Compassionate Yogi Blog

insights and observations on the joys and sorrows of daily life

The Gift of the Hedgehog March 7, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — sujones65 @ 3:44 pm

We have a pet hedgehog named Philip. You may not know much about hedgehogs, and let’s face it; why would you? First off, hedgehogs do not possess many of the cozy and cuddly qualities that most boys and girls are looking for in the family pet. For starters, they are nocturnal. Our boy Philip, barely bigger than a soft ball, spends the entirety of the day hidden beneath a hand towel that we have provided for him, emerging only when we all are well asleep and deeply in dreamland.  They are burrowers, hence the need for the hand towel, and perhaps their most uncuddly quality of all is the fact that their bodies are covered in pointy spikes, making them virtually untouchable; and when you do try to reach out and touch them every so gently, they puff up their back, stick out those spikes and hiss—yes, hiss.  This is not an animal to be reckoned with.  Being playful with a dog or a cat can be a fun and interactive experience (think leaping dogs catching Frisbees or kooky cats chasing after feathers on ends of strings), a hedgehog’s idea of fun is shoving his tiny little head inside one end of an empty toilet paper tube.  While this may delight and amuse because it just looks damn funny (with that round, spiky body clearly unable to fit in the tube–does he really think we can’t see him?) it is a far from the kind of interactive I-love-my-pet-and-my-pet-loves-me-back fun we think of when we ask mom and dad “can I get a pet, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE!!”!.  Still, my kind hearted older son, always empathetically drawn to things less fortunate, wanted a hedgehog, so a hedgehog was what he got.

As circumstances would have it, my son is only in my home; Philip’s place of residence, for half the week. The other half of the week is spent at his father’s house throwing the Frisbee for Tiger, the loveable Golden Retriever that resides over there.  So during the time that my son is engaging in some canine/boy bonding, the care of Philip falls to me.

Seeing as pet care is not what I would list as one of my areas of strength (as you would notice by observing the state of my slime covered fish tank), having Philip’s care relegated to me is not such a bad gig. He needs his water topped off (he can never manage to take a drink without spilling the water dish, and this I know only because of the water dish being tipped on its side, not because I observe Philip as he drinks) and his food bowl refilled when needed. Otherwise, his cage is to be cleaned and that is a task I leave for my son while he is staying here at Chez Philippe. It’s really quite easy. Nothing to it; I don’t even have to see or interact with the grumpy prickly bastard and in fact, I often forget that he is there until the pungent aroma of his “overdue to be cleaned” cage catches my nostrils and I remember, “oh yea, Philip”. Out of sight, out of mind. No muss, no fuss.

The other night I watched the Motorcycle Diaries. This is a film about the Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, before he was known as such, and was still an earnest medical student taking time from his studies to travel around South America on a motorcycle.  In the last third of the film, Che and his travel companion take a boat to a leper colony on some island deep in the Amazon Rain Forest. The doctors and nurses (nuns) lived on the north side of the river and the lepers lived on the south side.  Each day the medical staff would journey across the river to visit and treat the patients, but not before suiting up in their sanitized white coats and rubber gloves.  When Che arrived on the first day, he refused to wear his gloves, reasoning that leprosy is not a contagious disease, and this caught the lepers off guard. They were suspicious and recoiled when reached for but after their initial shows of caution, the allowed themselves to be touched without the gloves and marvelous things started to happen!  Instead of believing that they were “different” and that “something was wrong with them” be came alive with the knowing that they were human beings, just like the doctors and nurses.  Yes, they needed care, they were suffering from a common disease and they were looking at an ugly fate; but under all of those external circumstances they were just like Che, the staff and the rest of the world. They were worthy of touch. And accepting the gift of touch from Che was a gift to Che himself; so much so that he chose to spend his birthday on the south side of the Amazon, and swam through the dangerous waters to get there!  I was moved to tears.

After the film was over, I walked up the stairs to my third floor office to fiddle around on the computer—oh yea, Philip. The smell of his cage was unmistakable. This time though, I came present to something different.  Simply because Philip is not overtly friendly (to put it mildly) and spends most of his time and energy hiding, hissing, recoiling and puffing up his spiky round body in an effort to keep other living things away from him, doesn’t mean that he does not need or would not benefit from some bona-fide TLC. The lepers in The Motorcycle Diaries recoiled too; they were cautious and mistrusting as well, but that was because they had come to believe that they were unlovable. How could they not? They were sent to live in isolation, in the jungle, on the south side of the Amazon! Even the Doctors and Nurses wouldn’t spend any more time with them than they absolutely had to!  Thanks to Che, they eventually accepted love and nurturing and it fed them; changed them; made their lives loving and joyful.  Perhaps my non-efforts where Philip is concerned are giving him the same idea; that he deserves a life of isolation—that he is unlovable.

It struck me then that I should know better! After all, I founded a non-profit organization who’s very mission is to dispel this type of thinking! The population with which my organization works is actually the human female version of Philip!  Each woman we come in contact with, whether she is in substance abuse recovery, a homeless shelter or a domestic abuse safe house, believes that there is something fatally flawed about her; that she is not loveable; that she is not worthy of love and deserves to be isolated from all of the “normal and healthy” people out there.  As I have come to work with these women, connect with these women and love these women I have come to understand on a deep and visceral level that they are just like me; and I am just like them (like Che and the lepers). Though our packaging is not the same, our experiences may differ and our paths may have led us down very different roads, she is no different than me in her desire for love and nurturing care.  Like Philip, she may pull away. She may act aggressive (like Philip’s hissing) and she may be very cautious and suspicious; even hiding completely for a while. But as we teach these women yoga we see them beginning to trust.  As we put our hands on them, breathe with them and through our hands send them the message that they are worth all of the care and love that we are offering, we feel them soften. To reach inside and touch the heart of another human being takes so very little. It is not in how much money you spend on something, how much time you took to make something or even how much of yourself you give to someone. It is a glance; a smile; a touch to the shoulder.  It is a hug, a stroke of the hair or a prolonged moment of eye contact, which conveys the message: “I am here; I am with you”.  In our work at yogaHOPE, it is breathing with her, moving with her, and sending messages through our touch that says, “let go, relax, you can accept this gift”.  The remarkable thing however, is that by giving the gift, we receive an even greater gift.  The gift that we receive is simply the fact that these women accept our offerings, and their acceptance is the most overwhelming gift of all. What we offer them may create trust, peace and even transformation in them but make no mistake; we–without a doubt–experience every bit of this ourselves.   I expect that this is how Che felt when the colony of lepers accepted his gift of connection.  I know it’s how I feel in my work with yogaHOPE. I know it is how the wonderful volunteer teachers feel in their work with the women they teach for yogaHOPE.  Why then, do I deny myself the gift of having our pointy, prickly, hissing hedgie accept what I could offer him? Why am I not seeing in Philip what I see in the hundreds of women I’ve encountered in my work?  It may seem silly to give so much thought to how to “coax out a little love from your hedgehog” but is it? Touch is touch. A gift is a gift. Caring is Caring.  Wouldn’t my life be that much more rich if I had yet another being that I could offer some care and love to—even just a little?  Philip WILL accept some love and nurturing, but just like the beautiful women in rehab, or in shelters or safe houses, he needs a little time to trust. I look forward to the process of helping Philip become the loving, cute and in his own special way—cuddly pet that I know he can be.  Whether or not he gets there has no importance, but as I lay reading on my couch, with Philip snuggled under my pillow, I feel joyful in knowing that he is not in isolation.  I am presenting an offering to him and he is meeting me there.  I know very deeply that what they say—to give is to receive—is not just some corny saying on an inspirational poster somewhere.  It is a more noble truth than any that I know.

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The Moss Project January 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — sujones65 @ 4:28 pm

I am a moss picker.

