Saturday, March 30, 2013

DRINKING THE BIKRAM KOOL AID

Time for an update. After twelve sessions of Bikram yoga, it's fair to say that I am drinking (though haven't quite finished) the Kool Aid.  Back in January, I made a New Years resolution to unbind my arms, which have both been afflicted with the extraordinarily painful condition known as frozen shoulder.  I started Bikram yoga at my daughter's urging, and I have stuck to it, on average, twice a week since January.

This is not to say that it doesn't take something out of me. I quake before I go. I steel myself to follow through with the ninety minute practice in a studio heated to 105 degrees.  It feels like preparing to give birth.  I've done that three times. But each time I finish Bikram yoga I feel as depleted and as exhilarated as I did after childbirth. And yet I'm doing it.  And I'm glad I'm doing it, and even though I still can't manage every pose, I am beginning to understand the mind body and soul connection which is the definition of yoga.

Yesterday I took my friend Sara, who had been to Bikram before, in a different studio sometime ago. She was interested to try out this one.  As I showed her the locker room, another woman stopped me.  "You live in my neighborhood," she said.  "And you walk your dogs every day past my house.  And you have a daughter named Rosalind."

How did she know all this?

"Are you the pianist?" I asked - with a vague memory going back to when our children attended Haycock Elementary School.  She nodded.  "You have a son," I said.

"I have two," she replied. "But they're all grown up." She told me she'd been doing Bikram yoga now for two and a half years. "And it has changed my life," she said. "I have drunk the Kool Aid." 

After that, we all went into the studio and positioned our mats in the sauna heat.  Our ninety minute workout was strenuous and releasing both at once - and seeing Sara go through it for the (not quite) first time, reminded me of how I felt in January when Rosalind first took me.  How the heat was unbearable. All I could think of was leaving the room.  But now my frozen shoulder no longer hurts. And although it's hot,  the heat doesn't bother me. Instead it is familiar, if not comforting. I still don't have the full range of motion in one shoulder, but now I'm less concerned with that, than with my inability to complete certain poses.

There are some poses I positively hate. For instance, the camel. So I took a little break at the camel pose, given my shoulder.  I deserved a break, didn't I? "After you finish your water, Amanda," the instructor said, "Please join us.  Don't sit out a pose," he admonished. Yoga, he said, was more about mental resolve than physical ability. The idea was to attempt each pose. The camel would be particularly good for me. It would help my flexibility and eventually (ah - eventually) it would reduce excess body fat in the abdominal area. The whole Bikram workout was designed to utterly exhaust us physically so that there would be nothing left to stress us out once we finished.  "And I can promise you," he said, "that no one else in Falls Church is working as hard as we are, right this minute."

Boy, did I feel a slacker!  How dare I sit out the camel.  But in spite of that, having Sara along, made me aware of the progress I'd made in just three months.  The first time I came to this studio, I couldn't even think of the camel.  I could barely breathe! And although Sara is flexible, having been a jazz dancer, there were times when I thought she was going to leave the room. She looked spent and red faced and utterly exhausted.  The mat had become her world and her prison, and yet God bless her, she stayed, and she was glad she did.

Afterwards, both of us sat in the lobby area talking to another woman who had been going to Bikram for seven months. "You seem very flexible," Sara told her.

"I sent my youngest child to college in September," she replied. "I had spent years of my life sitting through soccer and baseball games.  I realized it was time to take care of myself."

Her resolve was paying off and we could see that clearly.  How rewarding to realize that it is possible to be more fit as you age.  Was it possible that Bikram was handing our flexibility back?  Yes! But with serious commitment in return.

If you're interested, here is the link to our studio:

http://www.fallschurchyoga.com/aboutHotYoga.shtml



Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr

 Loved this book from the title page on.  This is clever, edgy, funny and heartrending all at once.  See my review in Washington Independent Review of Books

Sunday, March 24, 2013

BEING YOURSELF AND PLAYING ROLES

The other morning, walking past a neighborhood house I overheard some children role playing in the front garden.  They were running and a little girl suggested they should pretend to kill the monsters - "that way they will be afraid and run away anyway."  In playing their roles, these children were learning what they thought about life.

 I didn't catch the rest, because the children disappeared into the back yard. But that snippet was so sweet and it reminded me of something eternal in childhood - my brother and sister and me with Kim and Nicola playing similar games.

We had a gate in the fence between our properties at the bottom of the garden, so that we wouldn't have to walk all the way up Oak Hill Road to get to their house.  Sometimes while we were having breakfast, we'd see Kim at the end of our garden underneath the willow tree.  She stood there awkwardly, twisting the leaves on an overhanging branch, waiting for us to come out and play.   At other times we would be first outside -emerging through the gate on the other side of the fence, where they had a little orchard of plum trees.

