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dreaming, reading, shapeshifting, eating

BORSCHT!

It IS this exciting, really!

The loveliest veggie of them all.

The most magical veggie of them all.

Jewel-like Borscht. Lovely, lovely borscht.  I promise you, it will melt your cares away. It will cure you of your ills. It’s the answer to the bitter winter wind and the dark icy night. The secret to a long, happy life. Goodbye winter colds and flu–they’re no match for blood-strengthening borscht.

And you’ll pee pink the next day, which is a lot of fun, too.

This is a vegetarian version and it’s so flavorful, it doesn’t need any meat. Easily serves 6-8 people with leftovers for the next day.

2 T olive oil
I large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 large beets, peeled 
2 carrots, peeled
1 medium potato, peeled if you like
2 C shredded cabbage (about a quarter of a large cabbage)
6 cups vegetable stock
1 T Better Than Bouillon Vegetable base (man, I love this stuff)
1 1/4 C red wine (a shiraz works very nicely)
2 bay leaves
2 tsp dry dill
3 tsp salt
pepper
fresh dill for serving (optional)
sour cream or vegan sour cream for serving

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 2.48.46 PMWith a food processor or a grater, shred the beets, carrots, potato (you can shred these together). Put these to the side. Then shred the cabbage.

Heat the oil on medium high in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add onions and sauté for 3 minutes; add the garlic and sauté another 2 minutes, taking care not to burn it (turn the heat down if you need to).

Add the beets, carrots, and potato and stir, heating them evenly. Stir in the cabbage and continue to sauté for another 3 minutes or so.

Turn the heat up to high. Add the veggie stock and stir in the veggie bouillon base. Stir in the red wine. Add the salt, dried dill, and bay leaves.

Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add pepper and more salt if you need to. Remove the bay leaves.

Ladle into bowls and top with sprigs of fresh dill and a dollop of sour cream. Serve with crusty bread.

Also nice to have with this: latkes (potato pancakes), applesauce, sauerkraut, and those little cornichon pickles or pickled mushrooms. And a spinach salad with orange champagne vinegar, shaved fennel, and raisins.

Recommended reading with a meal like this: Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, part Russian fairytale, part political fable, part journey of self-awareness for the heroine, Marya Morevna.

Everything is better with borscht.

Everything is better with borscht.

Best Hummus Ever (for those allergic to sesame)

Hummus with a simple garnish of parsley and olive oil

Hummus with a simple garnish of parsley and olive oil

I have a life-threatening sesame and nut allergy, which makes eating out a bit challenging. Even though awareness about food allergies has increased in the past couple of decades (I can’t even count all the times some adult pushed a treat with nuts on me, saying it would “be ok,” or some dummy telling me “it’s all in your head”), I still find it completely annoying to have to explain myself to waitstaff and hope (fingers crossed!) that they take me seriously and serve food that has not been cross-contaminated.  Which has happened more times than I care to count.

I can’t have a lot of good foods–no chestnuts roasting on an open fire, no Marcona almonds, no walnuts in yogurt and honey. No tahini. I despair of ever traveling in the Middle East or India, and am a bit trepidatious about Japan also (though I’m going to make that happen anyway).

BUT!  I have found a wonderful substitute for the ubiquitous hummus, the favorite party dip, lunchtime companion, and general balm for bad moods.  Just use olive oil.  That’s it–problem solved.  My kids and husband like this version better than its tahini counterpart anyway.

Here it is. Super easy. This one is mellow and smoky.

2 cans chickpeas, rinsed thoroughly
juice of one lemon
2 1/2 tsp sweet smoked paprika (the better quality you have, the better your hummus will taste.  I like La Dalia brand.)
1 crushed clove of garlic
3 cloves of black fermented garlic (Trader Joes is selling them these days, hooray)
5 Tbs olive oil (and possibly more for blending–again, don’t skimp on quality here)
3 tsp salt (or to taste)

Pita bread, oiled, heated for 10 minutes in a moderately hot oven and cut into triangles– or just pita chips

Optional garnishes: parsley or basil, olives, strips of roasted red peppers, capers, drizzle olive oil over the top–be creative!

Blend or process all ingredients into a smooth, creamy mixture (Blenders create a smoother hummus, which I prefer. Your blender may struggle–if so add more oil and keep scraping down the sides and blending.  Poor blender, this is why I need a Vitamix).  Pour into a serving dish, garnish to your taste, and arrange your pita bread/chips as you like.

How Yoga Is Like Chaucer

Creating the Moment of Narrative Possibility

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, one of the greatest books in the English language, revered by academic institutions and fusty old scholars alike, there’s a story with talking chickens.

I’m not kidding.

You might remember having to read an abridged version of The Canterbury Tales in high school English classes and hearing about the “Father of the English Language” and maybe even having to memorize the first 42 lines of the poem for some overzealous English high school teachers.

But many high school English classes don’t get to the talking chickens. The teacher assigned the prologue and everyone remembers The Miller’s Tale because it’s dirty and the Wife of Bath’s introduction and tale because she’s audacious and kind of nutty. If you got to the chickens at all in your English class, they were probably just treated as a boring little fable, along the lines of Aesop’s morality fables. But the chickens are truly special. They’re in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, toward the end of the tales, bringing some cheer to the company after the Monk’s lugubrious tales of disaster and tragedy. They deserve a closer look.

The Nun's Priest in the Ellesmere MS of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

The Nun’s Priest in the Ellesmere MS of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The Nun’s Priest begins his tale by describing the farmyard of a poor widow of modest character and introduces us to Chaunticleer, the clear-throated rooster, and Pertelote, the most lovely and gracious of his seven hen-wives. While napping, Chaunticleer has a terrible dream about a fox and whimpers as he sleeps. Concerned, Pertelote rouses him with, “Dear heart, what’s the matter?” He recounts the dream to Pertelote, who is ashamed that her mate is such a coward about a silly dream. She quotes advice from the ancient philosopher Cato to pay no attention to dreams and tells Chaunticleer to take a laxative.

