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On Boundaries, Shabbat, and Not Neglecting the Soul

The soul, like the mat, never asks where the hell have you been? It just says, welcome home.

Shabbat saves my life. This is only slightly an exaggeration. I want to try to tell you why.

Let me start with a couple of rabbis (always a good idea).

In union with the divine we find release from the pain of the futile cycle of searching and disappointment. Shabbat is our refuge of acceptance, our shelter from cravings and strivings. ~ Sheila Peltz Weinberg

… our weekly struggle in the world of achievement and bustle is now at an end. We have repeated the struggles of creation and now we too are called upon to achieve the great inner quiet which is the secret of true rest. ~ Art Green

So we have been trying to go to Friday night services at our wonderful synagogue more regularly. Last night, it was so so cold out — unseasonably so for November. We went out into the dark at 6:00pm and when we arrived at the synagogue, at first we thought maybe services had been cancelled. The building was dark. The sanctuary was locked. Then we realized our mistake: Services were in the smaller space, attached to the social hall. There weren’t many people there, though more trickled in over the next 10 or so minutes.

Like many weeks, it had been a long one. I notice my impulse to qualify this, to say “mostly good stuff.” And the truth is, there was plenty of good. There were two new writing groups as well as three continuing ones, with check-ins and freewrites and stories and poems that reminded me of the magic and power of writing down and hearing each other’s stories. As one new-to-me writer remarked: “I am amazed by how the simplest of prompts and the smallest of moments can have such an enormous impact!”

My kids have both been growing in beautiful and brave ways, and so much of my purpose emanates from my role as their mama. Doing good in the world, knowing this happens from the inside out and isn’t about bravado or badges of honor but about integrity and presence and fierce protection when necessary and letting them find their own way, not influencing that beyond what is impossible to avoid completely, and let them be who they are.

Learning once again that not everyone will a) like me, b) get me, or c) be worth the time. I tend towards forgiving others and being hard on myself, and I’m seeing in profound ways that forgiving myself doesn’t mean the opposite — being hard on others — but it very well might translate into a boundary I didn’t used to know I could draw or didn’t have the confidence to keep. It feels good, to know who gets to be on the inside with me. It feels good to say here, I am entrusting you with something sacred. Or, in other cases, this sanctuary is locked.

It feels good to learn how to recognize my own voice in my head and heart and not second-guess its knowing.

Needless to say, the past week entailed a LOT of output on many levels, and by last night, I was tuckered out. Within moments of the first melody, I felt the tears wanting out. By the beginning of the second song, they were sliding down my cheeks and chin onto my neck. I closed my eyes and felt the relief of returning to myself, to my soul. I knew it had been there waiting, needing to be touched in a way that is physical, though I know logically that doesn’t make sense. But that is how it felt, like a greeting, like a landing, like a communing.

I left the room to go to the bathroom, to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. In the mirror, I saw a middle-aged woman with two dark braids and an oversized sweater. Her face was creased, like she must enjoy the sun or perhaps was once a smoker. Her eyes looked small and slightly red-rimmed from crying. I gazed at her and she looked back at me. I saw something like soul or kindness there in her eyes. I saw a mother who would go the lengths of the earth for her kids. I saw a wife who had found herself and said yes to what was required of her in order to be that person, and then had found love in a way that she swore felt like a reward, even though she didn’t believe karma works quite that neatly. She looked like someone who felt things deeply. She looked tired, yes, and also real, solid. I liked her. I gave her a tiny squint, like a signal that I saw her and we were ok, and then went back to my seat.

Whatever stresses and tension I’d brought with me into that building did not come home with me. I woke this morning to soft, warm skin that feels like home, like roots. We drank coffee in bed and lingered and talked about how love will wither if you don’t work on relationship, but when you are really in, when you choose this person, this partner, this life again and again, even though it can be work, the love is easy. The love is effortless. It thrives when we are doing our part, showing up, bringing our ideas and our silliness and our sorrows and our fears and our dorkiness and our dreams to the table. What a miracle.

Divine love is unconditional. It is available to every one of us when we fashion our lives into channels to receive and share it. ~ Art Green

What I think is important to add or emphasize is that what this fashioning looks like is so personal. Anyone who tells you they know the right way to do it or it must be done a certain way, that only certain channels contain divine love — whatever such a thing means for you — run the other way. Close the door. Block the account. Do whatever you have to do to preserve yourself. Nobody has the right to tell you what your life must be in order to be a channel for divine love.

