Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Students and teachers

Like most of you, my life is a jigsaw of different roles and activities that sometimes fit neatly together, sometimes not.

Depending on the day, even on the time of day, I can be a novelist, a marketing consultant, a yogi, a fundraiser, a boss, a partner, a daughter, a friend.

Of all these roles, one that I am proud of and humbled by, is my role as a teacher.

Every Thursday, I teach a writing class at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, the largest soup kitchen in New York. Of the hundreds of people who come here for a meal, a handful stay on for the class. Some weeks there are fifteen or twenty in the room, some weeks we are a small core group of eight. We are from different countries, states and cities. Some of us - most in fact -  are homeless. Some are volunteers here at the soup kitchen, some come only for the workshop.

What we have in common is our love of language, of stories, of putting the right words in the right order on the right page. Each week we come together to do this, to write, to read, to listen, to teach, to learn.

Over this last year of teaching, I've learned more than I have taught. I've learned about tenacity, about hope, about the courage to overcome obstacles in life that I'd never even imagined. The week of Hurricane Sandy, we had to cancel the class because we had no power here at the church. The next day, as I was handing out sandwiches with volunteers and colleagues, three writers came by to seek me out. Each was homeless. Each had had a terrifying week, trying to find shelter from the worst storm ever to hit New York. And each came, holding out sheets for me to read. Despite the hurricane, despite the challenges of their lives, they had done the homework I had set the week before.

They had written in spite of the hurricane. They had written because of the hurricane. They had written because, like me, they have a need they can't always explain, to write.

Next Wednesday, we are having a reading in the landmark Church of the Holy Apostles. For some of the readers, this is the same place they have lunch every day. For most, this will be a rare opportunity to have their voices heard in such a public setting. For all of us, it is a day of pride and celebration.

If you are in New York you can show your support by coming along at 7pm and enjoying their work, maybe even by spending $5 on their anthology. If you're somewhere else you can show your support on our blog which showcases their work every week.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Second Sight

The city has given way to the country. Gaudy shopfronts have become apartment buildings, bridges, hulking billboards and now, suddenly, there is only low morning sunlight, dazzling through skinny trees. As always, I am amazed at how quickly New York City can be left behind.

I had that same thought last year, on my first journey to Kripalu, a yoga retreat in the Berkshire Mountains, four hours from New York. And as the bus winds past forests and rivers, I am acutely aware of the pitfalls of making the trip a second time, how easily happy memories can morph into clawing expectations.

The end of March last year was hot, as hot as any Irish summer day. Of course, I had no sunscreen and as I explored the labyrinth in the grounds my neck and shoulders burned bright red. This year, as we disembark from the bus, snow is swirling in thick flakes and I am envious of my fellow travellers in their Timberland boots. My feet, in Converse, are already freezing and once again, it seems, I’m arriving unprepared.

We check in with military precision, receive colour coded badges based on our workshops. Kripalu runs a wide spectrum, everything from nutrition to NLP.  Once again, I am taking Elena Brower’s ‘Art of Attention’ yoga workshop. To say this workshop changed my life last year would be an exaggeration – but only just.

Snow has clogged the labyrinth, making the tiny trails invisible, so instead I tramp around the meditation garden, making my initials from my footprints in the snow. Afterwards, it’s time to check into my dorm room and get ready for the first class.

As I unpack, I’m looking forward to stretching out the imprints of the journey from my body. Ever since I started yoga, I’ve had a fondness for a Friday evening practice. My twenty something self would have been part confused, part mortified at this blatant waste of a Friday night in an ‘exercise class,’ being totally convinced, as she was, that post work pints with slurring work colleagues were the only way to ease into the weekend. The thought that I can be so utterly wrong about my sense of the future would sometimes make me nervous, but tonight it makes me smile.

The practice is gentle, opening unexpectedly with chocolates and flowers. Elena asks us to set an intention for the weekend, and as night falls on the mountains outside, she takes us through an eclectic and totally perfect sequence, all the while urging us to make space, to let go, to release ourselves from the grip of blame.

