Day 12. Shelter Cove, on the rugged Northern California coastline.
No cell service. No supermarket. Hardly ever coming within 50 yards of another human, let alone 6 feet.
I’ve tried to unplug from social media, but I admit, in the midst of the most intense and terrifying news cycle of my life, I’m finding digital detox harder than I’d imagined.
Still. I’ve been reading books with paper pages, planning and teaching my online yoga classes, getting some writing done, running along the ocean, doing freelance work. And also trying to take time to just be here now, in this extraordinary place, as a practice unto itself...
Sit with sea lions and deer and look right in their eyes. They stare back with hardly a twitch of earflap or flipper, a shudder of flank -- curious, calm, and willing, so open and unflinching. I’m always the first to break the spell.
Sink down into black pebble beaches and comb fingers through billions of perfect round stones eternally rolled by a section of sea so fierce you can only get near it in a few small protected coves. Pick out tiny bits of sea glass, consider the ocean’s ability to transform our sharp, hazardous, careless flotsam into something smooth and winsome.
At night we invest real time in staring at the horizon. Catch the sunset: golden hour before, precise moment it vanishes below the hard blue line of Pacific, then long denouement—up here, so far north and west, where it’s still light at 10 pm—the subtle shifts in light and color, during a 2-hour day-end event, long straight lines of midnight-cobalt-persimmon-apricot Rothko sky, its edges faintly furred with mist and a drop of whiskey.
Dinner can wait, and does, till 11 pm or later.
When I work with young kids, I often teach postures based on a theme, “On the Farm” or “Things with Wings,” for example.
I decided to get playful with my grown-up classes this week, creating flows inspired by this stunning environment. Exploring the physical and energetic relationship between poses named for things I see here--mountain, tree, dolphin, seal, fish, rock, moon, and of course, sun--consciously allowing the way I move to be informed my surroundings--water, wave, wind.
During one class, I told my fellow yogis about an eerie feeling I sometimes get here deep in the night—something between agoraphobia and claustrophobia—surrounded by nothing but wide-open space of nature. Out over the ocean, into the hills, across unbounded sky. Feeling both unmoored and hemmed-in at the same time.
Nowhere to go.
I wake, gasping for breath, reaching out as if through deep water, feeling suffocated by the completeness of the dark.
Friday evening, we went to the cliffs to watch the waves explode —the rush and rumble and howl of rising tide. The vibrations beneath our feet. Eric showed me, through binoculars, the many starfish clinging to the base of the rocks 50 feet down. Slick, fat purple giants, and smaller, coral-colored cousins, glistening in the sun just above the waterline.
Late-late, Violet and I grabbed blankets and binoculars and cuddled down on the deck to look into the night. Out here there’s no light pollution, and the sky blankets every direction, dropping like a velvet curtain behind the mountains at our backs and meeting the endless expanse of sea in front of us. As you stare up, the blue-black backdrop recedes further and further and the stars come toward you, distinguishing themselves from space. The eyes go in and out of focus, but gradually, in moments, even the white spray of Milky Way begins to discriminate its billions into individual pinholes of ancient light.
Sometimes it’s unnerving to be reminded of your own smallness in the Universe, but lying there, staring, I found it comforting: the heightened sense of all that is out there, beyond the tininess of our aching planet—or might be --myth, mystery, matter...
nereids and perseids, the echo between ocean and sky, two Great Beyonds endlessly mirroring one another, both studded with stars we get only a glimpse of.
I slipped into that trancelike state when you think you’re awake until someone wakes you. When Violet turned over and mumbled, “Mama, we should go in, it’s the middle of the night.”
The next morning as I was practicing some yoga, I remembered a dreamy refrain that had played spontaneously in my head as I drifted off on the deck:
stars above, stars below.
So Sunday morning I taught a class entirely based on stars--the many ways the shape shows up in various postures, the poses named for stars, the arms/legs/head as the five points, the spread of the hand when it’s supporting our weight or stretching up and away. Fold forward, stars below; open upward and face the sky, stars above...
But most importantly, in this time of often smothering darkness—it’s a way to remember the radiance we each emanate when we simply plant our feet, unfurl limbs, uncurl fingers, spread palms wide, expose the heart space, and reach for the light.
This piece is one of a series I'm doing as a volunteer “roving reporter” for my favorite charity,God’s Love We Deliver.
You can read an earlier post here.
Big Love Weekend
The Gift of Wellness
Friday, February 19, 7:09 pm...
After a busy day, a scramble to get dinner on table for kids, three outfit changes, a battle with my hair, and a brisk Citibike ride which ruined my hair, I arrive a few minutes late for Big Love Weekend’s opening ceremony, the Sacred Evening.
The lights are dimmed, and Jase Cannon’s soothing tenor is welcoming everyone, introducing the first event of the evening. A mindfulness meditation is about to begin.
I realize at once I’ve worn the wrong thing. Everyone around me is in yoga clothes and I’m in skinny jeans and a cute jacket. I should know better. Should have gone with outfit number two. Grrr. Foolish vanity.
Oh well, I think, it is what it is. This is my element, even in the wrong pants.
