I’m sure by now you’ve seen or heard about the gratitude challenge that’s been going around on social media. It works like this: every day for a set period of time, you write down three things that you are grateful for. I decided to take part in this challenge with my group of yoga teacher trainees in Monterrey, Mexico on our private Facebook page and also in a little notebook on the coffee table with my husband. I was curious to find out if its effects were as positive as people had described. Several of my friends stated that their participation in the experiment had noticeably increased their feelings of well-being, positivity and happiness. Being ‘sciencey’ at heart, I love conducting personal experiments, so I gave it a try. Every day for two weeks I wrote down three things I was grateful for, describing why I was grateful for them. The added layer to my experiment is that I shared my gratitudes with only a small group of people, the fifteen trainees and two assistants in Mexico in one, and just my husband in another. Doing the experiment with people I knew well was a component I found especially useful. It held me accountable to people who were counting on me as their motivation to contribute just as I counted on them for the same. This added layer of intimacy lent a sense of camaraderie and community to the exercise. The change of state I’d experience after ten minutes of sitting down to write my gratitudes and read the gratitudes of my students or my husband, was noticeably positive. I would often finish this exercise feeling more relaxed, content, and grounded. I’d re-oriented my thoughts toward valuing the beautiful people, things and opportunities in my life, but I’d also been led deeper into relationship with the people whom I shared the experiment with and had gotten to know the most valued details of their lives. Just as the testimonies of my friends confirmed, the effects of this work often carried over into my feeling more uplifted and positive in other activities throughout the day.
As a continuation of this gratitude experiment and in anticipation of Thanksgiving, the following blog post is an extended musing on some of the places, people and circumstances that I’ve been exposed to and to which I feel gratitude. Although seemingly unrelated, their common thread has been that every one, as an element of personal influence, has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and encouraged me to look at my life from a different perspective, often revealing uncomfortable truths and personal blind spots. This blog pays tribute to three such catalysts for personal change: the opportunities I’ve received for personal growth in Monterrey Mexico; a taxi driver in Monterrey I had the fortune of riding to the airport with; my childhood home and the nostalgic longing and emotional ambivalence it invokes.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Monterrey, Mexico. I go about once a month for an extended weekend to teach yoga workshops and teacher trainings in Spanish to the yogis living there. Teaching in Mexico is one of the most fulfilling things I do. It’s a chance to step into another culture and speak the language of its people. My students there are extremely hard-working, high-performing people with families, demanding careers and big dreams. I’ve grown so much over the years from these relationships. After each weekend teaching in Monterrey, I leave with a feeling of both great fulfillment and also total exhaustion. Teaching between 4-9 hours each day in Spanish is one of the most rigorous mental workouts I put myself through. For this reason, the trip is often anticipated with anxiety. I’ll have nightmares the night before that I completely forget how to speak Spanish and, in front of all the students, am rendered incapable of expressing myself coherently or intelligibly. This dream, I’ve come to suspect, signifies my fear of losing control and failure – a fear that haunts me frequently and to which I’ve adapted many a healthy and unhealthy strategy in overcoming. This fear has been an ongoing defining aspect of my personality and is probably largely responsible for many of my strengths as well as many of my weaknesses. Thanks to the personal work I’ve done over the years in therapy and yoga, I’ve come to see it as one of my greatest teachers.
The Taxi Driver
In addition to being mentally exhausting, traveling around Monterrey alone can be a little nerve-wracking. Statistics show that Monterrey has become much safer in just the past few years, but its people still often fall victim to acts of terror and violence by extortionist kidnappers and drug cartel related activity. It’s not uncommon to see armed military police riding in the open air in the back of jeeps toting their high-powered automatic weapons. In addition to the risk of falling victim to crime, Monterrey is also know for its traffic clogged highways and aggressive drivers. This last trip, coming home after teaching the final weekend of the YogaWorks 200hr Teacher Training, I took one of the most harrowing taxi rides to the airport yet. It was a ride that scared me, but that also inspired a deeply transformative paradigm shift at exactly the point of time that I needed it. On this fifty minute car ride, by sheer force of personality, the taxi driver jolted my attitude toward my work back into the correct lane. The timing was exactly right. The past year of traveling and teaching trainings and workshops all over the world, including eight separate visits to Monterrey alone, had sent me on a fast track to burn out and exhaustion. Here’s a little bit about him and what he taught me:
The taxista was a short, stout, and exuberant man in his early 60s with an infectious love for driving and singing. The songs he blared over the radio were of a unique style of Mexican music known as Corridos Norteños. These songs sound an awful lot like polka music which was popular in my hometown of Wisconsin growing up, but the stories told through the lyrics of these songs can put even the most racy country music – another familiar form of music from my childhood – to shame. In Corridos Norteños, the singers, always men, sing about scandalous love stories, sordid sexual encounters, extreme drunkenness, and often violent run ins with the law and vigilante justice. I normally request no music at all during taxi rides. They tend to make me queasy and the driver’s choice of music often furthers my queasiness. However, this guy was enjoying himself so much – he knew every word to every song and sang along with such gusto – that to my surprise I started to enjoy myself too. His passion was infectious. In the rearview mirror I watched his bright eyes dart across the unfolding highway, hunting out his next ninja maneuver across lanes. Every once in while he would steal glances back at me to gauge my reaction to his performance. Since I couldn’t help but smile, he seemed very pleased with himself, not only because he was having fun, but because he saw that I was too.
In addition to relishing in Corridos Norteños, this taxista also clearly loved to drive. With athletic aggression and grace, he found rapture in the thrill of changing lanes quickly. At one point he darted sharply across five lanes of traffic and, bubbling up over with joy, exclaimed “Here I go! Here I go! I take without permission! It’s just me and the wheel!” He whipped our seatbelt-less tiny green taxi in and out of traffic singing and swaying with the movement of the music and vehicle. “It’s the music”, he exclaimed. “It’s all about the music!” In most cases as these my stomach would start turning, but in this case it didn’t because there was nothing erratic to the way he drove. On the road, he had carved out for himself a defined point of view with an approach that was practiced to the point of mastery. He was not in a hurry. He was in a state of flow. For the first time that day, I opened my eyes to the sprawl of the city’s luxurious towers, its forest of billboards masking views of the mountains selling lifestyles out of reach to the majority of the city’s population. Off in the distance, Monterrey’s majestic mountains cloaked the city protectively in a space defining embrace. The day brightened, but not just with the rising sun.
As the traffic got worse, he became more energized. It was game time and he was in his element. The swerving and dodging prior to that point had been a warm up for what would now be applied technique to his chosen art form. At one point, he gleefully exclaimed, “These people all decide to go for a drive at the same time! Copy cats! I’m out for enjoyment, while they go to work!” Intermittently he would take a break from singing along to the songs on the radio, turn down the volume, look into the rear view mirror with a twinkle in his eye and invite conversation with odd and provocative statements and questions. These ranged from topics like where I was from followed with whether I had brought Ebola to Mexico; if I had found a Mexican boyfriend, to which I replied that I had a husband, to which he replied by repeating the question; if I thought the doctors in Africa were conducting experiments on the poor African people, to which I replied that to the best of my knowledge they were there to help; and if I had children, to which I replied no, to which he followed up quickly with the question of when I would have them. After each little conversation, he’d take a break from talking to me to re-immerse himself in songs and steering. At one point he told me that the people of Monterrey love everyone who visits them, that everyone will be very happy when I come back, but to kindly not bring them Ebola. He also expressed hope that God would bless me with a strong little boy or a beautiful little girl.
I’m grateful for the timing of this ride to the airport. This taxi driver couldn’t have stepped into my life at a better moment. He scared the shit out of me, but he also woke me up and reminded me of the passion we share for our work. He reminded me, that like his, most days, my work doesn’t even feel like work, but rather a form of cathartic self-expression. I was reminded of how much I’ve grown over the past year, how empowering my experiences had been, how fortunate I am to have a job that I adore. I consider myself to still be a relatively new yoga teacher – I’ve only been teaching for 7 years. Someday I hope to demonstrate the mastery of the teachers I look up to and study with and still hold onto the kind of passion I share with the driver. It was an inspiring encounter and a lesson that exhaustion itself can become an object of gratitude when viewed as the byproduct of a career fueled by love.
