Respect Your Limits

I am writing this post at 2:20 A.M. because I forgot my limits today. Instead of one or maybe two cups of coffee, I had three, and then I went on to have a latte.

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Matt at Costanoa. This picture doesn’t begin to do justice to the place or the man, but you get the idea…

I have my excuses. We were down at Costanoa on a birthday getaway for Matt. If you’ve never been to Costanoa, well, you should go.

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The Lodge at Costanoa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a little piece of heaven perched on the edge of the Pacific, halfway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, and it has something for everyone. You can stay for cheap in one of the tent cabins or go for true comfort in the lodge, hike up the mountains or down to the beach, have a massage or sit in the hot tub, and eat some of the best local food on the coast. No matter what you choose, the views are breathtaking and rejuvenating. You will forget all your cares and worries.

And, like me, you may even forget your caffeine limit. While Matt got his birthday massage, I sat in bed, worked on my novel, and drank an entire pot of coffee.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about limits anyway, so naturally when the caffeine kicked in at 1:15 A.M. and I awoke feeling like I’d just popped a handful of speed, I found myself spinning on that very topic.

The truth is I hate limits. I’m know I’m not alone in this.

(For goodness sake, look at Donald Drumpf. There’s a man who doesn’t know his limits.)

Don’t we all start off life complaining about our limits? The limit of the highchair or carseat, the backyard, bedtime and the school day, the size of our room or the size of our town? Very early on we face limits to our time and to our space. And then, as life goes on, we are forced to face our personal limits, which may be the most cruel of all limits. Or perhaps death is the cruelest limit. But let’s not get too morbid, here. Personal limits are depressing enough.

I know, I know. You’re not reading this post to be brought down. What you really want to read here is how the sky is the limit, and that you can accomplish anything you set your sights on. Climb any mountain. Cross every sea. Be an Olympic star. A Nobel Prize winner. Put that Pulitzer in your pocket. Grab that Grammy. Be President of the United States.

Well, I’m not going to tell you those things. (So if you don’t want to hear the opposite, you should stop reading now.)

No. I’m going to tell you about how bad it is when you don’t observe your limits.

Of course, it was really yoga that really got me thinking about my limits. There is nothing like setting yourself a goal (Year of Yoga) to slam you into a solid wall, built brick by brick with your own very real limits.

The first limit I faced was time. How does one fit three yoga classes into an already too full week? For the first several months it seemed almost possible. Then Matt’s work schedule went into overdrive, kids got sick, and suddenly even one yoga class was hard to fit in.

Then there was the limit of space. This limit was actually twofold. First was the limit of how far to walk or bike or drive for a class. Second was the lack of space, in a living room full of Keva block creations or cushion castles, for even my 2×3 foot yoga mat.

But then, most frustrating of all, there are the limits of my body.  These are various and sundry, and they seem to grow in number with the passing years.

I realize that one big reason I go to yoga classes (rather than stay at home to practice) is that I can watch the instructor turning herself upside down or into a pretzel, and believe that I will one day be able to do so, too. That belief isn’t all bad.

Except when, like me, you don’t acknowledge your limits. Or maybe you glance at them in passing, give a terse nod or a little wave. But probably you just ignore them, because really, who wants limits?

Deena, my amazing physical therapist, basically told me I must not only say hello to my limits, but actually invite my limits over for dinner, and then make them my best friends. She said, “You’re the kind of person who pushes yourself, I can tell. When your yoga instructor gives some little verbal suggestion to another student, you make that same adjustment even when you shouldn’t. When she gives you three options, you go for the hardest one. And that’s hurting your neck. So you need to back off.”

Huh.

Well, I did. For a while. Then my neck started feeling better. And I canceled the dinner date with my limits.

I began taking a Saturday morning Level 2-3 class with Colleen Millen. This is an intense class and I love it, but it wipes me out physically and mentally. I am utterly useless for the rest of the day. I can’t write or clean my house or even be very present for my kids. After several Saturdays of this, I’ve come to the frustrating recognition that the class is too hard for me. (Hah. Even as I wrote that I was thinking to myself, “Too hard right now.” Still straining against that limit, obviously.)

I also ignored my limits in other classes. Last week, when my teacher put us into bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), and offered the option to put a block under our back before we went into bridge pose with one leg up (Eka Pada Setu Bandha Sarvangasana), I eschewed that silly block. Then she had us strap our ankle, roll our shoulders under, and go back into Eka Pada Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. Again, did I acknowledge my limits? Nope.

The result was a sprain to my AC joint:ACJointPain

Yes, ouch. But also very demoralizing. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do yoga for weeks, that I would lose all the flexibility and strength and good health I’d built these past six months, that my Year of Yoga project was doomed to fail. And all because I’d ignored my very real limits.

I think the most dangerous thing about not acknowledging limits is that, in reaching too far past those limits, we don’t accept the very good place we’re in at the moment. Kind of like wanting to get one step closer to the edge of the cliff for that better view of the ocean… and then falling off.

Well, I iced my shoulder, and swallowed the obligatory Vitamin I (Ibuprofen), and took the week off from yoga. Now the joint feels better. Tomorrow, I will not be taking the hard class. I will be using the props. I will be grateful for my limits.

