Sweet Pain and Fierce Compassion

Ashtanga yoga is like traveling to India: It is not necessarily pleasant to be there; the journey is always worthwhile; and I feel compelled to return. Stepping onto the mat each morning is analogous to stepping off the plane in Mumbai or Delhi, as I ask: why have I done this to myself, again?

Despondent as I approached the second surgery to reconstruct my mastectomy, I was surprised when the Tibetan amchi (doctor) I was consulting told me to practice yoga. “Yoga is wonderful,” he said. “Everyone should practice yoga. But you must practice yoga if you are going to be healthy again.” The weekly class at my gym, that I missed as often as I attended, wasn’t what he had in mind.

I showed up for my first Ashtanga class seven weeks after that surgery. Perhaps I should have waited another week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started the practice with an unhealed incision. Tradition and lineage are important to me, and I am a researcher by profession, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I walked into that studio. The draw was visceral, instinctual.

The first thing that caught my eye was a woman, about my age, seated on her mat, placing her feet behind her neck. I turned to the instructor, Todd Roderick.

“I can’t do that.”

“You will.”

“No, you don’t understand. My body can’t do things like that.”

He smiled. “You will. Unroll your mat over here.”

I do five sun salutations.2014-08-31 19.14.48

I do five more.

Then I go home and collapse onto my bed in my sweat-soaked clothes and sleep for three hours.

I hate it.

But I paid for a month of classes, so I go back.

I am angry at myself for being weak, for being ill, for being overweight and ungainly in front of the other students. My body protests with skin eruptions, gastrointestinal upset, putrid sweat. I am assured that this is all normal, and that the bad smell will someday become an ammonia smell, which is to be celebrated, as it means that some truly nasty stuff is being sweated out of my body. It also means I throw out a lot of expensive yoga clothes.

Eventually, on some days, I forget myself enough become immersed in a practice that doesn’t feel like a complete insult to the tradition.

2014-08-31 19.37.41 HDRI approach the sun salutations the same way I approach the porters at the Chhatrapati train station in Mumbai, setting my shoulders and plowing through them to get to the good part of my travels and my practice, respectively. I notice a certain similarity of attitude with the way I approach aspects of my Buddhist practice, rushing through some of the prayers and preliminaries to get to the meditations I enjoy. In this I see one of my limitations: I do not yet inhabit every moment, every experience, with the quality of attention and care that it deserves.

Three months into Mysore practice, leaning forward in Janushirshasana A, I gasped, then cried, as electric fingers burned through the left side of my back. Long-dormant nerves fired; in their waking transmitting pure pain to my brain. I came to love seated forward bends: I could hide my face in my legs, and since my pants were already soaked with sweat a few tears didn’t make any difference. I was reassured that crying, too, is integral to this practice.

One hallmark of Mysore class is receiving hands-on adjustments from the teacher. An instruction to lift the right hip is accompanied by a helpful hand placing that hip exactly where it is supposed to be. Touch can exploit. Or it can steady, center, and heal. I know the difference.

About six months into the practice, in Prasarita Padottanasana C, trying to breathe while Todd pressed on my hands, a clear bolt of pain sheared through my left shoulder. My numb left shoulder, in which I had not felt any sensation since the mastectomy in December 2008, five years earlier. During the intervening years that shoulder, and other parts of the left side of my body, had never regained sensation. Like a cheek that has received an injection of Novocaine before dental work, my mental image of my shoulder had been large and swollen, although I could see in a mirror that the left was no larger than the right.

As I came up out of the pose, Todd shrugged a little. “It’s getting better,” he said.

“I felt that.”  He looked at me, puzzled. “I felt that, in my left shoulder.” He smiled, but I could tell he didn’t really understand the significance, to me, of what had just happened. For several days, my shoulder insisted on my attention. I was aware of it in ways that I had not been. “Shoulder” would insert itself into my awareness, as I was on a conference call, answering email, loading the dishwasher. “Shoulder” reminded me constantly that it had awakened.

