50 Stories, Week 13: Yellowstone Summer

In June of 1993, I was pregnant – again. Despite having been on the pill for years and using a diaphragm correctly, this was the third time my body tried to make me a mother before I was ready. I was slated to spend my summer working in Yellowstone National Park and my boyfriend Richard had plans to ride his motorcycle up the west coast. After deciding to have an abortion, a close girlfriend brought me to Planned Parenthood and held my hand tightly. It was rushed – the decision making, the procedure, the healing expectations. Summer had begun and there was no time to mull the loss or feelings of uncertainty. My relationship with Richard was on hold since we were going our separate ways. I was unclear about the future, except that I was embarking on an adventure and it was not the kind that comes with having a baby.

Boarding the Greyhound bus in San Diego that night, I prepped for a 27 hour ride with countless stops and transfers to West Yellowstone. I curled my body up like a snail, knees against the back of the seat in front of me with my sweatshirt bunched up between my shoulder and cheek, and slept for hours. When I woke up, we were pulling into Barstow, and I popped out for a smoke. The layover was a long one, so I decided to use the bathroom inside the station – a luxury after the janky toilet at the back of the bus. When I came back out, I saw a sweet looking guy with shaggy brown hair and glasses, his head buried in a book, laying against a massive backpack. I was looking for a space to stretch my legs out so I sat down next to him. His name was Marc and by the time we boarded the bus, I knew I wouldn’t sleep until we parted ways in Wyoming. Marc was all intelligence and curiosity. He was an environmental studies graduate student, heading somewhere in the Canadian northwest territory on a research grant. We talked about everything – the cold war, religion, philosophy, nature, and of course, love. It was exciting to speak in metaphors and dig deep into my beliefs which, unbeknownst to me, were so malleable at the time. We used every inch of space between our two seats to eventually fold on top of each other – legs on legs and arms intertwined, even spooning while we watched the stunning countryside pass us by. I was elated and calm all at once, because I knew that part of the adventure would be over as quickly as it began. Marc wrote to me later that summer from a stop at Glacier Lake in the Canadian Rockies – saying it reminded him of Yellowstone. “I’ve been thinking about you since you got off the bus. What a ride! I should have married you in Las Vegas when I had the chance. I wonder if you got to sleep when you got to Yellowstone. Seems like I’ve been trying to catch up on my sleep for the past two days and I’m still out of it. But it was worth it. This is what you might call my basic – I really, really, really enjoyed our trip and wanted to make sure you know it. Miss you.” Meeting Marc gave me a feeling of possibility, that if I kept saying yes, I would be provided with what I needed. He reminded me that I was smart, beautiful, and interesting. And that I didn’t need to continue judging myself for my last bad decision. 

I didn’t get much sleep when I finally arrived but it wasn’t simply due to the deprivation brought on by hours of nonstop kissing and conversation with Marc. It was because from the moment I got off the bus to start my summer, so did everyone else. First we were assigned to a location – Grant Village for me. Then we had orientation, assigned our dorm rooms, met our roommates, found out our job assignments, where to eat, how to mail a letter, what to do in an emergency, and so on. My roommate’s names were Shannon and Jill – and our inner door opened to another room with two girls named Dominique and Gena. Across the hall was Kevin, Brian, Bradley, Guy and West. This was our crew for the summer and we became inseparable – from working, eating, and drinking together to hiking, camping, and exploring the surrounding areas. It was a quick initiation. Most of these kids were between 18-21 and from affluent backgrounds – their parents ‘forced’ them to work during the summer before or during college and they figured this was the least amount of effort with the most amount of fun. They were right. I was 23, though – old, relatively speaking – and working to live so I couldn’t call in sick as often as they did. 

I was assigned as a waitress at the Grant Village Dining Room, which overlooked the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Occasionally, I had a breakfast shift, which required showing up at 6am – far too early for most people, and certainly for someone who had been drinking and smoking until approximately three hours beforehand. Yet, I began to look forward to those shifts. A forced entry into the morning air where I would ride my bike on the trail from our dormitories to the restaurant. I was moving too quickly for the mosquitos to land, and when I looked up at the canopy of trees, I felt protected. In those moments of quiet and solitude, I felt fearless, which was not how I was feeling day-to-day. In addition to processing another abortion and my relationship with Richard, I was experiencing an extra level of free floating anxiety.

