What Comes Next?

I remember the night George W. Bush was elected because of the look on my father’s face. I was 11 and I asked him how it went, when I woke up somewhere after midnight to get some water. He just shook his head at me, and looked deflated.

Watching that inauguration, a rainy scene with dark overcoats, my dad had the same deflated look on his face but with an edge of deep, deep concern. “I just hope nothing major happens while he’s in office,” he said while we watched Bush swear an oath that he would effectively trash over the next 8 years. I heard myself have the same thought several times last night – that god, I just hope nothing major happens in this time that we are now legally bound to give to this poor excuse. I worry that this hope is just as auspiciously doomed as my dad’s was 16 years ago. I don’t even like thinking that thought.

In 2008 I was in a dorm room in Brooklyn, watching returns online because I didn’t have a tv, and when they called it all for Obama the streets outside my building erupted. That’s not an exaggeration. Within 10 seconds of this being announced, the streets were packed and voices were building, and windows were thrown open and everyone was so gripped by elation and relief that the whole city buzzed. There was an amazing feeling of community in that moment, and an overlay of safety that I felt so distinctly throughout the 8 years we’ve had with this administration. There’s a feeling of respect, having lived in an America held in the competent and compassionate hands of the Obamas, and I’ve grown accustomed to that feeling. But progress swings, and here I am again, waking up to a reality that cast a grim pallor across my father’s face, and now mine.

Bush was an incompetent, blithering idiot, but he had a support system that knew how to operate in politics. Next to what I’m looking at now, he was benign. He dropped some balls and gave Obama a hell of a mess to clean up, but he was possibly too ignorant of his own idiocy to make a mess too big to clean up. This is different. This changes everything. Complacency is no longer an option.

I’m challenging myself to get as much done, and to do as much good in the world as I can in the next 4 years. It’s going to take me a long time to understand how this happened, how this could possibly happen, but it happened, with or without my understanding. But we will never come out of this, strong and ready to get back on the path of positive change, if we succumb to it. It shouldn’t have been like this today, none of us should have had to wake up knowing that that horrible, heavy feeling of dread isn’t going away for some time now. I’d hoped the Bush administration would have been enough to show voters of a certain persuasion that progress comes best in an inclusive, intelligent, compassionate package, but hey, some people take a lot longer to learn the important lessons. So let’s keep helping to teach that lesson. Let’s keep being the good and kind and loving people that we are capable of being, and work on whatever scale we can to make the world better. That’s the only thing that got me out of bed this morning – I hit snooze too many times to believe that I could reset it all and wake up in a different America today, so I figured I’d wake up and get to work…

“Never doubt that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead said that. We have an entire human history to study and learn from, and maybe it’s within human nature to miss the cues that history provides sometimes but I refuse to believe this is an ending. We’re better than that. Despite what the maps said last night, this country has just as many if not more strong, kind voices of change as it does ignorant, bigoted ones cowering in blame and fear, and I do believe that intelligence and goodness will take root if we plant it carefully, strategically, and rampantly. I hope to be a different person in 4 years. In fact I fully expect to be, because last night read to me as a call to action. The bully always manages to take your lunch money at some point, but that’s never the extent of the story. We’re all entirely too clever to let that be the end of it.

I’ll be a louder feminist now, unapologetic. I’ll be a stronger and more dedicated ally. I’ll love harder, and deeper, and unconditionally. I don’t want to spend the next 4 years thinking about myself, or being angry, or being scared. Those things will happen, but it’s not time for that right now. It hasn’t been time for that for quite awhile now, but I think we all needed some time to come around to that notion. Now that we’re here, and this is our reality – together, as a country, like it or not – we might as well stand up and accept what we’ve got, and take responsibility where we each can to set the future up for something a hell of a lot better than what we’ve got to work with right now.

Accept that challenge. Find what you can lend your voice and your strength to, and don’t stop until you’ve done it and are ready for the next task. The voices that won last night are content to sit on their racist, ignorant laurels and watch the world burn. I’m not so eager for complacency and destruction. I suspect you aren’t either.

With enduring, insistent, radical love.

Of consent and men (and not just men)

“Be prepared to rip on me,” my friend said to me before I saw him that night. “I have a huge hickey on my neck.” Strange, I thought. I’d just seen him the day before, unbruised. That seemed out of character for him. I couldn’t see anything behind the hood of his sweatshirt when I walked in, and after awhile I forgot to ask about it. He didn’t seem too eager to talk about it, anyway. When it finally did come up, he only shrugged and muttered “she’s crazy.” Then, in a duller and more reticent tone, “never again.” It wasn’t until I pressed him a bit that he got angry.

She was someone he’d known for awhile, someone he’d had a vague interest in, and when she reached out he invited her over. Things progressed. Stuff happened. Afterwards he was happy to keep hanging out with her for awhile, but physically he was done. She, however, kept trying to instigate. At first it was innocuous, he explained to me, and he tried passively to deflect. Progressively she grew more persistent. She climbed on top of him and pinned his hands with her knees, bit the bruises into his neck, scratched the hell out of his back, tickled him incessantly (he is notoriously ticklish, this guy, and after discovering this she abused it).

It’s important to note that this is a formidable guy – over 6 feet, muscular, an athlete, more than capable of defending himself and of physically dominating this person. The girl, he told me, was relatively tiny and would have been easy to assert control over. Though she’d wrapped her legs around his waist and he had to work to extricate himself, she could only do so much to restrain him for long. Eventually he got a grip around her wrists and held them still long enough to shout at her to stop, and in response this girl laughed.

“I know you like it,” she giggled in his face.

Had this scene been written in reverse, had my friend been the one forcing himself in this way, it would be assault, rape, a textbook case. He pointed this out to the girl, told her that were their roles reversed she would feel like a victim, and again she laughed. At no point in all of this did any of his words sink in with this girl, and when he finally got her to leave she was unfazed. The longer he spoke, though, and the more I heard, the more furious it made us both.

He was right when he pointed out the fact that this scene would have been an obvious assault had a man been the aggressor, but what further disempowered him in his reaction was the worry that had he used his full strength and overpowered this person, the ensuing narrative would not have been his. He knew this person, and knew that the moment he picked her up, pulled her away, threw her off of him, the story she told (publicly, loudly) would be one of him getting violent with her. After all, what could she possibly do at her size to force him, right? So he tempered himself and waited for her to heed his repeated No, like so many women who have had to wait it out before getting away.

And before anyone jumps in and asserts that this is one small example of a man being harassed, among a grim history of women enduring assault, it’s important to remember that 1 in 6 men is a victim of sexual abuse – but it’s more important to remember that this is a human issue, not merely a feminist one. It’s not ok when anybody does it to anybody, and giving women a pass is just as egregious and irresponsible as giving men one. There is no license for abuse. Period. End of discussion.

He finished the story and sighed deeply, resigned to regretting the whole experience and refusing to repeat it. We were both angry, but mine was rooted in the fury that yet another facet of rape culture is perpetuated by the myth that it’s not a crime when a woman does it. What alarmed me the most, though, was that after this whole scene, in which this woman aggressively and adamantly forced herself on someone who just as forcefully had to remove her, she went on to ask him for more the next night.

I can’t decide which I find more disconcerting– that this woman was unable to see that what she was doing was in fact sexual assault, or that she also represents a rapidly-growing population of women who have never been taught to get attention any other way but sexually. This person met her partner’s clear refusal, not just with denial but with laughter.

We don’t effectively teach girls to seek and respect consent in the same way that we do boys, because we operate under the myths that men are stronger and can’t be overpowered, that a man doesn’t turn down a woman who throws herself at him.

Girls are so often socialized to downplay intellect, to hypersexualize themselves. This brings into stark focus a dichotomy in how we raise and socialize children from a young age, and we’re all responsible for the fallout. We’re all responsible for the disconnect between a hypersexualized society, and a deep-seeded repression when it comes to actually talking about sexuality. No wonder people don’t know how to act around each other. Do it, society says, you have to. But we won’t tell you how. And you shouldn’t talk about it, either. No wonder some people can’t tell the difference between what was consensual and what was rape.

