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.


My Grandma’s Cellar

I’m lucky. Blessed, even. Grateful. I am surviving a global pandemic (knock on wood). So is Ben. We are surviving. We are grateful. The pandemic has only a small impact on my income. I know just a handful of souls that have contracted COVID-19. They’ve all emerged on the other side. No one I know has contracted the virus and lost their life.

There is no doubt I’m fortunate. But this collective global experience is not easy, is it? We’ve been angry, sad and exhausted. We’ve been giddy with good news until hope crumbles. During these times I fall into what I’ve begun to call ‘pandemic malaise’. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The word ‘malaise’ may be too tender a descriptor. Pandemic Malaise is much more than general unease. 

As a child I was dumped at my grandparent’s little row home most weekends because my mother was the lead singer in my step-father’s country and western band. They had gigs most weekends and when they did I spent Fridays and Saturdays at grandma and grandpas. I didn’t mind too much. There was a playground with swings just across the street and my grandmother made my favorite foods – BLTs or Minute Steak sandwiches with horseradish and catsup sauce. At night we’d play gin rummy sipping 7-Up and eating pretzel sticks. 

But at least once every weekend I was asked to fetch something from the basement. Pandemic Malaise is like my grandparent’s basement in Allentown, Pennsylvania because my grandparent’s basement was this young child’s worst nightmare.

I hated being sent ‘down the basement’. The stairs, simple unfinished planks of wood, creaked and threatened to send me plummeting to the hard cement floor with every step. The single lightbulb dangling from the dark beams above me cast deep and endless shadows filled with ghosts, spiders and bogeymen across the detritus of my grandparent’s long lives. The dank, sulfurous air chilled my bones. Even in summer. Sometimes a breeze from the kitchen’s open window would cause the hinges of the door to moan. The door would close. The warm light from upstairs would disappear and I knew I’d be trapped forever.

When I fall into Pandemic Malaise it feels as though I’m a ten-year-old trapped in my grandparent’s dark basement uncertain as to when I’ll be able to see light again.

As the light at the end of this long tunnel begins to grow a little brighter, we may be tempted to compare our experience of the pandemic with someone else’s. We might even determine that a friend’s experience doesn’t begin to compare with the horror of our own.

We cannot do that because we cannot begin to understand someone else’s journey these past thirteen months. All we can do is offer the compassion and empathy that comes with knowing that we’ve all been through, and are still working our way through this huge, calamitous, extraordinary event.


Fear or Faith: My Choice

Can you keep a secret? The trainings in which I’ve been entrenched since before the pandemic’s shutdown began are coming to a welcome end and I find myself with a strange amount of time on my hands. But please. Let’s agree to keep this little admission between friends. I don’t want the universe catching wind of my twiddling thumbs because you know as well as I do that empty space loves to be filled. I’d like a chance to see what I do with all this spare time before that happens.

But I’m wondering…now that I have the chance to dive into all those ‘things’ I’ve always wanted to do but never had time for…what’s stopping me?

I’d like to blame the bout of ‘pandemic malaise’ I’m experiencing but to be truthful the malaise I’ve encountered on and off these past twelve months is fleeting. Maybe it has more to do with the weather, which has been unseasonably chilly and wet for mid-March in Northern California. Or maybe what looks like malaise on the outside is really, on the inside, indecision and fear.

Indecision I understand. I’ve always seen both sides of every coin. But why fear? What’s that about?

In a recent coaching conversation I wondered if the fear my client experienced was less about feeling unprepared for the tasks she needed to complete in order to move her project forward and more a fear of wasting time. It was easy for me to share that observation because that is where most of my fear is rooted. I’ve been alive longer than I have years left to live. I don’t want my time wasted. Besides, I need to earn my keep while my jiggly human form still takes up space on this planet. I need to draw a salary. Make money. Pay bills. I don’t have time for flights of fancy.

I wonder, though, if my excuse, “I don’t have time for that”, masks a harder truth. My interests, outside of teaching yoga, require focused attention. Commitment. Awareness of both my strengths and my weaknesses. They require a willingness to learn.

Yeah. Who has time for that? Especially if the final result is an amorphous unknown.

Another friend of mine is an artist. Seven or eight years ago, when we first met, she was learning to paint. Now she wins awards, exhibits regularly and is about to have her work published in two books.

I wonder if she felt her time was wasted while she was learning to turn a flat circle into a sphere? I wonder, when she first picked up a paint brush, if she even considered time?

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we give fear permission to stop us in our tracks? It can be fear of the unknown, fear of time wasted, fear of hard work or fear of financial insecurity. Or, in my case, all four.

Rather than giving fear carte blanche to run our lives, maybe it’s faith we need? 

So. Will turning my fears of the unknown into faith in myself lift the malaise? Will it help me find the motivation and momentum I need to make the transformation from someone who watches from the sidelines into someone who’s willing to take a chance on herself?

Good question. I can’t wait to find out.


What I Did During the Pandemic: Take a Writing Class

I thought I’d mix things up a bit and decided to take a 6-week writing class. The format of the class is simple: a writing prompt is presented, we take fifteen minutes (give or take) to write, and then we read what we wrote. Comments and questions are welcome. There’s no critique.

I struggle to write on command. I’m a lazy writer who waits for the muse to strike and when she doesn’t moves on to others things on the ‘to do’ list. And so this class is tickling my brain in new ways. In good ways. 

One of yesterday’s prompts – a poem by Langston Hughes – tickled this:

The sun slipped behind the moon. It seems so simple as I write the words: the sun slipped behind the moon. And in that moment – that singular moment – spirit was made visible. The universe became a sanctuary of peace. The banter of strangers and the rhythmic click of camera lenses being attached to tripods and trained toward the Australian dawn stopped. Just like that. Everything stopped. Birds called on one another, confused. Sandy termite mounds turned red in the changing light. The air fell on my skin cool and moist. At least I think it did. And then the sun slipped out from behind the moon and we took our first new breath. I expected my life to be different after witnessing the infinite. That perfect black hole in the sky. But it was an illusion. I forgot. It was only the moon. It was the moon all along.

It’s not faux humility that has me admitting the obvious: this is not award winning writing. But it’s something. Something that made me think and process an event that happened almost a decade ago (which seems unbelievable to me).

Things are shifting. Changing. More of my friends and acquaintances are receiving vaccines. But it’s not over and we will have to balance solitude and hope in our hearts for a wee while longer.

So – twelve months in – what are you doing now to challenge yourself that you weren’t doing a year ago?