The museum of the too-good-to-use.

“My mother had a collection of old lace, which was famous among her friends, and a few fragments of it still remain to me, piously pinned up in the indigo-blue paper supposed (I have never known why) to be necessary to the preservation of fine lace.  But the yards are few, alas; for true to my conviction that what was made to be used should be used, and not locked up, I have outlived many and many a yard of noble point de Milan, of stately Venetian point, of shadowy Mechline, and of exquisitely flowered point de Paris, not to speak of the delicate Valiencennes which ruffled the tiny handkerchiefs and incrusted and edged the elaborate lingerie of my youth. Nor do I regret having worn out what was meant to be worn out. I know few sadder sights than museum collections of those Arachne-webs that were designed to borrow life and color from the nearness of young flesh and blood. Museums are cemeteries, as unavoidable, no doubt, as the other kind, but just as unrelated to the living beauty of what we have loved.” – Edith Wharton, “A Little Girl’s New York” (Harper’s Magazine, 1938).

From the Lace Museum of Venice (

From the Lace Museum of Venice (

Setting my table for a dinner party recently, I opened the drawer of the buffet where the tablecloths live: a white feather-patterned damask, a very old lace cloth (from my maternal great-grandmother, I think), and more.  I reached for one but hesitated:  are you sure you want to use this? whispered some interior voice.  What if wine spills on it? What if it gets ripped? Since it’s survived so many years already, could you handle the guilt if it doesn’t survive you?  I argued with myself about this but didn’t win.  The tablecloth stayed in the drawer.

However, as always, I did bring out my grandmother’s china — a Renaissance-ish-floral-bordered pattern I’ve adored since I was a little girl, staring up at it ensconced in its glass-doored cabinet — and the wineglasses that had come to me, through her, from my great-grandmother.  “You remind me of her,” my grandmother always told me.  “I know she would want you to have these, and enjoy them.” I remember her urging me to do that.  “Don’t be like me,” she said, “having nice things and never using them, ‘saving them for later.'”  She gave me her mother’s rings and cameo, too.  She would have loved you.  You remind me of her.

I have hosted many a dinner on that china, and enjoyed it without guilt.  Not so the one time I wore my great-grandmother’s ring — three small opals on a thin band — out of the house and, looking down, saw that a sliver had chipped out of one stone.  I had been taking care.  Opals are just soft, anyway.  My grandmother had urged me to wear that ring.  But I was inconsolable.  Even repeating her words to me — have them, use them, enjoy them, she would want that — didn’t help.  This was entrusted to you, and you ruined it.  Isn’t that the reproach we most fear from our ancestors, that particular sharp shame?  That little chip isn’t noticeable to anyone but me.  But I’ve been scared to wear that ring ever since.

Yet the alternative to use and its dangers isn’t really any better — immuring ourselves in museums of fearfully preserved objects that in a way become even “deader” than Edith Wharton’s museums, because they are seen and used and enjoyed by nobody but us.  Buying rooms full of glossy new things (and then hissing at everyone who comes in your house to stay off the furniture) is even worse.  Looking at the lists of items in estate sales in the newspaper every week is looking the passage of time in the face, sadly realizing that as much as the hand wringer or those stoneware crocks or those porcelain figurines might have meant to the one who gathered them, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing to the ones who follow: one person’s treasure collection is another person’s how will we ever get this house cleaned out when she’s gone?  It’s not a bad way to keep stuff-accumulating-impulses in check: what, if anything, will my descendants do with this? What meaning will they make of it?

Memory sticks to things, but it must also float free of them to be alive, to make a thing (and the memory) more than a static object of worship.  Laurel McKelva Hand of Eudora Welty’s novel The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), confronts this when she returns to her father’s house to find that a breadboard her late husband made by hand as a gift for her late mother has been ruined by her father’s careless young widow, Fay, who’s scornful of it as “just an old thing.”  Significantly placed at the end of the novel, it’s a startling scene to read – especially if you like old things as much as I do.  But Welty’s closing words echo beyond the book, into every moment in which you touch an object and remember the one who gave it to you:

“The past is […] impervious, and can never be awakened.  It is memory that is the somnambulist.  It will come back in its wounds from across the world… calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears.  It will never be impervious…. As long as it’s vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due.” 

“Laying the breadboard down on the table where it belonged,” Laurel thinks: “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.”  We can care for our inherited things and our treasured possessions without being bound by them, without being terrified of the loss and breakage that is inherent to the passage of time in this world.  That’s the challenge, but, when we find it, a gift.

And as my friends and I sat around my grandmother’s table, in her chairs, eating and drinking from her china and glassware, laughing and talking for hours, I thought of her and knew she’d be glad we were enjoying her things together.  That’s another gift of memory, and of the present moment in which we let that memory come to life again.

Posted in home, spirit, stuff, the past | 1 Comment

Ownlife vs. Internet?

“…at the same time I felt so strongly the pull of another thing, a thing having to do with music, freedom, the future, individuality.  This is an important reason why I became a writer, I think, for in everything I write, I am seeking freedom, which to me is a state that is inaccessible to the gaze of others.  And this state, which is not only shameless but also selfless, is not unlike a child’s way of being in the world.” – Karl Ove Knausgaard, qtd in Harper’s Dec. 2014

The strange case of Alex Lee hit the New York Times this week.  A snapshot of Alex, a sixteen-year-old Texas Target clerk, posted on Twitter (without his knowledge or consent), has already led to an Internet sensation, an appearance on “Ellen,” and the usual general fifteen minutes of puffery.  And — this being the Internet — it’s also led to death threats and the release of his family’s personal information online.  What on earth? Why would anyone threaten a boy and his family just because another teenager posted his picture?  Well, probably just because they can.  Which leaves us — again — confronting the dark side of the Internet, and what (not only who) it endangers.

Alex and his family have had their privacy shredded (although, to be fair, they did go on “Ellen,”) all because of a stranger’s Twitter-enabled whim.  But then, the Internet excels at subjecting us, without our consent, to strangers’ whims and bad decisions.  When the link between thought and action, person and person-with-a-grudge, desire and “fame,” can be so dramatically shortened by the medium, and when law and ethics (as is the case with any technology) lag so far behind in addressing and analyzing these connections, we should be concerned.  Especially considering, the swamp of online threats against feminist video-game critics and other outspoken women, it’s worth being wary of how instant access to information turns into access to us.  Rebecca Solnit has just written a great piece on this in Harper’s, issuing a warning to the tech-prophets seeking tech-profits via a 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial :

“If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens even while walking, driving, eating, in the company of friends and family — all of them eternally elsewhere. Apple’s iPhones will make their users trackable at all times unless they take unadvertised measures to disable that feature. They will be part of the rise of the Internet, which will savage privacy, break down journalism as we know it, and create elaborate justifications for never paying artists or writers — an Internet that will be an endless soup of grim porn and mean-spirited chat and rumor and trolling and new ways to buy things we don’t need while failing to make the contact we do need.”

The Internet has shortened the distance between impulse and fulfillment but widened the distance between us, reversing the mature moral order of being in the world, in which (ideally) action should follow reflection and we should take others as seriously as we take ourselves.  (Yeah, that’s why I said “ideal.”)  Even as we succumb to the impulse to tweet the picture of the cute boy or snap a picture of a stranger, we’re not really thinking about him as a person, as a human subjectivity who’s as real to himself as we are.  He’s just a shadow, a simulacrum, an image, a ghost.  On political comment boards or news websites, he’s The Other, The Enemy, The Opponent, He Who Must Be Flamed/Smacked Down/Shamed.  And if that doesn’t work, pull out a threat of violence, or if “He” is a woman, rape.  “He” is so far away.  And, after all, “He” is less real than you are, with your needs and your insecurities and your own desire to make an impression on the world that seems so close and yet so far away.  “He” doesn’t have a family or a job, doesn’t feel pain or fear, has no life beyond the screen.

The irony of using a blog to talk about the Internet doesn’t escape me.  Even as a college professor writing a book about reclaiming our attentiveness in a distracted world, skeptical of smartphones and Twitter (neither of which I have), I still use email and online course platforms every day.  Yet I’m hoping that the presence of ethical users can keep the Internet trading good ideas, too, helping to sustain our own dignity in a world that’s always whittling the human down to the mechanical.  In his “Principles of Newspeak” appendix to Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell traces the link between complexity of language, nuance of thought, and plenitude of the self.  Party members in his fictional “Ingsoc” state speak an oversimplified argot called “Newspeak,” which makes some ideas (conveniently for those in power) impossible to imagine: “There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond [one’s] power to commit,” Orwell writes, “simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.” His hero Winston Smith notes that

In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed.  It was assumed that when he was not working, eating or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.  There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentrity.

