Friday, June 5, 2009


"Imagination is more important than knowledge". ~ Albert Einstein

I have a vivid imagination. As a child, I would often have one foot in my imaginary world, and another in reality. I never felt fully present in both, except in my dreams, in which I could soar. My imagination allowed me to climb the Himalayas with a Sherpa as my guide, magically stumbling across Shangri-La, hidden in a secret valley that only I could discover. I could cross the open prairie, traveling through tall, waving grasses, in a Conestoga wagon. I remember making my own covered wagon with pillows and blankets and being able to feel each dip and jostle on the well worn path west. I could imagine myself to be a lady in waiting in the court of Queen Elizabeth, bowing to her Majesty and wearing gowns of brocade, silk and pearls. In my thoughts, I was a Chinese girl, working in the rice fields, an Ancient Egyptian, feeling the heat off the baked mud walls of the low buildings in the marketplace or a Russian girl, living a "Fiddler on the Roof" existence of musical joy, mixed with fear of the cossacks. I attended a progressive Montessori school, and was allowed to finish my math quickly in order to hide myself in the window seat of the library, and lose myself in books about young women from long ago. This practice both fed my insatiable curiosity for the words to describe the actual world around me, and also gave me more secret windows in which to enter another, hidden world.

Albert Einstein once wrote: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I heartily agree. Without imagination, there would be no progress. There would be conformity, uniformity and one method of thinking that leaves no room for improvement. There would no light, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no printing presses, no cars, no structurally sound buildings, no heat, other than fires. There would be no irrigation, to bring water to feed crops and there would be widespread famine. There would be no understanding in medicine, and extraordinary strides to save lives. Diseases like Smallpox and Polio would still leave mothers in fear for their babies. The Plague would still run rampant and populations would be devastated. Creative thought has enabled civilization to communicate more effectively, remain healthier and to travel much further in shorter periods of time.

However, with creativity comes responsibility. Just because we have active imaginations doesn't mean we must always enact each and every idea that crosses our train of thought. Overactive imaginations have also led civilizations astray. Would there have been slavery, had it not been for the imagination for those who believed they were *better* than those they had enslaved? Would there have been witch trials and the Inquisition, had it not been for people's imaginations run amok? Just because we can imagine something that seems fantastical, does it make it a real and accurate possibility? Therein lies the great philosophical question of all the ages.

In Yoga, we explore imagination balanced with controlling our thoughts. The most challenging aspect of learning to become a Yogini for me were not the physical "asanas", or poses. I quickly learned how to practice Sun Salutations, Tree Pose, Shoulder Stand and the entire Warrior series. I marveled at how quickly my body was becoming stronger, more toned and more flexible. A lifelong Klutz, known to all as being able to trip over my own feet for no reason, I gained confidence in my ability to control my body. I fell down stairs less often and had fewer experiences of hitting myself in the head every time I closed the rear hatch of my car. This alone was a minor miracle! And yet, when it came time to control my thoughts, even as happy daydreams, the skill alluded me. During times of meditation and relaxation, I experienced what the Indian Yogis refer to as "Monkey Mind": my thoughts skipping from tree to tree, branch to branch, never alighting on any one place for long. The class around would be peacefully focused on nothing but the breath, and I would be experiencing the hyperactive Chihuahua thought sensation of "What if I go to the market before I go home? Do I have enough money to pay bills today? What if Josh doesn't pass his English test? What if Caroline doesn't get the part she wants in The Nutcracker? Do the dogs need to go to the vet for their ear infections? Do I look fat today? Do at least my thighs look fat? Did I return the movies? How much laundry has piled up? Seriously, am I fatter than that woman in the corner wearing blue?"

Thankfully, I had a wonderful master teacher. She helped me to use my restless and "bouncing Golden Retriever chasing ball" imagination to help conjure images that I could then control...thereby, controlling my thoughts. The technique she helped me to employ was that of carriage driver with four horses. My imagination was traveling in so many different directions at once, that the use of four separate horses gave me the ability to see each train of thought in those different directions those thoughts wanted to veer off the course. As the carriage driver, it was my job to keep an eye on those horses. I needed to be aware of where they each wanted to go, to understand their choice of direction, and yet, when the time was right, to have the secure ability to rein each one in separately. If Horse A wanted to go to the left, and Horse C wanted to turn off to the right, it was my mind's job to keep them heading straight where I chose for them to go and not off course. Perhaps Horse B was nervous and just wanted to turn around and backtrack, and Horse D just felt bored and wanted to race ahead, far in the future at full gallop. Then, I needed to slow my breath and reiterate the slow, steady, calm and direct pace in the correct direction, at the correct speed.

