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Countdown

I’ve read that writing a book is like giving birth. I’m going to assume the author was referring to the conception and gestation period of a sperm whale rather than a human. The former takes up to 480 days, the latter takes 280.

Yeah, 16 months feels about right.

Then again, the African elephant takes 680 days, and chances are that’s not including courtship.

Because I haven’t given birth to a human or an elephant, I can only imagine the similarities.

As your due date nears, you may feel sluggish and awkward, but then you get bursts of euphoria, “I’m having a baby!” It becomes so evident to people far and near, that one would have to be an invertebrate not to notice.

More obviously, you have created something from a seed, literally and figuratively. You spent months trying to do the right thing and once the child is born, you love it as much as you can because no one else will love it as much as you.

In addition, you recognize things you might have done wrong, you accept that not everyone will appreciate the sheer brilliance of your creation, and you accept that once the little darling is out in the world, you will have no more control.

The difference between giving birth and writing a book is simple. Once a child is born, you can’t stop thinking and worrying about her. Once a book is published, you have to stop thinking and worrying about him.

As a childless author, I have the luxury to continue on writing in my merry way. I can let go of attachment to my first born and focus on courtship for the next one, before a new gestation period arises. Another bonus is I can pick a new inseminator as the mood strikes me, a lot of people I know don’t have that option.

So expect a few weeks of new motherhood bliss from me, once this late delivery arrives. Yes, I will have copies of my book in my arms for you to coo over, but be assured that I will eventually settle down.

Namaste- letting go means I have more to say.

Resolving not to be more resolute.

My New Year’s resolution is not to write about New Year’s resolutions. It’s a habit I’m trying to break. In the past I’ve attempted to explain why I think it’s a stupid tradition, and ended up coming across as a person who was unable to commit to anything more difficult than making a daily to-do list.

The truth is I’m too much of a chicken to make plans for improving my life. Announcing them to friends and family would bad enough, but to myself? How could I live with the shame of failure?

Does vowing to eat more healthily mean no more pizza or pop tarts for breakfast?

Does getting more exercise mean I have to keep up with my almost 91 year old mother?

Does drink less box wine mean I will have to spend more than $5.00 on a bottle of wine?

As Mom will attest, I don’t like to be told what to do, least of all by myself. I expect too much out of me as it is.

With that said, I’m stretching my legs as I head to the kitchen. As I pop a Hersey’s Kiss into my mouth and add some ice to my wine glass, I’ll cross off “write a blog” on my to-do list.

Namaste- resolutions are so passé.

Talking with God By God

Sometimes I pray, sometimes I wish on falling stars, and sometimes I throw spilled salt over my shoulder.

I don’t say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. Peter doesn’t either. We cleared that up while driving from Telluride, CO to Vermont. We were newly coupled so it was a getting-to-know-you-kind-of-a-big-deal-thing. We both prefer to say, “Quit it!” or “Whoa-wah!” after either of us sneezes.

Why do we say God Bless You? Do we really believe that we are saving the life of the sneezer by keeping the devil away or is it some sort of familial or social habit?

Do people get hurt feelings if no one says Gesundheit? Is a sneeze a statement like “It sure is beautiful outside today”, and it would be rude not to respond?

I have a friend (the bless you type) who’s uncomfortable about taking yoga classes. She feels it’s like praying to false idols. Periodic chanting may have something to do with that. Another friend is more hesitant because the music and some of the words bother her.  I admit some of the music can be weird and hearing someone speak Sanskrit with a heavy Vermont or New York accent may seem a bit much, but perhaps it’s just distracting.

Here’s the deal. Yoga gives us an opportunity to quiet our minds so that God can come in for a chat. By God (and not BY God spoken emphatically like a true Vermonter) I mean the God of Our Devotion; it may be our faith, our own inner power, or the universe itself, whomever or whatever inspires us to be kinder, gentler, more responsive and attentive, forgiving people.

God of our Devotion (GOOD): “I’ll talk and you listen”.

Mind: “I can’t hear anything”

GOOD: “Stop talking.”

Mind: “I think we are chanting to an elephant.”

GOOD: “I don’t care what’s going on, just stop talking.”

Mind: “I can’t hear anything but the sound of my own breath.”

GOOD: “Now we are getting somewhere.”

The great thing about a yoga class is you don’t have to discuss it after. You don’t need to admit that you recited the Lord’s Prayer or “Star light star bright, first star I see tonight” instead of an invocation to Ganesh ( the elephant statue). You can ignore the music and the chants and count your breaths. My average is 12 a minute and am aiming for 10. Why? No idea except it calms me down.

