Category Archives: The Magazine of Yoga

Angels in tutus

When my daughter turned two I made everyone wear tutus at her birthday party.

A friend had given me two bolts of white tulle – reclaimed from her wedding. It was then a matter of buying several yards of elastic and running amok with a sewing machine the night before the party.

It’s important, if you want to feel like someone’s mother, to stay up very late sewing tutus at least once.

When I say I made everyone wear tutus at the party, I should mention that Sugarplum* only had three friends her own age. The party was made up of adults: general contractors, an art gallery owner, a manager from Talbots…you get the idea.

*Not her real name.

Looking back, I realize what good sports my friends are.

And we do look back. Do you know what makes for great pictures? Dressing your friends in tutus.

It’s impossible to be unhappy looking at pictures of people wearing tutus and party hats. Did I mention I added tufts of tulle to the party hats?

There is a saying: Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

When I was little, my mom would call out a little prayer as I ran down the driveway to the school bus. The quote was “he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” but all she’d say was “angels charge!”

I grew up thinking it was a verb. Angels, charge! After all these years, I still try to obey her call.

Sometimes we forget to be charging angels. We take ourselves heavily. We do not think we are angels at all.

Do you know what angels are? There were several at Sugarplum’s second birthday party. They jump out of photographs with light hearts and happy eyes.

Maybe angels are moments. Moments of self-forgetfulness. Moments of joy. Moments of lightness and action (because angels charge).

It’s when we take ourselves too seriously that we get bogged down. We let little things unhinge us.

Trust me on this. According to Merriam Webster, “lightness” is:

1 the quality or state of being light especially in weight

2 lack of seriousness and stability of character often accompanied by casual heedlessness

3a the quality or state of being nimble

3
b an ease and gaiety of style or manner

4 a lack of weightiness or force: delicacy

I want to be very clear that I’m not talking about “casual heedlessness” here. I’m going with curtains number three and four. Or even better, Merriam Webster’s alternate definition:

The quality or state of being illuminated: illumination

This morning I was talking to a coworker who had surgery recently. She said the hardest part was asking someone to drive her home. Recently divorced, she was alone and had no one to call.

Finally, she asked her neighbor, who chided her for hesitating. The neighbor drove her to and from surgery, bringing her homemade chicken soup on her return. My coworker noted that the curative properties of the soup were not the ingredients, but the fact that someone made it for her. Later, she discovered her neighbor’s last name is Angel.

Give people a chance to be illuminated.

They are angels just waiting for a tutu.

This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga

Sitting Pretty

I ran into a friend this morning in a beach parking lot. Figuratively, I mean. We’re both okay.

She was wearing a navy Izod polo dress, faded to denim and soft with wear. “I’m wearing all my old clothes from the ’80s,” she said.

No one wants to see me in my clothes from the ’80s. Black lace and camouflage, arms ringed with plumbing supplies and a pair of pants that looked like they were made from a Hefty trash bag – it’s a mercy none of it fits now. It was my way of saying “I am not from here and I am not one of you.”

I was of course from there and looking back, was one of them. I just didn’t like admitting it. I used my clothing to define myself, as did we all.

I remember a political science professor in college telling a classmate that although he was welcome to wear hot pink nail polish in class, it would just make things hard for him out in the real world. It was his choice, to either smooth the road ahead or make it unnecessarily rocky. Like it or not, we are initially evaluated by our appearance.

He didn’t say it’s right or just, he said it’s the way it is.

My friend is a mountain biker and likes his roads on the rocky side. This guidance did not phase him or alter his course toward what became a very successful career. He probably doesn’t even remember the conversation.

I’m not a mountain biker, and prefer to stay off the really steep inclines. I’m more of a Parisian side street kind of girl.

I used to wear vintage dresses to parties because I am shy and the clothes always inspired people to come talk to me. They sparked conversations about history, art, fashion and eventually the hors d’oeuvre table because that’s where my real interests lie. The funny thing is that because I wore clothes that were different, people thought I was confident and extroverted.

Which isn’t to say I’m not extroverted. I am very extroverted when I am at my house, alone, expressing my thoughts via my laptop. In my vintage kimono.