For Orwell, Ownlife is the site of resistance to all that would colonize, commodify, or subject humanity.  Ownlife is where reflection lives, and consideration for others as well as oneself, and the realization that you and your present concerns are not all there is to the world.  It’s what we sink into when we experience an unmediated moment of joy, without a selfie to capture it, or freeze in wonder as a comet hurtles across the sky.  It’s where we don’t have to explain ourselves to anyone, where our identity doesn’t rest on anyone’s opinions.  It’s where we are alone, whether we like it or not.  It’s what we escape when we fill the minutes between things, thumbing our phones.  It’s not profitable.  It’s dignified and quiet, if we let it be.  And it’s what’s endangered if someone photographs us (and circulates that image) without our consent.  Which is why it’s worth protecting — legally as well as morally — in order to protect our own humanity.

I’m thinking less about celebrities or figures who step knowingly into the Internet spotlight than about the private citizens who may find themselves on the wrong end of Internet image-alienation without quite knowing how.  Media law already provides degrees of redress for private and public citizens seeking to retain control of their own “image and likeness,” yet every day, a new conundrum — from Facebook’s ownership of all your personal posted images to an old mistake following you around for years until you plead for “the right to be forgotten” — shows how far behind reality the law actually is.  Will it ever catch up with the way the Internet alienates image of person from person, likeness from reality, simulacrum from object, and then sends those unhooked images, thin as playing cards, around the world for years to serve the needs of (and make money for) people the original person will never meet, contributing “content” that swells the coffers of corporations who will never pay us for what is, technically, our own information?  (Read Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns The Future for more on this.)

Despite having grown up in a world in which omnipresent smartphones (and smartphone photos and videos) are “normal,” many of my college students haven’t quite thought about how Snapchatting can go wrong.  Some have heard of the Jennifer Lawrence hack, but few have realized her private photos, shared privately, had been stolen out of the “cloud” – in which all our supposedly “private” content rests – which means the same thing could happen to any of them.  Some students offer versions of many people’s responses to Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I worry about surveillance? I don’t have anything to hide.”  Yet this point of view ignores the reality of how a theft of image and likeness does echo “primitive” peoples’ stereotypical fear of cameras: that box that captures your picture also steals your soul.   And it does look very much like soul-stealing, once your image gets alienated from you and bent to other ends, in ways that can follow you around the Net for the rest of your life.  Especially when that endangers your Orwellian ownlife, in which the dignity of a private self is its own end and reward — not to mention when, as in the threats against Alex, the dangers are literal.

So what can we do? Well, first of all, we can do our part to be ethical on the Net, brightening and enriching the communities of which we are members.  We can investigate tools like, Ghostery, and other online management techniques for blocking trackers and avoiding dissemination of private information without our knowledge. (Searching for your own name plus the names of towns in which you’ve lived can be very revealing.)  We can avoid feeding the Facebook beast beyond the point of reasonable social or professional use (particularly with images of ourselves we wouldn’t want, say, parents or employers to see — students, I’m talking to you.)  But most of all we can cultivate in ourselves the habits of attention, mindfulness, and quiet, without the Internet, that cultivate our Ownlife — that irreplaceable thing that we can choose every day to protect or to give away.

** Updates (Nov. 19):

Reasons to be concerned about this if you are a parent:

And reasons to be concerned if you are a teacher or professor:

Posted in attention, corporations, technology | 3 Comments

Harpooning the comet.

photo from a comet

View of a comet’s surface: from the European Space Agency’s photoset at

Struggling to absorb the wondrousness of Philae, the observatory device shot into space this week to stick to and photograph a comet, I can only fasten on the verb: harpooning.  It’s a suitable invocation of an attempt to fasten ourselves to mystery, to the curved back of the large beast hurtling past our limited world and away into its limitless own.  Melville would approve.