What else do we say like “Bless you” without thinking about it. “Have a nice day” or “That was great, let’s do it again soon”, might come to mind.

Say God Bless if it makes you feel better but don’t do it for me. If the empty space is too much, say something like “How about that pollen count!”

Namaste, must be dust mites it’s too late for hay.

 

TMI

Yesterday I woke up to a rumbling stomach. Actually, rumbling isn’t the word, it was more like a grinding, pinging, can’t-find-third-gear feeling. The next three hours were like going through a colonoscopy prep, minus having to drink gallons of a lemon-lime concoction.

No headache, no fever, just losing my guts.

Once I could wander around the house without being four feet from the bathroom, I started cleaning out the icebox. Maybe the hummus I had at 8:30 the night before was off. (What was I thinking? Oreos at night are the way to go. Carrots and hummus? Who do I think I am?)

The leftover butternut squash from last week was NOT going to turn into soup. The black bananas were NOT going to become bread. The red salad dressing, bought on the spur of the moment, was NOT going to remind me of my childhood.

That purge led me to the pantry. Protein powder with a “best by” date of 2012? Out. Tapioca from 2008? Out. Pickled walnuts? You don’t even want to know how old that jar was.

After the flurry of pretend housekeeping, I took a walk down to the labyrinth where GA and now, 18-year-old Spooky, are buried. They are six feet apart. Peter set it up so the lawnmower can still do it’s job, however it’s a fitting placement for the cairns.

It took 7 years for Spooky to leave her studio apartment in my office and join GA and me on the bedroom floor for the nightly ritual of ending the day. I sat in between them with arms outstretched in order to reach and pat them both. Now they are enjoying each other’s company in the field, socially, physically, and comfortably distant.

I don’t think it was the spoiled tahini as much as the grief churning inside me, that got my engine sputtering and back firing. When we hold feelings in, try to keep control or suck it up, we end up flooding the engine. Mentally and philosophically, I know this. I also know that we need to allow ourselves some time to feel discomfort.

My friend Jo sent me this this morning.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” Khalil Gibran

Sorrow, weeping, and discomfort remind us to think further …deeper. What we had is no longer and that’s sad, however, rather than bemoaning the loss it helps to appreciate the past with delight and appreciation.

Oreos help too.

Namaste- remembering days of animals at play.

It’s time for the lowdown.

Here’s the skinny. I started this blog to build up a massive audience of potential supporters for a memoir I’ve been working on, Virtuous Sinner: Made in Vermont. I’m proud to say that over the past 2 1/2 years I now have about 15 followers. Seriously only half of them are related to me, so this is huge.

Here’s what my new, kind friend Katie McKenna wrote: “Once I picked up Virtuous Sinner I didn’t want to put it down. Alexandra Langstaff charms you with her honesty, humor, self-awareness, and joyful insights. Langstaff invites you into her family, community and life with the kind of generosity that is usually reserved for old friends. Reading this memoir felt like having a conversation at a dinner party that I never wanted to end!”

Just so you know, Katie wrote the incredible book, How to Get Run Over by a Truck, a few years back. To say I’m delighted by her endorsement is an understatement. There’s a surreal fog in my head, although that could be due to celebrating with box wine.

I didn’t know Katie when I supported her campaign to get her book written a few years ago.The title and story were intriguing. As it turns out, the book is funny, horrifying, and inspirational. More importantly it offers a perspective on how one deals with a crazy situation without going…crazy. As kismet would have it, a friend who was editing my words 8 months ago said, “I wonder if your stories will have any relevance outside the boundaries of the 05251 zip code? Maybe my friend Katie, in NY would read it, I bet she’d get a chuckle.” I was psyched to have a reader from the big city take a look, and then the pandemic hit. That’s also when I put two and two together. “Oh, that Katie!

As the months went by and the manuscript was complete, I decided to send a message to Katie. (The worst thing that could happen would be no response, and how bad is that really?) I sent her my elevator pitch “A not quite cosmopolitan but not quite clueless, hotdog eating yoga teacher shares memories of folly, foolishness and forgiveness, beginning in the ‘60s in a small town in southern Vermont.”

It was a ballsy move, one that I’m still recovering from. But that is what writing and living is all about it’s doing what you love and then having the conviction to follow through with whatever it is you want to follow through with, sometimes we fail, miss the mark, or embarrass ourselves. Other times we succeed.

