Coming to the mat

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My morning began today with about 50 other yogis gathered mat-to-mat in our yoga teacher’s new studio space. She opened the doors this morning to her first yoga class, and we all gathered to set positive intentions for the space.

Before we began our practice, she shared a few words about her journey to this point, and like any journey, there were a few bumps in the road. She promised not to cry, and yet couldn’t help but let a few tears fall. I felt my throat tighten as she spoke because the end and beginning of a journey can be emotional. You are saying goodbye to what was, and embracing what is. This new studio is another new beginning for her, and, also for us, her yogis, who continue to come along with her on the journey. Something has led each of us to her studio—an injury, a divorce, a death, whatever it may be—we all come to our mats for a reason, she said. Two years ago, I returned to my yoga mat after a hiatus of a few years and embarked on a journey I had never anticipated.

I came back to yoga to cultivate more peace in my life. I am inherently a stressful person, and I thought returning to yoga would help me cope better with my stress. I also came to the mat because I was trying to get pregnant, and I had read and heard from friends that yoga was a good way to support fertility. Going into it, I had no way of knowing that yoga would be a factor not only in helping me get pregnant, but also in healing from my miscarriage.

I remember my first prenatal yoga class. I was only five weeks pregnant. It was a cold January evening. I remember standing barefoot at the top of my mat and looking at all the women around me in their different stages of their pregnancies. Twelve weeks, 21 weeks, 33 weeks. Some had rounded bellies as big as a beach ball, others were just starting to show. I was both excited and scared and a bit in disbelief imagining myself where they were in their pregnancies. Even before I was pregnant, I longed for a big pregnant belly, and I would stuff clothes under my shirt and turn to the side in the mirror to reveal my bulging profile. I couldn’t wait to feel our baby growing inside of me, wear cute little maternity dresses, and eat ice cream all the time.

We stood in tree pose as we went around the room introducing ourselves—name, how many weeks, how many babies you’ve had. I remember women sharing that this was their second or third baby, and then they’d add this was their second “angel” baby or third “angel” baby. There were a lot of angel babies in that room. I never would have thought my baby would turn into an angel baby or that this would be my first and last prenatal yoga class.

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It was because of my yoga teacher, Andrea, that I stopped thinking of yoga in terms of just physical fitness, and started looking at it to nurture my mind, body and spirit.  Yoga helped me grieve, and let go of all the emotions I tried to stuff down deep inside out of fear of how they would emerge. What would it look like? What would it feel like? I shed countless tears on my mat in the year that followed. Nearly every time I got on my mat, something in me would release, and the tears would fall. In the beginning, I would be afraid to go to class because I didn’t want to cry in front of others, but Andrea made her studio feel like home, and I never felt self conscious about crying yet again in class. It became a safe place for me to be me. It hurt too much not to.

Yoga helped me face my grief and also forgive my body for what I felt like was a betrayal. In the aftermath of my miscarriage, I carried a lot of shame even though logically I knew that what happened was not my fault or anything that I could have caused or avoided. Yoga helped me connect with my body and mind and heart, and focus on the present so that I wouldn’t stay rooted in the past, crippled by my grief. Yoga helped me let go and allow. Even today, when I do yoga, I feel liberated from everything. Judgment. Sadness. Pain. Stress. Yoga opens me up and makes me feel free, like rolling down all the windows in your car and singing at the top of your lungs.

At the end of class today, before we sealed our practice with a collective chorus of “Om,” Andrea turned to all of us and said something along the lines of: “You’re home.” I smiled and thought to myself, “Yes, I am home.” This new studio is my home. Just like the previous space, this is where the journey continues, where I can be myself, let go of whatever I need to release on my mat, and know that no matter what happens in life I can always come home to my practice to ground me and remind me that I have the power to heal myself and that we’re not alone in this journey.

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False alarm

Not pregnant.

It sounds so harsh, cold, direct, without feeling.