Those who have had the good fortune to visit my lake cabin in rural Maine know exactly what this means. Chances are that many of these good folks have poked fun at me about my obsession with my moss picking and my forest grooming.  I have been the subject of these jokes around the table back in the city, where my friends paint me as a crazy obsessive nut-job, sitting in the middle of the mossy edge that frames the woods outside my cabin, quietly picking grass and weeds that grow in my moss as I mumble to myself. My children yell for me to join them for a swim in the gloriously cool lake yet still I sit there; picking; mumbling and picking some more.  We all sit around laughing at the vision of me as the “swiss forester” (as one friend describes me), raking out the woods next  to our cabin donned in a pair of lederhosen as I yodel the day away. Once my task is complete I call the others into the forest and ask them to bathe their eyes on the shafts of sunlight slicing through the groups of trees where I had cleared away dead brush and branches. I bring their attention to the mossy carpet along the edge shouting,  “look! Look what I did! Isn’t it great?”

It is no surprise to me that I began this task right around my 39th birthday. On this particular birthday I chose to be alone. In the afternoon  I found myself sitting at the edge of an ocean cliff asking myself questions that I knew the answer to. I asked them anyway; “is this the life I really want? Am I the person who I want to be? Am I happy?” and in the words of the great David Byrne of the Talking Heads “How did I get here?”  The answer to the first three was “no”; the answer to the last was “I have no idea.”

Our cabin was the idyllic weekend get-away for our soon to be family of four. The building itself is rustic yet cozy. It has no running water, a composting toilet, no electricity, a gas refrigerator and gas light fixtures piped into the walls.  It sits perched at the tip of a point that provides us with a glorious view of the mountain across the lake and from our beautiful spot we swim, swing in the hammock, listen to the loons haunting midnight song, and unplug from the world of computers, Nintendo and cell phones. It was during my last summer in my 30’s that I looked at the mess of forest and yard that surrounded our cabin and decided to see what was being choked into submission. In hindsight it is perhaps the same moment that I began to decide the same thing of myself; of my life.

In the dark of the first winter after that birthday on the cliff I felt the suffocating effects of the weedy and jungly mess that had become my life; had become me.  I needed to start the “moss project” on my life but this idea was buried so deeply beneath a solid layer of the false belief that my life could be nothing but what it was and that I could be no one but who I was. If even a spark of a thought of an option were to ignite,  I immediately snuffed it out;  becoming ever more entangled in a place that I chose to reside, yet intuitively (if not consciously) knew I didn’t want to be.

That winter I traveled to Washington DC to visit a friend who was going through a rough time. This was not a friend whom I knew very well, yet I felt compelled to offer my support  as there was something about this person that I found nurturing in some way. Back then I was not able to explain it or put words to it but for once I listened to my inner wisdom and against all protestations by my husband (I had asked him to come to which he replied, “There’s nothing to DO in Washington D.C..!”) I scooped up my then 8 year old son and boarded a train to the Nation’s capitol. It was January 20th. My friend collected us at the train station and we headed directly to the apartment on Q Street that I had arranged for myself and my son. We got the kids (his son as well as mine) fed and to bed, opened a bottle of wine and spent the evening talking on the couch in the living room–just talking. After three hours he walked out the door and I had a profound moment of clarity that I can recall as if it were just this morning. Our conversation had cleared some of the weeds.  Just a few, but enough for me to see that there was something under there; something beautiful, something that wanted to be given the space to grow, to flourish and to be gentle and beautiful and full of life and love.

Even then; even after that moment of sparkling clarity, I resisted the cultivation of the person who I knew I was and wanted to be. In that moment I saw that I was under there, buried deep in the overgrowth that choked out my true nature; my love and my beauty.  For years and years I had turned my head away, ignoring what was growing over me, under me and all around me until I looked back one day and it had become me.

When we first bought the cabin on the lake it had been owned by a couple with grown children. The husband was a pilot and he flew his plane down to the city one Christmas Eve to collect his grown son so the family could spend the holiday together. On the way back the plane crashed. Both pilot and passanger perished. The family abandoned the cabin.  For obvious reasons the cabin and grounds had been untended, ignored and left to grow wild. The woman who had lost her son and husband was not able to bring herself to visit the cabin after that ill-fated Christmas Eve, and she was not able to pull her strength together to sell it for a while to come. This I understand. During that time the vegetation surrounding the cabin was left to grow wild and any aggressive and invasive plant would thrive simply because it was not being challenged in any way. By the time I got there it was nearly impossible to see what was there. It was difficult to imagine that it could be anything other than what it was as I stood looking at it—a complete mess.

