Who Am I and What’s for Dinner?

Image: Nancy Vala Art + Words

Some days, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’m not tuned in at all — to the body, to other people, to my angels, to my kids, to my wife. I wonder if I’m missing something significant and important. The proverbial boat.

I glance over at the sink full of dishes and sigh. There’s no boat, of course. I know better. But that vague sensation — am I missing something big? — tugs at me like a little child, or a dog who wants to go out but then when you get outside, just stands there and looks at you with an expression that says, “So? Why are we out here?”

Ask me to “tune in” to the body and I draw a blank. The question shoots me straight into my head, where I’m likely to get all cerebral about how to do that. Thinking about how to do anything is a sure way to not tune in, in fact.

But on the mat, tuning into the body just happens. There is no thinking about it. Inhale arms overhead, slowly lower down, fingertips to floor, exhale to downward dog; even writing these words steadies my breath and reminds me that writing isn’t the only practice.

I find myself wondering about things like who I am and what’s for dinner in the same thought. The mat is a merciful place where both questions can wait.

When I really tune in, what do I find? A child with the sweetest smile, whose first book she named Bad Days for Jennifer at age five. A dreamer, literally, who remembers and reviews multiple dreams every morning before waking. Trains and forests, memories of other lifetimes. Someone who has left the body and returned to the body many times.

Where are the animals? A nest, a den. Inside of this body is both child and parent, hunter and gatherer, one for whom there can never be enough deep silence but who was known as a kid for chattering nonstop. A mockingbird. A thousand languages to learn.

She opens her eyes and thighs and mouth and out rushes sound, sound kept for years inside a cave no light could reach. Who is this body? I don’t know, but I want to her hear sing.

Eleven Things I Learned in Physical Therapy That Relate to Writing + Life

childs-poseI started physical therapy last week for the first time ever. It’s probably long overdue; I’ve had some lower back stiffness and pain on and off for nearly a year now. My first appointment with a kind woman named Rebecca resulted in a little worksheet with drawings of a person lying on their back — single knee to chest stretch, double knee to chest stretch, isometric abdominal exercise for core stability.

Today, I went back for the second time. For 45 minutes, I enjoyed the novelty of focusing on a single thing: My lower back. I could practically hear my body thanking me for listening. I made some mental notes during our session. Now it’s later, and I’m sitting here in the yellow chair that is probably not great for my back, the sun streaming in through south-facing windows warm on my hands over the keyboard.

Here’s what I learned today during physical therapy, that I’m pretty sure I can apply to writing and life.

1. Be honest.

Rebecca: How’d it go this week? 
Me: Well [looking down]… I didn’t really do my homework.
R: Thanks for telling me.
Me: Reminds me of writing, or anything, I guess. It’s easy to make excuses, when really, I just didn’t do the exercises.
R: Well, let’s get started and see how today goes.
Me: Great.

That was it. She asked, I told her. And now? We added a few things, and it’s up to me to decide how important this is to me and what will help me commit. Lying about what I did or didn’t do is certainly not going to alleviate my pain.

2. Pay attention and slow down.

Rebecca: You might want to hold each of these stretches for about 30 seconds.
Me: Wow, that makes me realize how fast I’m usually going.
Rebecca: Exactly.

The sensations and movements, like the learning itself, are so subtle sometimes you could miss them altogether if you rush through. Awareness of what’s happening requires slowing down — something that comes as a revelation all over again.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had on Sunday; at one point, I asked a question and then launched into a story, only pausing when the person I’d asked pointed out that I had said I wanted to hear her thoughts. I wasn’t paying attention. This doesn’t have to mean I was too much, it just means “push pause.” Undoing shame around this is a practice itself.

3. A little is more than nothing.

Me: I always tell the people in my writing groups that some words are more than no words.
Rebecca: Right. It’s like that here, too. Some movement is more than no movement. 

Will I do ALL of the exercises today and tomorrow, before my next appointment on Thursday? I don’t know yet. But I will do some. And that will more than before, which was none. Enough said. More words is more than no words. Five seconds is more than no seconds. Seriously, it is that simple.