Can’t the makers of pregnancy tests come up with better language—something less clinical? Instead of a plus or minus sign or one pink line or two, there should be a happy face or sad face, like an emoji, a symbol that better captures the mood of the occasion. Instead, we’re given: pregnant or not pregnant.

I remember a friend telling me last year how trying to get pregnant is like a roller coaster. Now I get it.

I was so sure I was pregnant this time. I had the classic symptoms, all of which mimicked the same symptoms I had the first time I was pregnant. It’s amazing how the body can trick the mind, the heart.

I had everything planned out. I’d announce the results to my husband on his birthday. What a gift. I’d share the news with my parents at Thanksgiving, maybe at the dinner table after my dad says grace and we’re all still holding hands.

Monday morning, as I was taking the pregnancy test out of its pink foil wrapper, my heart was pounding. It was 4:30 a.m. I could not sleep. When I saw a streak of red blood on the toilet paper, my heart sank. I had already set the timer on my iPhone. Three minutes. I brushed my teeth while standing over the test, sitting on the edge of the bathtub, and wishing that the pink double lines would appear in the window. Within seconds, a single line popped up. First Response wasted no time delivering the news to me. False alarm.

I slipped the test back in its wrapper and shoved it in the garbage under last night’s dinner scraps and half-torn junk mail. No tears came. I was just angry. Suddenly, I felt heavy. Before this morning, I felt lighter.

Life felt different the last few days as I carried around this hope, trying to stay positive. Andrew and I were both hopeful and certain. We laughed more. Something good awaited us.

The night before I was ironing clothes in our living room while Andrew was watching a marathon of “The Empire Strikes Back.” What if everything starts falling into place? I asked him. Smiling, he glanced over at me. I saw hope and excitement in his face.

I thought this was our something good.

That Monday morning I grabbed my notebook and laid down on the couch with my favorite gray blanket, soft like a lamb’s ear. In that moment, I just needed comfort. The only sound was our wooden chimes on the balcony rhythmically clinking together. I laid on the couch, emptying my mind into my notebook. It was 5:20 a.m. and still dark outside. The street light cast its amber glow on the parking lot, and I sat there contemplating my future, trying to make sense of it all, hoping I wasn’t going to break today.

I decided to go for a run. The moment my feet hit the sidewalk tears streamed down my face as I ran into the darkness and the quiet of the early morning. I didn’t feel like I was running to anything; instead, I was running away.

It takes an ocean not to break. – The National

Instead of a single line, or minus, or “not pregnant” pregnancy tests should say something like “I’m sorry” or “It’ll be OK.” And for those who don’t want to get pregnant, they can buy a different line of pregnancy tests that says: “Congrats, you’re not pregnant!”

Even my dog Molly was convinced I was pregnant. She was very clingy this past week, snuggling next to me on the couch, which she hasn’t done in months. When I was pregnant the first time, she constantly laid her head in my lap. Then I read that animals sense when you’re pregnant, and they like to snuggle up to you because your body temperature rises. Looking back, maybe it was just the cooler temps that drew her back to snuggling on the couch with me.

Held on to hope like a noose, like a rope. – The Lumineers

I told Andrew the other night that I cannot take anymore disappointments this year. That if one more bad thing happens, it’s going to crush me. My heart won’t survive it. I wondered how I was going to get through the rest of the week. But then, your best friend writes a post that speaks directly to what you’ve been feeling; a coworker sits with you as you cry at your desk with tissues bawled up in your fist because you just can’t hold it in anymore; your husband brings home Chinese takeout, you hold hands at the table and then curl up on the couch together and watch “Say Anything,” holding onto each other tight; you make cupcakes for your husband’s birthday, share a delicious meal and watch him make a wish; over a four-hour brunch your best friend splits with you a warm cinnamon roll drizzled in caramel and you laugh and cry and lift each other up. Tuesday bleeds into Wednesday, into Thursday, into Friday and you got through it somehow. All of these things, Addison says, are carrying you to the healing.
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In the last couple of weeks, I felt like I had finally made peace with our loss. I surrendered and accepted that this was where I was at. And I was honestly OK with it, whatever the future held.

Every single day last week, people kept telling me how beautiful I looked. Friends, colleagues, even complete strangers. I thought maybe I had pregnancy glow and people could see it. Now I realize what people saw in me was contentment.

I woke up today to cooler morning temperatures. I pulled back the curtains in our bedroom and let the light shine in. I walked throughout our house and threw open every window and breathed in fall. It’s a new week, a new month, a new season, and I’m coming home to peace.

One day you’ll awaken to discover your life is all you wanted and hoped it would be. … You’ll wake up and notice that your past is just as it needed to be. You’ll see where you are today is good. You’ll notice that you laugh a lot, cry a lot, smile a lot.

You’ll look at tomorrow with peace, faith, and hope—knowing that while you cannot control some of what life does, you have possibilities and powers in any circumstance life might bring. The struggle you have lived with for so many years, the struggle in your heart, has disappeared. 

— Melody Beattie, from “Journey to the Heart”

Safety instructions

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“Brace, brace, brace.”

That phrase constitutes the critical dialogue in one of the many emotional scenes in the film Sully – the story of US Airways Flight 1549’s emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009. No spoiler alert needed, we know that all 155 passengers and crew on board survived that harrowing day in January and the incident came to be known as “The Miracle on the Hudson”.

The flight attendants called out that chilling command to passengers as the plane began its descent into the river. They kept repeating that refrain until impact in unison like holy words in a chant or prayer.

As I watched that dramatic scene unfold on screen, I became aware that the top of my shirt was wet – drenched from the steady stream of tears rolling down my face. I wasn’t even aware that I was crying but my body was apparently having a very visceral reaction to what I was seeing – the sheer power and beauty of humanity on display. Strangers helping strangers in the most dire of circumstances.

A quick aside – I have reserved a giant eye roll regarding Clint Eastwood since his asinine “empty chair” routine at the 2012 Republican Convention but damn, that old coot is still making great movies at 86.

Maybe the timing of seeing Sully was simply serendipitous for me because I was in desperate need of a good dose of humanity. I have been feeling the heaviness of the world in ways I can’t ever recall in my 60 years.

It has been a tough year for me personally, that’s true – losing my job in a maze of malevolence, searching for a new spiritual home after transitions at my church and just generally struggling with my place in the world.

The world – where do I begin? Syria, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Charlotte, on and on. And this presidential election that has worn anyone with a semblance of a brain or a soul down to a nub. We live in a constant barrage of noise and vitriol.

Some days I feel like I’m walking around wearing that lead apron the dental hygienist puts on you when you’re having x-rays taken. I’m moving but the sound of my own heartbeat feels muted by the weight of it all.

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No words…

There are days I feel hopeless and then I am almost always miraculously saved by a connection with another passenger on this journey. Some of them I know – others are simply kind strangers.

Last weekend, my salvation came in some gloriously different ways. On Saturday evening, my dear wife and I attended Harvest of Hope, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Our good friend, Lori, a 20 year cancer survivor and her wife Sue, are two of the original organizers of this annual event. This year’s dinner was the 15th and final one. Lori is retiring next year and 15 seemed like a nice stopping point.

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My amazing friend, Lori – cancer survivor and chef extraordinaire.

About 150 people were at the dinner and near the end of the evening, all of the cancer survivors in attendance were asked to stand to be recognized. Now there’s a club none of us would choose to join. But as those 18 folks stood and everyone applauded, I suddenly felt that thin space between life and death. I thought about what those good souls and their families and loved ones had been through – the treatments, the pain and sickness, the fear and finally, the relief and peace.

