Your Picture

I ran the tip of my pointer finger
across the dusty glass, the once shiny square cover laid to rest
in a wooden frame too intricate for the
photo it held
of you.

You were smaller then – scrunched up,
holding your stuffed fish friend
Superhero t-shirt
Athletic shorts
Velcro shoes.
You were three. A new brother.

I captured you just as you scooted your back end from
the wooden platform
to the plastic part of the slide
Ready to descend down the curvy yellow plastic
into the muddy yard – the yard that had more grass
Before the slide, before you.

Over and over you climbed and you descended –
up the stairs, down the slide. Every time
holding your friend, every time

I wonder now: was it the top you loved most –
or the bottom – or the trip up or down?
Or was it that you got to hold on to something?
Was it that someone was watching you –
noticing you, holding this moment in time?
What was it that made you smile
that beautiful fall day
under the stinky pear tree?

Now, here it is – the threshold moment, needing to be dusted.
Placed on my piano next to my fiddle. I see you
again and again when I go to do my own playing.
Scrunched up just like you.


Losing Season

Maybe all of life is a losing season.
We start and we build, we want to hold on to
Love, connection, tribal belonging
Babies and husbands and flower beds
Talent. Discipline. Improvement.
We play instruments, run races, write papers.
Try to be a good daughter.
It all matters—it all feels like it matters so much.
We send our kids outside to build independence.
We tell them to watch for cars so that they don’t get killed.
But they will.
They will—and it all goes away.
Every day a cat dead or a dog lost. A friend with a cough, a lump, a feeling.
A tree loses its leaves. Over and over again.
iPad left in the rain—the last remnant I had
of my father’s voice, of his face when he looked at my sons.
Losing him was one thing. Losing those sounds—those ghost
Sounds. Feels unbearable.

Basketball season a total loss—except the last game
We beat the only other team that had lost all their games
And this does not feel like winning.
Baseball season a total loss. All the games lost.
And still my son walks off the field bright-eyed
And smiling. He got to play.
He got to take a swing. He got to throw pitches. He got to get runners out on first.
He is thrilled. He is muddy.
He’s on the team. The team for which there weren’t even any tryouts.
This is not an accomplishment by any stretch of an American’s imagination.
Maybe it isn’t accomplishment he seeks.
Maybe it is something else.

These legs, I train them—to run fast, to run a long time, to run up hills without stopping.
I’ll lose them. One day they won’t run anymore. They won’t carry me.

My husband, I talk to him and I listen. We sit together and we build
something between us. One day we won’t exist anymore as the two of us.
There will be one of us, or none of us. Where will it go—what we’ve built?

What will outlast the losing?

It all falls down? All of it?

Or is there a trace? Is there a shadow—something
at the end that shows where you once stood,
where you once breathed,
where you once slept and cried and prayed.
Your voice as it was when you were tiny
and when you were new to love
and when you had seen it all—where will the voices be kept?



I drove by.

The place where I ate the greasy burger
before giving birth to my youngest son.

The place my granddaddy took my brother and me when we were little
and said a quiet prayer to bless our hot dogs and milkshakes.
Orange booth seat secured to the floor, awkward distance
to the table for my young body.

The place where—driving past—I saw a man who could
have been my dad.
Patting his round belly; lifting himself
into his pickup truck. Toothpick
in gritted teeth.

Where everyone inside looks like someone who could
be at my family reunion.

Side of the highway. The only decent hot food between the city and my
quiet hometown for many generations.

I continued past,
remembering those tastes, tasting them
again, briefly, long enough to
understand it wasn’t what I needed
on this day.

Neither did I need to unwrap my food
from paper; to eat it in the car, handheld, fast,
messy, unconscious: meal over and barely satisfied.

I continued on
to the Asian café.
Warm washing towel—yes.
Hot tea meticulously prepared and poured.
Fermented soup.
Rice steamed and vegetables barely cooked.
Ice cold water.
Slow. Attention to each bite. The waitress’
face—a face my dad, granddad, perhaps even my brother
wouldn’t have accepted
food from. Too hard—the war, the either/or.

Not all things are worth passing down.

