Day Twenty-Five: For Ruth

imagesJohn and I took a nice walk on the trails this morning, another unseasonably mild day in February.   A lot of trees are down in the woods, particularly white pines. This winter has been tough on trees, with so much warm weather keeping the boughs pliable enough to bend and break when a heavy snow or ice storm suddenly descends.   It makes me sad; I love trees. In my drawer of unfinished novels, two of them are fantasy stories that explore our bonds with trees, their wisdom, their generosity, and their ire with puny humanity for being so childishly selfish with the natural world.  “The Giving Tree” is my favorite children’s book.

But with this crazy weather we’ve been having, we’ve started thinking about cutting down a few of the large white pines that loom over the house. During one snowstorm early this month, a huge bough slammed down into the driveway in the exact spot where Mia usually parks the CR-V. The back yard is littered with sticks, twigs, needles, pine cones and branches.

On our way back from the trail, we decided to stop at our neighbor Ruth’s house, to check on a dead cedar out back by her garage that Ruth’s daughter Lynda needs to cut down. Only it’s not Ruth’s house any more, because she died of cancer after Thanksgiving, and her kids will need to put the house on the market soon.  She was my neighbor for 23 years, and I loved her. Westley bounds up to her front door and scratches. She always gave him treats. She was considering getting a puppy from his litter, at age 84, although thank God she didn’t, because she became ill right around the time we brought Westley home. Ruth loved dogs the way I love trees.

Ruth was a gifted gardener, and she took deep satisfaction from working in her yard. She had a gorgeous perennial garden out back, tall ornamental grasses and dahlias, stands of daisies and butterfly bushes all artfully arranged around little gravel pathways, dotted with funky garden sculptures she’d collected over the years.   She could hear everything that went on over here because our houses are each sited up against our shared property line, even though our lots are quite large. If I’d had a particularly aggravating day tussling with the kids, or had gotten home very late from work, Ruth knew it.   And I knew she knew, because the next day, there would be a beautiful bouquet of peonies or tulips on my back steps.

I remember one day towards the end of a particularly long and tough winter. Nate was a little terror, we had a puppy, we were doing construction on the house, John was traveling all the time, the power had gone out in storm after storm, and I was pregnant with Lucy. I felt like Laura Ingalls Wilder, stoking my wood stove in the basement to keep the house warm, constantly shoveling snow, rummaging in the dark for matches and candles. It seemed the winter would never end.

But one day, I opened the back door to find a mason jar filled with the most beautiful arrangement of pussy willows. I knew Ruth had cut them from the tree right by her front door because Nate was fascinated by the downy buds.   And I burst into tears to see them there.

Today when we were over at her house, we cleared away a few branches that had fallen in the recent storms, since two of her kids live out-of-state, and her local son is a long-distance trucker and hasn’t been around in the past few weeks. The pussy willow by the front door had lost a big branch studded with soft buds. I dragged it down the gravel driveway to the woods across the street.   At the end of the driveway, we noticed that her daffodils were starting to come up, green spears poking almost a full three inches above the earth.

When they bloom, I’m going to cut some and leave a bouquet by her front door, sunny and yellow, dancing in the spring breeze. I know she’s not there anymore, at least not in body.  But still, it’s the least I can do for her.

Day Twenty-Four: Squirrel Brain

I f*cked up this morning. Nobody died, and it all worked out for the best, as things usually do. But I left a colleague and some students in the lurch by not showing up for a class I’d committed to sub.   As recently as this Wednesday, I was aware I was supposed to teach this class, but somehow, by last night, I un-knew it. The worst part is it’s not the first time I’ve spaced out on a subbing gig at this particular studio, which is, in a word, mortifying. Dependability is one of my core values, a quality I prize in others, and consider a strength of my own. I felt deeply embarrassed at my mistake. So what happened?

SQUIRREL BRAIN. It’s been one of those weeks when I’ve had a lot going on, the kind of stress that isn’t catastrophic enough that you have to put everything on hold to deal with it, but instead you just pick up another stick, balance a plate on it, and start spinning. Yes, there was the fallout from John’s encounter with a falling tree limbCZPnAxwWEAAWyXS, and also, Mia’s mild fender-bender late last week. I suppose I may have been feeling some mild aftershocks.

But most of what’s been going on is truly positive: starting with the neuroscience course (OMG: fascinating); keeping up with the daily posts; singing the national anthem at the Celtics game. Just this week, I added another iron to the fire by joining forces with a number of kickass women to explore founding a women’s innovation cooperative in an ideal location that’s recently opened up nearby. (This venture, in particular, feels like it’s moving at warp speed.) My Nia classes were lovely and I got hired for another Ageless Grace teaching job. It’s all good stress.   But at some point, my processing speed surpassed my memory capacity. So I just kept doing things…faster. That’s squirrel brain.

What’s really interesting is that I didn’t sense when this was happening to me. Looking back over the week, I don’t see any major red flags. A “symptom” of squirrel brain onset for me is that I stop taking care of my body: I overeat (especially sugar), I forget to drink water, or I have that extra glass of wine. I become a “brain on a shelf,” as if the sole purpose of my existence is to process information at higher and higher rates of speed, and my body is just an afterthought.   Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “wait a minute.  Aren’t you a fitness teacher?”   Well, knock me down offa that pedestal because I am a work in progress at best when it comes to practicing all that I preach. I hope that my struggles in this arena make me a more compassionate teacher.

The one thing I did notice was that I wasn’t downshifting enough in the evenings.  I resisted sleep, staying up an extra hour or two, often “working on” truly unnecessary stuff, like obsessively reading Nate Silver’s 538 blog posts about the Nevada caucuses, or filling out a friend’s Oscar pool. (“Spotlight” is my pick, if you must know. I realize that’s a provincial choice for a Bostonian, but it is a movie about Boston provincialism, after all.   I was amazed at how the filmmakers made such a suspenseful stew out of mundane ingredients like reading parish directories and racing to use the copier.   My runner up: “Mad Max.” So much post-apocalyptic fun. And no CGI? Seriously? Mind. Blown. Here’s my vote for the biggest, frozen snooze: “The Revenant.”   Nice to look at, but not much there there, story-wise. It’ll probably win, and that’ll be the last bear claw in the coffin containing the Oscars’ cultural relevance in an increasingly diverse society.)

See how squirrel brain works? I just found a new little nut (the Oscars) and ran off to chew on it without even thinking about whether it was snack time.   The antidote: freeze frame.  Slow down.  Smell the moment.  And give up some of your nuts.ss

Day Twenty-Three: Brainiac

I’ve recently begun taking an online course in neuroscience. The brain. Wow. It’s mind-boggling.   One of the questions neuroscience is increasingly grappling with is this: what is the “mind”? And how does the mind differ from the brain?  When Lucy was around nine or ten years old, she used to freak out over the concept of infinity, the idea that there’s no final number. You can just keep counting forever. She couldn’t sleep one night because she got thinking about infinity and it made her feel so small. I feel a bit this way when pondering the relationship between brain, mind, and spirit. If it all just comes down to the brain, to hardware and wiring, I have to admit, I feel diminished.  I am a big believer in the spirit, or the very least, in the “group mind” that I’ve so often experienced as spiritual connective tissue. When someone says what I was thinking at that exact moment; or when a notion (let’s say “mindfulness,” for the purposes of this post) goes “viral”; wherever unexpected like-mindedness emerges: these synchonicities have always resonated deeply in my soul. I blanch at the thought they might be reduced to chemistry.

Dr. Sarah McKay is the Australian neuroscientist who conceived the course, which she frames as a primer in neuroscience for non-scientists, particularly for those of us who work in wellness-related fields and want to understand cutting edge brain science in working with our clients. She’s a terrific teacher. She has beautifully organized the material in a way that respects our intelligence while recognizing that many of us couldn’t tell a cerebellum from a cerebrum from a rutabaga before we signed up.

Here’s something we learned on day one: Make a fist with your fingers tucked over your 562594711thumb.   Turn the fist so you are looking at the thumb side. Et voilà: brain schematic! Your wrist is your brain stem, your thumb is your limbic system (which supports, among other things, emotions, behavior and motivation), and the rest of your hand comprises the cortex. Your fingers make up your pre-frontal cortex, which moderates decision making and controls social behavior.   Now “flip your lid” – quickly straighten out your folded fingers, exposing your thumb. Look who’s in control now? The pre-frontal cortex has left the building, and the limbic system is running the show. I love that. This is brain science I can USE.

