An Ode To Hiking

“Man I HATE white people vacations!” a white college-aged boy shouts from up the trail.  I laugh so hard my voice echoes.

We were on our way down from the Chimney Tops trail in the Smokey Mountains.  The college-aged kid and his two other friends were on their way up and had stopped to ask us how far to the summit.

It would be a statement I’d repeat throughout the day to make myself laugh, especially when my legs were fatiguing or I’d lose my step or a swarm of bugs would decided I was their best buddy despite the bug spray.  One of those silly statements that tickles you pink and you do yourself a disservice not to return to it as often as you can to get as much laughter out of it as you can.

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Yesterday we toed along the Appalachian Trail.  We detoured through the Chimney Tops trail, scaling the rocks at the summit until I was at my literal edge – until I felt actual, real fear, which is a completely different drug than the synthetic fear of roller coasters and other thrill rides.  We then followed the AT as it danced along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, bouncing from one state to the other as we walked across a ridge line, pausing to rest and eventually turn around at a shelter, meeting people who’d been out on the AT for weeks, possibly months.

I went to bed bone-tired, asleep before my brain could even ponder the question, “Will this is be one of those nights where you don’t fall asleep?”  And I slept a glorious, deep sleep, dead to the world, until I was undeniably awake before the sun and my husband and basically anyone who wasn’t the night staff at the hotel was up.

And so, I blog.

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Hiking is in my blood.  My parents were Appalachian Mountain Club members and actually met while carpooling to a hike.  I was on the trails before I could walk, lugged along in one of those baby backpacks.  To this day, the smell of a stream passing over rocks on a hot, humid day pings at the most innocent, pure, unadulteratedly happy part of me. A completely different drug than the adrenaline jolt from scaling rocksides.

If you asked me to name the biggest, best, most positive thing my parents instilled upon me, I would unequivocally answer, “A deep, passionate love of nature.”  For all the things I might be sorting out as an adult – and for all the ways my parents’ marriage spiraled and unraveled as the decades went on – I was given the gift of day hikes and campfires and mornings on the lake and there’s nothing in this world I would trade that seed in for.

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There is nothing like a hike.  I’ve learned it’s outstandingly difficult to have a bad one.  The conversations you have with other people are unlike any other.  The conversations you have with yourself are unlike any other.

It’s a renewing force, even when you’re exhausted and your legs are fatiguing and you’re shouting, “Man I HATE white people vacations!” to keep yourself from turning around early.  Especially when you’re exhausted and your legs are fatiguing and you’re shouting, “Man I HATE white people vacations!” to keep yourself from turning around early.

It goes beyond being around fresh air and nature and likeminded individuals (or by yourself).  There are few things that will help reset the Superego and Ego quite like going into Id mode for a day.  To care about the absolute basics as you carry onwards.  Food.  Water.  Shelter from the elements.  Sustenance.  Rest.  Onwards.  And all of modern man’s thinking and anxiety is forced to take a backseat.

It’s a chance to play the, “Guess again,” game with your mind.  Your mind is tiring out and ready to quit and you get to say, “Guess again.”  Your mind continues to try to trick the body into calling it in and you get to say, “Guess again,” ad infinitum – or until you reach the summit and you then get to turn around and say,

“Told ya.”

It’s a forced focus on the present moment.  When you’re on the trails for hours – days, possibly – there’s nothing that would wear you out faster than attaching yourself to reaching the summit, reaching the next checkpoint, etc.  It’s actually why I loved mid-distance running until I tore a hamstring tendon (unfortunately, the, “guess again,” portion – which is also quite prevalent in mid-distance running – is how I got injured in the first place, but that’s for another day).  After a while, you have no choice but to focus on the here-and-now.  This step.  This view.  It’s like going into Id mode, without shunning the Ego/Superego.

It’s meditation.  And I built an entire career around all the ways you can trick yourself into getting that.

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Throughout the day, I talked with my husband about growing up by the ocean, but loving the mountains.  How I spent my formative years just south of Boston, my summers in the mountains of New Hampshire, and how, the older I get, the more the mountains call to me.