As monuments topple and people cling,
I see the space my ancestors have left behind:
Space I can move through, disloyal
to the once-living
loyal to the now-living (including me)
and the next-living. My children. Theirs.

The eclipse has passed too: sun covered
and uncovered. Within a time brief enough
to see in between meals. The darkness
came and went. The sun will pass too—

It’s only a star—
one placed just close enough to sustain
life, far enough away not to burn.
It’s our star
and we forget that it, too, and we
will end.

The mint comes at the end of the meal
with the check—the amount owed
for all
the service, the food: all grown
from the sun, the earth, our ancestors.

Some things are worth passing down. Yes.
And so we pass.

picking up pieces: a poem

Before you pick up those pieces

Sit down with them.
Hold them.

Touch the edges

Like they aren’t broken at all.

Examine them
shiny and dull
smooth and sharp

Like they aren’t broken at all.

Before you sweep them up
And throw them out
And tell the children to watch their step
And forget them

See the shape they make in the
a solar system in the floor
life on each planet piece:
the big bang

theory: they aren’t broken at all.


Letting yourself have what you have (or, the difference between heaven and hell.)

“You will find yourself on death’s doorstep one day. It’ll happen. There will come a moment in your life—and you don’t know when—and you will be about to pass from this realm.”

I was sitting at a retreat at a yoga center in the mountains of Massachusetts. Autumn was beginning to show off. The air had just turned crisp and chilly and the leaves on the trees were starting to turn—some had rushed to turn their brightest colors and others were hanging on to their green. I had come here to hear an author speak. An author whose books I ran across by accident and which have become quite meaningful to me as part of my health and self-care journey.

She had come down from the mini-stage where she sat for most of her talk and she was walking among us—about 200 women in yoga pants holding hot cups of tea and journals—and she was telling us a story about a time she thought she was about to die. She reminded us we’d all find ourselves in that day—that day where death is closer than ever.

She summarized the countless studies that have been done on end-of-life regrets. What do people most regret when they are near death? Over and over people keep saying that the things they regret most are that they were not more present for the life they already had. They don’t wish they had worked more or traveled more… they don’t wish for more anything really—they wish they had actually just shown up for the life they’d already been given.

She asked us to write down the things we’d regret if today were that day. If today I found out I had hours to live, what will I wish I had done more of? I thought about what I really love. The real pleasures of being in this body that I have on this earth where I’ve been planted. Here’s what I wrote:

Place my cheek against my kids’ cheeks and feel the softness of their skin.
Look—really look at my husband, especially in his eyes (he has beautiful eyes.)
Rub and smell the dog’s fur.
Run fast.
Write the stories that are in me.
Cook beautiful, tasty food.
Laugh with my friend.


Bean-dog made the list!

Listen to beautiful music.
Let my mom know I love her.

She asked us what we noticed about our lists.

What I noticed about mine was that it didn’t have anything on it that I keep thinking I want –the things that take up lots of mind-space (to be thinner, stronger, to travel more, to make more money, to get recognition, to be better at music than I really am…) What I noticed about my list was that it was full of everything that I already have. What I noticed about my list was that I already have everything that I really want.

She asked us a few times during the retreat: What will having what you think you want give you that you don’t already have? Stated differently: What will (being thinner, traveling more, making more money, etc.) actually give you of any value that you don’t already have?

This was not an exercise in gratitude. It was not an exercise in feeling bad or guilty for not being a better wife or mother or daughter. It was not an exercise burdened by any value judgments or criticism.

This was an exercise in noticing: Noticing what you really want and noticing what you already have.

The noticing led me to a deeper understanding that I already have everything I want. I wondered, then, about my times of discontent. Perhaps when I am dissatisfied or suffering, it is not because I really lack something. Perhaps I am suffering because I am not letting myself have what I already have.  Suffering, perhaps, is not noticing what is already there, not really showing up.

“Hell is wanting to be somewhere different from where you are.” (Stephen Levine as quoted by Geneen Roth.)

Where do I encounter hell?
The grocery store, for one. And if I’m honest, the rushed evenings at home after work: dinner, homework, baths, bedtime….

