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.