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being present

Guest Posts, Relationships

A Four Way Stop (is a conversation)

March 22, 2021
traffic

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Many years ago, fresh out of college and broke as an egg in a bakery I took a job teaching traffic school. I dutifully learned as much as I could about the rules of the road and then, a few times a week, I talked for nearly eight hours straight in a series of hotel conference rooms. In addition to a much needed paycheck, the main perk of overseeing this detention for grown ups, was my access to a group of adults, most of whom were happy to answer my questions about “the real world.” I taught them the regulations of a four-way stop and reminded them who has right of way on a hill and, in return, they gave me their opinions on everything from cheap health insurance to the best Dim Sum.

I’ve been thinking about this class lately as I drive around Los Angeles. In the twenty-five years I’ve spent in this city, traffic has become increasingly congested. My old secret, speedy routes are flooded with Wazers and every four-way stop seems to have been reduced to a hair raising game of “Chicken.” Nearly everyone seems to have one eye on the road and one eye on the screen. At stoplights, heads are bent over texts and emails and status updates.

During the lunch break at Traffic School we all ate pizza because it was included in the price of the class. Because these classes usually took place in a corporate hotel in some far flung suburb, everyone stayed together. Because no one had the opportunity of turning their faces toward the tiny screen of a phone, we all looked up and into the eyes of the person across the table. As a result of these conversations, I wound up with book recommendations, casserole recipes and once, even a date with someone’s recently divorced nephew.

A four-way stop is like a conversation. It is an exchange that requires awareness and patience and the desire to take an interest in the lives of your fellow human. At a four-way stop, the first person to arrive has the right of way. If two or more people arrive at the same time and are travelling a perpendicular route, the default always goes to the person on the right. If there isn’t a person directly to the right, the turn passes to the right of the empty space. In this way you alternate between east west traffic and north south traffic. It’s a loose and imperfect system and one that was developed when there were less cars and fewer distractions. It’s a system that relies upon eye contact and careful attention.

At the beginning of every class, I’d go around the room and ask my students what brought them to traffic school. I knew there were two ways to answer that question. It was truthful to say “because I don’t want the points on my record.” It was also truthful to say “because I was driving 85 miles per hour in a school zone.” Both answers revealed something about the student. Both answers spoke to the commonality of the group. No one argued about whether or not they belonged in traffic school. Everyone accepted the fact that they’d broken the rules. Some people may have disliked the rules or disagreed with them, but we all believed in the existence of the rules.

As I drive around my city, there appears to be less and less belief in the existence of the rules. The streets, which belong to all of us at once, seem considered by some drivers to be private property. Rules apply only when deemed convenient or without burden. The conversation of the four-way-stop has turned into a shouting match or worse, the concentrated, willful obliviousness my children call “ghosting.” From some, there is no response save the gunning of the engine and the squeal of tires.

What separates us on the streets is mostly paint. There are yellow stripes between lanes and painted shapes and words on signs to guide us and keep the peace. When I was just out of college and teaching traffic school to a room full of adults, I was moved by our general acceptance of the power of paint. That we would drive at high speeds in opposing directions separated only by a line the width of my palm seemed a shared acknowledgement of both our vulnerability and our courage. Our human bodies are soft and cars are hard. This fragility can also be applied to the rules of the road and the whisper thin strands of humanity that connect us all.

Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of “Leaving Tinkertown,” (University of New Mexico Press 2013.) Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for Best Book, Best First Book and Best NM Biography. Winner of Sarton Memoir Award and New Mexico Presswomen’s Zia Book Award. Her essays and short stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Family Magazine, The Orange County Register, Alligator Juniper, Perceptions: A Magazine of the Arts, the “Cup of Comfort” series published by Adams Media, Literary Mama, The Huffington Post and Brain Child Magazine and is a blogger for the TheNextFamily website.

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Hungry for More

October 29, 2020
kids

By Katie Greulich

Stepping from shower, I see my belly’s profile in shadow form. A rounded sag, like a deflated balloon. I gasp at this overhang, the ‘lip’ at my pelvis, the result of two c-sections. I wrap the towel around my body as quickly as possible, ignoring the mirror as I slip into my bedroom to change. I could blame my obliterated abdominal muscles on the scalpel that brought forth my babies. My dislike of planks. My sporadic workout routines. But the truth is that becoming a mother has changed my eating habits. I pick at the kids’ leftovers and rummages shelves.  I stand at the kitchen island when I eat, in part to be ready to fetch a fork, a drink, or extra parmesan cheese. But also, to give myself space, to be alone with the food that anchors me in my current life. To stifle my fears and feelings of inadequacy with ravenous bites and large swallows, eating as if I’m in survival mode.