Both are symbolic of the vast and overwhelming wildness around us, but in polar opposite ways.  The ocean is wild in a way that mankind can’t be a part of.  We can skim the surface and we stand along the shore, but it is truly a beast that lives separately.  The mountains are a more steadfast type of wildness.  A wildness that reminds you that you are part of that vast, overwhelming beauty.

Both represent the unstoppable, untamable, unfathomable expanse of the universe.  Only one really reminds us of our place in it.

As much as the ocean air pings at a wonderful, unadulterated, pure place, I’m happy that, at the end of the day, I prefer the mountains.

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Updates, Steven Tyler, and Prana & Apana

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Firstly, an update on my brother, since it actually was getting under my skin that I never updated my blog about how everything was going (and it’s a monstrous pet peeve of mine, when people are quick to communicate tragedy/bad news, but feel zero impetus to communicate the resolution):

He’s doing better.  Surgery went well and he’s home resting.  His mouth is wired shut for a little while longer and there are a few other health complications we’re taking into consideration, but he’s on the mend and I still am so amazingly grateful that he got out of the accident the way that he did.

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Secondly, an update in general, because I think that’s what blogs are actually for: self-indulgent platforms to just talk about your life.  And I want to talk first about the one thing I never expected to have happen: getting cheered on by Steven Tyler while doing aerial silks.

I practice and train at Bare Knuckle Murphy’s/Go Ninja, a combination boxing and aerial circus gym (and, if you haven’t been there, and live in the Manchester area, get on that, because where else will you get that combo).  Last night, Murphy’s and Go Ninja provided entertainment at Best of NH, held at a baseball stadium in Manchester.  Us aerial people got to do our thing on the silks on the greens while the boxing portion stationed themselves at the front gate.

Eventually it was my time to go up on said silks.  And, for some reason, I was genuinely nervous.  This wasn’t my first time performing on the silks, but definitely the first time in the middle of a baseball diamond and with no crash mat underneath me.  I started my routine and slowly got into the swing of things when suddenly I heard:

“WAHOO!  YEAH!”

Now, Steven Tyler’s voice is not exactly nondescript.  And he had actually been hanging around the Best of NH festivities (something us aerial peeps really didn’t get to indulge in, being on the baseball diamond and away from the main festivities).  I looked over to the balcony area and saw him hollering and waving and cheering me on.  I immediately started waving back (thank God I was in a pose where I could let go with one hand).  He started blowing kisses.  I started blowing kisses back.  And then I spent the rest of my routine going, “That just happened.  That.  Just.  Happened.”

I have a lot of weird and circuitous lame claims to fame, and now that is one of them.

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The night in general was incredible.  My Murphy’s/Go Ninja people are like family to me.  My fellow weirdo, energetic, rag-tag team of misfit toys.

Oh, also I got a free pie.  An entire pie.  Once the night was over, a pie vendor just handed out boxes to those who were still there.  It pays to be part of the event.

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It has definitely been an exciting and bittersweet and busy time for me.  One of the first studios I taught regularly at is closing down.  Since nothing ever slows down for me, I’m in talks with people regarding starting up new classes at some new locations.  Through this, I learned two of the people whom I reached out to (or who reached out to me) had already taken my classes and had not even realized it until we were already knee deep in discussion.

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It’s also a busy time on the creative side.  I continue writing for websites like the Huffington Post and Thought Catalog.  My poetry collection was just released through Thought Catalog, and an essay I wrote on Thought Catalog regarding the Brock Turner case ended up in a collection of essays about the Brock Turner case.  Ironically, by the time the book was out and in print and I received my copy, America was already two tragedies removed from Brock Turner.  At some point I’ll write an essay for HuffPo (or whoever will take me) about America’s addiction to high-intensity tragedy (without pausing for resolution), but that’s for another time.

I enjoyed a brief (albeit short-lived) stay writing for Bustle Magazine, and I’m starting up a long-term position writing about yoga for Higher Self Yoga, starting in July.  And now I’m wading into the waters of my fourth manuscript — a YA novel, if you can believe it — while I try to get the chutzpah to re-up the agency search for the third manuscript (while the second one can stay languishing in its cell until I have the patience to gut it and rewrite it from start to finish).

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I’m also getting ready to host my first retreat.  Ever.  There had been a lot of bumps and detours getting this puppy together and getting it out there, but somehow we were able to get this beauty off the ground.  Tomorrow, I’ll be spending the weekend with two lovely ladies who will be co-hosting alongside me.  The whole event is about grounding and letting go — and using spirituality to tap into the creative side of us.  I get to combine my two passions in order to help students tap into the artist within, let go of whatever it is that’s holding them back, and become the creative they are meant to be.

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Speaking of letting go, I figure I’d round out this incredibly ineloquent blog post with a similarly ineloquent ramble about prana and apana.

(And to those who don’t study yoga, Hindu philosophy, or are just really bored — thanks for stopping by!)

To put it into offensively simple forms, Capital P Prana is life force; as subsets, prana is the inward moving energy, and apana is the outward moving energy.  Our breath is a perfect example of prana & apana.  We inhale vital oxygen.  We exhale no-longer-useful carbon dioxide.

Sometimes I talk about apana in my classes.  I talk about how our exhales are a type of apana.  And sometimes I’ll go further and use it to talk about what serves and what doesn’t serve.

Our lungs don’t hate carbon dioxide.  There is just no use for it.  And our lungs don’t expel it out of malice.  They just do it.  They need oxygen to function and they don’t need carbon dioxide.  If we attempt to interrupt said prana/apana, we’ll be in trouble & our bodies will fight tooth & nail to get the cycle started again, but for the most part it is done on neutral ground.

In fact, the idea of being angry at our exhales seems a little silly.  It’s just the natural ebb and flow of things.  Of everything.

It’s something I remind myself, a lot.  To be frank: it’s been a rough year.  It’s been a rough couple of years.  I’ve yet to shy away from that truth, on here or anywhere.  And while I’m incredibly grateful for all the good that has come my way (and there has been a lot of good), I can’t exactly use it to invalidate the tough.

But then again, it’s been the type of tough that wakes up you to your own BS.  The type that goes, “You really need to stop holding onto that,” — and when you fight back, life counters harder, downright prying each and every individual finger off from whatever it was you were clinging to.  Fighting tooth & nail to get the cycle started again.

Sometimes it really is a simple as how we breathe.  We take in what serves and sustains.  We let go of what doesn’t — or doesn’t anymore.  Old thinking patterns.  Old routines.  Toxic personalities — or toxic ideologies.  Frameworks that we never really fit into in the first place.  And it’s eventually replaced.  And eventually we repeat the cycle all over again.  And it’s a constant, overlapping ebb & flow; things are released in one aspect of our lives while something new comes in from a completely different angle.  We seek out while simultaneously letting go and we let go while simultaneously seeking out.

And sometimes we throw our hands up and go, “I don’t know WTF to seek out or let go of!”

In which case, we breathe.  Because, at least on the most basic level, we already know what we’re supposed to be doing.

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And, lastly — because I live for adventure, or at least being really, really busy — I’ll be taking off the Tuesday after my retreat on a road trip journey to the Grand Canyon, with stop-offs in Memphis, New Orleans, Austen, and a few other resting places.  Road trips — especially road trips through states I’ve yet to travel through — ease my nomadic heart, and I’m looking forward to two and a half weeks of the open air.

I’m also looking forward to a little rest.  I was doing the math, and I haven’t had an actual day off in about 3 months (and that’s not including anything writing-related, which is kind of a constant job and always has been).  I’ve taught at least one class every single day since about late February, early March.  And it’s starting to weigh on me.  As much as I adore my profession, it will be nice to take some time to focus on that inwards-moving energy — take some time to fill up my own life force.

(…see what I did there?)

Motorcycles, Mindset, and the Only Job I Can Do

Scene: Evening. I’m scheduled to teach a 6 pm and a 7:30 pm class. My phone is playing music through the stereo. A lovely group of people come in for the first class. At 6, I shut the door and take my spot at the front.

“So, good afternoon, everyone,” I sing out. My natural singsong voice naturally cranked up to 11 for class. My natural lullaby. “As always, I love opening up the floor for any requests…”

Suddenly the music is interrupted. A 617 number is calling.