4. Most things don’t happen suddenly.

As we were talking about various yoga poses this morning, I flashed on classes I took as long as 15 years ago, when I would avoid certain back bends or find myself seeking relief in child’s pose. Why? My lower back ached. I also remembered feeling that same ache after a long day of walking in NYC or Boston — as a teenager.

In other words, it suddenly became clear to me that no single injury, incident, or accident had landed me in Rebecca’s PT office.

My natural (hyper-extended) posture + two pregnancies + running + not much core strength + time = pain that had finally become chronic enough not to ignore.

How bad does something have to get before it warrants your time and attention?

5. It’s nice to have help.

Oh, it felt so good to lie on the table, even on top of that paper covering that gets all creased and makes that papery sound. To let her bend my leg, her hands on my knee and heel respectively, yielding completely to the movement she initiated. It felt good to be learning useful things.

It felt good to be doing something about something that hasn’t been working — and to have some guidance about how to do this safely and effectively in ways I could take home.

It felt good to have help.

6. You can’t know in advance.

My hope, of course, is that working with a physical therapist and learning what I can do on my own will pay off with pain relief and greater strength. It’s likely that I’ll get out of it what I put into it.

This reminds me of something Krishna Das said at the Kirtan we went to last weekend:

“We want to know what chanting will do — to us, for us — before we chant. And there’s no way to know. You can only begin and, in his words “keep singing.”

It is so simple as to be obvious that this applies to not just chanting, but… everything. No matter how many people before you have walked a given path, there is no precedent, ever, for your own lived experience. The deeper you go, the more your own body and mind and heart and choice and voice may surprise you.

And the fact remains: There’s no way to know in advance how it will go or what it will “do” for me, no matter what “it” is.

I don’t always have the most disciplined track record. When did I stop stretching? I asked Rebecca at one point (as if she’d be able to tell me). But what I didn’t do doesn’t matter. And while there’s no predicting how this will go, I’ve signed up to give it a shot and see what happens. My job is to keep singing, er, stretching.

7. no one else can do it for you.

Unless you live in some kind of cool sci-fi world where people have actual body-doubles, there’s no surrogate for you. I am the only one who can take  the time today — five or ten minutes at a pop, say — to take care of my body. Nobody else is going to do it, nor could they even if they offered.

Whether it’s on the yoga mat or the blank page, there’s no substitute for the ordinary yet radical act of showing up.

8. change happens. so does inertia.

If I go to physical therapy and do my homework, I may see changes in my body. My hope — my expectation — is that these will be positive changes. Improvement. I’ve defined this as less pain, more mobility, and greater strength and endurance.

If I don’t go to physical therapy, or I go but don’t do jack shit at home, I may also see changes in my body. My guess is that things will at worst, worsen, and at best, continue to go the way they’ve been going — a little something we call inertia.

In this case — where there is actual pain — I am essentially inviting more pain but doing nothing. The changes that will happen may be negative; they will hurt, they will limit me in some ways, and I will have to adjust other things in my life around that.

Inertia is not an inherently good or bad thing, but it is a thing. And it is, to some degree, a choice. 

9. don’t wait.

If you’re hurting — whether it’s your body, your heart, or your mind that hurts — don’t ignore yourself. I say this knowing full well how easy it is to put stuff off, to say we don’t have time. In fact, I said that to Mani last week — on my way to PT, no less! I believe our exact dialogue went like this:

Me: I don’t have time for PT. 
Her: You don’t have time for not PT.

(Wise, that one, isn’t she?)

If you don’t know where to start, start right where you are. Write something down. Make a list of symptoms, whether they’re physical or emotional, specific or vague. Tell a friend, cast a line, or make the call.

10. trust yourself.

Always. Both with doctors and teachers, I’ve had experiences when I pushed aside my own experience and deferred to the “expert.” Every time I’ve done this, it caught up with me. I “paid” for not listening to my body or not taking my own instincts seriously. Just because someone has professional training does not mean they know more about you than you do.

At the end of the day, only we can know what it feels like in there. (May we encounter practitioners who value and respect this dance.)

11. the world needs us whole.

We can do so much more from each other when we’re tending to our own pain rather than lobbing it at each other or hobbling around hurting and unable to deal.

