Three Things, Issue Fifty-Three (The Pandemic Body Issue)

ONE: BREASTS

Decades ago, when my kids were very young, I’d often be awake during the still, wee hours of the night. Maybe a stomachache or nightmare had roused a young toddler. Or perhaps I’d find myself gliding rhythmically in the rocking chair, fussy baby nestled in my arms, nursing them back to sleep. Sometimes I’d hear the roar of a car engine and screeching tires breaking the hushed peace of night. Warm summer evenings often brought roving bands of teenagers carousing along the suburban street just behind my backyard. They sounded drunk, but I couldn’t be sure. What I did know for sure was that ever since I became a mother, revving engines and squealing tires at 3:00AM now struck fear in my heart. I wondered about the parents–were they awake and worried about their kids? With both of my children safe and accounted for in our home, I was grateful to not have to worry. Even through the most sleep-deprived years, I appreciated those times of being up in the middle of the night with my children. Like everything else, I knew those times were fleeting.

We weren’t but a month into quarantine when my boobs began to ache. Reminiscent of those early breast feeding days when my milk ducts would plug and my boobs would throb with the angry heat of inflammation, I was startled. I changed bras, I self-examined for suspicious lumps and I talked endlessly about my sore boobs to my quarantine family. Googling my symptoms brought forth few answers and after one-too-many painful, sleepless nights, I called my doctor and scheduled a virtual office visit. After carefully listening to my complaints and asking a few follow-up questions, she deemed my symptoms “fascinating” and assured me that she didn’t think it was anything too alarming. She asked me about my quarantine, how my kids were and where they were living. She shared a common story of a post-menopausal woman who suddenly started her period again when her daughter was carrying her first grandchild. “Our emotions and hormones are powerful influencers in our physical health,” she told me, “and these are extraordinary times.” She wondered how much my worry about the pandemic and the welfare of my (now young adult) children played into how my body was feeling.

My daughter was in Seattle, finishing up her winter quarter at the University of Washington. My son had recently relocated to the Bay Area and was living in one of the first regions to go into full lockdown. Did I worry about them? Without a doubt–and then some. I remembered the horror of 9/11 and how grateful I was at the time to have my (then very young) children with me. Thankful that I could control their intake of scary information and be a steady, comforting presence. To be able to see their faces and know if they were okay or afraid. And now, how everything seemed to be slipping out of control.

My doctor offered me several paths to help resolve the ache in my breasts, beginning with a simple supplement that would help balance out my hormones. She reminded me to get my regular mammogram once clinics opened up again for routine screenings. I researched the supplement, read reviews and began taking it later that afternoon. Within three days, the searing pain in my boobs subsided. Within a week, it was completely gone and hasn’t returned.

 Breasts: Represents mothering and nurturing and nourishment. A refusal to nourish the self. Over mothering. Over protection. 

TWO: JAW

I blame my TMJ on the orthodontist I had as a young teenager with braces. Once the wires and brackets had come off and my teeth were straight and my smile dazzling, he outfitted me with a black, rubber mouthguard. He considered himself “cutting edge” and the bulky mouthguard was prescribed in place of the more traditional wire and acrylic retainer most kids wore after getting their braces off. I was to wear the appliance at home during the day, and then only at night for an indeterminate time. My teeth remained aligned and dazzling, but my jaw soon began to pop and click. Popcorn, bagels and gum would send me into a tailspin of jaw pain and headaches. A routine cleaning at the dentist was always followed up by vigorous self-massage of the muscles on the sides of my face. With time and a few different custom night guards, my jaw relaxed and my TMJ became a rare annoyance.

As quarantine marched on with no end in sight, I began to wake up with headaches. At first, it was just mild pain that would quickly diminish within an hour of waking. I’d rub my neck and do some yoga and be back to normal by breakfast. But rather than subsiding, the headaches ramped up significantly. I’d awake in the middle of night with such searing pain that I’d sit up on the side of the bed, not knowing if I would vomit or cry or both. With my hands cupping the sides of my face, I’d instinctively dig my thumbs into the thick fibers of my jaw and will them to release. I’d get up and stand under the strong jets of my shower and roll my neck back and forth, letting the water pressure discharge the tension. As severe as the headaches were upon awaking, by lunchtime they were usually gone.

So much of this pandemic has made me angry. The misinformation and mismanagement from our government. The loss of income and security, of no fault of my own. Hate and racism running rampant. The complete lack of control over so much. Constant anxiety and fear about getting sick, or unknowingly exposing others. The loss of hundreds of relationships that I had with the people I taught yoga to each week. Literally overnight, like a hundred little deaths all at once. How do you effectively grieve that? On the surface, I didn’t seem or feel outwardly angry. But at night, when so much of our subconscious creeps into that liminal dream space and lands in our bodies, I was mad as hell.

With a history of TMJ and teeth grinding, I’ve worn a night guard for years. I examined my old appliance, noticing wear and cracks in the plastic. In the midst of a pandemic, I knew I couldn’t see my dentist anytime soon, so I made an appointment with my chiropractor. I told him about my new puppy, Bear, and how I remembered being so angry when he wouldn’t stop nipping at my hand while trying to teach him to walk him on a leash. How in frustration, I unconsciously clenched my jaw and felt my teeth crack and crunch. My chiropractor chuckled and after a quick exam, confirmed that my jaw was a mess. He made his adjustments and sent me on my way. Relief was gradual but sure. The headaches disappeared, but I could still feel my jaw lock and pop out of joint when eating certain foods. A month later, I got another adjustment and this time, my chiropractor showed me an exercise to help strengthen and release the affected muscles. Like magic–or perhaps science–my jaw is finally pain free again.

Jaw Problems: Anger. Resentment. Desire for revenge.

