Dear Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake:
I’m writing to you as a constituent to express my concern for the people of Baltimore. I would like to see you sign Bill 16-0621 when it crosses your desk, because the health and safety risks posed by transporting crude oil by rail through Baltimore should not be taken lightly. I am asking you to put people before profit!
Last night I attended the Chesapeake Climate Action Network informational meeting about the dangers of crude oil trains and heard the first hand account of a survivor of a disaster in Canada in an area with just one line. Her small town was completely destroyed and will never fully recover. We cannot afford the human loss and devastation that our denser more metropolitan city would experience if something as horrific were to happen here.
I was not in Baltimore for the Howard Street tunnel explosion in 2001, but I was here for the 26th Street collapse, and I have now owned a home here in Waverly for ten years. This is just one area identified as a potential fall out zone for a possible train disaster. Some of the most vibrant areas of our city are also identified! This is more than distressing.
What is even more distressing, is that these companies have tried to wriggle out of their due diligence. Now that we do have access to the information about both when and what is being transported through our city; please hold CSX and Norfolk Southern responsible for their business operations in our city, our home. Please start by signing Bill 16-0621.
Amy Genevieve Kozak
When I hopped a plane bound for Costa Rica, I left behind both the simmering riotous urban grit of Baltimore City and the endangered sparkling beauty of the Chesapeake Bay region. It was literally my privilege to be able to leave in order to gain perspective on the situation and my place in it.
By leaving, I hoped to provide myself with an adventure while I continued to grieve the death of my mother. I was also heeding the advice of my yogi mentors and was prescribing myself some rest from holding space for others on the yogic path. And then I sprinkled on top a healthy number of visits with several nonprofit organizations. I even helped to plant hundreds of trees to offset the carbon footprint of air travel.
I boarded the plane alone. I had provided an outline of my intended itinerary along with a scan of my passport to three de facto emergency contacts. These folks would notice if I disappeared. I carried very little with me, just a modest backpack filled with the barest essentials and a tent. Deep in my chest, I also carried a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the commercial nightmare that is Christmas. Off I went, into something I was co-creating with friends I hadn’t met yet.
Upon landing at the international airport in San Jose, I exchanged a few of my American dollars for Colones and immediately started to speak terrible Spanish. I had hopes that with practice in the real world, the classes I’d been taking for years might solidify. The cab drivers at the airport first offered me rides, and then they catcalled me. Sadly, as a woman, this is something we get used to; still I was saddened to find it here too so immediately. I vowed to never give any of these men in cars a single bit of the currency I’d just received. I had that small bit of power in this particular situation.
As was my plan, I found the bus to Heredia and paid a sum equivalent to a dollar for the ride. After I got away from the airport, I was pleasantly surprised to find that people were generally friendly and also very helpful. Costa Ricans speak with a slow cadence and offer gentle corrections as you butcher their mother tongue. “Yo hablo espanol muy horrible,” became how I started most conversations, and I was only half joking. More often than not, a simple exchange in Spanish would follow, until they grew worried that I’d likely never find the bus I was inquiring about, and then they’d switch to English. They also seemed happy for the chance to practice.
In Heredia, I found Christmas ready and waiting to welcome me with its weeklong Black Friday sales, and mobs of shoppers. I blamed my own consumer culture’s ability to creep, and then did my best to avoid all of it. Once I was settled in at an affordable family run hotel, I set out on foot to explore my surroundings. Fueled by a morning coffee plantation tour and tasting, I walked further north up the side of a somewhat thickly populated inactive volcano, in order to find Galeria Octagono, a women’s craft collective and community space that encourages artistic growth.
The upward trek took longer than I thought it would, but once I arrived I marveled at the bright creations, and how beautifully unique they each were. A memory of my maternal grandmother and going along to help her at craft shows flooded back to me. This was how my grandmother supported herself after my grandfather’s early death. The aim here was similar. I tried to communicate my nostalgia in broken Spanish to the mother and daughter minding the store, as I bought bracelets made from recycled material in homage both to the memory, and a brilliant nonprofit concept.
Silvia, the founder of the space, showed up and offered me coffee and then she even invited me into her home where her collection of Sunday afternoon guests, included her co-host husband, as well as old friends, internationals, and kindred spirits where assembled. I’ll never forget her additional invitation to later join her and her family for lunch for Christmas, something she doesn’t “celebrate” either.
Even if you never have the pleasure of meeting Silvia in person, I highly recommend you visit the Gallery through the online store or Facebook page. If you are able to make a purchase, please do, as the women involved with this organization are subsequently able to earn money to support themselves and their children, while also growing their talents. If you want to start something similar in your community, you should. Silvia would probably even tell you how, because she is a beautifully generous soul.
