Thursday, October 29, 2009


Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. ~Oscar Wilde

I have always loved Halloween.To some children, Halloween was a terrifying night, filled with images of the Grim Reaper lurking around every corner, just waiting to pluck them away. It meant feeling frightened when going into haunted houses, and having to feel "eye balls" and "intestines" while blindfolded. I, on the other hand, was confident that the eyeballs were Jell-O covered golf balls and the spaghetti never once felt like 'guts' to me. Halloween, to me, was not an evening of nightmare and panic. Rather, it was a night to put on a different persona completely and to push the ever present daily timidity aside to step into the shoes of a confident alter-ego. The fact is, I was a terrified child. I was certain that monsters lurked under my bed. I was positive that something horrible was going to happen to my mother at any moment. I lived in a heightened state of heart-sinking dread the other 364 days per year. On Halloween, I felt free to put on the mask of confidence, assurance and aplomb. For me, Halloween wasn't a day to shrink away from the evil lurking around corners. It was the day to face that evil head on.

Costumes are an extraordinarily transforming experience. They allow you to physically become someone else for a moment. Actors have long understood this. When asked how he could play the Phantom, night after night, year after year, on Broadway, Michael Crawford quipped, "I put on the mask." Costumes allow us to become, just for an evening, a completely different person from our everyday lives. The year I was a cowgirl for Halloween, I felt the surge of energy from roping cattle on the Arizona plains. The year I was a Pioneer Girl, I knew that I had the grit to overcome any hardship we faced on the wagon train. When I was Leopard, I felt myself curling up, ready to spring on an unsuspecting prey. Of course, the year I was Dorothy, I had every confidence that clicking my heels three times would bring me home....if I so chose. When we step into a costume, when we put on a mask, when we pretend to be someone we're not, we are able to shed our insecurities, our neuroses, and our weaknesses. We are able to robe ourselves in fortitude, daring and brashness that comes with our characters.

When I first began studying yoga, years before I became a teacher, one of the aspects I most enjoyed was the ability to "play" the roles of the poses we were practicing. In Eagle Pose, I could envision myself perched high up in a tree, gazing down at the small world below and knowing that I could master it. In Lion Pose, I felt the power emanating from the breath, and knew that my strength came from within. In Frog Pose, my muscles feel springy and able to jump at a moment's notice. Dolphin Pose gave me the playful spirit and inner joy that I'd seen dolphins use when they'd swim alongside our boat. Yoga allowed me to put on the masks of each of these poses, while still allowing me to be myself; my own fearful, uncertain, fault ridden self. As a teacher, I've learned to create space in our classes for my students to explore all aspects of their personalities. For those who are shy, we practice powerful poses, such as Warrior, to help bring out the fighter in each of us. For those who lack grounding, we practice Mountain pose, to give the yogini a firm foundation. Most of all, what we practice in the classes I teach, is self-awareness. By learning where we can excel, we can build skill upon skill until the student can draw upon her own knowledge at any time.

The goal of any class, whether it's Yoga or Mathematics, is to teach the student how to learn. It's very difficult to instruct when a student doesn't understand how to open up to the material. By using the metaphors of the asanas in Yoga, I'm able to reach into a student's spirit and say, "It's the Cat working within you...", as she works through Cat pose. This allows the students to surrender embarrassment and reservation. The experience of using these poses to help build tenacity and poise can be as transforming as the donning of a mask. Once a student gains skill she will no longer have to pretend the part in the other areas of her life. She truly will have the grace of a Crane, the flexibility of a Bow and the open heart of a Gate. The masks necessary to pretend will fall away, and she will be as comfortable in life, as she is in the studio.

Do I still wear masks? Of course I do. We all do. We put on the mask of happiness when we're feeling cranky. We put on the mask of sarcasm when we're really feeling hurt. We put on the mask of indifference when we don't know how to change a negative situation. We put on the mask of spunk when all we want to do is curl up and sleep. We use masks every day to overcome our own shortcomings, or to help us through a difficult time. The question isn't whether or not we use these masks, but whether we're aware of the use. If we can be consciously attuned to their place in our lives, we can use them as an intended assist, rather than as an involuntary crutch.