My stories are not recipes to change one’s life, they are stories to remind us that we each have experiences and thoughts that help explain our place in the world. Many of us don’t wear our successes or failures on our sleeves like hearts, but sometimes, when we do, it can free us up and allow us to make connections we never dreamed of.

Making connections is the essence of living. It doesn’t mean you have to become friends, followers or fans, it means you can show compassion, generosity and support.

Here’s another skinny. Katie is not the first person I have written to (out of the blue) with little expectation of a response. A year and a half ago I wrote David Sedaris. I had read a few of his articles in the New Yorker, however, when I picked up Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and loved it, I thought “Oh that David!”

As he has said, he didn’t have to jump through hoops to build a social platform (something that is essential in the book world these days) things just happened. That sounded good to me.

I wrote to ask if it was still possible to attract readers without gathering email addresses and followers, if so I’d certainly appreciate any advice he might have to offer. I ended by telling him how delighted I was to read his words because they sounded as if I’d written them.

Oh brother. 

Apparently, David responds to all letters. My handwritten note complete with a cartoon on the back of the envelope must have got lost in the mail. That’s okay, after Katie’s endorsement, a response from David would just be gilding the lily!

Namaste- Here’s to people who make your day!

Dishwashers and Treasure Hunts

Dinner was almost over when Peter said, “Just so you know, I’m putting the knives in the dishwasher with the points up. They get cleaner that way and don’t get rust marks. I want you to be aware and careful when you are emptying the dishwasher.” 

My last sip of wine almost came out my nose. “Uh, when I empty the dishwasher?” I choked out the words.

“Well on the infrequent time, I just want you to be safe”, he answered, almost seriously. I kept laughing.

I’m not good at emptying the dishwasher, so it’s not often on my “to-do” list. I have an uncontrollable urge to put things away in different spots. It’s not like our kitchen is gigantic, but it would be nice to put things away without moving my feet.

I’m curious as to why egg cups are by the bowls and not next to the coffee cups. Who started that trend?

I’m also not sure why the soup ladle needs to go in the same place every time. It might be a good idea to mix the utensil drawers up so that we can discover things that may have been ignored or forgotten.

More often than not, when the ladle, can opener, flashlight, or some other gadget goes missing, my response to “Where did you put it?” is, “I believe it’s on your side of the bed.” At times, finding the aforementioned is like looking for buried treasure.

Whenever I’m off on an excursion for more than three days, I make a treasure hunt for Peter. I usually leave the first clue on his pillow so he gets it just before going to bed. The rule is no looking for clue #2 until the next morning, he can think about the next hiding place but no looking until the following day. The bounty at the end is often my return.

An example is “While you are watching Law and Order tomorrow night, someone is watching you.” There is a bust of my great grandmother next to the tv chair, there’s also a photo of me on the stairway wall, in clear view of said chair. Hmmm, where could the clue be? Under? Behind? (Okay, that was an easy one.)

The goal is to make sure the clues lead him around the house.

It’s my way of keeping Peter safe.

It’s a way for me to say, “I’m thinking of you”, “Be observant”, “Be comfortable looking at things differently”, “Keep your mind active.”

That’s what being safe means to me. It’s feeling cared for, being attentive, having the freedom to look at things differently, it’s giving permission to laugh.

Fear is the opposite of safety. Fear is feeling ignored, it’s a hesitancy to look beyond what is right in front of us, in case we are wrong. Fear is taking ourselves too seriously.

I end most yoga classes with a Loving-Kindness mantra “May we all be happy, healthy and safe, at ease in our bodies and at home in the world.” 

Simply stated, be safe and let go of fear.

Namaste- dishes are clean, I’m running away!

Chainsaws 101

My sister and I, along with seven other women, took an introductory class on using a chainsaw at Merck Forest last weekend. David Birdsall, the instructor was excellent. Clear, calm, and patient.

While in the woods, he demonstrated felling four trees in a precise, focused, and safe manner. What struck me was his reminder to be aware, not only of the machine, but of the surroundings.

What is happening in the nearby trees? What could happen when this one falls? Where am I going to be? How will the fallen tree be removed? How will the removal leave those trees left standing?

There was a lot of information to process, safety concerns, saw mechanics, understanding the physics of tension and compression on fallen branches, to name a few.

He said it was like learning to drive a car. With practice, actions become automatic, but just like driving it’s important to maintain awareness.

There is nothing we do that doesn’t require the same skill set, even in a yoga practice.

