How the mall taught me about what doesn’t matter (and what does) at Christmas.

Despite my efforts to re-capture my childhood effervescence around the approaching of the holiday season, I’ve found, with each passing year, an increasing sense of pre-Christmas dread. No matter what change or hardship may come, I have begun to cultivate a more profound awareness of how my circumstances are not permanent, and how, oftentimes, the discomfort and resistance I may feel in any given situation is one of two things: an indicator of something new burning its way into my world, or a lesson to be learned before I can proceed to the next chapter in my “Life workbook.”

Even optimists have their down days. Most days, the mess reveals itself to be beautiful design work in disguise. Other days, it’s just…mess.

It pains me to say it, but the approach of the Christmas season this year has brought the pessimist out of me. These last couple of weeks have been marked by unfortunate global and local events that cause my burning faith in the basic goodness of human kind to wane, and my despair over the injustices of the world to grow. I have found myself grappling with a dizzying lack of understanding around why bad things continue to happen, why unhappy, fearful people are giving us all greater reason to be terrified, why souls of all ages go missing and families are left to worry themselves sick…and why oh why has it become acceptable to go out to dinner with your child and have them sit in neglected silence while you give your undivided attention to your phone!?

I thought that was enough of the world’s problems to feel through, but apparently I hadn’t come face-to-face with the tip of the iceberg yet — the place that has, somehow, become as synonymous with Christmas as Santa Claus:

The Mall.

It was a regular Friday night and I was feeling pretty good about life in general as Joel & I walked hand-in-hand, laughing at our usual weirdo banter. I wasn’t dressed up — jeans, winter boots, a blue long-sleeved t-shirt and a scarf. I very rarely wear make-up, so I certainly wasn’t made up for the occasion. This was meant to be a quick mission — in, out, done.

As we walked in the doors, I felt that familiar feeling of overwhelm ooze over me. Typically, the sheer amount of stimulation from walking into a mall (heck, even the grocery store!) makes me spacey and unfocused, but this was different. Christmastime at the mall is basically the mall on steroids. All I could see were strollers and arms laden with bags. There was a line-up into the jewelry store that snaked around far outside the paned glass entrance into the shop. Men & women alike were crowded over pamphlets, presumably selecting what charms or pieces of jewelry they would be purchasing once the security guard let them past the door. We wandered into a clothing store and I saw a pair of soft, knit leggings that I thought were pretty scrumptious. I checked the price tag, and they were $108. For leggings. A woman nearby stared blankly at the display table, quietly rubbing an over-priced scarf between her fingers. I wondered whether this was, in fact, the kind of gift that would make someone realize how much this person truly loved them.

Maybe my fault was in projecting how valuable these physical items might actually be to a person, or maybe it was letting the tissue paper-stuffed Armani shopping bags and the price of wooly leggings get my goat, but it didn’t take much to spiral from there. I felt a weakening in my spirit as I began to fight back tears and attempted to reign in an increasing feeling of helplessness. We were surrounded by STUFF, all around us, but yet we couldn’t find the small, simple item we were looking for. As we walked the halls from store to store, I reached for Joel’s hand. In one hand, I felt his steady presence, and in the other, any previous shred of appreciation and joy I had for everything about myself and my life when I came in the door began to dissolve.

Nothing felt like enough. I wasn’t well-dressed enough, pretty enough, successful enough, good enough… I even got as far as wondering whether I was completely deluding myself in even trying to make a go of creating a fulfilling, meaningful career for myself… Maybe it was time to banish any insecurity around what I feel other people might think about what I do, jump into the stream of corporate conformity and shelf my quest to bring greater peace, wholeness and wellness to humankind. From this vantage point in commercial mayhem, it was easy to believe that there was more value being placed on finding material things to shower upon family and friends than anything that enriches the grist of who they are. If anyone had cared to count, there were probably more people in the mall at that moment than at every Yoga studio in the city.

As I held the hand of the man I love, I knew that these negative thoughts were the true delusion, but something about this vortex made it harder to see that my thoughts were as false and impermanent as the gussied-up brick & mortar around me.

I truly believe that a Yoga practice is just that — a practice of honing our inner tools to put them into action when we experience challenge out in the world. I am also all for deep breaths and allowing emotions to be felt and honoured as they are coming up, but at this point, Joel knew that the best place for me to re-group and do those things more fully would be at a table in the food court, sharing a Blizzard. (And for the record, the seasonal flavour right now is delicious.)

As I spooned in mouthfuls of ice cream, my tears of sadness and frustration spilled out. I heavy-heartedly laid my mind’s turmoil out on the table while Joel listened and responded with deep compassion and understanding. The mall was near to closing, the crowds growing thin. If the mall had a sanctuary in that moment, it was the breathing space of the food court, at the small table in front of the DQ where there was Love, and a connection that not even wireless technology can emulate. I thought about a lovely compliment that my future sister-in-law paid me in a text message this Fall — that she admired my ability to keep perspective and see the positive in a given situation. Her words have fueled me to keep my eyes on the big picture as much I can, even if I feel my heart raising its protection level up a notch. Amidst my tears, I knew it was the feeling I had going into the mall, simply holding a hand and knowing I was ok in the world, that was more truthful than any single fear-based thought or doubt that my mind had created in that palace of excess.

As down as I felt, I knew that I hadn’t lost my ability to see the silver linings, or to know in my heart what was really true.

Cliché as it is, I don’t know if we always remember that all the shiny baubles, new technology, or overpriced items of clothing don’t really take us to the heart of what matters, not only at this time of year, but all year-long.

photo(21)Maybe what appeared to me to be disenchantment over the Christmas season (and thus my entire existence and purpose in life, apparently!) was actually a re-framing of what we need to hold onto as truth in a culture that thrives on our fear of not having or being enough; that we need more of something — anything! — just to be happier.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my loved ones to stress out over giving me stuff, just as much as I don’t want to feel that putting something in their hands on December 25th is the only way they’ll know how much I value their presence in my life. That text my future sister-in-law sent me was a gift that keeps on giving. The way my husband looks at me and listens with his eyes wide and soft is something I never ask for, but receive without condition time and time again, even when my gaze drops from the horizon of greater knowing and possibility. The feeling I had as a kid on Christmas morning is now contained in the joyful embrace I share with my brother and his fiancée every time they come home, and in seeing my whole family share laughter and stories around the dinner table. My parents may worry about me more than I know, and love me more than it is comfortable for them to say at times, but I know that they will always see me for who I am. And no matter how much in-laws get a bad rap, I am blessed with a mother-in-law generous to the point that I don’t even know how to say thank you anymore, and a father-in-law who seems perfectly content just to hug & kiss me every time I walk in their front door; a sister-&-brother-in-law who, from a distance, teach me how a passion for the great outdoors is a direct line to what actually matters in life.

All this, without even scratching the surface of the friendships — old & new — that enrich my life beyond measure, the teachers and mentors who nourish my soul, the practitioners who inspire me to give simply by showing up, and all the strangers who, when I’ve smiled at them, have chosen to smile back.

Everything that has allowed me to grow wiser, stronger, more compassionate, joyful and peaceful this year cannot be gift-wrapped. It exists within a moment, a lesson, a touch, a word, a laugh, a story, a meal shared, a silence, a gesture of kindness, a breath, a sunrise, a knowing look or a starry sky.

The true joy and sparkle of Christmas lies in the hearts of those whose hands we hold, of those who give us the truest versions of themselves all year round, and in doing so, aspire us to greater light in our lives, knowing all the while that we always have, and always will be, enough. Just as we are.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m perfectly content to give Love this Christmas, and always.

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Slow/Fast Balance

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It was in University when I somehow subscribed to the idea of moving quickly. I had to move fast. It was what took me from the Fine Arts buildings over to my English classes across campus. It got me moving, my heart pumping, my legs working, even if for only a few minutes, in between long periods of sitting, listening, reading and learning.

Walking fast mattered. Keeping aside completely the fact that there is probably a bit of a tendency in my family to walk swiftly, when I walk, I don’t just saunter. Oh no.

I dash.

For those with long strides and quick gaits, it is like finding a soulmate. I am always surprised at how joyful it is for fast-walkers to discover the pace with which I approach a walk and hear them say, “YES! Can we walk together EVERYDAY!?”

For those with shorter legs, or with naturally stroll-y ways, or even worse, my poor pregnant friends (you know I love you and will walk slowly for you anytime!), it must be, well…annoying? Disappointing? Frustrating? A challenge? When my fast-walking-ness came up in my father-in-law’s ‘welcome to the family’ speech, it really gave me pause. It was no secret to me that he enjoys picking on this endearing habit of mine — he is 6-foot-4 and has legs for days, and still, I could really get his head shaking by walking 30 paces ahead of him, then doubling back, and walking another 30 paces forward… Now THAT would be annoying.

WowWalking swiftly has become one of my identifying traits. We live in a culture of speed, of efficiency. We are, in fact, so fast that we don’t feel fast enough. We are so efficient, that we don’t feel we can get everything done. In fact, we are so adept at multi-tasking that we don’t even realize that we are eating lunch, answering e-mails, responding to an incoming text, and thinking about all the things that we need to do today, tomorrow, this year…all at the SAME TIME.

One of my Yoga teachers shared this piece of wisdom and I haven’t forgotten it: ‘You teach what you need to learn.’

I never anticipated becoming a teacher. I resisted it. I still, on occasion, hesitate to call myself a ‘teacher,’ unless I am talking to someone who really just needs some sort of identifier to know with a bit more clarity what exactly I do, goshdarnit, and then I can say, ‘Well, I teach Yoga…currently, twice a week.’ I have designated those two classes as the classes that people can come to when they want to move slowly and mindfully, to breathe deeply and more fully than they do all day (or perhaps all week), to be still, to get inside their own experience and not worry about anything else if they can help it.

There is no coincidence that I teach a practice (Yoga Nidra) that involves lying as stalk still as possible for a substantial period of time; a practice that encourages breath, quiet, relaxation, visualization, creativity, imagination, and cultivating clarity by working with a single, solitary intention.

The truth? I teach this because it is one of my greatest lessons. The ‘speed-walker’ needs stillness and quiet. Craves it, in fact. And the speed-walker, when faced with having to move more slowly due to illness or injury, well, it disappoints me just as much as it does anyone being stopped in their tracks. Even more so, it is the idea of achieving that balance that appeals — of moving quickly and efficiently when we need to and enjoying the ride…then, just as fully, allowing ourselves to really slow it all down when we can, and tap into to the heart of who we are.

No clutter, no noise. Just US, at our core.

I am inspired when I hear students tell me that they have come to class as their first class back after rehab-ing from a head injury, or post-pregnancy, or because their doctor has prescribed yoga and meditation to them for anxiety. I could tell you a good handful of stories, but from where I sit, let’s just say that I have seen both personally and with those near and dear to me, that our desire for speed and to ‘do it all’ — whether physically, or through intense periods of stress, or both — can often lead us to some hard knocks and falls, especially when this is sustained and pushed through over long periods of time with little-to-no respite. The little cosmic joke in all this, of course, is that what is needed to get us back on our feet…is — you guessed it — to move slowly, or sometimes, not at all. To take care of ourselves. To listen to ourselves. To rest.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, I took a walk with a dear friend of mine out in the countryside. It was bitterly cold out, but stunning with the snow all around, the ink-black sky filled with stars. As the cold nipped at our skin (and at the feet of his very patient puppy), I felt it…that need — let’s face it, that habit! — to move quicker…But then I realized what I had to gain from this moment, and the answer was ‘EVERYTHING.’ 2 AM, spending the first hours of a brand new year bonding with a great friend under the vast night sky, chatting about where life was taking us, how big the universe is, and how small we are in it… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great conversations while speed-walking, but this was one of those moments where all I could do was stop, take the moment in, and realize how lucky I was to be standing still just where I was.

Ferris Bueller really did say it best, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

A Belief in Gord

Death has been on my mind a lot lately. Not in a morbid way. Whenever a transition like this comes about, I feel as though, with each passing year, my way of seeing it, understanding it, feeling it, looking at it and puzzling through it, changes.  When someone makes their departure from this world, it always gives me pause…

I wonder why I feel the way I do — that strange weight of the most obvious emotions, grief and sadness, and letting go of something or someone that is no longer there. Along with that is the even stranger sensation that life continues to go on as if they haven’t left, as if nothing has changed, as if it is just another moment of temporary absence. But there is another feeling mixed in there, one that I can’t quite put my finger on, and that was what left me asking questions…

A dear friend of our family’s — adoring father to two bright, grown-up girls, and devoted husband to one effervescent woman — recently passed away. As my husband and I chatted with one of the daughters yesterday, she expressed the disbelief so clearly. “It’s like he’s just upstairs in the shower, and we’re waiting for him to come down and join us for dinner, but he doesn’t. And he won’t.”

“Passed away.”

I used to have mixed feelings about that term. But somewhere in there, as I have grown, so too have my views on what happens when someone dies. A person, a body dies. A spirit is invincible. I’m sure you, or any person you know, can tell a story either first-person or second-hand of what it was like to be present at that moment of transition. Though I have yet to witness that myself, the same account comes up — the body, all of a sudden, is more of a container than a person. The spirit, itself, has evaporated into the ether.

On a recent trip to Nelson,B.C. I had a conversation with the owner of a home we were renting for a few nights. The property she owns is an acre in size, full of wild, beautiful gardens backing onto the woods. No matter where you stand on that one acre, you can hear the rushing of a natural creek that roars down the side of the hill. It was while sitting outside in this woman’s garden where we learned that our dear friend, Gord, had fallen asleep peacefully that afternoon and hadn’t woken up. I related to the owner of this charming home how learning this news while surrounded by nature’s majesty really gave me pause. I hadn’t been there to see Gord’s spirit leave, but in a way I had never felt before, I sensed his presence all around us — he was in the wind, the clear blue sky, the buzzing of the wasps lighting upon the succulents, the bright redness in the ripening apples on a nearby tree, even in the unexpected slamming of the front door as we wrapped our minds around the fact that he was actually gone. Though our eyes were filled with tears, and our hearts were heavy, I felt that Gord was peaceful, no longer in pain, and held in a place of eternal joy, a giant smile on his face, and his eyes twinkling just as they always had. I managed to smile through my tears, and had told my husband, “Gord hasn’t gone. I have a feeling he’ll be around us more than ever.”

No one ever wants to hear that someone has died, but in terms of the circumstances one could get such a message in, well, it was absolutely perfect.

I have a really healthy ‘inner hippie’ as I refer to it, and am lucky to be surrounded by like-minded friends who share a common vision of life on earth and all that can’t be explained. Others (who are most entitled to their own opinion, of course) could see me as having 3 eyes for saying this. As luck would have it,  I had found a kindred spirit in Marjorie, our hostess, who was cruising on the same vibe as me. She promptly asked me if I had read Anita Moorjani’s inspirational memoir, ‘Dying to Be Me.’ I had heard of it. In fact, oddly enough, I had woken up a few days prior with the author’s name ringing in my ears, completely out of left field, and wondering why. It was one of those ‘meant to be’ moments — Marjorie owned a copy of the book and within minutes, dropped it off on our porch, advising me to read from the section about Moorjani’s NDE (Near Death Experience) onward. “It’s really something,” she said. I took her word for it and soon enough, I found myself wandering around the house, book in hand, brushing my teeth, making tea… Her message was absolutely what I needed to hear at that exact moment, and I couldn’t get enough.

We shouldn’t have to brush death’s shoulder to fully understand that our greatest gift is our life in the here and now. I am still marveling at Moorjani’s ability to actually translate her NDE into words and tangible images, enough to fill an entire book! As she describes, Heaven is not a place to attain, it is not a goal, but in truth, it is where we are right now. In her exploration of that place between life in human form and the afterlife, she describes her spirit as having been a part of everyone and everything, seeing all, feeling all, and perceiving nothing but pure love all around her…

THAT was the lightbulb moment. THAT was what that other feeling was, the one I couldn’t put my finger on.

Cliche as it may sound, but it was Love.

My tears reminded me of my sadness, but, taking in the natural beauty of the world around me in that garden, I felt my own reserve of love increase. I felt as if, in Gord’s departure and in his life, he had made a deposit in my heart’s piggy bank more generous than I had ever taken time to notice.

Gord was a man of the heart. The guy had love to spare and then some. He loved to laugh. He loved his family and friends and cared deeply about every single one of them. He loved food. He loved to tell stories that were so full of detail, you were transported back to that moment in time, and even if you hadn’t been there when it happened, you were re-living it all over again right alongside him. He lived with passion for everything he did. Everything he made with his big, strong hands, no matter how small or big, simple or detailed, was truly a creation — a masterpiece. He was the first person to tell you how beautiful or wonderful a moment or a day was, and he meant it. At our wedding, the day before he went into hospital, he told me that the day had been ‘unspeakably beautiful’ — two words, but the highest compliment a bride-for-a-day could fathom.

At his memorial yesterday, all his loving friends and family got a greater picture of Gord’s life story, lovingly told through the voices of those who were privileged to share their lives with him. One thing that struck me  was that, in his 79 years, he didn’t have just one career path he felt he needed to stick to until the end. His life was a tapestry of experience, learning and interests. Whether it was cooking, caning chairs or designing the interior of a big corporation’s office,  he pursued each with great gusto and a respect for detail that was truly incomparable.

The Gord stories and reminiscences could’ve gone on for days…and even after all this, I didn’t need to hear  these things to know that I believed in Gord with all my heart.

Everything I needed to process this event was there for me that afternoon in the garden, in that moment I learned via text message that the last hug I gave Gord was truly the last.  I saw that the lines between Life and Death are paper thin, and there is indescribable love, celebration and peace to be found in each. How you love in life absolutely has bearing on how your love will be dispersed when your body goes.

Really look at a sunset, or enjoy a scrumptious meal. Listen to the sound of a rushing stream, feel the grass under your feet…Embrace everything about someone you love, or stop yourself for long enough to savour a beautiful moment. Then feel yourself a part of all those things, all at the same time.

That is Life. That is what lies beyond it. That is Gord.