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The Rhythm of Life

The Rhythm of Life

Why don’t your jazz band directors appear to be conducting the jazz bands?

The summer after freshman year, I shared a basement sublet with my bat-shit crazy Resident Advisor and worked three jobs to pay for spending the summer in Washington, DC. One job was driving a bus, the gig I loved all four years of college. The second was babysitting a research assistantship for a friend who was away that summer, working under a journalism ethics professor; it was a job for which I was hugely unprepared and under-qualified. The third was perhaps the most normal job I’ve ever held—I worked at Affairs of the Heart in Georgetown Park mall.valentines_symbols_hearts_set_1

If you were around in the mid-eighties, you likely encountered a heart store, a store where literally everything on the shelves was emblazoned with one or a hundred hearts. We sold heart tee shirts and heart sweatshirts and heart stickers and pencils whose ends swirled into a heart. We sold heart-shaped erasers and mugs that bore hearts and mugs in the shape of a heart. The shop wasn’t large, but it was bright and smelled all the time of chocolate chip cookies that baked next door at the cookie store. Those were new delights in the eighties too.

Although for the most part I clocked in, worked my shift, folded tee shirts, made change for tourists, clocked out and left again, three utterly memorable things happened to me in my tenure at the heart store.

  1. One Sunday, the other young woman working and I completed the entire New York Times crossword puzzle, the only time in my life I’ve ever succeeded in that particular endeavor.
  2. One afternoon when I was at work by myself, a young man from Yugoslavia named Zoran came and lingered all afternoon talking to me about America. At the end of my shift we went to the zoo together because he had not yet been and it was one of my favorite DC experiences. We would be pen pals for the next several years until his letters, written in sloping hand on thin airmail stationery, eventually stopped coming.
  3. One day my supervisor handed me a brand new stack of one-dollar bills, still banded, and invited me to crumple them up so they wouldn’t stick together. I sat on the floor behind the cash-wrap station (admittedly, we didn’t actually wrap anything, but we put things in red tissue and stuck the flaps closed with heart stickers), scrunched the bills in my fist and dropped them in the cross of my legs. Fifty brand-new dollars crumpled up make quite a pile and I moved my legs under the bills like I was covered in crisp fall leaves. When I was done playing, I straightened the bills back into a stack and handed them to my boss. She was co-owner of the shop.

These three things sprung to my mind in rapid-fire order sitting next to my mother who was at a routine cardiac appointment where it takes longer to put the electrodes on sticky pads onto her chest than it does for the EKG to record her rhythms. They were a loose association for me to the first thought I had when the nurse purred to my mother, “it takes longer to hook you up and take the electrodes back off than it does to get the reading, so much better than it used to be …” which is: Yeah, there’s nothing like the sight of your seven-day old son hooked up to a color EKG machine.

Whenever I tell the story out loud, the story of my infant wailing in nothing but a diaper, electrodes all over his body, the test taking much too long, I inevitably get glassy-eyed, because as hard as it was learning that my brand new baby had a heart issue (two, actually), there’s no way I could make this next part up. I was sitting there in that kind cardiologist’s office, watching the pulsing of my son’s heart and hearing about ASDs and PDAs and things it would take me some time to fully comprehend, and in the pocket between heartbeats I realized that right at that precise moment my father was undergoing open heart surgery 1100 miles away. To the alarm of the doctor, the nurse, and my son’s father, I burst into a torrent of tears.

Fifteen years later I sit across from my teenager, headphones in his ears, intently typing on his laptop. I think about the things that we’ve talked about in only the last twenty-four hours, the things that he has taught me and the very-nearly snarky pseudo-compliment he handed me the morning I was urging him and his sister to get moving for their last day of school before Thanksgiving Break: I complained that they only had two days that week; that I had a full week as usual. He said, before his eyes had fully blinked open, “Well, you’re already a much more fully competent human being than we are. We need more sleep.”

