Best Reads of 2015

I have been meticulously keeping a list of my favorite books since January. This list was lovingly nurtured in the notes app of my iPhone. A few months ago, this iPhone had to be wiped clean. And AWAY went my precious list. As a result, I had to go to Hicklebee’s, our local independent children's book store—which also happens to have the most fantastic selection of books for grown ups—to reconstruct my list. After about 5 minutes of grumbling to myself for not backing up my iPhone, I began to enjoy reconnecting with the paper “friends” I had made over the course of the year.

I also realized that bookstores heal all that ails me. In fact, when I die, can you decorate the church like a bookstore and read quotes from Professor Dumbledore and anything written by Elizabeth Gilbert? Thanks.

I’m glad we got that cleared up.

And now, here are my favorite reads of 2015.

Fiction

Ruby This book reminded me of Song of Solomon in the best possible way: it pulled me in with language, a sense of place, and blended reality with a heavy dose of magic that would have given Gabriel Garcia Marquez a run for his money. It is the telling of an unthinkable fate for a little girl. But the telling of Ruby's story is so beautiful, so full of love and hope, and the characters so vivid, it makes you want to be strong for Ruby. Or as Ephraim says to her:

“If you brave enough to live it, least I can do is listen.”

Ruby made me remember that even the greatest traumas can begin their healing in small acts of love and noticing.

ConstellationIf I'm being honest here... had I read the book’s description, I never would have picked it up. A novel about war torn Chechnya circa mid 90s? Nope. Luckily, I fell in love with the title and the little blue suitcase on the cover and off I went. Not only was I amazed by the history of this part of the world, it gave me fresh perspective on the plight of refugees fleeing Syria. There are too many parallels to count, but never again will I ask the stupid question “Why do these refugees keep coming even though they know they’ll probably die in the effort?” Like Ruby, Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a story of love, connection and hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. And the writing? Lord have mercy, Anthony Marra can write.

lightYou have probably read this book already, given that it’s on the top of every list in the universe, not to mention that it won the Pulitzer Prize. This book is worth the hype. Even my husband liked it, and we were able to discuss it. This has not happened since he finally got around to reading Lord of the Rings back in 2001. No joke.

 

ReadyI hereby nominate Ready Player One as the “Feel Good Dystopian Sci-Fi Novel of the Year.” When this was chosen in my book club, many of the gals had misgivings. It’s about virtual reality, post-pubescent boys and is filled with vintage video game trivia, for heaven’s sake! But almost every single one of us raved about it when we met to discuss it. The 80s references will have you cheering out loud in public places. RED DAWN! FERRIS BEULER! He even quotes Howard Jones!

Ready Player One is a really good time. Trust.

 

handI am embarrassed to admit this, but until this year, I had never read a single Margaret Atwood book. And to think I call myself a feminist...

The premise of this book is so chilling, and so completely plausible that it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. I listened to it on my Audible app, with Claire Daines as the reader and it BLEW MY MIND. BLEW IT. It was creepy and every bit as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1986. Maybe more so! Which is incredibly depressing. But I couldn’t turn it off. It’s one of those sit-in-your-car-long-after-you’ve-arrived books.

 

Non Fiction

YesOh my GOD you have to download this immediately. It must be listened to for several reasons: a) Amy Poehler’s voice is so effing funny and generous as she reads, I feel like Amy and I are now super tight friends. (Amy, call me. Seriously). Anyway, the guest appearances on the Audible are too many to count, but my favorite without a doubt is the non sequitur casting of Kathleen Turner. And the stories?? Are you kidding me?!? My favorite was when she tells of being in first class on a flight with Tina Fay and the ensuing confrontation with another passenger. The end of this scene made me laugh so hard I almost lost control of my car. I was driving 70 mph. It could have been really bad. Totally worth it, though.

magicOh Liz!!! May I call you that, Liz? This is a magical book you have written, Liz. Truly. I will read it over and over again. It’s like you crawled into my head, examined all of the darkest corners, shined your fairy dust flashlight on them, and gently lead me into the light of day, dusting off my cobwebs as you went. Thank you for writing this book. I will treasure it always.

P.S. Is there anything you can’t do? Just last year Signature of All Things was at the top of my list, and now this? I can’t even…

 

girlI REALLY loved this memoir from Kim Gordon, bass player, guitar player, vocalist and general badass from the band Sonic Youth. Kim Gordon’s writing style is exactly what you would hope for: low key, evocative and razor sharp. For any of us kids coming of age in the era of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon represented the ultimate cool band woman. She was stoic, brave and could totally hang with the most dour and serious dudes of the grunge scene. In fact, I think she probably intimidated them most of the time.

