Like a goodly number of women in my particular demographic, I have my certification as a yoga instructor. I was certified more than a decade ago, when the Scorpion was a far easier pose for me than it is today. While I never achieved fame and fortune as a yoga teacher, let alone perfected those advanced postures, my ambition was rather a peculiar one: I wanted to end up in the same place I had begun – more precisely, the church basement, that ground of my yogini being.
My very first class at the St. Mark’s Yoga Center was free of charge, which suited my budget nicely. By my late 20s, I had grown weary of some ailments that had plagued me since my teens, and I had hoped that yoga would bring me some relief. It did, almost immediately, and the yoga teacher there refused to believe that this was indeed my inaugural class. It turned out that I was a yoga adept. Certain characteristics that could elsewhere be liabilities – my being slightly built, for instance, and simultaneously hypermobile and overextended – made for a model Locust.
Yet the part of the yoga practice that proved my favorite was the stretch at the end, when we stopped our contorting and lay perfectly still. We rested on our backs, eyes closed, settling our bodies down into Corpse pose. At St. Mark’s, though, it was not quiet as the grave. Not at all. The choir was rehearsing overhead, groups of children traipsed in and out, and despite receiving explicit directions to the contrary, some students fell asleep and even snored – loudly. There was an older woman situated in the back whom I could routinely hear sniffling; I was convinced that she came to class to cry a while in the company of others. Who could begrudge her the privilege? Every one of us came to that class a bit broken. Our shared hope was to leave it a bit mended.
Just recently, the conductor has once more begun calling my train stop by name. Each time I hear it echo, I feel a touch more relieved, a bit closer to home. When I hand him my green Metro-North Railroad ticket stamped SPN DVL, he peers at it closely, then booms “Spites!” as he punches two holes in rapid succession. “Spites” is railroad shorthand for Spuyten Duyvil. For several years, this New York station was known for having a Dutch name almost impossible to pronounce. Now it’s best known for being the worst accident site in regional commuter rail history. The train wreck took place right near the bend in the tracks where the Harlem River meets the Hudson – one year ago, this December.
Time warps and wends around tragedies, but the tragedies themselves: those stay fixed. I still remember the day of the derailment so vividly. I was not on the train into the city; rather, I was on my way to church in a nearby town. The train jumped the tracks early on a Sunday morning, and I naively assumed that the first radio account I heard was sensationalized, because it sounded altogether too dire to be true. During the church service, we put the Metro-North staff and passengers on our prayer list and held worship as usual. A few hours later, back at home, the helicopters continued to circle the stretch of sky above our neighborhood, gasping at the sight, winded with every passing hour. Then I understood that this massive wreck was true and dire in equal measure.
Seen from far above, the wreckage looked a child’s train set destroyed by a ferocious tantrum. Practically at the water’s edge, the head car had careened to a full stop, while another six cars trailed catastrophically behind. The finally tally included four dead, sixty-three injured, with some of the 115 passengers aboard suffering permanent disability. My mental objections were immediate: it was the start of the holiday season, a long weekend, the first Sunday in Advent. Whatever protective benefits I believed these circumstances might confer were purely fictive and thoroughly nonsensical. Continue reading
Wherever there is a church staff away on retreat, there is probably also a packet of personality tests waiting to be taken: an Enneagram measure, a Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, a Kiersey Bates Personality Sorter, something of that ilk. Whether it be at campsite in the woods, a retreat house in the mountains, or a great house near the shore, staff members seem to enjoy taking these. They find themselves surprised by their individual results and pleased to have prompts for genial conversations about how different we are from one another. People are usually encouraged to accept themselves on these retreats – and encouraged to accept others, as well, in the spirit of open embrace. Continue reading
Down the street from us sits a quaint neighborhood pub in the Irish tradition, and by tradition, I don’t mean the pouring of green beer in March. Its name is a jumble of words from the Irish Gaelic that have been scrawled in Celtic script on a sign with paint faded by successive seasons. A fair number of Irish expats patronize the place, and the wait staff still have brogues thick enough to charm. The pub even hosts a resident theater company that will stage a Synge play in the back of the back room, against the backdrop of a velvet curtain. So it’s worth looking at the grainy chalkboard outside to see what offerings the pub has in store in addition to the stout. Each March, a coy listing goes up for the ‘High Holy Week’ that culminates in St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday which the pub rather valiantly tries to keep respectable. God love them for that. Continue reading
Fasting has never held much fascination for me, but then again, I don’t think much about food. Still, I understand that fasting is a key spiritual discipline that remains significant for many individuals and central in many traditions. Each year, I watch my husband suffer through Yom Kippur, which is precisely the point for observant Jews – affliction and atonement, as my father-in-law would say. I see my husband watch the hands of the clock tick toward the evening hour, and I know he is agonizing over every minute, because my husband thinks about food a lot.
For a few years now, I have shared a lovely office suite with a marvelous assortment of helping professionals, although I am the only minister in the lot. The diversity among us is impressive – we have psychiatrists, psychotherapists, couples counselors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and nutritionists practicing side by side. We hail from a variety of faith traditions, including Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and that perennial favorite of ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’, in addition to other, increasingly popular hyphenated-hybrid categories. So I was startled one morning to open up the front door of our suite and come face to face with a huge Buddha head.
The sharp economic downturn took place shortly after we moved into our corner of the city, and the result was that our neighborhood was coming undone just as we were settling into it. Restaurants and stores emptied as quickly as dominoes falling up one side of the street and around down the other side. Yet the small corner diner was one of the last businesses to go, which seemed odd, given just how horrible the food was there. Since the window blinds were always drawn shut, it was hard to know when (or whether) the diner was even open, but the blinds did serve to hide an especially dreary interior from the view of passersby. Continue reading