Nobody gets to declare they know a better path for you or your children, or that you haven’t done your research or given major decisions enough thought. This is not a permission slip to act irresponsibly; it is a mirror for the fact that you are capable, thorough, intelligent, ethical, and committed not only to doing the work life asks you to do but recognizing that there will always be that which you do not and cannot see.

Being steady is not hubris, arrogance, or narcissism. In fact, it’s what makes it possible to be open to all you do not know. It’s evidence that you are a grown woman whose devotion to truth and wellbeing runs deeper than roots you watered out of obligation or fear.

It is practicing standing in your own two footprints, the only ones in the world that are perfectly your size, and knowing how to stay soft and strong at the same time. It is admitting when you don’t know what to do next. It is acknowledging that you are not the only player here, not the only voice, while not abdicating your own intuition, observations, and wisdom.

All of this relies on an ingredient both ever-present and easily neglected: The soul.

This morning in the shower, after our delicious few hours of slow waking and before the yoga class where I planned to meet my middle sister, I called to Mani, “My soul was kind of back-burnered all week. I so needed this day to tend to it.” I knew she’d know what I meant (she did).

Yoga — my first class since I can’t even remember — was a perfect continuation of this intentional touching into soul. Even though I ran and swam throughout the summer and walk an average of 2-3 miles most days just going around, I haven’t had a regular movement practice in way too long. My body soaked up the asanas like an unwatered plant, and I sank into the floor during savasana, a hint of a headache around my temples that alerted me to the need to eat.  I picked up an egg & cheese sandwich at the cafe downstairs, while my sister got a chai. We walked to the parking lot, chatted for a few minutes, and hugged goodbye. It was cold and sunny and felt more like January than November, but my body was warm from class and cozy in a sweater, coat, leggings, and warm hat.

Without this one day a week of listening to the body, not trying to keep up with anything, to responding to anyone unless I simply want to, and connecting with myself, I wonder if old patterns of discontent, restlessness, and martyrdom would flare up more than they do these days.

In his classic book, The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the soothing nature of Shabbat:

The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all. It is not a date but an atmosphere.

It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. 

That’s exactly it. Taking these 24 or so hours “off” is really a chance to get quiet, to go inward, to look in the mirror, to turn away from the output and towards what is closest. The circles of what’s sacred to me are all beautiful, and when I disregard my soul in the busy mix and the caring for and focusing on others, something gets lost.

It was such a relief in the last 25 hours, to realize that my soul is here and fully intact and so very receptive to the invitation to surface. I love her. I love this life.

 * * *

The is the song that undoes me and makes me whole again; it’s from the fourth verse of Yedid Nefesh, a collection of psalms typically sung on Kabbalat Shabbat. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Higali na ofrus havivi alay et sukkat shelomecha
הִגָלֵה נָא וּפְרשׂ, חָבִיב עָלַי אֶת סֻכַת שְלומָךְ
Please, my Beloved, reveal Yourself and spread upon me your canopy of peace

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Who Am I and What’s for Dinner?

Image: Nancy Vala Art + Words

Some days, I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’m not tuned in at all — to the body, to other people, to my angels, to my kids, to my wife. I wonder if I’m missing something significant and important. The proverbial boat.

I glance over at the sink full of dishes and sigh. There’s no boat, of course. I know better. But that vague sensation — am I missing something big? — tugs at me like a little child, or a dog who wants to go out but then when you get outside, just stands there and looks at you with an expression that says, “So? Why are we out here?”

Ask me to “tune in” to the body and I draw a blank. The question shoots me straight into my head, where I’m likely to get all cerebral about how to do that. Thinking about how to do anything is a sure way to not tune in, in fact.

But on the mat, tuning into the body just happens. There is no thinking about it. Inhale arms overhead, slowly lower down, fingertips to floor, exhale to downward dog; even writing these words steadies my breath and reminds me that writing isn’t the only practice.

I find myself wondering about things like who I am and what’s for dinner in the same thought. The mat is a merciful place where both questions can wait.

When I really tune in, what do I find? A child with the sweetest smile, whose first book she named Bad Days for Jennifer at age five. A dreamer, literally, who remembers and reviews multiple dreams every morning before waking. Trains and forests, memories of other lifetimes. Someone who has left the body and returned to the body many times.

Where are the animals? A nest, a den. Inside of this body is both child and parent, hunter and gatherer, one for whom there can never be enough deep silence but who was known as a kid for chattering nonstop. A mockingbird. A thousand languages to learn.

