Concerning the conversation from Friday class, here’s a piece of writing from a few years ago.

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Concerning the conversation from Friday’s class (July 21, 2016), here is a piece of writing from a few years ago.

Wash Me In A River of Truth

 

Wash me.

Wash me in a river of truth.

Today is not the day to be kind,
Helping me stay my same old tired self
By telling me what I already know.

If you love me, you will wash your mouth out first.

Scrub out the “no worries” and the “‘all good”
Scrape the taste of “I’ll just look the other way”
Right off the back of your dragon tongue.

Don’t be afraid to hurt me by telling me what is,
Because what is already happened.
And those who want to keep us separate,
Who know how strong we can be when we’re bound by love,
They will ask you to keep secrets from me, telling you it’s for my own good.

Bullshit.

It’s true that I’m no rock
It hurts me to tell you, too,
those unpleasant things that you may not want to know

Like your boyfriend’s cheating

Or your girlfriend’s talking smack behind your graceful back

Or you’re lying to yourself.

Or I saw what you did.

But like the smooth stones that lie along the river’s edge,
Our closeness means sometimes we’re gonna rub each other
In an uncomfortable way.

I want to shine like those smooth stones,.
All dark and real
Not dime store shiny,
Not painted over with nicey-nice, cheap shellack,
Already beginning to yellow and chip.

Wash me in a river of truth.

Today is not the day to languish in stillness
Friends, the lotus grows UP from the muck of the pond
Let the stagnant slimy strings
Of what goes on behind closed mouths
Not tie our hands behind our backs,
As we refuse to look each other in the eye and say:
I see you.
I know you.

Wash me.

Wash me in a river of truth.

by Alison Alstrom
Originally Published in Some Words & Pictures: May 4, 2012

 

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 I was afraid to be an artist because

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I was afraid to be an artist because I thought it was too painful.

I stopped painting in the summer of 2000, just about fifteen years ago.  At the time I was pouring a lot of difficult personal experiences into my paintings, or through them. It was cathartic to the extreme, sometimes it felt like it might kill me. A teacher once said about the work I was doing that “some people paint by bleeding through their fingertips.” There was a point where it started to feel like I might bleed out.

acrylicMe

I hadn’t set out with the intention of painting difficult paintings. I had initiated this particular period of my art-making life with the innocent decision to dedicate some time, a few months or so, I thought, to just working on my rendering skills. I had been drawing and painting people mostly, and I wanted to be better and surer. I called it “playing scales”, and I chose my first subjects for the challenge they offered by way of complexity and detail. 

The first one was a broken open pomegranite. I did a bunch of those.

 

pomegranites3

 

still life_pomegranites_1

 

study pomegranites 3

Then one day my cat brought in a dead but perfectly pristine robin, and I fell in love. Feathers – are hard. Talons are hard. So I got all the juicy effortful trying and failing and learning I was after and then some.

 

stilled - oil on found wood

 

stilled 2 - oil on found wood

 

But there was something else going on as well, and that was that I felt connected to that bird in a mysterious but very powerful way. That’s what really hooked me, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I knew that little bird. I knew its deadness – the sudden unfathomable deadness of a flitting, singing, soaring creature, one moment lovely and exquisitely free, the next moment forever stilled. The feeling-tone or flavor of it was familiar to me, and also dear and precious. I cradled that bird, and lavished my attention on every minute nuance of its form. I painted it for months, keeping it in my freezer in between sessions. 

During that time, other stilled little birds happened across my path. I found a skeleton of a bird in a planter in my garden. Once, a tiny baby bird, newly hatched and barely formed, literally fell from the sky, landing on the sidewalk at my feet. It breathed for a moment and then stopped, and I scooped it up tenderly and took it home and it joined the robin in and out of my freezer for a while.

 

fallen - oil on wood

At a certain point someone challenged me about my subject matter, accused me of exploiting the birds for the shock value of their deadness. This came as quite a surprise to me because it was so completely innacurate, and in response I began painting myself into the pictures in various ways, in an attempt to clarify the strange kinship that was at the heart of my fascination. And as I did so, my own understanding of myself began to take shape.

 

little bird little bird - oil on canvas

 

 I started to realize that I knew that bird’s stillness, its tiny fragile perfect life stopped in mid air, in numerous ways through the events of my own life. Through the actual deaths and near deaths of actual flitting, soaring, lovely beings, so full of life and possibility, that had come so frequently and close together ever since my childhood.

 

untitled

When I was five years old, my older sister was diagnosed with Luekemia. At the time, that was a sure death sentence, and she was given six months. She underwent treatment, was a part of a test group for an as then unproved protocol which was to be, in part, the reason she beat the odds and lives to this day. But our circumstances drew other cancer fighting children into our lives, and while my sister survived, many of them didn’t. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, my own special best friend, a playmate of my very own who had nothing to do with our cancer community, succumbed to death from Reye’s syndrome at the age of seven. Later, the suicides and alcohol related accidental deaths of my rebellious teenage years, coinciding with the Aids epidemic of the eighties delivered a host of unimaginably sudden stillings of exquisite soaring beings. There was the boy who either fell or jumped to his death from the roof at a party I attended when I was about nineteen, the one I wrote about in a previous blog.

When I was 23, I cradled my beloved uncle, a teacher and mentor of mine, in my arms as toxoplasmosis lesions consumed his brain, finalizing his conscious, relatable existence over the course of one dramatic night under my watch. When I was 24 I lost my first real romantic love to death, also HIV related. A few months after that I found myself a part of an informal network keeping watch over a brilliant creative young friend who was slipping away into the mental illness which eventually lead to his suicide. He hanged himself with the bible laid open to the story of Lazarus’s rebirth. All young, flitting, singing, soaring beings. There were others, including my grandmother that Fall, who I’d lived with, who taught me meditation and breath practice and profoundly shaped my world view, and who soared and flitted even as old age ravished her body and just up until the moment that death claimed it.

 

bird study suspended

 

suspendedwithshadow

 

I’ve since noticed that this happens to people. It may have happened to you. There will be a year, or a few years in a person’s life that seems to be filled up with loss, one coming so close on the heels of the one before that they hardly have a chance to catch their breath.

Losing the man I loved when I was so young was pivotal in my particular story I think. In countries at war, even in parts of my own country, women in their twenties experience widowhood more regularly. But in the culture I grew up in that kind of loss is very unusual at the age of 24. When it happened to me, no one had any idea how to relate to me. I didn’t know how to relate to myself. I don’t think anyone who loved me could bear the thought of my pain, so we didn’t really talk about it. I remember how hard I tried not to. I remember watching myself as if from outside of myself, trying to maintain normal socially acceptable conversations, and hearing, or seeing the story of this terrible pain come out of my mouth as if I had no controll over it at all. I remember wishing I could push the offending words back inside, stuff them down and swallow them again.

 

dona nobis pacem - oil on canvas

 

 So though it wasn’t what I set out to do when I painted that first little bird for the first time, I was now pouring the grief and tenderness and un-fathomability of it all into those paintings, and once the flood gates opened I was powerless to keep the images inside. And I was spending hours and hours every day at this. It was painful, and I was afraid of the pain, and of feeling alone, and of being singled out for my difficult nature, made ever more evident by my difficult paintings, and thus feeling more alone and thus feeling more pain. But I kept at it, because I thought, I still think, that truth has beauty inherent within it. Honesty is it’s own kind of beauty.

 

tiny tiny tiny - oil on panel

It took one final blow to push me over the edge, to make the pain of working through the grief greater than the healing benefit it promised: My friend, my best friend, who was also the man I had kissed for the first time just days before, the man who I was on my way to visit in order to figure out just what that kiss had meant, the healthy vigorous athletic vital man who had, incidentally, sat with me in my studio while so many of those paintings took shape over the previous few years, and who thought them beautiful also, died. It was sudden, a drowning. Like a soaring bird falling from the sky and landing lifeless at my feet.

