Monday, November 25, 2013

Dropping a gratitude bomb

Last month, a friend confided that 2013 had been so terrible for him that all he could do was hope for better luck in the New Year. “When you say something like that on October 15, you know it’s been a pretty rotten ten-and-a-half-months,” I responded. But I also had to agree that I would be mighty glad get this year behind me, even with the well-worn wariness that comes from asking, “Hey, it can only get better from here, right?” and receiving, with thunderclaps, the universe’s gleefully disastrous reply.

Given that my greatest hope for the future is being able to stay awake to see the ball drop in Times Square a couple months from now, knowing that 2013 can wreak havoc on me no longer, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that I haven’t been approaching the rapidly approaching Thanksgiving holiday with an Oprah-like level of gratitude. The way I’ve been feeling lately, I’m surprised that the National Day of Kvetching (and I’m sure there is one) hasn’t asked me to be Grand Marshal of its parade.

So I wondered what I could do about that -- how I could convince my heart to turn away, just for a moment, from such depleting levels of fear and worry. I feel as if I have so little to offer these days, even thanks. When I tried to think about what I did have, I realized it's the same thing I can always count on not to let me down – words.

So I started there. I found some tacky garage-sale notepaper and wrote a letter to the brother and sister-in-law of my friend who died 13 months ago. Not long after his sudden heart attack on a business trip, his wonderfully plucky and resilient mother died, too, leaving this family, for whom Thanksgiving was the most important holiday in their multi-faith clan, with two empty places at the table this year. 

After I addressed the envelope and added a stamp, I sensed a clear internal directive: “write more,” it said. So I did. I wrote a letter to each of the out-of-towners whom I’d most love to see magically arrive in time for dinner on Thanksgiving Day. I told them I was thankful for the gift of their friendship, for their innumerable wonderful qualities and for the many memories we shared.

And then I just kept going. I thought about the colleagues I’ve worked with this past year – kind-hearted and patient corporate teammates who showed me the ropes of a new publishing system, editors who gave me a first-ever chance at a writing assignment, interview subjects who amazed me with their great accomplishments and generosity of spirit. So I wrote letters to some of them, too.

And then I thought about the everyday people in my life, especially those few who consistently make me feel safer, lighter and more hopeful each time I encounter them – in an email, a Facebook post or, too rarely in my life, face-to-face. And I wrote to them, too. I wrote until my hand was sore and I ran out of stamps.

And then, before I could think better of it, I drove to the post office and mailed them all – a raft of gratitude bombs that would, I hoped, convey some authentic and heartfelt attention in the ramp-up to the official, pumped-up holiday.

I had found more in me than I’d had when I had started writing, just like I always do. Thanks, words. Thanks, friends.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sweaty and broken: what I learned on a stranger’s yoga mat

Glowing and gleeful on the stage at Aria, surrounded a cadre of fellow yoga teachers, Nan issued the first instructions of the practice: “Turn to the person on the mat next to yours, introduce yourself, and say what you’re grateful for today.”


Introductions and handshakes are the kale of my life – I know they’re good for me, but I endure them, barely. (Also, I’m less than fond of small group discussions that involve writing on flip charts, but I digress.) Still, a Gorilla Yogis event is, by design, a sociable gathering, so I ignored the wall to my right (intentional choice; cuts the chit-chat factor down by fifty percent) and turned to the man on my left, hand out, corners of the mouth turned up.

“Iiiiiiiiiii’m Miiiiiiiiike,” he said, lurching out a hand toward mine. His voice sounded like one of those electronic scramblers the villain uses to call the cops after he’s kidnapped the plucky heroine and wants to issue a threat. He pumped my hand up. Pause. Then down. “I’m grateful to be here today … because a while ago, I was in a car accident. I rolled over three-and-a-half times. And so … I’m glad to be here.”

