I recently spent a week and a half in Ireland. It was my first visit to the Emerald Isle, and I admit to having experienced a bit more than a passing crush. I think it may be quite possible that some element of my essential Self was taken from me for a time (perhaps, by the fée?), moved through a process of cleansing, and returned to me as I prepared to take my leave.
The draw to Ireland has been nestled deep for many decades, quietly waiting, periodically stirring. When I was young, I had a brief love affair with Ireland from a distance. I dreamed that I would awake, look in the mirror, and find my own reflection staring back with dark, wavy, black hair and eyes as blue as the sky. Then, I would wake up to reality, frizzy, brown hair, and hazel eyes.
This recent visit was inspired by the knowledge that one of my favorite Anusara yoga teachers, Jaye “Bird” Martin, would be on the island of Inishbofin at the end of June, teaching alongside Jack Harrison and Benita Wolfe Galvin, two other Anusara teachers with whom I have dreamed of studying for a long time.
Though it was a financially irrational choice, I booked a ticket and convinced a fellow Anusara yoga teacher to join me for the ride. My heart has always been the stronger voice in my decision-making, for better or worse. It is interesting because I feel such a powerful pull toward stability and yet most of my life decisions take me well into the unknown and well out of my comfort zone.
Comfort zone has begun to seem a bit like an oxymoron to me in terms of my intentions to create a more balanced, sustainable existence. Most of my yoga teachers have told me that if I am not uncomfortable, I am not evolving. In the years since beginning this work, I have pretty taken up residence in my uncomfortable zone. More often than not, it’s not pretty or pleasant, but it feels like evolution. I am hoping that balance and equanimity will someday replace the anxiety and panic afforded by the uncomfortable times. I try to “ride the wave,” as my husband recommends, through the discomfort in the hope that more comfortable days lie ahead.
Just under two years ago, I left the comfort, convenience, and ease of life with my husband in Arizona to travel into the unknown of life as an expat in Belgium. No longer can I make the cliché joke, “I married Rich,” since my husband traded a full-time job for the path of unfunded philosopher scholar, but I know that money is not important in the grand scheme of a life’s work. I joke that I have created a karma career, following my heart and pursuing self-work and awareness, the study and teachings of yoga, and songwriting with refugees. I joke, but I really believe that what I am doing is important and warrants compensation. We do not yet live in a world where I can trade in karma for a hotel room or a flight to a sunny clime to escape the dark winter in Belgium, but perhaps someday.
I am incredibly proud of my beloved for following his heart, but there are definite challenges to living a dream that takes us outside of the realm of what is deemed “normal.” Since my husband’s family motto is “anything but normal,” it fits us and the work we believe is important.
Most days in life present opportunities for practice, and life in a foreign country and culture is no exception. There is the navigation of foreign administrative, transit, medical, etc. systems, language, and so on. I know that I am privileged and lucky to be able to live as I do, even with its challenges. I also understand that privilege does not necessarily equate to happiness. I studied with a meditation teacher who grew up in a very wealthy community, and he told the class that he witnessed great suffering among people who supposedly “had it all.” In his words, “suffering is suffering.” I am under no illusion that money brings happiness, but it would definitely help resolve some of the current challenges we face. Regardless, I am dedicated to the path of creating a balanced, sustainable life.
My visit to Ireland was a chance to escape from the stresses of my life and to go deeper into my own being in the ways that travel and the practice of yoga offer. Away from the distractions of my life, I would be free to focus on the work of balancing and becoming.
My husband jokes on a fairly regular basis that I am of the fée. When I headed off for Ireland, he cautioned me to not get trapped in Fairy, where time moves differently and it can be difficult to escape.
Don’t worry, I said. I won’t eat anything if I do go there.
Could there is a truth to my husband’s gentle chiding?
I did wander into a tiny art shop on the island and take the shopkeeper by surprise.
Oh, you are like a little light-footed person, she had exclaimed when she noticed me.
Is that a fairy? I asked.
Yes, she said.
If I really am of the fée, this would certainly offer an explanation to the growing pains I have been experiencing of late. Perhaps, I am simply returning to my true identity and earning my fairy wings?
In the story of Peter Pan, fairies earn their wings when children believe in them. Tinkerbell is brought back from the brink by the clapping of hands and voices chanting, I do believe in fairies. I do. I do.
The magical imagination of J.M. Barry may be missing some of the darker elements one experiences in moving through this transformative process. Earning my own wings seems to come with its own set of challenges that I do not recall reading in Pete Pan as a child. While mere clapping alone may not inspire flight, it does help to have the support, love, and encouragement of people who believe in me and embrace my desire to become the most authentic, real version of my Self as possible.
I would not be where I am today on my path if it were not for friends and family supporting me and giving me permission along the way to take some difficult steps through some intensely stormy weather.
My inner fire and momentum on this path has been threatened at different pivotal moments. It was how I responded to those moments that allowed me to move forward without being quelled by those who felt threatened and thus lashed out, attempting to find ways to keep me bound and inhibited.
Certainly, this was the case with my managers and direct supervisor at my job in Alaska. At one point, my supervisor took me into a meeting room and laid out a thick pile of papers in front of me with the title, MOVING MARIEKE FORWARD in bold, capital letters across the top. He then proceeded to point his finger at me, and in an aggressive, domineering voice, he said the words, YOU have lost your way, and we need to get you back in line!
That moment has been seared in my memory because it was so unequivocally clear that this was not a person who was willing to support authenticity, vulnerability, honesty, or any of the character traits that must be embraced for a person to realize their true self. The follow-up pieces to this meeting served to attempt to break my spirit enough that I would re-assimilate and once again become a model employee. I was made to keep a minute-by-minute list of everything I worked on throughout each day in order to demonstrate that I was indeed doing my job. Each morning, I met with my boss to discuss what I would be working on that day, and at the end of the day I had to turn in my list of re-assimilation accomplishments. I remember joking that I should add the time I spent going back and forth to the bathroom as well.
I no longer blame my boss for this psychologically damaging action against me. After years of reflection and processing, I think I may understand and empathize. In government work, an independent-minded person, seeking authenticity is not high on the list of ideal candidates for employee of the month. Rather, the idea is to blend in to the government Borg. Wear the clothes, say “yes,” always agree with the boss, do not suggest change of any kind, be grateful you got the job. My supervisor felt that in supporting my independence, he would then fall under attack by our superior upper manager. So, he took the less honorable and certainly more cowardly path and vilified me in order to “save” his own position.
I will say that this has not been my exact experience at all the parks where I have worked. There are incredible individuals and supervisors who support their employees in creative pursuits; however, it is more limited given the general culture of the agency and of government work. It’s much less lucrative working my self, but I am freer to have an idea and pursuit it.
In a world where independent thought is considered dangerous, people seeking to earn their wings and fly are often considered a threat to the mainstream, monoculture. I think that on my life path so far, I have tended to make people uncomfortable rather than comfortable. A person doing this work can serve as a kind of mirror, and not everyone wants to see their own reflection or think about what the vision might mean for their long-term happiness. My time in Lowell was unique in that it was a city of misfit artists, and I was supported and encouraged to spread my creative wings and fly.
I recognize now that just as my job and the style of management in Alaska (and in a government agency in general) were not a good fit for my personality type, I was not a good fit for my job or the agency. I made my colleagues and supervisors in my department uneasy.
I have come to believe that for people who are not a path to create a truly sustainable existence, a top priority is avoiding the uncomfortable zone at all costs. How to avoid it? Shopping. Watching Netflix instant stream. Going on expensive vacations. Top-down management (aka, taking your frustrations out on people in weaker positions: children, employees, etc.).
I understand this now in a way that was not possible when I was “in the thick of it” in Alaska. As it was happening, I was simply in crisis survival mode, just trying to get through each day until I could create an escape plan that would get me out of there.
I write so frequently about Alaska because it was a real awakening for me in my nascent beginning study of the idea of self-sustainability and on the path to creating an authentic existence. I was in my second year of a PhD program, studying the concept of sustainability, and I had only just begun to realize that for me to effect change on a great scale would require that I begin with learning how to create change on the scale of my individual life. Discovering this, feeling that I had a right to embrace sustainability and balance for my own Self, being given permission by others on the path, giving permission to my Self as well, and then enacting the steps toward change was like a series of seemingly Sisyphean tasks. Along the way (and even today), I felt like I was battling several colossal beasts.