Discovering that Kim Gordon's trademark stoicism was a coping mechanism for growing up with a schizophrenic brother reminded me that even the coolest among us are carrying grief and agony. It reminded me that nothing is ever what it seems—not even in sunny Southern California. Maybe especially not in sunny Southern California.

Gordon captures the vibe of the place, and the laissez faire parenting style so many of us grew up with. You could almost see the quality of afternoon light in the scenes she describes. But best of all were the little vignettes... the moments when we get to drop in on a house party as she watches Henry Rollins and Black Flag tear through a set in somebody’s kitchen. Or the part when she calls Billy Corgan a “cry baby” and describes the hideous dance of narcissism between he and Courtney Love during their alleged affair.  This did sting a little, because I was a huge Hole and Smashing Pumpkins fan. I cried right alongside Billy Corgan on pretty much every album he ever made with the Smashing Pumpkins. Whatever. This book was a joy to read.

That's my list, friends.

I thank all of the authors on this list who slaved away in a lonely state of creativity, and pushed through the self doubt and procrastination, and produced these beautiful books. An extra shout out to Anthony Marra, author of Constellation of Vital Phenomena, for actually responding to my breathless fan mail.

 

 

My Podcasts, My Self : Top Five Must Hears

My Podcasts, My Self : Top Five Must Hears

My name is Bronwyn, and I am a stimulation junkie. I am that person at the long stoplight who is engaged in a full blown white-knuckles-gripping-the-steering-wheel battle with temptation over whether or not to grab the phone and check email while I wait for the light to change. I know, I know. It’s not great.

Rather than fight the fact that I’m a stimulation junkie, I've decided to embrace it. In fact, I've decided that Obsessive Facebook and Constant Email Checking are truly lame stimulants compared with a FAR more interesting drug of choice …

Podcasts.

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

I saw a quote the other day that kind of rocked my world: “There is no competition among wild women. They are too damn wild to be caught in a tiny space of envy. Instead, they dance together and allow the good to flow abundantly to them.”

- the Crone’s Grove

Contrast this with the story of the lobsters I heard a while back:

A chef and her sous-chef are boiling lobsters to serve to their customers that night, and the sous-chef says, “Don’t we need a lid on that pot? The lobsters will crawl out if it’s open like that.”

 The chef replies, “Nah, if one tries to escape, the others drag it back down. No lid required.”

If you look at these two stories side by side, they both feel very familiar. Both whisper some important questions…

How do I want to live?

How do I become less lobster, more wild woman?

When you frame it like that, going the path of the wild woman seems pretty compelling. But why do wild women seem so rare? Why are they always just a small segment of our friend populations? And what does it really mean to be wild?

When I say “wild” I don’t necessarily mean the kind of wildness that leads to bad choices and severe hangovers. That’s the cheap knock-off version of wildness. (Although, who among us hasn’t been there?) I’m talking about real wildness that allows a perfectly average woman in her middle years to strike out and do something brand new in her life. I’m talking about boldness, creativity, and a balls-out strategy to follow her own music—whatever that music is.

Wild Women Everywhere

I began to really think about who in my life reveals that kind of wildness, not by virtue of her ability to swear like a truck driver (guilty), but because of her ability to do the unexpected, the unsafe.

I thought of my friend Erica, who after many years in corporate America started her own personal training/nutrition business. She’s such a wild woman she actually named her business Green Goddess Studios. So badass.

I thought of my friend Ellen, who decided to give stage acting a try. She and a group of friends (also wild women and men!) decided to write and stage a performance of Alice in La La Land, loosely based on Alice in Wonderland. Ellen said she was scared out of her mind, but had the time of her life. Seeing her in full stage makeup in photos on Facebook filled me with such joy, it almost felt like I was the one performing.

Or how about my posse of friends who competed in our School’s Amazing Race, and dressed up in crazy costumes and performed various feats of strength and insanity over the course of an afternoon just because. I watched my friend Stacey balance a bucket of water on her head while traversing a patch of grass in swimming fins, looking like a complete nut job, and having the time of her life, while my other friend Laurie did laps in a giant kayak inside of a backyard swimming pool. There was no booze involved that I could see. This was just wild women doing their thang.

My own inner wildness gets let out every morning when I take 30 minutes on the porch in the early dawn hours to write. Or when I make it to my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class and grapple with a bunch of dudes and a few totally badass dudettes. It’s not like I’m any good at it—I barely make it past the 5 second mark. But it’s thrilling, and I leave feeling alive and electric.

