Be Present

Driving south on I-75 outside of Atlanta on Sunday, the skies opened up and unleashed a downpour unlike anything I’ve seen since living in New York and LA for the last decade. As I struggled to see through the rain that exploded against the windshield, I remembered being stuck in summer storms in Miami, where you couldn’t see the car in front of you, or even the road sometimes. I thought about all of the precautions I would take then–slowing down, pumping the brakes, leaving extra space between my car and the car in front of me. If I could pull from all of my driving experience and knowledge, I could do this.

I felt safer for a wonderful instant…until I started seeing cars piled up, accordion-style on the shoulder next to me. Seeing the trucks that had floated past the shoulder and were turned backwards or upside down on the grassy median. Seeing police cars and ambulances and fire trucks flying past me. How many of those drivers also did everything they were supposed to do to ensure their safety, and still ended up being slammed from behind, or hydroplaning right off the expressway? At some point while you are white-knuckling it through the rain, you realize that any real sense of control is false and imagined. At some point it seems you have to accept that you are doing everything you are able to do and pray for the best result.

I spent the weekend in Georgia with my friend Rachel , a mother of two special needs children, rambunctious boys who are six and four. I could only liken her to some kind of superhero as I watched her being thrown challenge after challenge everyday, usually with no recovery time in between. As I was driving, struggling to navigate and stay, quite literally, above water in this massive storm, it struck me that so many of her days must be spent in this same manner–white-knuckling it through each moment, using all of her knowledge and skills and love to prevent slips and slides and collisions, but still often just getting rear-ended by life. Control over these situations? Not likely. I wonder how she can continue to have faith, that today everything will work out, that tonight everyone will be happy, that tomorrow it will be easier.

I’ve been feeling stuck for a few weeks since coming down from the high of vacation. Stuck in my own stuff, the everyday annoyances and setbacks and life stuff. Unable (or unwilling) to sit down and explore it, I’ve just been going through the motions. I watch it happening almost as though it’s happening to someone else entirely. I see the tightly clenched jaw and the furrowed brow. I hear the clipped tone, the voice that gets shorter throughout the day. I feel it in the seizing stomach and pounding of the blood through veins.

I’m getting worse at yoga, too tense and preoccupied to relax into the asanas. I’m getting worse at my job, too impatient and overwhelmed to be at my best. I’m getting worse at writing, too anxious and stressed to focus completely. I’m getting worse at relationships, too tired and distracted to give the people I love the attention they deserve.

I’m getting worse at life.

I hear the words that come out of my mouth, and wonder who this person is speaking. I hear the same things repeated over and over and over.

“Once I get through this, I’ll be fine.”
“After this, things will be so much better.”
“As soon as this passes, I’ll be happy.”

Until it finally hits me, hits me like the hail pounding the roof of the car in that Atlanta storm: this is my life. And I’m spending all of my time wishing it away.

How did that happen? This is surely not how it was meant to be, this “getting by” instead of really living. I know I’ve done it before, really lived. So how could I have so easily forgotten? Forgotten like it was just one of those times where I walked into a room to get something only to have no clue what it was once I got there. I forgot how live life, like it was a sweater or a pair of earrings I didn’t remember to retrieve from my bedroom.

One of the best lessons you can learn from a parent of special needs children is how to be present. It has been a theme in many of my yoga classes over the past year, but seeing it in action, in real life, through someone else, really illustrated what it means. Being present means you are in fully engaged in each minute of each day-not just the good ones. Being present means you are dealing with the mess and the dirt and the crap that often accompany those days. Being present means you savor every sweet moment, holding onto it as though you know it’s fleeting but you will still relish every second until it’s gone. Being present means not waiting to get through it, through life, before allowing yourself to be happy.

Being present means, if I may borrow the lyrics from one of my favorite Rent songs, “There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret. Or life is yours to miss.”

Be present. Show up. Listen to your heart and your body. Breathe. Pay attention. Do whatever makes you happy. Relinquish control. Laugh. Love. Live.

