On Moments of Happiness and Hope

I drove home from Manhattan today, after a whirlwind day of visiting friends and familiar haunts in the city I once called home but in which I never truly felt at home. I sped west in my stepfather’s old Highlander along Route 78 in the bright sunshine, singing along to Ellie Goulding and Maroon 5 (as their songs are apparently the only ones currently in rotation on the radio). As I put more distance between myself and the city, the trees became denser and I breathed more deeply. Right around exit 41, everything in me paused, and I turned down the music. It was a moment when I needed to identify what I was feeling, because the sensation was so odd that it interrupted all other thoughts.

I felt happy.

And happiness was the singular emotion that existed in that moment.

Throughout most of this trip to New Jersey, I have been overwhelmed: by grief, by loss, by anger, by sadness, by dread, by unease, by shame. There were so many firsts without my sister and my dad in the course of a week that completely depleted—and often defeated—me. 

The first Easter

The first birthday (Kelly’s)

The first National Siblings Day (also my first knowledge that this day existed)

The other first birthday (my dad’s)

The dread before each occasion was almost as painful as the arrival of the actual date. My grandmother’s birthday, nestled in the middle of this crazy week, somehow felt like a relief, if only because it was not so terribly awful anymore after thirteen years.

I planned last week to drive my mom to the city yesterday, and to spend time with friends and stay overnight there. When yesterday arrived, I felt completely unprepared for anything past get out of bed, brush teeth. All of the steps beyond that were foreign, and I worried were beyond my capabilities.

How do you go back out into the world when it feels like your skin is on inside out?

I didn’t really figure that out, but I did get myself dressed and where I had committed to being. And it was hard, but nice. I was able to see places I once loved, but was also grateful to have left behind. I was able to see friends I feel safe with, and talk about my dad and Kelly without breaking down or shutting down. I was able to feel like an actual person again for the day. I never could have anticipated that simply interacting with the world would feel like an accomplishment, but such is life in this new “normal”.

I also never anticipated that feeling happy, with the absence of guilt or regret or any other accompaniment would be so alien a sensation.

There have been some wonderful moments on the inside of the sorrow of the past five months. Watching rays of sun bisect a room on a farm in Virginia; glimpsing the magical light bouncing off the water in Positano; sipping tea with koalas in Australia; the simple grace shared by friends every day; hearing and reading words of loss and comfort and love and grief from gifted writers; writing something true. And yet, also present in those special moments: guilt, and fear.

What if I’m not sad enough?

What if I deserve the sadness?

What if someone else dies? 

What if this is how it will always be?

Just last week, I drove that stretch of highway in sobs, because it is the same route that my dad always drove to bring me home from the airport, and how could I be driving on that road without him? The loss of him on that drive was as acute as it was the night he died.

There was nothing extraordinarily remarkable about the drive today. Except that within it existed a moment of such ease, such peace and such happiness that it became remarkable.

Because it allowed for hope; the hope that more of these moments might someday occur, when I least expect them and when I need them most.

*Thank you to Mom, Julie and Aidan (and the Rowlets!) for leading me to this moment today. Thank you to every person who has reached out to me at any time in the last five months. I will never forget the gestures of love and kindness that have been extended to me. 

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.

*

When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.

*

On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.

*

This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.

 

This is the Year of Us.

 

***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit http://educationandhope.org/. It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos

525,600 Minutes

One year

525,600 minutes

This weekend marks the first anniversary of this blog. It was one year ago today that I made one of my biggest life changes to date, and celebrated my official “coming out” as a writer. The memory of hitting the ‘publish’ button that very first time comes back to me in a rush. It’s a memory of sweat and panic, of slamming my laptop closed immediately afterwards, as if by shutting down the computer I could shut down the reality of what just happened, and go back to before. But there was no before now; there was just after.

One week

10,080 minutes

One week ago, I attended the first ever Manifestation Yoga and Writing Retreat in Stowe, Vermont, created and led by the incomparable Jennifer Pastiloff, along with bestselling author, Emily Rapp. For the first time, fittingly it seemed on this almost-one-year writing anniversary, I would attend actual writing workshops, with an actual writer and teacher. Like all new things that I couldn’t prepare for in advance, I was riddled with anxiety in the weeks (okay, months) leading up to the trip. What if everyone else there had been writing for years? What if they were all published, and critically acclaimed, and I was a complete amateur, not a real writer at all, in their presence?

What if I discovered that I wasn’t so special, after all?