Except the harpoon didn’t catch. The device bounced, for 2 hours, while “the comet rotated beneath it.” Wow.  One scientist’s words I heard were appropriate: even not getting this right, he said [I’m paraphrasing], is not a failure in the grand scheme of things.  Because they tried.  As artists, and voyagers, and scientists, and humans in general always do and always have.  We try.  Philae itself (not file, where my Southern brain first went) is named after an ancient device of decoding and knowing, one stone used to read another.  We want to know.  That’s our joy and our curse.  We want to know.

Preparing to descend again into the work against Keystone XL in the wake of the midterm elections, I’m thinking of how we can continue to fight the casual, use-value approach to the world that has led us to pollute our own planet and think seriously, in some quarters, of colonizing others.  Let the awe of the Philae launch and the photos it’s sending back – humanity’s first sight of a comet close up — sober us into a realization of our own place in the stream of time and the great ocean of the galaxy, so small, so small.  Let it humble and dazzle us, in the way Melville’s Ishmael would recognize, gazing from his small boat into the eye of the whale-calf gazing back from its own unknowable world.  Let it redirect our gaze on all that is already around us as well as all that lies beyond the realm of our sight, all that is out there in the galaxy where human plans and narratives and self-importance mean less than nothing.

There are not only images but sound recordings from Philae too.  And now we can hear a comet sing.

Tonight, trudging through the bitter cold to my car from another meeting, through the fog of work and general First World pseudoproblems, I saw something hurl through the air above a streetlight, so bright and large it looked like somebody had set a soccer ball on fire and tossed it off the roof of the nearby dorm.  But it was a shooting star – fierce, shaggy, spark-scattering, pale orange at the edges, hurtling across the sky long enough to freeze me in place, registering all of this in wonder and shock.  I thought belatedly of the plans and hopes I’d been turning over in my mind at that moment and hoped that star was some sort of blessing, like the Ancient Mariner with his water-snakes, that would be more real for being unexpected and unlooked-for.  But then I let that thought go.  No need to harpoon the comet.  Just let it be what it is, burning itself onward, glorious and not unseen.



Posted in attention, mystery, technology | 3 Comments

The October garden.

oct2014 099It’s late October, getting on for evening, and in a backyard chair, wrapped against the chill, I find the same rare spot of unexpected contentment I find on my favorite path in the woods, at the place where the trees arch in a denser ceiling over the trail, swept sideways by the winds that blow down the hill day after day for years. The seasons shape our growth as well, in just that way – reshaping us where we stand and where we move.

Here in the little garden, what’s left clinging to vines or ground is either not harvested yet or probably isn’t going to be. October brings a reckoning of time, of returns on investment and love, promises kept or not, faithful soil still yielding up (although a little more depleted this year, got to pony up and get a couple truckloads of the really good compost next spring.) Grapevines and honeysuckle vines are dying back yellow-green. Lily stalks and wildflowers are spiky and brown, left in place for birds and insects to pick or nest inside. Beans shrivel where they’ve climbed. Sunflowers flare or droop, left for the birds, who know what’s coming next.

oct2014 090In these last days of warm sun the soil bursts out with the seed-burden of its whole history, including things I haven’t actually planted in years: mallow, lamb’s-ear, love-in-a-mist, nicotiana, poppies trying to have a second season before the hard frost. Brussells sprouts are losing that late-summer brassica bitterness and sweetening up, with that sharp tang still underneath (I snap one off to eat and my blood rejoices “green!”) Some peppers are still clinging to the plants; I’ll see if they will ripen any more. Okra stalks are withered, with a few yellow blossoms half-opened, frozen in place.

oct2014 091You’ve been a good garden, I say silently into the air, as I say every year. It’s fixing to be time to take your rest. I’ll do even better by you next year. But thank you for feeding me here deep in fall when I go out looking for something to eat and there are potatoes to dig up, kale and collard leaves to snap off, beans to shell and stash in a jar, and even beets to salvage from what the rabbits left. And sweet potatoes I’d forgotten I’d planted. You abide, and you provide. And I am grateful.

