Monday, May 28, 2012

Another thin layer of insulation

It will be Marianne's birthday tomorrow. Another celebration of her birth and of her life – a life cut short in her middle fifties some four years ago. I said at her funeral “she just ran out of time” and I still believe that today. I think that she knew that she was losing her fight with cancer way before anybody else knew, but she never did admit that she was dying until there were very few days left for her. We didn't talk much about dying, about how life might be for me without her; about how it would be for our children. It was just too hard at the time.

As another birthday comes and goes, as another year passes, I have to admit to thinking more about the process of getting older, the effects of aging, the gradual closing of the door that you really don't pay much attention to for most of your life. Not just when you are a teenager or in your twenties, but most of your life. Certainly that was how it was for me.

When did that change? I suspect that losing Marianne was the catalyst for many changes in my life. Witnessing the death of a loved one surely must be the most painful experience that one can endure, but we do endure. Another year passes and another thin layer of insulation is put down to cover the pain. This is not an intentional, intellectual action; it is rather like breathing, it just happens on its own – another part of survival. Stop breathing and you die; stop laying down that insulation and life will not move forward. You will stay in that same painful place and atrophy. There is no choice, so you move on.

So it happens, not as an active choice but as a means of self preservation. Take another breath and build another thin skin. That is how it works for me. The good thing is that the skin does not hide the memories or the feeling of love, but rather it slowly covers up that burning pain of loss, and perhaps one day for me, that anger that still sits deep inside. But I do wonder about those memories – I need them to be accurate, especially as I get older.

Recently I have found myself drawn towards writers who speak of aging and death. I am currently reading a lot of work by Julian Barnes, an English author born a few years before me. I feel like I understand these stories from the inside, as if I have privileged access to some special knowledge that not all readers have. After all, I have been there; I remember holding her hand as she took that last breath. That makes me an expert on the subject. I can talk with authority on the pain of this one loss, on the life changing impact of this one event. Those images, those words, those sounds were burned into my mind so I had no doubt then that I would remember them without fault for the rest of my life. I saw no value and had no time to keep a journal and write down the events and record my exact feelings, blow by blow. I was quite willing to rely on my memory to capture and retain an accurate record of highly emotionally charged events. But I know now that my memory is not one hundred per cent accurate.

The truth is that my memory is failing. I used to be angry that my short term memory was unreliable. I would walk from one room to another with purpose and arrive there to find that I had forgotten the reason I was there. Was it car keys or my telephone? Was it a magazine or the laundry? But my other longer term memories still appear fresh and reliable, as if they are enhanced by age. And I think this is what is happening: I actively edit my recollections of past events. I have no compunction in changing the events to give the memory a more pleasant feel or a more interesting picture. It is my memory after all, so I feel that I can edit it without guilt.

I can freely merge one memory with another and create even more interesting super productions in high definition, with video from one day and audio from another. I can give my mind a free rein to create something more pleasurable than the original. Just give me a few pieces of history and, after some reflection, a rich entertaining memory will emerge, each retelling giving the opportunity to add and subtract depending on the success of the broadcast.

Is this dishonesty? Am I misleading anyone? Does anybody get hurt in this process? I don't think so. It is just my inventive subconscious, looking back at my life and having some fun; reaching back into the files and recovering a couple of events and then adding a little colour here and there.

Maybe I am revising history – but for better or for worse? Barnes writes in The Sense of an Ending “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”. Don't get me wrong here: I am not supporting wholesale revision of history on a macro level, such as Nanking and the like. My revisionism occurs solely at a micro level; and after all, it is my history.

But I like to think that each memory of mine has a core to be protected, a message to share with the audience, something to be passed down to later generations. The integrity of the core is not questioned, it is not at risk. It is frequently a belief, a value, an entry in the guidebook for those at an earlier stage of life. Changing the facts does not detract from that, but rather if done well, should enhance the telling and engage the listener even more deeply. I am quite accepting of that.