On my way back down through the Barva region, as this area is known, I saw Tico families (a term for Costa Ricans that I would soon learn) dragging their fresh cut pine trees home atop car roofs with rainbows as numerous as windmills littering the skyline as backdrop. Despite the holiday hoopla, I quickly began falling in love with the Costa Rican people. I’d soon fall even more deeply in love with the land. But first, I had to figure out how to find the one bus company that would take me from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez –the furthest distance between points for the trip I had planned.
Sure I could have flown, but this was an adventure. I was taking the bus!
I should mention that technically there are no addresses in Costa Rica, a fact that makes finding the unfamiliar a bit like a scavenger hunt. After consulting my somewhat off guidebook, scouring several recent postings on Trip Advisor, and again asking for directions, I did successfully find the correct travel plaza and bus company office. It was closed when I arrived, and only opened ten minutes before the bus was to leave, but apparently this is how it goes with ‘Tico time.’ Once the office was open, I could only pay cash for my ticket, which is also the norm. After that was settled, I boarded the first of only two buses making the daily trip to the Osa Peninsula.
I intentionally took the first bus of the day, because I’d heard the roads are unreliable, and as luck would have it I got to experience such a scenario. We were in transit for 11 hours, two of which were spent waiting for the road to be cleared; of accident or landslide I wasn’t able to fully comprehend.
When we were moving, I saw windmills first from a distance and then right up close as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. I saw clouds first hovering in the valleys in the distance and then, as we climbed even higher, they filled the frame of every bus window so that all that was visible was white fluff. There was a correlating extreme drop in temperature. As we slowly descended, swaths of green made up of plants I didn’t yet know how to identify came into view. People-watching on long distance bus trips is a lot of fun, especially when your bus begins to operate as a local bus too. Despite the warnings, to my knowledge, no one ever even tried to rob me. If you have the time, I highly recommend traveling by bus.
Once I arrived in Puerto Jimenez, I went out for my first Imperial – the unofficial beer of Costa Rica. I felt I had earned it! Afterwards, I attempted to get some sleep in between moto engine noises – the preferred mode of transportation as far as I could tell. I got up with the sun so that I could catch a collectivo; something I asked around about and thought I knew how to find, but I didn’t actually know what one looked like. When it eventually showed up, the collectivo was a large truck with a frame covered by canvas in the bed; essentially a hoop house on wheels. It looked more like a thing guerrilla soldiers might jump in and out of, than tourist transportation. I paid my way, climbed aboard, and braced myself for two more hours of slow and bumpy travel via a rutted dirt road. It didn’t take long for most signs of civilization to fall away, and for giant blue and brown butterflies to start lazily drifting in and out of view along the road – this was the Blue Morpho, which you can buy in a frame at the airport, but shouldn’t.
I’d been planning my time with Osa Conservation for months with the help of Bea, a volunteer coordinator on the ground, and she was now awaiting my arrival. The plan was for me to participate in the turtle conservation work going on there, and now that I’d made it successfully to the region, I could begin to relax into the idea a bit more. The lovely Bea met me as planned, and immediately offered me breakfast and coffee. She then gave me a tour of the facilities, made complete with a hummingbird sipping nectar from the yellow flowers inside of a gorgeous cold outdoor shower. It was as if Bea had planned for it to be there! She also gave me the good news that I could do both kinds of work that I was interested in – turtle conservation AND sustainable agriculture – so she gave me a tour of the fields as well.
There was so much to take in, and at one point I squealed in a surprised delight perhaps only E.O. Wilson would understand, as we stepped over leaf cutter ants carrying purple petals. In general, I began to say very little other than, “Yes!” And this trend continued the duration of my stay. Do you want to liberate turtles this afternoon, and monitor the beach at 4am? “Si.” Do you want to milk cows and harvest corn in the tropical heat of the day? “Si.” Do you want to ride a horse to the lagoon in order to kayak? “Si.” Do you want a bit more of this dish and more coffee? “Um, claro que, si.”
My schedule at Osa quickly filled with gloriously difficult and rewarding work. The days sped by, and already my memories are becoming a beautiful blur of happiness. I will never forget guarding baby turtles from predators on the beach; as they scurried off to their probable and statistically likely demise, Charlie, one of the researchers, and I whispered behind them, “I know you’re the one that’s going to make it back” whilst also teaching the feral dog to chase off hawks. Life is hard for turtles. First they have to survive the heat of the nest in the black sand in our era of climate change. Something that also determines their sex by the way! Then they must survive poachers and both land and sea predators. I learned that for every thousand-baby turtles that will imprint on this place, only one would reach adulthood, and return to this same very beach in order to lay the eggs for the continuation of their species.
Like the baby turtles, I now feel a similar draw to return, and I will never been able to shake the beauty of the Osa from my own mind. Brilliant azul skies held scarlet Macaws often flying in trios, moving from tree to almond tree along the beach noisily chomping on almonds. Apparently these Macaws are endangered everywhere else in the country.