Not to be outdone by his overbearing, laxative-dosing wife–she’s just a hen after all–Chaunticleer then launches into a long speech, a philosophical treatise on the signification of dreams, citing examples of prophetic dreams from the lives of saints, Greek Mythology, and the Old Testament.

(Philosophy. From a chicken in a barnyard. Chaucer’s got a great sense of humor.)

Chaunticleer ends his pontification with a plea to his wife to be content together and not to argue, cobbling together a quote from the Gospel of St. John and a common proverb about the nature of women: “In principio,/ Mulier est hominis confusio.” He translates for her, “Madame, the meaning of this Latin is ‘Woman is man’s joy and all his bliss.’”

(That is not AT ALL what it means. It means “Since the beginning, woman is man’s ruin/confusion.” Is this Chaunticleer’s little joke on his wife/ the Nun’s Priest’s little joke on his listeners that don’t know Latin?)

But lo and behold! Chaunticleer does indeed encounter a fox in the next few pages, and our storyteller compares their meeting and the fox’s subsequent trickery to the great calamities in the political order of antiquity. The fox, through flattery of Chaunticleer’s clear-throated voice, convinces him to crow—he has to tip his head back and shut his eyes to do so.

You know what comes next because it’s a pretty common motif in these kinds of tales: Fox takes the opportunity to seize the unfortunate Chaunticleer, bearing him off to the woods to be eaten. The hens put up a terrible squawking—the Nun’s Priest compares their fluster to the lamentations of the women of Troy!—and the farm wife with her daughters and dogs rush out to chase the fox. Chaunticleer addresses the fox during the melee and in the moment that the fox takes to answer him, he breaks free of the villain’s maw. Our hero flies up to a tree branch, claiming he’ll never listen to flattery again, knowing now that it is false and a folly.

The simple moral of the story, on the surface, is don’t listen to false tales. Don’t listen to foxes and watch out for your vanity. It’s the moral of many fairytales and fables and we’re quite used to this lesson. But the story also seems to say, through the prophetic nature of Chaunticleer’s dream (his dream about the fox, after all, came true), “Trust your dreams; they can become real.” What is a dream but a fiction, and Chaunticleer’s dream is a fiction within a fiction told by the Nun’s Priest, within a fiction told by the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, within a fiction told by Chaucer.

So things are little more complex here. How do we tell the difference between the false story and the true? How do we know the difference between what Chaucer calls earnest (reality/truth/sincerity) and game (the pretend/ falsity)? It’s an essential distinction to make for so many reasons: how do we know when someone or something (advertisements, political campaigns, dogmatic rhetoric, etc) is lying to us? How do we know when we are lying to ourselves? How do we interpret?

It’s an urgent and vital topic: the tension between earnest and game is connected to profound issues in human perception and organization: sanity and insanity, the function of identity, justice and injustice—this is pretty serious stuff with serious consequences. We are dealing with levels of reality, and the complexity of how reality is created in the human mind.

This is an important concept in yogic philosophy. The Om Asatoma mantra begins with the line Asatoma sadgamaya: “Lead us from the false to the true.” Many encounters with yogic philosophy treat the importance of distinguishing between these polarized opposites: this is good, this is bad; false/true; dark/light; poison/nectar. The sutra 2.36 introduces us to Satya, truth, the second of the Yamas: “When one is established in truthfulness (Satya), one ensures the fruition of actions.”[i] Nischala Joy Devi contemplates Satya, noting that what we often think of as the “Truth” is frequently a matter of interpretation. Truth, she reflects, must be aligned with integrity to be true: “the more we live not just our version of the truth, but the truth for itself, the more other aspects in our life neatly join the order.” [ii]

SOS_1491_Uthita_TrikonasanaTo begin to discern, through physical practice, between the false and the true is a common theme in yoga classes. We work to assess honestly, for example, the wandering of the mind, our judgments of bodies in a pose, our resistance or over-exertion, and our competition with others. We work to observe how the mind works between the small jealousies and worries and the narratives we create that do not serve us. Coming to the breath and anchoring there throughout practice we start to notice when the mind strays into judgment: “I can’t balance as well as that woman over there”; or “I have to nail this pose or I’ll embarrass myself!”; or “I don’t like this pose, so I’m only going to do it halfway”; or “No one in this room does this pose better than me.” And in each case, when the breath gives us pause to notice, we can see the falsehoods inherent in each judgment:

“I can’t balance as well as that woman over there”: Is this true for every pose or for every life situation? On every day of your life or hers? Is it important for either one of you to be better at balancing than the other?

“I have to nail this pose or I’ll embarrass myself”: Is this true? How many people will care and judge you if you sway or fall? If you sway or fall, does this mean you are less of a yogi and less of a person?

“I don’t like this pose, so I’m only going to do it halfway”: Our “likes” are interpretations; they are not the truth. By allowing our preferences to guide our practices, we miss the wisdom that poses have to offer when we approach them with the meditative mind.

“No one in this room does this pose better than me”: Perhaps in terms of touching your toes, you’ve got this down. But what if you’re not considering alignment, and you’ve externally rotated your thighs when internally rotating them brings you more deeply into the pose? Your neighbor two mats down may have this up on you! And the woman three mats to the front is so deep in the contemplation that the pose offers, she has discovered a quiet insight into her heart’s connection with her body. This insight is not visible to you. How much you’ve missed in your comparison, which isn’t even true!

Moving Deeper: the narrative moment

But there is more to the tension and interplay of earnest and game/truth and illusion than simply distinguishing between the two. This is where things become even more complex.

Jagadeva, The Goddess Sarasvati, c1153.  Sarasvati is the Hindu goddess of  song, dance, narrative--all the creative arts.