Alaska was one of those watershed moments on my path where I realized that if I stayed I would likely allow my inner flame to extinguish altogether, thereby saying goodbye to the possibility of earning my wings, perhaps forever. I can remember a moment of clarity where I had a kind of inner dialogue with my many inner voices. One would caution against any rash action while another would say, “If not now, when?” I listened to the latter because I had the sense that if I did not continue while there was even the slightest beginning momentum, I might chicken out and not get up the gumption (my people call it “chutzpah”) to try again.
With the awareness I was creating, I would always know that I had made the choice to be cautious, and I think it would have destroyed me in the long run. Perhaps, I would have eventually found a way out but it would have been more difficult the more time I spent adhering to other people’s version of who and what I should be. I am not an “in the box” kind of person; the years I spent attempting to fit the molds considered acceptable and successful from my culture took an enormous toll on my mental and physical health. Imagine a lifetime spent embodying a persona that does not honor who you truly are?
The brief two years that I spent in the unhealthy, inhibiting space of my Alaska life felt like an eternity and wreaked havoc on my physical, spiritual, and biological nervous system. What was really interesting was the dichotomy between the national park community and the local community. I was encouraged by many locals to honor my Self and my path. One fellow who many would refer to as a true village elder told me that the community needed more people like me. In the same conversation, he recommended that I have an exit strategy as well (in hindsight, I understand why he offered this advice; someone like me should always have an escape plan).
There were more and less obvious moments of clarity in my two years in bush Alaska. One very clear moment was gifted to me during a breath workshop offered by a practitioner a friend from the community had invited from Oregon.
At one point during the workshop, participants were put in pairs to help guide each other through the transcendence that can happen with different breathing exercises. The workshop guide led us through the process while our friends sat at our side. I went so deeply somewhere I cannot even begin to describe. When it was time to return, a deep part of me refused. My entire body had been holding on so tightly just to survive that the moment I was given permission to let go, even just a little, through the breath, I completely fell apart. It took some significant effort on the part of the workshop leader to coax me out of the dark place and back into “reality,” and I came to and instantly broke into intense sobbing, which left me feeling empty and shaken for several days.
In hindsight, my subconscious clearly recognized the toll the tension and stress from my job were taking on my system, but at the time I felt really trapped. I had just bought a house and had to pay the bank. I had no leads for a new job, and who would I put as a reference if I did find one to apply for?
The process of earning my wings has taken me on a path to create healthy boundaries, to recognize when and how to say no to those people and pastimes that do not serve me, and to try to create balance in my mental and physical body.
In yoga, the body is referred to as “koshas,” sheaths or layers for each element of the Self. The more I am able to honor and maintain equilibrium in these layers, the more free I will be to fly.
I wrote recently about participating in a yoga therapy workshop to use simple tools to begin releasing tension from the body. For several decades, my body has been learning to wind itself up very tight because there is danger on all sides and I never know when I may need to defend myself or run like hell.
The intensity with which I hold on so very tightly varies with the ebb and flow of waves of life stress that move in and out of my life. At times of increased stress, the tightness overwhelms my body. If it gets too great, my body simply shuts down. This has tended to equate to the muscles in my back going into painful spasm.
In these moments, gripped by such extreme pain, I have no choice but to try to relax to ease the tension. I think this is the point. It’s a reminder that I need to learn to relax and let go of the illusion that I am in control. Letting go, however, does not make it any more comfortable. I despise feeling like I have no control over elements of my life that cause great stress.
Back to Ireland.
I experienced some blissful moments of peace and calm in my system on my foray across two islands. This calm was felt deep in my soul my first night and morning on the tiny island of Inishbofin (Inish Bo Finné, the island of the white cow). I fell asleep without the aid of a panic pill or herbal remedy and awoke feeling refreshed and at peace with my own Self and the world.