Four a.m. wake-up calls were a delight as they came with the sight of fat clouds sitting motionless on the horizon while pulsing with light. Even the most frightening and the grossest things I experienced at Osa have become fond memories somehow. Not that I wish it were a part of my life here at home, but I almost miss the smell of jungle fungus. It first threatens to leave you stripped bare, as it eats through sweat and cloth alike, and from there it gets worse, as it tries to find that spot where it can bore it’s way through flesh too. My blisters became targets but with a little iodine, the fungus didn’t get its way.
I learned about more immediate health issues too, like the deadly bite of a poisonous Fer-de-lance snake. It is protocol at Osa to practice saying “emergencia” across the handheld radio just in case. For some reason the image of a cartoon pith helmet adorned explorer with a snake attached to his nose popped into my mind and still won’t leave. It is more realistic that this snake would strike at boot level, so Osa supplies their volunteers with rubber boots too. Even though mine filled with water each time I crossed the river for turtle patrol (six times a day), I grew to love my leaky boots too.
During my stay, I also started reading Tropical Nature, written by Adrian Forsyth, one of the founders of Osa Conservation. With his help I began to understand even more intimately what I was experiencing. His book not only helped me to identify the life forms around me, but also helped me to shift my North American perspective on things like bird migration, and yes, even yoga. Through his descriptive metaphor of the Matapalo, I began to think differently about the concept of ahimsa/non-harming, which is at the core of all yoga practices. The flow of energy in the jungle is conducted with an equal measure of destruction for each ounce of beauty. All around you, things are continuously being born, growing, and being taken back into the system – often abruptly. The information presented in the book matched what I was witnessing – an interplay simultaneously delicate and harsh. This somehow comforted me with what I’d experienced with recent loss, the death of my mother, life in Baltimore, and even our endangered Chesapeake Bay.
On the sustainable agriculture side of things, I fell easily into the rhythm of being a sidekick farmhand. My skill set is far from vast, but I learned quickly and could hold my own. For me this wasn’t a surprise really, as I grew up around my grandfather who was a farmer for a wealthy landowner in Maryland after his stint in the army. Everything being grown in the fields at Osa goes into the kitchen where it is prepared by a team of cooks and then delighted in by the staff and volunteers. With each seed planted by machete poke, I imagined the future volunteers that would be fed because of this work. And in return, the brightly colored compost slop from the kitchen went to the pigs. The cultivation of jungle land for agriculture is much more than a minor miracle and I’m happy to have been a part of it. Everyone should know this work intimately, its what sustains you.
Should you visit Osa, you may meet a dog that was just a puppy while I was there, but I’ll bet she will still be waiting for just a taste of the nearly two gallons of milk you’ll collect from five cows every morning. There are also hectares of corn waiting to be watered, and harvested. Some of it will be dried, and ground down for the chickens and quails. I haven’t eaten meat for more than twenty years, but I still consume eggs and cheese, and now have an even bigger appreciation for what it takes to produce these animal byproducts. I also enjoyed drinking fresh coconut water and eating guava directly from the trees, almost daily.
When it was time for me to leave Osa and my cohorts – Bea, Charlie, Manuel, Tabea, and Juan Carlos – I could barely drag myself away. It is probably a good thing that my mother will never read these words, but I literally had no fear, and I decided to hitchhike. As luck would have it, a kindly older gentleman in a barely held together truck, picked me up and together we moved slowly through the ruts in the dusty road. We had lovely conversation and he was happy to gently correct me or offer up the words I was missing whenever I asked “como se dice.” We even picked up another female hitchhiker who I happened to recognize from the collectivo ride on the way in, but she sat in the back and we only nodded to each other in solidarity. That’s what it is like in Costa Rica – people moving about in solidarity, helping one another. Pura vida!
Still, after being so in tune with Nature’s rhythms, even landing back in Puerto Jimenez was jarring simply because of the noise. I bravely hoisted my backpack and kept it by my side as I started climbing back aboard buses, making connections to other buses, and moving amongst the noise and larger numbers of people. I was heading to Quepos, where I would try to make sense of political signs for upcoming elections, and try to meet up with friends from home who were coming to meet me.
After her own ordeal at the airport, suddenly my friend Sisi was there! The first order of business was to wash all of my clothes. Twice! Then it was time to leisurely explore the Costanera. I allowed for the extreme pleasure of a rental car and an Airbnb nestled in the mountains overlooking the ocean. The sunsets here were mirrored in a swimming pool, and at my request Sisi took some stunning pictures of the yoga poses I held in the foreground, while unseen laughing falcons, well, laughed, and brightly colored toucans bobble-flew by out of frame. As is typical, nature made me look good!
On the property, we also had a private waterfall replete with more Blue Morphos drunkenly fluttering through more dappled sunlight. It’s hard to put a price tag on this experience, but the per night cost was only slightly more than the market rate price I charge for guests staying in my own home. We stayed for two full days, and I’d happily pay to stay there another time if I ever again have the means. Honestly, I also thought about living there illegally in my tent.
