Yoga Flashback

Several times a week throughout 2004, I biked from our apartment in East Palo Alto to the yoga studio in Palo Alto, my yoga mat bungeed to my bike rack. The trip was nearly over when I came up through the cool, urine-smelling tunnel under the Caltrain tracks and squinted into the bright sunlight on California Avenue. About halfway up the block, I locked my bike, tucked my helmet under my arm, and slung my mat bag over my shoulder, then walked the short distance to the studio.

Inside the glass doors were potted plants and racks of high-end yoga wear and the diffuse odor of extinguished incense. There were meditation, chanting, and yoga music CDs, one of which was always playing quietly over the sound system.

Behind the curved wood desk to the left sat a tall, smiling woman with a German accent who invited me to sign in and to have a cup of tea from the urn in the corner by the glass wall that separated the retail space from the class space. When I started working there one evening a week for the discount on classes, I would be in charge of emptying the old tea and refilling the urn with fresh for the following day. It was a little thrill to know that I was in charge of what kind of tea everyone would enjoy the next day from the tiny ceramic cups I’d just washed.

After sliding out of my Birkenstocks, I pushed aside the heavy velvet curtain and entered the studio itself. The right-hand wall was floor-to-ceiling mirrors and the wall to the left was a leafy mural in yellows and greens. I lay my mat near the mural wall and walked to the back wall where there was a stash of blankets, straps, mats, and wooden blocks. Through the doorway next to the yoga gear were the curtained changing areas and the restrooms and the small storage room where I washed the tea cups in the utility sink on my co-op nights. After choosing a blanket, I returned to my mat to stretch and try to avoid looking like I was looking at myself in the mirror until class started.

When class was over, I stumbled out glassy-eyed and biked home across the San Francisquito again.

Eight years, two children, and more than 3,000 miles separate me from this ritual. Time for yoga is hard to come by most days, but this afternoon the stars aligned and my children and cats let me do about an hour of practice with only minimal interruption.

I set up my yoga mat on the wood floor of my bedroom, situated so I wouldn’t graze my fingers on the ceiling fan blades, and situated my laptop on top of my dresser. As I listened to a Vinyasa Flow class on audio, breathing my arms overhead and exhaling my palms to the floor, I thought of the yoga studio in Palo Alto—the California sun, the smell of incense, the sound of Krishna Das or Karma Moffett, the reclaimed wood floor beneath my feet.

No matter what the sounds, sights, or smells of the place I’m actually practicing, when I do yoga, I’m there.

Where do you go when you find yourself transported?

Pennies and Thunder

My window was dark, the ceiling light reflected in the glass. I sat on the beige carpet of my room, my new room, with the Big Girl bed, not a crib because I was a Big Girl; the baby would sleep in the crib.

On another day, a sunny day, I would hide behind this bed and slide my teeth over the tops of flavored lip glosses, so much more satisfying than putting the gloss on my lips and then licking it off. I’d eaten two before my mother caught me. The chocolate flavor was good, but cherry was my favorite.

But that hadn’t happened yet. Tonight I was alone in my room shaking pennies out of the hole in the bottom of my plastic Santa Mouse bank. It was still a Santa Mouse bank, dressed in a red flannel Santa suit and black plastic belt. Later he would lose his outfit, but tonight the Santa Mouse bank was still in uniform, and I clutched the flannel as I shook him back and forth, up and down, coaxing the pennies out of the mouse’s feet and onto the carpet. Some clattered against the inside of the bank and then fell with a nearly inaudible thud on the thick pile of the carpet. Most tinked against the pennies already on the floor.

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The window flashed bright with lightning and a roar of thunder vibrated through the house.

Did I know these things were thunder and lightning, or did that knowledge come later? We lived in San Diego where thunderstorms were rare. Did I know the names for what was happening outside?

What I knew for sure was that the noise sent me down the hallway, feet slapping against the tiles, to the living room. My mother was not there. She was with the baby at the hospital. In the morning I would meet my new brother, and in a few days I would sit on the couch with a pillow supporting my arm and feel the warmth and weight of the baby on my lap, and in a few months I would hear him laugh as I pushed him across the floor in his wheeled walker and I would laugh, too, and do it again to hear him laugh again. But tonight I felt alone and scared.

