Handsome Bing.

Since my dad died a year ago on April 7th, 2016, I’ve been thinking about dying and death in one way or another. I don’t mean I’m personally thinking about wanting to die but about dying and death in general and specific.  And, I am purposely using the words death and dying in an attempt to be real about it. My insistence in using these words instead of the words “passed” or I “lost” stems from my reading of the book DIE WELL by Stephen Jenkinson. Formerly a director of children’s grief and palliative care at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Family and Community Medicine, Mr. Jenkinson founded the philosophical system Orphan Wisdom and the Orphan Wisdom School in 2010.  His system states that;

 "What modern people suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history." (Wikipedia).

Mr. Jenkinson believes that, “Death isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you do. You get to choose the manner in which you die: the quality of it, the nature of it”.

I believe Mr. Jenkinson’s philosophical system unmasks our contemporary culture’s fear of dying and death. The understanding of it as a “doing” as opposed to it happening to us is a crucial part of our growth as human beings.   Dying and death are important pieces to the completed picture of the puzzle of life.  Without these pieces in place, we cannot live OR die well.     

In his book Mr. Jenkinson talks about  the use of the words “lost” or “passed”  as being inaccurate in association with our conversations about death.   It seems like semantics and that’s the whole point.  “I lost” doesn’t refer to the person who died but instead to the speaker; “passed” has so many meanings that who knows what is being said?  He goes on to discuss the source meaning of the word palliative as well. The etymological meaning of this word is as follows;

 “to cloak” or “to mask” (late Middle English (as an adjective): from French palliatif, -ive or medieval Latin palliativus, from the verb palliare ‘to cloak’ (see palliate). 

I found this discovery to be both amazing and disturbing. I had made up that palliative meant “to soothe” or “make easy”.  Obviously, this is not the case...

I’ve been interested in the etymological meaning of words for many years. I believe that when I understand where a word comes from I get closer to the reality of my thinking as well as my communication with others. So, when I use the words dying and death as opposed to words that are vague or questionable in meaning, I am forced to stand face to face with the Unknown and my image of death as the skeletal finger pointing at me from under it’s black heavy sleeve. In a larger context, I’m convinced that most of us avoid thinking about death and/ or talking about it due to our own personal fears and cultural influence.  Yet on some level, be it known or not, we all know it’s coming.  Well, maybe not all of us. Maybe not kids, adolescents and young adults.  

As a 4 year old I couldn’t fathom the concept of death and dying.  My earliest experience with death was when my mom threw out my turtles, Sophie and Gertrude, in our outdoor garbage pail in a brown paper bag.  Apparently she had read somewhere that turtles carried some kind of disease that was worse than the plague.  I cried for a little bit and then went outside to play.

I sailed through my entire teen years without a death or dying event in sight.  The first death that was significant to me was the death of my Pop-Pop, my mom’s dad. He died when I was 25 years old. As a kid and then teen, I felt afraid of him for some reason and so our relationship during those years was superficial.  Years after his death, my fear of him made sense when I found out that he struggled with depression during those years.  Once diagnosed,treated and soon after, with retirement, he became a different man, a kind and quiet soul who had not just a green but golden thumb. He took great joy in growing and tending to his garden, full of flowers, trees and vegetables that would knock your socks off. In retrospect, I think he was good man who wanted more out of life then his old school Italian stoicism would allow.  In his early years as a husband and father, it seemed that life’s challenges were hard for him which may have been one of the causes of his depression. We will never really know and in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is that his depression was recognized and treated.  Good for him and good for us.

I remember the phone call that came on the night he died.  My mom answered the phone in her usual upbeat yet simultaneous “don’t bother me” fashion.  She said a couple of “uh-huhs” and then burst into tears.  It was like watching movies I had seen in the theater.  At first there were just tears. As her experience intensified, her breathing became more like gulping for air and her chest began to shake and bob.  I had never seen my mom cry like that before.  Even so, I wasn’t disturbed by it. In fact, it was just the opposite.  A strange calm overtook me and I thought “good for her” along with something that felt like “finally”.   In the years after his death, my mom shared more details of how life with her father shaked out but I always knew that their relationship was not an easy one.  It’s the classic story for many of us of wanting love and approval but not getting it.   At least not getting it the way we want it.  

