“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
~ Georgia O’Keefe
When I look at the women I admire, they have all taken risks. There’s Lila, my first yoga teacher and mentor, who closed her studio, moved to Canada, and has gone back to school to study Chinese Medicine. There’s Melissa, my friend who took the daring leap and began writing her first novel. Another left a marriage. Another gave birth to her third boy.
My grandmother had six boys and divorced my grandfather when three of them were still young. My mother married my father; gave birth to me; and continues to risk the pain of separation by making friends no matter how many times she and dad move.
Every day the #AmyPohler’sSmartGirls Instagram feed posts profiles of women and girls, dead and alive, celebrating their achievements. I am struck by the grainy, black and white photos of feminists, and chemists, and painters who look so staid and strangled in their Victorian portraits; whose outer worlds must have been littered with barriers; and whose interior lives must have been on fire. I am in awe of young girls and teenagers — the new generation of scientists, activists, artists — blazing their own paths in the brambles of this difficult world.
Anais Nin famously wrote, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Which feels so appropriate this Spring. Looking back, many of what I consider to be the big risks of my life took place during this season of blooming. I got married in the Spring. Cole was born in the Spring. I ended my marriage in the Spring. I told my high school boyfriend, “I like you more than I should,” in the Spring. I wrote the bulk of my novel in the Spring.
I started teaching yoga in the Spring. Today is the eleventh anniversary of the moment I stepped onto the mat as a teacher for the first time and promptly forgot everything I planned to say. For the next ninety, excruciating minutes I said nothing more eloquent than, “Inhale, right foot forward. Exhale, left heel to the floor.”
Each risk, no matter how small, felt BIG. Each time I felt the courage and fear I imagine daffodils must experience when they peak out of the ground at the end of February and wonder if this is the year they will be killed by frost. But even if they don’t blossom one year, they try again the next. And the next, and the next, and the next.
Perhaps this is what it means to live in the Spring. To muster all of the energy stored up in the dark of Winter and step out into unstable temperatures with the fierce hope that you can be the lovely thing you know you are. To push up through the earth and bare one’s face to the unforgiving sun because it is time to take a risk and bloom.
When I was pregnant with Cole I imagined how powerful I would feel when I gave birth. I pictured myself heavy with the strength of a goddess. I was not prepared for the emotional reality of that companion.
I may have looked like I was handling the process well, breathing through each contraction and the like, but inside I was drowning. Every insecurity, every anxiety, every desire to quit leaked from their carefully constructed compartments. I bit my lips so I wouldn’t ask for an epidural. I prayed there would be a reason for a c-section so I wouldn’t have to do this.
In the transformation stage the cervix dilates from 7 to 10 centimeters. This is the hardest phase. The waves are so intense it feels like being racked from the inside, and the only way out is through. Through the pain. Down the dark tunnel with Persephone traveling to Hades in the underworld. This is followed by the Ring of Fire in which the baby uses the body like a matchbox, like Persephone crossing the river Phlegethon.
Then the baby arrives. And it’s brilliant. Until the midwife presses on your abdomen to deliver the placenta, and it feels like knives stabbing your already wrenched body.
A friend recently gave birth to her third child. The labor happened so quickly she did not have time for the epidural she had with her previous children. “It was powerful,” she said. “Like the crucifixion.”
Which is what I wrote in my journal when Cole was less than a day old.
I never understood the crucifixion because I was caught up in the idea that it was transactional. Something went wrong in God’s good world and someone would have to shed blood to make God ok with it all again.
After labor I started to understand on a visceral level that the crucifixion is not transactional. It is transformational. With every breath Jesus teaches us how to live a transformed life. He models the difficult and freeing path of love. He embodies the pain of betrayal, violence, and descent; and what happens on the other side.
This week is Holy Week. The Episcopal Church engages the Passion of Christ with The Paschal Triduum which consists of three liturgies: Maundy Thursday marks the last supper; Good Friday moves through the crucifixion; and the Great Vigil of Easter celebrated on Saturday night rings in the Feast of the Resurrection.*
We all traverse the path of descent in our own ways. Childbirth is one. There are others. We lose friends, parents, children, pieces of ourselves. We get lost in relationships and in our own minds. We suffer violence or accidents or illness. We brush up against mortality.
The trick is to keep going. To walk through the underworld like Persephone. To endure the Passion like Jesus, knowing that a new life awaits.
After separating from my ex-husband I decided to gift myself with a ring I had wanted for more than a decade: a small painting of a Magnolia blossom encircled by gold and set atop a silver band.** Magnolia’s represent femininity and perseverance. I found it waiting in my mailbox when I returned from the Easter Vigil. I unwrapped the brown paper and lifted the lid of the jewelry box with all the excitement of a child on Christmas morning.
But it wasn’t Christmas. It was Easter. Cole was asleep in his bed. Persephone and Jesus returned from the underworld, and I was reborn.
Happy Easter Blessings,
*If you’ve never been to an Easter Vigil, I invite you to join me this Saturday at 8pm at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cary.
When I was in middle school I was obsessed with the One Last Wish book series by Lurlene McDaniel. With such dubious titles as Let Him Live, and Sixteen and Dying, they were basically romance novels except with terminal illness. Even at ten I was exhausted by life and harbored a secret longing to be really sick so there would be a reason for how poorly I felt. Every time I got a bruise on the playground (which was most of the time, I bruise like a peach), I was convinced I had cancer. But then the bruise would fade and other than fatigue, bloody noses, and migraines, I’d be just fine.
