Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never Is, but always To be blest: The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come. ~ Alexander Pope

There are few public monuments that attract visitors the way a fountain does. In parks, in town squares, in front of public buildings and hospitals, these beautiful statues with running water seem to immediately calm us and fill us with a sense of serenity. City workers congregate at fountains to eat their lunch, more than at any other public venue. An increasing number of people are creating fountains and water features in their own yards. These people want to bring that multi-sensory experience into their every day lives. Fountains speak to our inner well being using most of our five senses: we can hear the trickling, burbling water, we can feel its cool refreshment, we can smell the fresh air that the moving water creates and we can become mesmerized, gazing at the rainbows, and patterns, formed by the water's path. As many mothers will say, shaking their heads, there have been more than a few toddlers who have tasted fountain water, as well.

Fountains simply relax us. We find the sound to be rhythmic and peaceful in a noisy world. The most popular sound, for people who use 'white noise' machines, is that of a light rain...which creates a similar effect in establishing a restorative mood. Considering that fountains date back to, at the very latest, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, we can understand that human beings have an innate need and response to fountains' beauty and healthful qualities. As long as human beings have been able to control water's path and direction, we have used water for calming purposes, in addition to watering crops and fields. Because of our attraction to the sound and magnificence of running water, we have used metaphors to describe our feelings of joy, of peace and of tranquility, all using fountains as their basis. We use running water as the way to best describe how we are feeling or what we hope to accomplish.

King David wrote, in the Book of Psalms, "For with Thee is the fountain of Life. In Thy light, we shall see Light." long before the new millennium. "Look within. Within us is the fountain of good, ever bubbling up when you choose to dig." wrote Marcus Arelius in the first century A.D. More recently, the beautiful Sophia Loren said, "There is a fountain of youth. It is in your minds, in your talents, in the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of those you love." Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Pope, Cummings, Twain and Wollstonecraft, among countless other of the greatest writers, use fountains as a metaphor for the way in which we live our lives. We speak of welling up, of springing forth, of bubbling over and of overflowing from joy, from sorrow, from hope and from delight. The emotions we feel can be thought of as 'polluted' fountains, if we are in despair, as polluted water can't be cleaned. However, if we are intensely and powerful joy-filled, we cannot contain our glee, just as if we ourselves are fountains bubbling powerfully.

As with many disciplines, Yoga has a number of variations. There is my own discipline of Ashtanga based yoga, as well as Kundilini, Restorative, Power, Bihkram (hot room) and Kripalu. There are as many styles of yoga practice as there are teachers. However, one element that is often consistent between instructors and styles is the Flow. In my own classes, as well as those I have attended, there is generally an actively moving time of asana work. Entire classes can be taught in the flow technique, allowing students to move in and out of poses as their own pace dictates. The flow sequence that feels nearly water-like to me, in its power and grace, and moving throughout the Triangle series. As the yogini moves from her right side to an upright position and then flows over to her left side, before moving back again, I am always struck by how much this sequence resembles a fountain: both in appearance and allegorically. We flow gracefully, traveling up and then spilling over our legs. It's one of the most elegant, and "watery" sequences in my classes. There is a strength and a rhythm to practicing Triangle in flow mode, rather than still.

Fountains are not only a part of literature, hymns, art work and gardens, they are a part of who we are. Whether we're standing under a steamy shower, or eating a picnic with a friend at a water containing monument, we are refreshed, restored and renewed by these fountains. Not only does the water inside us move, much like a fountain, but our spirits, our emotions and our thoughts can take on those same characteristics. Let's take care to allow all the hope, all the generosity and all the love possible flow from those we love, and to those we meet every day. But, most of all, let's take the time to allow ourselves those moments of refreshment, inside and out, and sitting by flowing fountain can bring.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pennies from Heaven

"Don't pass that penny by, when you're feeling blue. It may be a penny sent from Heaven that an angel tossed to you...." from the song, "Pennies from Heaven".

There are dozens of fabulous stories associated with finding pennies on the ground. The quotation above is from a terrific old musical. There are poems, there have been plays, short stories and children's fables. I can't hope to add anything different to any of these seemingly enchanted tales. But, I hope to be able to share some insights into how extraordinary finding a simple penny on the ground can be. Since I was a child, I have loved picking up pennies I'd find. There was an instant sense of magical connection to finding one. Better than an Easter Egg hunt or a Scavenger Hunt, discovering pennies is an ongoing 'game'. One isn't sent into a field, in competition with others, jockeying for position to capture the prize. Each penny one finds is unique...and each penny one finds is a surprise. I've found pennies at the beach, in hotel lobbies, in parking lots, on the floor of a New York department store and even walking along a woodsy trail. I have picked pennies up in my own yard, and have found European coins in Paris and Venice. I love to imagine that anywhere I go, and whatever is on my mind, there is always the possibility of a penny to be found.

To be fair, finding a penny isn't what it used to be. When the rhyme "See a penny, pick it up, all day long you'll have good luck" was coined (pun fully intended), a penny actually meant something. For a child, it could buy you quite a nice amount of candy, or even a penny soda, in an old fashioned soda parlor. Pennies were useful useful, in fact, long before inflation relegated these coins to near obscurity, a half-pence was money in circulation, as well. Although some people like to say that a penny is only good luck if you find it 'heads up', I believe that tails up brings no misfortune, and certainly carried the same value as it would have in its righted position. It's difficult for us to fathom, but a penny used to purchase a loaf of bread, and many farm laborers toiled in the heat all summer long for a penny an hour. Inflation has so devalued the penny that lawmakers have rallied, for years, to eliminate them altogether. Many banks won't even accept them anymore, rolled in coin sleeves, and direct you to the nearest Coinstar machine (that deducts a percentage of your value in 'fees' for converting those pennies into 'real money'). The Treasury idea would be to round up all prices to the nearest nickel. I suppose that this would have shops, gas stations and sale merchandise lose that coveted $.99 spot in prices.

The irony is that I happen to believe that finding a penny, however, isn't about finding money. It's about the thrill of finding something that everyone else has missed. It's about happening upon a moment of serendipity. When I found a penny at Penn Station, the last time I was in New York, I thought about all the people who had just passed this coin by...perhaps not even glancing down. In my own heart, I find that discovering a penny gives me a moment of pause...encouraging me to slow down, think about something other than my stressful day, and to bring a sense of wonder into my every day existence. There's a little bit of enchantment when you find a penny. I adore the idea that pennies are sent down from Heaven, from those who love us, to remind us of them. I also believe that, in finding a penny, we can remind ourselves of the joys in our lives. It's very easy to get caught up in daily routines to the point of monotony. When we find a penny, we have an excuse to stop, pick it up, count our blessings, slow our frantic breathing down and live, just for an instant, in a moment of purely authentic existence.

A wonderfully heartbreaking film, that I happen to love, is "Pay it Forward". In this movie, a young boy believes in the concept that, as something kind is done for you, you have the responsibility to 'pay it forward' and create a blessing for another person. We are encouraged to imagine the world as a more extraordinary place, if all we do is share kindness on ahead...and then step back and allow that kindness to grow exponentially. Why couldn't the same idea work for pennies? If we find a penny, and it reminds us of our beloved father who has died, or reminds us to count our blessings, not our sorrows, doesn't it stand to reason that we can make that experience happen for someone else? Please do not misunderstand: I'm not advocating dumping out coin jars on every street corner. What I am suggesting is more along the lines of paying it forward: if you found a penny, and felt blessed in some special way, why not leave one in another spot, secretly? The finder will have no idea who has placed it there, but she may feel especially fortunate to have just come upon the joy of finding it. That person may, in turn, leave a penny in her doctor's office parking lot, to be found by another patient, who is terminally ill...but whose day is brightened. And, that patient may just hide a penny in a place where she knows her grandson will find it, and then teach him that pennies can remind us of those we love. It's a concept that it extremely simple, and yet, has the potential to brighten thousands of days for thousands of people. Not only are we blessed when we feel the excitement of finding a penny, but it's even more delightful to leave one, on a park bench, for someone else.

The world is filled with tragedy. The news informs us of terrorist attacks, children being abused, drug wars and genocide. There is very little we can do to transform every one of society's ills into beauty. But, if we can use something a 'meaningless' as a penny to brighten another person's day, then my feeling is to "go forth" and do all the good we can. If we bring a smile to one person's face, then it's worth the effort. If we, ourselves, are reminded of those who love us, of those we love and of those who need our love, then it's even more of a grace filled moment.