My favorite place in this region, aside from the house with the washing machine that Sisi found, was Parque National Marino Ballena. I liked this place because of its numerous sand dollars, and a beautiful but rapid tide that closes in over the beach. We were sternly warned about this tide, and about thieves, at the ranger’s station; so when the water started closing in and we prepared to leave, I was almost hesitant to try to be a good Samaritan by simply moving swimmers belongings out of the fray. From a safer distance, nearer the signs warning about crocodiles, we watched the Policia chase stragglers out of the park. I couldn’t imagine riding over the beach or any part of Costa Rica on an ATV but it happens.
After my friends left, I was back on the bus and amongst Ticos as I made my way to Puntarenas for the ferry to the Nicoya Peninsula. There I would visit Santa Teresa and then Montezuma. Once upon a time, my friend’s sister, Kerri, fell in love with a local named Vill, and ever since they have been raising babies and growing their concept – The PUEDO School. This is a place where you can teach English to the young people of the community; or, through one of its projects you could perfect your Spanish (Vill told me it would take three months to fully string my mucho palabras into frases completas). You can also take surf lessons from the professionals, and get lost in the beauty that surrounds you. It might seem complicated but it really is very simple. Life here can be just that, but Nature’s deadly strength is still there to remind you who is in charge. Luckily the professional surfers are also lifeguards. The point again, is that people here have one another’s backs!
I meant to stay with Kerri and Vill, for only a few days, but for nearly a week I safely enjoyed the ocean, wandered the beaches, watched stunning sunsets, and made temporary art installations from seashells. I also became fascinated with the construction of beach bench swings and out door showers built in spiral shapes. I marveled too, at how people expressed their “dry season, dirt road” fashion. After one day spent trekking through the dust, I even gave it a try myself because I was gifted a bandana (thanks again Erica!). The look would have been more complete if I’d been riding a bike with a surfboard strapped to the side, and if I were a better surfer. Regardless, this place is my kind of place, and my hosts are living my kind of life.
During my wanderings along the dirt road, I stumbled across a realty office to inspect what it would be like to be considering property in the area and found that at the moment it’s somewhat comparable to where I live now in Baltimore. During my wandering, I also found a wonderful pop up shop that was selling all sorts of lovely things. I was most impressed by their B.O.L.D., cause-related, fundraising bracelets with various animals represented. They didn’t have turtles, but I still loved the concept, recognized some synergy, and promptly sent a link to Juan Carlos, a friend back at Osa. As he is also a PhD candidate experienced with tracking big cats, I have already only half jokingly placed my order for a B.O.L.D. bracelet made of red cord and a metal jaguar head bead- you’ll have to get in line for yours.
The importance of the conservation work being done in Costa Rica was reinforced further in Montezuma, where Kerri and Vill originally started PUEDO, and still maintain operations. The gang from Santa Teresa and I spent one last fabulous day together while snorkeling at Isla Tortuga and then they left me behind back in town. I spent only a few days in Montezuma but they were spent imagining yoga classes in the grass just before the cliff overlooking the sea in front of the PUEDO School, and searching for two Cascadas/Waterfalls. The one just outside of town is apparently one that Beckham jumped off of and the other required a six hour round trip ramble along distinctly different beaches.
One beach was full of driftwood and the other was piled with numerous Cairns. Sadly, there was also a tremendous amount of ocean trash washed ashore there in large swaths. The odyssey immediately became worth the effort when I spied my target from the distance spilling onto the beach. I bouldered my way to the top, and spent time luxuriating in an infinity pool made by Nature!
When I managed to leave this place, yet another beach paradise, I boarded the ferry heading back to Puntarenas. On the upper deck, a full-fledged Tico dance party broke out, and of course so did the laughter as competitions began. Our journey rather abruptly ended, and I logged even more hours on buses, this time on my way to Arenal, a region known for a fairly recent volcanic eruption and large lake made even bigger by a dam. Midway there I changed buses, learned there was a second bus terminal two blocks away, and was escorted there by a kindly employee, then spun by yet another towards the correct but similarly named bus, all in the nick of time. I am still dazzled by this level of kindness.
Almost immediately the bus began to make its way up into the mountains and the temperature dropped and rain began. There was no doubt that I had left both the beach and Costa Rica’s dry season behind.
At this point the dreaded holiday was upon me, so I rented a car for protection and drove along Lake Arenal with two goals in mind: 1. to finally use that tent I’d been carrying all month, and 2. to sit in hot springs as much as possible. After all of the hours I’d been at the mercy of buses, I also gave myself permission to simply follow any impulse I had to stop and explore. The signs literally started to appear.