Which reminds me of a “story” I had about my mother for a long time, probably up until I was 35 years old.  Currently, at age 59, I can say with whatever semblance of awareness I have at this moment that I am as “complete” with my mom as I can possibly be.  I am not going to say that it’s all been said and done but it could be; I really don’t know. My use of the word “complete” as a way to describe how I feel about our relationship comes from my years of participating in programs developed by an organization called Landmark Education.  Landmark Education Corporation originated from the EST Training.  It’s programs are designed to investigate what it means to be a human being as defined by the stories or narratives we create about ourselves and others.  Consequently, these stories give meaning not only to who we are but to how we live and see the world around us.  Even the “good” stories can be a front for something that’s missing or lacking.  It’s a remarkable training and an education that I highly recommend.  It’s one of those experiences that is not easy but valuable.

During the Advanced Course,(my favorite of all the Landmark Courses), the conversation turned to the stories we create about our parents.  As most of us know, it all goes back to dear old Mom and Dad.  One of the conversations pointed to how at a VERY young age we make a choice to identify with either our mom or dad as a behavioral model as well as create stories about who we think are they are or more accurately, who we think they should be.  Our projections block our ability to “see” our parents as real human beings, separate from us with their own stories about themselves and their life.  The stories we create are so ingrained in us that we think they are real!  According to Landmark, these stories are dismantled within the context of a conversation.  And not just any conversation, but a "strong conversation" where we are committed to the undoing of the story resulting in a transformation of how we think, feel and act.

So, here I was in the Advanced Course, listening to this conversation about the stories we have about our parents and thinking, “I’m good!” when a gentleman stood up and shared the story he had about his mom.   He explained that he felt like his mom smothered him.  As a kid, then as a teen, she made extraordinary efforts to get to know him and talk with him about his life. She was interested in things that interested him and wanted to be there for him.  She even made homemade cookies for him and served them with milk upon his arrival home from school.

“I WANTED YOUR MOM!!!!!!!!!”,  I shouted as I shot up out of my chair like Old Faithful. It took me a good 10 seconds before I realized that I had been triggered. Slowly, I came back into the hushed quiet of the room and saw the group staring at me, wide eyed and jaws dropped open.  A muffled giggle squeaked out from somewhere followed by more until the whole room was loud with laughter including my own. This man had the mother I wanted, the mother I longed for. The mother who in his story was smothering him.  Now, it’s not that my mom isn’t a good and decent person but you see,  I wanted something different!  I wanted this man’s mom; the milk and cookies mom and not the fiercely independent mom who in my story, no offense mom, seemed to be more interested in herself.  

The utter paradox of this story is that I identify with my mom and so like her, I too am fiercely independent and for those who know me, totally self absorbed.  In that moment, I had what Landmark calls an, “I got it” moment.  I got how I had created the story about my mom not being the right mom for me and how she should have been someone else.  Yet, at the same time I had made the choice to identify with her and so the very thing I disliked I had also become myself!  That’s what you call a TRANSFORMATION CONVERSATION. 

So, how does all this relate to death and dying? I’m not exactly sure except to say that I had stories about death and dying that I didn’t know that I didn’t know until my father died. In some mysterious way, all these events tie into the last year and my reflections about death.  My turtles, my Pop-Pop, my need for my parent’s love, my idea of them as opposed to who they really are...it’s the age old battle of fiction vs. fact, story vs. reality.   

And who am I kidding?  I used the word reflection but it felt more like obsession.  I was in it to win it. And folks, when I am obsessed with something it seems to appear everywhere around me.  Like when I was pregnant, suddenly every woman I saw was pregnant, or trying to get pregnant or had just given birth. 

The week after my father’s death, as you know if you’ve had this experience, my mom, my sister, and I were caught up in the whirlwind of loose ends that happens when someone dies.  The arrangement for the wake at the funeral home, the funeral, paperwork, banking, etc. etc. It’s a LOT and it takes you away from the reality of death.   In the book DIE WELL, Jenkinson talks about how not so long ago, dying and death took place in the home.  The old and the YOUNG were part of the dying and death process.  No one was protected.  

This reminds me that my cousin from Virginia came to my dad’s wake, bless her heart, with her 4 year old daughter. I was overjoyed.  As she walked toward the casket with her daughter in her arms, her daughter blurted out in that innocent 4 year old voice, “Is he asleep?”.  It was a marvelous moment.  Her mom didn’t shush her but instead walked closer to the casket.  I watched them as they whispered to each other, no doubt my cousin giving her daughter a practical crash course in death.  It didn’t take long.  

