Finding Our Way

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Last week my daughter came home from school pretty upset. She’s a fairly unflappable kid, so I sat right down with her to get the scoop.

They’d run races in P.E., and she had come in last… every time.

“I hate not being fast,” she said.

Of course I felt terrible when I heard that, because I am not a fast runner and I did not marry a fast runner. She’s never going to be a fast runner, at least not if she relies only on what she’s gotten from her parents. How could I not feel at least somewhat responsible?

So I told her the story of how, in my junior year of high school, I joined the track team. All my friends were on track, and the only way to hang out with them was to join the team.

The coach immediately saw that I was no sprinter. He suggested I compete in the distance races, the mile and two-mile. You didn’t have to be so fast to run those.

My first mile, I told my daughter, I ran in 15:09. She said, “That’s fast!”

“Actually it was really slow,” I said. “Most people can a walk a mile faster than that. But I worked hard for the next two years, and when I raced my last mile, my time was 6:11.”

I told her that though I wasn’t naturally fast, I was good at a kind of stubborn endurance, and that had made a difference in every race.

Then I pointed out that she’d never actually done much running. “I’ll run with you if you want to work on getting faster.”

“No,” she said. “I just want to be fast.”

Obviously my great wisdom and life experience were not working in this situation, so I brought out Sir Ken Robinson’s fabulous book, The Element, and read her a part that had recently struck a cord with me:

“My brother Ian… was in a band in Liverpool that included an extremely talented keyboard player named Charles. After one of their gigs, I told Charles how well I thought he’d played that night. Then I said I’d love to be able to play keyboards that well. ‘No, you wouldn’t,’ he responded. Taken aback, I insisted that I really would. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You mean you like the idea of playing keyboards. If you’d love to play them, you’d be doing it.’ He said that to play as well as he did, he practiced every day for three or four hours in addition to performing. He’d been doing that since he was seven.

“Suddenly playing keyboards as well as Charles didn’t seem that as appealing. I asked him how he kept up that level of discipline. He said, ‘Because I love it.’ He couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

My daughter and I went on to discuss what Sir Ken Robinson says in the rest of the book, which is that we all have things we like to do, and we also have things we are good at, and it’s when those two things come together – what we like and what we are good at – that we find our true purpose. Sometimes we like something, like running fast, but we aren’t naturally “good” at it, so it takes effort.

I said to her, “You are good at math.”

She said, “But I don’t like it.”

I said, “Right. Because you don’t like it, math feels like work. But you are good at swimming. And you like it. So swim practice doesn’t feel like work, does it?”

After our conversation, I couldn’t helping thinking how everything seems possible when we are very young. Then, as life goes along, possibilities fall away, kind of like the booster rocket on a space shuttle, except over and over.

This is sad and unjust if opportunities are striped away not due to our own momentum through life, but instead due to barriers or discriminations – social, economic, historic.

If this is not the case, however, then it can feel good to travel light.

Take the running, for example. I was not born to be a runner: I have bunion-prone feet and tweaky knees, short legs and a large bust relative to my stature, none of which helped with running. But I did enjoy it. I liked it so much that I ran for sixteen years, and in several countries. My stubborn endurance carried me through the Chicago Marathon in 3:52. Then my feet, which had never liked the running as much as I did, finally had enough.

So I moved on to hiking. Hiking requires more endurance than speed, so it’s a way better fit. So is yoga. And my body feels so much healthier.

Now that I no longer have to worry about running marathons, or becoming a scientist, President of the United States, or CEO of a tech company, I have so much more energy and attention for my writing.

Of course there are some regrets. I would have liked, for example, to be a journalist. If I’m honest with myself, however, I have to admit I don’t like working all night for a deadline or being away from home very long. So even if I had been good at journalism, which I suspect I might have been, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that I do like working long hours all by my lonesome, which dovetails nicely with… novel writing!

It’s kind of a relief to look at life this way. Instead of being burdened with what we’re not particularly good at, or don’t really like, we can pay more attention to our passions.

Anyhow, the next day Coco told me she wasn’t as frustrated about the running. “Some days I’m more upset about it than others,” she confided. Then she went on to tell me that she’d been put into a reading group with other “book worm” girls.

“I’m a good reader,” she said. “And I like it.”

Some things fall away; others become clear.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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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Not Your Problem

If you have been reading my posts these past several months, you will already know that I have a problem with my neck.

But this is not your problem. Seriously. If I let it be your problem, my neck pain won’t go away. Ever. And it might even get worse.

Let me tell you how I know.

