Your Creative Heart

When I was a child I loved September. I loved school shopping. I loved the smell of a new lunchbox, fresh new clothes, breaking in new shoes and the sharp graphite tip of a bright yellow number two pencil whose perfect pink eraser was still intact and whose pristine finish had yet to be marred by my biting incisors.

But that was then. This is now. And as we enter the second September of the pandemic, it’s a struggle sometimes to hold on to my optimism, my hope and my motivation. I know I’m not alone. Let’s face it. The past year and a half has been one heck of an endless slog.

What do you do when you know you’re reaching critical mass? When you know the stress of all we’ve been through and all we’re bearing witness to weighs too heavily on the heart?

Inspired by a friend whose journey as an artist has been so much fun to watch, I pulled out my own art supplies. The creative process, whether it’s at an easel with a fresh gessoed canvas, in your kitchen whisking a roux or with pen in hand and a story to tell, is the distraction we need. It offers us room to breathe. The creative process slows down time and provides space for honest reflection. It provides the clarity we need to be honest with ourselves about how we are experiencing life in this New Normal.

Where is your creative heart? Music? Visual arts? Cooking? Writing? Is it time to get your creative heart beating again?

Lately I’ve been seduced by the practice of ‘slow stitching’. Letting time pass one slow stitch at a time. My Aunt Mimmie taught me how to embroider when I was young and slow stitching has nudged awake a joy I’d forgotten. I’ve also been working on a series of mixed media pieces called ‘Family Album’. This collage is from that series. The man on the left is my great uncle William Harrison Barber, known as ‘Henry’ to his friends and family. The text on the right is from the last postcard he sent to his brother Robert. From the moment I found his postcard in my mother’s collection of family ephemera I felt a connection  to this man. I can’t explain it. I just did.

Henry wrote the postcard in 1903 from the Oakes Home for the Consumptive in Denver, Colorado. He tells his brother, “I don’t look like a sick man but appearances are very deceptive with lung trouble.” His doctors tell him he is not improving and advise that he head to Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. Henry knows that if his health doesn’t improve when he is in New York, he will never see Colorado again. He’s only twenty-three. And he never makes it to Saranac Lake.

His story has given me pause to reflect on what we do to survive and the connection between good health and creativity. 

Throughout the pandemic it’s been my adventures with basket making and needle felting and wet felting and eco-dying and collage that have brought me comfort. They’ve kept me sane and quite possibly alive.

William Harrison Barber was a musician. He left his studies in Boulder to pursue a career in music and found some success with his ditty ‘Dainty Flo from Idaho’. I’m sad that music didn’t save his life but I bet it brought him comfort. 

Can exploring your creative nature be a comfort to you?


Knowing What is Unknowable (and trying to sleep)

Insomnia is like the buzz of a fluorescent lightbulb about to burn out. It’s the annoying clack of your office mate’s pencil against their desk. The cackle of canned laughter coming through the floorboards from your downstairs neighbor’s television. Insomnia is silence broken by the gristled smack of someone chewing with their mouth open.

I’m irritatingly sensitive to sound. And I hate insomnia.

When sound breaks through the cocoon of quiet I need to have wrapped around me in order to work, it’s easily remedied by distraction. Moving to another room. Taking a break. Walking outside. Eating. 

They say that when insomnia steals what you hope will be a deep, restorative sleep the remedy is similar. Distract yourself from the fact that you are unable to sleep with a good book or a warm drink or anything that doesn’t involve too much mental energy or screens.

So when insomnia sat on the edge of the bed in our hotel room in Charlottesville last month and incessantly tapped its pointy little finger on the crown of my head I did what any intelligent human being wide awake for no reason at 3AM would do. None of the above.

Instead, I tossed. I turned. I yearned for sleep and each time my eyes closed and I thought ‘at last’ a new stream of consciousness would flood my brain. It was like a movie of my life that had been cut and pasted out of sequence and it made no sense. My thoughts bounced from the red dress I wore for my first grade school photo to lesson plans I wanted to write for my yoga classes. My brain played pin ball with whether or not the new refrigerator would fit in the kitchen to how we would move the family furniture languishing in a Pennsylvania storage locker. Did I really have to keep the cookie jar from my childhood? My grandfather’s turquoise Jim Beam bottle in the shape of a star created to celebrate my birth place become our 49th state? 

All the while, weaving its way through these warped concerns like a repeating weft with a broken shuttle was a singular truth. My insomnia was not about how to move furniture from one state to the other. It wasn’t about my red dress or cookie jars or Jim Beam bottles. It was about trying to find order in the unknown. Which seems to me to be an impossible quest.

Knowing that, however, left me reconsidering the question ‘are we making the right decision?’. I realize now there is no answer. The answer is unknowable. So I release fear and move forward with love and trust. And I sleep really, really well.


Leaving Home: A Climate Migrant’s Story

When I left California the first time, it seemed like a lot of folks had a similar idea. Around the time I took flight for Ireland, Dana and Anya left for Grand Rapids and Nancy headed to Santa Fe. There were others, too, who left. Friends on the periphery of my life headed to Oregon and my the friend who adopted my cat Bob moved to Detroit.

In the late 1990’s, if you weren’t in the tech industry, it felt like life was waiting for you someplace else. So we moved. 

A decade later I came back to the place that felt like home. I guess the Universe knew that the Bay Area had more lessons to teach me. Some of those lessons devastated me. Others filled me with hope and motivated me to not only do better but to be better. To be more kind. More patient. More trusting. 

I purchased my first home through Palo Alto’s BMR program during my second time around in the Bay Area. And I fell into the kind of love that is more than a fleeting tickle in the heart.

My beloved B (henceforth known as ‘BB’) and I first tossed around the idea of leaving California long before COVID changed the way we live. But when last summer served us a shutdown, raging firestorms, intense heat and The Day the World Turned Orange we knew it was time to flesh out what it would look like to leave. What it would mean.

So we created a spread sheet that ranked our potential destinations according to the criteria that was most important to us. We wanted to be closer to family but we also needed affordability, diversity, culture, tolerable winters and, while BB could continue to work remotely, I needed opportunities to continue on my path as a yoga therapist and coach. I also needed room to grow back into the artist side of me I abandoned when I left California the first time. Asheville was too expensive and Chapel Hill too far from family. We didn’t relish the idea of a Pittsburgh winter and potential livelihood for me was sketchy in Richmond. 

But Charlottesville, Virginia? Charlottesville ticked enough of the boxes to warrant an exploratory visit.  By the end of our seven day visit last May, we knew where we wanted to live.

It isn’t Charlottesville. It’s a little town (to be truthful it isn’t a town, it’s a place and yes, there’s a difference) outside of Charlottesville called Crozet. Crozet is named after Colonel Claudius Crozet, the French engineer who built the Blue Ridge Tunnel. The community we’re moving to is near enough Charlottesville to take advantage of all it has to offer but far enough away from city lights so that we can see the stars at night. Maybe even the occasional shooting star.

But we won’t move into our new home until next June. Which gives me just enough time to circle ‘round back about a million times to the question, “Are we making the right decision?”


Creating Connections with an Old Bag of Tea

We power through cups of tea at our house. I’ve been saving the wrinkled and wet used tea bags in a bowl. Don’t judge me. I have my reasons.

Not quite finished. The dark flecks are tea. The red pigment comes from pounded rose and geranium petals.

In June I began a year long virtual course of study with India Flint. India is an artist who works with plants and found objects to create beautifully dyed paper and cloth. India’s course of study is why keen eyes might find me in the wee hours of the morning gathering handfuls of eucalyptus leaves from along the bike path that parallels El Camino Real and stuffing them into the pockets of my baggy cargo pants.

India Flint, and this course, is why I save used tea bags.

India’s teaching style is that of a storyteller. Rather than providing precise step-by-step directions – like the sort you’d find if an Ottolenghi cook book – she weaves a tale of her experiences with the plants she is using, the mistakes she’s made, the lessons she’s learned. She gives permission for us to take what we need, to leave the rest, and to be inspired by her life’s work.

I’m inspired.

Our first journey was through the making of a book. I didn’t have much of what was needed – proper paper, a sewing machine, a very sharp pair of scissors – but this course is filmed with such care and beauty it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t playing along. I was still learning.

Which is how, this morning at 5 AM, I found myself carefully deconstructing a dozen or so tea bags, emptying their contents into a bowl and spreading the fragile paper out like one might smooth a bedsheet.

But there is more to this story:

Over the weekend my friend Diane – a talented and dedicated artist – gifted me Beth Pickens’ book Make Your Art No Matter What: Moving Beyond Creative Hurdles. This is a book that weighs much more than it should and its Times Roman font is a point size or two smaller than my eyes enjoy. The first chapter, however, is about time. Something I’ve been pondering lately.

And here’s a little more to the story:

I had lunch yesterday with a friend I’ve not seen since before the shut down. Carolyn and I laugh when we’re together. We laugh a lot. But yesterday, as we were talking about how the pandemic changed us, we thought of something that stopped us in mid-giggle. The shutdown gave us time. And now time feels more precious. Both Carolyn and I are discovering how different life is when we treat time as a gift and not a commodity to burn through. We’re learning to say ‘yes’ to what we love. Even if that means saying ‘no’ to something we love less.  

And that is how I found myself at 5 AM this morning gently opening the tea bags that had been drying for a day instead of reading emails and absorbing all that had happened in the world as I slept. India’s course is inspiring me to explore. Diane’s book is encouraging me to love my inner artist. My conversation with Carolyn is reminding me that time is precious.

Deconstructing tea bags is a slow, careful process. While I sat at my desk, my Ottlite breaking the pre-dawn grey, I fell into a sort of meditative reverie. I thought about the tea, how far it had traveled – the Ashwaghanda from India and the green from Japan – I thought about the farmers who grew and harvested the tea then bundled it off to factories to be processed. I thought about the work it takes to create the paper that holds the tea and about how I was moving the process of creation forward by turning the old tea into dye and the these fragile scraps of paper vessel into a new vessel.

It was a profound moment to experience that deep sense of connection. It felt new to me because it wasn’t cerebral. The connection came from my heart. 

I hope I can hold on to that feeling of connection.


Business as Usual?

I returned to live teaching at a local pain clinic two weeks ago and it’s been joyous. The only ‘connectivity issue’ is attempting to teach while wearing a face mask. Other than that it has been a joy to see people from the waist down, no longer backlit, and with the clarity that can only come from being face-to-face. It’s been a joy to hear them breath. A joy to hear them complain when I ask them to stand up.

But my community classes on Zoom will continue because Zoom classes are joyful, too, for a different set of reasons. 

Over the past sixteen months we’ve built a community on Zoom and at the same time we’ve built a practice that is truly our own. The privacy we’re gifted by COVID’s forced isolation means competition with others has been eliminated. All we’re left with is how our body feels in the moment, the guidance of our teacher and the space we’ve created for our practice.

Pre-pandemic, and acknowledging that space in my home is a limited commodity, creating room for yoga was far down the list of priorities. But COVID has forced us to do just that and, in a rapidly approaching post-COVID world, why would we give that up?

When I practice at home the practice stays with me. In my body, in my bones and in my heart. As soon as I click ‘end meeting’ I sit back for a bit. There is no urgency to race off. I’m content to let my body and my mind rest for a few more minutes.

But the moment my teacher ends a studio class – and I’m pretty certain I am not the only one who does this – I’m rolling up my mat, stacking my props and racing out to my car to beat the traffic on my way to the next thing on my ‘to do’ list. Along the way I might check my phone for important texts or gossip with a friend about what happened the night before. Where is my practice then? Did I practice at all?

In my little corner of the world we enjoy a very high vaccination rate – 72% of adults have at least one dose – and that has returned to us some of the life we enjoyed before March, 2020. The Delta variant is waving a yellow caution flag but that hasn’t stopped us from moving toward our New Normal with open restaurants, gyms, hair salons and yes – even a few open yoga studios.

I wonder, in these sixteen months of practice, how we can hold onto what we’ve learned about ourselves? Can we carry it with us when we return to studio classes? 

Here’s something else to think about. How has the studio system changed? Have studio owners adapted their business model to the New Normal or is it business as usual?


Do Clothes Make the Yoga Teacher?

You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I love clothes. It doesn’t matter that my daily uniform rotates around a tee shirt paired with yoga pants or two identical pairs of Target jeans bought in two different sizes on sale for a tenner each – I love clothes.

Who knew I needed a pea green bomber jacket?

I love the expressive nature of clothes. How the colors you choose can reflect the mood you are in and how the way you style your clothes can shout to the world, ‘here I am!’ or whisper ‘shhh…I’m thinking’. I love how a structured shoulder can help you ‘fake it ’til you make it’ and how cutting cloth on the bias changes the drape of a dress. Clothes can indicate where you stand politically. Clothes can shine a light on your inner artist or reflect your relationship with nature. 

Thirty-five years ago I loved nothing more than to spend a Saturday afternoon at the Goodwill on El Camino Real in Mountain View scouring the racks for vintage dresses. I paired my findings with fishnet stockings, Doc Marten knock-offs and baggy houndstooth jackets with fabulous, patterned satin linings from the men’s section. I was making jewelry at the time – huge brooches made with old watch parts and those tiny spoons you find in salt cellars – and I’d have one pinned to an oversized collar or maybe use one to replace a missing button. The look had a grunge-goth vibe that I embraced. The style was trendy, of course – I mean, what self-respecting Goth didn’t have a pair of Doc Martens? – but those clothes also told a story. Anyone looking at me would know, without asking a single question, a little bit about me.

I don’t dress to impress or express these days. While the pandemic influenced an even more relaxed approach to my sartorial splendor, I’ve been rolling through life in baggy clothes and graphic tees for awhile now. The only story I’m telling through the clothes I pull on each morning is the one that says ‘I’m not worth the effort’. How sad is that?

But maybe that’s about to change.

Last week a woman who plays the role of ‘cool, older aunt’ in my life cleaned out her closet and offered the clothes she no longer wore to me. 

I took them.

These are not clothes with worn out knees or thread bare elbows. These are clothes my bank account would never allow me to purchase for myself. These are beautiful, classic, never going out-of-style clothes.

I slipped my arms through the sleeves of a well-tailored jacket and caught a glimpse of myself in my friend’s mirror. Who was that? I recognized my face, but everything else about me had changed. For one thing, I had a waist. For another, the chatter in my mind shifted from the typical self-deprecating ramblings to which I’m accustomed into something approaching pride. 

I brought the clothes home that evening and the next day purged my own closet. And the day after that? I started showing up for my Zoom meetings sitting a little bit taller and a little bit more confident.

And then I started thinking.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I love clothes.

That being said, I’m conflicted. I know clothes are nothing more than the means by which we keep our bodies – our souls’ temporary home – protected from the elements. So why should clothes matter? But if our naked bodies are a blank canvas then clothes are the paint by which we express to the world who we are and who we aspire to be.

Who will you be today?

ps…As a yoga instructor I will continue to wear baggy tee shirts and budget leggings to class. It’s my small protest against the Yoga Industrial Complex and the sexualization of a practice that means so much to me.


A Sacred Space

I’m often reminded of my yoga ‘origin story’ – how, for years, I studied with Iyengar instructors. How, back then, my practice was informed by hard-edged alignment principles and yoga mats placed in perfect rows on the studio floor. I loved it.

But things change. My body changed. My practice changed. I changed. Over the years those hard edges have softened. I’ve even been known to teach a class with mats placed in a circle like the petals of a flower. Gasp! Quelle horreur!

But have I left all of my Iyengar sensibilities behind? I don’t think so. It’s true that I traded hands-on adjustments for precise verbal cues a decade ago. And I stopped expecting cookie cutter correctness once I gained a greater understanding of human anatomy. My hope for students is that when they step on their mat they let go of expectation, judgement and agenda. When a student steps on their mat I hope they are also stepping into the present moment and meeting their body where it stands.

The yogasana I’m interested in practicing now – the yogasana I’m interested in teaching – is not about doing. It’s about sensing. The yogasana I’m interested in is not about pushing through forms. It’s about noticing the sensations that rise in my body as I move through those forms. It’s about noticing my breath, my thoughts, the attitude I bring to my practice. The yogasana I’m interested in is about paying attention. It’s about discipline.

But then again, it has always been about discipline. I learned that studying Iyengar yoga all those years ago.

Discipline is not my strong suit. Except when I am on my mat. When I am on my mat I am in the practice whether I’m teaching, practicing on my own or attending a class. 

I think Zoom challenges our ability to remain present and focused on our practice. I think it makes sustained discipline difficult. We have the challenge of finding dust kitties under the bookshelf in downward dog, the aroma of coffee as our partner prepares breakfast for the kids and our animal companions demanding a morning cuddle. At the same time we don’t have the energy of a purpose built studio that feels like a sacred space. We don’t have the energy of a living, breathing community gathered together for one purpose. 

In the best of times it takes effort to sustain a yogasana practice with diligence, discernment and discipline. But now, when our yoga community consists of tiny, flat rectangles on a laptop screen, it can feel impossible.

But it isn’t impossible. 

Practice with intention. Remember why you practice in the first place. For the hour you are on your mat, find the strength to maintain your focus. Treat that little rectangle on the floor – your yoga mat – like the sacred space it is.


Power Tools

While training with International Coach Academy, Power Tools were the bane of my existence. A coaching concept to help shift the perspective of clients, at the time a Power Tool felt too much like mental slight-of-hand, as if a few well-timed questions gave me the ability to trick my client into moving from doubt to trust, from trying to committing, or from reacting to responding. It all seemed too easy. Too magical. Akin to a magazine article proclaiming ‘Ten Days to a New You!’

But coaching isn’t magic (although it can feel that way sometimes). Change doesn’t happen overnight. And, as a coach, it’s not my job to shift a client’s perspective. The client can do that all on their own. My job is to remain present, to remain curious and to ask a few well-timed and on-point questions. When I do my job well a client can move from doubting themselves to trusting themselves, from trying to achieve a goal to committing to a goal, and from reacting to a situation to responding to a situation. 

My changing perspective began when I experienced first-hand how substituting one word for another had the potential to displace a less than desirable attitude for one that offered joy.

Such a simple thing. Changing one word. Simple, in fact, to the point of being embarrassing.

How many times do you find yourself saying a version of any of the following:

  • I need to get up
  • I need to go to work
  • I need to do the laundry
  • I need to email (fill in any name)
  • I need to cook dinner

What would happen if we changed those needs into wants? As in:

  • I want to get up
  • I want to go to work
  • I want to do the laundry
  • I want to email (fill in any name)
  • I want to cook dinner

I told you it was simple. But did you feel it? Did you notice a shift in how you felt about each one of those sentences? A shift from avoidance to engagement, procrastination to anticipation and drudgery toward achievement.

Words have power. They have the power to influence our perceptions and perspectives. Words are tools we use to find clarity and understanding. When we understand their power, we see our world through a different lens. 

Words are tools. 

They’re…wait for it…Power Tools.


Life through a New Lens

This past Tuesday Ben and I drove to Pleasanton so that I could receive my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. Ben made the same trip solo two days later and took his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Other than a few hours of extreme fatigue that provided a great night’s sleep for me and a power nap for Ben we’ve had no side effects. Not counting, of course, the sore but tolerable upper arm.

Choosing to not be vaccinated was never an option for us. Looking beyond the politics, the pseudo science and the conspiracy theories that are aching to plant seeds of doubt, Ben and I believe taking the injection is a moment of self-care that supplements our already healthy lifestyle. We also believe it is an act of selflessness. We are protecting ourselves from severe illness. More than that we are protecting our community. We are part of the reason why that light we see at the end of the tunnel is burning a little brighter.

And that’s something to celebrate, right? Right?

I’ll be honest. I’m a little apprehensive about the New Normal that awaits. Of course I want the world to open again. I want to see family and to have a good reason to wear something other than sweatpants just like everyone else. I guess what concerns me is the possibility of falling back into old habits, relentless work and unfulfilled goals.

As we begin to hope again, we have an opportunity to view life through a new lens. Who do we want to be when the New Normal arrives? What ways of thinking no longer serve us? What attitudes need to shift? What can we let go of?

When this is over the world will have changed. I hope I’ll have changed, too.


What Makes Today Special?

What makes today so special? What makes any day special? Is it the blinding blue sky or grey torrents of rain? Maybe the four mourning doves who have found their way to my home, who have sat in my potted herb garden – have shat in it, too – and eaten my thyme. Maybe that’s what makes today special.

I’ll go for a walk later, toward end of day when the blue turns pearly and pink through the branches of the redwood trees. It’s the time of day that dogs are walked and children run in circles as if life were to be lived with reckless abandon. Sweaty and red faced they won’t notice the cool breeze blowing in from the Pacific while I tighten the drawstrings for the hood of my favorite sweatshirt.

If, while I’m on this walk, I look toward the Santa Cruz mountains, I’ll see pure white pillows of fog folding over the ridge and slipping down the slope to fill nooks and crannies. It’s my favorite thing. A beauteous thing. 

After I’m home and have had a bowl of soup I’ll step out onto the mirpesset to watch the full moon rise over the buildings of this town, its light reflecting back to me the stories of everyone who has ever looked up and dreamed. I’ll look for the planets, lined up like soldiers across the ecliptic plane. Not long ago Jupiter and Saturn were so close they almost kissed. And before that Mars, all bold and red, was as big as I’d ever seen. Before I go back in I’ll take a moment to marvel at the stars I can see and to wonder if anyone is marveling at me.