Todd told me that his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois , would refer to “sweet pain” and I understood the sweetness of pain, when the alternative is the inability to feel.

I dreaded backbends. Partly because I could do them before the surgery, so every attempt, every failure, was a reminder of what had changed about my body. Partly because I felt both exposed and trapped. Late one night I was cornered in a panicky, grasping place in my mind with only one escape I could see: stop the process that was causing the distress. I messaged Todd. The backbends were pushing me too far, and I didn’t want to go to class in the morning.

One quality all good teachers have in common is the ability to hold a mirror up to the student, steadfast even during emotional storms. Todd didn’t tell me what to do, only that the practice was working and that he knew I would make the right decision.

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After a sleepless night, I showed up early to practice. I have no idea why there were only two other people in the studio that morning, but I was grateful. I cried all the way there, and all the way through my practice. Todd said I could skip the backbends. I didn’t.

When I got home I took a nap. As I drifted off, an image came to me, of myself in a dress. An image that had been lost to me for decades, from a day that I cannot fully remember and have tried to forget.

Except now I don’t want or need to forget. As fragments reassemble into memories, I am no longer afraid. Memories that could be overwhelming on my meditation cushion were manageable merged into movement on my yoga mat.  I knew I had found a container for healing and transformation that had been missing from my life, and a teacher whose compassion would be genuine enough and strong enough to push me into the places that I needed to go, but not too far, and not too fast.

2014-08-31 19.46.59I was slow to understand that a violation of my body/mind complex needed to be healed by addressing both my body and my mind – as obvious as that might seem to others, or even, in retrospect, to myself.

Halfway through primary series, my practice began again for me.

I began to inhabit my body more fully, to be less alienated from the experience of living in it. To shut out the awareness of constant pain I had disconnected myself from my own embodiment. True integration of body and spirit still escaped me, but I received hints, intimations, that it would return. I was moving differently, even able to move to music again.

The hardest part of my practice now would be mental. Every day I am aware of what my body was capable of 10 years ago, and struggle to allow myself to let that go, to enjoy the practice, and my body, as it is.

With every opening of my body, I go through a period of rebalancing, where I am unsteady in poses and unable to stand on one leg. Surrendering to the practice is releasing emotion trapped in my body and I need help. It is a metaphor for needing help in general, that I have tried for too long to do everything on my own.

Last December I again found myself questioning the benefits of the practice, whether I was progressing, noting that several of my friends attend a studio that is within walking distance of my home, where classes are held at civilized times, rather than at 6 am. Recognizing all of this as just another instance of fear slipping up from my body to manifest as resistance, I keep going to class.

I knew that my shoulders were holding on to something deep and painful. Judith Lasater had even commented on it last summer, as she observed me reclined in a pose.  “Whatever you are holding onto in there,” she said, “it’s time to let it go.”

Yes, but how?

I wasn’t consciously resisting Prasarita Padottanasana C, but there was a line my body and mind didn’t want to cross. Todd kept pushing at that boundary. The other night I went to bed willing myself to relax into the pose in the morning. I was rewarded with a night of violent dreams, blood smeared and spattered on brilliant white pages spiral bound into a book. But in the morning my shoulders slipped past the point of resistance.

Learning to focus my attention while moving complemented the work I was doing on my meditation cushion. Each practice strengthened the other. I gained deeper understanding of my own embodiment and the interaction of my psycho-physical aggregates. Energy flows and blockages generated strong emotion; with guidance from Todd I eventually learned to hold these and relate to them in the same way I would relate to any other phenomenon arising in meditation. In tandem my mind and body became more comfortable, more relaxed, and lighter.

In 2006, on the road south from Guntur to Hyderabad, I asked my driver to pull over. Cotton fields surrounded us. The sun was setting, a giant red ball that seemed flattened, suspended over the land in a hazy, dusky purple sky. People were coming in from the fields, following the rhythms of the day, and gathering in their homes. The driver, perplexed, could not understand why I wanted to be there; to him, nowhere of any interest.

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Transfixed by a scene that I could have witnessed had I stood there 2,500 years earlier, I was connected to something elemental, deep in my mind and my body, the rhythm of life itself, rising and falling, living and dying, the in-breath and the out-breath connecting me to all who have ever lived.

Why am I doing this to myself?

Because I enjoy it. All of it. The sweat, the pain, my life. As it is.

I step off the plane, onto the mat, sink into my cushion. Breathing in, I begin again the endless, deathless journey.

© 2015 Teresa Sivilli. All rights reserved.

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On the Road to Oregon: Epilogue

(Note: In September 2012 I drove from Atlanta to Oregon, helping a friend move. This is the third of three posts chronicling the trip.)

Day 7: All Meetings End in Partings

Just before 9 am today I dropped off S at her first day on her new job. It felt a bit like the first day of school: she excited and happy to be starting something new, me a little tearful left behind in the car. It’s been like that since we stopped at the Starbucks in Bend. She was antsy, I was ready to sit and rest for a few.

2012-09-08 16.12.42But when we reached Springfield on Saturday we both hit a wall, overcome by the exhaustion of months of anticipation, planning, travel, emotion, surgery, and the actual drive. Small triggers elicit big emotions. We pick up six beers for a birthday party at a discount shop; the clerk points out that we have saved $131.14 on our $8.30 purchase; we collapse with laughter at the entrance of the store.

Now I’m sitting in another Starbucks, in Springfield, not far from her offce. It’s a rainy, gloomy day, perfect for ducks — which just happens to be the mascot for the University of Oregon football team. We drove by the stadium on Saturday afternoon, filled with bright shiny students in their yellow jerseys cheering the team. S says she will never go near it. I tell her I will make her eat those words if I come back here in a year and find her tailgating with her boyfriend. “Well,” she said, “if we do, at least we’ll have really good food.”

S has a good job at a good hospital. Eugene and Springfield are small, but not dull. The energy here has a different quality than the endless hustle of Atlanta, where everyone seems to be constantly marketing a product, a service, themselves. Sometimes it feels like we have stepped back 30 years, to tie-dye and hitch-hiking students with guitars strapped to their backs. Lots of people are interested in hiking and camping in the beautiful mountains and boating on the lovely rivers. 2012-09-08 16.11.31There are Buddhist centers and a dharma community. There are people living on the fringe, physically and psychologically, but also people who are grounded. There is a good pottery studio. S already has one friend here. In the intersection of all of this she will build a life, and she will be happy, and because she is happy she will finally meet a man who deserves her. It will be good to come back here and see her embracing a complete, fulfilled life.

In the space of two months I have stood on both coasts of the United States. In that time there have been many changes in my life. Too many. And now my closest friend is starting a new life, 2,600 miles from mine. I will need time to grieve, for this and for other changes.

I reflect on the nature of the bonds that tie people together. Some are like strong, flexible cables. They can be stretched, frayed, but they still hold. Sometimes the bonds rust from disuse and lack of attention; those can often be cleaned up, repaired and put back into service. Sometimes I have been tied to people by the thinnest of threads that snapped at the first sign of tension. Other bonds seem immutable, like the big fat steel cables that anchor ships. I have been blessed by S’s friendship for more than a decade, and know the bond will hold.

Yesterday we drove along the Oregon coast, hiking the dunes and walking the 2012-09-09 19.45.20broad beaches. Standing at the edge of the Pacific I feel my connection to the billions of other people touched by that ocean. I am one with the woman whose heart is breaking with betrayal, with the father who endures humiliation on the job in order to feed his family. Somewhere a woman is giving birth, a child is hungry, and an old man dies alone, lonely, his dreams unfulfilled.

I know a woman, bored with her life and her relationships, who uses her sexuality as a weapon to destroy the happiness of others. I know another woman whose life is so infused with grace that to share a coffee and conversation with her is to know the presence of the sacred in life.