Someone I love asked me about wisdom the other day. Now that is an interesting subject. Aren't we meant to accumulate wisdom as we get older? I was hoping that this was a natural result of the aging process:  we just got smarter as the years went by,  automatically with hardly any increased effort. All those experiences, all those memories, add to this database that is there for us to draw on, when younger folks, not so wise, look to us for guidance. That's right: all those memories of all that history. It begins to make me question if I am building this so-called wisdom on solid ground; I cannot trust the foundations any more.

There are times when I feel I have some insight that is unique, some perspective that reflects the years and the pain it took to acquire. But I fear they might be few and far between. In reality, I am striving for wisdom, for some honest and real insights into life. In the meantime, I admit that my inventive subconscious remains busy at work, reinventing memories, enhancing and embellishing, to reinforce the false perception of the honest storyteller at work. There are days when I truly believe that my life has been as interesting and as fulfilling as my memory is now suggesting. Minds are truly creative, aren't they?

I expect that over time my memories of my life with Marianne will change; some will grow and others will diminish. But I am pretty sure that they will all have a core element of love and respect, and maybe that will be about as much as I can hope for as I close out another year and lay down another thin layer of insulation.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Reply from teacher to student

Treat me like an adult; I made a decision to give up my valuable time to come here today for whatever reason. Give me the benefit of the doubt that I am going to do my best. You can remind me of that but don't nag me.

Then act like one – try getting into the room on time for a change! I am reminding you all the time because you forget all the time! Some people think this is positive encouragement. Get a thicker skin.

Give me enough heat and humidity to support my practice, but don't make it another challenge for me to overcome. It is not necessary. Teaching the hottest class does not make you the best teacher. Every studio is different, and it may need some work on your part to manage the hot room properly.

I thought this was HOT yoga, or am I wrong? Stop whining. It's always too hot for someone, too cold for someone else, everybody's whining all the time. Forget about the heat already and just do the yoga. Teaching this stuff is not easy – you can't expect me to keep my eye on the heat all the time. Really...

Leave your ego at home. This practice is about me, not about you. I want you to lead the class and help me do the best I can today. Show me the same respect that I show you. We are partners in this dance for ninety minutes and we each have have our roles; if I didn't turn up then you wouldn't have a class to teach.

I lead; you follow. Let's get that established first. There is a hierarchy here in case you didn't spot that on the way in: me, teacher; you, student. And if you don't turn up here, then don't worry, I'll go somewhere else and teach.

You don't have to talk all the time; silence can be powerful. Little gaps in the dialogue are okay; I'm not going to fall asleep or stop paying attention just because I cannot hear your voice for a few seconds. But when you speak, then do so with confidence and with clarity so that I can understand what you want me to do.

The dialog is there for a reason: it's to stop your mind from drifting off to some other place, like the shopping list, the movie you saw last night or whatever. I'm doing you a huge favor by keeping up this string of noise so nothing else gets into your head. Sometimes I get a sore throat from all this speaking, but I have to keep going, and how often do I get credit for that? Think about that.

Understand that my body needs a short break between every posture, not only during the floor series. I need just a little time to get my breath back and to be still. Appreciate the difference between a physical limitation and a bad habit; I may need a little extra time to move into the next posture. This is not being lazy; it is taking care of my aging body.

Oh, give me a break: you are just not working hard enough. Just forget about what you think you need and learn to follow directions. You have to accept that I know better than you do in this regard. Do the posture when I tell you do the posture and stop complaining.

Be consistent, especially in the rhythm of the class. I don't care if you teach a slow practice or a fast practice, but just make it consistent. Give me the right time in each posture; don't make me stay there, working hard, just because you have more stuff to say. There is always another side or another set or another class for you to say them.

Let me remind you that I am the one on the podium. I've got the headset, not you. I paid big bucks for this and I get to choose how much time I feel like giving you on any day in any posture. Come out of a posture early and I will call you out big time; causing embarrassment is one of my major teaching tools.

Recognize me as an individual. I don't expect you to remember my name, although it's nice when you do. Make sure that I leave the studio having felt that my presence there has been acknowledged: some eye-contact is good or a few words of encouragement now and again, especially when I am having a bad day. You don't know what else is going on in my life – I might need a little lift and you might be the right person to do just that.

