To Burn & To Give Light

What is to give...fire ALLISONGThis quote from Victor Frankl was shared by my University acting/movement teacher in a class over a decade ago and it has stuck with me ever since.

Life will not always be a walk in the park.
We will be tested.
We will have to walk through that darn fire as many times as we need in order to learn, to grow, and to evolve.

And guess what?

That’s perfectly OK.

Lately, I’ve been feeling it comes to this:

Just as that lovely lady said to me the other day — that the only way to grieve is through grieving — let that lesson apply to ‘the burn.’

When you’re in the fire, in the struggle, recognize and honour that this is where you are, and that this, too, shall pass when it’s time.

When you’re giving light on the other side of the fire, embrace that state fiercely. Appreciate the joy and expansion you feel now for what it is, knowing that it is a byproduct of you having survived the blaze intact — changed, yes, and perhaps even more resilient than before — and that it, too, is just as impermanent as the struggle.

Don’t worry…you’ve got this.

xo A.

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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.

Will this make you squirm? Or will you accept the challenge?

Today, I’m bringing you into what very well may be a realm of discomfort for you.

What I’m asking may mean you have to shift your perspective. Part of this is just as uncomfortable and as much of a stretch for me to accept as it may be for you, so before you even hear what I’m asking, I want you to know that I feel you. I acknowledge you having to swallow harder, your thoughts to race a little faster as you narrow your eyes, half-grimacing at me with skepticism and a touch of fear of the unknown. I know the feeling of having to choose the ‘harder’ path, to give your deeply engrained beliefs and your fist-bearing ego a run for its money. But life is pretty short to stay stuck in our patterns, so…

Are you with me? 

First, Weather (again, the local fave topic!). Today is beautiful, right? Spring-like, sunny, blue skies, birds chirping, above 0 degrees (hallelujah!)… It’s hard to be grumpy when the sun’s shining, isn’t it? It’s easy to feel all is well on a day like this one…

On the same token, it’s a day edging ever-so-closely to the end of a month where we are all poring over receipts, spreadsheets and slips of paper that sum up the last year in our financial lives.

Yup, Tax Time.

Last night, we did our due diligence of trading time frolicking in the evening sunshine for sticking our butts in a chair and gettin’r done.

It feels good to be finished, with all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed. What doesn’t feel pleasant, however, is having that bomb dropped:

“Looks like you’re going to owe this year.”

It’s cause for celebration if we get a refund, but if we owe? It’s astounding how fast this can kill your mojo, overpower you with panic and fear, or make your heart feel as though it will stop altogether..

It was seconds into that sinking feeling of ‘Crap…well, there go some of my hard-earned dollars!’ where I caught myself.

How is my feeling defeated, ‘victimized,’ and seeing this from the standpoint of ‘lack’ going to change anything, make me feel ANY better, or furthermore, make my financial reality ANY brighter?

As I gave my not-so-mathematically inclined brain a break from numbers and receipts, I saw that the Weather page on my phone was showing ‘snowflakes’ for later on this week. Now, I don’t know about you, but I have long accepted that the weather is something I have ZERO control over. Despite my attempts to be as glass-half-full as possible on this subject, it doesn’t seem to stop anyone in our fair city from cursing Mother Nature like she was doing this to us on purpose.

I hate to break it to you, but it’s tax time, AND it may snow/[insert any other unpleasant weather phenomenon geographically appropriate to where you live] this week. Just FYI.

And therein lies my challenge.

It would be EASY to turn to your collective Facebooks, Twitters, friends, loved ones, pets, houseplants, the gods, or whatever you choose to vent or curse to, and say “F*** taxes. F*** snow in April. F*** my life.”

(For added emphasis, you could also add a single “F***” at the end of the previous rant. Some people really like that.)

Sure, F-bombs feel awesome to say sometimes, but here’s something HARDER:

Can you be grateful (yes, I said grateful) for taxes? Can you be grateful for blizzards (and I don’t mean the Dairy Queen kind) in April? I mean, ACTUALLY grateful. Not just glossing it over in an attempt to be Suzie Sunshine about it, but REALLY TRULY grateful? As in gratitude that comes from ALL of your HEART, even if it feels a bit outside of your norm?

So, who’s with me? If you’re still reading, yahoo, because that might just mean you’ll join me in doing the unthinkable: I am unabashedly choosing GRATITUDE.

I choose to feel grateful that I have had ONE WHOLE YEAR of being gainfully employed, and of learning and growing in the process. Even more to the point, the portion of income I owe tax on is one where I have spent time doing work that not only fills my cup but is, I feel, the highest form of service I have to offer.

 I have the luxury of paying taxes because I am working towards my own wild and crazy dream, no matter what that may look like. And after I pay those taxes, what do I do? I live in a house, where I woke up in a bed, with someone I love that I married out of my own free will (and who is currently eating toast that I can smell wafting up from our kitchen. Yes, even when I have to pay taxes, I will still eat, and so will he). And even if things got really sticky, I would still have people in my life who would catch me if I fell. That, in itself, is its own form of wealth.

And if/when those snowflakes start to fall as this week ends, I promise not to wish they were green grass and lilacs and see them for what they are. They’re snowflakes they are both beautiful and the epitome of impermanence, and they WILL make the grass greener in their own time. We live in the Northern Hemisphere. Snow and cold WILL happen here.

Even in a freak Spring snow storm, I will see, above all things, that we live in a country with more space than we can handle, with human rights and freedoms, where I can walk outside and share a smile and a simple hello with our neighbours. I say these things not to brag or boast, but because this is most of our realities. If you are reading these words, it means you own a piece of technology, and no matter how essential our smart phones, computers and tablets have become, your smart phone is no substitute for a winter coat. For many of us, we see those snowflakes on the bright screens of our weather pages from the comfort of our homes, with either food in our bellies or a knowledge of where our next meal will come from. Others will only know a cold front is settling in when they see the snowflakes start to swirl around their shivering bodies as they huddle under an overpass.

So… can you do it? Can you thank your lucky stars that you have taxes to do/pay, and that there may soon be Spring snowflakes to catch on the end of your tongue? Can you be deep-down-from-the-centre-of-your-heart grateful that the way you feel and react to these upsets are just another indicator of your humanity? Can you recognize them as a reminder that you are still being treated to the gift of being ALIVE? Can you see that these things are fleeting, and may offer their own form of blessing, even if, at first, they don’t appear to hold one?

When clouds cover the sun, and the wind starts to blow, and even that refund cheque has slowly dissolved into the ether…can you still be grateful?

Can you? Will you?

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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.”