Spiral staircases and old friends

IMG_0914“. . . in my own life, I seemed to be going round and round and round, making the same mistakes, having the same failures, the same experiences – and seeming to make no headway. But in fact, even though you’re going round and round, you are going upward. You are moving towards up, as I hope, towards the light or in the labyrinth, into the center of yourself.”

Karen Armstrong, in an interview with Bill Moyers about her book, The Spiral Staircase.

The religion writer Karen Armstrong called her memoir The Spiral Staircase, a phrase from a T.S. Eliot poem called “Ash Wednesday.”  I love the reference, because I have had the experience many times of revisiting situations and making the same mistakes, but I do see progress.

Armstrong’s book came to mind two weeks ago when I reconnected with an old college friend.  Marlene called me and we talked for an hour.  Afterwards I felt like I took a strong shot of déjà vu, some kind of elixir that coursed through me like adrenaline.  I had flashbacks to our young selves, and I saw a clear continuity to my meandering path.  I noticed an enduring thread in each of our worklives.

Marlene and I caught up with family, work, health, etc., but we also caught up with a seed we both contained as young women, an inquiry into how people heal and into our own relationship with healing.  Each of us was looking for something missing from healthcare as we knew it.

In college we could not yet articulate what we were after, but we’d begun our search.   Marlene was clearer at the time, and she worked harder, studying chemistry, organic chemistry, nutrition, spending hours in labs.  I dabbled in many subjects, for a while pursuing a “liberal arts” major with concentrations in biology, psychology, and English subjects.  Psychology made me squirm with discomfort, while literature taught me more about human beings, so I switched to English with a minor in biology.   Marlene focused on nutrition studies while I looked into journalism, and after college we moved away from each other:  After we married we didn’t talk for twenty years.

Marlene worked in dietetics (which ultimately frustrated her), then entered chiropractic school and private practice.  I worked at a hospital as a neuropsychology tech and studied cosmologies, philosophies, and Jungian psychology, later becoming a health writer and yoga therapist.  We both discovered how very different our emerging conceptions of healing were from most of the world’s, and we continued our studies through reading and workshops and mentorships.

Our recent conversation revealed some very similar conclusions about health.  We have come to believe that healing involves so much more than a specific modality, nutritional approach, or medical treatment.  We found that our own illnesses and recoveries required deep introspection, prayer, withdrawal from everyday life and its values, connection with nature, and a transformation in our physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual habits and ways of being.

Marlene experienced fibromyalgia, then breast cancer.  A long-time health fanatic, she was riddled with pain from fibromyalgia and looked to her emotional life and spiritual faith to heal.  Through cancer she faced intense fear and physical discomfort, again facing her own makeup and calling on her faith as well as a strong sense of humor.  Her tumor, with the help of chemotherapy, shrank to nothing.

I studied yoga therapy and ayurveda, yoga psychology, and body-oriented psychotherapy, or hakomi.  I experienced a change in consciousness as I became more aware of my body and of sensation and changed old patterns of movement and perception.  In the midst of all this study and practice of yoga, I encountered candida, which weakened me and made me foggy headed, and led me to make radical changes in my diet, friends, and exercise patterns.

Where are we now?  Marlene became a confident chiropractor, focused on muscle testing and the storage of emotions and life stories in our bodies and working to free folks for better health.  I have become a published writer, a student of many modalities, a disability and wellness coordinator, a yoga teacher, a spokesperson and interpreter for integrative medicine and for a broader perspective on healing.  You could say we are doing the same work we started years ago in different forms.

But, as Karen Armstrong observed, we can only see this spiral staircase in retrospect.  It’s been a path that has often seemed faint and hard to see.  I feel strengthened and empowered by my reconnection with my friend.  I feel a little more whole knowing I have a long-term companion in my travels.

Living and Dying

ImageI’ve been away from this blog for awhile:  First, I was off to DC to greet family, then home in time to say goodbye to a friend.  My yoga teacher.  I had not seen her since January when she was diagnosed with cancer, and I didn’t get to see her before she died.  I am just one of many fans, but I feel the loss keenly.

Most of us only knew Wendy as a strong, vibrant presence at the yoga studio, and now she is gone, killed by cancer at 51.  Some deaths don’t make sense to our human minds, and this one in particular challenges our beliefs and expectations.

Alive as only someone who is embodied and mindful can be, Wendy taught us basic and profound wisdom about being human.  How to notice the sensations within us, how to move with awareness, how to be alive in the moment, sensitive to our energy and engaging it, living it, with wisdom.  After her classes I felt enlivened, inspired to get home and dance, exploring movement and expressing deep joy.  I was more present with others; I relished the moments, I knew better how to live my afternoon, my week.  Now Wendy teaches me in death.

It is a startling contrast, at least it feels so now, as I struggle with the reality of her suffering and her physical end, or shall we say transformation?  I am still reeling, but when I settle I consider how I want to live my days.  This loss brings some things into clear focus, those things that feel worth pursuing; it  seems to obscure others that I must let go of.   My work path seems clearer.  Already I am inclined to less analysis and talk, more knowing and doing.

I make arrangements–quit a couple of my yoga classes and seek a studio to teach in.  Sign up for those writing classes and start studying digital journalism.  Contact a teacher who combines my loves of yoga and hakomi.  Check in with me in a couple of weeks, and I’ll tell you how I’m doing.  It is not a desperation I feel, but desire.  To develop my skills and communicate about somatic approaches to changing consciousness.

I think of the grace Wendy brought to her work as a teacher and studio director.  Keep things simple, look people in the eye, remember their names and treat them with respect.  Clean business practices, plenty of kindness. I learned from her how a good teacher (of any kind) helps others engage more fully with life.  Those of us who studied with her will teach others what she has taught us, maybe not through yoga, but through being more embodied, more alive, more divinely inspired, and a little less afraid of death.

The other side

I called this blog “Work from the Other Side” because I feel like I’ve spun off from the career path presented to me in school.  Instead I’m making up the rules, and I’m seeking guidance from above.  Everyone’s career path is full of unexpected twists, and each of us tells her own story at various stops along the way:  This is mine.

Moving to the other side, where money became a tertiary consideration in my work life, really started with my father’s death.  Dad was diagnosed with cancer at 51, and he died six years later.  Seeing him go through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, lose work he loved, then his beloved dog, finally more and more function until he ended up confined at home in a chair with a morphine pump, started me wondering what is important.  When he died I became acutely aware of my mortality, and I felt a strange new sense of myself, a self I had often tended to define in my father’s terms.  I realized I was responsible for setting my own course.

It also made me wonder why cancer treatment had to be as bad as the illness, and it made me wonder how the medical system (or some other system), might provide nurturing treatment along with the harsh treatment.

I mean, herbs may at times cause irritation, but generally they soothe and heal.  They work synergistically with our bodies, drawing forth our own immune responses.  And yoga?  (Don’t get me started on that—I’ll try to be brief.) As my yoga for cancer teacher, Nischala Devi, says, “cancer helps us remember who we are.”  I didn’t need to ask her what she meant by those words; I immediately began to think of our divinity, of our spiritual natures, of our connection with mother earth and father sky.  We may get sick and we may die, but why do we assume that’s bad and avoid thinking of it?  The other side of that question is this:  What is the nature of healing and wellness?  What is illness telling us, and what might we gain from it?

Add my own discomfort in the work environment to staggering fact of Dad’s departure, and I’m ready to walk off the grid.  This discomfort is a response to the rigidity of the work environment as well as a result of shyness.  It is a restlessness spawned by a desire to investigate.  By a need to move, physically, to feel sunshine on my face rather than commute and work the entire span of daylight.  By a need to join the forces pressing for a new paradigm when it comes to healthcare.

I have had the joy of working at a hospital holistic center as education coordinator.  The gig lasted one short and quick year, but I embraced it wholly, thrilled to provide education and services to the community.  Since then I have had part-time wellness, retirement, or independent living center jobs.   And I write, and teach yoga.  Life is good.

When I lost my ideal job, I prayed, and I meditated.  I cannot analyze and put forth a resume campaign:  I am too far gone, too far out on the other side.  Sometimes I get scared on this less certain path, but more often I know deep down that I’m okay.  I always find work, always have just enough income.

This week I went to Lifespa, John Douillard’s ayurvedic center in Gunbarrel, Colorado, for a consultation and oil massage/lymph stimulation session.  Douillard, a chiropractor and sports medicine fellow turned ayurvedic doctor, is squarely, firmly, and abundantly on the Other Side.  He’s providing much needed guidance and treatment to our tired, stressed, toxic, emotionally constipated world.  Meeting him and his staff, I feel that the other side is a good place to be.  I realize that I am not alone, I realize there is a need, and I see one can also have the material support to sustain oneself.   It is possible to thrive out here, off the map.  May God sustain us, and may we learn, work together, and serve.

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