I know a man who can embrace the whole world in the warm light and humor in his eyes. I know another man whose gaze appraises all with the cold cruel calculation of power: to whom must he toady? Who can he fuck, and who can be fucked over?

Being on the road centers me, gives me time for contemplation. As the miles go by I rest in the perfect still place in my heart, in the moment that becomes the next, on the edge between being and becoming, where I must dwell to know my own true nature.

2012-09-09 16.27.50

In Tibet Songsten Gampo pinned the demons that had inhabited the land beneath a mandala of temples. Like Songsten Gampo’s network of temples tracing the borders of Tibet, the points of my mandala inscribe my heart on the earth, from Atlanta to Palo Alto, Berkeley to Boston, Tucson to Washington, DC and Bangkok and beyond. And now, Oregon. I have not lost a friend; another part of my own mandala has come into focus and has begun to glow.

Wherever we are in the world, we share the same choices. We choose love and life, or we choose power and death.

I turn towards the east, on the razor’s edge of decisions I must make. Tomorrow I return to Atlanta.

Epilogue

I flew home yesterday; S and I had to leave the house at 5:00 am to make my 6:30 am departure. I made a tight connection in Seattle and landed in Atlanta at 4, having eaten nothing but a cup of coffee and the single worst airline meal I have ever encountered. Since I have been flying across the country and around the world since I was 4 years old, that is saying a lot. Now I know why the fare on Alaska was $300 less than Delta (not that they get any awards in the food department). Dinner at Donnie’s with D.G. was restorative on many levels.

In the meantime, S went back home, caught a few more hours of sleep, went to the Social Security office for a replacement card, and was introduced to the computer system and the policies and procedures of her new employer. She starts on the evening shift today, but still doesn’t know her exact hours or days off. With the time difference, phone calls will be challenging except on her days off.

2012-09-10 19.09.02S has a close friend in Washington State whose sister lives in Springfield. S will be staying with her until she finds her own place. It’s a nice neighborhood, and not too far from her job. Some houses are tiny, others large, none pretentious. Lots of lovely gardens; one was filled with lavender and rosemary. It’ just a short walk to the park that lines the river.

I’ve never eaten at Zesto’s in Little Five Points, and went there for lunch today to use the Scoutmob coupon for a free milkshake. Can’t say the food was great, but you have to love a place that plays Blondie, U2 and Gary Puckett in the same set. They accidentally overcharged me for lunch; the woman behind the counter walked over to me to return my $2.55 with a smile, an apology and a hug. I have a good life, and I’m grateful for all of the warmth and connection in it.

Some of you have asked what is next for me. There is room in my life for some changes. A new job, obviously. I’m starting a new, intense yoga class on Monday morning. And there’s definitely room for a new man, someone honest and loyal.

The journey continues.

later,

teri

© 2015 Teresa Sivilli. All rights reserved.

On the Road to Oregon: Part 2

Day 4: We attain Bliss, but can’t stay too long

Last night we both slept better than we have in several days, eight solid hours for each of us.

“Do you want one of these juice drinks with breakfast?” S asks.

“No, I don’t like acidic things in the morning.”

“Coffee isn’t acidic?”

“It’s different…like Coke…” She doesn’t function without her daily dose of Atlanta’s hometown brew.

The hills are brown in northern Utah as we leave Ogden. A red-tailed hawk rests, an immobile totem on a barbed-wire fence. A splintered barn and ragged homestead; the gaps between the boards provide a glimpse into the defeated lives that once sheltered there. Then the shock of a farm of bright, shiny silos. A barn dissolves into the ground, the sand opening to suck it down. It is easy to see where people conquered the landscape, and where they succumbed to it.

We pass a horrific accident, two semis that collided. One is overturned at the side of the road. The cab of the second is burned to ashes. We hope the driver got out.

Looking down the Snake River from Twin Falls
Looking down the Snake River from Twin Falls

We cross into Idaho, and when we step out of the car at a rest stop we are surprised at the crisp chill in the air. Here it will soon be autumn, and time to prepare for winter.

Under the open sky I can breathe again. It’s heresy to say, I know, but I don’t like so many trees, being closed in by them, and Atlanta feels claustrophobic to me. And I worry, too, that if I sit too long in meditation the kudzu will wrap around me and suffocate me.

We’ve been pushing hard for Springfield; Sabina has to be at work on Monday and we want to arrive on Saturday at the latest. We’ve made good time, and today we took a break from the interstates, cutting south of I84 onto US30 to Twin Falls, Idaho. We’re both happy to see the towns, the life we’ve sped by, something other than four-lane highway at 70 mph. The first thing we pass is a huge warehouse, the loading bay labeled “Potato Receiving” and then a Coors plant with a barley elevator.

The edges of the sidewalk on the main street of the town of Burley are lined with huge planters, each spilling over with brilliant purple petunias. We are grateful to the people who must water these flowers each day in this dry climate.

We had lunch at the delightful Coffeeshop and Lunchbox Deli in Twin Falls. The owner, taking our orders, is gracious, vivacious, welcoming. The food is delicious and the setting, in a converted gas station, is warm and comfortable, furnished from a thrift shop with nothing that matches and everything that goes together well. The little restaurant is clearly popular. A young woman is studying microbiology, an untouched pastry obscuring the title of her other textbook. Families meet for lunch, groups of guys in work clothes are eagerly eating the daily special, a (large) meatloaf sandwich.

We visited the falls themselves, and stopped at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, where the Hagerman Horse was discovered.

“Why was the skeleton afraid to cross the road?”

“Because he had no guts.”

If I were the national park ranger in Hagerman, Idaho, my jokes wouldn’t be any better than his.

And then Bliss is close at hand. Should we detour?7 September Sabina in Bliss

“I don’t get to bliss very often…”

“Or stay there long when I do.”

“And we don’t know if we’ll ever get there again.”

We have to stop. Evidently only 318 people on this planet live in Bliss.

Then we’re back on I84. On a Milky Way tanker truck: drinkamugamilkameal

7 September US20 and the MalheurWe pass miles of scorched grassland, recently burned, but already there are hints of green where life is trying to push through. On the side of the road, a lone pronghorn, the first we have seen with actual horns.

I84 passes south of Boise. Six exits lead into the city and its airport. A billboard advertises rain for rent.

And we are in Oregon. We pass the Bates Motel in Vale. Burns is 100 miles away, Bend 130 beyond that. We’re going to try for Bend, but when we are stuck behind a thresher going 5 mph in a no-passing zone, we realize that Burns is the best we will do. We didn’t realize that our visit would coincide with the county fair, and we finally found a room at the Rory and Ryan Inn. There were no other rooms available.

US 20 cuts through the mountains of eastern Oregon, tracing the Malheur River, which sparkles in the early evening sun. We’re driving downhill, but the river is flowing east past us.

A yellow sign says simply, in black letters, “TRUCKS” and on cue, a truck appears around the hill.

Maybe we should have stopped in Juntura, but it wasn’t on the map and we weren’t prepared to slow down for it. Its claim to fame is that they probably have the only pay phone in the county, and we have no cell service to call ahead for a hotel room.

I wonder what my life would have been like if I had been born in a town too small to appear on a map, and realize how different my life is from most of America.

In the Harney Basin the land is flat, flat to the mesas. The hay has just been cut and the car is filled with the scent. Sabina spots two sand hill cranes flying across the field and then there are deer in the road. She slows down in time (which is why I am able to write this).

I have been attempting to take photos by holding the camera outside the open window, trying to keep it steady with the wind buffeting my arm. It’s not a good technique. Finally Sabina says, “I hope you don’t have dead bugs splattered on your camera lens.”