It’s hard. We always want more. More space, more time. To be better than we are. To be the best that we can be. To have it all. But isn’t that how we got to where we are now? That kind of hubris has led us to the cliff and right over the edge… onto the rocks of climate change, over-population, mass species extinction, late-night caffeine-induced insomnia, and Donald Drumpf.

So please, folks, take it from me. Acknowledge those limits. They are your friends.

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The Green Yogi

A few weeks into this Year of Yoga project my friend, Jenny, told me that she’d been inspired by my posts to do more yoga.

As you might imagine, there is no better motivation to keep on writing than knowing your words are having a positive effect on another’s life.

To be encouraged by Jenny is nothing new, however. After all, we did meet through our writers’ group, a close-knit group of six women who have met for nearly seven years to critique, challenge, celebrate and champion each other’s writing. We also confess, complain, console, and commiserate about all those many little things in life that rear up to keep us from writing (children, work, husbands, lack of time, health, an addiction to volunteering, pets, housework, daylight savings, travel, worrying about Donald Trump, scheduling, the internet, books, exercise, and our own many insecurities and fears). This group was where my novel started, why I have grown at all as a writer, and where, twice a month, I often feel that my existence on this planet is justified.

When Jenny joined our group she’d just taken an enormous leap, quitting her job as a professor of sociology to work full time on her fiction writing. So right from the start I’ve had truckloads of admiration for this woman.

Jenny is also the one who reminded me, a month or so ago, about my original intention for this blog, which was to go to as many yoga studios as possible. Of course she did; keeping each other on task is part of what we do in our writers’ group. Another thing we do is push each other out of our ruts.

So I agreed to go with Jenny to her favorite neighborhood yoga studio,  The Green Yogi.

imgres-3I love that Jenny goes to The Green Yogi, because she is one of the more truly “green” people I know. For one thing, she wrote the book on social sustainability. Her house, which she moved to so that she could walk and bike more, is all-electric, powered completely by solar. I know this because, back in my pre-blogging life, I helped work on her solar conversion project. (I will happily tell you all the reasons you should go solar, too. Or you can just watch this video.) She also owns an electric car, has a pellet stove, and doesn’t even cook with natural gas. See what I mean? Way green. I often think that if I were not me, I would want to be Jenny.

Anyhow, I am not Jenny, which is good, because that meant I was able to join her for a yoga class.

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Photo credits: The Green Yogi

We met up on a Thursday morning at The Green Yogi, which is on MLK, Jr. Drive., up in North Berkeley. This studio is a truly lovely space, full of sunshine from the skylights and large windows, and all warm and bright from the expansive, creamy walls. The proliferation of candles and cushions and curtains give a luxuriousness to the space, a spa-like setting, that immediately made me feel that I was taking good care of myself.

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And the gracious  “I Came to Get Down, Dog” Newbie offer of 3 classes for $20 helped me feel that I was taking care of my pocketbook, too.

Most importantly, The Green Yogi walks the walk when it comes to eco-consciousness. They are a perfect example of how living green is not only a better choice for the planet, but provides a more beautiful, nurturing, and enjoyable experience for us.

Jenny was already at the studio when I got there, all settled on her mat. She looked very much the yogi (hairband, yoga pants, water bottle), which was fun to see, since I usually see her looking very much the writer (legs curled up in a chair, manuscript on her lap, pen in hand).

I set my mat beside Jenny’s and we got caught up for a few minutes. This was also fun, because usually in class I’m there by myself, so all I can do before class begins is think about how stressed or achey or tired I am, or how hard I had to work just to get to class. Chatting with Jenny, though, left no room for those kind of thoughts (and almost no room for all the little worries about how I didn’t know this teacher or this studio, how it had been so long since I’d done Vinyasa yoga, how I hadn’t been to a class in six days). Before I knew it, though, class had started.

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This was a Power Vinyasa class, so it was about as different as could be from my experience at Adeline Yoga in the Fundamentals of Iyengar class. Don’t get me wrong – both were great classes, just very different kinds of yoga. The Iyengar was measured and specific, slow, and not at all sweaty.

The Power Vinyasa class, the other hand, was fast paced, physically demanding, and very sweaty. The instructor, Naushon Kabat-Zinn, put together a great flow, with a little music to keep up the pace, and a touch of humor to help us all smile through our sweat.

Naushon began the class by asking us to reflect on what brought us to class that morning, what actually got us there on the mat. She gave us a few minutes to think on this. Of course I immediately thought, “Well, obviously, it was Jenny.” But as I sat there, another thought came to me. It was community.

This was a wonderful realization because “to be here for my family and friends” was one of the three goals of my Year of Yoga project.

I inspired Jenny to do more yoga. She prompted me to try new studios. Together we took the class. Now we aren’t just writer friends, we are also yoga friends. And I also have a new yoga studio to add to my neighborhood favorites list.

It is in just this way, strand by strand, that we build and sustain our community and ourselves.