Clothes do many things, then. They mark us as one of the herd or single us out as the black sheep. They make the road a freshly paved expressway or a treacherous single-track of adventure. Not all on their own, of course, but as my professor pointed out, they do weigh in.
Part of their influence is the way they make us see ourselves. If you tell yourself that something is true enough times, eventually you believe it. If you choose to wear that message daily, it expedites the process.

In college I was incensed that people would judge my friend by his nail polish. I thought they should see him for who he was and value his contribution. It’s a two edged sword, this fashion thing. We use it. We are surprised and appalled when it uses us.

Years ago I spent a long weekend at a Zen monastery. One of the things they asked was that we wear loose, dark colored, simple clothes, with no patterns or pictures. They didn’t want our clothes to be visually distracting.

I didn’t think about it much as I packed my favorite black sweat pants and t-shirts, but it’s one of the things I appreciated most while I was there.

With no visual statements to distract me, I saw people as they were: beautiful and exquisitely memorable.

When I came home I made a concerted effort to simplify my wardrobe. We are all so perfectly us, we don’t really need the sandwich boards around our necks, telling people who we are and what makes us different/better/smarter/wiser. Sandwich boards are heavy.

I don’t always practice what I preach. Today I am wearing a particularly loud sundress because it makes me laugh like a maniac when I see a reflection of myself. It also makes random strangers smile when I walk by. It’s not good at a monastery, but it’s perfect for work.

These are my current guidelines for clothing choices, subject to change. I don’t need to be different. I don’t need to tell people who I am. I just need to be comfortable and happy.
And although I would have eaten live frogs before wearing my friend’s Izod dress in the ’80s, it looked covetously comfortable this morning.

That’s pretty fashionable.

This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga

Love Fest or hornet’s nest?

The other day I was on Twitter (shut up, it was work related) and I noticed that a friend’s Twitterscope happened to also be my Twitterscope. It said:

You shift from being okay to not okay and back in just a few minutes. Although this may be confusing to you, it can be truly disconcerting to others. Consequently, it’s smart to keep your mood swings to yourself until they settle down. Be patient; you will gain clarity in the days ahead.

To which I said, Screw you, Twitterscope. It’s not about me. I never knew what I was walking into – a love fest or a hornet’s nest.

This horoscope advice from the planets came on the heels of my own realization that things were topsy turvy in a particular area of my life. One minute I was doing everything right. The next minute I was doing everything wrong. My moodswings? I don’t think so.

As luck would have it, every time things were going badly I’d come home and the kids would be louder/messier/slower/stickier than usual because they can tell when I’m at my wit’s end.

That’s when they put grape jelly in their hair. To make sure my love is truly unconditional.

Because I do love them unconditionally, I try to practice a little of the horoscope advice. I focus on the “be patient” part.

I can do that much. Doing the be patient part helps me realize they don’t just get jelly in their hair because I’m stressed out. Things like jelly happen all the time, but when my head needs help it throws my game.

When my head is okay, I get out the hose and am done with it. So it’s not that they’re being less loud/messy/slow/sticky normally. It’s that it doesn’t always affect me. I don’t make it part of my experience. It looks like I go from okay to not okay and back because of what the people around me are doing, when really it’s how I am handling my interpretation of what they’re doing.

It’s always an inside job.

If it’s true of my jelly-crusted children, it’s true of the hornet’s nest. I can’t control the actions of others, but I have every right to not make them part of my own reality.

The Dalai Lama, who totally knows about such things, said “When our minds are clouded by hatred, selfishness, jealousy, and anger, we lose not only control but also our judgment.”

It’s funny, isn’t it, that the wanting to be in control is what actually makes us lose control?

Be patient and you will gain clarity. Fight it and you just make it more real. It’s true on the mat and it’s true in life.

Isn’t it great that we have so many many many chances to practice this every single day?

If you focus on what’s not working or get angry with yourself, your kids, your breakfast drink, whatever, then that’s what becomes more real and that’s where your day goes. If you can let go, you can be right where you want to be.

As I was writing this, three kids spilled three glasses of chocolate milk. It was like some kind of test. Because I was writing this and I didn’t want you to see what a hypocrite I am, I handled all three spills with patience.

