Riptides

Photo by Jamie Curd on Unsplash

For those who grow up next to the water, learning to swim is a natural and necessary skill, especially if you find yourself caught in a riptide.

I was thinking about this recently. Not because I’m thinking about going for a swim in the ocean anytime soon (sadly) but rather how getting out of a riptide is similar to anytime we’re faced with a challenge or going through a period of struggle.

As I pondered riptides, I realized I wasn’t entirely certain of the mechanics of these magnificently strong currents, or how you get out of one. I enlisted an expert on the matter — my fella, who grew up in Darwin, Australia and who is well-acquainted with the ways of the waves. “What should you actually do if you get caught in a riptide,” I asked.

“Don’t swim against it,” he said immediately. He paused, then added, “You should actually try to swim diagonally.”

I considered this for a moment. “But what if you try to swim against the riptide?”

He shrugged as if the answer was obvious. “You’ll tire yourself out.”

I let that sink in. Swim against the riptide and you’re sure to tire yourself out. Give into the riptide and you risk being carried out to sea.

Life is full of riptides. It’s the one thing we can count on but we have the tools to navigate them. Next time you’re caught in a riptide (figuratively or literally), don’t tire yourself out by swimming against it nor let yourself get swept away from the shore. Breathe, remain calm, then swim diagonally.

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More Than Words On A Page: My NaNoWriMo Experience

 

It was the last week in November and there I was… Hovering somewhere at about 49,100 words. Just 900 words left and soon I would achieve the unthinkable. I was about to “win” NaNoWriMo. For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo (the shortened way of saying ‘National Novel Writing Month’) is an annual challenge where writers around the world dedicate the month of November to working on a novel and reaching a 50,000-word count. For years, I stood looking over the fence at all of these dedicated writers and always thought, “One year I’ll do that…” Finally, after years of lurking, not only did I find myself in the company of these dedicated writers, I was also one of the those who celebrated when my word count crossed over 50K words.

I think one key factor in reaching that goal was my ability to let go of perfection and my inner critic. I let go the idea of doing this whole thing “right” which makes sense since there’s really no right way to write – you only need to sit down and just write. I approached this month of writing with a goal of simply allowing myself to enjoy the writing and creative process, something that I’m practicing more in general. Along with returning to the pure joy of the creative process, I discovered a few other benefits of participating in NaNoWriMo beyond getting words on the page:

  • I learned how to stop worrying and love the writing process. As a result of letting go of perfection, I also found myself detaching from any other perceived outcomes such as getting published. A few people asked me about this to which I answered with what I’ve already said here. In removing such pressure, I gave myself space and permission to enjoy a creative activity while learning a thing or two about the writing process, like that it can be fun. Who knew?
  • Yours in the struggle. I had a college professor who used to sign off his emails with ‘Yours in the Struggle.’ I thought of him and that signature as I connected with other writers who were right there with me. These “wrimos” who encouraged me to keep pushing forward, one word at a time, really exemplified the spirit of community. As an example, I spent quite a bit of time with @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter where a Sprint Leader would provide writing prompts and we would “sprint” (that is, just write however much you can in a specified timeframe – a fantastic way to run past that pesky inner editor). There was more than one occasion where I thought, “I’ll just pop in for a half-hour of sprinting” then several hours later I’d still be exchanging virtual high fives and words of encouragement to other writers. When you’re trying to write, having a little company feels good and this month reminded me of that.
  • Learning to focus on one idea at a time. As someone who can become easily fascinated by new subjects, hobbies, or ideas, I often find myself dreaming up new projects and exploring new interests, which isn’t a terrible trait but it can also be a challenge to manage! Committing to one story allowed me to really hone in and focus my energy on this single project. Not to say other ideas didn’t still pop up during the month, but I found that taking note of these thoughts would not only help me remember and at the same time, felt like a practice in mindfulness.
  • Speaking of mindfulness… Now that NaNoWriMo is over and I’ve put away my novel for a short break, I find myself continuing to wonder about my main character, her friends, family, and the story itself. Each day, I’m keeping all of my senses alert and open to any detail that might become a thread, however small, in the story that I am trying to create. Sounds a bit like mindfulness, don’t you think?
  • Writing became a habit. I’ve always wanted to be able to call myself a writer but up until this year, I’ve had a hard time doing so. I couldn’t truthfully call myself a writer if I didn’t write often, much less every day. But this month supported me in fostering a habit and need to write. If I don’t at least write a few pages each day – whether professionally or personally – I start to feel itchy.