Choosing to live in a National Park assumes you enjoy hiking and camping. It wouldn’t make much sense to live somewhere that beautiful and not explore. Except my fear was keeping me with one foot in the safety of my dorm room. Though I’d been outdoorsy before, and I felt a strong connection to nature in all its glory, I was terrified to be in the honest to goodness wilderness. Every step I took, I fought the stream of questions running through my head… How much longer was the hike? Would I fall and get a concussion? Would I be bit by a snake or attacked by a bear? Or both? How high did one have to hike before feeling oxygen deprivation? What are the symptoms of heat stroke? What if that boulder on the hill comes loose and crushes me? It was exhausting. So, when I let myself be peer-pressured into getting out, I stuck with the mellower hikes on well-trodden paths. 

Until one day, Gena and Dominique asked me to join them on a backcountry camping trip around Heart Lake. There was strength in numbers, they said, and thought I was funny so could be good company. I remember thinking that these two girls were probably popular in high school. Cool, with an edge of bitchiness. And even at 23, my unfulfilled high school ideals of being fully accepted compelled me to say yes. I felt a bit nervous in my gut but the first day of hiking was easy, mostly downhill and I stayed distracted by chatting away. We set up camp near the lake – back then you didn’t need reservations, we just left a handwritten note at the trailhead and that was good enough. The next day, we were out for a day hike when I started feeling funky. I had an adrenaline rush and felt my guts begin to rumble. I’d had this experience with anxiety before, a rush of needing to let go of my innards. I quickly found a place for me to relieve myself, drank some water, and rejoined the girls. While I was still new to self-awareness, I had a yoga practice by then and I remember checking in with my body and mind. Is this one of my many anxious thoughts, or is something actually wrong? About thirty minutes later, I felt a swift headache. Shortly after, cramps and another bout of diarrhea. I felt clammy and couldn’t figure out what was going on until a lightbulb-slash-question mark went off in my throbbing head. Last week, when our group went swimming at those falls and I filled up my Nalgene bottle, did I remember to use my water filter?

No. 

No, I did not. 

Eventually, dehydration set in. My heart was racing, and my low energy was accompanied by delirium. Thankfully, Gena and Dominique had just the right amount of worry (or irritation that I was putting a damper on their trip) to go find a ranger. I stayed put and after what felt like days later, a nice man on a horse came upon me. The horse seemed enormous, or perhaps the man was tiny. Things got surreal looking up from the ground. Where I’d been afraid hours earlier, I’d reached a state of resolve – as in, I resolved to die out there and that seemed about right. I thought perhaps this was nature’s way of punishing me for the intervention I’d chosen. I remember being picked up and strewn over the back of the horse, then a bumpy ride back to the trailhead where an ambulance was waiting. They hooked me up to an IV and I quickly began to feel better as we headed back to the village. Until the embarrassment set in. Gina and Dominique had to go back to our site, pack everything up including my gear, and hike back out to the car. I felt like a grade A loser for not remembering to filter my water and having a body that couldn’t manage a little foreign bacteria. I thought no amount of self-deprecating humor was going to smooth it over but when I saw them later at dinner, they were genuinely concerned about how I was feeling. And it turned out they had their own adventure to tell about a black bear that crossed their path on the way back. All was forgiven.

At the end of July, there was a talent show in our village. We’d been seeing signs the past few weeks, inviting campers to bust out their kazoos and hone their magic tricks. Bradley and Guy said they wanted to play a couple of songs for the show but needed someone to sing, and asked me to join them. Could I sing? I thought so. My father sang in a barbershop quartet and chorus since before I was born. We sang show tunes together and I loved singing along with the radio. But my sister used to tell me that I had a bad voice, that I was trying too hard to sound like other people, so instead I would end up singing silly and over the top. I knew, deep down, though, that I could carry a tune and since my vulnerability was on full display that summer, I said yes. The guys wanted to do two songs, something fun and something that would allow them to get deep in their jam, whatever that meant. We went with Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz & Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance. When the big night came, I was excited and terrified but in a good way. I got up there, sang my heart out, hit all the notes, felt the levity of Mercedes Benz and the pain of Sinead’s words, and let go completely. And then… we won! Somehow, in that little cafeteria, with people clapping for me, I felt elated. Until we realized that winning meant that we were entered into the park-wide talent show the following week, in front of hundreds of attending campers. I wish I could say that I had a cold or another bout of diarrhea to excuse that performance – but the truth is that we didn’t rehearse once since winning the week before. When the big night came, performing on an actual stage with hundreds of people sitting and watching, we collectively choked. Guy broke a string on his guitar, Bradley’s drumming wasn’t in sync, and I was breathing from so high in my chest that every note sounded as if I was being strangled. Needless to say, we didn’t win that one. It was, however, a stark reminder of how with a little extra effort and less fear, we could have kicked ass.