Jagadeva, The Goddess Sarasvati, c1153. Sarasvati is the Hindu goddess of song, dance, narrative–all the creative arts.

The story of Chaunticleer itself lies in the category of game: it’s a fiction, it’s pretend, it didn’t really happen. And yet it contains within it some of the most important thematic seeds of The Canterbury Tales, so there is earnest here too. [iii] Sometimes earnest and game, the true and the pretend, blend together: the sharp edges separating reality and fantasy get fuzzy, and one flips over into the other. When this happens, it can be a moment of tremendous power: it is the moment of narrative. Narrative has the potentiality to change and transform: it is the playground of possibility. The stories we create of ourselves, the stories of our identities, can be enormously powerful.

Does that mean we can take every falsity and turn it into truth? No, but at times there are opportunities along the faultlines of untruths to create shifts in consciousness, to participate in a new and deeper truth that has not been available to us before. Take the previous examples of judgments made on the yoga mat: all are little games we play with ourselves. How can those falsities lead to truths? By allowing them to open to the power of narrative:

“I can’t balance as well as that woman over there”: We are balancing together. What if my teetering is part of her steadiness? What if my learning is part of her learning, too, and our balance is connected?

“I have to nail this pose or I’ll embarrass myself!”: Would I be better served if I switched the verbs here? I have to embarrass this pose (find humility through the pose) or I’ll nail myself! (I’ll damage myself with the pressure of the ego).

“I don’t like this pose, so I’m only going to do it halfway.”: Forget whether I like the pose or not. What are the differences between doing the pose halfway and a fuller expression? Are there differences in intensity, emotion, or thought? What is the story of that intensity, emotion, or thought? Where does it come from?

“No one in this room does this pose better than me.”: We are all beautiful in the narratives of our poses, especially in the narrative of one who judges coming instead to love.

The first statements close off communication and thought; they end with their punctuation. But the second responses to each statement dramatically open possibilities. Each embarks on a story, a “what if” that has the potential to expand.

Satya: the dream of the chicken

I have to admit, when I first read The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, I was utterly confounded. This is cute, I thought, but what the heck is it for? What does it mean? Why chickens?

Why use chickens to work with such essential and heavy topics? When we are dealing with polar concepts like true and false (or woman and man, right and wrong, strong and weak, good and bad), we tend to be very rigid: this is this and this is not that. Humans like to put ideas, events, people and places into clean categories. Categories make our lives smoother. They comfort us, whispering to us when we put something in a box, “You did a good job here, you are right.” Nowhere is this more evident than in ideological political beliefs: how many people on both sides categorize—demonize—the other side: Liberals are [fill in the blank]. Conservatives are [fill in the blank]. And when we do it, we feel self-righteous and smug. We are right and they are wrong. But not everything fits into neat categories. In fact, most things don’t: they need a whole story. Chaucer’s use of a barnyard and chickens, rather than great political or philosophical figures of the past, messes up our expectations and categories from the start.

Chaucer’s got a generous sense of humor. After all, this stuff is messy; it’s not pristine. Adopting that kind of expansive humor in our practice may be a way to both create enough space for the playground of narrative possibility and discern with wisdom the difference between earnest and game. Sometimes we practice the deepest form of Satya by playing with the edges of true and false and telling a story. From that possibility, truth unfolds.

Chaucer's pilgrims--like us, all creating their narratives, both false and true.

Chaucer’s pilgrims–like us, all creating their narratives, both false and true.

Notes
[i] Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras. Edwin F. Bryant trans. New York: North Point Press, 2009. p 264. [ii] Devi, Nischala Joy. The Secret Power of Yoga. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. p 185.[iii] Readers of Harry Potter: this moment of blending between the pretend and the true is never more evident than when in the last book at Harry’s “King’s Cross Station” Dumbledore brightly answers Harry’s question about whether this is real or just in his head with “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Early SNOW!

At 6 am, my husband woke me up with the words, “There’s snow!”  Instead of sinking back a little deeper into my comforter like a tiny grumbling mole as I usually do, I flung the covers off and leapt in a single bound to our bedroom window.  SNOW!

I get pretty excited about snow. I’m not obsessed with snow sports or anything (I do love cross country skiing, though)–I just like to be in the snow. I like to look at snow, and drink tea while I’m looking at snow. I had a children’s book given to me one Christmas, one of the Brambly Hedge series, A Winter Story, about little talking mice who create an entire hall out of snow and ice for a Snow Ball– the kind with lots of dancing and feasting. I adored that book as a child, and to this day snow makes me feel like this:

BramblyHedgeWinterStory

Anyway, the forecast calls for hiking boots, a long walk out of Dormont to more woodsy areas, and a camera. And a little childlike glee.

Good ol' hilly Dormont

Good ol’ hilly Dormont

I love how snow brings texture into high relief.

I love how snow brings texture into high relief.

Little snow puffs on leaves.

Little snow puffs on leaves.

Still quite a lot of fall color.

Still quite a lot of fall color.

At the top of Beacon Hill.

At the top of Beacon Hill.

A tucked-away park.

A tucked-away park.

Berry tree in the tucked-away park.

Berry tree in the tucked-away park.

Snow and berries.

Snow and berries.

Tree-lined street.

Tree-lined street.

Back to my garden.  Kale gets sweeter after after a freeze.  Guess what's for dinner tonight?

Back to my garden. Kale gets sweeter after after a freeze. Guess what’s for dinner tonight?

Biking and Hiking, Ohiopyle

When I’m out and about on trails, part of me really wishes that my job was documenting species, noticing small changes in trees, creatures and their relationships, and just simply walking. Looking for mushrooms and bugs. Time to go back to school for a forestry degree?

Vic and I spent a spontaneous day biking and hiking on trails around Ohiopyle, PA. The itinerary: 22 miles biking from Ohiopyle to Confluence and back, then a few miles of hiking on the Ferncliff Peninsula.

