On Monday the 16th of March I left home halfway through the government’s daily COVID-19 press briefing for the thirty minute walk to Feinberg Medical Group where I teach yoga and meditative crafts to chronic pain clients.
When I walk to the clinic I am listening to the sounds around me. I hear dogs scolding me with frantic yips from their living room perch. The 1:40 southbound CalTrain screams its way toward its next stop. Traffic races down Alma and music pumps from transistors balanced on the tailgates of pickup trucks parked in front of green manicured lawns.
The path I walk takes me past Palo Alto High School. Before the coronavirus closed Paly the school’s track would rumble with the footfalls of athletes, the coach’s loud shouts of encouragement and snide laughter from the bleachers.
Decades ago I walked with a cassette tape Walkman and then, when they arrived, a CD Walkman. I graduated to an iPod and progressed to a Nano a few years after that. If I was walking my ears were plugged and my brain was pulsing with U2, Jackson Brown, the Eurythmics or (and this will really give away my age) Howard Jones. When I grew tired of music I’d listen to news. Music or headlines – it didn’t really matter. My brain was happier stuffed with something other than my thoughts. On the day I realized I’d arrived for my walk at Shoreline without my Nano I almost turned around. How was it possible that I’d be able to place one foot in front of the other without my Nano?
Somehow I managed. That was the day I realized the cry of seagulls and the sound of the wind circling through the rushes was better than Bono wailing about bloody Sundays and the incessant peal of the next breaking bulletin.
And that’s why I missed the news of the Bay Area’s imminent lock down on Monday. I was too busy listening to the thrum of life. That’s why I was surprised by the frantic energy pouring from Trader Joe’s doors as I passed. It explains why, by the time I arrived at Feinberg’s all that was left for me to do was turn around and return home. The functional restoration program – the program of which I’m a part – had sent patients home.
Like so many others, in twenty-four hours I went from having an overflowing calendar to one that was near-enough to empty.
We’re facing a tremendous challenge. Nevertheless, six days in and I’m realizing what a gift I’ve been given.
We moved into the Lynnport Schoolhouse in the fall of 1966, when I was 8 years old. Built early in the 19th century – I think in 1814 – the two-room structure served students until the 1950’s, when it was converted to a home and a barber shop. By the time we moved in the original brick had long been covered with white stucco, the bell tower had been taken down (the original bell now resides in New Tripoli’s history museum), the fireplaces boarded and replaced by a hissing monster of a coal-fired furnace in the dank basement. That same furnace belched carbon monoxide our first winter there, and only through the quick thinking of Marge Merkle did my mother, my sister and I survive. Sadly, our parakeet didn’t.
When we moved in there were still a few remnants of the school’s former life: a portion of the original blackboard in what became my little ‘play room’, the chalk trough that extended along one wall of my bedroom, a tired schoolroom bench with cast iron details that my mom salvaged with a few coats of paint and, in the attic, three empty quart sized Sanford ink bottles. My mother carefully cleaned the bottles and kept them displayed on the built-in pine hutch that covered almost the entire length of one living room wall.
My mother sold the schoolhouse in 1977 when I was in my first year of college. I was told of her decision long after the deed was done. She had, in fact, already moved into Green Acres Mobile Home Park. I don’t know why but her decision broke my heart. Up until then, no matter how dysfunctional our family dynamics were, it was the home I remembered. But now a price had been paid for my memories and no more would I sit on my wide windowsill watching muskrats swim up the creek that ran below my bedroom window. The room would never be filled with the scent of lilac and spring willow. My refuge from the chaos around me now belonged to someone else.
The trailer my mother moved into was small and dark but she was happy to leave the big school house. It meant she was closer to Shankweiler’s, where she worked as a waitress. I visited her in the trailer once or twice in the 1980’s and then, for many many reasons, we became estranged. When I finally returned to the trailer in 2006 a few things had changed. It was darker than I remembered and sticky with layers of nicotine. But she now had the oak barrister’s bookcase that once belonged to my grandfather and, on one of the shelves, were the three Sanford ink bottles from the attic of the Lynnport Schoolhouse.
