Easy Peasy 1-2-3: How Child's Pose Helps Unlock You

Novelist Ananda Leeke describes beautifully and in specific detail how her yoga practice helped support her with the creatively arduos task of novel writing.

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AL: Yoga has helped me surrender my ego and need to control the creative process. Whenever I find myself becoming anxious about the process (... especially now that I am in the final days of completing this project), I take a deep breath, raise my arms above my head in worship pose with my hands in prayer. As I exhale, I chant the Sanskrit mantra "Namaha" which means surrender. I take another deep breath and lower my arms slowly while chanting Namaha. My teacher Debra Mishalove taught me this exercise. It helps center me and calms my need to push for things that are out of my control.

Whenever I have writer's block, I come into child's pose on my yoga mat or in my bed. Most times, I stretch my arms out in front of me. My fingers are widened and get a nice web-like stretch. Generally, I hold this pose for a long time (i.e. fifteen to twenty minutes) because it relaxes me and releases stress from my lower back. I love to focus my breathing on opening my third eye, the sixth chakra which governs my intuition and allows for clarity and understanding.

Another pose that I like to do when I have writer's block is forward fold because it creates a blood rush in my brain. It gives me a little buzz. I also enjoy doing downward facing dog for the same reason.

When I am not in the mood to write, but know that I have to like this morning, I do a series of four to six sun salutations. The series awakens my mind and warms my body. It becomes a magical elixir.

If I have nonstop mind chatter that prevents me from focusing, I come into easy pose and cleanse my chakras by chanting each seed mantra (lam-vam-ram-yam-ham-om-soham). I close the experience by chanting one of my favorite enlightenment mantras such as Om Namah Shivaya, Om Mani Padme Hum, or the Gayatri Mantra.

When things are really tight and I can't breakthrough with any of these exercises, I lay in corpse pose and breathe deeply while giving myself Reiki healing touch. This always does the trick. It refreshes me and allows me to come into my higher self.

Yoga has taught me that I am a vessel for the creative expression of the Divine Spirit. It has allowed me to get out of the way of my ego. With it, I am learning to live as my true self.

Searching for Agates

for Jon Zurn, Pebble Beach, Lake Superior, 2000

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In the dream I take you
to Pebble Beach
where earth’s fresh water
heaves and falls

This beach is pure rock
unbroken
a stretch of dull gray pebbles
dark and flat
oven-warmed and
just the size to hold in your hand

Muted beauty such as this was once enough

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But then I take you
barefoot into the icy water
where the steady tide of Superior
breathes in and out

I show you how to reach down
behind the wave
and scoop away
the top layer of wet stones

Exposed pebbles seem the same
dull gray–but smaller, finer
and the next lip of the lake fills in
the dent

We continue: wave, back, search
wave, back, search

The sun is white overhead
and seagulls pick their way
along the beach, swooping
gracefully behind us

The wave recedes and
I reach my hand into the earth
revealing something blood red
shiny, beautiful

The first agate, for you

If we stay, we will uncover more:
tiny fragments of brilliance

We can dry them in the sun
for keeping or
throw them back like fish

Maybe you think there is a difference

But in the dream we have seen
what lies beneath,
and the memory of its haunting beauty
will never be silent

Always it will be here, searching

for agates

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Yummy

Have a peek at the reading list for the spring session of the Elephant Rock Writing Salon. In addition to imagination-building writing exercises, we'll be discussing some elements of craft, inspired by reading short excerpts of the material below. The hardest part by far was narrowing down the list for our "reading light/experience heavy" approach. Still, this series should generate some lively conversation!

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March 13 WRITING FROM OUR LIVES, MEMORY, AND THE WRITING LIFE

Vivian Gornick (from The Situation and the Story)

Atul Gawande (from Complications)

Natalie Goldberg (from Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life)

March 27 STORYTELLING: MEMOIR, PLOT, AND AN EXAMPLE

Various Writers (from Naming the World, on plot and narrative)

William Zinsser (from Writing About Your Life)

Jeannette Walls (from The Glass Castle)

April 10 PERSEVERANCE, MATERIAL, AND AN EXAMPLE

Walter Mosley (from This Year You Write Your Novel)

Anne Lamott (from Bird by Bird)

Jane Hamilton (from A Map of the World)

APRIL 24 SEEING, DESCRIBING, MAKING MEANING

David Sedaris (from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim)

Louise Erdrich (from The Blue Jay’s Dance)

Annie Dillard (from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

May 8 DIALOGUE (AND MORE ON THE WRITING LIFE)

Various Writers (from Naming the World, on dialogue)

Harper Lee (from To Kill a Mockingbird)

Annie Dillard (from The Writing Life)

May 22 LISTS AND LETTERS (AND AN EXTRA DOSE OF THE SENSES)

Cheryl Strayed (from Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar)

E.B. White (from Letters of E.B. White)

Oakley Hall (from How Fiction Works)

June 5 SELF-EDITING AND REVISION

Claire Kehrwald Cook (from Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing)

Jeffrey McQuain (from Power Language)

Goldberg (from Writing Down the Bones)

The Bounty and the Wreck

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WHEN MY SON Max was very, very small—with his luminous and still disproportionately large brown eyes peering out from a fringe of dark lashes, his small round face yet unformed and dough-like—he was mesmerized by water and fire. His first words included boat and candle. By the age of four, he had developed a fierce interest in all manner of watercraft, disasters, and horrible combinations of the two—in particular, the sinking of the Titanic. This was well before the movie.

I am nearly certain that he and his sister Sophie were the youngest ever to attend our local chapter's regional meeting of the Titanic Society. Meetings convened in a dusty town hall in the rural Minnesota county where we then lived. My children sat at the edge of their metal folding chairs in rapt attention as senior citizens took turns sharing painstakingly dry accounts of wreck-related discoveries and survivor updates.

With my perhaps misguided support, my son’s fervor soon directed him to tragedies closer to home. By the time he was five or six, he could do a crackerjack imitation of Fred Wolff, narrator of our worn-out cassette tape Stories of Lake Superior Shipwrecks, Volume I. We purchased the tape during one of our many visits to the ship museum at the end of the pier in Duluth’s Canal Park, and we listened to it incessantly during our unending hours of car travel during those years of county roads and commuting.

Wolff, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, speaks with the sort of thick and nasal Minnesota accent you find only in the far north, the “range,” as we say. On many a long, sleep-deprived drive, I guzzled gas-station coffee to keep from being lulled blissfully to sleep at the wheel by the familiar drone of Wolff’s stories. Max, however, listened acutely, his body tense with anticipation of every memorized detail of each wreck: weather conditions, calls for help, survivor counts. What is it about shipwrecks that called so powerfully to this little boy? What is it about wrecks that pulls at him still, pulls at us all, in one way or another?