Our first assignment was to join the class FB group and introduce ourselves with a few words about why we are taking the course. Here’s what I wrote: 1. I love to learn. 2. I’m fascinated by what I’ll call whole-life-ecosystem wellness: body, mind, spirit, work, family, community, environment, and 3. I’ve recently been mulling whether I should start a life-balancing/spiritual direction coaching practice, and I believe grounding in brain science will be extremely useful. Say the word “spiritual” and some people think “woo-woo!”: scéance time!  Or it conjures science-denying-religious-zealot-ideologues with a crazed gleam in their eyes and a hand on the tiller of the US congress. I’m particularly fascinated by learning about the brain as it relates to our existential/spiritual leanings, and also our creative imaginations.

The other students are from all over the world, nurses, teachers, healthcare practitioners, executives. There’s another Nia teacher, Ulrika Bergstrom from Stockholm (hi, Ulrika, if you’re reading! So nice to meet you.) I’m excited to participate in this new virtual community of learners. I guess it doesn’t really matter whether it all comes down to synapses and chemistry, or a web of spirit. It’s all cool.

Day Twenty-Two: I Sing the Body Electric

bosI’ve been singing with a women’s a capella group, “BroadBand” for the last fifteen years, and tonight is our annual pilgrimage to perform the national anthem at the Boston Garden. This is our fifth time there, and I’ve come to feel pretty casual about the gig. John asked me this morning who the Celts are playing and I had no idea. I told Mia I’d be home around nine tonight and she asked where I’d be until then.

“We’re doing the Celtics game again tonight, didn’t I mention it?” I said.

“Oh, that! LOL, just singin’ the national anthem for the Celtics, no biggie,” she said.

Here are some fun, behind-the-scenes facts from the gig:

We go out on the court during warm ups to do a sound check.   We are 16 women, decked out in black pants, white tops, kelly green accessories, very suburban-professional in style.   Players are running drills, shooting and passing, as we thread our way to center court to find our mark for the live performance. One year, Paul Pierce was on his back on the court floor getting his hamstrings stretched out by a trainer. He is 6’7” tall, and I think his outstretched leg reached chin level for most of us. We had to step over him to get to the mic stand. That was the year we learned that skirts are not the best choice for this gig.

The backstage area is cavernous; essentially, it’s the basement footprint for the entire arena and stands above. Two or three ambulances and the visiting team’s bus are parked off in one corner, and a couple of green rooms are set aside by black curtains hung from tall scaffolding. There’s a lot of waiting around backstage with the other performers for the night’s game. More often than not, we’ve shared a green room with a youth hip hop team or a girls’ cheerleading squad, 30+ wired kids with matching jackets and gear bags, eagerly doing their stretches under the watchful eyes of whistle-clad chaperones.   There is always an honorary color guard there to carry in the flags, usually composed of national reservists, I think. One year, a fellow Broad’s friend came along to hang out with us backstage, and he asked to check out one of the reservist’s rifles. Someone took a picture of it. Another time, Nate came backstage — he was a senior at Dartmouth and happened to be in Boston doing research. The Boston Celtics Dancers were practicing tumbling tricks out in the vast open space near the entrance to the court, and he went over and chatted them up. He got his picture taken with them, and one of them remarked flirtatiously that he reminded her of her best friend’s boyfriend. The women tumblers are astonishingly petite in person, resembling jacked-up fourth graders. It’s breathtaking, and a little stomach churning, to watch them practice somersaulting up onto the shoulders of the guys, eight feet above a concrete floor. That year, Nate finagled us into two seats on the floor, where we sat directly behind Boston Red Sox player and newly crowned World Series champ Mike Napoli. The photo I took of the two of them together was Nate’s profile picture for a couple of years.

The first time we sang at the Garden, I could barely control my voice I was so nervous and excited. Singing while nervous is a challenge, because your body is your instrument, and most vocal technique requires subtle and very specific mechanics. On a good day, it can be hard to get it right – to form vowels correctly, to “place” the sound so that it resonates fully, to raise your palate, relax your tongue, and fully support your voice with your breath. When I’m nervous, though, these finer mechanics go out the window, and it’s all about the breath. When your heart is hammering in your chest and your mind is freaking out about the high C that you only hit in about half of rehearsals (and that, after a relaxing glass of wine with your friends)—well, it’s hard to breathe.

For our first appearance at the Garden, my breath came like a baby rabbit’s: shallow, fast, terrified. We are supposed to smile and look up at the stands. One of our husbands took some photos, and many of us, myself included, look wide-eyed and stricken.   It was an out-of-body experience, plain and simple. “Out-of-body” is not a very comfortable place to be.

The incredible thing about performing the national anthem in a major venue like the Garden though, is the energy you get from the fans. They start cheering right around “banner yet wave,” which in our arrangement is a beautiful, rich chord: harmonic hollandaise that the fans don’t even get to taste because they’re whistling and carrying on. You’re not exactly sure whether they are cheering for you, or because you’re almost done and the game is about to start, but that quickly becomes immaterial. By the time we’re hitting “home of the brave” we can’t even hear ourselves sing because 15,000 fans are hollering and clapping, blowing airhorns and drumming the seatbacks.   The first time it happened, I was surprised to be overcome with emotion.   Now, we’ve come to expect it, and we start grinning as we begin the run up to the final verse.

People always congratulate us as we leave the court. Once or twice, a player has given us the thumbs-up; the courtside security guard tells us it’s the “best one this season”; kids snap our picture on their cellphones; season ticket holders call out stuff like “bee-yoo-tee-full!” and “good job, girls.” It’s a high to feel yourself borne up by the goodwill of 15,000 human souls in community: truly, a body electric.   Certainly, there’s a sentimental patriotism that gets me choked up. But I am even more moved by the palpable vibe that resonates when people come together and share their positive energy, even if only for that one chord before the game begins, and they start chewing out the ref and booing the visiting team, Bahston-style.

I’ll let you know if I manage to hit the high C.

Day Twenty-One: Overheard

I gave myself a prompt for today’s post: write a piece that uses other people’s words, whether things they said to me directly or things I overheard in passing. I don’t know quite where this will take us thematically, but here they are, a selection of the voices I heard today, in their own words:

JANIE: Nia student, 8:50 a.m. (to me): Omigod, what comes out your mouth is what’s in my head. It’s almost scary. But cool.

TWO 40-SOMETHING WHOLE FOODS WORKERS: Unpacking bulk nuts in front of the bulk foods bins, 10:00 a.m. (overheard): You have to grant that! He inherited the cost of two wars that Dubya started and didn’t even begin to think about paying for. He bailed out the banking system to stave off a depression. You can’t tell me that’s not true. I don’t care what those Republican assholes say. Those are deluxe mixed nuts.

(Note: it’s all downhill after that one.)

these boots were made for slogginTWO MOMS: Loading their dogs back in the car after walking at Cat Rock conservation trails in Weston, MA. Both women were caked in mud up to the knees, 11:15 a.m. (overheard): Well, that was the dogs taking the owners for a walk.

DOGWALKER ON THE SAME TRAILS: After yelling at Westley for running up to greet the five dogs she was leash training, 11:45 a.m. (to me):  I really worry about the pack mentality with these guys on the leash. It can get ugly fast.

LADY WITH A PINK UMBRELLA ON THE SAME TRAILS: Her white poodle covered in mud, 11:50 a.m. (overheard): Well, aren’t we having a lovely slog, Muffin?

TWO GUYS: In the mall, 1:00 p.m. (overheard): Who knows their neck size anyway?  What is that, even?

DISPIRITED SALESLADY: Visionworks Store, after giving me an estimate of $600 dollars for new glasses, 1:15 p.m. (to me): Well, of course, Costco is far cheaper, and the quality is really just about the same.

NICE SALES GUY: Costco Vision Center, 1:45 p.m.(to me): You’d be amazed by how many people lose their prescription glasses. One guy lost them in the store the day he picked them up. You shouldn’t feel bad about that at all.

OTHER SHOPPER IN THE COSTCO VISION CENTER: 1:50 p.m. (to me): I like the red ones on you. Not everyone can pull those off.

JAMIE: On the speaker phone from her kitchen, 4:15 p.m. (to me): The word “incubator” so resonates for me. It says growth and movement, development. I really like it.

MIA:  From the second floor.  I am downstairs writing in the kitchen, 4:47 p.m. (to me):  MOOOOOOOOOM?!  

JOHN: Checking in by cell, 5:00 p.m. (to me): Well, the doctor pounded up and down my spine. He said if it was a bad fracture I’d be in a whole lot more pain, so that’s good news.

Perhaps the best exchange I had today was silent. There wasn’t much parking at the mall (this always amazes me, by the way, our American ability to consume. But hey, I was there, too.)  Cars were prowling up and down the aisles like cats waiting for their prey to make the first move. Another car and I arrived at an open space at exactly the same moment, traveling from different directions. I even think he might have been there first. He made a gallant gesture, as if he were doffing his hat. I couldn’t quite tell if he was mouthing the words “All yours” or “Up Yours.” Either way, he was smiling.

Day Twenty: Try a Little Tenderness

pace-osu-craft-cideryOk, as Super Tuesday looms, I’m gonna take another stab at the body politic thing. But it’s going to take me some time to wade through the complexity of my own responses to the wild ride that is the 2016 race to the nomination. So stay tuned. Aren’t I becoming a savvy self-marketer?

Speaking of which, I’ve heard that the way to really make your blog catch on is by endorsing stuff. If you’ve been reading along, even just casually, my guess is you know that I endorse the following: dance regularly (even if it’s just to Motown in your kitchen), befriend your body, be on the lookout for serendipity in the smallest things, be there for those you love, and be compassionate towards everybody, especially people you find yourself recoiling from. (More about that in the upcoming body politic post which—TEASER—will endorse a candidate. So stick around…) Other things I endorse: a well-timed, well-placed F-bomb, a muscular sense of humor, the examined life, and dogs. Granted, these are not the kind of endorsements that are going to land me a fat advertising contract. What I don’t endorse, although I admit I am as susceptible to its sway as an insomniac QVC viewer with a closet full of chachkis: stuff.

I will, though, turn you on to a great, young recording artist I’ve come across. Her name is 0602517564510Lizz Wright, and the album you need to download is called “The Orchard.” Her cover of Carole King’s classic “I Feel the Earth Move” is falling-off-the-bone tender. She also covers Led Zepplin’s “Thank You,” her earthy, rich alto giving the song a surprisingly gentle-yet-forceful passion. This album makes me want to make loooove. And I’m post-menopausal and have zero hormones. So that’s saying something.

I first heard about Lizz Wright from a friend, and then my friend Maria Skinner choreographed a gobsmackingly beautiful Nia class to “The Orchard,” movements as meltingly delicious as the music itself. A bunch of teacher colleagues all clamored to learn it.

I’ve been working with it off and on for a while now, including this morning. It’s my eighth day in a row teaching a class (usually I have at least one day off), and this morning my body felt tight and fatigued. My Tuesday morning class has never really packed ‘em in for some reason, and I found myself thinking it would be okay, just this once, if nobody showed up and I could take the morning to rest.

As luck would have it, though, I did have one student. I’ll call her Stella, although that’s not her true name, but she shines in a very particular way, so I think it suits her. Stella has a cognitive impairment. I don’t know the precise nature of her disability. She’s maybe in her fifties, like me, but she is quite childlike in some ways and almost elderly in others. She processes language in fits and spurts, and her speech is slurry. When she’s talking to you, she has a myopic way of looking just over your shoulder from behind her smudged eyeglasses. She comes to almost every class the studio offers. We have a “no shoes inside the space” policy to keep the grit of the New England winters outside, and we all leave our boots in the hallway and come into the studio waiting area barefoot. But Stella always changes from her boots into slippers covered in gold sequins. I call them her sparkle shoes, which makes her laugh.

One thing I’ve noticed about Stella in some of the more energetic Nia classes I teach is that she is concentrating very hard on making her feet do the steps. Her movements are awkward and stuttering. But she is beautifully present. She hums along with the music, which being a singer, I love to see, even though her voice isn’t musical, strictly speaking. What I most love about Stella when she dances is how she moves her hands, with incredible delicacy.

Because it was just the two of us, and it seemed to fit each of our needs, I switched the play list I’d been planning to teach—a high-energy, complicated hip-hoppy sort of an affair—for “The Orchard.” Our focus was moving gently and slowly. I spoke very little. I sense that processing language while moving isn’t pleasurable to her the way it may be for other students. Self-editing (in teaching, writing and life in general) is an “improvement area” for me, so today, Stella was my teacher. She helped me lean into the silence. It seemed right for the two of us to take it slow this morning, like an apple ripening in the sun.