It was difficult to leave my Mom after the week passed.  She was kinda “ok” but the reality of his death had definitely not landed for her or for any of us for that matter.  It was a week after I arrived back home in Maine that IT happened.   As I was driving home from somewhere, looking out from behind the wheel, suddenly, painfully, I was aware of the fact that everything and I mean EVERYTHING was not only living but dying as well.  The trees, the clouds, my hands on the wheel, even the cars were transient and impermanent.  I GOT that nothing lasts and in that moment the vibrancy of life became unbearable to me.  I felt the beginnings of a deep cry coming on and thought for a moment  I couldn’t handle it but then this “fuck it” feeling burst through and I let it all go.  In this moment of moments I realized as I was heaving, gulping and driving(and why do these things always happen in the car, God damn it!)that I had been battling with this uncomfortable feeling all week long and I couldn’t make sense of it until now.  This was a feeling I had never known before and this feeling was Grief.  

As the emotional intensity of the experience lessened, I had what I call an “instantaneous neural download”.  It’s the kind of understanding that takes place in an instant and one that only life can offer. The reason I dropped into this state was because I got, like on a visceral level, that on the other side of life’s vibration was death.  Real death, not a story about death, like “I understand it or I am not afraid of it, or I’ll be re-incarnated, etc.” but death as a Reality.  

For the next few weeks, my grief along with death, was with me pretty much 24/7 and it kinda freaked me out but not really. I realized I had a story about grief that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I thought grief was the great incapacitator, the dark figure standing next to the chopping block.  It just wasn’t so.  My grief teacher consistently appeared to me as a gentle and kind soul, a big ole’ softee.  She didn’t make me feel depressed or hopeless as my story told me she would. Instead, she said it’s ok to feel sad and to not understand.  “Let me, Grief, guide you to a new place in life.  Also,get used to me being around because the sooner you do, the easier it will be to get on with life”. 

She affirmed that just because nothing lasts doesn’t make life a bummer.   The intensity, the vibration of LIFE is loud and gorgeous BECAUSE of death, because of grief.  You just never saw it before.  No one taught you but let me teach you.  I will never let you down and I will always love you and see you as you are; a child of God, worthy of love, light and life.  Walk with me everyday and I will remind you that life in REALITY is fleeting and every moment is awake and alive through this lens.  Don’t be afraid or be afraid, it doesn’t matter.  But whatever you choose, be alive and awake in it and don’t let the story get in the way of the reality because, in the end, REALITY loves you baby and it is the best parent you’ll ever have. 

Is it a snake or a rope? -or- How I am learning to work with my reactivity regarding the current political landscape.

The metaphorical yoga story of a rope mistaken for a snake addresses how darkness, fear and reactivity can shape what we see, hear and most importantly what we feel.  There’s a few renditions of this story, sometimes it’s in a hut, in a cave or on a road as is told in the story that follows;

"A man walks at night along a path. He sees a poisonous snake barring his way and turns and runs in the opposite direction. As he returns along the same path in the morning, he finds a coiled rope on the ground. He realizes that in the darkness, he mistook the coiled rope as a snake and it dawns on him, in the dark it is hard to see reality as it truly is. In the light of day, we see more clearly”.

I think most of us understand how this works. For example, I'll see a textured dust bunny on the floor and stop dead in my tracks thinking, “is that a centipede?”.  Years ago, with a little less yoga under my belt, I would have jumped and quietly yelped.  Just to drive home the point, I have another example that packs a little more punch...

It all happened one Saturday night. My parents had gone out for the evening, leaving my sister Diane to babysit. I was around 6 years old at the time.  We were just hanging out in the living room when -  

“What’s that?????”,  I barked, pointing to something under the table. It looked like a big scary, bug, with mushy parts and dark dots everywhere.  My sister turned to look and blurted,”OH MY GOD, WHAT IS THAT?????”.  We became stock still with fear. The fact that we were home alone only added fuel to the fear fire.

“I’m going to go get Uncle Dave”, said my sister. Uncle Dave was our next door neighbor. He wasn’t a blood relative uncle but what we defined as a “friendship uncle”.  I think the grown ups came up with this concept to eliminate the Mr. and Mrs thing.  ANYWAY…

My sister ran next door and within less than a minute, Uncle Dave appeared. We led him to the living room and pointed to “the thing”. (it had now morphed from “THAT" to “the thing”). “Oh my gosh!", Uncle Dave said, "What is “it”????". The morphing continued.

“We don’t know but we’re scared!!!”, my sister and I cried. Uncle Dave stood quietly for a moment, turned quielty and walked back into the kitchen. He promptly returned to the living room with a large glass and a towel.  We watched as he walked closer to the table, eventually dropping onto his knees, crawling like a soldier in the grass.  As he got closer, I felt all his senses on alert, his eyes locked onto the target.  He was a hair's breath away from the target when, with a flash, he swiftly placed the glass upside down on “the thing”.  YAY!!!  He caught it!  We all breathed a sigh of relief…

“What is it Uncle Dave????”, my sister and I harmonized. He moved the glass around a little on the carpet. Nothing. He shook the glass from side to side with determined vigor. Still nothing. He crept in closer, a little closer and then, he started to laugh.