Wild women have something in common—wild women are working on that set of emotional/spiritual/psychological muscles that allow them to burn less and less energy seeking approval from the outside world. Wild women are constantly learning new ways to tune out the “shoulds” and tune in to the “what ifs?” Wild women know how to balance the groundedness required to be good mothers, partners, friends, and professionals with the untethered energy required to follow their curiosity and their bliss.

Wild women get butterflies more often than the rest of us. If Rob Bell is right when he says: “…getting butterflies is just your body’s way of telling you you’re still in the game,” then these queens are most definitely still in the game.

I think our culture wants us to believe that wild woman = dangerous, irresponsible woman. But I think what’s actually true is that wild woman = whole, integrated woman.

So, as we live in the practical, the here and now… as we face the bone-crunching process of re-entry into a new school year… as we go to the grocery store, figure out carpool schedules and pack lunches, let’s also schedule time to honor that wild woman inside of each of us. That inner Stevie Nicks who so badly wants to prance around in flowy scarves and grab that microphone. As Stevie says, “Lightnin’ strikes, maybe once, maybe twice… it all comes down to you.”

So do it now. This second. Open your calendar. Schedule time for wildness. Even if it means doodling or sketching something crazy in a notebook for 10 minutes while you’re waiting for your next meeting. It could involve cranking up the music and getting your grind on for a few minutes before picking the kids up at school. It might just require you to do a cartwheel on your front lawn before going into the house. Your will leave your children, neighbors, or spouse speechless. And you will find you have a great big grin on your beautiful face.

'Tis Better to Receive

I have a really hard time accepting compliments. It’s not that I brush them off, or discourage them. My problem is that I get so excited about receiving a compliment, I sort of disassociate. I’m not really there to receive the kind words. I get this fleeting hit of goodness, but I can’t quite remember what was said, or by whom. It makes me wonder if the problem isn’t the compliment, but the act of receiving that is my problem. Receiving is tricky business for women. We are implicitly taught that our greatest good is always in giving. Give until it hurts. Give to show everyone that you are a good wife, mother, citizen of the world. Give without expectation. Give. Be agreeable. Say “yes.”

And while this all sounds very nice and holy and selfless, I’m now 41 years into this “give” mentality, and I gotta tell you, it’s exhausting. At this point, I have a hard time distinguishing between what I am joyfully interested in giving, and what I’m giving out of guilt or a desire to be liked. I’m too tired or busy executing the giving to really notice how I feel about the giving.

Just the word makes me feel uncomfortable. Receive? Gross. If I receive, then that means I’ll owe someone something. That means I’ll get trapped into even more GIVING. Receiving is so passive. It’s kinda wimpy.

But I also wondered, what kind of vibes am I sending if I’m closed to really receiving? It can't be good. What kind of life perks am I missing out on? Rather than just wonder about it, I decided to do an experiment. I decided to expect to receive good things from life, and to stay present and open when these good things show up. I was curious to see if it made any real difference.

Here’s what I learned:

My Brain the Unicorn Finder Within the first few days, I was bombarded by moments of receiving, both large and small. Just tuning my brain to seek out moments of receiving created the perception of an increase of blessings being showered upon me. It seems that there is evidence to suggest that this is a real phenomenon, but seeing it first hand was a shocker. On one hectic day, I had a client cancel, and realized it was the perfect pocket of time to take a walk and listen to Serial (my all time favorite thing). Then there was the batch of loquats (best fruit ever) that showed up via my in-laws. My dear friend Christina gave me a book on the secret history of Wonder Woman. Another friend (this time Kristina with a “k”) brought me a specially made batch of essential oils all the way from Seattle. BAM! BAM! BAM! One good thing after another. And those are only a few! There were many more. It was like an aperture in my brain opened up to perceive the receiving opportunities, and a fire hose worth of little, delicious blessings poured in.

I Was Asking for It I also found that articulating my need out loud was like waving a magic wand. I am ashamed to admit that I rely heavily on other people’s ability to read my mind. Especially my poor husband. If you're getting serious about receiving, there has to be an asking aspect right? All that "ask and ye shall receive" business? So for Mother’s Day this year, I decided to state clearly what my wishes were for my day. I wanted to feel loved and celebrated by my family, and then I wanted time in silence, in nature, and then some time to go shopping. My wish was Sal’s command. He and the kids each shared what they loved about me as we drove to Mass, and I forced myself to be present and take in what they were saying, and found myself crying some very happy tears. After Mass, I spent my morning wandering in the trees on a beautiful hike in Saratoga, and then quickly scurried through the sale rack at Calypso, snapping up an awesome dress for an upcoming trip. I came home to a husband wearing a man apron, making a whole mess of ribs for dinner. There is nothing sexier than a man making ribs for his woman. Lemme tell you.