When I followed the signs for a BioRestaurant, I found my rental car (not 4Wheel Drive by the way) practically perpendicular at one point, but I managed to find the place, and it was there at Restaurant Nuevo Arenal TINAJAS that Cindy Murrilo made my camping dream come true. (Oh, and the food is wonderful too!) Cindy told me we were situated on the Agricultural Peninsula, which had belonged to the people since ancient times and of course I should feel free to camp. The view at the restaurant is one of the most magnificent I encountered on my trip, maybe even more so because of the rainy season’s propensity to produce rainbows. They would suddenly appear between the clouds and shoot down into the lake in front of me, with windmills lining the ridge of the mountains on the other side. At this point I was also in my tent and happy as a clam.
The other set of signs I followed related to an old inside family joke and culminated in a free stay and a job offer – they read, Toad Hall – which ends up being an unfortunate name in Spanish,as apparently the word toad also means gossip. Still, I was happy to have an affordable place to stay for the holidays, so that I could then purchase the two-day pass to The Springs, a place with numerous hot springs, many situated along and even overlooking a river. Such a deal!
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I soaked for hours, often totally alone, and so I also meditated. I meditated on gratitude. I meditated in honor of my ancestors. I meditated in honor of my mentors. I probably even meditated on your behalf. At lunch I drank a drink made with Guaro while watching toucans, and all of this, I did in the rain, quite happily. At the Springs, I also got to see every animal I hadn’t seen in the wild, because surprisingly (my guidebook didn’t mention it!) they house wild animals at the request of the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry after an organization called PROFELIS Rescue and Rehabilitation Center lost its main funding source.
I worry about the animals I saw at The Springs since learning that zoos would no longer be legal, because these animals clearly had serious issues and couldn’t possibly survive in the wild. That being said, of course I think many of those confiscated animals shouldn’t have been kept as pets in the first place. In general I think Costa Rica is moving in the right direction in regard to all of these things they will no longer fund; things like hunting, and the military. I appreciate a culture that decides to say no to the things that no longer serve the greater good.
In fact, it’s one of the things I love best about Costa Rica, and if you are already aware of this it bears repeating – THEY HAVE NO MILITARY – and those dollars are instead focused on education and culture! Also, aside from transportation, the country is run on renewable energy at a rate of more than 90%. I’ve only just dipped my toe into understanding the politics of Costa Rica, but the overall “we’re all on the same team” camaraderie of the majority of the people I encountered, and the overall feeling of truly being welcome and connected to Nature, left me with an inkling of what saying “Pura Vida” means.
I’ve been home now as long as I was away, and my trip seems like it happened a lifetime ago already. Our region is currently recovering from a massive climate change sized winter storm. As I sit here still hunkered down in a forced sort of hibernation, in part because of the snow and also because of another more serious street harassment incident; there’s simply no way to distract myself from also thinking about a recent murder committed here in my neighborhood, which I might add, was quickly followed by an intentionally set car fire, and a nonfatal shooting during a street robbery. While this many horrible events in such a short period of time may seem startling, they are somehow also not surprising, and that normalization bothers me.
“Baltimore is at least consistent,” I’ve started to say to the brave few that wish to discuss it, but that still doesn’t make it okay, and I have no idea how I can possibly continue accepting a culture made up of victims that continue to create more victims instead of banding together to collectively overthrowing the system, but I think I can divest from it.
My current level of white privilege stems directly from my mother’s death, and because of money she made from being a maid for most of her life; I spent hours of my childhood working along side her. I’m tired, and I don’t just want to continue to struggle to live, I want to thrive, and I can’t seem to do that here in Baltimore. I feel like a Maryland blue crab needing to molt or a Costa Rican hermit crab realizing that it needs a new shell, and I’m hoping I don’t die from getting picked apart while I figure out my transition. I just need a fresh start.
So, I’m heading back to Costa Rica, and I’ve already begun planning the details of the yoga and meditation retreat that I will conduct in the Osa next Winter. I’ll likely include a more nuanced understanding of Ahimsa, and I think that if we are truly honest about that, then we can grow into something better. I look forward to living through this creative process and sharing the fruits of my labor with as many people as I can.
Until then, I’m awaiting the Spring tree plantings that are necessary for our world’s survival, and I will continue to honor my commitments, but I am also saying no to things that no longer serve me. I am also awaiting the Springtime return of the birds that Maryland and Costa Rica share – Baltimore Orioles, Osprey, Hummingbirds – to name a few. I understand why they make the journey, and I plan to join them on their migratory path!
I regularly sit on the yoga mat at the front of the room watching over a room full of people in corpse pose.
After all the beautiful work they do with the asana portion of class, I ask them to place one hand on their heart center, and to accept themselves unconditionally. I hold the space for this difficult work.
What does that mean? What did it take to get me to this yoga mat in the front of the room? The short answer is that my mom died, and as best I could, I helped her to do so.
Of course there is a much longer answer.
