My Christmas In Exile

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Harrods During Christmas. Photo courtesy of anee.baba via Flickr.

The undoing occurred at the gourmet cheese counter at Harrods.

It was Christmas Eve afternoon, not quite dark enough yet to see the elaborate lights display all around the exterior of the store, though that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists outside from taking picture after picture of the barely visible illuminations. Inside, in the cavernous Food Hall where the sound echoed at a deafening volume, I shuffled through the nearly solid mass of people, past the bakery, the charcuterie, the Middle Eastern prepared foods. I had also come to see the holiday decorations, and was wasting time until sundown, when I came upon the cheese counter.

A piece of Gouda with black truffle caught my eye, and then its scent filled my nose, so I took a number and made my way to the front to order a piece for the next evening’s dinner. Just enough for a single sandwich, I told the girl. “Is this for you, for Christmas?” she asked me.

It’s the simple question that stops you in your tracks, that causes your breath to hitch and your heart to clench. That undoes you.

Because if you have to admit to the British girl working at the cheese counter that this single piece of truffled Gouda is for the grilled cheese sandwich you will eat alone, for Christmas dinner, you have to admit it to yourself.

You completely screwed up.

******

I used to love Christmas.

The rituals, mostly.

Digging into the heap of presents beneath a huge, fragrant tree we had decorated as a family, my mom directing the placement of the lights (only white ones!) and the ornaments, the ones we had made over the years in school, and the glass ones my dad received annually from work. My grandparents, always sipping their coffee, smiling indulgently as I exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted” into the video camera in my dad’s hand. My mom, making waffles from scratch that we could smell from the living room, and heating the plates in the oven so the waffles stayed warm.

Later, in a new house, where I insisted earnestly that New Kids on the Block had the best Christmas album, and our new kitten ran crazily from the dining room to the living room any time the doorbell rang, sliding through the foyer and climbing up the decorated tree. My grandfather there to hear my big solo in O Holy Night in the winter choral concert, and my grandmother closing her eyes when we sang her favorite carol, A Welsh Lullaby. My mother, making the special chocolate Christmas cookies, that I could sometimes convince her to undercook just the way I liked them, and my father trying to put together a Barbie Dream house for my sister.

My family, together. My family, in love.  My family, happy.

Every year I’ve recalled these memories, these ghosts of Christmases past, these portraits of a family that I think once existed. The family in those home videos, forever immortalized on tapes too small for our VCR, that we could play back and watch through the camera’s viewfinder. I could make believe that all of our Christmases were perfect, that our family was perfect, as long as I could call up those images.

Until this year, when I finally couldn’t recognize those people any longer.

The splintering happened gradually, with little pieces of wood breaking off from the whole every year, until what remained was cracked and sharp-edged and just a fraction of what once was. Yelling. Hospitals. Criticism. Age. Dismissal. Death. Divorce. Lies. Addictions. Letdowns. Estrangement. The things that happen to families, I guess, over time. The things that, eventually, break them.

This year, I couldn’t bear it. The going through of motions, the pretending.

So I fled.

To London, and a friend I had met exactly once. To one I hadn’t seen in 20 years. To one I had worked with, sort of, at some point in time. To one I had loved once, who didn’t ask me to come. To one who was friends with my boss, a yoga teacher, who chastised me for “holding back”.

I fled to ones with whom I shared no past: no hurt, no pain, no guilt, no regret.

The trip began encouragingly, with cozy dinners in pubs and happy trips to the theatre. Kindness was the saving grace of those days, and I was met with it everywhere I turned, in everyone who tried to save me from myself. The friend who planned things she knew I would like, who listened and provided thoughtful guidance, and whose daughter climbed in my lap to brush my hair and asked me every morning to play with her. The friend who met me despite my scheduling changes, and the yoga classes that welcomed me into their fold, giving me comfort in something familiar. Even the taxi drivers, with their chirpy commentary and pointing out of sights, tried to keep me smiling.

It wasn’t enough to stave off the loneliness though, which crept in slowly. It tiptoed into the yoga class and rested in child’s pose next to my mat. It sat behind me at the theatre, kicking my seat and begging to be acknowledged. It hopped onto the train at Oxford Circus with me, covering my hand as I held onto a pole, although I lost it when switching to the Northern line at Stockwell. I thought I could outrun it, or outsmart it, or just outmaneuver it.

But it finally found me, forcing its way through the crowd at Harrods to catch me at the cheese counter, and it would not let me go. There was no more running, no more outsmarting, no more outmaneuvering.

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been, it seems. Sitting alone on a couch in my self-imposed exile, with a grilled cheese sandwich for Christmas dinner, 3,500 miles away from my family, the loneliness finally settled upon my shoulders and around my neck, like a cloak that threatened to choke me. So this is what it feels like to break your own heart, I thought. This was my punishment, I assumed, for leaving my family and ruining Christmas. I was meant to accept it gravely and stoically, while telling everyone I was having a jolly old time in England.

Except I found that I couldn’t. This time I couldn’t pretend that things were fine. I couldn’t continue to post pretty Instagram pictures and wrap up this trip with a bow and say, “Just what I always wanted”. I couldn’t act as though I was having the trip of a lifetime. I couldn’t get on yet another flight, to go to yet another city, alone. I couldn’t even leave the flat. I didn’t know how to rescue myself from this situation I had created.

I didn’t know how to undo what I had done.

Kindness, it turns out, saved me again. Kindness from the friends who said it was okay to simply give up on this trip, cut my losses and go home. Kindness from the father who answered his phone at 6am, and picked me up at the airport later that night without question. Kindness from the mother who changed the sheets to the ones I like, and tucked me in to sleep like I hadn’t abandoned her. Kindness from the grandfather who never mentioned my Christmas absence, and just hugged me a little longer instead.

Kindness taught me that you can go home again. Maybe not to that perfect family, or that perfect Christmas, frozen for all time in those old videotapes. But to the family that remains, who loved you through New Kids on the Block albums, and long holiday concerts in an overheated auditorium, and lies, and judgments and all of your other screw-ups. The family who plucks you from your loneliness and reminds you that you are never really alone.

They are your real Christmas.

Confession: I Learn Most Of My Life Lessons In Airports

It happened again.

I’m sitting in the lounge at the airport in Panama City, Panama, waiting for my flight to Ecuador. It’s very hard for me to concentrate on writing, because my ears are straining to hear and understand every conversation going on around me. With my high school Spanish, I struggle to piece together stories. A couple traveling on to Brazil. A woman who works for Proctor & Gamble in Albany, Georgia. A group of businessmen who don’t care for Rihanna’s music. The cacophony of voices seems so much louder than usual, my sense of hearing heightened to a new level.

I realize how often I walk around hearing nothing.

When I travel within the US, it is so easy for me to tune out what people near me are saying. Their words altogether too familiar to me,  I just don’t pay any attention. Similarly, I can ignore the chatter in cities where I don’t have any knowledge of the language spoken. In Bangkok, or Brussels, the conversations become just a vague buzzing noise, like that of bees flying around nearby in a swarm, too far away to cause any alarm or require any action. I can stay in my head, alone; no one else makes their way in.

But toss in a few words I actually understand, followed by many, many more that I don’t, and my brain does not know how to proceed as planned. It allows everyone in, crowding out my thoughts and trying to process theirs instead. Suddenly I’m present in a way I didn’t realize that I hadn’t been before. And now I see it, my eyes functioning at once as well as my ears now do.

I learn many of my most valuable life lessons in airports.

In Los Angeles, I learned how to be less judgmental.

In Newark, I learned about how to pay attention, when I carelessly tied up a handicapped bathroom stall, changing my clothes, for five minutes, only to emerge and see a woman in a wheelchair being forced to wait because I had been on my phone, and not noticed the sign on the door. I also learned how important a genuine apology and a little humility are, when I was seated across the aisle from said woman minutes later for six hours on our cross-country flight.

In Vegas, I learned about love.

In Albuquerque, I learned about kindness and compassion when I watched a mother struggle to travel on her own with two young, ill children, and resisted the previously typical urge to pray that I would not be seated near them. I learned that offering to help rather than just saying, “not my problem” is one of the most rewarding things we can do.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I learned that asking for help (oh, and a little preparation), can aid you in being less terrified in the middle of the night outside a closed airport halfway across the world.

In Tokyo (well, in the air above Tokyo), I learned that a person can watch a flight map on their personal television for nearly ten hours straight. Okay, that’s not really the lesson. I learned that what makes us happy is a deeply personal choice, and sometimes involves staring at an image of a small virtual plane flying over a static map for hours.

And tonight, in Panama, I learned how to hear–rather, to listen–and be present.

As I make my way to the flight that will join me with my friends in Ecuador, before we head together to a week-long Thanksgiving adventure in the Galapagos Islands, I am grateful for this particularly timely lesson in Panama.

My ears are open, attuned to any language I may overhear. Ready to make sense of the symphony of sounds that nature and animals always provide–or to appreciate its beauty if I cannot really understand it. Excited at the music of laughter, and tears, and awe, and gratitude that awaits me.

Determined to stay present.

Signing off from Panama!

Katie

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Finding My Religion

Every Sunday morning, when I’m at home in Los Angeles, I get up by 8:00 and travel 13 miles to Manhattan Beach to participate in my favorite weekly yoga class with Jennifer Pastiloff. There are closer classes, sure, and ones that don’t leave me cursing the alarm clock, but I always return to this one. It’s the class we lovingly refer to as “yoga church”. I don’t know who coined the term, and I never gave too much thought to it previously, beyond knowing that I usually enter class a little tired, sometimes a little cranky as well, and always emerge renewed, grateful and at peace.

While traveling to Dallas for business, my dear friend and hostess for the weekend, Cherry, invited me to join her at her “yoga church” here in Dallas; her words, not mine. I didn’t know anyone else felt this way about a yoga class, but I readily agreed, trusting my Bali sister’s opinion that this experience would be special. When two other yogi friends of mine also raved about the teacher, Janie Montague, nothing could have kept me away.

I settled in at 9:00am on my borrowed mat, anticipation building, and looked down to see there was writing scribbled across the top: Open To Grace. What an inspiring message to start your Sunday service. What a beautiful mantra for life.

As we began to flow through the sun salutations and heart-opening asanas, my eyes kept returning, almost as if magnetized, to the writing on my mat. Open to Grace.

Janie nimbly guided us through poses as life lessons, reminding us to trust, to give thanks, to be kind, to love. But it was towards the end of the class that she really sunk the hook into me, with a moment so perfect and so serendipitous that it gutted me.

“Reach one hand to the ground, and one hand to grace, and realize that what is exactly in between is you, the combination of both.”

These are the moments, though small, that change your life.

I grew up going to church sporadically, mostly on holidays or as part of the requirements for a sacrament. I dutifully attended CCD classes on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings through eighth grade, because that’s just what you did. When I was in high school, I sang in the church choir, the closest I ever came to being a devout Catholic, attending church every Sunday to sing the Word of the Lord. If I’m being honest, it was always more about the music for me than the message. The music WAS the message. I came home humming the melodies rather than spreading the Word.

At no point do I remember having an epiphany about myself, or about humanity, or about life, while I was at mass. I enjoyed the ritual, I exalted in the songs, but when I stopped going to services regularly, I forgot to miss them.

Then I discovered yoga, and our so-called “yoga church”, which inspires me to spread the message all day long. Which has left an imprint on my heart that I could never forget to miss.

Nowhere am I more in tune with myself, with who I am and who I want to be. Nowhere am I more in tune with other people, hearing their collective breath, the inhaling and the exhaling, and feeling their heartbeats echoing in my own. Nowhere am I more in tune with the Universe, both hearing and understanding the lessons it is presenting me. Trust, gratitude, kindness.

My religion is yoga.

My religion is grace.

My religion is love.

Namaste.

PS-Please consider donating to a wonderful event that both Cherry and Janie are actively participating in…One Love Dallas will benefit Off The Mat, Into The World ‘s Legacy Project in India, an organization that works to rescue, rehabilitate and empower those affected by the sex trafficking industry. A great cause supported by great people! You can find more info and donate here.

Open To Grace

Open To Grace

xx,

Katie

Confession: I Take Things Too Personally

“It had nothing to do with me.

I created an entire story around her dislike for me, which didn’t actually exist. It wasn’t about me.

How often do we tell ourselves these stories about why we perceive someone is acting a certain way towards us? How often can we not see past ourselves and our own judgments and neuroses to what is real?

It’s tiring really, taking everything so personally.”

Except from my MindBodyGreen essay today. Please read if you also have trouble taking things too personally. I would love to hear your feedback!

“I’m Beginning to Learn Not to Take Everything Personally”

xx,

Katie

Confession: I Did Nothing

On my second day of skiing in Aspen, I’m coasting easily down a green slope, practicing the subtle turns that keep my speed down, able to focus on the beauty of the landscape around me. I’m feeling good until I hit a steep connecting trail that is less groomed than the one I was previously on. Maintaining my speed becomes increasingly difficult, maintaining control even more so. 

I’m not alone here. I see ahead on the hill a girl go down hard, her poles flying and one of her skis popping off. She stays down, sitting and looking around her as if she has no idea how she has gotten there. She looks lost and possibly scared.

I think about pulling up next to her, asking how she is, offering to get her pole for her. I consider assisting in getting her back into her skis. I want to help her. Instead, I hesitate. My fear gets the better of me, my thoughts rushing at me, faster and faster, gaining speed as I barrel down this hill.

“What if I try to stop to help her and I fall? What if I get hurt? What if I crash into her while I am trying to help? What if I make the situation worse?

What if I can’t do anything at all?”

Instead, I ski past. I know immediately it is not the right decision. I pause a distance below her, and from this vantage point I realize I have invoked that same mantra that I have used time and time again when the Universe throws me a curve ball that I refuse to hit, or to catch, or to even acknowledge:

Someone else will do it.

Someone else will invite the new person to join our lunch. Someone else will move to another seat on the plane so that the family can sit together. Someone else will shift their yoga mat to the side to accommodate the person who rushed in late. Someone else will help the lost elderly woman find her way home.

Someone else, someone else, someone else.

I look the other way.

I put my head down, pretend I cannot see what is going on as if this will somehow lessen my accountability. Making myself unavailable before I’m even asked for help. Before anyone can call upon me to act.

But I do see you struggling with your three children and your luggage and your strollers and your passports. I do see you trying to put on your skis without dropping your poles and your gloves but they keep falling down into the snow. I do see you cleaning up the hot coffee you spilled all over the table and floor in Starbucks, making three trips back up to the counter for more napkins to be able to mop up that venti coffee.

And yet I look away.

“Not me,” I seem to be saying. “Not my problem,” I intimate. “Not my responsibility,” I rationalize.

I’m wrong, of course. It is me, it is my problem and it IS my responsibility. To be present, to be mindful, to be helpful. To do something.

Because what if, one day, there is no someone else?

I was lucky with regard to my fallen comrade on the slopes. Someone else did risk falling to help her. Someone else did get her back on her feet, back into her skis. Someone else did care enough to stop. She was okay. But it doesn’t really let me off the hook, does it?

 

I want to be the someone.

 

So that is the new mantra that I need to repeat, over and over, until it happens without any hesitation, so that I can’t possibly ski on past: Do Something. That is my refrain: Do Something.

Drop your poles, spill your coffee, ask me to move, fall in my path.

This time, I will not look away. 

 

xx,

Katie