My Yoga Teacher Slapped Me

The other day I went to yoga and had a strange but familiar experience. As the students were finding their spaces and rolling out their mats, and I was wiggling into my spot on a bolster to begin a few stretches, happy to have made the time to once again return to my practice, our instructor passed by me and in an joyful movement of recognition and obvious pleasure to see me again, he slapped my shoulder. That’s right, he slapped me. It felt like the “hey dude, good to see you!” slap you give your buddy at a game, in a bar or when you pass him in the hallway going to or from class. Nothing wrong with that, really, and it’s nice to be recognized after such a long hiatus from this blessed Zen space where I return in yearning to again recover some sense of balance, insight and inspiration.

But a slap?

I promise, it really was a slap. And since I am neither a dude nor a college age kid, but a middle aged mother of three, there was an intuitive misalignment in this fleeting meeting of two souls, or should I say two physical masses. Immediately I noticed that I, well, noticed, and this made me think about what it might be about me that inspired my instructor Shankara – who used to be John in his pre-yogic life – to welcome me with this friendly, but what seemed to me strangely enthusiastic love-tap. For some reason, I did not inspire him to give me a gentle hug, a “Namaste,” or a harmonious smile followed by his genuine “how are you?” with the playful twinkle his eyes always seem to radiate. Shankara is a truly unaffected and earthy guy with a wonderfully quick and self-deprecating sense of humor, and he has an extraordinary amount of positive karma and yogic inspiration and knowledge that he gracefully, almost gleefully, shares with his students. There is a reason why I have followed him from yoga space to yoga space for close to 15 years, undeniably irregularly, but nevertheless faithfully. This yogi has a following.

I remained puzzled and a bit tickled at the curiosity of the love-tap, and heard myself quietly chuckle in disbelief, until we all settled into our seated positions and at his gentle prompts started taking deep breaths with our eyes closed. As he encouraged us to inhale the intentions we would like to bring to our yoga practice with the positive feelings we wanted to be part of us, we should exhale the negative stuff we would like to get rid of. I got plenty of both, so I was breathing in and out with ease. He then told us that breath is energy, and whether we realize it or not, with our breath we give off a certain unique energy, which again translates to individual vibrations, even smells, that influence how people respond to us. And that’s when it hit me. Again. Like a love tap, a truth revealed itself in the most gentle and loving way, and it carried a slight echo from Shankara’s earlier gesture. “Hey, dude(-sse), here’s the answer to the great mystery;” the mystery of my energy.

In a mostly unintentional manner, I must give off some sort of tough, fiercely independent Viking-like warrior energy. But the reality, as I experience it, couldn’t be further from the truth: I am just a vulnerable, overly sensitive, melancholic, weeper. Really.

When I think about it, I have intellectually nebulous yet emotionally vivid sensations from my childhood about being responded to by adults in particular in ways that gave the message that I was a daring, independent and rascal-y big little girl. Since I was never dainty, shy and delicate, but rather big boned, brave and doggedly curious, I often got in trouble, because I was always lost doing something away from home. In Norwegian we’d say I had “flees in my blood,” or in Yiddish we’d say I had the shpilkes. I was not the bookworm kid who got lost in books with a flashlight under my covers in bed; who found the real world overwhelming and created my imaginary existence with the characters on the pages of the great classics. Rather, I was one who created those marvelous experiences for myself: I held my own in schoolyard fistfights, interrupted class with words and movements out of place, and when not in school, I roamed around the neighborhood and saved baby birds fallen from the nest, snooped around in back yards and alley-ways for treasures or enjoyed sweets in elderly neighbors’ homes while looking through their family albums listening to stories from their youth.

If you’ve read about “Who is the Viking Jewess,” elsewhere on my blog, you’ve seen where it went from there; I was soon to set sail and continue my independent journey of exploration. My parents, in all their love for me, raised me to be free, or as my sister reminds me, their motto was ‘freedom under responsibility.” When I left, nobody stopped me. When I came back, nobody begged me not to leave again. Although looking back I might wish that some times those who loved me demanded more of me; expected more of me; somehow needed more of me…this freedom to roam, this independence, doubtlessly gave me my energy, and surely required much inventiveness in those formative years.

This unique brand of energy, which has taken me from there to here, but which keeps me definitely suspended in-between, ever self-aware of the constant movement of the ongoing journey; this energy transforms within but never disappears.

I wondered if, when Shankara changed his name from good ol’ John, with this change of self-ascribed designation there were also changes in the energy he radiated. It seems only natural that when a person goes through changes in life, and more significantly lifestyle, and decides they are momentous enough to make one feel and think differently about one’s identity, one’s intentions, and one’s presence in the world; the name must go with the flow of it all as well, and it becomes necessarily a package deal.

So this gets my running monkey-brain thinking about the significance of names, and what the implications can be when an adult chooses to change their name. More about this in my next blog, because it’s all in the name, is it not?

And in the end the slap was really just a love-tap.



When Athens isn’t in Greece

Unless you are one of the twenty four thousand students enrolled at Ohio University, in Athens, or you count as one of the twenty thousand inhabitants of the town which is built around the university, chances are you think, like I did, that Athens is in Greece, and not an hour and twenty minutes south-east of Columbus, Ohio. At first sight, the conference call for papers for the African Literature Association got me excited when I saw that it was being held in Athens, thinking I may finally walk in the footsteps of the fathers of western philosophy, and possibly be inspired by pure osmosis. Of course I was soon to realize that the Athens I was headed for was not in Europe but slightly more westward. I admit my knowledge of names and places in the U.S. is a bit limited, since I still have a hard time dealing with the fact that Paris and Norway are in Maine, and not just two places in Europe where I like to eat crêpes sucrées and herring.

Anyway, after I attended the conference, I learned a few lessons on the way.

Lesson number 1: Don’t assume the shuttle service from the airport will actually coordinate with your flights, but shop for flights that will coordinate with the twice-a-day shuttle service.

Lesson number 2: Don’t get too excited when the domestic ticket seems inexpensive, as America is a place (ok, continent) with huge distances, and so when you travel from A to B, there is usually a C involved, and it’s even further away from A than you had initially imagined, and thus B usually turns out not be your final destination. This I learned after packing at 1:15 am the morning of my 5am flight from Connecticut, as I started cold sweating while clicking my way around the web, searching for alternative ways of getting from the airport in Columbus (B) to my final destination at Ohio University (C). Athens Car Service would take me in what seemed like style, though I didn’t care much about the style part (pictures of limos and sleek sedans on their website) since I just wanted to get safely from A to B, which had now become C.

As I arrived in Columbus and emerged from the baggage claim looking hopefully at the various drivers standing around holding little signs with hand scribbled names on them, my cell phone rang. It was Tony the driver, telling me he was just pulling up to the terminal, did I want to go out to the curb and look for him? Sure, I said, and we stayed on the phone while I made my way outside. I’m the tall blond Norwegian woman with a red suitcase, I said, thinking I’d stick out like a sore thumb with my near six foot frame, forgetting that he couldn’t see the “Norwegian” part. He informed me that he was in a non-descript retired cop car, with the search lights still intact. Ah, I said, I’ve always wanted to ride in a cop car. Tony pulled up and came out to greet me, and immediately offered an excuse for the banged up, dirty and decidedly tired looking vehicle, slightly off from the glossy images on their web site.

Lesson number 3: Don’t believe everything you see on the web. While Tony was shoving junk aside in the trunk to make room for my bags, I thought to myself, ok, Miss Snooty, let it go, the guy’s nice, it’s a sunny day, and after all, your plane landed safely. Tony was a doll; a young, friendly, inquisitive fellow, with a fashionably scruffy, grunge-ascribed amount of facial hair, an overgrown goatee, a generous middle and a few tattoos. I wondered briefly about how he perceived me. Did I seem older, foreign; could he tell I was a mother by the way I spoke, that my heart was broken? We talked about a host of different things on the road from Columbus to Athens; family, love, travel, education, religion, to name a few. You can cover a lot in an hour and twenty minutes when you don’t shut down, and find your fellow humans in general a source of endless inspiration and wonder. Each and every one of us has a rich reservoir of thoughts, ideas, feelings, passions and aversions, in short, a walking story to be told. Tony never knew his dad, and told me he was born out of wedlock. Young people still use those terms?- I thought to myself and listened to his narrative of Scottish heritage, dropping out of college twice, girlfriend woes and dreams of one day traveling abroad.

Almost at our destination, he pulled over to a liquor store, for I had asked him to stop if we passed one so I could pick up a bottle of wine for the hotel. I felt like I had been on a road trip of sorts, and for some reason unknown to me, I bought a bottle of gin also, thinking for a brief, impulsive moment I might want to have some booze after my cop car ride. Perhaps the cultural undertones of Appalachia were calling out to me, since I was after all in the neighborhood, just barely west, and I felt happy and almost excited, as I had enjoyed my unpretentious conversation with Tony.