THREE: BELLY

My emotions have always set up shop in my belly. Butterflies at the heady rush of new love. That queasy adrenaline before embarking on a new adventure. A sure feeling of knowing-without-knowing when I sense negative energy in a person, place or situation. The heaviness of dread when I’m worried about someone I love.

My belly and I have had a complicated relationship.

As a young woman with body dysmorphia and anorexia, I would often grab at the flesh of my belly, grasping it in my hand with disgust. Gross! I would exclaim to myself in the mirror. I learned this from being a woman. It’s what we do. I pushed down any and all feelings, especially hunger. Over the years, I successfully conditioned myself to not feel physical hunger and I wore that numbness like a badge of honor. My belly was a nuisance at best and the smaller, flatter and quieter I could make it, the better. Not only did I quash hunger cues from my belly, but I also discredited other messages it sent me–emotional hunger, gut feelings, fear, sadness, anger. I shut it down because shutting down is so much easier than feeling and dealing. The body is clever and wise, however, and shutting down only works for so long before things rise back to the top, sometimes in the form of dis-ease.

Yoga introduced me to a new relationship with my belly as well as the rest of my body and mind. It was a slow process–as most of yoga is–to relearn conditioned behaviors and beliefs. To be able to place my hand over the ever-changing rise of my stomach and feel love, trust, and appreciation rather than disgust. To take the time to ask it what it needs, to listen to what it is telling me. My heart ached with recognition when, in my yoga classes, I’d instruct my yogis to do the same and I’d see so many women unable to touch their bellies without frantically rooting around for protruding ribs and hip bones or other signs of being “thin enough.”

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been aware of a constant ball of dread tightly tangled in the pit of my belly. With both The Mister and I unemployed for the past six months, I worry about the financial impact of all this unknown. I see my friends and family struggling with significant health issues and I worry about them, too. Every morning, I get up and wonder what I should do, what can I do and what I might need to release. When I wake up in the still, wee hours of the night and anxiety roils in my belly, I find comfort in my yoga practice:

Breathe in, breathe out. Inhale, exhale. I am safe. I am healthy, strong and resilient. I am open to moving in new directions and I can flex and adjust to my situation. 

The ball of dread often loosens and fades away.

I’m fond of telling people that even as a yoga teacher, I am not “woo-woo.” I insist that I don’t speak with flowery words or believe that essential oils have magical powers. I’m a straight-shooting, reality-rooted, sensible yoga teacher. Recently though, it was brought to my attention that while I might not be “woo-woo”, I am decidedly “woo.” Okay. I can deal with that.

If being “woo” means that I trust and respect the messages my body sends me, then so be it. If it means that I believe that our emotional health is unshakeably intertwined with our physical health, then hell yes I am “woo.” We humans don’t exist as two separate parts–brain, and then body. It’s all connected.

Stomach: Holds nourishment. Digests ideas. Dread. Fear of the new. Inability to assimilate the new.

EPILOGUE

A dear friend and I each have the same book on our nightstands. It is a small, thin volume that has become our mutual handbook for our physical and emotional health. Titled “Heal Your Body” by Louise Hay, we will often text each other when experiencing mysterious symptoms and ask each other if what we find in the book resonates with us. We don’t downplay the reality of serious disease or dismiss the importance of seeking traditional allopathic medical treatment. And we both agree that genetics and fate play a huge role in our health. We laugh at what we find in the book and then gasp at the truth it tells us. We take what the book says with a grain of salt and an open-minded air of curiosity.

Louise Hay writes:

I’ve learned that there are really just two mental patterns that contribute to dis-ease: fear and anger. Anger can show up as impatience, irritation, frustration, criticism, resentment, jealously or bitterness. These are all thoughts that poison the body. When we release this burden, all the organs in our body begin to function properly. Fear could be tension, anxiety, nervousness, worry, doubt, insecurity, feeling not good enough, or unworthiness. Do you relate to any of this stuff?

I do. Without a doubt.

I’m certainly no saint. I’ve done my fair share of numbing and avoiding during these last six months. Whether it’s enjoying too much bourbon or distracting myself with quarantine baking projects, sometimes I give myself the grace of imperfection. But be it a few hours or a few days, I always return to the practices that bring me back to myself–yoga, meditation, writing, adequate hydration, exercise and movement that feels life-affirming rather than energy-depleting.

You may have heard that these are extraordinary times. What is your body telling you?

 

 

 

 

The Practice of Pandemic

It’s Wednesday. Or is it Thursday? I blink open my eyes from a surprisingly satisfying sleep. A familiar ball of dread lays heavy in my belly until I remember my morning practice: I swallow and my throat feels fine. Check. I take a deep, full breath in and exhale slowly. Breathing, good. Check. All the usual aches and pains. Check. I’m in my house–my beloved home–with The Mister snoring on the other side of the bed, my daughter tucked in her room across the hall, my puppy still sleeping quietly in his crate. Check, check, check. I tell myself, today I’m okay. No, wait–I’m good. Really good, at least right now. And I feel the dread ball slowly loosen its grip and unravel.

Like a psychedelic acid trip, each day melts and morphs, warping into the next, with no work or yoga or schedule to keep the boundaries intact. My responsibility is so simple: just be. And it’s not easy at all.

I find comfort in consistency. I get up at about the same time every day, usually between 6:00 and 7:00, before the puppy fusses and the rest of the family wakes up. The cat mews her insistent greeting and guides me to the laundry room where I feed her and scratch her head reassuringly. The coffee brews, the water bowls are freshened, then the dishwasher is emptied. I wipe down countertops and spritz lemon-scented Lysol on doorknobs and light switches and faucet handles. I like the citrusy smell it leaves behind and it makes me feel as if I’m doing something. Anything.

Grasping for control where there really is none.