It seemed like good practice for when the hornets start buzzing again. Maybe I’ll learn that even the hornets are just a bunch of big kids with bad hand-eye coordination. Maybe I’ll realize that their loudest buzzing is about needing unconditional love, and it’s not directed at me at all.

Maybe, when that promised clarity comes, I can get this jelly out of my hair – and resume my love affair with Twitter.

This column was originally published in The Magazine of Yoga. Reprinted with gratitude.

Thanks Giving

Thanksgiving was not always my favorite holiday.

Growing up, I thought Thanksgiving was about radishes cut like roses and juice glasses rimmed in confectioner sugar. It was a high-tension affair so full of aesthetic requirements we could barely see the pumpkin pie at the end of the tunnel – which is a shame because my mom does indeed make the world’s best pumpkin pie.

After three decades of tense perfection, I married into a family who ran a soup-kitchen style Thanksgiving.

Nothing was decanted into serving dishes and brought to a linen, crystal and silver bedecked table (did I mention there were only four of us, growing up?). Dishes were served up in my mother-in-law’s kitchen and guests – as many as felt like coming – found a seat on the couch.

Everyone wore stretchy pants instead of Sunday finery.

For years I thrived in the soup kitchen of my new family. And then one day I began to crave the dignity of my own family traditions.

What I had seen as empty and tension-fraught displays were actually beautiful expressions of gratitude.

Thanksgiving affords an opportunity to take the process of preparing, serving and eating out of the commonplace. On Thanksgiving we treat our guests to the best we have.

When we garnish a plate, we don’t do it to be better or fancier or to make more work for ourselves – we do it as a gesture of love and respect. It is an offering. When’s the last time you saw a Styrofoam take-out container at an altar?

When I say we give the best of what we have, I do not mean crystal glasses and silver serving dishes (although if you have them, this is the time).

My mother-in-law opened her home to everyone she knew. Her best was a generous heart and a large collection of forks.

When we iron our impossibly long linen table cloths and polish our impossibly black silver candlesticks, we do it in the spirit of gratitude, not tedious obligation. The process of preparation is like a prayer – in which radish rosettes are rosary beads.

When ritual loses its fundamental meaning and becomes a series of things we do, the prayer part goes missing, taking the blessing with it.

“Thanksgiving” is an in-and-out kind of word. It inhales thanks and exhales giving. It can’t only do one, or it will pass out in the turnips.

Here’s my secret recipe for Thanksgiving: I invite no one who is likely to judge me.

If my napkins are not perfectly pressed, my guests are not apt to care. I invite my family because I love them, and I invite friends because I love them too. If friends are away from family or have no tradition of their own, they have a place at my table.

I shine up the best of what I have, make my favorite recipes and lay it all out like an offering.

Thanksgiving is every day. On this one Thursday, however, we pull out all the stops. We give thanks for what we have and honor the people in our lives. It is not an obligation, it is a gift. And we do it with joy in our hearts and, in a perfect world, mom’s pumpkin pie in our bellies.

May your Thanksgiving be blessed. May your table be full. May your heart be satisfied.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga

Making Excuses

There’s a Bible story about a man who was sitting at the Pool of Bethesda, waiting for the spirit to move the waters so he could jump in and be healed.

Jesus sees this guy and says “wilt thou be made whole?” And the guy says, “There’s no one here who will help me get in the pool first and, doggone it,  someone else always jumps in first.”

Which did not answer the question.

I have to admit, I’d probably do the same thing.

For instance, if someone (including but not limited to Jesus) walked up right now and said, “wouldn’t you prefer a kitchen that works?” I would most likely rattle off all the reasons we can’t do a kitchen remodel right now and then I’d go into great detail about all the things that are wrong with our kitchen and the next thing you know, I’d be on that very kitchen floor, weeping inconsolably.

I can’t remodel our kitchen because there are eleven hundred external factors standing between me and new cupboards – factors I have no control over. I don’t do anything because all these other things have to align first and… does anyone see them aligning? No.

What it boils down to is an external versus an internal thing. There’s a lot out there we can’t control. Let external factors dictate your life and you’re toast.