Posted in gardening, gratitude, seasons | Leave a comment

If that don’t beet all…


Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “Experience is a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.”  Put another way, knowledge can be expensive, but a little pain can make it stick.   Put a third way, I will never again — even in the fall, no matter how busy this busy time always is — go for a week or two without observing my vegetable garden in any meaningful way.  I had wondered what that one elusive rabbit I kept seeing (even after all my rabbit-proofing! even after a successful catch or two by the cat!) was eating. And now I know.

potatoesetc 003

My beets.  Three rows of beautiful, lush Chioggias and Detroit Dark Reds that I had been waiting to harvest, watching the shoulders nudge up above the dirt, watching them, Keatsianly, swell and plump with ripeness.  Three whole rows of beets grown painstakingly from seed.  The biggest and nicest ones I had ever grown.  And they all look like this, or worse. Every last one.

potatoesetc 004

No Elmer-Fudd  or Mr. McGregor joke describes the depth of a gardener’s rage. Bastards! You little bastards! 

potatoesetc 005

Hunkered over the lush green tops that had hidden (all too successfully) the devastation underneath, pulling out one ruined beet after another, I felt the atavistic spurt of fear that those without my twenty-first-century, First World good luck would have felt even more deeply and totally at the ruination of a crop: what will we eat this winter? This was our food, we were counting on it – how will we LIVE?!  I can buy more from the co-op when I want them.  But it was not a pleasant feeling. And as any gardener knows, there is a kind of grief when your crop doesn’t come out, when you have planted and hoped and watered and watched the little beet-shoulders come up and it’s come to nothing.

So let’s think about lessons learned here.

1) Don’t go without observing your garden, even in the fall, even when you assume (mistakenly) that anything rabbits could eat is pretty much done with and your beets are safe because the rabbits have never bothered them before.  A wise gardener once told me that being a successful gardener is all about noticing. He’s right.

2) Let the big cat stay out as much as he wants. Consider the loan of a terrier, if only for intimidation purposes.

3) Come the spring, walk your fenceline again and keep digging in the wire along the bottom.  Again.

4) Sing “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit…” in Elmer Fudd/ Ride of the Valkyries style so the rabbits will think you are dangerously, rodenticidally insane and leave you alone.

5) Put the beets along with the potatoes in the raised bed, which is too tall for rabbits to reach.  It’s outside the backyard fence, so you’ll have to build a deer shield. But having your own nice beets in the winter will be worth it.

6) And remember the gardener’s ultimate consolation: there’s always next year.

And just for old times’ sake…

Posted in animals, attention, food, gardening, self-reliance | Leave a comment

Dogs in the road: encountering fear.

Last Sunday I was finishing up a 2-day, 40-mile bike ride to celebrate my 40th birthday, and it took me past a house where I knew there were dogs.  They’d barked at me before but never left the yard; I didn’t even see any there this time.  Nevertheless I geared up and pedaled harder, just in case. When I was almost past the house, a big hound-mix came galloping from of nowhere, ears flying, barking in a deep bellow with an undernote of growl.  She was serious, and really fast.  For a cyclist, the clicking of claws on asphalt is an awful sound.  I shouted, “Go home! Bad dog!” and pedaled as hard as I could.  Soon she’d slowed and dropped away.  “A faster bike” just moved up a spot on the wish-list.

Today, on an even more beautiful early-fall afternoon, I had the urge to ride, again.  What about my other favorite route, in the opposite direction?  It’s good for the weekend — about 20 miles, with a mix of hills and surfaces.  But suddenly all I could think about was the house where I’d seen dogs on that road, too.  What if they chased me and I couldn’t outrun them? What would happen then? Maybe I should just ride the dedicated bike loop around town, again.  But I prefer to save the loop for the hour between work and dark when the sun’s setting and I don’t have much time.  And I knew that rising, breathless pressure in my chest — the signature feeling of a fear you are letting take ahold of you in what is probably defiance of reality — couldn’t be allowed to back me down.  I couldn’t let it make the decision for me.  The knowledge that I’d succumbed to that paranoia is usually worse than the fear itself.  So despite trepidation, I set out.

I powered up a big hill and down more hills and up again.  The wild grapevines twined over the fences, the clouds were etched in bright gold, the sky was clear blue – a perfect early-September day.  This is not so bad, I thought, the dogs won’t be there, surely they won’t.  Yet as I approached The House where the Dogs Had Been That One Time, I shifted into my highest gear and hit the pedals as hard as I could.  I was sprinting, flat-out (even though for me that’s not really all that fast.)  My heart was pounding.  I looked to the side.  And – no dogs were anywhere in sight.

