Give your heart back to itself

Give wine, give bread

Give your heart back to itself.

 

Give wine, give bread

Give your heart back to itself.

 

To the stranger who has loved you all your life

And whom you ignored for another

Who knows you by heart.

 

To the stranger who has loved you all your life

Whom you ignored for another

And who knows you by heart.

 

Give wine, give bread

Give your heart back to itself

To the stranger who has loved you all your life

And whom you ignored for another

Who knows you by heart.

 

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf

The photographs, the desperate notes

Peel your image from the mirror

 

Sit, feast on your life.

(variation by Jack Harrison from Derek Walcott, “Love after Love”)

Even just sitting, listening to these words and writing them down, I can feel a deep sadness sitting on my chest and the accompanying tears welling in my eyes, threatening to begin a cascade that, once it begins, may have no end.

 

From where does this sadness derive? Everyone feels sadness, I imagine. Otherwise, my writing and music would have no audience but for those curious about the suffering of others because it is so foreign to their existence.

 

No. Life has much sadness in it by design, I think. Yet within that sadness there is also room for every emotion along the brilliant spectrum of the human experience.

 

As Jaye Martin says, the joy from our practice often comes after the release of holding a long, difficult pose. So, too, does the joy of life feel that much sweeter after the release of a long held stress (say, of selling in a tiny community in southeast Alaska?).

 

What I have begun to wonder about since beginning to practice yoga and meditation is whether there is sadness that lives within me that belongs to me yet is not my own. I think I have become very adept at ignoring this pain so that most of the time I walk around this earth relatively unaware of its presence, at least, in my conscious mind. However, it is in moments when a being so touched as Jack Harrison speaks words of deep permission to let go that I can feel heavy gates, so ancient they are covered in rust and moss and creatures who cling to the wrought-iron bars, begin to lift. In the beginning moments of their lifting, they creak in protest. But as the momentum of their opening breathes life into the movement, there is no stopping the motion. Gates open, there is a literal flood of every memory, emotion, story, life, death, joy, suffering, hope, and vulnerability that has been curled up within me, waiting to be remembered.

 

Jaye Martin tells us over and again that yoga is a practice of remembering and re-remembering. If this is true, how does one remember a life they have not led?

 

Susan Griffin has written, “I do not see my life as separate from history.”

 

The following two phrases invite the reader into her book, A Chorus of Stones.

 

“When someone lifts us

He lifts in his hand millions of memories

Which do not dissolve in blood

Like evening.

—NELLY SACHS, Chorus of the Stones

 

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

 

—WALT WHITMAN. “Song of Myself”

 

In the beginning of the book, she shared a story that reminds me of my own mother’s experience of losing her father when she was very young.

 

“My father was not allowed to cry over his lost mother. Nor to speak her name. He could not give in to his grief but instead was taught to practice the military virtue of forbearance and to set an example in his manhood for his younger brother, Roland. In this way I suppose my grandfather hoped to erase the memory of my grandmother from all of our minds. But her loss has haunted us.”

 

I never met my grandfather on my mother’s side. He died when she was eight years old. This excerpt stirs memories me of what she might have experienced, the way his passing might have haunter her as it did Griffin.

 

My mother was the youngest of five, her older sister so much older that when she took my mom out with her and her friends she would tell them my mom was her daughter.

 

When my grandfather was in hospital, my mother was brought to the parking lot to wave goodbye to him. She was not allowed to see him before he died or to talk about his death or the emotions she felt in the wake of his passing.

 

Part of this denial translated into my mom trying to overcompensate with my sibling and me when we experienced something painful in our lives as children. She would enthusiastically encourage us to talk about our feelings, an action that, while well intended, backfired with my introverted sibling, who simply moved deeper into their own shell in response.

 

As a child, I could not understand my mother’s behavior. It is only as an adult that I am beginning to process it, but I will never understand. I am but a distant witness to the events of her life (and a biased one at that, being her own child). I have my own pain from my childhood that I have only just begun to brush the surface of, so interwoven it has become with pain from ancestors I have never met, who are strangers yet who are familiar as their blood runs through my own veins.

 

It has taken me several years (ok, decades) to appreciate the trauma that must have taken root in the very essence of my mother’s being and to begin to unravel the ways the experience might have manifested in her role as a parent.

 

From many therapy sessions, reading, and work with physical therapists, I have learned that old traumas live not only in the heart but also in the physical body. Our muscle tissue holds the memory. In crisis, our muscles take on a rigid quality as in preparation for fight or flight. In my own childhood, this became a regular habit, so much so that decades later this practice has become so deeply ingrained that my entire body is taut with tension at all times. The slightest upset—a window shade snapping up when a person loses hold, my husband asking if I can make him a sandwich while he is hurrying to get ready to catch a train—causes an unbalanced response in my body. The response is to devolve into complete panic, heart racing, muscles tensed for attack, breath coming in short, shallow pulses.