Blame was a big topic last year too, something I didn’t think applied to me. Everything in my life was fine, and even if it wasn’t, blame wasn’t my style. I was sure of that, on the Friday night when we started practice I was sure, but as the weekend wore on I started to see things a little differently. It was five months then, after my big move from Dublin to New York,  and I was still grappling with the absence of so many things that were thousands of miles away – family and friends went without saying but there were so many hundreds of smaller things too. Things that should be insignificant but weren’t insignificant at all – my car, my hairdresser, the cheese I liked, my brands of deodorant and moisturiser, my kettle - the things that for 37 years had been the basic scaffolding of my life. A life I’d given up to be with my partner in New York.

And there it was – in that sentence, I saw it, different words that spelled out the same word: blame. A life I’d given up to be with my partner in New York. As long as I said those words – to my partner, to my friends, even to myself – I’d be holding her accountable, slicing off another little sliver of blame to add to the wedge of it that threatened to grow between us.

Lights are out by 10pm in the dorm rooms and lying in my bottom bunk - after only three bumps of my head on the iron bedframe - I recall how that simple realisation changed everything. Coming home on the Sunday night, I told on myself to my partner, admitted that I had - on some level - been blaming her every time my new life didn’t hold up to my vision for it, every time I didn’t want to feel the sadness of leaving my old one. I asked her to call me on it, to help me see it when I was falling back into it. And she did, now and then, and after a time, less and less. On the edge of sleep I try to think of the last time she has had to, and I can’t remember.

Saturday morning, 7am and I’m last out of the dorm. Outside, the air is cold as a pane of glass and I jog carefully, wary of patches of ice. The intention I set last night, ‘to be more authentically myself’ seems to grow clearer, like the lines of colour in the sky that seep through the trees. Picking up speed past snowy fields and sleeping houses, being authentically myself seems like the easiest thing in the world to be.

Six years ago, before I started yoga, I don’t think I used the word ‘authentic’ very often. I knew what it meant – of course I did – but I didn’t waste time thinking about it, reflecting on it. There was too much else to do – work for one thing and in the precious free moments when not at working, a whirl of social plans with friends and acquaintances and work colleagues and family. There were always things to be bought and used and replaced and cleaned and trips to plan and go on and more work to be done to pay for it all. Who had time to navel gaze about ‘authentic selves’? Wasn’t the whole point about life that you had to just get on with it and not be caught hanging around at the starting line when everyone else was already half way through?

I don’t remember exactly when it was that the thought first sneaked under the barbed wire of busyness and into the centre stage of my consciousness. The thought that became a question, that became the only question: what if this life - the life I was living – wasn’t the one I had chosen? What if it was someone else’s life  – my mother’s maybe, or my best friend’s or some convoluted mix of things I’d seen on TV? I knew enough to know there was no ‘undo’ icon, that this was no dress rehearsal. Wasn’t it worth checking that out? Checking in? Just to be sure?

This question – I should add - was not what brought me to yoga. No, my first motivation for yoga was far simpler: I wanted to tone up, get more flexible.  I was a runner, I went to the gym, but my knees hurt and my back hurt. At thirty years old, my doctor had said it was to be expected. ‘Wear and tear,’ she said. Some people said yoga might help, and hey, who wouldn’t want a yoga body?

My body, it turned out, was not well equipped for yoga. Maybe it had been once, but the patterns of life had taken its toll and I was stiff and solid in places that I didn’t know the name for, parts of my body that before yoga, I didn’t seem to know existed. Six years on, I am less stiff, less solid but the rate of change in flexibility – in my left hip, my shoulders - has been slow and stubborn and frustrating. But was has changed, what started to change soon after I first stepped onto the mat, was the way I saw the world, the way I saw myself.

It would be much too simplistic to write here that it was yoga that made me see that I wanted to be a writer, that I am made for a non-profit rather than a corporate world, that I could finally accept at the age of 35, that I was gay. But what I do know, is that through all those transitions, those canyons of change, that showing up on the mat again and again and again has helped me and guided me in ways that I never thought possible, because it is on the mat that I am able to connect, once again, with that deepest part of myself.

