I have always considered myself a crooked tree, so straight trees earned my respect’ -Unknown Author, New York Times
It’s been 13 days since a strip of New England was pummeled by an October Nor’easter. The wreckage of the day still peppers the boundaries of the highway, residential yards, and vast open fields. Clumps of trees upright with still coloring tenacious leaves a-rustle are textured with almost down trees leaning awkwardly this-a-that-away, layered with definitely down trees dying or dead. As one who lives anthropomorphizing all that I see, the scenery of these past two weeks has been utterly heart wrenching. I look around and my body contorts with an inner ouch! Torn limbs, splitting trunks, and dead “friends” must make for a very sad, sore, emotional distraught landscape. Ouch!
A few days post storm, a student lingered after class to help me pack up. We chatted this and that eventually reaching a pause. I looked up right as she was turning to me. With somber, curiosity she asked, “Do you think that the trees will stand back up.” Staying paused in my actions I gave her a full gaze of intrigue, “Say more.” “The tress in my front yard, the birch trees,” she continued, “the storm left them leaning forward—like at a 45 degree angle to the ground—do you think they’ll stand back up? Do you know if birch trees are strong?” These questions that I was unable to answer with anything but wonder have been challenging my thoughts this week. It’s a fantastic contemplation. When life wallops us and we bend, stagger, and contort ourselves to continue on, do we straighten back up, or do we linger in our walloped stance? What about when we willing configure ourselves to fit a job, relationship, social construct, personal ideal or curiosity—do we stay bent once the relationship, job, social/personal situation passes?
What does standing up straight even mean?
Six years ago I found myself in the South during hurricane season. Katrina had just whacked and wrecked New Orleans and the surrounding states were absorbing many traumatized, homeless home seekers. Having sabbaticalled in Atlanta for 6 months longer than I had originally planned for, I was dragging my feet at making my way back north. The storms and my soon to be evacuated subleted apartment in Northampton were adding an unwanted pep to my step. On the day I had scheduled to leave I woke to a beautiful blue sky –a perfect travel day. However, as my car filled with my belongings the sky darkened making it clear that another storm of some enormity was going to hit. Anxious and impatient, I hunkered down on my friend’s sheltered front porch and watched the wind pick up speed against the trees lining the sidewalks. Impatience soon traded up for awe, reverence, respect, and fear as the wind lashed against the trunks and branches bending them this way and that over and again. I had no idea wood could bend so elegantly. As the wind blown rain sogged me, my attention remained absorbed in how the middle to top part of each tree flowed, curving and bowing to the wind, while the base stayed steady and stable–rooted. It was captivating. Obviously at some point something has to give and sadly the neighborhood lost two trees that storm, but the endurance that I witnessed that day, and the feeding of that endurance—the ability to both root and flow—sprinkled seeds all over my brain.
In my 20 years of studying various styles of yoga I’ve come to understand the practice as an invitational practice—an every day/every part of your life practice encouraging flexibility/integration of the mind, body, and heart. This integration empowers the individual to weave him or herself into the larger picture of life while also opening them so that life can weave it’s way into them. I heard a teacher once describe it as learning to connect so fully, so solidly to our centers—ourselves as Grace—that we can move beyond center AS FAR AS POSSIBLE into life while still maintaining connection to Grace. Something stays stable, steady—rooted—so that another part of us can reach, extend, be pulled and challenged. I think of this on my mat. Can I work in each asana to deepen the flexibility of my layers that I might extend myself out further, bow deeper, enter the storms of life open and flowing, as not to get torn apart.
But then we do get torn apart, don’t we? Loved ones die, violence tears through communities, illness blossoms accompanied with suffering, little people ache, big people retaliate, snow storms hit in October, economies crash and burn, each one of us stumbles and falls. All of us fall down over and over and over again. And we watch each other fall—ouch. It’s crazy-amazing.
This past February, I had laparoscopic surgery on my left hip to fix a torn labrum. The injury was from a car accident. I expected surgery to “fix” me—good as new. For the past 5 months I have swished, swerved, muscled, soften, twisted, extended, and breathed my way through posture after posture, practice after practice trying to make my hip feel like it did pre-accident. The silliness of that quest hit me the other day as I again battled the injury on the mat trying to get back to where I used to be—as if I would ever be back to where I used to be….I was in a car accident and had surgery on my hip. My hip is a different hip than it was two years ago. There’s a bend in my tree.
Scars of the heart, scars of the body, scars of the mind—they are the process of life. Our own little patchwork body of being holds our story—scars, bends, twists, and asymmetries—all of it. We can fear it and attempt to live short leashed and hold a quieter, more controlled story—or we can dig down, root out, rise into the storms of life stretching ourselves as far as possible trusting that it’s all just Grace and that in the end—life goes way too fast.
I don’t know if those birch trees will stand back up. I do know that no matter how straight or angled they appear, they are what they are—trees that survived an October Nor’easter.
Kellie Finn is immensely grateful for New England living, family, friends, sunshine, good jokes, moon gazing, night walks, ocean breezes, lingering hugs, fresh vegetables, road trips, adjectives, and an ever growing boot collection. She has been studying yoga since a volunteer summer at Omega in 1991, and teaching classes/working privately with students since Sept. 2001. You can find her class schedule and musings here.