This mental game, or technique, allowed me to gain mastery over my thoughts, but did not kill my individualism or creativity. It simply allowed me to have use of a tool to know where and when to be creative, and where and when to focus my thoughts sharply on one thing: being at peace. Did this hurt my imagination or creative process when I did call upon it? Quite the opposite. I have found that my imagination can be called up more fully and more clearly at my command. I still have moments of random sparks of creativity, and I still daydream. However, I also have the ability now to use this technique at my disposal to ask "Horse A...where would you like to go today?" when working on a creative assignment. I find myself being taken on a wonderful journey, but on my command. Rather than kill my imaginative instinctive process, yoga has given me a way to to focus it and utilize it far more effectively. I have been able to squeeze the metaphorical creative juices out of the bottom of the tube, rather than just skimming off the top, and completely changing directions. It's been a fascinating, and energizing, skill sharpening exercise.

So, as an immense fan of imagination, I encourage all to explore this side of your personalities. Write! Draw! Paint! Play music! Sing! Dream! But, be the master of your carriage, and allow it to take you where you decide, all the while knowing that you can steer your chariot in whichever direction you choose.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Time and Tide wait for no one...."

"Time and Tide wait for no man..." -- Robert Frost

Three of my good friends are both in the midst of dealing with the ramification of having parents in different stages of Alzheimer's or dementia. Their stories are heartbreaking, loving, frustrating and angst ridden. It is a journey many of us will take, and yet none of us are prepared for. Even as adults, we look to our parents for guidance. I don't know how I would have survived my early years of marriage, parenthood and beyond without my mother's wisdom, advice, insight and suggestions. In my own life, I've come to admire my mother more and more as time has gone on. I have appreciated her battles against the trials and difficulties in her own life, and used these as examples of how to face my own challenges. I have consulted her on almost every step on my life path. She has been my cheerleader, my confessor, my greatest fan and my admonisher. I trust her opinion in all things above everyone else.

How does one reconcile the strong, courageous and all knowing parent of our childhood and our young adulthood, with the parent who becomes angry, belligerent and even vicious? My friends are facing this very question right now. When does one step in, and assume legal control over one's parent? It's a double edged sword: if one steps in too soon and involves doctors and lawyers, one risks losing the love and respect of her parent. And yet, if one waits too long, one runs the risk of the parent becoming a danger to herself or others, particularly if she is still driving. One also runs the risk of the parent making very poor decisions or failing to take care of the very basics of life and health. When is it the 'right time' to step in and say "Dad, I love you but you can't do this anymore"? I wish I had an answer to this question. I'm afraid that it's difficult for everyone involved...the parents themselves, who see their independence and their very lives being removed, and the children, who are now setting themselves in the place of becoming a parent to their own mothers and fathers.

My family experienced this with my Grandmother. My mother watched her own mother's decline with sorrow, anger, devastation and profound frustration. Grandma would have excellent days in which she would make perfect sense to everyone who spoke with her. She would be lucid, articulate and intelligent. Grandma would seem completely in charge of her own life, her own affairs and her own well being. The next day, or even the next hour, she would become paranoid, bitter and hostile. She would become accusatory and challenge everything meant for her well being. It was both painful, and frustrating, because we never knew whether we'd have "Real Grandma" or "Other Grandma". My mother watched her beautiful, successful mother leave the house to go food shopping at Safeway, which was less than five minutes from Grandma's home...and become lost and end up on the complete other side of time.

A wonderful novel that tackles the issue of Alzheimer's in a beautiful, moving way is "Still Alice" by Lisa Genova. Rarely can a work of fiction create a story in which the characters are achingly real, and still incredibly informative. This book, which I recommend highly to everyone, shows every side of the Alzheimer's, and explores each point of view. "Still Alice" does not skimp on storytelling ability. It is a powerful, moving and captivating novel. And yet, I found myself better informed and more knowledgeable about Alzheimer's than I had been...even after my experience with Grandma. I only wish that I had been able to read "Still Alice" in the years before Grandma passed away. It taught me a great deal about the process, about love and about dignity.

One of the ways in which I believe people can help shield their positive memories of their loved ones with dementia is by not neglecting those memories. It's extremely easy to begin to lose sight of the "real" parent (or grandparent) who is angry, who is mean spirited and who may not remember you. My own wish, from our time with my grandmother, is that I'd kept alive more memories of her wonderful years while she was ill. I wish I remembered more about my own playhouse in her garden on Russian Hill. I had forgotten about her taking my cousins and me out for ice cream at Swenson's, in San Francisco, instead of feeding us dinner. I had forgotten how she gave me my own easel for painting right next to hers, and how she bound my first little books of creative writing. I mislaid the memories of her teaching me everything from art to articulation, and of her being my such an enormous part of my growing up. Those memories were overwritten by the hostile woman who was unkind to my son, without remorse. Now that she's no longer with us, I find the joyful times creeping back into my thought patterns, and I am filled with sadness that I couldn't reconcile these two people as 'one'. And yet, I do hope that she knows, somehow, that I love her and will never forget her true self.