Years ago, a colleague ten years my senior and mother of two littles at the time, joined in on a group discussion about weight loss. “I often feel like I should go on a diet,” she said, “but then I think, ah, who cares. I’m a mom.”

I’m a mom. The notion irritated me. Why was it okay for a woman with young kids to carry some excess baggage while one without was not? Secretly though, I longed to be her. To possess reasons such as pregnancy, sleep loss and metabolic changes to remain at a heavier baseline.

And then one day, a decade later, I understood. My cabinets were stocked with Goldfish, fruit snacks, pretzels of various shapes and sizes, and in my freezer, covered with ice burn, were cherry, orange, and grape popsicles.

Being a stay-at-home mother changed how I experience food. It’s easier to mindlessly graze. I can’t serve macaroni and cheese without taking a few bites from the wooden spoon. Crackers and tiny chocolate chip cookies slip into my mouth before entering snack bowls. Chicken nuggets and buttery noodles are both tempting and delicious. My kids rarely finish what is on their plates. My pants size is in constant debate with my moral conscience—do I waste it or finish it for them?

Often, I finish it. I eat their sectioned chunks of cheese stained pink by neighboring strawberries. Their shriveled raisins and sticky granola bars. I’m a dog looking for scraps. A human vacuum.

As a result, my edges are smoother. My center is softer. It is as if my body is fighting to maintain the weight I’d prefer to lose. It is not that I haven’t tried: Fasting, eliminating wine and other alcohol, taking yoga and Zumba classes. Even with attempts to re-establish previous habits of eating salads and drinking smoothies, I barely shed a pound.

As a younger woman, the weight was easier to lose. Five-to-seven pounds melted away in a week’s time with just a few simple changes. But during young motherhood, the excess weight feels stagnant. My body wants to stay put. Maybe it desires another pregnancy even when I do not. Or perhaps it just wants me to remain a pillow of comfort for my growing children.

It turns out, simply being a mom does not correlate to weight gain. It’s more complex than that. The food I eat counteracts my depleted energy. It fills voids I did not have before becoming a mother.  I fill those voids with food that comforts, that supports my anxieties and fears in a world where I am stuck and not sure what comes next.

In 2010, I was denied tenure at my high school teaching job. A career I’d worked and prepared for.  Afterwards, I landed a job teaching at a career college, which sometimes required fourteen-hour days—both day and night classes. And then, I became a stay-at-home mom. I’ve forgotten skills and lost contacts. In my depths, I wonder what comes next. When my kids have grown, and my safety blanket of, well, she has young kids to care for, dissolves, what will I stand for? Where does stay-at-home-mom end, and housewife begin? How do I bridge that gap? How do I find myself in the in-between, and the fear that calls to me, that is ever present, what if I don’t?

I’d rather loathe myself for carrying extra weight than for damaging my career.

So, I revel in the snacks that taste of youth, of walks around the block, of afternoons at the park, the farm, the town pool. The food that tastes of the innocence of birthday parties and play dates. I eat to stay here, in these moments that are fleeting, and conversely, to survive these moments that appear staid and unshaking.

Physically, it sticks to us in ways it does not to our children due to age and stress and other bodily shifts. Emotionally, it’s an intentional stuffing.  A way to mute out both the present and future to stifle my fears of what lies beyond motherhood.

And so, I eat while I imagine a hypothetical future. Will I ever be a successful writer? Should I go back to graduate school, and become a psychotherapist? Should I see my own therapist more often? My house needs renovations. I dream of a second vacation home. Somewhere in the woods, near a waterfall and hiking trails. Maybe I will take up jogging or swimming one day. I would like to adopt a dog, but the kids must be older, they must need me less, at least in the bodily sense. All these jumbled thoughts arrive and dissipate, they float away like my youth, like my thirties.

But the food is still there, with all its textures and flavors, both energizing and draining. It takes my mind away from the monotony yet keeps me stationed. Young motherhood is a period in which I want to both remain and abandon. This part of my life pads my waistline. Softens my curves. Keeps me from being any more than I need to be.

I dry myself and get dressed, the body I hide is covered once again. Back in the steamy bathroom I brush my hair and make a mental list for the grocery store. I remember that the last time I was food shopping, I spotted that old colleague who had rejected dieting in favor of motherhood. She was examining pears. It had been years since we’d spoken, so I kept my distance. The last I’d heard she was teaching in a graduate program. I waited until she moved along, then approached the pears myself. Her kids must be teenagers now, I thought. And it occurred to me that there is no endpoint. Winter doesn’t turn into spring in one day. There is no ‘after kids.’ It’s all just fluid time. I’ll always be a mother. I’ll always be me. Overeating will not stop time. There are other ways to be present.  I hear my kids playing downstairs, their voices intermingling in play amidst the television. My stomach clenches for a snack, but instead, I decide to just listen.

