The shivering wind through distant trees calls to me, their bodies swaying in whispers and breaths. Through a field of shorn, spiked grass in sandaled feet, I pick my way to the far edge where stand the remaining crop of trees. They shelter a small marshland, what’s left in an ongoing spread of development. It’s been months since I stepped foot in there, and today, I crave the company of trees. My first steps inside, I am distracted by the musical wind, the tinge of autumn. A few more steps and my eyes focus beyond. Something does not look right.
My steps quicken, and soon, the ground beneath me rises up to speak.
The dirt has been overturned, as if a ship dredged the bottom of a lake and spit its contents on shore. Everywhere, garbage. Rubber tires, plastic jugs, bottles, electronic parts, a sweatshirt snagged on a branch, a shoe half buried, glass shards. And mangled roots. Through the center of the woods, a wide path has torn through, flattening everything in its way. Trees pile on either side, haphazardly, grotesquely. I feel I have entered some site of desecration.
I cry out, cover my mouth, curse the machines that left a gash here in this small community of trees. It is barely recognizable.
The air hangs heavy, eerie. If only the trees could speak. No, if only I could sit here long enough to discern their stories, because they are speaking. They do. For now, I absorb their sadness through my limbs.
I reach out and place my hand on the severed trunk of a birch tree, its beautiful red bark exposed. It stands there, injured beyond repair. I stroke its wood, gently, wondering if my touch sends electrical currents to its roots. Wondering what it communicates, if anything at all.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, again and again, caught between sorrow and outrage.
I listen to the birds and squirrels carrying on in what remains of their home. I hear stirrings, branches cracking, and I’m not sure if they are human or animal. Humans also live in these woods.
I pick my way through mud and rubbish, nausea slowly spreading as my eyes absorb it all.
The trees smell of death, or impending death. Of sand slipping through an hourglass.
And still, all around me life goes on, forging new places amidst the ruins.
I follow the clearest path, past work overalls hung from a tree like a scarecrow. Past a tent tucked in an alcove of trees, bikes parked outside and laundry hanging to dry. Past a canopy over a lean-to, a satellite strapped to a nearby tree trunk. I walk quickly, wanting to pause to take in these sights, yet racing a sense of unease. These are homes and I am trespassing, though there are no stirrings of their occupants within.
Where the trees open up to usher me back out to the field, a grocery cart stands piled with plastic, the earth around it a landfill. And just beyond, a chain link fence guards a construction site that borders protected wetland.
I want to know what it means for us, all of us, to share this same space. Trees, humans, birds, construction sites, wetland, homeless persons, evicted wildlife.
But for now, I stagger away, reeling from the messiness of these intersections. The absence of easy answers, the cohabitation of beauty and its maiming, hope and despair, death and resilience. The way it holds a mirror to the world.
I sit in a small pool of golden light at the kitchen table, orange glow refracting off a painted glass vase filled with silk flowers and birch. The balcony door is propped open, allowing the cooler air from outside to mingle with the heavier air indoors. I glance at the painted vase with its one word, an admonition I need this day: breathe. And I begin to type.
. . . . .
It began with a photo on Instagram yesterday. Well, two, to be exact. Side by side views of the Columbia River gorge: one in its pristine glory, the other engulfed in a flood of hazy red and orange. I sat stunned, caught for a moment in that breathless pause of denial. Then I searched online for news articles, which quickly jarred me into reality. This was really happening, currently ten thousand acres of beautiful land on fire. At the sight of these photos, my eyes began to spill tears.
Having spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, I have not been intimately acquainted with fires. Those were the tribulations of California, Colorado, and the eastern parts of my home in Washington. Ours has been the fear of devastating earthquake, occasional flooding, and in recent years, drought. But forest fires surround us now – north of us in Canada, in national forests east of us near Wenatchee, and national forests southwest of us. And now the Columbia gorge, near Portland. Our skies are filled with smoke and eerie haze that masks a pink sun.
. . . . .
My high school years were spent in the Portland area.
I close my eyes and remember barefoot hikes in the icy waters of Eagle Creek, on ninety-degree summer days. Surrounded by dense woods, a few friends and I slowly hiking upstream, stopping here and there to climb rocks, jump into crystal clear pools.
I remember trips to Bonneville Dam with my family, walking the fish hatchery. Sunday drives up and down the historic Columbia River Highway, stopping to hike Bridal Veil Falls or ascend the top of Multnomah Falls. Cupping my hands in pristine waters flowing over rocks and drinking. Standing at the top of a lookout point, feasting on the beauty of miles of river and forest in panoramic view.
It’s been called the gem of Oregon, this land that is being consumed by fire. I’m sure none of us ever imagined a day it would be so dry to ignite like kindling with the careless flick of a teenager’s fireworks.
As of this writing, no human homes have been lost, though the fire has now claimed 31,000 acres and is completely uncontained. I don’t know how many people have been evacuated. My aunt and uncle are among the evacuees; my sister and her family are waiting to hear if they need to flee. Portland is covered in ash. And all I can do is pray.
. . . . .
I couldn’t stop my shoulders shaking yesterday as I rode the bus home, staring down at my phone screen at pictures and feeling the sobs swell. And why, when I don’t live there and haven’t in years?
But I know why. I close my eyes and images surface, unbidden: deer and rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, cougars and coyotes, eagles and crows, and all manner of birds and small forest animals, eyes wide with terror as they flee. I can see the trees, quickly overtaken by flames, and them unable to move, unable to save themselves. I see images of babies still in nests, in trees and on the ground, and parents unable to carry them all away. Their fear is so close to palpable, a retching in my stomach. That primitive survival instinctand self preservation that is in us all, human and animal and tree.
We have a responsibility to them, to care for their world. To protect them from harm. And we have failed, catastrophically, time and again.
Where, where do wild animals flee when the only homes they’ve known are burning? How many non-human homes will be lost? How can wildlife evacuate to safe ground? And how long, how very long, does it take to restore a forest, habitats, an ecosystem, once they’ve burned to the ground? There are no statistics for these losses.
The questions rip through me, jagged blades. They return to haunt my empty spaces of thought. This fire, its implications, are too much to feel.
. . . . .
It’s taken me three decades, but I’ve finally come to accept a fundamental truth about myself: I feel everything deeply. So deep, in fact, that I have to seriously limit my news intake, and then allow myself ample space to feel everything. For if I am aware of the suffering of people in Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine, Washington D.C., neighbors across the street, and that of more intimate relationships in my life; if I know of all the actions of our crazy president, the nuclear missiles aimed at us by North Korea, the hurricane set to slam devastation for the second time in two weeks into our country, the undocumented immigrants fearing deportation, the species further endangered by climate change; I will feel it all. And if I have enough suffering in my own life, it will sink me.
I used to see this characteristic in myself as weakness, sentimentality, a failure, a liability. And if I’m completely honest, sometimes I still do. All of this pain, this openness to feeling, can quite literally be a liability when you live with clinical depression. It can quickly spiral to despair, which in turn can spiral into suicidal thoughts. I have ridden this wave many times, and sometimes, I’ve been afraid it would consume me.
Butif this is weakness, it also has the potential to be the opposite. A generosity of spirit that, as it expands, holds more and more in a heart that has also been strengthened by adversity. This willingness to walk alongside others in their suffering, to sit with them in silence, to withhold judgment and the temptation to fix things. Because I know I can’t. There is a beautiful, quiet, ferocious strength in the deep waters of feeling.
It can be both fountain and undertow. Either way, it is an exhausting and rewarding way to live and interact with the world.
. . . . .
Two summers ago, when we experienced the worst drought of my lifetime in western Washington, I could barely peel my body off the couch. Everywhere I looked, I saw death. Trees, grass, plants, water levels in the lake, fish and turtles, disappearing habitats. The suffering was almost unbearable to me each time I stepped outside. Not surprisingly, that was one of the worst bouts of depression I’ve experienced.
So it’s not a huge leap for me, to close my eyes and see the deaths of lives that are precious to me, even if I don’t know them personally, as the fires rage a state away. I know that trees, in their own way, experience pain. It is not something we want to think of, or are accustomed to thinking of, in our human-centric world. But science says they do. And animals experience terror, pain, grief, hunger, thirst, loneliness and disorientation every bit as much as happiness, love, friendship, community, safety and satisfaction. When I close my eyes, I see all this, I feel all this, and it moves me to tears, to a pulsing grief that cannot be measured in words.
. . . . .
I keep returning to my breath. To my mat. Where I move with the angst that courses through my veins and I let the tears come as they may and I lift my chest toward the sky in backbends that are deeper than I can normally practice. Because this is how I stay alive to the present. I let myself feel it, without judgment, and as best I can, I keep moving through it. The movement, the breath, the tears, the spaces where there are no words, I let these be my prayers.
I sit in the dark with the window open, breeze blowing through the screen from sky layered with charcoal clouds that I hope hold the promise of rain. I cuddle under a cozy blanket, welcoming the cool air. How we need the rain.
A yellow glow from the balcony light spills over my desk and I imagine it to be the moon. Much time has passed since I sat in this stillness, soaking in night sounds, a sugar glider asleep in my lap. Ninja, my late riser, the one who sleeps through most anything. I resist the temptation to break the calm of this moment with do-ing, and instead, continue to stroke his rabbit-soft body, relishing all the tiny clicks and sighs and chirps of his sleep.
I’ve sat down to write multiple times these past weeks, only to hit “save” and shut my laptop, come back to it and start over. My words have been dark, heavy, layered like the clouds outside. I grow weary of how my writing turns to depression when I wish to write of lovely things, a life lived fully. The truth is, I haven’t been living; I’ve only been surviving. And who wants to write of that, let alone read it?
But this night, my heart is quieted, my mind still. I am neither in the past or the future, nor numbing out the present. This moment begs my attention, and so I sit, grateful for the reprieve.
I think of the sky these past weeks, heavy with the haze from Canada burning. The air itself languishing, stagnant, muggy, oppressive. But today, a fresh breeze blew through town, and with it, I exhaled a long, stale breath. Pranayama, our breathing practice in yoga. A deep, cleansing breath is one where you exhale every last bit of stale air, making room to fill with what is fresh. This day has been my cleansing breath.
I’d said yes to volunteering at a booth for the humane society at the farmer’s market today, not because I felt like it, but because I haven’t felt like doing anything. I knew I needed a reason to leave the house, and they happened to need my help. Plus, I haven’t made it to the market but once this summer, even though it’s been one of my favorite places to be on a Saturday. So, I hopped on my bike and pedaled the thirty minutes or so to downtown. Lungs contracting, exhale, exhale, exhale stale air.
. . . . .
I didn’t know what to expect, besides forced extroversion. But what I didn’t expect was to make a new friend – no small thing when I can only claim one friend in the year we’ve lived in Bellingham. Three hours passed in a comfortable flow of conversation with my new friend, with pauses as we interacted with all the friendly locals who approached our table.
I hadn’t expected to be met, as I am, outside my home today. No mask required, no forcing anything. Hallelujah.
I wandered the market in its remaining minutes, as vendors and farmers packed their goods, splurging on a small basket of cherry tomatoes. My first of the season. I popped one into my mouth and groaned with pleasure, my taste buds coming alive.
It’s the small things, the ones you can’t notice when you’re in the throes of depression, barely surviving, full of stale air. And then, one day, a farm fresh tomato reminds you: you’re alive. Lungs expanding, inhale, inhale, inhale fresh air.
The depression is still here; a deep exhale doesn’t evict that. I live with it, continually trying to find balance, make peace. But this is me, pausing to breathe in fresh, grateful for the taste of life. For unexpected gifts, like a new friend. For the energy of a crowd of friendly strangers and the vibrancy of a local market. For saying yes when I wanted to say no. For the cool of air on my skin and a faint sighting of our nearby mountain. For charcoal skies and night breezes through window screens and moments fully inhabited and cozy blankets needed in the middle of August.
Up the street from us, where concrete ends and fields begin, a new housing development sits on the edge and faces the sun. We found ourselves here the other night on a whim. I wanted to watch the sun setting. A lone, hooded figure sat on the top of a mound of grass and dirt, a ready witness to the day’s end. I sat on a concrete ledge with legs dangling over, Ricardo at my back, and surveyed the field. It spread before us, a shimmering, dancing, wispy carpet of golden and rose-tinged threads leading up to the throne of sun. Smoky purple mountains flanked our sides in the distance. We watched as swallows performed their evening dances and hidden birds sang their evening songs.
The world in front of us swallowed us up in its pulsating life song. As the sun sank lower in a blaze of glory, my spirit lifted higher.
It’d been awhile since I felt awake, felt life coursing through my veins, felt the presence of God. I’d be hard pressed to define God any more, but if anything, God to me is mystery and spirit, presence and love, dance and song. And this night, I knew God was near. As we witnessed the sacred shift, like a change of guard in the cosmos, from day to night, sun to moon, I whispered to Ricardo, “Why don’t we do this more often?”
. . . . .
So I showed up the next night, this time without Ricardo, and climbed to the top of the grassy lookout. A couple sat on rocks below me, a guy on a motorcycle pulled up and walked to the edge of the street to sit down, a woman stood below with her bicycle, and the hooded figure from the night before appeared and climbed the hill to sit near me. He was young, maybe twenty-three. We politely greeted each other and looked out in silence at the slowly slipping fiery orb, making occasional conversation. I learned he came here on his lunch break when he worked nights at a machine shop nearby.
After a few minutes of silence, all that remained of the sun was its luminous shadow.
“I think it’s good for the soul to watch the sun set,” he said quietly.
I couldn’t agree more.
. . . . .
On my walk home, I came across a baby bunny. It startled me, sitting in stillness there in the grass by the parking lot, its eyes unblinking. I moaned when it didn’t move. Hurrying home, I collected a towel and returned to where it lay, scooping it gently. Wrapped in white, its head peeked out from the crook of my arm and tears spilled freely down my cheeks. I stroked the spot between its ears on the top of its head, the way I do with my sugar glider boys, and whispered to it, “I’m so sorry your life ended before it even really began.”
As I walked back toward the field where I’d watched the sun disappear, my quiet companion from the top of the hill passed by in his truck and waved. I came to the backside of the hill, wading through wild grass to a thick bed of clover. I unwrapped the tiny body, feeling the irony of its warmth from my own body, laying it down to rest with pink clover blossoms across its fur. The forest to my right buzzed mysteriously with life, the field still tittering and swaying, the houses behind me towering silently, here at this spot where worlds collide.
“Be at peace, dear one,” I said through tears, for this little bunny felt no less important to me than any other life. Someone needed to mark its passing, and that someone turned out to be me. In this moment, my living, breathing yoga was not a physical posture as much as a whispered “Namaste” to this beautiful, sorrowful creature.
And here, in the wind and the concrete and the fields aglow, I felt the spirit of God encircle us once more as the bunny returned to the earth.
We all come to the mat for different reasons, with different stories. Whether it be exercise, rehab, injury prevention, stress relief, community, meditation, escape, self-awareness and discovery, therapy or healing, we almost always discover more in the process than we anticipated – if we are committed to the practice. As we hear of others’ yoga journeys, our stories often overlap, even as they branch out in different directions. We find ourselves resonating with another. Yes, yes, we nod. This is me, too.
So I expect there are many who will share bits of my story as part of their own journey, too. Of how I came to the mat; of how coming back to it daily has slowly transformed me, like that little drop of water falling again and again on a stone, eventually leaving its imprint.
. . . . .
At first, I was interested in yoga only as an alternative form of exercise. I was a runner, through and through, and was only interested in high intensity cardio. Until too many years of beating my legs and body into the ground, too many injuries later, I could no longer run. At this point in my life, I was only just learning to slow down. My dad had recently died unexpectedly, my body beginning to scream its physical and emotional limitations, and the speed at which I’d been living up to this point could no longer be sustained. I came to the mat as a last resort, a placeholder, before I could resume more activity.
I only lasted for a few classes before other, more exciting things, pulled me away.
. . . . .
Six or seven years later, I returned to my mat, this time from my own home. I’d changed significantly in the years between, gradually becoming more open as a person. Coming from a conservative Christian culture all my life, I’d been wary of what I’d been taught to believe was New Age spirituality. Yoga was always a little woo-woo for me. But at this point, I’d left both church and religion behind and had nothing holding me back from being spiritually curious. I was officially done with running after tearing my achilles, relearning how to walk and discovering through rehab that my knees now firmly protested high impact sports. The process of recovery opened my eyes to many gifts I’d always taken for granted – like walking. I savored, now, my steps. The slower rhythms, the freedom to pause and take notice of all the beauties along the way, the sense of calm.
In the beginning, I made it to my mat maybe once or twice a week. It felt like enough. For about three years, I’d been living in a state of personal crisis. I was seeing a counselor weekly, taking depression medication, trying to survive. Yoga was something on the periphery for me, a tool in my box of life skills I knew only somewhat how to utilize.
But within the last year, I began craving more, needing more, from my yoga practice. I no longer had access to my counselor or medication, had no friends nearby, but my depression was still with me. I began coming to my mat four or five days a week, and then six or seven, because yoga was a lifeline. A reset button, each time I stepped on to practice. A daily commitment to self care. An extension of all the things I’d learned through my years in the counseling office in physical form. How to tune into my body, my breath, my inner self. It became an extension of my art – my painting and my writing – as my body moved into positions that mirrored the state of my insides, or took me beyond, to someplace I didn’t know I could go.
Eight years or so since I took my first yoga class, and I now have a daily, thriving practice.
. . . . .
Depression, I know, has led numerous people to the mat. I’ve read and heard many stories of how yoga has healed, physically and emotionally. It’s one thing to talk of mental health struggles in the past tense and another to admit that I still live with depression, even with my daily practice. That, while yoga has transformed me in deep ways, I still live with a sense of heaviness I can’t seem to shake. I experience peace, and at the same time, am often working hard to resist despair. I live in the light of joy in moments, and I live, too, in persistent darkness.
It’s hard to speak of the times I have been caught up in a suicidal frenzy. Hard, even, to write that. When the temptation of ending my life feels like it might be the only way because I cannot, for the life of me, see a way through the darkness into the future. But a telling of my story without them is incomplete, and dare I say, inauthentic.
During these times, I know now, if I can just get my body to the mat and begin moving, I’ll be ok. If I can allow this small act of reaching out to release the energy that is pulling me down, to release, perhaps, a dam of pent up emotion, I will make it through. I step or crawl to my mat and this is my hand waving in the air, saying, “Here I am.”
I cannot count the times that yoga has saved my life, or at least, my heart. The times I have come with the deepest ache of loneliness inside me – and found myself. Many days, I have been all I have. My yoga practice has taught me to hold all the parts of myself with gentle care, with kindness, with compassion, with gratitude, with reverence. It has taught me that, no matter what happens – no matter who or what I have – at the end of the day I will always have the love within to offer myself.
I have a tenuous hope, that one day I will be thriving more than surviving. And I know that, even there, yoga will be journey with me, gently guiding me to greater depths of love and growth and healing.
For now, this continual tipping between light and dark, hope and despair, ache and contentment – these are the yin and yang of my yoga practice. The places my mat rises up to meet me as an old friend, accepting me each time exactly where I am. And for this, I am eternally grateful.