We played games like the ones my neighbor's children played. Like the ones my own children played with their friends in the park in Buenos Aires. We tried on roles. One of our favorites was mods and rockers.   The mods and rockers represented two different gangs in the 1960's - the mods being those who wore mini-skirts and trendy clothes, while the rockers were rougher, in skinny jeans and leather jackets.  This game was for us the ultimate in cool. So we'd pretend to be rockers - finding twigs to represent cigarettes, and huddling in groups and putting on Cockney accents.  I had a pen that looked like a real cigarette, and using that pen in my role playing gave me, I felt, a lot of cachet.

It wasn't until years later that I realized that the mods and rockers were themselves playing roles. Trying on roles to see who they were and if the disguise was a comfortable fit.  I did the same thing as I went through my teens, although it wasn't as evident to me at the time.  I only know that I felt more secure in a definitive role - in my Indian print mini dress and shag hair cut, for instance, pictured below.   Here I am with my sisters and brother in Paris.  I had these Indian sandals and one of them broke.  My father found it so irritating.  He couldn't understand why I wouldn't just buy a cheap pair to replace them. Why was I walking all over Paris in a broken sandal?  But how could I change my sandals?  That would have entirely ruined my image!

I was talking to my friend Gail over coffee and she remarked that now at sixty she was just trying to be herself, and because of that she noticed that younger women seemed drawn to her.

I think this is right.  All through my life I have loved older women and thought of them as my real role models.  There wasn't a costume that went with who they were.  That's because they were genuine. They had transcended their sexual and biological roles, no longer cared about trendiness - although each of them had their own style.  These women were a generation older than my mother - herself a wonderful role model, but too close for me to see at the time. There was  Rosie, a sculptor who lived across the road and Flyn a family friend in Sunderland.  These were the women I most admired when I was a girl.

 Later there was Gladys in Cohasset, Massachusetts,  and when I had children of my own and lived in Buenos Aires, there was my beautiful friend Irene.  These women were much older than me and there was nothing to copy in terms of style. It was more a question of substance.  They were who they were and they didn't care what anyone else had to say about it.  And yet they were gracious and beautiful. They were themselves.

In any case, it was a lot of fun to try on all those roles.  I love that childhood game and listening to those children reassured me.  Those were the games that taught us how to be ourselves and what we really thought.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

THE CALIFORNIAN AND THE GIRL WITH HIM

What is the image conjured in your mind when I use the word "Californian"?  I ask because I've been in San Francisco all week, visiting my sisters and mother who have lived out here for years. My sister Claudia has been here since her mid thirties, in the same beautiful flat on Russian Hill.  Every time I visit, I am struck of course by the beauty of the place, by Golden Gate park and the view of the city along that beautiful waterfront in Sausalito, by the majestic sweep of the Headlands, when we walk the dogs up there, by the quaint cafes and shops by the many interesting and friendly kinds of people.  There is a diversity to this place, which is somehow different from the diversity of Northern Virginia where I live.  And my family is happy here, extraordinarily so, feeling that for them this is the place to be - that to choose another location would be a conscious choice of second fiddle.

Yet something inside me resists.  There's something I can't get past.  And that's how very California it all is. But what do I mean by that?

The phrase I started out with "the Californian and the girl with him" is a  play on a Hemingway description "the American and the girl with him" - from his short story "Hills Like White Elephants." I often teach that story to my students.  I ask them what the image evokes.  We end up reflecting how though most of us in the classroom are American, we don't consider ourselves to be typical.  Being of many ethnicities and religions we feel quite individual. Yet, we go on to concede, that if we were to be transplanted overseas, to take a stroll in say, Barcelona, that most would be instantly recognizable as American.

Maybe it has something to do with the way we carry ourselves, the way we hold our bodies.  With the loudness of our voices.  With our enthusiasms.  Or maybe it has to do with our clothing. As Henry James once wrote, and I'm paraphrasing here, the American wore new clothes that looked old, while the European wore old clothes that looked new.  I think there's something of that in the American even today - maybe even in those Americans who don't look typical - those who wear the hijab, for instance.

I'm reminded here of Kingsley Amis writing about how every noun is changed for the worse when you use the adjective 'American' before it.  He goes down a list which includes psychiatrist, and American psychiatrist and ends up with penis and American penis. 

But I was talking about California, and even after several years of coming out here I still can't quite put my finger on what it is.  I notice that when I use the word my family members bristle a bit. When I called something Californian the other morning, my mother was quick to correct me.  "There's a big difference between San Francisco," she said, "and the rest of California."