Why? I'm here to teach you yoga, not make a new friend. I can't afford the time to read and memorize the check-in list before each class. I get paid precious little for this as it is, and that would take more time out of my busy schedule. And by the way, I'm really not interested in what else is going on in your life. Leave that at the door and just bring your body in and pay attention. I'm a yoga teacher, not your therapist. I really don't care what your name is; you're just a body to me. If you want me to call you out in every posture, then go ahead and remind me of your name just before class begins, and then see if that gives you the little lift you need.

Be yourself and let your personality shine through; don't try to be somebody else. I see and listen to a lot of teachers all using the same words, more or less; don't be a part of a white noise. A little humility goes a long way.

See my answer above. Give me a call when YOU get a teaching certificate. Enough said.

Please teach – don't just recite. Teaching needs observation, so look at me. Teaching needs listening, so listen to me. My voice may be silent but my body is shouting at you. You tell me that each class is different, but that should apply to you too. If I have taken three of your classes and I can practically recite your speech word for word already, then maybe it's time for something to change to keep your class fresh and interesting.

In case you haven't noticed, there is a dialog here. I'm here to give you the dialog that I spent nine crazy weeks learning. I've got it; now you get it. I have to earn a living doing this stuff, so I have a pitch. I may be teaching three or more classes a day, so get over it.

Trust me and then maybe I will trust you. Because if I can trust you to take care of me, then I can relax, let my body do its thing and have a good class.

I think I've already dealt with this. And between us girls, I'm not too interested in whether you have a good class or not. You're here and you paid; enough said again.

Remind me to breathe. If I don't breathe properly then I won't be able to do anything. But I need some time to breathe so make sure that I have that time.

Okay, here's the reminder: keep breathing! You're good at breathing – you do it all the time, so keep doing it. Fine.

Encourage me to do my best. But do that with compassion. I may not be used to the overwhelming stimulation of the hot room and the yoga practice: so much heat, so many words, so much sweat, so many people standing so close to me with so little on. English may not be my first language and it may be hard for me to just understand what you are asking me to do. This experience may be totally alien to my culture and my upbringing. But I am here and I am trying. If I am not doing it right, then there is probably a good reason.

Did you read my answer about working hard or not? Don't think about it, just do what I tell you. That’s it. Oh, and when you go to the DMV or the Giant, do you complain about not getting the information in your native Latvian or Portuguese? No, you're damn right. This is America, so straighten up and get your sorry ass to an English class.

Show me the right way with compassion, a kind heart and a loving spirit. Being a yoga teacher is a vocation and not just a job. Every time that you step into that room you have a huge responsibility to all of us in there. You can help me change my life; that's a pretty big deal in my view.

Oh, I like this one. You want me to chant and hit a few bells too while I'm at it? This is not feel-good yoga – that's down the street. We feed you pain in here. If you want to pay good money to come in and lie down and nap for an hour, then you're in the wrong place. And another thing: I'm not responsible for fixing your messed up life and I certainly don't want to hear about it. After all, as you can see from my answers, I have enough problems without having to hear about yours all the time.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Incredibly loud and extremely close?

Marsalforn is a small fishing village on the northern coast of Gozo, one of the three islands that makes up the little Republic of Malta, some ninety kilometers south of Sicily, in the heart of the Mediterranean. To the west is Tunisia, on the north African coast, and to the south is Libya. We are pretty remote here. The local language, Malti, has a strong Arabic flavour, but the culture is more Italian than anything. Although everyone speaks English and drives on the left, the telly comes from Sicily. The universal language of football binds everyone together.

In Gozo, everything is blue, more blue than you have seen before. The sky is more sky blue, more than you have seen before. And the sea is more sea blue except for the green. The water is more clear than you have ever seen. It is warm, sunny and warm, for three hundred days a year, including today. The buildings are all of white limestone, rock stacked on rock, each reaching up three floors or more to the same blue sky. Everybody comes here to dive in that perfectly blue-green clear water. Except me; I came here to read.

