Several years ago, a dear friend spent a couple of winters with me when I was living in Lowell, Massachusetts. We shared the gift of time together in my apartment beside an old candle making company that had been started by a Greek family decades ago. My building had been attached to the neighboring building that house the candle company. The exterior wall, which had a historic ghost sign from the earlier versions of the Nabisco brand company, had become one of the interior walls of my apartment.
My friend and I were both in times of transition in our lives, I having recently left an abusive boss and unsustainable job in a small community in Southeast Alaska, and she having just left her husband in a small town in Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. Somehow, we had both wound up in what seemed the unlikeliest of places, an old factory town from a bygone industrial era.
It was in the quiet cold of these two Lowell winters that my friend and I reflected on the chaos our lives seemed to have become. We shared, we each drew in, and we mused over life, love, relationships, work, who we were, what we wanted, and whether happiness was even an attainable goal.
We drank a lot of wine and watched nonstop episodes of Felicity. We laughed. A lot! We created jokes and a kind of secret code language that only we could understand.
We also drank a lot of tea. With each sachet of tea came a tidbit of wisdom. We started referring to this sage advice with the words, Today, my tea bag told me.
The ones that struck a chord were saved and placed in key places around the apartment to serve as small reminders.
Other fortunes were dismissed. I just could not get on board with the fortune, “The purpose of life is to enjoy every moment.” Perhaps, had it read, “to learn from every moment,” I would have more readily considered the notion.
We also spoke of Alaska and our lives there.
To me, Alaska seemed like a place people escaped to when the rush and reality of the lower 48 were just too much to bear. In Alaska, a person could hide from the rest of the world. They could also create themselves anew, and they just might be accepted for their own unique, wacky way of being because everyone else was equally wacky.
Of course, one can have the opposite experience. A lot depends on where you happen to land in this inimitable, grand state. I found myself in a very small community where each person appeared to exist as if in a fishbowl with very clear glass. Everyone else in the community was free to take slow walks around your fishbowl, pointing and commenting on the color and pattern of the pebbles that lined the floor of your bowl, the state of their cleanliness, whether or not you had a real plant or a plastic one stemming up from those pebbles.
When I first arrived in this community, I felt incredible freedom. I could stretch myself beyond the limitations of my forever life. I could envision limitless possibilities for the kind of person I might become in this wild and foreign land.
When I left my husband and went through a divorce, I felt the walls of my fishbowl descending around me. It was like my entire life was on display at all times for a small but critical audience. I couldn’t park my car somewhere without news spreading around the Gustavus grapevine like smoked salmon spread on a cracker.
Mine was an even smaller fishbowl with stadium lights focused on it at all times of day and night, especially where my job was concerned. I had been hired because I was a PhD student, but upper management has not really bothered to do due diligence when they hired someone studying sustainability education. I imagine they felt pretty good about their choice at the outset, all puffed up like horny male Ruffed Grouse in mating season, thumping their wings against their chest and showing off their prized possession to the other Alaska national parks. Look what we have, they thumped. A bona fide doctoral student we can brag about.
Well, the joke was on them because instead of getting a traditional, yes, boss, I will do any and everything you ask me to do, no questions asked kind of person, they got innovative, creative, not willing to be walked all over, me.
It was clear from the start that this relationship was not the forever kind, though it took me years of therapy, creative writing, songwriting, and practice to realize that the signs had been there from the start. The chief of interpretation allowed all of the other interpreters to wear earrings, but I had to remove my nose piercing and wasn’t even allowed to wear a small piece of clear plastic to hold the place during the times I was in uniform. She pinned me for a creative, innovative type from the start, and I was just one in a long line of artists who eventually got tired of being persecuted and left, restoring order and control to her tiny fishbowl fiefdom on the edge of the earth in Southeast Alaska.
She and my direct supervisor even sat me down in order to explain the concept of sustainability (the topic of my doctoral study) to me from their own perspective. I would have found this hilarious (and in hindsight, it is) had it not been so completely demoralizing.