Yoga_Bliss
Photo credit: The Green Yogi

 

All photos courtesy of The Green Yogi: http://www.thegreenyogi.com/photo-gallery/north-berkeley-studio/

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Vibrant

The most frequent question I get these days is, “How is homeschooling going?” It used to be, “How is your novel going?” or, more recently, “How is your Year of Yoga going?”

Lately, though, it’s all about the homeschooling.

So, I’ll tell you how it’s going.

My son loves homeschooling. He was pretty much made for it. He’s not the kind of kid who sits around complaining that he’s bored (unless he’s in school). He reads, researches, creates, invents, (destroys), writes, sets himself goals, comes up with projects, and constantly challenges his homeroom teacher (me). Neither one of us is bored.

Experimenthomeschool

We had a debate the other day about the best adjective to describe his relationship to knowledge. I said he was a “curator” of knowledge; he preferred the term “hoarder.” I suppose if you saw all the books in and under and beside his bed, you might agree with him. But I told him a hoarder doesn’t use or even value the things he hoards, he just keeps them. “You use and value your knowledge,” I said, “so I can’t really agree that you’re a hoarder of knowledge.”

“Well,” he said, “I still like ‘hoarder of knowledge,’ because sometimes I have all this knowledge and I don’t even know what to do with it, but I still want more.”

See? Perfect kid for homeschooling.

Homeschool isn’t always perfect for me, though.

For one thing, I don’t always know what I’m doing. I’ve never trained to be a teacher. Yes, I taught creative writing to undergraduates, but how hard was that? They were all busy making up their lives anyway, so to pull a little fiction out of them wasn’t such a stretch. Plus, they were in college. Already they had a huge advantage.

Anyhow, for some silly reason, the stakes just feel higher with this current teaching gig.

To make matters worse, I’m sometimes – ha! always – overwhelmed by the choices of curriculum, classes, and styles available for homeschooling. As soon as I settle on one course of study, I inevitably find another I prefer more. It’s a bit like being at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. So little stomach room! So much food! And if I stuff too much in at once, my kid will barf. Or something like that.

Also, no matter what I want to do, there’s never enough time. Not for all the classes and curriculum and projects and field trips, and certainly not for me. Yes, I would like more time to write my novel, or to work on this blog, but the kind of time I really need is more in the range of 40 hours/week so that I can bring in some bucks.

Unfortunately, that’s the real catch of homeschooling: It’s expensive.

“What? Why? Aren’t you just sitting in your dining room over some library books?” (Yes, I do know what you are thinking.)

Well, first of all, there are all the way-too-great-too-miss classes out there. They Are Not Cheap. (See the “all-you-can-eat” part above.)

But there’s also the opportunity cost. For example, let’s say you make $50,ooo. If you have five kids and you quit your job to homeschool them, then that’s a $10,000 per kid investment each year. If you have one, well, it’s a $50,000 investment. I know for a fact the most expensive Bay Area private school is not that costly.

But none of this – not the worry that I don’t know what I’m doing, not the constant feelings of being overwhelmed, and not the lack of time and money – are nearly as hard as my final confession about homeschooling:

My house is always messy. It has not been this messy in years.

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Water Experiments (photo: E.Maupin)

Seriously. It’s like having a toddler again. Remember how you could never keep your house clean? How you’d tell yourself that as soon as you cleaned the living room, you’d head out to the park? But how by then the bedrooms were all a disaster because your son had been building a fort with all the pillows in the entire house, and now it was time for lunch, but then there were the dishes to do and also you needed to go to the grocery store?

Yes, that kind of messy.

The real benefit of sending your kids to traditional schools? Your house stays clean for one day.

But you know what? I’m okay with it. Not just the mess, but all of it – the lack of time and money, the feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going. All of it. And here’s why:

Before my son went off to kindergarten, he had such a radiantly curious energy to him, such a joy of being in this world. His was an eager and open-minded approach to life; he was always game to try new things, to explore. He believed in himself. He liked himself.

Taz
(photo: E. Maupin)

Then he went to school. Of course he had teachers he adored. The two schools he attended, one public and one private, I hold in high regard.

But school seemed to dim his very existence. He was always tired, allergic, and sick. He didn’t want to try new things. He was overwhelmed and down on himself. He apologized constantly. He certainly didn’t seem to like himself very much. He’d lost his confidence, and he also seemed to have lost himself. It was as if the little pilot light of his soul had been snuffed out.

You would think that I saw all this as it was happening. I did, but I also didn’t. In other words, I saw that school wasn’t the right choice for him. But it was only recently, after five months of homeschooling, that I understood how completely lost he’d been while he was in school.

What made me finally see this?

The other day he played his fiddle at the farmer’s market, something he hasn’t done in almost four years. When he first put down his case and took up his fiddle, the area around him was in a lull. There was a wide empty space, not many folks stopping at the vendors there. As he played, however, people began to gather. Children pulled on their parents’ hands so that they might stop to watch. The farmers on either side of him began to do a more brisk business. Within a few minutes, the area was alive and bustling, transformed by his presence and his music.