Except I wasn’t.
The thing about chronic illness is that it can bump you up against, if not your own mortality, your values.
A day or so after deciding to take on death meditation as a Lenten discipline, I heard an interview on NPR with Kate Bowler. Kate is a professor at Duke Divinity who is roughly my age, has a toddler, and wrote a book called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved which chronicles the diagnosis and treatment of her terminal colon cancer. It’s funny and poignant and sad. She’s still undergoing treatment, and in addition to writing, hosts the Everything Happens Podcast. Ever the romantic, I listened to the episode, “Costly Love” first, in which she interviews Lucy Kalanithi, wife of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who wrote the stunning memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Paul died from cancer before completing the book, and Lucy finished the manuscript. I wept for the last twenty pages.
The intriguing thing about my experience with death meditation thus far is that has been so lighthearted. Far from the somber, dour, difficult task I was expecting, I simply feel bolstered.
Most of my experience with death has been tangential. Meditating on death amidst my pristine, white privilege of safety and good health feels like a betrayal of friends who’ve endured big losses, and of strangers who live with day to day violence. But, these are my circumstances and I follow where I’m led.
Spurred by the questions raised in Everything Happens for a Reason and When Breath Becomes Air, I asked myself, “What would I do if I knew I had one day left to live?” Answer: I would take Cole to the Life and Science Museum in Durham and ride the train with him for as long as he wants. And when he’s sick of it, I’d do whatever else he wants to do. If I knew I had just one day, I would spend it all with him. But I don’t know that. And I can’t spend all day every day doing whatever Cole wants. It’s not practical, healthy, or possible.
What I can do, what we can all do, is choose to live the moments we live with purpose and intention. Living with purpose involves the risk of hope that somewhere, somehow, someway, life has meaning. In When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes that as humans we are meaning makers, and most of that meaning comes from our relationships. After his diagnosis, he and Lucy talk about having a child.
Lucy says, “Wouldn’t having a child make your death so much harder?”
Paul replies, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
Lucy gave birth to their daughter eight months before Paul died.
As sappy and outrageous as the One Last Wish books of my youth were, they, like the cancer memoirs of today, include the risk and cost of love. I pray that when I take the time to look into Cole’s eyes, when I organize my calendar, when I take up a challenge, when I rest, when I am with my community, that I am worthy of their pages.
In meditating on how to spend my days in harmony with my deeper aspirations and values I have decided to shift the blog to every other week, or possibly twice a month. I need the space in my schedule to breathe and to create room for other writing projects. I also want to make sure you are getting top quality work. You’ll hear from me again during Holy Week.
Thank you for holding this space, your space, and for bringing meaning and purpose to my life.
Photo © Melinda Thomas
Last week the Facebook algorithm asked me if I cared to remember this post from four years ago.
Due to waking up too early in the morning I’ve started doing my practice in the dark, next to my bed. If you’ve never done yoga in the dark, try it! There’s something so peaceful, so restorative and refreshing and so challenging about moving and balancing in total darkness. Grateful for this experience.
I wrote this when I was eight, almost nine months pregnant and find it hilarious. And also true. With the exception of the few months out of the year when it’s light between 5:30 – 6:30am, most of my asana practice takes place in darkness.
Practicing before dawn presents several challenges. First is the monumental task of getting out of bed. Second, I’m not as limber that early in the morning so many of the advanced asanas are out of rotation. Third, balance poses are much more difficult in the dark.
Practicing in darkness also has its advantages. There is a lack of external stimuli. No light assaults the retinas; no sound assaults the ears. Because balancing is a challenge with no clear point of visual focus, I reach out for help – to my chair, the window, the lampshade. I am often too self-reliant. In the dark I have the opportunity, whether I take it or not, to surrender the need to look or move or be a certain way. Also, I get to stay in my pajamas.
In spite of its benefits, if I had my druthers I’d sleep until sunrise and practice in the light. Now that we are approaching Spring and moving into the time of year when my practice will be a in sync with daybreak. It will be a little easier to get out of bed. A little easier to move. A little easier to balance.
I’m curious how my body and soul will respond to the rhythm of Spring this year. March to early April, and Mid-May are “danger zones” for me. The return of light and life to the Earth, while delicious, can be too energizing. This is the time of year when I more prone to mania. When I sleep less, get wired, grow irritable, am really excited about life and all the things I can do in a day. It’s fun at first. Then the irritability grows; thoughts race faster and faster; songs play on repeat and grow louder and louder in my head until I cover my ears to block out the noise. I can’t sleep past 4 and I’m too tired but to “up” to come down. Until I do. And then I crash.
This March, I hope things will be different. I have finally found a medicine that works to keep this under control and which I can tweak as needed. I have a mid-month appointment with my acupuncturist who will help keep my nervous system in check. I have restorative asana, vigorous asana, and running. I have death meditation.
My Lenten death meditation has taken an interesting turn and become a mantra, “Everything that has a birth has a death, and I am no exception.”
This is such a relief. This is the peace of practicing yoga in darkness. This is the gift. To remember that all the worries and joys and trials, no matter how large, will pass. To know deep in the bones that everything that has a life has a rhythm. Everything that goes up will come down. Everything that is light will become dark; everything that is dark will one day become light. And we are no exception.