She opens her eyes and thighs and mouth and out rushes sound, sound kept for years inside a cave no light could reach. Who is this body? I don’t know, but I want to her hear sing.

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Survival and Sunlight

“Life seeks fulfillment as plants seek sunlight.” ~ B. K. S. Iyengar 

{a 10-minute freewrite from today’s prompt in The Republic of the Body group}

My first wrinkle. Literally, the very first one that appeared. Mexico, the winter of 1997. My skin had turned a copper color and I walked everyday up and down those hills. I read Frida Kahlo’s autobiography and dreamed in Spanish and wrote poems about midwives and dogs howling and the moon.

Winters in northern Vermont. Short days. Brilliant blue sky How the sun was a gift then, a welcome visitor from far, far away. Don’t go, I’d cry, don’t leave me here alone. I don’t know what I would do without you.

The jade in my kitchen. It began as a small cutting from a thirty-year-old plant from my mother’s house. It is outgrowing the black porcelain pot where it sits in a kitchen window, south-facing, growing like crazy, always reaching for the light.

Cowering. Imploding. Moods. Black holes. Yoga mat. Hamstrings. Strap. Block. Pulling myself up and out of the vacuum that threatens to hold me hostage. Twelve minutes. It actually helps.

We are hardwired for survival, but just about everything else about our brains is a result of training and can change. My wife tells me we are a different person every single second, we are changing constantly. We think, “This. This is who l am.” We hold ourselves hostage to what we think we want and who we think we are and what believe to be true.

Lay it all out there. Not out there for the world necessarily but out there for yourself. One thing at a time. Question all of it. Is this mine? Do I still have a use for it? Did I inherit this and does that obligate me to keep it and cart it around with me to the end of my days, however long that may be?

Tension in my throat and upper chest. I feel the tightness. It is signaling me: “Hey, you. Yeah, you. Make some room for me today.” I make some room. Just a little, just enough. An opening where I can crawl out and have a look around the rest of the body, the wider landscape of whatever is happening within and without. Be the observer, I tell myself.

Constantly seeking safety and shelter will lead to atrophy. Of the spirit, of the mind. I do not want to shrink with time into a scared, small version of myself.

Space is internal; this much I know. I move towards it the way the jade traces the sun from east to west, the way a young woman once walked so close to the sun, the way a young mother once walked her babies bundled in snowsuits, the way a seeker craves silence and a song seeks its singer.

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Yoga + Writing: Parallel Practices

PART 1: THREE POSES

Each time she said “yoga,” I substituted “writing.”

“Don’t do it with great willpower, but with great affection.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

“I don’t know what happened to my grit,” she said.

My coaching client was referring to the passion and will she remembered having as a much younger woman. She’s been working on a children’s book on and off for years now. But after a health scare last summer, she shelved it completely for reasons that didn’t even make sense to her. What those are don’t matter; we were talking now, because she wanted to get back to the writing. Back to some semblance of discipline and grit, but in ways that reflect who she is now at 50, not who she was then, at, say, 20.

This woman, whose writing and being I adore, is also a mom and a yoga teacher.

I asked her about her yoga practice. What gets her back to the mat after a hiatus? She thought about this and then responded: “I know what I need to do.”

As an aside: These are words that make a coach jump out of her seat to do a happy dance before further inquiry.

Then I asked her to tell me more. And she talked about how B.K.S. Iyengar, whose tradition of yoga she follows, instructed his students to do just three poses. Three poses constitutes a practice. I mentioned Mani’s “rule,” which it to simply “get on the mat” once a day.

Once there, anything goes; even if she rolls it right back up, if she gets on the mat once a day, she can know that she showed up. Most times, of course, once you’re on the mat, you might as well move around a bit. Three poses often opens to a longer practice, because the body is so hungry for breath and length and movement, and the spirit for the sheer relief of not having to be anywhere else.

So, I asked her, what “three poses” are your writing equivalent? In other words, what is the bare minimum you must commit to in order to know that you’re showing up to your practice and your intention of returning to this book?

She considered this for a few minutes.

Number one, she said: “Take your seat.”

Sound easy enough, but I would argue that this may in fact be the hardest part of writing. Just sitting down. You can circle the wagons all damn day, or you can take your seat. You can open and close the fridge door 20 times, or you can take your seat. You can text your BFF, run errands, watch Netflix, obsess about the news for good reason, or just scroll on Facebook, or you can take your seat.

I do all of the above — the avoidance, the fridge the circling like a dog trying to find that absolute most perfect spot. It’s fine. As long as you eventually TAKE YOUR SEAT.