This is another element of this story that left me outraged, and hugely disappointed. This man was clearly and compassionately communicating to his partner that her advances were not welcome, nor was her aggressive and dismissive behavior, and she was flatly ignoring him, all the while giggling. This is something about our society that makes me nervous: children, youth, adolescents, young adults – hell, GROWN adults are not always taught to have open, honest, thoughtful conversation about matters of sexuality. So many are raised and imparted with a degree of repression and fear, or just plain old squeamishness, and what suffers from that is the ability to own and discuss sexuality with confidence. We need to teach kids that it’s ok to talk about their bodies, and we need to teach youth and adolescents how to have healthy conversations about sex before they’re adults – how to speak, and how to listen. This woman unfortunately knew neither, and the result was a prime and stark example of the illiteracy produced by fear and ignorance.

I was raised by parents who believe in the radical notion that children are humans with valid experiences, and deserve to be given honest answers to good questions (or any questions, really). I was also lucky enough that these parents attended a Unitarian Universalist church, that the UUs have a comprehensive and thorough sex-ed curriculum, and that my parents are trained teachers of this curriculum. My household while I was growing up was open, honest, supportive, and did not shy away from topics, even if they were somewhat uncomfortable (that’s inevitable sometimes). Nothing was taboo or unworthy of discussion, and specific emphasis was placed on the importance of treating everyone in the global community with worth and dignity. From this, I learned the importance of equality in all matters. I also learned that sexuality is valid and inherently personal, and that if you can’t have an open and honest conversation about sex with a partner, you probably have no business having sex with that person. Communication is key. Listening is crucial. Without that, it stops being a partner act.

I called my mother after my friend told me this story and talked to her about how glaring the gaps are in how consent is both taught and sought, and how painfully common it is that people do not know how to view, define, or communicate themselves beyond status as a sexual object. And like I said, this is education, empowerment, enlightenment for which we are all responsible, as a society. More often we are delicate and veiled, or outright dismissive, which does nothing but erode the quality of our partnerships and our education…

Honestly, I could go on. I could quote more statistics and talk on and on about the nuances of this particular example, because they are many. Instead I’d just like to challenge you, whoever you may be, to think long and hard (or just for a few seconds – I’ll take what I can get) about how you’ve had your conversations, and what you’ve passed on in whatever way. Were you kind? Were you honest? Were you listening?

If you weren’t… how could you start to be?
We are all a community. Remember that.

 

 

 

Hail Mary, or whatever you like

In the last few months I’ve had the absolute pleasure of seeing two old and wonderful friends with a bit of regularity. Sonia, my soul sister, is getting married this winter, and as her bridesmaids we have assembled – Sonia, Rebecca*, and myself – several times in these last many weeks. I hear so often about wedding planning stress and bridal party tension and all that mess, but Sonia is such a self-sufficient, driven, calm, flexible bride (professional program coordinator and event planner by day, serene and powerful yoga teacher and phenomenal woman all the time) that this whole experience with her has been the most peaceful of joys.

(*ok, not really her name)

So aside from how much fun it’s been to help plan this fabulous affair in celebration of Sonia and Pete, I’ve also gotten to spend more time with Rebecca. The three of us met in high school, in theater and choir, and bonded through common loves of show tune singalongs in the car, trading shoes, existential questions about character development, and spontaneous renditions of selections from Chicago (like any good high school theater girls would). Sonia and Rebecca were two years behind me, though, and I didn’t get to know Rebecca as well as I did Sonia. We’ve kept in touch mainly through Sonia (and Facebook) in the years since high school, so it’s been wonderful spending this time with her and getting to know each other as who we are now.

Rebecca is the aesthetic blend of classic beauty and sultry glam – full, dark curls and pale skin, big eyes so bright they might burst, and an infectious smile. Her giggle makes everyone else giggle. She is both an opera singer and a music teacher, as comfortable handling a room full of kids as she is commanding a stage. Rebecca’s faith is a big part of who she is; as a devout Catholic, religion is the compass with which she measures and guides her life. Up until the other day, she and I had never really talked about religion or belief or how we use it to make our choices in life, and it was over dinner with Sonia and our friend Sam that we finally did.

Around this table sat: Rebecca, devout Catholic. Sam, raised Catholic but unaffiliated and primarily pro-science. Sonia, Jewish/Catholic parents / personally spiritual with reverence for myth, unity, and love. And me, raised Unitarian Universalist and broadly spiritual.

This already sounds like the set up for an irreverent joke.

We talked about the strict and consistent ritual of Mass, how we could walk into any service in any church anywhere and it would be the same, how comforting that can be. Rebecca and Sam asked me how a UU service is conducted, if there is the same (or any) consistency in ritual there. I explained the basis of Unitarian Universalism, the principles honoring inherent worth and dignity, broad-spectrum respect for all life, and an ongoing and evolving search for truth and meaning.

Jesus is optional? they asked me. Does the minister have to believe in god?
No one has to believe in anything in particular, I told them. Sam raised an eyebrow at this.

Does that even count as church? they asked…

I laughed. I come from a faith that respects, encourages, and downright revels in differences of opinion, thoughtful consideration, and discussion. I don’t take offense when people ask me this because, to many, the idea of such flexible and individualized belief within an organized religious community seems impossible. Or at least contradictory and nonsensical.

Sure, I told them. It counts as church as long as it’s meaningful to you. If it feels true, it’s valid. That’s the heart of it, I told them. They still didn’t quite get it, but they lovingly nodded and considered it. I told them about the sex ed curriculum that UU youth are taught (my parents just so happened to be the teachers, I told Rebecca, whose eyes widened so big that they outgrew her face), and that having that education at a young age had, and has, great influence on who I am and how I make my choices. A straightforward, comprehensive, non-judgmental sex education at church is an incredibly confusing and foreign concept for a lot of people. Rebecca wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

“Yeah, the nuns would never have done that,” she finally said after a long pause and much thought, with a little smile and a shrug.

Rebecca does not date casually, nor does she feel particularly at home in dishy, blunt girl talk. Well, that’s not completely accurate. She likes the conversation, she just prefers to keep her own stuff relatively private. She wasn’t raised discussing things explicitly. Theatrical glam and performative nature aside, she values and embodies modesty. On paper it might seem like Rebecca and I have very little in common and would struggle to find neutral ground, and I suspect we both came at that conversation with a lot of respect for and awareness of each other. It would have been easy for one or both of us to take offense somewhere along the way and shut down, and I’m so glad that we didn’t because we would have missed a beautiful opportunity.

In this cultural and political climate it’s often difficult to imagine that opposing sides could have a middle ground, or that it’s possible to come to any sort of agreement or mutual respect. There are quite a few fundamental things that Rebecca and I could, I’m sure, argue bitterly if we wanted to. I’m sure the fact that we simply don’t want to argue with each other plays a significant role in the peace of our friendship. The heart of the matter is that we believe in and expect the best of each other, and I find myself wishing it were that easy to approach all difference and disagreement with that sort of good will and willingness to understand rather than fight. Oh, that we all could assume that everyone we argued did, inherently, mean well…

Sonia and Rebecca stayed the night, and in the morning Sonia was off early to keep an appointment. For the first time in our friendship, Rebecca and I sat in my living room and chatted over tea, just the two of us. This is where something beautiful happened.

A month or two back, the three of us were at Sonia’s for another wedding appointment. I’ve been working on a project, some fiction, maybe a novel if I can keep my thoughts organized… and I asked these two if they would be willing to hear what I’d been working on and give me some feedback. I proceeded to read aloud pieces of a story involving a stern disciplinarian of a priest, and a character with a less than positive experience and association with Catholicism. While I read it I worried what Rebecca was thinking, if perhaps I shouldn’t have done this, if I was crossing a line and offending her… They both listened keenly and gave great feedback, and we let it drop. There with me in my living room, though, Rebecca brought this up again and offered some insight.

“I’ve been thinking about your story,” she said, “and I’ve been wondering about your priest.” She went on to explore the psychology and emotion of a religious man who would put up a front of anger and order, and what could be behind this demeanor and drive such a harsh presence. “Heartbreak,” she said. “I asked myself how I would feel in this situation, and I would be so heartbroken.” She offered love and devotion, and therefore overwhelming sadness as motivation for this character, and she was completely right. As soon as I considered it I knew she was right, and in a moment she had rounded out and humanized something that I hadn’t been able to see clearly. What a gift, I told her.