I sit enjoying my lunch at a small bar by the harbour side in Marsalforn and my quiet is disturbed by a great deal of shouting. I can discern female voices - lots of them it seems, and close by. So loud and so close that you might say incredibly loud and extremely close...

I put down my knife and fork and watch, as around the corner of the street appear three women and a wheelchair. The eldest woman is seated in the wheelchair and the younger is pushing her along, while a third is holding onto one of the handles and seems to be dragged along by the chair. She is limping as she walks, the chair is going just a little too fast for her. None of them are less than sixty years old and the eldest is well over seventy. They are all shouting loudly, possibly at each other, possibly to passers by, possibly to me but I cannot tell since it is all in Malti.

There is some arm waving too and this leads me to believe that the debate, if one can call it that, is regarding where they are going to sit down for a few minutes. They are each pointing to a different part of the sea front. Only the younger one seems to be providing both propulsion and direction so it is inevitable that her will is going to prevail. It does.

Crab-like, they make their way across the street towards the sea wall, where there are some benches, still debating at a high pitch, now a question of which bench. Once they arrive at a vacant bench, the noise subsides and they settle down to enjoy their view of the harbour. I conclude that they are sisters; no-one else could carry on in this way. And I suspect that this is a regular procession. It is practiced and seems to have an order of some sort in the chaos. The shouting, the arm waving, the gesticulating, all seem to be part of well rehearsed routine. I am the only person to take notice of this event; it must be quite normal. It will take more than this to disturb the quiet of Marsalforn.

Normal programming resumes and I return to my lunch.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Successful living?

I have just passed a store here in Sliema, Malta, called "Successful Living". It made me stop in my tracks, almost causing a pedestrian traffic accident as the people on the pavement behind me took evasive action. Saturday night is the night for strolling in Sliema and everyone does it.

But who does "successful living" and would we know it anyway? And more to the point, would we recognize "unsuccessful living"?

I suspect that the answer may vary by nation, or by society, or by culture, or maybe by degree of economic wellbeing. Or by whether you are above or below the poverty level in your society. Or not.

If the Englishman, when on his deathbed, can lift his head and say "well, that didn't turn out too bad", then that might define successful living for him. But that is a cultural stereotype at work and maybe that is not fair. Or then again, maybe it is.

I should have stopped to inspect the shop window to search for clues as to what the shop might actually sell to support "successful living". But the press of strollers was too strong and I was pushed on past the shop before I could identify anything. I have a nasty feeling that it might have been furniture. Not the useful stuff that one can sit on or eat off or sleep on. But the useless stuff that accumulates and makes you get storage units when you get older and move on. Stuff that should never be bought no matter how you define success.

Stuff does not define success; I'm pretty sure that most grown ups can agree on that by now. If that is debatable, then there is some more growing up to do. Stuff drags you down and drowns you, designer cushion by designer cushion, artifact by artifact, lamp shade by wicker basket.

An Indian friend of mine says that we have to reduce our stuff down to one hundred things. He wasn't sure if that included books or underwear, but I am pretty sure that it picks up cushions, artifacts, shades and baskets. One hundred is actually quite a lot when you are packing a suitcase to move from one continent to another. I certainly could not fit an hundred of anything into my carry-on from LL Bean. Do I count the carry-on as stuff?

The hundred is a guideline, a concept, an idea for us to think about, an excuse to toss out the useless stuff instead of returning it to store 'just in case'. Maybe we should think of "successful living" as a potential guideline too. After all, there a precious few absolutes in life that cannot be renegotiated at one time or another. Deal breakers come and go every day. Everything is directional - right?

Just start throwing out stuff; in time it will become clear whether the one hundred includes underwear or books - but I'm pretty sure that it does include books on underwear.

Start to minimize. I realize that is what I began some years ago. Let go of stuff, let go of the past, let go of the future and just live now. Minimize expectations and maybe things might not turn out too bad.

Now that would be successful, wouldn't it?