I sought my father, and I found him slouched against the back of the couch, hands folded on his stomach and chin resting on the buttons of his shirt. His snores competed with the thunder. I patted the corduroy of his knee and whispered, “Daddy?”

Nothing.

I cautiously patted a little harder and said his name a little louder. His snore stopped abruptly. Behind his glasses, his eyes remained shut. I held my breath with him and listened to the rain beating against the roof. Then with a snort, the snore resumed. The house felt too large, too full of space, my skin cold where I so wanted arms around me, a lap to snuggle on, a voice to tell me that everything was okay. My eyes filled with water.

I padded back down the hallway and felt the carpet against my calves as I sat cross-legged on the floor again. I reached out and picked up a penny, put it in my mouth. With my tongue I caressed the metal, tangy, soft bumps on one side, ridges on the other, until it grew warm and I spit it out and it made a whispered thud on the rug. Thunder growled through the house again. I cried, and I placed a new, cold penny on my tongue.

Written as part of the Remember the Time Blog Hop. This month’s theme: your earliest memory.

Ship to Shore

“I can’t wait to see you, Daddy!” I said into the telephone.

My father, calling from Hawaii replied, “What are you going to do instead?”

Aircraft Carrier

Aircraft Carrier (Photo credit: La Shola y EL Gringo?)

Dad had been deployed with the Navy for nearly a year while my sister, my brother, my mom, and I stayed on base in San Diego, finishing another year of school, losing teeth, learning to walk, taking cover during earthquakes, and writing lots of letters. He went on cruise every other year for six to ten months.

A phone call was a rare treat while he was on cruise. In those pre-email days, our only contact with my dad throughout most of the cruise was through letters and postcards. My mother wrote my dad every night. I wrote him less often than that.

On base, our mail wasn’t delivered to our house. Instead we had to stop by the base post office each day. I loved putting the little key into the keyhole and opening the little door to see what we got. Sometimes there would be a little card inside which meant that we had a package waiting. Then we’d have to wait in line to collect what we’d gotten from the person behind the counter.

Often, we’d stop to check mail on our way home from some other excursion and my little brother or sister would be asleep in the car. After I turned ten and got my own military I.D., my mom would sometimes send me in to collect the mail, but most times, I’d get to wait in the car with my sleeping siblings while my mom went in and collected the mail.

I used this time to look at the liner notes of whatever cassette tape we were listening to. Julian Lennon was a favorite. Hall and Oates. Phil Collins. Michael Jackson. The Pointer Sisters. Air Supply. Cat Stevens. Jim Croce.

At home we would read whatever Dad had sent us, my mom helping us decipher his handwriting as necessary. I hoped to locate some of those letters for this post, but I can’t seem to find them (I think they’re still in my mom’s attic), so I’m relying on my memory to tell me what was in them.

I remember a letter about how they handled cockroaches on board ship by putting out baking soda. My dad said that the roaches had a sweet tooth—or rather a “base mandible”—for baking soda, and when they’d eat it, it would create gas in their digestive system, and they’d explode.

Another time, I’d become fixated on the Black Death and had written to my dad about all I was learning about rats and fleas and bubonic plague in medieval Europe. He responded with a postcard of plaster casts of bodies in Pompeii, where he’d just toured.

We only ever had a vague idea of where they were or where they were going, but we were allowed to know where they’d been. I’d trace their progress on our globe: the French Riviera, Pompeii, the Suez Canal, Sri Lanka (which I remember because the change in name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka was the topic of one of my dad’s letters), the Philippines, Guam.

A "Yellowshirt" directs an aircraft ...

A “Yellowshirt” directs an aircraft aboard a US aircraft carrier. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I got to missing him, I would look through my dad’s photos from his first deployment trying to get a sense for what his life was like living on a giant floating city. My mom explained that in those photos, he was on an oil-powered carrier and this cruise he was on a nuclear-powered carrier. She made jokes about how his clothes smelled like oil when he came home from that deployment and how they would glow when he got home from this one. I tried to reconcile a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with what we’d learned in school about the recent Chernobyl disaster, and ended up picturing metal floors littered with the radioactive corpses of exploded cockroaches.

