Surely It Was Shirley

She was a generation older than me—twenty years. Although she was old enough to have been my mother, she was far more of a beloved auntie, a cherished friend, the closest of confidants. I met Shirley at the YMCA in the first yoga class I ever took and then, two years later, she was there in the very first yoga class I taught. When I herniated a disc in my lower vertebrae early in my teaching tenure, Shirley volunteered to be my yoga model. She had a front-row seat to those seminal moments that propelled me towards a sure trajectory into the future.

Shirley died unexpectedly on May 21, 2020. It’s been a staggering loss that I still haven’t fully processed.

If you were lucky enough to be loved by Shirley, you knew it was an honor bestowed to few. Cynical, sarcastic and stubborn as hell, she erected a mighty fortress around her heart. For good reason—like many of us, she had been hurt and betrayed throughout the years. But if you passed the test and she found you trustworthy, you were given her full heartgift. Her heart that shimmered like late afternoon sunlight glinting off a pond. A heart that was yours for life. I believe it’s good and healthy to have those friends who tell you the hard truths–those things that you need to hear but are hard to say. I value those friends. But Shirley was the only friend I’ve ever had whose love was truly unconditional. She was unapologetically biased and loyal, Team Tracie all the way. If I needed a shoulder to bitch on, a sympathetic ear, a soft place to fall, Shirley was there to assure me that my instincts were right and that I was worthy. She always had time for me.

We spent our early years in coffee shops discussing backbends after yoga class, sipping Baileys around my bear tree at Christmas time, sharing stories about our families and our disillusion with physicians and faith and organized religion. When my mom died and I told Shirley about seeing a butterfly that I was so certain was my mom’s spirit visiting, she nodded knowingly. After all, she had shared with me that her own mother’s spirit would show herself as electrical disruptions—flickering lights, appliances that oddly stopped working and then began again. We laughed about and loved those mysterious signs from the Universe.

I took her for granted, as we often do with friends. When she and her husband moved to Las Vegas four years into our friendship, I was gutted. We had regular phone calls and I’d often suggest that I could fly down to visit her, but she seemed wary, telling me that she wouldn’t be able to visit The Strip or do much fun stuff with me. Her husband was a paraplegic and Shirley was his primary caregiver. As much as I insisted that I only wanted to hang out with her, I never felt like she gave me a green light to book that flight. I wanted to respect her wishes.

As the pandemic hit, I checked in with her, knowing that both she and her husband would be at greater risk. They were doing well, she told me cheerfully, staying home and keeping in touch with the grandkids via FaceTime and Zoom. It was in early spring of 2020 when she excitedly shared the news that she and her husband would be moving to the San Diego area to live with one of her daughters. She waxed on about how beautiful the house was, how it would allow them to have their private space, how it seemed almost like a resort. Her good news gave me a sense of relief. Finally, she would have more support and be able to rest. Over the years, I had noticed a troubling trend in our conversations—a constant fatigue, no impulse to do anything more than what was necessary. The Shirley I had known was vibrant and curious, with energy that defied her age. Her excitement about this fresh start was only dampened by the immensity of the impending move. There’s just so much to do, she’d sigh.

You always remember the moments you receive devastating news. The phone call, that text, the conversation that sharply delineates the time before and the time when nothing will ever be the same again.

Shirley had a heart attack. She didn’t survive emergency surgery. I had just returned home from donating blood when I got the text from her husband. I’m so sorry, he wrote.

She guarded her heart like a fortress, but it was her heart that ultimately betrayed her.

I like to call myself a Grief Ninja, but losing Shirley was a loss that unmoored me. I sobbed and grew angry. I bargained and asked “why”, all while imagining the utter heartbreak her husband, two daughters and seven grandkids must have been feeling. I bought condolence cards for her family but couldn’t find the words to write in them, so they sat, undelivered, on my dining room table.

I wanted to know why I hadn’t felt her around me. Of all people, I thought. After all our conversations. What little faith remained in me was quickly drained.

I joined a writing challenge later that month where we were to write 1000 words a day for two weeks. On the first day of the challenge, I sat at my computer and poured out my grief, my anger, my bitterness over Shirley’s death. I asked her where she was and why she hadn’t visited me. I cried until the screen was blurred by tears, forcing me to take a break. And then I wrote some more. Later that day, having felt purged of so much stagnant grief energy, I picked up the cards and carefully wrote my words to each of her daughters and her husband. After taking them to the post office, I felt a shift. Writing is a cathartic act.

