Heart Center

The white windmills on highway 47 north cut through the deep blue Midwestern sky.  I turned onto a side road and got out of my car to take in the sweeping panoramic views that included waving cornfields, blue wild asters, and a stoic barn in the distance.

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When I arrived at the conference center in North Lake, Illinois, I didn’t know what to expect.  I was there to attend a weekend yoga retreat called BhaktiFest Midwest.  I have practiced bhakti (the yoga path of love and devotion) with Saul David Raye (an internationally known teacher) whenever he comes to the St. Louis area, but this time around I was going to immerse myself in the ancient traditions of kirtan, chanting (mantra), and breathwork (pranyama) as well as yoga poses (asana), and whatever other types of classes were offered.  I was curious to know if I would come away with a “blissed out” experience or if I was fooling myself into thinking that I could let go of conventions and old ways of being and allow my wild self to be present in the sessions.

I hesitated as I pulled in the parking lot next to a hippy van painted with a rainbow cosmic scene of Saturn and a guy on a surfboard.   A sense of loneliness and self-consciousness came over me as one of the volunteers wrapped the green band around my wrist and welcomed me.  Guys with man buns and lots of jewelry and women covered in tattoos and hairy armpits intermingled with men in kahki pants and Birkenstocks and women in all white with scarves around their foreheads.  Were “these people” part of my tribe now?  Did I fit in with hippies, love gurus, and mystics?  There were vendors selling their wares of mala beads, scarves, tie-dye, loose-fitting tops and pants, statues, and even cosmic readings.  I pulled my yoga mat closer to my chest and searched for the yoga room.  I wanted familiarity.  I wanted to distance myself from people who smelled like patchouli and rose water and roll out my mat and go through the motions of poses I’ve been doing for 15 years.  Thankfully, I didn’t get what I was asking for.  FullSizeRender

By the time I got to my second session of the day I had chastised myself for being so judgmental and dared myself to be more open-minded and open-hearted.  These people were fellow seekers of the heart.  People wanting to experience more than the ordinary and to be touched by the sublime.  And isn’t that what I’m doing too on this new journey?  Seeking a place where I can creatively express my emotions and experiences.  Seeking a way of being that is different than my traditional role as a mainstream English teacher, good and responsible daughter and sister, wild aunt, and single woman in a big house.  All roles I upheld by determination and default.

As I laid down on my back, preparing to be guided through a 2 hour session focused solely on the breath, I realized I don’t know that much about life or love as I pretended to know when I got to the conference. As Michael Brain Baker (the teacher, who was dressed in all white, had dreadlocks, and smelled of some heavenly rose watered scent) played cosmic sounds and chanted lullabies in Portuguese, Sanskrit, Hindi, and some other exotic languages, my body became awakened by my deep breathing (two deep inhales through the mouth and one long exhale through the mouth for 7 minute increments that were followed by periods of rest and then breath retention).  The breathing mimicked a buildup to a good cry.  The effect in the room was that of a wounded child sobbing for her mother.  I heard others wailing, crying, and moaning in anguish while my eyes were closed and we were all covered in darkness.  Anger and frustration awakened inside of me.  I wanted them to be quiet so I could have a peaceful, blissful experience.  I focused on Michael’s voice and directions.  I kept breathing, deeper and more fully, willing others to quiet themselves.  The more intense I became with my breath, the more my feet tingled, and then my hands and arms began tingling as well.  I got worried when my scalp tightened and my mouth started to go numb as well, but still I kept breathing faster and more intense.  One of the helpers in the room must have sensed my intensity and she came over and I felt some warm drop of rose scented liquid on my forehead.  Then, I heard her breathing, softly, sweetly, and calmly.  I took her cue and my short-circuited nervous system stopped going haywire.  She stayed with me for what felt like a long time.  Her presence at the crown of my head.  Cool air from the central air spread across my chest and I shivered then breathed, shivered then breathed.  I kept hearing her rhythmic breath and she was never far away from me, even as others cried and giggled and eventually burst into wild laughter and howling.  Next came pure silence as we rested our controlled breathing.  I felt like I was floating due to the fact that we had been oxygenating areas of our body that rarely get the deep benefits from our shallow daily breathing.  Peace flooded the room.  And silence.  And then it happened.  My heart cracked and I began crying.  The man who was moaning in sheer agony and pain across the room suddenly became my brother and I cried for him, imagining I was holding him in my arms, cradling him and rocking him through his pain.  Tears flowed from my eyes, and the man eventually quieted.