The peace was short-lived. Even as I explored the island and the depths of Self through yoga, swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, watching and listening to birds, laughing and meeting new people, and singing from my heart, I was receiving a constant barrage from the life I left behind but have not been able to conclude in Alaska. Tenants leaving, the search for new renters, threats of taking legal action if I didn’t refund security deposit within 24 hours of vacating the property (it took all of my willpower not to inform them that a landlord in Alaska has 14 days to take this action), a call from a person who had been very interested in my house (and which I answered because I thought they might be calling to make an offer, only to learn the bathroom was too small for their taste, they thought it needed a bunch of repairs that it did not need, and to receive an offer for $105k less than the asking price). Suffice it to say that I did not remain in the afternoon restorative yoga session because the call had shaken me so very much that it seemed there was little possibility of my lying still for two hours.
By Saturday, my psyche and system were a complete mess; so much so that simply bending down to pick up my bag caused my back to return to spasm once again.
There is nothing like intense pain to keep you present and focused on the needs of the body rather than those beings pestering you from the outside.
That’s enough stress for you, my body was telling me. Now, you are going to focus on your breath and moving your body and mind as slowly as possible (and nothing else).
I also experienced an incredible outpouring of nurturing, care, and love from the beings in my closest proximity on the island. People comforted me, carried my bags, made sure I had a ride to and from the yoga practice space and the Kirtan I had been invited to join that evening.
If you are anything like me, you avoid help from other people unless you are on the floor unable to. I always offer help to other people in need and assure them they are not a burden, but this assurance I never extend to my own person in times of need. Being a well-trained westerner, I like to think I am completely independent and can handle things on my own. However, the back spasms I have been experiencing since the day before I officially moved from Alaska knock me out so completely that I have no choice but to ask for and accept help from other people.
I managed to sit cross-legged for the duration of the Kirtan through sheer will and the endorphins created by singing and the musical embrace from the voices and hearts in the room, all chanting together. As I stood in the kitchen, waiting for the local taxi to arrive, two women from the training came up to talk with me.
They asked about my back and proceeded to offer care and wisdom. One kneeled down and began working on my feet, explaining her work in reflexology while the other asked where I was experiencing the pain.
Is it here? She asked as she gently drew her fingers down two small vertical paths on either side of my spine in the thoracic region of my back.
Yes, that’s exactly where it is, I responded.
It is as I suspected, she continued. You are getting your wings. Have you been doing a lot of backbends this week?
I have, I said, mystified as to how this person could have such insight into my pain.
Back bends are heart opening, she explained. You can release a lot of energy if you do too much all at once. Be careful not to overdo it.
She moved to my hand. Bend your thumb, she instructed. Then, use the index finger and thumb from the other hand to press every point along the finger. These pressure points are directly connected to the thoracic spine.
I did as she instructed, gasping in pain when I hit a particularly raw spot.
Being endlessly curious, as well as desperately wishing to find the answers to why I have been experiencing such pain I with increasing intensity in my body since leaving Alaska, as well as how to alleviate it once and for all, I wanted to ask all kinds of questions. I seem to learn a little bit at a time, muddling along through murky waters all the while. This evening, I gained some meaningful insights into the pain, but the taxi arrived and we were all on our way out the door and into the night before I had a chance to learn any more.
This wise woman’s words stayed with me, though.
I could visualize them in my mind and practically feel where they lay hidden beneath the surface of my skin. I imagined the feathers, patiently waiting, preparing for the moment they would finally break through the layers of tissue and skin at any moment.
My wings would be comprised of hundreds of jet-black feathers, layers upon layers of inky plumes as dark as a raven flying through a night with no stars. At first, they would be carefully folded in upon themselves. With each layer of external expectation I shed; with each new layer of awareness I created; and with coaxing and gentle stretching, they would begin to straighten and extend out, expanding into their full size, rippling and dancing with the wind.
I want these wings.
I also want an end to the pain.
So far, the pain continues, abating periodically, only to return like a wave crashing against a rocky cliff with every reminder of the unbound ties of my life in Alaska. Those ties are battered and frayed, snapping as in a stormy wind.
Fly, be free, a voice inside of me whispers and then shouts in desperation and agitation.
I wake up each morning, exhausted, repeating the pattern that has become my own personal Groundhog Day.
Wake up. Remember. Feel the pain in my back. Wish for oblivion. Smell coffee. Get out of bed. Move through the day. Attempt to sleep. Repeat.
I think the exhaustion stems from a deep desire to control the uncontrollable. My husband regularly reminds me that I need to let go of the illusion that I have any control and to let the universe do its dance.
I recognize the wisdom in his words, yet the actual practice of letting go is much more difficult to embody. My body has been trained to hold on very tightly and to essentially snap at the slightest offense.
When I say slight, I mean a person closing a shutter and losing their hold so it goes flying up and snaps shut will set my parasympathetic nervous system a flutter. It takes very little for my entire body to go into super crisis mode I am wound so tight.
Living like this is exhausting, always waiting for the next crisis episode. Even more ridiculous is that most of it has been caused by small-minded people and a house in a town of several hundred people on the literal edge of the earth in Alaska. It is holding me back from joy, being present where I am, and moving forward with my life.
It is also keeping me from earning my wings and flying free.
This has all been building since I left Alaska in January 2012 in order to escape from the recurring nightmare from the job and boss I described earlier. This man was so abusive (and threatened) that he called my new boss for the job I was just about the begin in Massachusetts (and who hadn’t called him as a reference because he had been out of town when I was interviewed for the job) because he wanted to tell her all of the negative stuff about me he hadn’t been able to share.
In some ways, I am surprised my body did not shut down years ago from the constant, unyielding barrage of nasty, toxic energy that began while I was in situ and has continued in the years that followed with difficult renters and failed house sales.
My uncle has suggested several times that I return to Gustavus and spend some time there as a way of reminding people that I am a kind person (and I suppose to also demonstrate that there is nothing wrong with my house for sale, which seems to have become a common misconception thanks to the strength of rumors and the ease of vilifying someone who isn’t present to defend themself). My dad recently reminded me of this advice.
Hell no! I am never going back there, I texted back.
The more I think about it, why would I spend time, money, and energy to voluntarily walk into a fire? For me, it is well past the time to close the Alaska chapter of my life. Perhaps, part of the path to earning one’s wings is to move through trying times and to find the gifts within the chaos.
In my experience, Alaska offered many gifts. It seems like a place a person can go to escape from the rest of the world. I’m not the only person who takes issue with the speed and priorities of the “civilized” word. A lot of people seem to have trouble functioning in the modern realm, and so they hide at the end of the earth. Alaska is a great place to hide.
I totally understand. I did it, too. Gustavus allowed me to leave an unhappy marriage and to hide from the rest of the world while going through a difficult divorce and beginning to take the steps toward imagining a new life. I began playing music again in this small town and to weave the threads of a new identity and way of being.
To actually create the change I wanted to see in my Self and my life required leaving Alaska, however. In hindsight, I imagine that I made people uncomfortable. The reaction from some was support and encouragement (while I was in town), but many of those same people have since cut off contact and/or actively turned on me in the wake of one-sided rumors about my person from difficult renters.
After nearly six years, my body has become one big muscle knot of physical pain. My psyche and emotional health have been significantly affected as well.
When I ask my husband when the pain will end, he says, I think your body just has to get to a breaking point.
I think I am well past being broken.
No, it’s more that you get to the point where you just don’t care anymore.
For me, I think there is certainly an element of caring. You know that saying, Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me? In my sensitive being, this could not be farther from the truth. I have a translucent shell that names pass through quite readily, shooting straight for the heart.
I want freedom. I am not one who does well being confined in any way, and I am hoping that someday very soon the ties that bind me to Alaska will be destroyed so that I can fly free with the poor albatross that has been unjustly stuck with the cliché of being a burden.
Because I cannot see the future, I have no idea when this dramatic series will end. I do know that the more I can take advantage of the opportunities to practice breathing through the pain, letting go of control, and listening to the wise words of the people I meet along the way, the closer I move toward the freedom of spreading my glorious wings and lifting my gaze to the joy that lies ahead of me.
I am certain that Mr. Barry was on to something, so I would be grateful if you would take a moment to clap your hands and repeat the line, I do believe in fairies. I do. I do!
Who knows? You may just find your own wings peaking out to lead you into the unknown.
What do you say, friends and Albatross? Are you ready to fly free together?
(Photo credit for several photos go to Heart Core Yoga/Benita Wolfe Galvan)