That evening, I had just put the dog to bed and was brushing my teeth upstairs when I heard a piercing sound over the buzz of my electric toothbrush. I stepped outside the bathroom to hear our smoke detectors blaring. The Mister, my daughter and I frantically searched inside and out for any sign of smoke. We pressed the silence button, but to no avail. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the alarm abruptly stopped. Hearts pounding, the three of us breathed a nervous sigh of relief. I looked down from the top of the stairs to The Mister, who had just come inside after checking the exterior of the house. “I know this sounds crazy,” I prefaced, “but I’m pretty sure that was Shirley.” A wry smile crept over his face, and he nodded. Yep.

I swore I could hear Shirley laughing as I climbed into bed that night.

It was months later when our carbon monoxide detector began chirping early on a Saturday morning. I took it downstairs and wrestled the battery from the back to quiet the noise. The calendar on the kitchen wall reminded me of the day—December 12. It was Shirley’s birthday, her first since she had died. It’s easy to explain away, to be sensible, but I chose instead to let it comfort me. Since then, our smoke detector has mysteriously gone off just one other time—on May 29, the one-year anniversary of that evening when my toothbrushing was abruptly interrupted by the alarm. The credits were rolling from a movie The Mister and I had just finished watching when the alarm startled us into action. But there was no smoke, no apparent reason.

Just Shirley.

I’ve had countless conversations with friends and family about what happens after we die. I don’t believe in specific places like heaven and hell, but I want to believe there is something. Humans are energy. Science confirms that energy doesn’t disappear, but instead simply changes shape and form. The butterfly I saw after my mom died seemed so matter-of-factly her. The unmistakable odor of cigarette smoke The Mister and I smelled in our garage and hallway for weeks after my dad passed away. My dad, a lifelong smoker. The electrical disruptions that gave Shirley comfort and belief that her mother was nearby. Comfort in one’s grief is a good thing, so I’m holding on to that. If nothing else, comfort.

I’m writing this on December 12, Shirley’s birthday–her second since her death. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wait all day for a sign from her–a blip on the screen, a chirp of an alarm, a flicker of a lamp to assure me she’s still here. She’d hate to be so predictable, though, so I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t get what I was waiting for. My brother recently mused that although he believes our earthly spirit may linger for a bit in the ether, in that place between here and wherever our energy lands in the after, that eventually we move on.

Faith is much like our intuition. It’s a place of knowing without knowing. The truth is, no one knows. I simultaneously love and hate that.

So, as humans with vital, beating hearts, we move on as well. Our grief–just like our afterlife energy–changes shape and form. It ebbs and flows, startling us with its intensity at the most inopportune times. If you are mired in that web of grief, be it fresh or ancient, I see you. Immerse yourself in that which comforts you and may there be glimmers of peace as you walk through your grief.

And if you need me, you can find me over here, doing the same.

 

Dispatch from an Old Refrigerator

Last week, we finally took delivery of our brand new, sparkly, modern refrigerator. The one we purchased in May, but because of supply chain issues, yadda yadda yadda, we didn’t receive until now. It was worth the wait.

Our old fridge had been with us since we moved into our house, 26 years ago. It was a wonderful appliance, a dependable workhorse, the contents of which held countless meals cooked and shared over those decades. I don’t remember ever having to have it repaired and she was still going strong as we pulled her out last week.

When I told a few friends and family about getting a new model, some gasped in despair and asked, “What will you do with all those photos?” I hadn’t given it much thought, and answered, “Well, we’ll rip ‘em off and enjoy a clean slate of shiny stainless steel.” They seemed distraught and insisted that we find another way to honor those years of pictures, artwork, postcards and random magnets. A collage maybe? Shadowbox? Scrapbook? At parties and family gatherings, it was common for folks to stand and peruse the doors for new pics and reminisce about the old ones. Oddly enough, as I quickly stripped the old fridge clean on the morning of the new delivery, I felt little sentimentality. I was ready for that clean slate.

I have a friend who will often comment when I post pictures of my messy walk-in closet before I purged and cleaned it up, or my stack of beloved books perched precariously on my bedside table. “How can you live in that chaos?” she asks me. Her question has always felt a bit judgmental, and I thought of her as I looked at the “before” photo I had snapped of the fridge doors layered with memories. Messy. Chaotic. Disorganized.

Just like life.

Raising two kids, a dog and a couple cats in a marriage over twenty-plus years is chaotic. It is hard and dirty work. When I was in the throes of it, I never enjoyed those women who seemed to put a lot of energy into making everything tidy and pretty. While I always appreciate a good aesthetic, nothing trumps authenticity. Who wants to walk in and relax in a space that feels as sterile as a model home? Give me honest, quirky comfort any day of the week. God bless your mess and mine.

