What I Remember

It’s the love I remember.

From the stranger or the soulmate,
the smallest act of kindness;
each one saying, I love you.

I remember the shaming and the pain too,
but the love gives them room to be seen, room to breathe.

That’s how I know it’s the way forward
and backward and
in and out of everything,

because I’ve felt that seismic shift
(the one where everything falls from its perfect place and my heart cracks open to reveal a depth of pain I didn’t know I was capable of.)

And love is the ladder I climb out on,
and the bridge that spans pain to presence.

And I wonder what you remember,
in those moments of mortality when life thins and you can almost reach your hand through the veil to the other side.

Do you remember the love?

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“Grief Brut” : Raw Grief

IMG_7779There is a kind of art called Art Brut, literally “raw art.” It describes art that defies the rules of traditional or popular culture. Art that is not tidy and acceptable but raw and wild. Often referred to as “Outsider Art,” it’s expression that has not been edited or sanitized or applauded but has found a way out of one’s heart and into the world.

What about Grief Brut. Raw grief. Can we create a space for grief that does not fit within societal paradigms, stages or expectations; for grief expression that is not edited, sanitized or applauded but courageously finds a way out of our hearts and into the world anyway.

It seems the more I invite in this conversation with grief the more she has to say. My role is to listen and at times to speak for her. There is nothing easy about this conversation with grief but there is everything honest about it. Honest doesn’t always fit politely between hello and goodbye. Honest is often messy, raw, and uncomfortable.

Written, voiced, drawn or made, can we welcome our raw and heartbreaking stories of loss? Can we listen to them without looking away or looking for the happy ending? Perhaps if we pave a road for grief to travel and walk beside her for a time we will one day realize she is not an imposter but one of our own.

The full version of this piece appeared on The Huffington Post.

When I’m Gone Please Don’t Have a Funeral

IMG_7674When my husband passed away 13 years ago we hadn’t talked about what kind of funeral he wanted. At 25, I was too afraid to have the conversation.

When my 98-year-old great-grandmother passed last month on the hunter’s full moon, I finally found the courage to consider what I would hope for upon my passing.

It’s one of those difficult and powerful conversations, the kind that set us free to live fuller, love bigger and fear less. What do you want upon your passing? How does contemplating your death inform your life? What would you say or do today if you knew you would not be here tomorrow?

***

When I’m gone please don’t have a funeral,
but do gather in some wild outdoor space.

Don’t hold on to society’s standards of loss,
but do hold on to your loved ones.

Let everyone speak or have the opportunity to speak. If they choose not to speak just let there be silence where the words would be. Hold the space for their choice to be heard.

Don’t praise the good and downgrade the bad, just say it how it was, not how we would have liked it to be.

Let there be singing or chanting or wailing, whatever it is you do.
Open your throat and let it rise from your belly like our ancestors did.

Let there be dancing, as awkward as it will feel. Let the grief move through your bones however it will.

Let there be flowers. Not the perfect kind but the wild kind that don’t match and know how to be messy and beautiful at the same time.

Bring your fear with you, on your face or in your pocket. The fear of stepping outside the box, the fear of death, the fear of breaking open, the fear of not knowing what to do or not knowing what to say.

Bring your love with you. The kind you reserve for your partner or your children. Bring it in buckets and share some with everyone you meet.

When it’s time to part I hope you part slowly, after a collective exhale, maybe pausing at the bottom of the breath until you feel that urgency to breathe, that urgency to live.

And then go live.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.

My Life Mala

malaWe all wear our stories in some way or another, don’t we?

They make us who we are (and sometimes keep us from becoming who we can be if we let them define us too narrowly.)

I started making what I call “Life Malas” because each marker is placed for a life event. I used yellow jade for manipura chakra (solar plexus), green jade for anahata chakra (heart), green ruby zoisite for sahasrara chakra (crown), and a spiral shell I found on the beach because it feels like home.

I made this one for me, so I placed the green jade marker beads at the times when my life and heart were busted open. Marker 1 is at 25, the age I was when Nathan died. Marker 2 is at 37, when my baby was born. Marker 3 is at 98, the age of my great-grandmother, born in 1917, who is breathing her last breaths this year.

Stringing the beads under the darkness of a new moon, it occurred to me that at one of these beads I will pass away myself (and that this life is not a dress rehearsal, so I’ve got to live it right the first time.)

There are 108 beads in a mala, and if I get to see bead 98 like my grandma, I’ll count myself very lucky. I’ll count myself lucky to see 39 this month.

