Pratyahara and Pencils: teaching writing is about seeding awareness in students

This was exactly what Professor Yip meant by being detached — not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling was not sticky or blocked. Therefore in order to control myself I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.

Bruce Lee 

Pratyahara and pencils populate my thoughts today. Back to school, I can smell the freshly sharpened pencils—not that anyone sharpens pencils in my college classes so much. The sensory memory recalls the time of year: fall, school, endings, beginnings and lifelong learning. Cycles that inspire.

Inspiration arises in peculiar places. During a particularly dry creativity spell, I sat through the annual English department meeting last week at school, my employer, and felt a sudden spark. It was midway through a workshop on workshopping (silly sounding but fruitful) when I began to write about…

Continued here

The zen of shop mopping

Nope, I will not write yet another wax-on-wax-off tale of patience and fortitude–not exactly. I can declare neither hate nor love for mopping to wring a lesson from the chore. And it is a chore, one that ends the night at the frozen yogurt shop after a long or short shift late at night. 

After turning off the “open” sign, I commence the real work of the night: twenty or thirty large and small tasks, including bagging trash, counting money, wiping counters, refrigerating perishables and washing dishes. 

There are tables, chairs, sinks, counters and machines to be wiped down; trash cans to be emptied, collected and dumped; and monitors, lights and signs to be turned off. Food needs to be collected, capped and stored. Money needs counting, sometimes re-counting, and the morning’s drawer calculating. Each of these tasks is not difficult or time-consuming but the sum total of task-to-task and back-to-front activity wears a body down, certainly sucks a mind’s attention down the drain with the dirty dishwasher. On auto-pilot.

So by the time the final chore of the hour before locking the door behind me to the other side where the cool, nearly-midnight air refreshes my sweaty face and tired bones, I am both excited and exhausted at the thought of mopping the entire store, the longest, most arduous chore of the clean up. 

Nearing the finish line, the mind takes the bloodiest beating in a marathon run. Roughed up for miles but patiently ticking the feet and hours away, the mind waits while the body mindlessly erodes. And just when the body gives out, its last shred of fuel expended, grindingly painful, the mind kicks in hard to turn the cogs, shovel the coal of the engine by sheer might and will so the machine will turn and one foot wil continue to be placed in front of the other to inch away toward the most beautiful words ever sported on a banner: “Finish Line.”

The most dangerous place, finish line in sight, is the likeliest place for injury. I want to get it done, sprint past the pain to grab the sweet god-like goal of stopping–to be done actually, not the mental done-ness of being over the whole run, race, challenge, training, preparation and completion thing that occured miles before then. 

But sprinting is foolish. Mistakes are made: a tired sloshy ankle gives way, dizziness or nausea may end the race at the medical tent, or longer recovery time incited by even more ligament and tendon strain than has already been inflicted by the previous 26 miles.

No, the better choice is to keep steady, rein in the mind’s anticipation and body’s blind adrenaline. When I have resisted the lurch–the mad dash to freedom–and kept my pace even and weary-strong, lifting my agonized thighs just a tad higher to lighten my cement feet for a slight spring to my chugging trot, I feel better, less miserable, and more attentive to the faces and cheers around me (a thinned crowd by then). Relishing the moments, I call it.

I do not relish mopping, especially after the mind stultifying hours of lulls and frenzies of retail that leave me aching to go home, actually anywhere far from slung frozen dessert. 

But mopping has its up side. 

Surprisingly, mopping involves a bit of know-how, technique, and physicality. Without a bit of coordination, the mop does not swirl, curl and swoop rhythmically and capaciously. Without the meditative steadiness of pace, space and motion in a dance of short-stepping, weight shifting, forearm tension and bicep propulsion, all in a swivel and sway of calculated spatial coverage, mopping feels and probably looks more like a wrestling match with an unwieldy, dead-weighted dragging opponent. 

Mopping too quickly expends too much energy, produces too much perspiration and inevitably leads to missed spots, besmirching reputation, calling workmanship and thereby a worker’s integrity into question–no pride in her work.

More importantly, however, rushing a mop across a ceramic tile floor deprives the mopper a pleasingly measured assessment of work in progress, a confident chipping away at an expanse, the satisfying glide of wet cloth strands across a slick surface and focused scrutiny of tile by tile smudges. Moreover, the muscle and dance of the mopping, a duet of synchronized synapse and lead-and-follow, is also lost. 

