I only wish I ran, anymore. I make plans to start again, and my shoes sit perpetually by the front door. It is cold here, and starting a running program from scratch when my eyelashes freeze together if I am outside for more than five minutes is a little more than I am willing to deal with at this point. I think my sense of pacing has gone too.
I am not proud of this, and not just because my generation’s demand for instant gratification is grounds for much scorn from our elders. We want what we want now, and fast, and damned if that means there won’t be any for later. I try to pretend I am above all this, but I have been bitten by the gratification bug and at this point the wound is rather infected.
Two things I’ve done recently clued me into how far I have strayed into this way of thinking.
The first is my new exploration of Yoga. I’m taking a class in the Iyengar method, which for the (as I) uninitiated, involves slow movements, a focus on balance and form and posture and breath. It is not, in the traditional American sense of the word, a workout. I do not leave the studio limp and depleted, clutching a Gatorade for dear life. I usually leave feeling limber and peaceful and don’t need to hit the showers before going out in public. After my second class, I mentioned to Peter that I finally understood why I had never been able to ‘do’ Yoga from books. I was always in too much of a hurry:
I examine the instructions and picture for Mountain Pose.
I think, “Ok. You stand up straight with your feet a little apart.”
I stand up straight with my feet in the appropriate position.
I walk back to the book for the next pose.
I don't get much out of it.
I wonder why?
In class, we spend five minutes getting into “Mountain Pose” (which involves a lot more than standing up with your feet apart, I have learned) and return to it several times over the course of evening. We spend lots of time adjusting hands and spines and chins. When I bring these things home I find I am still rushing. It is hard for me, straddling the kitchen rug, to hold a pose for five breaths, much harder to move between poses with the slow deliberation forced on me by the careful pacing of the class. I want to do the thing, have it done and move one. The thing is, I enjoy and get more out of the yoga class than I have yet to manage in the cabin.
The second practicum in pacing has been through pottery class I am taking at a studio in North Pole. I quickly learned that rushing through my hand building projects left me with uneven walls and cracked rims, and more pointedly that not sitting down to think through a multi-stage build would invariably end with a botched creation. Thankfully, glazes are forgiving, but those early lessons were driven home further with my first (comical) attempts to throw. Working with a wheel, I found that speed is the enemy. I discovered through several rapid-fire disasters that trying to shape a bowl too quickly leads to structural weakness and botched form. Even if one slows down enough to start a good form, spinning the wheel too fast, especially once the bowl begins to take shape, flings the walls out with centrifugal force, thinning and weakening them beyond saving. I went through several pounds clay before I had anything resembling a vessel to show for it.
From yoga and clay I am taking very tangible lessons on process. Yoga is a lifelong discipline, with even its most dedicated and renown practitioners constantly honing their own skills. Pottery, being of the arts, is a skill that begins with a fist-sized pinch pot and can build through a lifetime of practice, experimentation and literally hundreds of tons of clay. And clay is a most forgiving medium.
Practices from one part of life bleed into others. I hope that fostering these things that require slowness and patience might help me where I rush and fret and demand. I need to start to walk again, before I try to run. But for now, I’ll be on the kitchen rug, learning to stand with my feet apart, and breathe.
But sometimes those endless cozy nights take a turn. Nouwen wrote eloquently about the dark side of solitude in The Way Of the Heart, and I think am finally begining to understand where he wrote from. The quiet and dark and lack of human companionship drive my mind to places than I’d normally choose not to go. I get caught up in the little internal cycles of mental destruction that I’m still working up the strength and discipline to break out of on my own.
Last night was one of those nights. I had satisfied myself with leftovers (jerk veggie amalgam over rice with atomic yogurt tahini, I *love* being a vegetarian,) I had written e-mails, done some work … and managed to squeeze in several hours worth of procrastination bouncing around on the internet. This is usually where things tip downwards. My mind drains of autonomous thought, my body hunches into itself and my back begins a growing ache of protest. The glow of well-being from an earlier mini-yoga practice with Peter before he left for work had long since been worn away by flickering screen and hunched shoulders. I finally tried to force myself to write, hoping that would break the deepening spiral, but found I couldn’t even manage a sentence. I felt like that horrid little deadline icon that keeps popping up on writers’ blogs and turns my stomach even though I can never turn away from its bloody destruction.
It was almost midnight. I took a deep breath. In a moment of awareness, I heard the sled-dogs down the road begin to howl. There was a timbre to it that was unfamiliar and in a way more primal than their usual dinner-time clamor. I experienced a rare intuitive click, understanding suddenly that they were howling at the Aurora. I stumbled downstairs and into several more layers, zipping fleeces, wrapping scarves, adding hoods to hats, cramming already cold feet into wet snow boots. I walked out to the road, and looked back towards the cabin. There, right above the ridge of our roof was a stray shimmer of bright green, folding down towards the trees and up again, slowly fading back into the sky and revealing the explosion of stars behind.
The rest of the band was on the northern horizon. It was green, but more of a glow than a dance, no sharp edges, no shimers. After the overhead band faded out I watched this bubble of light. It looked a bit like the glow that cities put off from a distance in the night, albeit much greener. I thought about what lay under that vast pulsing blanket of light. North of us there are only scattered cabins, mostly just running up the south faceing side of the next hill. Past that, a few homesteads. The end of the pavement. A handful of tiny roadless native villages scattered over thousands of square miles of snow and ice covered wilderness. Follow Polaris for five hundred crow miles, and there is the ice ocean of the Arctic, smashed up against the shore and stretching on into the infinity of north.