Look who forgot to out her phone on silent. Again.

“Oof, sorry about that,” I chuckle out, sending the call to voicemail. “Anyway, as I was saying…”

Two minutes after everyone closes their eyes, my phone lights up again.  Now on silent, it doesn’t interrupt the music. This time it’s my husband.

“A 617 number just tried to call. What’s going on?” I text back while the students are in the middle of sukhasana. Was I talking to them about breathing?  Did I randomly stop talking in the middle of a sentence?  I can’t remember anymore.

“Your little brother’s in the ER,” he replies back. “They won’t tell me much because I’m not blood relation. I’ll try to find out what I can.”

I’m thanking my husband as I’m telling my students to bring their hands to their heart and set an intention – something I define as a present moment mindset instead of a goal we’re hoping to attain through yoga. Today I’m tripping over my words as I try to say that very piece of information.

I’m tripping through my words throughout the entire class. I’m distracted. Frustration is compounding. What timing. What timing. What fucking timing. I’m here until 8:30. I can’t call the hospital or even check my voicemail for another hour. And now I’m messing up my words because I can’t stop looking at my phone.

Frustration is boiling over. I’m ready to boil over.

I lead my student through breathing exercises. They’re as much for me as they are for the students.

Seven p.m. rolls in and students exit. I dive into my phone.  I find out my brothers been in a major motorcycle accident.  A bystander called 911 and he was unconscious when the EMTs arrived. He’s alert now, but his face is banged up….badly. He’s going to need reconstructive surgery. He was pinned against a car so they’re keeping an eye on his legs and making sure he’ll still be able to walk. Concussed, but no signs of brain trauma.  The 617 number was not from the nurse I spoke to, but from a social worker at the hospital. They’re concerned about my mom being able to take care of herself with my brother not in the house.

My brain isn’t registering, but my eyes are. I’m in tears.

Pull it together. Students are due in any minute.  Breathe.

My 7:30. A class for veterans. A class with movements and verbiage specifically designed to help people feel more in control of their own body and breath. A class for the warrior in all of us.

A class that I end up having to dart into the parking lot to grab students for because the main door locked on the students without me knowing.  I only realize this as I look out the window and see a regular wandering said parking lot.

Great. A little more wrong for the evening.  I’m frustrated.  I’m upset.  I just want to go home.

I’m going down a rabbit hole and hitting the edges as I descend.

Said regular is cracking jokes about the situation. I crack jokes back. I don’t feel like laughing or joking or even smiling but sometimes you just have to.  Class goes without too much of a hitch. Words are jumbled. Poses forgotten. But I survive and the students aren’t complaining.

I’m hysterical on the drive home. Shock has warn off.

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Scene: the next morning, at a different studio. My morning class before I drive into Boston to visit my little brother. The music from my phone plugged into the stereo keeps getting interrupted by phone calls. A 617 number. A 603 number. One of my older brother’s phone number. Guess who forgot to put her phone on silent again. Each time, I’m in a position where darting across the room to reject the call would be more disruptive then letting my ringtone play.

“Looks like I’m in demand today,” I joke.

Inside, I’m fighting a nasty fight. One I’m far too familiar with. The one where frustration compounds and I can’t sort it out and it feels like everyone wants everything from me all at once and right now and I can’t deliver and OH MY GOD just leave me alone.

I breathe. I smile. I’m singsongy. I check my voicemails after class.  I drive to Boston. I take the T in and walk.

A man shouts, “Hey boo!” to me as I cut across Tremont. Apparently my ass in yoga pants is speaking in higher decibels than the rest of my body. Everything about my body language screams, “don’t fuck with me.” Apparently he’s only hearing half of those words.

Hands keep closing into fists. Shoulders keep rising up to my ears. I can hear my own voice, talking to my students about all the ways our body sends signals to the brain that it’s ready for fight or flight.  I can hear my own advice about using exhales to help relax things. I let out a huff.

I’m playing whack a mole with tension.

Exhale. Relax the shoulders. Exhale. Unclench the jaw. Exhale. Relax the shoulders again. Exhale. For the love of God, stop strangling your purse strap.

