In Loving Memory of Gyneth Holland (1933 – 2014)
I’ve written copiously, ever since I won a prize when I was nine years old for a poem about a candle, but never with the intention of showing anyone. I’ve filled and filed away numerous journals, workbooks, jotters, travel and dream diaries, logging my internal and external journeys and plotting my course through the countries and decades I’ve lived in.
Writing openly about Yoga and inner work and wellbeing is different. That would be like talking out loud, writing for an audience. Well, maybe now, different is the new normal. So here I go, starting a Blog about taking Yoga off the mat and living it in the everyday, and using it like medicine and a tool and a sanctuary. And hoping my writing helps and heals.
This piece was written a few years ago but it’s going first, in honour of my late Mom. [CAUTION: contains references to death and dying. If you are recently bereaved, you may not wish to proceed.] It was the first time I articulated for myself how my Yoga training was threaded through the whole experience and often the only thing keeping me from falling apart.
I was driving recently through the unloved industrial sector of the city I live in and saw something which snapped my attention into focus; something which has now come alive for me as a living metaphor for the hard, gritty and stubbornly satisfying task of daily life.
What I saw was a gravel merchant’s yard, sandwiched between a beaten-up car breakers and a gloomy fenced-in lot topped with razor-wire and warning signs. The gravel yard stood out, in contrast, like an exquisite still life by a 17th century Dutch Master: a tableau of order and calm, suspended in time. At the bottom end of the yard a neat herringbone of small trucks was parked in perfect symmetry, maximising the narrow space. Then came a series of stacked pipes and tubes, scaffolding and planks, segregated and carefully grouped. Not a living soul in sight. At the top end of the yard, cascading down in a steep wedge, a huge landslide of beige sand had been dumped from a tip-up truck against the boundary wall. Three large wood-framed wire grids, each as big as an old iron bed, stood in a line with a pile of sand in front of each. The first pile sprouted a shovel, poised for action, and behind the grid another smaller heap had formed.
That’s all I saw as I stuttered by in traffic slow enough for me to absorb these complex and pleasing visuals. I remember thinking how the Industrial Revolution had taken root in this gritty Northern landscape and that automated machines for pouring, sifting and bagging sand must surely now exist. Yet, manifestly, here in the backwaters it was still somebody’s sweaty manual job to do it slowly and with a shovel.
This image of industry and graft, of careful intelligent order, of work in progress, suspended mid-stroke, came back to me unbidden this week.
My mother is dying. She lies in the hospital, visibly shrinking and fading in plain sight. The flamboyant, creative, complex woman she was is being steadily eroded and separated out into the ordinary bits and pieces that no longer define her – a bony wrinkled hand without its chunky rings, no longer gesticulating. Glossy hanks of pewter-grey hair flattened by sweat and sleep, not swept up and styled. Each day the same gaping hospital gown, its pattern washed to an anonymous blur, replaces the peacock parade of outfits she was legendary for. She has the grace to be participating in this process of letting go, a Zen-like non-attachment to her physical form, whereas I, at her bedside, am being torn and ravaged and pulled apart by my sense of loss and dissolved in waves of grief.
Driving away from the hospital today I thought again of those three wire grids for sifting and grading gravel. It is somebody’s task to shovel that heavy obstinate material up and fling it at the frame, rhythmically and steadily, diminishing the pile in front and increasing the one behind. Gouging out the middle bit, then scooping from the edges and lastly scraping up the residue, careful not to miss a bit. Feeding and filtering it through the frame. Taking that second pile and doing the same again and then again through the final mesh. First rubble, then gravel, then grains. A logical and inevitable progression, no matter how the back aches or the muscles burn. Each result is its own reward, each outcome has its own value and separate use. This is somebody’s unavoidable task. It must be begun and once started, it cannot be undone.
I am here on this side of my mother’s hospital bed with all my raw feelings and my too-big, too-difficult decisions and tasks. And on the other side of each day are the insights and the gleanings and the smaller actions I have taken or must return to face tomorrow. Unprocessed suffering is just raw pain, corrosive and destructive, relentlessly circular. I am working, with all my might, to make sense of this time of dying. To use the structure of my wire grids – my yoga practice of connecting and aligning and breathing, of using the weight of the pose to ground me, of letting go and sinking into external support and inner trust so the rebound can lift me up into gratitude and love and hold me in piercing, fierce compassion. My mother is letting go while still holding on, and I am holding on while learning, again and again and again - until the task is done - to let go. Beyond us some other greater whole is at work, holding the edges while we are both transformed.
When she was diagnosed just four weeks ago, my mother remarked “It’s the circle of life. It’s my time.” I see the inescapable truth of that. Like looking at a Rembrandt, a window on the infinite suspending time so we can notice, truly notice the present moment. Soon she will be beyond the grids and frames of experience, of feelings and decision-making, seamlessly reunited with her essence and with eternity. And I must pick up my shovel and keep making order, and value, and sense of my life and what I remember of hers.