Katie Greulich is a writer based in Ramsey, New Jersey. She earned her MA in English/writing from William Paterson University in 2012. She has over a decade experience teaching writing to both high school and college students. Her work has appeared in Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and The Good Mother Project, among others.

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Guest Posts, Yoga

Tracing the Thread of Sanskrit in Yoga Practice

September 13, 2020
sanskrit

By Donna Vatnick

We sit in a circle, legs crossed, each of us nearly grazing one another’s knees. The heating vent hums. Light comes soft and yellow from the high ceiling. The view from the glass door in the corner of the room tells us the sun has already set- it is after 6 pm. On the first day of 200-hour yoga teacher training, we are strangers who sit together, searching for something we can’t name. There is a shuffling of limbs and papers as our teacher encourages us to open to the first page of Patanjali’s book of sutras. Together, we are to recite the first sutra in Sanskrit: atha yoga anushasanam. We will recite it six times together. I close my eyes. Immediately, my mind leaps into action.

First comes the judgment.

Isn’t it pretentious and appropriative say these words with such weight when we don’t know what they mean? Why is everyone going along with this? Why is my mouth moving if I don’t prescribe to this?

Second comes the doubt.

But, do I actually prescribe to this? Maybe I’m not pronouncing anything right. Why can’t I remember the words without being prompted repeatedly? Maybe this was all a mistake and I should run out of here and go back to saying “thank you” to my Judeo G-d after my 6:30 am stretches. Leave it at that. Does anyone else feel this way?

I open my eyes and search for anyone’s gaze to meet mine across the room, but everyone seems fixed and concentrating.

Then, rolls the anger in.

How dare the western market implement this traditional healing practice in an expensive as f*ck yoga teacher training. How dare I, as a Russian-Jewish white person with no background in any other tradition, trust this training to equip me to teach something so outside my scope of understanding?

 I’ll bet the wooden floor I’m sitting on was stolen from unconsenting forests and here I am training to be a yoga teacher to encourage unity.

 Here I am, on the edge of a self-care industry which profits from our anxiety, encourages us to spend our savings in order to feel any semblance of embryonic peace. Is it my learned individualism that throws me into “taking care” of my buzzing gut? Why is this spiritual practice treated as a commodity?

Anger spirals until it reaches down to the pit of disappointment.

Just relax for a second and say the words! Why can’t I just accept this Sanskrit phrase and sink into it? Is this is all wrong?

 At the end of the sixth repetition, the room falls silent. A feeling of awe and surprise washes over me.

This clean room in Boston reverberates with the rich, ancient tongue that lives here too, far from her roots in India (or so I assume). The emotions quiet and I listen to thirty-eight people breathing with bodies full of stories and a city ambulance roaring in the distance.

Atha yoga anushasanam.

In other words: Here, now, the practice of yoga begins.

To investigate the here and now of this five minute brain overdrive, I have no choice but to examine the legacy of Sanskrit as the language of modern yoga.

As a continuing student, how do I start to understand the dissonance I felt during the beginning of the sutra recitation?

As a fledgling yoga teacher, what role will Sanskrit play in my public classes?

Is integrating Sanskrit into modern yoga essential? Does it help preserve the evolutionary roots as respect for the practice? Does it exoticize the practice to appeal more to the western masses?

The word “Yoga” itself comes from Sanskrit meaning, to “yoke”, to create unity. One could interpret this practice as a way to unify the body, mind, and spirit. It also encompasses unity and connection with others: our teacher, community, the hum of the world.

What if  the essence of the word could mean something deeper too: unifying yoga’s origins with its evolution.

It means being aware of the threads that connect all of us through space and time.

The thread of Sanskrit is most likely very alive in your own native tongue.

Estimated to be 3,500 years old and sharing roots with the majority of modern languages in Europe, Sanskrit is categorized as an “Indo-European” language. There are 3.2 billion native speakers of Indo-European languages on every inhabited continent in the world today.

Before having a written alphabet, Vedic Sanskrit lived as an oral tongue passed on through memorization. One of the first records of transfer to written language was in 1500 BCE when priests and scholars of Hinduism decided to preserve hymns and poems. They compiled the oral traditions of “The Vedas”, which translates to “the knowledge”.

From there, evolution and mutation ran its course, expanding written Sanskrit from the priest class to the masses in India as power dynamics and literacy between classes shifted. Thousands of philosophical and religious Hindu texts were written and communicated in Sanskrit, as well as Buddhist and Jainist ones.

Today, Sanskrit is considered by some to be a “dead language”, like Latin. It declined in its abundance around the 13th century when Hindu kingdoms began to disintegrate due to invasions from other rulers, and the hubs of Hindu literature perished.

But Sanskrit is very much alive in other ways.

It breathes in ample philosophical texts, religious ceremonies, hymns, songs, scholarly circles, literature, and, of course, modern yoga.

To trace the thread of modern yoga practice is a winding task. The evolution of Sanskrit in yoga is just as nebulous and mysterious.

One could, with a variety of resources, trace yoga back to sitting meditation in Patanjali’s day. One could also associate it with the Hindu religion and mysticism. One could relate it to Dutch gymnastics and products of British imperialism in India.

One could also credit yoga to Krishnamacharya, “the father of modern yoga”, who brought scholarly knowledge of Sanskrit into his teachings in India in the early 1900s.

Pattabi Jois (1948) or Iyengar (1966), the men who systematized the yoga postures many people practice today, followed in Krishnamacharya’s footsteps.

One could argue yoga is exercise or lifestyle or philosophy. One could even say that yoga is practicing focus of the mind, in any way, shape, or form.

One could say it is undefinable.

No matter which lens you use, this is certain: modern yoga is a union of countless movements in history.

Expanding all over the world, yoga has become, at its core, universal, with all its mutations of lineage, language, and interpretation. My Russian-speaking sister who practices yoga in Moscow knows corpse pose as “śavāsana”; my Spanish-speaking training classmate from Mexico knows mountain pose as “tadasana”. These terms can serve as references that unite people across otherwise existing barriers.

If it’s so universal, why does reciting Patanjali feel so dissonant to me?

On many levels, Sanskrit still feels coded and unfamiliar.

There is a presence of deep wounding, of imperialism and consumerism and ignorance.

But there is also the presence of deep time, of history moving through our mouths, of collective sound and echo – the most elemental thread.

The yoga, the “yoking”, exists in both noticing the unity and picking apart its details.

Sanskrit serves as a reminder that we have a lot to learn. The mystery of movement, evolution, and origin is bountiful.

Patanjali’s first sutra invites us to not only “be here, now”, but also to examine what the “here” and “now” consist of.

Here and now is not an isolated event. It is the woven fabric of limitless threads.

Here and now, we breathe recycled air from billions of organisms, we build our homes on billion-year-old fossils and moving rock.

We stand on the shoulders of written and forgotten history;

We inherit language and wisdom that is so fluid, so integrated into the mundane, that most of the time we can’t even distinguish the pattern.

In comparison to the vast “here and now”, we are all beginners.

Donna Vatnick is an explorer of relationships and our inner universes. She writes pieces about intimacy, loneliness, and vulnerability. Donna also love to paint, write music with her bands “Otter” and “Strawberry Machine,” and feel the wind. 

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Compassion, courage, Fear, Gratitude, Guest Posts

Keep Calm and Carry On Being American: But Do We Remember How?

November 30, 2015

By Aine Greaney

One summer night in 1987, an American man I knew took me to one of those big-venue country music concerts.   It was just six months after I had immigrated here from Ireland, and the gig was somewhere south of Albany, New York.

Since my wintertime landing at JFK Airport, I had seen and enjoyed a small slice of snow-bound USA, but that trip to the country music concert was to be my first safari into big, full-blown Americana.

I may be fusing memory with nostalgia here, but that night, I remember feasting on those sights and traits that, back then, I tagged as “American.”  Though we were miles away from cowboy-country, many of my fellow concert-goers were in full regalia–lots of John Wayne Stetsons and red `kerchiefs and fringed jackets and pointy cowboy boots.

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Then there was that all-American smileyness—a party sense of shared bonhommie.  Also, before and after concert night, it was a very safe bet that, had I been hungry or thirsty or suddenly fainted, at least 80% of those folks would have turned good Samaritan and come to my aide.

That warm New York night, I would never have guessed that, 28 years later, I would find myself at another summertime concert at another outdoor pavilion–this time with my American husband and on Boston’s waterfront.

Of course, 28 years have brought lots of personal changes and life lessons. The first and best expatriate lesson:  The minute you think you’ve pegged America–this huge, polyglot country where many people’s grandparents were born in another country–you are already wrong.  It’s hard to say what makes Americans American.

However, last month in Boston, I would need to have been drunk or distracted not to have noticed that America has, to quote from W.B. Yeats, “changed utterly.”  For starters, we have all grown cautious.  We have learned to keep our mouths shut. We have learned new and sinister meanings for heretofore ordinary sights and phrases. Continue Reading…