**

These insights may not be life-changing or new. But more and more, I find that it’s revisiting the small things that makes for big changes in my life — all of it, the loving, the working, the writing, the having a body thing. One knee lift and one word, at a time.

The Art of Withstanding Fear

fog Fear can be a bitch — especially when it’s ungrounded, based in thoughts and not realities (which is usually the case, for me anyway). Maybe it’s fear based on something that happened in the past, or fear based on the idea of what could happen in the future, or some crazy collision of both of these.

What it isn’t — this elusive, illusory, free-floating fear — is here. In this quiet kitchen, fridge humming, one kid happily at school, the other getting ready since I let her sleep in, working away, interacting with really wonderful people who are deep in their own complicated, real lives (we all are, we all are), my wife in the other room eating oatmeal.

That whole “all is well” thing is quite useful sometimes, and requires a complete acceptance of the fullness and completeness of this very moment. This very moment. This very moment. So often if one of my kids is experiencing pain — physical or emotional — my urge is overwhelming to rush in and sooth or fix or help. But really, we don’t need to save our kids from themselves, any more than we need to save ourselves from ourselves.

“You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.” – Glennon Doyle Melton

I love this Glennon quote, because it reminds me not to avoid the stuff that hurts or the stuff that scares me. It’s such a steep practice for me sometimes, to speak my own truth, to balance listening and open-mindedness with what my body’s telling me. Sometimes I feel like I suck at it. Sometimes I want to avoid anything smacking of confrontation, to disappear, to make it go away. And mostly, what I need to trust is that it’s coming from love, but not everything requires action and reaction.

Can I be the mountain? Can I withstand some discomfort if the alternative is to swallow my voice in order to make others feel more comfortable? These, to me, are not easy questions to sit with. I want to say the answer is an obvious “hell yes,” but the truth is I’m not (yet) always as steady in my courage as I want to be.

The Art of Intuition

Intuition
For days now, I’ve been thinking about intuition. And there’s one thing I keep coming back to: To intuit is to get INTO it. It being what you know to be true, but must trust in the absence of empirical evidence or rational thought.

I googled it and was shocked to see lots of links related to “stick-to-itiveness,” but nothing about into-it-tiveness. It seems so obvious! Such a great way of defining something intangible.

When my intuition is strong, it means I’m tapped into something, some knowledge source, that transcends what Einstein called “the faithful servant” of the rational mind. This — this intuitive mind — he called “a sacred gift.” And indeed, we need both. But Einstein knew what he was talking about when he went on to say that in prizing the first, we’ve forgotten the second.

The only way to get it back is to go into it. To step away from rational and tap into those layers of knowing that live beneath the surface of linear thought and logical explanation.

I was stirring rice cereal for Mani a bit ago. Standing at the stove, moving the spoon round and round the edges of the pot as the concoction bubbled and thickened. “Pearl is going to call me any minute,” I thought. Just then, my phone lit up and I saw her dad’s name across the screen. I cannot tell you how often this happens — between me and my own mom and between me and both of my kids. It’s a small thing, no doubt. Inconsequential and probably not worth reporting.

But it has to do with this kind of listening. And the more naps I take, the more convinced I become that it’s only by resisting the compulsion to stay busy at all times that my ability to tap into a knowing that defies explanation can grow strong.

Today, I had the privilege of spending just shy of an hour on Skype in conversation with my Inky Path partner, Cigdem (Chi-dem) Kobu, and Alana Shereen, host of the Create Your Magical Life podcast. Alana had us on her show to discuss creativity, writing, and community — and their many intersections. I was nervous before the call began, in that heart-thumping kind of way that makes you know you’re alive and not just going through the motions (a feeling I can’t seem to stray from for long). I jotted down a few notes; my rational brain faithfully serving me, telling me I’d better have something to look at and refer to as we talked.

Then our call began. I got settled into the little butterfly chair in Pearl’s room — the quietest spot I could find. Alana’s rich, warm voice immediately put me at ease, and within minutes of taking turns with Cigdem responding to her questions, and hearing Alana’s thoughtful responses in turn, I was at ease. I was IN IT. I also sensed her own intuitive approach, letting the conversation flow rather than forcing it into a certain form. I thought about the way I write, and at one point, I think I even mentioned that intuitive writing can sound intimidating.

It’s actually liberating.

I have a pretty strong tendency to feel overwhelmed. It’s a habit, really, and like any habit, not inherent to my being. On the other hand, varying degrees of anxiety and depression are as familiar to me as my morning coffee — just not nearly as welcome. Thankfully, these have never been so severe as to keep me from functioning in social or professional settings, as I’m well aware they can and do for millions of people. But couple them with an over-developed intellect and tendency to be so self-reflective that I could get lost in my own mind if I’m not vigilant?

Learning to trust my intuition has become equal parts anchor, compass, and comfort.

To write into-it. To sit still even though there are a million ways to stay busy. Because of this, in fact. Anne Sexton schooled, “put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” It’s hard to do when your mind is swirling with worries, most of which aren’t things you can do anything about. It’s even harder to write from a place of being outside of, rather than tapping into, experience.

After the call with Cigdem and Alana, I made some lunch for us and then attempted to settle in at my desk. I really did. On the weekends the kids are with their dad, I take roughly 24 hours off from working for Shabbat, and then try to make good use of Sundays as a work day. Being self-employed, one of the wonders if having a great deal of flexibility throughout the week; I love being able to shape my days around the kids’ schedules, my wife’s medical needs, and our own physical and emotional wellbeing.

On the other hand: Boundaries, yo. And the inherent instability in not having an employer other than myself. I work for every single dollar I earn to support our family, and am still learning how to truly trust both my intuition and the natural ebb and flow of this way of working. A day doesn’t go by that I’m not thankful for the ways it stretches me, suits me, and even sometimes startles me. And the stress of it is no more or less something to manage than the stress I experienced in pretty much every job I’ve ever held.

By this time, it was mid-afternoon. The sun had come out and I was wearing running clothes, though the furthest I’d ventured from the house was first thing in the morning, to go see the iris I’ve been tracking for the past five days (it bloomed!). I was not feeling into it. I was sitting there at my desk feeling out of it. Isn’t it cool, how even the language of this says it all? Intuit… into it. Being intuitive meant dropping into the moment, and in turn, that meant surrendering the rational mind.

My rational mind screamed.

You cannot rest! You have to organize your desk! You have to write poetry prompts for July! You have to finish planning the retreat! You have to fill your June two-week groups! You have to read the amazing writing in the amazing Mother, May I group!

(Seriously, I am not exaggerating about the screaming. My rational mind is a loud mofo, and a bit into fear-mongering, to boot).

My intuition, on the other hand, that sacred gift, had teamed up with the body as if so often does. The body never lies.

The body never lies.

And so I lay down with Mani, who herself was ready for a nap. Maybe I’ll just rest for an hour, I thought, though I didn’t set an alarm. Trust, trust, the body whispered. Rest, rest, intuition echoed. She pulled me in close, and I woke up two hours later to the most beautiful light outside our bedroom windows. Yellow and green, the kind of sunshine that precedes a storm. And sure enough, it began to pour. I stayed like that for a long time, just listening to the rain, drifting in and out, half-remembering dreams, sticky with sweat, the cool sheets draped along with Mani’s arms across my body.

Just writing about it slows my heartbeat.

Trusting intuition can be the scariest thing you’ll ever do. Because it doesn’t necessarily align (in fact, it often seems to be at odds with) what you think you should do. What your mind is screaming at you to do. But imagine a child, with two parents who do nothing but scream at each other. How awful and sad and frightening. This is how it feels to live inside a self where the mind and body are screaming at and not listening to each other.

To make space, to take rest, to find pockets of stillness and silence and not “being productive” — these are ways into a more peaceful marriage of mind and body. And while there may be bumps as a result of tuning into rather than dropping the signal to that sacred gift, these are nothing you won’t survive — whereas the stress of ignoring what you sense and know to be true can, over time, kill you. If not your body, then your spirit.

Every single one of us has an extraordinary life.

As Mani and I woke slowly from our long afternoon nap, I imagined an aerial view of us zooming out, from the bedroom, up above the room, into space. How tiny we looked. How fragile we are…. How sacred this gift of being alive, of resting together as the rain fell and the light changed.

When the Blocks Become the Gifts

angel cardsThe 90-minute massage was a birthday present from my oldest sister. My birthday was in January; this is the kind of fabulous gift that’s easy not to use. I tried to schedule the massage nearly a month ago, then got hit with some weird fungus on my back — not great massage material — followed quickly by a flu that took me out for a solid week.

Then I was hoping we’d be able to do it on a Friday afternoon or even a weekend day, so that afterwards I could enjoy that bonus extra awesomeness of not having to gear back up.

After exchanging several missives with Annie, the massage therapist, we settled on Monday afternoon. Not ideal, but get over yourself, I told myself. It’s a massage, it was a gift, and you set your own hours. (Sometimes I need a good talking to.)

That Monday was today. Still is, in fact. The massage was scheduled for 2:30. I arrived five minutes early and sat in a nondescript hallway listening to the watery sounds of the noise machine next to the “Massage in Progress” sign on the floor by Annie’s door. After about 15 minutes, I heard laughter and voices.

Annie came out to wash her hands while her client changed, then a second time when she was ready for me to come inside. We chatted for a few minutes before she left me to get undressed. I told her I’m working a lot and also writing a lot and also loving all of it, even the hard parts. She has warm, brown eyes that smile, and she listened attentively. Shen she left the room, I turned over an angel card before stripping down.

Sisterhood Brotherhood. My people. Connection. Community.

The smell of essential oils of some kind or another, so illicit in our household, greeted my nostrils the moment I walked into the studio. Annie has worked on me a couple of times before and we’ve opted to not use any oils,  to reduce any risk of Mani reacting to me (particularly nut-based oils can cling to the skin long after washing; and mast cell disease can be so intense that even after I dry massage, I showered and threw all of my scent-soaked clothes in the wash).

Well, it turns out dry massage is better for releasing fascia, and oh lordy, could my fascia use some releasing. I’m guessing she spent at least an hour just working on the line from my foot, with its tender adrenal point, all the way up through glutes. (As an aside, I am such a word dork; I just Googled “glutes” and then “gluteus,” first to make sure I was spelling it correctly, and then for the etymology; it’s Latin for “rump”).

My mind was doing its predictable walkabouts, even as I followed instructions and took big yawning breaths, exhaling as she applied the kind of deep pressure as I prefer. It’s not a “no pain, no gain” kind of thing, but I do love that sensation of being a little worked, a little sore, and a lot loosened up.

I had what I was sure were some great ideas, and even came up with a little mantra so I would remember them (they weren’t really that great, after I was back in clothes and in my car, driving home — kind of like the ideas you have right on the edge of falling asleep that lose their shimmer in the light of day). I remembered some things and even had fleeting moments of alarm; all of these were, of course, related to work and money and planning and being on top of my shit.

And then I slid down the table and turned over onto my back. Annie unhooked the head rest and placed a stone on my sternum. Its weight felt good, like an assurance. You are solid. You are safe.

I felt the heat of her hands over my face, then over my throat. She shifted them now and then in ever-so-subtle movements. And finally, I drifted. I drifted into that dark expanse, where you see shapes and even visions behind eyelids, where you enter another dimension beyond thought, where there truly is rest, and — in Annie’s words — health.

Aaaaaaaaah.

When she finished, I thanked her and told her that had been some kind of magic. Then I asked her if there had been anything else, beyond the physical body, that she’d noticed. “Your throat and head,” she said, “that really felt like where there is so much health.” I voiced my surprise. “Really?”

I told her that was interesting and kind of amazing, since historically, those have been my barriers. Always with the tight throat, the voice swallowed, and the head overtaking the body. Not anymore. “That’s where your wisdom and perspective are, which you’re using now in your work.” Another wow moment.

She left the room then, and I took a minute to stretch and get up before getting dressed. I jotted down the ideas that had seemed so important before. And then I chose a second angel card before opening the door.

Clarity. Of purpose, of voice, and of mind.

p.s. Thanks, Ris.