Let It Begin With Me

Imagine that you are driving down the highway at a decent pace in heavy volume traffic, and some guy in a Mustang cuts you off. Without warning he zips right in front of you, forcing you to depress the brake and slow your pace. Then he speeds ahead, cutting off another car next to you, gets into the left lane and zooms off, weaving all the way.

At the moment that he cuts you off you can scream and shout and lay on your horn. You can give him the finger, and yell a few choice words. You can even speed up, and try to chase the guy down. You can follow him, screaming and honking. You can pull up along side of him, roll down your window and tell him exactly how you feel.

Then you can be pissed off. Huffing and puffing and stewing about how this self-entitled asshole thinks he can go faster than everyone else. When you arrive at your destination, you can talk about it to your friends. You can tell the whole story in dramatic detail. Enraged. Animated. Expressive.

Or, you can just let it go.

Yes, he cut in front of you. That’s over now. He’s 10 car lengths ahead of you and you’ll never see him again. There is no damage done. Go back to singing with the radio. Take the middle way. Practice equanimity.

It’s not easy to get to that place. I have met a few people who seem to be close. I hope to get closer every day. A little less road rage, a little more singing of power ballads. A little less Psycho Mommy, a little more patience. A little less self-righteousness, a little more understanding. A little less fear, anger, hatred and a little more humanity. A little less turmoil and a little more inner peace.

I want to be calm enough and confident enough in my peace, that I can react from that place; a place of equanimity, evenness of temper, and evenness of mind; a state of undisturbed calm.

I’ve come to realize that this may not be everyone’s goal.

A lot of people prefer to be up and down. They need distractions and disturbances. They need struggle, and they need drama. They like to experience extreme joy, and they sometimes look forward to dwelling in deep sadness. They need to stress about the future and they like to indulge in nostalgia. To a lot of people the idea of living a life of undisturbed calm is, quite simply, boring as hell.

People get so used to being a certain way, and reacting to situations in a certain way, that they think those reactions are actually a part of their nature. They believe that it is what people have come to expect of them, and it’s just the way they are, and will always be.

But that isn’t true. We can change our habitual reactions at any time, if we want to. There is more than one way to react to any situation. And the middle way is always there if we want to take it. Our reactions do not have to be extreme. They can arise from a peaceful and undisturbed mind.

The Dalai Lama said:
“The way to develop inner peace through meditation
begins with the recognition that the destroyer of inner peace
is not some external foe, but is within us.
Therefore, the solution is within us too.
However, that inner change does not take place immediately
in the way that we switch on a light,
but takes weeks, months and years.”

A few months ago my quest for inner peace and equanimity led me to a loving-kindness meditation. I began sitting with my breath and repeating these phrases.

May I be well.
May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be loved
May I be free from suffering

I did it every day, a few times a day. Whenever I had a minute or two (literally 60 or 120 seconds on a timer), I sat still, closed my eyes and breathed the words.

The first few times I did it at home, I cried. When a yoga teacher coincidentally made us do it in a class, I cried. And because it made me cry, I knew I had to keep doing it. So I did. I did it until it didn’t make me want to cry anymore.

Then I began to meditate on the people in my life that I love, dedicating my words to one person each time.
May they be well.
May they be happy.
May they be peaceful.
May they be loved.
May they be free from suffering

Without judgment, I noticed my reactions. The words felt different for each person. I think it depended on how much I felt they needed to be wrapped in loving kindness, or on how much relief I thought they might need from their suffering.

And then I began to include other people. While the attendant pumped my gas, I breathed the words for him. While I sat at a red light, I breathed the words for the woman at the bus stop. While I waited in line at CVS I breathed the words for the cashier.

I hope you are well, happy, peaceful, loved, free.

I began to send these thoughts to everyone, all the time.

And then I knew it was time to send it out to some other people. Those who try my patience, aggravate me, frustrate me. Those people I “have nothing against”, but on whom I would rather not spend any time or energy.  I began to wish them wellness, happiness, peace, love, freedom from suffering. And I noticed, without judgment the way that it made me feel. (It ain’t always easy.)

It is relatively easy to make a sweeping statement about peace in the world. It is easy for me to generalize and say, I wish the whole world were free from suffering. I can wish love and peace and wellness to everyone.