Attention to detail, to each inch of the mop’s path, unfolds appreciation for disappearing dirt slid to clear clean, and the running catalog of muscles fired in the process from wrist, ankles, balls of the feet, toes, calves, thighs, upper and lower back, buttocks, fingers and neck. 

All mindful movement yields connections to the eternal, a presence of doing and being. The deep listening of notice, of attuned awareness tricks time, averts the mind’s eye from pain to stillness–a sort of suspension–suffering to studied observation, a diversion ending in momentary neutrality and connection to the sideways slanting of life. 

Mopping–when the mood is right–takes me there.

Published in elephant journal:  what happens when we surrender to yoga


Credit: Leslie Alejandro

Even the Supreme Court surrenders to something larger than itself. We all must give in, be a part of the fabric of an order, principle, and/or belief not only for the sake of facilitating justice to those around us but for ourselves–to be the justice. 

Labels define merely to confine. Lately, yoga has been taking a hit in the news. One Congress person dismissed it as religion that he did not want to see endorsed or foisted upon him in our nation’s participation in the celebration of International Yoga Day last week. 

Schools resist implementing yoga classes for a similar anticipated outcry despite the fact that teaching children to listen to their bodies and minds early cannot but be beneficial for adulthood when life speeds up and they, like so many, will lose touch with themselves, feel alienated, ill and angry at “others.”
Yoga is more and less than religion. The responsibility the practice teaches benefits everyone. Please enjoy my essay published in elephant journal on a singular definition of yoga, not exclusively mine, but culled through my experience.


the Gaze

A Touching Tale of Healing Touch

Evan was not my first love. My heart framed in poetry books, I sought love early. By fourteen I had had my first heartbreak and by sixteen, I was initiated to the world of embattled sex my mother fear-burned into me:  woman as fortress and men as invaders.  


It was the 70s and free love was the slogan but not the practice. I was not the only young woman who paid the bodily price of losing what I did not understand I had–self-love, real love. 


So when I fell in love with and married a French man a few years later, love was permeated with heady visions of Romantics like Byron and Wordsworth, but sex was informed by the attitudes of Plath and Sexton, hardened and cynical. 


In my mind, love and sex were distinct and only the former was indispensable.


I loved Jean-Marc, but we were not so much “in love” as we were good friends. To me, that was more important. 


Besides, it was clear I was not his physical type. He had had a girlfriend when I met him in college, a French goddess of natural beauty, as if she emerged from the heather, golden smooth skin delightfully coating her delicate bones and showcasing her eyes of sea blue. 


She was the essence of what I deemed poetic femininity at the time. And I was nothing like her, not delicate, soft, supple, petite or graceful. I wasn’t French. I was New York, bookish and big. 


But several years into our marriage, I grew thinner, more athletic. I struck a lean, tall figure with improved grace and balance from running and tennis. I had transformed the book worm smoker of pubs and diners around New York to an outdoorsy athletic competitor in California.


When I separated from my husband, I was in the best shape of my life, 28 years old with a hard body everyone noticed but me. 


That is when I met Evan.


Evan taught me to love my body. I met him after my husband confessed that he was in love with someone else, a friend he had grown up with in France. Even though that relationship did not pan out, both of us needed time to sort things out. 


In reality, the separation between us occurred long before, had been growing inside me. Jean-Marc’s vision of me affected my own. I was a rebound, the consoler and good friend when the goddess dumped him one New Year’s eve. 


I was no beauty, but I was comfort.


His eye for aesthetics and style were distinguishing features of my attraction to him but also the very features that attracted him to others, beautiful, lean, olive-complected men I later came to find out. 


So why did I choose someone who could not love my body? Over the years, I have considered that question. 


Perhaps the body-mind division I fixed early on, prioritizing the intellectual over the physical sublimated my bodily emotions–etched the picture of an unlovely woman in my mind.


But I imagine, poor body image grew out of many seeds: my parents’ relationship, genetics, cultural dictates, social influences and my own love relationships. 


Though Jean-Marc and I shared a love that made us grow in the comfort and safety of that umbrella love of young adults, he could not love me intimately, the way a lover sighs at the sight of his beloved’s nakedness. And we couldn’t talk about it for the pain and the guilt. But the elephant in the room nearly crushed me. 


Eventually, I was flattened. I no longer had desire–until Evan. 


I fell in love with him in a cafe in New York. He spoke soothingly about presence–being present in each moment–and though I had read my zen and Heidegger, I was witnessing the words rather than thinking about them. 


He warned me beforehand and then he touched my hand and said, “You’re a writer; describe the experience of my hand.” Of course I didn’t know what he meant; I only said I wanted to be a writer, and I was off balance with his touch.  


So I described how I felt uneasy with a near stranger’s touch. To which he asked, “Does it feel warm? soft? rough? Can you feel the arced tips of the nails unforgiving yet pleasantly smooth?”


I hadn’t even thought of the physical sensation. I never did. All passed through my mind first and the physical was always sublimated, denied or ignored. Probably why I rarely saw a doctor, going about my business trying not to think of what ailed me.


Later, his first touch of studied tenderness opened my eyes and aroused passion I buried long before I knew its heat, its colorful flavors. He touched me, what was before his eyes, not a projection of me. 


And then he took me on a tour of the secret vales and rich verdure of my body. It blazed real love.  


Love–true love–is presence in touch; it needs no longing, fantasy, style, grace or poise–merely acceptance in being. 


When I embraced my own beauty, uniquely my biological experience, replete with singular angles and curves, scars and splotches, I learned to be heart-wise loved by someone who could love me–all of me–and confirm I was worthy of another’s hand softly sweeping the hair off my brow. 


My feminine, I learned, was desire—being—in touch.  


How can we ever know how others sense the world? The question should evoke a yearning to find out without the hope of ever doing so. However, it is the practice–the focused being of and with others–that matters. It’s how we connect, avoid loneliness, while maintaining our own integrity.


It is how we find love, real love.


Touch led me from interpreting the world to experiencing it. Getting out of my mind, possessed with others’ formulations of love and sex, and into the moment–breathing presence; it brought me the fullness of acceptance, as a body, my body, with someone else’s.  


No, Evan did not teach me acceptance by his touch; eventually, I was able to receive his touch by my own clarity–of space, moment, nearness of another’s presence becoming my own.  


He taught me to “see” like the scientists and philosophers and lovers we are–empirically, intellectually and emotionally.  


I wasn’t rushing headlong into someone else’s story for me. I had learned to better integrate my body and mind, which took examining inherited perceptions: those of my mother, husband, authors, and culture.  


It took practice to own my body. It still does.


And being in the precise moment recalled by someone’s touch–healing in its grounding.


Evan lies next to me now, his pillowed head in the shadow of mine. I am reading, elbow-propped, turned away. 

We are prone, bare, having just settled into bed for the night. Humid heat of a New England summer makes flannel impossible and silk torturously sticky. We sleep this way most nights four seasons long.

His body is serpent shape mirror of mine with inches of space between us, creating the comfort of a cooling air canal. We are art in symmetry.

His hand, open palmed, smooths across the contours of my hip, waist and shoulder, smearing heat like oil upon the line of curvy seas in the imagination of his hand–port to starboard to port again. The slow rhythm of his caress lulls my lids to half mast as the warmth and tingling skin sensors combine, dance me to lullaby languor. These are the moments.

I stop reading to softly lower my head to the pillow, ever so slowly, avoiding the slightest ripple in the water of his soliloquy wave. I hold my breath the whole way down.

Releasing, exhaling in measured silent wisps of warm air through my teeth and the pebble O my lips make, anchor hits bottom, the sync of his hypnotic oar undisturbed; it continues to brush the still of my anatomy’s ebb and flow.

I breathe just enough air to live, causing not so much as a flutter-by in the sheets. If I fill my lungs too deeply, selfishly, I will signal sleep’s onslaught, killer of this powerfully peaceful moment of breath, body and hand. No dream could be better than this. I own it–to the coral depths of fibrous memory. 

Hearing to the Heart of What Matters

Tripping on sounds of birds outside my window, I can hear them over the swish-throb of my own heartbeat sounding in my ears, a pulsing slightly alarming and soothing all the same. I can also hear the clanking of a dish outside the closed door of my room emanating from the kitchen where I imagine my mother is sitting, skeletal and serene, in her wheelchair, gazing off through the filmy stare that inhabits her face now, the cataracts of her mind’s eye reaching some unknown space outside or inside her head that swirls and lulls the cerebral juices to twitching stillness, her jerking to and from that space in seconds like recognition of a face, an idea, a musical slice of song, a voice…. 
I imagine her waiting like the baby bird with beak wide open in anticipation of its mother’s nurturing tongue, depositing the meaty worm of egg or pear.  