Busking2016

Watching him fiddle, I realized that he, too, has been transformed. He was connected to his music in a way he hasn’t been for years. He played with energy and confidence, smiled at folks, enjoyed himself. I felt like I’d suddenly come upon an old friend, one I hadn’t seen in a long while. That got me thinking about who he was in school, and how he’s changed in these past few months of homeschooling.

He’s no longer constantly allergic or sick. Yes, he’s sometimes tired, but that’s because he reads too late (no matter, he can also sleep in now). He’s eager and excited to take on new challenges. He comes up with new projects to do every day. He’s rediscovered the joy of learning for learning’s sake. He laughs a lot. He’s confident again. Most importantly, he likes himself.

Vibrant would be the best adjective to describe him.

So, yep. Homeschooling is going great.

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Inspire

During a yoga class a few weeks ago I felt a sudden surge of hostility toward the teacher. She had just asked us to do bakasana, or crow pose. “You and your stupid arm balance poses!” I thought. This sudden intensity of feeling struck me – knocked me off balance, as it were – because I like this teacher, a lot. So what was going on?

When I examined the feeling further, I realized that the hostility was actually another feeling in disguise. It was resistance.

My resistance to crow pose is understandable. I’m not terribly confident about the strength of my arms and shoulders. I’m also afraid of falling, yes. I have, after all, actually given myself a real doozie of a shiner by falling on my face in yoga class. I’m sure others can boast the same, but not many.

So whenever a teacher announces that we’re doing crow, the same question comes to my mind: “Why are you making me do something I obviously can NOT do? Are you some kind of sadistic pig?”

Resistance.

Let me be clear: When I say resistance, I’m not talking about La Résistance française sort. No. I’m talking about the type of resistance that is all about fear, and manifests itself as a stanch enemy of change and progress.

Resistance rears its ugly head every day, all day, sometimes from the most surprising of places, other times from an all-too-familiar place. Here are just a few of my personal trophy heads of resistance:

  1. Not doing arm balance poses
  2. Not getting up early in the morning to write on my novel
  3. Not learning to sing

My daughter, I fear, has inherited my very tough “resistance” gene. Here are her trophy heads:

  1. Not eating food (except noodles)
  2. Not getting out of bed
  3. Not doing homework
  4. Not going on hikes

This last one is a particular problem, because the rest of our family loves to hike.

For example, my thing about New Year’s is that it must include a big view. I don’t really care about the count-down of the ball dropping, or a champagne toast at midnight, but I must have my big view.

When I say “big view,” I mean it literally: a breath-taking, awe-inspiring, not-your-everyday grand vista. The big view will preferably be hard to achieve; i.e., its acquisition will require planning, driving, and, most importantly, hiking.

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The hikers.

When the kids were little, we went up to Inspiration Point in Tilden Park for our big view. A few years ago we headed over to the Visitor’s Center at Mt. Tamalpais to see the entire SF Bay spread out before us.

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The Brandaburs, 12/31/14, Limatour.

 

 

 

 

This year found us back at Mt. Tamalpais State Park, where we planned to do the Dipsea-Steep Ravine loop. If you are in the Bay Area, can climb down a 12-foot ladder, and haven’t yet done this hike, put it on your list.

But of course not everyone in my immediate family loves the hiking part. Not even if you promise a great view.

You see, Coco has her own natural rhythm, if you will, and it tends to be a bit slower than the rest of this fast-paced world.

CocoonLogShe’s also the littlest in the family, which means that she has to take more steps than any of the rest of us to cover the same mileage. Often her brother runs ahead, leaving her way behind, which never feels good. So on New Year’s, as soon as she heard we were hiking, she went into active protest mode, with big-time Resistance. “I’m not leaving the car!” she announced. The outlook was seeming pretty grim.

When we got to the trailhead, however, several things went in our favor. First, Tazwell suddenly became the coolest big brother ever, and found Coco a perfect hiking staff.

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Legolas was with us in spirit.

Then there was the trail itself, Steep Ravine, which really is just like Rivendell. As I said to Coco, you almost expect to see Legolas striding toward you. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

Coco ran off down the trail with her brother, who for once did not leave her behind. It is a magical hike, with lush fern-covered hillsides, mossy waterfalls, burned-out redwoods, and many quaint bridges.

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At the intersection of Steep Ravine and Dipsea, you can take Dipsea all the way to the beach. Instead, we turned up Dipsea to climb to the view.

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There were many “chocolate” breaks along the way:

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The steep part.
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Brandabur boys.

So why, if Coco has such a resistance to hiking, do I push for the “big view” on New Year’s Eve?  What’s the big deal with the “big view”?

Well, I suppose it has to do with inspiration. On the eve of a new year, I want my family to be in a place where we can “breathe in” expansiveness…

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…where the possibilities seem limitless…

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… and where the beauty of life feels absolute.

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On New Year’s Eve, we made it up to the “Hot Chocolate Rock” right at sunset. I think Coco might have had the best time of us all.

hotcocoa&views

I never regret “forcing” Coco to hike, even if it’s a bit of a slog and she’s tired at the end. For one thing, having myself been a reluctant child hiker, I know hiking is something that grows on you. For another, I want my children to have nature in their lives as much as possible. Finally, I want to inspire in them the belief that, no matter the steepness of the mountain, they can make it to the top.