Am I moving into a shape safely? What is happening physically, when I move from one pose to another? Am I fighting gravity or working with it? Am I on auto-pilot? Am I aware of every movement as I’m doing it?

The awareness that we build in our practice, allows us to channel that focus into everything we do, whether operating a chain saw or driving a Subaru. The ability to stay calm, relaxed, and steady makes facing new challenges easier.

Incidentally, a hardhat with ear protection makes using a blender much more pleasant. Maybe that’s just me and my ears.

Namaste- PJs, a helmet, and a smoothie start a great day.

I’ll miss the smell of a Frito Lay.

Tonight is the last night with Georgia. Her body is giving up.

I made the appointment with the vet three days ago, sort of realizing that nothing could be done over the weekend. I was wishing she would go in her sleep. She doesn’t whimper or moan, she just looks like she’s miserable.

But, she still looks.

Her eyes follow me, so I stay in her foggy vision. The sadness I feel now, is not the idea of her being gone. It’s more that I can’t make her feel better. It’s a sadness that would be relieved, if I could give her a tasty treat to let her drift off into the next world, tranquilly and painlessly. Instead, I have to figure out how to get her into the car tomorrow, without bugging her.

We’ll bury her at the center of the labyrinth, in the field where she spent so much time jumping in the tall grass, as if on a trampoline.

Georgia was rescued at age 3 from a home with 14 cats and three other dogs. That was 11 years ago. I have no doubt that the woman who owned her, and all of the other animals, cared deeply for them when she could.

My beautiful, sweet, brindle, pitbull mix has been my constant shadow until it became too difficult for her to get into the car or climb the stairs to our bedroom.

Everyone who has owned a dog, cat, horse, parakeet, turtle, gerbil or whatever, knows how I feel. It’s nothing new.

It’s the common feeling of a breaking heart.

I need to accept that the creature who gives me so much delight, will soon be gone. I also need to remember that I gave her delight too.

Many who know me, understand that I’m not fond of public sorrow. It’s not that I am so incredibly private, it’s more so that I need to process grief by myself.

I’m doing this public display for those who feel the same way. While writing, I can cry quietly. By writing, I can let those who don’t know me as well know, that yes, I do feel like you, even if it doesn’t seem so.

Letting go of unconditional love is scary, because sometimes we wonder if we will ever feel it again.

And then we do.

Namaste- Georgia’s paws still smell like a Frito-Lay.

Spit it Out

My new dental hygienist asked, “Do you wear a mouth guard at night?” “Well, no…why?” I questioned. (Her inquiry seemed a bit odd. Did I have bits of rubber or plastic between my teeth?)

“I think you’re a grinder, or maybe a clencher,” she continued. “Let’s take a look at your canine teeth…no they look fine…I’d say you’re a clencher.”

Never in my life have I imagined myself a grinder or a clencher. In fact, I don’t think I’ve used those two words together in a sentence, ever.

Due to CoVid-19, my previous hygienist of 25 plus years had retired. I wanted to send her a thank-you note, for all of her emotional support. I used to be a shipwreck in the dentist chair for no particular reason.

Because of her, I no longer broke into a cold sweat worrying about annual appointments. Between her yearly compliments on how well my teeth looked and deep breathing, yoga style, I became a pretty good, calm patient. She changed my perspective on dental care. I figured the note could be forwarded to her from the business office.

When the dentist came in to inspect my current hygienist’s findings, he said, “I think we have some areas of concern. Do you floss?”

How insulting.

“Haven’t you noticed the sharp edges of this tooth? Can you see where part of the filling has fallen out?” he asked while pointing to the photograph of my tooth, that looked nothing like a tooth. (Seriously, it could have been an ultrasound of a fetus.) “Well, no”, I replied cautiously.

Am I unobservant, in denial, or just plain stupid, I asked myself.

It turned out that two 55 year old fillings had hit their expiration dates. I needed two crowns. “Do not start crying,” I said to myself.

At the end of my appointment, it was all I could do, not to write on the newly addressed thank-you note envelope, “Please come back!”

Two days later, while flossing with diligence, the last remaining part of one of the tired, old fillings flew out of my mouth. “I’m not looking for it, the maid will get it,” I said to myself. “The maid” refers to whomever picks up the vacuum cleaner first, in our house. We can safely assume a piece of metal is still around.

It turns out I am a clencher. I know because I’ve been paying attention.

I notice when I wake up in the morning, my mouth is comfortably clamped shut. It feels perfectly natural.