Make the Request, But Lose the Attachment By far the most unexpected moment of receiving had to be what I consider the “U2 Debacle of 2015.” There are only two performers that I will see in a large stadium environment: Bruce Springsteen and U2. I just can’t take being in a closed environment with so many people. It drains me and makes me want to curl up in a fetal position. But U2 and the Boss are like going to church. There’s unity, love, and joy in that space. It feels nourishing rather than depleting. So of course when I heard U2 was coming to town, I was all in. Except that I never got my act together to buy tickets. I was so angry at myself, so full of self loathing over this. But once my experiment in receiving was underway, I decided to just turn it over to the Universe. If I’m meant to go, I’ll go. If not, I’ll do something else and all will be well.  A few days later, Sal forwarded an email from a friend inviting us to the show. I laughed out loud when I saw it… Of course! I received that gift with open arms, and Sal and I rocked out and got lost in a Bono-induced nostalgia fest. Here's a snapshot.

bono

Intuition as a Portkey Do you remember in the Harry Potter story how simply touching a portkey would transport any wizard to wherever he or she needed to go? This experiment taught me over and over again that intuition is like a portkey to receiving blessings. When that voice of intuition comes a callin’, get ready to take action, because good stuff lives on the other side. I was sitting in a client session with a very well known author. In fact, he authored one of my all time favorite works of fiction, and I could hardly believe he was asking me for on-stage storytelling support for a talk he would be giving. We had two fantastic sessions, and at the end of the second session, my intuition whispered in my ear… ask him what he’s working on…  I decided to go for it. “So, if you don't mind my asking—are you working on anything new?” Not only did he tell me all about his newest novel and the agony and strife of writing it, he actually showed me a time lapse video of himself, white boarding some of the larger plot points and character elements. As a wanna-be writer myself, I have always dreamed of asking an author I admire to tell me how the process goes in inventing a world, a story, a character. I sat in awe and gratitude at the humble and generous way he shared the details of his own writing process. It left me speechless. And he sent me away with signed copies of two of his books, something I will treasure for the rest of my life.

As I sit here in this cafe, writing this, I’m noticing bubbles floating through the air, probably from a nearby toy shop. I’m reflecting that I’ve been noticing bubbles a lot lately in various places. A quick Google search revealed that many believe bubbles are a sign of everyday moments of magic. That’s what this experiment has taught me: life is practically throwing itself at us, begging to be noticed. It’s hoping we notice the colors on the hummingbird’s neck as it zooms past. It’s praying we allow our hearts to feel the magnitude of a child’s whisper of “I lub you, mommy.” As Walt Whitman said, “..the sidewalks are littered with postcards from God.”

If nothing else, my receiving experiment has taught me this: The blessings have been there all along, it’s been my opportunity to notice them. I now know that yes, it is wonderful to give, but it is absolutely sublime to receive.

 

Magic Mike, Margaritas and the Art of Free Fall

A few days ago, a group of us treated ourselves to cocktails, dinner and Magic Mike XL. I’m not usually a male stripper kind of person, but after seeing Mr. Tatum’s performance in Magic Mike #1, there was a zero percent chance of missing a redux. As we sat drinking our margaritas, each of us shared the high and low points of our summers thus far. It was remarkable how fundamentally similar our situations were. We truly are in the “sandwich” phase : we are the meat of an aging parent + raising young children sando.

Our parents really didn’t experience this the same way. They had kids at a younger age, so by the time their parents were at the critical point, the kiddos were all growds up, and likely out of the house.

But us? Today? Not so much. We got married later, we likely had kids later, and as a result… it’s happening all at once. Young kids and aging parents, yes, but also let’s not forget trying to keep our careers on point, and our marriages humming and satisfying. It’s no wonder so many of us numb ourselves with wine and TV every night. We are exhausted and anxious. And guilty. GOD the guilt!

This is bigger than just a “balancing act." This phase of life forcibly dismantles old beliefs. Magical thinking. Avoidance behavior. It’s all out the window. The sandwich being served is big fat reality sandwich.

For example, I’m quite fond of this long held belief. Perhaps you are familiar with it as well:

“If I work hard, keep my little patch of life high and tight and organized, nothing bad will ever happen!!!”

In other words, if I exercise and eat right, no cancer!! If I’m financially conservative, no unpleasant and unexpected money issues will come my way!! If I read all the right parenting books, I won’t screw up my kids!!!

But this phase of life seems to be ripping out that old belief and replacing it with a new one:

There are no guarantees, and we are all doing the best we can.

