Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What are Church Signs?

Last fall, I moved to a new apartment. On my way home, I now pass a church, which posts what I presume is a new sermon topic on a sign at the end of its driveway each week. The topics have often struck me as odd. Recently, for instance, the topic was "Wedding Wonders." Not being Christian, I don't have much experience with sermons, the bible, or church, in general. But, the topics sort of intrigue me.

Church Signs is a series of essays based on the weekly topics at the church. I've given myself 50 minutes to write each one, and then 50 minutes to edit and post it. It's just a writing exercise--I don't know if they'll be any good. But we'll see what happens, won't we?


Monday, March 19, 2007

Church Signs: Guest Rant

This week, it's my pleasure to present a guest rant from my favorite blogger, Jon Reed.

Church Signs: "Home Is Where the Manna Stops"

When a church puts up as message like "Home is Where the Manna Stops," I have to tip my pagan cap. It's about time that someone acknowledged it: for many of us, that tasty (and miraculous) holy bread did not make it inside the front door. I'm used to getting the Lord shoved down my throat. But this thoughtful congregation recognizes that for many of us, home was not about Manna; home was about Wonder Bread and making people feel a little smaller so they wouldn't forget where they came from and to whom they could attribute their self-loathing. Home was not so much a holy place as a place to be impregnated with our family's failures and prejudices, a chance to learn firsthand about alcoholism and drug addiction, workaholic neglect, and subtler forms of emotional manipulation that are as much a part of our existential challenge as anything we must overcome after we leave our homes in search of that sweet Manna, chasing after that childhood scent which lingered outside our doors, giving us Godly solace while we hugged our pets close and dreamed of better days. No, we didn't necessarily get cigarettes stamped on our palms like Bender of the Breakfast Club, but we didn't bake miraculous bread in our kitchens either. As for my family, we had stale whole wheat, good intentions and some Silly Putty. It would be nice to say we all turned out okay, but unfortunately there wasn't enough Manna to go around and not all of us did. Still, it's comforting to know I can walk right into that church and grab a slice. I like knowing there's at least one Christian institution that won't insist on the holiness of what went on inside my home. And to think that all this time, I thought we were wounded people doing the best we could! As it turns out, we just had the wrong bread.


Church Signs: "Grace: The Home God Makes"

Seven months ago, I made a commitment to myself and to the universe that I would embark upon a Year of Healing. I would make my own wellness the only priority in my life. I would pursue health on all fronts, spare no expense, accept no excuse, and follow all leads for one entire year.

Early on in the Year of Healing, I found my way to a twice-weekly yoga class taught at my alma mater. As an alumna, for a small flat fee, I have access to an unlimited number of classes. Despite being weak and sick and frequently overwhelmed, I made a promise to myself that I would be unswerving in my devotion to these classes-—and I was. I never missed a one-—and toward the end of the first semester, I even added a third weekly class.

In the beginning, I hated my teacher. I hated the poses. I hated the room that we practiced in. I hated everyone around me. I was angry at my limits, at my pain and discomfort. I was angry at my breath. I was filled in those first few classes with a white hot fury that made me want to kill my teacher for asking me to do these things that were impossible to do. I was confused, and I raged against my incomprehension, my lack of coordination, at all the impossible details she rattled off to us at once. I despised her for talking us through our poses instead of showing us the way. I needed to see the poses to get them; what kind of stupid yoga teacher just walks through the room issuing instructions like "press into your ridge tops" and "stretch out through your bones?" She should be showing us what to do.

The year before, I had tried to take a pilates class, but I got so angry at the teacher, I actually yelled at her and stormed out of the room. I know…it's so embarrassing in retrospect, but I share this with you so that you will understand how all-encompassing, how tsunami-like, was my rage. It swept all before it, destroying villages, with me scowling and red-faced atop its frothy crest.

Last September, I tried again. This time, it was not pilates but a crowded yoga class in a dreary space with very little natural light, dank industrial carpets, and a tiny little curly-haired teacher named Amy who was so perky it was hard not to hate her on sight.

I had tried other forms of yoga before: Bikram, Iyengar, Hatha, Ashtanga. But none of them really worked for me. It was a chore to do. Repeating sun salutations was so tedious. And in the case of Bikram, I passed out or nearly passed out in every class. I just couldn't take the intensity of the work in that heat.

Amy's class, I soon learned, was a relatively new branch of Hatha yoga, called "Anusara." And on that first day, our chipper little teacher talked to us about how we could bring our hearts into the practice. She told us that whatever we bring to the practice is beautiful, and that we should go with it. Fear, fatigue, stress, excitement—whatever we had was real, it was part of our practice, part of us, so it was beautiful.

Somehow, amidst the down-dogging and the conscious breathing and the dizziness and the strain, I understood this. Some deep and good part of myself, a part that often sees the good in others and makes kind and sensible decisions, took in this knowledge fully. So when my anger rose up that first day and threatened a full-out revolt, this other part of me sent a message: it smiled. It offered warmth and good humor and most importantly of all, acceptance.

"If what I have here today is anger, then what I have here today is anger," it said. It gave my anger room. It gave my anger tolerance. It loved my anger and didn't try to change its mind, and together we made it all the way through that first class without yelling or storming at anybody.

In the next session, Amy again reminded us that whatever we brought to the practice was worthy. That everything about us was honored in this space. That we could expand our breath—our life—into whatever we were feeling. And I discovered that while my anger was a storm, I was not the storm. I could witness the tsunami, and be there with it, and genuinely love it for all its crazy destructive power, but it didn't have to toss me about in the mayhem of its waves. I discovered that I could have a feeling—an intense feeling--without being consumed by it. I was me and the anger was just one beautiful part of me.

During the third week of classes, we were doing balancing poses that are very difficult to hold; it's easy to lose your balance and fall over, or to have hips too tight to open all the way. In other words, it's easy for someone like me to feel frustrated and like they are failing when they are doing balancing poses. But the funniest thing happened--as I was trying to maintain strength in the one leg I had planted on the ground, and open my hip, and keep my foot up, and turn my inner thigh inward and my upper palette upward and the million other things I was instructed to do as part of the pose—without falling over--I suddenly noticed I was smiling. Not even just smiling, I was giggling—I was having fun. I felt connected to a joyfulness that came up from the ground and partied around in my insides and then rose on up through my crown. It was beautiful—and it was fun. The imperfection of my pose was part of what made it glorious. I wasn't trapped in a rigid expectation of right and wrong; I was free to play around with my body and enjoy the attempt. I started to understand what Amy meant when she said we could "rock out" in a pose.

Towards the end of the first semester, I was still struggling with a deep and pervasive emotional pain and depression. I felt an intense loneliness that nothing I did seemed to cure. One day, around the holidays, Amy spoke of how she often used to feel incredibly lonely, especially around her family, but that through yoga, she has found a joy that fills her up. It completes her. After class, I asked her…how did you do that? How did you find that feeling?

And she shared with me that she had had some very painful, very hard times. I could sense the intensity of her struggle, the weight of what she had carried. And she said that through a lot of therapy, a lot of difficult work, and yoga, she had found a way through, a way to be fully in herself and be joyful.

She said that in yoga, there is a concept, an idea, that when one feels this way—this loneliness and agony--it is because there is dirt on the mirror of one's soul. That our true state of being is one of loving and light, but that when we look in a mirror that is cloudy, we cannot see how beautiful and loved we truly are, and this causes us to feel despair.

It spoke to me, this metaphor, this idea that my true self is beautiful and never alone, always loved and loving because I am, at my center, love and light. That the problem is not with my reality, my state of being, it is with my perception of my reality. I went home and I began to practice gently cleaning my mirror. I could picture it vividly, covered with mud, so I held a hose up to it, one that was full of the cleanest, purest water in the world, and I let it gently run down the face of the mirror until it was clear and shining.

At first, I could only focus on the mirror itself, on doing the work of cleaning it. It was too much to try to look into the mirror and see a true reflection of myself. It was too beautiful to look upon, and I wasn't ready. But in time, my loving care for that mirror brought me to a place where I felt ready to see what it could show. I looked into the mirror and I gazed upon a sight that warmed me through and through. It was a never ending cycle of loved and loving, loving and loved. It was the most beautiful, everlasting light that could ever be seen.