By the end of the summer, I’d successfully done another backcountry trip, went camping with a group of twenty friends in the Grand Tetons, and whitewater rafted down the Snake River. Fear became my friend, I acknowledged her briefly then told her I was doing it anyway. On the last night of the season, we had a huge bonfire on the lakefront beach. Everyone was there, all of us over the excitement and adrenaline of our daily adventures but still unsure of what our futures held. We sipped our beers quietly and watched a meteor shower stream across the sky.

Out there, under the stars and the big sky, the safety and terror of the forest, the bison and the bears, the cool kids and the misfits… I realized that I had been healed. That I would get another chance to bring life into the world, when the time was right. 

50 Stories, Week 9: Things That I’m Unreasonably Afraid Of (aka Anxiety 101)

How I’m coping during the pandemic…

This week of pandemic was rough. Maybe I needed a glass of wine to get those words down, but so be it. I’m not sleeping much. My dreams, like many of yours, have been absolute batshit crazy – like last night’s combo of befriending Kelly Clarkson while working at a dress shop and never being able to catch a sunset, no matter how fast I ran toward the horizon. I could analyze these dreams but most of them make zero sense other than to say my general free-floating anxiety has been amped up past 1000% and needed an outlet, so dreams it is.

In the spirit of staying vulnerable and meeting myself where I am – my story this week is more of a present tense unpolished brain dump…

I usually take pride in facing my fears. A welling up of crippling anxiety would be just the thing to get me going on my next adventure, my next bit of growth. But lately, I’ve felt paralyzed. Oh sure, I keep busy trying to make sourdough bread (four recipes down, a bajillion to go!) but when I get like this, I don’t recognize myself.

When I was a teenager, I had massive panic attacks, convinced that I would die every night. I could feel my heart beating and racing and was convinced it would stop. Just stop because how could it keep pumping so hard and fast while I was laying still? As an adult, all through my 20’s and early 30’s, I taught myself some coping mechanisms. I can say with clarity that finding yoga saved my literal life. Things became slightly more manageable. When I was convinced that stepping on a crack would, in fact, break my mother’s back, I would take a long, slow inhale and tell myself “Don’t be a crazy person. That is not based in truth.” Now, I know, we shouldn’t say that anymore – ‘crazy person’ – but back then, and even now at times, it is the difference between me being paralyzed on a sidewalk until someone bumps into me and being able to keep walking.

So, I felt some level of progress. But that didn’t always work and my racing heart or monkey mind would compel me to head to the closest hospital, convinced I was having a heart attack. I cannot accurately convey how many times I went to the ER in the middle of the night – when everyone is sleeping and I couldn’t possibly wake up a friend or lover or child (!) to tell them what was going on. I was almost always dehydrated, had a racing heart and diarrhea. The nurses would dismissively tell me I’m just stressed out and usher me off, since they could be treating someone with a real emergency. At one point, a doctor just gave me a handful of Valium. I didn’t want to take it but I hadn’t slept in days. When I did, I thought “Ohhhhhh this is why people do drugs.” I wanted that feeling forever. And ever. So I’ve never done it again.

In my mid-30’s, long after my Dad died and I left my son’s father, I found a therapist who gave me words for what I was experiencing. Anxiety, OCD, possibly brought on from some trauma as a child (oh right, my brother died right before I was born!) or funky brain chemistry. I’m guessing we all have a combo but it manifests differently. Some better than others.

Here’s how my anxiety still shows up, on the daily:

I’m in Hawaii in a beautiful location, with a view of the ocean, listening to the sounds of the waves, the breeze, the perfect temperature, fully fed and clothed and having the love of an incredible man, and still thinking ‘Well, when I go volunteer with at the horse shed, maybe a power tool is going to fly off the shelf and stab me in the leg, right where there is a main artery and since we’re on a tiny island with only clinics, I won’t be able to get help in time and I’ll bleed out alone on a farm. Or that the water I’m drinking from the water purifier is actually poison since they probably don’t change the filters and it’s so humid here I’m sure some crazy ass bacteria has been sitting around waiting to manifest in my stomach and kill me.’

I’m not afraid of things like kayaking or hiking anymore because I’ve already assumed I’ll be capsized and the kayak will hit my head and drown or I’ll be blown off a cliff when hiking. I’ve thought those scenarios through a million times in the past, while simultaneously doing those activities. When it’s something I haven’t done before, I get to be bombarded with a thousand new, tiny and enormous worries. 