And once again, I became aware of the tears running down my face. I thought about some of the people in my life that could no longer stand because of cancer – my parents and my friends, Regina and Kristel, who died earlier this year. Those survivors – most of them strangers to me – made me feel connected to the people I loved and lost.

Humanity.

“Cancer is an asshole.”

Those are the brilliant words of my friend, Jennifer, a young mother who is fighting breast cancer. She is a writer by trade and she is kicking cancer’s ass in her brilliant blog, Two Boobs, One Fight. Her words connect me to feelings I have had about life and death and everything in between. She has saved me on some of my heavy days with her courage and humor and yes, humanity.

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Read this blog!

On Sunday, my salvation came in the form of family. Not my family of origin but a family that treats me like family and best of all, makes me feel like family. My fairy god-daughter Ella turned five and we went to her birthday party in Raleigh. We were given fair warning by her mother, my friend Sarah, that there would be approximately 20 four and five-year olds and their siblings at the celebration. We were also promised that there would be plenty of prosecco on hand so we decided to take our chances.

Sarah’s family is large – a mom, a dad, an ex-husband, a boyfriend, three children, two sisters – one with twins – and their husbands. I fell in love with her kids years ago and I still pretty much swoon when they call me “Auntie Addy”.

I had not seen them in over a year and for the life of me even I can’t explain why. I’m just going to blame it on what Queen Elizabeth would call this annus horribillis. I was a little anxious that they would be a little distant around me – they’re 9, 7 and 5. My fears were quickly put to rest when Maddie, the oldest, raced down the stairs to squeeze us when we pulled up in front of their house.

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Sarah’s rules rule.

And then we were swarmed upon by Sarah’s Big Fat (a term of endearment, they are all skinny) Family. Her two sisters greeted me like my own sister – okay, they didn’t actually cry like my sister usually does – but they were so incredibly sweet and affectionate. Everyone was so damn happy to see us and I could no longer feel that apron on my chest. I felt happy. I felt connected.

The birthday party looked like a cross between a United Nations meeting – only with very short people – and a Benetton ad. There were white kids, black kids, Asian kids, Indian kids – all kinds of kids – and it was awesome. There was a jumpy house, a balloon guy, a piñata, temporary tattoos with glitter and best of all – very limited crying.

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Ella is crushing 5.

Ella didn’t open her presents until after all the guests had left and it was just family. God, I had forgotten how much I love that feeling – being in that intimate circle – belonging.

The birthday girl was incredibly thoughtful with her pile of loot – carefully opening the cards first (swoon again – I love a girl who appreciates a good card) and looking very pleased with every gift – especially the s’mores maker. Right before we left to go home, we happened to end up in the kitchen alone with her and she smiled and sort of shook her little head and said, “Wow, I got so many great stuffs.”

That’s how I felt about the day, too.

After the horrific terrorist attack in Nice this past July, author Anne Lamott (yes, her again) made a raw and sprawling post on her Facebook page that I have gone back to often. Here is just a portion of it:

Remember the guys in the Bible whose friend was paralyzed, but couldn’t get in close to see Jesus preach and heal, so they carried him on a cot, climbed the roof, and lowered him down for the healing? Can a few of you band together – just for today – and carry someone to the healing? To the zen-do? To a meeting? Help a neighbor who is going under, maybe band together to haul their junk to the dump? Shop for sales for a canned food drive at the local temple or mosque? How about three anonymous good deeds?

There is no healing in pretending this bizarre violent stuff is not going on, and that there is some cute bumper sticker silver lining. (It is fine if you believe this, but for the love of God, PLEASE keep it to yourself. It will just tense us all up.) What is true is that the world has always been this way, people have always been this way, grace always bats last, it just does – and finally, when all is said and done, and the dust settles, which it does, Love is sovereign here.

There’s a scene in Sully where Captain Sullenberger corrects one of the NTSB investigators who describes the event as a crash. Sully says adamantly, “It’s not a crash. It’s a forced water landing.” Even though the situation appeared to be totally out of his control, Sully knew exactly what he was doing – trying to get those passengers and crew to safety.

