Raw, adjective: 8. brutally harsh or unfair: a raw deal


I squeezed in a Bikram class just now, and as per usual lately, the 90-minute moving meditation turned into more of 90-minute planning session-slash-article-brainstorm. I guess a little auto-pilot's to be expected when you've done the same 26 postures every day for 8 years. Oy. (No wonder freestyle vinyasa keeps me more in the moment. Three cheers for Urban Flow. But I digress.)

So while I was standing there in the 4th Natarajasana of the day, I got to thinking. About how the holidays really are in full swing now, no going back, and how this year I feel particularly, weirdly jolly. Yeah. Weird. Life is good and rich and full, bursting at the seams most places, and most days I feel wildly on fire for the work I'm blessed to do, and most evenings and mornings, in the wee quiet moments between people and places, I often find myself so overwhelmed by the number of folks who I want to love, and love well, that I can't quite even breathe. And on top of all that jolly goodness, the backbends are coming back, and the hamstrings are waaaaay happy, and the fridge is full of melons and grapefruits and kale and hummus, and the sun sets beyond my window at 5 o'clock on the rare evenings when I'm lucky to be home in that twilight to knock out a few words. And I still have dental insurance, and a full set of teeth, and an old trumpet that's waiting to be picked up again, and a rad black tarantula scarf that keeps me warm on nippy San Francisco nights, and my post-Thailand faux-malaria has just about been cured.

And that crabby neighbor? He doesn't yell anymore. He just plays bluegrass. Which I can totally get down with.

So, yeah. Pretty damn jolly.

Weird.

Weird because some recent Christmases, well, they've struggled to be so.

Grief changes things, you know? It doesn't matter who you lose, or when, but once you do suffer the kind of blow that strikes and lingers for awhile, well, the holidays just aren't ever quite the same. We grieve, all of us, of course, for lost memories and lost homes and broken relationships and broken china and shattered dreams and shattered femurs. We grieve in so many ways. And — speaking from my one experience of only having lost my father, which I know is pretty lucky, relative to some — I find that the suffering of losing a parent shadows the holidays in ways that folks who haven't been there, or felt that loss, can't quite — to no fault of their own — understand.

It's been nearly 6 years now since that first Christmas without my father, and I tell the story of that most pathetic Yule to anybody I meet who's also struggling through their first Christmas sans, whether that's sans parent or partner or child. The loss, the absence, the strange empty void; it's the same no matter the particular situation.

And although all relationships are difficult and damaged and laden with layers, to be sure, and although I hesitate to romanticize the extent of the suffering we all feel at one time or another, a part of me — the part of me that sat on the sofa that Christmas 2005 alone and wept, and watched the Yule Log burn on Comcast and listened to bad 1973 versions of Little Drummer Boy playing in the background, and wept a little more, and then called my siblings across the country and commiserated about how much the holiday sucked, and then hung up and heated up some frozen lasagna in the microwave and ate it out of the plastic box, and then wept a little more, and then filled up my coffee mug with cheap red wine and chugged a little of that, and then turned up the Yule Log on the TV and wept a little more — well, that pathetic part of me will always remember: remember what it's like to feel like you're the only one alone, the only one feeling complicated and confused and melancholy and maybe a little bitter and maybe a lot depressed on Christmas Day, of all jolly holidays.

We make such great, loving, warm space for celebration and gaiety this time of year. And that's so important, especially here in the shortest, darkest days of the winter, to look to the light and remind ourselves that sun and spring and life will return. And I love the twinkly lights of solstice celebrations for reminding us of hope, and laughter, and vitality. But these years later, the grief having softened into more of a wistful half-smiling memory of days long gone, the sharp sorrow having melted into an adult understanding of the constantly changing nature of things, the ways in which every sweet memory inevitably churns on into impermanence and nostalgia and new traditions and a letting go of the old, now more than ever I feel a sense of dharma, of duty, to hold the kind of space for folks who still rest in that fresh pain, that deep suffering, the kind that feels impossible to pull oneself out of, the kind that feels like a heavy weeping fearful body curled up on a blue sofa just trying to get through, just trying to remember how to breathe.

