I Like the Idea of Poetry

I’ll be honest. I like the idea of poetry. I like to think I have the intellectual capacity to enjoy poetry. Years ago, when Kay Ryan was Poet Laureate of our country I listened to an interview with her on All Things Considered where she read some of her work. There was something about her writing – maybe the subtle humor or the economy of words. As soon as Ryan’s interview was over I ordered her book Say Uncle. And because I ordered the book online rather than driving to my local bookstore (which should have been my first choice) I never gave myself the chance to change my mind. The slim volume arrived in days as expected. I opened it once and then, for years, it sat on my shelf. A visual reminder that I like the idea of poetry. 

A few days ago I received a package in the mail from one of my best friends in high school. Back then she was the person I wanted to be. Intelligent. I mean – Merit Scholar intelligent. Funny. Funny in that subtle sort of way that sneaks up and then the next thing you know cafeteria milk is spewing from your nose. Supportive and kind. I know that memories shift and change – but all these decades later I still remember how, in high school, in her own quiet way, she made me feel that I could do anything. I didn’t believe her, of course, but it felt wonderful to have someone in my life who saw the light in me. The thing is, she didn’t know she was doing this for me. It was just who she was. Who she is. 

We lost touch in the 1980’s and 90’s but reconnected around the time that I returned from Ireland. When my sister died alone and estranged from my mother and me, it was this dear friend who opened the door to her home and helped me find Margaret’s grave. 

And so it was no surprise and it put a smile on my face when I picked up the package from my doorstep and saw it was from her. My first thought after ripping open the padded manila envelope was, ‘Geez – that’s a big book of poetry!’. But the card accompanying the gift explained that the poet was local and was one of her favorites. In the past she had sent me books by Annie Dillard and Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids – books that I loved. I knew she wouldn’t send me anything I couldn’t handle. Plus the poet had written this inside the front cover for me:

Mimm! I hope these mad moments in verse hold a song for you. Welcome home!

What was I to do? Given that I like the idea of poetry I had no option but to sit down, open the book, and read.

The book is Voodoo Libretto: New & Selected Poems by Tim Seibles, who happens to be a past Poet Laureate of Virginia.

And now, each morning when my brain is fresh (I tried the evening but by then my brain can no longer absorb nuance, cadence and beauty) I open Voodoo Libretto to a random page and read a poem. Seibles’ autobiographical writing is sexy and funny, surprising and relevant. Heartbreaking. On the printed page the words have a jazz cool visual rhythm and when I begin to read my eyes carry me and I can’t seem to stop. 

Curious? Maybe start with his Alison Wolff. And maybe, in a few weeks of mornings I’ll need to diversify a bit and open that slim little book by Kay Ryan. Or Basho if I’m in the mood for three lines of Haiku. Or Ferlinghetti.

Because I like the idea of poetry.

And I’m so happy that my high school friend, who I looked up to with awe in 1974 and still do now, knows that about me.


Growing Freer

I’ve been thinking about balance.

At the start of the pandemic, which now feels a lifetime ago, I decided that my new found spare time offered me room to begin running again. It didn’t matter that over the previous two decades I moved no faster than a brisk walk. In college I ran to relieve the stress of studies and an unhappy marriage. After college and well into my thirties I ran because when I ran I felt strong and invincible. I wanted to feel that way again. And so I made my preparations. I researched the best shoes for my finicky feet and purchased what I could afford. I found websites and apps with titles like Running for Women, Running for Seniors and Running for Senior Women. I downloaded training schedules and created a list of routes to run and calculated the distances. It didn’t take long for me to graduate from brisk walk to shuffle to an actual jog and in those first weeks I looked forward to a healthy body, a clear mind and the lean, organized structure to my life that I craved.

And then a broken side walk came between my toe and my hopes. While my knees and my thumbs healed I considered giving up. A few months later, when I had a second hard fall, I did give up. 

Falling down was not a rare occurrence when I was a child. My mom would tease, You can trip over thin air, she’d say. When I was in sixth grade one of our teachers who was fresh out of college watched me stumble my way through a tangle of classroom chairs and then, dripping sarcasm, joked about my ‘grace’. It’s funny how we remember these things and not our moments of actual grace. To be fair, it’s true that my knees were skinned more often than not throughout my childhood. But I don’t believe it was because I was clumsy or awkward. I was too busy thinking about the next adventure to notice where I was going. My head was always a million miles ahead of my feet.

And I didn’t think too much about having skinned knees when I was a kid. I always bounced back up, brushed myself off, stuck a bandaid on my scrapes and moved on with life.

But last year the cracks in the sidewalk that sent me flying caught me by surprise. I didn’t bounce back like I did when I was a girl. Something was different. For the first time the trust I had in my body, that all would be well, was questioned. For the first time I found myself afraid of the future and the changes my body would continue to go through as I aged. 

When I stopped catastrophizing about a future that is a mystery to me and began to think clearly I realized that there was plenty I could do now to improve my strength and my balance. How I take care of my body now will inform how my body thrives in the future. I can eat more vegetables. Especially cruciferous ones. I can take Vitamin D. I can add more weight bearing exercises to my routine to keep my bones strong. I can remember that physical balance can be practiced. And then I can make sure to include standing balance poses to my yoga practice.

