19: Storytelling

“Before television and radio and modern technology we were all storytellers. We sat on living room floors and huddled around campfire flames and shared our talents and perspectives with each other. We were all poets and all writers and we all had something to share.”

On a June night, five years ago, Dave Stringer shared his love for chanting with a packed house at Zuda Yoga in Sacramento. It was the night I fell in love with the Sacramento yoga community. We sang and danced and sweated our asses off. We held hands and raised the roof and the next morning at teacher training, Bill Prysock reminded us that  “just in case you ever go to another one, Kirtans don’t typically go down like that.”

I felt deeply connected to every, single person in that yoga studio. My dear friends and soul-sister teacher trainees and the total strangers who were dancing inside those four walls for the first time. We shared a heartbeat. Every one of us. When I got out of bed the next morning I had the worst energetic hangover of my life. Like the spirit and beauty of all those people had run straight through me like a big, mac, truck.

Through the blur of moments and memories, it’s Dave’s words about storytelling that remain the most powerful, the most clear.

In eight years as a camp counselor, I told hundreds, maybe thousands of stories. I was the best version of myself, crouched low in the fresh-cut grass, with ten or twelve tiny, captivated faces staring up at me, locked into the world, the images, the characters I was creating. It came so easily to me. The adventures and identities and the plot-twists they never saw coming. Sometimes I’d team up with my best friend or my summer-camping soul-mate to add dimension, and detail to the story.

I could spin imagination into words all day long, but when it came to sharing my own, real-life stories, I tensed up, hesitated, and mostly held them in.

And I have a feeling, I’m not the only one.

Somewhere along the way, we all learn to censor ourselves. To edit out the heartbreaking details of struggle and failure and anger and hurt. To fill up the space with “I’m o.k.” and “things are great” and countless versions of what we think other people want to hear from us. When we do share, we choose a beautiful image or a shortened, spruced-up, well-practiced synthesis of what really happened or how we truly feel. We bury the truth in the comfort of politeness and casual conversation. When the story is a good one, we shy away from the fullness of its celebration. Inside we feel victorious and triumphant, but instinctively we limit our outward expression, trapped and constrained by the fear of judgement, or rejection, or a million other made up thoughts about how we’ll be perceived.

Last Thursday night, I stood in front of 300 people, mostly strangers, and told my story.

About fear and anxiety and saying no. About living my life in a tiny box of strict limits and well defined boundaries. About all the ways I was held back by an unwillingness to take even one small step outside my comfort zone. What I didn’t say, is that sharing myself with other people is the biggest, baddest, boldest boundary of them all. That to tell the truth about who I am and how I feel and what I’ve been through, is harder to do than anything else. To feel exposed and unmasked are, to me, the worst of the worst of uncomfortable feelings.

That night I heard eight other stories from eight, beautiful, brilliant, inspiring people. Each of them filled the room with tears and laughter and heart-bursting honesty. Genuineness. Vulnerability. Courage.

The whole place vibrated with connection. We shared a heartbeat. Every one of us.

My dear friend Lyndsey gracefully narrated the event, reminding us, over and over, that we are all the same. That the purpose, the value, the beauty of our sharing is in the opportunity for all of us to witness ourselves in the eyes of the storyteller. To hear our own hurt, our own triumph, our own struggle in the words from the brave mouth of the person speaking. We share to connect. We connect to remember our oneness, in our oneness we are reminded that we’re all this together.

We are all storytellers. We are all poets and writers. We all have something special, something important, to share.

7: Until You Do It

Two years before I stepped on a yoga mat I had my first, major transformation. At a sushi restaurant, sitting across from my college boyfriend, staring suspiciously at an “Oyster shooter,” a plate of baked muscles and an array of raw fish.

“I don’t eat this stuff.”

I’ve been repeating the phrase since the menus arrived, but he appears impervious to the message.

It’s not going well.

My boyfriend, Rak, is Cambodian. He grew up in the United States because his parents fled a Genocide that ravaged their home country. A bloody, horrific event killed most of their family and friends. Rak’s older was born in the middle of a jungle in Indonesia, while they were all on the run.

Right now he’s unsympathetic to the idea that “I’ll die if I eat ‘this’.”

I love Rak more than I thought I could love anyone, and, at this point, I’m pretty sure we’re in it together for life. I contemplate the worst case scenario and figure everything will be easier if I give in to him, just this once. I’m certain that when, not if, I have a violently-ill-nearly-hospitalized-attract-the-attention-of-the-entire-restaurant-sick-in-bed-for-three-days reaction he’ll relax a little on the hard-line, I’ll go back to ordering from the kids menu, and all will be right in the universe.

Without another word, I swallow the oyster, and, in my next breath, scrape my teeth against the hot, mollusc shell.

Rak doesn’t so much look pleased as a little less annoyed.

I am nothing short of triumphant.

I pause for the nausea, seizures and foaming at the mouth to overshadow my moment of victory.

But minutes, even hours later, I’m totally fine.

That night marked the beginning of the end of 20 years of perceived limitations with food.

Much later, I learned that “how you do anything is how you do everything,” and, as it turns out, my perceived limitations didn’t begin, or end, with food.

I’ve  said no and don’t and can’t, a lot in my life.

I’ve clung to narrow definitions and specific sets of rules and done my best to control the outcome, of everything. My tiny world always felt more manageable than the giant one I was avoiding. I stuck to the things I knew and the places I’d been and the hard stuff I was already good at.

And for many years, even after I started practicing yoga, the food thing was my only significant progress.

Then, one night in 2011, my beautiful, loving, inspiring friend Heather was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, at 52, and I was tired of being afraid.

At first, small acts of bravery like being nice to everyone I encountered and saying “yes” to more invitations to hang out. Like trusting my instincts and taking more risks and then making the commitment to live, every day, with an intention to “make it happen.” Whatever “it” was.

Eventually, bigger and scarier accomplishments, like sharing my stories and writing this blog and finally leaving the country.

Like showing people who I am and telling people what I want and not letting old stories and even older behaviors, get in the way of going after it.

Like being brave, and bold, and without limitations.

Last summer, I landed at the airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia after three weeks of travel, and one, turbulent, sixty-minute flight in a vicious electrical storm. Cambodia is the number one place I wanted to visit, but knew I never would. I try to explain the emotional and spiritual significance of our arrival to Parker. What it means for me to have made it here, to this place I would never see on a trip I would never take on seventeen airplanes I couldn’t fly on.

But he’s been a yes-man, his whole life, and he can’t possibly understand.

Then, while we’re standing at the baggage claim, being oggled by a group of Korean kids with matching t-shirts who think I’m traveling with Justin Bieber, with an intention of practicality but an outcome of profundity, he says:

“That’s the thing about your whole life, Katie. You can’t do anything, until you do it”

3: “I am enough.” A work in progress

I watched Tina Fey accept an award once by thanking her parents “for giving me disproportionately high self esteem for my looks and talent.”

“Damn, sister” I thought, “preach.”

I am the kid that people are writing all those books and blogs about, lately. The poster child for the “me” generation, a woman in her twenties who sincerely believes I am awesome. Exceptional. Unique.

Destined for greatness.

Entitled to: a fabulous, creative, challenging job where I make loads of money and travel for three months a year; immense personal and global responsibility, a personal voice in local decision-making and a seat in Congress; a book deal, a talk show, and eventually, a movie, of course.

My mom taught me I could be anyone and do anything. No exceptions, no limitations. Begin, excel, master, End.

The first time I heard the phrase “I am enough” in a yoga class, I thought, “Damn right I am.”

“Where’s the work in that?”

Like everything else in my yoga-life, and not like everything else in my other-than-yoga-life, the learning came slowly. With difficulty, and resistance.

At first, I paid attention to the whispers of self-judgment that play on repeat in the back of my mind, each day:I don’t date enough and I don’t eat healthy enough and I don’t brush my hair enough, either. I don’t make enough money and I don’t have enough travel miles, and someone my age should have a bigger retirement account than I do, right now. I haven’t been to Europe and I still hate airplanes and I’ve never driven a car my dad didn’t buy me.

I’m likely the biggest failure among the high achievers in my graduating class.

Then, the bigger stories seeped in: Like straight A’s on all of my report cards or a week of nausea and years of shame as a consequence. Like the experience of feeling paralyzed by even the thought of failure, and playing it safe to avoid messing it up. Like no matter how good I was at everything, for my dad, it was never enough.

Quitting my job as an attorney was a gigantic spiritual leap towards “I am enough.”

Who will I be without the fancy degree and the impressive job and the ability to showcase how brilliant and special I am by casually slipping in what I do for a living? Who will I be when I give up my sophisticated apartment with the granite counters and stainless steel? What will I tell the people who expect more from me, who know I’m better than this?

How will I make it clear to them, to myself, that “I am enough.”

Some days when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them “I used to be an attorney.”

It sounds better than refusing to answer the question.

Other days, I wake up completely satisfied with my income and occupation and relationship status and the contents of my Roth IRA. I beam with pride and love for myself, standing in the truth of what I know is real for me.

I thank my mom for my confidence and swagger, and my yoga practice for “I am enough.”

“Sharing the deep stuff.”

Spring is beautiful in Southern California.

Even more so because it starts in January.

There are beach days and long bike rides; Ambitious hikes and lunchtime picnics; Occasionally, there’s a sweater, on the patio, during early brunch.

I am choosing between a beachfront cruise on a rented cycle, and playing soccer for the first time in 9 years.

I throw on some cotton shorts with a questionably small in-seam, and head to the field.

I play thirty seconds of intense defense at our makeshift goal line and feel like I’m going to pass out. When, after five minutes, I haven’t caught my breath, I wonder if I’m really going out like this. Because it doesn’t seem as epic, or heroic, as it should be.

I survive the near-death encounter and, by the ninth or tenth minute, I start to get the hang of it. I’m winded and my legs feel heavy but my body remembers the movements, the touch of the ball. I experience the familiar surge of adrenaline in a 50/50 tackle with someone twice my size. It’s hot. And sweaty. And awesome.

At halftime, I pass around a batch of my homemade granola and some fresh oranges I sliced before the game. On the walk back to my apartment, I describe the afternoon to my best friend.  I yell and wave my hands as if my gestures will enhance his understanding of my enthusiasm. With anyone else it wouldn’t, but with him, it does.

We make plans to cap off my perfect “Spring” day with dinner and “The Descendants.” I typically resist the local pressure to see deep, moving films, but agree to do just about anything if Nick suggests it. Early in our friendship, without protest or hesitation, I paid eighteen dollars to see Jackass 3D in the middle of the day.

Jackass. 3. D.

Dinner is airy and entertaining. Nick’s sister and her husband are visiting, they join us with two of their friends. We exchange perspectives on the virtues and vices of living in Los Angeles. The female friend announces, and elaborates on, her detest for Dyson hand dryers. She gives an impassioned speech entitled, “long live the paper towel.”

Later, she discloses that she works for a paper distribution company.

Nick and I are still giggling about the finer points of public restroom hand drying when the movie starts.

I proceed to cry for two hours straight.

I need a pile of paper towels to soak up the tears.

I manage to pull myself together just as we step into the light of the lobby. I wonder if the severity of my pink, swollen eyes is magnified by the reflection of fluorescent lights on red carpet.

Nick graciously guides me through the “good nights” and hurries me out to the car. He senses an impending emotional explosion, any minute.

Without a lot of dialogue he drives to the coast. We park ourselves on a bench in Northern Santa Monica, overlooking the Ocean. With little probing, it comes pouring out. At first, I don’t know why I’m impacted so much by a George Clooney performance, but as the words come,  they make sense when I hear them.

I talk about the pain in the movie and the pain in my life. How our pain connects us. It’s something deep we all share. Pain has the potential to bring understanding, and love and compassion, but we hide it and shame it away. We fear being vulnerable and exposing our darkness to others. We answer, “I’m fine” to the question, “how are you?” and put on a happy face. We do our best to make it invisible, and irrelevant, in our every day lives.

There’s that scene with George Clooney and the annoying teenage boyfriend of his daughter, in the middle of the night. The boyfriend shares that he lost his mother in a car accident. Even in the dim lighting, through a flat screen, you can feel the transformation. George Clooney looks down at this greasy, punkish kid, who he’s resented for half the movie, and realizes, their pain is the same.

That they are the same.

And the rest of us are too.

I tell Nick about all the times and ways and reasons I’ve hid my pain. How the tears I cried in the movie theater were some of the ones I saved up during six years of never crying. About anything. Certainly not during some stupid movie.

Definitely not in public.

There’s a moment, in the crying and sharing, where I witness my courage. My own transformation. I realize that my “unwillingness to be vulnerable” and my “inability to open up” are old stories that no longer rule my life. That it’s me, standing there, in the crisp night air, balling. Revealing my deepest, darkest stuff to someone who’s opinion of me I hold in high regard.

Maybe the highest.

For the last four years, I’d been battling pretty hard to escape the idea of myself as closed up and unemotional. To shed the self-imposed identity, I had a feeling, was holding me back.

I started teaching yoga when I was 25. I approached it like everything else in my life: A task to study, then master, then be the best at.  I studied my favorite teachers to identify what made them “good” at teaching. I practiced constantly and held myself to a rigid standard of perfection. The sequence, the music, my voice, the message. All perfect.

But my no-fail formula for success didn’t work as well as applied to yoga teaching as it did to everything else.

And over and over again I kept hearing, “I want to see more of you.” and “open up your heart.”

The truth is, at the time, I didn’t even know what that meant.

I struggled through it for a while and eventually quit teaching. With all of the achieving I was doing, I didn’t have time to tackle the seemingly unsolvable spiritual mysteries of my soul.

I made my yoga teaching comeback leading classes for high school kids in the San Fernando valley. It was the same month I saw “The Descendants.” In fact, it might have been the same week. Then, about a year later, I mustered the courage to teach adults again. At my home studio, in my home town.

Last weekend I stood in the back of the same studio where I taught my first class. Standing near the stereo, where I’d told so many light-hearted stories about other people’s lives, I watched a thin white guy struggle through a two-minute warrior two. He had a miserable look on his face, like he’d gone for a 10 mile run at sunrise and took my class as a way to unwind on a Sunday morning. His knees were wobbling and the space between his eyebrows steadily decreased as the tension in his face spread to his shoulders, and rippled down his spine.

“Oh god. he hates this.”

As my students hit the floor and land in a deep hip opener, I cringe as I watch the poor guy struggle to get “comfortable” hovering over his right shin.

I close my eyes, and feel my feet, and just like that night on the Ocean, my mouth is moving and my heart is speaking. And the words make sense when I hear them.

When the class is over I see the guy with the  well-defined calf muscles approach me. I squeeze my eyebrows together and prepare for the worst. I fear I’m too vulnerable right now to hear whatever scathing feedback is coming my way.

Before I can duck out of the studio, we’re face to face.

“I just wanted to thank you for sharing all that deep stuff.” “It hit me pretty hard and I really appreciate it.” “I know that’s not easy to do, but it means a lot.”

Pain is something we all share. A place where we can really connect. Where we find understanding. Compassion. And love. When we let go of fear and shame and resist the temptation to bury it, we give other people permission to do the same.

Thanks for sharing the deep stuff.

Do the Right Thing

In my last quarter of college, I signed up for a four hour political film seminar on Monday nights. By the second meeting, I was deep in regret about my senior year enrollment strategy. Every week, I’d slink into the back row of a dark, windowless classroom in Kinsey hall, a building that didn’t even exist by the time I got to law school, three years later.

At the midway point, my professor screened Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” A year and a half earlier, I’d made my way through every Spike Lee joint, ever released. My mid-college discovery of “Critical Media Studies” led to a brief fascination with progressive film-making, and a related interest in becoming Spike’s young-white-lady contemporary. I studied his art on the weekends like my lifetime success depended on my mastery of the genre.

Mostly beyond my aspiring documentarian phase, I assumed my weekly position, flipped open my laptop, and set out to mindlessly pass the next two hours.

Between perusing articles on the New York Times home page and wondering why I didn’t eat more for dinner, my mind pulled me into a familiar anxiety.

“What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?”

I went to college, to study political science, to get to law school, to be an attorney. Back then, it was simple: I would effortlessly ace each of my college classes and make brilliant connections with influential professors and accomplished attorney alums. I would land the perfect internship, be a shining star of my academic department and the crown jewel of my national champion mock trial team. My post-college destiny would unfold as easily and obviously as everything else had for me, at every stage in my life.

But from the back row of the last class I needed to graduate, the future remained unclear.

I fell off the pre-law wagon during zero week of my first quarter. I was auditing information sessions for the fanciest  clubs and organizations on campus. Even on his best behavior, the President of Mock trial was transparently a douchebag. Although it would be years before I had the language to name it, the “energy” in the room that night was tense and competitive. I looked around a space filled with buttoned-down white kids, saw a reflection of the high school community I just escaped from, and wanted to run as fast and as far as I could to get away from it.

A year later I became a mentor for a 10 year old girl named Cindy. I took more education classes and did less of my political science reading. I dove head first into UCLA UniCamp Mentorship and discovered a community of young people that changed my life. I bathed in service, and teamwork, and social justice. Every Teach for America Rep on campus stalked my every move. I felt the joy of co-creating with selfless, dynamic leaders.

Every day I woke up more and more inspired to change the world.

And one morning, on a Malibu beach, a year before I graduated, I forgot I ever wanted to be an attorney. For good.

The more I knew what I loved, the harder it was to decide what “to do.” I was haunted by perceived expectations and limited by an idea I had about myself, my family, my teachers, my friends. I battled an identity of “over-achiever” and a set of characteristics and professional ambitions I believed to be associated with it.

In my life, I’d never done just anything.

I had to do the right thing.

And eventually, I did.

I graduated from a prestigious professional school. I earned a fancy degree. I had a work wardrobe sponsored by J.Crew and a job description that elicited wide eyes and approving nods, gestures I interpreted as approval, affirmation and “I’m impressed.” My dad bragged to his colleagues and my mom proudly posted pictures to Facebook from the night I was sworn in.

It was everything I envisioned before college, and everything I resisted by the end of it.

Initially, I framed my departure from the legal profession as wrong, and risky and rebellious. People like me don’t give up power and prestige and earning potential. People like me ascend to greatness, climb the corporate ladder and relentlessly pursue their next remarkable achievement. People like me are lawyers, for their entire careers.

Leaving my job felt nauseating and terrifying. In my last two weeks as an attorney, I woke up every other night with an accelerated heartbeat and racing mind. 29 years of avoiding the uncertain and the unconventional, left me without experience, or a frame of reference, for this tremendous leap of faith.

But two weeks into my new life, I sleep through every night. I wake up motivated, excited and open. I feel loving and connected. I climb all four flights of stairs to my apartment with renewed lightness. My whole body feels different. I smile and laugh and dance. I sing at the top of my lungs, in my car, on the way to work. In moments of financial anxiety, or ego-driven discomfort, I breathe in gratitude for the miracle of my life:

The support of my mom and every, single one of my friends. The blessing of my professional mentors, and the encouragement of my community. The freedom to be who I am, and to live my fullest life.

The courage to transcend the idea of doing right.

To re-discover how it feels to be happy.

Tall Ships

In fourth grade I spent one full day and one full night aboard the C.A. Thayer, an all-wood, three-masted tall ship docked at the end of the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. The Thayer lived out its retirement hosting privileged elementary school students for weekend forays into the hard-knock life of early twentieth century sailors.

I imaginary-sailed the Pacific Northwest shipping routes like I was born to do it.

I was the captain of the boat crew, and later promoted to second mate of the entire ship. Not bad for a land-dwelling 10 year old.

Every afternoon leading up to our trip, my teacher read from a hard-bound book called “tall ships.” In dramatic oratory style, he retold the epic adventures of sailors moving cargo from San Francisco to Seattle, Alaska and back again. I was captivated by the courage of sailors and the impossibly hard life of living and working on a wooden boat. I’d create vivid imagery in my head of my own life at sea. There was something so romantic and dangerous and edgy about being a sailor. Something daring and powerful. Something alluring about a life where fear couldn’t stop me from anything. A life where I faced challenges head on.

Even at a young age I was desperate to be liberated from the constraints of my anxious mind. I’ve always been bold and brave of intention but cautious and hesitant in action.

Tonight I’m staring out the window facing the Marina Del Rey harbor, crowded with tall ships.

Lately my life feels a little like nightwatch on the C.A. Thayer. It’s uncomfortable and uncertain. I know it’s impermanent but it feels interminable. I want to wish myself forward in time even though I know I’ll regret missing the experience. It’s at times dark and cold and at others exciting and full of possibility. My perspective changes moment to moment. Fear. Hope. Fear. Hope. Fear again.

I close my eyes and see my fourth grade self imagining her life at 28. She pictures a confident and sassy young attorney. Someone with a lot of influence and many powerful pant suits. A woman who parlayed her Thayer second-mate status into a prosperous political career.

It turns out childhood dreams are not an exact science.

I open my eyes and remind myself to be patient. I remind myself of the things my fourth grade self couldn’t predict. The things that shaped the real-life version of what she imagined.
I remind myself to keep dreaming about who I want to become. And to give myself a break about who I already am. To be daring and powerful. To not let fear stop me. To face challenges head on.