Saturday, October 18, 2008

Time of Transition

Autumn in Maine is leaf peeper season. It means warm sweaters, hot apple cider and happy kids jumping into leaf piles. It evokes smells of crisp air, the sweet smell of the last marshmallows of the season, and the scent of fresh winter winds around corner. It’s a time to hunker down and prepare for the coming cold weather. But, it’s also a time to enjoy the most beautiful season in northern New England. There are no mosquitoes the size of small birds. There are still tourists about, but the congestion and traffic is far more manageable. “Locals” greet one another again, as if we can welcome our little town back after its busy summer. Pumpkins are available at every farm stand , along with homemade pies and hand knit mittens. It’s a time of bounty in coastal Maine. It’s the one time of year people “from away” see the coast photographed in movies and in print.

And yet, there are many people who see Autumn as the end of something magical, rather than the beginning. My father used to get a wistful expression on his face on the Fourth of July. If we asked him why he seemed blue, he’d reply “Summer’s almost over”. For those who don’t love Autumn the way I do, Autumn is not a time of joyful bonfires but a time of sadness. There people who find this to be a season of loss and decay. Instead of seeing the brilliant red and yellow leaves, they see their favorite shade tree is ‘dying’. Just as the Greek myth of Demeter went into grief, striking the world with six month of barrenness for Hades’ kidnapping of her daughter, Persephone, many feel sorrow at this dormant and introspective time of year.

In Yoga, most traditional Hatha and Ashtanga based classes end with Savasana: corpse pose. The first yoga class I took, I was a invited as a guest by my friend, Tammie. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, and was extremely self-conscious the whole time. When our teacher announced we would be ending the class with Corpse Pose, I was more than a little taken aback. We were supposed to lie on our backs and pretend to be dead ? I had images of an entire studio full of chalk outlines and crime scene photographers. I imagined a Film Noir detective kneeling by my body, speaking into a Dictaphone, saying “The victim took a yoga class to keep her friend company, and that was the end of her.” Little did I know how soothing Savasana can be.

It’s now ten years later, and I can’t imagine not having this valuable tool in my arsenal to fight stress and tension. At the end of each class, I invite my students to lie prone and, with verbal cues, to relax each muscle group. I have found that by initially tensing each muscle area and then relaxing it, I’m able to bring a fuller release to each area. By slowing the breath and moving into a quiet breathing pattern, by clearing your mind of random thoughts and by focusing on nothing but allowing yourself the grace of renewal, the body is able to gain in strength. It sounds funny, doesn’t it ? Relaxing, to gain strength ? Lying prone, like a sloth, creates energy ? Studies have shown that regular practice of Savasana can help improve your immune system, can improve insomnia, can increase your overall stamina and has more of a rejuvenating effect than sleep does.

So, in Autumn, it’s a wonderful excuse to practice this Yoga pose. Make sure you have a space in your home in which you can lie undisturbed, put on quiet music and just allow yourself to recharge, like a battery. You will feel renewed and your spirit will feel restored. Your mind and body will thank you. Instead of thinking of this as the pose of death, remind yourself that it is life giving. And, I promise: no CSI photographers will traipse through your living room.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Life's big questions

My oldest child is a high school junior. He’s preparing for his college applications and essays in school and at home. Being an athletic boy, school hasn’t been his most enthusiastic focus. Yet, as college draws closer, Josh has given a new sense of energy to his work. Josh’s English teacher is a good one. After three years of bad fits, we’re thrilled that Josh finally has a teacher who is engaging. Recently, the teacher sent home a fascinating list of writing assignments. These were the most commonly asked questions on college essays. Many of these topics struck me as “Pageant questions”: “What would you do to change the world?”, “What is your life philosophy?” and “Describe your most rewarding experience”, were the top three…all asked for in 400 words, or less. I rolled my eyes when Josh showed them to me. I pictured my 6’ tall rugged hockey player, with a sash on, answering “World peace !” and beaming a million dollar smile to a panel of judges.

Unfortunately, I think that pageants have really given questions like these a bad rap. Honestly, they are each valid, potentially insightful, and deeply meaningful. While pageants have their place in the ‘sound bite’ culture of pretty faces and little substance, I believe these three questions have a greater meaning than getting high marks while wearing heels. These topics for discussion can be informative and illuminating to the reader and life affirming for the writer. So, why are we dumbing them down to pat catch phrases like “World Peace” ?