Most of the time, it’s like having a constant fear that all the fire escapes in Manhattan are going to fall on my head the second I walk under them. That someone will have sneezed in my salad and they have tuberculosis and my immunity is gone and well, TB. That if I don’t touch the outside of the plane and write during takeoff and landing, we will fall from the sky. That if I don’t count to an even number while I put on my mascara or while the water is running, I will cease to exist.

Other things I’m unreasonably afraid of in no particular order: Caves. Bats. Snakes. Hiking very high, like Kilimanjaro. Did I mention caves? The Amazon. Antarctica. Helicopters. Flying inter India and inter African flights. Plane crashes in general. Heart attacks and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and ALS. The color yellow.

Being underground. Being understood. Being buried alive. Being accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Being pushed out of a car but then caught on something and just dragged along the road for miles. 

What else? Oh right, I sneezed earlier and thought I had a mini stroke. 

So, I have to laugh at myself because otherwise, I will drive myself, and everyone around me, totally crazy. (Can I reclaim the word crazy? Please?) 

For the most part, my anxiety is generally unfounded. I’m not being chased by a damned bear, after all. Except right now… maybe I am. And I don’t have bear spray, I only have a mask and hand sanitizer and the hope that my fellow hikers believe in community over self. 

Friendship, blendship

If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship

Perhaps its part of a midlife reflection but these last few months, my thoughts keep coming back to the topic of friendship.

During my trip to India, my BFF and I got on the phone and did a temperature check on our 30+ year friendship. We met back when we were 16, living in suburban New Hampshire, smoking cigarettes and being as punk as we could muster. On more than one occasion, she pulled me out of the depths of heartbreak and provided a judgement-free ear to listen and shoulder to cry on. During a senior year trip to Montreal, she saved us from a potentially hairy situation with the Mounties. When I moved 3,000 miles away, she wrote me funny, sappy cards for my birthday, and made time for me when I came back to visit. She was the best woman at my wedding. And still through the decades, I have moments when I doubt the strength and validity of our friendship. So what’s that all about?

Over time, we have all sorts of relationships and its inevitable that if you’re a seeker like me, you might occasionally reflect, compare or contrast. You may start to wonder – is it ok to have a consistent back and forth with one friend or family member, but with another, years can pass without speaking? Maybe. Is there enough give and take, sharing (aka being vulnerable) and listening (aka shutting up)? I don’t know. Is it ok to be the one primarily reaching out or asking to make plans? And if not, what can be done about it at this stage/age? I’ve had to be honest with myself about what kind of friend, wife, daughter, sister I’ve been in the past. It has been a bumpy evolution of stepping up, determining what I want from those around me, finding a willingness to ask, and then letting go. I might have another good 30-40 years here and I’ve been thinking about where I want to be spending my energy.

So, what’s a girl to do?

1. Find the why. I happen to enjoy my own company so I’d be perplexed if people were agreeing to spend time with me who didn’t feel the same. But people do! We feel guilty, or maybe we like the burden of having to tend to that one friend or family member (I mean, how many times can someone listen to ex-boyfriend or shitty work drama?) because we can pat ourselves on the back later for being a good person. Maybe we simply feel an obligation, especially when it comes to family. But trust, no one likes to be the center of a pity party. It does nothing to move the relationship forward, so if you’re guilty of doing this – or being on the receiving end – take a beat and reflect on your intention. Why continue? What are you getting out of it and giving into it?

2. Radical honesty. This is something my husband and I try to practice as often as is feasible, and something I’ve been acutely aware of most of my life as I have a poor filter between my brain and mouth. But my husband had a mini-panic attack when I said there was a kerfluffle between me and my bestie. “Do not rock the boat,” was basically his advice, because he loves me and her and us. I couldn’t just apologize for my poor behavior, though (I was passive aggressive in a text exchange,) and not address my fear about where our relationship stood. Our conversation was not fun or easy, but it was necessary to gather information and move forward.

3. Step up. I’ve taken some action lately – or more accurately, not taken any action – to set myself up for more successful relationships. After being brutally honest with a family member last month, I feel a weight has been lifted. I no longer feel the need to put energy into a relationship that isn’t rewarding. (I mean, unless I need a kidney or something and then I’ll be eating crow, as they say.) On the flip side, if I’m made aware that I haven’t been showing up and letting my loved ones know they are loved, I can decide to do more if it feels right. At the end of the day, most of us just want to be considered.

