Thursday, August 28, 2014

Namaste, Mr. Iyengar

I never quite bought into the idea of the yoga “community."

I’ve taken yoga classes for more than twenty years from a succession of teachers in rooms full of familiar-looking faces whose names I never knew. And yet, the news of B.K.S. Iyengar’s passing on Aug. 20 at the age of 95 felt like a death in my tribe.

I never met Mr. Iyengar, who was one of the great theorists, practitioners and popularizers of yoga. I did not study with him or read his books. After I heard he died, I had to go online to see what he looked like. But since several of my yoga teachers are his students, I am only one degree of separation away from the man.

Iyengar is a regular presence in the studio where I practice yoga. My teachers, Tristan, Carin, Nadja, Mary, Justine and Rosie quote him often and those who studied at his institute in Pune, India, tell stories about being in class with Mr. Iyengar -- the honorific is always employed as it would be unseemly to go first-name with one’s guru. Even so, they talk about how funny he could be, as well as how demanding and wise.

Having read several obituaries, I now know that Iyengar was the eleventh of thirteen children born to a poor family in the south of India. A sickly child who suffered from typhoid, tuberculosis and malaria, he was not expected to live long. He credits the practice of yoga for all those “extra” years. They say he was practicing up until two months before his death.

He came to international prominence in 1953 thanks to the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who became a devotee and called him his “best violin teacher.” Iyengar’s other celebrity students included Aldous Huxley, Annette Bening, Donna Karan, and politicians and sports figures in India.

He became a yoga rock star, but William Broad, the author of “The Science of Yoga” -- a comprehensive and balanced book about the benefits of yoga -- credits Iyengar with being the first major teacher to acknowledge that forcing the body into difficult postures can cause injury. Rather than try to fit the body into idealized shapes, Iyengar designed ways to make postures fit the body, using props to create a safer experience.

As a result, Iyengar classes often look like a kindergarten, the room cluttered with chairs, blankets, bolsters, straps, wall ropes, blocks and boards -- equipment that makes postures (asanas) accessible to bodies that could otherwise never do, say, a downward-facing dog, feet flat on the ground as in the “classic” pose. downward dog with props

A day after Iyengar died I received an email from Justine Wiltshire Cohen, the director of Down Under Yoga, announcing his passing and celebrating a life well lived and “an epic yoga legacy.”

And this:
“I remember practicing at the foot of Mr. Iyengar as he taught the pose called ardha chandrasana.
He asked a woman with one leg why she was not attempting it. She gestured to her body in answer. Fifteen minutes and several props later, I watched this woman lift up into this one-legged balance pose, tears of disbelief and joy streaming down her face.
“He was a man who could make one believe anything was possible.”

His approach -- making yoga accessible to everybody -- is not sweaty or sexy. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. The emphasis on alignment means going slowly and learning how far to push your body and when to acknowledge its limits. It is a deliberative and a humbling practice, which has taught me -- through his students, my teachers -- that I will always be a beginner.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Last Session

 Four months ago, my therapist told me she would be retiring this summer. I was taken aback –a phrase that suddenly made perfect sense to me since I felt as though I had been physically moved without my consent.

In a way, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. We had been slowing down. I wasn’t coming every week anymore. After nearly three years, my depression had cleared. I had been able to finish a large project of which I had despaired. I had resolved some of the issues that other therapists had not quite gotten to -- probably because I wasn’t ready to face them. She also helped me negotiate the start of my seventh decade – I’m 63 -- with a sense of proportion and grace.

I know almost nothing about “Sharon.” I don’t know if she’s straight or gay, married or single. I have no idea where she lives, whether she likes to vacation in Maine or the Cape or if she plans to travel abroad in her retirement. She had told me that she treated children and teenagers but I don’t know if she has kids of her own.

And yet, I do know her. Even though the intimacy of our relationship has been entirely one-sided – appropriately all about me -- I know that she is patient, kind and wise. Although she speaks softly, she has a big laugh that comes easily. She is grounded and purposeful and I want to say she is possessed of grace, another phrase I never use and one I can’t explain. I certainly learned a lot from her  --and by that I mean her approach and perspective as well as her insights.

When she first told me about her retirement plans and asked how I felt about it, I realized that I’d been hoping for an on-going relationship. I have a few friends who, long after ending regular therapy, still make an occasional appointment for a “tune up,” especially at times of transition or stress. But after thirty years, Sharon was closing up shop. There would be no tune-ups. She offered to refer to another therapist. At first I said no, but at our next-to-last visit I decided I wanted a back-up so I took the phone number of a colleague Sharon said would be a good match and (this being the real world) would also accept my insurance.

I dreaded our last appointment. Even though I’d known Sharon for only three years, the loss felt as profound as when my rabbi of twenty five years left his pulpit. My sadness was even deeper than when my physician of nearly twenty years left her practice.

I didn’t know how to say goodbye. Should I give her flowers, or a book of poems, or maybe just a card?