It’s also a will versus want thing.

I have trouble paraphrasing “wilt thou be made whole” because we don’t use “wilt” except for lettuce these days.

In our modern language, we say “want,” which does not necessarily mean what we think it means.

If you look it up, definitions include “to be needy or destitute,” “to feel the absence of,” “to suffer from  lack,” etc. So if you say “do you want a functioning kitchen” I hear “do you feel the absence of a functioning kitchen?”

Which, please, have you seen my kitchen? Blech. You bet I feel it. And here are my excuses for why it will stay that way.

According to the Free Dictionary, will  is defined:
The mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action.

When we deliberately choose a course of action, we relinquish hopelessness. We decide it will be better.

We do things, little things, to make it better. We clean hinges so the cupboards close. We discard unused kitchen tools. We are no longer paralyzed, waiting by the Pool of Bethesda.

I haven’t actually done this with my kitchen yet.

I figured I’d try it out on you first.

I started thinking about this a couple years ago as I lay in a heap on my living room floor, observing a crack in the ceiling.

It didn’t make sense to fix the crack and paint the ceiling because it would happen again when the roof leaked again. We couldn’t fix the roof because… honestly I don’t remember why we couldn’t fix the roof.

I was so frustrated and disheartened. I knew I had to think differently about my home.

I wanted my home to be whole. I decided my home would be whole.

I began doing things, little things, toward this goal. The little things snowballed and became big things. Despite whatever our insurmountable reasons were, we did eventually fix the roof. Little by little, our home has been made whole (with a few glaring exceptions).

There are so many things we can apply this to – and when I say we, I mean my family. You can apply it too, of course.

Will you, your home, your career, your relationship be made whole?

Answer the question. No excuses.

This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga

Life is like an eye exam

(reprinted by permission from The Magazine of Yoga)

History, repercussions, and desire

BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST SUSAN BLOOD

I have no idea why I put off my eye exam for so long.

I haven’t read a book in ages. At restaurants I take the menu into the bathroom where there’s better light. My kids have stopped coming to me with splinters and just wait for the school nurse. This is a bummer on weekends.

One day I was proofreading a playbill, squinting, when a full page ad for an optometrist came up. I enlarged the image on my monitor and dialed the number at the bottom of the screen.

Do you know any optometrists? They are lovely.

They give you a comfy chair to sit in and ask you all kinds of questions in an effort to make your life better. They never tell you you’re wrong – how would they know if you were? All the questions are based on how you see things, not how anyone thinks you should see them. Everything should be so simple and ultimately gratifying.

That’s when it hit me: Life is like an eye exam. Trust me, I just had one (an exam, I mean. I’m still working on the life). Every day, every hour we are asked “which one’s clearer? One? Or two?” This is how we go through our days, making strings of choices. Each choice makes the path a little clearer.

Or not. It depends on our choices, obviously.

There is a reason they give you a string of consonants and vowels instead of, say, lines of poetry. Or tax law. We do not attach things to strings of consonants and vowels. We don’t read in consequence or innuendo. We just look at the letters for what they are – blurry or less blurry – until, bing! Things become radiantly clear. At which point we start over.

While life may be like an eye exam, it is not a string of consonants. There’s history and repercussions and desire to consider. Things are complicated in real life! It is not a simple choice between a and b. A and b have an awful lot of baggage. They have attachments. Some of them are scary.

We’d rather not look at them at all, much less see them clearly.

Over the winter I was invited to submit a proposal to a newspaper as a columnist. Having a regular writing gig has been a long time dream and I was, needless to say, out of my mind pleased. Conventional writing wisdom says you have to work your way into being a columnist, taking odd reporting jobs along the way and doing your time. This was a huge opportunity to enter the newspaper world at exactly the point I wanted to end up.

The only problem was, they were looking for a fishing column.

And I don’t fish.

Not only do I not fish, I am incredibly squeamish about things like fish guts. There was no way I was going to become an ace fisherman, or write like one. I agonized for several days, thinking of all the ways I could write a fishing column without ever having to touch a fish. It would be like if the previous columnist had opted to write a column on quilting.