I made this mala necklace to remind me that both loss and life are part of the same cycle. They coexist beautifully if I let them, and if I practice embracing both rather than inviting one and rejecting the other, I get to experience the full depth of being human instead of just skimming the surface.

My life mala is an outward representation of the integrity, cohesiveness and beauty that emerges when I allow every experience to support the next one. Broken or fragmented as they appear at times, when I view them all together they form this fragile but beautiful thing called life.

Originally published on YogaOne.

The Exhale

FullSizeRender (5)The bottom of the exhale is the scariest place to be.

In yoga
In the ocean
In life

We are beyond empty here
Completely exposed,
in need,
at the mercy of life to grant us that next
precious
inhale.

As terrifying as it is,
it is just as liberating
just as f***ing freeing
to have nothing,
to hold nothing,
to own nothing

except this pause,
this longer-than-I-can-stand pause
where mortality and humility and fragility merge
into a kind of this-could-be-it ultimatum

That’s why it’s so scary
That’s why it’s so necessary
That’s why we must visit the darkness,
the emptiness,
the bottomless pit of our exhale

So we learn what we must do with our inhale

Our lifelong gift of inhales that are never guaranteed,
but so rich and fertile with the promise of life
that we take them for granted

We expect them to be there
until they’re not.

They’re not there, inflating the heart and soul of the mate you’re hugging.
They’re not there, lifting the belly and warming the skin of the mother you need.
They’re not there, creating that oh-so-familiar sound you expect beside you.

Then we realize we’re there,
at the bottom of our exhale,
without everything we need to survive,
to move, to proceed with this moment.

Yet while our surface starts its slow crumble
and we feel our feet begin to give way,
our heart in a slow-motion implosion,
something deeper is not moved by the terror,
by the fear

In between reaching and releasing there is this:
just this.

Just this nothingness,
just this everythingness,
just this radical presence,
just this.

When your next inhale graces you
try not to forget the landscape of nothingness
in your rush to climb to the top of everything

Visit it from time to time to remember
why you are here
why we are here
what really matters
while we still can.

Restoring the BodyMind Through Yoga

Early on in my yoga practice I would often experience an emotional reaction during corpse pose (savasana). Lying still, I would get a lump in my throat and suddenly find tears quietly rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t know it at the time, but my yoga practice was releasing long-held grief from my body.

When grief and recovery from trauma have been processed by the mind, life may begin to seem approachable again and many people feel they can move forward; but the same processes of recovery and healing are essential to the body as well.

Feeling a strong emotional release in a yoga pose or during final relaxation is far from uncommon. One of yoga’s most powerful side effects is its ability to release and heal the BodyMind. Not just the body. Not just the mind. The combined, interconnected, undivided BodyMind.

BodyMind is a term coined by Dr. Candace Pert, a neuropharmacologist who pioneered scientific research into the field of Mind-Body Medicine, advancing our understanding of what are called neuropeptides, or messenger molecules that carry information from the mind to the body and back again through body fluids. These neuropeptides are found throughout our bodies in the heart, sexual organs, and the limbic system, to name a few.

Dr. Pert breaks this concept down with an example of the gut. The entire lining of our intestines is lined with these particular transmitters. She posits, “It seems entirely possible to me that the richness of the receptors may be why a lot of people feel their emotions in their gut – why they have a ‘gut feeling.’”

She further comments: “I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged in the body. The real true emotions that need to be expressed are in the body, trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated, made whole, and healed.”

When we move our bodies through yoga, our BodyMind is allowed expression. It can begin to release emotion and tension that’s been stuck in our bodies perhaps years after we think we’ve mentally processed the event.

Exploring these heavy emotions in our yoga practice, whether intentionally or accidentally, might feel intimidating. Resourcing is a technique that helps us stay present during uncomfortable or overwhelming sensations by finding and connecting to a resource, such as the breath or one of the five senses. This connection works like an anchor for a boat and we can begin to observe sensations safely, without fear of getting lost in the sea of our experience.

(I explain this process in a recorded interview I gave in February 2016. Contact me if you’d like access to the interview.)

We are the Lucky Ones

I was really crushed when I heard about the Malaysia Airlines tragedy.

For a moment. Then I was really angry.

I was angry about a lot of things, but mostly because I could feel the loss in my own heart. It was almost as if I was holding those broken hearts in my hands, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

So I wrote about it. I wrote about it for them and for me and for anyone who’s ever lost someone and for everyone who ever will. I wrote about it for the victims and for the survivors and for those of us who sit comfortably in our homes with our spouses and children and pets. We who get to turn off the TV when we’ve heard enough. We who get to forget about it tomorrow when we go to our jobs and return to worrying about the little things.