None of it ever made sense.

But I knew the rhythms of the cruise from the shore side of things, and I knew that a phone call from Hawaii meant that very soon, the squadron families would be gathering for the fly-in. The women and children would dress up and wait on the tarmac, watching the F-14’s fly in from the carrier and land. We watched as the husbands and fathers opened the canopies, shouldered their duffle bags, and jogged out to meet us.

There was always an archway festooned with balloons and crepe paper for photo ops. But in every photo, we’re all hugging so hard, we’re just a mass of arms and legs.

*

Written as part of the Remember the Time Blog Hop topic, “the mail.”

Death of a Cheerleader

When I was thirteen, I had a huge crush on the boy who lived across the street.

He had dreamy brown eyes, and he totally rocked a short-sleeved plaid shirt.

Our little brothers were friends, and our little sisters were friends, and we were friends, as much as boys and girls could be friends in eighth grade. We would battle each other with rubber-band guns, or we would play basketball on the weatherbeaten court in the field behind his house. We didn’t have any classes together, but we sometimes exchanged notes in the halls (he wasn’t nearly as interesting a note-writer as my writer-friends were).

All of the blood left my head every time I saw him, but I didn’t really have any particular desire to have a junior-high romance with him. “Going with” someone didn’t make much sense to me, but that didn’t stop me from writing his name on my grocery bag book covers and asking the Ouija board if he “liked” me, too. My friends were very patient with me, and all of their ribbing of me was good-natured.

But then a girl in my Girl Scout troop started “going with” across-the-street boy. She was a cheerleader, and he played football, so it was a natural match, but for some reason, she decided we were rivals and acted accordingly. She was with him, and she missed no opportunity to rub it in. If she saw me when she was with him, she would quickly hug him and stick her tongue out at me behind his back. It was incredibly annoying.

So I did what any nerdy, literary-minded junior high schooler would do: I wrote a story about her. Read More

Thanksgiving Then and Now

When I was a kid, we always lived far away from our extended family. For our little family, this meant spending all of our holidays on our own. This didn’t stop my mom from going all-out. For Thanksgiving, we would have a turkey that weighed as much as a toddler, which my mom put in the oven in the wee hours Thanksgiving morning, basting it with butter every hour (the turkey, not the toddler). The aroma of roasting turkey wafted into our dreams, and we awoke Thanksgiving morning with our mouths already watering.

Along with the turkey, we would have stuffing and mashed potatoes and gravy and homemade rolls and canned cranberry sauce and—my favorite—the relish plate. Our relish plate was olives (green and black both; it was a special occasion, after all) and pickle spears and sometimes deviled eggs. By the time I got done eating olives off the tips of my fingers and licking the deviled-egg filling out of the cooked egg whites, I had little room for dinner.

My job each year was to set the table. I had a minor addiction to etiquette books back then, and I knew just where to place each utensil, plate, and glass. We used the good silverware on holidays, the set with all of the extra utensils that my etiquette books listed. To my annoyance, we only ever needed dessert forks for our pumpkin pie (never dessert spoons), we never had a sorbet palate cleanser between courses, and my mom insisted we did not need to use seafood forks for turkey. We did get to use the lead crystal stemware, though. We each got two glasses, one for water and the other for white wine (for the grown-ups) or white milk (for the kids). I would spend a good hour getting the table just right, napkin rings and all.

Then we would eat, and that would take about thirty minutes, and then there would be hours of dishes to do and leftovers in front of the television.

Thanksgiving for my own family is a little different. We still live far from extended family—we’ve not had Thanksgiving with the families for more than a decade, beyond a morning Skype date with my in-laws—but every year we spend the holiday with friends. When we lived in Utah, we celebrated mostly with friends and their extended families, but when we lived in California and now in Massachusetts, we most often get to be the ambassadors for United States Thanksgiving for friends from other countries.