Three days

4,320 minutes 

That revelation never had a shot at revealing itself on this magical three-day weekend with Jen and Emily. 

Instead, we banished our insecurities and focused our energy elsewhere: on wine and cheese introductions, and a video about Stowe that felt like one of those videos from a resort trying to sell you a timeshare (Snow! Horses! Nature! Come Visit Soon!!). We played with Chrissy, the yellow lab who loved to, with her poor displaced hips, inelegantly plop down on a yoga mat in the middle of the group, just wanting to be a part of it all, and perhaps catch a few falling pieces of food amidst the chaos. We moved our bodies together in our first Manifestation class, slowly at first, in the early morning chill, then more assuredly as the room and our muscles heated. We ignored our self-consciousness with a dance party, and pushed past our fears to do downward-facing dog atop a horse. We sang “Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer” in the Von Trapp family forest, and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” while holding a Warrior Two pose for what felt like forever.

We had less than 5,000 minutes together, yet we connected, in that way that you do when you find yourself in another person. We found each other, and we found ourselves. We cried, and laughed, and sang, and shared, and made every one of those minutes mean something.

One year

525,600 minutes

It has taken me a year to get here. To understand what the writing is. It’s sharing our stories. It’s finding minutes, or even just moments, where we feel less alone.

One week

10,080 minutes

Time is so very fluid. Last week feels like both seconds and a lifetime ago. I almost can’t tell the difference anymore. Most of us have waited to share our stories, wanting instead to steep in the feeling, in the specialness, for just a little bit longer before sharing them with the world, with each other even.

I want to whisper to everyone, write it down. Write it all down now, because you will forget. The details are already starting to elude me, writing this just 10,000 minutes later. I remember the scent of the horse shit mixed with wet leaves and the caked mud that we tracked into the house. But is the smell of burning wood real, or just in my memory, constructed after conjuring up any New England fall day I could remember? I can still see the ominous clouds hovering over the hills in the distance, barely concealing a sun desperate to break through for a precious few, perfect minutes. But were the colors of the sunrise really so vivid? Were the oranges melting into reds melting into trees real, or just what I can see in the photograph, filtered and framed and frozen until they maybe became something else entirely?  

Does it matter what was real, and what was imagined? Or does it just matter that we were there, and that we are changed?

I remember this. A poem that Jen read on this retreat, like she had on so many others before that reverberated then, but this time becomes something completely new to me. This is the first time my ears have really heard it.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

By Portia Nelson

I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V

I walk down another street.

Three days

4,320 minutes

I am here, finally. On this, my fourth retreat, spending just 5,000 brief minutes amongst the rolling hills and multi-colored leaves and the smell of horse shit, my eyes finally open. I have reached the fourth chapter. I have stopped falling into the hole.

I will forget, of course. Isn’t that what we do, learn lessons over and over again? The ease of the writing in those exercises that Emily led us through won’t last forever, I know. The support we felt in this sacred space will wane, in our minds at least. Sometimes I will think again that I cannot do this, cannot possibly be a writer. But this time, I won’t go back to before. I will stay in the after. I will make new afters. 

One year ago

525,600 minutes ago

My first blog entry was titled “Confession: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing”. For everything I’ve learned over the past year, the last 525,600 minutes, I still have no idea what I am doing. But I am walking down the new street, anxious as always that I don’t know where it will go or what’s coming next, but certain that it is better than falling into the same hole on the same old street.

One weekend

One week

One Year

525,600 minutes

This is how I measure a year.

In endless gratitude,

Katie

Sunrise at Stowe Mountain Ranch Unfiltered and Perfect

Sunrise at Stowe Mountain Ranch
Unfiltered and Perfect

Confession: A Yoga Retreat Changed My Life

I am so honored to be featured on The Travel Yogi’s blog today, describing my amazing and life changing experience on my first yoga retreat.

“I made the decision to go to Bali on a whim. An LA-based yoga teacher, Jen Pastiloff, whose class I had taken once or twice, mentioned she would be leading a weeklong trip there in November. I knew virtually nothing about Bali, except for the magical feeling evoked whenever I heard the word. She had probably announced it in those previous two classes as well, but this time I heard it. I took a flyer, exchanged a few “what can I expect” emails with The Travel Yogi, and was booked on my first yoga retreat one week later.

