me than I was for them. “Some students are afraid and worry about AFS and withdraw, but I will say no reason to be afraid,” Arabela said.

Arita took good care of me as well, enfolding me into her hilarious and gregarious circle of friends. I wonder if she and Heather would’ve gotten along ~ they were about the same age. Two of the envelopes in my scrapbook with your handwriting on them contain letters from Heather, and they’re hysterical. The first one begins:

Heather, hungry like the wolf? 1984 or ’85.

“Duran2 News Bulletin
You’ll never believe this. Well maybe you will. Well anyway, THE REFLEX IS NO. 1!!! Aren’t you happy. I’m so thrilled for them. Oh my god, I’m happy. You will truly die when you hear this. I’m not sure if I should tell you. I know you could just die. Nick is getting married to that girl (I can’t remember her name, but we’ll call her Slut) on Aug. 1.”

She goes on for a bit more about Duran Duran, our shared obsession at the time, and then says,

“Dad said he was going to teach me to drive, so don’t expect us to still have the Toyota.”

I’m not sure why she was thinking of driving at 13, but we each ended up wrecking the Toyota, didn’t we? At least you got your money’s worth. (That’s a whole nuther apology. Oops. Along with the phone bill I ran up the summer I lived in D.C. But I digress.) I remember being absolutely terrified when she did learn to drive ~ she was a fine driver, but I was so scared for her.

In her other letter, Heather tells me more about Duran Duran, Prince’s “Purple Rain” movie and “Meatballs II,” and she gives me long synopses of “Days of Our Lives” and “General Hospital.” She ends with:

“Well, I guess that’s all the gossip for now. Write back if you feel like it. Do it anyway. And puh-leese explain your letter and try to write a little neater. Amor, Heather.”

It was fun to hear from my sweet and sassy sis and to be kept current on pop culture while I was away. The local Tico kids were big fans of Top 40 music and often asked me to sing Lionel Richie songs. Their poor ears.

Matthew, Christmas 2004. Clearly,
he knew what he was in for. (And
he has let me go back to Costa Rica! Twice!)

As for unconditional love, I was lucky enough to find another version of it several years later in Matthew, but the root is the same: It’s the kind of love that feels like home, one that offers security and comfort but that is also a springboard to the world at large. I am so lucky to have had two sets of parents (and other parental figures along the way) who took better care of me than I probably appreciated at the time.

I know that I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever remember about that summer, but I’m grateful that there is still time to say now what the 16-year-old me should have said 29 years ago.

I am fine. I’ve made it, wherever “it” is. (Well, truth be told, I’m not so sure about that last part, but don’t worry.) I want for nothing. By the people who matter most to me, I am accepted for exactly who I am, even if at times I have no idea who that is. As I’ve been the recipient of so much unconditional love, I hope you and Dad know how much I hold for you in return. Since many of the people mentioned here ~ your parents, my Costa Rican mom and Gram ~ are no longer with us, I can’t tell them how much they meant to me. But I hope that I can live up to what I am trying to say here.

Mom and Dad,
Florida vacation, 1992.

In your letter of July 27, you write again with sparkling detail and humor about how summer was going back home. You went to the lake one weekend with Roy and Deb. Heather had a visit from Amy, who’d recently been to London. You were going to take Heather to the mall that day. You ask me to call you collect, if necessary, to give you the details on my return flight near the end of August. You ask if there are any cute “muchachos” to tell you about, and you say you can hardly wait to hear about my adventures.

You also wrote this:

“We had nice birthdays, especially me. Wednesday the 18th the Harrises invited us over, and surprised me with a birthday cake. Thursday, Heather’s b’day, Dad took us to Steak and Ale to celebrate and we embarrassed Heather with a little cake and serenade. Friday John & Wanda came over with a bottle of Champagne, Saturday nite we went to Bill & Barbara’s and celebrated one more time with Pina Coladas, Pizza from Domino’s and surprise birthday cupcakes. Sunday was quiet but Jeff and Charlotte called to wish us a happy one and ask after you. Monday was quiet, also Tuesday, except I finally got my birthday wish ~ your letter.”

So now, on my birthday, I send this to you. My only wish is for you to know how great a mother you are, how grateful I am to you and how much I love you.