Since then, I have only rarely felt lonely; I can barely recall what it is like. I am kept in good company even when I am only with myself (which is almost all of the time).

I still take my Anusara classes with Amy twice a week. Sometimes I still burn with anger, especially when she asks me to do a pose I cannot do because of the strange and chronic pain in my knee and other places, and I still try to welcome that feeling and love it and let it be. And I often feel an irrepressible joy shining out of me and up through my fingertips, especially when we do triangle pose or warrior pose.

The Year of Healing has one basic goal: to learn to fill my own cup. I am learning to tap into my own source. From this place, all other healing—all good living—is possible; it is how I can access my strength, my power, my grace.

In my life, I have attracted a stunning number of people who were not really able to give. I have lived in what has felt like a constant state of deprivation. Recently, it was suggested to me that this is because people who are not comfortable receiving, attract people who are not comfortable giving. So, I am making a clear and intentional effort to open myself up to receiving gifts of all kinds, with grace. It is, I am finding, as awkward for me as those first standing poses or my earliest downward facing dog. But I have said out loud to the universe that I am committed to learning how this is done, and I am a woman of my word. I have opened myself up to grace.

Since then, among other things, this is what has come:

"Hi, Naomi, I hope this letter finds you well and enjoying this delicious foggy morning. I am writing because last night I wanted to extend to you the offer of a free private yoga lesson, but you left before I could catch up with you. I feel confident that a private lesson will allow me and you to tune into your body in a more focused way and better understand how to use the Principles of Alignment to at least work with, if not alleviate your pain. If you feel uncomfortable with the offer of a free lesson we can discuss trade or reduced payment.

What I really want is for you to feel empowered by the yoga, not diminished and frustrated by it. Of course I also think that the latter feelings have their appropriate place and should be honored in their own time.

Also, just in case you couldn't feel it (but I bet you could) your body/asana looked totally different last night, you looked stronger, and more vibrant, like you were holding more energy. I hope you could feel the difference, because I definitely saw it, inside & out.


I am hoping that she won't mind that I have posted her letter to me here. I wept just now, again, as I read it. I have accepted Amy's offer. I have welcomed the generosity of her gift.

Grace is the home God makes. And I am moving in.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Church Signs: "Home is Feeling Safe"

Church Signs: "Home Is Feeling Safe"

I'm looking for a new home. A better home. The right home.

My dream is to own my own home. Figuring out how to push or pull that into reality is taking some time. In the meantime, short of some sudden, magic windfall, I'll continue to be a renter.

At my last place, I did not feel happy. I did not feel safe. My landlord was scary and yelled at me. The rent was a stretch. The apartment itself was assaultive. Blasting me with heat in the summer; freezing me out in winter. Something was always leaking or rotting or breaking.

It sounded great on paper—spacious 2BR with fireplace, lots of storage, laundry, hardwood floors, garage, dishwasher, gas stove, and sun porch—but in reality, it was a nightmare. Pipes bursting. Mold and dust and spiders everywhere. One month, I gently removed and relocated more than 80 spiders, but it barely made a dent. Their webs were everywhere. They collected dust and cat hair constantly making the baseboards and undersides of all the furniture in the house seem like it was covered with dirty fringe. It never felt clean no matter how many times I swept it, or how many spiders I removed.

And those were just the small problems.

After three years, I finally moved. It took a great deal of oomph to pick up and relocate. I gave up the fireplace, the three extra rooms, the laundry, the garage, the garden, the basketball hoop, my great neighbors, and a great location. I also gave up my hope that I would meet the person of my dreams and we would make the perfect home there together. It was time to create some change. It was time to move…to co-housing.

In case you're not familiar with it, co-housing is a concept that originated in Denmark. It is a form of intentional community where a group of people own their own homes, but share land and common facilities together.

I am single. I live alone and work from home. I am isolated. I moved to co-housing, in part because the apartment was clean and small and beautiful, in part because the landlord was wonderful, and in part because I thought I would find friends here. I thought I was headed for a quieter environment and a fuller, richer life in all regards. What I got was something my friend Russell calls "The Death Camp of Tolerance." I call it "The Gulag," "The Compound," or sometimes just…home.