In the moments when he and I were putting on our shoes and coats to head out an hour later, we were speculating about theme songs for our cats and decided that they could each have a part of “The Rhythm of Life,” one theme song, three cats. Done. And just the night before it was he who explained to me why his jazz band directors, so conductor-ish when the concert bands play, don’t have as much to do when the jazz band is playing. It’s the rhythm section that keep everyone together—the bass plays at the beginning of the downbeat, the drummer plays at the end, and the wind section is supposed to play in the pocket.

A lot can happen, I think, in the pocket of a heartbeat. The heart fills with blood, the heart moves the blood on, and we thrive on its rhythm and we remember all manner of moments and we learn new things and we grow.

When you see the full moon on Saturday, I’ll be looking up at the very same moon—my absolutely favorite rock—and thinking of you, too. Rxo


Electronic Gift

What do you want for your birthday?

Honestly, I can’t imagine any better gift than this column, a gorgeous response to my July post entitled “Dear Abbie.”

With love and happy dances under the full August moon … see you when I’m 48. Namaste, Rxo

Dear Abbie

Dear Abbie

What do I want to say here and when do I want to say it?

These are questions every writer needs to ask, probably on a regular basis. They’re questions every yoga teacher asks, pursuing the practice with the students looking expectantly up at us from their mats. Hell, they’re questions every single one of us should ask as we move through our lives, alongside, “Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?” My mother, Eighty-eight, used to insist to a much younger me that I could say anything in the world as long as it met those criteria.

The publication date for this post is July 8. That’s the birthday of a woman I’ve known since we were nine years old, from the days I spent in boarding school in southwest England. I am reminded of one moment from those years every time I offer my yoga students the opportunity to rest lying flat on their bellies, arms outstretched to tee, heads turned softly to one side. I call it Lying-on-the-Grass-Asana in memory of one day when I was eleven, my daughter’s age. I walked across the playing field to the English meadow at the far boundary of our school. I may have sat for a while, watching the rounders game on the field, but at some point I decided to lie down, flat on my stomach, stretch out my arms to hug the earth and turn my head gently to one side. I was aware of how big the planet felt, how small I felt, and how right it all was even so.

When I left Dartington Hall to return to the states for junior high, birthday-girl Abbie and I became steadfast pen pals. Letters flew across the Atlantic, sometimes not even answered before the next one was written. Move after move I have toted with me the collection, such that just now I was able to walk down to the totally cluttered disorganized basement and put my hands on the box: letters from Abbie.

Today Abbie is a writer for Media Wales, the mother of three growing children, and the wife of a producer for the BBC. Modern, adult life has, to be sure, adjusted our communications. We stay in touch via Facebook posts and occasional email messages. But I still try, once in the summer in honor of her birthday and once around the holidays, to write her a real letter. It makes me feel at the same time in touch with my friend and my younger self. When I receive a birthday letter from Abbie, I make an occasion out of reading it. A smoothie or a cup of tea and a patch of grass under a tree somewhere and I travel back in time to the meadow where we used to romp when we were free after classes.

Abbie is an amazing flower in the meadow of my own making. That’s a phrase I used for the first time, the meadow of my own making, while I was teaching at the corporate site where I lead yoga practice three days a week. It is precisely the kind of hippy-dippy flowery phrase that yoga teachers say, words strung together meant to soothe and ease. One of the students in the class smiles all the way through, even when she comes up against a pose she doesn’t like. Meadow-day it was a hip opener that we deceptively propped with a blanket and then held for a long time. I commented on Stacey’s persistent smile, and another student suggested perhaps it was a grimace and made a pained face. “We don’t do face yoga,” I quipped, quoting one of my favorite teachers. “Why not?” the grimacing student, a man, asked. “It might help, you know, lift everything.”

What I meant was that we work on keeping the face serene when we practice. What he meant was, is there a practice that would do for the face what the Asana do for the body? I had once done a little investigating and found, as with so many self-improvements, a dazzling array of promises on the Internet. I told him I’d dig in a little deeper, but in the meantime everything that we do reflects on the face and he should step deeper—and the phrase just arrived—into the meadow of his own making.

Sentimental, sure. Then again, that’s why they come to see me. And the day of this class was a day when it was entirely too easy to believe in the meadow. A pleasant 80 degrees with a light breeze and glorious yellow sunshine accompanied me on my fifteen-minute drive over. I walked in and asked for requests—our usual Friday practice. Savasana came the first response, without missing a beat. The silence that followed was an assent. They were tired today, okay. But what else? The pose suggestions came along. Pigeon said one, Rabbit from another. Heart-openers requested another. Shoulders please. A bunny and a birdie and a nap, I said. Sounds like we’re in a meadow today, and I asked them then to come onto their backs, knees bent, soles of the feet together. After a few breaths they started to ease the knees together and then open them back out again, a slow flying butterfly, and visualize the next flower, and then the next, and then the one after.

Which is all to say that the meadow came spontaneously, from the energy in the room. Closing our eyes got us out of visual impact, away from the feedback of the face and into the body. I sprinkled the meadow imagery throughout the practice, never sure if I was laying it on too thick. At the end, tucking their blankets around them in Savasana, I invoked my new phrase again, inviting them to rest in the meadow of their own making. As I walked the room, rubbing my hands together and placing them on their shoulders, I watched them relax and bloom, the flowers that they are.

When asked what the decorations would be for his famous Black and White Ball, Truman Capote replied, “The people will be the flowers.” And I am so lucky, I think, that in my meadow there are so many flowers: friends, like Abbie, who I have known for nearly forty years and those I’m just getting to know; yogis who smile even when they don’t relish a pose; strangers who respond to the bright orange of my car with delight; Eleven and Fourteen who are thriving this summer; Eighty-eight whose wisdom I cherish; people who have yet to walk through the door and join the Radiant Om Yoga community.

So, what do I want to say on this particular day? I want to say that my heart is full of gratitude, and that I’m glad I’m a yoga teacher and can get away with inviting you to skip through the meadow of my own making, to lie on the grass with me, to let go of the world for just a little while and realize at the same time we’re in it. This is it. And it’s good.

Happy Birthday Abbie! This isn’t a real letter, so I owe you that, but it’s from my heart and in honor of your birthday and the new thunder moon. To Abbie and all, thank you for sauntering along with me, Rxomeadow

Regrets Only

Would you maybe like to get a beer sometime?

My list for my next trip to Menards currently reads “door plan.” The doors in question are exterior, facing west, off the yoga studio. In the winter when the wind whips up, in spite of the hulking structure of the Ethan Allen store across the parking lot, the curtains inside the doors billow. Snow blows under and around the door seams. They are so loose in the frames that before a slide bolt was added, I could pull one of them open from the outside, even with the deadbolt fastened.

I’ve requested new exterior doors from my landlord, but until that happens I’ll be shopping for insulation to stem the cold. Last year this quest took me to a whole different section of Menards, my do-it-yourselfer’s paradise. The store is so vast, I explore new areas every time I go. On one visit I asked the woman who was kindly walking me to the section where I found just the tool storage kit I was looking for how far she walked at work every day. Fifteen miles, she told me, without ever leaving the building.

The most complicated project I’ve undertaken thus far was repairing the basement sidewall where a river of water was flooding in every time it rained last spring. I found a how-to video on Youtube, bought the kit of epoxy and ports and various other goos at Menards, and mended the wall. It wasn’t difficult, exactly, but it was labor intensive. And, like any other home-project, it’s 90 percent complete. I have yet to sand the repair and paint it to match the wall.

Every trip to Menards necessitates another trip to Menards. I’ve bought and returned the wrong light bulb (it takes a PhD and a retirement-fund withdrawal these days to purchase light), poorly made keys, a too-big drill bit, and spare parts I picked up just in case. I have also, inevitably, needed to return for a different paintbrush, an additional drop cloth, a roller cover, a new mop head. I am a more-than frequent shopper for storage systems and plant pots. All of these, alongside picture hooks, chocolate truffles, a new DVD, holiday décor, and the best salted peanuts I’ve ever found have ended up in my cart at Menards.

It was nevertheless news to me on my most recent trip that Menards is also a source of potential boyfriends. I’m not entirely sure which aisle they’re stored in—the one who presented himself came to find me where I was considering hanging plant baskets.

I had walked the length of the store, thinking about those fifteen miles, carrying a 45-gallon storage tote in each hand. On the way I said hello to the man in question—he was heading toward the checkout and his blue eyes registered surprise when I greeted him. (I tend to greet everyone, a habit adopted early and held onto, even in New York City.) But then it was only a few minutes later: He rounded the aisle where I was absorbed in the planters pushing a cart. It held two pumpkins and several tubes of caulk. “You’re buying hanging baskets in the fall?”

“They’re on sale.”

He had a soft voice to go with those bright blue eyes, short hair and stubble, or maybe it was close-cropped and intentional, I couldn’t be sure. He stood watching me while I looked at the baskets and the hanging pots. I nattered: “Someone gave me a gift of some spider plants—I own a yoga studio—and, well, I need a different way of housing them.”

“You mean like group classes, that kind of thing?”

“Yep.” I considered him a little more carefully. Fit. Why didn’t I hand him a card?

“The pumpkins,” he indicated his cart, “are a good price too. Out by me they’re charging four or five dollars apiece.”

“I heard it was supposed to be a bad year for pumpkins.”

“There seem to be plenty—the fields are orange.” A pause, and then his next question: “Do you have a lot of fall cleanup to do?”

“Heaps.” I told him, “at least, I suppose I must. I don’t really know what I’m doing. Mostly I think I’ll mow one more time and hope the leaves all blow over to the neighbors’.”

“Live near here?”

I waved my hand vaguely southwest of where we were standing, “In Clive. You?”

“West of Adel.” Wistful.

The day’s to-do list had me heading from Menards downtown to the Hoyt Sherman Place ticket office for Nutcracker tickets, over to my favorite liquor store for spiced pear vodka, and back to an address I’d never been to just north of Drake University where a friend was giving me a file cabinet for the yoga studio in just under an hour. It was time to make off with my hanging baskets. He had more questions:

“What do you like to do for fun?”

I smiled. “I like to think everything I do is fun.” I didn’t add my usual whine—that I just do too much of everything that I do. Instead I held out my hand, “I’m Robin.”

“Brad,” he shook mine in his.

“Nice talking to you,” I smiled, picked up my impossible load that now included three hanging baskets, three pots and the two boxes, and started walking away. That’s when he asked:

“Would you maybe like to get a beer sometime?”

My next breath was like the moment in The Once and Future King right before Arthur tries to pull the sword from the stone. Each of the animals he’s learned from offers wisdom as he approaches his task. I could hear my community in my head: my mother suggesting if I brought him home he might fix things; my children protesting that he wasn’t wearing a pin-striped suit (one of their requirements for any potential suitor); my friends asking, you met this one where?? Then there was the carefree me inclined to say “sure” to any adventure. But it was in a deep still place where I found my reply. “No,” I gave a genuine smile and looked straight at him, “But thank you.”

I’ve driven away from Menards with an eight-foot ladder sticking out of the back of my convertible, the legs wedged behind the front seats. I’ve driven away with the back seat loaded and parts rattling around on the floor. I’ve driven away with items I’ve found that I didn’t need later. I’ve never driven away kicking myself. I did just a little that day.

One of the things I adore about Menards are the wise little sayings, like fortune cookies, in tiny print at the bottom of each page of their advertising circulars. They are required reading on Sundays at our house. And they keep me going back … Today is Thirteen’s half birthday, a full moon, and Hurricane Sandy is pounding my beloved East coast. Here’s a full-moon wish for gentle adventures—thanks, as ever, for witnessing one of mine, Rxo

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