Max’s love for boats never diminished. In grade school, he collected small wooden sailboats and later, remote control boats that required hours of precise assembly and reassembly for what seemed like mere minutes of water time out on the pond at Powderhorn or Loring Park. Later, at the end of middle school, he built his own tiny one-man glass-bottomed boat. That one got its christening behind the bandshell at Lake Harriet, complete with a spray of sparkling grape juice to mark the occasion.

Today, at twenty years old, Max is a highly skilled sailor and owns his own small sailboat. This past fall, over a long weekend break from his service in the Conservation Corps of Minnesota, he drove from his station in Moose Lake (where the thick Minnesota accent is alive and well) to Michigan. Through online networking, he’d found the mast he needed for his boat, free for the taking if he could only pick it up. As part of the deal he got to work with this master woodworker and boat enthusiast to replace and install the mast. The two also did some rigorous sailing together on Lake Michigan. Yes, Max's passion for boats continues (and grows) unabated.

THE FIRST time I wrote about Max and shipwrecks was for a magazine piece on the sinking of the Edmond Fitzgerald. I was hammering out the story on a dark fall day in 2003. I remember how the rain and wind pelted my windows and ripped wet leaves from the trees in great batches, plastering them against the windshields of parked cars and onto the blackened city streets. Rivers of rainwater rushed down the gutters toward the sewer drains, begging to be dammed and diverted by schoolchildren like Max, decked in yellow slickers, with mothers watching anxiously from picture windows as October shuddered to an end.

The next time I tried to write about Max and shipwrecks was November 2012, right after the shocking October 29 sinking of the HMS Bounty in Hurricane Sandy, the news of which overwhelmed me and broke my heart. The HMS Bounty is one of the much-celebrated “Tall Ships” that traverse the globe, entrancing locals and tourists at various ports of call with their mystical beauty. And for a price, you can even climb aboard for a historically re-enacted tour.

The Bounty herself was a 180-foot, three-mast ship built for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie Mutiny on the Bounty. But her contemporary claim to fame comes from her appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean. My family saw her up close one year—I think it was about 2004—when our weekend stay at Mackinac Island coincided serendipitously with the Tall Ships tour. Max was twelve that summer. Jon and I walked in the early morning haze from our lodge at the far tip of the island with our kids—five of them were with us on that trip, all but Jon’s oldest daughter, Britta—to the bustling downtown landing. I remember how Max, especially, watched in awe as the fleet emerged majestically on the blinding waters of the horizon and made its way slowly toward the island. We learned—from the suntanned, muscular twenty-somethings who stood on the docks taking tickets, and who swarmed about on the ships’ decks, climbing nimbly up and down the masts—that young people could apply to crew the Tall Ships. The Bounty, in particular, perhaps due to its relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard, recruited paid deckhands for service year round. From that moment on, I started dreaming about Max sailing on the Tall Ship Bounty. In the blurry junctures between memory and imagination, I want to believe that perhaps he somehow did. But no, I know that did not happen. I only dreamed and then feared it so.

The HMS Bounty sank off the coast of North Carolina on October 29 2012, in the enormous oceans and violent winds of Hurricane Sandy. Max was not on it. He was in Northern Minnesota, clearing and cutting and painting and repairing. I tried to write about the Bounty’s sinking right after Sandy battered her down, because that is what I do when I am overwhelmed and heartbroken: I write. But in this instance, I lost my voice. I couldn’t describe this tragedy and its strange and ethereal connection to my family. It eluded my understanding. Maybe I can write about it now, but it’s still difficult to elucidate. Words cannot quite contain the mysterious sadness in my heart.

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ON MONDAY MORNING, October 29, I awoke to an email from my husband, Jon. The subject line was “Bounty,” and at first glance, maybe because I was still partly asleep, or maybe because I was reading it on my phone, I assumed it pertained to the spirited conversation we’d had with Max the day before. Max had been home for the weekend, and because it was the end of October, and his term in the Conservation Corps was coming to a close in early December, we were talking about his next steps. He wasn’t planning to re-enroll in school until almost a year later, in September 2013, so he’d have several months with which to get off the beaten path if he wished.

I had seen on the Bounty’s Facebook page—I’d been following it avidly for the past year—that the ship was recruiting deckhands for the 2013 season. The journey would include a trip up the East Coast and a tour of the Great Lakes, concluding at Lake Superior in July. Just in time for Max to settle into September classes! It seemed custom made for Max’s circumstances. And he had, after all, vaguely considered the Bounty a year earlier, when he’d applied for the Conservation Corps. At that time, November 2011, Max was just deciding to take time away from his college coursework at the University, and I was scouring for interesting opportunities for his “gap year.”  

This, I do. I worry. I meddle. I encourage. I facilitate. I advise. I roll up my sleeves and get in there. I obsess and I perseverate. When my children were young, I did not helicopter (I’m pretty sure, I really didn’t). But now that they are young adults, I am, I admit, however reluctantly, making it up with gusto. For better or worse, I get random rewards for this behavior: the awesome internship my daughter scored with a big-name website in New York, or even Max’s fulfilling stint in the Corps, or my youngest daughter’s happy immersion in the world of high school debate. All of these began with a seed I planted, along with a bit of nagging. In spite of these triumphs, I am also keenly familiar with the downsides of this behavior. And yet … I often cannot help myself.

I NESTLED MYSELF into the armchair while Max sat on the red sofa, leaning forward to read the posting and view the sea-sprayed Bounty photos on the screen of my laptop. He was reacting more warmly than I’d expected. “The timing is pretty awesome,” he said. “And to end up on Lake Superior would be cool.” Our family has special ties to Lake Superior, and after a Conservation Corps term living just forty minutes from the North Shore and working mostly on the trails and parks that surround it, Max’s love of Lake Superior had deepened all the more.

As we went on talking, Max’s brown eyes softened into that faraway place we all go to when we’re imagining what was once or what could be. A very good sign, I thought.

“You should do it, Max,” my husband chimed in, sensing the bit of momentum. “You won’t get these kinds of chances too often in life. You have to go for it.”

“Want to fill out the application right now?” I ventured, knowing even as the words fell out of my mouth like gravel that I was pushing it too far.

“Mom!” Max said. “Not now! I’ve gotta get back up to Moose Lake. Maybe I’ll apply. I’m thinking about it. It would be cool. But not today.”

Soon he was gathering his few belongings into his weekend pack and loading into his CRV for the two-hour drive up north. “But think about it, Max,” I said again as I hugged him curbside.

“Yeah, Mom, I’ll think about it, I’ll think about it. I promise.”