In the wake of that powerful grief, on top of all the other old, unprocessed griefs, I made a choice to transform into a new version of myself rather than endure the heartbreak and suffering I was feeling. I turned away from myself. I stopped painting and drawing completely. I immersed myself in my newfound love of yoga. A few months after the drowning, I threw many of my paintings into the garbage.

Sometimes I want to go back and tell my younger self to stay with it, that fearless truth telling is of value to the world and is salvation for the teller. But then I remember that I was so young, and so hurt, and it was so much to hold. I did what I thought I had to do to get through it.

These paintings are the few that remain. I made them between the years 1996 and 2000. I treasure them like a long lost part of myself.

What I’ve learned since then has become one of the guiding principles of my life – that it’s not the telling of the truths that’s painful, it’s the truths themselves. That lfe is full of painful truths, and we can’t change that, but in the telling and sharing we can repurpose the pain into shared experiences of humanity, of connection, and these experiences of connection offer us some of our greatest moments as human beings.

Conversely, it was the times that I turned away from the truth, from myself and the fulll spectrum of my humanness, that brought the most suffering into my life. I know that now. But I had to learn it to know it. Back then, I was both too serious, and not serious enough.

 

.

You can view all of these paintings in full page format in one continuous scroll here.

 

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6/9/15: My 2015 Living Yoga Yogathon Epilogue Blog

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No one likes a complainer.

That is, in part, why it’s frightening to speak out loud about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  We don’t want to appear whiny. And it’s why each entry of my Yogathon Blog project took a long time to write, rewrite, and finally go public with.

In case you missed this earth-shattering event, my Yogathon Blog project was to blog for the month of April about my almost-six years of traversing the muck of less than optimal health, and to share what that traversing has taught me as a yoga teacher and as a human being.

My hope in initiating the project was twofold. Hope one was to open up a little crack in the facade of the yoga teacher identity. I’m referring to the idea that if we do yoga as a life’s calling, that if we’re committed deeply enough to what we learn in the mat to eandeavor to share it with others, that we should be invulnerable to ill health, as well as masters of stress management, laughing mockingily at the absurd notion of negative thoughts, and at the beating that a full-sprectrum human life is capable of serving up.

Blech. I hate that.

Hope number two was to share the insight and understanding I have gained during this time.  An understanding which has led me to completely reimagine what practice can be, as well as who I am and what I want from life, and what I’m capable of.

 The first entry was meant as an introduction to a series of several posts that would both describe my current state within the larger picture of these years (and those to come), and also unravel the path I’ve walked to arrive here. I had a story to tell. A lot of stories, actually. And as Living Yoga’s Yogathon drew to a close, I found I had only just begun the telling process.

The posts I made during the month of April were written as part of my commitment to making my practice public, a commitment I made as an ambassador for Living Yoga’s 2015 Yogathon. I went all in. I kept a dedicated blog about my personal practice for the month of the Yogathon event.

I wrote five entries that month, which in retrospect feels like a pretty handy contribution. But the best part of the process was that it served as the motivation I needed to break the ice, and to begin telling some of the personal stories that have both stifled and fueled my yoga practice over the years.

My inquiry-through-story will continue on my new, ongoing blog:

And, Etc.,

It’s all to do with evolution and transformation, loss, and the creative process. You’ll find those five yogathon entries there, plus one from the Fall of 2014, when I blogged for the first time since I fell ill in late 2009, about how I’d just picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 14 years. Good times.

In Love and Yoga – A

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4/14/15 Yogathon Blog Entry # 4:

Lying Down Days

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I wrote a couple of days ago that “Me and my mat need relationship counseling.”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since. I also wrote in the same post that “we must fight the should’s in our lives and our practices with the tenacity of a terrier”. Trés dramatique, eh?  It might be that my mat and I just need to reimagine one another with the should’s taken away. As asana teachers, we tell our students every day that however they are, they are exactly how they need to be to practice. I think that is one of the most powerful messages that the Living Yoga teachers articulate to their students. But it’s easy to forget that ourselves.

A “lying down day” is how I’ve come to refer to the days where my energy is so low, all I can do is lie down. I think I can get up, sometimes I do get up, but then I just have to lie back down again. These days are becoming fewer and fewer, and seem to be related to actual exertion, as opposed to just randomly occurring. For the Yogathon, I vowed that I would go to my mat daily, even if just for an extended savasana. What I meant was that on the lying down days, I would spend some of my lying down time on my actual yoga mat.

At the very least, when I remember to come to my mat as I am, no should’s, I feel like I’ve done something constructive, which lifts my spirits.

Practice notes 4/10 – 4/13:

Friday, 4/11:
Savasana

Friday was a lying down day. I did teach class on Friday, but it felt a little clunky because of the sludge that was masquerading as my brain.

Saturday, 4/11:
Savasana

Saturday was not a lying down day. I did savasana only, but by choice – I chose to spend my energy gardening, which fills my heart up. After gardening I sat with people I love, and our dogs, and ate tasty things – kippers and triscuits and pesto and pickles and some kind of delicious stout. As part of my study in self care, I have been actively practicing the art of enjoying things – friends and food and especially unscheduled time. I ate with the dirt and compost still on my hands and face. Came just as I was to that practice, too.

Sunday, 4/12:
Sirsasana (headstand)
Armchair Sarvangasana (shoulder stand)
pranayama (ujaiii with antara and bahya kumbaka)
ajappa (silent mantra repetition)
savasana

Got up out of bed late at night to do this one, having forgotten/neglected. Super, super sweet practice.

Monday, 4/13:
Down Dog
Parsvotanasana (pyramid)
Anjeneyasana
Parsvotanasana again
Parivrtta Trikonasana (twisted triangle)
EPRK (Pigeon) prep with bow
EPRK (Pigeon) prep w/ open twist holding opposite foot
side two ^
Agnistambasana (fire log)
to supine baby cradle, to baby cradle crunch
Half happy baby
Supta Padanghusatasana lateral, and then front
second side ^
A few breaths in padmasana both sides
Paschimotanasana
Savasana

I felt pretty strong yesterday. Part of my healing process has been navigating what appears to be a complete re wiring of the messaging system that tells me what the right amount of effort is. I had always trusted in the fact that better energy would result from practice, or any exercise. It has been confusing and frustrating to realize that’s no longer a dependable assumption. A couple of weeks ago I took a gentle yoga class and was layed out for two days. Yesterday I hit the mark, which was great, because as a result I had a very productive Monday.

If you’re curious about Living Yoga‘s work and why it matters, check this video out – it features a man who’s gone full circle from felon to yoga teacher by committing to himself with the support of the LY programs.

To register for the 2015 Yogathon, go here (You are warmly invited to join my team – Team Loom!) To make a straight-up donation, go here. Thank you.

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4/9/15 Yogathon Blog Entry # 2:

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inthegardenwiththesunflowers

A Tiny Space

Dream – A tiny space is opening up inside – the space for self compassion. The space to care, to be kind to myself. To feel self. 

The picture above is me in my garden last summer. I’d been trying to get sunflowers to take off for eight years, and it was so great – it felt like a miracle – that they finally just did, having successfully self-sown the year before. This really lifted my spirits after having been in bed all spring. It was the first year I didn’t put in a summer garden. Not one tomato. This was kind of a big deal for me, because ever since I was a little kid I wanted to grow things, to live on lots of land, keep chickens. Since I moved to Portland in 2007 and got some dirt of my own for planting, I’ve grown things and canned things. Until last Spring. I made peace with it. We have good farmer’s markets here in Portland. And the sunflowers definitely helped.

I wrote in my first Yogathon entry that in spite of my persistent fatigue, and the many false starts in my healing / recovery process where I thought I was getting better but wasn’t quite, I had reason to believe that this time, it was going to stick. The reason for that is so obvious it’s embarrassing to say it but here goes – earlier this winter, I went on vacation.

I’ve been asked by a few students who read my first entry whether I have Chronic Fatigue. Talking to a friend a while ago I brought up this possibility and he said, “Chronic fatigue is a description, not a diagnosis,” which was funny, but only partially true. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or CFS, is real, it is a diagnosis. I’ve read reams about it in the last few years. Did you know the author who wrote Seabicuit has it? She does, her name is Laura Hillenbrand, and she has become one of my bed ridden but accomplished heroes. I’m collecting them, just in case.

At this time, I  have not been diagnosed with CFS. But I’ve learned a lot about what I’m going through by learning about CFS and other conditions that result in debilitating fatigue. Noatably, people who succumb to those are usually people who are active, strong, capable, passionate. I certainly was. I was always the hale and hardy type, hardly ever sick, never happier than when I was tilling the garden with a pick, or building a patio out of broken concrete pieces I collected from from the free pages on Craigslist. Or running in the woods with my dog. Or savoring a long, strong yoga practice.

But as my energy flagged more and more, and my responsibilities in the world didn’t, there just wasn’t gas in the tank for doing those things. And since my joys had always come from things that look a lot like working, I didn’t have any skills in the area of recuperative downtime. I had never heard the term “self care” until late 2011. The last few years I’ve been studying it, like an anthropologist.

And then in February I went on vacation, a proper one, the kind I couldn’t afford and would never intentionally plan for myself (long story). I went to a warm beach and did nothing but roll around in the gentle ocean and read and nap and take slow walks and eat tacos.

And when I came back I had that dream up there.

Here are some practice notes I found from a few days ago:

Insights from pulling up weeds in the garden -

first – that gardening is like painting, at least for me, in the sense that you have to just get your hands in there and start looking and working the way reveals itself. How is it I’ve lost that kind of communication with my asana practice? Me and my mat need relationship counseling.

second – that yoga practice is like gardening in that it’s slow, in that you have to be patient and you may not see results for a while, in that no one knows for sure what the results will be (“you could try it and see” is the famed answer of most gardening experts to almost any gardening question), and in that you are never, I repeat never, wasting your time when working in your garden or on your yoga mat. At the very least, you’ll feel more of yourself in that moment, and for the long term, you will have aerated the soil. A deep breath is like money in the bank.

Three things about yoga and life that have gotten really clear for me in the last couple / few years:

1 – start where you are. start in the middle (as if there is another choice)

2 – dig more than one deep well – try to learn a lot about at least one more than one thing. Learning about one thing you learn about that thing. But learning about two things, and the way those two things are similar and dissimilar, and you are learning about the universe itself.

3 – finally, yoga must be sweet. We must fight the should’s in our lives and in our practices with the tenacity of a terrier. Our practices – yoga, art-making, must grow up from deep within us like tulips, fertilized by longing and tilled by pleasure. Even our tapas, our disciplines, must sprout from the deep earth of our authentic desires and drives if they are to be alive, to thrive as the conditions of our lives allow. This I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt.

dd
plank
dd
plank
pigeon both sides
supine baby cradle, supta padanghustana forward and lateral both sides
fire log both sides
lotus with  twist to both directions
supta virasana
ardha supta virasana with padanghustana

savasana

Here are my practice notes from today:

virasana for a long time, breathing
prasarita padotanasana
childs

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To register for Living Yoga’s 2015 Yogathon, go here (You are warmly invited to join my team – Team Loom!) To make a straight-up donation, go here. Thank you.

 

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dona nobis pacem

.Fallen – Oil on Wood – 1999.Fallen – Oil on

fallen

 

Fallen – Oil on Wood – 1999