Lately it’s been feeling like everything is meaningful, every person and event has something to teach.  And this pair of cycling days is teaching me, as part of a network of now-I’m-40 issues in personal life, spirit, and career.  How can I keep fear from running me, like a dog runs cattle?  How do I keep from bolting for dear life when some (often imagined) worry darts from its hiding place and hares into view, chasing me as hard as it can pelt?  How can I know the sensible concern from the urgent dart of terror of the Bad Thing Happening that any of us can feel and that, if we let it, would keep us huddled on our couches all the time?

Fear does change, I think, as we get older.  What felt like the generalized, omnipresent uncertainty of my 20s and the more specifically focused what-if-I-never [get a job/finish this degree/pay off this debt] concern of my 30s is now getting weirdly, sneakily focused: the late 30s and now 40s (all one week of them) are feeling like a sunny savanna on which I wander purposefully, doing my thing and making my contributions, feeling happy and content with where I am, but then suddenly dodging a tree that falls out of nowhere. Fear comes in infrequent but dramatic spikes, built on sudden what-if, often involuntary imaginings.  And I don’t think I’m the only one. At this age, we have all seen enough to know what can crop up suddenly, out of nowhere. We have more at stake with every year.  Our parents, our siblings, our children, our friends, the people we love, our own mortal bodies, our jobs, our houses, our retirement accounts — all are, in Francis Bacon’s phrase, hostages to fortune. The more you have at stake, the more you stand to lose, and the older and more experienced you are in the world, the more you know reality isn’t always a sunny place.

Yet — and this is a typically hard but necessary kind of spiritual truth — the more aware of danger you are, the more closely and carefully you have to work to both protect yourself (reasonably) and keep going forward anyway.  It’s a version of what you learn from head-balance: a feeling is sometimes just a feeling, not a reality, and, as Anne Lamott says, “doing difficult things is weight-training for life.”  Sometimes being apprehensive about something means that you should proceed with it, because in retrospect you’ll be glad you did, and you will be welcoming in a kind of gift or a kind of knowledge you wouldn’t otherwise have.  I have seen this truth in my own writing life — and in the lives of my students, particularly beginning and hesitant writers — every single day.  A common remark in my creative-writing class evaluations is “I’m a science major and I never thought I was ‘creative,’ so taking this course really scared me, but I’m so glad I did.”   William Deresiewicz writes that “some fears are legitimate, but the ones that are born from insecurity are signals telling you to march resolutely toward them.”

March, or pedal, or enroll in that class, or take a breath and speak.  Nothing is worse than that feeling of stifling, airless worry that freezes you in place and keeps you from taking action — and the knowledge underneath it that you just may be your own worst enemy here, you are worrying about something that will likely never happen, you are blocking your own flourishing before you even give it a chance to take root. That is the worst feeling of all.

So, onward and dogless, I kept pedaling just to work the adrenaline out of my legs and decelerated just about the time a flock of guinea hens from a nearby house went hurrying away from the road, consternating in their high scratchy voices.  My laughter was high on delight and relief, kind of unhinged.  No dogs.  No reason to be afraid after all.  And then, around the next corner, came a man on a horse, out for a Sunday ride along the road.  I stopped so the bike wouldn’t frighten the horse (I grew up with them) and we had a really pleasant chat; his wife, it turns out, had been a colleague of mine, way back.  The horse wasn’t fazed by the bike, or by the two trucks with rattly trailers that came behind us as we talked, or by the rustlings in the corn.  He stood at ease, switching his tail, just happy to be where he was.  And there’s a lesson in that.

Posted in animals, biking, resilience, women | 4 Comments

Upside down, on purpose.

Dear Cheapskate Readers: Sorry it’s been a little while – the summer got away from me a bit, and I have been working incessantly on the Giant Nonfiction Manifesto on Art, Technology, Politics, Gardening, Spirit, and Attention, of which you have all been reading bits and pieces here for some time.  In memory of B.K.S. Iyengar, who just might be the greatest yoga teacher in the world, and who passed away at age 95 this week, I’m going to share an excerpt from this book-in-progress (now in its third, totally overhauled draft!) on what Iyengar yoga has meant to me.