“Uncle Dave, what is it?????”, we shouted. We jumped as he deftly flipped the glass which allowed “the THING” to land smack dab at it’s bottom. He brought it closer to us and we backed away.  He laughed again and said, “It’s a cleaning cloth”. “WHAT??”, we said again in unison. “It’s some kind of cleaning cloth…”. My sister and I looked closer.  It wasn’t a spotted mushy bug. “It” was in fact a cleaning cloth. A cloth that had come with one of my drawing boards, those erasable boards that included a special kind of erasing cloth that you could use over and over again, until it became unrecognizable. Until it morphed into something else. Until it became a snake from a rope.

We all had a good laugh. I don’t know for sure but I think Uncle Dave, bless his heart, was a bit embarrassed by the fact that he had stalked a cleaning cloth like a suburban ninja.  No matter to us, the threat had been eliminated!

Fast forward to January 2017 and inaugaration day. At some point, I don’t even know when, I had decided that I wasn’t going to tune in to the event. Then, for some reason I thought of the story of the snake and the rope. I thought, “am I seeing this clearly? What am I afraid of? Is this a snake or a rope?  Instead of being in the dark, I decided to walk in the light of day.  At first, it wasn’t easy. I wanted to get a glass, crawl like a ninja to my target and catch it.  But instead, I sat quietly and calmly, focusing on my breath and doing my best to just listen.   The longer I sat,  I understood that if all I saw was a snake, my only recourse would be to attack or run. But, if I could see a rope, I could act with some semblance of conscious awareness.  I could be in touch with how to take action without the compulsion to work from darkness, fear, and most importantly, reactivity.

Going deeper, I saw the personal narrative I’ve had for years which is to abstain from sharing my political opinions publicly. Why? As a yoga teacher and former business owner, I was afraid that if my student’s opinions were different from my own, they would shun me and consequently my classes. I thought that as a yoga teacher I was to remain neutral. I now realize that this is an impossible way to live. I understood the valuable distinction between having personal convictions and holding the space for neutrality in the classroom.  

As a practice to continue to work with my snake and rope, I am listening to NPR for extended periods of time everyday as well as programs that are not in my wheelhouse.  Programs that present opinions that are different from my own.  It’s an exercise of listening with a critical ear for the facts as opposed to the opinions. Seeing the rope and not the snake. Why? Because if you and I only see the snakes, we are bound to attack or run.  Reactivity for reactivity’s sake is a tiring and fearful master.  

Does this mean that I think there are no snakes out there?  Of course not!  That would be remarkably stupid and dangerous.  What I am saying is that it’s important to know which is which.  Am I saying to not feel strongly about your beliefs?  No to that as well.  What I think is crucial is to “see reality as it truly is, because in the light of day we can see more clearly”.  In the best way possible, stay informed, stay true to yourself without attacking or running from the snake and keep a glass and a towel on hand just in case...

Snowga Yoga Practice.

When my husband and I owned our yoga studio, we very rarely closed, especially in the winter.  We wouldn't expect our teachers to drive if was dangerous so if they couldn't make it, we would cover for them(that said, our teachers were troopers and they always did there best to get there!).  

If the state declared emergency, we would close, no questions asked.  So, of course, we had a bad snowstorm one or two winters (wink, wink) and as a result, Snowga was recorded for our students who were stuck at home but still needed their yoga.   

There may be a time this winter that this happens again, whether we like it or not, so feel free to use this whenever necessary.  Wear some warm clothes, turn up the heat a bit or a little heater and enjoy!

Does something smell funny to you?

Recently, my friend Catherine turned me on to Pia Mellody, one of the world’s reigning experts on codependency.  Many of you have probably already heard of her and are saying, “geez Alice, where have YOU been?”.   That’s cool even though it’s taken YEARS for me to get to the point where I can say that’s cool in regard to not knowing everything.  But wait, there’s more to where that story comes from...

I was excited at the prospect of listening to Pia’s words of wisdom regarding co-dependency and cued up my YouTube videos like a kid in a candy shop.  It was all well and good until Pia opened her mouth and started talking.  I thought her wisdom was going to make me feel better, lighten me up and set me free.  It didn’t.  But I kept listening.