This year and last, we had friends from India and Romania over. It’s freeing that I don’t need to compete with any of their own childhood memories of the holiday. I make a very traditional menu, with a little nontraditional twist on each menu item: the turkey is fresh, local, and free-range; the mashed potatoes have the skins on and are made with non-dairy milk; the sweet potatoes are roasted with shallots and habañeros; the pumpkin pie is vegan and gluten-free; and the cranberry sauce is actually a raw cranberry relish made without cane sugar.

They bring a bottle of wine and veggie dishes to share, and we all have way too much food and not enough conversation. The kids run around like little fiends and the older girls fend off the more violent advances of my four-year-old, who has yet to learn how to request to be a part of the big-girl fun without biting or kicking. When our friends go home, my spouse and I do dishes together and then put the kids to bed.

It’s a good Thanksgiving.

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In keeping with the unwritten law of Thanksgiving blog posts, I’ve made up a gratitude list.

I’m grateful for:

-clean running water.

dystopian novels that help me feel grateful for clean running water.

-friends who know without asking when I need help with a pan lid or moving something over in the oven.

-Skype.

-long-distance phone calls.

-chilly after-dinner walks.

-quiet time to read.

-my kids.

-my spouse.

-my home.

Written as part of the Remember the Time Blog Hop Thanksgiving theme.

Outsourcing Sex Ed

The sex ed classes I had as a child were taught by the public schools I attended.

In sixth grade, we were segregated by sex and went into separate rooms to learn about our changing bodies from the school nurse. I don’t know what the boys learned, but the nurse showed us a movie that assured us that eating potato chips and chocolate would not cause pimples. Read More

Halloween Pie

1984. My sister was a tree. She had a nest and birds on her head, too.

1984. My sister was a tree. She had a nest and birds on her head, too.

When I was a kid, the month of October sounded like the whir of the sewing machine as my mother made Halloween costumes for all three of us kids. Not content to follow a pattern, my mom designed and made our costumes from scratch. In kindergarten, I was a butterfly with four-foot-wide foam-filled, hand-painted wings. Read More

Rebel Without a Cause

My left hand on the steering wheel, I shifted gears with my right then reached past the gear shift and pushed in the cigarette lighter. I could feel my little sister watching me from the passenger seat, but I didn’t look over at her and risk losing my nerve. I opened the glove box at her knees and pulled out a pilfered pack of Marlboro Lights 100’s, from which I shook one cigarette.

Cigarette

Image via Wikipedia

I stuck the smoke between my lips as the lighter popped.

What are you doing?” my sister asked, incredulous.

Steering with one hand, I lit the cigarette.

“Smoking,” I answered, exhaling smoke to emphasize my point.

“Do Mom and Dad know?” she asked. She was eleven and concerned about our parents’ approval. I was sixteen and pretending unconcern.

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I swiped these from the freezer,” I added. I had been cadging smokes from my parents’ stash in the freezer for the past year. I’d tried buying my own. There was one cashier at the 7-11 near the high school who wouldn’t card for cigarettes, but when I went in there, I got so nervous, I ordered unfiltered Camels. Although I felt kind of like a badass when I smoked those, they burned my throat and left bits of tobacco on my tongue. It was less unpleasant to just take a pack from whichever parent had more on the door of the freezer.

The strange thing about me and smoking back then was that I didn’t even like it. Even though I’d grown up with two smokers from before I was born, those first several cigarettes left me feeling lightheaded and nauseated. I really had to work to start smoking.

It wasn’t peer pressure that started me smoking. My peer group were so anti-smoking, I made a point of keeping it a secret from both my parents and my friends. Before I got my driver’s license, I would only smoke after my parents were in bed or when I would walk alone after dark to the park across the street from our house. Once I was legal to drive alone, I traded my late-night walks for late-night drives, blasting Gin Blossoms and Tori Amos and puffing away behind the wheel.

I only had one friend who smoked. One night, she picked me up at my house and we drove around the block to the park. We sat in the car and smoked and shared a half-can of beer and then worried that we were too wasted to drive back to my house safely.