In fairness to teenagers, we aren’t honestly instilling intellectual thought in our culture. I can’t say I was much different, a generation ago. I am, what I like to call, “an intellectual late bloomer”. That’s a polite euphemism for “dumb chick”. My husband used to joke that my picture was next to “gullible” in the dictionary. I went and looked it up. The teenage brain, for a select few, is fired up and ready to go. My daughter, currently a prep school freshman, is very much this way. She was born ready to answer the deep and thought provoking questions regarding the meaning of life. It’s taken me a long time to get there. Both the tortoise and the hare were having cocktails by the time I arrived.

The teenage brain, for the majority of kids, is simply not firing on all cylinders, literally. The cerebral cortex, the last part of the brain to develop deeply, doesn’t fully function during the teenage years. That combined with a culture that revolves around reality TV and fast paced music videos, makes struggling with life’s greatest questions a challenge.

So, what do we do ? I believe we need to take time to really listen to our teens and to give them opportunities to build up life experiences. I believe they have a valuable contribution to make. It’s not always easy to get them to talk. Most teens, especially boys, will shrug and give a mumbled “dunno….” to these big questions. They'll give the same answer to "What would you like for dinner?" as they would to "What is the meaning of life?" Frankly, they’re not far off with their uncertainty. It’s HARD to know what one’s life philosophy is if you haven’t had time to develop it. It’s almost impossible to think about how you would change the world if your world consists of your friends’ houses, your school and your home. As for rewarding experiences, many of our teens don’t really understand the concept of rewards beyond what rewards THEM….such as the invention of downloadable music and microwavable Bagel Bites. We need to involve our teens in the world around them. They need to have responsibilities, travel opportunities and chances to create “esteemable acts” in order to develop their true life answers. It doesn’t mean we have to travel far. I will guarantee that most communities offer choices for volunteering, for stewardship and for personal development. I truly believe that my son has gained more by volunteering to teach little ones to skate, than from all the hockey games he’s played in over the years. He’s given them a skill. They’ve given him a sense of accomplishment.

Well, after all of this, what *is* my most rewarding experience ? My most rewarding experience has been watching my children prepare to answer these questions, as life bring them their way, and the growth and development they have both gained in the life experiences our extended family has been able to provide. Listening to their answers, on their terms, and in their own ways, has brought me a sense of accomplishment I can only beam with pride over. They have given me cause to shake my head in disbelief, at times, but they have also shown me that young people do have their own answers to the meaning of life. They just need to be shown the questions. And, given an occasional push. With love.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Hero Lesson

Last night, one of my favorite 80’s movies, “The Untouchables”, was on TV. I’m a sucker for a good historical movie, but a crime drama including Sean Connery ? It doesn’t get better than that. The chemistry between the characters played by Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia, and even the villain played, brilliantly by Robert DeNiro, makes for an unforgettable film. The “good triumphs over evil” message never gets old. And the fact that the movie is based upon real events, in Chicago’s history, simply create a rich atmosphere that makes the viewer feel as if she’s truly there.

While good vs. evil is a prevalent theme in both literature and movies, and is the most basic of all story telling vehicles, the truly fascinating element in “The Untouchables” isn’t Elliot Ness’ triumph over Al Capone. Rather, it’s the mentor relationship between Sean Connery’s Officer Jim Malone and the younger, uncertain Elliot Ness. The dynamics of the mentor-student relationship is exceptional. Obviously, this is not the first, or only, literary medium to use this thematic process. But, set in Chicago’s gangland heydays, it simply adds a new dimension to the way in which the story is told.

So, what is it about the mentor-student tale that is so compelling ? I believe part of it is the mentor’s willingness to allow the student to uncover truths for himself. For many of us, teachers told us what to learn, what to write and what to say. Teachers have told us the right answer, and the better ones will show you how to find it. But the mentor in the mentor-student formulaic tale, doesn’t do this. He sets the student on the path, he guides, he shows the possible directions, he tests, he argues, but he doesn’t, under any circumstance, give the student the final answer. That is for the student to uncover for himself. How much more meaningful is it to reveal truths to yourself ? It is night and day from the typical ‘sit in lecture and take notes’ philosophy that most of us have experienced. This process allows the student to grow, to develop her own style and reveal her own methodology. It also brings forth self-esteem, as the student grows in confidence of her own abilities.

In Yoga, I try to include Hero Pose in most of my classes. This simple asana requires you to sit on your heels, with feet flat on the floor, with the spine reaching upward and your heart center open. Every instructor has her own style for bringing her students into a place of reverence before Hero Pose. This is not to include a religious aspect, in my own class, but rather a sense of mindfulness and appreciation. I ask my students to think about someone who has made a difference in their own lives. This may include a teacher, a friend, a parent, an older relative, or even a fictional character. It may have even been a person whom the student didn’t like very much. If that individual had lessons to impart, he was a teacher. The focus here is on cultivating gratitude and understanding the meaning of what we needed to learn. But, with the gift of this acquired knowledge also comes responsibility. If we have been taught a lesson that has been both meaningful and valuable to us, it is our duty to pass that lesson onward. So, in the second part of this asana in class, I remind my students that we are all called to be heroes to others. Some of us are called to be heroes in big ways. Others are called to be heroes on small and humble paths. But, each one of us has something extraordinary we have learned, and has something remarkable to teach.

Here endeth the lesson.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dreams vs. Reality

I had an absolute bone chilling, terrifying dream not long ago. The raw emotions I felt were so real that, when I awakened, I quite literally pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t still in my nightmare. Because, like the worst possible scenario, this dream hovered just close enough to reality that I couldn’t quite grasp if I was standing in this very world…in my own room in Maine…or in some other, similar, but ‘not my own room in Maine'. The scariest aspect of this experience was how close to my real life the dream began---a dull normal morning, before all sorts of dreadful possibilities ran amuck during a seemingly average day. Like Job, I felt tested beyond my measure. But, unlike Job, my faith was not only shaken, it was shattered.

When I’ve had a bad dream before, I have shaken it off, and simply fallen back to sleep. At the very worst, I’ve gotten up, made sure Jeff, the kids and the animals were all breathing healthfully, made certain the doors were locked, had a cup of Chamomile tea and returned to bed. For the first in my life, I had absolutely no interest in curling up and sleeping.

After I poked my husband a dozen times, finally poking harder and loudly saying “Oh ! Are you awake too?” and I described each aspect of my terror, Jeff reassured me (as I’m sure most husbands would do at 2 am) that all of these events I’d witnessed in my dreaming state simply couldn’t happen. Certainly not all at once.

Of course, I did fall back to sleep…not that night, but the next. And, my lurid terror did not return. For that, I’m grateful. I did, of course, put up a dream catcher, pull out my favorite pink blanket and thought seriously about smudging the room.

However, the experience did get me thinking about frightening experiences and reality. Most of the time, when we dream, our subconscious enters a world we know, on almost every level, can’t exist. But, we enjoy it. We exalt in it. It’s delightful to be able to visit worlds in which we can fly, we can breathe underwater, we can visit that ‘someplace over the rainbow’…knowing all the while that it’s simply a visit. Even with bad dreams, much of the time, we can, even in a dream state, think “Thank goodness this isn’t real !”, when Godzilla is ripping the roof off your house. When we see a scary movie, or we sit around a campfire telling ghost stories at camp, we allow ourselves to feel that exhilaration that comes with adrenaline. But, when we cross that line from knowing something can’t possibly happen into the realm of possibility, we enter into a place of darkness and uncertainty.

It’s no wonder I had a terrible dream. I had been reading “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ismael Beah. I had had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Beah speak at my daughter’s prep school in Massachusetts, and he captivated me. He is a handsome, eloquent and dynamic young man, and his manner was of one completely comfortable in his skin. I knew part of his story from his talk, but nothing could have prepared me for the childhood he experienced in his home of Sierra Leone. Mr. Beah’s story has the happiest ending it could: he’s survived and is thriving. So, in all honesty, I should have felt relief and happiness for him. But, happiness is a hard emotion to conjure when you read his story…not matter how much he has overcome.

In Yoga, “awake or asleep, life is a dream of our own creation. Enlightenment is awakening from our self-imposed delusions so that we may live and serve others to the fullest of our potential”, according to Dr. Joseph Dillard, a dream yogic specialist. Terrifying as dreams can be, and as frightening as places in the world may become, we do have the privilege of creating our own realities. This may mean facing our fears, or it may mean learning to process stress in a different method. This is far more useful way than poking your spouse repeatedly in the wee hours. My mother has long had a quote taped above her desk from St. John of the Cross: “I am not made or unmade by the world’s devices, but by my reactions to them”. We can’t stop terrible things from happening. We can’t go back and undo the fighting that’s been going on in Africa or the Middle East. We can’t wipe away 9/11 or the Holocaust. But, we can choose what causes to support, what actions to take and what small steps we can do to make the world a far better place. In doing so, we may find that we slay our own dragons in the process.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Do you believe in ghosts ? How do you feel about human genome research ?