Pia states that our current culture is 99.9% engaged in co-dependent relationships : it’s our everyday normal.  I’m guessing this isn’t news to many of you as it wasn’t to me either.  C'mon, we all know about codependency.  We understand it conceptually or have addressed it somehow in therapy. Personally, I have done work in cognitive therapy to unravel the dysfunction that occurred in my childhood.  I have done body work galore and transformation work that helped me to accept what had happened but not condone it. To use the vernacular,  I have ton a shit ton of introspective work.  Unfortunately, that did not matter after listening to the first few minutes of Pia talk about co-dependency. Slowly, something inside of me began to hurt real bad. I thought with all the work that I'd done I had figured it all out and made the boo boo better. Not so. The thick coating called “I’ve got this”  that was covering my reality instantaneously became thin and drippy.   In the moment of my listening, I became part of the herd and no amount of intellectualizing would prop me back up on my pedestal. 

You might be thinking “What happened Alice"?  Those of you who know Pia’s work may sense where I am headed with this and some of you may have already faced this head on in your own way.  It’s pretty simple really.  What changed my world in a New York minute was this: Pia says that the thing that causes codependency in relationships is child abuse.  Child abuse?  Yes, child abuse.  

Why was this so unsettling to me?  I did my work with understanding family dysfunction, my family dysfunction. I forgave them and felt I had found peace with it all.   But what I realized in that moment was that forgiving my parents wasn’t worth a hill of beans in regard to my behavior with my husband and daughter.  I didn’t like that realization because here’s the rub.  If I was a receiver of child abuse which I was according to Pia’s definition which is “child abuse is anything that is less than nurturing and causes shame ISSUES” then I am codependent as I live and breathe everyday of my life, period. There’s no way out of that one my friends except through ongoing conscious responsibility and recognition.  Furthermore, I capitalized the word issues because shame ISSUES are different than what Pia calls healthy shame.  Healthy shame is when you know your own poop smells. You do something and it causes embarrassment, a feeling of “oops, did I do that?”.  Negative shame is when someone else either devalues you or doesn’t confront the reality of your own imperfection.  OUCH!  The latter one hit me really hard.  That was my ISSUE, is my ISSUE and I don’t like it.  But, there it was. OUCH. This feeling of shame that keeps hanging around but doesn’t belong to me.  All my life, everyone knew my poop smelled but didn’t tell me.  I repeat, OUCH.

Recently, I had an experience that drove this issue home in a big way, like a sixteen wheeler without brakes kinda way.  It’s a bit complex in it’s unraveling but worth the inquiry for me and hopefully for you.   Here’s the scenario that led to the ah ha moment...

Every year, the seniors at my daughter’s high school go on a Senior Quest.  The quest is an outdoor experience that involves either hiking or kayaking.  Each crew team chooses their quest and the whole class goes away for 4 days and 3 nights.  No phones, no laptops, no nothing.  My daughters’ crew picked kayaking and my daughter hates kayaking.  She not only hates kayaking but also water and boats.   Along with the hate comes fear and along with the fear comes anxiety.  I understand this because my first experience with kayak rolling took place in college and it occurred for me as extremely unpleasant.  It was a course on paddling and rolling and it took place in the campus pool.  The paddling was fine but the rolling was not.  When it came time for me to roll I got stuck upside down and panicked.  I don’t know how long I was stuck upside down in the water before the instructor came to my rescue but it was long enough for me to never want to go into a kayak ever again… in my life.

I thought that MY kayak experience was all I needed to understand my daughter’s anxiety and would be enough to support her in preparation for the trip.  However, as the quest loomed closer my daughter's anxiety grew.  In letting her take charge of something that wasn’t in her wheelhouse coupled with my "I've got this" attitude, the pieces began to fall apart.   As a result, we hit a major breakdown a few days before the trip.  We got through “it” okay but something about “it" didn’t feel right to me. I thought, "What did I miss?" " Why did I feel so confused"?  In a weird way, I felt shame about feeling confused, like I did something bad.  How did this situation escalate to the point where I was the parent but felt like I was the teenager wearing a parent costume?  Pia says that we can feel  “confused” when the experience we are having doesn’t belong to us.  Hmmmm....   And then it hit me!  This shit, this  weird shame was not my own, it was a shame ISSUE!  Bam!   In fast motion, I realized that as a kid I was very rarely confronted with the reality of my own imperfection.  Yeah, I also got some devalue ISSUES but my main shame pain ISSUES come from the fact that no one ever told me my poop smelled.  (Well, that’s not entirely true.  When I was around 3-4 years old, my family went to a dude ranch for vacation in upper state New York.  Being the age I was, I brought along my portable potty and felt no reticence about pooping and peeing in it almost anywhere at anytime when the urge presented itself.   My aunt and uncle came along for the trip and so were privy to my potty escapades.  Whenever I would take to my potty, my aunt would exclaim, “woo hoo!  that’s some stinky poop” and hold her nose.  My parents would laugh but I never heard them agree with her declaration.  I would sit there quietly reading my book, nonplussed.  The ISSUE of my inability to understand my own imperfection in reality had already been locked in place. So, I continued to stink up the joint, totally oblivious to others and thinking I was all that and a bag of chips.  Now, you might say,  "Geez, you were just a little kid" and we shouldn’t make kids feel bad about their poop.  Well, ok but c’mon, does that mean it’s okay for kids to poop wherever they want?   Poop stinks and it’s normal to let kids know because that’s the reality). But I digress...