Iyengar practicing head balance (in 1993, at age 75) with students.

B.K.S. Iyengar (center) practicing head balance (in 1993, at age 75) with students.

Over what’s now five years of practicing it, I have found that Iyengar yoga reaches as thoroughly into the interrelation of self, emotion, and body as art does – it, too, is a craft, demanding of body and attention. The point is to align your body properly in a pose and stay there, adjusting by knowledge and by feel, then see what comes up from inside. It’s not about weight loss, “toning,” or even “religion” – it’s about a very, very old practice of using your body to tune into what’s really happening in your mind.

During yoga class one day, we moved through a series of standing poses – uttita trikhanasana, uttita parsvakanasana, parsvotanasana – involving not only strong work with the legs but a strong emphasis on keeping our shoulders back and twisting our bodies to open and raise our chests. In uttita parsvakanasana in particular – body in a deep lunge, one leg extended and one leg bent, one arm stretched down and one up and overhead – I was twisting my torso and ribs upward to look at the ceiling and extending both legs out and down and into the floor, more deeply and correctly than I ever remember doing before. My whole body was active. And I wasn’t really thinking about anything. Near the end of class, we did some deep, seated forward bends, and when I straightened up, an unnameable, inescapable wave of sadness flattened me. For the last few minutes of class I could only lie still, hoping the other students didn’t see the tears leaking down my face. Was it Person X? Was it Recent Emotional Disappointment Y? Was it a voice from some chamber of pain or guilt or doubt or loneliness I don’t even know how to touch directly? I don’t know. When we talked about it later, my teacher wasn’t surprised, with all the chest- and heart-opening poses we’d been doing. “People think the heart is where we hold love,” she said, “but it’s actually where we hold pain, and sadness.” Twisting, bending, and staying there, then moving to take a different position and go at it again, will wring emotion up out of your body as thoroughly as two hands on a rag, twisting one direction and then another to get the whole cloth evenly, lightly damp, nearly dry. It will make you clear of emotion without being clean of it, aware of what has been, or maybe still is, living in you, even if you can’t give it a name.   And that’s a good thing.

It may be best to talk about how yoga works for me by talking about one of the poses I struggle with the most – head balance, or salamba sirsasana. Head balance is pretty advanced. It’s something I never thought I’d do. And the first time I tried it, this year (after having practiced yoga for almost five years) it seemed not only impossible but terrifying.

To go into head balance, you kneel on the floor and make a triangle with your forearms and interlinked hands on the floor, resting your knuckles against the wall if, like me, you’re not yet a freestanding head-balancer. You nestle your head into your hands so that the back of your skull fits against your fingers and the crown of your head is in full contact with the floor, pointing straight down. Then you rise on your toes, straighten your legs, and walk your feet slowly toward your now-upside-down face. Your hips rise into the air and more and more weight comes onto your head and your shoulders, which you should keep lifting up to counterbalance the pressure. You walk your feet forward a little more. And then – I can’t say exactly how this happens, even though it took me so long to figure it out – you kick your legs upward, one leg slightly in front of the other, and bring them to rest against the wall. (If you are more advanced, you can bend both knees, lift both bent legs up together, then straighten your legs, but that’s harder.) Now you are upside down, your body’s whole weight supported by the triangle of your shoulders and arms. The work is to keep straightening and lifting your spine and your shoulders – asking them to reach up rather than sink down to bear the weight, so that you don’t collapse onto your neck and your head – and straighten the rest of your body without clenching it. And then – in the phrase that can strike you as infuriatingly casual when you are trying to do it – you hang out in head balance for a while.