“No other road. No other way. No day but today.”

PS-for a glimpse of what Rachel’s extraordinary life is like, check out her appearance on The Doctors in the below clip, and follow I am a Fan of Somebody With Prader Willi Syndrome on Facebook! https://www.facebook.com/pages/I-am-a-Fan-of-Somebody-with-Prader-Willi-Syndrome/410689235692

Blaise on The Doctors

Confession: I Don’t Think Everything Happens For A Reason

Everything happens for a reason. It’s one of those platitudes we all hear at some point. Usually well intentioned, sometimes a bit hollow, it’s often what people offer up when they don’t know what else to say. When they can’t … Continue reading

That Time A Five-Year-Old Called Me The F-Word

Recently a five-year-old dropped an F-bomb on me.

We were hanging out while her mom was running errands. She curled up on my lap, drawing on a notepad and telling me she liked my manicure. She showed me a game she liked to play on her iPod. She asked me if I was flexible, or if I could do a headstand. I was wearing a skirt but kicked myself up into a headstand in the middle of the floor anyway, my skirt shifting to reveal my black Spanx shorts underneath. She giggled at the sight of them for a moment, at my skirt floating over my head, before she dropped the F-word on me, exploding like an actual bomb right in front of me.

“You have very fat legs.”

No judgment, no malice, just matter of fact. “Your legs are fat,” she repeated, like I could have somehow missed it the first time around. I explained that it wasn’t a very nice thing for her to say, but she simply said it one more time, for good measure. “But you DO have very fat legs.”

I lowered myself out of the headstand, my face beet red from more than just being upside down. She looked at me, wide-eyed, waiting for what I would say next. I was speechless. So she moved on, unaware of the effect her words had on me, and went skipping away from me to practice her splits and backbends. I turned my head and blinked back tears.

For the rest of the day, her words haunted me, fueling my inner dialogue with myself. I heard those words repeating, over and over, in her high-pitched voice.

You shouldn’t wear that skirt again. You have very fat legs. Don’t eat that piece of chocolate. You have very fat legs. You need to wear the long yoga pants, not the short ones. You have very fat legs. Why are you even taking yoga? You should be on a treadmill. You have very fat legs.

How could I hear anything else over that refrain?

What happens when a five-year-old sees exactly what you fear everyone sees, what you, in fact, see yourself? What happens when a five-year-old becomes your personal dressing room mirror, with its bad fluorescent lighting and unflattering angles, reflecting back the image you dread?

It knocks you down from your headstand, panting and out of breath, and rattles you to the core. It makes you want to hide somewhere no one can see this flaw, until it maybe somehow magically disappears.

I looked for the teaching moment with my little friend and came up empty. How could I make sense of this moment and come away with anything other than hurt?

I couldn’t. It sunk its teeth into me like a dog does with its chew toy, gripping even harder the more you try to shake it off.

It took a week, and a trip 8,000 miles away for me to take anything good away from this experience. The voice followed me, strong as ever as I boarded the plane to take me far, far away. Somewhere over the Pacific, it dulled to a soft whisper. But somehow, between Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City, it started to lift, and that voice finally, finally, quieted.

Knee-deep in my own exhaustion, outside a closed airport in Vietnam at 2 a.m., I realized I couldn’t hear it anymore. It was gone, and I now understood that the teaching moment here wasn’t for my five-year-old buddy. It was for me. I was the one who needed to learn the lesson.

It doesn’t matter.

That’s right, it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter if a five-year-old thinks you have very fat legs. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t perfect. It doesn’t matter if you’re too old, too young, too fat, too skinny, too short, too tall, too anything.

What matters is that you live your life.

You don’t hide. You don’t keep plotting what will happen when you are thinner. You don’t avoid the things you love because you’re worried you don’t look good enough. You don’t save all of your best moments for some imagined time in the future when you’re sure you’ll be more perfect.

And you certainly don’t waste your thoughts on some silly thing a five-year-old said about your very normal-sized legs. Of this I am sure.

I’m not going to say that it doesn’t suck when anyone, even a five-year-old, in her infinite five-year-old wisdom, calls you fat. It does suck, even with all of your reasoning and rationalizing of it. And sometimes you forget that it really doesn’t matter. But then, you convince yourself to remember. You remind yourself about this life lesson.

Because life is not about fat legs, or skinny legs, or being perfect. Life is simply meant to be lived.

Lost & Found in Vietnam

Somewhere between Nha Trang and Phu Quoc, more than halfway into my trip to Vietnam, I lost my toothbrush. It was always packed snugly in my toiletries bag so I have no idea where it could have gone. It was no big deal, easily replaced by my hotel in Phu Quoc. But it amazed me how one second it was there, and the next it was gone, seemingly disappearing into thin air.

This could very well have been the theme of the trip: things that were lost and things that were found. Some of the lost items were done so deliberately. Most of the found were not. I tallied up everything I could remember leaving along the way, along with what was gained, in my solo journey to Vietnam.

LOST:

Various articles of clothing/accessories: left behind for housekeeping, or the next guest, or just the garbage, including but not limited to:

  • A striped bikini that I used to love but that was discolored from too many sunscreen applications
  • My favorite grey Miami Hurricanes long sleeve t-shirt with so many holes I stopped counting them
  • Sheer-bottomed cropped Lululemon pants, for the delight of whomever next stands behind them in yoga
  • Silver Havaianas with holes where their now-missing skull decals used to be
  • One gold earring, noticed around 5:30am in a tiny airplane bathroom, my remaining single earring looking like an ill-advised fashion statement
  • The “toos”: pajama pants that were too short, yoga pants that were too baggy, socks that were too dirty, a Panama Hat that was too misshapen
  • A white t-shirt,no longer white, that I just could not wash in the hotel sink one more time

Books: offered up with love to fellow travelers, not unlike the offerings my friends in Bali give to their Gods three times daily. I offered up Jeanette Winterson, Kate Atkinson and Gillian Flynn to the various lending libraries at my hotels, lightening my load and perhaps enlightening someone else’s with their lovely prose. Offering, at the very least, a literary alternative to the only other book I saw in English—50 Shades of Grey.

Vanity: with the lack of conditioner, 100 degree heat and 1000% humidity, and my three travel outfits, worrying about how I looked was wasted energy. Brushing my hair before swimming seemed pointless, makeup would have immediately melted off. Even my shiny manicure and pedicure that had seemed so important to squeeze in the day before I left seemed frivolous and unnecessarily vain amidst my wrinkled cotton Target dresses and sweaty ponytails.

My American accent: For the first four days of the trip, I was the only American in sight. It was something I have never experienced (or noticed) in my other travels. All around me I could hear Vietnamese and German being spoken loudly; occasionally I would catch some Australian- or South African-accented English. But no Americans. There was a Brit in a University of Kentucky shirt who almost fooled me until I saw him holding his telltale red passport. I found myself speaking slowly and softly, unintentionally mimicking the accented English I overheard. Phrases like “quite lovely” and “mucking around” passed effortlessly through my lips. When I arrived back in San Francisco, American English almost sounded foreign to me.

My reluctance to ask for help: released when I landed in the middle of night at a closed Ho Chi Minh City airport and realized I had nowhere to go and no idea how to stay safe for my five hour outdoor layover. Suddenly, “I’ll just do it myself” wasn’t an option. Suddenly, I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Suddenly, I needed to ask for help. And gradually, through countless conversations that consisted of me asking “where is this?” and “what do I do?”, it started to feel okay.

My Yoga Practice: I struggled to get through two (ok one and a half) classes this week, completely unmotivated and uninspired to do asanas that I typically rejoice in fives times a week. I wanted to want to practice…and still I didn’t. I lost my practice. It left me feeling a little off balance, a bit less grounded, surely less disciplined, and possibly a little more…well, imperfectly human.

My mind: clearly absent when I returned to the US to discover that my final flight, the one that would actually take me home, was not scheduled to depart until the following weekend. My first thought– “How could I have done that? It is so unlike me to make this kind of mistake?!?” My second thought, immediately following—“but I am just too tired to beat myself up about this right now. Find a new flight (ask for help!), get to the new gate, and let it go.” So in hindsight, this might have been one thing that was long overdue to be lost, replaced by a more forgiving and kinder mind.

My preconceived notions about traveling solo: Loneliness. Fear. Doubt. Regret. They weren’t there. If experienced at all, they were fleeting. Lost emotions that went the way of my toothbrush-without any thought, or fanfare, and not much missed.

FOUND:

Bug bites and a sunburn: Inexplicable with the amount of Deet and SPF 50 slathered on and time spent beneath an umbrella but they exist nonetheless.

Books: Oh, I had forgotten the true, unparalleled pleasure that comes from turning the pages of a treasured novel, being drawn in more with each passing chapter. Hours passed like minutes as engrossed as I was in these stories, with the soundtrack of waves the only other noise permeating my thoughts. Heaven, for me, is a beach and a book.

My sense of humor: for what else can you do but nervously giggle, and then actually laugh, on a four hour road trip with a cab driver who speaks absolutely no English and seems to have no idea where you are headed? Who offers to share his water with you, wanting to pass it to the backseat after he takes a swig? Who stops for bathroom breaks along the way…directly outside your window? Who nods yes to everything you ask, including questions abut the length of the drive, the weather, and the state of American healthcare (he nods twice when you mention Obama)? Who helps you develop your own language of gestures that finally gets you both to the right place? Laugh.

The $25 Vietnamese massage: I thought I had felt it all when it comes to massages. I learned that it’s a good idea to wear clothes to a Shiatsu massage, that a deep tissue Swedish massage can leave me bruised, and that a Balinese massage includes a full (ahem) chest massage. I will still unprepared for the Vietnamese massage. Between the punching and the slapping, the chopping and the cupping, and the tiny woman sitting on my back, I had no idea what was going on. But I was extremely relaxed afterwards, so something clearly worked.

New international friends: Tom and Barbara from Germany, currently living in Shanghai, and Susan and Mark from Australia, currently living in Kabul. I now know about the European ex-pat community in China, and the very real dangers of being a Westerner living in Afghanistan. I now know about the beauty of Laos and appeal of the Sunshine Coast, courtesy of my well-traveled friends. I now know that talking to strangers can add so much to your travel experience.

A quieted mind: Without yoga. Without meditation. Without even trying. Just…quieter.

Greater appreciation for the people in my life: the perspective that only comes from being away from them, my wonderful family and friends.

Greater appreciation for myself, and for what I am capable of: I did this. I traveled to Vietnam, by myself, with scarily little knowledge of the country or of what I would face there. I survived a closed airport and the scary bugs and the language barrier. I came, I saw, I conquered. And I loved it.

If this was a scorecard, the win is most definitely in the FOUND column.

No Bad Days. Sunset, Phu Quoc, Vietnam

No Bad Days.
Sunset, Phu Quoc, Vietnam

xx,

Katie

Confession: I Don’t Like Asking For Help

Recently a good friend, L, emailed me about how she was nervous to ask another good friend of ours for help. That maybe our friend would think L is pushy, or wasn’t worthy of her help.

I paused before responding, a little baffled, because of course it wasn’t pushy, and she was definitely worthy of help. I gave L my most honest, and what I hoped would be the most helpful, advice.

“I think if you don’t ask for what you want, there is a much smaller chance of you getting it. Ask her. The worst thing she can say is no. And then what? What is the worst thing that could happen? You go through other channels. You ask someone else. You move on.”

Good advice, right? So L asked her, and our friend was, unsurprisingly, happy to help. L got exactly what she needed, and in the fastest way possible, simply by admitting that she couldn’t do it all on her own. I, in turn, was thrilled for her—both in the success she achieved, and in the fact that she was able to overcome her fear of asking for help. Because I usually cannot do the same.

How is it that we’re so comfortable giving advice to others that we can’t take ourselves? 

I don’t like asking for help.

In typical first-born manner, I have been called “independent” my entire life. I have always wanted to do everything myself, without help from anyone else. Tie my shoelaces, master algebra, get into college, start my career. My mantra may as well have been “I can do it.”

I skimmed directions, confident that I would just be able to figure out how to put together that chandelier intuitively. I ignored other people’s suggestions, sure that my way would work best for me. I insisted, “Oh, I’ll just do it”, rather than delegate or explain or offer directions, because it just seemed easier that way. I even had an astrologer explain that this was just in my nature due to how the planets were aligned when I was born.

I got by—without a little help from my friends.

Throughout the past year, however, I’ve noticed how little it was actually paying off. It was a little like relying completely on the navigation system in my car: I usually got where I needed to be, but often not before driving in circles or 10 miles out of the way first. Wasting time, wasting resources, because I was too embarrassed to admit that I actually needed help.

This mindset followed me on my trip overseas this week. I breezed through the flight, pushing all of the buttons before eventually discovering how the seat actually worked rather than asking the flight attendant. Striding through the Hong Kong airport, pretending I knew the way rather than asking for directions. Figuring it out on my own while playing the part of seasoned traveler. This worked, mostly. I reclined my seat, and got to my connecting flight with plenty of time to spare.

And then I got to Vietnam. In the middle of the night. To find a closed airport, no Americans, and virtually no English. I had five hours to kill until my 6am flight, and I had absolutely no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t figure this one out. But how could I let anyone know that??

I felt the panic start to rise inside of me, and I knew that this would not be a situation that bluffing would get me through. It felt like a scene from the beginning of a horror movie, where the dumb American travels abroad and gets kidnapped outside the desolate airport in the first scene. I’d had moments of doubt about taking this trip, but for the first time, I felt it may have been a huge mistake.

There was only one thing to do: start asking everyone I could for help.

I trailed after the flight attendants asking if they knew the layout of the airport (I would have gladly jumped in their van with them at the slightest invitation). I questioned the immigration agent (who spoke about ten words of English) where my next flight was located. I asked nearly every person in a uniform along my way outside and to the neighboring terminal what I should do with my layover.

I didn’t get any good answers. The airport was closed. I could leave and find a hotel to wait it out in the nearby city. I could wait outside like the families who were sleeping on benches and underneath them. I could sit at the closed outdoor café and count the minutes next to the weary backpackers until the doors re-opened and I could retreat to the relative safety of the terminal.

So there weren’t any great options offered as a result of all of my inquiring. But what I did get was a little more peace of mind.

The more people I spoke with, the more people who might possibly be invested in preventing my abduction into the black market sex trade. The more smiles I offered and eye contact I made, the less likely it might be that someone would run off with my luggage.

 The more people I connected with, the less alone I felt.

It didn’t stop the fear when I walked out of a stall in the women’s restroom to find two men standing there, staring blankly at me. It didn’t stop my heart from beating more quickly when they turned off most of the outdoor lights around 3am. It didn’t make the clock tick by any faster. But it did give me a little more hope that things would work out, and that there might be people in my corner.

And there were. When the airport re-opened around 4am, one of the security guards I had talked to approached me and motioned for me to come inside and get into the proper Vietnam Airlines check-in line, where a gate agent met my relieved smile with her own, and pointed me in the right direction. Crisis averted, lesson learned the hard way, as they often are with me.

Not asking for help didn’t make me stronger, or smarter, or better. Quite the opposite actually. It was only in admitting that I needed help that I was able to get to where I needed to be.

And when I saw that first sunrise on my first morning in Qui Nohn, I knew it was all worth it.

Sunrise 4.1.13 in Qui Nhon, Vietnam

Sunrise 4.1.13 in Qui Nhon, Vietnam

xx,

Katie