It matters to me as a yoga teacher, the honoring that universal human experience of suffering. That's why, especially these days, I try to give mention, even just a little lip service, to the possibility that folks on the mat are feeling things a little more complicated than just excitement and anticipation. We grow up and the holidays grow around us; they change; the ostensibly simple branches of that O Tannenbaum Christmas tree wrap and wrestle and convolute, and sometimes we feel stuck, suffocated by the apparent ease and joy of the people around us.

It's really just about making space. I find that as soon as you open that relief valve, just release the pressure a bit by allowing for adult feelings beyond the black and white, folks can rest, they can soften, they can know it's ok, it's normal, it's human to feel twisty and gnarled and dried-up and numb.

That twisting, that numbness, it's all a part of the process. We'll all know it at one point or another, for sure; some of us were just graced with that life-changing knowledge a little sooner than others. I remember resenting so much the early loss, the fact that I was only 23 when my Pops was diagnosed, and 26 when he died. And even now, I see friends who have family homes to retreat to over the holidays, friends who look to parents who are yet young and present and thriving and able to share in their own adult lives, and my stomach drops. I look at my sweet niece and know she'll never know a Christmas with her grandfather. And my heart melts for her lack, in the same way it aches for the lack, the absence, the deadness, that so many people dear to me right now are braving silently, thinking they're alone, not realizing they're surrounded by others who are trudging through the exact same unfamiliar waters.

Last night I sat down at my computer after a long, well-lived-in day, and I saw there news that the kind, philanthropic, beloved-by-many father of my friend J had just died. My heart sank. I sat there and felt her certain sorrow, felt it coming on here in this most joyous week of the year, and I knew right there in that breath how drastically her experience of the holidays would be changed for the rest of her life. And I wanted with everything in me to reach out to her, to hold her close, to tell her she wasn't alone. But I didn't have a way.

So this morning, when I turned around at the studio, minutes away from teaching, and saw her walk in, my chest cracked open with the kind of love I can only feel for people who I know are so swept up in suffering that they can do nothing else but numbly move through the world. I looked at her and hugged her close and wanted so badly to relieve her pain, and I couldn't, none of us could, and so I made a dumb joke about weeping through Bikram classes back in the day and set her up with some Kleenex and we barreled through class.

She was remarkable. Powerful. Present. Willing to sit with the sorrow, the numbness, the shock, the grief, the loss, and be in it. All the while holding Vasisthasana like a badass in the process.

(This in contrast to those of us who just decided to numb it away with frozen lasagna and cheap red wine. Just sayin'.)

I can only smile. I can only smile, lovingly, at that former self who knew no other way to sit with the suffering, the grief in the midst of so much gaiety. And if there's any gift I could give to the beloveds (too many this year, so many; is this what happens as you grow older?) who are sitting with the same sorrow, trying to make sense of holidays that don't feel particularly holy or bright or alive, it's that yogic permission to just be. To just sit, to let the feelings blow by like clouds in the sky, and to remember, to always remember: they will pass. This depth of grief will pass. This blackness will pass.

One day you'll feel joyful again; not fake-joyful, or joyful-for-someone-else's sake, or joyful-because-you-just-poured-two-shots-of-bourbon-in-your-morning-coffee, but joyful, really truly grounded-in-the-awareness-of-the-transience-of-life-joyful, and this new normal will not hurt so much, and this indescribably devastating shift will feel ok.

And it will be your teacher. Your lasagna-eating, cheap red wine-drinking, Yule Log-watching teacher.

And it will lend you grace.

*

Love and light to so many of you who are sitting with the Shiva that is loss,
destruction, uncertainty, and change right now. You're so close to my heart.
Know that you are not alone in the depths. Know that they will pass.
As all things do.

Comments

Jen said…
Thank you for writing this.
crazymommy said…
Thanks Rach, good reminder that joy will come again even though today it seems so impossible.
Anonymous said…
thank you.
kyla said…
You are able to beautifully articulate so many things that I feel. My dad died last October, so Christmas felt a bit raw this year. There is still so much love, but sometimes the pain overpowers it.
Rach said…
Thanks for reading, my friends. I'm so sorry to hear that so many of you could relate to this post, and at the same time, so very glad to know that I've been able to speak maybe even a little of the bittersweet experience that so many of us have known over the holidays.

Love and light to you all as you continue to navigate this "new normal."

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