For the last five years, I’ve taken a yoga class at a historic church in Halifax’s north end. My yoga morning is one of the highlights of my week. My teacher, Isha Ward, who has been teaching for over 35 years and shares the most wonderful advice and quotes on yoga and life, is a big part of the draw. But also vitally important has been the space.
The church—United Memorial—has an enormous and open activity room, with vaulted ceilings and well-worn hardwood floors. The windows yawn out into the seasons, allowing us to see autumn leaves alight on the wind, scudding clouds and snow squalls, and the promise of blue skies in the spring.
About a year and a half ago, we started to hear rumblings about the church closing. Built after the Halifax Explosion of 1917, the church is large enough to host 700 people, but in recent years, their congregation has dwindled to only 60. We heard that the costs of heating the church were exorbitant. We heard that the church simply couldn’t afford such a large building anymore. And then we watched as the church amalgamated with another, Sunday services stopped, and the minister vacated her office. The building will permanently close next month.
This week’s yoga class is our last in that beautiful space.
All of this leads me to endings. Some can be good and necessary (think the end of the reign of Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper!), but others are so painful we can’t even begin to wrap our heads around them. When we love something or someone dearly, we don’t like thinking that it will someday be gone.
But that’s the truth, isn’t it? Life is in constant flux. Children grow and we can’t stop them. Nature morphs whole landscapes. Gravity molds our bodies. Add to that the fact that every single thing we brush up against in the course of a day is impermanent. Every one of our beloved or cherished things or people will someday not exist.
And herein lies the rub:
These two things—the cherishing of something precious and the acknowledgement, and fear, that it won’t be around forever—are intricately tied together. Seemingly impossible to pry apart. We want to hang onto what we love. We want to avoid the pain of losing what we love.
All of us, when we love deeply, sniff the devastation and grief on the other side, and try to hide or somehow shield ourselves from this possibility.
When I was in my early twenties, our family dog, Stan, died. We got him when I was eight years old. I can vividly remember sleeping with a blanket for weeks before he came home to us the first time, blankets that we laid in the homemade wooden crate my dad built so he could get used to the scent of us. We are your family now, the blankets said. When the vet told us it was time to put Stan down, my sister and my father went with him. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be there for his end. I couldn’t say good-bye. It seemed unbearable to me. I remember marvelling at my younger sister’s bravery. Now, I would call this open-heartedness, and it still makes me marvel. That she could allow herself to be vulnerable in the face of such emotion.
The tendency to shield ourselves from pain is a shared and common human experience. In an article that a good friend shared this week, philosopher Martha Nussbaum talks about the why behind this.
“We all begin our lives as helpless babies, dependent on others for comfort, food, and survival itself. And even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.
As we grow, we all develop a wide range of emotions responding to this predicament: fear that bad things will happen and that we will be powerless to ward them off; love for those who help and support us; grief when a loved one is lost; hope for good things in the future; anger when someone else damages something we care about.
Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.”
In an interview with Bill Moyers, Nussbaum also expressed her opinion that a “good human being” needs to cultivate an openness to the world; “an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame.”
She goes on to say that the human condition is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed. “It’s based on being more like a plant than a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
If Nussbaum is right, we have to be willing to be devastated. And choose to love anyway. And it’s that choice to love and be open in the face of “shattering” that allows us to really experience all of life’s beauty.
That’s true vulnerability, isn’t it?
And it’s the kind of vulnerability that is not celebrated in our culture. We see people all around us who have shut down, turned off, closed up shop. Through alcohol or prescribed medications, through TV and other media, through the million other mindless distractions. There is a lot of disconnection and numbing of emotions.
The most sensitive among us get a bad rap for “wearing our hearts on our sleeves” and are called naïve or weak, but I think being sensitive is actually just another way of saying being human. We can walk through these lives either embracing or denying how precariously we are balanced on this earth, and for such a short time.
What happens when we acknowledge the incredible risk we take every time we choose to love? What happens when we live from that place of total uncertainty? So much that is joyful and tender and rich and meaningful, I think.
For me, living more open-heartedly has meant hugging more friends when I feel like being close. It means saying I love you to more people and telling them what they mean to me. It means more spontaneous dance parties, more loud laughing, and more risks taken. It means having real conversations with family, friends, and strangers. It means telling my girlfriend that I’m feeling hurt or insecure rather than sitting on it. It means letting myself have tears if they are there, even if it’s embarrassing. Less concern about what other people might think and more focus on being alive and true.
The more I try and live like this, the more I’m convinced that it’s never a done deal. There’s always something that crops up that asks me to turn back around and face it, even if I’d rather run away.
A big part of this, for me, is learning to deal differently with inevitable endings. If I could go back in time, I would get in the car with my father and my sister and drive to the vet. I would let myself weep and I would be there.
When I do yoga for the last time in that grand church this week, I am going to avoid the temptation of glazing over this ending, of saying, “it’s okay, there will be other classes in other places.” I want to honour the specialness of the place, and celebrate the friends who have gathered there with me, and really take a few minutes to thank that great old building that has housed thousands of people and stood for nearly 100 years.
For the last five, it has been a cradle for my tears, my laughter, my sometimes awkward yoga poses, and many tender emotions. I want to say a proper good-bye.