IMG_1464In the morning, I went to a nondescript workshop conducted by a 60 year old man with a scruffy white beard.  He was wearing jeans, a buttoned down long sleeve shirt, and tennis shoes.  He played the dulcimer and talked in a meditative voice.  The topic was on freedom and liberation of the soul.  We all have attachments and deep fears and the yogis and mystics say all attachments and fears stem from the greatest fear of all:  death.  He strummed the dulcimer that was in harmony with the pulsating, warping sound coming out of an amplifier.  This grandfather of a man told us we were all safe and that we had been in this cycle of birth and re-death for thousands of years, and would continue until we learned to face our own mortality and welcome it fully and with great love.

He instructed us to close our eyes and take an inhale through our nose, saying to ourselves, “Thank you, Great Spirit.”  And as we exhaled, he said, “I’m coming home.”  It sounded too simplistic for me to see how it could be a profound experience.  Yet, I listened to my intuition and allowed myself to be guided.  Eyes closed, I began to shed my inhibitions.  I tuned in to his voice, his words, his wisdom and guidance.  For awhile, my thoughts and breaths were mechanical and methodical.  The man literally struck a chord on his dulcimer right as I inhaled and said to myself, “Thank you for this breath, Great Spirit.”  I retained my breath for a few seconds; as he struck another reverberating chord, I gently exhaled and said whole-heartedly, “I’m coming home.”  A tenderness and warmth spread over my heart center and I started crying heavy tears that ran down my face and dropped onto my chest.  I kept my eyes closed, but I cried, and I kept the mantra and breath work going.  More tenderness, more tears.  Until after maybe a half an hour the breath became seamless and the words became truth.  A clarity came over me and it excited and frightened me at the same time.  I broke the moment by opening my eyes and looking at the teacher at the front of the room.  Too much to handle all at once I suppose.  Life turned back to the ordinary matrix we function in.  I had caught a glimpse of the sublime, however, and it was no other place but at the center of my heart.

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(P.S., I added this last picture in because it’s true and it’s also a reminder not to take myself too seriously either.  Ha ha!)

The Uprooting

If you ask me about my roots, I would show you the silver-white streaks cascading from my scalp and tumbling over my curls.  I could take you out into the garden and show you my iris that my mom and I planted 2 years ago and how their rhizomes are exposed to the sun so they don’t rot away.  I could give you some family history and heritage on both my parents’ side and you would find it mildly interesting as we have still yet to discover any really salacious details of ancestors who were thieves, ladies of the night, or gypsy fortune-tellers who barely escaped a ravenous mob.   I can discuss with  you my hometown and talk to you about my adopted town I’ve lived in for 16 years.  I could list all the pros and cons of each.  I can even tell you in detail the love of my Midwestern roots and why I love Garrison Keillor and his show “Prairie Home Companion” and the nostalgia it creates when he sing-song talks about the moving mountainous clouds over the rolling prairie and tells the quaint stories of hardworking and honest to goodness good Midwesterners out there.

I’m avoiding talking about the sale of my house and the roots I failed to fully establish in that space.  I’ve lived in 3 places since I moved to this area.  The first was a small apartment across from a park.  The second was the place I stayed at the longest (10 years to be exact):  a duplex with a manageable yard in a middle-class neighborhood.  I loved it immensely, but there was a yearning to grow bigger and try something new.  That’s how I awkwardly found myself in a gorgeous cottage-style 2100 sq foot ranch home with a large yard, vaulted ceilings, open concept, 3 bedroom, 2 bath, all brick home in a really nice neighborhood, complete with a private lake within walking distance.  A  lake I was only privy to in glances among fence rows, past the neighbors’ large homes whose backyards include said lake.

A few days before I moved out, one of my neighbors, a retired teacher in her 70s, was on her morning walk.  My dog and I joined her.  She talked at me the whole entire time – projecting on to me her worries and desires about my move, and her life.  She fretted about me leaving my teaching position and worried about my pension.  She told me I should go and teach school in North Carolina where it’s not as bad as this area.  I questioned her on that, and she said, “You know.  Minorities here.  I’m sure it’s hard to teach.  Move somewhere and teach where it’s not as bad as here.”  I almost started an argument with her, but she then switched subjects and talked about her second lake home that is 50 miles away in a  “non-minority” town.  She was fussing about how she had to clean her lake house here and then go there to mow the lawn of her other lake house.  My dog and I parted ways without a goodbye.  Two weeks prior to that, another neighbor asked me if the couple moving in to my home are black or white.  When I snapped, “I don’t know.  What does it matter?”  He smiled knowingly and said, “Oh it matters.”  I walked away without even a goodbye.  It was time to leave, and not just the conversation; time to leave this neighborhood where some of the inhabitants live in isolation and fear of what is beyond their island of supposed safety and security of brick walls, nice lawns, a man-made lake that has wintering geese and egrets that spike its shoreline.