Roomba is set to work and the cat skitters away. The whir and buzz of Roomba at work, sucking up the gritty remains of the previous day, is both satisfying and grating on my nerves. I dance out of her path right before she touches my feet as I go about my morning routine, convinced that it is bad luck if she bumps into me. Some days it feels as if she is chasing me, challenging me and my strange superstitions. I laugh at myself but also move quickly so that I’m not proven right.

I settle down at the office desk with my coffee at my left wrist and the cat on her back on the carpet just to the side of me, asking for a belly rub. In between sips I reach down and swirl her silky black and white fur as she chirps her approval and demands more. Quickly glancing at the news headlines on my home page, I move on to Facebook. Scroll, scroll, scroll. I slip past the alarmist articles full of statistics and predictions, send a birthday greeting or two, “like” all the dog and pretty nature photos and check for messages. Facebook is a habit I’m trying to limit, much like my two bourbon-rocks each night. Neither sits easy in my stomach after too much indulgence.

Every few days or so, I find a message from one of my yoga peeps. Teaching yoga now feels foreign and miles away after guiding weekly classes without pause for fifteen years. Reading their words of love and appreciation makes me feel warm and hopeful. Sometimes, I cry. I ask myself how can I guide anyone else when I’m struggling to find the path myself?

A memory pops into my brain: I’m sitting cross-legged on a cork yoga block on my mat on the fashionably-stamped-and-glossy heated concrete floor of a cavernous yoga studio in Park City, Utah. It’s the second day of a three-day workshop and my teacher is leading us in our morning meditation. My eyes flutter open and closed until I settle into my breath and my seat. My teacher drones on, his nasal-y voice beginning to grate on my nerves. My mind drifts and I wonder if he’s making his voice more annoying on purpose. Just be, I implore myself. I make it through a few more breaths before the thoughts clamor in again. Ohmygod could he just shut the fuck up, I scream inside. My right eye cracks open and I see one of his assistants catch my gaze before I quickly snap it shut again. By now, I’ve lost the rhythm of my breath and my shoulders are inching towards my ears. Can you simply be with yourself, as you are, right here? my teacher asks again. Fuck no, I want to scream.

It’s so simple.

I log out of Facebook much sooner than the day before and give myself a quick kudo or two for such discipline. Facebook, in particular, has become a minefield of triggers for me. I feel its pull throughout the day but I’ve learned it is no better for my mental health than a diet of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food is for my physical well-being. But like Ben & Jerry’s, sometimes I allow myself a spoonful or two. Moderation is key.

I get my puppy, Bear, up and out of his crate and get ourselves ready for our morning walk. Bear, like me, thrives on consistency, and he systematically pads through the house, room by room, stuffed puppy resolutely clenched in his mouth, making sure all is well in his home. Make no mistake, Bear is our protector.

Our governor has closed all state beaches. Friday was Bear’s and my beach day. I had taken him to the beach every Friday morning since he was able to safely ride in the car. I miss the water. I miss the ritual of exhaling the week with Bear amidst the driftwood and the gulls and our seal friends. Bear had grown to love the beach, even though he isn’t much of a water dog. I miss the water. I miss our ritual. I wonder if Bear does, too.

“I don’t think you fully thought out this decision,” remarked The Mister during one of our heated disagreements soon after I adopted Bear. I laughed and said “Since when have I not overthought every single thing in my life?”

The truth is, he was probably right. Adopting and raising Bear has taken a huge amount of time and patience. But I’ve never regretted my decision. Bear is both a distraction and an exercise in being present. Dogs live in the here and now, not in a world of “what ifs” and “worst case scenarios.” Bear keeps me grounded, keeps me healthy and moving, and reminds me to pay attention. He shows me how to simply be here now.

It’s so simple. Just be here now.

Things I miss the most: beaches, live music, the community of the Y, sharing drinks with a friend in a darkened dive bar. Seattle. La Push. Planning. Oh, how I miss planning!

A few years before the Park City workshop, I attended my first weekend yoga workshop with my teacher at a community center on Mercer Island, Washington. I had been practicing yoga for five years and teaching yoga for about two. I knew just enough to think I knew it all. The Friday evening introduction and practice had felt familiar and good. I rolled out my mat Saturday morning feeling confident and strong, and the first few Sun Salutations eased any residual stiffness from the night before. Before long, the temperature in the large conference room began to rise, degree by degree, inching steadily towards ninety. My baggy, cotton t-shirt was soon soaked and heavy with sweat, which poured down my face in nonstop, salty rivulets, stinging my eyes. About an hour into the practice, I glanced over at my friend and we exchanged weary smiles. The class continued on and on and my mind went into overdrive. I can’t. I just can’t. How much longer? I dropped to my knees into Child’s Pose, trying to slow down my runaway breath and calm my mind. I’d get up and make it through a few more sequences, then collapse again. I found myself getting angry and thinking about leaving, shouting to myself this isn’t what I signed up for! Feeling fatigued and defeated, thoughts raced through my brain. I’m a fraud. I have no business doing yoga, let alone teaching yoga. By the time we moved onto our backs for some longer stretching and twists, I had composed my resignation letter to the Y in my mind.

Three hours after we began, I laid back into Savasana, our final resting pose. There was not a dry spot left on my body and whatever modesty I thought I’d have by wearing a baggy t-shirt was lost as it clung to every curve and contour like a flirty bathing suit. The tears came, first as a trickle, then like rushing rivers down the sides of my face. Sweat and tears mingling into a messy tributary, soaking my towel and the mat beneath me.

Exhausted and spent. Exhilarated, wrung out, wobbly yet firmly grounded. Stronger than I ever believed. Changed.

Bear and I had a rotating list of places we would visit for our walks each day. One by one, each has been temporarily closed. First the beaches, then, last week, the trails at Brightwater. As Bear and I approached the trailhead, I saw the small notice announcing the closure taped to a wooden post. My chest tightened. My memory flashed to the feeling of the heat and humidity steadily increasing in that conference room on Mercer Island. How I felt like I couldn’t breathe. How I had no control.