I have meditated and practiced yoga for ten years. I have watched people around me decide to go through teacher training, and then step to the front of the room. Each one of them did so when they were ready, and many asked me why I hadn’t done the same. Even though I knew that I was “good at yoga,” and was even “practicing yoga off the mat,” I believed that I lacked some essential wisdom required to be a good teacher.
It was in October 2014 that my ideas about “yoga off the mat” and “essential wisdom” began to coalesce. My mother hid her symptoms for a while, but it was then that she began showing undeniable signs that something was seriously wrong. She was diagnosed with brain cancer, an aggressive and terminal affair; glioblastoma multiforme. I wrote about the emotional roller coaster I found myself on in those early days.
After the initial shock of hearing this terrible news, eventually, we -‐ my mom and stepfather and I -‐ found our own rhythm over the course of mom’s remaining months, days, and hours. I tried to spend every possible moment with her, despite and perhaps also because of, the fact that we hadn’t had the smoothest of relationships during our younger years. Everything else in my life, including the documentary film I had been working on for the three years prior, took the back burner.
The activities I once delighted in, and even the old hurts, simply ceased to matter, and because my mother so rarely asked for anything; I did what ever I could think to do.
For her I massaged kale, picked wineberries, brought lavender, teas, hair tonics and lotions meant to heal the wounds inflicted first by surgery, and then by treatment. I even brought her sandalwood oil because I read a study about skin smelling it and healing itself (yes, really!)– I did any thing for her that I could think of.
I lived in the moment by doing.
There is no prize for it, but I was there to put away her summer clothes. I was there to help her find new clothes when she gained weight from the steroids. I was there to put away her winter clothes. As the seasons changed, the changes she went through were also extreme, not just physically, but mentally as well. One of the most heart wrenching moments I experienced with my mom, was watching her try to play an online word matching game through Happy Neuron, something that I’d read about too. She simply could no longer create the names of fruit.
So I stopped doing, because it wasn’t helping. I started to listen. For a while she told me stories, even as she lost her words, and I simply listened. She told me mostly about her regrets; about the robbery that killed her dreams of creating interactive maps not long after she had gone back to school to learn the skill, details about her struggles around the life and death of my brother who is also the subject of my documentary film. She told me stories about her friends in her new neighborhood, about her dreams for the garden, shenanigans she and her kayaking friends got into, too. But there was no more time for her to create any more stories, and so I simply held the space for her to tell me the ones she remembered, with any words she found to tell them.
I cared for my mom and loved her despite and through all of the changes, doctors appointments, and treatments, while somehow maintaining the most Zen-‐like state I’ve ever existed in.
I found balance in own my mind and body where grief was the king asana.
To keep myself strong enough to hold space for my mom and what she was experiencing, I continued to practice yoga, but lying in corpse pose at the end of class, became nearly impossible for me. There was an abyss looming there next to my mat. Instead of allowing myself to slip into that abyss, I became a triathlete. When I wasn’t with my mom, or working, I’d sneak away to run, or bike, or kayak for about an hour, and I eventually did all of these things in one day – a grand total of 38 miles combined -‐ the Josh Billings Triathlon. There was no prize.
And then, my mom died.
The final decline of her physical form from the brain cancer, first caused her to stop eating and drinking, and eventually she also stopped breathing. I was there, holding her hand, when she died. The devastation I felt initially still seems unfathomable, and yet even then, I knew some part of her wasn’t gone.
One day as I sifted through the things that still didn’t really matter to me, bills and such, I found a paper from one of mom’s cognition tests at Johns Hopkins Hospital. On this paper were the words, “close your eyes,” written by the nurse, followed by mom’s handwritten, “lift up your heart.” Close your eyes, and lift up your heart?! All that was missing was the cue to have my hands held at my heart center in anjali mudra/prayer hands. A catalog containing information about an upcoming yoga training was also in this pile and so the decision was clinched. I’d found something that mattered.
When I arrived at Kripalu for my yoga training, Rudy Pierce began asking, “what does your heart need today?” He asked nearly every day. As I closed my eyes to listen, the answer was terrifying. I had to face the abyss.
During the course of my yoga teacher training, I allowed myself to fully examine that abyss, and it was much deeper than I had imagined.
It wasn’t easy, but I did find my way back out again. And slowly, I remembered how to smile. And eventually I even remembered how to lift up my heart. Kripalu, my instructors Rudy & Michelle, their support team, all of the staff there, and my fellow teacher trainees held the space for me to make my way through grief and to make the transition to teacher. Just as Swami Kripalu’s legacy of radical self-‐love lives on through this Health and Wellness Center, so too does my mother’s love continue through me, and this documentary film that I will still make.
Not long after I returned home from Kripalu, my home was broken into and I was also robbed. Much like my mother’s mapping dream, my documentary seemingly disappeared into the abyss, but because she shared her story with me, I will not allow my dream to die in the same fashion. I still have time.
It has not yet been a year since my mother died. Grief still often crashes into my world, but I now know I can breathe through it just as I can through the most challenging yoga asana.
I’m no longer afraid of the abyss.
Dare I say, I’m no longer afraid of death or loss. And now, as an instructor, I can channel it. Grief and loss, and Love and acceptance. ALL of it.
I am able to offer up wisdom now too, and it seems to bubble up from an unending well spring within me. The foundation has been created and I am a life long learner, so I continue to read and share what I learn. The words spill out of my throat mostly with ease:
“… listen to the most distant sound you can hear without naming it… slowly bring your attention closer and closer… into the inner atmosphere of your inner world… consider all of the magnificent things going on in your body right now that support you without your asking them to. Imagine that you are simply the sum of all of these miracles. And if that is so, what is it that makes you, you? It is not one thing, or another, but a constellation of things. Are you still you, if one of these things experience a difficulty, or even ceases to function, or even exist?”
Breathe, relax, feel, watch, and allow.
The year I spent watching my mother die, and yes, holding the space for her to find her way to her last breath, taught me truth and Kripalu reinforced it. That year was simultaneously the hardest and most bittersweet year of my life.
I know in every fiber of my being that the light of Love is as strong as the abyss.
My mother took care of me on my way in, and I took care of her on her way out.
I am now a yoga teacher and that is a part of her legacy. Her story continues through me. And now, through yoga, I’m teaching my students they can live through anything that life throws at them, too.
Rosewood is in the news again, and it hits me again, a strong wave of nausea. In addition to the human right’s abuses that included “reports of rape, abuse, neglect, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions” that were summarily exposed during its closure in 2009,* this most recent Slate article** exposes even more horrors of human nature associated with the place. This revived news story highlighted a scandal that was essentially human trafficking; imagine powerful members of society working together to transfer individuals from the institution into positions of servitude. The author goes on to point out that the scandal wasn’t reported out of care or concern for the more than 150 individuals this effected but because of concerns around any offspring that resulted as well, aka eugenics.
I then watched my friends post this newest article on facebook, and in response people brag that they’ve snuck onto the property and seen “a gymnasium filled with wheelchairs and lobotomy reports scattered on the floor.” Others wonder if they can see the place too.
Why? Why would you want to go there? I was already baffled and offended when Rosewood was offhandedly added to a publication’s “guide to some of our city’s scariest sites” in honor of Halloween. Why is there a seeming lack of empathy for the fact that real human beings lived such horrors?
I vividly remember the few times I visited my brother David at Rosewood. Even though David was only temporarily there, and it has been years since it was closed, I still can’t shake the memory of what I witnessed there. I’m sick and tired of Rosewood sitting there, looming, and blighting the brightness of today – both in my mind, and in reality! It was a horrific place and I believe that it is my job to at least attempt to help others understand the legacy of Rosewood from my perspective.
And so I don’t mind telling you that a couple of years ago I tried to capture images of the place for a piece of a documentary I’m working on, I found “no trespassing” signs and security carefully patrolling the property (that must cost a pretty penny!). I tried to find my way through the bureaucracy in order to film there legally and couldn’t. We, the public, are not allowed on the property, even if our intent is honorable. And so it simply sits there.
Soon afterwards, I took another step, and met with Jon Sarbanes in September of 2012. I learned that the land was offered to Stevenson University, but apparently there are elements found in the soil that may be environmentally hazardous. Dana Stein never responded. To date, Stevenson University has brushed off my attempts to learn more about their intent. Just today, I received an email about soil remediation and ferns, dated Sunday March 30th. Ferns? Let’s do that already! Rosewood has been sitting there, crumbling, and looming for FIVE years! As far as I’m concerned this hold up has gone on too long.
We can do better, I have to believe that, and I’d like to find others who feel as strongly as I do (this blog post isn’t the last step I’ll take). For those of us who had family members living at Rosewood, I believe our relatives still deserve better, even if they are no longer here with us in this life. The experiences of those who lived there even longer ago, as explored in that Slate article, shouldn’t be forgotten either. The horrors of human behavior must be acknowledged so that they are not repeated. Even if Stevenson University students do someday walk the grounds, they need to know the history of where they are.
While Seattle, Washington grows the first food forest; Baltimore, Maryland lets a significant amount of land just sit. Would it first take remediation for something similar to happen here? If that dream is too big, or simply not possible, perhaps we could have a small memorial grove of trees planted on an acre of the property? Can’t we at least raze the buildings, so they are no longer targets for arsonists? But not if that means the history of the place is covered up and forgotten. I want us to do something, and I’m tired of waiting for the leaders of our community to act; in honor of my brother David, and in honor of every vulnerable person who lived an experience on that ground, I think we owe it to them to do something.
