Softness

I’m sitting in my spot—the one in the far, left nook of the couch by the window that looks out towards the donkey’s barn and pasture—as my coffee cools and the night is swelling into its final, heavy moments before the prick of dawn. I spent the fifteen or so minutes before this trying to meditate without much success. Meditation for me looks more like a whack-a-mole game of trying to silence my internal dialogue. Relax your face, I tell myself. Soften your shoulders. I don’t know how I’m going to respond to that angry email I’ve let sit in my inbox for a day. I guess it was my mistake that got me there, but it was a mistake nonetheless. And I owned it. But the world seems so unforgiving these days.

Relax your throat. Deep belly breath. Notice the crickets outside. Mistakes are supposed to help us grow. We are supposed to embrace mistakes as learning opportunities so that every day, we can do just that much better. But that email. The failure. The broken glass on the floor with me standing over it. In many ways, I’ve always been clumsy. 

Soften your eyebrows. Unclench your jaw. Imagine your breath is a jellyfish gently propelling itself through darkness. I’m sorry, I’ll say, I misunderstood. Because I truly did. I thumbed through my notes which I remember jotting down with what I later learned was incorrect information. My cheeks get hot and red when I realize I’m wrong and a giant hole opens up around my heart which swallows it into a pit of shame. 

Whack-a-mole. Whack, whack whack. So I abandoned my not-so-quiet spot on the floor, made myself some coffee, and settled into my couch nook.

I take a sip of my coffee which is mostly cool now. My brother makes fun of me for preferring room-temperature coffee. I don’t like hot coffee and I don’t much like cold coffee either. Hit me with that middle ground. This makes me smile because my brother never pokes fun with harshness, only silliness. He’s appalled at my coffee preferences and habits (because I also do this thing where I’ll make a whole pot of coffee, only drink one, cool cup form it, and spend the next three days pouring my morning coffee from the same full pot I brewed days ago instead of making fresh coffee). But he never makes me feel bad for it. He just laughs about it which in turn, makes me laugh. Actually, his recognition of my (albeit strange) brewing practices makes me feel seen.

Dawn will break any moment. To me, the anticipation is exciting every single morning. Sip. Breathe.

I recently finished watching the Amazon Prime series, “Good Omens,” which is based off the novel written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It’s a fantastic read (and wonderful listen if you’re an Audible subscriber) and I’m happy to have found that the television series is just as remarkable as the book. They did a phenomenal job adapting the story for the screen. I highly recommend.

I bring this up because there’s a moment in the television series where the angel, Aziraphale, sighs and says, “I’m soft.”

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Since finishing the series, I think about this moment often. 

I’m soft, he said. I’m soft. 

My chest still feels hollow and empty as my shame is berating my heart somewhere else that I can’t see, but boy can I feel. I absolutely loathe making mistakes. I hate letting others down, of course, but I also know that a misstep means the beast of self-consciousness is fed. I close my eyes. Stupid, stupid, stupid. 

“I’m soft,” he said. And he said it with a sigh. With a release. With a surrender. 

Softness. 

Softness, I think, is porous. My big donkey, Bunny, keeps relapsing with what’s called “white line disease” because her hooves are soft and porous. It’s been raining nearly non-stop for months which hasn’t allowed her desert-evolved-hooves to dry out and bacteria thrives there. Only in dry, open, and clean air can white line disease start to heal. The hooves need to harden and in hardness is protection. 

Maybe I’m soft. Maybe that’s why the monsters of doubt, anxiety, and depression thrive in my being like bacteria. My face feels so hot. I hate screwing up. How could I be so careless?

I take another sip of my cool coffee. The blackness outside has shifted into navy blue. Ron Swanson, my rooster, perches on the fence and crows—a deafening break of silence. 

I’m soft, I realize. I’m soft. 

I picture Aziraphale’s face and try, too, to surrender to the idea. I let go of the tension in my face, my shoulders, even in the muscles between my ribs. I let out an audible sigh. Ron Swanson crows again. 

