Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Seasonal Effective Disorder

Summer has finally sprung in the Northeast. It's sunny, hot, and all around there is an abundance of fertile green growth. After an endless New England winter and a rainy New England spring, I'm grateful for all that summer brings.

Somehow, it's so much easier to be happy on beautiful days. It's so much easier to be productive on beautiful days. It's so much easier to be creative on beautiful days, etc. etc. etc. It's ALL just easier on beautiful, summer days.

Surrounded by everything from my potted tomatoes, eggplants, and miscellaneous other veggies growing and blooming--in effect, fruitfully producing--I find that I want to echo that same productivity. I want some tangible form of my work to show to everyone, to show myself.

Like its external counterparts, creativity has seasons of its own. Maybe they sync with the rhythms of nature--ideas and productivity slow in the winter, germinate quietly, with little or no visible progress. You slog through the frozen tundra that is the editing process, praying that a snow yeti will put you out of your misery. You pursue some ideas that aren't strong enough to make it through summer's end, let alone the fall. You clear out this dead growth and plant new ideas. And in summer--verdant, glorious summer--you hope these seeds will grow, blossom, and provide a tangible outcome for all of your labor.

That is my goal this summer.

And hey, if it doesn't work out, at least I can go out and enjoy a beautiful summer day...or maybe even get inspiration from a beautiful summer day and begin the process again.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

India: Land of Stark Contrast and Amazing Sights

As I reflect on my trip to India, I try to wrap my brain around what I saw and experienced. I try to find words that accurately describe that world--colorful, chaotic, crowded, hot, amazing come to mind.

But I think that the most accurate and illustrative summary of India that I can come up with is actually the word contrast. As in, India is a place of dramatic disparity and striking contrasts.

The contrast between the rich and the poor. A holy man asking for money to bless me. A cow holding up two lanes of traffic. An ox-cart/cow-cart/camel-cart on a highway alongside buses, cars, and trucks. Women in beautiful saris sitting side-saddle on the backs of motorcycles. Delhi—India’s third-largest city—with a population of 16 million people (double the size of New York!) not having basic infrastructure like trash removal. Wild monkeys everywhere…including major cities that are twice the size of New York. Families of five on one motorcycle. Families of five on one motorcycle and only the father (who’s driving) wears a helmet. Monks buying ice cream. Flies covering fresh food. Rishikesh’s city government hiring people to empty dumpsters (into the sacred Ganges River) and simultaneously hiring a “Green the Ganges” team to…fish trash out of the sacred Ganges River. People purifying themselves in a river polluted by trash and toxic waste. Women purifying themselves in the Ganges only ever fully clothed in their saris. Men purifying themselves in the Ganges wearing only ever small, skin-tight bathing suits (shorts). Most men wearing western clothes. Absolutely no women wearing western clothes. 110-degree weather and yet everyone very covered (men in long-sleeves, long pants; women in saris or salwar kameezs). Food being sold/consumed in the filth of the streets. McDonald’s being a really nice restaurant. Electricity being unreliable (at best!) and yet only the really nice hotels having back-up generators. (Think of the ramifications of that—all the food that spoils and then is sold anyway.)

My own internal contrast of being so fascinated and drawn to this crazy, amazing, and difficult place.

Can I get that with a side of flies, please?

Street scene

Mama and Baby Monkey

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yoga & Exhibitionism: Strange Bedfellows

When we moved to the South End six years ago, we learned that an unanticipated perk of the place was that it happened to overlook the starting line of the Pride Parade. This year, over mimosas, we stood in the rain and clapped and cheered for all manner of marchers. Spanning the gamut were everyone from church groups to cross-dressers, the Old and Bold to the young and scantily clad. Nothing shocks me anymore. Or so I thought...

But this year, my not-so-delicate sensibilities were scandalized by one float in particular. No, it wasn’t the woman with the duct-taped breasts. Nor was it the leather-mask-clad people dressed in some sort of equine-theme, pulling Roman-chariot-looking carts carrying another leather-clad person wielding a whip. (Wow! Apparently, six years of watching the parade has really jaded me. I didn’t even blink an eye at this).

No. What really shocked me this year was the yoga float. Yes, the yoga float. It sounds innocent enough. But it was carrying what can only be described as a Cirque du Soleil-esque display of attention-seeking contortionism. The shirtless guy in full handstand (undeniably an accomplishment on a moving float) was the tamest. (Note: One of the studios where I teach requires men wear shirts due to the exhibitionist-curbing theme.) (Further note: it was a cold that day--jeans and sweatshirt-wearing-cold. These yogis must’ve been freezing!) There was a shirtless guy in full paddotanasana (wide-legged forward bend) who then snaked his arms under and around his inner thighs and into a full-bind at his lower back—and the fact that I couldn’t even find an image of this during a google search says something. Then there was all sorts of skin-tight, barely-there yoga outfitted women executing all sorts of writhing, snake-y, twisty-pretzel, Gumby-ish poses. Bodies weren’t the only thing contorting—faces, too, were twisting and squinching in the exquisite delight of performers pandering to an audience.

I know that the opposite argument will be to let yoga be what it is to different people, and that’s fine. But I think it was the attention-seeking, pandering aspect that made this one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. And bear in mind, I’m a strangeness magnet.

Call me naive, but I was actually shocked that there was a yoga float at all. Isn’t that the polar opposite of every tenet of the practice? Isn’t the very nature of a pose-flaunting parade float in opposition to the deeply personal, inwardly focusing, mind-stilling, non-competitive, non-exhibitionist nature of yoga??

I’m all about providing yoga to the masses. But this inadvertent yogini’s two cents is that it would have been far more in line with the true mission of yoga—not to mention more business and marketing efficient (hey, ten years in the corporate world yields thought patterns that die hard!)—if the studio had simply walked in normal clothes, handing out vouchers for a free class.

I think one comment that I overheard sums it up best: You know, I’ve always wanted to try yoga...but if that’s what it’s like, forget it. I could never do any of that." And surely that’s not what the studio was going for.

Love it? Hate it? Don’t mind either way?

(click to enlarge pics)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Writing Fact vs. Fiction

I’ve always wanted to write a book. I’ve always assumed that this book would be fictional. Over the years, I’ve had ideas and started drafts and they’ve always, always been fiction. So it came as some surprise when the work that I really undertook (read: finished) was non-fiction. Narrative non-fiction, that is, aka memoir.

I shudder to use the term “memoir.” It conjures connotations of high-brow important people droning on and on about their lives. As I’m neither high-brow nor important (and live in fear of droning on about anything), I try to avoid the m-word like the plague. One thing couldn’t be avoided however, and that was that the story I wanted to tell was true.

There are some major benefits to non-fiction. Two that leap to mind: the story’s already there for you, you don’t have to think about things like character development.

Of course, there are also many downsides to writing non-fiction: the story’s already there and you have to stick to it, you have to worry about character disguises so that you don’t get sued for libel or defamation of character, you have to compellingly convey character development and scenery that seem either obvious or you overlooked, and you will inevitably offend everyone that you leave out (“What?! But I thought we were so close!”) or include (“I can’t believe that’s how you see me! That’s not me at ALL!”).

The easy solution would be to do take a fictional “based on” approach. But I’m sticking to straight-up non-fiction because here’s the real value of total, straight-up, un-spun truth: you can get away with so much more.

If you’re writing fiction and you have a scene where something audacious/outrageous/shocking/ingenuous happens, you always run the risk of some smart-ass rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh please…that would never happen.” But with non-fiction, I can include the most outrageous/ridiculous/insane things that have ever happened, and when said smart-ass says, “Oh please...that would never-” I can bust in with, “Oh but it DID! Snizzap!”

(Note that the use of “snizzap” makes it that much MORE awesome.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

India and Great Yoga Expectations

India was everything I’d imagined and more. It was dirty, loud, crowded, chaotic, hot, and sometimes you had to bring your own toilet paper. It was, in fact, dirtier, louder, more crowded, more chaotic, hotter, and more toilet-paper-less than I’d ever imagined. It was fantastic. It was hard. And, in a twist that I (perhaps shockingly) hadn’t anticipated, I got very, very sick.

Forewarned by everyone who’s ever been there or heard about it, I tried to be careful. I only drank bottled water; compulsively checked the sanctity of the seals. I held my breath and clamped my lips shut in the shower. Despite the fact that it was 110°F and all I wanted was salads and fruit, I resisted these temptations and instead ate only thoroughly cooked foods, served at a bacteria-killing steaming hot.

Note: Steaming hot is not what you want in 110° weather. But steaming hot is what I ate.

I avoided hand-shakes and touching public surfaces. I washed my hands frequently and then amped up an extra level of protection by compulsively spritzing with lavender-scented hand sanitizer. Yet in spite of all these precautions (and many more which I’ll refrain from sharing lest I appear obsessive, compulsive, germ-phobic), I still got violently sick on my third day in Delhi.

Because I was too sick to move—heck, I was too sick to leave the bathroom let alone the hotel room—we had to postpone traveling from Delhi to Rishikesh. So while I convalesced for three unanticipated days in a darkened hotel room in the middle of India’s third-largest city (Delhi has a population of roughly 16 million), I tried not to think of how this wasn’t what I’d imagined, or planned, or wanted. Most of all, I tried not to think about how I wasn’t doing yoga in the small holy city of Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world.

When I was able to keep crackers and bottled water down, we hired a taxi (in India, it is somehow normal to hire a taxi for four days) and I vomited my way along the seven-hour drive north. Definitely not what I’d pictured.

Even after I stopped getting sick, I was too weak to stand the heat all day, let alone the physical exertion of yoga in said heat. So we’d basically wander out in the morning, exploring the town and taking pictures of the sacred Ganges River, the Himalayas in the background, and the locals, head back to our hotel for an airconditioned siesta, and then back out for dinner.

All of which is a very long-winded way of trying to explain away the fact that while I was in India, the yoga mothership, the grand poohbah of my professional career, and, even more mortifying, in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of India and…oh yeah…the entire universe, I did yoga a grand total of…once.

I cringe to admit this. If I wasn’t busy typing, I’d assume a mortified child’s pose.

I had imagined doing yoga twice a day, every day. I had pictured connecting with some yoga grandmaster and practically levitating under his tutelage, achieving new heights and depths of poses, attaining some inner spiritual luminescence, and maybe getting a tan whilst doing it. The reality looked instead rather puke-y and pallid and exhausted.

It was, perhaps, the greatest demise of my expectations that during the one time that I did undertake a physical practice, I got kind of injured. The practice stretched to nearly two and half hours (including a 20-minute Q&A afterward, which was actually my favorite part). There were a lot of hands-on adjustments. At some point, the teacher cranked me a supine twist and my lower back hurt pretty intensely for a few days.

Obviously, I’m glad there wasn’t any major damage, but getting hurt (even a little) was one more strike against my good ol’ expectations.

Somewhere between puking and the teacher tweaking my back, I got to thinking about expectations. And that whole yoga thing about not having any, being present, letting everything just be as it is, blah, blah, blah. Shouldn’t that also apply to doing yoga in India? Shouldn’t I practice what I preach even if I can’t practice yoga?

Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was hunger, maybe it was all the OM symbols, but it occurred to me that even though I couldn’t practice physically (in the way that I wanted/envisioned), I could still practice in some way. I could do pranayama (breathwork)—in fact I could pranayama geared toward the anxiety that came from my expectations not being met. I could, as the sign said, meditate OM. I could practice being present and letting my time in India be exactly was it was. Even if that meant that some of my time in India was spent puking my guts out and not being able to yoga.

Getting yogic about puking? Wow. Never thought I’d say that. :)