Wednesday, September 12, 2012

best not to start.

Earlier this week I got the news that a really wonderful friend of mine had died suddenly. Sarah was a great mama, a devoted yogini, a witty feminist, and a delight to know. We met during our yoga teacher training program a few years ago, where we learned and grew by leaps and bounds alongside a handful of other smart, sassy women. Those weekends were among some of the best days of my life. One of the things I loved best about her was that she struck me as someone who sought enlightenment and social justice, who pursued clarity and focus, while also retaining a healthy dose of badassery. Between weekends of healthy vegetarian lunches and intense self study and discussions about moderation (and oh, who are we kidding, frequent lunchtime runs to Starbucks for chai lattes), I'd often run into her at the liquor store where we'd both be stocking up on bottles of red wine. The first time it happened, we both laughed hysterically. "Balance!" Sarah said. "It's crucial." Sarah wore leopard print the way most of us sport basic black. She told stories of her wild past and her sweet present. She posted hilarious shit on facebook. She loved her son with a fierce fire that I admired. She took care of the rest of us with a sort of subconscious motherly instinct that amazed me. She was compassionate and pragmatic and gave the kind of advice you actually wanted to heed.

On the very first day of our training, our teacher Mona warned us that once you made a commitment to a spiritual path, things would change, and they would never go back to the way they were. Sure, sure, we all said earnestly, not really grasping the depth of it all, not yet fully aware of the exhilarating, exhausting, emotional rabbit hole down which we were all about to tumble. But suddenly over the next few days and weeks and months, we all noticed it unfolding. Life was changing for all of us, and fast. Relationships ended. New ones began. We got jobs in other cities. We decided to go back to school. We got engaged, married, pregnant, and divorced. We got sick. We got well. We made plans, and then laughed and cried when those plans went completely pear-shaped. It was happening. Things were speeding up. I think we thought we'd gotten used to it, to the constant and beautiful chaos of which we were now so aware. Which is why it hurt so badly to learn that we'd lost one of our own. How could a bad thing happen to us when we spent all our energies seeking out the good?

Mona also had a line by Chogyam Trungpa that she liked to mention a lot (when she wasn't quoting something like Spaceballs or Ghostbusters to make a point about mindfulness, that is; and that is why she is my favourite teacher), about how the spiritual path is arduous and often horrible, and how it is "best not to start." We laughed at the frank simplicity of it, but I've gone back to it often. Sometimes when things are particularly hard I wonder if it would be any easier if I didn't have yoga in my life. Ever since I found out about Sarah I've been thinking about this even more. Would it be easier if I weren't so aware of the pain in my own heart and in the hearts of all those who knew her? Would a fog be easier than this stark clarity, this firm knowledge that she's gone, this confirmation that this practice really can't save any of us? I'm still not really sure. But what I realized around four in the morning (that universally acknowledged time of night when things are both grimmest and clearest) is that while this path might make hard things harder, it also teaches us to soften into the struggle, to open up to the lessons of hardship, to sit in the shit until we can let it all go on the next exhale. And if not that exhale, then maybe the one after that.

Inhale, exhale; right foot, left foot. Yoga taught us to use our breath and our bodies to work things out. The notion that Sarah's body is no longer breathing breaks my heart. The absolute truth that someday my lungs will stop cold too scares the hell out of me. We learned how to breathe together; what do we do now that one of us is no longer here?

This practice will not save us. Nothing will save us, not in the way that we might fundamentally want it to. Nothing saves us from death. We talked a lot about that in teacher training too, especially when we were sorting out the Bhagavad Gita with the help of the incredible lectures of Devarshi Steven Hartman. Devarshi talks about how all of our fears really boil down to the fear of death. The big secret, of course, is that death is nothing at all if you know the real truth--that we are all connected, that we are all eternal, that we are all one. When we stop resisting our fears, we get closer to that. Yesterday as I reached out to my teachers and my friends, trying to make sense of what had happened, I felt just a shred of that one-ness, that connection and interdependence. With suffering comes unity.

So where else do we turn for consolation? I often head right to my yoga mat but after bawling my face off during a Sivananda practice the other morning I think I might need a few days' quiet respite. Oftentimes I bury myself in a book but right now my attention span just won't let that happen. Instead I've been listening to this song over and over again (proof that there really is a Bob Dylan song for all of life's milestones). It makes me cry, and it makes me hurt, and it makes me feel alive and hopeful, and that's what I need right now.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Sarah.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


So the shift back to writing about my reading brought to mind a few other things that I've been meaning to tell the three of you about all summer. Mostly they are magazine articles. One of the perks of working in a public library is magazine access, a fact of which you are no doubt aware due to my thorough analysis of back issues of People Magazine. You will be pleased to know, however, that People is not the only periodical I schlep home. Here's a sampling of print journalism for your personal edification.

1. Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America by Jonathan Mahler, from the New York Times Magazine. I wrote briefly about this one earlier but seriously, it is crazy what is still happening in Oakland.

2. Who Made Mini Golf? from NYT Mag, again. This is part of an ongoing column about the interesting origins of commonplace objects. I love that shit. I also love the back story of how things like the ubiquitous windmill became a mini putt staple in the graphic attached to the piece.

2a. One of the most stressful dates I ever went on was back in my Trinity days, while visiting Stef one weekend in the 'shwa. It was also the weekend I was meeting his best friend for the first time and I was so, so nervous. The three of us went to the local mini-golf course where I proceeded to hold my own fairly respectably, I must say, for a girl with such poor hand-eye coordination she spent her depressing T-Ball career picking chamomile flowers in the outfield. Then we went to the record store and nearly bought Thin Lizzy's greatest hits (ironically). These were my salad days.

3.  Okay we're still on NYT Mag here (what can I say, checking it out makes me feel like an intellectual kinda broad) but words can't describe how pleased I am that Chuck Klosterman is their new Ethicist. I've had an unabashed love for that man for a long, long time. His writing on Saved By The Bell was inspirational to my 90210 oeuvre, and I trust him implicitly with my moral dilemmas.

4. Lena Dunham's eulogy for Nora Ephron in the New Yorker. I don't watch Girls yet, but from what I've read Dunham's a pretty smart cookie with the kind of cracker-dry wit I adore. Her personal memoir of a horrible relationship was also excellent but sadly you need an online subscription to access it (OR JUST A LIBRARY CARD!).

5. Shuffling on back over to NYT (sorry dudes, this is a bit of a biased post), Curtis Sittenfeld's Summer Fiction Series is fucking brilliant. I've had a literary crush on Sittenfeld ever since I read Prep my first summer in Ottawa. She is an absolute genius of the feminist/feminine heart, and this series of teeny tiny short stories is a pure delight for any fans of her work.

6. A Rough Guide to Disney World by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I read this before I really knew who Sullivan was, before I'd read Pulphead, an essay collection that includes the definitive piece on Axl Rose, no foolin'. This little gem of an article is, in turns, a history of Florida real estate and the Disney empire, a bizarre elegy for the family vacation, and a definitive guide to safe places to smoke weed inside the park. 

In conclusion, I love that I'm telling you all about paper media in an online format. What an age, am I right? What an age.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

how i spent my summer vacation.

Remember when I used to write about the books I was reading? After a summer of vomiting my feelings all over this blog, as well as a summer of great reading, listening, and watching, I thought we'd divorce ourselves from emotion for a few paragraphs while I tell you about my cultural consumption.

Television shows:

Daria. Holy moly, I really wish I'd known about this show when I was a teenager because it would have saved my life. It is like a cartoon combination of the best elements of My So-Called Life, Veronica Mars, and Mission Hill. Watching it makes me wish I still lived near my friend Tara, because I know we would totally rock our Daria/Jane costumes on Halloween. 

Tell Me You Love Me. This is a super sexy, psychology-driven character piece about a group of couples who all attend therapy with the same therapist. It is so intense! And Adam Scott is in it and he plays an architect who is ambivalent about child-rearing! I'm so happy right now. Also, it was filmed in Winnipeg, which I found kind of funny, because I spent half the series trying to figure out where the hell they were. Chicago, maybe? It was cold, wherever it was.


Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. This book has so many of the elements I love: screwball comedy, mother-daughter relationships, detailed allusions to popular culture icons (in this case it's a running reference to Abbey Road which just hurts my feelings so hard), grim tenderness, a complicated voyage to Antarctica. The author used to write for Arrested Development and it shows, in the very best possible way.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This is one of those books that I used to scoff at, one of those books Oprah would've chosen if Oprah still chose books. Five years ago I probably would've boycotted it on ridiculous principle. But age has softened my harsh opinions, and now I will willingly admit that I love this book. It tells the story of a dystopian not-so-distant future through the eyes of an eleven year old girl in a California suburb. It is scary, and lovely, and beautifully written. One of my colleagues remarked that there's not a wasted word in the whole book. It's been getting great reviews and I do not mind that. There's nothing wrong with liking something that a lot of other people like. And that, my friends, is called mature thinking.

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer. Truth be told, I only read the first and last stories in the book. The opener is a novella about a teenage boy and girl in 1970s Palo Alto who discover the scary realities of sex and family and bad decisions, and the final chapter picks up the same characters 30 years later. Ann Packer creates these incredibly believable characters and puts them in positions that make you so nervous your hands get clammy. You want to know what will happen next. 

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead. Oh, this is a classic summer novel in the tradition of Gatsby, for real. It's about a glittering, dysfunctional family gathered at the family beach house for a wedding fraught with emotional turmoil and domestic disaster. It's dark and witty and sharp. It takes down the upper classes in the most delightful way. I get a bit of a WASPY Melissa Bank vibe from Shipstead although I can't quite articulate why.


Oh, you mean besides Bob Dylan? Not sure if you are aware of this but I am a pretty big fan.

I've been getting into Townes van Zandt lately. I downloaded Steve Earle's Townes cover album awhile ago and it just kept coming up on my shuffle, which inspired me to listen to the originals. The song Loretta just kills me dead.

Also, Sunparlour Players. Thanks to my secret CBC husband Tom Power for this tip. If you're not tuning into Deep Roots every weekend you're missing out, you really are.


I am still working on a month-old New York Times Magazine article about the Occupy movement in Oakland California. Shit is getting REAL there and I think more people should know about it.

And also, an article about food photo staging in the Hamilton Spectator.

It's been a hell of a summer.