I was suddenly aware of where we are. It was a moment of presence that I badly needed, with everything that has been fighting for space in my head. We sleep north of the northernmost city on earth, in a forest of spruce and birch on a bed of ground that has been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. We live and breathe in a log cabin covered in snow, whose lights warm the windows through the lengthening nights towards solstice, where a kitten is watching me through the glass, where my sleeping hound chases ghosts of deer through her dreamworld. We live in a place where cloudless nights are filled with an unfathomable vision of stars.
I shivered on the road, watching the dome of light fade into a thin river of streaming green inches above the trees. I heard the phone ring, Peter on his way home. I forget sometimes, too often in fact, how long these things were hoped for, and how little faith I had that they would ever come into my life.
I have a lot to be thankful for.
After you watch the lights, go back and watch the big dipper slide up into the sky.
It's true. Even though it is the most positive of Kozol's books (I have read several, since then) the point of his books - nonfiction, a mix of human stories and the sociological phenomenon behind those lives - is to point out how we have failed the poor, especially poor children, as a nation of wealth and plenty. This does not make for light summer beach reading. The anecdotes are pointed, heart-breaking and often accusatory. And as a college student needing desperately for a cause to latch onto, for some specific purpose, Amazing Grace was like a manifesto for me. Go to the Poor!!
That's not exactly where I've landed.
Yet I jumped at the chance to hear Kozol speak at UAF last night, mostly because he had been such a mighty figure for me eight years ago. He was funny and personable. Self-effacing yet obviously incredibly intelligent. He rambled around his topic like a disheveled professor, and looked the part in his too-short suit pants and tennis shoes. He made some well-deserved jabs at Bush's lamentable education policy. He told his stories well, both sweet funny stories and his requisite heart-rending examples of how unjustly we are treating the children born poor in our country.
I hardly noticed that it was after nine o'clock when the packed auditorium broke for cookies and punch, and an informal question-and-answer session (that I did not stay for.) It was a strange experience, listening to a man whom I hold in such high regard, whom I idolized for so long, whose work I still hope, in the recesses of my mind, to emulate if I ever come into my own as a writer. Yet a man who's mission no longer holds me in its sway. I was not inspired by his speech. I was amused by it, and it made me angry and frustrated and sad. That was it's purpose, after all. But I did not come away singing a war hymn, planning to move a ghetto and make a safe place of learning and peace for other people's children. I came away exactly as I came in. Utterly unsure which path to choose for myself. Vaguely guilty for leaving behind those early 20's passions and ideals, tempered by a realization of how utterly unrealistic those ideals were, yet still worried by the thought that I've given something up. Something precious and real.
I found myself raising my eyebrows at the standing ovation as Kozol ended his well-polished rambling rant without proposing much in the way of a solution to the monster of institutional injustice. Perhaps because there is none? I want to believe otherwise, but the hour and the wine and all the things I've read and seen and done since reading Amazing Grace lead me away from that hope. Is that why I'm up here, looking after my own dreams instead?
Every New Year for at least the past three, one resolution has continued to make the list, to no avail:
Take A Yoga Class.
I have never been to a yoga class. I have never seen anyone actually *doing* yoga. I don't know where it comes from, exactly, or what all the different kinds of Yoga are, or why there are so many, or if they all get along or not. But from the bits and pieces I've picked up on, it seems like a good thing overall. You move, you stretch, you breathe. Your heart rate gets a little elevated. You do it in a room full of people who you hope are more enlightened than you are - in as much as they are focused on their own movement and not your wobbling pigeon toes.
Tuesday, I saw a flier - one of the many Yoga fliers often lost in the blanket of for-sale, for-rent, for-free paper on the wall of Alaska Coffee Roasters - that Interior Yoga was starting a new class cycle. This week. The only class that fit my schedule was the next night. Tonight.
Some things are best done without thinking. I have overthought Yoga in the past, trying to research styles, figure out what kind of class I need, reading artciles about picking out instructors. Yet Take A Yoga Class kept ending up on my list, year after year. Lots of things in my life are like that - too much thinking and plotting and planning, not enough being and doing and walking through the door.
So after dropping Peter off at work, I drove over to the brand new Interior Yoga facility and tromped through the snow and inside. There was quite a crowd at the door, peeling off layers and depositing dripping snow boots to the corner. The class was very full and the instructor was busy directing people to the bathroom, the boiler room (to change) and the mats. I was pretty intimidated by the shuffle and banter, but the instructor was sweet and encouraging to my deer-in-the-headlights inqiry about what to do, and I quickly settled near the back on my little green mat.
Over the next hour and a half, I streached, twisted, moved and breathed. It's amazing what a change just paying attention to breath can bring to your body, even though its something we do unconciously through every moment. I peered through the bodies around me to see which way each limb was supposed to be contorted. I listened to those around me breathe, cough, laugh, groan. Watched as some reached far further than I could, and others barely bent. While some balanced without a waver and others toppled into the wall (a beginners class, after all. I did some toppling myself.)
After class, while rolling up my mat and lining up to pay for the session, I got into a conversation with the teacher and another student. One of them is in the middle of getting certified to teach, the other just came back from her first three years teaching - in the bush. We stood around and chatted long after the building had cleared out. I think it was the first conversation I've had with women my age since we got here in August. That was nearly as refreshing as the Yoga.