Would you ever believe that these two topics could be intertwined in a fast paced, thought provoking novel ? Jodi Picoult, one of my favorite authors, tackled both of these subjects in one fell swoop in her novel, "Second Glance".

While I had thought I'd read everything she'd ever written, somehow this novel, written in 2003, got by me. As I was wandering the book section at Target, in between Josh's hockey games, I came across it with great delight. Little did I know that I would do little else for 24 hours, other than read this book. The laundry stacked up, the bills sat on my desk and the animals just figured they'd pile on top of me. I curled up in my favorite chair, made a cup of Chai, and simply couldn't stop reading.

One part ghost story, one part historical "fact meets fiction" regarding controlling genetics, and one part love story, this book was truly fascinating. The ethical issues of embryonic research and selection that this book raises were fascinating. This is partly because I learned, from reading the historical part of this novel, that genetic research and control are not something new to this generation of doctors and ethicists. A very dark chapter in Vermont history comes to light, but in doing so, also sheds new light on the embryonic research discussion. Who controls procreation ? Who has a right to make that decision ? And, are genes 'all' in the nature vs nurture argument ?

This sounds like extremely heavy reading, but in all honesty, this book is a page turner. The characters are memorable and multi-faceted. I wish I had more answers to the questions raised in the novel. But, I have to admit, the book created questions for me that I never knew I would ask. I highly recommend this novel.....and as you know, it's available at Target.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Crazy Quilt of Life

When I was a little girl, my mother began a collection of antique "Crazy Quilts". She would find them in antique stores or from dealers. Some of these were beginning to fray. Others were never fully completed. A few used lush fabrics, like silk and velvet. But many more used bits and pieces of cloth that just came out of everyday use....a bit of a tie that had a spot on it, a scrap from a favorite outgrown dress, a triangle from a much loved baby blanket.

I never used to tired of playing with the quilts. I loved the randomness. I loved that they weren't perfect in the way a log cabin quilt is symmetrical, but that they created something much more magical. I imagined what each bit of fabric came from and wished I knew the stories each square told. Although my mom also began collecting beautiful quilts that were traditional patterns, the crazy quilts, to this day, remain my favorites, and I'm fortunate that she gave many of them to keep.

I need to take a step back and let my readers know that I can't quilt myself. I can barely even sew a straight line. When I went to a sewing class at a local shop, I brought in a quilt piece I'd been piecing together, for fun, and was asked by a well meaning older woman if my 'little girl' had had fun working on that. I swallowed my pride and told her that I was the little girl. She gave me an appraising look up and down, sighed a bit (thinking, 'Oh, no, not another wanna-be') and helped me with my square. I never got beyond that one square, and it sits in my jewelry box. Folded. But, glaring at me for my failure.

I do think, however, that this failed attempt at quilting helped me to realize how truly difficult it is, as well as what an apt metaphor for life quilts can be. Life, like a crazy quilt, can be beautiful, perplexing, and frustrating. I realize this is neither an original thought nor an original idea for a piece of writing. But, I do believe that beauty exists in randomness. In the Judeo-Christian tradition I believe, we see this as the hand of God's in the midst of human suffering. In Eastern traditions, they might see this as the wheel of creation, turning round and round, creating something new each time.

When the back pulled away from one of the quilts my mom gave me, I was determined not to send it to her to fix, but to 'do it right' myself. It wasn't easy. I had to painstakingly remove the rest of the backing, gently pull away old batting that had matted--without ruining the delicate fabric on the front--and then sew a new back on. I hoped that even I, with my Pre-Kindergarten stitches, could manage it. I What I saw, when I removed the back was something marvelous: a complete sense of disorder on the backside. On the underside of the quilt, the stitches were a mess. There were knots, and different kinds of threads. While a crazy quilt does not imply any sort of pattern, I'd just assumed the back would be tidy. It was an honest relief to me to see it wasn't. I felt redeemed ! I knew I could work on this...that it wasn't perfection that was the goal, but love for the project. I did manage to sew a simple running stitch and put the new back on.

In Yoga, people often are nervous to come to class the first time because they're worried they won't be perfect. They're afraid they won't understand the asanas, or will fall over or will just make a fool of themselves. But, when I look out into a class I'm teaching, I see Yogis who have been practicing decades longer than I have alongside beginners, helping them. I see Triatheles coming in for cross training next to grandmothers who want to become more flexible. What I see, in short, is a beautiful crazy quilt in its randomness. No one is perfect, and no one expects me to be perfect either. But, we can all appreciate the beauty along the way.