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Crude Oil Trains

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.

Sincerely,

Amy Genevieve Kozak

What You Find While Not Looking

Yoga

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 from 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, 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 simply 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 it 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 her craft shows flooded back to me. This was how my grandmother supported herself after my grandfather’s early death, and 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.

Sylvia, 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 Sylvia 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. Sylvia 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 one such 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 widow 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. If you have the time, I highly recommend traveling by bus. Despite the warnings, to my knowledge, no one ever even tried to rob me.

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, it 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, more 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, but 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, as one of the researchers, Charlie, 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.

I 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 after almond tree along the beach noisily chomping on almonds. Apparently they are endangered everywhere else in the country. Even 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 even the grossest of 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 Jungle 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 around me. 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 – a simultaneously delicate and harsh interplay. This somehow comforted me with what I’d experienced with loss, the death of my mother, life in Baltimore, and even our endangered Chesapeake Bay.

On the sustainable agriculture side, 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 my grandfather 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 not a minor miracle and I’m happy to have been a part of such difficult and rewarding work. 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, and 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 the 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. But, once I did, I decided to hitchhike. It is probably good that my mother will never read these words, but I literally had no fear. 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 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 and 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 it cost 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 again 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, but near 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 in Montezuma, my friend’s sister, Kerri, fell in love with a local named Vill, and ever since they have been raising babies and growing a brilliant concept – The PUEDO School. This is a place where you can teach English to the young people of the community; or, through 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, connect with the local community in various ways, 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 Bill 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 Puntaranas. 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 by a kindly employee, then spun by yet another towards the correct but similarly named bus, 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 the 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 as apparently the word toad in Spanish, also means gossip. Still, I was happy to have an affordable place to stay for the holidays, so that I could then purchase a two-day pass to The Springs, a place with numerous hot springs, many situated along and even overlooking a river.

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” really means. And I like it.

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 even 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. Maybe 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 because of how I see that the world has worked to this point 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!

There Are Beginnings At Every End

Kozak_ThereAreBeginningsAtEveryEnd_article_photo

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. In the news. Again.

Image captured by the author of this blog post, Amy Genevieve Kozak

Image captured by the author of this blog post

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.

http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2008-08-20/news/0808190282_1_rosewood-department-will-investigate-investigate-the-state

** http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2014/03/baltimore_s_rosewood_scandal_wealthy_families_sprang_asylum_inmates_to_be.html

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

 

Cancer is Like a Rollercoaster

20131105_064338

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 KüblerRoss’ 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 KüblerRoss 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

Killer Bees

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:

http://topinfopost.com/2013/05/28/russia-warns-obama-monsanto

http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_27540.cfm

http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/congress-dont-pass-a.fb28?source=s.icn.fb&r_by=2164439

http://planetsave.com/2011/07/21/hungary-destroys-all-monsanto-gmo-maize-fields/

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/protesters-march-vs-monsanto-250-cities

Iandry Randriamandroso

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:

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-text-it-20120728,0,5024499.story

And here is a video that shows a bit of the process behind the creation of the project:

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