4. Know when to say no (more.) Despite our best intentions, through love and honesty and work, some relationships end. Lives split in different directions and we realize we cannot get our needs met. I had a girlfriend for many years whom I thought would be part of my life forever. We were as close as I thought we could be, and then one day in 2005, she wrote me a break-up letter. At the time, I was dumbfounded – I thought I’d been a good friend. It turns out though, that she wanted something more or different (but hadn’t let me know what, exactly, during the previous fifteen years,) so she dumped me. With love, of course. Now that I have perspective, I am grateful for the letter, that she had the courage to explain her actions – even if I was the source of her disappointment. It’s better than being ghosted.

I’m not a perfect person but I am a good person, capable of growth and change where desired. I am still learning how to be the best version of myself, and right now that means investigating my relationships – starting new ones, working on present ones, or ending those that aren’t serving me any longer.

To healthy relationships all around!

Sidenote: pity parties are, in fact, ok with me but only if I’m home alone, in my most comfy jammy bottoms, favorite tank top, massive soft wool cardigan, hours and hours of Lost and Alias episodes, and mini-peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s. THAT is an acceptable pity party.

You feel me?

Before I get into my trip to Italy, I’ve had something else on my mind this past week, this trip, this lifetime.

Being understood.

I read a quote recently that “being loved is great, but being understood is profound.” I heard that and I thought YES! Of course we need love but we also need understanding and these don’t always (or often) go hand in hand. I want to be got. You feel me?

During this month away, I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt like someone just does not ‘get me.’ The language barrier, the cultural taboos, not to mention breaks in wifi or cell service. Travel can be rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings. Usually after a short round of charades or oversimplification of words, our needs can be met, but the feeling that goes along with not being understood leaves one feeling exposed.

Everyone has had these moments. You explain something to a friend or colleague and they look at you like… um, come again? Or a family member that knows you’re expressing something important and they are trying to get it but… no dice. As a writer, it can be crippling to know you’re leaving people confused by what you’re trying to convey. Part of the problem is that we are not taught to be good listeners. We are often crafting our response while the person speaking to us is mid-sentence. We don’t ask enough questions, to get clarity and even help move the conversation forward.

The other part of the problem, though, is that when we’re most in need of being understood, we are at our most vulnerable. And to feel heard, we can be emotional, over complicate, talk in a stream of consciousness, try to get everything out but end up missing the point.

This is where our actual, honest to goodness friends come in. You know the kind – compassionate but clear, loyal but won’t put up with any bullshit. People who will listen, truly listen to your process, and help you get clear on how you feel, what you mean to say. People who can say, “Listen, I love you but you are being a crazy person right now. Stop. Rewind. Start again.”

All of this is to say that while traveling can sometimes leave you raw, reconnecting with loved ones can heal you up. So thank you to the friends and family that have checked in on me during, or become part of, my journey.

And to clarify, in case sharing my experiences here have given anyone the wrong idea (like the anonymous commenter trying to invalidate my observations,) I did not hate India. I can be radically honest here and share my experiences but I can’t control how they are perceived. This was all true, for me. I’d be lying if I said the trip was easy, but I wasn’t looking for easy, I was looking for real. Beautiful, difficult, happy, terrified – it was all the things. As a friend of mine told me – Mother India will take you in, chew you up, and spit you out – hopefully with your soul a little bit cleaner. That’s all I could have asked for.

Truth.

So on to Rome, Modena, Florence… oh my! My sweet friend Jennifer met me in Rome where we had a much needed girls weekend. It felt like a real vacation for both of us. Then we came back to Modena (think chef Massimo Bottura and show Master of None fame,) where she and her man live. We took a quick day trip to Florence yesterday, and on Sunday I’ll head to London to visit my sweet niece and see three inspiring plays.

Some observations this past week:

  1. Food. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about food in Italy? Nothing. Just come here and eat your heart out.
  2. In Rome, we walked up the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica – 551 steps up. And it occurred to me that places like these are not accessible to everyone. I don’t mean the privilege of having the financial means to travel. Even if they got here, many people could not ascend the steps (or cobblestone roads of these ancient towns.) Inside the basilica, there is an elevator that gets you about halfway up but the other 200+ stairs are through narrow walkways. When I say narrow, I mean from the width of my shoulders with maybe an inch or two on each side to spare, with the dome wall curving inward. So, even if you are able bodied, if you are the size of an average American, you couldn’t do it. Maybe sideways. If you’re blind, someone could walk with you. If you’re not able to walk, you could hire people to carry you on their back. But what if you’re a larger human being? Then I thought, are we going to take all of these historical and architectural masterpieces, along with the towns they are in, and change their integrity and accuracy to accommodate absolutely everyone (#inclusivity)? I can’t help but think, though, that there are reasons we keep historical artifacts (and plain old facts) the way they were. That was my inner conflict for the week, when I wasn’t preoccupied thinking about how to change the completely insane shooting epidemic in my own country.
  3. Nobody wears helmets here either! Ok, on motorcycles, yes, but bicycles no. And while it may be a cultural thing and I’m the odd one out here to think people need them, I will never be cycling around without one. Jackson, his Dad, my husband and I have all had bike accidents and wearing helmets did us a world of good. I get it, the culture is different so car drivers don’t have mad road rage for cyclists like many parts of the U.S. But still, why take the chance with your one and only melon? It is very cute, though, to see old ladies and old men peddling around, especially when they throw their grandkids on the back.
  4. Winter comes to Modena, hardcore. It’s currently 35 degrees and snowing as of this moment! Yesterday in Florence it was 40 with whipping wind, but this has actually been good because every tourist attraction was a breeze to visit.
  5. Italy really does have super stylish people everywhere, young and old. Either very sleek wearing black head to toe or completely over the top with shiny sparkly silver or gold shoes and brocades and fur and bright red lipstick. Love.

Photos!

When navigating to find our restaurant one night, we literally walked into the Colosseum. Very cool during the day, yes, but beautiful and eerie even at night.

I found my people…

Typical Roman apartment balcony. Just sweetness and greenery.

Funny story about this photo below at Trevi Fountain. Back when I moved to NYC, a woman I’d briefly known 10 years earlier in SF sent me a Facebook message, asking if I wanted to be connected to her attractive, available brother. I said yes, of course, but the first photo I ever saw of my now-husband was him in front of Trevi Fountain from a recent trip. I remember thinking, damn, she was right, so handsome. Did I mention he’s half Italian? Here I am expressing that I won the jackpot.

Here is the view of Rome from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome. Insanely high, yes!

Probably a familiar painting, right? Touching the hand of god and all but you know what? It’s small. And it is one of dozens of other equally impressive ceiling paintings. Technically you’re not allowed to take photos but once I saw a group of Japanese tourists breaking the rule, I didn’t stop myself. Maybe they don’t want people to know how tiny his ‘charm’ is.

This, on the other hand, it huge. It feels even bigger than its 17 feet. It is awe some, beautiful, breathtaking even.

In a cafe in Modena, they have famous people and quotes on the wall, including the inspiration for the name of this blog… “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

Cute girls freezing their tails off in Florence!

A view of Florence from the Uffizi Gallery. Bellissimo!

Just breathe.

I’m currently on a train from Haridwar to Faridabad, where I thought I’d be volunteering this week. Turns out my ‘cold’ was just my body’s reaction to this terrible air pollution. I broke out in a neck rash Thursday and it seems to be here to stay. When I’m not wearing my face mask, I’m coughing and sneezing. As Faridabad is the 2nd most polluted city in the country (next to Delhi,) I decided to change my plans. I’ve felt badly about this and struggled with the decision because a big part of why I came here, or at least what I told myself, is to volunteer. I had such a wonderful experience doing it in Brazil, I was hoping to do more.

However, without my physical health, I won’t be able to keep going on this adventure, so I gotta do what I gotta do. Hours have passed since I started this and now I’m driving to Agra to see the Taj Majal. It was not high on my list but you know, when in Rome. I’ll then do a couple of days at Ranthambore National Park before heading to Jaipur. This is all, of course, dependent on many things out of my control. I’ve always lived knowing that change is constant, but I’m reminded here daily that flexibility and adaptation are the keys to sanity.

“The whole world is inside of us”

The most significant reflection of my time in Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga, is the irony of what’s being communicated. That everything you need is already inside of you, and also please come to India to search for something outside of ourselves.

Why are we constantly forgetting this? I’m not going to blame it on the media or consumerism, and I’m also not saying that its human nature. I think for many, it is not even considered. What does that even mean, right?

Trust me when I tell you that you don’t need to come to India (or Brazil or Kripalu or Burning Man) to realize that everything you need is already inside. You can find it in your home, your garden, your car… wherever you’re able to take five minutes to breathe, and learn how to listen to your intuition. It will tell you everything you need to know. But they call it a practice for a reason! It takes time. There is no fast lane to self-awareness and peace of mind.