A few weeks after I moved in, I was invited to meet with the Welcoming Committee. I ran in the pouring rain to a home in the Lower Pod, to meet with two retirement-age women, one of whom is the current president of the board of trustees of the community. One was very friendly; one was very not.

I expected muffins and get-to-know you conversation. But, the meeting consisted of their insisting that I read through the community bylaws. They also tried to bully me into committing to work assignments with specific committees, something I managed to avoid doing, partly out of naiveté--I didn't realize until later that they weren't just aggressively interested in my interests, they were trying to get me to commit to work details.

I assured them that I'd already read the bylaws (twice), but they thought it would be a good idea for me to do it again--while they watched. So, I did. And, I noticed that in this version, an unpaid work requirement of six hours per month was included, something that was not indicated in my lease or the version of the bylaws that I read and consented to when I joined. I also noticed that smoking was prohibited in the common areas of the community.

I pointed out the discrepancy with the work hours and was disturbed to discover that--at least according to them--the six hour expectation was mandatory, even for renters. I also asked about the smoking rule.

"I have several friends who smoke," I said. "I love them very much, and want them to feel comfortable when they visit. Could you tell me if there's a designated smoking area, or someplace where they can smoke?"

From her perch in an overstuffed chair across the room, the president of the board of trustees paused and looked at me with disdain before responding, "Most people do that sort of thing in their own homes."

"Oh," I said, very perky, flashing my kill-em-with-kindness-smile. "I'm afraid I can't do that. It's forbidden in my lease. My friends are very important to me. Could you tell me where in the community I might be able to take them for a smoke?"

Another pause, a nose wrinkled in disgust. "You have friends who smoke?…What a shame."

A couple of months later, I was loading my car up for my annual trip home to Maine for Christmas. I was sick and overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure to get out the door. I pulled my car into the community, something we are allowed to do if we meet one of 14 exceptions to the "no cars" rule. On that particular day, I met four of those exceptions.

Nevertheless, someone left an anonymous note on my car. And then, while I was walking out to the car, arms full of stuff, an old geezer accosted me, saying, "We don't allow cars in the community." Big emphasis on "we," as though my rent and my residency don't qualify me as one of them.

I snapped at him. I told him I had every right to pull my car in when I was loading and unloading. I hated that man--what the hell? He's my next door neighbor and never even bothered to introduce himself.

Later, he told my landlord about it. I think she must have spoken in my defense because he eventually approached me and apologized, very sincerely, for not having introduced himself. "I thought you were an outsider," he said by way of explanation.

Outsiders. That's what they call people who don't live here. As in, "Something is also needed near the Common House - outsiders seem to think the path is just a continuation of the road."* (The "something," by the way, has been a rock or a log or a safety cone. Not a sign, like they have at the community next door that indicates "pedestrians only, please." How passive-aggressive is it to place a log along the side of a road so as to make it difficult for a car to pass over it rather than just putting up a sign?)

Whatever. My apartment is cozy and clean. My landlords are wonderful. But co-housing is for the birds. Their latest dictum is that renters shall be required to do between 6-15 hours of unpaid labor in the form of upkeep and enhancement of the property for the community each month, including a monthly three hour Saturday afternoon meeting where agenda items generally include discussions of treehouse building, architectural issues, or parenting groups—three things I don't care a whit about. (I, by the way, am the only renter in the 25-household community with her own apartment. The three other renters rent rooms in other people's houses.) It's like they're creating some sort of fiefdom, where I pay above market rate to live in their midst and then also work their land for free.

They also turn all the lights out at midnight--to save pennies, I suppose. As a single girl is wont to do, when I come home late at least once a week, I enter a world that is pitch black. We live in the woods. There is no light at night other than what we create or what the moon might offer. I keep a headlamp and a flashlight in my car. For guests, I have often had to come out and rescue them as I forgot to mention that they'd be navigating blind if they didn't have their own light source. The sidewalks rarely get shoveled or sanded, too, so it's like a freaking death trap here in winter. You'd think with all those work hours being required someone would be able to take care of it…but perhaps they're too busy moving logs into the path to block ousiders...