If you ever dreamt of writing a book or simply need a boost or support to get you started, I do recommend joining the NaNoWriMo community. Visit www.nanowrimo.org to learn more and get inspired! Perhaps even tap me as a writing buddy if you decide to craft your own story in 2019…

Do You Still Do Yoga?

 

When I first started practicing yoga in the early 2000s, when I was in high school, I must have realized this practice had so much to offer me. I couldn’t really articulate it but I knew something was happening each time I practiced. Back then, I only had a VHS copy of “MTV Yoga.” Yes, that MTV, the channel that used to play music videos – and this yoga practice was led by Kristin McGee and hosted by Lori from The Real World (the Back to New York season, in case you’re curious). Yoga wasn’t as readily available as it is now, especially in a small town, so this tape was really my only way of starting a yoga practice – but it was my practice and it was helping me cultivate valuable skills in how to cope with the ups and downs of life, which I desperately needed. My astute parents recognized that this yoga thing was helpful to their anxious and easily-stressed out child so a few nights a week they dismissed me early from farm duties (a privilege for any farm kid) so I was able to have the house to myself and practice along with that beloved VHS tape. That display of love was and still is not lost on me. After being released from chores, I set out to my ritual. I’d clean myself up then change into my comfy sweats and loose-fitting t-shirt, fire up the VCR, pop in the VHS, roll out my purple Gaiam yoga mat (still in use more than 15 years later) and would “get to work.”

Following my practice, after a restful savasana, I’d put away my mat and then often would take myself out for a walk down the side road that runs alongside my parent’s farm. This walk gave me time to enjoy the lingering peace I felt from my yoga practice, not to mention give me a break from the anxiety that had a way of quickly overcoming my mind and body. As I was living my final chapter of high school, I was sitting on the edge of transition and before long would be moving away to Minneapolis for college so these walks were also a time for me to take in my home – my roots as my mom always reminds me. The farm, the soybean and corn fields, the woods that was and always will be a sanctuary for me. This 17-year-old wandering up the gravel road was actually pretty wise for taking this time and for taking it all in – but she didn’t entirely realize it.

I’ve come to recall these memories lately as friends and family ask me, “Do you still do yoga?” I assume they mean the physical practice. The short answer is yes. I still do yoga. Of course, I have a more drawn-out answer. After moving to Manhattan over a year ago, I made an intentional decision to not pursue teaching – not right away. For the previous five years in Minneapolis, I had taught a variety of formats at different venues and the problem was that teaching became my priority; not being a student. I craved simply being a student again and not always have lesson planning at the back of my mind. I needed to take a step back and return to my roots. I needed to channel that 17-year-old walking slowly up the country road.

Quite fortunately, I came to find a beautiful studio called Yoga Shanti within a month of moving to Manhattan. I was immediately drawn in by each teacher’s intelligent sequencing, attention to subtle detail and authentic nature. It also helped that the teachers were simply warm and welcoming, a standard that should be easy to meet but unfortunately in today’s commercialized and saturated yoga world, this is harder to come by than you would think – but I digress. Practicing with these teachers helped me land back into the yoga practice I so love and now realize I had lost in my years of teaching – ironically, I was invited to reconnect with the very ideas that I was trying to teach. Releasing the burden I put on myself while teaching brought me back to the healing that is possible in being a student who is learning how to simply connect mind and body. The idea of mind-body connection is so simple we think it’s abstract. This is one of the first lines I heard from my teacher, Matthew Sanford. I think of that often. Especially when I’m thinking too much.