As I spent the last few days packing boxes and shipping things off to storage, I heard the spray of the broken pipe in the leaky bathroom and heard the sump pump kick in.  I shuddered to think that this home is falling apart from the inside out.  The sound only revealed itself too me after the buyers made an offer and then got their home inspection a month afterward.  The subflooring in that bathroom is rotting out and one day the toilet will be in the crawl space.  The inspection also revealed that the roof in the garage had a leak in it that caused black mold to form in the attic.  I replaced the entire roof for the new owners with the support of my insurance company.  The wiring throughout the home is shoddy and a friend who replaced light fixtures for me found that the original wires to the light fixtures were ungrounded and so he fixed them.  I went back to my own original home inspection and discovered truths I was too naive to understand at the time.  One section stated:  “If leaks are apparent, they seem to be hidden cosmetically.”  In a nutshell, the previous owner (and probably the previous owners before him) just lived in the home.  They didn’t maintain, they covered up or ignored.

I had done many repairs during the 3 years I lived there, and now the new owners will be inheriting more money pit issues because of someone else’s laziness or my oversight or lack of awareness of these issues their home inspection revealed.  Through conversations with my realtor, I sensed that this young couple were still in love with this home and wanted it so badly they could taste it.  I did whatever it took to help them realize their dream. Even lying and crying to the county inspector who was trying to tick off more items to repair on the second re-inspection after I had made all of the repairs he wanted on the first inspection.  I just wanted out.  I was not in love with the home and I was already deep into my commitment to my new life that I fought for it with not just my tiny white lies to the county inspector, but with additional repair money to the new owners, hasty packing, numerous trips to the storage unit or the Salvation Army, electronically signed forms sent from my realtor,  etc., just so I could leave faster.  In my fierce fight and flight, I forgot to mourn my loss.  I forgot to take a moment to say goodbye to all that has been good.  I forgot or ignored the parts of my body that were holding in stress.

I did finally take some time to clean the house and sit in meditation after a solid yoga practice.  I did an old Native American ritual where you burn sage and smudge every room of the house as a way to symbolically clear the energy and open the space for the new owners that would build their life here.  It felt good to actively participate in my departing, but still no real wave of emotion came to me.  I supposed that was a good sign and an indication that some part of me had already left this all behind and that the goodbyes were over with.  And so it came as a little of a surprise when I found myself crying at the kennel on the last day I picked up my dog from daycare.  Here were the sweet people who have loved us for so long and they were sad to see us go.  And I found myself crying when I stood in the Chick-fil-A parking lot one hot afternoon after eating lunch with my best friend Katie and her three kids.  I had just hugged them all deeply and kissed the 6 and 3 year old boys’ cheeks as they told me, “We love ya, bro!  We’re coming to visit you, bro!  Be good bro!”

It really hit me that I was leaving my old life and old ways the night before I left town.   I was saying goodbye to my friend Jenn and her two little children.  We were outside in her front yard, standing near their maple tree that was dappled with the light from the summer’s first full moon.  I pointed out that a young mockingbird was playing in the tree and the grass hours before when I arrived.  We all could hear him singing but couldn’t see him.  We chit-chatted a little more, and Jenn stood with her 1 year old on her hip while her 6 year old daughter danced back and forth between us.  I was feeling just fine and it didn’t resonate with me when she said to me, “You’re off on your new adventure.  I’m so proud of you, Meg.  It takes so much guts to follow your heart.  You’ll do well, and I can’t wait to see what life has in store for you.”  It wasn’t until I hugged her that I felt her strong arms hold me close to her and not let me go.  I heard a sniffle and realized she was crying.

When I finally stepped back, I saw tears running down her cheeks.  “Why are you crying?” I asked. “I’m a Virgo.  We’re loyal as hell and we don’t let go of friendships that are important to us.”  I laughed a little at my silly astronomy talk that I don’t believe in, minus the loyalty part.  She finally collected herself when her daughter hugged us and laughed, “Oh mommy.  Turn off the waterworks.  You’re Ok.”  I smiled and gave one last hug before getting in my car.  As I began to pull away, I looked up and saw my friend’s tear-streaked face as fresh new tears fell in the tracks.  My heart broke in that moment.  Here were my roots.  Here was my nourishment and my tending and my loving care support system.  In the eyes of my friend.  Of all my friends and family who love me.  The roof over my head and the walls supporting it and the neighborhood around it were very beautiful indeed, but it did not fill me up with so much love as in that moment of my friend’s heartbreak.  And I now see all of the emotions displayed by the ones I love, whether it be practical concerns, words of encouragement, or displays of hurt, sadness, worry, confusion, frustration, elation, and celebration.  They are what anchor me to my heart and allow me to stay rooted to them, no matter where I am.

Cardboard Boxes

Today, it’s raining.  I’m sitting out in my garage for the second day of what was a prosperous garage sale.  Today, the only thing I have to account for my time is the cool breeze that is blowing and the overcast sky that intermittently drops rain from passing clouds.  The little rabbit in my neighbor’s yard across the street bounds over little clumps of grass and burrows its nose in her flowers.  The breeze rustles the leaves in my maple tree, shaking loose droplets of rainwater.  The mosquito bites on my legs and arms irritate me to the point that I am compelled to scratch them in futile attempts to momentarily alleviate my suffering.  Birds call out to one another in shrills and twills.  What is it they’re saying to one another?  I want to know.  I want to be intimately acquainted with their conversations and lives, but since I don’t speak bird I’ll have to settle for their syncopated melodies.

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I wait for people to show up at my garage sale and buy my goods.  Yesterday I didn’t have a moment’s rest and happily sold off wares for $5, $1, and 50 cents.  Yesterday I didn’t think.  I smiled.  I visited.  I made change.  I gave discounts.  I made a profit and felt good that I could use that money towards my upcoming Asheville adventure. Today, I’ve made under $5 and I am forced to confront theses symbolic bits and pieces of my life.

The mismatched antique glasses of orange and turquoise half filled with water that sit on my bedside table and coffee tables.  The worn peach colored antique Fire King mixing bowl that held my first successful attempt at fancy mashed purple potatoes.  The neatly folded shirts, sweaters, and pants that I wore as a teacher now show small clumps of dog and cat hair that I have desperately been trying to brush off with the lint roller.  Tiny knick-knacks that decorated my buffet table and gave my house a homey look.  Salt and pepper shakers, Christmas ornaments, lightbulbs even – all these things that at one point meant so much to me or were a small necessity to my daily comfort – have a price on them.  Meaning, to some degree, my life has a monetary value, and a cheap one at that.

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I walk over to the book section and look at the dejected and rejected books that I once enjoyed.  Books that once captured my attention and took me away from my lonely space in my big living room and sent me around the world and to different eras:  the Vietnam War, Spain in the 1800s, or magical lands hidden in the Amazon forest.  Now, they are worth 50 cents and will transport others to the same places but allow different interpretations on how things look, feel, taste, sound, and smell.

Halloween and Christmas decorations that resided in various places around my house are now piled on top of one another in a box or are draped over a folding table in the center of my garage.  They await a new place that can return them to their former glory.  Desktop items that lauded their superiority as official property of an English teacher are now crammed together on a table and propped up against my garage wall.  They too are marked 50 cents and sit next to the costume jewelry I used to wear in my former, more glamorous and intimidating days as a demanding, yet beloved English teacher.  (And to think my students would grab that hole punch off my desk when I wasn’t looking so as to punch holes in their IDs and slip in their equally cheap lanyards so as to avoid the pricey cost of a $5 ID replacement.  Or they would use the pencils in that quirky pencil holder to draw penises on the computer paper in my printer.)

IMG_1277My friend texted me the other day and asked me how packing was going.  At that point, it was a bit overwhelming and frustrating (when is it ever really easy, though?) and I was feeling stressed, tired, and achy.  She wrote:  “We forget how much the physical is related to the emotional until we try to shove it all in a cardboard box. . .”  How right she is.  In front of me is 16 years of stuff piled up and on display for others to see some aspect of my life.  How strange that seems when put in this perspective.  Even the items I’ve labeled as “Free” have some history or emotion attached to them.  The tiny mason jar Christmas tree snow globe my former friend, an artist, made for me reminds me of all the good memories and friendship ending fight we had.  It shows me that at one time in our lives together we really liked each other, laughed with each other, shared our thoughts, ideas, and dreams with each other.  And now, she is out of my life:  this very important, complicated, creative person who encouraged me to write and start a blog, and the very same person who became angered and poisonous and disdainful at my personal growth and daringness to confront her vicious words aimed at me but truly stemming from her own anger and personal growth and discovery.  That snow globe is proof that she existed in my life and is gone from my life as well.

The blocks of material I once cut and attempted to sew into a “yo-yo” quilt like my creative, generative, nurturing, and fierce Grandma Loy once made are tucked in the corner of the “Free” section, too.  The project was a quarter of the way finished but is now lost to time and my deadened desire to channel my creativity in an honorary manner – a slight hope to revive my grandma’s memory and a large frustration and need to let the project die and create something that is uniquely my own.  “Free” of a price tag, these things are also “free” of old attachments that serve me no longer.  Besides, my memories course through my lymphatic system and don’t always need items to prove or provoke that these people, these moments, these hopes, dreams, and these fears and frustrations, and these beautiful expressions of a life fully lived still exist and will travel with me even when they get put back into cardboard boxes and carted off to a thrift store while I move on and collect new things and new memories.