But alas, I never opened the gin bottle during my stay, and that was probably a wise thing, since drinking hard liquor alone in ones hotel room is not necessarily a good thing, generally speaking. So, I was planning on offering the bottle to Tony as a token of appreciation for our pleasant conversation, when he was picking me up at 4 am a few days later, for the airport run in reverse. This time he had talked about bringing the limo, so that the dame (that was me) could travel in style.

While it is not fun getting up before 4 am, I was soon to enjoy a few smiles when I saw the limo pulling up the morning of my departure. At first I thought my early riser’s vision was still adjusting to the darkness but I soon realized that the blurry image of a long, gray, amorphous structure on four wheels with a grating sounding engine and tinted windows was indeed the royal limo of Athens, the pride and joy of the company, the hip–mobile for special runs and special customers. I imagined Quentin Tarantino or the Cohen brothers getting excited about having this kind of prop for one of their films. To my disappointment Tony had overslept, and in his stead was the company dispatcher Terry. Since I felt a little weird offering a guy I didn’t know a bottle of gin before 6 am, I decided to hold on to it, and gave him some cash instead for tips. Whisking past the sleepy small towns of suburban Columbus, nodding off from time to time with Terry’s radio humming low in the background, I appreciated the quiet and the opportunity to check out, while being transported, perhaps not in grand style, but in total comfort and a certain je ne sais quoi of recyclable hipness, and I was just happy that I was going from C back to B, and then eventually to arrive at A, where my kids would be waiting for their mamma’s safe return.

Thinking about the things I learned as I journeyed, the experiences that never make it onto our CV or matter when we interview for a job, I imagined that this Athens too had inspired me by osmosis. This is the stuff of life that is simply called living, another few days filled with seemingly trivial events as we journey on, insignificant happenings perhaps, but that we may share with our children or friends as we create the stories of our lives.  Every day, different and new adventures, through the letters of the alphabet, from A via B to C, until one day we reach the end. Z.

Except in Norway there are three more letters at the end of the alphabet: Æ, Ø and Å, and I think that’s why I want to retire there, so perhaps I will continue to be inspired, by osmosis, meandering the distance of a few more letters, giving way to another story or two.

Mat Fuglene Da

(“Please Feed the Birds”)

A musing in Norwegian; I wrote this one sunny morning on my friend’s balcony in Oslo last summer.

Fuglene fråtser igjen fornøyd på terrassen til mine venner, for jeg har endelig fylt på med både solsikkefrø i fuglebrettet, og hengt en stor, feit meisebolle som dingler fristende fra en spiker på veggen. De kvitrer, flakser, kommer og går, i et kontinuerlig etegilde og tydelig lykkerus for at de blir husket på igjen selv midt i fellesferien. Ja, for det er viktig, fortalte Anne på vei ut døren til familiens sommerhus Sverige, de trenger nemlig like mye om ikke mer mat om sommeren enn om vinteren. Motsatt av det vi alltid har trodd, vi som er glade i å mate fuglene, også.

Med familiens enorme van stappet full av unger, bikkjer, to hetterotter og sommerens grønnsaks-hage, klar for planting og tilsyn i vakre, sommerlige omgivelser ved en innsjø over grensa, i Värmlands sjenerøse natur, har min barndomsvenninne forlatt Oslo by for en måned, akkurat i det jeg kommer hjem på mitt årlige besøk fra USA. De pakker og drar, og jeg pakker og kommer. The story of my life. Det å «time» riktig sommerens Norges besøk med alles ferieplaner har jeg forlengst gitt opp. Men det er flott å ha venner som sier «dere kan bare bo hos oss!» for med tre tenåringsgutter på nesten to meter hver seg, er mammas tre-roms begynt å bli litt trang for hele klanen. Og selv om Anne og hennes livlige entourage og storfamilie glimrer med sitt fravær, er det å sove i deres senger og spise frokost av deres tallerkener en bra trøstepremie.

Men, prisen for å bo her, hadde Øyvind mannen til Anne spøkt, er å mate fuglene. Ja og så fiskene da. Så mens oppvaskmaskinen går en omgang, og guttene mine tok en tur til deres mors gamle trakter på Frognerbadet for å hoppe fra tier’n, sitter jeg her oppe i lia med fjordgløtt og slurker fornøyd til kaffekoppen mens fuglene kvitrer muntert i vei. Vi vet nemlig alle, både de og jeg, at det er hit vi kommer for å lade kropp og sjel. Spesielt om sommeren.

Oslo, 11 juli, 2013