life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Battle of the Bulge

It is nearing the end of April, and in my whirlwind existence of trying to achieve all of my goals in life as quickly as possible, I have almost missed posting to my beloved Ranger M blog. The horror!

The start of my life in Brussels has not been without some stops, starts, and unforeseen potholes along the way. However, as with all challenges in life, it has provided ample opportunity for my greatest goal in life: to practice.

For me, practice comes in many shapes and sizes, but mostly it involved working to be less attached to the idea that I am in complete control of the elements that swirl around me in this timeline of existence. Since moving to Brussels, I have been challenged by events happening at a distance (renter eviction and subsequent theft; renters leaving my house in disarray and in desperate need to care and repair; etc.). I also have experienced the challenges of life in a new climate and in a more urban setting than I am accustomed to.

The Olde World has its benefits but also its drawbacks in that many of its buildings are, a propo to the title, old. We have been living in a very sweet apartment in the commune of Watermael-Boitsfort, which my husband found and claimed prior to my arrival in Belgium. It has lots of light and is close to grocery stores, neighborhood parks, and an enormous forest that has become my daily dose of quiet nature tree therapy.

The drawback to our cozy third floor apartment is that my husband’s choice of the top floor has not provided the kind of respite from noise that we had both envisioned. We share our old house with two neighors in apartments below us. One neighbor is so quiet we are not sure there is even anyone living there. Sadly, she is on the first floor. Our second floor neighbor we have come to call Petit Hippo because her way of being is louder than seems reasonable for a being of the homo sapiens persuasion. While we are living in a time of transhuman and posthuman possibility, I think she really is human, albeit an inexplicably noisy one.

At any time of day, night, dark hours of the early morn, we hear the following:

Slam, clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp clomp (x12 stairs), thump thump thump thump, clomp clomp clomp (x12 stairs), key turning in door, door opening, slam, key turning, proceed with crash, clomp, thump, drawers slamming, loud television, loud voice, and so on and so forth.

At first, we kind of laughed at how ridiculous it was, as if a muppet was living on the floor beneath us, but the humor took a dark turn as our hippo muppet neighbor began having guests over 1-2 times each week, each guest behaving in a similar muppet fashion.

It was as though they were all sitting in our living room on the couch beside us, for hours, like a bad Friends episode, the difference being that a Friends episode lasts for only 22 minutes without commercials.

My husband and I are introverts and prefer to be home most of the time. We like to go out and explore, but when we come home we like it to be quiet. We also enjoy sleeping at night so that we can wake up refreshed and ready for the day the next morning. Doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable, does it?

Apparently, our desires have seemed beyond reason to our neighbor, who we have attempted to talk to on several occasions (amicably, to begin with). We wrote a letter after several months and then spoke to her again. She was shocked that we would even request for the house to be quiet after 10pm on weekdays. Her response was to use the word embêtant (bothersome) for her to ask her guests to leave.

How dare we wish to go to sleep at a reasonable hour? The nerve!

We have continued our efforts to attempt to enjoy a sustainable existence in our current setting, but after our neighbor told us at 11:30pm last night that she was going to call the police on us for harassment, we determined that our mission has failed.

My husband has suggested that I use this experience as more opportunity to practice non-attachment. I can meditate and focus on other thoughts or go into the sensations within my body and breath in order to create a safety blanket or shield of white noise to protect me from the hippo below (nothing against hippos, truly, I just don’t want to live above one).

I agree that this is good practice, I told my husband last night, but I make tiny baby steps in my meditation and acceptance practice. This is way out of my league. I am just not ready.

 

I work very hard most of the time to keep the temper flame that lives within me at a very low level; however, it ramped right up last night. I do not engage negative, angry energy. I don’t like it when it is directed at me, and I do not like to direct it at other people. There is enough of this kind of energy swirling around the globe. I try my best to create space for calm. That being said, I was so incensed by the seemingly complete disregard for other life forms in our home, that I stormed down the stairs, knocked loudly on the door, and informed our neighbor in no uncertain terms that we found her behavior rude, disrespectful, and unbelievable.

In the end, this situation is not life threatening. I live a relatively luxurious existence. I have warm clothes, a roof over my head, a beloved husband, two fat and happy cats, a husky at a distance, and friends and family all over the world.

I know that there are certain battles that are not worth engaging in. Typically, I try to put as much distance as possible between the proverbial hippos of the world and me. One time, I even moved all the way from Alaska to Massachusetts to escape the ultimate hippo (really, I don’t hate hippos).

There is a reason different species do not interbreed. They are different. I like a quiet, peaceful home. I enjoy sleeping at night. Not all humans are of the same make and model. For this reason, I recognize that my requests may seem as incredible to her as her behavior to us. We are embêtant and intolerant.

So be it. We will focus our energy on finding a more sustainable place to rest our heads, a place that does not require sleeping pills, earplugs, and whiskey nightcaps (well, the whiskey might stay).