Boston Medical Center is vast. I call up my mom – the same woman I’m supposed to talk with a social worker to arrange someone to check in on her – to get information. All I get is a headache. I’m curt with her and I feel terrible about it the second I hang up.  I find the main entrance and am met with hoards of people and flashing lights and sirens and firefighters.

A fire alarm has been set off. I still have no idea where I’m going.  What else could go wrong.

Breathe.

Breathe.

Eventually the alarms stop and the firefighters clear out and life goes back to normal. I go to the information desk. After everything that’s happened, there’s a part of me that wants to yelp, “I just want to see my little brother.”  It’s a thought I don’t focus too much on because I’ll start crying in line if I do.  Breathe.  Listen to the inhale.  Listen to the exhale.

A lot of things shattered alongside my father’s death, but my bond with my little brother strengthened in light of it. I’m reminded of this when it’s my turn and I ask for a visitor’s pass and attempt not to lose it in front of a woman who clearly has no time for this, or anything.

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Scene: Surgical ICU.  I have to be buzzed in.  My brother’s out cold when I arrive. Black eyes so dark and deep you’d think a makeup artist applied them. Face swollen.  The left side is essentially shapeless.  A few abrasions, a few stitches, but considerably milder than what I had imagined. I send a message to the same older brother who had called that morning. Since that older brother is a firefighter, I joke about the alarm and the firefighters. I wait while the little brother sleeps.

He wakes up for a moment, speaks lucidly but muffled, and falls back asleep.

I breathe. I think in fevered narratives. I continue to inform friends, family, whoever I’m supposed to. I dance between the three activities.  Breathe. Fevered Narrative. Inform. If I do anything else, I’ll start crying. I start crying anyway.

Eventually the nurse comes in; he’s just been upgraded out of the Surgical ICU. I excuse myself as they prepare to move his bed and head back outside.

I walk down Mass Ave — simultaneously Methadone Mile and home to some of the most expensive real estate around. One guy on a porch yells, “Ooooooh if you let me take you home, you’d love me! I’d kiss you from head to toe, I would! “

I do the one response I know: I slightly smirk (not smile, not grin, not even fully smirk) and shake my head and keep walking.

I breathe. I wander. I take in the sunlight. If I do anything else, I’ll start crying.

*

Scene: Prudential Center. There’s a conference of some nature, for the Academy of Sports Medicine. Men with red lanyards around their neck, who look like the type of guys to be in sports medicine. Broad shoulders and gentle eyes. I hang a left and find myself by the base of the Prudential tower. In all my years living in the city, I’ve never done the Skywalk.  Not once.

Today seems as good a day as any.

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Boston is laid out before me.

“If dirty water were a salve, I’d apply it to every wound,” I think to myself. Fake poetic, but I blame the speaker behind me reciting quotes about Boston from famous writers.

“Boston is a mindset,” is one of the quotes.

Damn right it is.

I’m two steps into the gift shop when my phone rings again. It’s my uncle, checking in, letting me know what the plan is for my mom (Meals on Wheels to stop by each day. Bare minimum, someone for my mom to talk to. For all our issues and worries for her, I do believe the biggest problem she’ll face without my brother there is loneliness).  I’m barely a lap around the observation deck when I get another call.

Little brother, awake and able to talk.

He tells me a little more about the crash. The details I hear are way worse than I could’ve anticipated. How he is still alive — let alone mobile — is beyond me. He asks if I’m coming back to Boston Medical. I take one more lap around the observation deck and head back.

My best friend — someone I’ve known since I was 10 — calls as I’m walking back (walking, walking, always walking. And breathing, and joking). One of many check-ins from the people I unabashedly call my second family.

“Hey, do you remember junior year homecoming?” she asks. “When your brother lit all those candles along the walkway for us?”

“It’s one of my favorite memories with him,” I say and my heart swells.

Just breathe. Just breathe. No tears on the sidewalks of Boston.

*

His accident made the news, complete with a picture of the crash. The picture makes me wonder how anyone could survive that, let alone still have the ability to walk.

I post the link online with a few raw words of commentary.  Included in the commentary are some equally raw words about how much I love him.

Just breathe just breathe just breathe don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry.