How do you prepare for a life-changing experience? You can’t, I guess. You can simply take the leap, open your heart, and allow it all in…”

Please click here to read the rest, and consider one of their upcoming retreats for yourself!

xx,

Katie

Sunrise at Soulshine

Sunrise at Soulshine

Confession: I Am A Lazy Perfectionist

laziness2

I didn’t leave my house today.

 
meant to meet my friend at yoga.
meant to clean my closet.
meant to give up sugar.
meant to be productive.
 
And yet here I am again, sitting on the couch at 10:00 at night, my body imprinted onto the beige couch, eating cookie dough. Un-yoga’d, un-showered, un-moved, un-motivated. Chastising myself about my perpetual laziness, which seems to rear its ugly head all too frequently. Wanting everything in my life to be perfect, wanting to check off every item on my to-do list until there is nothing left to do, until I can say to anyone who will listen, “just look at everything I did!”
The only things on my calendar today were “yoga” and “spring clean the closets” and I didn’t do either of them. Instead, I stayed home. Instead, I shoved more shirts into my dresser drawers, forcing them closed even when they resisted, clothing all bunched up and not even folded. Instead, I hid things underneath the bathroom sink, and loaded dirty dishes into the dishwasher half-full of clean dishes to avoid putting them away. Instead, I tossed the laundry into the linen closet and slammed the door so I wouldn’t see it anymore. See, now it looks perfect even when it’s not.
 
It’s a pattern you see, and patterns don’t really like to break themselves.
 
During my sophomore year of high school, we performed the musical Peter Pan. I was cast as the mom, a cameo role given to me in part because I was talker than most of my classmates. Since the character only appears in the beginning and end of the show, I was given the opportunity to play a “Lost Boy” as well. I declined, citing my need to “stay in character”for the entire show. In reality, I just didn’t want to learn the choreography involved in the other scenes. I already had to sing, while tying Mr. Darling’s bowtie in under a minute in a ball gown, while comforting my “children” who were actually older than I was. I didn’t need to learn anything else. I took the easy way out and hung out backstage every night in my elaborate updo and makeup designed to make me look older and waited for the finale while those Lost Boys sang and danced for the crowd.
 
Taking the easy way comes naturally to me it seems.
 
(Scene fades; cut to twenty years later)
 
This week I considered quitting yoga.
 
It has been so difficult for me in class lately. Showing up is not the hardest part as I had previously thought; making it through an hour is. My hamstrings again refuse to stretch, my triceps quiver after just one plank pose, my core wants nothing to do with those crunches. It’s so ridiculously hard. Maybe yoga is always going to be this hard for my body; maybe my body has already quit even.
 
Or maybe it’s because my mind does not want to open. It wants to stay as shut as those dresser drawers, keeping all of the mess and chaos and secrets inside where no one can see them. It refuses to let those overstuffed, full of shit drawers stay closed. It tries desperately to pry them open, those drawers with their sweaters mixed with tank tops, and socks and bras all tangled up with tights. It begs, “look at me, all of your crap in this drawer and deal with me.”
 
Or just maybe it is the self-acceptance that you are expected to bring to the mat with you, that is supposed to sit down beside you while you move through your tree poses and crow poses and child’s poses. That is supposed to tell you just in case the teacher forgets, “Listen to your body. If you need a break, take one. No one is judging you. There is no perfect. Just honor your truth.” I think I forget to bring that voice with me, like I sometimes forget my water bottle. Or it’s talking to someone else. Or it’s speaking a different language. Or I just can’t hear it. Maybe that’s it.
 
I just want everything to be easy.
 
I want someone else to do the work. I want the drawers to clean themselves, I want the handstand without the practice, I want the jeans to miraculously be loose and I want to just be open without all of the pain of getting there.
 
If only life were actually easy.
 
But it never is, is it? So we do whatever we do to keep going.
 
I fill up my calendar. I make my to-do lists. I keep showing up for yoga, and I give up sugar (again). Knowing that one day, one time, I’ll work all the way through the list, where maybe the perfection is waiting for me and has been all along if I had only worked harder before to find it.
 
I’ll keep going and going like this, until one day I’ll finally let go of the notion that perfection only comes when every box has been ticked. That notion that perfect exists when there is an Xin front of handstand, and skinny, and organized. That notion that perfection exists at all.
 
I will then let go of it and all that will be left is a shadowy reminder of this long held belief. It will be washed away like the pollen after a rainstorm, flowing down into the gutters and only leaving behind a faint yellow tinge to the earth and a memory of a sneeze now almost forgotten. All that will be left is just life, wrapped up in all of its imperfect perfection, that can never be erased with the rain.