Maybe that’s what we’re called to do in these heavy times – to help each other avoid the crash and navigate a safe landing – to carry each other to the healing – whatever that looks like for each of us.

This is our common prayer.

Brace, brace, brace.

Amen.

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Somewhere in the middle

I’ve been craving calm lately, and rejuvenation. I’ve spent the last few weeks perusing yoga retreat websites, searching for the perfect destination. I needed something restorative but also inexpensive.

Then I heard about Yoga Fest from my yoga teacher, Andrea. The annual day-long retreat in Raleigh features dozens of yoga sessions from meditation to acrobatic yoga. I attended my first Yoga Fest on Saturday, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. It was a day of releasing for me. I let go of emotions, tensions, judgments. By the end of the day, I felt cleansed, lighter and looser. It was a powerful experience and more than I could have imagined.

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My day started out with an amazing Yin Yoga session with my yoga teacher Andrea. She’s the coolest yogi I’ve ever met. I just adore her! She’s a wonderful teacher. See how happy and relaxed I am after her class? 

The biggest turning point of my day came in the afternoon. Between sessions, I visited the exhibitors’ area and had my aura read for $5 by a woman from a Raleigh yoga studio. I’ve always been fascinated by aura readings and curious about what my own aura looked like. I’m not an expert on the subject of auras, but I’ve been reading about them since I received mine. The best way to describe an aura is it’s a field of energy that surrounds a person and reflects their essence — who they are and what’s happening at their core. The rainbow of colors that appear in an aura are supposed to reveal one’s emotional, physical, spiritual and mental well-being. Since I’ve been dealing with some heavy emotional “stuff” these past two months I was eager to see what my aura would reveal. I placed my hands in the outlines of what looked like two metal fingerprints and within seconds my aura appeared on the screen in front of me.

I studied it for a second and turned to the woman beside me anxiously awaiting her analysis. My aura contained an overwhelming amount of red, which she said represents high energy, creativity and love. “You have a lot of passion,” she said to me. I smiled and nodded. But red, she continued, can also indicate anger, stress and too much thinking and analyzing. She asked if I had been under a lot of stress lately, and I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Not really.” I’ve been managing my stress better at work, doing more yoga and meditation every morning and sleeping well. So no, no stress. She said I have so much energy, creativity and ideas that I want to accomplish, but I’ll never be able to accomplish any of them unless I focus my energy. True. That’s been an ongoing issue.

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“This concerns me,” she said, pointing to a darker area on the screen. I looked closer at the cloudy blob of darkness sitting in the center of my chest. It looked like an ominous, black hole and it was near my heart. I noticed more murky blackness along the edges of my aura, around the crown of my head, but the hole in the center of my heart appeared the densest. “You’re protecting yourself, keeping your emotions closed in,” she said balling her hands into fists and pulling them to her chest. She mentioned illness and grief. I told her I had suffered a great loss in February. She nodded as if she already knew.

It’s been almost two months since my husband and I lost our baby. And it’s a loss unlike anything I have ever felt. It’s a shock to the heart, to the body. Most of all, I grieved the potential, what could have been. Now, what I’m mostly left with is anger. I’ve been through a lot of tough experiences in my life – chronic illness, deaths, divorce – but nothing compares to losing our baby. That black hole, it feels like an abyss. And I was staring directly into it. As I sat there studying my aura on the screen, I saw so much sadness. It’s a strange thing to see your emotions displayed in front of you. It was almost like looking at a self-portrait I had painted. But it’s up to me to change the canvas. The woman who did my reading recommended I meditate more, do some deep meditative breathing and yoga postures to open the chest and release the emotions I’m holding onto. “The gong bath will be good for you,” she continued. “It’ll be interesting to see what your aura is like after the gong.”