Ah, yes. We were rebels.

I quit smoking when I was 21, and those days are far, far behind me now.

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have smoker parents from whom I could steal cigarettes to feel like a rebel. With the life I lead now, what will my kids be forced to steal from me? I’d best keep a close eye on my cod liver oil capsules and my homemade deodorant.

Written for this week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop.

The Big Old Whiny Freakout

When I was four years old, my mom and I were at the mall. This was a California mall which means that where malls in colder places have roofs between stores, we had just sky. Reaching for the sky in the center of the mall on this particular day was a kind of enormous temporary cage. Inside were…

“Lions! Mommy, look! Lions!”

Head rubbing and licking are common social beh...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were both full-grown lions with manes and everything and little spotted lion cubs.

“Oh, look!” my mom said, as excited as I was. “They’re taking pictures of people with the lions! Would you like to have your picture taken with a lion cub?”

I answered by grabbing my mother’s hand and dragging her to the end of the line. The woman in line in front of us smiled down at me and then went back to watching the big cats.

The wait was long enough that the constant spark of my natural anxiety had a chance to kindle a flame. I watched a man posing with one of the adult lions, and a concern entered my mind.

“Mommy, do the lion cubs bite?” I asked.

“Oh, no. They don’t bite!” she responded. “They’re just like kittens.”

The woman in front of us spoke with an air of authority. “You don’t need to worry at all!” she said. “They only bite a little.”

In just a moment, I came to a conclusion: I didn’t want any lion bites, not even little ones. And what if one of the big lions got in while they were taking my picture with the cubs? Those big guys sure didn’t give just little bites.

Male Lion (Panthera leo) and Cub eating a Cape...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia. Luca Galuzzi – http://www.galuzzi.it)

I had to get away from those lions. Pulling on my mother’s hand, I started repeating, breathlessly, “Mommy, I don’t want my picture taken! Mommy, we need to go! Mommy, let’s go! I want to go home! I don’t want to have my picture taken with the lions!”

That was the first big old whiny freakout in my conscious memory. There have been others.

There was the time we went to Disneyland when I was eight. My dad and I were waiting in line at Space Mountain. We were moments from getting on when I realized that Space Mountain was a roller coaster. I pulled on my father’s arm with both hands until we were back out in the sunshine again.

When I was in my 20’s, my sister, my spouse, and our friends went to the stadium at Duke University to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. I saw flaming fireworks debris falling into the audience from above and I snapped. I jumped from my seat and grabbed my sister by the hand. “We’ve got to go! We’ve got to go!” I kept repeating as I pulled my sister out of the stands and under an overhang where we both watched the rest of the show without fear of burn injuries but with plenty of time to think just how silly I must have looked to the people who craned their necks to watch me as I lost my mind. It took moving out of state for our friends to stop poking fun at me.

Then just this summer, my kids, my spouse, and I were all four in a canoe in a wake-filled lake in New Hampshire when I got a very clear image of the canoe capsizing and me trying frantically to keep my children afloat in the rough water (since in a pinch I trust neither my spouse nor our life vests, apparently). It’s only after we were climbing out of the canoe back at the dock that I started to worry what our fellow boaters thought when they observed my histrionics out on the water.

At least when I was four, it wasn’t all that surprising. A four-year-old freaking out? Heck, that’s what they’re made for. A thirty-six-year-old woman freaking out is another matter entirely. I think the effect is exacerbated by the fact that I appear pretty laid-back most of the time (or so I’m told) so the freakouts seem to come from nowhere. But that’s pretty much how they are for me. As soon as I’m aware that the wave is building, it’s already broken, and I have no idea how to stop it. My limbic system is in charge; I’m running for my life, and I’m the only one who can save my loved ones. Or so I think until the moment passes.

Back in the sunlight, or safe under the overhang, or gliding alongside the dock, the cause of my terror seems distant and tiny. As soon as I feel safe again, both the feeling of terror and the superheroic feeling that I’m the only one who can save us fades away. What’s left is exhaustion and embarrassment and the very clear knowledge that I’ve overreacted. In front of lots of people.