While I don’t exactly have a quiet country road to walk down here in Manhattan, I have different ways to find yoga in my life today. I have come to realize that my yoga practice takes many different shapes and not necessarily ones you make with your body. I found it once talking to a homeless man named Shawn on the corner of 29th and 5th who slept on the church steps. He hoped to clean up his act enough to be permitted to see his adult daughter and grandchild in Baltimore. He didn’t even ask for money or anything from me. I think he just wanted someone to listen to his story. I’m also the weirdo who while standing shoulder to shoulder with the mess of humanity that is the New York City subway, I can’t help but smile that this too in its own way is yoga. We’re united by the struggle and we’re in it together. Most exciting to me is that taking a step back from teaching yoga and allowing myself to be a student has opened space for me to revisit a lifelong yet often ignored passion – my writing practice. For me, this is just another vehicle to connect with the realization, peace, and healing that I discovered was possible back when I first “did yoga.”

So, do I still do yoga? Yes. In more ways than you can even know – and probably in even more ways that I have yet to realize.

Wisdom in Pencil Shavings

colored pencil shavings

On this hot NYC summer day, I’m recalling a time earlier this year when winter was dragging its feet and holding spring hostage. People started to wonder if they had unknowingly fallen asleep, missed summer and woke up in winter again. As you might imagine, after months of cold, wet and dreariness, a person’s spirits need a good lift – especially when the snow starts falling from the sky when the calendar clearly says it’s time for spring… The good news is that this type of heaviness can be countered by pure nourishment, which I personally find in arts and crafts. Sketching, making a collage, even coloring – these all transport me back to childhood when we did things purely for exploration and play.

On one of these long winter nights, I rolled out my yoga mat to set up my arts and craft station. (Yes, I use my mat for practicing poses and crafting – it’s all yoga to me.) I pulled out my pencil sharpeners and emptied them out on the hardwood floor. As I looked down at this dusty little pile, it occurred to me that these messy, colorful shavings looked pretty cool sitting there. At that moment I decided I could probably transform this perceived pile of junk into something fun so I gathered some rubber glue and a piece of durable black construction paper then began to slather rubber glue across the page while sprinkling the spirals of shavings all over. One harvest wasn’t enough to complete the project so I would need to carve all of my pencils to an articulate, sharp point. As I continued to sharpen and glue layers of colored pencil dust to the page, I had a couple of thoughts about creativity and nourishment:

  • This thing that I made isn’t really a good piece of art at all – not in a consumer sense, anyway. But, what’s affirming about the process is simply the joy and lightness of creativity. The result doesn’t always need to become a money maker nor does anyone even need to see it. Something can be made strictly for nourishment – a valuable outcome, too. This nourishment is important to seek, identify and keep close, especially when life begins to feel heavy, grey and dull. We can’t change the fact that we’re experiencing this third winter nor can we mute the grind and noise of the city. We can only take care of ourselves with the tools we have at hand. This feels like true, authentic self-care – which we are all worthy of.
  • The other thing I contemplated was the literal messiness of this project: the glue, scraps of paper and in this case, pencil shavings. Initially, I approached the project with a careful and clean manner, gingerly patting down the shavings to the glue. Then I realized the actual messiness is a big part of the fun and reason for collecting pencil shavings in the first place. So, with gleeful abandon and hands covered in glue and colorful dust, I felt the joy, peace, magic, and nourishment that creating – for the pure sake of creating – reveals in and for me.

All of that. From a humble pile of colored pencil shavings. We all have projects that give us this pure sense of nourishment – our own version of some glue and colored pencil shavings. What’s yours?

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My crafting station/yoga mat and art project

 

Unravel

Photo by Terra Evans on Unsplash

A little while ago I was speaking to one of my dear friends in Australia. She is what I would describe as a touchstone, term for someone who restores faith in the goodness of humanity. This person helps unwrap and untangle any knots around my heart and mind, and I always walk away from our conversations feeling lighter and inspired. Every time I speak to her, I can’t help but feel like I’ve shifted and grown in some way.

During one of our phone calls, we spoke of our current events and news in our respective corners of the earth. In this conversation, I shared that I recently felt a sense of ‘unraveling’ happening within me. This sensation is exciting, yet a bit unsettling. As I explained, this internal unraveling made me feel like I was on the cusp of some change or realization. I rambled for a bit about this feeling and of course, didn’t really think I made much sense at all. But that’s the great thing about this friend; she’s patient and a champion listener. (Like, if listening were an Olympic sport, she’d most certainly qualify and probably get to stand on the podium). Once I had finished spilling fragments of thoughts, there was a pause. I could hear my friend contemplating from 10,000 miles away. Then she mused, “When you were using the word unraveling, I couldn’t help but think about a thread when you’re knitting. When a thread unravels, you use that bit to create something new.”