Apart from the horrors of co-housing—the rude people, the unethical and I suspect illegal work obligations, the bad food and forced handholding and singing at common meals, the deadly sidewalks that become glare ice at night—there is the noise. The community itself is quiet. Creepily so. But my apartment is not. I hear every footstep, every beep from the microwave, every conversation, every thing from upstairs. It's driving me crazy.

I spent most of the first two months in tears, gripping my ears and rocking back and forth as the thud-thud-thudding destroyed my peace and quiet. I hardly slept. I couldn't work nearly enough. I mustered up my courage and complained.

My landlords were responsive. They gave me an expensive Hammacher Schlemmer sound machine. They run a white noise machine in their house. They walk in stocking feet. They make the kids play upstairs. They tiptoe. They installed special sound dampening curtains in the stairwell between our places and carpets on the floors. It got slightly better, but still…it's unlivable.

Bless her heart and grace be true, when I met with her about it earlier this month, my landlord agreed to either let me out of my lease, or to put in a whole new soundproofed ceiling.

I gave co-housing a shot. I even went to one more common meal, but it just isn't my bag. The new age hierarchy and can take their managed community and live it however they please; I'd rather be an outsider. I want to be someplace where people are interested in making friends, not rules.

So, I've begun my search. I check Craig's List constantly. I've looked at dumpy one-bedrooms in Northampton and an unusual three bedroom in Easthampton. I've perused the "Roommates Wanted" section in the hope of finding something just right.

Last week, I also looked at a 3BR duplex in Easthampton, a real fixer-upper. It's not in Northampton. It has a funny smell. The walls are covered in weird linoleum and so are the floors. Two of the bedrooms are teeny tiny. But I love the way it feels there. I love the landlords, a young couple who just bought the place and live next door. I love the little yard. And even though the view from my office will be no longer be of the forest and the neat co-housing houses--it will be, instead, of the pile of tires in the neighbor's backyard--I think it will feel good there. Even though the ceilings are sagging and the microwave and part of the kitchen ceiling are covered in grease; even though the tub is miniature and the dining room carpet is gross, there's just something about this apartment that I love.

If my references check out—and they will—it's mine if I want it. I'd need to get a roommate. I'd need to cover some pretty hefty move-in costs. I looked at another place today that was larger and prettier and might even include an above ground pool, but I didn't feel safe there. I feel a sense of warmth and safety in the fixer-upper on Hampton Terrace. It's not a rational choice—and it's confusing and tough to know for sure what to do—but as soon as I saw it, I began to beam.

I love that there are stairs. I love the crazy chandelier in the dining room. I love that it's only 7 minutes to Northampton. And I really love the landlords who live next door. I also love that if I can find the right roommate, I'll finally be able to afford my rent with ease, and that is the thing I really want most of all. That is the real source of my sense of safety. After all these years of just barely making it, I'd love to relax into a feeling of quiet and safety and joy in my home.

*taken from an actual e-mail sent by an "insider" to the community's e-mail list, regarding cars driving into the community


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Church Signs: "Welcome Home"

Church Signs: "Welcome Home"

Last week, I met with a former professor of mine from college. He was my major advisor, my favorite professor, and chair of his department for an unprecedented period of time—about a decade longer than is expected. He is gentle, brilliant, accomplished, and beloved by students past and present.

I have always felt respected and appreciated by him, partly because I felt it in his manner, and partly because I knew I'd earned it. I won a very competitive academic prize in the field of my major my junior year; I graduated with Latin honors; I made the dean's list every semester after my first year. I was passionate, dogged, and enthusiastic as a student.

He demonstrated his approval of me in many ways. There were good grades and recommendations, of course. And then, when a few students were selected from our department by this professor to dine with important visitors, I was among them. When the department re-designed its Web site, I was among a handful of alumnae chosen to represent the major. When I needed a place to live in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, he let me stay (for free) in a small apartment in the basement of his home while he and his family were away. Several years ago, when a teaching position opened up in his department—one class, a senior writing seminar—he asked me to apply, even though I was definitely under-qualified.

I have always felt that he considered me to be special and this has meant a great deal to me. It has helped me to push my limits, to maintain confidence in any setting requiring a formidable intellect, and to walk in the world feeling accomplished.

When I was an undergrad, he didn't know what I had come from; but when I applied for the teaching position, I gave him a portion of my manuscript to read, and he discovered the truth of my impoverished rural upbringing. Later, he visited my hometown and told me, "I can't believe you come from here."