Any stories of our your hippo neighbors? I would love to hear them in the comments below. Go ahead, vent some steam. As always, thanks for reading, friends from near and far.

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Nothin’s gonna stop the ‘fro

I have had more than a few days where I walk out the front door and, regardless of how I felt when I got dressed, I wind up feeling like the biggest frump in Brussels. Every person I pass seems so put together and stylish, like they intrinsically understand how to pair articles of clothing, footwear, jewelry, and accessories.

Given the choice, I have pretty much always chosen function and affordability to haute couture. For this reason, I am often loath to walk into a fancy boutique. I do sometimes wonder what would happen if I walked into a clothing store and ask for the person to pick out clothing for me. They may tell me that they are not personal shoppers, but perhaps they will take pity on the poor American who has zero understanding of fashion sense.

I am pretty sure that if I invited them into my home, they would take one look at my closet and set a torch to it. No more comfortable sneakers, no more threadbare shirts, no more hooded sweatshirts.

What then? Panty hose that cannot possibly keep me warm in the wind, rain, and hail of balmy winter in Brussels? (Forget the fact that pantyhose would be lucky to last five minutes before my propensity for clumsiness led to their demise.)

I’m sorry, but freezing for pantyhose will never be my slogan.

So, when I don my quick drying stretchy yoga pants, t-shirt, sweatshirt, winter coat, and sneakers for a walk through the forest, I walk past many pairs of heels and pointy leather boots on my way. Even in the sanctuary of the forest by our apartment, I pass people dressed I would refer to as one’s Sunday best. Every day must be Sunday in Brussels.

My reticence is not limited to clothing stores. I have a universal ominous foreboding before entering any kind of hair salon, be it in the United States or Europe. If I don’t get dressed up to go for a walk in forest, rain or shine, why would I spiffy up to get my haircut? I am just going to come home and take a shower to wash away all those irritating tiny hairs that tickle my neck.

Apparently, not all days are equal for getting your hair cut in Brussels. Friday and Saturday are fancier (aka, more expensive). At least, this was the case when I walked down to Boitsfort proper to search out a place to get my hair trimmed this afternoon in my usual black stretchy yoga pants, 15-year-old pink Mazama goat t-shirt just barely holding on to existence, and my five ten sneakers.

I asked the woman at the register if I needed to make an appointment. She had blonde, sort of curly, sort of straight hair, and I couldn’t tell if it was wet or dry but thought the wet appearance may be from the bottle of gel she must have used to create the façade of curls. If my hair was straight, I would just dance for sheer joy rather than wasting my money on gel, but they say the grass is always greener.

Ever since I was young, older and very old women have been telling me to thank my lucky stars for my frizz, but I must not be old enough yet to agree.

Of course, I still have such a baby face that most people think I am still a teenager (I am super jazzed when someone guesses 22 instead of 14, especially when it is an old man hitting on me. Seriously, if you think I look 14, what are you doing flirting with me, creeper?). Suffice it to say that women with straight hair and/or new perms like to gush over my hair.

I will trade you, I respond to the little old lady getting her hair permed, and she shrieks with laughter, winks, and waves her hair at me in an Oh, you joker gesture.

What? I was totally serious!

I also have come to realize that looking young means it takes something extra for people to take me seriously, be it sarcasm, attitude, or talking about my PhD research. Would Europeans get a Doogie Howser reference?

Well, there were two older ladies at the hair salon this afternoon, but they didn’t pay any attention to me.

Blondie at the register told me a hair cut cost 42 euros. I asked if I could skip the shampoo, and she looked at me like I was insane and explained that it was included.

I sat down on a chair by the shampooing sink and waited while the woman next to me had her hair conditioned and temples massaged. Maybe getting a shampoo wasn’t so bad after all. If the extra cost went toward a scalp massage, I could dig it.

My turn came for a shampoo, but it was anything but relaxing. The woman gave me a brief scalp scratching and asked if I wanted conditioner, which I refused because it was un supplement (aka, an additional fee). Seriously? This isn’t Paris. How does a 42-euro haircut include shampoo but not conditioner? Had she not seen the state of my hair when I took out my ponytail holder? You don’t voluntarily get my hair wet without conditioner somewhere nearby. Oh well, I figured she would put some leave-in conditioner after she cut it.

She rinsed my hair, filling both ears with a cascade of water, and I cringed until it was over. I was directed to a chair, and my hair was brushed minus any kind of conditioner with a large-toothed comb. To give her some credit, the woman did apologize, though I could have explained to her that nothing she could do could hurt my skull, which had been thickened by over three decades of life with tangles (Johnson’s No More Tangles has got nothing on this head of hair). I think my nerve endings have lost their will to live from so much yanking and pulling. I figured out several years ago that my mom didn’t keep my hair an inch long when I was little just because it looked cute (which it did) but for her and my sanity. Every few months when my hair was long, she would have to corner me, and I would scream and cry while she tried to untangle the bird’s nest my afro had become. Seriously, if there is a god in this world, they have a sadistic sense of humor, and I am not sure what I did in my past lives to deserve a life of frizz.

At one point while she was clawing through my wet hair, she made a face, picked something out, and flicked it aside. It kind of reminded me of a wildlife documentary with monkeys picking insects out of each other’s hair. I tried to imagine the David Attenborough narrative.

Here in the chair sits a specimen that is the result of genetic experimentation with the texture and shape of body hair. Beside her stands a superior genetic conglomeration. They are engaged together here in a kind of interchange. Notice the look of disgust on the face of the other homo sapiens as she performs a kind of cleansing ritual.

When I looked at her questioningly, she responded, pélicule. I raised my eyebrows?

Qu’est-ce que c’est pélicule? She called out to wet-dry straight-curly hair blondie, who was blow drying the hair of woman a few chairs down (at least she got to sit down for this humiliation).

Je ne said pas, came the response.

Ça veut dire que c’est sec? I asked and pointed to my scalp.

Oui.

J’utilise shampoo pour ça.

She smiled.

Lovely, now I was not only frumpy and unfashionable with unkempt hair, but I also had my dandruff on display.

But I digress.

Salon woman asked me to stand up and walk behind the chair.

What, I can’t even be comfortable for this torture? I thought.

Apparently not, but for the 42 euros must be charged by the second because it was literally the shortest haircut I had ever experienced. I think it took less than five minutes for her to cut my hair. No putting it up in a clip and taking some down to cut one section at a time.

It was like a hit and run with scissors.

She had me sit down, and I figured this would be where she would put something in it so it would dry nicely. Instead, she blow-dried the front and left the back half dry so I left looking like a weird frizzy cactus. I know cactus paraphernalia seems to be a thing in Brussels (I have seen stuffed cactus at Ikea, clubs called Le Cactus, and there is even a sugary beverage that is likely some kind of prickly pear mixed with lemonade), but I didn’t realize it was trendy to dress like one.

When she had finished my cactus do, a man sitting in a chair on the other side of the salon called out in a heavy French accent, dandruff?

Eh? Oh.

The hairdresser walked over to look at the man’s phone.

Oui. C’est ça.

She came back.

Et là, tout le monde le sait/And now, everyone knows I have dandruff.

She thought this was the funniest thing ever and repeated it back to me. Tout le monde le sait. Chuckle chuckle. As always, I am happy to entertain. I am Jewish, after all.

Another time in my life, I might have been horrified and humiliated beyond reason. This time, I just thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Clearly dandruff is not so unusual or they wouldn’t sell so many hair products for those who suffer from it. I’m only human, and my skin gets dry. So sue me!

As we neared the end of our time together, I braced myself for her to recommend one or more expensive products, but she didn’t even try to sell me anything. Perhaps, in her eye was a hopeless cause.

I stood up, and she removed the black smock I had been wearing. I looked in the mirror for a moment and then turned to follow her to the front of the salon. She took my sweatshirt out of the coat closet and handed it to me (at least, she didn’t hold it like she had picked it up out of a gutter somewhere).

When I paid, she explained that Friday and Saturday cost 42 euros while every other day cost 33. Great, so I got to pay extra for my humiliation. Good deal. At least if I were planning on pay for public humiliation, I could have gone on bargain day. (Note: Jews also really like to get things on sale.)

The best deal was that it really didn’t matter to me. Just like most haircuts I have had in the US, she cut more than I had asked for and overcharged me for the experience, but I didn’t feel bothered. I guess I really am growing up. That, or I am a hopeless fashion cause. Either way, I am what I am, and it is a person I have grown rather fond of over the years.


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Karma Sutra

For much of February, I have been experiencing a deep and aching longing. Some mornings, I wake up feeling such intense heartache and homesickness that only the prospect of a hot cup of coffee can get me out of bed.

 

Brussels is much like western Washington and southeast Alaska in winter: grey, overcast skies mixed with intermittent, driving wind and rain. So great! That hail and horizontal rain sure helps you feel more alive as you running from the metro to the front door. What’s not to love, right?

 

A dear ranger friend from the North Cascades used to say: There’s no such thing as bad weather. While I am not sure I agree with this statement as I am not a husky or bear, I do make sure to venture outside every day, regardless of the temperature. I listen to books while I walk through civilized woods near our apartment in the commune of Watermael-Boitsfort (boitsfort translates quite literally from French to English as strong [fort] woods [boits]), and I take photographs of faces and hearts I find in the rocks, stones, and leaves and in the patterns of bark on smooth, tall trunks of trees.

The woods are lovely, albeit not so dark and deep as those from Frost. Even still, I long for large cottonwood trees and the tiny birds who live among them. I miss giant rocky outcroppings that I used to climb with my dog. I miss the descending faery call of the canyon wren, echoing through the granite dells I once called home.