Where are you, Mom?  I miss you hard like a crowbar to the back of the head. 

My thoughts cannot stay on task. My self-imposed inspiration today is directed to my ears. Listen. It is nearly impossible to hear the murmur of soft utterings spoken outside my closed door, cooings enmeshed with frenetic blather-blurbs of television banter of I know not what over the din in my brain. 

I hear her dully, though. She calls my mother’s name over again sweetly, as if to a child, “Doris…Doris…Are you hungry?” The answer is unintelligible, but of course she is hungry. Her mind does not remember satiation. She, who ate more for comfort than survival, dieted constantly, losing hundreds of pounds over her lifetime, and is now, ironically, the weight her doctor claims befits her small frame no one knew was there. She always felt fat, was fat because she said so, and my father confirmed, except for the time she lost fifty pounds and he said she was too skinny so brought donuts and candy home for her to eat, the very same items he would chide her for eating when he reminded her that she was a “fat ass.” His love was always a savage love.

You are a saint. I cannot blame you for checking out, Mom. I want to be where you are only too often, though I am afraid of dementia’s detritus. You are braver than I ever will be.

But back to my exercise of listening to the sounds, right here, right now, this moment. It’s no use. I cannot hear distinctly above the rhythmic swoosh in my head. It’s my heart. The sound of a moving dish slid across a wooden table, rumbling and ceramic shrill, draws me to her again and again, outside my cave haven door, tended to by caring voices and hands that are not mine, sitting alone with feet, arms and hands moving about her, tending to her every need in studious care, while her husband sleeps off the night’s numerous calls to relieve himself of the plaguing piss of the swollen prostate that stems the flow of sleep and slows his 82 year life ever so much more, each pace a step from bed to toilet to table to television. 

The soft pings of my electronic devices notify me that someone has me in mind, has read something I wrote and appreciates or takes issue with it. The whistle of “hey, answer me” has sounded also from my phone and I know that I must answer that one, feeling it in my bones and the back of my neck, even though it is just playful pointless slinging ping pong balls of inanities. I somehow believe I need the nonsense, like my bread and butter banter, countering the angst of imagined life sentences I carry submerged like an atomic sub awaiting the directive to fire.

But now I can hear the dogs bark outside in the distance, loud enough to distract me from the door bell ringing  from my phone–simple email notification of stuff like yoga newsletters or soccer updates that can wait–and the murmur of my heartbeat in my ears, backdrop to the dish washing, sing song lullaby caress of Mom’s caretaker and the chirping tree creatures and the people’s pets next door and the insensate stream of yak yak from the tube and my mother’s babble, my father’s snore and my daughter’s running out, late for school, clomping down the stairs and slamming the door. I don’t actually hear but the anticipation of that last sound because her noise is not announced yet and should be–a human-made ping in the nerves from a mother’s consciousness of time, responsibilities and household goings on.

I am told it may be high blood pressure or blocked ear canals that cause that murmuring metronome reminding me that I am seething flesh, a mere mechanism of pumps and cogs and wheels of spongy muscle and sinew. I pay the tellers no mind. I like my heart beating and so the sound comforts me, synchronizing my outers and inners, recalling the always-at-hand task of staying here now with me, with us, with it all, embracing what is: the fauna and flora, birds, dogs, people I love, strangers, trees, leaves, sky, wind, vibration of the telephone and the sky, the stirring of creaking beds and limbs that dash above my head in squeaking pain of wood stretched to capacity by age, use and disrepair, this old house of ours, in our circle of suburban secret burrow and peek, safe seclusion of sound and stare. 

I hear the circle of my heart. And it hears me. The world begins and ends in the heart of creation, imagination, the bonds that tie and break, the ebb and flow of living matter, all in a day’s work, in a disciplined moment of timeless listening–to life living me, us.

Flash of Stillness: Playing Patience at the DMV


Some virtues are beyond me. Patience, for instance, ever the teacher, lover and nemesis, eludes me today. As I sit in the hard plastic chair in the DMV, watching the screen to confirm the number announced courteously by the subtly enthusiastic electronic female voice, “Now serving number G095 at Window 13”, I sigh in exasperation. My number is G0172. It’s the second time in a month and a half that I have lost my driver’s license, and apparently the punishment is laid before me.

I want to pluck my eyeballs right out of my head at the thought of this wait in the stupefyingly catatonic government issue slate blues and grays of this Kafka-esque muffled, stifling prison. Too many dull civil servants shuffling paper among chair slumpers and leg shifters, all emitting muted boredom, disgust and defeat. No one appears to be content–merely a large aggregation of bodies connected only by will to the call of the numbers.

My daily practice of late has been precisely about this: finding contentment wherever I am. But not just the ordinary contentment of gratitude for a life lived in relative comfort and safety. For example, this may not be the best experience a late Friday afternoon has to offer, but at least I am not being held hostage in a bank. I will eventually leave this drone of hushed activity, having completed the exercise in obedient compliance with temporary license in hand.

And it is not mere at-oneness, presence within the space I am led to by attention to breath. That place is familiar to me as I have beckoned that presence to practice yoga on particularly distractible days, to preserve my sanity in extreme adversity, situations beyond my control such as waiting in a hospital room for test results, and to create–writing within the clasp of close observational sensation and thought.

No, the kind of contentment found in voluntary partial confinement among these resigned soldiers of complicity is not mere surrender; it is much more focused, pinpoint. It is the kind of contentment that comes in very small packages, minute actually, perhaps down to the cellular level. This cellular ease is squeezed out of a stillness and silence within that can hear the seduction of the computerized voice tapping into specific sensors in my brain, sliding across synapses that fire the corresponding response: chill. I hear the voice, calm, soothing, and yet infused with the transparency of its purpose. It’s experiencing and knowing all at once, an ultra alert moment of bathing light.

These moments of hyper awareness, like visualizing sound vibrations traveling across cilia in my ear canal to produce tones, reactions and information, store savory bits of future antidote to the haze of an overslept day just like today. They entertain and calm me when bored or anxious.

There are seemingly insignificant moments I can remember as mere hair’s breath of time and movement recorded so finely to capillary’s considered caress. I close my eyes in the echo of “Now serving…G108…” and summon one such scene of long ago to the black screen of my eyelids and I am there:

Walking out the door in a hurry, late for work, I don’t even notice as I rush past him. Evan near misses but manages to clasp my elbow on the fly. “Hey,” he says huskily. He has just awakened and struggles slightly with sleep-shorn disarray, a waver in his stance. Stopped, the momentum of my intention and determined pace is still rushing on ahead of me as my body is stilled before his eyes. “Hey,” he says again still clasping my elbow, my attention now filling my eyes that have been locked into his by the soft insistence of his gaze. He raises his free hand to my face and rests his four fingers, thumb-less, palm down, under my chin lightly. I feel the warmth of his morning hand and his embracing time. “Have a fine day.” The sound of his touch lingers. My racing pulse of wheeling stepped-to thought slowed in the honeyed silk of stilled breath and moment, somehow I sense I will.

I open my eyes, once again to the dimmed fluorescent daylight of the room. The 90s throw-back television screen flicks to G112 as I recover the speed of my breath, regulate it to the pace of the room’s still life painting of humans in suspended animation. Leaving behind the image on a slo-mo memory reel, I feel the filmy residue coating my mood–a clear outlook reset. The furrows in my brow have smoothed out, not merely caved into my face. The tension lines around my mouth are slightly faded.

Returning to the room, I imagine the civil space of 10 inches between my loudly sighing, glum neighbor and me, hitched to the same row of five chairs connected respectably, tolerably separated to allow both detached misery and connected commiseration in accordance with the building’s function. I will myself to blanket that distance with warmth like the heat of Evan’s hand emanating an atomic wave of empathic static connection.

Can he feel it? I have tuned out all voices, human or electronic, and squinch my sight with open eyes, twisting the last drop of intention from the tube of my will to touch him with an invisible hand. I turn to look at him, retreating from my straight-ahead-vision of the shaved head and neck of the body in front of me, but I only catch his departing blurred frame. His number, G118, is up.

Fortunate for him. Fifty-four more numbers to go. Twenty-five numbers in 90 minutes. Lots of time to practice patience and play at staking the heart of the energy vampire in this room. Luckily, I have a full flash drive of micro memory moments to fuel my efforts. Heck, I have time enough to remember where I lost my driver’s license in the first place.