"All right," I said.

So maybe it's the question of history.  I can't help noticing that the veneer of history is terribly thin. "Not so," said my sister Stephanie. "The Gold Rush is enormously important to the history of this state."

Hmm.  I'm still not quite convinced. I wonder why none of them is the least bit interested in the new film Lincoln.  They had no desire to see or even hear about it.  Also when I accompanied my mother to her memoir group last week,  one woman wrote about how things had changed - she was talking about the enormous changes in Sausalito since 1990.

But these are tiny examples.  So maybe it's more about religion - or the lack of distinction in that?  I don't know.  My sister asked whether the Biblical references in my novel would narrow its readership.  She pointed out that her husband Dylan would not understand them - and nor would many people she knew. "Maybe it's just California," she said.

The closest I can get to understanding what I mean when I talk about the Californian cast on San Francisco - might be found in the very largeness of the physical beauty here.  Maybe the country is just so hugely beautiful - the hills and the bay and the bridges, the wonderful undulating streets of the place, that this sweeps away all differences in the people who inhabit it.  The landscape becomes bigger than the sense of inner life.  It was the same in Italy.  They are living in this landscape and it simply takes over their consciousness. You never want to block it out.  Why would you? You want instead to embrace it, to meld yourself to it. So other musings and jarring thoughts are simply swept aside.  When you observe the generalizations, you see a people so united in their love of this place, that they've left their history behind them and joined a new reality.

Why does that not appeal to me? Maybe I'm simply not ready for perfection!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

LIBRARY, NEW SOUL OF THE EMPTY NEST -

When you have children, the heart and soul of the house is often evident in its liveliness - in the constant ebb and flow of those children and their friends.  

 That changes when they grow up, at least it did for us.  All our kids are now in their twenties. Two are living overseas and the youngest has also launched, for all intents and purposes,  shifting the center of his life to college in Richmond Virginia.   For a while it was almost as though we ought to put velvet ropes across their empty bedroom doorways.  We rattled around a little bit - not really using three of the rooms, not really sure how to use them, or even if we should.

To rediscover the soul of your home is imperative - and we did just this a couple of weeks ago -  with a library.

The largest room in our house has always been our bedroom.  My desk is up one end, looking out of a large bow window.  It's a beautiful place to wake up, but over the cold winter months we decided to move into one of the smaller and warmer bedrooms.

Without the bed in it, this other purpose suggested itself.  It would involve a lot of heavy lifting, the carting of books and shelves, navigating a narrow stairwell with enormous pieces of furniture,  from the living room, and other places. And one hell of a lot of dusting. It's incredible what can get lost behind a bookcase.

Then of course after moving the bookcases we would have to rethink and rearrange the rooms that had relinquished all their books.   What to do with the wall space?  We'd have to  move paintings and rehang them - and we'd have to move chairs.

Two weeks ago, we took most of Saturday morning in the conversion.  Ever since we've finished all the bits and pieces.

It has been 100% worth it.  A library, says Plato, is the soul of a house. And this one has completely transformed how we live in the space.  The nest is no longer empty! When I'm writing now, I'm surrounded by the works, by the heart and soul and mind of other writers across the ages. I'm in the best of company.

If you have an empty nest, why not try it? The room doesn't have to be large.  It simply has to be filled with books.  The bookcases don't have to match.  Swaying stacks and a chair to curl up in, there with the quiet of other voices, must simply take over the purpose of that space.

Last Saturday, Elliot came home for Spring break.  He loved the new library and spent several days during the snowbound days sitting there writing and reading.  I was at the other end, writing at my desk. And sometimes we stopped and talked, and sometimes we reached out and took a book off a shelf - some of which we hadn't looked at somehow, for quite a time. They had become a bit invisible.  Now they were singing to us once again.

Nothing is worse than stagnation.  Constancy is beautiful, but with new ways of breathing it. That's what a library does for your home.  I highly recommend it.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Reprieve: MR PIG AND THE STUCK EWE


Reposted in honor of my dear friend Walter


We had attended a hog roast in Peasmarsh at some neighbors of Walter and Anthony’s, and the following morning, still full of pork and crackling and applesauce, we – Walter and Anthony’s house guests - took a walk to see another hog who lived in a nearby field. Walter had dubbed him Mr. Pig. He loved this pig. He visited the farm down the laneway practically every day, just in order to see it.

There were six of us on the excursion. We walked up the farmer’s drive. It was a fresh July morning with a billowy sky and fields full of sheep. At the top of the hill between the trees, the road continued up to a house belonging to Lionel and Edward. Lionel had recently died, so now only Edward lived there. I remembered seeing their garden years before. They had strung children’s dolls in the trees as decoration. I was telling Rozzie this as we walked. They also had a pair of mannequin legs with Wellington boots sticking out of a hole in the garden.