Day Nineteen: Monkey Doorway

I don’t know why, but my keys wouldn’t open the studio door this morning. This same set worked just fine last Tuesday morning. I misplaced them for a few days later last week and borrowed a replacement set from Maria, who owns the studio, last Friday. Students were starting to arrive, so thank goodness I just happened to have the replacement set. What kismet! What serendipity! Don’t you just love it when the universe blows you a kiss like this?

Except they didn’t work either.

I called Maria and she called the landlord, who said he could be there in 10 minutes. It was now 10:05 and our hour-long class was supposed to start at 10:00. There was one student who’d only taken class at the studio, and I was very conscious of not wanting her to feel we are some fly-by-night, wacky operation. There we were, in this not-so-nice hallway that is essentially the backstage space of a former auto dealership converted several years to retail space. It’s now home to a couple of gift shops, a flower shop, the studio, and an auto body shop. The hallway has never been ready for primetime, although the tenants have done what they could to add attractive touches, and the landlord did repaint it a cheery soft yellow. Nonetheless, the floor is covered with industrial grade carpet and plastic boot mats, the hallway is long and narrow and the only natural light comes from a single window in the door out to the alley. Only some of the fluorescent ceiling fixtures work.

It’s funny (or perhaps, this is the truly synchronous happening of my day), but I’d been thinking a lot about space in the car on the way to class this morning. A number of women who are regular members of the studio community (and this studio is very much that) have been batting about ideas around maybe renting a space for a women’s collaborative, so that’s one reason it was on my mind. I’d also begun this morning’s post thinking about a particular space: the one between my intent to write a blog post a day for a month and my actual tally. (Today is February 22. This is post nineteen). That irksome gap of three.

Spaces are so interesting. They contain, they define, they explain, they can expand and contract. In music, they are everything: intervals, rhythms, rests. Space in dance is much like in sculpture: a play between negative (empty) and positive (full) space. Composition in art as in music is much about how you perceive and manipulate the spaces. I had set the focus for the day’s class as this: exploring the spaces we create when we move and sensing our bodies as solids that move through open places. It sounds kind of abstract, but it’s actually really cool. You can play with it right now: just spread the fingers of both hands as wide as you can and then “touch” the space around you, almost like you are finger painting, or miming. Then let your fingers come back together and do the same thing, as if you are carving the air with the outside edge of your hand. It feels different, right? Not better, not worse, just different. Your relationship to the space around you and within your body just changed somehow. That interests me.

Back to our narrow hallway: We had enough space to move, so why not just start class out there? Four students had come, their time was valuable after all, and the teacher in me wanted them to have the fullest class possible. I have been in classes halldancewith three of them many times before and they are awesome ladies. I knew they’d be up for it. Our new guest was sure to jump on the train if we all did. So we fired up some music on my Iphone and began.  This is us:

We physically touched the walls in front of and behind us. Familiar moves – Nia steps that we do all the time – were transformed when you could touch both the wall in front of you with your hands and the one behind you with your foot at the same time. There was something special about it. Noralee jumped up on a bench and took some pictures on her phone. I think we all may have been a little disappointed at first when the landlord arrived and unlocked the door for us; I know I was.

It did feel great to move into the studio, to be in the light, to have all that beautiful, airy room to sculpt with our movements, expanding our boundaries. One of the songs towards the end of the class, when we were cooling down, has this very odd lyric that I’ve never quite been able to  understand. The lyric is sung in Sanskit, I think, but there’s a line that sounds like the vocalist is singing “In a monkey doorway…” in perfect English. And so this is how I’ve come to think of it (like that lyric in Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” that my teenage friends and I always thought was “ripped up like a douche”–ewwww—but we’d sing it out full voice anyway, which we thought was hilarious).  Which begs the question: what is a monkey doorway? To me, it’s the benevolently disruptive entrance into another dimension or mode of perception. (Because: monkeys!) Basically, a paradigm shift. You don’t necessarily recognize it when you’re at the threshold, but you know when you’ve crossed over.  Kisses from the universe.