 

I live an urban existence in Europe. In hindsight, I don’t think I appreciated how difficult it would be to leave a land of wide, open spaces and endless vistas, despite the lure of fresh baked baguettes and patisserie. A sip from the cactus lemon drink my husband recently discovered, however, transports me instantly to the porch of our Arizona home, where we would sit in the twilight, watching the sun go down while sipping cocktails made with prickly pear and grapefruit vodka.

 

One cannot have it all, and I know that even with my heartache I have so much more than many. I have begun volunteering every Monday afternoon at a refugee asylum center in Brussels. There I have met mostly men, some of whom have been living at the center for over a year, and all of whom have traveled alone and survived harrowing trauma. Some whisper pieces of their story to me, and I try not to stand slack jawed while their words penetrate instantly to my own heart. They smile and laugh and even sing the words and phrases we write on long pieces of paper taped to one of the many brick walls of the center.

Their insistence on holding on to hope reminds me of all I have to be grateful for in my own life. Even if it’s covered in mold that makes me endlessly phlegmy, I have a roof over my head. I have love in my life from two- and four-legged beings.

 

The Sanskrit word sutra means string or thread. In Sanskrit literature, a sutra can be a law or philosophy. I wonder about the sutras or philosophies and laws that comprise my life. What are my vows for the way I will walk through this world each moment of every day? I continue to reflect on my ever shifting perspective, the idea of karma, and my small role in a great universe. I don’t quite understand how karma works or what the universe has been trying to tell me these past several years or especially in the past couple of months.

 

Does the universe wish for me to continue practicing non-attachment by the theft of my precious collection of photos from my childhood and the violation and destruction of off-limit space by our now former tenant?

 

It seems clear that the universe wishes to add some levity and humor into the mix. You might recall a post I wrote some time ago about our neighbors in the Dells dramatically auditory and regular sex life? It appears that my karma sutra has returned once more with yet more scintillating sounds echoing between the walls of my old house and those around us. Should this episode prove similar to the previous one in Arizona, nine months to a year from now these will be replaced with sounds akin to the biological repercussions of the former audio track. All I can say right now is thank goodness for the invention of earplugs!

 

Perhaps, the universe is teaching me, through one ridiculous and often difficult lesson at a time, to weave together the energies and meanings I receive from each moment into a life sutra that mirrors my path through this life.

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Ready. Set. Zen.

Every night, my husband and I sit down for a 20-minute sit before bed. I use an app to keep track of the timing. As we prepare to sit, I unlock my phone, open the app, and turn off the light.

 

Before I tap the start button to begin our sit, I say the words, Ready. Set. Zen.

 

The ritual began after I attended an initiation for Neelakantha, mantra-based meditation. We had driven up to Colorado for the event and spent the weekend at the Naropa Institute. I learned about meditation in the Tantric tradition, while my husband sat in the lobby, working on applications for doctoral programs in Europe.

 

I had been attempting meditation on and off for a year with minimal success. After our return from Colorado, I began sitting for 20 minutes every night and every morning. Eventually, I asked my husband if he wanted to sit with me.

 

I learned from a meditation teacher that it can take anywhere from 30 to 40 days of regular practice to create a new habit. While I can’t say that I ever feel like sitting for 20 minutes, I do it anyway. I don’t know that I am any more enlightened that I was a year ago, but I don’t think it can hurt me, either.

 

I know from experience that even after taking the time to create a habit, it only takes one day of not doing it to lose the practice altogether. Even if I know I will feel better, more balanced, and joyful if I commit to even five minutes of creative practice every day—be it music, yoga, or writing—I still find it incredibly difficult to actually do it. I might get seven days into creating a regular practice and then a visitor, illness, or excuse weasels its way in, and that is that for a while. I stopped sitting every morning when my dad came to visit us last summer, and I have only been able to intermittently work it back into my daily rhythm.

 

The idea of practice, particularly yoga and meditation, is to honor ourselves where we are and celebrate (rather than negate) our progress; however small it may seem, it is a step toward balance.

 

I wrote an entire dissertation on the subject of self-sustainability. I spent months immersed in my own story of four years in a doctoral program, reviewing every moment in excruciating detail, in order to gain insight into the steps I took to create a more balanced, healthy existence. I know firsthand what I need to create joy in my life, but I still struggle to engage in those practices on any kind of regular basis.

 

I find it much easier to fixate on things that I know will not bring me joy but that offer distraction. One week it might be trying to find the exact right jacket that will keep me warm and dry and also not make me feel like a frumpy hobbit while among around fashionable Europeans (seriously, were they born to look graceful and stylish, no matter what they do? I have tried tossing a scarf around my neck in a haphazard fashion, and I still feel American and unattractive).

 

But I digress.

My husband reminds me, time and again, that there is no way to find the exact perfect anything because once we get it, we will realize that there is something else even better. It’s never ending.

 

Even my big camera lens didn’t come anywhere near the expectations I had for it, he told me.

 

I hear what he is saying, and I clearly understand, but it is still difficult to curb my propensity for fixation.