“There is a characteristic way my father’s eyelids fold, and you can see this in my face and in a photograph I have of him as a little boy. In the same photograph there is a silent sorrow mapped on his face, and this sorrow is mine too.”

 

Sadness does not disappear just because we ignore it. What kind of lasting pain must have taken root in my eight-year-old mother’s heart and soul from being force to pretend that everything was ok when it wasn’t? When I think of her, so very young and having just lost her father, I am filled with sadness. There is rawness to the sadness, along with an intense longing to fix it, though I have no idea how.

 

This one memory is a tiny grain of sand in the experiences of both my parents and of so many thousands of relatives I will never meet but in dreams.

 

If I cannot return to the past to change events, how do I resolve the pain that comes from traumas inherited in the body, passed on from one generation to the next until the point where a person becomes a vessel for so much suffering and sadness that they begin to lose the ability to function?

 

Susan Griffin shared the experience of hearing a family story and making a personal connection to it. Through the process of recognition she was able to make peace with the pain carried by her grandfather and uncle:

 

Somehow, I have always known this story, its essence, without ever having

been told. For, on hearing it, I felt like the penitent must have felt after

rendering a confession. Suddenly the light itself by which I see was purified.

A nameless grief now named hence lifted.

 

Just as each person carries evidence of their parents into their own being, through genetics and behaviors (both learned and biologically inherited), I believe that we also carry memories.

 

I have begun to wonder if it is from other lives that much of the deep sadness I feel must have derived.

 

Recently at the Inishbofin yoga retreat, my back went out for the second time in as many weeks. This seizing seems directly related to the culmination of extreme stress in my life.

 

Moments after it happened, Anusara teacher Benita Wolfe Galvan lifted me into her arms and held me, my back resting against her chest. Arms linked beneath my armpits, she held me up and gently swayed from side to side. I was seized up and panicked, afraid I would not be able to move, which from experience was typically what happened.

 

Relax, she encouraged.

 

When she gently released me from her embrace, she asked if I was from a Holocaust family.

 

I am.

 

I had noticed that during the first afternoon session of the retreat she had mentioned the Talmud, and it stayed with me, as I had never before heard anyone refer to the Jewish religion during a yoga class.

 

I have never thought of myself as looking particularly Jewish. Now, I wondered, could another Jewish person tell just from looking at me that I was from a family that had been torn apart and destroyed? Could they see or feel the trauma I was carrying inside of me?

 

Later that evening, everyone met for dinner. I was able to sit for a long period in an uncomfortable chair, drawn in by the ghost stories my friend Emer shared with us. Eventually, however, my back began to protest. As I walked past Benita on my way to go lie down on a ne of the soft, leather couches just outside of the busy dining room, she motioned to me and took my hand.

 

You know this is all emotional, she said.

 

Yes.

 

After the retreat, we messaged back and forth.

 

She asked how my back was doing.

 

Back’s still sore, but I definitely worked through some toxic stuff on the island. Thank you for helping me through.

 

I feel like it’s a lot (99%) emotional…just feel the pain, the revelations, and epiphanies and it will clear.

 

I am sure you are right. It’s challenging feeling like I carry pain from people who came before me and seem to be the vessel for people in the present who need someone to project their own issues onto. Baby steps.

Exactly!! There is one person in the family that does the Work for the ancestors and the future, she wrote.

 

Oh, that’s me, I responded. Lordy, it’s exhausting.

 

As you heal, you heal Allll your ancestors and all the generations to come…and yourself!

 

Susan Griffin mused, “How old is the habit of denial? We keep secrets from ourselves that all along we know.”

 

What secrets are hiding in plain sight in my subconscious, in the tissues that wrap themselves around my body, holding me together with their bindings?

 

What does it mean to bring those secrets out into the open and how?

 

Jack’s invitation to “Give the heart back to itself” felt like an summons to crack open the rock of secrets, to shatter the denial and breath life force into the whisperings that happen behind closed doors.

 

Yet it was nuanced and complicated as well.

 

How can I “Give my heart back to itself” when for so long it has felt like an uninvited stranger, squatting without permission in a hidden corner of my body? How can I recognize this heart as my own?

 

Perhaps, I must let go of the person I have tried to be to please everyone else. On a deeper level, however, it may be time to set my ancestors free, to allow my own Self to be fully me in mind, body, and spirit.