So, what WAS happening during the week as things continued to breakdown?  I thought MY personal experience with a kayak was all my daughter needed to assuage her anxiety.  Just as long as I understood, she could handle the rest with aplomb.   I mean, wasn’t that enough?  I’m playing this game correctly!  I know what I’m doing!  But I didn’t and my shame ISSUE was running the show.  As things escalated, I really wasn't able to help her, I didn't know it all and it felt BAD, as in negative.  I felt shame but it wasn’t my own and it was masked in anger and frustration.  Up until that point I was working from the place of  "I’ve done everything perfectly in approaching this situation and so why is there so much drama?"  It must have something to do with Sophia or the school or SOMETHING!!!   It couldn’t be me, I’ve done everything to keep this from happening but yet it still is happening.  But you see, nothing was wrong.  I just  had to confront my own imperfection in dealing with this situation as a reality.  And then, when I  understood that, like really got it on a visceral level, I felt shame as in "oops, I'm not the know it all that I think I am".   And it didn't feel negative; it felt healthy.  Like, jeez, my poop smells when it comes to knowing everything about everything.  And, maybe, it would be okay to say to my daughter, “I love you and I’ve done everything I could to support you.  I’m sorry you are feeling this way”.  Wow!  Now that could make a difference.  The most difficult part of this realization is remembering the look on my daughter’s face in the midst of our crying session when I said that I was just as frustrated as she was.  I see now that that was not the truth: I was uncomfortable with my own imperfection and it was running the show.  It's normal to feel embarrassed about thinking you know it all and then realizing that you don't. Once that's clear,  the path for real communication appears and maybe, just maybe, some intimacy.  The real deal kind that busts through the hard candy coating to reveal the soft gooey center.   I understand now that's it's not imperfect to say, "I don't know what to do right now but I'm sorry this is so scary".  

The moral of the story?  Whenever I feel  confused or negative about a situation, it might be a good idea to check in and ask myself “is this my poop or my poop ISSUE”?  Am I a normally imperfect human being who can bring love and kindness to the situation without having to know it all?  Can it not only be okay for me to be imperfect but to realize that someone else's confusion may be due to their own shame issues and not something that is wrong?  Because at the end of the day, either we deal with this shit or not...

No News is Good News...

my dad.

My father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in his mid fifties but I didn’t know it. I came to know this in the last days of my father’s life because that’s when my mother told me. Usually when this kind of thing happened I would get angry, agitated and self righteous. What kind of thing you say? The thing where something of consequence happens in your family and you find out days, weeks, months or in this case, years later. 

When my dad reached his late sixties, early seventies, the visits to the hospital for heart related issues began. At the time my family lived in Boston. Living out of state, I frequently felt out of touch with my parents, thinking that if I lived closer to home we would talk more often. In addition to our distance from each other, one of my family’s motto’s was “No news is Good News”. Coupling the geographical distance and family motto was like those long leashes for dogs - the longer they get, the more diffuse the connection.

This time around when my mom relayed this info, I didn’t get angry, agitated or even self righteous. Why? At this point, it was water under the bridge. Furthermore, our communication over the years had greatly improved so why bring it up now; it was no longer an issue. Years ago, however, I believed there was room for improvement based on phone calls that would go something like this:

“Hello?” Hey Mom! ( she usually answered the phone), how are you?”. “oh I’m fine sweetie, how are you?”. I would proceed to fill her in on current events and then ask, “how are you guys?”. Now, before I go any further, it’s important for you to know that my mom, Marguerite used to be an olympic speed skater of conversation and she could have received the gold medal for her expertise in Short and Sweet. I think it had something to do with the "no news is good news" philosophy as well as, at her admittance, she is not one for “talking” on the phone. That has changed over the years as well. But I digress...