Have you ever noticed you can distill pretty much all your choices down to fear and love?

Look at your motivation and you’ll see. In this case, I was making a fear-based decision. I was afraid that this was the last time an offer like this would come my way. I was afraid I’d miss out on something.

I overcame my fear of not ever being asked to write again with my love of the editor who invited me, and my desire to not get her fired.

I could be wrong because I can’t seem to practice it consistently enough to find out for sure, but I think if all our decisions are love-based instead of fear-based, we make progress faster and find ourselves in less of a blur along the way. Someone please try that and let the rest of us know how it goes.

If this whole scenario had been an eye exam, I would have (pun alert!) seen it clearly. The Optometrist of Life would have said “is this one a good fit?” and when I said “no” the Optometrist of Life (and this is important) would have given me a new set of choices.

Which the Optometrist of Life did

Before long I had a phone call from a theater, asking me to interview as their new director of marketing. I’ve been a long time fan of this theater and love everyone I’ve met who works there. I was a little afraid of how I could make it happen, given the complexity of the rest of my life. I was also nervous about measuring up to their standards. But the thought of working there made me want to skip and sing and hug people, which I think is a good sign.

Once the decision was made, all the pieces fell into place – including finding my optometrist through their playbill. I still find myself wanting to skip at work sometimes, which I couldn’t do all hopped up on Dramamine and wrapped in fishing line.

In my actual-life eye exam, my optometrist told me what glasses to get and said I’d be just fine for a couple years, after which we’d do the whole process again. What was clear yesterday may not work tomorrow. No one wants to stay in the same place for ever. Each time we get to a place of clarity it just gives us a chance to see a little farther and be a little more fearless.

That’s the glory of having so many choices. And so much love with which to make them.

Unconditional love (and no mice)

“Is she a rescue?” people ask.

This is one of those questions that makes you a hero if you answer properly. I don’t know what it does if you don’t.

A month ago we met a greyhound and realized she had been missing from our lives. She needed a home. We have a home. It was that simple. Zelda is now part of our family. She is gentle with the kids and has not eaten the cat (which some consider a failing).

I know the plight of greyhounds, but I cannot in all honesty say that I rescued her. It’s much more selfish than that. It feels like someone was giving out pots of rainbow gold and we happened to be the first caller.

Furthermore, the word “rescue” does not suit her. Zelda is not so much rescued as retired. She had an illustrious career on the racetrack and now has retired to the country.

She has a keen interest in ornithology, has joined the local garden club and is considering Celtic harp lessons. She hasn’t told me she wants harp lessons but I did find the Adult Continuing Education catalog in her bed with the Celtic Harp page torn out.

Conclusions were drawn.

Having a dog is a new experience for us. Over the years we’ve become very pragmatic. We have chickens who lay eggs. We have a cat who is supposed to keep the mouse population to a dull roar. We’ve considered a goat.

We love our friends’ dogs, but didn’t see how it made sense for us. Big bags of food, an obligation to walk and responsibility for another life did not add up to a good idea.

Having no reason to get a dog, and no compelling justification for one, we have been dogless all these years.

Needing a reason is highly overrated.

When the dog moved in, the mouse population moved out – something we thought might happen during the cat’s 12 year tenure. There was not a lot of hoopla. There were no headless rodents in the middle of the floor. They just moved.

Perhaps they felt outclassed. In the last month, Zelda has added an element of grace to our home and our family. I feel like English nobility when I walk her. She is elegant, gentle and graceful. And that’s just the external bit. She has given the kids a sense of responsibility. She encourages us to take walks as a family.

We do things for Zelda that we don’t do for ourselves. Love does that.

Adding grace and kindness to a home is at least as practical as backyard chickens. When did we become so pragmatic? At what point did we start needing to see a tangible benefit to things?

It turns out there is a tangible benefit after all. When you invite in qualities of grace and unconditional love, they take up lodging in the most unexpected places. Everywhere you look, you see their blessing.

Neighbors are kinder. Children are more thoughtful. Your own heart feels lighter.

That’s at least as good as scrambled eggs, and absolutely worth the price of Celtic harp lessons.

This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga