This post is a guest submission from my friend Sarah who is an incredible young mom of two beautiful children and wife of a lovely man. At one time she was headed to be an astronaut! Life took a turn, as it is known to do, and now she helps students as a Councillor at Acadia University. Sarah is also an incredibly gifted yoga teacher who has studied under a Guru in India. She is one of those friends who is so good, you hope it will rub off on you. As you can tell, I cherish her. Once I was speaking to her Dad who was in yoga class and I pointed out that he was visiting again from Ottawa, how nice. He told me he needed to get his fix of his Sarah. He missed her so much. I think a tear rolled down my cheek when I returned to my mat, I was so touched by that. A good Dad.
A couple of years ago, Sarah took up a pen and began to write. Here is a submission which includes, in part, a tragedy that has just rocked this sea bound coastal province of Nova Scotia.
Almost a decade ago, when I had a horrible set-back with psychosis, after yoga class one evening I asked Sarah, whom I barely knew then, if she would come to my house and sit with me because I was feeling very badly. She came and sat quietly by me while I tried desperately to quiet my mind. I remember thinking that she was an angel.
Here is Sarah’s story:
I actually just tasted my coffee. Like, tasted the taste of it. Since beginning my new job counselling in September, I have been drinking coffee routinely as I start my work day; I’m not sure I’ve even been tasting it. Now, its delicious: hot, smooth, with a slightly heavy and bitter finish. Can I really taste the rose that’s described on the tasting notes on the bag under the fist being pumped into the air: Viva La Resistencia! My partner visits these grower co-ops and walks the steep mountain sides to pick the berries after being awoken at 4 a.m. when the women rise to begin making the tortillas to fuel the next day’s harvest. How does that raised fist live in them? Do they ever taste their coffee?
And no, I can’t taste the rose…but I can taste berries.
Plus, I got the amount of milk perfect: it’s the exact shade of my mother’s and grandmother’s tea.
“Shall we put the kettle on?” was always their way of coming together, of making time, of soothing the fatigue of so much caring; a moment to offer something back to themselves, together. I wonder how often they tasted it?
Before making my coffee, I was meditating on my purple kidney-shaped cushion, my grey tea-cosy-shaped toque on my head, my grandmother’s light blue knit afghan on my lap. The fire crackled. I felt my breath—short, ragged—and I couldn’t get my head into the right position. Translate: I felt a lot of unpleasant sensations in my neck and where the back of my skull meets my spine. I experimented with small adjustments: it didn’t really change. I lifted the eyebrows above my eye and ears (if there were ones there too), and the muscles on the top of my head lifted off like a helmet: relief! Then they immediately returned, as though they needed to protect my head, in case I randomly tripped and fell.
And yet, it felt so good to be sitting, early in the day, quiet. And it felt good because of what preceded it: three snow days in a row, a busy weekend, my partner leaving for a conference, and my parents-in-law taking my son, so that I woke up in bed with my daughter curled up tightly behind me, almost pushing me off of the bed this morning, got her on her bus, and then on a Monday, I find myself alone at home with a day to myself.
With my perfect cup of coffee beside me, I sit down to write, and a bird lands outside my window, just out of sight, and when it ruffles its feathers one of its wings appears in the window. I stand up and lean over my desk to press the side of my face to the window trying to see it. It’s gone. When I look down, I see a little dead army of lady-bug-look-a-likes that appear on the window sills in the top floor of our house this time of year– smaller, more spots than their famous counterparts — some of which have curled up in a ball, some rolled over, some with their wings spread as they colonize the sill. Why are there so many dead insects in my writing space? Because writing time is too precious to spending vacuuming them up.
I sit back down. Outside, a chickadee hops, flutters, from frozen broccoli plant to frozen broccoli plant, then onto the bare kale stalks in the next bed that look like mini palm trees, but in the snow. I ate one of the frozen baby heads of broccoli that were still left on the plant yesterday: soft and sweet. Beside the broccoli are three frozen heads of cauliflower, bowing down towards the snow with their frozen weight. How could I have missed them?! Not to mention the garlic, which is still sitting in a silver bowl in our back hall, waiting, waiting, more patiently than I, as I raked the snow off of the bed yesterday hoping it might melt more quickly. I may have to use precious greenhouse space if it doesn’t melt.
I have just finished co-writing a chapter of a about succulent sustainability: how does making use of precious greenhouse space for garlic make any sense? As I drove up the mountain to my friend’s house, to edit the final chapter, the CBC reporter on the radio announced, “Grief councillors are recommending people reach out to talk to each other for support.”
“Mom, can you turn the radio off?” my nearly-seven year old daughter asked from the back seat.
“Of course,” I said, looking back in my rearview mirror to see her serious face beneath a grey slouchy toque that’s standing straight up. I suddenly remembered that she also absorbs the news, only the holes in her sieve are bigger.
