Cat and cow

My Grandpa O’Neil was a man of few words and even fewer stories. Although he lived until I was nearly 30, I can remember him telling only two stories. One, about the man who was so rich that he lit his cigar with a $50 bill, was quintessential Grandpa: always worried about money, and impressed by people who flouted that worry.

JohnJONeil1955
My grandfather, John J. O’Neil.

Grandpa’s other story gave me a rare glimpse of his mother’s personality. Catherine Kelly O’Neil was born in Scotland to Irish parents. When people would say, “Oh, you’re Scottish,” she would retort: “If a cat is born in the barn, that doesn’t make it a cow!”

I guess Grandpa’s mother knew who she was, and who she was not. But I wonder whether her identity had more layers than the cat-not-cow story might imply.

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‘Soften where you feel the stretch’

 

beach yoga crop
Photo by Sarah Bass

One of my current favorite yoga videos is 47 minutes and 32 seconds of slow, gentle stretching—no strength-building balance poses, no sweat-inducing vinyasas. Just deep, relaxing stretches.

That’s not to say it’s entirely easy. The loud groans you hear coming from my living room are the sound of muscles reluctantly giving up some of their tightness and soreness.

Or rather, they’re the sound of my mind reluctantly giving up some of its impulse to clench those muscles—a subconscious impulse, born of the subconscious feeling that I need to defend myself at all times. Somebody might criticize me. I will certainly criticize myself. So I tighten my jaw, my neck, my legs, as if that can ward off the psychological blows. In trying to protect my “soft animal” from mortal injury, I trap it in an iron cage, where it is impossible for it to love what it loves.

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Feet first

In yoga class today, I tried to do a handstand.

No. I tried the thing you were supposed to do if you couldn’t manage a handstand. Then I tried the thing for people who can’t manage the substitute.

I couldn’t do any of them. But I tried a few times, attempting to push away the thoughts about how ridiculous I looked. When the disabled war veteran keeps falling in that inspirational yoga video, it’s … inspiring. When I do it, not so much.

“Never Give Up,” the video caption says.

At this moment in my life, that’s a complicated message. I’m trying to break my dependency on measurable goals and achievements. I’m trying to accept myself in my current, unimproved state. If “Never Give Up” means “Never Be Satisfied With Where You Are In Life,” then it is the wrong slogan for me.

But I do have goals. One goal is to try things out, even when I’m afraid of them. (Like this whole blog, and the Mary Oliver Challenge itself.)

A related goal is not to stop trying just because the first attempt fails. So in class today, when I put my hands on the floor and my feet against the wall and they slid right back down, I tried again, and again, and again.

It didn’t get easier. I didn’t see any improvement. I may never achieve a handstand, and I’m not setting that goal. But if I’m in a class where handstands are on the agenda, I’ll give it another shot. I might give up on specific goals. But I won’t give up on myself.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked! You can read about it here.