May all beings be happy and free. Easy, right?

It’s what we all wish for. Isn’t it? Who doesn’t want peace on earth?

Hmmm…? Peace to everyone implies peace to Every. Single. One. Even the speed demon on the highway. Even the people we hate. Even the people who have insulted us. Wronged us. Abused us. Traumatized us. Scarred us. Even the people we think we will never forgive.

We have to say the words for those people. Well, happy, peaceful, loved, free. Noticing without judgment, how it feels to say those words for them. Maybe it will feel awful. Maybe it will feel like an absolute lie. Maybe it will begin to soften. Maybe it will begin to release us from our own suffering. Maybe we will absolutely refuse to do it.

Before we can wish it for the entire world, we have to take these steps. Before we let the easy words “Let there be peace on earth” roll off our tongues, we have to do some work.

It starts with me. I want inner peace. To get it I must be well, happy, loved, peaceful, free from suffering. Until I release the hatred for my enemies, forgive those who have wronged me, I can’t be truly free from my own suffering. If I cling to my anger and my habitual reactions, if I lose my evenness of temper and of mind, then I am the one who suffers. Then I’m not yet at peace.

If we don’t project loving kindness, that guy in the Mustang is happily belting out “Born to Run” with his windows rolled down while we’re left to stew in our own silent Subarus.

So let’s turn the radio up and wish him wellness, happiness, peace, love and freedom. And then we can have all of that too, and bring it to the rest of our world.

Isn’t that what we all wish for? Who doesn’t want world peace?

I hope you are well, happy, peaceful, loved, and free.

 

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What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding?

 

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go your own way

(for Trinity, who might do a handstand along the way, or might not)

Everyone moves at their own pace

No time is ever wasted

Some press through the stream  to the other side
Some bend down to touch it, taste it
Some forge through the woods with machete in hand
Some stop to wrestle with demons
Some keep their eyes turned to the ground
Some marvel at the changing seasons 
Some start out early, before first light 
Others take time to get going
Some float along without a plan
And some insist on knowing
How long will it take? And when will it end? 
A year? A week? A day? 
There ‘s no timed map for this here trail 
Your path is your only way
Some trip and rise a thousands times
Some are too afraid to fall
Some sit cross-legged or cross-armed
And never move at all
Some hear voices in their heads
And let them drift along like clouds 
Some hear the voices of others,
Then raise their fists and rage out loud 
Some stick close to the trail markers 
Some meander through the brush
Some sing songs and march in cadence
Some get lost in nature’s hush
Some like to travel in packs
afraid to be alone 
Some need to hold another’s hand
Some prefer to walk alone 
Some try to slow you with distractions,
Or force you into line
Some tell you to move faster
They say you’re wasting time.
But you alone must set your pace 
No time on this path is wasted
Each rose is yours to stop and smell
Each demon yours, til you’ve faced it 
Moving, breathing all the while, 
Walk, skip, fly, swim the sea.
Be brave, be fearful, be weak, be strong, 
Or choose to simply be. 
They might seem far ahead of you
Or behind? It’s hard to tell
All paths are intersecting and 
All paths are parallel
Take whatever time you need to take
You will end right where you started
Ready to walk the path again
Clear headed and open hearted 
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What’s the Story, Morning Glory?

Over and over, day after day, we tell ourselves our life story. Rereading sentences paragraphs, chapters. Repeating words that were written years ago. Retelling it from the beginning, time and time again, until we become our story.

We become the story we have been telling ourselves for so long. But the story may not be true.

Sure, there is some truth to it, but is it completely accurate? How old were you when you wrote those pages? What did you even know then? Was it a story someone else told you about yourself?  How has it been colored over time?  Why do you still believe it? How can you trust that it is true?  Are you really a reliable narrator?

What if you just stop telling that story?  Who would you be, if you stopped telling yourself the story over and over?    Who could you become if you started living in the moment and stopped living in your story?
If you stop telling yourself to hold on to the past, could you release it?
If you stop telling yourself that you were wronged, could you forgive?
If you stop telling yourself that you’re neurotic could you relax?
If you stop telling yourself you’re afraid of heights, could you climb that mountain?
If you stop telling yourself you’re an insomniac, could you sleep through the night?
If you stop telling yourself you are ostracized, could you be embraced?
If you stop telling yourself you are addicted could you give it up?
If you stop telling yourself you were victimized could you be victorious?
If you stop telling yourself you can’t live without it, could you do without?
If you stop telling yourself you’re a pessimist, could you see the bright side?
If you stop telling yourself you’re an introvert could you blossom?
If you stop telling yourself you always lose, could you finally win?
If you stop telling yourself you don’t like exercise could you start to move?
If you stop telling yourself you have no willpower could you succeed this time?
If you stop telling yourself you’re hungry, could you be full?
If you stop telling yourself you have to do it, could you stop?
If you stop telling yourself you’re unlovable could you be loved?
If you stop telling yourself you can’t do it, could you find a way?
If you stop telling yourself you’re unworthy, could you find worth?
If you stop telling yourself you’re short-tempered, could you react calmly?
If you stop telling yourself you’re alone, could you find community?
If you stop telling yourself things never go your way, could you turn it around?
If you stop telling yourself you are stubborn, could you let go?
If you stop telling yourself you make bad choices, could you choose wisely?
If you stop telling yourself you’re broken, could you be repaired?
If you stop telling yourself you’re ugly, could you see the beauty?
If you stop telling yourself you’ve been wronged, could you make things right?
If you stop telling yourself you’re damaged, could you find peace?Try it.  Just stop.

Start living in this moment.  Stop living in your stories.

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Fill in the blanks. If I stopped telling myself __________, I could ______________.

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Play Dead, Save a Prayer

When I was very young, some obviously sadistic member of my family taught me a bedtime prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Tell me. Please. What the hell kind of prayer is this to teach to a small child?

Later on I learned that there were other much nicer versions of this prayer. Versions without the dying and the soul taking.  By then it was too late, though. The damage had been done.

I said this prayer every night before bed.  After just a few days I started to think… Die before I wake?!  And then I would actually lie awake wondering if I was going to die. It became a tangible fear. Will it be tonight?  Am I going to die tonight? Oh, God I hope it’s not tonight.

I should have given up on that damned prayer.  But I was three!  What did I know?   Instead of giving up on it I started to us it as a magic spell.   I thought that if I said it I would be protected.  I would be good for another day of life.  If I forgot, then surely that would be the night I died.

This ritual stayed with me for a very long time.  On mornings when I woke up and realized I hadn’t prayed the night before, I would consider that as a gift. A miracle! Whew.  I made it.  He must’ve been busy listening to other kids last night.  

I became obsessed with the idea that either I or someone I knew would definitely be dying in their sleep. It must happen all of the time, right?  Or else why would I have to say a prayer to keep it from happening? So my prayer grew to include everyone I knew. A long list of people that should not be taken in their sleep.

When my grandfather would nap on the couch I would watch his chest rising and falling to make sure he wasn’t dead.  When I woke up in the middle of the night to go to bathroom I would check to make sure my parents were still alive.  When I was eight years old my great-grandmother died while I was away at church camp.  I wondered if I had remembered to say my prayers that night.

Ten years later, nighttime got really scary for me.   My dad was battling cancer.  I would spend my nights lying awake, trying to tune my ears in to his breathing in the other room, to make sure he hadn’t died.  During the day when he slept in the reclining chair I was back to my old pastime of watching the rise and fall of someone else’s chest.   And if I couldn’t see him moving I would make sudden noises to startle him awake.
“What?” he would say as he rolled his eyes open and looked my way.
“Nothing. Sorry. Go back to sleep.” I’d reply.

There was a good six month chunk of time when I only slept an hour or two a night.  I was exhausted. I was prone to crying jags and panic attacks when I wasn’t writing morose poems or drinking beer.

I was in a lecture hall one morning and the professor had gone off on a tangent about near death experiences, walking toward the light, that sort of thing.  I was about to get up and leave because I felt the panic rising up from my center. But I forced myself to sit in the giant lecture hall, shaking my leg nervously and chewing my cuticles as the walls closed in around me.  The professor then said “Why do we have to be so concerned with death? It’s gonna be just like it was before we were born. And that couldn’t have been too bad. Or we’d remember it, wouldn’t we?”

I went home that night, and I slept soundly. Ahhhh.