As is Jon's family tradition, and now ours, we stood and waved as Max pulled away and rounded the corner of Clarence and Bedford, our intersection of angels and blessed towns from It’s a Wonderful Life.

That evening, as Jon and I walked our dog Louis in the orange glow of the neighborhood street lamps, I prodded Jon to stay in touch with Max about the Bounty. “Encourage him,” I said. “Paint the picture of it, how exciting it could be.” Jon said he would.

And that’s why the next morning, when I got that email with the subject line “Bounty,” I thought naturally it was about Max. Instead, the body of the message contained only a pasted news story from NBC:

Rescue under way after 17 abandon stricken HMS Bounty off N.C. coast
A helicopter rescue operation was under way Monday for 17 people who abandoned the HMS Bounty as the ship was sinking off the coast of North Carolina, the U.S. Coast Guard said. "Our helicopter has arrived on scene and the hoisting operation is underway," according to one Coast guard official. The ship issued a distress signal late Sunday after taking on water, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Once I properly understood the surreal meaning of this message, I immediately texted Max. “The Bounty is sinking,” I said. “NO WAY!” he replied. “That’s crazy! That’s crazy sad!” Over the course of the next two days, Max, Jon, and I traded dozens of messages as we followed and reacted to the dismaying events of the Bounty’s sinking. Two lives were lost: crewmember Claudine Christian was pulled from the water unresponsive and later proclaimed dead, and Captain Robin Walbridge was lost at sea.

AFTER THAT FATEFUL email on the morning of October 29, I dwelled on the Bounty’s Facebook page for days—weeks—as the aftermath of the loss unfolded, as the frantic search for Captain Walbridge ensued. I saw Max, 150 miles away, commenting on the page’s updates even as I scoured them myself. He was expressing first his prayers, then his grief. At this, I cried.

And then Max and his crew got called by FEMA to do disaster relief work in New York. Max was stationed at a shelter in Queens, helping people who’d lost everything—which was little to begin with—in the storm. He’d send me pictures of his work in the animal room (pets get rescued, too). He'd text me accounts of things he witnessed: evacuees shooting heroin in the bathrooms, little children confused and afraid, and sometimes callous volunteers shrouded in disinterest.

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THROUGH THOSE GRAY months, our thoughts continued to alight on sadness and disbelief over the loss of the Bounty. Mine still do. This is indulgent, I know. I did not have a family member on the Bounty. Even if Max had sailed the Bounty, it would have been before or after the fateful Hurricane that swallowed her whole. There are hundreds--no, thousands--of people whose grief for the loss of this glorious ship and the two crewmembers who died is real and personal. I never even set foot on the Bounty's decks—Jon and I couldn't afford the hundred and some dollars it would have cost to haul ourselves and the five kids up that tempting ramp. And yet, and yet.

There was a dream of mine in her sails, and there were memories, too, of long and winding car rides narrated by Fred Wolff and his shipwrecks, of intangible romances, filled with heroic rescues and romantic escapes. There was a storyline, a poem, a some image or reflection I had yet to recognize before it slipped finally and sorrowfully into the drink.  For all these reasons and more, my heart will always break for the wreck of the Bounty.

** 

Come explore your own writing voice on an upcoming Elephant Rock Retreat this October or November on the majestic North Shore of Lake Superior. Dive into memory and uncover your deepest truths as you explore writing, yoga, and unique artistic projects in a gorgeous retreat center perched above the wooded shoreline. 

 

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Airplane Poem

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There’s a lot I don’t know

I know the small of your

back, that hollow just above

the round muscle of your ass

That patch of soft hair

There’s another heart

beating in my chest

The rising heat of your body

Your hands, the graceful fingers

their scars and ridged nails

their peeling skin

Flying over the ocean

the enormity, the loss

Take me not with you

but within you

Your Fierce Original Voice

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I like the word fierce. Why? Because it means so many things: you can love fiercely, believe fiercely, live fiercely, and write fiercely. It’s not an angry word. It’s a courageous word. Watch a toddler at play, or a child swallowed up in the ethereal underwater world of deep concentration, and you will see fierceness. Fierceness is an essential element of our humanity, an essential element of what some now describe as “flow.”

As we grow and adapt to the world, putting on our outer armor, we can lose touch with our fierceness, we suppress our fierce original voice. As adolescents, we do this purposefully, in the most painfully self-conscious way. We do it expressly to blend in with the crowd. Later on, we sometimes go so far as poke fun at teenagers while believing, often falsely, that we’ve outgrown the habit of striving toward invisibility. This, I would suggest, is the most dangerous delusion of all: the drowsy conviction that we’re expressing authentically when we’re not.

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The problem is we get swallowed—even hypnotized—by the habitual patterns and repetitive messages that tell us, as writer and author Laura Davis puts it, “that we don't have what it takes, that we don't have the time or the talent. Or that what we have to say doesn't matter.”

None of this is true, but it is seductively safe to believe it. Seeking to reclaim our fierce original voice feels much riskier, much more exposed. This is how our original voice becomes so buried within us that we’re not even sure what will happen if we try to use it. Will it crack and break? Will it sound out at all?

Be assured, it will! We can reject the false security of habitual patterns and repetitive messages. Your fierce original voice is your birthright, it is the light along the path to your truest self.  

A writing retreat is a powerful way to ignite your voice—and light your own path home. First of all, a writing retreat gets you out of your daily life and into a new and unfamiliar setting. That in itself is golden. More importantly, though, a writing retreat is a way to say "yes" to yourself and “no” to the repetitive tapes about not being good enough or having anything important to say. The power of this message cannot be overstated. Together with a retreat’s inherent protected time to dive within (with the aid of extraordinary imagination-building exercises and guidance) this message of "yes" becomes a compelling invitation to emerge from the hypnotic depths of daily routine and come face to face with startling insights and invigorated creativity. In the process—especially with the support of gentle yoga and meditation—you’ll discover and transform parts of yourself you may not even remember exist.  

This is the reason, above all, for the Summer Solstice Retreat. It’s a reason more central than getting work done (which you will), more powerful than immersing in specifics of craft (yes, we’ll do that, too), and more integral than experiencing firsthand the symbiotic benefits of writing and yoga and meditation (which you will love). It’s the beautiful, clear sound of your fierce, original voice. Your birthright.

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The Curve of Our Bodies

This is about bodies. Mine and yours. About flesh and rawness and dirtiness, about throbbing and sensing and sexiness. And brokenness. And heart-stopping sweetness. It’s about our bodies’ betrayals … and their divinities and their astonishing service.