“How are you guys” “We’re good!”. Silence. Me: ”that’s good… what have you been doing lately?”. “Well, let’s see. I went to my ladies auxiliary meeting at the Italian American Club last week”. “Mm,hmm”, I’d say, “what else?”. “Ah, we’re thinking about going to Radio City to see the Rockettes”. “That sounds good…” “Oh and your dad had to go to the hospital last night because his heart rate was very elevated”. But he’s perfectly fine now”. “MOM!” I’d bellow, “Why didn’t you call me? or maybe tell me that first?”. “Well honey, he’s ok and the doctors said he’s doing well. And, I didn’t want to bother you”. She didn’t want to bother me? She’d say, “I don’t want you to worry about us”. And then that’s when I would worry. “What else has happened that you haven’t told me about?”. “Oh nothing honey, that’s it…”

In the last 2 years of my Dad’s life, the hospital visits became more frequent, increasing in the last 6 months. During the last year of his life, I was working in DC, commuting back and forth to Maine to visit my family and would pit stop in Jersey to stay with my folks for a day or two. During one of my visits, my dad wasn’t doing well and had to go the hospital. (Commuting during this time was challenging but in retrospect I am grateful for this challenge because I got to see my Dad more than if I was living in Maine. As the saying goes it was a blessing in disguise).

He was having problems breathing that night and couldn’t sleep for hours before he finally woke my Mom up at around 5am. “Marg, I think I need to go to the hospital”. My mom, used to these awakenings, jumped into action and I woke to find my dad in our basement. He had been using “his” bathroom when the paramedics arrived. My parents had put a commode in the basement next to the sink so that my dad had his own “shit and shave” area as he called it. He also would say that’s where his morning “ablutions” took place. In all honesty, I’ve heard that word for years but never formally looked it up. Here goes:

ablution: *The act of washing oneself(often used for humorously formal effect)
*A ceremonial act of washing parts of the body or sacred containers.
*plural British: a building housing bathing and toilet facilities on a
military base.

All of the above uses make sense in the context of knowing my dad. He loved to play with words for their humorous effect and his morning washing was definitely a ceremony. Furthermore, he was stationed in London during World War 2 and had picked up many words from the culture, such as “bollocks” and “cheerio”, I kid you not. It’s amazing the things you can learn after the fact.

“Mr. Riccardi, how are you feeling?”. “I’m having a hard time breathing” he said. He was sitting in the wheelchair they had brought in and he was in his nightshirt. By this time he had become very frail and the wheelchair seemed extra large even though it was a standard size. Before his condition worsened, my dad was a robust man and prided himself on his good looks and physical condition. And he should have because he was a catch. I remember looking at him in the wheelchair and thinking, “This is my Dad and he’s sick”. I knew he had been getting worse, could see his decline and had come to the conclusion that he was dying about a year before this time. Seeing him there in that moment, thinner than he had ever been in his life and struggling to breathe, something strange happened. You’d think it would have upset me or made me sad but it didn’t. You see, I wanted to be there with him, to see him in his health AND in his decline. I WANTED to worry about my Dad. I loved him and I wanted him to know that I would do anything for him, even be willing to stand there seeing him in a way that I know he didn’t want to be seen. 

After some oxygen and nitroglycerin tabs he was feeling just fine. “Ok Mr. Riccardi, we need to take you to the hospital”. My father looked the paramedic straight in the eye and said,” I feel ok now, I don’t need to go”. I think it might have been his 3rd visit in 6 months? What he was really saying was, “I don’t want to go…”. I looked at him and said, “Dad, you have to go to the hospital. Mom and I will meet you there”.

When we looked at each other in that moment I heard in my mind, “no news is good news”. But here I was with my dad and my mom and we were together. It wasn’t good news but it was good. Good that we were all together in the basement, in our pajamas, working with what was being served up in the moment. I knew my dad was dying and I wanted to be there with him. I think he knew he way dying too. My mom also knew it deep down inside but she put it somewhere else so that she could take care of him. After his death, she revealed that she knew he was suffering but didn’t know how to help him. My dad said if it wasn’t for her, he would be dead. 

As the visits to the hospital became more frequent and his health continued to decline, I knew he would die soon. When I got the phone call from my sister saying that my dad was in the hospital because he had fallen when getting out of bed that morning, I knew it would be less than 2 weeks. Did I say anything? No I didn’t. “No news is good news”. And, it didn’t matter whether I said anything in that moment because he was going to die anyway. “No news is good news”. For years I made a big deal out of not knowing every little detail right away as if knowing every little detail would have made it better? In the end it didn’t matter at all. My dad died right when he was supposed to on April 7th 2016 and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. Whether I had known about every hospital visit or not prior to this ending was inconsequential now.