 

 

I finally gave up on the jacket, practicing acceptance of the perfectly adequate jackets I already own and repeating my husband’s mantra: It’s good enough. It’s good enough.

 

I spent an entire day without obsessively looking for the perfect jacket. I knew it didn’t exist and that buying another jacket wouldn’t bring me happiness. I would just wind up with the karmic weight of another material possession and feel guilty for spending money needlessly.

 

Even knowing all of this, I didn’t like what happened as a result of ceasing my search. Without something to fixate on, I was left with the emptiness I had so desperately been grasping to fill.

 

A day later, I am back to feeling an aching emptiness in my heart, the loss of my beloved soul mate wolf dog still so close to surface that tears well in my eyes at the slightest thought of those amber gold eyes and the memory of his head snuggled into my lap, paws wrapped securely around my legs.

 

I have fixated plenty on all of the choices I could have made differently that might have kept him in my life. What if I had taken him to the vet the moment I noticed something was wrong? What if I had taken him to a different vet for a second opinion when I first sensed that the vet we had taken him to might not have a firm grasp on medical practice? What ifs and questions take me round and round in infinite circles. When I finally stop fixating, I don’t feel any better. He is still gone, and the darkness is ever present.

 

I’m not a super fan of the void, I have to say, and I have no idea how to fill it. I have friends that appear to live a life full of gratitude and joy. When I ask them how they did it, they tell me, I just decided to be happy.

 

Huh, I think to my self. Maybe I am too just jaded for this to work, figuratively scratching my head.

 

I know that my own suffering is quite minimal when compared with all the levels of suffering in the world, but I feel it acutely nonetheless. A meditation teacher once told my class, suffering is suffering. I think he was onto something.

 

I move through phases where I work hard to lift my spirits and practice my it’s good enough intention, and then something beyond my control will happen that throws my system so far out of whack I lose my tenuous hold.

 

This past weekend, I attended the second of a series of all weekend trainings for learning to teach Anusara yoga. I was relatively relaxed as I walked to the tram on my way home when I received a text from my husband.

 

I had sent him a message asking how he was doing.

 

Hanging in there. E just told me that our rugs and the trunks are gone from the loft area of the house.

 

I texted an expletive in response and then followed with, Those are all of my original childhood photos. They are irreplaceable.

 

I really don’t understand why someone would take photo albums…it doesn’t add up…they are so heavy and worthless…to whoever took them. Any yes, priceless to us.

 

I stepped onto the tram in a trance and stared through the window into the reflection of receding light.

 

I have experienced theft several times in the past few years, and each time it is like a punch in the gut. I feel the wind knocked out of me, disbelief that someone could violate sacred space and take things so precious to me—my grandmother’s jewelry, family photos.

 

I sat on the tram until it stopped, walked down the steps and through the darkness toward the next tram stop. Halfway through the second portion of the trip, the tram came to a halt. Everything was still for a long time before I realized we had sat through several light changes and still had not moved forward. I stood up and leaned into the windows on the right side of the car, straining to try to see what was going on outside. Blue and red lights shifted back and forth in blur. An accident. I guess it can always be worse.

 

We finally started moving and crawled between parked police cars and toward home.

 

Standing in the kitchen later that evening, a glass of whisky in my hand, I tried to make sense of what had happened.

 

It’s like the universe is slowly taking away everything that is important to me, I said to my husband. First Okami. Then, my grandmother’s ring. Now, my photos. My meditation teacher says there is a Buddhist who believes that everything bad that happens to us happens because of a seed we planted long ago. What kind of heinous act could I have done in this life to be experiencing such horrible karma?

 

Well, when you start going into this kind of stuff, you may be looking at regressive lives. It could have been from many lives ago, and you chose this life to process it all.

 

But I don’t want to process it in this life, I protested. I want it to stop. I want my photos and my Okami back!

 

I know, love.

 

As we sat down to sit before bed, I watched one of my cats saunter over to the scratching pad we had gotten for them. He lay down on the pad and started to dig into it with both feet. It looked pretty good to me.

 

Maybe, I don’t need meditation, I just need my own scratching post, I suggested to my husband.

 

Maybe.

 

I picked up my phone, opened the meditation app, and turned off the light.

 

Ready. Set. Zen.


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In the shadow of Shiva

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I spent this past weekend in a teacher training for Anusara yoga. The training was held in English, which was the common language for everyone in the studio. Before moving to Brussels, my husband told me that when he had gone on a PhD reconnaissance mission the city had felt very international. He had that right.

My first weekend of teacher training was kind of like studying yoga at the United Nations. There were people from countries around the world in the room and only two who were actually born and raised in Belgium. We had yoga representatives from Holland, Mexico, the United States, Finland, Italy, and Austria. If you add the people they were married to, we also had Estonia and Germany spoken for. Additionally, everyone spoke two or more languages fluently, and their English was far superior to my French. It was really quite incredible.

Fear ruled a great deal of my first weekend of Anusara training. It is ironic, since Anusara means opening to the flow. I am not a particularly roll with the punches kind of being, so there are many opportunities in each day and in each new venture for me to practice my yoga off the mat.

Was there anything really worthwhile to worry about? Not really, but my mind worked hard to find what little there was to fear. It began with my commute back and forth from home to the studio.

First, I was afraid that tram 44 did not exist. Then, I was afraid that if it did exist, I would miss the connection between the time that tram 94 arrived at the Musée du Tram stop and the 44 was slated to leave, since there were mere seconds to maybe a minute before arrival and departure times. Once I had made the connection from 94 to 44, I was then worried that I might not get off at the right stop. In fact, I did nearly miss the stop for Tervuren, but I figured it out at the last moment.

Successfully arrived in Tervuren, I then worried that I might not find the studio (I have searched for places that exist on Google Maps but are not actually present in real-time, at least not in this version of reality).

Fear does not serve much positive purpose, though I do recall my AP Psychology teacher in high school telling us that a healthy dose of fear or apprehension about a test can help you perform better. At this point in my life, fear only seems to make me a bit crazy; well, crazier than usual and not really the good kind of crazy (I had a friend tell me one time that I was fun wacky, so I guess that most of the time I am an acceptable kind of nuts). This was not one of those times, and I knew it. I was texting my husband every few seconds about every possible line item that might go wrong.

You are going to be fine…keep breathing…do some yoga!

When I still clearly was not taking this advice and then texted to ask if was annoyed with me, he wrote,

No…RELAX! That’s an order.

I then sent profuse apologies by text (seriously, I really need to stop apologizing all of the time).

My husband wrote back, it is fine. Now, just breathe and stop worrying.

If only! At least I was headed to a yoga studio, so the chances of my breathing and practicing surrender were increased several fold.

After a bit of wandering back and forth around the spot that Google Maps told me the studio was located but which seemed to be a street lined with shops across from a construction site, I figured out that I needed to walk down a little neighboring side street. There it was! A little brick building with a forest green square sign with a white tree painted on it. It would do Gandalf and Tolkien proud to see such a tree.

The sight of that tree did wonders for my spirit. I cautiously opened the door and was greeted by love and acceptance in the form of the studio owner, followed by the smiling faces of the other students in the class.

What if they don’t like me? I had asked my husband before the training. They all know each other and have been studying together for months. I am the new kid.

Don’t worry. They will like you, he assured me.

I was early to the training, benefits of not yet trusting the timing for getting places via public transit. I introduced myself to the teacher and made myself relatively scarce to allow him to prepare for the day. I chatted with the studio owner and learned that she was also American and had married a Dutch man and eventually moved to Belgium.

Much of the day was a blur, but I do recall being warmly welcomed by every woman in the training. One student offered to walk with me to help me find a local sandwich shop, even though she had brought her own lunch. We laughed and talked as we walked through the little town. The sandwich shop was a hilarious experience. There was a patisserie on one side and a place to order sandwiches on the other side. I had a time of it trying to order a sandwich and buy bread and a chocolate croissant for my sweetie. Finally, I brought everything to the register, but they would not accept my credit card. I didn’t have quite enough cash, but my new yogi friend was kind enough to lend me a euro.

Over lunch, three of us chatted away like little birds. During the training, I was met with smiles and kind words. By the end of the day, I felt relaxed and also exhausted.

Did you have fun? My husband texted me on the tram ride back. 

Yes!

 Yay! The other yoginis accepted you?

Yes!

Later in the evening, I confessed concern over whether I was good enough to be in the training.

What if I’m not good enough to be in the class? I have only been practicing yoga for a couple of years, and I have only been through the first immersion.

After dislocating my shoulder in college and experiencing recurring sublex in the years following the accident, getting up into a handstand is a bit of a frightening thought.

The next morning commute, I was a barrel of nerves again. I had gotten up early to add more rides onto my metro card, but the machine kept asking me for a pin that did not exist for my credit card. I looked up at the near full moon and wondered if the universe was having a little laugh at my expense.

My husband texted me, Practice tramming meditation…just try and “be”…it sounds like your mind keeps trying to find something to “do” and since you are stuck in a tram, it decides to “do” worrying. Instead, try meditating.

Ok, I wrote back. I love you. Please don’t leave me!

In addition to fear, low self-esteem, fueled by the voice of my inner critic, is my other constant demon. My husband offers grounding to my propensity to live in fight or flight mode for much of the day.

I won’t. Sit. Breathe.

I sat quietly on the tram, looking out the window at the blanket of snow on the ground and frost-covered trees.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

I wrote previously that I have been sick for most of my brief tenure in Brussels. Having spent weeks on the couch and in bed, I was nervous about being able to make it through two one hour and a half morning yoga classes. While I was exhausted afterward, I found the movement grounding. It even seemed to help reduce the chronic cough I have been experiencing for over a month.

For each class, my inner critic was right there with me on the mat, however. Every time the instructor adjusted my asana, I could hear the voice of my critic.

He thinks you are not advanced enough to be in this class! Came the voice. Even with my little cough drops with little phrases meant to encourage, I felt discouraged.

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Despite the arguments from my rational mind, I listened to my critic. It is often easier to give in and to accept that people see the qualities in me that I fear the most worst in me than to believe otherwise. Over lunch, my new yogi comrades assured me that I had nothing to worry about, and I found my Self breathing a little easier.

By the end of the day, I was completely worn out and overwhelmed but also inspired.

It’s all practice, I thought to my Self as I hustled to catch the tram, walking carefully so as not to slip on the icy sidewalk. Practicing yoga in the Shiva room, I was reminded that Shiva is one who destroys and also creates. In my own life, I seem to move in the shadow of Shiva, uprooting my Self and leaving all that is familiar in order to create a new existence in another place.

Inhale. Exhale. Destroy. Create.

Yoga is a push and pull, and this is my mantra. My practice now is to accept and surrender to Shiva. Everything else will be revealed in its own time.

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Creating community in foreign lands

I officially began a new chapter of my life in Brussels, Belgium on December 2, 2016, and it has been a bit of a bumpy introduction thus far. Since I graduated high school, I have moved as often as every few months to one to two years. In this transient life, I often experience a kind of push and pull for change. While I may feel the draw to spread my wings and fly, I feel an equal desire to put down roots and be a part of a place.

 

Each time I move, I experience waves of repercussions in mind, body, and soul. There is grief, curiosity, joy, pain, and a haunting feeling. It is like I have left behind a ghost of my Self in each place I have left, and this ghost version of me checks in periodically to let me know how things are going in the communities I once called home. It’s not always a pretty report, and these ghosts seem to multiply with each uprooting.

 

A friend confided in me recently, I completely resonate with BOTH your missing the Arizona sunshine, and your feelings about uprooting and moving to a new place again…Isn’t it funny the nomad in us that desires this experience, and at the same time we can recognize the challenges that come in the change and solitude. And it takes a lot of intention to build and develop a new community in each and every place we call home.

 

In my years of wandering, I have learned a great deal about my Self and how I create community. As a homebody and introvert, creating community can present a bit of a challenge. I am a musician, so I look for places that host open mics. I have met remarkable and encouraging artists and friends at open mics in Gustavus, Alaska and Lowell, Massachusetts. In these sacred spaces, I have watched little ones take their first steps, found my inner voice and courage to get up on stage, and developed an identity as a performer and member of a musical community.

 

The challenge for me in being a musician is that I like to be in my pjs and cozy on the couch with my sweetie in the evenings. It can take a lot of effort for me to motivate and go out on the town at night. Since arriving in Brussels, I have struggled with Bronchitis and a pretty nasty allergy to mold, so my lung capacity and ability to sing without coughing has been pretty negligible.

 

Another place I have found sanctuary and community has been in a yoga studio. In Lowell, I literally lived across the street from a yoga studio, but I never quite made it to a class. I was working full-time and developing a persona and business as a songwriter and musician. When I moved to Arizona, I felt my Self a drift. I had left my permanent job and identity as a park ranger. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my life and I was equally less certain of how to take the first steps on thi path.

 

I went to a talk by a Prescott College alumnus, who had recently returned from three years, three months, and three days of silent retreat in the Chiricahua Mountains of Southeast Arizona. He was inspiring and hilarious. His partner, too, had been on retreat and stayed in a neighboring cabin. Since it was a silent retreat, they didn’t speak to each other.

 

I turned to my partner, who had been my reason for uprooting my Self from my life, job, and community in Massachusetts, and said,

 

I am definitely not ready to be on silent retreat with you.

 

I may not have been ready for a three-year retreat, but I was seeking to do some serious self-work and find direction. I felt a longing for the kind of revelations and grounding that often arise from following this kind of spiritual path, but I had no idea where to begin.

 

After the talk, I looked up the speaker’s website and found that he had a background in yoga and teaching yoga. I also had a friend who had just completed a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) in India, who told me that it was so much more than learning asana (poses). Perhaps, I thought, this might be a good place to start.

 

I found a studio that was offering a 200-hour YTT. Even though I hadn’t practiced yoga for years, I decided to dive in. I joined nine other women and several teachers. It is a unique experience to step into a space with other people and to feel completed accepted and embraced for who I am. From the beginning, I felt a complete and all-encompassing feeling of invitation and love from my yoga community. I also felt encouraged and supported in taking steps toward finding clarity in my own path.

 

Being relatively new to yoga, I could have just taken a class to begin meeting people. However, I have found that I stretch my Self more when I dive very deeply into certain realms of life that seem to warrant extra attention. It was the reason I went through a PhD program in sustainability education and also the reason I left my job to move to Arizona for love.