“It’s just so sad all the time,” she says.
“I know,” I say, looking back at her again. Our eyes meet.
“Did you hear the part about the little girl?” I asked.
She nods, “What happened?”
“Well, she was at the Santa Claus parade and she was running beside one of the floats, and she must have slipped and fell and got hit.” I paused. “Like hit by a car, and she died.”
She nodded very seriously.
“What also feels really sad to me,” I said, “Is that there were so many people who saw it. They were right there, but it happened so fast that no one could do anything about it.”
The weight of the non-reversal of time, of finality, hovered between us. In a little over 24 hours later, when she found herself stuck in the washing machine, while I pulled on one of her legs, trying to birth her from it, she might feel it again.
“Who was it?” she asks.
“I don’t know yet. They often don’t release the name until the family has been able to tell others on their own time. Once we know, do you think we should send the family something?” I asked.
“Do you know them?” she asked.
“No, but it would be nice to send them a card just the same.”
Two weeks ago, I sat down with five students in our weekly mindfulness group at Acadia in the basement of the chapel. We are facing each other in a circle, sitting on bolsters, cushions. I am sitting on a block, hard under my sitting bones. We have sat for 20 minutes, walked for 5, and sat again. My instructions are body-focused: how do we come into direct contact with the body? Can we feel particular sensations without constructing a narrative; can we feel directly rather than through an image?
My students have asked me to speak about positive body image in relation to what we’ve been practicing.
I’m not sure I’m the one to do this. The person I think of as being qualified stands in the mirror, praising themselves with how they look, satisfied, content, untouchable by self-doubt, self-consciousness, social pressures. I laugh. I did feel like that once, but that version of myself was perhaps the most confused, and could never speak to this or imagine the place that I am at now.
This has been a major area of practice for me. And, for the first time, it feels like an invitation I can meet. The night before I had an initiation dream: metal pikes pierced through my toes.
Fifteen year before, I rolled out my orange yoga mat on the tatami floor of our Shikoku apartment, four patches of my mat worn thin where my hands and feet landed in downward dog. Part of my practice was driven towards maintaining my body at a particular size (in a determination, I see now, to avoid painful feelings of shame, which I also now appreciate as a measure of how deeply we care), and simultaneously I was seeing, really seeing, painfully seeing, and experimenting to figure out how to work with the way controlling my body in this way was impacting me. The practice was simultaneously co-opted by my patterns, while also letting me see them….actually, I think that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work: entangled and healing, at the same time. This practice was it for me: learning to see what was happening, feeling it directly, so that I could attend to what was happening.
Sitting with the group, my chest is fluttering, and my mind is trying to take the reins, but I keep coming back to my breath, to the firmness of the block..
In these moments, my own struggles are a gift. The same way that my perfect cup of coffee came together this morning, so did these struggles. All of these conditions make it impossible to control, and hard to find somewhere to place blame; all of these conditions are so helpful because there are so many entry points to healing.
Two weeks ago a dear friend wrote on her facebook post, on her 22nd birthday, about her struggles with eating as a teen. When I wrote her a message about how I deeply admired her courage, she wrote back thanking me for being a support towards healing. At that time, it took the form of coming over to snuggle with a baby and drink chamomile tea while wrestling through pre-calculus problems at our kitchen table.
Now, it’s a group waiting for me to begin.
“So,” I began, “I was asked to talk about positive body image and how it relates to what we’ve been practicing. And, what I might suggest, what if we’re to leave the image altogether? What if, instead,we use this practice to help us cultivate a relationship that’s curious, caring, mutual, attuned? What if we notice and make space for pleasure?”
Thomas Merton said, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them”.
As I sat this morning, a faint squeaking of metal and scuttle of little feet arose. There was a mouse inside the bottom of the stove, shitting and storing food in the metal runners of the bottom drawer. I opened my eyes and banged on the floor three times: “I’m here!” my banging proclaimed, asserting my presence.
It was silent for a few minutes. I realized how loud and terrifying the sound must have been to the mouse. I settled back on my breath feeling annoyed about the mess under the stove and ashamed for my reaction. A few minutes later, I heard it again, but without the metal clinking. I opened my eyes and saw its tail hanging out of a little crack beside the dishwasher. The tail bobbed up and down once, and then disappeared. I smiled. I closed my eyes, settled again. When I got up a few minutes later and put on the kettle for coffee, I got down on my hands and knees to look for the hole. It’s only about 3 or 4 mm wide. How did it do that? I looked around at the floor under the overhang of the cupboards. Ugh. I’d have to clean the floors, but for now, I stuck with making my coffee.
By Sarah Smolkin
(Photos by moi, except for the fist on the coffee bag which is from JustUs Coffee Roasters in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia and the coffee cup is from google images. Thank you!)
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