The questions that are becoming clearer to me on this trip are: how can I be of service? And what is my vocation, my calling? I’m good at many things but not great at one. The answer here is, as Rilke says, to ‘live the questions now,’

For me, traveling is the best time for me to get still with my thoughts, not be distracted by, oh, all the things, and be present enough to contemplate. In fact, I was saying this to my husband yesterday, here I have no choice to be present. I’m so present every day, its exhausting! Each moment, an opportunity for some new discovery or situation. I do understand how privileged and lucky I am to be able to travel. I’ve been a seeker and a traveler my whole life. I traveled when I had a baby and a job that paid me, um, well shit? My point is that it has always been a priority, so it happened for me. Your priorities may be different, if so great! Wherever you can find the downtime… just breathe.

Recovering in Rishikesh

Hari Om!

I arrived in Rishikesh Monday afternoon and promptly took a five hour nap. This jet lag has been worse than usual. I’m both tired and excited so pushing myself to stay awake and then crashing, hard. I got my first full night’s sleep in a week and then like clockwork, woke up with a cold. I figure there are worse places to heal than along the Ganges, at the foot of the Himalayas, am I right?

So, this place. #hereareallthewhiteladies, mostly 20 years younger and with friends. There is a yoga studio or ashram or hotel on every corner. I admit that I imagined it differently – less populated, more pristine maybe. But that is not the reality, not so far anyway. Don’t misunderstand… seeing the sun rise over the mountain ridge and the gentle movement of the cloudy green river is truly stunning. However, it is juxtaposed with the trash lined banks, throngs of people, and loud animals and vehicles.

India, to be sure.

Tuesday morning, I went for a walk toward the Lakshman Jhula pedestrian suspension bridge. On my way, I overheard a woman asking a man where to find a particular ashram. He said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Baba is going to do a puja at 10am!” So I stopped and said, “Can I come with?” They smiled, we made introductions (I’d made a goal to introduce myself to 1-2 new people every day. So far, so good!) and I walked toward the Sachcha Ashram. There was a young man scrubbing the steps of the meditation hall and I asked if I could help. It felt good to do some manual labor. Seth is about 23 and from Orange County, where my boy’s Dad’s family is from, so we connected quickly. Turns out the guru of this ashram is only in town for the next few weeks and doesn’t usually do a fire puja at the river, so it was very fortunate for me. The ritual was beautiful – chanting mantras, tossing marigold caps into the river, and sprinkling us attendees with Ganga water.

Sometimes you have to be vulnerable and ask to be included. We are often stuck in our own head, that may be our nature. It takes a lot to say “Hey, would you like to join us?” or “Can I come with you?” Even here, in this place of spirituality and openness. I have heard quite a few times this trip that I am ‘brave’ – for coming here and traveling alone for so long. I don’t think that I’m brave. I think we are conditioned to fear the worst in people. Yes, there are those that in their desperation make terrible decisions. For the most part, though, people are the same everywhere, with the same needs and wants for ourselves, our friends and family. I remind myself of this when I feel my anxiety creep in.

Yesterday, I met a lovely Bengali woman in one of my yoga classes and we hung out the rest of the day. She is from Canada, traveling with her Mom to spread the ashes of her Dad in the river. We talked of how many people come here to find something, to escape something, to ascend to something… and all the while, their reality is still at home, waiting for them to return. My daily routine includes a solid 15 minutes of wondering why I’m here. Why now, why India, what am I looking for? The only thing I know for sure is that it felt like the right time, the right place, and I believe all will be revealed. Or not.

A few more highlights:

  1. Every morning at 4am, I am awoken by the sound of clomping donkeys going to work. They are brought down to the river where they have their sacks filled with sand and rocks, and then brought back up the hill to their respective villages.
  2. Last night’s super blue blood moon. Because the hazy clouds rolled in later, it was like we were looking through gauze but still magical…
  3. The weather here has been clear, between 45-70 degrees F, and no mosquitos. Yes, its cold and windy in the morning, but I’m enjoying this while I can seeing as how the following month of my trip will be all about Deet and A/C and pollution mask-wearing.
  4. The manager of the cafe across the street – every morning, he comes up from his sleeping space, takes off his shoes, puts his hands in prayer position and bows twice to the sun rising behind the mountain. A simple ritual of gratitude.

More photos!

There are loads of statues and shrines here, like this massive one of Shiva.

My first view of the Ganges…

This was during the fire/puja I was lucky enough to stumble onto with followers of Sri Prem Baba.

A little alley art/advertising.

There are cows everywhere (and dogs, pigs, goats, monkeys – see the roof?) They don’t care about things like cars and mopeds and pedestrians. And wow, can they moo loudly.

King monkey. We almost got attacked yesterday by a mama monkey because her teeny tiny babies were too cute to go unnoticed and as soon as we got closer, she howled. This guy is just chillin.