Needless to say, you do not try any of this without proper training over time and preparation within the class session itself – we always do a few poses that point our heads downward before we do head balance – because you could really hurt yourself. Of course, you could also hurt yourself or your teacher or fellow students when you first try head balance – swinging your legs up only to have them fall back down, kicking backwards like a panicked mule, afraid you’ll topple over on your neighbor. This was me. I tried.  I fell.  I cussed under my breath. Suddenly I was caught in my old childhood humiliation at being the one kid who never could figure out how to kick up high enough to do a cartwheel. I was seldom allowed, then, to forget that I was a “fat kid” – tall and alienated from the body at which I seldom felt more than fury and shame. I couldn’t grab a horse’s mane and swing up bareback. I couldn’t jump. I could, when I was fifteen or sixteen working our haying crew in the summer, snatch a square bale by the strings, heave it almost completely over my head, and pitch it up into the loft to be caught and stacked by the boys. I look at pictures of myself now and think, You weren’t “fat.” But when you can’t fit into the cute miniskirts and tops all the popular girls are wearing, and your feet are so large that you have to wear crepe-soled nurse’s shoes (the only shoes anywhere in town that’ll fit you), what consolation is your reliable body’s humble, quiet strength? If you can’t do a cartwheel, if no boy ever looks at you, how can you ever feel what it must be like to fly, to feel all your heaviness – inside and out – just lift away?

Eventually my yoga teacher took pity on me and helped lift my legs into position; then I was doing head balance at last. Except I wasn’t. Head canted back at the wrong angle, neck stressed, I felt flooded with a sense of total panic. I was upside down, all my blood rushing to my head, my face breaking out in cold sweat, my shirt slithering inexorably down to reveal my never-shown-in-public-ever stomach. I dropped down and huddled with my forehead to the floor, breathing hard, unable to move for fear. I couldn’t imagine ever doing that again. Something all through my body was shrieking you’re going to DIE!

Of course, as I came to learn, that is exactly the reason you do head balance – because when you do it carefully and in the correct way, it helps your body and your mind learn that contrary to their first reactions under stress, you are not going to die, that fear may come but it is a temporary thing, and that even in a stressful situation you can still learn to pay attention to what’s actually happening, not only what your mind is telling you is happening.   Head balance rubs this knowledge into deep, deep levels of your nervous system and your self-awareness, and it’s not until you find yourself able to stay calm and not freak out in a stressful situation off the mat that you realize how deeply it’s soaked in, like some kind of really good Vitamin E hand cream. You get nervous or angry or start to lose your temper at work or in a conversation and something inside you puts a calming hand on your arm, just lightly: Calm down. This isn’t really as important as it feels to you right now. You’re not going to die, the danger isn’t real. Calm down and observe what about this situation is real.

I am still working on being able to hold head balance properly and for longer than, say, a minute and a half. But interestingly, I can’t quite remember how not to kick up: I go through the motions, I get close enough to the wall, I do the kick, and my legs seem to float up on their own. (Neuroscientist Douwe Draaisma writes that the present appearance of our loved ones can supplant and erase earlier memories of how they looked; similarly, doing a pose more correctly tends to help you forget how to do it wrong and helps you to do it even more correctly.) Once up, I try to keep my shoulders lifted and run through the rest of the body to see what needs to be straightened out or ungripped. (Pose to pose, yoga is helping me get over my own version of the unconscious, highly Freudian, and culturally omnipresent type-A WASP conviction that the whole world will remain upright on its axis as long as I personally keep my shoulders and buttocks as tightly clenched as possible.) When I feel panic or some other emotion, I remind myself: You’re just upside down. You’re not going to die.  And often, that emotion subsides.

This is a skill for life, it’s a skill and practice of the spirit – don’t be hounded by your emotions, obedient to and driven by them and whatever imaginary stories they lead you to tell. Be able to stop and look at them – like little Danny Torrence in Stephen King’s The Shining, shouting at the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts “False face! Not real!” – and evaluate them for what they are. This goes for actions, too, as yoga teacher Judith Lasater wrote upon B.K.S. Iyengar’s death (at age 95) this year: “Mr. Iyengar challenged me; he challenged everyone he ever taught to create a habit of reflection, then action, reflection then action, over and over again while practicing. He wanted us to never stop noticing how our actions affected the pose, our nervous system, our mind, the world.”[1] I know without a doubt that yoga has been an essential part of the ongoing process of growth and thought and prayer and reaching for the invisible realities I know to be true that has helped me do that. And I have learned it not just in my mind but in my body, which is always there to remind the mind, gently, remember, you are not in here to face the world alone. I’m here too. And I know more than you sometimes want to think.


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