 

I was lucky in that I found a yoga studio created by a remarkable individual. My teacher offered incredibly depth of knowledge and wisdom and also created a safe space where we could be vulnerable and open ourselves completely to transformation in whatever forms it took. I finished the training and felt at once full, sad, and uncertain of my next steps. I knew that I wanted the feeling of deep self-exploration to continue, but I found my life in limbo once again as my husband began to pursue changes in his own life and career. I wanted to move on to a 300-hour YTT. I also wanted to pursue the school of yoga my main teacher had been most influenced by in her career: Anusara. My husband suggested that I wait and be patient before diving in to another training, especially since we might move at any time. Patience is not my virtue, but I waited.

 

Synchronicity often appears at the most unexpected and most needed of times. I spent a lot of time researching Anusara trainings around the world. When we finally decided we would be moving to Brussels, I did not anticipate that I would find a 200-hour Anusara training taking place at the exact right time within public transit distance from our home.

 

After a month of being sick and relegated to my bed or the couch in our apartment, I nervously stepped onto a tram in the darkness of a January morning and followed my GPS to the Tree of Life Yoga Studio in Tervuren, Belgium. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that I wanted to feel that magical sense of belonging I had felt when I stepped into the Lotus Bloom Yoga Studio in Prescott, Arizona.

 

I turned left and entered a side street alley and tentatively began walking in the direction suggested by my GPS. I stopped in front of a small brick building with a green sign with a white tree painted on it. I opened the door, and I was instantly welcomed by the warm, smiling face of the studio owner.

 

Relief cascaded over me as I closed the door behind me.

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Making peace with limbo

The past four months have been some of the more difficult ones of my life. I am no stranger to limbo, and my life path has certainly been uncertain since leaving my full-time job in Massachusetts and moving to Arizona. However, the combination of two months in one temporary location, a brief reunion with my husband in Brussels, followed almost immediately by a return to the U.S. to get my long stay visa, then back to Brussels, has pretty much thrown my system and spirit completely out of whack.

This is an incredible time for a wandering spirit such as myself. I know that had I been born in another time, I would have left home in search of foreign lands and likely only kept in touch with friends and family via letters. Even then, the number of people with whom I might have maintained contact would likely have been quite small.

With a shrinking globe and strides in technology, I can wake up in one place in the morning and find my Self on an entirely different continent in a matter of hours. However, just because my body has physically arrived at a new location doesn’t mean that my spirit and soul have caught up. With all of this back and forth, I am not entirely sure where the rest of me might be, perhaps hovering somewhere in the ethos above the Atlantic?

It is a mixed blessing to live in such a mobile moment in human history. I have the opportunity to meet beautiful souls every time I uproot myself from one place and move to another. On the other hand, I am also constantly leaving places and people behind. While there are promises exchanged for keeping in touch, I know that in truth I begin to fade from view for most people, a kind of phantom memory.

Through social media, I am able to bear witness to people’s continuing lives. I see their photos and learn news of their life, but I am on the outside looking in. Friends who have been dear and once kept me in the loop of life events simply fade away. I might get a quick message here and there, but even those seem to grow fewer and far between with the passage of time. I watch friends have babies and know that I will not be there to watch them grow up. I see friends travel, get married, and settle down. Their lives go on without me, and their communications are taken up with new friends. I am not their person any more, and my attempts to reach out in my own times of need are often unrequited.

This is by the far the most difficult part of being a wandering soul in a modern age. If it were an earlier time, I may be better able to practice acceptance and let go, though this has never been my strong suit. I recognize that I have made the choice to wander, and this comes with a price. I have not as yet been able to make peace with the real consequences of this choice. I still want my close women friends (the very few I have bonded with over the years) to reach out and bear their souls to me. Instead, they carry on with their lives when we are no longer in proximity and I rarely hear from them.

My husband tells me that I should be happy for them that they have found happiness, which we all deserve. I recognize the wisdom in this advice, and I know that I would likely be happier if I could simply practice acceptance and joy for my friends who have been through storms and come into more peaceful times. However, I cannot help but feel a certain amount of heartbreak that I have been left behind. I want to be a part of their happiness, to share in their joy. I want to be a person they still think to reach out to in times of both joy and sadness. I have lost people who were my touchstones, and I feel lonely. I am no longer a part of their daily life. I am somewhere out in the ethos.

The solstice has arrived, and another year has nearly come to pass. I find myself reflective and melancholy. The days will lengthen; the air will warm; life will continue as it always does. I carry a deep sadness within. I worry that I might not be able to replace it with an equally deep joy. I feel an existential wavering over my life path. I see other people’s lives and wonder how they can be so full while I feel so empty? What am I missing? Perhaps, I could reach out to ask their secret. Perhaps, I already know the secret and am stubbornly holding onto realities that no longer exist.

I know that to find peace requires that I let all of this go. All things inevitably change. People change. I change. I also know that I am very loved. Perhaps this year, I will find a way to make peace with limbo.

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