Number two, she said: “Write one scene.”

Mind you, we talked about what this means. Will she measure a “scene” by word count or number of pages or because she has a predetermined list of scenes that remain unwritten? Yes. In other words, she is building in freedom to the plan. “Scene” is flexible. The important thing at this stage is to write one, whether it’s a paragraph or five pages.

And last but not least, number three, which addresses what to do on days when number two isn’t happening.

In other words, what about when she takes her seat but doesn’t know what to write? We all know that these moments are like surprise parties for our inner critics, with ribbons and balloons and pizza and cake. Every inner critic I’ve ever met will happily waltz through that door, get on her soapbox, and proceed to give a speech we’ve heard a thousand times. You know the one? About how we don’t really know what we’re doing, and this book probably isn’t even going anywhere, and every time you try some great new plan (like “three poses”), the whole thing unravels, and who do you think you are anyway?

STOP. That is NOT how this is going to go, sister.

Nope. Instead, step three, or “pose” three, is this: Come up with a reminder, an affirmation if you will. For example: “Don’t panic. The story always finds you.”

You have permission not always to know what’s next. Explore. Meander. Set a timer and freewrite without stopping for 10 minutes. Everything counts, and sometimes it’s from staying inside of these “not knowing” times that something new comes through. It requires faith and patience. And, come to think of it, grit.

I emailed her a few days later to say hi, and to ask her permission to write about our conversation. I also asked if she’d started the new routine yet. Here’s what she wrote:

“And yes, the ship has set sail. Friday I created a ‘not etched in stone’ weekly schedule that encompasses everything: writing, yoga, meditation, walking dogs, cleaning toilets. Lots of flexibility built into it, so I can shuffle things around when needed. But writing… writing comes first.”

Amen.

Just for fun: What are your three poses?

If you’re looking for your grit or can’t get yourself to sit and write on a regular basis, take a look around. What works in some other area of your life? How can you transpose that and come up with something to try? If you practice yoga, what do you know about your time on the mat that might in fact relate to your time with your notebook (or wherever you face down the unknown)?

PART 2: Props / Prompts

Some people see yoga props and writing prompts as the tools of novices.

“The fewer our demands on life, the greater our ability to see its bounty.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

Saturday morning. Mani and I got up at our usual 6:30am time. When her alarm went off, I could barely open my eyes. In a weird role reversal, she was chipper and wide awake and greeted me with a kiss. “Good morning! Shabbat Shalom, darling!”

“It’s Shabbat,” I groaned, covering my head with the pillow. A nice way of saying, WTF why are we awake? But then I took a long, hot shower while she prepped our Very Strong Coffee, and I joined her in the kitchen somewhat more awake.

Sitting at the table with our morning coffee has been one of the biggest rewards of our new daily schedule. Even though I work at home and we see each other all day long, there’s something special about intentionally beginning the day together this way, and we tend to have interested, meandering conversations.

This one somehow went in the direction of yoga. Mani mentioned that when she couldn’t fall asleep right away the night before, she’d “pinned” a bunch of Iyengar quotes to her Yoga Life board on Pinterest.

“That’s so crazy,” I told her, mentioning the Iyengar reference during a coaching call last week. And from there, somehow we were off and running. We got to talking about props, and because I am a word dork, I lit up at realizing that the word “prop” fits neatly inside the word “prompt.”

Some people see yoga props and writing prompts as the tools of novices. I think of these rather as useful tools to help the practitioner meet the blank page or enter a pose, supports to use for gradually growing stronger and going deeper.

“Until one day…” a beloved yoga teacher of mine used to say, before showing us the “full expression” of the pose (if she herself had mastered it). I can still hear her soothing, steady voice in my ear. “Until one day your practice is so steady and strong that you don’t use a prop/prompt.”

I always loved that “one day” thing. So different from the elusive “someday,” it implies something more concrete and even inevitable. A faith, a confidence. One day you will do this, whether that day is next month or not in this lifetime.

Mani started reading me Iyengar quote after Iyengar quote. Each time she said “yoga,” I substituted “writing.” Then I started scribbling quotes and notes like crazy on unlined paper. We finished our coffee. A new writing group was born.

Part 3: The Republic of the Body: A New Writing Group, May 1-26

“Love must be incarnated in the smallest pore of the skin, the smallest cell of the body, to make them intelligent so they can collaborate with all the other ones, in the big republic of the body. This love must radiate from you to others.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

It doesn’t matter how sporadic and erratic my practice gets. The mat forgives me every time. So does the blank page.

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