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2020 – stay for the exhale

I started with this thought stream last Saturday on Instagram, and even after posting the first part of it, I kept thinking about it and adding to it in my mind afterwards.

We had a baby shower / gratitude reception for our beloved power yoga teacher after her last class this morning. She’s been teaching this class for ten years, and will continue to teach after her baby is born, but no longer at this Y or this particular class. I started her class shortly after my foot surgeries – after my physical therapist expressed disbelief that I couldn’t touch my toes. (I had been mostly bed bound for weeks, but still. I was the opposite of bendy.) I had never taken a yoga class, but this was a good time slot, and I shyly joined it in the back corner. Heather is the most incredible instructor – her classes are extremely challenging but still accessible, she is warm and engaging and knowledgeable, and she has fostered a sense of community in this room between people spanning almost seventy years in age. She is the reason I can run for miles and miles and miles and lift more and more weights each week with no pain. This class has been a key component of my personal Saturday morning recharge ritual, and this loss might sting for awhile. At the close of class she burst into tears and then we all cried, for the future missing – the practice, and also the ritual of greeting one another each Saturday in this space.

In the first few years of my practice, Heather taught two classes that I attended. The Saturday morning class that just wrapped up, but also a Thursday evening session that she taught up until a couple of years ago. That class was a little smaller, but included many of the regulars from our Saturday class. We met in a dark room with just a few lamps on in the corners, and we almost always worked up against the wall, using that surface to deepen stretches or to provide a little structure to the more difficult inversion work we were doing. Each week I could see changes – in my strength and flexibility, my balance and my nerve. It took a fair amount of confidence and power to stand upside down on a mat – tentatively at first, with the wall as backup, but then eventually away from the wall – for a few seconds, and then even longer.

I did not grow up confident in my body – it was bony and knobby in awkward angles, soft in other ways – not necessarily objectionable to me, but certainly not powerful in any way. I was timid about pain, and never felt much desire to push myself past my comfort zone. I hardly played sports, and never wanted to be the center of attention in any sort of class or dance or team.

Then something started to shift – I attribute some of that to the birth of F, and feeling as if I was able to look physical pain and exertion square in the face without backing down. Soon after that I found myself needing something more challenging than the occasional walk for fitness and fresh air, and so I started running. It was hard, I wasn’t very good at it, and I labored for each breath and wore myself out easily. The structural problems with my feet became more of a liability, and I once again had to face the idea of intense physical pain with major surgery and the necessary commitment to the hard work of recovery.

But I did it, and a switch was flipped. For in that period of waiting to move again, I had to reconcile myself with being still, more still than I had ever had to be in my whole life. And I was realizing that for someone who thought they never did much, I did everything. All the time. Until I couldn’t.

So when I could move again, I did. I did it with care, but never with timidity. I threw myself into it, looking for incremental progress at every turn. I wanted to run again, to have a strong legs that didn’t tire so easily. I wanted to lift weights, and build strength in my shoulders and my back and my core. But first I knew I had to start somewhere else – I knew that I needed to get to know the muscles of my body first, to pay attention to the way they moved and held still, how they connected to one another, how they stretched and returned, again and again. What I didn’t know, but quickly learned, was how closely my breath was tied to this movement. The exercises we did to deepen our breath and move with our breath and surrender all thoughts to our breath was the link that brought it all together. As that practice deepened, my running improved. As those movements progressed, my strength grew. With surrender came focus, and with focus came confidence, and with confidence came power and resilience and joy.

If you’ve ever practiced yoga, then you know it involves moving through a series of poses that flow together. You can increase the “power” of these poses by building upon them or holding them for longer. The movements are linked to your breath – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. A good instructor will continually remind you and guide your breath. In moments when holding a pose, sometimes muscles start to twitch or burn, the brain starts to panic a bit, and the desire for release begins to grow. Breathing into those moments took practice.

In particularly challenging moments, when you are holding and shaking and breathing through the poses, it’s very easy to skip ahead in your mind. Wanting to feel that release, and already knowing where you are going, it’s really tempting to take that last inhale and then start to move ahead a short beat ahead of everyone else. That easing of muscles that have been under tension feels so good, and it feels relatively harmless to skip a quick beat. Heather had this frequent saying during class, and I really paid attention to it on Saturday in her final one. Sensing that desire for release, Heather would always remind us not to move too quickly – “stay for the exhale”, she’d say – before moving onto the next prompt.

She pushed us really hard in that last class, and I felt my mind searching for reasons why my body was tired that particular morning – travel, work, holidays, no sleep, little fuel. I had more than enough reasons to release early, to pull back from the edge, to do a little less, but that was my mind talking, and not my breath. I could fast forward to that next pose, or the party setup I was helping with after class, or the packing waiting for me when I returned home, or the driving out of state later that afternoon, but her words were there to remind me that I was just to be in that inhale, until there was no more space left to take in breath, before the exhale – all the way, unrushed, complete.