Peace.

Reflections of the sky…

Villagers on their way home at dusk…

Sunset on the Ganga…

Forgive yourself

When I began learning meditation, about 20+ years ago, the school of thought was that you could force your brain to be silent – that is how enlightenment would come. Stare at the flame of a candle, think blank thoughts… when I hear this now, it seems preposterous. Through decades of research, we have a better understanding of the human brain. Learning to achieve a cessation of mind chatter, a silencing, is like training a puppy. Which, anyone who has had a puppy knows, can be frustrating, annoying, and requires patience and consistency. And now that mediation, yoga, mindfulness, and any activity that is supposed to bring about a greater sense of self is all the rage in the Western world, the pressure to do so – especially here in our United States of Competition, is great and inevitably linked to failure. In that mindset, if you’re unable to achieve a pretzel body and a quiet mind, its more likely you’ll give up and go eat a bagel. At least, that’s what I do. Along with some general beating up on one’s self. ‘It’s not for me, I’m not good enough, I can’t do it,’ yada yada. What we don’t learn, what we can’t learn until someone has brought us up this way or taught us, is that it’s alright to forgive yourself. It’s imperative, actually.

I read an article recently about the founder of Spanx. When she was growing up, at the dinner table her father would ask what she had done to fail that week. He’d high-five her if she had a failure to share, defining failure as ‘not trying’ instead of ‘not succeeding’. We can’t grow or learn without struggle, and failures. And so, I forgive myself – for not meditating the last couple of days, for not making a blog entry yesterday, for overreacting to something my stepdaughter said last week, for not communicating to my man about my needs, for making a social faux pas with a friend. I used to hang on to all of these failures. Each and every one, and they would pile up and I’d feel that I couldn’t possibly achieve anything – good relationships, self-care, progress in my writing, or ever truly realizing what good I am to the world. It is a work in progress to let these things go, to realize I was lazy – which is a quality I abhor in others – and that everything is still going to be all right. But I’m trying.

Be the adult.

I joined a meet-up for Stepparents. I’m not a joiner, so this was difficult for me. I like to try new things, see what sticks, but once I decide to do something with regularity (re: yoga for the last 25 years,) I end up hating the joiner culture that surrounds it. Most would call this community, I do recognize that.

So, last night, I went back and forth in my mind of all the reasons why I wasn’t going to go – I would have to drag my ass at night to Manhattan, it was in a crap part of town, I didn’t know anyone, they would surely be lame, or god forbid, they would think I was lame (I wasn’t, FYI, I was hilarious.) And then, like magic, Jason called from his business trip to ask my what my plans were. I had a choice to lie, which in these circumstances I just call not-sharing-every-detail, but decided to tell him I was conflicted about going. He reminded me, as always, that it is good to push ourselves out of our comfort zone yada yada. He wasn’t the one going into a room full of strangers. But he is my mirror and he was right, so I went.

They weren’t lame. I mean, they were a little weird, some of them, but not lame. I did my brutally honest, self-deprecating schtick and they laughed out loud at points. Over the course of the two hours, though, I realized that despite all of our stories and backgrounds being very different, we did actually have a connection. A feeling of not being at home in our homes. A feeling of selfishness and helplessness. And a desire to learn skills and hear advice to make it work.

One thing that resonated with me was the moderator relaying a story about the conflict between her and her step-daughter. She was feeling frustrated and petulant (the stepmom,) and things were deteriorating, and she had to keep reminding herself of the golden rule – Always be the adult. Be. The. Adult.  I heard those words and immediately got grumpy and defensive. But I don’t waaaaaaant to always be the adult. I am, always, the adult! I had to be an adult before I was an adult, before I had a child of my own to parent. I am independent and responsible (despite what my ex always feared,) and now, at 45, when I’m constantly having my buttons pushed by a 12 year old who mostly hates me (and herself,) I don’t want to be the adult!

And yet. I have to. I will continue to fuck up. My relationship with the girls may or may not get better or worse, but I still have to remember that until they are adults, I have to be the adult. Their mom and dad don’t actually have to be the adults all the time, because they are forgiven for their indiscretions and foibles and even their resentment or antagonism. Its built in, this forgiveness as children. Not me, though, not the stepmother. Even when I apologize, I am not forgiven. It is remembered, and it is shaping our relationship. So, do I continue to start each week with them walking on eggshells? Deciding to see how long I can not engage with them, for fear of saying the wrong thing? Forgetting how to be myself because I know the person I am isn’t the person they choose to be with?

I don’t know. I do know better, though.