But softness is what allowed Aziraphale to become sympathetic to the human race and even, I think, fall in love with them. Softness is how Aziraphale was able to connect with and find a partner in the demon Crowley, ultimately saving the world through their camaraderie. Softness allowed them to see one another. 

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Softness is why my brother making fun of my coffee habits doesn’t hurt my feelings. He sees me as a person with unique traits and I receive the comments as being seen as an individual. Softness is our ability to see one another as humans with strengths and weaknesses. With talents and flaws. With complex histories and room for growth. Softness connects us, it doesn’t block us out. Heck, softness is why I got into donkey rescue in the first place—because those long ears and thoughtful eyes passed through the netted walls of my soft heart and found a home in there and I never, ever, wanted to see another donkey suffer.

To be soft is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable, in my opinion, is to be brave. Knocking down the calloused walls knowing that the rawness behind it might be seen or judged by others takes strength. To recognize, admit, and own missteps with the intention of improving moving forward is something that as imperfect beings, we should all be trying to do. No one is perfect, so bust down that wall that you’ve built around the insecurity of not being perfect all the time—it’s not doing you any good.

I learned quickly as a novice gardener that the soil must be tilled, soft, and porous in order for plants to find strong rooting, ultimately allowing them to grow larger and hopefully, bear more fruit. So maybe if we till ourselves, allowing the surface to soften from time to time, we’ll experience growth in ways we hadn’t previously imagined. We’ll see each other as individuals with complex pasts and beautiful minds—that in our collective imperfection is infinite possibility for growth and connection. 

I’m soft. 

I’m soft.

I’m soft and for the first time all morning, I don’t have to remind myself to relax. Let flow, the feelings that rise. There is so much to learn and so much room to grow.

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Waiting out the Storm

It’s an East Texas downpour out there—the kind where I know that somewhere beyond the endless sheets of rain is a brown barn that inside, must be awfully loud beneath a tin roof, although I can’t see more than a blur of gray and swaying, green smudges that are the swelling leaves of new, spring life. I keep wanting to clean up and till the garden to start anew, but every time I find a few free moments to get out there and tend to her, storms move through with a fury, washing out the loose soil and feeding the rampant weeds that I can’t seem to get out in front of, no matter how I try.

Through a foggy window, I watch the rain switch directions over and over again as lightning flashes every few seconds and drum rolls of thunder barrel by almost without break. The forecast shows we have several more days of this and I keep thinking of the garden flooding, washing away any bit of useful dirt and leaving behind hard-packed, red clay that’s been beaten down into a calloused and impenetrable space.

I think of the donkeys in the loud barn, imagining their eyes staring out into the blurry forest that surrounds our house. With ears as sensitive as theirs, storms like this must be painful. Both of my dogs are hidden in a closet right now, terrified of the thunder that crashes through, full-bellied and heavy, every few seconds. It’s the kind of thunder you feel in your chest—ribs rattling with the rolls—a direct hit to the heart every time.

I worry I’ve missed my window to plant a garden that might have a growing-chance because after this stormy season comes that notorious, inescapable, Texas summer. Watching this storm, however, I suppose that even if I’d gotten those tiny, eager seedlings into the ground and meticulously arranged the mulch, cages, and cork-labels around them, they’d have rotted in the rain water by now or been washed away before establishing any real roots. How can roots reach out when every time those tiny arms try to grab at the spaces outside of themselves, their entire world floods and deforms, leaving nothing solid to latch onto or dig deeper into?

Still, here in early spring, bright, green life is blooming rapidly in all directions up in the treetops. Heavy with leaves, their branches droop down and cast dark and cool shadows across the yard. Along the edges of things, sunflower sprouts and sweet grass reach high towards the sun when she’s out and radiating while aggressive, spiky weeds slither and slap across the ground like an octopus out of water.