The peninsula, created by a meander in the Youghiogheny River, is home to plants that usually grow in warmer climates, rare to Pennsylvania. The waters of the river carry seeds from southern climes to the peninsula where they are deposited and flourish. Magnolias, rhododendron, and a fern carpet on the forest floor are all treats to the hikers who walk here. The peninsula’s woods might not be with us today had it not been for the efforts of a passionate conservationist, Lillian McCahan, who recognized its unique diversity and battled fiercely in the 1950s to save it from development into an amusement park.

Starting the day on the Allegheny Passage Bike trail in Ohiopyle

Starting the day on the Allegheny Passage Bike trail in Ohiopyle

During a break, we happened upon a ladybug nest and were swarmed by the critters.  Here's one of the lucky guys.

During a break, we happened upon a ladybug nest and were swarmed by the critters. Here’s one of the lucky guys on Vic’s bike shirt.

Camera wars

Camera wars

About to start the hike! :)

Done with the bike, about to start the hike! 🙂

The Fern Cliff Peninsula woods

The Ferncliff Peninsula woods

Baby conifers

Baby conifers

Fall color in PA

Fall color in PA

Honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea)

A clutch of Honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea)

Turkey Tail Mushroom (Trametes versicolor)

Turkey Tail Mushroom (Trametes versicolor)

Perched Tree

Perched Tree

Into the Woods

Into the Woods

IMG_1333

Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle

The falls

The falls

Me & the falls

Me & the falls

Home again. A relaxing end of the day.

Home again. A relaxing end of the day.

Ugly Love Work

Love isn’t something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice. 
― Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

Hanuman showing the images in his heart, in Kalighat folk style, c.1880

Hanuman showing the images in his heart, in Kalighat folk style, c.1880

The great work of our lives is loving.

This is much uglier, more misshapen and grotesque than we think. It’s doesn’t swoop elegantly like the symmetrical halves of the valentine, and bluebirds don’t fly in with banners to announce its presence.

I don’t know when it happened, but someone, somewhere got the idea that love is supposed to be fizzy and uplifting, a Disney fairytale with a happy ending.  Many people, especially high school and college students I’ve taught, think that love is all smiles and sweetness (or on the other spectrum—desperation and drama) and if those things stop then the love is gone.

They’ve mistaken love for an emotion, for something that they think they’re supposed to feel.

Lots of folks regard Romeo and Juliet as the decisive example of romantic love in literature. Even characters in Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love are convinced the play portrays the “nature of true love.” I’ve met a lot of people who cite Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate love story: R & J are very, very sparkly together and then they DIE for each other!  How romantic!

Somehow the tragedy is forgotten.  Or maybe the spectacle of the tragedy backfires. What Shakespeare describes in the relations of his two doomed lovers is not really the work of love.  It’s actually a story about how dangerous it is to misunderstand love.

Julia Kristeva, a theorist of how language and meaning work, hits it right on the button when she notices the inherent violence in the language of the lovers’ monologues. In one particularly infatuated monologue, Juliet exclaims:

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Sure, it’s poetic. But it recalls the tragedy of heroes like Orpheus, whose lyre is hung in the sky as a constellation after he is ripped apart by Dionysus’s wild women, the maenads.  (Dionysus is the god of wine, ecstasy, revelry, and hard-won epiphany: you might see the truth after hanging with Dionysus for a while, but it’s not one you’re going like).  Looked at closely, the passage hints that Juliet’s love is not for any quality belonging to Romeo in and of himself. She’s in love with how, like so many little fancy accessories, he can make something else—the night, but also presumably, her—desired. Romeo, cut up in little pieces, has lost his face to the night sky.  It’s a horrific image.

Claire Danes as Juliet in Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet

Claire Danes as Juliet in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

I love Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film version of the play because he really gets this failure of love in the young couple.  It’s so evident in his filming of the death scene. Claire Danes as Juliet lies gauzily on her funeral bier in the crypt, not yet awoken from the sleeping draught she has taken to fake her death. Leo DiCaprio as Romeo arrives at the crypt, not knowing that Juliet hasn’t actually died.  He has poison with him in a little glass vial to take his own life.  As he approaches the bier, her body surrounded by lit candles, he unstops the bottle. Weeping over her, so lost in his emotion, he doesn’t see that she’s waking up: she stirs, her eyes flutter and open, but he can’t notice a thing.  He’s in love with his own romance and tragedy.  We know the rest of the story.

Romeo and Juliet is only part of a long, long line of stories, films, mythologies, and songs about love.  Too bad this particular story is often misinterpreted; it tries to reveal the problems in thinking that love is about how someone else makes us feel. (Why aren’t we listening?) Not all stories do: many indulge the sweet-tooth of romance. As a culture, we tend to crave that glitter, the fantasy of a perfect “soul-mate,” a perfect sex-life (so highly marketable), and fairy-tale wedding, a happy ending.  That if I find Mr. or Ms. Right—like shopping for the perfect pair of boots or sports car—I will be complete.

You complete me, the lover sighs. That is, until I need the next needle-to-the vein of glittery feeling.

Ok, so that’s not really love.

Because love is work—Erich Fromm calls it an art—it draws along with it a range of emotions:  joy and delight are partnered with anger, pain, frustration, disgust, sorrow, confusion, fear.  Those emotions don’t mean that you’ve stopped loving or being loved.

Love’s shape twists.  It is pitted and pockmarked, freckled, carbuncled.  It has recesses that fool you, their floors dropping away suddenly into deep caverns that you didn’t know were there.  Exploring that shape is a frightening prospect.

There are people whom we love easily, almost effortlessly.  And there are those who don’t make loving easy for us.  Loving them is a constant struggle imbued with a whole range of confusing thoughts, memories, and emotions. There’s no glowing “wow, this person jives with me” simpatico; in fact, you might align with each other on precious few values and ideas. But there’s something there that’s worth the icky feelings and frustration.

What is it?

*

I have a “love hurts” relationship with different people in my life.  (Sometimes it’s more like a “this person makes me so angry I want to scream” relationship.) Perhaps you do too. Besides a past full of baggage and memories infuriating to recall, present conversations and interactions can seem awkward, sometimes strained.  A lot goes on in the words we choose, and the content we choose to share with one another.  Often there’s a subtle one-upmanship, a delicate power play that probably leaves both parties feeling like they don’t want to talk again for quite awhile.

Maybe there’s frustration with a friend’s life choices; but she’s wary about how you like to rock the boat. Or you and your brother don’t share a sense of humor, not to mention your completely divergent political views. Perhaps you always wanted your mother’s approval and genuine interest; she couldn’t give it. Your father may now want your genuine interest and approval and it’s not easy to soften your jaw, let alone your heart, around him.

Thinly veiled by all the little tricks we do to avoid confrontation– “niceties” (those little laughs, the small dishonesties that dart like rabbits in the garden, quick changes of subject) or, openly disgusted and yelling, the disapproval is mutual. We have a personality clash.

That personality clash and its whole history puts a roadblock in the way of warm, lovey-dovey feelings.  I find myself often enraged, suddenly, out of nowhere, while driving my car home from work, at some small detail in a conversation with one of my “love hurts” folks that has clearly opened the whole can of worms again.  I’ve had bitter and accusatory “pretend” conversations with them in the bathroom mirror. What would it be like if I actually said those things to their faces?, I’ve wondered.

In the same car, on the same road back from work, I’ve chided myself: why can’t you let go of the anger and just love and accept? What would it take to be generous and loving?  Be sweet and kind and forget the anger and hurt. Be a good friend, daughter, son, husband, uncle, mother–you fill in the blank.

Hyde Park section of "Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace"

Hyde Park section of “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

But in the next moment, as I pull my car to the stoplight, I wonder, “what if that is what I’m doing?”: what if this struggle, this back and forth, all the fraught feelings are part of loving this person?  What if the struggle means that I am loving? That the anger and fierceness makes me a good friend, daughter, son, husband, uncle, mother (you fill in the blank)?

That this is the shape of this love relationship: a bit ungainly, less than lovely.  A bottom heavy shape with a scrawny neck, a lot like the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park, the oldest boating lake in the city and a popular site for public protest and demonstration from the 19th century to today.

The Serpentine, which I saw with my parents as an 11-year-old child on a visit to London, is chock full of stuff.  It was where the triathalon and swimming marathon were held for the 2012 Olympics.  Waterfowl are plenty there: it’s home to cormorants, herons, egrets, cranes. A statue dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, a patron of motherhood and nature, in the shape of a ten-foot high ibis stands near the Serpentine. The oddly-shaped lake also saw finery, wealth and display in the touring crowds of the wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s where Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, drowned herself .

And it’s where this happened this past summer: 

My “love hurts” relationships are chock full of histories, too, and messy with small (figurative) murders, suicides, revolt. Yet some quality these people possess, even simply their presence when I need it, soars like the Serpentine’s birds. Sometimes there’s a kind of pomp and ceremony in these relationships, a protective formality that makes us wonder if we can ever truly relax around the other.  But like that weird effigy of Mr. Darcy/Colin Firth rising up suddenly from the lake water–non sequitur extraordinaire–there are also those odd moments that break the barriers of the past, that can catapult you into sharing laughter and a moment of heartfelt recognition from the very strangeness of it all.

Despite all the ways that we “miss” the other and her/his meaning–there are so many misses!–we choose to continue our confusing struggle with love.

And it’s really confusing. Speaking of her relationship with her mother in The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit perceives three mothers: her mother as she is, the mother of the past, and a third mother she created from her own experience and assumptions. This “third mother” is not the person herself; it is a ghostly replacement, a poor version of the real person dimensionally thin and attached to the world by the lack, desires, neuroses of the one constructing her. The third mother—or the third sister, wife, husband, daughter, or son, for that matter—is the one we just can’t get over, the one who pushes buttons and draws ire, especially when the real person does something that aligns with our expectations connected to our constructed version: “I knew you would say that.”

In a love relationship, then, we’re dealing with layers and layers of ourselves and others.  Part of the work of love is to tease those layers apart: what is me and what is you in this relationship?  What of myself am I using to construct you?  And when I do that, in what ways does this construction miss your complexity?  How, when I struggle with you, am I struggling with myself also?

Isis at the Serpentine. Credit: Petr Brož

Isis at the Serpentine. Credit: Petr Brož

*

I continue struggling in the “love hurts” relationships for many reasons, but the most important is that I do love these people. That in itself stretches me, my Self as it is connected to everything.  Suffering all the shapes of love—I’m not talking about suffering abusiveness here—can teach us reflection and selflessness. It can make us confront what we don’t like in ourselves, because more often than not, the thing we dislike in the other is the thing we can’t admit to in ourselves.

Loving is not about being sweet and kind. Loving is being curious and asking questions, wading through the mire of all the layers, doing the ugly love work. If sweetness comes from that–which it will, with practice–then that is something to celebrate.

Then keep wading.

The Moment of Grace

West meets East in the concepts of aventure and Ishvara Pranidhana

Vital Spark. By Victor Barbetti, 2010. Inverary, Scotland. (used with permission of the author)

Vital Spark. By Victor, 2010. Inverary, Scotland. (used with permission of the author)

"Nazis. I hate those guys."

“Nazis. I hate those guys.”

Our Western culture, especially in America, is a culture in love with the idea of adventure. Adventure tends to imply striking out upon the open road, climbing the highest peak, exploring the darkest jungle.  Adventure means skiing black diamonds on the Matterhorn and climbing El Capitan in Yosemite. It is always in search of the newest, highest, biggest, riskiest. Adventure brings to mind death-defying feats and extremes in energy, endurance, and daring. It is also an individualistic enterprise, often a narrative of the self-made person solidifying her or his independence and ability against the backdrop of a hostile environment. A good guy versus the bad guys. Our history books are filled with explorers, soldiers, and renegades. Our shared cultural stories of adventure (think: Odysseus, Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, James Bond, and so on), envelop us in the thrill of adventure but reinforce the structure that there is always a them against us.

In the Anglo-Norman literature of the Middle Ages there is a concept called aventure  (AH-ven-toor).1 The word is similar to our modern-day “adventure” in spelling, but the concept of aventure works differently. Unlike adventure’s preoccupation with the autonomy of the individual, the moment of aventure is not within the control of the heroine of the story but comes to her outside of her means. Aventure is an unasked-for, fleeting moment. Yet it is hers to accept or not. Once chosen, it is one that promises to transform. The heroine will suffer for choosing aventure, but she will be changed irrevocably for the better, blessed beyond what she could have imagined before.

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript

In the 12th century story “Guigemar” by Marie de France, a young knight is presented with such a moment.  He is a brave and manly knight, well-beloved by the people, but has lived his days in court eschewing love, scornful of the trappings of romantic attachment. He sets out on a hunt one day and sights a lovely white deer. He puts the deer to chase and in the course of wounding the animal is wounded himself. With its last dying words the deer curses the knight, saying that his wound will never heal until a woman suffers as much in love for him as he suffers for her. In pain, Guigemar wanders down a path along a river and comes to a desolate harbor where a single ship is docked. No captain, no crew inhabits this ship. The hull’s wood is finely carved and the interior richly furnished with silks, velvets and brocades, but the ship is utterly empty of other souls. As Guigemar boards it and discovers the treasures within, the ship sails away with him to the open sea.

I’ve told this story to my children and to students in my yoga classes, and always I ask, “What do you do when you come upon a beautiful but sort of creepy ship without anyone on it?” Delightfully, most people respond, “Get on it!”  (Only a couple of people, bless their pragmatic hearts, have responded, “Run away as fast as you can!”)  They answer correctly because, instinctively, we know this story.  We know it from the patterns of a hundred fairy tales we’ve heard as children; we know it because we understand how fictional stories work.  But I think that there is a deeper knowledge here also, a knowledge of the authentic narrative of our lives. We know we are supposed to say “yes” to aventure when it presents itself to us. We know we will be changed by getting on the ship.

The authentic narrative: the wound of the self and surrender

In the midst of this story about getting on a mystery boat lies a wound that refuses to heal. My meditations on this story have always focused on the moment of choosing to board the ship. But equally important is the wound, a curse that follows Guigemar, his constant painful companion as well as a catalyst to the action. Symbolically, a wound represents loss, incompleteness: it is a lack, a slice, part of the body missing or not knitted together.

Reverse panel of the Wilton Diptych (c 1395-1399). The image of the white deer threads itself through history in religion, politics, and story.

Reverse panel of the Wilton Diptych (c 1395-1399). The image of the white deer threads itself through Western history in religion, politics, and story.

We know that Guigemar has refused love and has instead chosen success and self-interest. How different is this lack of love from the wound that plagues him?  Symbolically, these two facts of his existence, one on a spiritual/emotional level and the other on a physical level, are linked. One way to understand the symbolism of the wound in our own lives is to acknowledge that as human beings, many of us carry an unhealed wound with us as a constant companion. Perhaps the wound stems from childhood: a parent who did not love us, a group of bullies who destroyed our self-delight. Perhaps it is a profound trauma or violence done to us. It could be the loss of a child, a parent, a sibling, or friend.  Or something terrible we did to someone else that inhabits us as parasitic guilt. A fear of mortality that prevents us from living fully or dying gracefully. A failure to love.

The fact of our lives is our mortality: we are vulnerable and we suffer. We are fallible and we die. Brushing this fact aside and living as if we are untouchable and unbreakable renders us into caricature, like the cardboard cutout of the latest movie theater hero, a character in some other story disconnected from the reality of our personal existence. Living our authentic narrative requires recognizing the wisdom of the wound. Guigemar boards the ship in his weakness from the wound; he stays on the ship because of his fatigue and pain. Our wounds become the opportunity to acknowledge our need, our lack, and learn to surrender. In the instances of the most important choices of our lives, we can’t claim an entirely autonomous possession over the choice. There is an element of surrender in our choosing: to fate, to chance, to the directive of existence, to a higher power, or even, like Guigemar, to our own physical and mental limits (in itself an admission that we cannot control everything!).

The form of surrender that takes us deep within our wound rather than away from it is a surrender to the Self with a capital S.  This Self is not separate from the Divine; it is connected to everything. It breathes with the breath of the universe. It is the purest Self, Purusha. In the Yoga Sutras, this surrender is the last of the Kriyas of the Niyamas, the observances that actively transform the human soul. It is called Ishvara Pranidhana. Patanjali tells us in Sutra 2.1 that “Accepting pain as help for purification [Tapas], study of spiritual books [Svadhaya], and surrender to the Supreme Being [Ishvara Pranidhana] constitute Yoga in practice.” 2   The diligence to purify, study, and surrender is often painful enough in itself; resistance to these can form quite a barrier. But the pain that Patanjali mentions here is not just the resistance to diligent work, but also that of the wound of our mortal lives. There is a double surrender when the Kriyas are followed: a surrender to the wound (accepting pain) and a surrender to Ishvara, the Divine who is also the Self (Purusha) that will heal it. The Yoga of devotion, of Love, requires this form of surrender. But first we must face the wound in whatever shape it takes in our lives. The wound is in fact the condition of surrender. In that moment of surrender, we choose aventure. Aventure takes us to the other side of the wound: healing.

In our day-to-day lives the moments of aventure aren’t necessarily as obvious as a magical ship appearing before our eyes, but they do affect us as stridently and deeply as if we had been whisked away from the world as we know it. Sometimes aventure comes to us through more subtle channels. Perhaps aventure presents itself in the silent gaze of a friend with whom you’ve had recent difficulties. Can you meet that that gaze and let the silent communication of your eyes pass between you to open you both up to a smile, a laugh, a new discussion about your relationship, an unfolding of forgiveness?

Or perhaps it comes as an ever-so-brief opportunity to speak up about important feelings when you had previously been silent. Aventure often requires us to be quick on our toes.

Other times, aventure tears visibly into us from the surface of our being to its foundation. Perhaps it comes to you as an offer of a job that utterly terrifies you, but will challenge and enrich you beyond what you can imagine now.

It also can come to us in more wrenching ways. One mother described, years later in retrospect, her grief at losing a child as an instance of aventure. Once she gave herself to the grief and felt awash in it, she said, she “felt a curious lightness, a kind of blessing or even joy that only grief can give you.” She felt her bitter heart begin to turn, and though still in terrible pain over the loss of her daughter, she started to regain a sense of wonder about existence.

Guigemar’s story doesn’t end on the high seas. He continues his journey overseas on the ship that sails itself to a land where he finds a beautiful lady imprisoned by a jealous husband. They fall in love and pledge their love to each other, making much of being wounded by love.  When the husband discovers them, both Guigemar and his lady suffer through separations, uncertainties, and sorrows. Thankfully, the story ends with a happily-ever-after, but the more important point is that Guigemar, who had scorned the commitment of love in the beginning, learned to say yes to loving another, yes to Love. Although he fights other battles, the story is less about “a good guy versus a bad guy” than it is about accepting the wound that leads to a path of love, and the wound of Love itself. That is the real aventure: the enduring moment of grace that, so deeply part of us and yet entirely beyond us, teaches us how to love.

*****

Further reading

Marie de France. The Lais of Marie de France. 2nd ed. Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Patanjanli. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary. Trans. Edwin F. Bryant. New York : North Point Press, 2009.

Notes

1      The term also means, in Old French law, a misfortune or accident.  In the literary usage, the term takes on broader significance as a moment that is key to emotional and spiritual development.

2      Translation from Yoga with Subash, “Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender to God.”

A good day for walking

On a walk together this week, my youngest son showed me the cross country course he runs at his high school: it takes him up and down steep hills, through fields and narrow foot paths in the woods.  It’s challenging enough to walk it, let alone run it.  So I walked it today, after a good fall breakfast, of course.  It was a lovely, quiet walk on one of those familiar gray Pittsburgh days.

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In back of Dante’s school.

My guess is that this is a Smooth Lepiota.

My guess is that this is a Smooth Lepiota.

Milk-white Toothed Polypore on tree.

Milk-white Toothed Polypore on tree.

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This Shaggy Mane (good to eat when young!) is now disintegrating, dropping its spores.

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OK. Someone help me out with tree identification–what kind of tree is this?

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Some of the wooded areas by the school.

So what’s a good fall breakfast?

OATMEAL.

But not Quaker’s crap packets of apple-cinnamon fakeness.

Try McCann’s or similar, cooked with a sprinkle of salt and a few tablespoons of coconut milk; sprinkled with cardamom and cinnamon; drizzled with maple syrup (I like Grade B); topped with coconut yogurt, or if you’re not vegan, plain Greek yogurt.

Yes, ma’am.

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So, so, so delicious. This breakfast is my friend.

Weekly Dinner Menu: It’s really fall!

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The very last hillbilly tomato.

Finally! Cooler weather, grayer skies. Watching the Pirates game (GO BUCS!  RTJR!) while making the menu for the week. Summer produce is waning, using up the last of tomatoes while the kale threatens to take over the garden.

fennel's gone wild

fennel’s gone wild

Monday: Use up the last of summer:  a mix of slow-roasted tomatoes, last purple radishes (time to plant more), thinly sliced fennel marinated in champagne vinegar, white bean and starting-to-decline basil puree on baguette slices. Sprinkle all with fennel pollen. Olives and last of the figs on the side.

Tuesday: Sautéed mushrooms, onion, kale, white beans. Grilled polenta squares. Apple and Delicata squash bake.

Wednesday: homemade fries with horseradish and Vegenaise sauce, topped  with homemade sauerkraut. Chunky applesauce on the side. Savory, smoky vegan pumpkin soufflé.

Thursday: Easy. Pasta, meatless “ground beef” tomato sauce loaded with garlic & veggies, steamed cauliflower drizzled with EVOO and salted lightly.

Friday: Stir fried veggies (onion, mushroom, radish, last of the peppers, dragon tongue beans, carrot, cubed winter squash, broccoli) in chili sauce with fried tempeh strips, over broad noodles, topped with hijiki, kimchi on the side.

Sat & Sun, out of town to my new niece’s baptism.  🙂

dragon tongue beans hanging out

dragon tongue beans hanging out

Preparing to die

The energy of fall also brings close encounters with the world of the spirit

Example of intricate papel picado work

Example of intricate papel picado work

The Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is less than a month away and preparations have begun.  A dear friend of mine is already making papel picado, the traditional cut paper pictures, as decorations for her Día de los Muertos party. If you’ve ever made cut paper snowflakes to hang in the windows in the wintertime, you’ve made a simple version of papel picado.  The traditional form can be quite intricate and complex, hosting a variety of figures: saints, skulls, farmers, men & women dancing, skeletons riding bicycles, birds, roses, crosses, even political slogans or poetry.