What will I be for Halloween this year? The answer depends a great deal on how I'm feeling that day. I hope, however, that I feel most like being myself, and that masks will be unnecessary.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Best Laid Plans

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” ~ Robert Burns

This past weekend, at my daughter's college preparatory school in Massachusetts, was Parents Weekend. October is the most glorious time of year to visit New England, and the area between the Berkshires and the New Hampshire border is aflame with every
possible Autumn blaze hue. The drive to the school itself is akin to trekking from one picture postcard view to the next. Nothing looks quite real: the entire countryside feels painted or imaginary. The school creates a festive atmosphere, as parents attend classes with their children. The nostalgia this brings back, particularly for those of us who attended similar schools, is palpable. I found myself wanting to raise my hand in French class and duck down below my seat in Algebra II; the old strengths and weaknesses still fully apparent. There were mixers, social gatherings, a hospitality tent, parent-teacher meetings, tours, fancy meals and a whole array of exceptional events to help connect parents with the school their children attend far away. Every sports team was scheduled for home games and each one is meant to be attended by all: not just the parents of those children playing. There is a wonderful sense of anticipation, connection, and a delightful schedule with just enough activity to keep both parents and children on track for a great experience.

Yet, as Robert Burns so eloquently put it, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." One aspect of any kind of special event that can't be taken into the meticulous planning is the weather. As delightful as New England fall can be one day, the weather can turn 180 degrees the next. The rain came pouring down onto the school, onto the elegantly appointed festival tent, onto the playing fields, onto the carefully groomed paths and onto the families scurrying from one ivy covered building to another. The bookstore and student center became a makeshift life raft as parents thronged in to buy raincoat pullovers, umbrellas and dry sweatshirts, all emblazoned with the school's colors and mascot. Mothers that carefully styled their hair and wore their cashmere elegantly, found themselves holding fuzzy school blankets over their heads just to make it to the next destination. Games were postponed, cancelled or played under adverse conditions and all events were modified to accommodate the uninvited guest of an Autumn gale. But, parents, teachers, administrators soldiered on with good cheer and a sense of humor.

There were smiles and jokes about Mother Nature nasty sense of humor until the next snafu arrived: the H1N1 virus. Sadly, there were 7 student cases of the flu diagnosed at school, as well as one teacher. An emergency assembly was convened and a crisis plan of action was enacted. Since many of the students enjoy going to the nearby hotel with their parents for the evenings, strict rules were set in place about both the taking off of campus, and the returning to, of all children. All needed to screened upon arrival, and any child found to have a fever would not be allowed to return to campus. Additionally, parents were informed that, should their child come down with the flu in the coming weeks, arrangements must be made to pick that child up from school until she is better. These precautions complicated the weekend dramatically: plans for groups of parents to go out together changed, students were asked to clear out their lockers in the fitness building to make room for a quarantine area, and returning plans included waiting time at the health center before the child could return to campus. The ill members of the community were never far from any one's thoughts, nor were the concerns about everyone else's health. Parents regarded their teenagers more closely, carefully looking for signs of flu. Children looked at their parents sneezes with more concern.

Regardless of the "Nor'easter" storm, and the Flu outbreak, it was a terrific weekend. Instead of feasting under the bright canopy of golden October skies, families gathered at nearby restaurants. In the place of huge crowds at the football game, a number of kids watched in house movies at the hotel...a rare treat for the entertainment deprived prep school students. Parents had coffee in small groups in the lounge, getting to know one another. Teachers remained longer in the open house, chatting, as much as filling parents in on students' progress. The carefully planned and lovingly tweaked schedule went out the window, as the community came together, putting a brave, unified facade together against the gathering storm of downpours and flu.

Parents Weekend 2009 will probably go down in the school's annals of Murphy's Law: "what can go wrong, will go wrong". I hope, however, that there will also be a note of what went right this weekend: a community came together expecting a weekend of frivolity and instead experienced a flood and flu. Complications notwithstanding, I believe that the perseverance of the entire community, the flexibility of schedules, the generosity of spirit, and the common belief that all will be well regardless of the circumstances, should, in fact, be what is remembered....not the hardships, but the resolution.

Next year, however, I will pack my rain boots.