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Salon Ninety-Two

How do you know what to teach?

I am lying on my mother’s bed, a deceptively bright triangle of blue sky visible from the window to my left. It’s cold outside, but in the warm cocoon of her respite apartment I’ve shed all of my outer layers. My eyes play between the sky and the nubbly stucco ceiling. She’s stretched out, too, under a fuzzy blanket. We’ve been exchanging news—she of the curiosities of finding herself living a new chapter at ninety-two, me of my peeps and my own comings and goings, including the day’s yoga classes. I look over at Mom and I can see she’s forming a question, her own eyes reviewing the texture of the ceiling.

“How do you know what to teach?”

I stall my answer a bit, taking time to roll up onto my elbow to face her, realizing that’s distinctly uncomfortable, bunching a pillow under my ear, and finally giving up and sitting all the way up. On the way, I’ve found the analogy I needed.

“It’s like teaching someone to ride a horse.”

Ninety-Two grew up in western Nebraska, her family moving to California in the thirties. She rode her pony to high school, moved a horse across the country to Washington, DC, in her early twenties, and kept as many as five horses at any given time on the farm where I grew up. She preferred English to Western, did jumping, dressage, and trail riding. She put lots of people, from the writers filtering through the workshop in Iowa City to neighboring children on horseback for the very first time. Nobody learned from a book—whether they came outfitted in designer riding duds or jeans and sneakers—she showed them how to catch the horse with a piece of a carrot extended on a flat hand, place a halter gently around the horses nose to lead it to the barn, clean its hooves, curry its hair, add a saddle and bridle, lead the horse out, step into the stirrup, and swing a leg up and over.

My mother is nodding as I say these steps, “And then sometimes you’d have to make them go before they were ready—trot before they learned to walk, canter before they’d learned to trot.”

We smile, complicitous. “Yes, sometimes that’s true in yoga, too.”

I remember, then, a student who walked into the door of my studio, a referral from another teacher suspending her classes for the summer. “I love yoga,” she told me, filling in her registration form, “but I don’t ever want to go upside down. No headstand for me.”

“Okay,” I assured her—in all likelihood a smile playing on my face—and we chatted about her practice and the class she was joining. She went inside and unrolled her mat front and center, a position she would occupy each Wednesday morning for at least a year.

What the curly haired beauty in front of me couldn’t have known is that each yoga community and every class becomes a Sangha—even as people come and go—and has an energy of its own. That Wednesday group, whose numbers included any number of women living with multiple joint-replacements, loved headstand. So it was inevitable that the pose would arise in our rotation. The woman, I’ll call her Shakti, after the female principle of divine energy and power, would smile contentedly and settle back, taking whatever alternate pose I offered in lieu of standing on her head or even working on headstand prep. Chairs set up against the wall offered yoginis who didn’t want to take weight on their heads the opportunity to invert in “headless” headstand.

One day I noticed her watching the line of women using the chairs. I invited her to try and her community quickly chorused, “Come on over, Shakti.” “It’s easy.” “You’ll love it.” “But,” I assured her, remembering the ferocity with which she had declared she wouldn’t invert, “no pressure.” Sometimes you can see someone considering the possibilities, the thoughts playing in the air over their heads—this was one of those moments and the whole room went still as Shakti considered her options. She stood, a tiny powerhouse, “Okay? Maybe I’ll try it.”

Those waiting to use the chairs cleared a path and Shakti walked over. I showed her where to put her hands, adjusted the chairs closer to fit her, and invited her to settle her shoulders onto the blankets cushioning the chairs. That’s really the scariest part of the pose because the first time out it feels a little like you’re putting your neck in a guillotine (headless headstand is a perfect Halloween pose). “Which leg feels like it wants to go up first?”

Shakti lifted her leg and I positioned myself to guide that leg to the wall. “When you’re ready, push into your hands and give a little kick.”

She backed off, lifting her head and looking at me, nervous. “It’s okay. If not today, another time.” Again, I could see her considering the matter. Then she fitted her head back into the space between the chairs and started to swing her leg. Before either of us knew what happened, she kicked up and stuck a beautifully aligned headless headstand. The burst of cheer on her face was met with applause from the watching crowd. As so often happens, the surprise of it all brought her down sooner and more quickly than she intended. To my delight, she lifted right back up. “This. Is. Amazing.”

It wasn’t long before Shakti put weight on her head in headstand prep, stood fully in the pose against the wall, and then asked me how to balance in the middle of the room. She became one of the regulars who requested headstand in class, and she practiced it on her own at home. We often joked about the first thing she had ever said to me as her headstand practice evolved.

A short time later she walked in on a Wednesday morning with the bittersweet news that she was moving back east. “At least you’re taking your headstand with you!” I hugged her hard.

“You’ll always be the one who taught me to stand on my head when I didn’t want to.”

“You did that yourself,” I told her, not for the first time.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said simply.

I roll back onto my back, once again considering the ceiling of my mother’s room. The summer I was ten, a young woman taught riding on our farm and we were up and on horseback each morning before the heat of the day. At the end of the season, we held an exhibition for our parents and my mother awarded us trophies, a statue of a horse with a plaque showing our names and the phrase, “Riding According to Susie Farrell.” Maybe it’s only now that I begin to understand that phrase. Yoga isn’t mine, but the way I share the practice is. If I could, I might give Shakti a trophy of herself in headstand according to Robin Bourjaily. This is how I might best define the oral tradition of teaching the practice that I love.IMG_7912

So many memories of horses and riders on our farm seem to be swirling through the air around my mother and me. I know my yoga life is an oddity to her, in spite of her insistence I go out the door to practice when my peeps were really little, but maybe the comparison to riding has helped her align her passion just a little more closely with mine. I stretch, shifting my attention back to the sky outside her window. “You know,” I tell her, “I think it’s probably really good for me to come lie on your bed for an hour every day. It’s relaxing.” This sentiment is mirrored by my dear friend who comes to visit often, leaving behind her burgeoning real estate practice to spend a little time chatting pleasantly. In finding this space, a place where Mom’s care requirements have shifted to the people who work in the facility, I have received an incomparable gift—these are precious moments where we are simply together, mother and daughter.

May this March full moon find you getting ready to welcome spring, in spite of the cold and snow. Thank you for the journey, Rxo

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Wicked Good

Wicked Good

Well, we can’t all come and go by bubble. Whose invention was that, the Wizard’s?

From the moment our feet first stepped onto the street labeled Broadway, Twelve’s eyes were enormous. When she’s excited she makes a noise at that register that causes dogs to bark, which might be recorded as “Squeeee,” except the squ- is silent. Her pace quickened and her grip on my arm tightened. “I’m on Broadway. I’m actually on Broadway and going to see a real Broadway show.”

Our seats in the Gershwin Theater were three escalators up. There isn’t much of a lobby in most Broadway Theaters I’ve been to, and while this one isn’t an exception, it is the largest house in all of Broadway, with 1933 seats. When we arrived at ours in the first balcony, just high enough that we could see the splendor of everything, nearly every other seat was full. A mechanical dragon with glowing red eyes spread its wings across the top of the curtain, hanging over the audience, and the curtain, with the Emerald City shimmering green at the center of the map wavered ever so slightly. When that same curtain rose revealing Munchkinland, Twelve’s jaw dropped.

Wicked is a perfect musical for a girls’ weekend in New York. With its strong messages about friendship and sisterhood and animal sanctity and what it means to be different and that the real story isn’t always what it seems, it kept us on the edges of our seats from beginning to end. We loved the monkeys that really flew, the dragon that came to life at dramatic moments, the smoke, the voices, the orchestra, the lights, and the tidy allusions to the original Wizard of Oz story that Twelve will dance in here in Des Moines in just two weeks’ time. But perhaps my favorite line (aside from the spiteful, It seems the artichoke is steamed) came when Glinda questions the very green Elphaba about her broomstick. Elphaba hurls back, “Well we can’t all come and go by bubble.”

And while it’s true that we travel neither by enormous shimmery soap bubbles as sets down the movie Glinda to the awe of the munchkins nor by mechanical clockwork pendulum spewing bubbles as brought our matinee Glinda to the stage, when Elphaba spat those words at her friend I thought to myself, yes, we sort of can.
Because my trip to New York with Twelve was such a charmed experience that we might as well have been traveling by bubble. Cozy together we visited friends on Long Island and then tucked into the Brooklyn apartment of a friend of thirty-five years. Gretchen and I were put together by our fathers, colleagues in the English Department at the University of Arizona. And while we both resisted the notion that we could be set up as friends, from the moment we met we were the best of buddies. All these years later we have both those early ties and an evolution of our friendship that we cherish. To my unending delight, my peeps love Gretchen as much as I do and vice versa, so she made her own version of Squeee when I floated the idea of a spring break trip to see her.

Whether on the subway or in the snow that fell in earnest on New York City on the first day of spring, at tea at Alice’s Tea Cup or having a mini-hand spa at Soapology, connecting with still more friends in an Irish pub or stepping out to purchase green bagels and finding ourselves cheering for a St. Patrick’s Day parade, it felt to me exactly like we were coming and going by bubble. Some moments we pursued specific plans, others we floated along, from one mystical land to another. But it wasn’t the Wizard’s invention that moved us from place to place and it wasn’t limited to spring break magic … the bubble I traverse the world in is a bubble of love.

Pictures from the trip follow below. The new moon rose when we were enjoying New York on the spring equinox complete with several inches of wet, slushy snow. Nonetheless, spring IS springing, even though it may not always be in the most obvious manner. Happy Spring wherever you are & whatever your weather. As ever, thank you for reading, Rxoxo

Our mad tea party at Alice's Tea Cup

Our mad tea party at Alice’s Tea Cup

central park snow

Central Park forsythia & snow

we used to drink soda and eat pizza

My lovely friend–our beverage choices have changed a little from the old day when soda was a treat.

black and white cookie

The best black & white cookie in Manhattan!

mcnulty's

We found McNulty’s, the shop from which my mother has been ordering her tea and coffee for sixty years.

soapology spa

At Soapology we had a mini-hand spa.

soapology workers

The Soapology women. On the left, a Russian lyric soprano. On the right, an Israeli software engineer.

green bagel

A green bagel–another first!

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