When I refused to accept their versions of how to walk, talk, breathe, and behave, they gave me one poor performance review after another, claiming that I was a poor public speaker, a bad example for the seasonal employees, and gave an uninspired Junior Ranger pledge to children earning their badge. In hindsight, it’s laughable that this was the extent of their creativity in trying to break my will. At the time, it was absolutely wretched. At one point, my boss sat down at a table across from me and pushed a stack of papers toward me. At the top of each line read the phrase “Moving Marieke Forward” in bold, underlined letters. For him, I had ceased to be a human being with emotions and a beating heart. I was now a creature in need of training and management.
YOU have lost your way, he pointed his finger at me accusingly. We need to get you back in line.
In the end, they made my life such hell at the workplace that they got just what they wanted. I left, and they replaced me with someone who wouldn’t ask questions, someone who would be a “team player.”
It took me a long time to realize that I, too, was able to succeed in continuing my own life’s work, creating a life for myself that allows space for innovation, creativity, and authenticity. It took me a long time to understand that the world and each of us is made up of infinite possibility, as one of my yoga teachers told me and several other doe-eyed students in his Anusara workshop. We can bang our head against the wall in a futile effort to realize one possibility, or we can turn our head and our attention away from the wall to see all of the other options the universe is offering, as my husband has reminded me so many times.
The choice is ours. Being naturally stubborn and having an intensely negative reaction to being taken advantage of by other people, I am often all too ready to dig my heels in and fight the good fight until the bitter end. However, the more time I spend on this planet, the less I want to spend time around people who come at me from a place of fear or feeling threatened. More and more often, I respond by putting as much space as possible between people and myself who live this way. It just isn’t worth the undue stress and anxiety their actions and presence place on my own sensitive system.
If my tea bag was indeed correct, and the purpose of life really is to enjoy every moment, then I urge each and every one of you to run (not walk) as fast as you can from people who suck the life out of your beautiful, precious spirit. Also, and this is something I have struggled with for years, try not to take their actions too personally because they have far less to do with you and who you are than what these people are struggling with in their own interior worlds. Try to be forgiving and offer empathy, but first get as far away from them as possible!
The thing about words of wisdom is that their significance changes at different times in life. Words I may have scoffed at as an angst-riddled teenager appear deeply profound to me now and vice versa. I have tried to watch many movies that I found life changing as a child and pre-teen, only to find that they have not improved with age. Not everything does, after all.
I want to age well, though, and I think that this is in great part why I am beginning to understand the wisdom in choosing paths of least resistance. Like water in its liquid form, if I come up against a big rock, I can simply change my course and flow around it, moving, always moving farther and farther away until the rock can no longer exert its force upon me.
I choose to meditate, to practice yoga, to write, to shift my perspective, and to practice. I work to keep my heart lifted, my spine long and fluid, my eyes full of the joy that I can appreciate and bask in because I have also experienced times of darkness and suffering.
My friend has found her own way toward creating the kind of bliss that had been missing from her life. She spent time traveling around India and Southeast Asia, studying yoga and meditation. She has become a traveler, not unlike myself, just choosing different realms of the world to explore. Like me, she embraces the journey within in a deeply meaningful way. I believe that in the time she spent overseas, she left very few, if any, of her own internal rocks unturned, and she is all the more blissful for having taken a peak underneath each and every one.
As I boiled water in an electric kettle at the Tree of Life Yoga studio this morning in preparation for the two classes I would be teaching, these memories came bubbling up from inside, reminding me to pause and remember just how far I have come in my 35 years on this spinning orb. I looked at the little pile of tea bag fortunes that someone before me had placed on the counter.
An attitude of gratitude brings opportunities.
I wasn’t sure what those opportunities might be, but I certainly felt grateful for most, if not all, of the twists and turns my own life river had taken to get me here.
In the words of Claire Dederer (2010), Maybe everyone needs to retreat every once in a while, or you don’t know who you are or what you’ve become.
In Anusara yoga, we begin our practice by drawing in. we draw in the breath; we hug our muscles to the bone; and we draw energy from the earth all the up through our feet, into our pelvis, and out through the crown of our head. We root down to rise up.
I retreated once to Alaska. I drew into my self, wondered what my life could be like, and what I could do to achieve happiness. It was only in leaving Alaska and embracing the rest of the world that I was able to expand all of that energy out through every limb. It was in stepping into the current of the world that I began to truly live.