I finished reading Karen Connelly’s book Burmese Lessons, about her time in Burma in the mid-90s. She’s a writer from here in Canada, a country that offers us the luxury of national politics as bland as tapioca pudding. She goes from here to a country run by generals that is being abandoned by millions of people fleeing as refugees. Her observations are sometimes really hard to read, a sad reminder of the kind of things people can do to one another. She also has a keen eye for the basics of what it is to be human in the experiences she’s had. Here are a couple excerpts:
I used to find the word homemaking vaguely embarassing. As an occupation, it was an uninspiring potential fate. But being among Burmese refugees and exiles in Thailand has taught me that it’s no small act to make a home. Making a home safe enough for a child is the ordinary miracle. How many refugees on this earth can only dream of it? The tendency- perhaps from television images, the news clips – is to envision the displaced as herds, flocks, haunted masses carrying children and possessions on their backs, walking away, arriving at makeshift camps only to leave again. And they are that. But they are also individual men and women and children with the old human longing: to be held safely in their world. Each one of them as a name.
People usually try to feed me, so that I now show up to the offices or safe houses with bags of curry or grilled chicken or mangoes, adding to the communcal meal or extended snacks that i know will be offered. This food giving and food taking is so familiar that I sometimes forget its meaning. We are taking care. To take care is the great human act. It is part of the answer to the brutality that may not touch people here directly but affects them deeply. On the physical and metaphorical border these people inhabit, it is a daily challenge to take care of themselves, let alone others, but that is what they all do…..each one has done more than survive. They have remained or they have become tender, alive to their own suffereing and the suffering of their people. While I try to control my personal longings and berate myself for being too soft, they remind me that my yearnings are as basic as cooked rice.
My friend Grace had been telling me about the joys of Nordic Walking for a while. “It’s a full body workout!”, she’d tell me. It’s low-impact, it’s something you can do anywhere and there are low equipment needs – it’s good for all kinds of reasons. And I totally trust Grace. She’s got so many cool interests and passions that when she manages to stuff another one into her busy life it’s worth taking note of.
We found a day that fit into our schedules and I met her in Mahone Bay, my favourite oozing-with-quaint town on the south shore. We met at the general store on main street and there’s a trail just back from there that’s on an old railway bed. I hadn’t known about it but it’s perfect for Nordic Walking – it goes on forever, it’s flat and surrounded by beautiful woods.
Grace first had to teach me how to use the special Nordic Walking poles. They have rubbery handles that are easy to grip, adjustable lengths and little rubber feet that get good traction on the ground.
I’ve seen folks using these poles around town and they use them like walking sticks. Technically that’s not how it’s done (and it makes them pretty expensive walking sticks!). You’re supposed to walk like a goosestepping soldier, straight arms, vigorous swing, and the pole lands on the ground just behind the line of your hip. Then you press into the pole while you step your foot forward.
I needed to concentrate on getting everything right, but when I did I could feel that my triceps, lats and shoulders were definitely in use. Then when you go up or down hills, you use them more as traditional walking sticks, they land straight down below your bent arm so your chest muscles are activated.
After Grace teaches me the techniques we head off. Every once in a while the rubber footies on my poles skipped off over the ground instead of planting. We adjusted the length of my poles a few time and it improved each time.
Grace had just come back from New York where she saw His Holiness The Dalai Lama. It was one of those crazy synchronicity things where she decided she wanted to go, couldn’t find tickets, just happened to meet a person from NYC who could hook her up with not just tickets but VIP tickets, just happened to get the money she needed for her birthday to pay for the plane ticket, just happened to find the perfect place to stay – you get the idea.
Oh, and the Dalai Lama blessed her kata (Tibetan silk scarf) because she just walked up to the front of the world’s largest cathedral where he was speaking and someone took it up to him. Total synchronicity. What a story.
And it’s funny because when she emailed me that she was going to NYC to see the Dalai Lama it was at the end of a really bad kid day for me. I just wanted to either run away from home or sell my children to the gypsies and here’s my friend going off to do this awesome pilgrimage. I wasn’t jealous, I was totally happy for her, but the comparison between our lives at that moment was pretty funny, in a dark sort of way.
But that’s the life of a householder, more changing diapers than seeking out holy people. Spending most of your energy grasping at whatever strength you have to avoid selling your children and spending the money on a nice dinner – at least on the bad days.
So I looked at my watch when we were on our way back into town and we’d been walking 2 hours. The time had completely flown by. I told Grace I was *starving*, so she took me to the Biscuit Eater. It’s an oozing-with-charm combo bookstore cafe in an ancient building. The place has, of course, awesome biscuits but I had a sandwich.
When Grace had told me about Nordic Walking there was a part of me that wondered if it was real exercise, you know? Like it’s walking with some pole action, big whoop. I wondered if I’d really feel it or burn any calories.
After I left Grace in Mahone Bay, I drove back to Halifax and was running some errands at 3 in the afternoon. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I felt all wrong-headed and woozy. Then I realized I was hungry. Like not peckish but bottomed- out-blood-sugar-passing-out kind of hungry. I had to grab another sandwich so I could make it to dinner time.
It turns out Nordic Walking is a wicked calorie burn afterall. But you gotta do it right. So if you happen to be near Mahone Bay and are up for a full body, calorie torching workout with great conversation, Grace will hook you up.
I went to a morning Moksha class the other day. It’s a hot yoga class and there are mirrors along one wall that everyone faces. Similiar to Bikram style classes, people like to line up right at the mirror, and then the rows of people continue behind them.
I’m not a fan of mirrors in yoga classes. I mean, I get them from a practical perspective, you can see what you’re doing. But I know that people, being people, or maybe it’s women being women, will more likely spend a disportionate amount of time staring at their hips. I feel like staring at a mirror doesn’t help you *feel* the poses from the inside out. I suspect they take you outside your body when we probably get more value out of going inside.
But I get it, you can see what you’re doing in a mirror and adjust your alignment. And really that’s why i love yoga – you get the benefits of the poses whether you’re in a hot room, a cold room or standing on the back of a truck trailer, yoga works every time.
So I walk in the class and women are lined up all along the front right at the mirrors except for the mirror at the far end of the room. I don’t want to be right at the mirror, I don’t feel i need to watch the sweat drip from my nose, but I go right to the end and start a second row. I can see myself clearly becuase i’m in the empty spot. Moksha classes start with Savasana so I don’t get a good look until we stand to start the first round of breathing.
It turns out I am standing in front of a fun house mirror. No one has taken this spot because the regulars all know that this mirror is broken. And the worse kind of broken. My head looks long and thin. My hips look like I have swallowed a watermelon. And the watermelon has split and lodged in my hips and thighs.
So remember how I was saying that mirrors just invite women to obsess about their hips through class? Well I absolutely include myself in that bunch and here I am starting a 90 minute class with hips “4 axe handles wide” as my father used to say. Not that he’s dead or anything, he just doesn’t seem to use that unit of measurement anymore.
I do my best to focus on alignment and doing the pose and breathing and managing the heat while trying not to look at my hip region. Or at least not to look at my hip region and say “oh. my. god”. It was the best lesson I’ve ever had in being the Witness and observing without judgement. Mostly because I failed a lot and had the opportunity to start all over again.
Then I started finding it funny. Ha! Look at how those crazy monster funhouse mirror hips look when I do Dancers Pose! It shouldn’t be physically *possible* to lift that kind of mass on one leg! It’s like how honeybees shouldn’t be able to fly or something!
It was a relief to get to the mat part of class. But when I left I felt that glorious I-could-be-hit-by-a-bus-and-it-would-be-ok feeling that I get after a hot yoga. I love that feeling. That’s yoga for ya’, it works every time.