The creation of a figure in papel picado works by cutting away negative space. When we draw an image on a piece of paper, we work primarily with the figure itself, impressing it onto a background.  But here, the background is cut away to create a figure, which is a very different way of conceptualizing space: in a sense the background is prioritized, everything around the figure counts first.  A figure emerges from the attention paid to its background.  As if that weren’t difficult enough, key connections through the negative spaces must be left in place or the whole figure detaches, falls apart.

Papel picado hanging in the streets for holiday

Papel picado hanging in the streets for holiday

Día de los Muertos itself is a day of reflection and remembrance of those who have passed on. It’s a liminal holiday: a spate of time where the living and dead can commune, a space in-between the fully living and fully dead. It reminds us of our own mortality as it brings the dead ones back to the waking world. But it’s only one day, and before long the decorations for the holiday–the sugar skulls and pastries left at graves, the flowers, and the cut paper figures–disintegrate in the wind and rain.  The figures and negative space of papel picado compositions collapse into so much pink, yellow, green and white colored mush, blending together on the street. They’re not meant to last.

In a yoga workshop I attended a few years ago, my teacher Sandra Anderson began the day with the statement “Yoga is preparation for death.”  That caught everyone’s interest.  Wait, what? Haven’t we been practicing yoga to be more alive?  To become aware of our bodies, and habits, and actions toward others? To breathe?  To practice kindness and move away from destruction? To know the Self?

Yes, said Sandy. Same thing.

Like the attention to the background changes the conceptualization of a figure’s position and meaning in a piece of art, conceiving of Yoga as a working with and toward death can similarly transform the positioning and meaning of practice. Death as negative space–not negative as in “bad,” but the ground from which we figure, the space that surrounds us and gives us shape.

I think there are a couple of useful ways to think about negative space in the practice of yoga:

1) As the physical space around the body, the space that moves into and fills our nooks and crevices, helps us become the figure in the foreground. We cannot be a body without it.

2) As the spiritual space of “not-me”–or the possibility of death always surrounding my edges.  We cannot be without it.

Perhaps this sounds grim.  What purpose does this kind of practice serve?

One of the rooms in the Capuchin Crypt, Rome

One of the rooms in the Capuchin Crypt, Rome

Medieval mystics in the west were in the practice of always keeping their death before them in order to remember humility and continually live in the holy space of life.  Eighteenth-century Capuchin monks in Rome created a chapel of bones, a memento mori dedicated to rendering us humble before the great mass of bones reconstructed into rooms. Each room hosts walls and arches intricately constructed of skulls, ribs, femurs, ulnas, tarsals, with a plaque in different languages reading “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you will be.”

And there’s the old adage: Live every day as if it were your last.  We don’t know when death will take us. Carpe diem.

But more than just seizing the day with things we want or want to do (what? take a motorcycle ride cross country, fly to Paris, Venice, Tokyo, the Maldives, etc),  I think that the art of Yoga–truly any art to which one commits wholeheartedly–is about the reconciliation of life and death: the reconciliation of there and not-there.  Visual and dimensional art allow the play of negative and positive space, music composes with both silence and sound, and narrative with a combination of these and thematically. Yoga releases the boundaries of the self through service to others, through intense self-study (Svadhyaya) and self-surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana), and through the play with positive and negative space in asana, the physical part of yoga practice. Its focus on the breath (Pranayama) is that reconciliation in perfect miniature: the inhale flowing into the exhale and exhale flowing into inhale, the in and out of negative space, the surrounding air breathing us.

The liberation (Moksha) that such a practice offers is not liberation from physical death–because this is part of being–but liberation from a perception of death that limits our living life.

Meditation in Corpse Pose (Savasana)

At each stage of this meditation allow 5-7 breaths. If lying down on your back  is difficult for you, this practice can be done seated in a chair.

Lie down on a mat or other preferred surface. Let your arms rest alongside the body, a few inches away from your torso on either side, palms turned up.  Make any adjustments you need to make so that you can settle into stillness.

Come to focus on your breath, breathing gently through the nostrils, if this is comfortable for you. Feel your belly rise with the inhale and fall with the exhale.

Can you visualize the breath as a circle? As the inhale reaches the top of the circle, the exhale glides down to bottom of the circle where the inhale is already taking over. Breathe this way for a few breaths.

Now allow your consciousness to rest; let the breath be the guide. You are not the doer; the air around you breathes you.

Begin to feel the surface layer of the skin soften, this permeable barrier between your insides and the world around you. Notice the coolness or warmth of the skin, the texture of your clothes and the floor beneath you, and then put that sensation aside to move deeper.

Now pay attention to your musculature: all the large and tiny muscles of the body. Soften and relax the muscles of the scalp and face, down through the shoulders, arms, and hands, pelvis, legs and feet. Notice where you hold tension and release.

Moving deeper, visualize and feel the bones of your body. Visualize the living tissue of your bones: they are light, springy and pliable. Feel them softening and relaxing with your weight.

Moving now to your organs, feel them rest in the protective shell that the bones and muscles create: your brain, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, bone marrow. Let your organs soften and slow their work.

Now passing beyond the physical layer, come to the place of emotion and thought. Notice any feelings or thoughts you might have and recognize their impermanence. Let them pass by: they do not define you.

Move in to a deeper layer, the place of status and identity. You are not the things, beliefs, and names you’ve collected over your life. Let these fall away with each breath.

Come now to your center, to your Self, to the place beyond the structure of the body, beyond emotion, thought, identity.  Breathe here; if the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath.

***

Begin now to extend your breath, breathing back through the layers of mind and body. Breathe into each corner of the body and bring small movements to your fingers and toes, moving your head side to side or even stretching your arms overhead.  When ready turn to to your right side to cradle yourself for a few breaths, then come to a comfortable sitting position.

Placing your palms together at heart center, take a few moments to thank all your teachers, both alive and dead.

With palms together, bring the base of your thumbs to the space between the eyebrows and bow forward to seal your practice.

Namaste.