But it’s the little seeds in their tiny pods with thread-like roots: cantaloupe and cucumbers, tomatoes and hot peppers, sweet peas and turnips, that I want to gently transfer outside and tend to daily so I can watch them reach, swirl, and grow and witness the fruit they could bear. It’s just for now, they don’t seem like they’ll have a fighting chance as the rain falls harder and faster creating muddy pools that’ll take days to recede. I lose hope that my tiny, delicate seedlings will sprout and find their real roots in the ground outside: little seeds that started out so hopeful in little baggies, labeled proudly and waiting to learn what it feels like to reach into the warm, open air. I’ve read so many books and blogs that have told me when it’s the perfect time to plant around here, but I just can’t seem to land on that perfect time and as I watch the blurs of grays and greens whip and lash around outside, I doubt I’ll find that perfect time.

I’ve read about above ground gardening, seen pictures and how-tos, and have even been encouraged by some to take that route. Maybe I will. Maybe I have to. I guess that’s the problem with laying all your hopes down in the space you cleared up near your house where the sun would be perfect and the drainage seemed ideal because of the slant. You root for that space that you spent time clearing and turning with your hands, shovel, and tiller and fenced in to keep the rabbits out. You liked the idea of digging down a little deeper, where it’s cool and dark and full of strange bugs that tie themselves in knots when the sun touches them. The idea that the root’s paths were essentially endless without a bottom created hope for their strength and growth to be infinite. I’ve always thought that the deeper we dig, the taller we must grow.

But then these days, it feels like it’s all about building up. Building up, filling in, creating drainage systems, and using that cold, hard clay as a foundation….a base…a starting point that if you’re building up and up, doesn’t really matter if it’s too hard to breakthrough. You use the callouses as starting points from which to move forward, not to dig beneath in hopes they’ll ever soften enough to allow for real, fruitful growth.

The storm has subsided a bit now into a steady, straight-down rain that you can actually see through. There are some large branches scattered around the yard: branches without new, green leaves that the trees must’ve been ready to shed to make way for anew. Branches that had must have been overrun with bugs or rot or had simply just died off because their part was finished. The trees must feel lighter now—relieved, even—having rid themselves of their heavy, dead branches.

I don’t think I’m ready to give up on the idea of digging down into that now hard and calloused space I’ve created. It doesn’t feel dead to me yet and abandoning it, I suspect, would bring me no relief. It just needs more time. It needs more tilling. It needs to be fed and touched and rid of the sneaky weeds that grow faster than the fruit I intend to grow.

So I suppose I’ll keep waiting. Waiting. Waiting for the storm to pass and the for the sun to dry the puddles so I can get back to turning and digging and loosening the ground enough for roots to travel freely and growth to reach up full and tall.

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Your Own Art

If you’ve been following my blog or social medias for some time, you may remember that I’m a yoga instructor. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything regarding my yoga practice or teaching (which I’ll get to in a moment) but to give you a bit of background, I started practicing yoga when I was 16 years old—my mom and I habitually attended a Friday night yoga class at the local YMCA which was taught by a woman who we’d come to refer to as “The Queen.” Long down the road, after I’d graduated college, worked several years in the corporate world, and had a quarter-life crisis that resembled one of those fast-motion videos of a tarantula shedding their skin, I abruptly quit the rat race, went through a program to receive my 200hr yoga teaching certificate, and started leading yoga classes pretty much anywhere that would hire me.

Even when I moved away from my hometown out to Nowhere, Texas where the donkey named Bunny came into my life, I found a place a few towns over where I was able to continue teaching yoga classes. In a lot of ways, I loved and adored it. What I appreciated most about leading a yoga class was feeling responsible for providing a space where people could come as they were. I tried desperately to show love and provide support for those who came through the door no matter what kind of baggage they brought in with them. I also liked making yoga-music playlists—that became an odd therapy for me, especially when my anxiety would begin to spiral in response to some trigger. In these moments, I’d open Spotify and start building playlists, exploring recommended music, and losing myself in the rabbit hole of “we think you might also like this!” Thanks, internet cookies.