I don’t really have a formal game plan. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I’m not working toward my healthy future. It means I’m letting go of some of the anxiety I hold about the future. Over the last few weeks I’ve realized that a balanced body goes hand-in-hand with a balanced mind. And to keep a healthy, balanced mind I need to remain present with what is rather than focused on what might be. I can smile more. I can reach out to friends more often. I can immerse myself in the things that I love like art and reading and cooking. 

And I can remember that sometimes we sing the body electric’. Sometimes we fall down. 

This Pablo Neruda poem appeared in my Facebook feed this morning along with this advice: we are growing freer…not older.

You Start Dying Slowly

You start dying slowly

if you do not travel,

if you do not read,

If you do not listen to the sounds of life,

If you do not appreciate yourself.

You start dying slowly

When you kill your self-esteem;

When you do not let others help you.

You start dying slowly

If you become a slave of your habits,

Walking everyday on the same paths…

If you do not change your routine,

If you do not wear different colors

Or you do not speak to those you don’t know.

You start dying slowly

If you avoid to feel passion

And their turbulent emotions;

Those which make your eyes glisten

And your heart beat fast.

You start dying slowly

If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,

If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,

If you do not go after a dream,

If you do not allow yourself,

At least once in your lifetime,

To run away from sensible advice.”

– Pablo Neruda


Karma Yoga in the Age of Zoom

When the world shut down last March, like so many other yoga teachers, I turned to Zoom. Unlike most teachers, I wore my pajamas and led a 30-minute chair class from my desk. That was eight months ago. It feels like eight weeks. Or maybe eighty years.

Now my classes are an hour long and have moved to a light filled corner of my home every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. And, to the relief of all, I’ve changed from my pajamas to my yoga duds which, truth be told, feel a lot like pajamas.

I’ve come to realize, after all these long COVID months, that my reasons for holding Zoom classes were never about maintaining an asana practice. I began the classes to hold the community together. To keep those who chose to attend energetically connected. I began the classes so we might breathe together. Move together. So that we could have one thing that felt almost normal. 

Asana is what brings us together three times a week but it’s not what holds us together. Yoga holds us together.

When I first began leading classes 27 years ago it was all about asana. I taught the same sequences and told the same jokes as my beloved teachers, who were students of BKS Iyengar and who studied with the Iyengar family in Pune. It took several years before I began to trust my own voice, my own intuition. It’s only now, in these past few years, that I’ve learned who I am – and who I am not – as a teacher.

In these extraordinary times it doesn’t feel right to root the classes I teach in strong, challenging work. Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in healing, restorative practices. Practices that are more about how the body feels and less about what it can do. 

Now feels like the right time to root ourselves in truth. 

What do I mean by that? Beats me. I think what I mean is that in this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year we would do well to think less about ourselves and more about others. Maybe what I mean is that we need to move beyond just thinking about others to doing for others with no expectation of what we might receive in return. What I am trying to express is that we need to practice Karma Yoga.

Karma Yoga is one of four schools of yoga. The other three are Jnana (self-study), Raja (meditation) and Bhakti (devotion). Karma Yoga is the yoga of action. It is selfless service towards others. That means cultivating the correct attitude and right motives. To release, as one text explained, ‘selfish desires’.

We should always be prepared to practice Karma Yoga but it seems more important than ever right now. 

Two things happened this morning to bring that point home to me and to bring this post to a close (thank goodness!).

Fareed Zacaria had Jose Andres, a chef and founder of World Central Kitchen. His organization is shining a light on food scarcity and the hunger crises in part caused by the economic challenges created by the pandemic. He spoke so eloquently and with so much passion that even the stoic Zacaria was verkelmpt. Andres is practicing Karma Yoga. Selfless service.

And then Sunday’s Brain Pickings landed in my inbox featuring poet Robinson Jeffers and his thoughts on ‘moral beauty’. It included several quotes but this one, I think, speaks to the practice of Karma Yoga.

“I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy,

and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole.”

If Jeffers is right, and we are all connected, then selfless service does not serve one person, or one group or one cause. It serves us all.


Ahimsa

Images from the 1970’s have been running on social media in response of PBS’s series on the decade.  One image inspired this poem:

Local Graffiti

Ahimsa

Violence is a small thing.

It is a girl child running through the jungle, arms stretched out

mouth open in silent cry, clothes seared from her body.

It is a small thing.

Violence is an act of war.

It is a jetliner ripping a skyscraper in half. It is men detonating the bombs they strap to their bodies. It is women being gang raped on the back of busses.

Violence is the sting of a mother’s slap on her young son’s frozen cheek.

Non-violence begins when I remember that violence doesn’t ask for much.

Because violence is a small thing.  

Violence begins when I wake to curse the haggard reflection staring back at me.

Violence ends when I wake and offer thanks for my humble life.

Violence begins when I whisper secrets that belong to someone else.

It ends when I sit in quiet contemplation.

Violence begins when I fill my eyes with gratuitous images.

It ends when I change the channel.

Violence. Non-violence. Ahimsa. Himsa.

Two sides of the same coin that we toss into the air without a second thought.