Along the way I try to point out wonderful things, like the deer tiptoeing down to the creek for a sip of water. We talk about the age of the trees and all that they have seen or will see. We sing silly songs and tell stories. I make sure to tell her about the other hard hikes she’s accomplished, and remind her of the amazing things she’s seen. I acknowledge that this is a hard hike, and admit my own tired legs or breathlessness, and then we look far off into the ocean to catch a glimpse of a whale spout or two. I always offer to carry her when her feet hurt. More and more, though, she’s walking the entire way herself.

Since our Steep Ravine hike, I’ve been trying to take this same attitude toward my own resistance.

So when I next went into yoga class, I said hello to my fear of arm poses. I acknowledged that my teacher was trying to inspire me to try something new. And when it came time to try crow pose, I found I could hear instructions more clearly. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Bakasana is not just an arm pose, it’s also an abdominal pose.  If I pull up on my lower stomach, it takes some the weight away from my arms.
  2. If I look forward instead of down, I won’t topple over on my face.
  3. If I wrap my shoulders like I’m in turbo dog, then I’ll have a stronger, steadier base.

I’ve now made it into crow pose for a few seconds at a time. Maybe only one second. Next time, I know I’ll still be a little afraid, but perhaps a little less resistant.

Every time, less and less so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Trigonometry of Life

The other morning began normally, meaning that I was doing the relatively simple geometry problem of:

 

  1. Calculating just how long I could let my daughter sleep (line AB),
  2. while also leaving enough time to feed her a good breakfast (line BC),
  3. before rushing off to get her to school on time (line AC),
  4. so that she can have a good day at school (equilateral triangle ABC).

 

 

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After a combined total of seven years of elementary school mornings, I’ve gotten pretty good at this kind of equation. We even made it to school early!

Then I went back home. That’s when things got hard.

Coming home to a day of home-schooling with my son is a bit like coming home to a Labrador puppy who hasn’t been walked in several hours. As soon as we walk into the kitchen, he says, “What are we going to do today?”

The calculations of a home-school day are never easy. Even if I have a plan in place (line AB), he is certain to come up with his own very pressing agenda (line BC). This might involve testing out his recently constructed gold-panning sluice in the backyard, building a trebuchet, or making a map of the world.

While these activities may start at point B, I can never predict exactly how far they will extend into our day. Therefore point C is unknown, which of course makes it almost impossible to determine when we’ll get back to my plan (hypotenuse of line AC). Just how long this hypotenuse will be depends partly on the angle of my patience on that particular morning, whether it be acute, obtuse, or just right, so to speak.

tazwelltriangle

 

This week we’ve been studying explorers. I had readings for him to do, and writing, and of course some math. But he said, “I’d like to build my own sextant and figure out how it works.”

Master&Commander
Master & Commander, “Sextant Lesson”

 

Huh.

It is at just these times that I feel profoundly under-qualified for my job. It is also at just these times that I feel exceptionally grateful for the internet.

I quickly found this very handy bit of curriculum, and we set to work on the sextant, which in this lesson is technically a quadrant, Tazwell pointed out.

Horary-quadrant
Whether Acceffible or InAcceffible, it makes no difference.

A ruler, a protractor, a washer, a string, some tape… and we had our quadrant. Easy-peasy.

No, not easy-peasy, because then Tazwell wanted to to learn how to use his quadrant to figure out the height of a mountain. “One that you can’t climb,” he clarified.

Now, folks, I have not studied trigonometry for 30 years. Even back when I was in trigonometry, I wasn’t a great student. So I felt very ill-prepared to figure out the height of an mountain, be it “acceffible” or “inacceffible.”

Still, I pulled out the math books. Because the truth is, I’ve been wondering a lot lately about how to take the height of an inaccessible mountain, though my mountains are of the more figurative sort. They include:

  1. Finishing my novel
  2. Starting a new career
  3. Homeschooling
  4. Living on one salary in the Bay Area

Well, again thanks to the internet, I found this helpful formula, and using this wonderful home resource, we proceeded to walk through the calculations, using measurements my son had taken with his quadrant:

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Determining the height of an inaccessible mountain.

 

The only problem was that he didn’t really care about plugging numbers into the formula. He cared about the steps behind the formula. In other words, he cared about the process.

So he re-wrote it:

tazwell's notes
Don’t worry if you can’t understand it. He does. He’ll explain it to you.

Now, what motivated him to determine the height of an inaccessible mountain is beyond me. Perhaps it was that we’d recently been in Yosemite to see the snow. Perhaps it was just that he likes to know things.

YosemiteSnow.jpg

Anyhow, we spent three hours on this project. Three hours. And it was great, because my son simply LIT UP when he understood the process. This is part of the beauty of homeschooling.  And perhaps as a result of traveling that three hours with my son simply in the pursuit of knowledge, I suddenly felt as if my own inaccessible mountains might not be so terribly insurmountable.

So I wrote down my process for dealing with inaccessible mountains. See what you think:

MyNotes

I tried it out. I thought back to when I first started this Year of Yoga project, about four months ago. I know how I felt: Totally terrified. This was going to be yet another of those great ideas that never went anywhere, one of those projects that I started and never finished.