Saturday morning’s practice is more vigorous, with lots of Vinyasa. Elena mixes in Kundalini and Yin yoga and by the time we are doing a ‘crea’ to a perfectly chosen soundtrack, my body is shaking from exertion.  Once again, the yoga mat has served as a petri dish of my life and in the hugging of muscle to bone, the directing of my breath into tight pockets of cells where tension lies, I have a rare opportunity to see things exactly as they are. Thoughts rise, as thoughts always do. Some of them are familiar – the things I was shocked to see when I first started to practice: my challenge with staying present, my competitive nature, my tendency to compare, to judge, to be harsh on people, especially myself. They rise and fall with my breath, I see them, I let them go.

By the time I roll up my mat every cell in my body is tingling. It has been a good practice - a great one. Unlike my first year or so when a good practice was when I made it through a whole class without being ‘corrected’ by the teacher, now a good class is where I have mostly stayed in my own head, my own body. To be able to exchange a few words with the woman next to me and realise that I was hardly aware of her presence, therein lies the victory.

After lunch we practice again and I am relieved to know that like last year, the evening class will be ‘off the mat’, a Q&A session conducted within the framework of Elena’s work with the Handel Group. We are invited to create a vision for an area of our lives where we want to focus our attention – we have 18 to choose from, covering everything from sex to spirituality.

Last year, I crafted a vision for my relationship, a place where I wanted myself and my partner to be. I didn’t read it out to the group; only a short year ago I was much too afraid to be so outspoken about my sexuality. But I listened and I refined it, and what I wrote down a year ago is not dissimilar to the relationship I have today, the relationship that has had room to blossom in so many other ways once the weeds of blame were uprooted.

This year, I choose my writing as my vision. And this year, in a candlelit studio, I read it out.

Sunday comes with the last class, as the last class always does. As a class, we have gotten to know each other a little.  A woman tells me my writing dream has inspired her. A young guy with slick backed hair and bulging muscles shyly hands me a pamphlet on a Women Writers’ Festival.

The practice is slower, preparing us for our journey – the next phase of it. Elena shares more about her own practice, her own life – tips on how to take our visions with us, in our hearts, instead of leaving them waiting for us in the woods of Kripalu until we next return.

Afterwards, I walk to the labyrinth in the hope the thaw has been enough to expose its winding paths. Where there was snow, now there is slushy mud, but I persevere, doubling back on myself to avoid the impassable parts. I am not following the right path, I know, but I am tracing a new one.

I think again about my writing vision, what I have to do to put it into practice. In the search for my authentic self, I have always been grateful to have writing as my foundation – the first  thing I knew with absolute certainty that my life needed to have a space for. In many ways, writing and yoga aren’t so different – there’s always been an indefinable physicality to the act of writing for me, words rising up from somewhere in my body. Over the weekend, Elena talked about listening and my best writing has always felt like an act of listening and not of producing at all – that all I need to do is be still, listen, and get out of my own way.

Walking back towards the main building, the hill is a patchwork of green and white. Below, the lake is hidden under a sheet of ice, but I know that it will be melting around the edges, that soon it will be water again.

At the end of my second trip to Kripalu, I hope this won’t be the last journey I will make here - I know I have so much more to find. Last year’s workshop came at the exact time it was needed, with an immediate and obvious action to be taken. The effects of this year’s will be slower, gradual, less to do with action and more to do with patience, consistency – a nudge along a path I’ve been carving out with care rather than a jerk back to the right one.

And looking down at my Converse, sliding on the slippery grass, I know the trick is to take each step with courage, with breath, with the trust that no matter what the terrain, I will always be in the right shoes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Here Come the Brides

I have been excited about this wedding for weeks. Ridiculously so.

The night before, it is hard to find sleep. Lying in bed, I am wondering what they’re going to be wearing, if they’ll have written their own vows, if they’ll walk in together or if someone will give them away. The way I’m carrying on you’d think it was the first wedding I’d ever been to.