Back in that mall more than three decades ago, my mother cursed the woman in line with us all the way back to the parking lot. By the time we got to the car, my fear was gone and I felt only shame for acting so babyish and for ruining my mother’s chance to sit with lion cubs. “I’m sorry, Mommy. I’m okay now. We can go back, Mommy, if you want to have our pictures taken with the lion cubs.”

But the appeal had waned, and she just packed me into our Toyota Celica (in the front seat without a seat belt because back then, people weren’t afraid of anything).

“Maybe they’ll come back another time we’re here! I won’t be afraid then!” I promised as we drove home.

I didn’t have another chance to prove my bravery with the lions, but I did have plenty more chances to freak out in public. I know there will be plenty more to come.

This post written as part of this week’s Remember the Time blog hop. Click the badge to hop on over to The Waiting and check out the posts that have been linked up there!

Picking Favorites

When I think about the teachers I’ve had, I first remember the ones who embarrassed me:

  • The fourth-grade teacher who caught me giving bunny ears to my best friend as we filed into the classroom and then caricatured me walking in giving bunny ears in front of the whole class as punishment.
  • The high school science teacher who punished boys by making them sit next to me.
  • The yoga instructor who warned the classmate who was going to spot me while I attempted a handstand, “Careful…she’s beyond clumsy” (which was true, but he could have said it in a gentler way).

This is strange, though, because I’ve actually had some really great teachers. My third-grade teacher introduced me to creative writing (“Remember, don’t exaggerate; describe the details.”) and let me stay inside during recess so I could read instead of navigating playground dramas. My eighth-grade English teacher once gave me a ride home so I wouldn’t have to brave the walk to the bus when a bunch of girls threatened to jump me after school because I wrote a short story about their ringleader.

Then there are my two favorite teachers, Mrs. Huettmann and Susan Carpenter, the first and last teachers I had during my years of formal schooling.

Mrs. Huettmann always gave our kindergarten class awesome crafts to do. My favorite was a large tissue-paper goldfish. She gave me extra work when she realized that I needed a challenge, and she went to bat for me and encouraged the principal to let me skip first grade. When the Navy moved us out of the area the following year, she gave me a copy of The Secret Garden, which I still have. (She also once gave a talk to the boys in our class about how they needed to pee in the toilet, not beside it, behind it, or on the walls. I’m not sure why I remember this so clearly, but clearly it made an impression on me.)

But none of this explains why I’ve kept in touch with her all of these years or why I make a point to visit her whenever we’re in California. The thing that really stands out about Mrs. Huettmann is how good I always felt when I was around her. Whether I’m six or thirty-six, she always gives me the impression that I’m important—to her, for sure, but also inherently important. I’m confident that, to Mrs. Huettmann, I have a place in the world; I’m worth listening to.

Susan Carpenter taught my undergraduate Senior Writing Seminar. Susan never romanticized being a writer. Writing wasn’t some magical, mysterious thing; it was work, and if we paid attention and put in the hours, our writing would get better and better. This is a message that I find increasingly encouraging as the years go by. Susan listened to her students, and she cared. She gave honest criticism with a gentle hand, and she helped me learn to give better criticism to my fellow writers. And she occasionally took me out for coffee and a talk when I was going through a particularly bad time (which I made worse by being so melodramatic about it, but she was kind enough not to point that out to me). I still value her opinion about my writing more highly than I value anyone else’s.

I don’t have any self-contained anecdotes about the great teachers I’ve had like I do about the less-than-great teachers. I think this is because the teachers who made the most positive impression on me didn’t do it by having one stellar interaction with me or giving one awesome lecture or one stand-out piece of advice. They made an impression through their consistent support and warm presence. They did it through their example, day after day after day.

This isn’t something I can wrap up in a blog-post-sized anecdote, but it’s what I try to emulate when I’m in a teacher role. It’s these teachers’ compassion and warmth that I strive to bring to the girls in my Girl Scout troop, the preschoolers for whom I lead activities, and my own children. I hope I’m succeeding at least a little bit.

This post submitted as part of the Remember the Time Blog Hop.