A few weeks ago, a dear friend came to visit from out-of-state. She and I had met when our sons were in kindergarten, and during those years when she lived nearby, we would frequent each other’s kitchen stools and counters. That night, I cooked dinner and we shared a bottle of wine, just like old times. The next day, over lunch and cocktails, she said, “You have no idea how much I have craved simply sitting in your kitchen with you as you cook, sharing a drink and laughs. I miss it so much.” Tears sprung in my eyes as she told me this. My kitchen is the heartbeat of my home, a reflection of all that I love, messy or not.

In a few months, we’ll be undertaking a big kitchen remodel. New cabinets, countertops, freshened floors and more. As someone whose love language is food and cooking for others, it’s something I’ve dreamed of for a long time, but was never in our budget until now. We’re at a point where the kids are moved out and the whole mess of us are all moving on to the next stage, whatever that might be.

And I’m ready for it–the blank slate, the gleaming fridge, the quartz and tile and everything new again. Those beloved photo memories tucked into a shoebox until I figure out what to do with them. But I already know the remodeled version won’t be better than the first—that heartbeat, that imperfect, outdated, messy, chaotic place where my family was raised and thrived, and where friends and all who gathered were loved and nourished for 26 years.

Not better, just different.

 

A Very Bad Good Friday

My sister died on Good Friday.

Late that same evening, in an attempt to distract myself from tending to my grief, I found myself googling, “What does it mean when you die on Good Friday?” According to Christian mythology, a person who dies on Good Friday gets a direct pass to Heaven. No reckoning, no bargaining with God, no judge and jury necessary. I laughed, which surprised me on such a sad day. You see, I don’t believe there are specific “places” called Heaven and Hell, but if there were, my sister Karen would surely get a FastPass to those pearly gates.

We humans tend to canonize those who die. We are quick to dismiss their earthly shortcomings and exalt them as saints. Most don’t deserve it, but a few do.

I was born the youngest of a family of seven. The surprise caboose at the tail end of a very long and drawn-out train of siblings. Family legend has told me the story of how my tired mother groaned at the thought of raising yet another child when she discovered she was pregnant at age 45. And how my sister Karen, already a young teenager, celebrated my birth, excited to have a new baby sister to fuss over.

My earliest childhood memories were with Karen. When our mom returned to full-time work not long after I was born, it was Karen who made sure I didn’t slip through the cracks. Late spring weekends spent feeding stale bread crusts to the ducks at Lake Steilacoom. Hazy summer afternoons on Spanaway Lake, taking a rowboat out for a paddle, followed by a picnic of tuna fish sandwiches and cream soda under the shade of tall fir trees. A special trip on my birthday to the downtown Tacoma Sears with its magical outdoor escalator to procure my very first pair of coveted navy blue salt-water sandals. Karen taught me how to count to ten in Spanish, French, German and Swedish. She took me to see “The Sound of Music” at an old downtown theater and earnestly sang the words to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” as though she wrote the lyrics herself. And when she met and fell in love with her first serious boyfriend, she’d invite me to tag along with them, the three of us taking long, meandering drives in her gray Peugeot, much to her boyfriend’s chagrin.

I was a chubby, emotional child. Not especially cute, and prone to jealousy and crying jags that could come out of the blue. I often felt ashamed of my big, messy emotions and believed they made me hard to love. But Karen was my safe place, my soft place to fall. My Person. My surrogate mom in a family that I often felt swallowed up in. When Karen married that first boyfriend and quickly became pregnant with her first daughter–my niece–I watched my initial jealousy slowly morph into an understanding of the limitless capacity of the human heart to love.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. If there’s anything that makes me doubt my faith and the idea of karma, it’s that. From a rough first marriage to professional challenges to cancer diagnoses and so much more, Karen weathered more upheavals in her life than anyone deserves. “I don’t think my life has been any harder than anyone else’s,” she wrote after thanking us siblings for a gift of a long weekend getaway to the Washington Coast following her first round with cancer. What could often be mistaken for passivity was Karen’s quiet grace. I never once heard her complain or moan at the inequity of her life. Even as she struggled with the debilitating effects of chemotherapy and the ravages of cancer, she would shrug with a smile and comment, “Well, we all have to die someday.”

I was in my early twenties when Karen got me a job working beside her in the medical library at Rainer School in Buckley, Washington–a state institution for people with intellectual disabilities. She had always had a passion for helping special-needs children and adults and because of that, I quickly learned to see differently-abled people through a lens of acceptance rather than fear. We shared carpools and lunches and quiet afternoons cataloging medical journals and books. It was at Rainier where she met and fell in love with her second husband, Laurent. A natural-born mother with an enviable and instinctual sense of nurturing, she and Laurent went on to have two more daughters. Karen was never more alive than when she was mothering her children, and later, her grandchildren. Family was everything.