If all goes well, we will be in Springfield when I check in tomorrow.7 September Oregon

Day 5: We Arrive

But have no internet access. I will write on Monday when I can get to a coffee shop.

We are safe. All is well.

Steps and Passages

It is November 2009. I am sitting in first class (luckily and gratefully upgraded) on a flight from Atlanta to Albuquerque, where I will pick up a car and drive to Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style hot springs resort in the mountains above Santa Fe. It is Thanksgiving weekend, and the holiday has been looming in my mind like the rocks at Railay Bay. 2013-11-22 03.26.07I had booked a small casita at the spa, along with a couple of massages and a facial, and made a reservation at an outrageously good restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. For one. The anniversary of my mastectomy would pass during the trip, and I was giving myself the better part of a week to reflect on the past 15 months: the tests, the biopsies, the surgeries, the fear and anxiety that had gripped me when I was diagnosed with the same disease that had killed my mother and my sister. The initial prognosis had been bad, and my horizons had drawn in, my perspective and my mood shrink-wrapped tightly around me.

I had never spent so much money on a vacation for myself, but I was acutely aware that I might not have much time left to take vacations, so why not? I had barely allowed myself time to recover or rest, returning quickly to work, withdrawing from graduate classes only when I realized that my surgery would conflict with my exams.

I brought one book with me, Mattieu Ricard’s Happiness, and one notebook.

And a swimsuit, so that I could soak in the beautiful outdoor hot tubs without displaying the scars on my chest.

I loved the little adobe casita, with its fireplace and lovely Buddha. IMG_0198I loved being back in the Southwest, in landscapes familiar and reminiscent of Arizona, my home. I spent happy days exploring Santa Fe, pampering myself at the spa, and soaking, endlessly soaking, in that luxurious hot water.

Late one afternoon, after a day wandering through museums and galleries, I was on my way up to the hot tubs in my spa robe and slippers, cold air swirling around me. Cold air on my body meant…I wasn’t wearing my swimsuit. In my haste to get into the hot water I had stripped off my clothes, slipped into the robe, and started walking up the steps that separated the casita from the spa area.

100 steps.

I knew. Because I had counted them. Because the cancer drugs had hideous side effects, and every bone, joint, and muscle in my body hurt. All of the time. And, at that altitude, I was out of breath with any exertion.

I was halfway up. The temperature was just around freezing. To go back meant 50 steps down and 50 more breathless, panting steps back up to the point where I was now standing. An extra 100 steps.

To keep going meant that I would get into the hot tub naked, like everyone else.

I had managed to avoid this situation at the gym, changing my clothes in the bathroom stalls or in my office beforehand, or facing my locker so that no one could see.

There would be nowhere to hide once I got to the tub.

I kept going, deciding I would drape a towel over my shoulders to try to cover my chest. The towels were too small to hide much.

The women’s tub was crowded and convivial as the sun set and the steam rose off the water and I huddled in a corner, too ashamed to cry openly, but sobbing inside.

I used to have beautiful breasts. Men admired them and enjoyed them, and I enjoyed having them. They are gone. One has been sliced off and dissected, replaced by an implant, the other reduced in an attempt the match the two sides.

I have always loved the feel of sun and water on my skin, loved swimming nude. As I started to relax into the tub it occurred to me, though I could not accept it at the time, that perhaps I was the only one who cared, that perhaps it was my shame that caused others to avoid me, rather than my scars.

I finally headed back down to eat and sleep, knowing I had crossed a threshold and confronted something I didn’t want to admit:  how deeply jealous I was of the other women, in all their various shapes and sizes, with their bodies still intact.IMG_0166

Home in Atlanta, everyone was raving about Jeju, a Korean bath house and spa. For $25 you could spend the day in the various Jacuzzis and saunas. The dry sauna rooms are co-ed (you’re issued shorts and a t-shirt when you arrive); the Jacuzzis, cold-plunge pools and scrub areas are located in the sex-segregated locker rooms. No clothing allowed.