This blog post has become a petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/stevenson-university-include-a-permanent-tribute-to-the-former-residents-of-rosewood-in-plans-for-the-future-of-the-property?recruiter=1410974&utm_campaign=twitter_link_action_box&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=share_petition
I’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster for more than two months now. What the brain surgeon said in the din of the hospital’s florescent lighting matched the black and white online entry, exactly: best possible scenario, we only have two years. Though you may try, like I did, there is no manual that will help you fully intellectualize how to deal with your mother’s brain cancer diagnosis and impending demise. Not even rereading Elizabeth Kübler–Ross’ five stages of grief can stave off the reality of being thrust on an emotionally messy rollercoaster. I’d like to say that my eight-year love affair with yoga saved me, but I had to fight my way back from the edge, warrior style.
On my yoga mat, right after “the diagnosis,” I remember thinking how odd it was that there was no discomfort whatsoever in either of my hips as I lounged lazily in pigeon pose thinking, “oh, I’ve got this handled.” Meanwhile, out in the world, I couldn’t seem to shake myself awake. I will never forget how I sat dazed during a twelve-hour train ride to a speaking engagement in Rochester barely able to concentrate on what I’d say. Still, somehow during this initial phase of denial, I landed the engagement with poise, grace and dignity.
As the days ticked by, however, things changed drastically. I noticed people pulling away even though I was attempting to keep my social life intact while also helping to care for my mother. One dark and terrifying night I looked into the dazzlingly beautiful abyss of the night sky, and I disassociated completely from a party happening just steps away as grief-stricken tears streamed silently down my face. That same night, things sped up again, and I watched myself become uncontrollably angry and lash out at another with a still somewhat detached amazement, “who is this beast I’ve become?” The word “cancer” does scare people away, but I was also making it worse through perfectly normal phases of grief.
The rollercoaster outlined by Kübler–Ross had completely taken over and the lack of control I felt ultimately forced me back into my beginners mind. In other words, it wasn’t until I admitted, “I don’t have this” and “I’d better get it together” before I lose the focus I need to love and care for my mother in her final days without completely alienating myself even further from those around me that aren’t afraid of the word “cancer,” that things could stop spiraling out of control. If people need to go, let them go.
Now, I’m back on my yoga mat and more present than ever before, and I’ve found that my inner world is stabilizing along with the world around me. My mother will die. This has not changed. However, I’ve realized and accepted: This is our new normal. All we have is today. All we have is this breath. All I need to do is breathe.
I’ve forgiven myself for being a messy human being during this time of transition, with any luck those around me will as well. And if they don’t, I’ll let them go. As I look back on the past two months, I find great comfort in realizing:
“My dear, In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm… In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”~ Albert Camus
When I was a kid, I remember seeing at least part of a movie about a swarm of killer bees attacking children on a school bus, and I also remember some evening news story about slowly migrating ‘African Killer Bees’ being of concern. Turns out the first story was fiction, and the later hyped. Today, the issue is reversed and Monsanto is the dark force afoot and the danger to us all is quite real. Have you heard much buzz about this in the mainstream media? Do you wonder why? For those who don’t already know, this corporation has its hands in both the production of pesticides and food, which once upon a time may have made sense to someone. However, the truth has been known for quite some time and finally entire nations are putting a stop to Monsanto’s insane duel practices. Many are even burning entire fields of the company’s “food,” or as it is more commonly known, their genetically modified organisms or GMOs. We need more Americans to become aware of this issue. First, please stop falling for the company’s propaganda. We can produce enough food naturally to feed ourselves, but we’ll need our beloved bee pollinators to help us out, and we need Monsanto’s pesticides to stop killing them. I recently participated in a protest of Monsanto which included a ‘bee die in’ and while this may seem cute to some and trite to others, it is a serious statement about what we want. At the very least we want labels on Monsanto’s cancer causing GMOs so that we as consumers can avoid them at the store. It makes me wonder why they wouldn’t agree to that, if they really weren’t up to no good.
Peep this awesome kid breaking it down: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7Id9caYw-Y&feature=youtu.be
Here are a few links to more information about this issue:
I don’t recall ever having met anyone from Madagascar until Iandry knocked on my door. He quickly charmed his way into becoming my housemate, introduced me to his model gorgeous and brilliant girlfriend (who he met while living in New York), and over time shared his experiences in the Community Arts program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Iandry also taught me that French and Malagasy are the official languages in Madagascar, but honestly I struggled with simply spelling his last name. [Sorry buddy, it’s still true!] Since his graduation from MICA, Iandry has created countless public art projects across the country. Waverly is lucky enough to have his work on display at the moment as evidenced by the images also posted here. I was happy to help document his work because of our continued friendship, because I wholeheartedly agree with the message of his work, and because I want to see Waverly thrive. Another good friend of mine has written about this space before, so I’ll let Julie Scharper enlighten you at this point:
And here is a video that shows a bit of the process behind the creation of the project: