“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.

That was a tough goodbye

A week after my seventeenth birthday my family took a road trip to Redding, California to watch my brother graduate from boarding school. It had been two years,  two weeks, since my brother left home. He’d grown eight inches. He looked healthy and muscular, almost unrecognizable from the pasty, acne-faced, alcoholic teenager who departed in a terrifying frenzy of aggressive resistance and law enforcement intervention. I hadn’t grown at all but I’d learned to drive, taken the SAT and survived more than half of high school in the time he was away. My parents had separated.  Each of their faces wore the lines and expression of ten years passing, not two.

My mom drove my red 4runner north on highway 5. My best friend and I serenaded her from the back seat with impassioned  covers of tracks from  Garth Brooks’ album, “Sevens.”

I packed a pink turtleneck, my black J. Crew pea coat, a pair of dark denim and side-zipper, heeled black boots. A carefully chosen wardrobe, selected to display my junior-year sophistication. To illustrate to everyone just how much I’d grown up.

For the car ride I wore sweatpants and my River City Magic hoodie. In my lap, I kept safe the stringy remnants of my childhood blanket, mostly a tattered wad of disintegrating fabric.

I called it “blanky,” and even then, it was my most valued possession. I inherited blanky as a hand-me-down. My brother failed to recognize its magical, healing powers and passed it up without ever getting attached. At seventeen I felt like my brother robbed me of many things, but blanky, I stole from him.

Blanky survived countless family vacations. I battled my fear of flying by anxiously poking my fingers in and out of the spaces between the cotton threads. When anxiety turned to terror (frequently) I’d clench all ten fingers together and hold the fragile strands up against my face. I’d breathe in it’s comforting smell, slow and deep. My mom swore it emitted a fragrance of filth and decay. But to me, blanky smelled warm and safe. Before and after harrowing plane excursions, I schlepped blanky in and out of rental cars and between hotels. I slept with blanky wrapped around my wrists, or snuggled beneath my nose, every night.

I took blanky on overnight school field trips and to sleepovers with friends. When I got older, I’d hide blanky in my pillowcase, take it out when no one was looking, and stash it discretely under my shirt or between my legs.

Somewhere between a gas station pit stop in Red Bluff and our accommodations at the Best Western Inn, blanky disappeared. My first sensation was panic, followed by the launch of frantic phone calls to every place we went that weekend. For forty-eight hours I held on to the hope that blanky would be recovered. Every time the phone rang, I heard the miracle in my head. The voice on the other line assuring me blanky was safe, promising to fold it gently in a fed-ex envelope, and ship it, unscathed, to Sacramento.

A week passed, and nothing.

I cried myself to sleep every night. My mom was helpless and distraught. She couldn’t even look at me, so sad and pathetic.  I’d wake up disoriented at 2a.m. and reach into my sheets, desperately feeling for blanky. The race in my heartbeat would settle when I’d brush against something warm and soft. Then, awakening to clarity, I’d realize it was all imagined.

Blanky was gone.

I was heartbroken.

It was the deepest, most painful loss of my life.

Blanky had been my last shred of sanity and security, and comfort. The only thing salvaged from the wreckage of my brother’s alcoholism. The sole remaining artifact from the life I was living before everything came unglued.

The days after my brother’s graduation were dark, and long, and difficult. I felt both inconsolably sad and indescribably angry. I held my brother responsible. For all of it. The loss of blanky was both the “final straw” and the ultimate symbolism. If only he: wasn’t such a fuck up, finished regular high-school, hadn’t ruined my life…

Everything would be different. And blanky would be safe.

On Easter Sunday, twelve years later, my brother and I reminisce about blanky. He shares that his favorite childhood toy is still tucked away in a hall closet at my dad’s house. I admit I’m still angry that “funky” survived and blanky didn’t.

In the discussion, I feel a surge of old emotions. Heartache and longing for something I haven’t seen, or smelled, or touched, in over a decade. Resentment, sadness, anger, grief.

On the car ride home I blast the a mixed CD my best friend made me. It begins dramatically with the lyrics, “that was a tough goodbye.” My eyes fill with tears.

It sure was.

Tough goodbyes still haunt me. The struggle to gracefully move through endings, and peacefully accept loss. The mirror image is me clinging to old: feelings, relationships, ideas, even when I know it would serve me better to let them go.  I think about about the hurt I was burying, every time I picked blanky up. The emotions and sensations that I wadded up, and tucked away. I gripped blanky like it would stop time, or speed it up. The illusion that if I could dig in deep enough, everything around me would evaporate, and I would be “o.k.”

I roll the windows down and turn the volume up. I sing as loud as I can and when the tears come, they pour down hard. My face is red and swollen and my throat is parched. I feel all of it.

That was a tough goodbye.