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Running every day made me sore.
Running every day at dawn (when I should be sleeping!) made my leg muscles tight and my back sore. Taking a day off would be the sensible thing to do, but I had vowed I would finish my thirty-day morning running challenge, so I decided to see if yoga would help. I didn’t want a second work-out, I wanted my legs and back to feel better. A local yoga studio was offering a class called “yin and restorative yoga.” I wasn’t sure what either of those were, but “restorative” sounded good so I signed up.
As it turns out, restorative yoga is basically laying on comfy Mexican blankets while listening to relaxing music. I’m not quite sure where the yoga fits in, but the comfy blankets certainly felt restorative. I was sort of hoping that “yin” might be some type of tea served to us while laying on the comfy pile of blankets, but that was not what it turned out to be.
Yin yoga is getting into completely impossible positions (asanas) and then holding them for just a little less than an eternity— while listening to relaxing music. Yin is all about intentions.
I intend for my head to rest upon my leg. (My head is nowhere near my leg). My back is stiff and my leg is a very long ways away. I do not force my back to bend, I just slowly let it happen. After a minute or two I am startled to feel my hair brush against my leg. Then, quite unexpectedly, my head is on my knee. I know this cannot last, but somehow it does. Now my head is on my knee and I am actually getting comfortable. The music plays and I am just breathing with my head resting on my leg and my back is feeling better than it has in weeks.
“Ding!” Time’s up. Impossible.
It was a little miracle. The impossible went to possible and even semi-comfortable in just over five minutes and I did not hurt myself in the process. I just kept my intention focused. I just kept at it. Most miracles don’t occur in five minutes. Most overnight successes take years to accomplish. This little taste of yin was like real life— sped up.
I would like to be a less goal-oriented person. In the dance of life, I’d like to let life take the lead. But how do I do this when there are things I want to accomplish? My little sample of yin yoga was a wonderful lesson.
It doesn’t happen if I anticipate the end. It doesn’t happen by forcing change or rushing progress. Instead, I focus on being here in this moment and keeping my intention strong. The next thing I know my head is on my knee, or I have learned something that seemed unknowable, or I have written (as I am doing right now) my 200th column.
I still like lists and goals and schedules. But now, more often, I am realizing that the lists and goals and plans rarely pan out as I had hoped. Instead, it is the simple habits and changes that I quietly make and keep day after day that have the most profound impact.
So I am trying to do a little less pushing and a little more bending. These days, when I feel tired or defeated, instead of powering through, I take a nap.
Except I don’t call it a nap anymore. I call it “restorative yoga.”
Till next time,
I think one definition of a good friend is that they can tell you what to do and you don’t mind.
Or, maybe you mind a little, but you realize that what they are telling you to do makes a lot of sense and you do it anyway. I’m lucky because I have at least one friend who can do that— and does, on a regular basis.
I met my friend Lanni when I was less sure of myself than I had ever been in my life, which may be why she felt comfortable telling me what to do. Or maybe she’s just bossier than me. Whatever the case, Lanni feels quite free to tell me what to do and, surprisingly, I cannot remember ever resenting her instructions. Lately, Lanni tells me that I should say, “yes.”
The nice thing about Lanni is that she does not couch her instructions in a lot of caveats or qualifiers. She doesn’t say “within reason,” or “if it seems appropriate,” or “in your heart.” No. She means when given a choice of saying “yes” or “no,” I should just say “yes.”
Like all of Lanni’s advice, this is exactly what I needed. Getting over a romance, feeling sorry for myself, falling into the all-too-easy trough of self-pity, something as simple as saying, “yes” can make a tremendous difference. It’s sort of like the movie “Super Size Me,” except instead of saying “yes” to massive amounts of saturated fat, I am saying “yes” to all sorts of peculiar adventures.
Would I like to attend a film festival? Yes, definitely. I had never been to a film festival. I didn’t feel alone sitting in a dark theater watching short movies and documentaries. The last film I saw was about healers from all over the world and the filmmaker was there. Her message was so powerful that I felt a huge “yes” well up within me as she spoke.
Buying my books for class, I heard music on campus. Should I investigate? Yes, of course I should. A crowd was filing into the auditorium.
“Would you like a ticket?” a strange woman asks me. She has an extra she is giving away.
I have no idea what is playing— a Broadway show, as it turns out. Today is the final performance. “Yes.”
I sat with this woman and her family. It was terrific. I was still carrying my school books as I spent the afternoon watching the sold-out show.
“Would you like your picture taken?”
“Would you like to come to church with my daughter and me?”
“Would you like to buy a two-week unlimited yoga pass?”