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

Confession: I Wasn’t Paying Attention

I drive home from work
Left on Crescent Heights, past all of the stop signs
Get on the freeway, move to the left lane
Traffic, start and stop, I can do this in my sleep
Am I asleep?
 
I’m not paying attention.
 
I get off at Lincoln
Head to the grocery store
Pick up spinach, milk, chicken, Diet Dr. Brown’s cream soda
It’s always the same
Does it ever change?
 
I’m not paying attention.
 
I stop at the dry cleaners, hand in my ticket
I’m on the phone, I don’t look up
I don’t make eye contact
I’m going through the motions 
Isn’t there more than this?
 
I want to pay attention.
 
I drive down my street
Then I turn again, onto another street
I’m going the wrong way, this isn’t the way home
I don’t know how I got here
Why do I do this?
 
I need to pay attention.
 
I turn around to drive home, it’s ok, I know where to go now
The sun is setting, I can see its spectacular glow
The air is thick, I can smell its ocean salt and its blooming flowers
A bird is chirping, I can hear its beautiful melody
Can I feel it?
 
I am paying attention.
 
I am not asleep
It does change
There is more
I can feel it
Will you too?
 
 
I will pay attention.

Confession: I Am In Love With The World

Commuting to work early this morning, driving east, driving almost into the rising sun it seemed, one of my favorite pieces of music started playing, a remnant of my beloved choir days.  Water Night, a complex and stunning choral piece that, 15 years after first hearing and singing it, can still bring tears to my eyes.  The chords squeeze my heart, rhythmically, matching the beat of the song, leaving behind a memory that never fades.  Most of my memories do fade, or never form in the first place, but this song leaves its mark.  The voices are woven together so tightly, sometimes 20 different, cacophonic notes held at once, in the most haunting way.  They don’t blend, but they do.  They don’t go together, but I can’t imagine them apart.  There is almost a palpable tension in that lack of melody, the lack of harmony amongst the voices.  The tension builds and recedes, drives forward, striving for rare moments of melodic bliss within the dissonance.

 

Isn’t that a little what it’s like for us in our lives as well?  Moving through our dissonant moments, aching to get back to harmony, wanting to hear the melody we know (we think) is coming.  We try to rush them, thinking that if we can just get through this work week, or this holiday month, or this birthday, we will be so happy once it is over.  Once the consonance has been restored.  The suffering during the tumultuous times can seem endless, unendurable, if not for that release we expect to eventually experience.

What is so lovely about this song is that even in the discord, you can hear, you can FEEL the beauty.  There is no rush, just movement, each movement as beautiful and deliberate as the next, as the one before.

Can we learn how to find this beauty throughout our lives, especially during the inharmoniousness?  Can we stop wishing away the tough days, and instead go deeper into them, finding what they are meant to teach us, and walking away even stronger, with more purpose AND more love?  

I stumbled across a gorgeously written blog yesterday by Jo Knowles, titled “Live Your Life: A Theme And Challenge for 2013”.  In it, she references and plays a last interview between author Maurice Sendak and NPR.  He is aging, and speaks with sadness about the losses he has faced.  He has learned his lessons late in life.  He cries while talking about being happy.  

He says, “There’s something I’m finding out as I’m aging.  That I am in love with the world.

The call to action in this blog is to not wait until you are at the end of your life, but to live your life NOW.  No more wishing away the difficulties and only appreciating what comes easily.  It is beautifully and simply articulated by Jo Knowles:

“In order to live your life, you have to love your life.  And sometimes, that is very hard.”

This week I have been traveling west, to the ocean, to watch the sun set each night.  “Chasing sunsets” as my friend Jen might say.  That same sun, always rising and always setting each day.  The sameness of it soothes my soul.  It wouldn’t be enough though, all of that sameness without change, without discord.  Without sometimes being hidden, without being orange some days and pink on others, without rain and wind and snow and traffic and all of the other things that can stand in the way of our perfect sunset photo in our minds.  We would never feel so alive, so thoroughly blessed, if that sunset didn’t disappear sometimes.  It’s always there, even when hidden to us.

Says Mr. Sendak, “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”

That eternal push towards melody may always be within us.  But maybe if we can tread slowly and mindfully through the dissonance, the world will expand to show us the beauty that surrounds us at all times, whether we can hear the harmony or not.  And open us up to more love than we have ever imagined.

Sunset in Santa Monica 1.8.13

Sunset in Santa Monica 1.8.13

xx,

Katie