Tonglen for Thanksgiving. Also, a ham and links to many recipes.

Early this morning, after starting water for coffee, I put a ham in the oven. For Thanksgiving. Which I’m celebrating this year at home, in Chicago, with a small group of dear, long-time friends.

I have so very much to be grateful for. The group of friends who are coming for Thanksgiving, the core of my urban family. My biological family in Florida. Satisfying, interesting work. Exceptional yoga teachers. Robust health. So much that to list it all would take my entire day, which I need to spend in other ways.

So maybe for now I’ll just focus my gratitude on Slagel Farms hamthis ham. It’s from Slagel Farms. I’m hoping it had a pretty good life. And I’m certain it will be delicious both on its own and then later, when I use the bone for some form of bean soup. This sort’ve ethical (I eat meat with qualms) ham was also affordable, because a friend from yoga invited me to join her and another friend in ordering directly from the farm–we all agreed that 15 dozen eggs divided among the three of us was not crazy. At least not right before Thanksgiving, a holiday that for me is almost entirely centered on cooking a traditional feast that calls for large quantities of eggs.

As I’ve said here before, there is little that makes me happier than cooking for people I love. Therefore yesterday, as I made cornbread for dressing, gluten free pie crusts for pecan pie, and cranberry orange relish, and while I rubbed salt and organic coconut sugar and black pepper into the very expensive organic turkey that another friend and I bought through the food co-op that I hope one day will form here in Chicago, I danced in the kitchen. I felt joy.

Side by side with the joy and gratitude, however, upwelling into unexpected spaces, I also felt, still feel, grief and anxiety.

I feel grief because the man I’m in love with is no longer in my life, because one of my sisters died far too young, and because I’m in the process of releasing so many delusions about who I am, what my life is, how I fit into this world. I feel grief about the state of our world, for all of those who are suffering untold horrors. For the contemptuous ways in which we humans too often treat each other and ourselves. And I feel anxiety over who knows what. The state of the world, yes, but also for some nameless unknown. In my life, anxiety comes in tiny waves that roll relentlessly through my small self, constant stories about this and that, him and her, me, them. It is the background music of my life.

Looking back, I think I’ve always been anxious. Indeed, at my sister’s memorial service earlier this month someone who knew Valerie long ago told me that her (this woman’s) babysitting career ended because of me. Apparently I would not stop crying no matter how she tried to comfort me. I was too young to remember that particular episode, but I have countless childhood memories of curling up with various pets, finding solace from the storm of feelings that I did not know how to handle and that no one around me was equipped to understand or resolve. It was the 70s.

As a young adult I found relief from anxiety in marijuana, which I smoked for years and years. It worked in a way. I was able to function in social settings, I was able to relax and feel normal. Have fun. But I believe that smothering my anxiety with drugs also choked off my ability to grow into the person I wanted to become. Because contrary to everything I learned as a child and young adult, anxiety is not something that needs to be pushed away. It is an invitation.

For the past month or so I’ve been doing an online meditation class through Dharma Ocean. Like Forrest Yoga, the form of meditation taught at Dharma Ocean is an embodiment practice. But meditating is for me much more challenging than yoga. There are no poses. There’s just you, on the cushion.

When I practice yoga I know I’m supposed to be feeling my body. And sometimes I do. But usually, despite continual attempts to stay in my body, I live primarily in my head and mostly in the future. Worrying, planning, thinking. I know that the solution is to practice yoga each morning at home, to meditate. And every day I have the best intentions. Then, most days, I make coffee. I write in my journal. Time passes. I have to go.

This is my life.

It’s happening again now. If it were a regular Thursday I wouldn’t mind too much because I would go to Gwen’s 4 pm class at Yoga Now. But today is a holiday. There is no class. I’m on my own. I want to meditate, I want to practice yoga, to have ceremony for and with myself on this day, to show up and do the things I know I should be doing to be fully alive and able to be my best self. Instead I’m here, in my head, trying to work this out in writing, to share my experience with all of you. Which is important to me. I’m not sure why. Lately I think maybe writing is yet another way in which I distance myself from my feelings, another distraction, another defense mechanism. But, at least right now, I think that’s okay.