I can go to the grocery store and try to get through it as quickly as is humanly possible because ohmygod why are all these people so slow and unable to navigate aisles? Or I can go to the grocery store and notice the abundance of food available to me, notice my own abundance that I have enough money to feed my family.

I can yell at my kids to take their baths, do their homework, go to bed. Or I can run the bath water and hear how it sounds and feel it running on my hands. I can see my kids’ bodies in that bathtub and how they’ve grown. I can hear them splashing. I can smell their skin as its drying.

You get the picture.

I can get through life wishing I were somewhere else or I can live life. I can constantly try to jump ship or I can really inhabit the body I was given and the moment I’m in and the speck of earth where I’ve landed.

I can drop my attachment to all the things I think I’ll get when I get the things I think I want. I can drop the story about how things will be better when I weigh a little less or earn a little more. I can notice what’s right in front of me, what’s in me right now.

Right now? I’m writing the stories that are in me while I sit next to my dog. Birds are singing outside. My tea is warm. My body feels pretty good. I’m fairly certain my kids made it safely to school. There is breath in my body. I’m awake, present.

But what if your moment right now sucks? What if right now your moment is that the person beside you is sick and dying? What if right now you are sadder than you’ve ever been? What if right now your kids didn’t make it to school safely?

You can be present for that too. Regrets aren’t about the deck of cards you got dealt. Regrets are about not having been present for your life. When your life feels good and when your life feels bad. When you are faced with beauty and when you are faced with what feel like unbearable circumstances. For all of it, you can be present. You can, in the words of the author at the retreat, “come home to yourself” (Roth).

What an invitation.

I read a meditation once that said: “The divine lives in you, as you.” It resonated with me and matched what I’d learned early in my Christian faith: that God abides in me, that my body is a temple of God’s spirit. If that is true, then coming home to yourself is coming home to God. Being present in this body, on this earth, in this moment is communing with the one who made you. It is the highest spiritual practice. It is perhaps, the place you’ll find peace. Can you imagine that?


Where did I see God today? (a poem for the pre-occupied)

I recently started a new kind of spiritual discipline.  It is the (almost) daily practice of taking a few moments to ask and ponder the simple question: Where did I see God today?  Where did I hear him?  Feel him?  It has been a way for me to come back to a simple gratitude without the standard, “I’m thankful for…”  It helps me remember that God was there all along–that in the hardest moments, in the brightest ones, I was not alone.  Most days, I remember.  Most days I remember the moments I felt the presence of the eternal.  In a song.  A look on my child’s face.  A breeze.  Today, as I sat down to reflect, something different came forth–a realization that all the times he must have been nearby I was nowhere to be found.  I was the one who didn’t show up.  My head was swimming with thoughts of the past, the future.  So preoccupied with what could be, I failed to see what was.   I took myself so far out of the present that I seemed to not notice the Presence.

Where did I see God today?

Was he in the sunshine that warmed my skin
as I sat still on the park bench
stewing about the work inside the building across the field?

Was he in the faces across the table –
All the many tables that held my elbows up
In the difficult conversations today?

Was he in the food on my plate:
The bread and the greens and the cheese,
The glass of water?

Was he in my breath? The few, short, shallow breaths?
Was he in my tears? The ones that waited for home to come forth?
Was he in my children tonight?

Where did I see God today? Where was he?

Was he as there as everyone says he is? Can you feel alone with him beaming down on you? Can you feel trapped when the creator of freedom is on your plate?




In service to the song: a sociologist takes music lessons

“How does that note get to be in this song?”

It was one of the questions I asked at my last violin lesson. My teacher and I were looking at a song in the key of C minor: Besame Mucho’ (which I refer to privately as ‘that slinky Italian kissing song’.)   The sheet music in front of us had the notes and the guitar chords. He was teaching me bits and pieces of improvisation—particularly how to join in a song when others are playing by playing notes that belong in the song. And as I looked through the page finding patterns, there were two parts of it, two chords that didn’t seem to fit. So I asked: how can that chord belong in a song played in C minor?  It doesn’t seem to fit.

He said: “It’s a fifth of a fifth.”

Then I said:  “Oh, of course. How could I forget about that?!”

I actually did not say that. I said nothing. I cocked my head to the side and scrunched my lips and narrowed my eyes at him.  This means:  “You think I know what that is but I don’t and apparently it’s something that EVERYONE knows so let’s end the awkward silence with you explaining it already!”

Thankfully my teacher is good at reading body language because he sat down at the piano and started showing me what a fifth is and then where the fifth note of that note is and so on. And these are called the ‘roots’ of the chord. And haven’t I ever seen the ‘circle of fifths?’ (sure…)  And when it was all done, what I heard was:

It’s like you’re at a night club and your name isn’t on the list, but Bubba Junior is on the list and you know Stanley Joe who is friends with Bubba Junior so they let you in. You’re a friend of a friend. You get to be at the party because you know a guy who knows a guy who’s invited.

Then he showed me how eventually, when you travel far enough on the keyboard, you get all the way back to where you started—C. And on your journey there, you played every note (or at least every white key). Every single one of them belonged at the party via relationship to the note before. Every note got to be in the song.  Every one connected by their root.

“But”, he said, “you’re right—not every note sounds good in every part of the song.” He got out his guitar and played the chord I was looking at and then played one of the notes in the music with it. And some of them sounded off. He said “It’s unpleasant.  But, there are no wrong notes. There are notes that sound good and there are notes that are taking you to notes that sound good. This one that sounds kind of off because it’s just taking you somewhere else. It’s on its way. So when you play it in this sequence, you accept it because it got you exactly where it needed to get you. By itself it was unpleasant to your ear, but in relationship it works.”

What I heard:  There are no wrong moments. No wrong people visiting your life.  Only those that feel good—or those that are taking you somewhere else. There are ones that hurt, and they are allowed to be there because they are allowing movement. They are part of something bigger, not standalone moments. They are moments in relationship to your life song and so they are allowed.  The people, the moments–they are there in service to something greater, in service to the song.

See, this is what happens when a sociologist tries to learn music. She learns about music, sure. AND she remembers what she’s already learned about relationships and human connection:

Everybody gets to belong—because everyone is connected at their roots.
Every moment, every visitor—even the ones that hurt—get to be part of the story because they are taking you somewhere in service to your lifesong.
Why do those lessons matter so much to me? Because I am standing in or dangerously close to a dozen stories of pain and loss.  In many of the stories, I am in a position to lead others through the terrain.  This lesson reminded me of my opportunity to belong in my own story.  I can turn away from reality–avert my eyes and disconnect.   Or I can turn toward it, and allow it in the song, allow it to take me somewhere.  I can find root-level connection with the others in the story or I can hide.

If a slinky Italian kissing song can allow such connections in service to the song, then I suppose I can too.  Besame mucho…Amen.

besame mucho

He was all the ages he’d ever been.

Anne Lamott once said: “You are all the ages you’ve ever been.”

dad owen baby

It’s true:  My dad was all the ages he had ever been. It’s tempting to see and remember only the 70-year old guy who was overweight, his body wrecked by decades of smoking and alcoholism, high-cholesterol foods and too many orthopedic surgeries to count. The man who recently didn’t have enough energy to go up and down the stairs too many times but who still took my kids to the park, played legos with them in the floor, and found a way to always say yes to their requests. He was also the 35 year old father of two. He was the man with the suave blue convertible that he drove cross-country. The wild teenage boy who grew up on a farm and knew everything there was to know about hay and cattle and what made a good meal. He was the 20-something air force man who worked on Nightwatch and helped ‘catch’ the U2 spy plane as it landed on base. He worked all over the world—Germany, Greece, Mexico, Viet Nam—and always came home to us.

He’s the guy who, less than a year ago, shouted out “Daddy’s little angel!” at a professional event where I—his 35-year-old daughter-received an award in front of my peers. I know I’m lucky because I’m someone whose dad made sure I knew he was proud of me. I knew my dad loved me.

He’s the man who, despite having very little financial wealth, started saving money for my kids’ college from the day each of them were born.

He’s the man who took care of his parents—looked after them, their home, their affairs.