Plunking down on the provided Lululemon yoga mat, I sigh vocally with relief. I’m here.
I sit cross-legged in sukhasana, easy pose, preparing to Dip into Bliss with Donna D’Cruz. I close my eyes and breathe deeply.
Donna’s voice is deep, fluid, resonant; for me it somehow calls to mind Redwood trees. Stillness. There’s no work for you to do, she says. Your breath is the bridge to a calm place inside (or, words to that effect). You have a right to access that peace.
I sit for about two minutes before I begin to fight with myself. The jeans tug at my knees, squeeze my calves. I wonder if my underwear are showing. Or worse. Also I’m seriously wishing I hadn’t shortchanged my stretch session after a run this afternoon; we’ve just started and my hips are already complaining. And then it occurs to me my cellphone might be on. I cringe inside. I won’t look very Zen and yoga teacher-y if I open my eyes and rummage through my purse right now. But what if it rings and blows everyone’s mellow? I crack open one eye, sneak the phone out of my bag and switch it off with as little movement or sound as possible. Adjust jeans. Wiggle around. Switch crossing of legs.
Let go, Donna tells us. Breathe in, breathe out. Let. Go.
It takes a few minutes, but slowly things begin to settle and release. Little itches. Cramping muscles. Jeans. Thoughts still drop in and say hello, but become less insistent. Breathing becomes easier, deeper. I realize I’m not thinking about it anymore, I’m simply a being, breathing, being breathed.
I feel grateful for this moment. This evening. For the whole idea of Big Love, a weekend chock full of wellness activities that also happens to be a big benefit for God’s Love We Deliver. I have no idea what it will actually be, I’m just here to experience it and hopefully say something about it.
The evening continued with a puja, which is a devotional service practiced throughout very diverse Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist traditions, and which has many purposes and meanings. I’m not Hindu, and it was clear there were people of many faiths - or none - present, so some actively participated and some didn’t. But to the extent that the service was about dedicating the weekend to loving service, peace, giving, and holistic wellness, I think it held something meaningful for everyone.
In the end, we were all given rose petals, which are emblematic of God, of divine love, in religious and spiritual traditions throughout the world. Looking at the pink and red petals in my palm, I was reminded of the God’s Love We Deliver logo: an open hand stretched across a bright red heart. It struck me, as it has many times before, that loving service such as this organization offers is indisputably divine. God’s work.
Aya & Tyler then immersed us in a gorgeous Soundbath -- ethereal and grounding, deeply relaxing, a heady lullaby of vocal and instrumental melodies, stirring rhythms and the ringing of singing bowls. Their rich tones vibrate through your whole body and – you must experience it to understand - change your breath and connect you to your soul.
I emerged into the clear, warm-for-February night, and walked home slowly, feeling peaceful, in a place of deep quiet, yet genuinely enjoying the buzz of the city around me.
Saturday was a wonderful whirlwind.
We did boot camp and circuit style workouts with Noah Neiman & Dogpound, where ridiculously buff folks with names like Dennis the Menace and The Beast pushed us through heart pounding, knee buckling High Intensity Intervals. I seemed to be one of exactly two people who showed up to this event solo, so my default workout partner was a charming stranger: a lovely man approximately half my age. I’m happy to say I held my own admirably in ab work, but he throttled me in high-five pushups. (Lesson to self for next year, bring along a girlfriend, preferably older and less fit than I).
We did calming breath work with Kathleen Booker, whose voice and demeanor drip over you like warm honey. It doesn’t have to be hard, she reminded us. We dipped once again into mindfulness meditation bliss with Donna (thank goodness for yoga pants today). Then came 45 minutes of (love-of-my-fitness-life) invigorating Vinyasa (flow) with Modo Yoga.
We laughed and sweated and cheered our way through a half hour of the uproariously fun IntenSATI, which is like –- this is my own description and I mean it in all the best ways -- high-octane aerobics/kickboxing/ Flashdance/yoga with a splash of Julia Cameron and maybe just a pinch of Mama Gena (meaning: embrace your innate creative power and potential) plus the irresistibly encouraging spirit of creator Patricia Moreno.
I devoured the healthy and delectable lunch provided by Gingersnap’s Organic, the God’s Love We Deliver Kitchen, and sponsors such as Powerbar. I humbly confess I drank way more than my share of refreshing coconut water out of real coconuts… at least three… ok five, but don’t judge; all this Love & Wellness makes a girl thirsty. And the 6th one I took after everyone was gone and there were clearly leftovers.
Along the way there were inspiring talks by Terri Cole and others, on living a life of purpose and service. Emmett Findley, whose humor and enthusiasm are always infectious, spoke specifically about the work of GLWD.
We finished the day with another delicious, restful Soundbath…though by that point I definitely required a real bath. I should have worn more deodorant.
At home, after challenging my eight year-old daughter and our 50 year-old houseguest to high-five pushups (the 8 year-old won), I slept like a baby.