In the end, I brought all three as well as a Boston cream pie cupcake, which she accepted with a delighted laugh. They were retirement gifts, parting gifts, things I chose because I was pretty sure that Sharon would love them much as I do. Because during our three years, bounded by all the conventions and rules that properly govern the therapist-client relationship, we shared a lot of love.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Boston Girl

 It’s done. The Boston Girl, my fifth novel and twelfth book, has been submitted, accepted and copyedited. Publication date: December 9, 2014.

 It’s a historical novel told in the first person by an eighty-five-year-old woman named Addie Baum in response to a question from her twenty-two-year-old granddaughter who wants to know how she came to be the woman she was.

Addie starts the story in 1915 when she is fifteen years old and the world begins to open up to her, the daughter of immigrants who live in Boston’s polyglot North End. The 1910s and '20s were a fascinating period: short skirts, movies and new opportunities for women.

I sent the copyedited manuscript to New York on June 26, which turned into a bit of a drama when the mailroom lost it. This was a big deal because copyediting is done the old fashioned way: pencil on paper. The wonderful Laura who worked on my book was meticulous and thoughtful and saved my credibility a lot. Then I wrote responses to her comments. Hundreds of hours of work hung in the balance.

But lo! I had made a copy of the marked up text – something I had never done before -- so all was not lost. And then they found the original in a warehouse somewhere.

Sheesh. And then, whew. No harm no foul and it’s off to the typesetter.

A week later and I've I cleaned my desk. I filed some files. I have put new liners down in the kitchen cabinets. I’m having lunch with friends I neglected in the marathon to finish the book. I’m back to yoga twice a week. I’m cooking.

I have started reading three books, hoping to be swept away but it hasn’t happened because I’m so fidgety. In truth, I’m adrift. I don’t really want to start something new but empty hands make me nervous.

People ask if this is like having post-partum blues, and even though there are similarities I always say no. With a book, you push hard the last few months and then you give it away, wait for someone to tell you whether or not it’s viable, and you don’t see it again for several weeks. When you get it back, there are questions and corrections all over it. And then you send it back again. And by the time readers start cooing over the brand new arrival (I hope), I no longer remember the names of some of the minor characters.

This is not a plea for help so please, do not make suggestions for my next novel. It doesn’t work that way.  Actually, I have no idea how it works. It’s a mystery. *

And I’m trying to be okay with that.

*March 17 blog post, "Finishing the hat." 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What were they thinking?

I just received copies of my novel DAY AFTER NIGHT in Russian.

I believe this is the first of my books translated into the language of Dostoyevsky.

I wonder if the designers or editors even glanced at what's inside because this image is so profoundly odd.

Sure, the sky is ominous but four happy gals striding into the future dressed like they're going on vacation or maybe applying for jobs in the advertising industry?

The book tells the stories of four young women who have survived the Holocaust in Europe and in 1945 end up in an internment camp in Palestine.

I wonder what readers will think when they open the book and find a world of pain -- ultimately redeemed, but still...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombings

In the long, sad run-up to the 2014 running of the Boston Marathon, I’ve been thinking about the families of the four people who died. The youngest was a baby, only eight years old, standing near the finish line with his family. The oldest was a twenty-nine-year-old woman with an impish smile and a reputation for kindness.

For the families and friends of the four who died, this has been a year of heartbreaking firsts: the first Thanksgiving without her at the table, the first uncelebrated birthday of all the birthdays he was owed.

The coming marathon will be a public commemoration of their deaths. In Jewish tradition this is called a Yahrzeit, a year’s time, the annual remembrance that includes lighting a twenty-four hour candle and saying Kaddish, a prayer that requires the presence of at least ten other people, because grief is even more unbearable if you’re standing alone.

The first anniversary is the most painful and the first Yahrzeit is the most difficult, not only because the wound is still so raw and the absence so vivid, but because they signify another ending.

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that grief is more than an emotion -- it’s a place, a parallel universe in which “the valley of the shadow” is not a metaphor but an address. It is important and necessary to spend time in that shadow, to cry and wail. But it is unhealthy to stay too long.  The first Yarhzeit is kind of an eviction notice. Time to turn away from the darkness.

This doesn’t mean “getting over it” or forgetting. The first anniversary might be the end of one kind of grief, but it is the beginning of the next stage. From then on, there may be visits to the grave, candles, prayers, memory, charity, and tears. But death cannot have the last word.

And this is where the public has a meaningful and valid part to play.

We are here to provide a tangible form of sympathy to the bereaved, like the quorum of ten who assemble so that Jewish mourners can recite Kaddish.

Those of us who will line the racecourse on April 21 will be standing with the bereaved and with the wounded. Cheering for the runners doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten the dead or the bereaved, the injured or their loved ones. In fact, we will be cheering in solidarity with those who mourn, in memory of those died and in honor of those who are wounded and hurt.

We will cheer for the nurses and firefighters who ran toward the explosions and not away from them because of their commitment to life.

We will cheer for the impromptu memorials that cropped up around Boston and all over the world, monuments of sympathy made of shoes and flowers.

We will cheer for the generosity of the hundreds of thousands who gave millions of dollars.

We will cheer for the ways that human goodness trumps human evil.

The restaurants reopen, the memorials are digitized and the money is given where it will help. Life is relentless. Thank goodness, or if you prefer, thank God.

 For audio version: