Editors Note: This is a re-post. As part of my TBT series, I am following each Monday post with a Thursday re-post. This post, first written in May of 2017, looks at the same concept of “practicing” disciplines that I explored earlier this week.
I’m beginning to think that lessons are never fully learned, or as we say in the field, mastered, but rather that ourlessons require continuing practice.
A child sits at a piano slowly fingering the do, re, mi, fa, so of a C-major scale. Over and over she plays, repeatedly faltering at one particularly tough spot where the thumb has to cross under two fingers in order to hit all eight notes in the octave. Sure, sure, after hours upon hours of practice, the scale becomes easier, therhythm more consistent and measured, but let that pianist take a month away from the keys, and almost assuredly…
The first time I walked into a yoga studio, I looked around and did what the others were doing — got a mat, sat down cross-legged, and quietly waited for instruction. I hadn’t done any research, had no idea what I was getting into, and struggled to mimic the poses that were being demonstrated at the front of the class. I was a distance runner at the time, so I was in great shape for running, but I had little to no upper body strength, a poorly-developed core, and little to no flexibility — physical or mental. I ended the class feeling frustrated and nauseous and didn’t try yoga again for a long time.
When chronic pain and fatigue ended my running career, I joined a gym. My regular routine included thirty minutes on an elliptical trainer, light weight lifting, and then some restorative movement in the warm saltwater therapy pool. Once in a while, I joined a pilates class. I stayed in that rhythm for a year or so, and then my daughter gave me a month-long membership at a yoga studio. I decided to give yoga another try.
Since I had only had one previous experience with yoga, and that had ended badly, I asked my friend to go with me. I’m so glad I did. Without her, I was the only ‘mature’ woman in a room filled with college students. The instructor was a young man whose body reminded me of the bendable figures our oldest son used to take with him on long car trips — I’d never seen such a strong and limber human. To make matters worse, it was an advanced vinyasa flow class. If you know what that means, you know that I was in the wrong room at the wrong time. I tried to keep up, but I didn’t know the poses, or the vocabulary, and I still had neither the strength nor the flexibility for much more than child’s pose.
Sure, my inner soldier made a valiant attempt. I tried to move through a vinyasa, even though the word was brand new to me. I tried to be any kind of warrior — I would’ve settled for one, two, or three. I pretended to be a mountain, but what that class taught me was that I needed to take the posture of a child — physically, mentally, and emotionally — and start to become comfortable with learning a new way.
Lesson #1: You don’t learn a new way over night.
That class was a few years ago. Since then, I’ve been practicing yoga. I’ve been learning how to breathe. I’ve been building core strength. I’ve developed some vocabulary and even some flexibility.
I often say, “God is always preparing you for what’s next.” In school, we first learn letters and sounds so that we will be prepared to read words. Once we have some vocabulary, we can begin to read sentences. Sentences lead to paragraphs which lead to stories which lead to all the ways that print can open up the world for us.
Menial jobs like babysitting or lawn mowing provide opportunities to learn the basic practices of showing up on time and finishing a task. They build experience, or muscle, that enables us to take on more difficult jobs such as food service or sales. These jobs teach us about working in teams and being able to adapt under pressure — they teach us flexibility.
All of life is preparing us for what’s next. When, as children, we learn how to line up and take turns, we are learning the basics of how to function with others. When, in adolescence, someone says something unfriendly about us, we feel the pain that reminds us to treat others with kindness. When we experience our first heartbreak and someone listens to us as we cry, we learn how important it is to be compassionate. When we face the many challenges of juggling finances and deadlines and friends and work, our core strength is being established. All of life is practice — practice for what’s next.
In advance of my soldiering years, I had several experiences that built up my stamina and developed a fearlessness that allowed me to step into responsibility and to manage difficult situations. God had given me what I needed; He knew what was coming. When those years were over, He provided an opportunity for me to learn a new way, but first He had to teach me how to be still. He had to remind me to breathe.
When I first started practicing yoga, I thought it was weird that the first 5-10 minutes and the last 5-10 minutes of the practice focused on stillness and breath. How could I get stronger by being still? How could bringing my attention to my breath have any lasting impact on my physical body? In my mind, exercise was about exertion, pushing the body, and burning the calories. These messages — remnants of the soldiering years — had to be put aside. Although the way of yoga seemed strange to me, I moved into child’s pose and began to learn to listen to the sound of my own breath, to watch the rise and fall of my body, and to pay attention to how I feel physically.
This way is new to me. I have long walked/trudged/powered through life giving attention to my body only when it cried out in pain or shut down in illness. Then I have patched it up as quickly as possible and resumed my forward motion. And my body has suffered, but not just my body. I have also ignored my emotions. And my spirit. I have put myself on a course with the goal of finishing. Period.
But in this chapter, I find myself over and over again in the posture of a child, often helpless and crying, needing to learn a new way. And, as my pastor said this morning, new ways are “not something we arrive at, but something that we practice”.
So I’ll continue to practice — yoga, yes, but also returning to my spiritual practices of prayer, Scripture, worship, and community. These are the practices that have been re-shaping me, re-wiring me, re-pairing me, and pre-paring me for whatever comes next.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 1For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
Editor’s Note, January 24, 2019: I’m looking back at old posts and seeing how they resonate with me now. This one, in light of what I wrote on January 21, 2019, reminds me of all the ground work that God did in anticipation of 2018. While we were trudging through, my husband and I often reminded ourselves, “none of this is a surprise to God.” This post, originally written in 2017, is evidence that He knew what was coming and was preparing us in advance.
During all my years of soldiering — of butt-kicking and name-taking — I was in constant motion, often simultaneously cooking, doing laundry, answering email, talking on the phone, and granting or denying permission to one of my children. I got a lot done. It seems that I was able to keep a clean house, feed a family, teach hundreds of students, and arrive most…
After posting on Monday about choosing hope over despair, I thought I’d revisit one of the first pieces I wrote this year, to remember how far we’ve come.
2018 was the year that I stopped rucking. I finally had to set down my pack.
According to my son, who served in the 82nd Airborne, “rucking” is a long march, 15-20 miles or more, with a heavy pack of gear strapped on your back.
The soldier carries necessities — provisions, weapons, extra socks, and the like — and moves forward. The more he does this, the better he gets at it — the longer he can go, the more he can carry. Soldiers practice rucking, of course, so that when they have to go on a mission, they have the strength and endurance they need to endure.
I had gotten pretty good at rucking in my former life of soldiering — when I survived a season of high demand by butt-kicking and name-taking. That old lifestyle was built on the premise that I had the strength within myself to accomplish whatever task was put in front of me. It depended on bravado; I believed that by the force of my will I could solve all the problems and complete all the tasks. I could ruck.
I’ve learned a lot since then.
Over the last four and a half years, I’ve chronicled in this blog the retraining I’ve undergone to stop living the soldiering lifestyle. I’ve changed physical things like my diet, exercise, healthcare providers, and job, and emotional things like the taking time for therapy and daily writing and rest. Yet, while I have been very intentional about stepping away from soldiering, I am still prone to strapping on that backpack when the going gets tough.
And it does get tough, doesn’t it?
This past year was one of the toughest yet. And I might’ve gone back to soldiering, if it would’ve done any good. But even I couldn’t muster the strength to carry the kind of heavy that 2018 brought. The inner mantra I used to live by that said I could handle anything was silenced. The heaviness of 2018 was more than I could carry. I could no longer ruck.
I sat down, let my pack fall to the ground, and I cried. Over and over this year, I cried, and I cried, and I cried.
I grieved most of 2018. I grieved for many who are dear to me whose losses are great, and I grieved for myself — for all the losses I have failed to grieve over the years. Likely the biggest grief of all was realizing that — that I hadn’t felt all the feelings when I should have been feeling them; instead, I had been rucking. I’d been carrying a load of hurt shoved down deep in a bag, when I should have been spreading all the griefs out on a blanket, examining them one by one and recognizing the weight of each loss.
So, that’s where I started — I opened the bag, dug deep inside, and brought out all the hurts that lay crumpled deep inside. I spread them all out, sorted through them and described each piece in writing. I took stock of the damage, and I prayed and prayed and prayed. I invited others to pray with me. I spent hours and days and whole weeks talking with my husband — rehearsing forgiveness and grace. And, finally, I think it’s time: I think I’m ready to take a break from grief.
At the very beginning of our season of grief, as though to provide for me a literary symbol, the necklace I wear every day was broken. It’s a gold chain that carries a small heart charm– a baptism gift from my godparents that I wear to remember whose I am — and a butterfly charm that my mother gave me when I earned my master’s degree that I wear to remember that I have been transformed. I’m not big on jewelry. In fact, my skin rejects all but the finest of gold, so when the chain broke about a year and half ago, I didn’t find the wherewithal or the resources to deal with it.
But on Christmas morning, just a few weeks ago, as we started to believe that the gray fog of grief was lifting, my husband gave me my repaired gold chain. I’ve put it back on, because I need a physical sign that the season of mourning is over. I need a daily reminder that I am a child of God who has been transformed and that the times of refreshing have come.
Certainly 2019 will not be free of trouble. We may be devastated again today or next week or next month, but for now, I am going to acknowledge that we were carried through 2018 not by our own might, but by the Hands of God who saw every tear, heard every prayer, and who, right now, is turning our mourning into hope.
You have turned my mourning into dancing for me;
You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”