Small Rituals

fullsizeoutput_5dfI threw off the morning’s rhythm on Monday and made everyone cranky. Even Bruce the Cat. I rose early rather than settling in for a second round of snooze control. I filled the kettle, ground the beans and sifted the matcha. I gave Bruce fresh kibbles and changed his water.

This is not my job on a Monday morning.

My job is to linger under the covers, snuggle with Bruce the Cat and to listen as my dear Ben shuffles into the kitchen to complete the tasks that on this particular Monday morning I completed instead.

And now the rhythm is off and the morning (at least Ben’s morning) has been not quite ruined but most definitely bumped from our household’s comfort zone. Bruce the Cat, however, is doing just fine. He’s eating breakfast and has already forgotten that I didn’t rub his belly this morning. I’m doing just fine, too. It was nice to boil the water, grind the beans and sift the matcha. I know that I barged unfairly into a weekday ritual that is Ben’s, but my intentions were pure.

Ben has gone back to bed. His morning ritual stolen, the day has temporarily become too much to face.

Rituals pull together the loose threads of our lives. We all have rituals, whether we label them as such or not. Some rituals are obvious: attending church or temple, family meals taken together or the walk we enjoy with loved ones at the start of the new year. Others rituals are less obvious. Like sifting matcha in a dark kitchen by the dim light of pre-dawn or counting the number of turns it takes for the burr to grind enough beans for the cafetiere.

Rituals shift and change – at least mine do – depending on the season. When I was a child, before I even knew the word ritual, I sat on the deep windowsill in my bedroom and watched muskrats swim upstream in the steep-banked creek toward their den. The creek was one of many small afterthoughts that broke from the larger Ontaulaunee, which originated in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In spring heavy blooms of white and purple lilac leaned down over the water to drink. In summer the giant weeping willow standing guard on the far bank kept the creek in shade. Sometimes, after the winter snow melt, the waters would rise a foot or so up the bank, turn from clear to muddied grey and push downstream with violent energy. Once, during Hurricane Agnes, the water breeched the banks and threatened to spill through my window. I guess when that happened the muskrat dens were washed away. I didn’t think about that as a young girl. When I was a girl, watching muskrats swim against the current calmed me and reminded me that there was a world beyond the view from my window that my heart ached to explore.

My small rituals as an adult are also tied to the world around me. On my walks to the yoga studio I am certain to keep to a particular side of one street in order to walk past the lemon tree that has, from time to time, left fruit for me to enjoy. And I make sure to walk through the abandoned lot where a fig tree grows. If I didn’t follow this path on my walks to work it wouldn’t feel right. And when I walk to the pain clinic I keep my eye on the persimmon trees growing in Peers Park. Watching the lemon, the fig and the persimmon trees blossom and bear fruit season after season, no matter the depth of chaos and suffering shown on the news, reminds me of the long afternoons I sat at the windowsill and watched muskrats. It keeps me calm and reminds me that it is still a beautiful world.

What are your small rituals? What pulls together the loose threads of your life?




Death by Sugar

d689d520cd3e2d7653c5e1469e50ff90--liquorice-allsorts-floppy-hatsMy mother craved licorice while carrying the child who would become me. I blame her for my addiction.

Last week a client who eschews quests asked me if I would purchase a box of Barrett’s Licorice All-Sorts for her as she could not find them where she shops for groceries. This was a little bit like asking someone avoiding alcohol to pick up a box of pinot (a box, not a bottle – no cork screw required).

I giddily agreed.

I love licorice all-sorts and I know for a fact they are available for purchase at the store across the street from where I live. I know this because when I see them near the baked goods or stacked in the candy aisle I stare longingly. I marvel at the confection’s bright colors. I remember with affection their sweet and bitter taste. And I know that should I give in to temptation and bring a box of the candies home they will be eaten within the hour. I also know that it will be less a slippery slope and more an oil slicked slide. I won’t be able to stop and will continue to buy and eat licorice all-sorts until the inventory at Mollie Stone’s is decimated. Or I’m in a sugar coma. Whichever comes first.

Sugar is poison.

Is that true? The media loves an extreme headline almost as much as I love licorice all-sorts and as powerful as it is to label sugar a poison, it may not go far enough. I prefer to think of sugar – and by ‘sugar’ I mean sweeteners we add to foods as obvious as cookies and as surprising as spaghetti sauce – as a passive aggressive bully gaslighting me to ill-health. I’ll admit it, more often than not sugar can sweet talk me into those Panera chocolate chip cookies in the pain clinic’s staff room, the chocolate covered macadamia nuts at the yoga studio and even the half-pint of sorbet gathering ice crystals in the back of the freezer.

And while sugar is tickling my taste buds with sweet nothings it’s also contributing to weight gain and tooth decay, placing stress on my liver, heart, kidneys and pancreas, aging my skin and inflaming my joints.

The most recent nutritional advice is trading the theory that a calorie is a calorie no matter where it comes from for the more obvious and intuitive notion that it’s quality, not quantity.

In other words, one thousand calories derived from a balanced combination of fruits, vegetables and whole grains will beat one thousand calories derived from fruit rolls, potato chips and donuts hands down.
I told you it was obvious and intuitive.

A box of Barrett’s Licorice All-Sorts will not kill me. Death by sugar is more insidious. All it takes is a little label reading to discover sugar shows up in places we’d never expect.
Why am I firing up my sweet tooth with all this thinking about sugar? It’s New York Time’s David Leonhardt’s fault. He wrote this, which lead me down several internet rabbit holes to this and this.

Last week I stood in front of the Barrett’s Licorice All-Sorts and weighed my options. In the end, I didn’t buy them. I didn’t even pick them up. Instead, I came home with a bag of Pontefract Cakes.

And I ate them all.

Nobody said it was easy.

Turn Into the Spin: Build a Better Me, Part III

IMG_0097Driver’s Education was compulsory in Pennsylvania when I was in high school. Our teacher, Mr. D, was a suave and handsome man with a reputation. The halls that echoed with the sound of slamming lockers were also filled with whispers about Mr. D and a certain senior who seemed to always linger around his office. Then again, Mr. D was popular and there were plenty of us who made excuses to see him. But she was always there shuffling files or helping prepare transparencies for the overhead projector. She was always perfectly put together. Always pretty and always self-assured and apparently unfazed by rumors about the alleged tryst. I was in awe.

And then one day Mr. D questioned my decision to wear a pale blue bra underneath the cheap, white polyester pullover I bought from Two Guys with my allowance money. It felt weird, the attention, and I fumbled for an answer because the truth was I had no idea the color of my bra was at all obvious through the loose knit of the sweater.

After that I stopped thinking of excuses to stop by his office.

But in order to qualify for my learner’s permit, I still listened attentively to Mr. D’s afternoon lectures on safety and shared driving time on the narrow roads of New Tripoli with classmates I barely knew in a car that smelled vaguely of fear sweat, gasoline and pencil shavings.

There are three things I took away from Mr. D’s driver’s ed class. The first, of course, is to consider more carefully my choice in underwear.

The second is to remain aware of the world around me. When I first slipped into the driver’s seat, I was like a horse wearing blinders. I gripped the wheel and kept my eyes fixed on the hood of the car thinking that was how to keep the vehicle pointed in the right direction. Mr. D taught me to see beyond what was in front of me.

The third is to turn into the spin. Pennsylvania has real winter, and a good deal of time was spent learning how to drive through inclement weather. Mr. D taught me that in icy conditions the car might begin to lose traction. When it does I won’t save myself by turning away. I have to fight to regain control.

California doesn’t have real winter. At least not in the Bay Area. But that doesn’t mean things can’t get slippery. I hit a patch of ice life in February and lost control of my ongoing quest to Build a Better Me. The clarity that was coming into focus through January went sideways as I began to spin. My 500 words-a-day trickled to 500 words-a-week if I was lucky. I lost sight of what was beyond and focused on the immediate. Good intentions began to slide.

And to be honest, it would have been easier to let go of the wheel. Except I know how that feels, and I no longer want to feel the restlessness and lack of conviction that a life with no traction offers.

So instead I’m going to practice what Mr. D taught. I’m going to look at the big picture, and I’m going to turn into the spin.



Judgement and Discernment

IMG_3147I’m a judgmental woman. It’s not charming and not something of which I’m particularly proud. Nevertheless, I own my judgmental nature in the same way that I own my adorableness, my ability to empathize and to be kind, my sense of humor, my lack of math skills, my ability to organize and my fear of driving. I judge. Sometimes harshly, almost always unfairly.

Understanding who we are and owning the qualities that make us who we are – qualities that shift and change shape from moment to moment – opens the door to deep self-inquiry. I am, at times, a judgmental person. If I deny this character flaw then I am unable to observe my actions and correct them when necessary.

Self-inquiry is part of our yoga journey. We can study the self through meditation and journaling or when we step on the mat to take our asana practice. Self-inquiry is also, for me, a daily examination of how I live my life. Did I tell an untruth today? Did I cheat someone or steal from someone? Did I honor my friends and students with kindness and generosity? Or did I snap and growl, caught up in my own story. The truth is I am human. And being a human means that there are moments when the truth eludes me, moments when my integrity sags and moments, too, when my grace and integrity shine as bright as the sun.

Where does judgement come from?

My harsh judgements are reactionary, fleeting, biased and not based on evidence. They momentarily allow me to feel “better than.” My judgements are like sentries protecting me from truths I don’t want to examine. But after the heat of judgement cools the truth still seeps in. When that happens I feel “less than.” My harsh judgements sit next to my fears, just a few pews away from insecurity’s quagmire. That’s where my judgement comes from.

As part of my personal practice, I acknowledge those moments when I judge harshly. I take a step back to consider why I’m being reactive. I look for the evidence and attempt to discern whether my judgement is based on an external reality or is answering an insecurity that I carry within.

Our practice as students of yoga is to understand how judgements can arise, the difference between judgement and discernment, and how right understanding can move us closer to the truth.

If You Want to Write, Read


A list from a 2011-2012…I’m exhausted looking at it.

It may have been at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference about eight years ago where I was told that if you want to attract readers then you have to be a reader. Not only that, but you have to be a reader that leaves comments. That seems fair enough. But it’s a huge cyberverse with ‘billions and billions’ of blogs. Navigating our way to the stories that mean the most to us – the words that either inspire, educate or entertain – is like trying to find glitter glue at Walmart. You have to walk past plenty of dreck before you find the craft aisle.

I follow a healthy scoop of blogs written on topics that are of interest to me: art, yoga, writing and wellness. New posts fill my inbox every Monday morning. I read with reasonable regularity just two, on a good day maybe three of over a dozen blogs. The rest – and I’m cringing as I admit this – I delete. And the comments I leave on those blogs I read are few and far between.

What can I say? Life is short. And I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. One too many adverbs and I’m outta there. If this is self-sabatoge I’m willing to take the risk.

I don’t believe there’s any way of knowing if my ignoring the advice handed to me at SFWC changed the trajectory of my non-existent writing *ahem* career. I’d like to think good writing is good writing whether or not there’s a thread of replies (I’m not just a curmudgeon – I’m a naive curmudgeon!). If I practice and polish my craft it shouldn’t matter how many blogs I read or how many comments I leave behind.

Should it?

On the other hand, writing is lonely. It doesn’t hurt to make a few friends. With that in mind, here are the three blogs I read regularly. Two I’ve been following for some time. One is a new addition.

Caitlin Kelly writes Broadside. She’s a journalist and author whose writing is crisp and clear. I wish I wrote half as well as Caitlin. She posts on a variety of topics with humor, passion and conviction. Her latest post was an exploration of gratitude – a simple list of moments that make her happy. Prior to this she wrote about a recent health scare – a post all women should read.

Sawson Abu Farha is the culinary master behind Chef in Disguise. I’ve tried several of her middle eastern recipes. Her latest post teaches the reader how to make Sahlab, a sweet and milky elixir featuring orchid powder and orange blossom water. Warming and delicious, Sahlab is a magical moment of awe for the tastebuds.

Anonymous Sadhaka is the student of yoga I will never be. I don’t know the author’s gender or full story but I love reading the deep explorations into their personal practice. Struggling with a knee injury the posts seem to be written not with the reader in mind. In that way, they feel as though we’re given permission to break the lock on a friend’s diary.

I hope you’ll dip into these writer’s diverse body of work. I hope you’ll also dip into my not so diverse body of work.

Happy reading (and commenting).




In a World of Karoshi, Can We Find our Bliss?

IMG_0172On Friday I wasn’t feeling quite right. At the same time I wasn’t ill. I know you’ve been there, too. I wanted to call a sick day, make a pot of tea and crawl back into to bed. But I couldn’t. With the exception of the occasional, errant sneeze and despite having a sore throat and headache the day before, I wasn’t exhibiting one single symptom that would lead anyone to suspect I was at death’s door. There was no fever, no pox, no projectile vomiting nor was there a consumptive cough. And so I did not call in sick because to do so would require my telling one big fat whopper of a story. Plus, I had work to do.

In the past I’ve named the day I was craving a ‘mental health day’. It turns out Mental Health Day is a real thing. It has been marked annually every October 10th since 1992. Who knew? And each year the founders of Mental Health Day, the World Federation for Mental Health, select a theme. In 2017 the theme was mental health in the workplace.

In the decades that I’ve been in the workforce it has gradually become a point of pride to overwork. We use our level of stress to measure self-worth, and then wear that stress like a badge of honor. In our quest to define who we are we spend more time with our co-workers looking at screens than we do with the people we love.

Our culture of over-work contributes to poor health and wellness, societal isolation, the break down of relationships and the loss of self.

To be honest, though, we have it easy in the United States compared to Japan. In Japan, the word karoshi means death-by-overwork. While Japan’s government is working to reverse the trend, according to this article from 2014 each year thousands of workers die from either stress-related illnesses or they commit suicide. While the Japanese government has tried to reverse the trend, a more recent article shows their attempts showing meagre results. Sadly, Japan isn’t the only country where extreme devotion to the job and self-sacrifice risks death from heart failure in people as young as twenty-seven. South Korea, China and even the United Kingdom trend toward compulsive and obligatory overwork compared to the United States. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley, that doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. Compared to these countries, we’re slackers.

I wrote the last sentence with a tinge of guilt as the thought ran through my mind, “I have to work harder.” And I bet I’m not alone.

So how do we separate the job we do from the work we love? Where is the fuzzy line between paying the mortgage and the bliss Joseph Campbell promises if we follow our heart? When we are dragged below the surface of a world moving too fast to fathom, where do we find the strength to break through the surface and breathe?

The Wonder of a Blood Red Moon

lunar-eclipse-factsI know very little about the science of astronomy, yet I’ve been captivated by stars, satellites and transits since I was a little girl standing in the driveway with my mom in Lynnport, Pennsylvania searching the sky for Perseids. The anticipation I feel when I know we’re about to experience a meteor shower, an eclipse, an unusual alignment of planets along the ecliptic plane or those same planets’ transit across the solar disc is as giddy as a child’s anticipation of Santa Claus.

The cosmos is a vast and constant beauty, as it was on Wednesday morning when the earth’s shadow turned January’s blue moon blood red.

I am compelled to bear witness to these celestial events. When I do, I am one with the motion of the planets. I feel connected to the stars. I feel connected to the spinning earth and the energy of every other creature craning her neck on a frosty pre-dawn. I’m part of a collection of craned necks looking up in amazement and wondering what lies beyond the sparkling dark and inky pool above.

Being present for the stars, the moons and the planets reminds me of my infinitesimal smallness and the terrible burden of weight I place on the most insignificant of circumstances.

It’s a wondrous, wonderful thing to know that on Wednesday the brick red glow reflected back to earth was the light of all the planet’s sunsets and sunrises. For those few hours, anyone who looked up at the moon saw the beginning of every new day and the close of another. It was like looking at the breath of Gaia.