He let go of my hand, head listing down, eyes looking up. He was waiting for my Oprahtastic-life-is-good declaration. I paused and listened to gratefulness being shared all around me, as the roomful of sleekly groomed yoga muffins shook hands, setting thousands of Tibetan prayer beads and armfuls of Mexican hammered-silver bangles to jangling. Perpetually babygirl voices introduced Kayla-Kerrie-Katelynne to Meghan-Maya-Madyson. And here I was, looking at Mike’s face, which, I now noticed, seemed as if someone had, once upon a time, given the features a slight quarter turn, with not-insignificant force, and had left them there.

I reached over and touched his arm. A moment ago I had not been able to think of one grateful thing, but now I could.

“You, Mike. I’m grateful you’re here.”

He nodded, suddenly shy, and we both looked at our feet.

The practice started. I breathed, closed my eyes, stayed on my own mat. Still, it was hard to ignore Mike. He moaned. He creaked. I heard odd popping sounds from time to time, like his bolts were falling off. He stopped, frequently, to wipe his dripping face. At one point, the class turned to face in another direction, and I realized he was no longer on his mat. I started to worry, to wonder if I should call over a teacher, or go look for him. He’d rolled over three-and-a-half times, he'd said, and suddenly I realized the significance of that “half.” At the end of whatever had happened, Mike was hanging upside down. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, we were directed to stretch out our arms in a “t” and grasp the wrist of our neighbor. A sweaty hand found mine, and there was Mike. I squeezed back in welcome.

We were instructed to stand and find a partner: “Hold on to your partner’s wrists, then lean back,” Nan told us. All around us, shiny heads, sleek with expensive botanicals and argan oil, leaned in toward each other, and hundreds of manicured toes lined up in perfect symmetry. Over in our dark corner, Mike and I faced each other like Quasimodo and his menopausal gargoyle. A weird, burbling chuckle came out of Mike as he grasped me. “I could break your wrists right now,” he said in that techno-villain voice, and he sounded equally awed and frightened at the thought. Jesus, I thought, just put your hands around my neck and put me out of my misery. Aloud, I said, “I trust you.” He relaxed, visibly, and leaned back. Based on the sounds he was making, I’m not sure if he was enjoying the traction or painfully slipping several vertebrae, but he stayed with it until Nan told us to stand up.

“Now find a place on your partner’s mat,” she instructed, and Mike companionably patted a spot on his towel-covered mat, which shot up a shower of moisture. I remembered the time we’d done yoga at the corner of Lake & Lyndale during a boiling-hot Open Streets festival. We'd all put our arms around each other in a giant Circle of Love. I was feeling the love, oh yeah, until I realized that my right hand was nestled directly in the hairy and gushing armpit of the man next to me.

Guess what, I lived.

I sat in front of Mike, toboggan style, and Nan instructed the person in back to deliver a back-and-neck massage. “Oooooh, I’m not that creepy,” Mike said, in a voice that actually sounded like a textbook definition of  "creepy." I said what I’d said before: “I trust you.”

After a few lovely moments, Nan instructed the massagers to put their hands directly behind the hearts of their partners, and she told us receivers to lean back, to lean into those hands that were holding us up. “You are not alone, you are never alone, there is always love and community around you,” she said.

Nan, I thought, this is crazy talk, so please shut your lying mouth. I let my mind play over the alone-making conversations in which I participate every day, most beginning with the ultimate lie-of-concern, “how are you?” I hear “How are you?” as a prelude to “Next, I will tell you what you're going to do for me,” or “How are you?” as a quick trip into “How am I, really, let me talk a little bit more,” or “How are you?” as “I’m sorry, did you say something? I was looking at my iPhone.”

That creepy villain voice brought me back, practically in my ear. “You can lean back farther,” Mike was saying. “You won’t hurt me. I can hold you.”

His fingers were sweaty. His body was broken. He was, based on what I'd heard and seen in the last hour, experiencing some serious levels of pain. But he was sure he couldn’t hurt me, no matter how far I leaned into him, and he was willing to hold me up.

Nan, I thought, I take it back, I’m sorry. There’s only this moment, this Sunday morning with the sleek-haired girls all around me, and this sweaty, broken man who is willing to support me. Since all I have is now, then I am not alone, not in this perfect moment. And you’re right, Nan, you’re so very right.