I turned down numerous invitations, but knew I couldn’t avoid the place forever, so I picked a Saturday in the summer, when it wouldn’t be crowded, and went early.

Fact: women who have had mastectomies do not hang out in spas where you have to walk around naked. Everyone but me had two breasts attached to their chests.

Fact: the steam room is a great place to hide out if you are naked and unhappy about how your body looks.

I understood the appeal of the place. But I didn’t go back.

So I wasn’t exactly thrilled last week when a dear friend said that the one thing she most desired for her birthday was to spend Saturday at Jeju.

The past two years of Ashtanga yoga have brought me more acceptance of my body, and it would be a fun group of friends. I said yes.

I figured out a couple of things yesterday.

That other people can only be as comfortable with my body as I am.

That I am about the only person who doesn’t have a tattoo. I have toyed with the idea of getting one to disguise the mastectomy scars. It’s time to do it.

That my body is amazing. It is different from every other body. There were skinny bodies, huge bodies, but no other bodies that have survived breast cancer. My body has been through a lot, and still does amazing things. Miraculous things. Climbs mountains and swims in lakes and oceans and makes love and carries me on wondrous adventures all around the world. It even does backbends. Most importantly, it survived. Not only having cancer, but also the toxicity of my own objectification of my physicality and my abhorrence of my own appearance.

That it was true that I had to cross the boundary where the old body gave way to the new body, and then to step across the frontier where the new body would meet the world of other bodies.

But I had made a huge mistake in thinking that I had to make those journeys alone.

We had a great time at Jeju yesterday. The friendship of women is a precious thing. A. had a wonderful birthday, and I enjoyed myself. I am looking forward to going back. With my friends. No more traveling by myself.

I am sorry, I whispered to myself as I fell asleep last night. I will do better, I promised: more gratitude, more care, more tenderness.

Knowing that the only forgiveness I need is my own.

© 2015 Teresa Sivilli. All rights reserved.

On the Road to Oregon

In September 2012, just after Labor Day, I drove with my friend S to Oregon. She was moving there. I was along for the ride, to help with driving – and to document the trip for the many friends in Atlanta and around the country who were simultaneously wishing her well and wishing she wouldn’t go. We’d done road trips before, notably when she had helped me finish moving from Dallas to Atlanta a decade ago, so S and I knew we could travel compatibly. The diary of the trip was emailed in pieces, but I have edited those pieces together, with pictures. Here is Part 1of 3.

I wasn’t able to say much through my tears at S’s farewell puja at our Buddhist center. So many people were telling her not to go, that she was making the wrong decision, in part because we would all miss her, in part because the same decision would have been wrong for those other people. But it was right for S, and I had celebrated her new job, and done my best to be joyful. But the tears were finally showing that night, as I choked out the best explanation of our friendship that I could: Knowing S had been like having a sister again. She had helped to fill the yawning hole in my soul that had opened when my sister died in 2001.

On the Road to Oregon: Part I

Day 1: We Depart

Greetings from O’Fallon, Missouri (somewhere west of St. Louis).

Into Tennessee
Into Tennessee

This is the first installment of the promised blog. Please don’t post this on Facebook, folks — I would rather not have the entire world know that I’m not home! I guess I shouldn’t have read the review of “Killer on the Road” in this morning’s NY Times.

We set out around 10 yesterday morning, with S driving. The Flying Mystics carried us north and east; we stopped in Dalton for lunch.  Then Bruce and Born in the USA took us into Tennessee, back into Georgia, and finally into Tennessee again.

Back to Georgia
Back to Georgia

Elvis wrote about the rain in Kentucky, but I can’t imagine it’s worse than the rain along the Tennessee River.

Tennessee Rain
Tennessee Rain

Let it Be helped us navigate that, and Radiohead carried us over the Ohio River.

In Illinois the countryside opened up into broad plains. We stopped and shared half of a Subway sandwich, and headed into St. Louis to the rhythms of Lawson Rollins, for a stop at Ted Drewe’s for frozen custard. I had been once before; it was S’s first.