I was not ready to start the moss project on myself after my evening in Washington DC because I simply could not see that my life could be anything other than what it was—a complete mess. A mess that had been my life for so long that it became my normal.  I did not want to shake up my normal!  I was excited by what I had felt that night on the couch with my friend but I was confused because the me of that night did not match up with the me of my life.  I began to spend more energy in conversation with my friend. I was finding excuses to walk the dog or run to the store so I could call him and connect a little more with the me that I wanted to be. I was being pulled away from my life as it was. It felt good, but it was an escape and I started to feel more confused; and then scared.   On the phone one day, I frantically explained my confusion, my desperation and my hopelessness to my sister Jessica.  I was a blubbering mess. She was listening patiently and lovingly on the other end until she was provided with a pause –“You need space”, she said. “You need to pull away and figure yourself out.”

It was Valentine’s Day 2005. My husband sensed that something was shifting in me. “What are you not telling me?” he asked.  I told him I thought I might be in love with my friend in Washington and immediately dissolved into a pile of tears. “Get away from me”, he barked–darkness descended. Though this is not how I would have chosen it, I was going to get my space after all.

Still I was not ready to start seeing. I felt exiled. I could only see that I had wasted the best years of my husband’s life (his words to me) and ruined the lives of my children and the rest of my family (his mother’s words to me). I was a stain. I ran to my family in Pennsylvania and stayed there for two weeks (referred to, by my husband, as the time I abandoned my family) who folded me into their loving embrace and told me again and again. “We love you Suzie. This is not the Suzie we know. What happened to the bright and exhilarated girl who inspired people? We are here for you. Where is that girl that people are drawn to like a moth to a flame? What happened?”  I had no answers for them, just tears. I cried each night and each day as I mourned the loss of me. They cradled me; they comforted me and they loved me; but they could not be the ones to find me.

I ran to my friend in DC. We became lovers. I felt safe and protected in his embrace, surrounded by his soft words and his gentle encouragement that I would be alright. He did not have an agenda. He did not want me to leave my marriage. He wanted to help me love myself but I did not have a self to love.

I found a dingy sublet. I filled it with motel grade rented furniture. My husband and I took turns staying at the apartment so the children could have the stability of staying in one place. I told my friend in DC that I was not able to see my reality clearly under the cover of our lovely phone and text message fantasy relationship. Like taking a far away vacation to forget the nasty business of home, at some point you must return and it is all there waiting for you in the end.  He said he understood and we fell silent. In this silence I sank deep into darkness. I had no job, less than a handful of friends, a husband and children whos life I had ruined, a mother-in-law who thought I was the devil incarnate. My sisters came one weekend to stay with me and help cheer me up a bit. “Let’s go out! Let’s go shopping! Let’s go get margaritas!” they said.

“You go” I said. I just wanted to sleep.

I sat on the porch one summer evening and arrived at the perfect solution. I would make everything better. I would give my children, my husband and everyone else in my life one final gift. I would leave the world. I longed to make amends; to gain forgiveness. I would give them the precious gift of removing the darkness of me from their world. Their lives would be better, happier, cleaner and free from stain. I could do this for them, I WANTED to do it for them. Finally something made sense. The idea made more sense to me than anything had in a very long time. I began to collect bottles of pills and feel a sense of relief and peace in having found such a beautiful and satisfying solution.

In between my days in bed and my nights on the porch I managed to get to a yoga class or two. I would lay there in bed, deliberating upon whether it was worth it to even get out of the bed; if perhaps this was the time to collect and swallow my stash of pills, crawl back into bed and drift deeply into one final slumber. The anticipation and excitement that accompanied this idea felt eerily like the days leading up to Christmas when I was a child and still believed in Santa Claus. This time though, there would be no let down the day after. There would be no day after and that felt calming.