The timing of this encounter was also fortunate since earlier that morning I was feeling pretty sad. I had barely slept the night before which is a common occurrence before an early flight. The past few months of teaching class in New York during the week and then traveling to teacher trainings each weekend had left me with only one or two days off per month. As I approach burn out from the past year of traveling, it’s been hard to find time for rest, introspection and community. In addition, I’ve noticed over the years, that of all the seasons, fall brings on the most overwhelming feelings, most notably sadness after my mother passed away in 2011.
My Childhood Home
It’s during this time of year that I find myself feeling an extreme longing for my childhood home in Wisconsin, a place that I feel estranged from now that my mother is gone. My parents divorced when I was 17. In the settlement, my mother kept the house which I had spent my entire life in and which sits right next to a lake I played near all throughout childhood. My ‘vacations’ from college and then later my early adult life were often spent going back to my mother’s house. I could never think of another place I’d rather be. The idyllic setting of my childhood was always a much needed change of scenery from the stress of living in New York. In that place I found complete security. However, since my mother’s passing a little over 3 years ago, I don’t go there anymore. My stepfather, with whom I’ve had a somewhat strained relationship, still lives there. With the absence of my mother, this nest no longer feels like the safe haven it once was. Along with this loss of place has come a loss of identity.
My home was especially beautiful in the fall. I miss the smell of the leaves freshly fallen, the view of the choppy lake after the algae dies, the fall wind rocking the surface of the water taunting you to take your chances in the canoe where it would then proceed to frustrate the endurance of your arms, back and will to move forward. In my bones, fall signifies the approach of the holiday season and all the holiday traditions that resonated through my family over the years. It signifies a time of emotional ambivalence on one hand and deeply felt security on the other. I feel safe with the people who shaped me from my beginning, but at the same time faced with the uncomfortable challenge of trying to fit the circle peg of my adult life into the square hole of my upbringing. I realize now that so much of that ambivalence revolved around my relationship with my mother. She was my most influential role model for how to show and receive love unconditionally, how to look for the best in people and how to forgive. She was also a devout, conservative Evangelical Christian whose daughter had grown up to become a New Yorker, ex-theatre actress turned Buddhist-leaning yoga teacher. She loved me unconditionally, but who I had become made her uncomfortable. I shared the details of my life with her in small and manageable doses. I long for more time to continue sharing, but our relational exploration has been forever stalled. My gratitude lies with knowing that my mother will feel close to me even in death if I continue to explore our story. Our story will continue to evolve for as long as I pursue understanding it and myself.
The gratitude challenges on Facebook invited me to remember all that has gone well for me in my life, but more interestingly, they also beckoned my attention to the challenges I’ve faced. They’ve inspired me to reflect on how these challenges have shaped me, how they have given me the strength to inquire more deeply into who I am today, and how they have reminded me of who I want to become. I’m grateful for the texture these challenges have given my personality making my rough edges smooth, my hard spots soft and my blind spots seen.
Shortly after I finished writing this blog post I sent it off to friends for feedback and proof-reading and quickly left my apartment in a hurry to get on the subway and head downtown for an appointment. Once underground, the train came right away. Knowing that I was running late, I took out my iPhone to check the time. Glancing at the screen, my heart stopped when I saw the notification printed across the locked screen. It said, ‘Mom: missed call’. My mother’s home phone number is still listed in my cell phone contacts under the contact name ‘Mom’. Since my stepfather lives there, I figured he must have called me, which he never does. Upon exiting the subway, I checked to see if he had left a voice mail, but he hadn’t. Perhaps he had accidentally dialed my number, but that’s not likely from a land-line. Perhaps he had hoped to talk to me in person. Perhaps he was feeling sad like me and wanted to hear the timber of my mother’s voice in mine.
I’ve never had a strongly held opinion about the existence of ghosts, however I tend to think it’s more interesting to believe in their existence than it is to deny it. In this instance, I know for certain that the timing of this (coincidence or not) must spur me to the kind of action my mother would take – an act of forgiveness and love. I will call my stepfather and make time for a visit this Christmas. I will go back to the house I grew up in, I will trudge through the snow and step out onto the frozen lake to listen for the sounds of ice shifting like the snap of steel cables and the sonar of giant whales deep below. I will enjoy a meal and a conversation with my stepfather and probably share a few stories and tears with him as well. My mother will be there. She will be there in the house, she will be there in the snow, she will be there in the lake, and the life inside it all. She called. I will answer.