What this tells me – aside from the reminder that there are beautiful and brilliant people in my life for whom I am endlessly grateful – is that it is always important, in fact it’s crucial, to find the humanity in it all. In every little thing. Even that which seems unspeakably contradictory or immoral or just plain absurd made sense to someone, was someone’s truth… I know this concept can get a little sticky if carried too far into political or cultural matters, but the essence of it is simple. Assume the best. Approach with an intention of understanding. Remember that there’s sky above and ground beneath all of us, that under the waters separating our grounds is just more ground, and we’re all just here, together, trying to make the best sense of a life that never came with a manual…

(There’s that hippie-religious upbringing coming out in me)

Namaste, y’all. Directly translated, that means that the best in me sees and honors the best in you.

Namaste.

 

(Meanwhile, that below is actually a tee shirt. I want one.)

 

prayswell

Keeps me searching

 

This morning I woke up, as I do most mornings, with a song stuck in my head. Often it’s one I hadn’t actually been listening to, but one that came to me for some reason while I was asleep. This morning it was Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” Lately I’ve been having trouble sleeping, or falling asleep, or staying asleep, or any combination of the two, and this morning I woke around 6 with no idea why my body was opting out of normal sleep… and I had Neil Young’s muppety voice in my head the whole time. It was sunny this morning and I lay in bed, still tired and wishing I could sleep, looking out into the trees and letting this song run through my mind.

 I wanna live, I wanna give. I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold. It’s these expressions I never give, that keep me searching for a heart of gold… and I’m gettin’ old.

 For the past few days in particular I’ve been considering my life through the lens of nihilism, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a dicey road when that happens. I start to wonder what the point is of being human, why we put ourselves through the cyclical and frustrating motions of life and society, why it’s so hard for us to learn from our experiences and mistakes, why we’re here at all for however many years we have, what we could possibly be doing for the world, for the universe as a whole, with our existence. What are we contributing? Why can’t we look beyond the immediate emotion of something, see the bigger picture, step back and acknowledge how arrogant it makes us to assume that we know everything… Like I said, it’s a bumpy road to ask these questions. Human perspective is too narrow to ever answer them, and that’s a daunting thing to accept. We are limited. We are tiny.

In a dangerous vein of thought, I’ve lately been considering the concept of coupling within this vast universe, of partnering with another person in some way or another, and wondering how it’s possible that we as people can even do this properly. I’ve asked myself this while questioning the whole scheme of existence and our place within it. I’ve wondered this while sitting, basking, in the loveliness of some of my best friends and their significant others, and admiring their various incarnations of togetherness from my perspective as a contended individual. Now, that’s not to say that I insist on my solitude, nor do shy away from involvement when it comes along. Quite the opposite – I think everything my heart wants and connects to is an opportunity to learn and to grow, and I love those occasions when they arise. I’m just not a person who defines herself by the existence of Another in her life, or who requires it in order to feel valid and complete. I find just as much meaning and opportunity in the time I spend on my own, and I honor that. I revel in it. But, as an ordinary human, of course those times have their tinges of loneliness. Naturally it’s within those times that I begin to consider this, to wonder what it means to partner with someone and how we manage somehow, in the midst of all human clutter and personal messiness, to find another person who, miraculously and in the face of astronomical odds, fits with us. Who thinks the way we do. Who sees the world the way we do. Who sees us, just maybe, for who we are – sometimes even better than we do. This concept boggles me. It leaves me in awe, when I see pairs who have found that in each other – who aren’t simply together because they don’t want to be alone, but because they are truly supposed to be together. Because there might not be anybody else in the world with whom they could ever be, as perfectly as they are together. They are genuinely supposed to align their lives, and they strengthen each other. I love those pairs. I feel lucky to have several of them in my life. I feel even luckier to have been born to and raised by one of them. But my exposure to this phenomenon, and my wholehearted belief in it, make it no easier to wrap my mind around the concept. And when I consider it carefully, when I’m completely honest with myself, I wonder if it’s possible for everybody. I wonder if there are people who at one point or another have to look around and embrace the fact that their lives, unlike these beautifully coupled ones, were meant for solitude. There must be. Indeed there most certainly are. Sometimes – and this is what I come to when the universe seems entirely too huge to ever align neatly for everybody – the odds simply have to win. And I have to wonder how much of the universe is fate, or purpose, or magnetic energy… and how much is simply an odds game.

I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve been to Redwood. I’ve crossed the ocean for a heart of gold. I’ve been in my mind, it’s such a fine line that keeps me searching for a heart of gold…

This was a beautiful song to wake up to this morning. The chords are contemplative but not a dirge, and the rhythm is relaxed and even sweet. I think part of what kept me from falling back to sleep was how fitting it felt, and I lay there for quite awhile listening to it loop in my mind over the soft pulse of my cat purring next to me. But that one line kept looping more than the others for me. “I’ve been in my mind. It’s such a fine line…”

In my deepest musings on the universe, my most daunting questioning and most unsettling speculations, I see that I am a solitary being. I mean that in that the sense that we are all solitary beings, entirely unique, with perspectives that can never be wholly shared because nobody can ever come behind our eyes and into our minds along with us. What I see, and what I think of what I see, is mine alone. As is yours. That’s a beautiful thing, yes, of course, but it is also inherently isolating. And I would venture a guess that we all have these questions from time to time, but what I found myself wondering a few nights ago was how it could ever be possible to ask these questions, to accept the inevitable answer that existence is so much more than our inherently limited human perspective… and then cast that aside and keep living as a person among other people. If I allow myself to accept and embrace the existential or the nihilistic, to entertain the idea that all existence and perspective is fleeting and subjective and perhaps not even real at all… how do I then shake that off and say, “well, I’m still here, so I might as well keep being human now”? Can I ever really do both? Can I wonder if this is real at all, if this is just a dream, if we’re all just floating in the universe for a mysterious purpose that we’re just not capable of comprehending – and be wholeheartedly at peace with this concept – and then, just as contentedly, live my life with presence and intention and passion? Can we live in the mysterious and the theoretical, as well as the corporeal and tangible and literal? And if we try to have one foot in each camp, can we ever be wholeheartedly in either?

 

No, really, I’m asking. Because I sure as hell don’t have the answers.

 

I’ve been in my mind. It’s such a fine line…”

 

Love and partnership are different things. It’s a powerful force when they come together, but they don’t always find a home together at the same time. I’ve had partnership without much love. I’ve had plenty of love without real partnership. I’ve felt strong and wonderful things for people who were never meant to be more in my life than passing passion and a few possible lessons… and I expect there will be plenty more of that as I go along. It’s all part of the human journey, and if love and emotion and connection are the best things that we do as humans, I’ll take as much as the journey will send me. Sometimes that feels like the best answer I can give myself when I wonder what the point of all of this living really is – the point, I tell myself, is to feel. Is to be present. Is to give to others as much love and goodness as I have within me, because that’s what makes us human. The point, I tell myself, of being human… is to be human. If I’ve been given this perspective and this existence, clearly I’m supposed to experience it. So I try to stay rooted in that state of being, while allowing myself space for the questions. I suspect I am never fully in either place. I suspect I never will be. I also suspect this experience is not unique to me. My only frame of reference is the perspective I have as this solitary, contained being… but you are one, too. How do you love? How do you connect? Do you, at all? It’s perhaps a random fluke of chance in the universe that you’re reading my words, of all words, at all… And for that I’m purely grateful. And if the point of it all is connection in some form, I hope we have.

 

It keeps me searching for a heart of gold…

Everyone’s Had a Ride

It’s easier, I’m told, to believe the bad things people say about you than it is to believe the good. It’s also decidedly harder to let those bad things go. Today I spent a good hour and change on the phone with my mother, because whenever my brain starts to feel too saturated and my emotions are bogging me down, she’s about the best ear anyone could ask for on the other side of the phone. And after the initial babbling, the purge of thoughts from my pent-up mind (oh, she is a patient woman…), I found myself on a subject that she and I hadn’t talked about in months, but that I acknowledged hasn’t left me at all.

I should preface this by saying that I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about feminism, about how it’s evolved and how it lives and is regarded now in our society. How could I not, given the culture of this current election… All of that is probably a topic for another day, a longer piece. But this is a story about a comment that was made, probably a throwaway remark that the speaker thought little of and assumed wouldn’t be overheard or remembered. That’s often the way with hurtful and detrimental remarks, I think. This was months ago, at work, on a day when I wasn’t there. One coworker, seemingly out of unrelated frustration, was speaking with another coworker, and somehow my name came up. Now, granted, I wasn’t present for this conversation, but heard about it from several people after the fact. The first person (for her sake I’ll call her Sara) was very loudly talking about how I had already slept with two of our other coworkers, and that I was gunning for another (much younger) one now. She referred to me as the Bicycle – everyone’s had a ride. This was said loudly, met with laughter, and was overheard by several people nearby. The story didn’t get back to me for a few weeks, though.

 

She referred to me as the Bicycle – everyone’s had a ride.

 

I found out because that younger coworker, my very good friend Quin, had heard the story and mentioned it, thinking I’d already heard. He also had no idea that this would be one of the most hurtful, cutting, damaging things I’d ever heard of anyone saying about me, and how deeply offensive the concept was. For the sake of accuracy, here’s the real story: In nearly four years working at my job, I’ve been romantically involved with two different coworkers. This is neither discouraged nor frowned upon, so long as everyone involved remains mature and professional and keeps their personal stuff at home. These relationships occurred months removed from each other, and as far as I was aware nobody knew about them at the time except for a few close friends in whom I confided. These men and I conducted ourselves professionally and kindly, and left no public trace of malice or discontent in our interactions after amicably ending things. In short, my dating choices were private and responsible, incited nobody’s commentary, and remained professional. And, for the record, the last relationship ended almost a year before that bicycle comment was made. So you can imagine my surprise when someone I had never spoken to about my dating history (who I’m fairly sure wasn’t even working there when I was in either of those relationships) felt the need to attach such a biting, judgmental, shaming, and altogether very crass label on something that was perfectly respectable, and hadn’t even existed in ages.

In this moment I have to pause as I listen to myself, because so much of the above paragraph was spent explaining and defending my dating and sexual choices. That is, I think, the first sign of how far our society is from upholding feminist principles… But we’ll get to that…

I spent several weeks after this fielding rumors, answering prying questions, and defending my choices to people who, until this happened, I didn’t know were even aware of my history. Right after Quin told me about it, my first (and entirely uncontrollable) response was tears. But it’s not even true, I told myself. That word, that indictment, wasn’t even remotely who I am. Who I am, I insisted, is a person who makes her dating and sexual choices quietly and with a great deal of thought, based on a deep connection with another person. I don’t have a great deal of notches on my bedpost, so to speak. I regret none of my choices. To be referred to as the Bicycle of where I work was both an egregious misrepresentation of my actions and intentions, as well as a false and cruel attack on my character. And for me personally, this felt like one of the deepest violations a person could commit against me – like I said, I make my choices in this part of my life with great care, and with great privacy. I would never have expected this to be a label anyone would ever even think to place on me, much less publicly and behind my back. And as for the younger guy I was being accused of wanting, it’s worth clarifying that at the time, he was 17. So as well as receiving an insult, I was being falsely implicated in what would actually have been statutory rape. So, yea, all around not the most thoughtful thing a person could have said about me…

In the days and weeks following this, while I was answering questions and dispelling rumors and tearing up quietly when Sara was nearby, neither of the men involved were spoken to about it. Nobody asked them any personal, prying, inappropriate questions about me. Nobody judged or labelled them for having been involved with a coworker (even though both of them had had previous involvements with other coworkers, too). Nobody thought any less of the men who date or sleep with a coworker, or several coworkers as the case may be, but once word got out about the woman, well, all bets were off.

Eventually it all died down. Eventually everybody figured out that this story wasn’t all that interesting, that it was just the baseless words of a bored and bitter person, and they moved on. Eventually most of them forgot that the word Bicycle was shouted and that they laughed. But that moment, that word, that meaningless attempt to shame something about me that I wasn’t ashamed of, hasn’t left me. It has a lasting presence now in the way I think of myself, and the way I look at myself. I’m still not ashamed or regretful of my choices, because there’s nothing to regret or be ashamed of. But I had to wonder what kind of fellow woman, what kind of fellow human, would use something like that to tear a person down. But then, that’s a pretty simple answer to find. Because for as long as we’ve been making human history, we’ve been shaming and condemning and repressing female sexuality in a way that simply makes no sense to me.

My friend Sonia, second generation graduate of Smith College, highly educated, staunchly feminist, would shout something about how this is the work of The Patriarchy, and to an extent she would be right. This is a societal system that has been in power ever since early man cowered in fear of how powerful the female body is and built cultural and governmental structures to suppress it. We as humans do fear what we don’t know, after all, and how mystifying, how terrifying it must have been to see a creature that could bleed without dying… And in the face of this Patriarchy, women still made their choices and asserted their strength, and they were burned at the stake, accused of heresy and witchcraft. They were stoned to death. They were at the mercy of a husband who owned them as property, and their sexual purity was a non-negotiable commodity. We have always lived in this strange dichotomy that allows and encourages men to explore, to practice, to act out their urges on a subdue-able (or willing) woman… and yet the women have literally been killed for the same. Or merely ostracized. I have to wonder which must have been worse… But through it all there’s been this grey area of female solidarity, this thin veil separating the women who band together and support, and the women who tear the sinners down. One operates on strength, love, and acceptance. The other is based in fear and resentment. And this is the part that remains alive and well in modern society, and is all but fanned by an all-too-prevalent willingness to cast that first stone. But the trouble with fanning things is how easy it is to set fire to more than we were intending to burn.

I told my mom about this when it first happened, and I’m so grateful to have had that conversation in person because I was gifted the look on her face. My mother, who has no tolerance for social injustice, who raised me on the Sister Suffragette song from Mary Poppins, simply could not fathom this story. “This was another woman who said this??” she said, outraged on my behalf, disgusted and indignant on her own. “That’s appalling.” And she was right, that was appalling. But when we talked today and revisited this subject, she made a small adjustment.

“Have you ever confronted her about this?”

No, I told her, I never have. But I wonder what she would say if I did. I’d kind of love to, I told my mom, just to hear what she’d have to say. She’d likely deny it. But I would love to see what expression she held when I asked her what kind of woman says that about another woman, particularly as unprompted and undeserved as that was.

“Not just woman,” my mom said. “What kind of human?”

What kind of thinking, feeling, conscious human passes that judgement, assumes the right to give such a verdict, and makes that declaration, all in good conscience?

Well, we decided, not really much of one. In the moment my mother, ever kind and fair, wished for Sara more enlightenment than she’s found so far.

As for me, I’ve found a place where I can laugh at this – because at the end of the day, I genuinely know that this means nothing, and it doesn’t alter my sense of self. That’s hugely important, and I’m grateful to have grown up with such role models that would teach me to cast off this sort of thing without losing myself in it. And really, the whole concept is genuinely laughable for its absurdity. I thought a lot about my 13-year-old cousin Rachel while writing this, and wondered what kind of messages she’s taking in from this world. First I hope that nobody ever has the nerve to call her a shaming name (because that girl is fierce and the perpetrator probably wouldn’t live to tell the tale), but I also hope that she’s taking in enough of the good and the empowering in our society to help her filter out the hurtful, the wrong, the outdated. If this were a one-off, a standalone occurrence in all of society and history, I would have dismissed and forgotten it ages ago. The problem is that it’s by no means isolated. And that is what we need to work on.

It’s not just The Patriarchy, or men, or women, or any one group at any one time. Fault lies in many places, and it’s hard to keep up with it because it’s always moving. I could end this piece with a nod to Betty Friedan and make a sweeping declaration, a call for women to stand together against oppression… but the Feminine Mystique has already been written, and I’d like to ask for something much quieter than that, much softer. A little kindness, please, is all that I ask.

There’s a concept within yoga called Ahimsa, a practice of nonviolence, which extends to all senses of the word. It calls for nonviolent actions as well as nonviolent thoughts, towards others as well as towards the self. I imagine this is something that most of us struggle with in life, and in the face of injustice or frustration or cruelty or doubt or shame it’s terribly hard to choose nonviolence, to choose softness and kindness. To choose not to fight, or to criticize, or to harm. But maybe, if we all try to shift the focus a little bit, it could make even the smallest difference. My choice was not to retaliate against someone who hurt me, because in the end I would surely hurt myself in the process, too. I’d be making myself a little worse if I were to do that. And I’d like to think that we are all equipped to leave things a little better than when we found them, so long as we decide to do so.

 

 

Love Song to a Journal: a lesson in letting go

“Are you in teacher training or are you writing a novel?” Mark asked me when he saw the thick brown, leather-bound volume on my lap one afternoon between sessions. During my collective four weeks at Kripalu getting my 200-hour certification I became synonymous with my journal; where many people only used theirs during lectures or when prompted, I carried mine everywhere. It lay next to my mat with my water and chapstick (another staple) during every class. It rested on my lap during meditations and chanting, and was infused with the energy of the room and the community. I battled nerves and a shaking voice and read aloud from its pages to my whole training class, my sangha, and it saw me through my YTT like a devoted and almost obsessively present friend. I insist that that journal may be the most charged thing that I own.

So on the day that I graduated teacher training, somewhere around a bend in I-290 in Worcester between Kripalu and home, realizing that my journal was not actually in the car with me was akin to how I imagine it would feel to suddenly look over and realize that my arm was missing and there was a good chance I would never see it again.

Let me pause for a moment to talk about why a journal, a silly little journal, would leave me working to calm my sobs and watch the road while I drove the remaining hour and a half home (because I’m sure there are people out there who are raising an eyebrow and questioning my stability for this). I started journaling, regularly and compulsively, back in the seventh grade. My first journal was unlined, I never dated the pages and I had the rounded, cartoonish handwriting that is the trademark of just about every 13-year-old girl. My handwriting has since tempered itself, and I’ve become meticulously picky about my journal pages – lined, but neither too wide nor too narrow. Plain covers. Thick and durable paper. Essentially, I have to pick it up and run my hands on the pages and feel invited and welcome in that volume, that I’m at home in there and that this book is trustworthy and loyal. Now, I know that personifying my journals like that might raise those eyebrows again, but my journals are my emotional home, right along with my yoga mat. Atmosphere is everything. So over the years I’ve perfected my standards for choosing the perfect journal, and once I found this leather-bound beauty I stuck with it. I’ve gone through a few like that at this point (thanks to Barnes and Noble for continuing to stock it). It feels so natural to carry it around that I often forget if I’ve grabbed it or not. I write in coffee shops, in parks, in free time at work and, most definitely, during my yoga teacher training. It’s the heart of my meditation practice. A blank piece of paper is where I go when I need to make sense where I have none, and I get very attached to my journals. I love them like friends. Some might argue that I love them even more (I refrain from weighing in on this).

I knew exactly what had happened. I’d stopped in Northampton, Massachusetts to have dinner with my friend Sonia, also a Kripalu graduate, to swap stories of practice teaches and emotional breaking points and asana victories and the sweet and poignant Kripalu graduation ceremony, and as I parked my car in the garage in downtown NoHo I glanced at my journal on the seat next to me. I thought of the passage I’d read to my sangha a day before, and on a whim I decided to bring my journal with me to share that little bit with Sonia. It didn’t fit in the small purse I had with me, so I tucked it under my arm and walked to the restaurant. We had our dinner, we meandered back to the parking garage, and this is where it all derailed.

The first thing that came into play in this equation is the fact that the Northampton parking garage is set up with a pay station on the third level. You pay there, validate your ticket then insert it into the machine on your way out, rather than handing a ticket and money to a real-live person (which is what I am used to up here in New Hampshire). The second factor is that the last time I’d gone to see Sonia in Northampton I’d been thrown by this minor change in routine and almost lost my ticket between the pay station and my car. We joked about this as I set my journal down on a small table by the pay station, and after I finished with the particulars I made a show of putting my ticket directly in my coat pocket, promising not to forget this time.

I said goodbye to Sonia at her car, headed back to mine and set off for the last two hours of my drive. It is also worth noting that my phone was down to the bitter end of its battery, so I’d turned it off as soon as my GPS had gotten me safely from downtown Northampton to the Mass Pike, where it was a clear shot back home. I was maybe 40 minutes into this leg of the trip, mind wandering between missing Kripalu already and my excitement to be home, relief that I had nothing to do the next day but wake up (unsure if it was even possible to sleep past 5am anymore), have a delicious practice at home and, as I imagined, write for most of the day. It was a golden feeling. It was late on a Friday evening and I was just about the only car nearby, the streetlights were vaguely orange and warm, and Worcester, not the most charming city from the highway, looked like it was glowing. My car was rounding a bend in the road and I was lost in humming along with the dissonant harmonies of Beck’s Heart is a Drum when I felt a sharp and halting chill. My hand reached over to the seat next to me, instinctually looking for my journal, because in that moment I realized that it wasn’t there. No, I thought, that’s not possible. There’s no way I would have gotten into this car without it. I turned on the light in my car, rifled through the jacket and purse and such that I’d tossed into that space, panic growing more and more as I tried to watch the road and reject the possibility that I could have fumbled so badly as to leave it. I managed to get myself through Worcester and onto 495, and once the road was straight and clear I pulled over, turned on the light in my car and tore the place apart. Logically I knew there was no way my journal would be in that car if it wasn’t directly on the seat next to me, but I simply refused to accept that until I’d put my hands on everything to be sure. I sprawled across the middle console and groped along the floor, hoping that it had just slipped underneath the seat. I shimmied into the space between the front seats and all but prostrated myself into the back of the car reaching for my duffle bag, aware that it wasn’t back there but fiercely hoping that I had just temporarily drawn a blank and tossed it in with my laundry and my yoga mat before leaving the parking garage. I hadn’t. I went in circles through the first four stages of grief in the five minutes my car was idling on the side of the road, from outright denial and refusal to overwhelming fury at myself for having made such a horrible, stupid, neglectful mistake. Everything I’d done in the last few hours was in such a haze that I wasn’t sure I could even trust my own memory. It was getting late, I was in tears and out of control, and in my mind there was no option other than to get my journal back. There was no such thing as acceptance of this circumstance. I called Sonia, explained through tempered sobs what had happened and apologized profusely but asked that she drive back to the garage and look for my journal. It was getting late. She and her boyfriend (now fiancé) were just about to go to sleep and it was a 20 minute drive for her to get back to Northampton. A potentially more sane person might have told me that it was just a journal, that if it was going to be there right then it would be there still in the morning, but lucky for me my friends are just as imbalanced as I am and she agreed without hesitation. She would call me when she made it back to the garage. I thanked her and hung up, returned to my sobs and just focused every ounce of energy I had on hoping that my little brown book would be there waiting when Sonia made it back.

But what if it isn’t? I kept asking myself as I drove on, acutely aware that with every mile I was leaving more and more distance and all I wanted to do was to turn around. I thought of how long I had been with that journal… It was February, and I’d been in that volume since the previous August. The first page of that journal was written on the day that I received my acceptance notice from Kripalu, the day that I officially signed on for yoga teacher training. The first thing I wrote in that book was “hello, page one. Nice to meet you.” What a lovely way to start off a relationship, don’t you think? A warm and engaging acceptance of this newness, a pleasant introduction, an open heart. All relationships should begin this way, I think. All new phases of our lives should be met with such openness.

I realize that this is something I struggle with immensely. I’ve always been terrible with changes, and with goodbyes. I was a shy and clingy child who would cry and feel legitimate and crippling panic when I couldn’t see my mother nearby. The poor woman had to suffer through my tantrum and desperate attachment every day that she dropped me off at preschool; it didn’t matter that I would recover as soon as she left and settle in happily with my class within a few minutes of her driving away. I would cry and beg her to stay, I would cause a scene in front of all the other kids and I didn’t care in the least, and I would hold my sobbing face to the small window in the back corner of the classroom and watch her drive away. Every time. And to be honest, it felt much the same when my parents dropped me off as a freshman in college. No, I didn’t throw a tantrum and beg them to stay (outwardly), but I felt like I could have. So facing the reality that I may never see my journal again, the journal containing months of my life and the entirety of my YTT experience (those notes! Those valuable notes!) was not the easiest thing, and to be honest I downright refused it. I coughed it up on the rug like a dog who won’t swallow a pill no matter how much peanut butter it’s slathered in. I would not get to that last stage of grief, the acceptance. That just wasn’t something that I was willing to do. Nope. There had to be another outcome. My journal had to be there when Sonia went back for it. There was no alternative.

Somewhere in the time I spent waiting for Sonia to call, I’d started humming a chant to myself to keep myself calm. It was the only thing keeping me from crying, which made it the only thing making me at all safe driving that car. The chanting kept me focused. I fell into a shaky, choked rhythm, jarred by the fact that I’d just been singing these words with my sangha hours earlier, that somewhere between the sun coming up that morning and it setting again, the meaning of those notes and those words changed for me. Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya… Maybe there was a chant out there that would have been more appropriate to my current circumstance, some kind of direct appeal to the deity of lost and beloved things, or the patron saint of suddenly missing limbs, or something to that effect, but in the moment the only thing that came to mind was that chant. A humble bow to divine and infinite wisdom. A chant that had brought together my sangha so many times, the chant that was so prominently infused into my journal from the myriad times it lay in my lap while we all sang together. Just like holding a hand on the surface of a drum and feeling the vibrations of every other beating drum in the room, that journal was connected with all of that energy every time we joined our voices together (and man, could that group sing together gorgeously…). So it was in the midst of singing to myself, unsteady but sure, that Sonia called back from the pay station at the garage.

“I’m sorry, honey, it’s not here.” The regret was palpable in her voice. I knew she’d been hoping to find it as much as I was, not only because it would have been worth dragging her out of bed and back into her contacts for, but because she knew that it wasn’t up to us anymore. It was gone and there was nothing we could do about it. She drove in circles around that garage for what must have been fifteen minutes before we accepted our defeat and I let her go home. No one can ever say the girl didn’t try (Sonia, you’re amazing).

“I’m so sorry. I’ll ask at the security station tomorrow to see if anybody turned it in. I can see a Lost and Found but the office is closed…” She offered suggestions for places to look, alternatives to my rising fear that someone had seen it, picked it up, wandered off, thrown it in a trash, thought it would be funny to take something like that and dispose of it… Or worse, that someone grabbed it with the intention of keeping it safe but would forget and it would get lost in a back seat or a trunk or a closet, and forgotten… I thanked Sonia again. I hung up. I tempered another wave of panic and wondered how long a person is able to cry before the body runs out, before all of the water is cried out and there’s nothing left but dried-out flesh and bone and broken heart. There must be a biological limit of water release through the eyes that precedes death.

Yes, this is what I thought in that moment. I never said I wasn’t melodramatic.

The rest of that drive was a dirge; I kept at my quiet humming, and I tried to imagine where my journal was then and who had it. I imagined that I could speak to that person, tried to guess what I would say. I wondered if that person had opened the journal and recognized that they were holding something that may mean nothing to them but was so significant to someone else. In that moment I became aware of how deeply connected I was to someone I had never met, that that person held the most personal insight into me that I could offer and that it was theirs to peruse at their discretion, completely uncensored and open. And yet I wasn’t worried about that person reading my journal or passing any judgement – they didn’t actually know me personally, and if anything I would consider what they held to be an offering, an appeal, a heartfelt plea to take good care of my journal and respect what it was to me, and maybe find a way to get it back to me. But no, I thought, that wasn’t possible. I never kept any personal information in my journals, never a name or contact information or the fill-ins to the printed “This Journal Belongs To ____” or “If Found Please Contact ___”. On principle, trying desperately not to fall into clichés of the “Dear Diary” stereotype of journalers, I’ve never written my name in one of my books. But before the dismay of that awareness could sink in I remembered something fortuitous, something unusual, that restored a bit of my hope. As a result of sheer fluke, completely random and seemingly inconsequential, it was all in there. Tucked into the back cover of the book, along with other papers I’d saved along the way, was a scrap of lined paper with everything on it –name, address, phone number and email. I’d written it down weeks ago to give to one of my sangha members, but ended up not needing it. It should have been balled up and tossed away ages ago, but in some strange coincidence I hadn’t gotten around to it. Oh god, I realized, it’s right there. It’s all right there. It was as if the softest light had been turned on in that moment. In those last miles of my drive, still maintaining my tenuous hold on calm, I felt the faintest urge to smile. At that point I spoke directly to that person, that mystery soul who found and kept my journal and must be intending to return it. Open the book, I told that person. Please, open it, it’s alright with me. Find that piece of paper. Guess correctly that it’s me and let me know that you have it and it’s safe. I don’t care what you read in the process, just keep it safe and let me know how to find you.

And thank god it was dark and there were no other cars around to see me, because I was speaking aloud to myself…

I made it home an hour or so later. I fed my cat and absently sat on the couch to pet him. I gave a halfhearted and last-ditch rip-through of my duffle bag to be sure the journal was nowhere, just in case philanthropic garage elves had found it before I drove off and tucked it away safely for me. No such luck. No surprise, of  course, but a girl can dream; the existence of such elves would have been reassuring. Instead I sat on my couch and looked around at my living room, seeing that it looked just as I had left it but marveling at how different it felt with the knowledge that I hadn’t made it home with everything I’d taken with me. It hardly felt like I had made it home at all, really. I probably should have been able to put that aside for awhile and appreciate being home, but I couldn’t get my mind off of it. The most ironic and wrenching part right then was that whenever I feel that way about something, my instinct is to write about it, to put it all into my journal. My hand was already fidgeting for want of a pen, looking for something to write on. And yet I’m picky about my journals; I can’t open up and write in just anything, just as we can’t all easily open up and confide in just anybody. It has to be the right place; I wanted my journaling to all be together in one place, not scattered throughout different volumes. I felt stranded. Which got me wondering… And this was a troubling thought… How am I going to keep writing?

I ran through in my mind all of the times journals had come into play in my life in the last few weeks. My own aside, I’d had a few distinctly auspicious conversations with several people about their own journals recently. Sonia had talked to me a few weeks prior about hers, how her boyfriend had accidentally spilled coffee all over it, and the significance of stained journal pages. I had fortuitously crossed paths with one of my fellow students, Jeanie, before leaving Kripalu, who had found another friend’s journal left outside of the cafeteria earlier that afternoon. I had just said goodbye to this person, the owner of the wayward journal – let’s call him Kyle (because that’s his name) – and was able to catch him to return it before he’d gotten too far down the road. There had to be some kind of karmic charge in that, I told myself. Cosmically, energetically, in terms of sheer human fairness, that had to mean something. I deserved my journal back, I insisted. This was where I got myself stuck in that clumsy bargaining phase of grief, but I refused to let it go.

And then there was the reality of this specific journal. Really, I kept thinking, of all journals, this journal? Why this journal? This one, that was with me when I made the definitive choice to embark on yoga teacher training, that saw me completely overhaul my fitness level to prepare for this physical undertaking, that housed all of my anticipation of the emotional experience that was teacher training, too. That journal had been with me through the runs (and the endings) of a few very poignant relationships, had been there for several false starts and new beginnings. It saw me find a new feeling of presence within my own body, and within my emotional core. It captured a particularly profound window of time in my life, and those writings were not ones that I wanted to lose. They were ones I needed very much to go back and read in the future. They were ones that would sustain me in times of doubt and heaviness. I was still incapable of wrapping my mind around the idea of not having them when I needed them. This journal, I kept saying to myself, sometimes in more of a whine than I’d like to admit. Why this journal?

But was that the lesson? Was that the point of all of this? Was this journal lost because it was the very journal I would least want to lose, and therefore the most poignant loss to learn from? As vehemently as my heart and, I think, my instinct wanted to reject this possibility, there was something to be said for it. That journal was certainly a security blanket for me, and I felt baseless and lost without it. Not only would it kill me not to complete that volume and have those particular months of my life kept safely with all the others, but I was a freshly-certified yoga teacher in desperate need of integration. Without my notes I worried I would lose a part of that experience, and with it my confidence as a yoga teacher. Was this just another overblown melodramatic complaint, I don’t know. At the time it felt very real.

I sent myself to bed because there was nothing to be done at that point. It does not do to dwell, and there was no use wallowing anymore that night. I was fitful, but I slept. I woke to the realization that my phone had been off, that the battery had died and I hadn’t checked my email. Maybe, I thought, someone had actually found that information and reached out. And as if I knew all along that it would be the case, someone actually had.

“Your journal is on the table by the parking garage payment machine,” it read, sent at 8:00 the night before, right about the time that I’d noticed it wasn’t with me, which led me to believe that on some psychic level, that’s what initially tipped me off. And yet… it wasn’t at the payment machine. Sonia had made sure of that. I wrote back, exhilarated but still nervous. I told him that my friend had gone back to look and hadn’t found it, asked if he knew if it had made it to a lost and found (though, naturally, how could he? I had to ask anyway). Quickly enough he responded, but no, sorry, no idea. He’d just noticed it there and seen my email address inside. I thanked him for letting me know. I was nowhere closer to finding it, but at least he was able to confirm for me that I’d left it where I thought I had, instead of absently placing it on the roof of my car and driving off, unwittingly flinging it into the street. That was comforting, at least.  I was grateful to this man’s email. His name was Simon. Thank you, Simon.

So at that point I knew where I had left it, I knew that it was no longer there and I thought it safe to assume that someone had grabbed it. Alright, I thought, this is where I surrender, and hope that that person picked it up with good intentions and would, like Simon, find my name in there and let me know. Come on, Mystery Person. I’m pulling for you…

The next couple of days were spent on my mat, focusing my thoughts as best I could on the person who had my journal and on that lingering question I’d asked myself about my ability to write. Honestly, I had no idea at first how to go about writing about this, and more pressingly, where to do it. I hated the thought of writing elsewhere, and I held out hope that I wouldn’t have to. I finally pulled from my shelf a small notebook, hard-bound, blue, wide-ish lines but reasonable, that had been a Christmas gift from Kyle (that same friend whose journal I had returned before leaving Kripalu). If I was going to write in anything, it was going to be the book that Kyle gave me. That much was obvious to me. I spoke with Kyle that morning, to tell him what had happened and cry about it all over again, and in his gentlest and most loving voice he sent me to my mat to meditate. “No phones,” he said. “No expectations. Just you and your thoughts.”

Ugh. What a yoga teacher response.

I’ve never been the best at silent, seated meditating, and my excuse has been that journaling is my meditation. “I guess you’ll have to try something a little different,” Kyle told me. I went. I sat. I stayed silent. I let that blend into soft humming, then quiet chanting. I reached for the notebook he’d given me, but nothing happened.

“What do you write in a journal that you don’t want to write in?” I asked my mom later that day, when I’d finally mustered the composure to call her and tell her what happened. Of course I cried all over again while telling her the story. My throat hurt from so much talking through tears. I felt drained of energy, of emotional resilience, and of most of the water in my body. “What do you say to a journal like that?”

“You thank it,” she told me. “You thank it for being there and appreciate that it’s giving you the space that you need to fill.”

Well. That’s just about the best response I could get, and the best advice, and the most helpful perspective I could adopt when looking at the blank page on my lap and wondering what could possibly go there. She was right, I knew, and I tried to go into those first few pages with that sense of gratitude… But my mind was still blank. Everything that came to mind seemed trite, seemed irrelevant, and everything I actually wanted to write didn’t feel like it belonged in that stand-in notebook. What I wanted was my own journal. I wanted to know that it was coming back to me. If I could at least know that it was safe and coming home to me, I might be able to write in the meantime. In Limbo, I wasn’t sure I had anything to contribute.

It wasn’t my words that that eventually got my pen to touch that paper. It was words that my friend Audrey had written to me before we left Kripalu, the nugget of wisdom she offered to me on one of our last days. I wrote them down at the top of that first page, and stared for awhile.

“Keep following the White Rabbit. When you find him, invite him to the mat, have a crazy talk and rest in stillness that comes at last.”

Beautiful, poetic Audrey. I repeated her words to myself, whispering them like a mantra as I studied the shape of the letters where I’d written them down. Keep following the White Rabbit… To do that requires courage and a willingness to follow a path that has no clear light at the end. It requires an insatiable curiosity, or at least an impulse to discover that is so strong that it outweighs every doubt and reservation and twinge of nerves. I needed a White Rabbit. I needed something to guide me through this destabilizing, unsavory exploration of my own responses to loss and confusion, to worry and vehement resistance. Until that point my guide had always been my pull to write, and what I realized is that there was no need for me to change that. I hadn’t lost my arm. I hadn’t forgotten how to think or speak, how to form language, how to translate a feeling into a word, and nothing had revoked my ability to process in the way to which I am drawn to process. Maybe journaling, as I’d always understood it, as a means of meditation, wasn’t the right medium for me right now. Maybe I needed some time before I could do more than cry and draw a panicked blank when searching for the words for what I was feeling right then. Maybe I needed some time to let the melodramatics fade… That didn’t mean that there was nothing to write. It just meant that I needed to write something different for awhile. That idea felt safe. Once it felt safe, it felt cathartic. And once it felt cathartic, it felt true. I suppose that’s the way to start healing.

I spent a day or two revisiting a story I’d starting writing months before, and poured myself into a character as a means of taking a break from my own head. In the times when I stopped writing, I let myself meditate and send thanks and love to the person who had my journal, hoping that some kind of channeling of energy would compel someone to reach out. But otherwise I tried to let it soften in my mind. No matter what happened, I kept telling myself, a journal is just a thing. The thoughts had still been thought and the experiences had still been lived. I was still ok. No matter how it felt at the time, I was still safe. I kept telling myself this. I knew that it was true, but I was waiting for the feeling to actually sink in.

In my memory it feels like this was weeks later, but it was really just a few days. As I go back and look at the email history, it was actually – auspiciously enough – exactly a year ago. I was on my way to work and stopped for a tea, and while I was waiting in line I thought I’d check my email. Maybe someone sent something about this, I thought. There was one person ahead of me in line, asking about different strengths of coffee brews, and I glanced down at my phone. Loading… Loading… Checking… Loading… I’m not very patient with technology. The person ahead of me picked a coffee and paid. I looked up to check his progress, looked back down again. And this is where the story starts to sing.

Your missing journal

“Hi Lindsey. My name is Carolyn, and I work at Rao’s Coffee in Thornes [market] in Northampton MA. A few days ago, someone returned your journal to our café. Luckily, we did a little snooping and found your contact info (don’t worry, we didn’t read any of your writings). I hope you come get it soon, because writing is clearly a passion of yours! Let me know, and we’ll keep it here for you.”

I read it over and over, and the man ahead of me moved to the side just as the grin took hold and I started to well with happy, relieved, truly absurd tears of gratitude. I’m sure the young lady at the counter had no idea why I was ordering a chai with such emotion, but she didn’t seem to mind (some people just have really strong feelings about their hot beverages…). I had the next day off of work. I would drive down first thing in the morning. My journal was safe. It was safe, it was safe, it was safe and I would have it back tomorrow. This circled in my head and as I walked into work that afternoon I felt like I could celebrate being home, celebrate my accomplishment, celebrate anything, finally. Oh, I could have burst into song. I could have turned the rest of my day into a rock opera and not cared how it looked in the least. It was magnificent. My god, I hadn’t fully realized how sedated I’d been feeling until it was lifted and I felt like myself again. Amazing, how that can happen.

I went into work downright giddy, and had the joy of telling my coworkers, my friends, what had happened. They had all been so sympathetic and understanding when I’d had to tell them that my journal was missing, so their excitement at its impending return was the cherry on top. One lovely soul in particular, my wonderful friend Sam, signed on as copilot and company for the trek down the next day to retrieve my poor lost journal. Sure, it was supposed to snow all day and we’d be heading into a veritable blizzard. I’d written back to Carolyn at the café to tell her that I’d be there if the weather allowed, but I wasn’t about to let the weather impede. Sam and I drove down (the snow took it easy on us). We found the café. I told them my name and asked if there was a journal there waiting for me. They smiled with some familiarity. They all seemed to know me (maybe they did read just a little bit?). I got to meet Carolyn, hug her, hand her a card I’d written out to thank all of them for their kindness, and was handed my darling in return, no worse for the wear, with a sweet little Post-It stuck to the cover with my name and a smiley face. The journal went into my bag and Sam and I went to a pub down the street to honor the moment with lunch and a beer (we definitely had cause for celebration).

I realize that the way I write about this makes it sound like I’m overly attached or dependent; this is the kind of emotional reaction one might have towards a pet or other living creature rather than an inanimate journal. I’m fully aware that my reaction to the whole situation, including (and especially) the luck of getting my journal back, was dramatic and that I felt it perhaps far more deeply and personally than any sane person would. But if everyone is entitled to attachment and love in this life, I stand by my responses. One of my favorite things that Kyle said to me was also one of the most ironic, and the most frustrating, and the most terrifying.

During training we studied the Yamas and Niyamas, two of the eight limbs of yoga, a practice of self-restraints that lead to a balanced, healthy and peaceful life. We were encouraged to choose one to contemplate, one that perhaps spoke to us in a way that begged deeper study and attention. I chose one of the Yamas, the fifth one, Aparigraha, the practice of non-attachment. I honed in on it because, as I’m sure I’ve made abundantly clear in all of this, I attach hard to things. When I love something, I want to keep it in some way. I panic at the idea of losing what I care so deeply about. I’ve wondered if my active caring can at times be a bother to the people I care about… Because it can certainly feel like a bother to me, if for no other reason than it leaves me unbelievably exposed and vulnerable to heartbreak. Love is the same for me in all of its forms – family love, friendship love, romantic love, platonic love… they share equal space in my heart. So when I explained all of this to Kyle and he sent me to meditation time-out, he left me with two infuriating but extremely true words.

“Aparigraha, love.”

Both the last thing I’d want to hear, and the most pertinent. The strength of the emotion I felt at the time was clouding my ability to consider the big picture and respond in a way that would serve and empower me, rather than allow myself to suffer. Of course, suddenly turning my attention to the idea of learning a lesson about Non-Attachment wouldn’t magically make it less sad for me that I’d lost something that I would much rather have not lost. That’s not really how it works. But it was an opportunity to observe myself in the throes of this, and at least gain a little self-awareness. In the grand scheme of things, that’s never not worth gaining. So I did. And what I learned is that I resist change when it involves a permanent parting of ways. That I want to be much more fluid, and to accept the unexpected with a little more grace. That I should always keep protected what matters most of all.

To have gotten lucky (or, perhaps, to have been taken pity on by some kind of energetic or karmic or divine or just plain human forces – you know, whatever you might believe in), and for this story to end in relief and good fortune seems mercifully kind, and while I am nothing but grateful to have my journal back, I wonder if my lesson is dampened somehow because of it. Can I embrace my challenges fully if I don’t have to experience them fully? How much suffering is necessary for the experience to sink in, for the lesson to be learned? Are we ever compelled to learn as deeply or as hungrily as when we are impelled by circumstance, by self-preservation? I have to wonder what kind of place this would be if we learned with that kind of fervor all the time, if we engaged at that level with everything we studied. It’s an interesting thought.

For now I’m well into a new journal. This time I’ve written my name in the back cover (you know, just in case). The old one, my Prodigal Journal, is safe on a shelf with all of the others, where it stays but for the times I go back and revisit.

And the White Rabbit is still out there, begging to be followed…

 

 

 

A Soul Whose Intentions Are (Mostly… Probably… Usually) Good

Let me tell you about the time I got pulled over for speeding on the way to yoga teacher training at Kripalu. I have no excuse, I’ll admit right away. I wasn’t running late. I wasn’t listening to particularly amped-up, agitating music (in fact it was California by Joni Mitchell – hardly the musical pace of lead feet). But somewhere along the Mass Pike I inadvertently whipped past a state trooper going 83 in a 65, and had no idea until I glanced in my mirror and saw the lights flashing, aggressive, accusatory, and shaming, from behind me. Whoops.

I got my car across three lanes and pulled over in the shoulder. I waited while the gusts of passing trucks shook my little car and the cop took his time getting to my door. Between the sweep and shudder of passing traffic and the man’s rushed, scripted speech I strained to hear him, which seemed to annoy him even more and certainly didn’t put me in his good graces.

I should first explain that until that point I’d been pulled over a small handful of times before, never for anything particularly serious, and no officer had ever written me a ticket for anything more criminal than a scratch in the windshield. I believe that there is a clear reason for this – quite simply, I don’t look like a threat. I’m a white girl in my mid-20s, and I don’t fight authority when I’ve indeed done something wrong. I apologize very sincerely. I say please and thank you and yes, sir, and I genuinely mean my manners. For Pete’s sake, I was listening to Joni Mitchell when the man pulled me over. Joni Mitchell. I don’t exactly put police on high alert. And I understand the weight of this general fact about myself. I’m a polite, educated, relatively unassuming, yoga-practicing white girl (who isn’t much for Uggs or Pumpkin Spice Lattes, thank you very much), and until this moment with this state trooper, that had always vouched for me. I once had a cop laugh at me – actually laugh – when I told him that I’d just moved to the area and honestly had no idea that the speed limit dropped to 35 on the other side of the bridge. I apologized profusely, and I’m pretty sure that I looked at least a little bit afraid. He laughed and sent me home, with a welcome to the area and a reminder to drive more carefully in that neighborhood (New Hampshire really is such a friendly state…). I’ve always had very courteous and reasonable interactions with law enforcement, and only a small amount at that.

I was prepared to apologize to this officer, own the fact that I’d simply lost track of my speed coming down that hill, and hope he would be lenient. It was an entirely new experience for me when he yelled through my window for license and registration and wrote me a larger-than-usual citation, all with no interest in anything I might have to say. It was so abrupt, so impersonal. I felt like a chastised child, and as ashamed as one. I hummed a line by The Animals (or Nina Simone).

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…”

A moment later I felt a flicker of indignation, because the man hadn’t even let me speak. For all he knew, I was rushing to a hospital. Maybe someone was dying, or in labor, and I had a perfectly good reason to be speeding. Or maybe I was on my way to a yoga center and lost myself in a song for a moment, and neglected to check my speed. Maybe I deserved that ticket entirely (which I absolutely did), but he didn’t care about my backstory at all. It wasn’t his job to care about that. It wasn’t his job to even look at me, just to pull me over on the Pike and write me a ticket, which would possibly make me drive better in the future (hopefully). And that fact floored me. What floored me after that was how quickly I’d hoped if not assumed that something about me would impel a state trooper to be lenient, or issue a warning and send me on my way. I’d been so used to coming across benign and likeable, and to the privilege of being treated accordingly. I was thrown by the irrelevance of that privilege in this situation. And just as quickly I was struck by my willingness to default to a place of exception and privilege. Because of this I’m actually quite glad that the trooper did what he did – sure, he could have been a little more polite, because kindness and patience do often have the ability to bring out the best in people. But I wouldn’t have wanted him to change his approach simply because I am a non-threatening and polite white woman. I would have wanted this because I am a human being, and we all should strive to treat each other with worth and dignity, and to assume the best, in the hope that our goodness will somehow catch on.

I don’t fault this officer, because being polite and giving pulled-over drivers the benefit of the doubt isn’t exactly part of his job description as a traffic cop. Perhaps we all would be a little less safe if our police force tried to be nicer and more patient, to cater their behavior to the specific individuals in question, because that implies that an amount of their guard would have to be let down. Maybe they – and we as a society – simply cannot afford to be anything but stern and formulaic sometimes. But maybe we would all be a little – or a lot – safer if understanding and patience were our first priorities. Maybe – and this is a lofty, rose-tinted, futuristic Maybe – maybe society wouldn’t need law enforcement the way we do now, if we were to change our approach just a little bit.

This is teetering dangerously on the verge of political commentary on brute police force and the ways it has been abused, which we hear of entirely too often these days. I’m also flirting with the edge of hippie-dippy, John Lennon-invoking, can’t-we-all-just-get-along-and-give-peace-a-chance babble, which I am all too happy to do most of the time. But instead I’d like to remain somewhere in between the outrage and the blissfully optimistic, and simply wonder aloud how we all could bridge the gap a little more. Where can we soften where we have hardened? Where can we understand, or ask questions, or expect the best where we have assumed and braced for the worst? Where can we share a bit of our privilege? Even if it’s just the tiniest shift… This may seem silly, or too optimistic, or needless. And maybe it is. But maybe, and just as possibly, it isn’t.

In the meantime, I’ll be setting cruise control.