My professor and I met up for tea last week at the student center. It had been a few years since we last saw each other and he asked me how things were. I told him I was good, still writing.

He asked if I made enough money. I answered honestly. I told him, "No."

He asked what happened to law school. (A few years ago when I was applying, he had written me a recommendation.) I answered honestly. I told him that I got in to my first choice, UC Davis, a tier one school, but that for a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out. For starters, I couldn't afford it. Two digits of my social security number were transposed on my application for financial aid, and I found myself thrown into a bureaucratic nightmare as I attempted to prove that I was, in fact, an American citizen who qualified for aid. I also lost my in-state residency in California by voting in Northampton. My bank accounts, permanent address, car registration, and worldly belongings were in San Francisco, but I voted in Northampton since I happened to be there during an election, and the State of California considered this to be a relinquishment of my right to claim residency in its state. Although, I still had to pay California income tax…

I didn't mention that I was also carrying a monstrous debt load, and that there was no way for me to pay for law school and meet my living expenses when you factored in the credit card and student loan bills I was paying.

I also told him that, at the time, I felt I had to choose between law and art; I chose art. I wrote a book. I founded a nonprofit organization and obtained 501(c)3 status for it. I began writing and performing poetry.

He asked me if I had an agent. I said, "No."

He asked me what I wanted to do and I told him, with a smile, that I wasn't sure; that I was a bit lost; that I was working on it.

I told him I love studying law and that I still think of applying, but that I just can't pull the trigger. I'm not certain it's what I want to do, at my age. I just paid off my undergraduate loans last year. I don't know if I want to take on another $80,000 in student loan debt or commit to a three-year program I may not enjoy.

He asked if I was partnered. I told him that I wasn't; that my last real relationship ended nearly a decade ago.

I said these things unselfconsciously, almost cheerfully. I am good-natured about my circumstance. I told him that on the plus side, I was free to do anything I wanted because my life wasn't tethered to another's. I was not defensive or self-protective because I trusted him to accept and understand me, to offer guidance, to see my great potential, and perhaps to offer some answers that would help to guide me into the perfect port.

Instead, he said, "Oh…Naomi…" and there was pity in his voice.

He asked more questions about law school, like what my LSAT scores were. I told him. He didn't even pretend to hide his reaction. (They were poor.)

He asked about my dream job. I told him I'd like to be a Supreme Court Justice, or an actor, or that I might like to be a speech writer, but that I wasn't sure how one does that. He shook his head in minor disbelief at the first two ideas, but said that if you want to be a speechwriter, you go to DC for 90 days. You have lunches. You stay on someone's couch. You make connections. You find your way in.

I said I wasn't sure I was willing to do that, just now.

"Do you have health insurance?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "I do now."

"How?" he asked.

"Through the state…through Commonwealth Care…"

Again…the look of pity and concern. He made me feel frightened for my safety. He made me feel old and inadequate. And no matter what I said, the conversation kept turning back to my lack and to what he seemed to see as my failure to reach my potential. He kept coming back to law school. He thought I should apply again, find a way to afford it. He thought I should move to a state with a state law school (Massachusetts doesn't have one) so that I could establish residency, get in, and attend at a lower cost. I told him that was a big commitment and I just wasn't sure it was the right thing for me.

Finally, as a way of defending my lack of willingness to uproot myself and take a brave stab at a new career, I also told him that I have struggled with serious health issues. That there is more at stake for me than simply choosing a new profession. I told him that I was too sick to work for 26 weeks last year; that when one is facing that sort of debilitation, one cannot launch into a new career. One cannot go to Washington, DC, sleep on a couch, and meet people for lunch. Even if one survived that experience and succeeded in landing a job, one couldn't promise one's employer, with any confidence, that one would be able to fulfill one's duties. And what about health insurance? And caregivers? In the Valley, I have found practitioners who I couldn't easily replace in another state. I want to stay near them. And Smith—being near Smith allows me to have affordable access to yoga classes and athletic facilities and other things. It's not the right time for me to pull up my life and move someplace for a high stakes career I'm not sure I want.