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He’s awake and asking if I have a charger.  His phone is nearly dead.  I offer to run out and get one at the nearby 7-11.

As I’m waiting at an intersection, I let my mind get the best of me. I stop focusing on the breathe and the air and that fevered narrative as I describe the world around me to an audience of myself.  Instead I take in everything and it hits me over the head.

Breathe breathe breathe dammit don’t you dare cry at the corner of Washington and Mass Ave.

The woman at the 7-11 speaks in a thick Russian accent and attempts to find the cheapest charger there.  They’re all flimsy and overpriced.  I buy two.

*

A boy in a wheelchair goes, “Hey! I like your pants!” to me when I return.

Scene: Surgical unit. The non-ICU kind. I stay a little while longer. I plug his phone into the new charger. He alternates between sleep and talking.  Nurses come and go. He’s scheduled for surgery tomorrow. People are contacted.

I hang out. I joke. I singsong as I talk. I make more jokes. I breathe. I joke. I sing out optimism. I make more jokes.

If I do anything else I’ll start crying.

Breathe.

*

Scene: The vast world of yoga.  I started teaching yoga four months before my father’s health started to tailspin. Before my whole life would start to tailspin. Before every aspect of my life would be flipped on its head to the point that my feeble struggle to find my footing in the yoga industry would be the only steady thing I had going.

I would speak in hindsight that yoga was really the only job I would’ve been able to do during that time. I would’ve collapsed in any other profession. Teaching yoga in the midst of crisis after crisis, fuck up after fuck up, was a saving grace. As much a saving grace as whatever it was that spared my little brother, even though the crash should’ve paralyzed him — that, had that car hit him even slightly differently, or his bike had been at a different angle, I would’ve received a completely different phone call.

The saving grace of teaching yoga was partly due to how easily I could slip into the role – slip into the practice like a mouse dropped into a maze and effortlessly finding her way out. It was partly due to how much yoga itself was a saving grace for me, changing an Irish girl with an inwards-directed Irish temper for the better.

And it was partly due to a sense of duty. These people coming into the room are bringing the same crap onto their mat as me. And this invaluable toolset that was given to me is something I feel compelled to pass on. And not as a blissed out yogi bestowing peace on her minions, but a messed up lady shining light on the path for her fellow messed up companions.

And it was partly because teaching them reminds me of the things I desperately need reminding of, myself.

Breathe. Do your practice and all is coming.

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I wait out rush hour in Boston. I have pizza in the Prudential Center’s garden. I reflect. I breathe.  I continue to inform. Continue to view life in a hazy narrative delirium that all writers know too well.

“I want to see the sunset over Boston,” I say to myself.  I want to do something a little frivolous and silly.  I want to go back up to the Skywalk in the Prudential Tower and watch the sun lower over the city. And so I do.

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There’s a weird blessing behind all of this. A lot of things shattered in the wake of my father’s decline. And a lot of things hardened as other things shattered. There were callouses where it wasn’t healthy to have callouses. And it created a lot of circle running. The whole situation, that whole day, right down to the 7-11 run and wanting to burst into tears over the heart swells, were a vital reminder that not everything hardened back together.

Because life is full of overlaps if you keep your eyes open enough: as I’m driving through Medford on the trek back home, the Fellsway is reduced to one lane due to a crash. A fire truck and police car are still on the scene, their lights still flashing. As is a flatbed tow truck carrying an SUV with its airbag deployed. Two men are sweeping glass from the streets.

*

Dusk is soft and warm and enveloping. I breathe in the summer air. I breathe in a little more. Among other things, I have two classes scheduled tomorrow.  I can already hear one of my regulars noting my smile, that I always seem so happy.

“It’s important to stay positive,” I have said in response, dancing around the subject of emotions.

The sky is vibrant in its final hours.  Red sky at night; sailor’s delight. Storm has passed.

I feel the sadness of it all well up in me.  Not just the sadness.  The everything.  The whole range of emotions that such a day, such an event, such a past couple of years, can stir up.  There’s a surge of it all as I’m on 93 returning back home.

Breathe. You can cry now if you need.

My eyes well up for a moment, but instead I ride the feeling until it mellows out into the night.