Then back to Tennessee againAlthough we thought we had left Georgia this morning, we we back in Smyrna in the afternoon, then DeKalb, then on Clifton Road and Lindbergh in St. Louis. Many memories of home…but what makes a place a home?

Skirting Nashville
Skirting Nashville

The Holiday Inn in O’Fallon is perfectly comfortable, but we both had fairly sleepless nights for various reasons.

Day 2

On the road again

Just can’t wait to get on the road again.

The life I love is making music with my friends.

And I can’t wait to get on the road again.

On the road again

Goin’ places that I’ve never been.

Seein’ things that I may never see again

And I can’t wait to get on the road again.

On the road again –

Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway

We’re the best of friends.

Insisting that the world keep turning our way

And our way

is on the road again.

–Willie Nelson, On the Road Again

We’re exhausted. Left in a downpour; the Doppler radar from weather.com showed rotation in the clouds and potential tornadoes on the route so we pulled off for a bit. Then across Missouri and cut north to 80. Very briefly we were in Iowa, then straight west across Nebraska into the setting sun, the road heavy with the smell of cattle and feedlots. Dozens of deer grazed by the side of the road — luckily for us, the other side of the road. Glided into Ogallala under the Milky Way.

All is well. Parked in front of our Best Western is a Wells Fargo stagecoach. Our journey is so much more comfortable.

Day 3

When we were little, my sister and I would read under the covers with flashlights, hiding from parents who thought that sleep was more important than knowing how the story would end, parents who didn’t understand how cruel it was to make us wait another day.

A flashlight under the covers is also useful for writing when your roomie is sleeping.

“I’ve gone 100 miles. What’s next?” S asks.

“Keep going for another hundred,” I reply

Ninety minutes later: “How far is Cheyenne?”

I click on the GPS on my phone. “Well…I don’t know, actually. Let me add that up.”

For long hours we are out of range of cell towers and internet service. At times S has a cell signal and I don’t; other times I can open a browser when she can’t. For much of yesterday and today neither of us could use a mobile phone. No worries. We have a map and know how to read it, how to calculate the distances between the cities and towns. If we break down, someone will help us. I’m enjoying the respite from electronic communication, resting in the present moment, awareness filled by driving, the road.

The fields pass by, corn burned brown by the drought, time passing in music and laughter, conversation and companionable silence, leaving room for the layered emotions that accompany change: excitement, trepidation, joy, fear, sadness.

We encounter people and places that remind us of other trips, the men in our lives, friends we’ve lost touch with.

In Ogallala we were halfway to Oregon. This morning Ngawang Kechog’s meditative flute flowed us through the rolling dune hills of western Nebraska. Then we were climbing, and into Wyoming. Skirting Cheyenne, the hazy blue waves of the Rocky Mountains appeared on the horizon. The land flattened, swelled, flattened again, and we were climbing, climbing through Laramie and the pink rocks of Medicine Bow, up over the Continental Divide — for eight miles, actually driving on it.

I love this landscape, the light and shadows from the clouds, the expanse of sky over the cottonwood clumps that reach up through the tan grasslands and sagebrush. Photos do not do justice to its majesty (but I’ve included one anyway). Pronghorn antelope are everywhere, except on the road, and for that we are grateful.

West of Rawlins
West of Rawlins

We had lunch at a surprisinly good Thai restaurant. OK, it’s not Mali. But way better than we expected in Rawlins, WY.

Street signs in Rawlins
Street signs in Rawlins

Rolling down the western side of the Continental Divide we cut through dusty buttes striated with green. Copper? Suddenly, it seems, we’re in the Wasatch foothills, and there is water and trees and everything becomes lush.

We’re staying in Ogden, Utah tonight, with 1,800 miles of road behind us, but somehow we ended up where we started, back at Emory.

Return to Emory
Return to Emory

It has felt like an easy drive, but tonight we are both drained.