Be here now. You are stronger than you think.

Things I don’t miss: traffic, crowds, always feeling like I’m not doing enough.

Things that help: walking, nature, yoga, Bear. Cooking and baking and feeding my loved ones. Writing.

I live in the suburbs but close to the country, so after our morning walk, Bear and I often take a drive. With the windows open, we dip down into the valley where the berries and corn and pumpkins will grow and Bear sticks his head out into the wind. I see him in my side view mirrors and take in his reflection: seemingly blissful, eyes closed, nose up, taking in sensory information. Horses, goats, dogs, fertilizer. We pick a different route each time, sometimes stopping for a drive-through coffee and treat before finding our way back home. Pulling into our garage, he perches his front paws on the center console beside my seat and licks my face.

A dear friend messages me the news of their partner’s cancer diagnosis. A family member shares their journey through aggressive chemotherapy treatments. I hear about a co-worker from my television days who suffered a major stroke. Memorials and funerals are postponed. Life and death and grief go on regardless.

Can you simply be with yourself, as you are, right here and now?

The day moves on–predictably, consistently, fortunately, thankfully. I struggle a bit, then I don’t. I check in on friends and family, share funny texts with others and compile a list of shows and movies to watch. I plan healthy, comforting meals. I cook a lot and clean a little. What day is it? I often ask whomever happens to be in the room.

I am heartened by announcements of performances and shows rescheduled for summer and fall, some of which I had tickets for. In those, I find hope.

Nothing lasts forever.

Often, towards the end of the yoga classes I teach, we go into backbends. Backbends, which ask our legs to be strong, even though they tremble. Backbends, which expose our vulnerability, our soft underbellies, our fragile hearts. As their teacher, I have the privilege of witnessing my yoga peep’s faces of exhaustion, of not believing they can as I cue them into backbend after backbend. Breathe! I implore. Breathe strong and loud enough so that the person next to you can hear you and by doing so, you just might help them find their breath. Time after time, I see these tired, doubting yogis ground down into the muscles of their legs and triumphantly rise up. Watching this sends shivers down my spine. Humans beings, resilient and strong.

You are so much stronger than you believe.

And really, it’s so simple. Our only responsibility is to be here now, without fast-forwarding into the fear of the unknown. I know it’s not easy, but when you lose your breath and lose your way–because we all do–I promise that I will breathe for you until you can find your breath and your way again.

Breath in, breath out. Day in, day out. We will be changed. We will be stronger than we ever imagined.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Things, Issue Fifty-Two

First, a word about this blog: two years ago, with the intention of honing my writing chops, I decided to create and publish this Three Things blog each Sunday with a commitment to see it through one full year. And it worked quite beautifully, I’m proud to say. My writing got better, but not necessarily easier. It was hard, as good things often are, and I began to feel the familiar strain of burnout. Writing this blog had become my second job, a job that took up most of my weekends and didn’t pay me one cent. The postings dwindled and I stopped short at Issue Fifty-One, one week shy of my one year goal. 

Like a college student who drops out with one quarter to go to finish their degree, I gave up. Hey, look at me and my cheeky self-sabotage!

So, after some soul-searching and a week of incredible experiences that made me go “hmmm”, along with a few deep conversations with friends who shine a light on my shadows, I’m firing up my blog and hammering out at least one more post. 

In other words, I’m getting out of my own way. 

ONE: PROM QUEEN

High school was not my jam. 

High school was a place I needed to pass through in order to get on with my life and by the time I was 16, I was ready to live. Cheerleaders and homecoming, football games and prom held little interest for me. My classes were uninspiring and my grades were okay and I loved creative writing class, but I found my true refuge and My People in dark clubs and concert venues amidst the clatter and din of pulsating bass lines that shook my heart. My best friend and I started working with local bands, pulling cable and lugging equipment cases, emerging from empty high school gyms and clubs the morning after, covered in a salty sheen of sweat and the smell of duct tape on our hands. I dreamed of becoming a recording engineer or music producer. 

Music saved me.

After high school, I studied television production and broadcasting–the brightly colored knobs, buttons and lights on the production switcher were intoxicating to me and reminded me of the sound and light boards I was familiar with in the music business. My days were filled with TV school, my nights were spent catching local bands around Seattle and I filled the rest of my time sewing most of my “club clothes”–velvet mini skirts, leopard-print shirt dresses, and stretchy, form-fitting dresses I paired with vintage coats and shoes scavenged from thrift stores. I was a hair model at a trendy downtown salon, sporting all manner of spikes. And I had given full reign to my anorexia by this time, so that when I stepped into the dark nightclub in my tiny, velvet mini skirt, I felt like the belle of the ball–the bands knew me and I knew them. I felt seen and important. Loved, even. Validation that didn’t exist in the hallways and classrooms at my high school.

The attention fed me in a way food never could. 

“Boy crazy” was what my mom liked to call me as she rolled her eyes dismissively. My sister teased that I couldn’t possibly have a deep thought in my head. All I knew was how much I loved the way my heart quickened and my belly fluttered and how time seemed to stop when I was in the throes of the thrum of loud music, bright lights and crazy, sexy band boys. And kissing. Kissing was my jam. 

I wound up marrying a boy from a band and going on to work in film and video post-production, still turning knobs and dials, studying scopes and monitors, even working on a few music videos during Seattle’s grungiest heydays. I had kids, raised a family, started teaching yoga. I stopped going to clubs. And in the midst of it all, I lost myself. 

I missed the clatter and din. The way I could be pressed up against sweaty bodies of strangers I had no expectation of, nor them of me, and experience the music together, but separately. A friend recently remarked how it was the perfect outlet for my introverted self–to be together with others and the collective energy, but I could remain as unseen as I chose to be.