He was the rascal of a three-year-old who held the farm cat by the leg.  The first-grader with the less-than-stellar report card.

His heart broke once when his dad died in 1998. He sat at his dad’s bedside and fed him, talked to him, held his hand. He’s the man whose heart broke again when his son, my brother, died in 2000. He sat with him at Lynchburg General Hospital in the Neuro ICU, willing him back to life after his body had worked so hard to try to heal what couldn’t be healed from the drunk driving accident. He’s the dad who held space for my grief too—even when his was more than he could bear. He’s the man who carried around enormous guilt and anger for what he felt was his part in Chad’s death. He’s the man whose heart broke a third time when his mom died in 2011. He saw her every single day. He brought chocolate to her—the woman who kept her beautiful figure until her death at age 98 and swore by her diet of farm food and daily desert, savored with joy.

My dad spent his years after retiring from the military in service to his community. He worked at a place that was once called the sheltered workshop—a place of employment for individuals with disabilities. He was so proud of them too and brought me by his office many times when I was just a kid to show me the good work they were doing. He worked a maintenance job for the County—cleaning buildings, shoveling snow. He worked at the County nursing home, supporting the work of the nurses behind the scenes, getting up in the middle of the night to give them rides to work when it was snowy or icy outside. He was what they called a swamper with Summit Helicopters—very physical labor outdoors in high temps and on the road for months. He was a truck driver for Loomis Fargo. He was a volunteer with the Rescue Squad. He was a security guard at Bedford Memorial Hospital. He sat with ECO patients while they waited for a bed. He helped ailing people get in and get comfortable in the ED, holding doors open and getting wheelchairs for those who were struggling to move. He brought refreshments to the nursing staff and was great at ‘shooting the breeze’ with the doctors when the nights were too long and hard. He loved taking care of people and protecting them.


He was a man who knew great heights–literally and figuratively; and a man who knew great depths.  A man who experienced the joy of flight and the darkness of grief.

I think I knew that I was about to lose my dad. I had been in Florida for work the days before his surgery and I called him from the Tampa airport Sunday afternoon to wish him luck—and to say that I’d see him after he woke up. It’s no coincidence that my last really lucid conversation with him took place while I watched planes take off and land. We joked a bit—he sounded really good—and then he told me that he had eaten liver and onions for lunch at Forks Restaurant. I held my breath. Liver and onions was the last meal my granddaddy Woodrow ever ate. My dad fed it to him just days before he finally died. My dad knew the symbolism of that meal and I knew it. He never ate another real meal after that. Clear liquids only. Well, there were those powdered eggs…

In the hours and days following his surgery, he looked gray to me. His eyes were dreary and weak. His temperature wasn’t right. He felt like someone not getting better. I could feel myself detaching from him. He didn’t seem like my dad anymore. Each day I would leave the hospital and weep in my car before heading home—I had a sense that what was happening was much heavier than it looked. On Thursday from his room in the PCU, he began telling me about his biggest regrets—and checked in to see if I held any grudges against him. I promised him I did not. That I loved him. That I, too, had done things I wasn’t proud of. That I had let go of all that old pain. I skipped visiting on Friday—I went to my office in Roanoke, willing him to get better by me moving on with normal life.

Through all this, I was watching You Tube videos of the surgery he’d had; learning more about A-Fib; looking at diagrams of what his heart might have looked like. I asked Google questions about his chances of getting better. I wondered if he was ready to come home. I wondered if his body had really been ready for the surgery. I wondered why he wasn’t a candidate for the TAVR they were doing in Roanoke. He told me when he woke up on Monday that if he had known it would feel the way it did, he’d have rather died.  He said he’d try–for those two grandkids.

When he came home, we visited. I took my kids to see him. We brought easter dinner and he didn’t touch it. We brought sugar free jelly beans and they were never eaten. The last time I saw him he looked like he had aged 20 years in a week. His speech was like someone else’s.   His body was so tired. His breathing sounded like a man about to collapse. Short, labored, heavy. He couldn’t sleep. He didn’t have an appetite.   I knew something was wrong. Everyone said it was normal. The home health nurse, the folks at the doctor’s office. This was all to be expected.