My neck problem started with a car crash when I was in high school (in case you haven’t heard), and got worse from there. I’m sure a lot of my problems started then, but let’s keep to the neck for now.

The accident was technically my fault, since my car was hit from the right by the speeding drug dealer (which meant he had the legal right-of-way). However, in addition to the fact that the driver was going twice the speed limit, the police must have also taken into account the driver’s well-known “occupation” and the fact that at least one person jumped from his car and ran into the woods (with the drugs) right after the collision, because the police ruled the accident “no-fault.” So, “technically,” it wasn’t my fault.

My mother knew this accident would, later in my life, lead to pain, lots of pain. (Watch Chaucer in this video if you want an illustration of how, at 16 years old, I found her words so totally incomprehensible). She took me straight to a chiropractor. “This will come back to haunt you,” he confirmed.

Of course they were right; over the years there has been lots of pain.

But why?

Is it that our bodies don’t heal, that childhood injuries stay with us into old age (okay, middle age so far), magnifying over the years? Well, sure.

But could it also be that we internalize what others tell us, and allow that to grow into our inevitably painful truth?

Let me put that to you another way: How can you not have pain when people tell you that you’re definitely going to have pain?  I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve had neck (and shoulder) pain for nearly thirty years now, and this past fall it got way, way worse.

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All day I carried an iron shawl of pain around my neck and shoulders. As I climbed into bed each night, I’d think, “Now the torture begins.” I’d spend the night turning from stomach to back, from side to side, like a giant hot dog on a spit, trying to avoid the pain. It didn’t matter; no matter how I slept my arm would fall asleep. Then I’d wake up with a numb arm and the certainty that all the muscles in my forearm were dead.

Yes, I was doing yoga. No, it didn’t help.

You might wonder if I was getting medical attention. I wasn’t. I had a good reason; I was waiting for my 2016 insurance plan to kick in.

When 2016 arrived, I immediately booked chiropractic, physical therapist, and doctor appointments. I even found a “Back Care” class at Adeline Yoga.

All the while, I was giving a blow-by-blow of my neck problem to anyone and everyone who would listen (even you, my long-suffering reader), in large part because I was trying to figure out what was wrong.

I told my dad about my neck problem. He asked for specifics on my arm going numb (he can find your medical issue in the Merck Manual in about 30 seconds), then told me to google “C4-C5 cervical compression” and make sure to ask my doctor for an MRI. That was not reassuring.

When I told my husband what my dad said about a possible cervical compression, Matt’s response was terse. Conversation-stopping terse, and that is putting it politely. So now it wasn’t just my neck that hurt, but also my feelings.

But let me back up.

Matt has listened to me complain about my pain and poor sleep for months, for years, actually. He is also privy to information that you don’t have, which is that my step-mother was, at that moment, two days out of her fifth spinal surgery. Yes, I said fifth. This time, there had been complications after the surgery and she was very sick. So this was forefront in our minds when we were contemplating my neck pain.

Later that night, when I told Matt he’d hurt my feelings, he admitted that he’d been scared I would end up in the same place as my step-mother, on a slippery slope of surgery and pain, pain and surgery. And he didn’t know what to do about it.

I said, “You don’t need to do anything,” and I finished explaining to him all the steps I was taking to address the pain: how I’d already been to one chiropractic appointment; how I had many more scheduled. “I really am taking care of this,” I told him.

Over the next few days my neck began to feel better.

Perhaps it was the great session with my P.T., who put me on my back, pushed her fingers up under my scapulae for half an hour, and worked her magic, all the while talking calmly to me about my kids. Perhaps it was having my neck finally adjusted by a competent chiropractor. Perhaps it was that I allowed myself to back off some in yoga.  Or perhaps it was the awareness I’ve brought to my posture and sleep position?

It could be all those things together. But I think the real reason the pain started to go away was that I took total responsibility for my own healing.

Whatever the reason, my neck doesn’t hurt. At all.

So don’t worry. I won’t write about it anymore. Because it’s not your problem. It’s mine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prison Dirt

When we first moved into our house the soil in our yard was packed hard as cement and utterly lifeless, with nary a grub or worm to be found. Every hole we dug required a pickax, buckets of sweat, and plenty of room for major amounts of amendment. My husband, to whom the job of hole-digging fell, termed the soil “prison dirt.”

The soil was made into this so-called “prison dirt” by years of “care” from “mow and blow” gardeners. You know the kind? They come armed with gas-powered mowers, trimmers, and blowers in order that they might, with the most noise and pollution, lop off every wayward green tendril, rip up the lilies and chop off the long-awaited camilla buds just before they bloom, trim the grass down to a lawn version of a “Brazilian,” denude the yard of every last little leaf, and make airborne as much lead dust as humanly possible, all in a short but terrible forty-five minutes.

The result? Prison dirt.

(To be clear, my husband has never actually seen prison dirt. He does, however, have a great talent for coining such evocative terms).

Why, you might ask, am I telling you about prison dirt?

Well, just the other day I was reminded of the term myself, while lying face-down on a physical therapist’s bench, when my most excellent P.T., Deena Levy, informed me that my upper back, shoulders, and neck were all locked solid, “liked hard-packed dirt,” she said.

Prison dirt.

Except this time, we’re talking about my back.

“What you want,” Deena said, “is something more akin to loam. Loose and easy to move.”

tencarpileup
The state of my upper back.

Okay, I know that going into this Year of Yoga project, my neck and shoulders were a total disaster, a ten-car pile-up of stress and poor sleep and pure rigid pain. That’s what you get when you take an injured neck, add months of a miserable job, and throw in tortured nights on a cheap, ten-year-old mattress.

Did I think yoga was going to solve all that? Why, yes I did.

Silly me.

For five months now I’ve been doing regular yoga, and my back has only been getting worse. In fact, over the last month, I’ve been in so much pain at night that I can’t sleep. So what gives?

Well, it turns out that remediating prison dirt is not one-step solution, and it’s not a quick fix.

 

mulch
Mulch delivery.

The first step we took in tackling the prison dirt in our yard was to bring in a truck-load of mulch. We got it for free, and it was a mountain of mulch. “Literally,” as my daughter likes to say. It displaced our Subaru from the driveway, and was way taller. I’d say it was more of an SUV size pile. The full-size SUV. But the more the better, right?

Meanwhile, we’d asked our landlord to fire the mow-and-blow guys. This meant the leaf litter began to build up. This was also good for the dirt.

About the same time, we got ourselves some chickens. What could be better for the soil than a little chicken poop and scratching?

And all this was good for the soil.

Unfortunately, in our passion to remediate our prison dirt, we’d neglected to consider the overall health of our property, and this had some expensive and unfortunate consequences.

You see, our property is lower than many of those around us. This means that any rain eventually ends up going through, or staying on, our property. However, having only been in the house for one very dry winter, we didn’t know about this issue. We also didn’t know that the sump-pumps were not functional (our landlord’s oversight, not ours).

But we had a few of our own oversights:

First, we didn’t build retaining walls to keep the mulch in place (or ask the landlord to do so).

Coop
Do not put your coop next to your house. Period.

Then, we located the chickens too close to the house. This resulted in all kinds of issues, but the one relevant to this discussion was the energetic scattering of the mulch by busy little chicken feet. Without retaining walls (and probably even with retaining walls) the chickens made quick work of clogging the drains.

As you’ve probably guessed, the rains came, the drains were useless, and the sump-pumps just sat there doing nothing. We had massive flooding under the house, resulting in a drowned heater and a mold/mildew problem.

No, we sometimes aren’t the smartest kids on the block.

Would I do it all again? Absolutely. For one thing, despite the flooding problems, I am certain that we protected our kids from lead dirt. If you think prison dirt is bad, take a look at what lead dirt can do to a kid’s brain. Short of removing the contaminated dirt (and dumping it on someone else), one of the best remedies for lead dirt is to mulch it heavily. Also, you don’t want your chickens living on lead dirt.  Lead will not only make your chickens sick, it will end up in the eggs, and then in you.

That said, I wish we’d considered building the retaining wall first.

So, back to my back.

According to Deena, it’s impossible to build strength and flexibility when you have so much constriction and compression. My spine was all locked up, my muscles were a mass of knots. By trying to build on this big mess, I was only making the problem worse.

In other words, doing all the yoga was like dumping a truck-load of mulch before I’d built any retaining walls.

I’m also not sorry to have been doing yoga. But I do need to put in some “retaining walls.”

First I’m going to the chiropractor, who is dealing with the structural issues of my spine.

Second, I’m seeing Deena so that she can loosen up the terrible knots in my shoulders. She also talked to me about the need for good pillows.

This morning, I went to my sister’s house to try out her various specialty pillows. It was confusing (which to choose?), but also incredibly delicious to experience good neck support.

This afternoon, I’ll spring for a new pillow. Click here if you’d like to donate to this good cause (kidding).

I’ve also been modifying my yoga poses, taking care to focus on mobility and flexibility in my shoulders and neck. When I’ve restored good structure and fluidity, the strength will come.

How do I know? Because I’ve done it before.

cocogardenOnce we got the retaining walls, our mulch stayed in place. Now the soil in our yard is now teeming with worms and supporting a lush and vibrant garden. There is a good foot of new (non-lead) soil under our chicken run. It’s so loamy you (almost) want to eat it. And my kids are lead-free.

Meanwhile, El Nino has hit, three storms so far this winter, but under our house is as dry as… well, prison dirt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Inspire1
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.

NewYear's2014
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.

imgres
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.

CocoBridge

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.

upthetrail

There were many “chocolate” breaks along the way:

breaktime
The steep part.
MattTazTrees
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…

View1

…where the possibilities seem limitless…

Ranger2

… and where the beauty of life feels absolute.

LastSunsetof2015

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).

 

 

gooddaytriangle

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:

InaccessibleMountain
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.

imgres

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.

 

 

“Find Your Spot”

This is the instruction teachers often begin with in a yoga class at Innerstellar, my very favorite yoga studio. By “find your spot” they mean search for that one place inside yourself that most needs attention. Maybe it’s physical, like a knot between the shoulders, a crick in the neck, or a tightness in the hips. Or maybe your spot is something to do with your emotional well-being, like a very small, particular sadness that seems to have no other home, or a frustration that only grows more annoying if you try to slap it away.

Once you’ve identified your spot, you are to direct your breath there all through class. The teacher will remind you to “breath into your spot” and “pay attention to your spot.” At the end of class, she’ll ask you to check in and compare how your spot feels now to how it felt at the start of class. Often all that breathing and attention makes a remarkable difference!

Usually I pick the same place every class: the left side of my neck. I’ve come to believe all bad things in my life must dwell there, sort of like centipedes and spiders and slugs dwell under rocks – you know, just hanging out, being generally icky and gross, all the while waiting to bite you. Just thinking about it is giving me the willies.

I love to choose my neck as my spot, because when I was sixteen I was in a car accident and broke the windshield with my head. My neck still blames me for not wearing a seat belt. I think it always will. I have often heard that necks are not very forgiving. Mine certainly is not. Though when I choose my neck as my spot, and breath into it, I swear it’s almost as satisfying as having strong, oiled, warm, wise hands rub and work away at the knots and pain. My neck (almost) forgets to complain.

Today, however, my neck was not my spot. Today my spot was my brain.

Lately my brain has been scattered all over the place, like the pile of leaves I raked together the other day, but which the chickens found before I could bag it up, and the pile was soon sent hither and yon again with swift and certain busy little scratchings. That is the true state of my brain – the raking together, the brief but ephemeral sense of togetherness, the sudden and violent dispersal.

Electro-Brain

It almost feels as if my brain is being electrocuted. You might think my problem is too much caffeine, or not enough sleep, but I’ve actually been doing okay on those two fronts. Could it be the windy weather or the upcoming holidays or too much computer time? Perhaps I’m trying to do too many things at once, like wishing that bald eagle had ripped Donald Trump’s hair right off, and following the climate talks in Paris this week, and wondering about whether the California Public Utilities Commission will do the right thing when it comes to solar “subsidies”?  Not to mention all the parenting worries and wonders and concerns. Don’t even get me started.

Maybe my brain is finally just starting to explode, bit by bit, here and there, like popcorn in hot oil. I hope not. Suffice it to say, today in class I really needed my brain to be my spot.

The thing is, when I chose my brain today, I wasn’t even sure whether I was allowed to have my brain as my spot. It wasn’t exactly physical, per se, in that it didn’t hurt, not the way my neck often does (unless you count the excruciating psychic pain of not being able to focus on anything but Facebook lately). And it wasn’t really a particular emotional pain, either. I really wanted to raise my hand and ask, “Can I choose my brain?”

Then Kiki mentioned that we might choose an area that needed more grounding, and I thought, “Well, that’s okay then, because my brain needs grounding more urgently than a breakaway dirigible.”

So I breathed into my brain. Well, first I wondered if I would be able breathe into my brain, but that only lasted for a split second, because then the breath just washed over my brain, the way a broken wave will sweep up over the sand in a clearing caress, in that beautiful liquid motion. The breath came up from my neck and washed forward into both hemispheres. I know it sounds crazy, but I could feel each separate hemisphere as the breath washed through it. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever felt my brain feel physical pleasure – pain, sure, but not pleasure.

For the next 90 minutes I breathed into my brain. Obviously. It was a tremendously good spot to choose. If you haven’t tried it lately, I highly recommend it!