Reconnecting with a friend from my music days reconnected me to music. We became each other’s partner-in-crime and dove back into the gritty clubs and a brand-new music scene. And it was in that new-found scene that I discovered the band Chk Chk Chk. (Or, !!!) I even wrote about them here, in my very first issue of my Three Things blog. In that blog post, I mentioned the lead singer, Nic Offer, and wrote about fantasizing about having his baby. He drips with an overt and oozey sexuality that I (and many others) find delightful and I quickly came to refer to him as Baby Daddy. If you were my friend, you knew exactly who Baby Daddy was. 

No one was surprised that I snapped up tickets to both their Seattle and Portland shows when their latest tour was announced. I booked an Airbnb within walking distance of the venue in Portland, convinced another friend to come along for the fun and counted down the days. I listened to their new release, Wallop, nonstop and made my friends promise to not let me leave the shows without meeting Baby Daddy. 

How quickly we lose passion as we get older, if we’re not careful. 

The day of their Portland show was sunny and brisk, a clear, bluebird sky adding a lovely contrast to the red and yellow leaves falling from the trees. After a three and a half hour drive down from Seattle, I told my friend I would likely nap once we got to our Airbnb, but stretching our legs to take a walk for a cocktail and an early dinner won out. We had just turned down the street the venue was on when I noticed someone leaning up against a lamp post. My eyes were drawn to the red pants and then up to the messy mop of curls but it wasn’t until we had passed that I recognized the face. Baby Daddy was leaning up against the light post, ear buds in, listening to something on his phone. Without a word to my friend, I turned and approached him, getting his attention. He looked surprised and then relieved when I said “I am such a big fan.” He laughed and commented that he was worried I was going to ask him for directions. The three of us chatted casually, me trying to play it cool with my heart beating out of my chest, that familiar and intoxicating flutter deep in my belly, my extroverted friend thankfully not referring to him as “Baby Daddy” and me finally asking if I could snap a photo with him. “Of course,” he said with a smile.

Pictures or it didn’t happen. 

We squeezed ourselves up front with the hardcore Chk Chk Chk fans as the synth line of the opening track of their latest release began to pulse. I spilled my drink. Baby Daddy bounded out in his shorts and sneakers and for the next 90 minutes, time stopped. It is a wild, in-your-face, nonstop ride of funky beats at a Chk Chk Chk show and Baby Daddy works the crowd like no other performer I’ve seen. He flashed a smile of recognition my way and my knees weakened. I felt seen and it was electric. Later on, he jumped into the crowd and we danced. Baby Daddy and I danced together! The show ended long before I was ready. 

Giddy and still slightly drunk, my friend and I stumbled back to our Airbnb. We both agreed it couldn’t have been a more perfect day.

The following day was all about recovery. Yoga, water, ice, walking to loosen up cranky knees. I had another show tomorrow. I tweeted out to the band a request to play my favorite song from their new release, a song they hadn’t played in Portland. The venue retweeted it. I thought nothing more of it. 

The Crocodile seemed far more crowded than the club in Portland and I worried about getting close enough. Squeezing, shifting, shuffling my way towards the front, I finally found a spot to claim. Next to me, a big guy sporting a large, white cowboy hat. I turned to my friend and made a snarky remark about “the yee-haw who thinks it’s a good idea to wear a cowboy hat to a show.” 

The familiar synth line got the excitement building and I caught a glimpse of Baby Daddy behind the curtain, getting ready to explode onto the stage. Maybe it was because it was Wednesday instead of Monday, maybe it was because they had played a set at KEXP earlier in the day, but the band’s energy was off the charts that night at the Crocodile. The crowd–even the guy in the cowboy hat–went crazy and we all went hard and crazy together, especially when Baby Daddy gyrated his signature dance moves right in front of our faces. I looked up, caught his eye and another smile. Seen. Electric. Flutter and breath. Three songs in and Baby Daddy grabs the cowboy hat and puts it on and does a little improvised choreo with the hat before handing it back to the guy standing next to me who suddenly now has a bit more cred in my eyes. And I felt bad about the snarky comment. 

It was a bit later in their set when they stopped to introduce their next song. “This next song is for, yes–I think this next song is for you” as Baby Daddy spun around and pointed directly at me. My heart stopped and I pointed to my chest and mouthed the question me? as I looked behind to check for someone else. Just then, a sloppy-drunk girl bounded up beside me shouting “Me! Me! Me! It’s my birthday! It’s for me!” and I thought, oh no, not today, sweetheart. Today, it was for me. Unmistakably me. The song began and Baby Daddy came right over and we sang the first line or two to each other. He ran off, jumped off the stage and into the crowd and everyone around me cheered and gave me high-fives. The guy with the cowboy hat handed the hat to me and shouted, “you need to wear this–this is YOUR song!” and I gamely put the hat on and did a little hat dance in the spirit of it all. I lost sight of Baby Daddy in the crowd but suddenly heard his voice in my right ear, “It was you, right?” before seeing a flash of pink and white plaid shorts climb back on stage. My friend, who was just behind me, got my attention and said that Baby Daddy had tried to talk to me.

It was me, alright.

The show went on, time stood still, sweat soaking through all the layers of my clothing. Last song, encore, too soon. I wasn’t ready. Baby Daddy ran across the length of the stage, blowing kisses to the adoring, cheering crowd. He came back to the side I was on, reached out and grabbed both of my hands. Our eyes connected and I smiled broadly, feet still floating on cloud nine. A moment in time.

Seen. Electric. Powerful. Human.

I remember locking eyes with Prince when I saw him at the Showbox on the last tour of his too-short life. A chill ran down my spine then as it did now.

The house lights came up and I laughed with some of the other Chk Chk Chk fans around me, sharing in the electricity of the evening. My friend found me and wrapped me in a tight hug for a long time. “Tonight, I was the Prom Queen, wasn’t I?” I whispered in his ear. “Yes! You were the Prom Queen!” he assured me. 

As we filed out of the Crocodile, I overheard some rumblings of an after party. I knew it was the band’s last show on the west coast before they headed back east. I wanted to give Nic a hug and just tell him thank you, but I also didn’t want to chance ruining the magic of the evening by wishing for too much. And I didn’t want to be creepy. I texted my daughter the news and she texted back that I, indeed, had just had the best “next-level-concert-experience ever.”

It’s nice when I can still impress the kids. 

A prom queen in a cowboy hat. A random tweet. A chance meeting by a light pole on a Portland street on a sunny fall day. I don’t know if Baby Daddy knew what he was doing when he dedicated that song to me–if he knew he was placing that sparkly tiara on my head and draping the sash around my shoulders. But I do know that I’ll be mostly referring to him as Nic now. Not because we’re chummy besties and certainly not because I’d ever be opposed to the idea of having his baby (because I’ll always entertain that fantasy) but because somehow along the way he became beautifully human. As his and my eyes connected, he became Nic. 

Seen. Electric. Powerful. A motherfucking Prom Queen. 

Thanks, Nic.

TWO: PASSION

How quickly we lose passion as we get older, if we’re not careful.

I clearly remember the Pampered Chef party I attended when my daughter was in preschool, along with a gaggle of housewives and neighborhood moms. We sat in a circle, catalogs on our laps, and took our turn answering the ice-breaker question, “What is your passion?” My mind spun, trying to think of the best one, my biggest passion, the one thing that gave me all the goosebumps above everything else. I listened as one by one, the women would shrug nonchalantly and say “my family?” It was my turn and I answered “music” and went on to talk about the chills and thrills I got listening to music and how everything else seemed to disappear when seeing a live show. How I never felt more alive than when experiencing live music. My answer was met with blank stares and judgement because obviously, I was an abysmal wife and mother and I had given the wrong fucking suburban mom answer. (But I left with an awesome spatula.)

Those were not My People. 

In my work as a Wellness Coach, I meet with dozens of people each year who come to my office for guidance in healthy living. When I ask them, “what do you love to do?” they look at me like it’s a trick question. Like they’re supposed to say running or working out or eating kale. I tell them, no, really. What lights you up? More often than not, they struggle to answer. 

When do we decide we’re too old? Or do we let someone else decide that for us?

When I began going back to shows at clubs, I got all the questions. Don’t you feel weird? Out of place? Too old? Nope, I didn’t. Not at all. And I don’t let anyone convince me I should.

What is it for you? Art? Politics? Hiking? Find museums and causes that you believe in and hiking groups to help you navigate the trails. Intentionally surround yourself with passionate people who expand your universe, rather than shrink it with talk of shoulds and should nots. Passionate people have a light in their eyes and tend not to worry what other folks think. 

“She feels in italics and thinks in capitals” reads the tattoo on my right forearm. Fuck yes.

I encourage the members I meet with to just keep moving. But I want to tell them it’s so much more than that. That finding a passion, and then living passionately, with curiosity and an open mind for learning is just as vital to staying young as exercise is. This much I know is true. 

Find something that makes time stop for you. Find something that makes your heart pound and your knees go weak and maybe you even stumble and take a slow-motion (slightly drunk) tumble to the sidewalk as you reach for the kitty who slunk out of the bushes to surprise you on your walk home. 

Just make sure you have a friend nearby who can help you up and laugh about it in the morning. 

THREE: WRITING

The moment we begin to create our art with someone else in mind–such as an audience–our art dies. 

On our drive home, my friend on the Portland adventure asked me about my writing. I admitted the thought of me writing repulsed me. Like, physically made me want to barf. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I stopped writing when I started wondering what other people wanted to read. I began to worry endlessly about getting drafts and essays edited and good enough for submission. What were they looking for? Was I even good enough? I couldn’t possibly be good enough. 

She kept asking questions (because she’s like that) and I told her that my writing was as essential to my well-being as exercise and eating vegetables. That I didn’t feel well if I wasn’t writing. What if, she mused, you started writing just for yourself again? Without the expectation of anyone ever reading your words? What if you wrote what you–just you–wanted and needed to read? 

Her question wasn’t earth-shattering, or one I hadn’t heard before. But it landed in me in a way that, this time, made me stop. What if? What if I wrote just for myself? I know how easy it is to get caught up in the likes and the shares and the retweets and the comments. How social media muddies the waters of creativity and perpetuates unhelpful comparisons. I needed to unplug from that cycle. I am making a promise to myself to keep writing, but with the intention of only writing what I want to read. For my eyes only, at least for now. Maybe it results in a lovely personal journal or maybe an awesome book for all to read someday, somewhere. The important thing is that it doesn’t fucking matter.

I write because it is who I am. 

So, here it is, Issue Fifty-Two of Three Things. One full year of weekly blogs, done. The circle complete, ironically beginning with Chk Chk Chk and ending with Chk Chk Chk. (Hey, thanks Nic.)

I couldn’t have planned it any better. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Thing: Requiem for Max

It’s been just over 48 hours since my dog died. By the time you read this, it will have been even longer. I spent the first 24 hours after he died still hearing his familiar cough, the clickity-clack of his nails on the hardwood floor, his breathing as he waited for me to make my way downstairs in the morning.

Mourning is funny and the human brain plays tricks on us.

I know grief well and this grief is sharp and stabbing and makes me want to vomit. It’s not constant, but when it hits, I can’t breathe. My eyelids are swollen and the skin on my face feels taut from the salt of my dried tears. And then life goes on–errands and work, grocery-store checkers who ask me what fun plans I have for the weekend. Inside my head, I plot my answer just to snap them out of their chipper mindlessness–oh, just going home to put away more of my dead dog’s things and maybe go upstairs to wrap myself in a blanket to sob and grieve a little more. I might throw up. You? Instead, I tell them, not much.

I once compared the types of grief to a salsa bar. This is habanero level.

In texts to trusted friends, I shamefully whisper, I feel like this is harder than when my mom died. Is that weird? They assure me that it isn’t. That I’m not a horrible person because they’ve felt the very same way. I’m careful not to share this with people who will tell me he was just a dog. An old dog.

For nearly 16 years, Max was a daily presence in my life. Every day, all day long, he was there. And not just there but deeply connected to all of us in our family. We were his pack and I was the Alpha. Together we won the Top Dog award in puppy class. Together we logged miles upon miles on the trails in the woods behind our house, explored the park that was eventually built, chasing butterflies and wild bunnies along the way. We looked out for bears in early spring and bobcats in the summer. He showed me how to joyfully leap over the awful garter snakes laying wait in our path but I always turned around and went back the other way. If Max thought I was a coward, he never let on. Instead, he’d simply shrug and follow me back. He always followed me back.

We like to talk about unconditional love when it comes to our children and partners, but I’ve never experienced the truly unconditional love like Max had for me and I for him. Grouchy, tired, annoyed and impatient–my many colored moods didn’t faze him. He loved me beyond measure, sometimes to a measure I was not deserving of. One of my yoga teachers often captions photos of her dogs with the hashtag, #dogisgodspelledbackwards. I wonder if dogs and their unflinching love and loyalty are the embodiment of god on earth. They are here to teach us about love.

Love is all there is.

Max knew the powerful medicine of a lively romp through nature, how both of us would return home breathless and centered in a way even the best yoga class couldn’t touch. He joyfully splashed through deep, muddy puddles in winter as I tentatively tiptoed around them, only to lose my balance and land both feet directly in the murky depths of the thick, wet mess. Patiently waiting for me on the other side of the puddle, he seemed to say, you have to go through the muck, not pussy-foot around it, silly!

The only way out is through.

As my kids grew up and left for college, Max was there to console me. As The Mister’s work continued to take him away and out of town for weeks at a time, Max stayed with me. Max was by my side as I ventured out on my first solo weekends away to cabins in the woods that grew into spending days and days playing together at the ocean’s edge.

Just he and I. Me and Max. A girl and her dog. My constant companion in a sea of change.

The last few months have been hard to endure. Watching my best friend struggle to walk, feeling his bony hips and shoulders poke through his still-thick coat. The morning after Christmas, I awoke before the sun and packed myself and Max into my Prius, driving us both to the beach in Mukilteo. His bones and joints ached so much that he no longer wanted to lay down on his bed in the back of my car. As I carefully descended down the hill towards the water, Max lost his balance and became awkwardly lodged between the front seats. His breathing labored almost immediately and I worried he was getting crushed. I pulled over and managed to hoist him up and out. I sat back in my car and sobbed. December 26 was the last day we spent at the water–Max excitedly trotting from smell to smell, raising a leg to mark tufts of beach grass here and there, giddy to see crows and gulls and other early-risers.

We should all be so fortunate to die such a peaceful death. Surrounded by those who love us the very most, stroking our arms, massaging our scalp as we relax and go to sleep one last time. To spend our final days on earth immersed in our favorite things–one last trip to the woods, as many cheeseburgers as we want, a cocoon of love wrapped tight around us. To have delayed this death any longer would have been selfish. Knowing this doesn’t make the sting and ache of his passing hurt any less.

Nearly 16 years ago, on a Saturday in September, we were the first people at the shelter to set eyes on this litter of pups. Max and his three siblings, all a mix of Golden Retriever and Australian Shepherd. As we were led towards the pen the puppies were in, Max stood out as the only one with a golden coat and a spray of freckles over his snout and along his white socks. I walked right up to the gaggle of squirmy pups, pointed to Max and proclaimed, I want you. Done. There was no discussion.

On that day, my daughter was four years old and a bit intimidated by such wild, frisky animals. My son, a slightly more confident nine-year-old. I was a stay-at-home mom and not yet a yoga teacher. The Mister, unconvinced we were ready to undertake such a formidable task. We filled out the adoption paperwork and left the shelter to shop for crates and leashes, toys and treats. We lunched on burritos and quesadillas at Taco Time, excitedly debating names and finally agreeing on “Max”. The next day, I picked him up from the shelter, clutching his soft, sweet puppy body on my lap as I carefully steered the minivan home.

The five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

Right now, I’m hovering somewhere in the bargaining stage. Just bring him back, a voice inside me pleads. Just bring him back.

Today, the hole in my heart is massive and raw, with jagged edges that may never fully knit back together again. To those who encourage another dog right away, I say no. Not yet, because I need to sit in the space between–this emptiness–without rushing to fill it up again. To be present in this place of discomfort, as I often encourage my yoga classes. It’s not even close to comfortable discomfort. It fucking hurts like hell. It’s a small price to pay for the love we were so freely given.

Love is all there is.

The only way out is through.

Impossibly sad but forever changed. Send love and whiskey.


Max, the Best Dog in the World.
Max at Cannon Beach.
Just a girl and her dog.

Three Things, Issue Fifty-One

ONE

As soon as I open my eyes, a feeling of dread descends like the thickest ooze sliding down from my consciousness and drapes like a black blanket around my heart. This particular dread, it’s a familiar sensation–one that reminds me to call my endocrinologist and get my thyroid levels checked. When my thyroid hormones dip low–as they are prone to do–even the cheeriest news or the most potent antidepressant won’t touch the darkness. It feels heavy and hopeless, thick and unwieldy. A quick blood test, a tiny tweak in my medication is often all it takes to shift from dread to okay-ness. And yet I’ll likely put it off until later.

