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.

 

Say Yes to Self Care

So I have two little stories for you this week, which I think are related, but you can decide. The first is about a daydream, and the second is about an encounter with a homeless woman.

The daydream happened last Saturday, when my cousin came by my house with his truck to haul something of my mom’s from my garage to hers.

Okay, in truth, the “something” was two bikes, one a new adult trike, which is huge, and the other a mountain bike that had been given to my mom, and which she was hoping that I could help her sell. These bikes have been taking up the only open space in our garage for a few weeks now.

I’m always happy to see my cousin (not just because of his truck). He gave me a quick run-down of his busy life, then, pointing to my kids, he said, “But what am I saying? My life is no where near as crazy as yours.”

In a fit of silliness – or, sure, okay, cynicism – I said, “Oh no, our life is simple now that we have kids. They cook our meals, clean the house, garden, care for the animals, plan vacations for us, and find the coolest camps for us to take…”

The funny thing is, in that moment of fantasy, cynical though it was, I had the most lovely feeling come over me. A calm, or happiness, or was it maybe even bliss?

“Can you imagine?” I asked my husband later. “Wouldn’t it feel great to have someone say to you, ‘I’ve done all your laundry, made your favorite dinner, driven you to your ceramics class, and while I was waiting for your lesson to end, I signed you up for a writing retreat with your favorite author. Now I’m going to read aloud to you so you can fall asleep.'”

Heh.

Perhaps the reason this little fantasy struck such a cord with me is because I took on an extra-large helping of “child scheduling” this year, what with homeschooling my son. As his main teacher, I’ve not only got the usual after-school and summer activities that all parents must plan, but also year-round curriculum and field-trip planning.

 

So every week I evaluate all kinds of possibilities, not just for curriculum, but for classes:

  • sailing on a big ship in the SF bay
  • the physics of sound and motion
  • spinning yarn from fiber
  • game of international trade and relationships
  • belly dancing
  • KQED television and radio tour
  • the science behind upcoming biotech companies

These are just a few of the many exciting options available to kids in the Bay Area. I’m not kidding.

This is way different from when – and where – I grew up. In our little town, the options were football, dance, or 4-H. There was no soccer or lacrosse or yoga. No oil painting or origami. No coding dojos or cooking classes (unless you count home ec).

My child does not do all these classes. We would be broke and unimaginably harried if we tried to take advantage of all, or even most, of the educational opportunities out there.

Even without all these extracurriculars, I still feel unimaginably harried most days. I think this is because, like most moms out there, I tend to do a lot of things to take care of other people, but don’t often do much for myself.

The thing is, I like taking care of my family and friends. I want them to feel that I care for them, and that they have help if they need it. I like watching my kids swim or fence, and I like listening to my husband’s music. I feel good when I can help my mom with her bikes.

All this, though, doesn’t leave a lot of time to care for myself. Hence my little daydream.

The best thing about that little daydream, though?

It made me realize how grateful I am for this Year of Yoga. Because of the commitment I made to myself when I took on this project, I’ve practiced yoga and written every week for the last seven months. Sometimes I’ve only made it to one class, or haven’t finished a post quite in time, but mostly I’ve kept my commitment.

My husband says that I’ve changed since I started to do regular yoga, that I’m more calm, more steady. I handle problems or setbacks with more ease and grace. This is good to hear.

I can feel that it’s true. I know for certain I wouldn’t be able to homeschool very well if I weren’t also doing this Year of Yoga project. Maybe it’s the regular exercise, or sitting down to write (which always feels like a treat). Maybe it’s just grabbing an hour away for the class. Maybe it’s that yoga really is as good for you as they say.

These past few weeks one child got sick, then I got sick, and so there wasn’t a lot of time or energy for yoga or writing. I missed a post and didn’t get in a single class. I could feel my calm slipping away. I wasn’t taking very good care of anyone around me, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was taking care of myself. And yes, it was about then that I had my silly, cynical little daydream.

Now comes the second story.

Yesterday, just as I got out of my car to pick up my son, a woman rode by on her bike, trailing a big dog on a leash. She hopped off her bike and started to go through a recycling bin. When she saw me, she said, “Do you have any water?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, because I didn’t. Not even a half-empty water bottle in the car.

Her voice became aggressive. “It’s for the dog.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I don’t have any water.”

I went on up the sidewalk to pick up my son, and she yelled after me some things I won’t repeat. Then she yelled at a man in a wheelchair who was trying to get past her bike and dog on the sidewalk. Finally, frustrated with the recycling bin, she got back on her bike and rode on, muttering.

The thing is, in that moment, I got her. I recognized her frustration and anger, her aggressiveness, even her paranoia. I thought, “There is a woman who is trying to care for someone else (her dog), but she can’t, because no one is caring for her. Not even her.” That is what extreme lack of care looks like.

So this week I’ve re-committed to my Year of Yoga. Once again, I’m saying yes to self care. Because there are a lot of people (and animals) who need care, and I can’t help them very well unless I help myself.

I have a feeling everyone will be happier.

 

 

 

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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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.”

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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.

 

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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).

newfireplace
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:

Coco&Taz1
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.”

LogoYellow
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.

Good Teacher

Worst. Yoga. Class. Ever.

Here’s the scoop: In the spirit of this project, I tried out a class with a new teacher. From the start, it didn’t go well. She greeted me, pretending to remember me; I knew we’d never met. Already I felt off balance. From there, things got worse. The class was advertised as an advanced class, Level 2-3. That’s what I wanted. That’s why I went. I was feeling strong and energetic and ready for a solid challenge. Oh, the instructor showed us advanced poses, to be sure. What she failed to notice, however, was that not one of her students could do those poses. In fact, she spent so much of the class demonstrating her own ability to do these challenging poses that none of the rest of us actually got much yoga done. All the while she was showing off (there really is no nicer way to put it), she counseled us to let go of the idea of “levels” in our yoga practice, as if it were some silly mental block that prevented us all from following her into these advanced poses. Standing there on my mat, I couldn’t help feeling “less-than.” I left the class feeling really angry.

I realize what made me so angry was how unsafe I felt in that room. She hadn’t bothered to ask if anyone was new to yoga, or if anyone had injuries, so she didn’t begin the class with caring. In fact, she didn’t demonstrate any caring at all. She did not warm us up. She moved so quickly through poses that we were always hurrying to catch up. I felt profoundly ungrounded. If she gave a demonstration of how to get into a pose, it was perfunctory. Usually she’d move right into the advanced version of the pose herself, showing us how amazing she was. She did not bother to modify the class to the level of the students, or to offer any individual modified options. The entire time I was certain I would injure myself.

At the end of class, she put us into savasana, and then, a minute later, she jerked us out again to show us one more pose none of us could do. Only a few people tried it; the rest of us had long since given up.

I know, right?

So why start a post titled “Good Teacher” with an example of such poor teaching? Well, it’s quite simple: Bad experiences force us to examine what it is we consider good.

Okay, then. What does make a good teacher? Right now, for me, that’s a particularly important question, not only because I want to learn from good teachers, but because I want to be a good teacher.

Here are three shared characteristics of good teachers:

Good teachers are actually just good guides. Good teaching is not a knowledge dump from teacher to student. If it were that simple, we’d all be amazing yogis, math geniuses, brilliant writers, prolific programmers, accomplished you-fill-in-the-blanks, and every school in this country would have perfect test scores. Nope, not that simple. A good teacher finds her student wherever he might be on the path (or way off the path, as the case may be). She does not tell him where he needs to be. Rather, she asks him where he wants to go. She does not take him there. Instead, through pointers, suggestions, stories, she helps him find his own way. Perhaps knowledge is shared, but more importantly, in the interaction between student and teacher, it is also created.

Good teachers are compassionate. A good teacher assumes her students are different, not only from her but also from each other, and so they will bring a wide range of needs and experiences to the classroom. The good yoga teacher understands that different bodies come with different strengths and limitations, that bodies break, and age, and betray us. A really good teacher, yoga or otherwise, is able to make her students feel good about themselves, no matter where they are in their learning, because her teaching starts with the student, not with herself.

Good teachers inspire a love of learning. Good teachers love their subject matter, plain and simple, and it shines through in their teaching. I once had a teacher tell me she only taught subjects that she’d never done well in herself (Latin and Algebra). That sounds beneficent and all, but it really wasn’t. She hated both subjects, it was plain to see, and her teaching suffered as a result (we all suffered). On the other hand, I once had a teacher of literature who so loved what he taught that his voice would get all high and quavery when he introduced a new novel, saying how he wished he could have the experience of reading this novel for the first time again. He’d cut class short and send us home to “Read, read!” Of course I always went right home to read; how could I not? But it’s more than a love for what they do; it’s a generosity about the subject matter, a way of sharing that makes you feel as if you’re on the most exciting of adventures.

The truth is, I think I’ve been spoiled with good teachers in my life, especially lately. I’d like to take a little space to thank a few of them right now:

The wonderful women of Innerstellar Yoga: Kristine “Kiki” Lovelace, Aviva Levine, Marisha Doan and Michelle Cordero. All truly outstanding teachers.

Lily Dwyer Begg, who first inspired me to reach beyond where I thought I could go.

David Moreno for bringing laughter to the class, always.

Pradeep Teotia, who says, “On the matt and off the matt, it’s the practice of life.”

Cynthia Allman, Marilyn Hiratzka, Patricia Pope, Denise Svenson, all women who have inspired a love of learning in my children.

Catherine Manning, the most generous fiddle teacher in the world. Jesus Salcedo, patient and precise swimming coach.

The brilliant women of my writers’ group, Tessa, Lisa, Claudia, Kira and Jenny. I couldn’t keep doing this without you!

My mom, who taught me to love reading by always having another great book to put in my hand.

My dad, who taught me how to be in the wilderness, where I love myself most.

My big sister, who always tried things first and then showed me the way!

Tazwell and Coco, because they flip the world upside down, always teaching me when I thought I was teaching them.

Matt Brandabur, for the daily life lessons he helps me learn.

And so many more… thank you all!

Freedom from Distraction

How, in this busy, busy world, can anyone fit in a 90 minute yoga class even once a week, not to mention three times? Or even a 60 minute lunch-time class? How can anyone who isn’t a dedicated yogi hope to maintain a serious practice?

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, because it’s totally obvious: What about a home practice?

Ah, the “home practice.”

I currently have three yoga journals on my desk that arguably represent a good part of the yoga spectrum. Each one has at least one article advocating a “home practice.”

First there is Mindful, with its “Rise Up, Tune In” article, “a simple but powerful yoga practice” in six easy steps.

Or Women’s Health Yoga Guide 2016, with “100 Poses from Beginner to Advanced,” which I suppose was written to be the definitive home practice guide, but in reality is just plain overwhelming.

Then there is the “21-Day Yoga Challenge; Three Weeks to a Healthy New Habit,” a special edition from the editors of Yoga Journal, also rather overwhelming. Don’t worry, though, because it also has the obligatory “Yoga in Fifteen Minutes” article, declaring that you can do your practice anywhere, anytime. At your desk. On an airplane. Waiting for the train. Sure. I see people doing their fifteen minutes all the time. In the grocery line. Waiting for their kid to finish swimming lessons. Don’t you?

Heh.

I also have here “The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice” by T.K.V. Desikachar, but that’s for a different post entirely. A much more serious post.

So why is the idea of home practice so overwhelming? Shouldn’t home practice be much easier to fit into our busy lives? Instead of the time consuming tasks of finding a class that will fit into your daily schedule, reserving the class, changing into a yoga outfit, getting to the studio, waiting for class to start, doing the class, getting home, showering/changing, why not just pull out the mat and get to work? So much easier than going to a class. Not to mention cheaper!

There are a few obvious obstacles to a home practice. Space, for one. Most of us (especially here in the cramped Bay Area) don’t have a dedicated yoga room, or even space in a room that we can close off. Sure, I can push aside the chairs in the living room, lay out my mat, and try to ignore the Lego pieces scattered all over the floor, the paperwork piled high on my desk, the laundry waiting to be folded. Can’t I?

Lack of solitude is another obstacle. When my kids were younger, I tried doing yoga in the morning. Inevitably they’d wake up extra early and do one of the following: (1) crawl underneath my Downward Dog and pretend I was a tent, (2) demand breakfast ASAP, or (3) have some pressing conversational need, like wanting to know why chickens do not pee. More often than not, when I tried to do yoga at home, I found myself feeling frustrated and put-upon (never a good way to start your day), rather than refreshed and centered.

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Why should freedom from distraction matter so much? Shouldn’t I, as part of my yoga practice, be able to block out the children’s requests, block out the bills and toys and laundry, block out the many looming demands of the day? I should, yes. Probably there are many yogis out there that can and do.

Sometimes, though, it just seems so much more simple to head out to the studio and leave all this behind for an hour or two.

There is yet another reason, beyond the brief escape from the distractions of domesticity, why I choose to go to the studio for my yoga, and it is this:

When I take a class, I don’t have to make any decisions.

In our daily routines we have so many decisions to make: domestic decisions regarding finances and vacation plans and children’s eduction; constant small and large decisions of the work day; gut-wrenching creative decisions; constant bombardment of decisions about what to buy or not, what to watch or not, even what email to read or trash. It’s exhausting.

When I’m in my yoga class, I only have to focus on my practice, nothing else. The teacher has come up with a theme, thought through the series, and put together a coherent class. The teacher says do the next pose, and I do the next pose. What a relief!

I really don’t think I’m alone in this. Why else would Berkeley have 26 yoga studios and counting? Yes, there are lots of yoga magazines out there, and even more DVDs and yoga coaches, all touting home practice. But sometimes we just want someone else to be in charge, to make things simple, and to remove some decisions from our cluttered table.

So, “100 Poses from Beginner to Advanced,” anyone?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

All that said, I am going to try again with a home practice. My kids, now a bit older, seem to understand that the yoga mat means yoga time, not “Mama is a jungle-gym” time. We have a little more space in our living room somehow. So those obstacles, at least, are gone. Also, what better way for the kids to learn yoga? Wish me luck!

I’ll still be sneaking off to the studio, though. See you there!