Fast forward and at the time I moved away from Nowhere, Texas to Sort-Of-On-The-Map, Texas, I  thought that finding a new place to teach yoga would be a priority of mine, but to date, it hasn’t. Every time I’ve opened up my computer to search studios and openings, my eyes glaze over, my heart begins to race, and I distract myself with something else. Old students of mine who enjoyed my classes have asked me why I’m not teaching yet and truth be told, I don’t have an answer. I, myself, have been left wondering why?

I’ve looked at simply attending yoga classes—reading about new studios and teachers with the thought that maybe I just need to get in and revisit my own personal practice outside the home without the responsibility to lead (afterall, we should all be perpetual students) but much to my dismay, even browsing yoga sites has become a massive source of anxiety for me. “We’ll help you find a better you!” “$20 off New Year’s Deal! Stick to those resolutions!” Filtered pictures of sweaty, toned bodies with expensive clothes. “Find your Zen!” even though the picture attached is a complex arm balance where you can tell by her abs that the model is straining to hold still.

Let me pause. I don’t mean to speak ill of these places. I am never against people wanting to get healthy and man, if you can go into a hot yoga studio and actually unplug and detox or whatever, then good on ya. No judgement, I promise. Please know, I’m not writing about you or at you; I’m writing about me and the very personal journey I’m on through my anxious self right now and we all have incredibly different stories. I hope you don’t take my opinions which apply to my place right now, personally.  

Anyway, why, as a person who left it all to teach yoga full time all those years ago, have I had such a hard time connecting with practice outside of my own bedroom floor? (I do still practice yoga on my own three or four times a week before the sun rises…but my practice is a lot of sitting and listening to the birds wake up, gently stretching small muscles, and staring out the window.)

I ponder this often and deeply. Yoga is a big part of who I am…I mean, it’s one of the only things still in my life from when I was a teenager. At least I thought it was. It’s supposed to be a disconnect from the chaotic and fabricated hubbub of living in the 21st century: a reconnection to our roots and to the Earth so that when we walk around out there, we feel grounded. It’s supposed to help us from getting lost in it all.

But then I wonder, has yoga (and teaching yoga) for me, become a distracting vice, in and of itself? Instead of NOT getting lost in it all, have I lost myself even more? Is that why I cringe when I hear people say “wow, you’re really good at yoga,” because what is “being good at yoga?” Touching your toes? Doing a handstand? Is it why I feel uncomfortable and competitive when I attend yoga classes? I’m an instructor, I should be able to do the difficult poses, right? Otherwise, won’t people question my ability to lead at all?

Here’s an example: I remember years ago when I first started leading yoga classes as a fairly new teacher, I attended a class as a student and the instructor asked me to demonstrate a move where you jump from downward-facing dog into forward fold. This is not something I do at all, let alone, do well. I’ve broken both of my wrists, have short arms, and most importantly, just don’t like it…so I usually just walk up with little steps from down dog into forward fold when making that transition. I told the instructor this (he knew that I was also an instructor) and he responded with, “well, just show the others in the class what not to do.” All eyes were on me and in the moment, what I really wanted to say was, “well, what not to do is do anything you’re uncomfortable with” but instead, my fear of being seen as weak or less than (I was  an instructor, too, after all) overtook me and ego made me demonstrate the jump in the best way I could. It was not good and the instructor laughed and said, “okay, now you’ve definitely shown us what not to do.” Everyone else chuckled, too. I spent the rest of class with bright red, burning and embarrassed cheeks and tension in my whole body because I was illustratively, “what not to do.”

Granted, I’m sure this instructor had no malicious intention of putting me on the spot like that and to his credit, I am very good at camouflaging my discomfort in public settings to be perceived as confident and completely okay with being the center of attention (even when I am so, unbearably, not.) But the point is this: yoga is not about forcing yourself into uncomfortable positions or movements, especially because you feel like you have to for others. Yoga, like art, is highly personal and uniquely interpreted and tailored to the yogi’s (artist’s) interpretation. Are pretzel-like inversions your honest expression? Or is it leaning against a wall noticing the way your belly moves around when you breathe for a whole hour? I think both are correct, just depending on what you actually need in that moment of practice.