Tuesday, I called him on my way home from work.  I told him that I had just put oil and coolant in my car, filled it up with gas, and replenished the wiper fluid. He liked it when my car was well-maintained. He said, “Mandi, I’m a mechanic. I always know what’s wrong and how to fix it. But something is wrong with me and I don’t know how it will be better. I don’t know what to do.”

The next day—Wednesday—the last day he lived, I called. Mom said he had had a better day—at least in the morning. He had gone outside and they got to sit on the porch together. The nurse was adjusting his meds to help with blood thickness. They felt like they were figuring out some new things to help him feel better. But by noon he was tired again and went to bed.   I didn’t go that night.   I felt in my gut I needed sunshine and rest. So I took a long walk alone and stayed home for the night. Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I got a call from my mom that he had collapsed. I raced to her home—just 5 minutes from mine—and we held each other as we believed we had lost my dad.   The ambulance took him to BMH. We followed a few minutes later. When we arrived, we met Dr. Dove—whom he loved—in the doorway. He was gone.

I kissed him on his forehead. On the place that had hurt so badly when he was in the hospital.

I stayed with my mom awhile and came back home at 6:30 Thursday morning. My oldest son, Owen, was awake. He asked me what happened and I told him Grandaddy Jimmy had died. He immediately threw up. I thought that was just about right. He was “#1 grandson” and my dad took care of him many, many days in his life. I still have notes from days my dad babysat him where he outlines, hour by hour, the activities of Owen. “Pooped, loose. Peed. Drank milk. Played with toes. Laughed. Pooped again. Spit up. Peed again. Went outside. Looked around.” This man who knew how the engine of the government spy plane looked was dedicating his days to the basic functions of my baby boy.


In the days following his death, my kids and I wrote him letters. They drew him pictures. We tucked those inside his pecan casket as we said our final goodbyes to the man who loved us so well. We dotted lavender oil on his forehead—the place where he felt so much pain. We said we were glad he has a new body now. And that we will see him again someday.

I tucked my youngest son, almost 5, into bed on Friday night. He asked where his heart was—where did it hurt when your heart hurt? So I placed his hand on his chest and he felt it. He said “I can feel it!” And then he said, “how can it be beating so hard when it is broken?”

My dad got my boys off the bus every afternoon. Life will not be the same for them when they arrive tomorrow  and there’s no granddaddy Jimmy waiting.

Some of my hardest moments in this life have been with him. He was a man in pain—physical and emotional. His hurt turned inward as he drank himself numb and it turned outward as he hurt me, my brother, and my mom in ways we will probably never fully understand.

Some of my deepest lessons have been learned in my relationship with him. Forgiveness. Grace. Real love.  You can only learn these lessons when you live in the open–vulnerable, human, real.

His death has broken my heart. And it has opened it. I have received enormous amounts of love, grace, support. My kids’ faith has grown 10 years in a matter of days.

My dad was an airplane mechanic, a janitor, a proud father, an alcoholic, a listener, a writer, a talker, a caretaker. He was a farm kid, an iconic older brother, a daredevil cousin, an affectionate gentleman. He was a playful grandfather and joke-teller.   He was courageous. He was broken-hearted.

I’m grateful that the last three years of his life were sober ones. They were years that he was fully present for what was happening. Not numb anymore. I’m grateful he died at home—not attached to tubes and wires. I’m grateful that of all the dads in the world, he was mine. I’m grateful that my kids got to see him almost every day of their young lives. I’m grateful that he was never shy about telling me he loved me and was proud of me. I’m grateful that he was a living, breathing example of grace.

My dad was all the ages he had ever been.  And now he is is ageless.  Now he knows what it is like to have peace. To be healed.  To have comfort.  The kind of peace he never knew in this life.


The magic of ‘maybe not’.


I went to a yoga class this weekend and the teacher was someone new to me. It was my same studio in my same small town, but I had never had a class with this particular instructor. She was so friendly and warm. And she was super-fit so I figured if I did everything just like her, then I’d be a size 2 by the morning.  I’d like to say the class was high-intensity, but I think that really I have just been away from the studio for about 6 months so laying in the corpse pose for more than 1 minute would have felt high intensity. It was all strength-building stuff which I love. Core and back and legs. Lots of shaking and clenched jaw and big breaths and sweating.