No news is good news.

Have I got a teacher for you!

I was excited, scared and curious when I walked into the Baptiste Power Vinyasa Institute in Cambridge in April of 2002. I was also so self-conscious that I thought I would burst at the seams and drop into a giant exposed heap of not good enough. I was out of my comfort zone in a very big way.

Rolf Gates was the teacher on that momentous day. When he entered the room, it seemed like he appeared out of nowhere. I learned later, when I started to teach there, that there was a small room in the yoga studio where the teacher could go to prepare before class. But, in my heightened state of anticipation and distraction, Rolf seemed to take shape and appear magically from nothing. He introduced himself and said a few words that I don’t remember now. He seemed so grounded and calm that I thought, “Wow! This teacher has soul. I like him…” 10 minutes into the practice I wasn’t so sure about the soul and especially the liking him part.

If you are familiar with the Journey into Power sequence, you know it starts slow and builds up speed, so to say. It’s kinda like a plane on the tarmac getting ready for takeoff. Even when parked, you can feel the forward momentum. Then the plane starts moving to it’s takeoff pad, the engines turn up high and the plane starts to move slowly, then a little faster, faster yet and then so fast, that you are either exhilarated or sweating with fear. And if you haven’t been on an airplane yet but have done the Journey into Power sequence flow, well, consider yourself somewhat schooled about flying.

Anyway, remember when I said I liked Rolf. That changed once the plane took off. The practice started slow and then started to move. Then we moved some more. Next, we started twisting and breathing louder and the movement kept coming and coming. I started sweating and then I really started sweating. Rolf was relentless in his leadership. “UP DOG, DOWN DOG, UUJAYI BREATHING YOGIS”! His command of the class was above and beyond anything I had ever experienced before in my life. He was solidly direct and extremely present in the room. “What the hell is going on here?” I thought. Weren’t yoga teachers supposed to be kind and soft-spoken? He continued to lead us, not letting anyone off the hook. My buttons were being pushed yet I stayed. Rolf never commented on my performance or the class vibe: he just didn't stop leading. He was unstoppable and I didn't like it. Didn't he know I was sweating bullets? Didn't he know I was freaking freaking out? What I thought of him personally seemed to me to be of no consequence to him whatsoever. How would he know anyway that I was deep in my dislike and disdain? It was his job to lead me through the practice, whether I liked it or not. 

I learned something about teaching on that day that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I learned about what it means to be a stand for the student and their learning and growth. I learned that even though the student may be out of their comfort zone, the teacher is willing to stand with them, be present with them. The student may not like it, in fact, most times does not like it but that means nothing to the teacher who is willing to be a stand. A story comes to mind…

Many years ago at my Baptiste Level 2 training, there developed what you could call unrest within the group. The experience of the training seemed to be pushing certain folks out of their comfort zone in a particular manner and they didn’t like it. As a result, conversations of dissatisfaction began to rumble under the surface. The rumble of unrest came to a head around halfway into the week. Baron caught wind of this and before the rumble totally erupted, he took a stand during the morning practice. The yoga room seemed extra hot that day and after holding us in Ragdoll for what seemed like forever he said, “I may not be your teacher”. He started moving us and then holding us and as the sweat poured down our faces and the groaning became more audible he declared once again, “I may not be your teacher. If you want to stay safe, play safe and hear things from me that will just placate your ego then I am NOT your teacher. If you want someone who will make feel you comfortable and feel sorry for you that life isn’t going your way, than you are in the wrong place. I am the teacher that will push your buttons and make you uncomfortable. But it’s not for me, it’s for you”. BAM!

I couldn’t believe it. He was saying something that had such power, such truth that I was breathless. It was so fierce and penetrating that I knew in that moment the kind of teacher I wanted. I wanted a teacher who was willing to tell me when I was knee deep in it and at the same time be able to see something greater in me that I couldn’t see for myself. And, not only is that the teacher I continue to want to this day but also the teacher I continually aspire to be. It may not be for everyone but that’s ok. Liking the teacher or not is not the barometer for your own growth. Do you leave the class feeling changed? Rinsed? Renewed? Transformed physically, mentally, and spiritually? That is the ruler by which I measure. What about you? 

On a different note, lucky for me I’ve been in training for being liked and/or not liked for years now. You see I am the mother of a 17-year-old teenager so it’s all the same to me… BAM.