Which brings me to my original point of this blog: why I haven’t talked about or taught yoga in so long. I believe it’s because that’s just where I am right now. That what I actually need is internal exploration deeper than the movements traditionally offered in yoga classes. Yoga for me right now is learning to connect more deeply with my innards and I can’t seem to honestly do that when someone else is suggesting different moves and breathing patterns. It’s learning from a trusted source how to discover just how much tension I’m holding in my pelvis and what that’s doing to the rest of my body to which it radiates. It’s looking through holes in my heart that are there because I was bullied as a kid and grew up thinking that it was my job to please everyone around me instead of seeking out my own truths. It’s actually rooting with the Earth by feeling the blood pulsing through my veins in the same way water rushes through rivers.

Yoga for me right now is walking around out behind the barn and seeing just how green everything is becoming out there…smelling the rich growth that’s happening right before our eyes and surrendering myself to its majesty. My gosh, nature is glorious therapy. Yoga is going for a walk with my donkeys because they don’t give a flying #!&* about what others in the room may be expecting of them…they exist in every moment and if you let them they’ll pull you right smack-dab into the epicenter of the present with them. And they’ll do it gently. They won’t put you on the spot. They won’t tell you if you’re doing a good job or not. They’ll just be with you.

So for now, teaching yoga is not what I need. Even a few months ago, I don’t think I could have admitted to that or confessed it because I think society teaches us that self-care and boundaries are often selfish. Or that if you’re not going-going-going that you’re not as good as everyone else. Meanwhile, we’re walking around anxious and depressed and spending hours scrolling on social media and binge drinking to distract ourselves from the fact that we are so disconnected from our own truths that we’re scared to even begin looking. I can’t help but think that many of the serious, physical ailments I dealt with over most of the last year had a lot to do with seriously distracting myself from what was really going on inside and just going harder and harder so I didn’t fall behind everyone else. Is it worth our health and longevity? I doubt it. 

Please note, my journey is unique to me and because I’m overly sensitive and spin into an anxious mess at the thought of ever offending anyone, I want to be very clear that I, in no way, extend judgement to those of you out there practicing yoga or teaching yoga regularly in whatever setting you find fulfilling for yourself. My experience has led me to this place and I write about it 1) because I write shit down to work it out, 2) because it’s been heavy on my mind and heart for some time, and 3) because I’ve been reading words and spending time with people who have helped me realize that it’s okay to follow your own, true path and that you should be respecting your sweet selves, regardless of any preconceived expectations of you.

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All this being said, I made the time this past weekend to make a trip to reconnect with one of my all-time favorite yoga instructors down in Houston, Texas, Amanda Field. Her and I go way back and it’s been nearly 6 years since I’ve seen her or attended one of her yoga classes. My blog stats tell me I get a lot of readership from the Houston area, so if you happen to be looking for a place to practice yoga that does not judge you, force you into anything, compete with you, or treat you like nothing more than a profit margin, I recommend connecting with her and attending a class at her brand-new studio which is set to open in just a couple weeks. She is knowledgeable, always learning, candid, welcoming, and specializes in helping tailor movements to most fit her student’s needs (and when she can’t find the move or prop to meet her student’s needs, she just goes on and creates something to assist! Check out her product: The Yoga Triangle). She is the type of instructor I strive to be when I am teaching and even better, she encourages others to practice yoga as self-expression and art. You can find out more about her and what she offers here: https://www.amandafieldyoga.com/

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From Amanda’s studio, Republic Aerial Yoga in Houston, TX

 

If nothing else, I would suggest trying to make some time to hold a mirror up to your face, so to speak. Make sure you’re taking time to look inward to ask the tough questions, to see the scars, and to make yourself a priority. We have to undo the notion that to self-care is to be selfish. As the saying goes, you can’t serve from an empty cup. Go fill up.

NamasBRAY, Jess