Through some act of divine intervention, I would instead chose to trudge to yoga class, reasoning that I could always just sleep on my mat during class should I choose. I never did. Instead I moved.  Instead I breathed. I listened to my instructor’s gentle words and kind encouragement to be kind to myself. On the mat I felt a calm wash over me as my instructor reminded me that I did not need to know where I was going.  For a brief time I could feel ok with being exactly where I was—which was nowhere. After each yoga practice a certain peace and acceptance settled into me as I sank deeply into my nowhere; like settling into a big, overstuffed, fluffy, comfy chair with a good book and a nice warm cup of tea.

I spent two weeks in New Mexico with my new friend  Elizabeth (my only friend in town, who called me “courageous” when I told her of my separation) and together with 12 others we helped build a house for a less fortunate family. It was during those two weeks in Taos that  I began to realize that, as foreign as the thought had become to me, people really did like being around me. I had something to offer that people wanted to be a part of, and it wasn’t just because of who I was married to.  I returned from New Mexico on my 40th birthday, one year after I had asked myself those questions on the cliff by the sea. On that, my 39th birthday by the sea, I could not have foreseen the darkness and turmoil that was to crash into my status quo existence; like a head on collision with an erratic drunk driver. Traveling down the road, I followed all the rules. Heading to some unknown destination, I saw the journey soley  as  a means of getting from one place to the other. I was not aware of where I was. I was focused on that which was ahead of me—that which I had no clarity around.  I was all but asleep at the wheel. Without warning and before I could see what was coming it came crashing into me. This was not in my plan! I do not want to deal with this! This is not how it is supposed to happen.  It was not my decision—it simply swerved into my lane and hit me head on. Only then could I see that there was no destination. My destination is here and  now.

My moss project has no end. It has no design. I did not have a specific intention for it other than to begin to remove what was ugly; what was invasive. Each summer I notice a little spot of beauty, some place that seems sacred and begin to create some space for beauty to flourish. It could be a patch of moss that is creeping up and over a rock, or a stump or piece of wood. I start there, with no regard for how large this project is, could be or will be.  I gently begin to pull out pieces of crab-grass, weeds and vines that have been choking this beautiful moss that grows below it.  The moss is not invasive, it is patient and it is willing to sit below the surface and wait for a loving hand to clear the space for it to grow. I am in no hurry. The process is interesting, fulfilling and nurturing. I am careful to take the invaders up by their roots, but sometimes the root stays and I have a little more careful clearing to do the following summer. Each year when I return I notice more places of beauty that have had space to flourish. I tend lovingly to those places and return the following summer to notice that by just giving my beautiful moss a little room, encouragement and patience it will grow and spread; and it does. My moss has become a place that invites you to sit and take comfort. It quietly offers itself to you because it has been giving the chance to become. The moss project is not a stressful job because there is no finish line, it is a long-term project and the rewards are in the process.

Upon returning from New Mexico I continued with my yoga practice and began to see myself as I see my moss.  I began to remove that which I did not find nurturing. Patiently and with a gentle hand I removed judgment, negativity, anger and resentment.  Breath by breath I was able to see the beauty under that which I chose to take away, and as I removed these elements of myself I began to witness the flourishing of a beauty that has been there all along. In the place of these overgrown and invasive weeds grew love, acceptance, understanding and compassion. Finally this part of me was being given room to breathe and grow. Like my moss; like my beautiful forest by the cabin on the lake, I am not able to see what loveliness is there until I make space and give it time to emerge; to become.  I do not need to add anything. I do not need to bring fancy plants purchased at expensive nurseries to construct a garden that I have planned and envisioned. It is all there waiting to thrive. I only need to remove. Slowly and with no agenda, and as I see what appears I begin to care for it and encourage it to grow strong. This is why I do the work I do. This is why I want to offer the gift of yoga, the gift of space and breath to every woman who resides under the tangled web of weeds and overgrown brush. These women are me and I am them. They have had their head-on collision and stand there dazed, thinking, “This is not what I had planned. What now?”

They are beauty and loveliness. They always have been.  This has never gone away, it has only been buried.  It only needs to be given the chance to become. I see this in them only because I have seen it in myself. When they see it in themselves they will then see it in others. The world will begin to change.  “What now?” they ask me.

Now you begin your moss project.

**this essay is dedicated to Coeli Marsh. My yoga teacher who’s words helped initiate the Moss Project.