Wow. Once again my touchstone leaves me with such a simple image but one that I keep returning to on days when I feel like I’m coming undone. Sometimes this feeling of coming undone is exciting because something is about to change. Just like it can be unsettling because something is about to change. Unsettling or exciting, the unraveled thread can be used to create something new and beautiful. One of my yoga teachers, Matthew Sanford, once told me that unraveling is part of the process of realization and growth but warned that the trick is to not become too attached or concerned with the feeling of unraveling; allow it to be part of the experience without it becoming the focus. So, therein lies the practice. We’re all going to experience a sense of coming apart as we grow. The practice is to remain aware and even grateful for the unraveling but to stay loose because if you pull or hold too tight, you might unravel the whole sweater.

Comedy & Humanity

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

Comedy has been a lifelong fascination for me. Between Saturday Night Live, Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, countless movies, and far too many others to name, I’ve always felt a deeper connection to the world of comedy beyond the laughs. For the last couple of years, I have been asking myself why comedy strikes me so deeply. It feels like there’s more happening than we realize. But what is it exactly, and why does it matter to humanity?

As a personal project and just for fun, I’ve decided to dig deeper and start exploring these questions. Of all people, I have to give credit to Jeff Ross, probably best known for his role as “The Roastmaster General.” On the first night of Hanukkah last year, my friend and I attended An Evening with Judd Apatow at 92Y where he performed new bits, shared videos from projects and told stories. Near the end, he brought up Jeff Ross for a conversation, during which they talked about the HBO show “Crashing” starring Pete Holmes and Jeff said something to the effect of “Even though it’s a half-hour comedy, I find myself crying. It hits me right in the heart… So what is that?” Yes, Jeff Ross. What is that?

Not unlike other forms of expression such as music, dance, or theatre, comedy creates a bond between humans. Even the most divided can find commonality in a poop joke (Sarah Silverman makes this important point in her latest Netflix special “Speck of Dust.”) Poop joke or not, when people share laughter it’s a beautiful sound and feeling. When a comedian executes their craft with precision and the result “kills” it’s not uncommon for me to not only laugh but blink away some tears from the beauty of when everyone is on common ground, even if only for just a moment.

I’ve read several great books that invite you into the world of comedy and humanity, among them being “Sick in the Head” by Judd Apatow, “And Here’s the Kicker” by  Mike Sacks, and “The Improv: An Oral History” by Budd Friedman and Tripp Whetsell. Common threads I see in all of these are community, connection, vulnerability, passion, support, levity, and well, laughter, of course. All I can safely conclude for the moment is that comedy is a gift to humanity and I’m going to have a good time figuring out why – even if I never find the answer. Which I highly suspect to be the outcome. Because there’s always more happening than we can know. Dammit.

The Beauty of Ordinary Moments

Scene in Manhattan - photo by Katie Kohlbeck

I often find myself in such an ordinary moment that it’s very ordinariness stops me in my tracks because I am in awe of its beauty. There was a yoga class I went to and it was a perfectly fine but nothing terribly special until the teacher uttered these words: “Be with the beauty this moment has to offer.” That was years ago yet it still strikes me at the most seemingly random times…

Like the time I’m reading a book, opened on the kitchen counter, while I stir the lamb ragu. This is contentment…

Or the time I’m sitting at Black Press Coffee on 27th and Lex with my hot latte, a journal, and surrounded by warm and friendly Aussie accents. It makes me miss homesick for Australia…

Oh, and I especially love when a piece of comedy is delivered so well that it makes me laugh, think and weep all at once. It really makes me feel what it is to be human…

And, of course, the space between awake and sleep that seems to always invite thoughts to flow. I have started to keep a notebook on my bedside so to catch as many of these thoughts and ideas before they fall into the pit of sleep and lost dreams…

These are just a few of those ordinary moments. Yet they are powerful. There is something happening in these spaces – more than we can ever know.