“Would you like some Mongolian food?”
Knowing that my answer to whatever may come up will be affirmative— in advance— makes life much more of an adventure. Saying “yes” adds suspense to an otherwise dull day. As my calendar fills up, I realize that I no longer feel the helpless sense of self-pity that I had. Paradoxically, opening myself up to “yes” without thought or consideration has empowered me and made me feel more rather than less in command of my life.
Right now I need to hurry up and finish my homework. I will be visiting an aquarium and listening to a nineteen-year-old speaker from Louisiana and… well, I don’t know what else. I won’t know until someone asks me and I say, “yes!”
Till next time,
They met me, one after the other, all dressed in black.
“What’s going on? Did I miss a memo?”
My women friends from the university were meeting me at an Irish restaurant and had, apparently without prearrangement, all decided to wear black and white. I was dressed in orange from head to toe.
I don’t wear black anymore. I used to wear a lot of black. Black is very practical. I wore it to business meetings when I was in business. I traveled in it when I traveled. I had black suits and black slacks and black shoes and a black briefcase. I don’t have any of the above anymore. Now I am a graduate student and wear bright orange clothing that I buy at the used clothing store and zip around town on a moped. Habits change.
Since the start of this month, I have been diligently working to establish a new habit. I have never run in the morning. I have been an on-again, off-again runner for years, mostly off-again since moving to the Southwest because it is hot for much of the year. (That is the excuse I have been using.) The time to run here is in the morning. There is a wonderful window of opportunity just as the sun is rising. The cool air settles in the desert at night and is still hugging the ground in the morning until the sun rises over the mountains. The summer flowers are fragrant and the air is refreshing.
This is when I like to sleep.
But, back in the Midwest and chatting with my friend Andy, we formed a pact and I said I would run every morning for thirty days while he walked every day. He also planned to give up a variety of high-calorie foods and, in solidarity, I said I would give up fried foods and alcohol. I have no idea what I was thinking.
Running in the morning is terrible. The very idea of putting on running shoes when I am still in bed seems almost obscene. Milo was very excited by this new routine for the first three days, then even he stayed in his bed until I stood, leash in hand, and said, “it’s time.”
So we ran.
(Day one: terrible. Day two: worse. Day three: seriously, what was I thinking?)
After a week I checked in with Andy. He said he was walking every day it didn’t rain. He mentioned that it had been raining a lot.
I met my women friends dressed in black and told them that I would not be joining them for an Irish cider. I explained my pact with Andy and about all the rain in the Midwest. They suggested that I abstain from drinking every day it rained here in the desert. I liked that idea; but I had an iced tea and got up again the next morning.
(Day fourteen: has it been two weeks already?)
I realized that it had happened: something that seemed impossible and utterly not who I was had become something that I now did— if not with pleasure— without complaint and without a great deal of thought. I had formed a new habit. This morning I got up before my alarm. Shoes on, out the door, Milo jogged happily at my side. I realized that I liked this new habit and would likely continue for the foreseeable future. I liked this new Carrie, running with the rising sun.
But on July 1st, I plan to have a big glass of wine.
Till next time,
I don’t know anything about Dante.
I know he described the Inferno and the sign leading into it that read, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” I vaguely understood that there were circles of hell where things went (as they say) from bad to worse, but that was about all I knew. When I learned that a class in Dante was being offered right before the class I teach this summer I decided to take it, although I was pretty sure it would be grim.
I didn’t expect it to be all about love.
My professor is from Italy— Sardinia, to be precise— the large island on the southwest side of Italy. She is a tiny woman with a radiant smile and graying hair who wears short, chic dresses and Italian shoes. She grew up reading Dante as a child and, for her, a class about Dante is a class about love.
There is Dante’s great unrequited love of Beatrice, but there is more. There is my professor’s love of Italy, love of Italian, love of the ideas and ideals that came from Dante and his contemporaries. She cannot talk about Dante without talking about her father whom she adored, and her mother who gave up everything for love, and her grandmother who scandalized everyone by eloping, and her husband, the American, whom she married in Reno (“So not Italian!”) because he begged her to.
“Everything is part of Dante, in my interpretation,” she told us on the first day of class, “Cat Stevens, the Beatles, ‘paving over paradise…’ it is all part of Dante!”
We have not even gotten to the Inferno yet. We are reading love poems and talking about the world into which Dante was born. We are talking about the relations between men and women and God. We are talking about life in Florence and Sicily and gardens filled with fragrant lemon trees and cities with walls that shimmered like silver and the pain of these long-dead lovers parting with the one they adored and the terrible fear of losing their love.
It is a summer love seminar.
My professor brings in a suitcase full of books to show us every class, always apologizing for not bringing more because she could not carry them all. She shows us medieval drawings of lovers and volumes of love poems, scholarly texts littered with her tiny margin notes, and Italian tabloids chronicling the activities of celebrities who are the great-great-grandchildren of famous lovers from long ago, carrying on the grand tradition of Italian love. It is heady stuff.
“Carrie, will you read this poem in English after I read it in Italian?” she asks, and so I do. After her beautiful lilting Italian, I read the words of someone suffering and stumbling, someone confused and distraught. I read in these verses how utterly unchanging and universal this experience of love is.
Stepping into the sunshine every afternoon after two hours of love poetry, I look around at the nearly-deserted campus and my heart swells. Everywhere, it seems to me, there is love. Still smarting from my own misadventures in love, it is good to be reminded that love, like life, is a journey and never a thing accomplished or realized. I feel a little less alone, less of an outcast. Instead of being a washed-out lover, I am part of a grand and revered tradition. I am in the leagues of the lovelorn. I am an active participant in this great human experience that makes us more fully human.
Till next time,
It was nearly dead when I moved in.
The Peace Lily was sad and brown and had ceased to bloom long ago. It was in the same unattractive green pot it had been in when I purchased it at a grocery store. It had never thrived. Its one bloom faded and fell and then all the leaves started to do the same. It was really more out of reflex than plan that I brought it with me when I moved into my landlord Robert’s house.
While unpacking, I realized the lily did nothing to improve the appearance of my new room. On my way to the compost pile, I told Robert I was pitching this sad-looking plant.
“Why?” he demanded.
“Because it looks awful. It’s almost dead. It is an eyesore.”
“Don’t throw it out!” he insisted and he took it from me and set it on one of his oversized stereo speakers. Robert is not interested in new, compact sound equipment. A musician, he prefers to listen to vinyl records on very large speakers that sit in the corners of the room.
My old plant found a new home in the corner of the living room and spent the remainder of the winter getting dustier and sadder-looking while Robert dutifully watered it. Twice I threatened to throw it out when company was expected and twice he stopped me, insisting that the plant was preparing to stage a comeback. I left the nearly-dead plant where it was, shaking my head a little every time I passed it to go to my room. It was his house, after all.
Robert is a special ed teacher. He has a college degree, but not in the subject he is teaching and he does not have a degree in teaching. But special ed teachers are hard to come by in the public schools here, so Robert is diligently working to qualify for licensure while teaching his special ed classes. The kids— many of them young adults— have every imaginable kind of challenge. Many of them are poor, most come from difficult home situations. They have learned, by the time they come to Robert’s class, that they do not like school and teachers do not like them. They are angry and bitter and often swear at each other and at Robert, sometimes letting their anger erupt into physical violence. It is not an easy teaching gig.
But Robert has lasted a long time in a field where burn-out is rampant. He laughs with his students. He keeps trying different things to help them learn. He disregards rules that have no tangible benefit to his students and complies only with those rules that are useful and enforceable. He explains, in very blunt terms, why finishing high school would be a good thing. He does not expect miracles, but he does not throw in the towel.
I returned from the Midwest and sitting in the middle of the dining room table was my old plant. I did not recognize it at first. Robert had re-potted it into a bright blue pot and it was enormous. It had turned a brilliant shade of green and had huge new leaves popping out in every direction.
“I don’t believe it,” I told Robert.
“I may have to get a larger pot,” Robert replied.
I was touched by his faith, touched by his optimism, touched by his willingness to believe that this plant was capable of becoming something so strong and beautiful.
I think I could learn a lot from Robert.
Till next time,
I’ve decided to rent out my house.
There are lots of sensible reasons to do this. I have two more years in graduate school. I could use the money. The house sits empty all winter and my father tells me this is not good for it. (I suspect he is right.) My poor friend Judy feels obligated to be checking in on it far too often and has become a full-time caretaker by default. There are lots of very solid reasons not to have my house sit empty. But this does not mean that it is an easy thing to do.
Actually, renting it was a very easy thing to do. Thinking I would have to take out an ad and interview people throughout the summer, I started to ask a good friend how he thought I should try to rent it. Before I finished the question he told me his friend was looking for a place. I let it slip to another friend and a friend of hers was over the next morning to see the house. Before I knew it, it was rented. Then I sat in my house for the rest of the day and slowly realized that I had let it go. I was floating free.
When I recently told someone that I was studying in the Southwest, they asked, “Oh, is this a permanent move?”
“No!” I replied vehemently.
It was not so much the idea of living in the Southwest that I was rejecting as the idea that anything in my life could be considered permanent at this point.
For quite some time I have been working on becoming less attached. I want to be less attached to my preconceptions of how things are supposed to work out or what I am supposed to do. I want to be less invested in hoping for a particular outcome and more accepting of whatever life offers. Much of my time in life’s river has been spent swimming against the current or hanging tightly onto the riverbank. For the past few years I have been thinking that this is the time in life when letting go of the bank— letting the current take me— might be more fun. I also think, if I were really and truly able to stop fighting life so hard, I might go further and faster than I ever imagined.
But now, recently out of a romantic relationship and about to be out of my house, I am wishing I had something (other than my dog Milo) to hang onto.
Loss is disorienting, no matter how inevitable. Really letting go of the bank is a lot easier in the abstract and much more difficult when it comes to parting with piles of books and artwork and wondering what to do on a Saturday night.
At the last minute, I got word that the university wanted me to teach a four-week class, so I am headed back to the Southwest with Milo for a few weeks before returning to the task of deciding what in my house will be packed up and saved for my imaginary future, and what will quietly be left behind. I am leaning towards letting most of it go.
Because now, with the house rented, I feel one more certainty is gone and I have one less tie to that sticky riverbank. I’m starting to get curious how it would feel to stop dragging my toes in the sand, hanging onto the rushes, and finally find out where the current might take me.
Till next time,
Milo has gotten fat.
Of course, our vet does not put it this way. Milo’s veterinarian is sensitive and well-informed. He discusses the potential for joint stiffness and the possible treatments and their various advantages and disadvantages and the fact that none of the medications available are as effective as simply losing the nine pounds (nine pounds!) that Milo has gained since his last appointment.
Milo wasn’t buying it, I could tell. I was having a hard time believing it myself. When I look at Milo, I still see the svelte puppy I adopted from the pound four years ago. I was telling this to my friend Andy. Andy was sympathetic. Andy has also had a few pounds slip on while he wasn’t looking.
“He’s not fat!” Andy said. “I think he looks great. You look great, don’t you Milo?”
Andy is my oldest friend and I’d invited him over for dinner, but all this talk of unnoticed weight gain and preventable health consequences had diminished his appetite and we had a lot of uneaten lasagna sitting in the pan. Milo lay sleeping happily at the feet of his new ally while Andy refused a second piece of lasagna.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I am a lot fatter than I think I am,” Andy announced.
Andy is the friend who has seen me through every major life change. I have not had a mad scheme since high school that he was not privy to. We discussed my latest escapades: going back to school at middle-age, teaching for the first time, the end of my romantic relationship, the loss of my cat Lucy. We talked about the changes in his family and mine. It’s good to have a friend like Andy.
Andy and I can go for weeks or even a couple months at a time without talking; but I know he will call if he needs me and I know I can always call him. At this point in my life, there are people who know me as a person who is one thing or does another, but very few who have seen me through all my metamorphoses— in and out of marriage and relationships, in different careers and at different addresses. Andy knows the person at the center of all these different personas and is never surprised by whatever change occurs.
Back in my farmhouse after a year away, I am looking to lighten the load, make room for new books and new art and new ideas. I looked at my bookshelves despairingly— stacks of yearbooks and family genealogy— knowing that I will never part with as much as I hope I will.
I dragged out two high school yearbooks which I could not remember looking at in decades. I saw the photos of girls with strangely flipped-back hair and enormous glasses. I saw teachers who were so much younger than I am today dressed in polyester and wearing muttonchops. I read inscriptions from people who promised to be my friend through thick and thin and noticed that Andy hadn’t signed my yearbook. Typical, I thought. He couldn’t be bothered to write in my yearbook so he just stayed around to be my friend for the next three decades.
“I must be old,” I commented.
“You’re getting old,” Andy said, “but you’re not old yet.”
Milo nudged Andy’s hand and got some more petting. Milo and I both think it’s a good thing to have a friend like Andy who sees us for what we are.
Till next time,
Milo spent the day tracking dinosaurs.
We are camping in northern New Mexico where, according to the signs in the state park, dinosaurs left their tracks. We pulled in late— too late to see our own tracks, never mind the dinosaurs’. Our tent was perched atop a sandstone rise, surrounded by soft-colored boulders, overlooking a beautiful little man-made lake in the middle of the desert.
I wanted to get in earlier, but things took longer than I expected, as they always do. I dithered and changed my mind about how much I should get accomplished before leaving. I worried about things I didn’t need to worry about and, in the end, I was setting up my tent in the dark and sipping a glass of wine just as the stars came out. I let Milo run off leash as we were the only ones in the park— just us and the dinosaurs. It was too late for me to track dinosaurs, so I sat and listened to the many unidentified sounds of splashing and squawking and rustling around the lakeshore. None of them sounded dinosaur-sized.
Much of New Mexico was once a giant sea that reached all the way to Canada and scientists figure this piece of land must have been a beach. The park stands on what was once a dinosaur thoroughfare. Herbivorous and carnivorous dinosaurs trudged through the mud, passing between a great forest and the sea. The last dinosaurs left 65 million years ago, but most of the tracks were made before that. “More than 100 million years ago,” one of the signs said. Some earlier visitor, apparently as incredulous as I that anything that happened on a muddy beach could survive that long, had scratched off the “million” and written “thousand.” I thought about that. A hundred thousand years was an incredibly long period of time, but I could almost believe it. A hundred million years was outside my ability to imagine.
In the morning, Milo and I walked around the boardwalk, looking at these platter-sized footprints. The signs pointed out the different types of dinosaurs and the direction they were going. One sign pointed out a set of tracks where the dinosaur had hesitated, hopping from one foot to the other and back.
“Can you imagine why it might have done that?” the sign asked, but offered no suggestions.
In another place, a dinosaur steadied herself (for some reason I am sure it was a female) with her tail. The sign pointed out that this was highly unusual, as dinosaurs usually held their tails “several feet in the air.”
I was suddenly very glad I wasn’t a dinosaur.
“Can you imagine why she might have done that?” asks a voice a hundred million years later about that moment on the beach when I didn’t know which way to turn, when I started to do one thing and then stopped, and then realized I wanted to do it after all.
“She usually keeps her tail several feet in the air— except when she slips,” says this altogether-too-observant observer from the unimaginable future.
I looked at all these blunders and missteps recorded for, if not eternity, as near to it as I could imagine and thought of all the times I had stumbled in the mud. I wanted to step back in time, just a hundred million years or so, and reassure these dinosaurs as they slipped and dithered and got their tails muddy.
“It’s okay,” I’d say, “no one will ever know.”
Till next time,
I’ll be home for Mother’s Day.
School is over for the semester. My obligations as a teacher and a student are, temporarily, finished. For a little while I go back to being a person without a schedule. It is a good time to see my mother.
After a great deal of trying and the best of intentions, my relationship with Daniel has come to an end. I am no longer one in a party of two, half a pair of tickets, Carrie and… anybody else. It is one more role I have to give up. And it is a good time to see my mother.
Saying goodbye to my students at the end of the school year was hard. Not a mother myself, I felt a little like one as I gave them brownies and last words of advice. Saying goodbye to my fellow classmates was painful in these workshops where we have all laughed and learned and shared so much. My cat Lucy died last week and saying goodbye to her was hard, even though I could see she was tired and needed to leave. Saying goodbye to Daniel was hardest of all, even though I know we had both tried our best to make things work out differently.
And even if all of these endings came at an appropriate time, all of these endings make it hard to know who I am, in this moment, hard to remember who Carrie is without any of her roles.
But through it all, I am my mother’s daughter. And, in this time of not very much definition, that sounds pretty good to me. Because my mother doesn’t really care if I get a book published, or land an important job, or have a fancy title, and she never has.
While I worry about whether I am learning fast enough or teaching well enough, my mother asks, “Are you having fun?”
My mother doesn’t see me as a middle-aged, divorced woman, mourning her dead cat, just washed out in the romance department and feeling adrift. While I feel like a bit of a failure and wonder if I will ever have anyone to share my life with, my mother says, “I’m so sorry, we really liked him.”
And that is why it is good I’ll be home for Mother’s Day.
Because I need my mother and the other people in our life— my family, my oldest and dearest friends— who know me too well and have shared my life for too long to be influenced by my professional conquests or my romantic tribulations. The people who care about me most see me as the imperfect and struggling person I have always been.
I met a woman recently who did not have the loving relationship with her mother that I have with mine. She kept a photo of her mother on her desk that showed her mother as a young woman, young enough to be this woman’s daughter. When she felt frustrated with her mother, she would look at this vulnerable young woman in the photo and her heart would soften. It helped her accept her mother as the person she was, as a daughter, as someone who was once a child. I like that.
I like the idea of looking at everyone a bit more as a mother would. I want to remember to see others not for what they do or have accomplished today, but see the child inside that never entirely goes away, and remember to ask…
“Are you having fun?”
Till next time,