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For me, nothing captures all of this more potently than Dorianne Laux’s poem “The Shipfitter’s Wife.” I have been obsessed with this poem since I first read it several years ago. It electrifies me for the way it portrays a woman’s love for her husband, for his whole self, his entire calloused, pulsing physicality: 

I loved him most / when he came home from work / his denim shirt ringed with sweat / and smelling of salt / the drying weeds of the ocean. I'd go to where he sat / on the edge of the bed, his forehead / anointed with grease, his cracked hands / jammed between his thighs, and unlace / the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles / and calves, the pads and bones of his feet

I didn’t grow up with men—my dad wasn’t around, no brothers—so until marriage and motherhood, men were foreign and strange to me—even outlandish. Still now, Jon’s body is such an enigma. His crushed thumbnail with the flattened ridges—an old printing press injury. His muscular shoulders and his coarse hair that is also unexpectedly soft. Long, lean legs and the distinct narrow waist of that particularly male build of his. He has light blue eyes with comforting smile lines that I've memorized like a song, and yet, his body remains a compelling mystery, as in some ways does my own.

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I have scoliosis. You probably wouldn’t notice it immediately, unless you know what you’re looking for. But my mid-back—the inflexible section of thoracic vertabrae—grows in a marked “S” curve instead of straight and true. For this reason, among others, my world is the slightest bit off kilter. My left hip is a tad higher than my right. I avoid skirts with center seams or distinct patterns that accentuate this asymmetry. My left breast is also larger than my right. What to do about this? Not much. My left shoulder has a height advantage as well, so straps must be adjusted accordingly, and some necklines will slip to the right. My gait is mildly wonky, so my shoes wear unevenly.  I get a pain at the site of the curvature when I sit or stand for too long. 

Ironically, I notice these things so much more now than I did when I was younger— but I am troubled by them so much less. For this, I credit yoga. Yoga has given me immeasurably more nuanced awareness of my body, including its balance and alignment. But the ironic part is this: being more aware of my misalignments has made me love and appreciate my body more than I ever have. I feel more tender toward and  grateful for my body because of these imperfections, maybe because I’m all the more awed by what it can do. At least as much as pregnancy and the amazing healing power of childbirth and breastfeeding—transportive and transformative—yoga has brought me home to my own skin and flesh and blood.

Like everyone’s, my body’s rebellion began with puberty’s first sprinkling of pain. Then it kicked into high gear when I was thirteen, in the middle of my eighth-grade year, as I stood in line after gym class with all the other sweaty girls and waited my turn to bend over for the nice volunteer who was checking our backs. 

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"Just a minute," said the volunteer as my head hung between my knees. "Can you come over and take a look at this one," she called to the gym teacher. "Hmmm, I see," said Ms. Nick. She told me to stand up and get dressed, then handed me a form to take home. I had to have a doctor's appointment. A friend mentioned the girl down the street who had a brace. A brace? I'd read Judy Blume’s Deenie, a book about a teenaged girl with scoliosis who lived in a brace twenty-four hours a day. I was sure I wouldn’t survive that. 

But that's exactly what the doctor ordered a couple of weeks later. Soon I was getting cast models made for a plastic brace that would be fitted around my torso from just under my breasts to the middle of my ass. It would fasten from behind with heavy-duty Velcro straps. It would be impossible to hide under my clothes, even the new pants my mom bought to fit over it.

I let my best friend, Kim, also my next-door neighbor, in on my terrible secret. She understood the special cruelty of our middle-school peers, and she was honest about the failure of my attempts to camouflage my thick, plastic corset as I pulled on and tore off one outfit after the next.

The first day I wore the brace to school, I was terrified someone would bump me and feel the hard plastic instead of flesh. Paranoid the lumps of the molded brace were visible beneath my clothes. Convinced people were laughing and making fun of me or soon would be. By the time the week was over, I was physically and emotionally wrecked. 

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Many months of sneaking out of my brace and battling with my parents (punctuated by my own escalating fears of disfigurement) led finally to an evaluation at a scoliosis specialty clinic. On the day of the appointment my stomach roiled and clutched. I felt embarrassed to be causing everyone so much trouble. I knew it was unreasonable not to wear the brace every day. What was wrong with me?

We rode the elevator up to one of the clinic's top floors and waited in the lobby until we were called back to meet a handsome young doctor with a kind, easy-going smile. He had me bend over for the millionth time. He traced a finger along the curve of my spine. He pinned my X-rays up against a lighted wall. He asked me lots of questions, mostly about how long I'd been getting my periods, which made me blush, but ended up being my passport to freedom. "Well, you're pretty much done growing, considering your menstrual history. Your spine isn't going to change rapidly now that your growth spurts are finished. So a brace won’t do much of anything."

"So I don't have to wear it?”

"Which one have you been wearing? The Milwaukee?” He was referring to the kind with the metal outer rods, the kind that goes up to your neck, the kind Deenie had. "No, not that one. I don't know the name of it." 

He held out a chart showing many models of back braces, all so innocent looking on the glossy, laminated brochure. "Do you see it here?"

I pointed to the brace that sat guiltily at home under my bed.

"Hmmm. That's odd. That brace wouldn't have any effect on your curvature at all. You can go home and make a planter out of it.”

I was elated. But that happy day didn’t mark the end of my struggle to accept my physical body. Far, far from it. More than self-loathing, what I experienced in adolescence and beyond was a kind of total disconnect from my body, a local anesthetic that extended from my neck down. Numb. I felt physically dead but I didn't even know it. Coming back to my flesh was the work of a lifetime. Filthy, painful work. I had to remember and relive all kinds of repressed pain in my soft animal self. Being numb was safe, though deforming in its own way. Sensation was terrifying. My wounds were exposed. But, as Rumi says, the wound is where the light enters us. So I had to work to let in the light. And I had to stop working.

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I had to surrender. Breathe. Love and be loved, thank god for that. It is a book of its own, this wonder of physical loving, a book inscribed in the flesh touch by touch, chapter after chapter overlaying the complex network of past scars that is me—human, curved, afraid, fierce, and alive. At home, in this one and only body that is both me and not me, at once my self and my shelter, a marvel. 

The Shipfitter's Wife

By Dorianne Laux 

I loved him most

when he came home from work,

his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,

his denim shirt ringed with sweat

and smelling of salt, the drying weeds

of the ocean. I'd go to where he sat

on the edge of the bed, his forehead

anointed with grease, his cracked hands

jammed between his thighs, and unlace

the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles

and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.

Then I'd open his clothes and take 

the whole day inside me — the ship's

gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,

the voice of the foreman clanging

off the hull's silver ribs. Spark of lead

kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,

the white fire of the torch, the whistle,

and the long drive home.

~

Crack open your fierce, original voice while deeply reconnecting to your own body and inner stillness this June at Stout's Island Lodge this June. Two spots still available for the Elephant Rock Summer Solstice Retreat for Writing & Yoga.

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Strands of Moonlight

Lately, I have been waking in the night, something I never used to do. It’s a strange feeling, this coming to alert clarity in the watery dark of my bedroom. I discover things in the night that would otherwise remain cloaked. 

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I notice strands of moonlight seeping through the layer of snow on the skylights above my head. I hear, in this resounding silence, the soft steady breath of our dog on his bed beside us mingling in the air with the soft, slower sound of Jon’s breathing inside his chest, both muffled and amplified by his muscles and flesh and skin pressed against my ear. 

I discover the tender fact that Jon holds my hand in his sleep.

I love sleep. I love it in that potentially desperate way we love air and water—the delicious feeling as it pulls me under, the heaviness of it—and at the same time, the lightness. I have always been a good sleeper, except when I wasn’t—the nightmare years—more on that later. But for the most part, I’ve always slept well, meaning I conk out fast and sleep hard. I’ve never remotely needed a sleeping medication, not even natural potions like valerian or melatonin. In fact, until recently, I could down a whole cup of coffee any time of night and still sleep like a baby.

Waking up, on the other hand, has never come easy. I dread morning flights because I can never really trust that I’ll obey my alarm, and on at least one occasion, I didn’t. Bye, bye plane. And to be awoken by humans isn’t always better. I’m embarrassed to tell you about the tender note I found a few weeks back, from Max and Lillie, written in Max’s finest square printing and Lillie’s hopeless scrawl, circa 2001, when they were eight and six years old. 

Dear Mom,
We’re really, really, truly sorry for waking you up. We should not have done that. We promise not to do it again. Love Max.
And I promise too. 
Love, Lillie

Incriminating. I must have behaved like a gargoyle that Saturday morning when my children decided six o’clock was a perfect time for mom to rise and shine (I vaguely remember), because hand-drawn apology notes are rare items in my shoebox of mothering memorabilia. But at least all I did was yell. It was far worse the time my sister Laurie startled me from a sound nap when I was six years old. Our mom had just pulled a batch of cookies from the oven and sent Laurie up the stairs to fetch me. In my own defense, she wasn’t gentle. “GET UP!” she yelled two inches from my face. I smacked her hard across the cheek—just a reflex, really. I remember the stinging feeling on my palm after the slap. I didn’t get a cookie. So I was robbed of two delicious experiences: a warm chocolaty blob of flour, sugar, and butter, and that shimmering, half-conscious borderland between sleeping and waking.

As much as I love sleep, I love dreams. I'm certain they're more than snow on a television screen, random images picked up by a skittish satellite dish. They’re maps of our inner world, songs composed by our deep unconscious, symbols straight from our hearts. I know I’m not supposed to interpret my dreams literally, and I've never had a clearly prophetic dream (except once, a random and decidedly not profound one about buying new shoes). But I still believe dreams have meaning.

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When I was six, in the first years of my mom's second marriage, I suffered a bout of bad dreams. I came up with a system for coping: I mastered the art of lucid dreaming. I could change the course and outcome of almost any nightmare. Most vividly, I remember escaping assorted dangerous dream characters by turning myself into a girl version of Superman. With a flap of my arms and a flip of my cape, I'd chase the scary villains from my dream territory.

Later, in early adolescence, I hit another patch of nightmares in which I was unable to walk. Often these torturous dreams would begin with me in the long, dark, basement-level corridor that led to the locker rooms and gym of my junior high school. I’d be entering that ominous fluorescent haze of a passageway surrounded by throngs of other noisy, shoving, cologne-soaked twelve-year-olds, when suddenly, my legs would turn numb and heavy. I would struggle with all my might to drag each leaden foot in front of the other. Kids would shove past either side of me, their shrill voices echoing off the painted concrete-block walls of the tunnel as I slogged forward inch by inch. I had lost my talent for lucid dreaming by then, and my only escape was to wake up. By high school, the paralysis nightmare changed form. In this terrible new version, I would lie in bed, immobile, aware of being asleep, but unable to wake myself—semiconscious, but powerless.

I no longer encounter the paralysis nightmare in the alleyways of my nightscape—not for a couple of decades. Now, when stress explodes in my life—a gnarly sumac bush overtaking a side yard, a few fern-like greens one day, a monster out of control the next—I succumb to chase dreams. Sometimes, the bad guys are chasing me to a certain death, sometimes burglars are in my house and I am frantically looking for an escape or a hiding place. These dreams are rare, but when they happen, it’s a miserable bath of heart-pounding adrenaline. 

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Even in spite of my sporadic forays into nightmares, I still love dreams. And sleep. And I love—maybe best of all—the mysterious borderland between sleep and not sleep. This ephemeral space of suspended reality is our portal to mystery. Even when we’re lucky enough to linger for more than a fleeting moment in this half-state, concrete memories of it are rare. It comes, it goes. We sleep and we wake; the transitions dissolve into amnesia—the same amnesia into which our dreams slip and disappear. Except on those rare occasions when it doesn’t. When we break through the surface and see it all clearly. When we wake in the night and find our hand clasped lightly in the hand of our lover. 

Creative Synergy Mini Retreat

Come join us for an afternoon of writing, yoga, and meditation, and get a taste of what you can expect on the Summer Solstice Retreat this June.  

Saturday, February 23, 1:30 – 4

At Tula Yoga & Wellness Center in St. Paul


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Light your creative fire and liberate your "fierce, original" voice and your deepest truths. You’ll love the surprising writing exercises drawn from the work of poet and master writing teacher Paul Matthews. Matthews uses playfulness as a portal to the profound, based on the wisdom that in silliness we make room for the soul to emerge. No matter your experience with writing—from published author to napkin scribbler—this workshop will lead your inner critic to disappear as you enter the realm of the unknown. Yoga, meditation, and the power of pranayama (breath work) open you to your truest insights, while writing provides a container for this wisdom.

What to bring: yoga mat, comfortable clothing for movement and sitting, meditation pillow if desired, water bottle, hard-backed notebook, your favorite pen (or two)

Registration fee: $25

To reserve a space call 612-244-0865 or email. And please share this post with friend and neighbors! Maria and I hope to see you at Tula!

Fertile Ground

I remember my first flower garden, a thick batch of blooms grown from seeds sown in one ambitious spurt in the spring of my second pregnancy … and then left to their own devices all through the summer.  I was twenty-three, married for two whole years already, and had never in my whole life had a real garden. My young husband and I had a one-year-old daughter in tow and had planted ourselves in a pretty old Victorian in a small town forty-five minutes out of Minneapolis, where he taught school.  His days as a commuter were long, and my days at home with a baby were hectic in that perplexing slow-fast way that all mothers understand.

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Suffice it to say my garden suffered from pathetic neglect, all under the watchful gaze of our southerly neighbor. Both of our next-door neighbors were master gardeners, as fate would have it, but the one to the north was kind, loved children, and leaned toward the abundant chaos of an English garden. Whereas the one to the south preferred all growth in tidy, well-manicured rows, and was affronted by her view of our scraggly side yard. She frequently and chirpily pointed out—from her vantage point in her own flourishing garden, watering hose suspended in her green-gloved hand, eyes shaded by wide-brimmed gardening hat—“Nature does tend to take over when left to its own devices, doesn’t it?”

Of course she was right. My garden was a disaster. Tiny seedlings fought silently for breath beneath a thicket of weeds that multiplied frantically, choking out my would-be flowers bit by bit. The weeds would surely have prevailed, had I not inadvertently, in my clumsiness and enthusiasm, spread the flower seeds so thickly. I was not then and am still not a gardener, only a lover of gardens: I don’t know the names of the flowers whose seeds I cheered along that summer, I remember only the colors of the flowers that finally erupted—mostly yellow and orange, marigolds (my least favorite), some prettier reds and pinks, and a smattering of much loved purple ones.

I spent the afternoon before I gave birth to my second child, Max, weeding my beleaguered flower bed, bent over my huge, unwieldy, sweaty self in all manner of squatting and reaching as I pulled, picked, yanked, and dug out the unwanted growth. Later that night, during each contraction that seized my pelvic floor, I saw another weed come up through the soil, long pale roots intact, black dirt clinging to fine-haired tendrils. I wanted to visualize my cervix pulling open, as I’d been told to, but mainly what I saw in the blackness behind my eyelids was weeds, just weeds, emerging one after the other, making space for the tenacious flowers yearning for sun from below.

So went my initiation into the powerful relationship between life as a mother and my connection to the earth. In that simple vision of labor—weeds drawn from fertile soil over and over again—lay a mystery so profound it has taken me years to unravel, and I am unraveling it still: the earth is called mother for a reason, and as she sighs and moves and blooms and dies, she speaks and offers us a path to follow.

Perhaps this mystery remained beyond my grasp for so for a very simple reason: I didn’t have much time as a young mother to ponder the deepest meanings of the earth’s vibrations. Most of my time was spent running late, breaking dishes, searching for socks and mittens and notebooks and leotards, lamenting the disastrous mess scattered everywhere around me,  desperately trying to finagle enough time to go to the bathroom all by myself, nagging my children to hurry up, slow down, use their inside voices, stop hitting, put their shoes away … until I’d catch a disturbing glimpse of my pinched face in a mirror, brown-green eyes flashing, and finally stop cold and breathe.   

But that’s not true either. I did spend my time in all those harried ways, but surely I spent more time in better ways: the years upon years of lounging in a chair, a baby at my breast and a book in my hand, one or two other children nudged up against me like pups. And the sleeping! That counts too, thousands of naps and nighttimes, surrounded by small warm bodies and stereophonic breathing, a choir of air. And the walking, hundreds of miles of exploring outdoors, on sidewalks and creek beds and shorelines and beaches and cliffs and paved streets and dirt roads and stone paths and green grass. But even in these sweetnesses, I connected with the earth’s power only momentarily, like an elusive radio signal with a flash of clarity that fades to static before you can catch the melody.

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Remembering my childhood helps. The greatest solace I ever took was outside. Only the earth was big enough to make the pains of growing up a little smaller. Throughout many childhood moves, the earth stood staunchly in place, or at least it seemed so to me then. Mountains replaced pine forests somewhere along the route from Minnesota to Wyoming, but the wind still blew and the dirt was still brown under my feet. Houses came and went, no bedroom was really mine, no house big enough for hiding, but the earth held secret places and the possibility of escape.

Nature mesmerized me, from the clay that could be dug out from the earth to the flowering trees in spring to the wetness of dew on morning grass. All through my childhood, I searched for hidden spots that could be mine alone, for portals into other worlds. Sometimes I found them, on the rocky shores of Lake Superior, and far out in the desolate prairie of Wyoming. Like in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Or A Wrinkle in Time. Or The Secret Garden. I saw doorways into alternate realities in every bowed tree branch, every deserted stretch of land, every tunnel of lilacs. Until one day, I didn’t.

Overnight, it seemed, just around the time of pimples and braces, I stopped seeing anything more than dirt, rocks, and trees. I forgot having ever searched. Those memories lay dormant for years, only to be awakened by the heady smell of dirt on weeds, the awkward act of pulling life from life, a weed to die and a baby to live, and crossing the threshold of motherhood.

Fear and the Search for Bird Island

Sleeping birds are vulnerable. This is why the lucky ones flock by the tens of thousands to roost for the night on the low, gnarled branches of the mangrove trees that flourish in the back bay waters of Estero Island, Florida, where I once spent a week with my husband Jon and our kids.

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In these quiet, tidal waters, masses of entangled leaves, boughs, and trunks spring out of the sea itself—not a sliver of earth protrudes above the water. On the landless Bird Island, some fifteen thousand birds gather at dusk to nod off in peace. No ground, no predators. These birds are fearless for the night. How I envy those birds on Bird Island. The romance of it makes me shudder: What would my life look like if I erased all fear? 

Fear of failing, fear of wounding, fear of falling short.

Yes, what would it mean to let go of my fear of the many wounds I’ve inflicted on my children? To believe instead that we are all safe, then and now? What if I erased every contraction of fear I ever felt during the years of my son’s melancholy for all things dead and gone: his first house, friends who’ve moved away, his homemade cardboard mailbox that I threw to the floor and broke (it still hurts to recall the snapping sound) in a sleep-deprived fit of rage when he was three years old, and his several deceased pets, including Popsicle the parakeet who dropped dead while he was traveling, adding shock and guilt to his inevitable heartbreak. What if I let each of these fears rise up and float away, until my son was as free as a bird, alight on a mangrove branch on Bird Island,  his blond head tucked under a sturdy wing?

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It’s exhausting, this process of eliminating fear … but also exhilarating. It's like imagining somewhere in your ancient psyche that the light is waning. Then intuitively taking wing to a certain deeply familiar grove of trees far out in the water where you know you will rest easy for the night, suspended nearly weightless against the endless sky.

For now, I throw the mail—assorted bills and senseless advertisements—into the mail basket and climb the stairs to my seventeen-year-old daughter’s bed. I lie down with her for a while. “Rub my back,” she says this time, instead of shooing me away as she does some other nights. Her shoulders are warm and yielding. I picture her face, which is turned away, and the faces of her siblings, their expressions, their unique quirks. I tick off a mental list of who needs what, who’s doing okay, who’s struggling. Eventually, all of us will sleep.

In sleep we are vulnerable. And the only Bird Island is us …  our flawed human hearts, striving to love one another and keep each other safe. I will love fiercely, but not fearfully. Let me rise to it, even if barely. That’s ultimately all I need. That’s my real Bird Island.

Jealous Goes to the Doll Hospital

The doctor stared over her glasses and leaned closer. She caressed the stumps where Blueberry’s arm and leg had once been. This grandmotherly surgeon, Clare Erickson, was (and still is, as far as I know) our region’s most prominent “dollologist.” She was clearly weighing Blueberry’s prospects. “Do you know what a morgue is?” she said to Lillie, who was seven. 

 Jealous with her new wig, circa 2004

Jealous with her new wig, circa 2004

Lillie stared back at Dr. Clare, entranced. And afraid. “No,” she said. 

“A morgue is where they keep bodies,” said the doctor. “When my husband died in the hospital, I went to see his body, and then they took him to the morgue, down in the basement of the hospital. They kept him there until they moved him for the funeral.”

“Umm, hmm,” said Lillie politely. Sophie and Max, Lillie’s older twelve-year-sister and ten-year-old brother, looked stunned.

“We have a morgue here, where we keep parts of dolls,” Dr. Clare continued. “But this baby, she’s a bit on the pale side.” She turned to me. “We’ll take a look, though, and if we have any matching parts, she can have them for the cost of attachment.”

Antie Clare’s Doll Hospital has been operating in North St. Paul for thirty years. Here, in this strange suburb in the shadow of a huge snowman statue, nine doll doctors and nurses work on up to three hundred doll patients at any given time. Dr. Clare herself has been doctoring dolls since 1968, the year I was born. This feels meaningful, since the primary patient we’ve brought in is not Blueberry, though her puppy-related injuries are admittedly ghastly, but Jealous, my childhood doll, who is also now mothered by Lillie. Since almost all of the hospital’s customers are adults, Lillie’s presence as an actual child with a sick doll was enough to warrant having her baby rushed ahead of the others, a gesture that surprised and impressed me.

The problems with Jealous date back to the years she spent in the care of Lillie’s older sister, Sophie. The “Sophie years” involved frequent bathing with lots of soap. Jealous developed a range of water-related maladies: missing eyelashes, a split down her plastic abdomen, and–worst of all–irreversibly matted hair that emits a mildly disturbing odor. It was also during the Sophie years that the doll acquired her unfortunate name. (Hyper, Jealous’s sister, has since gone missing.) Blueberry (also named by Sophie, who was stubbornly resistant to conventional naming practices) tagged along with Jealous today only as an afterthought, since her ancestry cannot be traced back further than the toy bin at the Goodwill. Sad to say, this means she doesn’t quite merit the cost of any reconstruction beyond bandaging. But free limbs from the morgue are certainly an unanticipated bonus.

According to the doctor, it’s going to cost less to replace Jealous’s eyes than to repair the lashes. “Anyway,” Dr. Clare said as she pointed to the light blue cornea, “you see how there’s rust in there, and that cloudiness is actually mold.” She explained each procedure directly to Lillie, with the patience of an experienced practitioner. “We can’t fix this hair, so we’re going to shave her head bald and attach a whole new wig. You’re going to like it,” she said. Next, she removed the bandages from Jealous’s torso. “Who did this surgery?”

We all froze, as if somebody was going to be in big trouble. Sophie bravely owned up to her handiwork.

“With work like this, you should be helping at the doll hospital,” said the doctor. She told Lillie that instead of fixing the abdominal crack, she’d fit Jealous with a whole new torso (a steal at five dollars, not counting the limb-reattachment labor).

The paperwork was complete, and it was time to officially check in Jealous and Blueberry. But first they had to be brought up to date on their measles shots, which Lillie and Max administered with relish. The naked, vaccinated dolls had to be placed under a quilt in the crib in the corner of the shop, right beneath the high shelves with rows and rows of headless doll bodies. Nearby sat a wise and watchful Mrs. Beasley, worth a whopping one hundred and fifty dollars–but still humble on account of her drastic homeliness.

I was aware as we left that it’s probably tragic to spend money–let’s just say it was barely more than a hundred dollars–on a worthless doll. But maybe it’s more tragic the way everything in our lives has become disposable. I can’t say where the truth lies and I don’t even want to. But either way, I cannot deny what an odd comfort it is, knowing the doll hospital still exists, after all these years.

Tumbleweeds

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With each year that passes, I get more desperate to take Jon to Wyoming. I want to get in the car and drive, drive across the country that I remember from when I was six, my mom at the wheel, my sister pinching half-moon marks into my thighs in the backseat of the purple Impala. Mountains weren’t supposed to look like that! That’s not the way I drew them. What heartbreaking disappointment.

I want to take Jon to the tumbleweeds, to the sagebrush. He knows this landscape too, the harshness of it. It’s the landscape of his first marriage, the years in California, where it fell apart. And yet, he still loves the West, still exclaims over its beauty. I learned this secret last summer in Los Angeles, as he swooned over one of the ugliest stretches of beaches we’ve ever visited. The beach right there in L.A., an arid, heavily built, way overcrowded and smoggy coast all snugged up to the congested highway. It didn’t seem beautiful to me in comparison to the turquois horseshoe beaches of Culebra, or the deserted white sugar oases of Tulum, or the entirely barren white and wild grass beaches of Michigan, or even the lovely, if popular, beaches of Florida’s Ft. Meyers, Sanibel, and Captiva.

This ability to see beauty, to continue to see beauty, to grip beauty, in spite of its flaws, is most certainly Jon’s most potent human gift.

I want to bring him to Wyoming, my Wyoming. The ugly place, the place I haven’t returned to in all these years.  I wonder if he can find the beauty there? In the unimpressive foothills of Casper Mountain, in the endless winds, in the stinging dust and tumbleweeds and the piercing and irredeemable barbed wire.

The Power of Retreat

 photo by Eric Marmota

photo by Eric Marmota

This blog post is an excerpt from a terrific essay on the power of yoga teacher training, much of which is readily applicable to a writing and yoga retreat. Especially the concepts of clearing stuck energy and experiencing self-transformation that carries over into every other part of your life, long after the retreat is over. In surrendering to ourselves, we surrender to life, and in surrendering to life, we surrender to our art, finally. Surrender is the opposite of giving up, it is giving over and accessing the constant flow of energy always available to us. Writes Silvia Mordoni in her Yoganonymous piece, 3 Reasons Why Yoga Teacher Training Changes Your Life:

Something magical and mystical happens when a group of high-intentioned individuals make the decision to gather together ... with the purpose of uplifting their lives & expanding their consciousness into radical authenticity.
The result is something beyond words. It is, as best as I can explain it, the Alchemy of Yoga at its best. Chapter 2 verse 1 of the Yoga Sutras sets forth how the Alchemy of Yoga actually works. “Tapas svadhyaya ishvara pranidhana kriya yoga.” Translated to mean that yoga helps us transform ourselves on three levels:
1. Physical Alchemy—Tapas: helps us ignite the changes we want to make in our lives. It is about the getting fired up and passionate. Literally it means heating the body through moving and breathing in the vinyasa.
2. Mental Alchemy—Svadhyaya: while we are following the discipline of tapas and engaging in physical practice to help move our stuck energy we are watching ourselves. In yoga we study the self to learn about the self. Here the mental alchemy is through self-observation. We witness what is going on in our thoughts, what are we thinking.
3. Spiritual Alchemy—ishvara pranidahana: as we are doing and watching we let go of the ego of judgment. We move beyond wanting life to be different and begin to feel the surrender that allows what is being offered to mix together. We practice ishvara pranidhana as we trust the universal intelligence that hugs us from all directions to know what it’s doing. And once we find this trust we begin to believe that beauty and goodness are within us flowing nonstop, and there is no reason to stop this flow for its natural current is to align with the current of grace that is everywhere outside of us. Beauty becomes our way of life. Happiness becomes our natural alchemy.
...[Y]ou wake up to the power you have to go into the laboratory of your life experience and mix the potions you want to create your best life going forward!

Homecoming

 Theo decides it's safe to venture out from under the bed

Theo decides it's safe to venture out from under the bed

Tonight, I experienced living proof that we should never too tightly rein in our idea of what's possible. 

Six months ago, back in the hot hazy days of August, while my daughters Lillie and Sophie and I were in Peru on a volunteer medical mission with Smile Network International, our beloved cat Theo decided to go on a walk ... and not come back. This was shocking and heartbreaking, because not only was Theo a birthday kitten for Lillie on her sweet thirteenth (she's seventeen now), but he was also the nicest, most affectionate, pleasantly lazy homebody of a cat you'd ever hope to meet. How could he just scoot out the front door and disappear without a trace?

The girls and I got the dreaded email about Theo being missing from my husband Jon late one evening after a long day at the Cusco hospital. On the one hand he didn't want to tell us, but on the other hand he needed a picture of Theo and he knew I had many on my computer. I quickly searched my iPhoto for the best, clearest shots of Mr. Handsy-Pants, as I liked to call him, and emailed them to Jon, who made posters and plastered them all over our neighborhood. He trekked up and down our block and into the small patch of woods in our neighborhood park each morning, despite the fact that he works at Mayo Clinic--ninety miles from our home in Minneapolis--and must therefore leave home by 5:45 a.m. in order to catch his commuter bus. Still, Jon made these daily predawn rounds looking for Theo. But no dice. 

Weeks passed, and we got lots of calls and emails about various Theo lookalikes. None panned out to be our actual runaway. We checked shelters. We signed up for the neighborhood listserv (that we never knew existed until a concerned neighbor recommended it as a way to watch for Theo). We continued to walk the neighborhood. We put out bowls of delicious canned food. We turned up nothing but flies.

School started, and on the first cold morning of the year, Lillie's two goldfish who were living outside in our small pond dropped dead (can fish "drop dead"?) over night from the sudden plummet in temperature. It shouldn't have happened; we should have brought them in but in the past they'd always been fine through September. Lillie texted me from school that day, despondent: Mom, everything is dying....

More weeks passed, and the calls and emails about Theo stopped coming. We began to accept, in a surreal and painful kind of way, that we might not find our sweet cat. We talked about whether to have a "ceremony." Meanwhile, we sent Theo our wishes for a happy life wherever he was. We told ourselves that he'd found a nice new family, that he'd charmed his way into a comfy spot on somebody else's couch. We couldn't imagine any other possibility.

Halloween came and went, then Thanksgiving. One chilly afternoon before Christmas, Lillie and I were in the kitchen making tea, and our conversation turned to Theo. "I just can't believe we'll never see him again or know where he is, or what happened," she said. Tears spilled down her cheeks and her breath caught in her chest until it became ragged sobs. I held her. There was nothing else I could do.

Christmas came and went, then New Year's. Sophie moved to Florida, and Lillie's brother Max moved back home to stay for a few months before college classes resume next fall (he'd been serving a term in the Conservation Corps of Minnesota). Things changed. Things stayed the same.

And then, this afternoon, buried in a flurry of work correspondence and business email, came a message from Jon. It stood out for its subject line: THEO?!!?!?.  Jon had forwarded the latest digest from the neighborhood listserv, which featured a gigantic picture of our cat. Both of us knew instantly it was Theo, not an impostor.  I compared the photo to several in my files, even though I didn't need to. It was definitely him. Someone had seen Theo several blocks from our house, and had been feeding him for a while before taking him inside last week. But this kindly neighbor was going out of town for the weekend, so asked his cousin to take the cat in, which the cousin did.

The cousin, however, already had a cat. He didn't feel he could give Theo a permanent home. So he took him to the vet looking for a microchip (there was none). Then he took Theo to the feline shelter, but was turned away. It was full. So as a last ditch effort, the cousin of the good neighbor posted the pic of Theo and the message about him to our neighborhood listserv, along with the caveat that if he couldn't find Theo's owner before Monday, he'd be dropping him at the Humane Society.

 Back in Lillie's lap

Back in Lillie's lap

As you know, that didn't happen, because Jon and I picked Theo up and brought him home forthwith. We still can't believe it. Lillie is beside herself. We all are. And Theo is clearly very pleased to be home, despite being quarantined in Lillie's bedroom until his vet check (feline leukemia? parasites?) tomorrow morning. We hope he'll get a clean bill of health; he certainly looks plump, glossy, and happy.

Which makes us think the story we told ourselves wasn't too far off, that most likely Theo has had a comfy couch to sleep on for most of his time away. Which begs the question of how or why he ended up outside again last week. Maybe, we think, he was trying one more time to find his way back home ... which miraculously, he did.

Expect the unexpected!

 Bliss!

Bliss!

Hands Above, Feet Below

You see, I remember the injuries, tally the damage as we slip through minutes and spin through days, barely touching down one year after the next. This is my nature, staking markers at the landmarks of pain as much as the epiphanies of joy. I can’t help it, Sophie. It’s the way I experience the world, and the way I experience the gift of your life.

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