I wasn’t completely cured, though. Through the years I would still have occasional moments of sheer terror when I would think about dying. Especially immediately after my girls were born. Maybe some of that was hormone induced, but some of that fear is still living deep in my brain.  It has been there for too long to move out completely.

Needless to say, my girls were co-sleepers, because I would have been standing at their cribs with a mirror under their noses every fifteen minutes.

There was a time when writing this would have sent me into a cold sweat and heart palpitations. But I have noticed that lately, I can have actual conversations about death without panicking. Sure I might cry, but I won’t panic. I will get sad for the people I love that have died. I will also get sad if I think of the things I might miss, but I don’t panic any more.

Maybe it was just a matter of time before I learned to deal with my anxiety? Maybe it’s because of a healthier lifestyle and less sleep deprivation.

Maybe it’s because of yoga?

Every time we take a yoga class we act out the drama of human existence on our mats. There are moments of yin and moments of yang. We sweat and we breathe.  We come to terms with what our bodies can and cannot do. We come to terms with the control or lack of control we have over our thoughts. All the while, our subconscious is aware of that final resting pose. Savasana. Corpse Pose.

As we move and breathe and flow, something waits for us at the end. Playing dead. My yoga mat becomes a casket.  I am a corpse. And I haven’t been dreading this pose. Not at all.  I have actually been looking forward to it.

I practice being dead a few times a week, and somehow this has been sinking into my subconscious. There is a new groove being carved into the record that is my brain.   I have been teaching myself a new prayer.

Now I lie me down to rest.
This is the pose that I like best.
Nothing but breath flowing in and out.
This is what life is all about.

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Play Dead by Bjork

Save a Prayer by Duran Duran

 

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Crystal Blue Persuasion

I have a vivid memory of a beautiful spring day when I was 6 or 7 years old.  I was lying on the grass in my back yard looking up.   It was a warm day.  My dad was washing the car in the driveway and music was playing from a transistor radio.  The grass beneath me was thick and full.  It was dry, but the ground underneath was just damp enough to be cool on my back.   The sky was perfectly clear.  Not a cloud.  A few moments of crystal blue emptiness as far as I could see.

Then all of a sudden I saw something moving across the sky. It was small.  Tiny. And round. It was very very high up in the sky.  Maybe it was a balloon that someone had let go?  Or a spaceship?    I followed it for as long as I could without blinking.  And then when I did blink, it moved back to where I had originally seen it. I followed it again.

And again, when I blinked, it moved back to its original spot.  Each time I followed it, and each time, it kept moving back.  What was it?  Up there in the sky? Dancing around?  I had to find out.

I got up and walked over to my dad.   I told him that there was something up in the sky. He looked up and didn’t see it. “Where? I don’t see anything.”
“There it is!” I said as I pointed, ‘”and it keeps moving back and forth,” I motioned with my fingers.
“Ohhh,” he said knowingly, “It’s a floater”.
“A floater?”
I imagined people sitting on a giant beach raft, way up high in the sky. Laughing and floating through the air. But that couldn’t be what it was? Could it?
“What’s a floater?” I asked.
“It’s inside of your eye.”
“Inside my eye!?”  I was a little bit scared. “Can you get it out?”  I asked him, as I tilted my head toward him and opened my eyes as wide as I could.
“No, it doesn’t come out.  It’s fine. Everyone has them.  It’s nothing to worry about. You’ll learn to ignore them,” he said, as he returned to drawing his Turtle Wax circles on the car.

For the next few days I was obsessed with my floater.  My little round dot that I saw everywhere. I followed it around until I got a headache.  But after a week or so, I didn’t notice it as much.  There would be long periods of time when I was busy and I didn’t even think about the floater.    But if I looked at a blank surface it popped back up and then I couldn’t see any thing else. Then I could not stop seeing it. So I followed it again, spending my time playing a game of Catch The Floater.

Of course, in time I almost completely forgot about that floater.  Until a new one showed up a bunch of years later.  For a few weeks I bounced the two of them around on blank walls like a game of Pong.

We all have our floaters.  If we look past them into the open space in front of us, if we look out beyond our selves, we don’t see them.  But if we narrow our focus, they will get in the way of the other things we are trying to see.

So we live our lives looking out past the floaters.  And when we come face to face with a blank page or an open sky, we see them again.

Similarly, as soon as we try to stop thinking, as soon as we try to make our minds a clear blank space, our thoughts come floating in.  We try to sit quietly, to meditate, and we get frustrated and distracted by the floating thoughts.

Those thoughts are playing in our head all of the time, like music coming from other rooms.  We don’t hear them when we’re busy with things.  But as soon as we settle down, the volume gets turned up.  And just like the floaters in our eyes, they don’t pass by one at a time, they come all at once, and from every different direction.

But, just like the floaters, we don’t have to worry about them.  Everyone has them.  We just have to learn to ignore them.  Eventually, we won’t hear them.  We will be able to see out beyond them.  We will be able to clear our minds.  Crystal blue emptiness.  If only for a few moments at a time.

 

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Crystal Blue Persuasion  Tommy James and the Shondells

 

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Nothing Compares

I don’t usually spend time standing naked in front of a full length mirror.   But earlier this week, I found myself stepping out of a shower into the harsh fluorescent lighting of a hotel bathroom.  And coming face to face with me.  All of me.

One moment I was singing in the shower, the warm water gently falling over me, happily looking forward to the day with my family, and the next I was visually assaulted by the pale, middle-aged woman looking straight at me.  Who the hell is that?

As I averted my eyes and reached for the towels I could feel the monkey stirring in my brain.  And I decided right then to intercept him.   I redirected my thoughts to something that I say to people near the end of every yoga class I teach: “Take a moment now to be grateful.  For your body and your breath.” And that is exactly what I did. I looked that pale old lady right in the eyes and took a moment to be grateful.

Go on, monkey,  I thought. Gimme all you got.  Tell me about the cellulite. The wrinkles. The spider veins. Tell me all about the effects of time and gravity and complex carbohydrates.  I don’t care what you have to say today.   Today I am coming strictly from a place of gratitude. I am grateful for this body that gets me through this life. That is all.  You can’t bother me today.

If I stay in this moment, this present moment of gratitude, I know I can be satisfied with things just they way they are.   But if I slip out of the present moment I will lose my happiness. Because as soon as I slip out of this moment, comparison will creep in.  And as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I can stand here and simply be grateful for this amazing machine that allows me to travel through this world, or I can allow my joy to be stolen.  As soon as I compare my body to the bodies I see on all sorts of screens, mine won’t be so amazing any more.   And if I start to compare this current body to the one I had twenty years ago, or ten, or even three, this one won’t be as good.   I will find one flaw after another.

Sure, I can compare myself to someone whose body is much older, much more wrinkled, much less fit, but then I am silently stealing their joy.  This life is not a competition.  The one who dies with the best thighs doesn’t win a single thing.

I recently read the book Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr. It is about, among other things,  competitive yoga.   From the beginning I thought that I would be aggravated by the book.  In my mind, “competitive yoga” is an oxymoron.   The mat is not a place for ego or competition. The mat is a place where I can be present in the moment and let go of all judgment because judgment causes suffering.

Competition requires comparison, and comparison is always followed by judgment.

My mat is no place for comparison.  I can be on the mat in a pose, connected to my breath, feeling absolutely amazing.  Then I look up and catch a glimpse of that gorgeous thin ex-dancer.  Her pose is all twisty and bendy and beautiful. And all of a sudden I no longer feel amazing. I feel awkward, extra-curvy and lumpy.  Joy stolen.

So, I can look around the room and find someone else. Someone less flexible than I am. Someone who looks like they are struggling.  I can compare myself to them so that I can feel better about my pose. And I can steal their joy.

I don’t want to steal anyone’s joy.

I teach yoga to all sorts of people; kindergarteners who have no idea what personal space is, seniors who have never been on a mat before in their lives and have a hard time balancing, yoga teachers who can bust out handstands anytime anyplace.  I never judge their practices as good or bad, but I always hope they can find some joy on their mats.

I am just happy that they come to class.  I am just happy that I have the chance to share something I love with them.   And it is this pale, lumpy, middle-aged body that allows me to share my joy.

And that is beyond compare.

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Nothing Compares 2U

Joy to the World

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…Or Try Again Tomorrow

Every day of my life, at least twice a day, I brush my teeth. I open the medicine cabinet and take out the toothpaste. Then I take my toothbrush out of the holder, and I begin the process.

About three months ago, we started buying a new kind of toothpaste. The tube stands up on its own. So it’s not in the medicine cabinet any more. It’s out on the vanity, standing there, in plain view.

For the first few days with the new toothpaste, I opened the cabinet, looked for the tube, and then I remembered it wasn’t there any more.

“Oh, right.” I said to myself.

Now it’s three months later and every day, at least twice a day, I still open the cabinet door. And just as I open it, I stop myself.

“Oh, right.” I say as I close the cabinet.

Every day. Twice a day. Sometimes three. Every single day.

Each time, just after I open the door, just before I reach in for it, I remember that it’s not there. Sometimes I laugh out loud. Sometimes I curse myself. Sometimes I sigh.

And each time, while I brush my teeth, I wonder how long it will take until I unlearn this routine? How long will it take before my brain realizes that I don’t have to do this any more? How long before I let go of this habit that isn’t serving me? And if I can’t easily let go of this simple thing, how can I let go of bigger, more significant habits?

Letting go of habits for the month of February brings with it a heightened awareness of all sorts of things.

I’m not eating bread. And the other day when I was making sandwiches for the girls’ lunches I instinctively scooped out the insides of the hard rolls to make room for the sandwich stuff. I was about to roll that handful of bread into a ball and pop it into my mouth.

I am a mindless bread eater!

Since I have forbid myself from bread this month, I didn’t eat it. I am hoping that I can break this habit altogether, and not do it ever again after February.

But one month may not be long enough. I’m still opening the freakin’ medicine cabinet after three months.

Our habits, our routines, the things we do every single day, make pathways in our brains. These pathways are like marked trails in the woods. If we keep walking on them day after day the traveling is easy. If we stop walking on them for a while, things will slowly start to grow there, making the travel more difficult. If we don’t go back to them at all for a while, they will become so overgrown that we can’t possibly walk on them again.

But how long does it take before the trail is so overgrown that it becomes a part of the woods again?

Sometimes when I’m in the kitchen and I’m in a groove, frying, stirring, chopping, moving around the room, I open up the drawer next to the stove to get a knife.  Then I remember that we don’t keep knives in that drawer any more. The knives have been in the other drawer for about five years now. When I first moved them, I still opened this drawer every single day. But now it only happens on a rare occasion and when it does, I am completely surprised by it.

I’m surprised that after five years the movement is still there in my muscle memory. The trail is still there under the growth.

I know that if I were to move the knives back there right now, it would only be a matter of days before I was walking down that old familiar trail again. I know this, because I have reopened overgrown trails before.

For years I was addicted to cigarettes. I quit many times, and each time it was a trigger that brought me back. One of my triggers was the telephone. I wouldn’t even pick up the phone until I knew where the cigarettes and matches were. I couldn’t have a phone conversation without a cigarette.

After I quit smoking, the pathway was still there. Every time the phone rang I craved a cigarette. Pavlov would be very pleased with himself. This went on for a very long time. But it doesn’t happen any more. Not ever. Phone and cigarette are no longer connected in my brain. That trail is covered over.

Oh, believe me, the trail markers are still there somewhere. I know that I could chop down the growth with a machete some day if I really felt the need to. Because I have done that before. Several times. I really hope I don’t do that again. It took a long time, and a few tries to successfully grow brush on that trail. It wasn’t easy.

And then there are trails that slowly, easily cover themselves over while we aren’t looking.

We bought our house 20 years ago. Any time that anything in the house broke I would always call my dad before I did anything else. I’d seek out his advice or ask him to come over and take a look at it.  For many years after he died I still wanted to call him each time something happened.

The other day when it was 12 degrees outside and we had no heat in the house I didn’t think about calling him.

Later in the day I realized that I hadn’t immediately thought of him. I was a little sad to admit that after ten years this particular trail had been covered over. A broken boiler and a call to my dad are no longer connected in my brain.  But I can look back lovingly, knowing a trail used to be there.  I can turn down another trail that will still get me to fond memories of him.  That took ten years.

Tonight before I go to bed, I hope I can stop in my tracks before brushing my teeth so I don’t open the cabinet door.

But if I forget, if I slip up, I’ll try again tomorrow.

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Jane Says.  Try again tomorrow

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