 

Heart opening is not easy for me. Backbends create panic and a sense of frightening vulnerability. In a workshop led by Jaye Martin this past spring in Tervuren, Belgium, I had a near meltdown in a backbend. Jaye came over and spoke to me as I lay on the mat, taking short, shallow breaths.

 

You are ok, he had said. You are still alive. It’s ok to feel what you feel in the moment but know that you are also ok even as you feel it.

 

When I participated in a workshop led by yoga teacher Bridget woods Kramer in the winter 2017, she was completely taken by surprise when she invited a class the participants to take a heart-opening restorative pose that required lying with a bolster running along the spine and I ha to stop from the extreme pain the asana caused. I now understand that the muscles in my back were gripping the tension in my body so tightly that an attempt to let go caused the muscles to retaliate (hell no, we won’t let go!) and to hold on even more tightly. The seizing muscles could only hold on for so long before the only place left to go was muscle spasm, the body’s response to an unruly region.

 

It’s not just my own family traumas that live in my body tissue. People seem drawn to share their troubles with me, which for me is a great honor, but it also means that I carry their stories along with my own and those of my ancestors. While it is a gift to be trusted with another person’s experience, this also means that I take on the added burden of more emotion without much in the way of defense or solutions for processing so much energy. The kind of energy can be joyful or painful; while it must matter, I also think that one vessel can only carry so much before it reaches a breaking point. My own vessel feels very full these days.

 

It has helped to begin writing songs from people’s stories because it is a way to creatively process the emotions. Singing, as well, is incredibly healing.

 

That first afternoon on the island, I lay in Savasana while Jack Harrison and Jaye Martin played music to us, softly at first and then increasing in energy and volume as we were invited to move our bodies, roll to our left side, stay there for the entire class or come to a seated position.

 

As we came to sit, we were carried along a swell on the ocean as it grew in intensity on its way to the shore.

 

Take a deep breath in and a long breath out, Jack invited.

 

And a deep breath in, and a long breath out.

 

A deep breath in, and then on your out just hum any note you feel like humming on this first day on the island.

 

And when you’re finished, breath in and hum again.

 

As we hummed, first quietly and then in a rising vibration of sound, Jack continued to strum faster and louder. His strumming and words of invitation urged our voices to rise ever louder and in greater vibratory unity

 

Jack repeated these words of invitation, And when you’re finished, breath in and hum again, while Jaye played trills on his clarinet and ascending and descending notes on the scale, choosing just the right notes to hold (diff word) to help drive the crescendo of voices, music, and energy in the room.

 

And maybe (you don’t have to) ask your hum if it would like to get a little bit louder. Just a tiny bit.

 

Just a bit louder, maybe.

 

Sing through seven more hums. Just seven.

 

It doesn’t matter if you’re the first to stop. It doesn’t matter if you’re the last.

 

And as our voices hummed together, Jack and Jaye brought a gentleness to the music, winding down the energy to something softer and more quiet, so the notes of our voices descended together in energy as well.

 

And as the strumming and clarinet grew ever quieter, Jack spoke these words:

 

The time will come

When you meet yourself arriving at your own door

In your own mirror

And each will smile at the other’s welcome and say

Sit here, eat

And you’ll learn to love again the stranger who was yourself

 

Give wine, give bread

Give your heart back to itself

To the stranger who has loved you all your life

And you ignored for another

Who knows you by heart.

 

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf

The photographs, the desperate notes

Peel your image from the mirror

Sit.

Feast on your life.

 

The strumming slowly shifted into gentle fingerpicking as he spoke those beautiful words.

 

Take a deep breath, and a long breath out.

 

I could feel and hear our breathing around the room, like the soothing winds and waves that reach in to touch the shores of the heart.

 

Our breath swirled around our bodies as waves on the shore, an inhalation sweeping up with tentative tendrils to touch the grains of sand and tiny rocks. A deep exhalation as a wave drawing back to the depths of sea.

 

And a deep breath in, a long breath out.

 

And a deep breath in, and as you breath in stretch in any way you feel like stretching.

 

Take your hands above your head, stretching your legs out as you breath out.

 

And in Gaelic then English, we were welcomed to Inishbofin.

 

Susan Griffin wrote, “I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are made suddenly clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed. For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung.”

 

On Inishbofin, I believe the process of healing ancient wounds may have begun. It begins with the breath, and it grows in intensity with the crescendo of the voice, first humming gently, gently humming and then rising into the full power of song, a careening wail, a banshee shriek, a cry, a howl.

 

Welcome to Inishbofin.

 

Sit.

 

Feast on your life.

 

 

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