why I always bow to the student

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A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to talk with a Parkinson’s Disease support group. Talk about a humbling experience.

I was invited to give this presentation by one of my yoga students, Merrilee, who was diagnosed with PD 17 years ago and has always used exercise as a way of staying mobile and healthy despite the disease. She started practicing yoga around six months ago, and since then she has reported improved strength, balance, posture and breathing. For people with PD, those are all a pretty big deal. The same results have been reproduced by scientific studies, so while I can’t claim yoga is a cure for PD, I’m certain that even a simple practice can make a major positive impact on a patient’s quality of life.

In the week leading up to the talk, I felt a lot of anxiety about it. Sure, Merrilee has seen tons of great benefits from her practice, but she’s also one of the most physically active people I know. There’s no guarantee that anyone else would have the same results. Furthermore, she’s been practicing at least twice a week for months now, and all I could offer this support group was a one-hour presentation. There’s no way I could give them all the benefits of the practice in a single session.

After one of my studio classes one day, I mentioned my nerves about the presentation to a student named Mike. Mike is what I would call a compassionate spiritual person, and he does a lot of volunteer work including visiting a men’s prison to lead discussion groups. Based on his experience in the prison system, he gave me this advice: Imagine you walk past a great big hole in the ground, and you see a person standing at the bottom. The hole is too deep for them to climb out on their own, and they don’t have a ladder. You can stand at the top and talk down to them, telling them how they should get out. You can hop down with them and give them a boost, but then you might not be able to get out yourself. Or you can get close to the edge and extend your hand. You don’t have to have all the answers or even be an expert. You just have to extend your hand.

I tried to keep that advice in mind during the presentation. I offered what I know how to do: We had a gentle asana practice emphasizing connection to the breath and compassion toward the self. A lot of people had feedback for me. Several meditators and yogis in the group offered their experiences as examples of the power of mindful practice. A few people gave suggestions on how I could tailor a class especially for people with Parkinson’s or other movement disorders. Once again, I’m pretty sure I learned more than anyone else.

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Speculation

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I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d made all the right decisions in life, but all I can’t quite picture it.

I used to be a regular at this diner back home. The kitchen staff knew me by name, and the head cook still says hi when I go in. The waiters knew my order, and the waitresses pretended to believe me when I told them I was 21 but “couldn’t find” my ID. My friends and I would meet at the diner, drink a pot of coffee, walk to the book store to loiter, and maybe wind up at a punk show if anyone knew where one was. Sometimes we would play music down by the water — Danny would play guitar while Gary and I improvised lyircs. Gary sang in his lovely tenor “Why, why, why, would you do this to me?”  and I jumped in with, “You do it to yourself,” because I was unwilling to take part in a love song about victimhood. In the summer, there was a fountain in the park that ran till 10 p.m., so we would go play in it, always forgetting that we would then have to spend the rest of our night in wet clothes. Life was pretty amazing for a couple years there, but I wonder what would’ve happened if I stayed.

Everyone in my family went to LSU but me. My entire life, it was assumed I would go to LSU, but certain ones of my classmates who were preppier than me but by my calculations not smarter had plans to attend ivy league schools and launch brilliant careers. This would not do. I applied to two colleges, was accepted to both and offered a scholarship to one. I accepted it and got as far as freshman orientation before realizing I didn’t want to go there. For reasons that aren’t relevant to this story, I chose to attend UT-Arlington — a little-known little sister of UT Austin. I felt very certain when I made that decision that I was doing the “wrong” thing but for some reason felt compelled to do it.

I often look at that moment in my life as the turning point for the person I have become. I cannot imagine the person I would be if I had gone to that private school, lived in those dorms, studied with those professors, and partied with those private school kids. Truth was, I’d already spent the past 4 years partying with private school kids, and it wasn’t that fun anymore. I never really fit in. I wasn’t very studious, either. I wasn’t used to trying so when things got to be a little work, I pretended not to care about them. I had my handful of friends in whom I found safety, but I wasn’t growing in my hometown anymore. I needed to move on, even if it was in a direction that looked sketchy at best.

Looking sidelong into this alternate dimension, I see a version of me who is exactly like the girl I was back home, just older. She has read some books and written some things. She has had some interesting lovers but no one she ever respected very much. Except maybe some professor — an affair whose eventual demise would provide her the realization that adults actually don’t know shit. Alternate dimension me looks a lot less happy than I am right now, even though she did everything right. I think she’s still waiting for someone to tell her she’s good enough.

Meanwhile, in this dimension, I’ve been through some shit. I’ve got injuries. I know a couple things about being hurt and hurting others, but I’ve also learned a lot about kindness, and I think that came from making my mistakes.

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A Different Gratitude

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I’ve been feeling unusually grateful lately because I’ve come to realize I have just about the best husband, family, and group of friends a woman could want. But yesterday, I had an experience that humbled me, and made me feel a different kind of gratitude.

My friend Katie and I planned to meet up at Starbucks. I was running early because I expected traffic to be worse than it was. She was running a little behind. So I sat on a couch and fiddled with my phone while I waited for her. An older black woman shuffled in. She moved slowly, carried two reusable grocery bags full of stuff, and wore two hospital bands on her wrists. The weather had been just above freezing and rainy for over 24 hours, and she had clearly been out in it. She asked if the couch across from me was taken, took a seat, and at a fast food sandwich from one of her bags.

When Katie arrived and went to order her coffee, the woman asked me if she could use my phone to make a call. She told me the number, I dialed it for her, and she proceeded to talk on my phone for about 30 minutes while Katie and I sat and talked. She kept saying, “I am sick. I am tired. I need to heal.” She was asking people for money so she could stay in a hotel. When she finally got off the phone, I asked her if she was OK and if I could help her get somewhere like a shelter or a church where she might get assistance. She didn’t want to go to a shelter because they stole her clothes. She didn’t want to go to any churches either. She said they used to sometimes pay for a hotel room for her, but they wouldn’t anymore, and they told her not to come back. But she had a friend up Rt. 2 working at a cell phone store who said he could give her a few dollars. She was sure he wouldn’t give her a place to stay, but “every little bit counts,” she said.

If I were by myself, I probably would have wished her luck and gone on my way, but with Katie there, I felt a little braver. Katie’s a former public defender with the social skills and resources to connect with people in need, like this lady was. I offered the lady a ride to the cell phone store. She said she could’ve waited for the bus, but it would take a really long time and there are no shelters at most of the bus stops here. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and it didn’t seem right for her to be standing around in the rain. So, we drove up Rt. 2 more than half way to Baltimore, and dropped her off at this cell phone store. She didn’t know if the guy there was going to actually give her any money. I did not offer to hang around in case he wasn’t even there or wouldn’t help her.

On the way there, she told us a little about her life. Her name is Linda. She says her mother hates her and stopped her from marrying the love of her life. When Katie asked if she was sick, Linda gave her her hospital release papers, which we didn’t read. We started talking about Christmas movies somehow. Linda’s favorite Christmas movie is the Charlie Brown Christmas Special (mine, too!) and we both hated Scrooge. She and Katie agreed on Miracle on 34th St. I was the standout vote on claymation. It was a silly conversation, but it felt good to find something we could all have in common.

I didn’t really feel good about leaving Linda. I wanted to help her, but all I did was literally move her up the road a bit to an unknown destination. Katie had been going through her mental files thinking of places we could bring her, but if she wouldn’t agree to go to a shelter or church, there wasn’t much we could do but drop her off where she said her friends would be. Her contacts in the court system could only step in if Linda if had been arrested. And although she had just been released from the hospital, she said she had no case worker or social worker to ask for help.

Still, by the end of the ride, Linda was smiling. I have no idea if we helped her, but she certainly made me realize how lucky I am. Today, my family is coming over to celebrate with us, and really, the only thing we’re celebrating is the fact that we’re so lucky. Linda probably won’t have a Thanksgiving dinner. She told us to eat some turkey for her. I don’t normally eat turkey, but what the hell. It seems a little ungrateful not to.

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Monday Night Nonfiction: What I Learned from My Parents

Credit: Paul K on Flickr

What I learned from my parents was to see other people’s suffering.

I didn’t exactly fit in as a kid, and whenever I complained about other kids being jerks, my mom always said, “Poor thing, that person is probably very sad and doesn’t have very many friends.” When I was little, I felt consolled knowing everybody else probably hated the mean kid as much as I did. When I got older, I realized Mom was right. People who were mean were mean to everyone, not just me. Even when a group of kids ganged up on one outsider, they were really the sad ones. Any one of them could be the group’s next target, and they knew it, so they stuck together in their meanness. I felt so sorry for most people that I even tried to be nice to them and occasionally made a friend.

As for my dad, he’s a doctor (still practicing in his late 60s). He loves his patients because they come to him with their problems, they are vulnerable, and all they want is for someone to make them feel better, so he tries. Many nights at the dinner table, Dad would tell us stories about funny things kids would do. Once in a while, the stories would be sad, like the entire family living on nothing but rice. (Of course he told us this without telling the names of patients or any personally identifying information!)

I think Dad was trying to teach us something with those stories. What I took from them was that people can make you laugh and they can make you mad, but they also suffer, so you have to be kind.

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Monday Night Nonfiction: Warm

Sad man in the streets of San Francisco

On a Friday afternoon in San Francisco, I decided to take a walk. Nimby was working late, and I wanted to pass the time till we could go to dinner together. I walked from his office on Folsom St. to The Embarcadero and proceeded along the water all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. The sun was going down, the end of our stay in SF was near, and I really missed my cat. Nothing was wrong, but I felt lonely and homesick.

“What would make this better?” I kept asking myself. I had a little cash in my pocket. I could go shopping or stop for a drink. I could find a place to sit and watch people or stare out at the water. “What do I want right now? What would make me happy?”

Eventually, I came up with an answer: “It would be really nice to have a friend, not to be alone, to be warm.”

As the sun set, the cool wind off the water was gaining strength, driving home both the chill and the loneliness. Sure, I’d be having dinner with my husband soon, but at that moment, I felt totally isolated. Even as I had these thoughts, I was walking into the most blatant tourist trap in town. Dressed in the baggiest jeans I own and several layers of clothing, walking alone and sporting ratty pink hair (my hair had a rough week), I became aware of the suspicious glances I was getting from tourists.

As I entered a section of tightly packed souvenir shops — the kind that look the same in every sea-side town — I heard a man complaining about the tourists who couldn’t spare enough change to get a burger. It’s true that I have a history of giving my pocket change to the first person who asks when I leave my hotel, but I had no intention of giving this man anything. I checked my phone for a status update from the husband and was just reaching to put it back in my pocket when the man saw me, assumed I was reaching for cash, and began to thank me. It was too late. We’d made eye contact. I finished putting my phone away and moved to another pocket to fish out a dollar. Caught up in my own awkwardness, I may have smirked by accident.

“Please don’t laugh at me,” the man said.

I took a second to look at him. He looked in his 50s, tired, weathered. He wore a thin wind breaker.

“I wouldn’t laugh at you,” I said. “You’re a human being.” I gave him a dollar, and he hugged me. He even kissed me on the cheek and exclaimed about how cold my skin was. His face was rough and bristly.

“Your skin is cold, but you have a warm heart,” he said.

Our exchange lasted all of 10 seconds, then I kept walking. A few minutes later, I got a phone call from Nimby and went off to meet him and a friend for dinner in the poshest apartment building I’ve ever seen. We had a nice night. We were warm, and we ate well.

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