We are the lucky ones. We are alive.

May we be reminded of the fragility of life. May we eat differently and converse differently and live differently from here on out. May we live our lives fully while they’re ours to live.

*****

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. – Gandhi

Those words are easy to say when it’s not your son that’s been senselessly beaten, when it’s not your daughter that’s been raped, when it’s not your parent that was in the World Trade towers, when it’s not your fiancé that was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Injustice rubs up offensively against our inherent sense of fairness. We want revenge, we want justice, and we want payback, but mostly we want the hole in our heart to stop bleeding. We want our suffering to end. We want the hurt to stop hurting. We want reality to stop staring us in the face even when our eyes are closed.

We want them back.

And they’re not coming back.

You who have lost, we have lost with you.
You who are howling, we howl with you.
You who are in shock, we are in shock with you.
You who are enraged, we are enraged with you.
You who are crumbling inside, we crumble with you.
You whose scream inside has not yet made it to your lips, we hear you.
You whose world just came to an end, we are here for you.

We are the only ones who are here for each other. I for you and you for me. Wherever you live, whatever you do, however you speak, we must hold each other in loss, in laughter, in life and in death.

Gandhi’s words don’t ask us to stop hurting inside. They ask us to stop hurting each other in response to our hurting inside, because if we don’t we will all end up blind and hurting and unable to help each other when we need it the most.

 

Originally published on elephantjournal.

Death & Breath

20140211-160143.jpgA friend of mine died this week.

She was 41 years old and left behind two small boys and a husband.

Some months ago I invited her to come with me to a Yoga for Cancer workshop. She had advanced stage cancer and I was pregnant. Our seemingly opposite points in life didn’t seem so opposite at the time.

More like two sides of a coin: The beginning of a life and the end of a life.

Even though we knew she would pass, death never fails to strike a tender, heart-wrenching chord. I think this is because it is an inevitable part of each of our lives. It is the other side of our coin; and whether it happens to our spouse or a stranger, it always hits a little too close to home.

I find something so stifling and sickly about the way we as a society deal with death. It’s like we try to be polite about it, as if an invitation to a funeral was an invitation to dinner. I am just as guilty of perpetuating this pattern as everyone else.

When faced with death our hearts are ripped out of our chests and handed to us in pieces; yet we try to hide the blood and guts under a black suit and tie and think our chosen brand of religion or belief system will change the raw, wild, fearful thing that is death into something packagable, something palatable, something acceptable.

Belief systems don’t change death. What they can change is life. This raw, wild, fearful thing that is life.

To the extent that we let death inform our lives, empower our lives, and inspire our lives, it is not the end of the road. It may be the end of our road, but it can be the beginning of someone else’s awakened, enlivened, empowered road.

As someone who has held both death and life in my arms and watched the breath exit and enter a human body, I can tell you it’s a doorway.

It’s a doorway for those of us still living. We can choose to walk through it, but more often are pushed through by the crumbling ground beneath us. It opens up for us the possibility of a more authentic, focused, meaningful life.

I like to think every breath is a doorway, not just our first or last breath on earth.

Modalities like meditation and yoga focus on the breath as Prana, or our life force. To the extent these practices teach us the value and the power of each breath we take, they are useful and life-enhancing. They are called practices because we must keep practicing. We must keep remembering. We must keep tuning in to our life force because it is so easy to forget, to take it for granted, to think we will check death off our list when we’re good and ready.

May each precious breath propel us deeper into our fragile, full, tender lives with our hearts, arms, and eyes wide open.

Good Grief

I’m very interested in grief, loss, and how we approach these topics on an individual and societal level.

It’s a subject that fascinates me largely because of a life path that has given me a magnified, intimate look at death, depression, and suicide.

Our culture and society aren’t too big on death. It’s one of those awkward topics we’d rather be talked about in therapists’ offices and bedrooms.

I recently attended a Yoga for Cancer workshop with a friend who has cancer where the teacher pointed out this sober reality:

“None of us are getting out of this alive.”

Some of us have to face our mortality sooner than others, in the instances of illness or loss of a loved one. For the rest of us, it’s just a matter of time, realistically speaking.

I don’t say that to be morbid or negative. I say it as a wake-up call.

I find it so helpful to learn how other people have coped with loss, death, or averted suicide. Surprisingly, these stories often reveal people who have not just survived, but have thrived.

Many situations are hard to imagine ever recovering from, such as the loss of a child. Yet Desiree Rumbaugh shows it can be done in her story, “Love is Stronger Than Fear.”

Yoga teacher J. Brown shares his experience of losing his mother and his decline towards suicide, penning this poignant line:

“At some point, I got very low, so low that I felt I either needed to kill myself or find another way to live.”

And I was surprised to find such a comprehensive piece on loss as Yoga for Grief and Professor June Gruber’s study on Resilience.

I hope to offer more resources and survival stories in the future.

For now, this is my bottom line:

There is not a way out of loss, pain, or death. But there is a way through.

Answer Your Fear With This Question

Have you had a life-or-death experience? Has someone close to you died? Do you shy away from the topic of death because it’s uncomfortable?

Those were questions I never contemplated for most of my life. Nowadays I embrace the conversation because I’ve realized that contemplating death can inform our lives powerfully.

I was given an opportunity to reflect on this earlier this week after having the interesting and terrifying experience of my life flashing before my eyes.

I won’t go into the particulars of the incident, but what is important is that I saw how, in a few short seconds, my life could have been gone and, after a breath or two, the realization that I was still here.

This sat a little heavier with me than it might most people because I’ve experienced being on the other side of loss, where I was the surviving half of a pair. I’ve written about this before, as it was the slow-but-sure catalyst for a complete collapsing and rebuilding of my inner and outer life, perspective, and purpose.

For quite a while after I had reentered society, I noticed that I was hyper-sensitive to the small things in life. Giving someone a hug, saying goodbye or hello, a bird flying by, listening to a heartbeat – these all struck me as so precious and fleeting. I marveled at how no one else seemed to recognize the value in these small moments, while also realizing I could not live with this kind of intensity. I could not keep treating each moment as if it could be the last.

Or could I?

If I did value each moment as if it could be the last, it ramped up my experiences to the level of sacred. It slowed down the pace of life to one slow-motion moment. Life simultaneously filled and broke my heart every day from the sheer happiness at being alive and the knowledge that this too will end someday.

Over time this intense attitude faded some. I got comfortable with my new normal life. I was able to enjoy it without valuing it as priceless. I told myself it just wasn’t sustainable to live with that kind of intensity.

I now realize it wasn’t sustainable because I wasn’t yet strong enough to sustain it.

It takes a lot of strength to take on life fully, with all its rawness, beauty, fullness, and heartbreak. It takes a strength and commitment that no one can give us because it has to come from the inside out. Perhaps this is why we tend to get inspired or feel fearless momentarily, and then slowly fade back into a more comfortable zone of living where people are nice, loving, and live their lives with an ease and trust that everything’s going to be alright. We’re all going to live to a hundred, tragedy doesn’t touch us, and let’s put off that dream until tomorrow.

I found certain kinds of yoga lit the flame deep inside me to live my fullest life, to face my fears, and to live each day as if I was going to die tomorrow.

That’s a question that works wonders for me, and I often call on it when I feel especially afraid or especially self-conscious about putting myself out there.

I ask myself, If you died tomorrow, would you wish you had done this?

The answer is usually yes. Because in the light of death, vulnerability doesn’t seem so scary. In the light of death, vulnerability is all there is. It allows us to turn ourselves inside out, not so much for all the world to see, but more for us to see. For us to feel. For us to let out all our inner, protected, sensitive layers and let them feel the freedom of being unprotected and fully alive.

In the light of life, vulnerability is dangerous. It exposes us and that means people might be able to poke a hole in our armor with their harsh words, opinions, or indifference.

It also means people could get inside us. God forbid someone come up close and touch our beating heart, see our deepest fears, or learn that we are only human like them.

I’ve often thought when our lives flash before our eyes it would happen quickly, in our last moments of life, but my experience of my life flashing before my eyes was quite slow. It happened over the course of hours, as I witnessed every step I took in my daily life that I might not have been able to take. Everything I might normally take for granted I saw as alive, priceless, fascinating, and almost unreal.

Even so, I saw old patterns acting themselves out. Fear, defenses, walls. It was as if, since I was still alive, I still felt I had to protect my “self” somehow.

This is the glory of being human.

I find it unfortunate that it often takes loss or trauma to remind us of the intrinsic value of life, of a breath, of a heartbeat. The urgency and brevity of life often does not fully register in us until we are faced with our own mortality or that of someone close to us.

It’s not just every new day that is a gift, an opportunity, and an invitation to live fully.

It is every moment.

Every moment we can choose to embrace or pass by. When we accept the invitation – what I consider our inherent obligation – to fully embrace and embody our lives, when our life flashes before our eyes, we will not have to wonder, What would I have done if I knew I was going to die today?

We will have already done it. We will have already done it, spoke it, wrote it, shared it, lived it.

I invite us all to contemplate deeply and answer daily Mary Oliver’s question:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”