Since 2005 my mother’s health has declined. Her friends describe the behavioral changes and memory lapses of what is now diagnosed dementia. Over the past two years she’s fallen several times and remains in severe pain almost certainly due to fractures in her ribs and spine that were ignored by doctors after her first tumble. The remodeled bone – evidence of her injuries – was discovered just last week by physicians in the hospital she was admitted to after having the fall that finally broke her hip.
I was in Pennsylvania when she broke her hip, there to tell her that the nursing home in which she had been admitted would now be her home. My mother needed 24-hour care and I was, in fact, already in the process of parsing out her possessions – deconstructing an 86-year-long story. I knew that as I packed up my mother’s long and troubled life that I was packing up a piece of my own existence and it was unclear to me if the choices I made were correct. What should I keep? What should I pass on? They were, after all, only possessions. Yet they were imprinted with my family’s ghosts. Filled with uncertainty and guilt, I finally moved the items I thought should stay with me to one room and told my mother’s two friends they could have the rest.
In between searching for the papers needed for her Medicaid application and surviving the overpowering stench from forty-three years of cigarette smoke that infused every inch of every item in the trailer with an acrid, choking perfume, I made the twenty-minute drive down Route 143 to Lynnport.
I’d made this journey each time I’ve come to Pennsylvania to visit my mom. Each time I told myself that this would be the time I knocked on the door. And each time I lost my nerve. On this visit, however, when I drove past the house I saw a woman standing not far from where the rose bushes used to grow. I pulled my rented silver Hyundai Sonata toward the side of the road where the long-gone forsythia bushes bloomed bright yellow and walked to the gate held closed by a bungee cord.
“I used to live in this house.”
“What?” The woman couldn’t hear me over the barking of her black boxer. She walked over to me.
“I used to live in this house.”
She opened the gate and introduced me to her partner. She gave me a tour of the garden that changed so much since I’d last seen it. She told me she bought the house because she loved the history of the schoolhouse – a truth that created an instant connection. It was always the story of the schoolhouse that made me love living there. She brought me inside. My playroom, my bedroom and my sister’s bedroom were gone. The interior was a great open space. My mother’s bedroom was an office and the room we used for storage – the old barber shop once lined with mirrors – was now the bedroom it always should have been. Yet even with all the many changes, remnants remained – the energy of the schoolhouse was still there. So was the blackboard from my play room – preserved and hung with love in a wooden frame.
The dark attic where my mother discovered the Sanford Ink bottles was now a light filled loft. Exposed beams revealed decades old graffiti from students and teachers. The house I lived in until I was sixteen had been transformed into something beautiful. It had become a real home. It was then I knew what I had to do.
I brought two of the bottles full circle and returned them to the Lynnport Schoolhouse – the place where they belonged. The third bottle is filled with ghosts from my childhood and will stay with me.
As the year’s go by memories of my decade in the old Lynnport Schoolhouse become blurry. But like the bottle says, Sanford’s Premium ink never fades.
Have you ever thought about something, or maybe saw something totally outside the realm of normal and then, for whatever the reason, it’s everywhere? Sort of like when Uno won the Westminster Dog Show and then suddenly we were running into beagles around every corner.
That happened to me three times this past week. Three times in the span of five days this question appeared: ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’. I first saw the question in an article I was reading online. Then I heard the same question posed to an audience during a TED talk. Finally, the question shows up in the tome my book club is reading, David Brooks’ The Second Mountain.
It could be that I’m riding the edge of a wave and by the end of next week we won’t be able to turn around without bumping into posters, bumperstickers and tee shirts imploring us to contemplate the answer. Or maybe the universe is directing the question to me and me alone – a little bit like the freeway sign who talks to Steve Martin’s weather man in the movie L.A. Story.
Either way, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to contemplate. What would YOU do if you weren’t afraid?
Maybe you’re already doing it. Maybe not. Does it matter?
I’m all for living fearlessly but the suggestion that we’re holding ourselves back from full self-actualization because we’re afraid is annoying. Why? Because it feeds the idea of individuation during a time in our history when, more than anything, we need to connect. The question encourages us to be selfish during a time in our history when we should be selfless.
Yes, sometimes fear keeps us from walking a certain path but is that always bad? I’ve often thought about getting a tattoo. With a great sigh of relief I happily confess that fear has kept me from the artist’s needle. The saying ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ is not one I choose to embrace. The intention of these ideas, on the surface, do not encourage community building. Instead, they lean us toward a narcissistic variant of introspection.
I’m at a four-day yoga therapy conference at a Hyatt Regency in Virginia. I’m sitting on the floor of a large, carpeted ballroom. It’s filled with one hundred beautiful, mostly mid-life women dripping in Lululemon, Om symbols, prayer beads and diaphanous Shakti-printed shawls purchased at the ashram in Buffalo where they attended their last silent retreat.
Scattered among the women are a few earnestly bearded men dressed in baggy cargo shorts and shapeless, faded tee shirts.
This is my tribe. My people. We are all devoted to our practice. We are all devoted to helping others. But we’re all just a bit too grateful. We use gratitude as a balm to protect us from truths we’d rather have slide off our souls like rain on an oil slicked street. It’s no surprise then, that as I listen to the call and response of platitudes, I begin to fidget. My brain begins to twitch. It’s time for action because if I make no effort to stop the next person from proclaiming their gratitude for an injustice served my head will almost certainly explode.
I raise my hand. It’s a first for me, speaking up in a crowded room. I’m a happy introvert and chutzpah is not in my nature. But when I see a woman across the room raise her hand, too, I take mine higher and suddenly it’s as if we’re competing to see who’s the most logically evolved. I win. I consider the repercussions for one tiny moment and then open my mouth.
“Gratitude is over-rated.”
Do I really mean that?
The Naas Bypass, opened in 1983, was the first of its kind in Ireland. Otherwise known as the M7, the highway connects the town Naas in County Kildare to the town of Limerick one hundred and sixty-eight miles to the southwest. In the thirty-four years since the ribbon cutting, new and upgraded bypasses have woven there way across the country. But the Naas Bypass has the honor of being the first road in Ireland to take a driver around rather than through a town. In doing so it relieves congestion in Naas’s town center and slices minutes from the journey.
It’s a nice trade-off. We crave speed and ease and so when the goal is to get from Naas to Limerick as fast as possible then the town’s charming character, with its retro Eddie Rocket’s diner and Carphone Warehouse, is not a priority. We can avoid being slowed by the locals on their way to do a weekly shop at Supervalu. We don’t have to dodge truant children chasing runaway pups across the street. We can avoid anything at all that threatens our smooth journey to someplace else and enjoy the open road. The bypass is an alternative that’s both fast and direct.
In the ballroom I avoid the few pairs of eyes turned on me and look toward the instructor for some sign of understanding. She nods vague approval but to be honest I was expecting more. I thought there would be at least a smattering of knowing smiles and a few light chuckles. But the ballroom is silent. It’s not the dead silence of drop-jawed shock. It’s just silence. Silence that in one reckless moment I decide is my responsibility to fill. I attempt a clarification.
“Don’t you think we need to wallow in the muck before we can be grateful? When shit happens to me I need to sit with it. I need to figure out how I feel about it and hang with it until I can step back and stop reacting. If I can do that, then after the dust settles maybe then I can be grateful.”
I don’t know why I feel that way. I don’t realize until later that anything less than standing in the middle of our discomfort is a spiritual bypass.
We hope that moving from pain to gratitude and bypassing the sticky stuff in the middle puts us on the fast track to samadhi but there are unintended consequences to avoiding suffering. Moving through misfortune directly to gratitude, without stopping to acknowledge and experience our suffering – or without considering the cause of our suffering – leaves an imprint of unresolved issues and open wounds. While the Naas Bypass is efficient and time saving, a spiritual bypass circles around our pain. It distances us from and delays the discovery of our authentic spiritual nature.
Changing the language we use to describe our suffering – whether it’s to a friend, a partner or the family cat – can rewire our brains to think differently about it. Saying “I’m sad” is very different than “I’m feeling sad.” In the former we are the situation. In the latter we are the observer of the situation. Prakriti and purusha. The ‘seen’ and the ‘seer’. This simple shift creates the space for us to sit in the middle of our discomfort without becoming the discomfort.
If our goal in practice is to still our fluctuating thoughts it doesn’t serve us to avoid the unsavory circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves. Instead of choosing the bypass, let’s choose the slower scenic route.