“Look!” said Walter. “There he is!” Our first glimpse of Mr. Pig! He sat under a tree like Ferdinand the bull. The head was gigantic, an extension of the body, and disproportionately huge compared with the donkeys and sheep in the field.

Two donkeys trotted to the fence. Alex and Phoebe petted them while Walter called the pig. “Mr. Pig!” he called. The pig made his way towards us. He knew Walter’s voice. You could see he was hurrying, but he seemed to be going slow motion. He wasn’t making progress. It was as if he was trotting in place. Perhaps it was because his feet were small that he took such dainty steps. In any case, his body was absolutely huge, with a fuzzy pink back and an outsized head.

As he got closer you could see all the flies buzzing round. The snout was massive and spongy, flecked in dirt. There was something both repulsive and touching, underscored by the expression in the blue and human looking eyes. He was watchful and intelligent.

“Hello Mr. Pig!” said Walter. “How are you? Isn’t it marvelous?”

We agreed it was. “Why is its head so huge?” asked Phoebe.

“Can you see why I love it?” asked Walter. “And why I come to visit?”

We all said we could.

“But hang on Walt – I think this is Mrs. Pig,” said Rozzie.

“Oh really?” said Walter.

“Males don’t have hanging teats do they?”

“I suppose not.” The conversation went on like this, and got a little worse, for several minutes.

“Let’s just call it Pig,” I suggested.

“No,” said Walter. “I like the name Mr. Pig.”

The donkeys were pretty and enjoyed being stroked on the nose by Alex and Phoebe. But Mr. Pig didn’t like them taking the spotlight. She snorted and spluttered crossly.

Walter tried to stroke her head. The pig tried to smile. It had a gummy smile – with short stubby teeth. The smile seemed vaguely familiar. I’ve seen people with mouths like that.

After a few minutes we headed back in the direction from which we’d come. Actually things happened in a slightly different order than this. But the point is, there was a sheep in distress: a stuck ewe. She had fallen over and was struggling to get up. She was far across the field on her back with her lamb close by. The ewe bleated plaintively.

“Oh gosh,” said Atli. “What’s wrong?”

“Do you think it’s been hurt,” someone asked.

“Perhaps it’s in labor,” suggested another.

“But that’s its lamb, right there.”

The little lamb was basking in the sunshine a few yards off, and chewing grass, while the ewe let out a frightened baa every so often, struggled helplessly, and waved its little black legs. It was either hurt or trapped, we couldn’t be sure which. Meanwhile, its lamb paid absolutely no attention. It merely gazed off in another direction.

The farmer’s cottage was back near Mr. Pig. We decided to knock on the door. Walt went up the path and returned a few minutes later.

“There’s someone inside,” he announced. “But they are hoovering – so they can’t hear me knocking.”

“Well they can’t hoover forever,” I said, thinking he might at least try knocking again.

“No. I suppose not.”

That’s when a car passed down the drive. In the car were two people - a woman and Edward, the man who lived in the house on the hill. They stopped to see what we were doing.


The woman got out and stood with us at the fence, looking at the struggling ewe. “Isn’t nature weird,” she said. “The mother is dying but the lamb just sits there completely unfazed.”

Atli had climbed over the fence and was heading into the field. He approached the ewe; its lamb trotted away. Atli bent to make his inspection. The ewe’s legs were thin black sticks jutting at odd angles from a round wooly body.

“I think she’s hurt a back leg,” Atli called to us. “Should I try to prop her up?”

“Don’t Atli,” Rozzie said. “It might make it worse.”

“Our James Herriot moment,” Walt said, hamming up our hopelessness. “Oh dear! What are we to do!”

By this time Edward had got out of the car and stood with his hands in his pockets, a small elderly man with a gentle expression. “What are you doing? Looking after sheep?” he asked. He had a north-country accent. His face was placid. “Go to the beach,” he said. “There’s nothing to be done. They die, these animals. That’s what they do.”

We returned to Walter and Anthony’s cottage. Walt decided that their neighbor Stephanie would know how to handle it. She was very capable. She was the one who had the pet goose, which was attacked by a mink. I wrote about that goose in a posting in March.

The goose died, by the way.

We wondered what would become of the ewe. Perhaps it would also die. But
later that evening, we heard it was fine. It had just fallen over and couldn’t get up because it was too fat. Stephanie went round, and put it on its feet.

Some geese are pets. Others are Christmas dinner. Some hogs get roasted at big summer parties. Others become our friends. And a great many of us who adore the countryside don’t know the first thing about it.