Friday, September 4, 2009

Beyond Our Abilities

A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties. ~Harry Truman

There are times it's especially easy to be an optimist. It's as if the entire order of the universe just seems to flow directly into our train of needs and thoughts. We pull into a crowded parking lot, and a space appears before us. We find out that the bank made an accounting error: in our favor. We didn't have time to study for an exam, and yet the material on the test is the information we knew well. We investigate a vacation, and find the hotel of our dreams is within our budget. We run into an old friend within moments of thinking of her. We find out we're having a much wanted baby, or that our child has been accepted into the school of her choice, with an academic scholarship. It rains for a week before our wedding, and then clears up to be the most beautiful day of the year. There can be large strokes of luck....such as falling in love with the person of our dreams. There can be small ones, like finding just what you wanted on sale. These are the days in which it's very easy to say "Life is wonderful! I'm incredible blessed!". When life gives us unexpected, unanticipated or much desired results, we praise the highest heavens at our good fortune. We feel as if we're destined for all good things to come and that nothing can ever, or will ever, change these circumstances of bounty. Optimism at these times is a simple process: we expect good to come, as it has already done so.

Yet, all of us, at one time or another, have experience the depths of despair. We are passed over for a position we wanted very much. We find ourselves in financial hardship. We learn of a close friend's betrayal. We are diagnosed with life threatening, mysterious illness. We lose a much wanted baby. We watch a parent succumb to death. We find that even daily life become difficult. All the household appliances seem to break down at once. The furnace fails on the coldest day of winter. Our car slides off the road in icy conditions. Our children's hearts are broken, and there is nothing we can do about it. It's during these times that we wonder if we are cursed, rather than blessed. We feel as if we're blighted. It's during these times that it's very difficult to remember our benefits. We are so caught up in the wretched feeling of "What can possibly go wrong next?" that we fail to see the small boons that do come our way. It feels as if the universe is, in short, out of get us.

Friends, I have been through every single one of these experiences. I've enjoyed the joys of magnificent blessing. I've felt the sting of fear and heartache more times than I'd like to count. There are days I want to pinch myself that my life is real, that good things are always to come. There are other times in which I wonder why on earth I'm being tested to the point of breaking my spirit. Life is often like a roller coaster: there are exceptional highs in which I've felt on top of the world, and lows so terrifying, I wasn't sure I'd make it back up again. Still, when time marches forward, I learn my lessons, I get out of my own disappointed thoughts, and I do my best to to remain content along any of life's paths. I've often admired the words of St. Paul from the 4th chapter of Philippians, "for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. " I have not yet achieved his enlightened perspective on this subject. But, I'm working on it....every day is a new step towards optimism in all circumstances.

The most challenging aspect of this is, of course, that most of these challenges are beyond our control. We have no way to prevent horrible things from happening. We can be careful, we can be mindful and we can think out all ramifications. And yet, disaster can strike us at any time. That being said, we can choose to live two ways, according to Albert Einstein...."You can choose to live as nothing is a miracle, or, you can choose to live as if everything is a miracle." Just as we do not choose to pick our hardships, we also do not choose our miracles. They choose us. When difficult times arise, we can begin to look back and wonder "What can I gain from this situation?". I have found that, in my darkest hours, it's nearly impossible to see the sun. But, when the day dawns again, I begin to notice the preciousness of life, the fragility of love, the dearness of those precious to me and the blessings in every day comforts. We can take for granted all the wonderful, everyday occurrences far too easily. When life is bleak, however, we can look at the magnificence of the trees in Autumn, we can hear the laughter of a toddler and we can smell the aroma of freshly baked banana bread. These, too, can be counted as miracles.

In my yoga classes, I always try to include one especially challenging pose. Many of my students balk and and tell me that they just "can't" even attempt to try it. They are understandably afraid: a headstand, or other physically demanding asana, can be just as terrifying emotionally. Their fears keep them from even wanting to explore this pose against the wall for support. I have been told valid reasons for not wanting to try: neck injuries, light headedness, spinal pain. Still, for those who want to try to work beyond their uncertainty, the empowerment achieved is amazing. I have one elderly student who expressed great reasons for trepidation in her lack of zeal to do headstand. I explained that she certainly did not *need* to do this pose, and I offered her a much gentler alternative. Yet, when she saw the grins of a few others in the class, just TRYING, she asked if I could help her. Using blocks, blankets, and other yoga props, I aided her in achieving a supported version of headstand. "Elsa" was overwhelmed with joy. On her way out of class, she hugged me and said, "I didn't believe I could do it, but you believed I could. Thank you for believing in me."

Sometimes, in life, what we need is not a winning lottery ticket or sun on a rainy day. What we need is someone else to believe in us. We need another human being to say "I know it's hard and I am here for you, but I have faith you can do it!". That is the best gift we can share with another: the gift of optimism, on their behalf, when something is out of their control. It's my hope that we can find methods to achieve this for ourselves, also.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New Beginnings

You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives. ~Clay P. Bedford

There is something about the first day of school that feels like a holiday! The new backpacks, new lunchboxes, new notebooks, new back to school outfit, and new teachers in a new grade are all cause for anticipation and celebration. The excitement of being a year older, a year wiser and a year more prepared, mix in with the feelings of the sense of freshness to the school year ahead. There is an essence of anything being possible, when you start a new school year. I remember coming back to school, after summers away, and seeing how my classmates had reinvented their styles over the summer, or had grown a foot in height or had become far more (or less) serious about their schoolwork. I also recall being the new kid at school, far too many times, and having butterlies in my stomach the size of pterodactyls, wondering if I'd be accepted by the 'ruling establishment'. With that sense of excited expectation also comes that sense of dreaded horrors that just might lie in wait; a bitter teacher, a vicious clique or a principal hell bent on 'sending a message'. There is the wonder of a new school year, but there is also the fear of the unknown dangers, both academic and social, that lie ahead.

I have been both fortunate, and deeply unfortunate, in my teachers over the years. I have had those teachers who inspired me to be the woman I was destined to become. These men and women encouraged me in my strengths, and helped me to shore up my weaknesses. Unfortunately, I also had those who ruled their classrooms like Himler ruled the SS. These teachers accused students of being unprepared, insisted on catching us off guard and wanted to entrap us with adding material on tests not included in class or regular readings. They did, however, inform their "favorite" students of these surprise elements. These teachers inspired a lack of trust amongst the children in the classroom, as well as damaging a great deal of my self-esteem that took years to overcome. The fascinating point to me, now, is how dramatically the despicable teachers affected me, and seemed to have longer lasting effects than the good teachers did. Even during my yoga teacher training, I had a bizarre mixture of beautifully giving, methodical, intentional instructors and nasty, self-absorbed ones. It amazed me that anyone teaching yoga would be not only hurtfully critical, but downright mean. Why is that? Why do we still bear the scars of poor teaching more than we appreciate the inspiration of good teaching?

Having been on both sides of this issue, as a classroom teacher, a Director of Education, and now a yoga instructor, I can fully understand the demands placed on teachers, as well as the uncertainties faced by students. One of the wonderful aspects to working in yoga is the concept of being a lifelong learner. The classes I teach each week are not my only classes. I also take class, as a student, at least once a week, from a master teacher. I see my job as a teacher as that of individual facilitator. I do have lessons to teach that I have prepared for the entire class. But, I also see that I need to learn from my students; I need to learn what their needs are, how I can best assist them and how I can become a better teacher for their understanding. As a student myself, I appreciate that I do not "know it all". No matter how long I have been studying, there are always new ideas, new steps, and even new beginnings. My job, as a student, is to listen, to ask questions, to try and to keep coming back for more instruction. Teaching and learning are not as different as many people believe. The best teachers are those who continue to strive for inspiration in their own lives, and that the best students are those who are willing to ask questions to help their own learning process.

As my own children begin their senior and sophomore years in high school, it's my goal to be their advocate in the learning process. They are now old enough to be empowered in their educational experience, and yet, there are times they may both need a cheerleader, an interceder or an impartial view on a subject. I hope to instill in them a desire to learn...and a method of achieving that, even from teachers with whom they may not connect. I want to teach them the balance between school work and real life educations. I also want to show them that, even at my vast age, I never stop engaging in the learning process. The first day of school can be a tremendous boost to overcoming bad habits or to help begin positive traits. As for our family, it's my hope that each one of us can keep that first day excitement alive until June.