As soon as my feet hit the bedroom floor, my knees pop and moan but I remind myself how good it is to be able to walk. A full year has passed with ragged, torn meniscus in both knees. Some level of pain is always present, but I can still walk miles and I’m strong as dirt. This is a conversation I often I have with myself–it’s not that bad, it could be so much worse, just suck it up and get on with your day. It’s a coping mechanism that keeps me from actually moving forward to resolution and healing. It serves me well in my practice of avoidance. I bitch about my stress levels to a close friend and he comments that maybe I haven’t been exercising as much as I used to in light of my sad, crackly knees. You know, exercise is a stress reducer he reminds me, the yoga instructor. His words make me stop in my tracks and chuckle. We all have our blind spots. Just now, I pause my writing long enough to open the email window and type out a request for a referral to yet another orthopedist.

I hate appointments. I hate having to be anywhere at a specific time, aside from work. Just last week, I scheduled a massage–a massage!–and spent the week dreading having to get up and out on my day off. I shudder at the sound of my privilege.

The LIVESTRONG participants I work with tell me of surrendering their lives to doctor appointments. The loss of control. The woman at the head of the conference room table talks about having to juggle four appointments in one day and how her life is effectively suspended in this new, scary limbo-land of scans and blood tests and meetings with specialists. Her team, she calls them. I sit and listen and hear the fear and resignation and make a mental note to schedule my annual mammogram that I’ve neglected for two years. Oh, and that colonoscopy.

I am grateful and privileged and humbled by life. And I need to make a few appointments.

TWO

When you lose someone you love to suicide, the entire year is colored by that loss.

I was in a hurry to kick 2018 to the curb, as if on one, specific day I would turn the page and enter a whole new reality. Much like cracking open a new book, a happier tale I could immerse myself in and leave the grief of the old story behind. 2019 has got to be better! was the battle cry. And then I happened upon a social media post from the father of the young woman who took her own life earlier that year. He wrote of all the “firsts” without Ellie and how, as painful as the year had been, he was hesitant to turn the calendar to a new year. 2019 will be the first year without Ellie in it, he reflected. At least she had been alive in 2018. At least there was that. It was hard to let go, to move forward into a new calendar year, even amidst the unrelenting sorrow.

I think of that every time I scroll through my direct messages on Instagram. Instagram tells me exactly how many weeks have passed since Ellie and I last shared our silly conversations and her requests for baked goods every time I posted a photo of a batch of cookies or a loaf of carrot cake with cream cheese icing on the side. I made her that carrot cake right before she died.

Forty-two weeks.

Sometimes I go back and look at her Instagram account, brimming with photos of a vibrant young woman, living out loud, arms draped across friends’ shoulders, traveling and skiing with family, captions pulled from song lyrics and bible verses. I look at the light of her eyes. I try to see the sadness or despair that maybe I missed and I can’t find it. I attempt to cobble together a story that makes sense. It never works. Some things never make sense. Suicide, especially, is nonsensical.

And there were smaller, quieter deaths, too. Watching my 15-year-old dog struggle so much on our walks in the woods that now I mostly walk by myself. Tiny, little deaths in friendships that grew into yawning chasms that may or may not ever be bridged. Watching my increasingly frail 100-year-old mother-in-law enter hospice care and then, a month later, get released from it. We laugh about how she will outlive us all, but the truth is she will die and leave us with a gaping void that we will fill with our grief and memories.

The older I get, the more comfortable I become with the concept of non-linear time. Calendars and clocks are simply constructs that cater to our human needs and over-scheduled lives. When the clock strikes midnight on January 1st, I’m happy to be snuggled under my weighted blanket, sound asleep. Even when I was younger, the tradition of toasting with champagne and drunkenly bellowing “Auld Lang Syne” with a group of friends and strangers always rang hollow. December 31st is usually far less sacred and meaningful than that perfect day on the wild Washington coast when I’m rendered breathless by the power and beauty of nature. Or the long and leisurely dinner with my best friend when we talk about everything and nothing at all as the hard margins of time melt away. Or the simple evening at home with family and endless episodes of The Office or Queer Eye and a perfectly-popped bowl of popcorn.

Forty-two weeks. The first year without someone I loved.

THREE

I used to hate the cold and dark of winter, just like you.

But now, I relish this time of year. The quiet stillness. The bareness of nature. The invitation to rest. When it gets dark, I light candles. I used to save all my candles for special occasions until a bloom of thick, powdery dust covered the wax and any scent it once held had long since evaporated.

Today is a special occasion. Just like yesterday was and tomorrow will be.

I want to learn to sit in my own still, darkness and see. Observe. Be curious. This year I learned that to be able to sit with someone else’s shadows, I need to become comfortable with my own.

I want to learn to sit with someone else’s darkness. To sit with them without saying at least…or yeah, but…or diminish their struggle with some story of something worse. To be quiet and still with them rather than prattle on with my presumption of wisdom or effort to cajole.

There is so much to look forward to and I recognize my privilege. An opportunity to lead a retreat with like-minded souls. A trip to Colorado and Red Rocks in the spring with my daughter. Tickets for Broadway musicals and small, gritty rock shows that leave my ears ringing and my soul resurrected. My work that is rewarding and life-affirming even in the face of frank discussions of death and illness. Quiet meals shared together. Loud, raucous drag races that reverberate energy through my spine from head to toe and make me laugh and shout again! Again! Again!

But in the meantime–right now–I welcome the dark and winter’s lessons. The cold. The wet. The sudden, whipping windstorms that seem to sneak up and surprise us in the still of night more and more frequently. I walk through the barren winter woods by myself and I stop and listen.

Rest here. Be here. This darkness, it will pass. Don’t rush so fast towards the light because in that rush you will miss things. Important things. Instead, be curious in the dark. Don’t look away. Pay attention.

Be here now.