I really enjoyed the class. I was happy to be back on the mat noticing how my own body felt. Noticing my thoughts and releasing them. Finding the edges of my strength and then relaxing just a bit beyond.

But something was missing.

I’ve only ever had yoga instruction from one teacher (mostly). There have been one or two other teachers here and there, but mostly one woman has been my person. She was the first person to ever teach me the basics of yoga four years ago, just after my second son was born. She was the first person who ever witnessed me doing the crow pose. She’s the one who taught me warrior three and happy baby. She’s great at the physical part—noticing when you can shift a half a centimeter with one finger and change the way the whole pose feels. She’s great at the emotional and spiritual parts too. Her language is powerful and she kindly and boldly leads us through what feels like church with her centering scripts. Today, she used the analogy of a conversation with a dear friend to keep bringing us back to the present moment; encouraging us to give ourselves the same respect.

And there’s one phrase she says many, many times during class. And I almost took it for granted until I went to a class without her. It’s the one thing that was missing with the new teacher: “Maybe not.”

My main teacher will guide us into a pose. She’ll then suggest that maybe we bend our arm. Or maybe we set our gaze upward. Or maybe we bend our leg. Maybe we reach just a bit beyond where we are. And then she says, every time: “or maybe not.” Maybe not is code for ‘you don’t have to do what the teacher says.’

It’s another way of reminding you about what’s most important on the mat. What’s most important is not what you think you should do or what the thin lady next to you is doing or even what you did yesterday on the mat. It’s what your body says to do today. So she can kindly suggest it, and then she kindly gives you permission to take whatever shape feels good to you. Maybe you want to do this standing stretch thing, or maybe not. Maybe you should be in child’s pose resting instead.

Maybe not is permission to choose. It’s the anti-should.

‘Maybe not’ is a reminder to listen to your best teacher:  not the woman in the front of the room, but the body you are living in right now.

It’s a reminder that yes, you can trust yourself to know what shape you need. You know when to push and when to relax. You know what will serve you well and what won’t. And you can trust that as long as you’re on the mat, there’s no judgement for the choice you make.

There was a series of core work that the new teacher led us through at the end of our practice. Lots of heavy breathing in the room and a little grunting because we were doing a pose called ‘boat’. It sounds lovely, I know. Relaxing, almost. Boat! I’ll do that! It’s like vacation! But it’s really more like abs on fire with your legs in the air.  After the third round of these boat things, I was wondering how many more times she’d want us to do it. And then I remembered ‘maybe not.’ So she said once again to lift our legs in the air and I said out loud, ‘or maybe not.’ And everyone in the room giggled and exhaled and relaxed. And I gave myself permission to get out of the boat.

I grew up involved in sports like track and basketball and I would hear daily that I needed to push myself. We used to practice so hard that we’d throw up and our coaches and teammates applauded. So there’s this old story-line in my head from that—and probably also from some of my early workplaces—that says if you don’t push yourself to exhaustion you aren’t really working hard. You’re weak. Lazy. Never going to get any better. Destined to lose. There’s no room for ‘maybe not’ because we were too scared of not improving, not winning.  Giving up.

My journey for the last year has been about trusting myself again. It’s never God I lose faith in. God I can trust for sure. When I’m struggling—physically or emotionally—it’s usually because I’ve quit trusting myself. Or I’ve quit listening long enough to even know what my gut is saying. Every day provides hundreds of temptations to turn the volume up so loud that we can’t hear. Every day also provides hundreds of opportunities to get quiet. The magic of ‘maybe not’ is the magic of choice. The magic of maybe not is that you have all you need and you are enough—no matter what you choose. You have permission to go fast or slow. You have permission to push or pull. Either choice is the right choice. You’re enough—with or without the headstand twisty pose.   In or out of the boat.



fiddle lesson #2

My husband and I haven’t bought gifts for one another at Christmas in probably 8 or 9 years.  The first few times it didn’t go especially well (like, the year he bought me a VACCUM, for instance.)  So when, on Christmas morning, he walked in with a fiddle-shaped package, I was thrilled.   I’ve had the slightest music-crush on Amanda Shires (wife of Jason Isbell, whom we’ve seen many times) for some time.  The violin is like a voice–when I hear it, it sings to me.  And I’ve been wanting to learn it.

As the kids played with their new toys and slime on Christmas morning, I watched youtube videos and learned where the notes were, how to hold the thing, what the rosin was for,  how to tighten the bow, all of that.  I could read music because my mom taught me when I was little and I had learned other instruments growing up–piano, clarinet, guitar.  But this fiddle is different.  You don’t play by sight so much as you play by feel and sound–two things I’ve never been trained to do and two things that don’t come naturally.

I signed up for a lesson at the music story where the instrument was purchased.  My first lesson, titled on my calendar ‘fiddle lesson #1’ was just OK.  The instructor talked an awful lot about himself, all the instruments he played, how long he’d been playing, how much his fiddle was worth, and how he hated playing ‘second fiddle’ in the orchestra.  I can’t say I learned anything  about playing that I hadn’t learned on youtube–which was disappointing because the point of lessons is to have real-time feedback.

A friend told me about another place that gives lessons so I gave them a try.  ‘Fiddle lesson #2’ showed up on my calendar and I went.  As I waited, I spied on the lesson in the next room over.  The door was wide open so I could hear the teacher with the student.  He had her sing a little and play a little.  And they talked about how music was like a language.  When you’re new at reading words, you register the steps slowly and methodically.  That’s letter ‘C’.  And the ‘A’ and ‘R’.  That makes the sounds k-a-r.  Car!  Once you’ve been reading a while, you see those letters in a sentence and it’s automatic.  The car turned the corner.  You don’t even consciously think about it.  That’s how it is with music, he said.  Right now you’re still registering each note and it’s a lot of work.  But it won’t always be as long as you keep reading.  I thought, yeah.  That’s exactly right.

It was my turn.  The teacher asked a lot about me.  Where did I work?  What kind of music did I like?  What about the fiddle did I enjoy?  What did I want to learn?  He looked at my instrument and decided that the pegs needed to be more ‘sticky’.  This would help it tune better.  So he worked on sticky-ing up my fiddle pegs.  And while he did, he explained how it was built, how it was put together.  Why the substance he put on it would work the way it did.  Then, while he worked, he said he wanted to hear what I could play.  So he handed me his instrument.  It was old and beautiful and sounded amazing.  I played one of the few songs I’ve taught myself, “Just As I Am”–an old hymn that was played at my wedding.  I did a terrible job because I was nervous.  And I was giddy because I was actually enjoying myself.

After he finished the work on my pegs, we talked a little.  About the ways you could hold the bow and the physics of it.  Where on the strings made what kinds of sounds and the physics of that.  He drew pictures of where the notes hit and we talked about frequencies and pitch and why certain things sound good to our ears and other things don’t.  He showed me a few tricks about how to learn chords and it was mostly math and science.  He tuned my instrument by ear while he played it.  He made me some worksheets and gave me some real homework to do.  We talked about posture–playing with confidence–and he even referenced the TED talk by Amy Cuddy.

Then, before I left, he said: “Every year or two I pick up a new instrument and try to learn it from scratch.”  Why?  He did it because he wanted to always remember what it was like to be a student–to not know anything about what you were doing.  He said he thought it helped him be a better teacher.  I said I thought it was working.  I took my homework, packed up my newly sticky fiddle and went on my way, saying I’d call to set up the next one.

An hour of my life couldn’t have been better spent anywhere else.  He taught me about trust when he handed me, a novice, his antique instrument.  He taught me about the importance of being a student, especially in our quest to lead.  He reminded me that I could, in fact, learn something new.  He created a space where I could have fun doing it.

A few good friends have reminded me about two things I could stand to do a little more of in 2016: To start fully receiving the good that comes my way; and to play a little more.  I’m grateful that this tricky little instrument will allow me to do both.