And, in a way, it is.

The first time I went to a wedding, I was nine and I was ridiculously excited then too. My oldest cousin was getting married and I got a new dress.  I was never that into dresses though, so I think I was more excited about the prospect of staying up late, of being one of the adults. That, and the purchase of three boxes of confetti to throw, blue on one side, pink on the other, embossed on both with a cartoon bride and groom.

If I had to guess, I’d say I’ve been to forty or so weddings since that first wedding, maybe close to fifty. Some blur into each other, some I’ll always remember, some I’ve loved and some I’ve liked and some had too many drunken uncles saying ‘you’ll be next’ too many times. But this wedding, the one I flew back from New York for, is the first time that statement might actually be true.

Because this wedding has two brides.

Waiting for them to walk down the aisle, we have our cameras and Smartphones at the ready. And our tissues. And there they are, both in white, different dresses but the same look on their faces, both radiant with love and excitement and emotion like any bride. Only they’re not like any brides. This might be the first time they’ve held hands in front of some of the people here, certainly the first time they’ve kissed. Months ago we discussed that kiss – one of the brides and I – what kind of kiss it should be, how you wouldn’t want to have the kind of kiss that would shock the aunties too much.

We’ve talked about a lot of things over the last couple of years, that bride and I, things that when I was a teenager growing up in South Dublin, I couldn’t even let myself think about, never mind talk about. Like me, she came to who she was later than some, only a little while before I did. Watching her sit there, holding hands with her lover, her best friend, her soon to be wife, I remember a freezing February night when we walked Dun Laoghaire pier in the dark. I had a toothache and the wind was biting, whipping my words away as I told her what was on my mind, that I’d met someone, that I didn’t know how to tell people. She hugged me, she said it was brilliant news and she couldn’t wait to meet her. She’s not one to give unasked for advice and the piece she gave that freezing night, I took to heart. ‘Don’t act like it’s the end of the world when you’re telling people,’ she said, ‘because it isn’t.’

She was right, of course, it wasn’t the end, only the beginning. It was the beginning of so many things – a love that has taken me to New York, to a new life, or a new version of my old life. Of digging deeper than I’d ever dug before to find a courage I didn’t know I had, to tell the people I loved, the people who thought they knew me, that there was something they didn’t know, something I’d hidden away so deep I’d hardly known it myself.

After the ceremony, there are canap├ęs and music and before we sit down to eat, by a roaring fire, the speeches begin. As the wind throws rain at the windows, we listen to a father, a mother, two brothers and a bride speak about journeys, about courage, about the commitment to being yourself. They talk about all of those things and I reach for my tissues more than once. But mostly, they talk about love.

The people who I love, who loved me before, still love me now. Maybe they love me more, even. I think I love them more now– I think I can – now that they know fully, who I am, now that I do.

Over dinner, I try and explain it to my best friend, a friend who has known me for more than twenty years, the friend who was the first one I summoned up the courage to tell, more than four years ago now. She nods and says she can imagine how it must feel to see them get married but I don’t think she can, not really. So I ask her to picture a world where she’d been going to gay weddings for her whole life, that they were the norm and that one day that changed – that she walked into a wedding and there were a bride and groom on top of the cake. As I explain, she nods and something in her face changes and this time when she says she gets it, I know she does.

Later, when the brides throw the bouquets, I end up with one and people say ‘you’ll be next’ and I laugh because this time, it could be true and they know it too. And later still, climbing to the top of the old wooden staircase to try to get a signal to call my girlfriend, to tell her about the day and how much I love her and how I wish she could’ve been there, I know if anyone spots me I won’t need to make up an excuse about who I’m calling. That the worst that would happen is that I’d be slagged, just like anyone would be slagged, the ultimate Irish acknowledgement that things are OK, that you are one of us.

Like the new Mrs and Mrs who are downstairs on the dancefloor, holding hands and dancing in a circle of parents and aunties and sister- in-laws and friends, there is no need to hide anymore.

Not for them. Not for me.

Not for any of us.