I do not have a word for this coming new year, but a phrase instead. Call it an intention if you’d like, or a resolution. Call it a new year’s revolution if you are F (and we don’t correct her).

Stay for the exhale.

Jumping in is important, but jumping ahead of myself is just gulping for air for no reason. I am really good at the inhale – opening, expanding, taking it all in, then a few more sips here, and again there, maybe even a pause and a hold at the very tip top. Ideas come fast and furious, and I love to act on them. This, mine, me.

The real challenge for me is sitting still through the exhale. Letting the work out slowly, being okay with the shakes, less prideful about the burns. Resting the brain from plotting the next intake and expansion before this cycle is fully complete. Leaving space for others in the retraction – or reflection, or renewal. Or maybe just nothing, occasionally.

Maybe just that.

Here’s to a new year of practice.

holiday message 2019

It started with the poppies.

This year’s card is about adventure. It’s about the beauty all around us. It’s about family, through and through.

It’s about following through on something, and giving it your best effort.

It’s about being open to moments of incredible beauty – so stunning that even months later, the sight of this image brings tears to my eyes.

It’s about celebrating joy, even in the hard stuff, the new stuff, the scary stuff. Especially those things.

But mostly, it’s about the poppies.

The poppies that I’d bring home every Saturday morning from the market – the first thing I’d see every morning for a month. The poppies, in paper, that provided inspiration for one of my favorite school committee traditions. Poppies in the garden that I’d photograph on our morning walks. Fields and fields of poppies in California that took my breath away. That’s where the idea started, along the many paths we wandered this year. I looked for images along the way for inspiration, and there were plenty.

Wisteria in bloom in Savannah, stately palms in Charleston.

Fragrant camellias along the Ashley River, and inside the Linea House at the garden. Camellias were the subject of a favorite book that F and I read this year, sometimes as we wandered in the garden early mornings before school.

Majestic redwoods in California, azaleas at their peak in Savannah, and in their peak again in Charleston. Layers and layers of pink glimpses through the cypress trees.

And the mountains, oh, the mountains – where we pushed our legs and our lungs and didn’t want to ever leave.

I was asked to include an additional water feature, and to reference the whales we encountered off the coast of Monterey. I was getting a little close on time, but then I thought about how many times we’ve walked along or over or even through water this year, and I found the time to make it happen. It’s one of my very favorite details. Second to poppies, is water, I suppose!

More than anything else, this card is about color. Color that surprises, that delights. Color that changes throughout the year, color that makes everything new again, color that drives me out of the house and the office and onto the running paths. Color that decorates celebrations with families and friends. Color on our table, color in our market basket, fresh colors applied to our beautiful old home. Color in our work and in our play, colors for the projects we do for the people and organizations we love, the color of travel and adventure, of passion and protest and pride. The color of poppies grown on an urban farm in the heart of the city we love and call home.

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth over and around us lies.
For the beauty of each hour, of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light.
For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight,
For the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight.

-excerpt from “For the Beauty of the Earth”, words: F. Pierpoint
verses of gratitude, embodied in the sights and senses of this world,
sung at our wedding two decades ago

Entering our twentieth year of adventures together, this handmade photo holder highlights moments of beauty we encountered along our paths this year. It can be used to display a personal moment of color or awe along the way in 2020.
Example photo is from a morning hike in Hetch Hetchy Valley, Yosemite National Park, June 2019, bonus photo is a family moment of enthusiasm for the sights and sounds of San Francisco!

Wishing you a beautiful holiday season. Kristin, Marcus, Ella & Frances

saturday (sidetracked)

I’m working on my holiday card prototype, which requires some photo perusing. As I’ve been gathering photos together to help me on it, I stumbled back into our California trip photos and I’ve gotten lost in them again. I can’t believe that six months later I still get chills when I see them. I was looking through our first full day hike in Yosemite, noticing things I hadn’t seen before. There are dozens and dozens of photos, and when I scroll through them I can see how the day unfolded. Views constantly changing as we climbed. I remember putting my camera away in my backpack – for the last time – just to pull it back out again fifteen minutes later, and then again, and still again.

I will never forget the way I felt the following day, as we climbed Glacier Point and gazed across the valley to the place we climbed the day before. We could trace the waterfalls up, up, up, and follow the ridge line around to where it started to descend again. I kept saying that we might have never even attempted it if we had taken the whole view in at the start – if we had known exactly what we were getting into. If we had a real visual of what 2,000 feet of elevation looked like from afar, not just the start of a path through the woods, the sound of water somewhere just up ahead, our footfalls and conversation and birdsong and breath. Maybe we would have second guessed our ambitious plans.

Not anymore. Whatever it is, we’ve got this.