Gong bath. I had been hearing about this all day but had no clue what it was, and for some reason I never felt compelled to ask someone. I guess I wanted to be surprised and not go into it with any expectations. With my phone, I took a photo of my aura on the screen, thanked her, and went off to my final yoga class of the day: Cultivating Calm. How appropriate.

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The whole time I was in the class, I couldn’t get the image of my aura out of my head. Every time I tried to concentrate on a particular posture or my breath, my glowing red silhouette with that black hole in the center kept popping up. I kept thinking about how much better I thought I had been doing, how my life was getting back to normal … almost. But I’m still healing. As a friend so eloquently put it, I saw my “true colors,” and it scared me.

“Breathe in possibility and optimism,” the instructor said during our final meditation. “Breathe out fear and doubt.” As I breathed out, I pictured the black hole in my chest leaving my body and light coming in. My closed eyelids trembled as I tried to hold back the tears.

As I waited for the gong bath to begin, I pulled out my phone and Googled “gong bath.” The first result brought up: “A gong bath is a form of sound therapy where the gong is played in a therapeutic way to bring about healing. … The term gong bath means that you are bathed in sound waves, there is no water involved, or clothes removed.” Well, that’s a relief.

I closed my phone and laid down on my yoga mat, waiting to be healed. A woman with thick, blonde curly hair, black and white geometric yoga pants, and an off-the-shoulder black flowing t-shirt entered the room pushing on wheels a gong the size of a Smart car. She suggested lying down on the yoga mat with your head toward the gong and laughed as she told us one of her friends describes the gong bath as a “magic carpet ride.” The idea of floating around on a magic carpet sounded good right about now. The ultimate metaphor for freedom.

She turned off the lights, and as I laid there looking up at the dark, empty ceiling, I kept thinking about the words “healing” and “unreleased grief.” “Give yourself the gift of letting go,” the blonde-hair girl spoke gently into her wireless mic. And with that, the gong bath started. The sounds of the gong began gently like ripples of water, then increased in intensity. I could feel each sound wave reverberate throughout my body. I tried to stay grounded in the present and not let my mind drift, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the past – and that black hole. Eventually, the obsessive thoughts stopped and I let myself just be.

I’m not sure how long the gong bath lasted. Ten minutes? Fifteen? When the gong music stopped, I laid there waiting for something to happen to me. Was it over? Am I healed? What am I supposed to be feeling? Do I feel any different? With the lights still off, a musical recording began to play a New Age song I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t know what the song was about because the lyrics were in another language, but it was beautiful and moving. As I laid there flat on my back, palms turned upward toward the sky, something broke inside of me. Hot tears slipped from the corners of my eyes and slid down my cheeks. My throat tightened and my chin trembled as I tried to hold back the tears. This is the stuff I’m still holding onto. Let it go. I surrendered to my grief and started a flood. Tears streamed down both sides of my cheeks. Some tears pooled in my ear canals and slid down my jaw bone and down my neck. Others rolled off my skin not knowing where they landed. I felt like I would never stop crying.

When the lights came on, I dug in my bag for a tissue and dabbed the tears from my eyes. I was a mess. My cheeks were wet, my neck, my chest. I felt like my whole body was covered in tears. I kneeled on my mat and started to roll it up when I noticed there were tears the size of dimes pooled on it. I had never seen my tears manifested in that way. They looked so big — perhaps the larger the grief, the bigger the tears.

I took a few deep breaths, then collected my things and hurried out the door to my car. I didn’t want anyone to see what a mess I was. When I stepped outside, the gray rain clouds that followed me on my morning drive had dissipated and the sky was now a cloudless blue. I turned my face to the sun and let its rays dry the rest of my tears. And I told myself, “I’m going to be OK.”

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Andrea introduced me to the works of poet Thomas Merton after her Yin Yoga session. “Sit still and rest.” Ah yes. And I love the second poem “At the End …” I think I’m somewhere in the middle.