I just wish they would let me dress them in matching outfits to take their picture. Some life experiences are just outgrown.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Losing my voice

From Webster's Dictionary: Definition of voice: an expressed wish, choice, opinion or verbal utterance.

Have you ever had one of those mornings in which you wake up, just knowing that Murphy's law will prevail? In addition to a series of unfortunate mishaps, complications and life frustrations, I discovered that I had lost my voice completely, thanks to a rougher than average allergy season. The sounds I can make sound vaguely like squirrels quarreling in a nearby tree. Either that or my squeaks resemble a person repeatedly stepping on a mouse. My rodent verbal qualities have led my dogs to turn their heads sideways to try to understand my commands. This experience has made me wish I had taught the dogs hand signals. "Sit" and "stay" simply do not carry the same power when my Donald Duck voice is giving the order. Above all, losing my voice just hurts. My throat is very painful, and I have been living on hot tea, Chicken Soup and Chloroseptic spray. Unfortunately, none of these remedies have made it easier for me to communicate with my family and friends, as well as my pets. I have been gesturing passionately (and only understood about half the time) and using a big, yellow legal pad to write out my comments.

The sad fact is: I'm a talker. I can speak until I'm almost asleep, and as my husband can attest, I can even continue to talk once my eyes are closed if I'm really motivated on a subject. Being able to express myself has never been an issue for me. Learning to know when to keep quiet has been a much more difficult skill for me to master. Tact, listening and mindfulness are all part of my journey in becoming a true 'adult'. My father used to tease me that I couldn't eat without talking. We had experiments night after night in which I had to try to learn to keep peacefully quiet. I failed miserably.

That being said, not being able to speak has proven to be quiet different than having a self-regulated time of not communicating. I have had to learn what it is truly important. Since none of us know Sign Language in my family, I've had to save my painful squeaks for truly urgent comments, and other than that, I've had to decide if what I want to say is really worth writing down....or playing get my message across. I've discovered that most of my chit-chat is ridiculously meaningless, and if I can hold on to my thought a little longer, I may not need to use half a sheet of lined paper to express every sentiment that enters my train of thought. While I can't say that this has been a "Road to Emmaus" experience, I am learning that most of what I say doesn't need to be said. It's a sad and harsh realization, but it's certainly been eye opening for me.

Not having a voice has also given me more time to contemplate communication. Since I can't communicate directly, losing my voice has proven an invaluable metaphor for what I know happens to millions of women around the world every day. Many women do not have the same kinds of freedoms that we have here in the western world. They are silenced and beaten into submission. Their voices, even ones that can speak articulately and from a well educated perspective, aren't valued. The poorer women simply face death on a daily basis by not having a voice that is heard at all. Their thoughts, their feelings, their very lives are considered valueless. One of my favorite authors, Khaled Hosseini, was greatly celebrated for his book, "The Kite Runner", which was later made into an extraordinary, award winning movie. But, his second book, "The Thousand Splendid Sons" relates the plight of interrelated women, and the struggles they share. They unite to find a common voice, but being heard doesn't come without grave consequences. This vitally relevant fictional story, of life under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, taught me to never lose sight of the valuable gift in having a voice that can be heard...even for things that are inconsequential. A woman not having a voice is a dreadful thing for society. The U.N. has issued study after study about nations living in poverty. The studies find that, where women are educated and heard, society prospers. The converse is also true.

Fairy tales, like Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid, relate stories about women freely giving up their "voice". In Anderson's tale, Arielle literally gives away her power of speech to try to capture 'the handsome prince'. Yet, fairy tales are rife with women releasing their inner power, their gifts and their strengths in order to gain favor with the men whose attention they hope to capture. I don't believe that fairy tales are bad for children. They do help stimulate creative thought and imagination writing. However, I also believe it's vitally important that we equip our children, boys and girls, with the understanding of respecting the voices of and women, rich and poor, from all corners of the globe. We must instruct them and encourage them to never allow their own voices to be given away to someone else. We must all remember that our opinions, our nature, our beliefs and our ideals are what make each of us unique and valued.

While I have not enjoyed my experience with the loss of my physical voice, I do appreciate the opportunity it has given me to be silent and reflect upon the voices of others. I'm only sorry that it has taken my own yammering to cease to 'hear' them.