“You have a PhD in dying,” a friend texted me when learning of my sister’s death. She knew this past year had been rife with loss for me.

Dorothy. Marilyn. Shirley. Chuck. Bill. Ella. Liza. Tim. Karen.

Natural causes. Heart attacks. Cancer. Suicide. Stroke. No Covid, interestingly enough, but does it really matter? (No, it doesn’t.) They weren’t all catastrophic losses to me, but some were. My mother-in-law. One of my dearest, most beloved friends. Colleagues of mine from my television days. Another friend who tossed her head back as she laughed and called us “soulmates” just months before her death. My sister.

While I have you here, can we talk a bit about grief?

My yoga practice has taught me how to stay present in discomfort. My yoga practice and my losses have made me into a Grief Ninja.

Grief is not something to conquer. It is not an intimidating wall to scale, get over and be done with, but rather something we continuously move through for the rest of our lives. Sometimes it feels natural and effortless, as the floodgates open and the tears pour out after we first learn of the death. Inevitably, though, we encounter potholes and perilous cliffsides that stop us in our tracks. We timidly peer over, unsure we have what it takes to keep moving. It is hard, exhausting, vital work that does not follow a linear track. Human nature makes us want to stuff down, cover up, distract, deny, diminish and ignore the pain. The easy route is to abandon the process of mourning when the going gets tough. I get it–it’s messy and uncomfortable. Our grief will make others squirm. But here’s what I’ve learned: the losses we suffer stay with us, as does the accompanying grief. It won’t always feel so breathtakingly painful, but grief remains as it changes shape and form, flavor and intensity. To fully mourn someone’s death is to fully honor their life.

A non-exhaustive list of things NOT to say to someone who is grieving:

“They (the dead) wouldn’t want you to feel sad.” (This is especially egregious when the person telling you this never knew the deceased.)

“They’re in a better place.” (Really? Even if this is true, it doesn’t help to hear.)

“Don’t be sad it happened (the death), but smile because you knew them.” (Fuck the hell all the way off if you recite mindless platitudes you gleaned off the internet.)

“They’re walking with Jesus now.” (Don’t. Even if you know their faith. Just don’t.)

“Well, they lived a long life and they were old.” (Someone I considered a friend said this to me with a dismissive shrug after my dad died. My first significant loss. I don’t consider her a friend any longer.)

Instead, say this:

“I’m sorry.”

And, if applicable, “I love you.”

That’s it. Simple. To hold quiet space for someone in mourning is sacred work.

Our culture does not normalize death and dying. The dying are tucked away, often unseen. Have you ever seen a dead person? Not the artificially embalmed and displayed in an open casket, but a real dead person? An actively dying person can look withered and older beyond their years and it can be shocking to witness, if we’re not prepared. After the death, we are urged to “get over it” and applauded if we quickly pull ourselves up and out by our bootstraps and carry on as though nothing happened. I have long admired the Jewish custom of “Sitting Shiva”–a week long period of intentional mourning following a loved one’s death. During this time, family members traditionally gather in one home to receive visitors. The word “shiva” means seven, signifying the seven-day mourning period in which mourners are supposed to sit low to the ground. On the seventh day of Shiva, mourners conclude the practice by taking a walk around the block, symbolizing the return back to regular life.

As I write this, today is the eighth day following Karen’s death. Her first granddaughter, Poppy, was born the day before Karen died. Birth and death intermingling, teetering together on the razor-thin edge of life. I am not one of unwavering faith and conviction, but I like the idea that Karen and Poppy met somewhere in the In Between. I like to lean into the mysteries of life and death and the comfort it gives me.

My sister died on Good Friday. I don’t know what happens after we die, but I am confident that Karen would not have needed a free pass on Good Friday to ensure a positive transition into The Other. I wrote this to her for a birthday celebration her family threw for her just a few years ago:

“When I think of Karen, I envision her in shades of her favorite jewel tones—amethyst, sapphire and emerald green. She’s dancing and singing along to the soundtrack from “Candide” or maybe onstage with her family, creating a dance party for others. One thing I know for sure is this: in a world full of nondescript stones in muted shades of gray, Karen is that delightful surprise of a shimmering gem you uncover just when you least expect it. And if you’re lucky, she’ll make you a fantastic tuna fish sandwich.”

This one hurts. I’m gonna be sad for awhile.

 

 

 

 

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.