My new oral practice is to relax my jaw, but it’s not always easy.

During the night, when I roll over for the 19th time, I ask if I’m clenching. Yeah, but it’s an easy fix. I think about softening the position of my teeth, bore myself stiff, and fall back to sleep (ideally with closed lips so nothing flies in) but also with my jaw slightly agape. I imagine.

During conscious hours, I begin to notice the sensation of clenching during some conversations.

How do you relax clenched teeth when someone says something that makes you want to grind in agony? This is going to take some practice.

Often, in yoga classes, we are invited to let go of things that no longer serve us, things that make us grind and clench. It may be our teeth, our fists, our minds, or our hearts.

When we become aware of physical reactions and sensations, and investigate what may be causing them, we can change things we may not have been aware of in the first place.

Maybe we clench and grind rather than speak what’s on our minds. Maybe we are gnashing and gnawing on something that really isn’t that important. If it is important, then we need to spit it out.

Teeth get old, fillings get old, hygienists get younger.

Namaste- pay attention, make it go away.

The Sheep Heard

“We’re moving the sheep tomorrow morning. All hands on deck. Can you help?”, Sister Dee texted me. She works at the Merck Forest and Farmland Center.

The first time I went up to see her new place of employment, where she was filling up bottles of maple syrup, I felt like an imposter. My sneakers felt inappropriate on the 10 minute trail to the chickens, pigs, draft horses, sheep, and sap house. Should I be wearing hiking boots or muck boots or something? Is it weird to be walking alone on a road I’ve not been on? Am I walking funny? I became startlingly self-conscious.

I wouldn’t think twice about what was on my feet or what I was doing if I were at the Rec Center in town, but I was becoming confused amidst the trees. Am I just supposed to walk normally? Am I walking, strolling or hiking? What’s the difference anyway? Thank God I’m not wearing yoga pants or a tennis skirt. Maybe it was the newness of the area that was throwing me off.

Four months later I’m much more comfortable visiting, probably because I have some very cool shoes that can pass for hiking boots. Low tech so not Long Trail worthy but pretty hip looking. So me and my self-approved foot-wear arrived at 9 a.m. to help move sheep.

“Okay, who wants to be the Pied Piper?”, Dee’s boss asked. Now that’s something to jump at. Who wouldn’t want to be a Pied Piper? So I jumped. “Take this 10 gallon bucket of grain and start shaking it as soon as we open the gate. The sheep will follow you up the hill to the next gate.”

That didn’t sound too tough. I didn’t want to appear as a Pied Piper imposter. I wanted to appear confident so I didn’t ask anything like “Do I feed them the grain or is it fake grain?” or “How far into the pasture should I lead them.”

Two seconds later, “Ready? Shake. RUN!” The Pied Piper had it easy playing his flute while rats ambled behind him to the music. Picture me being chased by 30 ewes and lambs, carrying an enormous bucket above my head, about 50 yards up hill. Amazing how my boots felt like running shoes. Besides the bleating and the sound of my own heart beating, all I could hear was Dee laughing and yelling “FASTER!” I want to be clear, Mom is the only runner in our family. This wasn’t just running, this was sprinting in a stampede.

I managed to hold my position in front until we got to the new field. After that I was surrounded. Sheep took the lead, crowded from the sides, and pushed from the back. They bounced into each other and off of me. When do we stop running? Sure is lucky I’m not wearing sneakers. Those little hooves behind me would be no match. Am I going to get trampled? Could I die? When do I give them the grain?

I threw handfuls out as if feeding chickens, not easy when running for your life.

Think Alexandra! Remember mustering sheep in Australia? Yeah, but with dogs doing most of the work. So I did the next best thing. I channeled my inner Jillaroo and yelled to pretend dogs. “Get back, Jocko! Bring ‘em round, Mitzi! Aw, git off Rudy!” It totally worked. The sheep started moving away from me!

Then again it may have been because they realized that the luscious grass around them was more enticing and easier to reach than a few bits of grain tossed onto another sheep’s back. Mission accomplished.

A family had been viewing the scene from afar and as I passed them, heading back to my car, the grandfather said, “Don’t you have dogs to do that?” “That would be me,” I replied.

It’s good to volunteer and help out. It’s also a good idea to know what you are getting into first. I tend to forget that and I’m not sure if I enjoy finding delight in the unknown or I’m just plain stupid.

What I do know is, either way, the possibility of making my sister wet her pants laughing is the pay off.

Namaste- A 30 second sprint sure made my day.