As the light returns, wishing us, All,
A thousand years of joy.
Here’s another memory itched in my awareness: it is about a zillion years ago. I sit in a nameless and drab church meeting room on the West Side of Lower Manhattan. I uncomfortably look around this Twelve Step meeting, an asymmetric circle of 40 or so folding chairs, each adorned with a person atop it. I am new to this process and so beyond-uncomfortable. I have yet to have landed within myself. I am all squirmy and sweaty, despite the December temperatures outside and the lack of much heat inside. I understand little of what people are saying. Time inches by on the big public school clock that faces me high on the wall. I could fall over and die here, I think—it would be easier, it seems, than sitting and listening to people. People! Who are these people? It will take years for me to realize how people fully and wholly terrify me, that my fear of them, my fear of Everything, propels me to drink and to drug incessantly and endlessly.
But it is not about that I wish to speak. I want to tell you what awoke me that cold December afternoon, the pale light of the day playing on the opposite wall.
Her skin was pallid and she was blond. Very blond. And young. And cool. I was so interested in cool then, so seduced by it, so longing for it, so terrified of it. City Cool dressed in City Black. But it was her words that startled me, that shook me into awakening:
“In the morning,” her voice danced in the air above my head, “I thank my Higher Power.” I studied the air above me, as if words were written over my head, puzzling them for a meaning. She thanked her Higher Power?
I could feel myself screwing up all my brain cells, trying to squeeze meaning out of her sharing.
“I thank my HP for—for–for whatever I am going to receive in that day.”
What did she say?
It was like a bolt streaked through my body.
For WHATEVER she was going to be given that day?
That can’t be right. She made a mistake, right? Surely she said it wrong.
What if she had a shitty day?
What if something bad happened? Bad shit happened all the time, of that I was certain.
Wouldn’t you just be thankful for the good things?
She said it again, clearer this time:
“I thank my Higher Power for whatever the day brings me.”
It felt as if someone doused me with icy water. I—awoke—into a new moment. Perplexed and confused, but slapped into the moment.
My brain shifted into hyper-drive, trying to analyze her words. Surely she made a mistake, right? Round and round my mind went, going nowhere. I was completely confused, but awakened to this idea. Awakened to the moment. I had been startled into awareness.
I sweated and squirmed, clammy, my folding chair squeaking beneath me.
To my disbelief and sheer relief, the meeting actually eventually ended. I outlived it. I took the Cool Blond’s words home, puzzling and quizzing over them.
Somehow, too, I outlived enough of the thick blanket of isolation that surrounded me to finally ask people in the Program about gratitude.
“Yep, gratitude squared,” they told me.
“You get what you need to grow.”
“It’s all good. Whatever.”
“Life on life’s terms. Be grateful for it all.”
Wow. Be grateful for it, all.
That was staggering then.
And that was all a really long time ago.
And it is pretty staggering now.
I continue to practice gratitude. And as I do, as I focus on what is with relaxed appreciation, more is bestowed upon me. As I focus on what Is Not, life constricts and tightens all around me.
There’s the choice.
There’s the practice.
Why the Cool Blond’s words shook me into a new life, I do not know.
How gratitude works, I do not know either. Surely brain science could explain it, I imagine. But that might mar the memory of the Cool Blond, of the clock that hardly moved, of the words that grabbed my heart and slapped me into life, of the people, the nameless and anonymous strangers who saved my life that day, and who have saved my life every single day since.
I think I’ll stick with my memory.
And I think I’ll stick the practice of gratitude.
As best I can. As imperfectly as I do.
I will practice.
Happy holidays. To us, all.
Oh, so much to be grateful for.
The ache of this memory is etched in time, reignited today in this cold December afternoon.
It is of another cold winter afternoon in a long-ago December that I speak.
I am twelve years old and I sit alone on the city bus in the fading light, heading up to the Hill Section and my home, leaving my monogamous friend, Gladys, our matinee, and our focused connection behind me. Light snow is falling, making this December memory even more vivid. We pass throngs of Christmas shoppers on the streets below, bundled in their overcoats and goulashes, everyone busily hurrying somewhere. There are gifts to buy and stores to visit, a last-minute urgency in the air. The bus trudges slowly by the Scranton Globe Store, our town’s biggest department store. I look out the window, breath foggy on the glass. The decorations in Globe’s windows illustrate the story of the Little Drummer Boy. Little marionettes pantomime the narrative and endlessly sing in an infinite loop of frantic devotion:
“The finest gifts we give to him pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king, pa rum pum pum pum…….”
The words of this song, which I both adore and detest, release a flood of heartache in me. I am a little Jewish girl with no gifts to give or to receive, a little Jewish girl with no king to honor, as far as I can tell. Nobody in my family is buying any Christmas presents or preparing any sort of a holiday meal. My parents are working, always working, in their neighborhood grocery store, serving other people who are preparing holiday meals, adding an even more complicated emotional twist for me. There will be no holiday lights in my house tonight, only the yahrtzeit candle, memorializing the death of my mother’s father many Christmas Eve’s ago. There will be no festivity in our house—only silent overwork, unspoken grief, and hushed exhaustion.
Deep within the memory of this child-moment, my twelve year old self is broken-hearted. Life itself is so bizarrely unfair. Why does everyone get something as massive as Christmas? Why do I get nothing, recalling our Chanukah celebration which held a weak candle to the bright, universal lights of Christmas? How can this time of holiday cheer be available to so many, but not to me? Why is being me such a lonely and a separate thing?
Fast-forward decades to present time.
I hang our new holiday wreath on our front door. Its evergreen is beautifully interwoven with delicate blueberries and sprigs of lusty red berries. I stand back, appreciative and happy.
Time has given me full permission to have it all. The Jewish holidays, the Christmas holidays, and everything in between—the only thing blocking me from full enjoyment of life, full enjoyment of the moment, is myself. My parents and their generation’s need to insulate from the Other, from Christians, holds little stead over me today. Surely marrying a gentile woman has facilitated the process of inclusionary holidays. We sing our Chanukah blessings each of the eight nights, making up our own relevant and spontaneous translations. We trim a little holiday tree, safe above the eyes and bellies of our ever-hungry (go figure) canine companions. We exchange Easter baskets, go to Temple on the holidays, to Quaker meeting on Sundays, and to church on Christmas Eve. We take what we need. We leave the rest.
Yet the exclusion I felt as a little Jewish girl growing up in the fifties was real. Our Pennsylvania town was organized around religious lines. My parents’ need to keep our “Jewishness” separate and subtly under wraps was driven by their understanding of safety and their fearing the potential of anti-Semitism, along with a real concern for their business. We were apart from others, by seeming necessity and design.
But not today. As I practice living the great inquiry of yoga, I am invited into observing my relationship with the moment without judgment. I am constantly offered opportunities to see the ways I continue to separate myself from others. Living yoga gives me the techniques and strategies to accept this ancient pull toward separating, and without judgment, ways to return to wholeness and unity. Just like on the yoga mat, breath and relaxation are major tools in the realignment of my actions with my intentions.
Of course there are plenty of moments in which I am stuck in my terminal uniqueness, unwilling and seemingly unable to get out. And so it is, the human dilemma, wanting to connect, being terrified of others, needing to be alone, longing for relationship.
I do my best to relax into the moment, no matter what I am noticing about myself.
I think of my Grandmother Sonia. I no longer imagine her rolling over in her grave while I trim our Christmas tree. I now see her smiling shyly at me, blessing me and my life from afar. Surely my healing is her healing, too. Surely we are all, one, in this together.
Okay. So we live at the end of a dirt road, which is at the end of a series of other dirt roads. Twenty years ago, when we bought the house, I thought dirt roads were the coolest thing. Still recovering from my years on East Fifth Street in New York City, I thought our new spot was so nature-centered, so God-ish, so cool. No First Avenue busses moaned their way outside the window, no traffic stopped and started twenty-four-seven, shaking my bed. Nope, not now. Just the chipmunks and the occasional ice fisherman on the back road serenaded me. I was in back-to-the-land bliss. For a while.
Twenty years have almost passed. My relationship to dirt roads has matured now, informed by the reality of twenty mud seasons, twenty snowy and icy winters, and twenty years’ worth of dusty dry spells.
Our roads are not plowed by the town we live in, to which we pay our grown-up-people’s taxes. No, we belong to an “association”, to which we pay dues, from which a contractor wins the bid to plow our above-mentioned dirt roads. So, while the town is busy fastidiously plowing the beach road behind our house, our tax dollars mightily at work insuring the safety of the two ice fisherman, our association roads are erratically maintained by a series of rotating, contracted plowman.
And now it is our present winter—I mean, late fall, 2013. A big snow is predicted, Saturday night into Sunday. Because I have to get to work on Sunday morning to close a program I am teaching, I eye the weather cautiously as night falls. Between the computer and the window, I attempt to ascertain the possibilities. Really? Ten inches expected by morning?
We have a new plow man this year, our last one, Matt, burned out from his endless interactions with disgruntled home-owners and the never-ending need to sand the icy frozen dirt.
How will the new guy do? Will I be able to get out at 8:00 a.m.? Can I make it over the mountain to work?
Snow, which has been flirting with us all day, begins to thicken as night darkens. Under the cloak of a darkness, the flakes intensify, swirl wildly, and begin to stick. Oh, here we go, I think.
Ready for bed at about 9:00, after hours of thick snow blanketing our world, I hear the moan of a plow outside our window. Pulling up the shade, Ras and I investigate. The busy little plow truck moans and groans its way down our road, stopping just short of the tent-garage where our cars live. Backing down the road, he returns again, widening his path, but not continue down toward the front of our house!
I am enraged. Bastards! I leap into a fiery tirade. Surely this is an attempt to rip us off, to try to charge us separately for our “driveway” plow. This is not our driveway, I curse into the darkness. This is the road! I start practicing the phone message I’ll leave Steve, the association’s president, in the morning, defending our right to be fully and thoroughly plowed.
Ras, standing quietly next to me, shakes her head. “No, he just doesn’t know that it’s okay to drive down here.”
My head swivels toward her. Oh, could she really be that naïve? It’s her West Virginia background kicking in. I shake my head silently, knowing the truth. We’re being ripped off. Knowing her so well, I don’t try to prove my point. I simply know that I am right and she is, in fact, wrong.
Sleep comes eventually, as I dream restlessly of snowing roads and alarm clocks dancing in my head.
Morning does arrive, in spite of myself. Lucy and Zac the dogs stand readied just inside the front door, leashes on, peering into the snowy darkness with me. It looks dauntingly snowy out there.
I open the door. Snow lives! Our porch has been transformed into a mountain of snow. I pull the reluctant dogs into it. Oh, I should have shoveled first—right, I forgot that! Our bodies plow through, snow up to my knees and their shoulders, as we make our way toward the area where steps should be. We cautiously work our way down, onto the fieldstone that is under there somewhere, and onto the unplowed road.
Bastards. Plowman bastards.
Speaking of which, I see the little plow truck making its way toward us in the 6:00 a.m. darkness. I pull the dogs off into the side of the road, hardly distinguishable now. The truck comes next to us.
Passenger window rolled down, a young woman’s voice says “Hi’.
I am strangely surprised that the “bastards” take the form of this young woman and her faceless driver.
“We’re wondering where you want us to put the snow—we’re not sure,” she says.
Oh. It’s that simple? I tell her where the end of the road is, how to plow up to the cones marking our rock garden. She waves and the truck continues down the road, plowing the road in front of the house, the garage, and the end of Oak Road.
I am surprised and relieved.
The Doodles and I continue down the newly plowed road. I shake my head in wonder, last night’s intensity transformed into a silent, snowy morning.
In a few minutes, the truck passes me again. She rolls her window down again.
“Your dogs are so cute.”
“We’ve been up all night plowing the town roads, too. We’ll go home when we’ll done here, we hope,” she says.
I thank them both, tell them to be safe and go home soon.
They wave and continue on, two young people trying to make a living in Berkshire County, I imagine, working their way through the labyrinth of our little community in the breaking light.
I walk into the dawning morning on the newly plowed road, pondering. How could I have been so negative? Why would I so completely dismiss Ras’ perception of the moment? Was it just my anxiety about getting to work that clouded my response? How could I get so riled up?
Thinking the worst about life and the people around me is an ancient emotional pattern of mine. Over the years, I have practiced shifting from it to that of positivity and possibility.
I walk and consider the lesson here.
I know that I choose to continue practicing seeing the best in the people and the things around me. It is how I want to live. It is who I choose to be.
I smile at the perfection of this lesson. Reality, my always-teacher, returns me back to myself, to the realignment of the positive, my intention on this snowy, beautiful dawn.
I continue on.
Opening up the weather website on my computer, I scan at the weekend forecast with wariness. I feel slightly annoyed. Really? Snow? But we have to continue the birthday celebration….but people are meeting us at….. the tickets were expensive…..
A little grrrr emerges in my belly.
I notice that rumble of annoyance and take a breath. A little chuckle replaces the grrrrrr.
Great, if you want to reconnect with your right-sized relationship to reality, notice your attitude toward the weather. Wanting the weather to be different is not an effective life strategy. Truly, whatever will be—will be. Snow or not. Sunshine or not. Simply said, we are not in control.
Not in control, wonderful, I think.
I go about my business of preparing to walk the dogs in the fourteen degree morning darkness. How many layers of clothing can I put on and still be able to walk, I wonder?
Lucy and Zac look up at me from the curled-up comfort of their beds, wondering where it is that I might be going. Post-breakfast, they are aware of the cold and the dark and would prefer to stay put. As would I, too, quite frankly.
That wonderful song from Girl Scout camp flits through my brain. Those Girl Scouts—they really landed it in so many ways. I hum it to myself. It brings a smidgen of relief. What were the words?
“Whether the weather be fair,
Whether the weather be not.
Whether the weather be cold,
Whether the weather be hot.
Whatever the weather,
We’ll weather the weather—
Whether we like it or not!”
Lots of folk wisdom there, huh?
We can’t control it. We might not like it. But we’ll get through it.
Sounds like Living Yoga. Have your feelings. Ride those waves. And yet, when all is said and done, give it up because: something else is determining the outcome here. And it WILL WORK OUT.
I look for the Vaseline-like substance to rub on the dogs’ paws. There has been lots of limping and complaining out there in the cold. And not a lot of peeing and pooping, quite frankly. We’ll see if this MUSHERS Paw Protectors stuff works.
“Come on, let’s go.”
“Come on—cookies on the first step,” I bargain with my sleepy best canine friends. I’ve succumbed to Lucy’s food drive, treating her on the first porch step, an effective bribe to get her moving.
Dog faces awaken at the sound of “cookies”.
A hustle, a bustle, Mushers lanolin on the paws, leashes on the necks—multi-layers on the mom, headlamp on the head, boots on the person, treat-earnestness in the dog-eyes.
We open the door.
Silent. Still. Pitch black. Deeply, deeply freezing.
Lucy gets her fist-step treat. Zac could care less, as he scans the darkness for bunnies.
And off we go.
Weathering the weather.