Sunday, as I began to write about the experience, I was struck by the recurrence of certain themes, the interplay between concepts and words that kept coming up, how they intersect, overlap and influence each other --
Wellness. Wholeness. Love. Service…
God’s Love We Deliver doesn’t just feed people, but fully, uniquely embodies their belief that food is love. That it’s an enormous part of wellness. That wholesome, nutritious, medically tailored food made with love, packed and delivered by hand with love, brings a feeling of wholeness, of normalcy, of wellness to those living with illness. Over and over it came up this weekend that those who show love by giving, through service, receive in return love exponential. Big love. And that that engenders an incomparable feeling of wellbeing.
All weekend -- riding my bike to and from the events, sitting in mindfulness practice, bathing in sound, doing yoga, jump squatting myself into a lather -- one phrase kept popping into my mind, like a refrain, a mantra:
the gift of wellness.
Almost all my life, I’ve enjoyed not only natural, hearty good health, but also, for the last 15 years, confirmed status as a veritable health nut, in dogged and ecstatic pursuit of holistic wellness. But, out of the blue, a couple years ago I experienced a mysterious bout of un-wellness: five months of chronic deep abdominal pain. This was as bewildering as it was debilitating. Miserable and inexplicable, it robbed me of my energy, leadened my mood. Some days it was akin to an annoying headache; other days I fully took to my bed. Many days, yoga class was my only relief. I had to opt for gentler, less athletic forms, but the sweat and warming muscles, the familiar poses, the focus on the breath helped for that hour. The practice that had always been for me about feeling fantastic (and, lets be honest, looking good in skinny jeans), was now about digging for deeper resources, breathing for calm, praying for help.
And, oh my, I was so very, very lucky. I have a husband who worked hard to understand and help me through it; little kids that loved me extra hard. I was also very fortunate that the root physical cause was discovered relatively quickly and the situation resolved. Almost like it never happened. Except that it did.
All the time it was happening -- as frightened as I was that the situation might be permanent, my new normal -- and then, too, when it went away, I felt profoundly aware that what happened to me was NOTHING compared to what people go through. A lot of people, right here in New York City, have no back up, and are much, much sicker, and don’t magically get better in half a year.
And I understood, at a personal level, some things I hadn’t before.
At times like those, even if you’re lucky enough to have a strong support system -- family, friends, help -- illness is lonely. It makes you feel distant and disconnected, drawn into worry, all your energy and concentration going toward trying to heal. It chafes against your entire identity, your most basic sense of yourself. And I learned that it can happen to anyone at any time – yes, even the most aggressively healthy of us.
I learned that while we often take it for granted, wellness is indeed a gift.
I don’t know Jase Cannon personally, but I’ve followed her blog -- a gorgeously photographed, articulately written, blisteringly honest account of her own journey toward wellness and wholeness. She celebrates her birthday every year, when she might be getting gifts, with conscious giving, a weekend of Big Love -- in name and in action. By hosting a weekend of diverse, challenging and uplifting holistic health-focused activities, she gives the gift of wellness to all who participate.
More importantly, by making the weekend a benefit for God’s Love We Deliver, she is giving the gift of wellness to all those who subsequently receive not only the wholesome, healing food they need, but the comfort of a personal visit. Everyone who worked at the event, or donated goods, taught classes or bought a ticket, volunteers at God’s Love, gets involved in their programs and events, is a part of that.
We came away sweaty and tired, cleansed and refreshed, reinvigorated physically, mentally, spiritually - but most importantly, challenged to be always looking for ways to be of service to others. Big Love Weekend was worthy of its name.
Two days later, I’m still a little sore, and a lot inspired.
Oh, and I think the skinny jeans are a little looser.
You know those kind of annoying humblebrags on social media?
This is not one of them.
This is an all the way full tilt annoying braggety brag.
And just to make it more insufferable, there's a little 3-point dharma lesson at the end.
A weight room full of men. And me. I'm waiting for a smith machine (a barbell on a track). A cute and genuinely friendly guy in his early 20s finishes up on one. I say, "Can I get on that?" He says "It's all yours." The bar is loaded with some pretty big plates (No, I'm not going to say how much weight - that would be so annoying) and the guy goes to unload it and rack his weights. I say, "Oh, you can just leave that." He smiles and says, "Nah, I got it" and winks at me. I smile back and say, "No really, you can leave it. I'm going to use those." He continues like he's going to slide the plates off the bar and says, "You're going to use THESE?" I nod... and smile. He smirks and shrugs and leaves the plates in place but begins to adjust the height of the bar to a position he thinks will suit me. I say, "Uh, thanks, but actually, I need it right where it is." He steps away and kind of shakes his head like I must not have a clue what I'm talking about. He watches me add weight to the bar. He says, "Whoa. Are you stronger than me?" I smile and reply (rather magnanimously, I think we can agree, under the circumstances), "We're probably doing different exercises." (Which, in fairness, we were - he was squatting and I was doing a lying leg press. Details.)
Here are three things (even really cute young) guys should know when working out around women:
1) Do not assume a woman in the weight room needs your assistance. (I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you were just being friendly and helpful, but on the off chance you were being condescending and chauvinistic - don't)
2) Winking belongs at the bar... not the barbell.
This is the big one, and may it be a lesson to us all...
3) Never, ever underestimate a woman the age of your mother.