Well, just the other day I got a report from WordPress on my stats for 2015. I’d written 15 posts in four months! Not so bad. And already I’m a third of the way home!

This whole thing is starting to feel way more acceffible.

 

 

 

 

The Promise of Boredom

The other day a friend said to me, “I get bored in yoga classes.”

At first I thought, “Really?” But then I decided to be honest with myself and admit that I sometimes get bored with the idea of yoga, too. Sometimes I get bored in class; mostly I get bored with the idea of going to class.

It isn’t just yoga. When I was a long distance runner, I used to get bored with the idea of my daily run. I get bored with my healthy breakfast, or by the idea of going to bed on time.

Often I’m even bored by the idea of sitting down to write. Now that’s really crazy because, for me, life is so much better on the days that I get to write. Even so, I will do the oddest things to avoid the boredom that arises when I sit down to write: read spam email, make a schedule for when I’m going to write in the future (ha!), and yes, poke around on Facebook.

My kids complain every day about homework and music practice being boring. My daughter is truly creative when it comes to protesting against boredom, and will spend more time designing elaborate “boredom tortures” for “the guy who invented homework,” than she eventually will on the actual homework itself.

Homework

Granted, sometimes her homework is really, really boring. Lots of things are really, really boring. Folding clothes, for example. Entering data into spreadsheets. Showering. Picking up legos. Driving across Iowa.

When I was a kid and complained of boredom, my dad would make me pick bugs off the potato plants, or clean out the car, or do a “litter hunt” around our yard. My mom would say, “If you’re bored it means you’re a boring person.” (Ouch.) In both of their responses there was an inherent disdain for boredom, as well as the message that you must at all time be active in order to be a good person.

After all, idle hands are the devil’s playthings.

But is boredom really so bad as all that?

Yes, of course. If you’re talking about the kind of boredom over which there is no control, such as for prisoners, or for workers who perform repetitive tasks for long shifts, like factory workers or air traffic controllers or miners. In these cases, there is no place for boredom to take you; you’re just stuck in boredom and it can be deadly, not just because it results in loss of attention and accidents, but because it steals away humanity.

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But I’m not talking about that kind of enforced, prolonged, inhumane boredom. No. Because if I were dealing with that kind of boredom, I wouldn’t be writing a silly blog about yoga, would I?

But I am writing a silly blog about yoga, and so the kind of boredom I’m talking about, I would argue, is not the stuff of devilment.

So why such a fear of boredom? Why is boredom so equated with danger?

Well, put kids on a playground with organized activities, with structures and rules, and very few kids will get hurt. But give those kids an empty parking lot and maybe a stick… and expect bruises or scrapes or even stitches and arm casts, because anything can happen when a kid is bored. Every parent can tell you as much. Yes, sometimes they put the littlest one in an empty barrel and roll her down the hill. But sometimes they build a fort, or paint a picture, or write a story.  Sometimes they get out their instruments and form a band.

The truth is, boredom is incredibly fertile ground for creativity and (gasp!) change.

How often, during the most mindless of activities, does that creative inspiration strike, like a tiny lightening bolt to the gray matter? Maybe it jolts loose the solution to a scene in a novel, or sparks an idea about how to approach some parenting challenge. My husband once had the entire melody to a new song come to him while raking pine needles in my mom’s yard. I can’t tell you how many times a perfect line of dialogue has popped into my mind when I’m brushing my teeth.

Why does inspiration so often strike during boredom? Perhaps it is because, when we are bored, we actually begin to think in a different way. So often these days our minds are actively engaged or entertained or otherwise problem-solving, working too hard and fast to take time for reflection or wonder. But when our minds are released from a structured activity or from a frenetic pace, and put into a “boring” place, perhaps folding underwear, or waiting for the commuter train with a dead cell phone, our thoughts take flight from boredom before us; they wander and reflect, discover, make connections, and create.

I suppose the difference between “bad” boredom and “good” boredom is whether we can move away from it, and if so, how we choose to escape it.

If we run from boredom to another entertainment, then boredom has done nothing for us. It has taken us no where and improved us in no way. If I avoid going to yoga because I want to avoid the boredom of yet another Downward Dog, and instead watch a movie or search the web, I’ve not benefited from boredom. This is just inertia in disguise.

But if I go to the same old yoga class with the same old instructor in the same old studio, and do the same old sun salutations for the boring 4,085th time, what might I discover? What new insight might I have? Perhaps I will recognize that the way my bunions cause me to carry my weight on the outside of my feet in turn leaves my inner knees weak and prone to injury. Or perhaps, suffering yet again through an extended Warrior II, I might come up with my next exciting blog post. Both have happened – and are way more likely to happen again – when I’ve accepted boredom for what it is, a necessary evil on the path to something good.

 

 

The Yoga of Writing, Part 1

Lately I keep hearing how yoga is practiced more off the mat than on, that the “real yoga” takes place in our daily lives. This has got me wondering how and where I might bring yoga into my daily life (there are so many places  – parenting, relationships, work – that would benefit!). But the area where I most need yoga, where I most want yoga, is in my writing.

So I’ve started to compile a few lessons learned “on the mat” to see whether they might also apply “to the page.” Here are the first three:

Big Rocks First.

My husband told me about Dr. Stephen Covey’s “Big Rocks” story, which illustrates the importance of putting the most important things, the big rocks, into your day, week, and life first. If you start off with the little things, the sand and gravel (a.k.a. Facebook and email), there won’t be space for the big rocks (writing and yoga, in my case).

Big Rocks
Big Rocks.

When I plan in advance which yoga classes I’m going to attend each week, I’m much more likely to go. Here’s why planning ahead for yoga works:

1. I’m able to coordinate with my husband on childcare and/or dinner-making.

2. I wear my yoga clothes and take my mat when I drop the kids at school. Or I pack my clothes and mat so I can head there after a meeting. In other words, with a plan, I’m able to get myself ready each morning, not just everyone else.

3. I say no to any invitations that might interfere with the class. Little things will pop up, but with yoga already on the calendar, those things have to find another space, or wait for another time.

The same is also true of my writing: when I set aside chunks of time to write, I actually write!

The funny thing is that I don’t set aside those chunks of time to write as often as I should (every week! every day!). This is probably because a class is a class; you have to go right then or you miss it. When I used to walk for exercise, and my husband took yoga classes, he exercised more than I did. We quarreled about this pretty often, actually. I argued that he didn’t make time for my exercise, and he argued that I was the one not making time. We were both right, but the fault lay mostly with the fact that my walk wasn’t scheduled at a set time. Which led to this type thinking: If I don’t go now, I can always go later. And that’s a dangerous mentality, especially when you’re trying to fit in the big rocks.

So how to calendar writing time when there is no class? Partly, I suppose, it’s simply a matter of sitting in the chair, turning on Freedom (the best app ever invented, btw), and getting down to work. If you have any other suggestions, please let me (and thousands of other writers) know. A.S.A.P. On Facebook, preferably. (heh).

A regular practice yields better results. 

I started this Year of Yoga project with the commitment to attend three classes a week. Most weeks I’ve met that goal. In the few weeks that I haven’t, I’ve noticed a huge difference both in how I feel (less strong, less focused, less balanced) and also in my level of motivation to keep going. More classes keeps up the momentum, plain and simple.

Lately I’ve also noticed myself making notes about what I’d like to be able to do in yoga, and what I don’t understand about my own practice. For example, I’d like to strengthen the muscles around my knees. I’d like to open up in my chest and shoulder area. I’d like to build more upper body strength.

These kind of observations are only possible with a regular practice. If I went only once a week or every couple weeks, my experience would all be about feeling weak and inflexible and out of sorts. I couldn’t recognize what I wanted to improve, because every week would be starting from the same place: Feeling like an imposter on the mat.

Writing also demands a regular practice. If I work on my novel five times a week, it zooms right along. I know where I am, what I need to fix, where I need to add a scene. But if I only write once a week, I get stuck in a rut, always back working on the same scene or chapter, always a tiny bit lost, always feeling flabby and ill-at-ease with my writing process.

If I gave myself as a writer the same level of commitment that I’ve given to myself as a yogi these past three months, not only would I write more, but my writing would be better. I’d also feel less like a giant faker when I tell people that I’m a writer.

So why don’t I write more consistently?

The more you look around, the less focus you will have.

The other day in class the yoga instructor said, “I see a lot of you looking around. Stop it! The most important thing happening right now is what is happening with your body, on your mat.”

How easy it is to look around to see what others are doing. But when that happens it’s so hard to keep focused on what I’m doing. My mind just goes freewheeling off… into curiosity, judgment, self-criticism… no place good, honestly. I’ll see someone who can do an advanced pose that I can’t, or who looks better in her yoga pants, or whatever, and suddenly all focus on my own experience is gone. Try looking around while in a balance pose… you’ll topple right over!

The thing is, there’s really no point to being in class if I’m only going to focus on other people. I can do that out on the street, in the grocery store, on Facebook (sorry Facebook, I know I’m calling you out a lot, but you kind of deserve it).

So more and more I’ve started to close my eyes while in class, or lower my gaze. This has helped me stay in the here and now with my breath, to bring focus to small adjustments I need to make to keep my body safe, and to build toward a fuller practice for myself.

As easy as it is to freewheel off when looking around in yoga, it’s even easier to do so with writing. If I’m not focused on my writing, I’ll compare myself to anyone, published or not, seventy-five or five, respected or not, and still manage to feel less-than. For example, it’s wonderful to see (on Facebook, of course) when one of my fellow M.F.A. graduates has a reading scheduled, or perhaps a new book coming out. At the same time, honestly, it can also be demoralizing and depressing, because I don’t have a reading scheduled, or an imminent book release. Sometimes, when I haven’t turned on Freedom, I just randomly abuse myself by looking at articles about other writers, like “Ten Under Thirty,” and compare all that I haven’t done in my many years to all that they have done in their few. And I’ll tell you what… That’s a great way to topple my writing right over!

My challenge, then, is to close my eyes while writing. Or at least lower my gaze to my own page…  after I’ve scheduled regular time for my writing.

Facebook, you just gotta wait your turn!

 

 

 

 

 

Do No Harm

I have been writing my novel for years. Seven years, to be honest. On and off.

I’ve also been raising young kids (with all that that entails… volunteering, scheduling, sick days, vacation, summer, parent conferences, etc., etc.,), and holding down the homefront from 6am to 8pm while my husband commutes four hours a day (!) and/or juggles two jobs. I, too, have worked (out of the home, yes, actually) – sometimes part-time, sometimes way more than full-time.

In an exceptionally good week, I find 20 hours to write. In a normal week, it’s probably more like six. For over a year, while I worked full-time, I didn’t write at all. Or even read much. Unless you count work emails.

Here are three things I’ve learned about writing – or not writing – these past seven years:

  1. Writing without a regular schedule is tough. Every extended break means you have to rewind. It’s like trying to watch a movie while you’re falling asleep. Your spouse keeps waking you up, but nothing in the movie makes sense. Not even when you rewind.
  2. Speaking of sleep… If you don’t get enough, you will write crap. You might as well just write down your weird dreams for all the sense it will make. Plus, falling asleep over your own words is demoralizing. If you can’t stay awake for your own story, who else will?
  3. If you’ve got money worries, it’s almost impossible to write. (Tip: Do NOT move to the Bay Area if you want to be a writer). Maybe a single person with no offspring can write even when they’re worried about money, or maybe someone farther away from retirement, but not me. I need to feel like everyone in this reality is going to be financially okay before I can start contemplating a fictional reality (oddly enough my characters have no money either).

Anyhow, after a year of so much work and no writing, I thought I’d lost my novel. I really didn’t know how or where to start again. It just seemed completely overwhelming. Sort of like getting halfway up Everest but an avalanche wipes out the trail, kills several of your hiking buddies, and breaks both your legs… and now it’s a year later and you have to start at the bottom all over again.

I could have stood at the bottom of that mountain and thought of all the many ways I’d failed, of how I’d never be able to get back to where I’d been before, much less go further. I could have criticized myself to no end.

Instead, I chose another mountain to climb. Well, hill, really.

I picked up a paintbrush and tackled my fireplace. It had been an ugly mess for years, and I just wanted some color. For a few weeks I’d pick up the brush and paint when I had a few minutes, and fill in another color. It was like putting all the pieces back together again. (It makes me happy every time I see it).

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Color!

Then, while I had paintbrush in hand, I somehow found the gumption to do this blogging project.

Guess what happened next? After a few weeks of blog posts, I got excited about my novel again!

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic, she writes “Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action, and – most of all – trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.” So very true.

The past month or so my struggle has not been starting up the mountain again, but finding time to do both my novel and this blog. A much better struggle, by far, than standing there at the bottom of the mountain feeling defeated and demoralized and beating myself up.

And you know what? Lots of other fun and creative projects have been coming my way, too! Here are a just a few:

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Tazwell as Edmund and Coco as Regan.

I got to help my kids prepare for their roles in King Lear, put on by SF Shakes this past weekend. Wow! What a remarkable experience to see those two just rock it! Such poise and so grounded, both of them. They are amazing people and I am lucky to know them.

I’ve also been helping to promote the upcoming yoga teacher training, put on by the Yoga Well Institute, that will take place here in Berkeley in February. Last week I spent a few hours reviewing and logging video footage of Chase talking about his own training and all that the teacher training will entail. Not only was it a really fun job to do, but I came away thinking, “We are lucky to have people like Chase around in this world.”

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Fantastic logo for Matt’s campaign done by the talented artist, Miriam Klein Stahl: http://www.miriamkleinstahl.com/

Finally, I’ve had the incredible experience of collaborating with Matt, my wonderfully talented husband, to launch his Indiegogo campaign for his new album. His lyrics are poetic, philosophical, and courageous. I’m so excited that he’s finally going to record his new songs and share them with everyone!  Check it out!

All the while, I’ve been working my way steadily up the mountainside of my novel. I’ve been able to write some scenes that before seemed just impossible to even approach, and I’ve also figured out some crucial plot points.

I’m not saying writing has all of a sudden become easy. There still isn’t enough time or money to write as much as I’d like. I still struggle to get good sleep.

And terrible, terrible things happen in the world that just seem to halt all forward momentum of creativity.

Saturday morning, I was halfway through this post when I learned of the Paris attacks. I didn’t know how to keep writing. Then, in yoga class, Marisha (one of my favorite instructors), spoke of dedicating our practice to ahimsa, or nonviolence and compassion. And I realized that to allow the violence done in Paris to defeat creativity would be to throw another victim on the pile, and to give himsa, injury or harm, another victory.

Every time we pick up a paintbrush, sing a song, plant a garden, see a play, or even cook a good meal, we are bringing inspiration and beauty and love to the world. We are practicing ahimsa.

So today I am dedicating this post, and all the creativity that has come my way these past few months, to ahimsa, and to the people of Paris and Beirut. And I am going to keep hiking up my mountain.