Last night, lying in bed, I picked up one of the books on my crowded nightstand.bedside books Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It is one of the books I have to read and write about in order to reach Level Two certification for yoga teacher training. Like so many of those books, I’ve read it before. And I can’t seem to get it together to do the rather daunting homework. So instead, as with the other books, I pick this one up on occasion, open it at random, and read a few words here and there, usually before bed.

Last night I opened to chapter nineteen: Three Methods for Working with Chaos. The second method is Tonglen, which Pema Chodron describes as follows:

“When anything difficult arises–any kind of conflict, any notion of unworthiness, anything that feels distasteful, embarrassing, or painful–instead of trying to get rid of it, we breathe it in…. When suffering arises, the tonglen instruction is to let the story line go and breathe it in–not just the anger, resentment, or loneliness that we might be feeling, but the identical pain of others who in this very moment are also feeling rage, bitterness, or isolation. We breathe it in for everybody. This poison is not just our personal misfortune, our fault, our blemish, our shame–it’s part of the human condition. It’s our kinship with all living things, the material we need in order to understand what it’s like to stand in another person’s shoes. Instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe it in and connect with it fully. We do this with the wish that all of us could be free of suffering. Then we breathe out, sending out a sense of big space, a sense of ventilation or freshness. We do this with the wish that all of us could relax and experience the innermost essence of our mind.”

In reading this I realized that while I might not have made time to meditate or practice yoga, I could easily practice Tonglen throughout the day whenever I felt grief or anxiety. I started right then, in bed. Breathing in the sharp pain of missing people I love who I will not see again in this lifetime. Allowing the feeling to permeate my body. Softening around the feelings, enfolding them with compassion for myself and all the others in the world feeling those same feelings. Exhaling a hope that we might all be free from suffering. That seems a good wish for today, for always.

Today I certainly won’t practice yoga. I doubt I’ll make time for formal meditation. Instead I am going to cook and clean a little in preparation for my guests. Then I’m going to spend time with them. Between now and then, though, I am going to practice Tonglen. I shall be sending out hope that all beings be free from suffering. Including you, whoever and wherever you are. Thank you for reading this. May you be well. May you be at peace. May you be kind to yourself. May you accept yourself as you are. And may you have a Thanksgiving that is happy, whatever happiness means for you. For me, sometimes happiness comes in feeling sadness. It is the happiness that comes from knowing I am alive. I am grateful.

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First cup of coffee after yoga teacher training

Today, shortly, I will head to the yoga studio for the last two days of yoga teacher training. Yesterday was the last day with Ana Forrest but we still have the business class. I meant to go to open practice, do some yoga. But instead I decided to sleep in and have coffee, my first cup since training began. Then I decided to write this meandering post, which has absolutely nothing to do with beans. In fact I’m not sure it has to do with anything. Except how much I’m enjoying this cup of coffee. coffeeIts richness and depth, and the jittery feeling spreading through my body right now. The container of time it helped me build this morning during which I get to listen to the wind blow through trees outside the windows as I watch a sea of green against storm gray sky, undulating and speaking some language that I understand with every part of my body, my body that is so much more awake now than it was the last time I wrote here.

During training, the man I’ve been dating for the past two years left my life, at least for now. I’m doing my best to trust that it is what is supposed to be, that we each learned what we needed to learn from the other. To practice gratitude for feeling as loved as he made me feel. But every morning and every night, right now, tears pour from my eyes, down cheeks. My stomach heaves with the tears that I don’t yet know how to shed. I’m so very sad.

In training I realized how hard I am, how many layers I’ve built between myself and the world. I learned that my mode of dealing with life is to tighten my body, squeeze, constrict. I learned that my default answer is no. I learned that underneath my holding I am absolutely terrified. I also learned, however, that I want to say yes. Yes to whatever comes, whatever life has in store.

I hoped yoga training would show me how to let go. Instead it showed me how desperately I hold on. And that it is up to me to figure out how to live to my highest potential. That no one else can do that for me.

I’m not sure how I start. So I will breathe. Doing my best to trust that there is a place for me in this great web of a world in which I so frequently feel I do not belong. I will post this terrifyingly honest blog entry that has nothing to do with beans or anything at all except me. The beginning of what I hope will prove to be true strength, my developing warrior heart. Thank you, Ana Forrest, and everyone in the Forrest tribe. I am grateful for your welcome.

blackeyed pea salad with celery, mango, and peppers

black eyed pea salad with mangoThis is my version of a salad someone brought to the Easter party I attended this year. Which is hard to believe was just last weekend. It’s been one of those world shifting weeks. Before I get into that, though, let me tell you about the salad. Because (a) I want to write it down before I forget what I did, and (b) I’m starting to realize that I should always put the recipe first. That way people who just want the recipe won’t have to wade through a bunch of words about whatever else I’m interested in. So. Here’s how I made the salad. And trust me. This is one of those dishes that tastes a whole lot better than the crappy photo makes it out to be. Really. It’s delicious.

1 cup blackeyed peas, picked over and rinsed
1 ripe mango, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
2 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. honey
salt to taste

Bring  four cups of water to a boil, add the peas, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for about 45 minutes, adding about a teaspoon of salt in the last 15 minutes. (They may take a bit longer. Cook until tender but not so long they turn to mush.) Remove from heat and let the peas cool for a while in their cooking liquid while you prep the mango, celery, and pepper. Once everything is chopped, transfer to a large bowl. Then drain the peas, put them on top of the chopped produce,  and drizzle the olive oil, vinegar, and honey on top. Stir to combine. Taste and add salt, more vinegar, and honey as needed.

This is best at room temperature. But on a hot summer day I bet it will be pretty damn good right out of the fridge.

Now. On to the world-shifting week. Right now, as I write this, I’m in Tallahassee. I had to come down all of a sudden because my aunt died last Saturday night, in a car accident. I found out first thing Sunday morning. Which made for a weird, fragile, surreal Easter.

On the one hand, I was happy. A relatively new friend had invited me and another relatively new friend for Easter. I love spending time with both of these people. So I’d been looking forward to the party for weeks, feeling grateful for the direction my life has taken and thinking about what I could contribute. After I finally decided what to bring, I spent much of Saturday making pickled red beets and red onions, to complement the hostess’s lamb heart salad, something that sounded simultaneously brilliant and revolting. They turned out really well. Beautiful. Delicious. (I’ll write about them soon.) I was excited to share them with people. And ever since the class with Ana Forrest a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been working really hard to not fixate on how I think I should be feeling and instead just feel whatever is actually going on without judgment. So, on Sunday, I couldn’t just stop the happy feelings in their tracks.

On the other hand, I was in shock and, at times, overcome with sadness. My Aunt Alice, who married my mom’s brother, was a stay-at-home mom with two boys. Our two families grew up next door to each other. While I haven’t seen her much in recent years, she was a huge part of my life and someone whose presence I foolishly took for granted. She has always been there, a constant for my entire memory. And while I’m sure she sometimes wished I would not come over quite so often, I think m y aunt, who I adored, also loved having a niece who was almost like a part-time daughter.

All of this combined for a weird Easter Sunday. While I waited for it to be time to go to the party, I made a cake. This cake. honey ginger cakeIt’s a honey spice cake without gluten and refined sugar. Again, I’ll post sometime soon with the recipe. For now, it’s enough to say that I couldn’t have planned a more perfect way to spend that time. It was perfect because Aunt Alice was the one who taught me to bake, letting my cousin and I break eggs, showing us how to measure flour, separate the whites and yolks, and do all the things one does to transform individual ingredients into cooked food starting when we had to stand on stools in order to reach the counter.

Originally, that’s what I meant to write about. About the cake and about Aunt Alice teaching me to bake and about loss and life and grief and a million things. Hoping to articulate this as well as some of the ways in which my life has changed in the last year. But there wasn’t time to try. I had to go to the party. Then it was Monday. I had to work. Cope with the reality of my aunt’s death. Find an affordable plane ticket. Come to Tallahassee. Attend the funeral. See my cousin and the rest of my family. Grieve.

Now I’m here in my hometown, surrounded by my family and immersed in this nature that is so much a part of who I am. I’m breathing in the humid Florida air. Listening to the crazy loud insect symphony. Feeling the reality of all these feelings. Without analysis or cataloging. Just feeling. Somehow finding that there isn’t so much to write about. Instead I’m busy trying to live well. Spending time with people I love.  Doing my best to be grateful for every minute. And trusting that here will be time to write more later. For now, namaste.