I dropped into the conversation that I have been published in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. That I have published more than 300 stories. But this didn't seem to shake his worry.

"You never seemed to me to lack confidence," he said, "but perhaps you have a problem with your self-esteem?" He made this assertion several times. What does one say to this?

"I don't think that's it…" I said, turning up the wattage on my smile, sitting up straighter, trying to broadcast confidence.

Eventually, I turned the conversation back to him, to the state of affairs at Smith. We talked about the massive failings of the current President, the extent to which the faculty, staff, and student body are displeased. It was an enlightening talk. Discouraging, but enlightening.

He ended the conversation abruptly when he realized he was going to be late to meet his wife. I walked with him for a while, then thanked him for his time, wished him well, and headed back across campus to my car. It was dark and damp and the cold bit at my thighs as I clomped my boots on the pavement. I phoned my best friend immediately and left him a distraught voice mail. I didn't think it was possible that I could stand on this campus, walk past the buildings where I had done so well and learned so much, and feel like a failure, but I did.

I nearly cried. I felt a sinkhole open in my gut, a cramping pain gripped my neck and shoulders, a vice clamped down on my temples.

"He pities me," I realized. The sound of his voice saying, "Ohhh…Naomi…" as though I had just been fired or dropped a Faberge egg…it played over and over in my mind. I was nauseous.

In my yoga practice, we learn to value our hearts. We learn to breath into our feelings. The memory of this practice came to me and I breathed into my heart. I breathed into my gut. I breathed into my neck and shoulders and temples. And as I breathed, a new awareness poured into me: he was wrong.

This man who I revered and cared for. This man who had been something of a father—or perhaps good uncle—figure to me. This man who was a brilliant academic. He was wrong about this.

My life is not a failure. There is no reason to worry for me. I am still young and curious. I am still determined and bright and capable. There is no shame in feeling lost, particularly if you are working hard on finding your way. Law school is not the way for me. Not now, not yet. My way is in finding stillness, in getting well. My way is in learning to listen to myself, to value what I bring to the world, to treat myself with loving kindness, always.

My grandfather couldn't read the newspaper. My grandmother de-throated chickens with her bare hands in a factory while her six children waited in the car. My father has a high school diploma (and a strong cadre of skills like masonry and heavy equipment operation). I went to Smith College. I got myself there and I put myself through. I graduated with honors. If I do nothing else with my life, this is enough. This is enough.

And there is no way to quantify all the brave choices, all the rising up that has occurred after terrible falls, all the attempts at self-discovery, all the lives that I have changed by offering compassion, friendship, art, and joy. There is no accounting for Love in my professor's assessment of my success.

I am learning to be at home in my body and my life. I am making peace with my past and my present and my future. I am learning what it means to be me. I have not yet put any new letters before or after my name. But choosing not to enter into a marriage or a graduate program before it is my time—these things are victories, too. In the same way that the silences between notes give music its rhythm, so, too, are the absences in my life an essential part of my song.

And let's not forget that I am grateful simply to be alive. I come from homelessness and poverty, from illiteracy and isolation. I emerged from rural Maine and I became something. I became a woman who is a force for good in the world. I am not making a comfortable living, but I have kept myself alive all by myself. I have forged this existence without the safety of a trust fund or an influential surname or the gift of a free car/home/down payment/education or anything else from my parents.

It took only twenty minutes for all of this to sink in. I walked away from my professor feeling like a failure, depressed and anxious. Twenty minutes later, I stood in the kitchen of my little apartment and I called my best friend again.

"I know who I am," I said. "I know what I am worth. I know what I have done. I have not yet become all that I can be, and this is just as it should be. My professor is wrong about me. He comes from a place where one's value, one's progress can be measured in advanced degrees, in spouses, houses, and income. I do not live in that place. I live in a place where my value comes from my ability to heal, to forgive, to listen. It comes from my ability to love, to learn, to stay alive."

I left that place—the place where my value is immeasurable and does not depend on advanced degrees or spouses or income or accolades--while I was talking to my professor. But after 20 minutes of breathing and thinking, I returned to it again. And when I arrived back in that healthy state of mind, I understood from the deepest most inner parts of my being all the way up to my conscious self, what it means to hear, "Welcome Home."

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