In other words, there’s no magical force field protecting your house from the proverbial wrecking ball of a rapidly deteriorating situation with an aging parent, or loved one. Or a marriage.

This belief also robs you of that smug satisfaction of judging someone else’s poor choices that lead to a bankruptcy, or a teenager hooked on drugs, or the IRS garnishing wages due to lack of payment. Because no matter how hard any of us try, or how “mindfully” we live, shit happens in ways we are completely blindsided by.

There are no guarantees and we are all doing the best we can.

This belief is painful and disorienting. In fact, it feels like free fall. And I’m not a huge fan of that sensation. It makes me feel like my heart will beat out of my chest, and land on this here keyboard. But it also makes me think of Alice down the rabbit hole.  After she had been falling for a while, she started to notice her surroundings. She had time to muse, and wonder, and even grabbed a book off of a passing bookshelf as she fell. She reached this moment of “Ok, this is happening to me. Now what?”

This thought gives me some measure of comfort. I’m beginning to see that the “sandwich” phase is perhaps misnamed. This phase of life has far more in common with falling down the rabbit hole - where the people who were once infallible and indestructible become vulnerable. Delicate. Dependent. It’s a place where time seems to pass in alarming bursts and then slows to a sickening, nightmarish crawl. It’s a place where the person you thought you were transmutes into something less clear cut, but potentially more interesting. It’s a place where logic and fairness barely enter into it, but surrender and acceptance become immediate lifelines, while empathy and patience your only means of long term survival.

It makes you realize that you have always been falling. You were just too busy making choices to notice.

That night out with my girlfriends was the perfect way to spend an evening in the Rabbit Hole. If Alice had been lucky enough to have some pals with her as she fell, they probably would have linked up like skydivers and made a groovy formation in mid air.

Doing the best we can sometimes means linking arms, telling our stories, drinking margs, laughing and strutting into a dark theater to watch Channing Tatum (noun) Channing Tatum (verb). It turned out the theater was filled with other women, linked in groovy formations.

Sometimes, when you find yourself in the Rabbit Hole, the best thing to do is to find your people, link up and fall together.

(Dedicated to my GTP - getcher hands up!)

Midlife Crisis or Stroke of Genius? My Adventures in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

BJJ A few months ago, during one of our “fun” weekends away together, my two best friends forced me to watch an episode of that BBC series The Fall. In case you've never seen it, It stars Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson. Jamie is a serial killer of women (I felt extremely confused watching certain scenes in 50 Shades of Grey because of this), and Gillian is his brilliant detective foil. The episode we watched ended with Dornan working very hard to choke a woman who is tied to a bed. She watches in horror and terror as he tries and tries to squeeze her windpipe until she stops breathing. His hand strength isn’t quite up to the task, this being his first victim and all, so it takes a long, long time. He later works on his hand muscles so the next victim is easier.

When the show was over, I couldn't sleep. I was anxious and felt incredibly vulnerable. And not in that awesome Brene Brown kind of way. It seemed so easy for this character to break into women’s homes. By the time his victim would register that a window was broken, it was game over. The victim’s ability to defend herself physically was pretty pathetic. Jamie Dornan is ripped. It’s hard to out-muscle a dude, even if you are a woman in top physical condition. Talking to my husband about all of this, he said, “That’s why I want our daughters to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. If a woman is attacked, she isn’t able to stand around and spar. She needs to learn how to fight from the floor.”

That did it for me. Because here's what I know for sure: I REFUSE to go down easily if some sociopath ever tries to jump me in the street, or in my home for that matter. But here's what else I know for sure: I have ZERO tools for dealing with a real attack.

Holding those two competing truths in mind, I decided to give Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a try. I mean, how hard could it be? I've survived Lisa's Boot Camp. I've given birth three times. I mean, I can do this right?

Here's what happened.

Getcher Gi On

It’s a Wednesday night, and I am in the changing area of the studio, taking stock of my reflection in the mirror, wearing the heavy cotton Gi that is the official BJJ uniform. It’s not a good look for me. In fact, I laugh out loud at myself, but quickly stop when I realize the vibe of class is more like being in church than in a gym. My classmates are dead serious, and I am beginning to piss them off.

Class begins with everyone standing in a long line, shoulder to shoulder. I shuffle into what I’m guessing is the “beta” section in a room full of “alphas,” but seconds later, I feel giant man hands on my shoulders and a fellow student says, "We're really glad you're here and everything? But you're in the black belt section." I am escorted firmly but kindly to the very end of the line. I feel sure my face will melt off.

Time to Woman Up

The Wednesday evening Fundamentals class is taught by an alarmingly young instructor named Vitor Paschoal. It turns out that Vitor already has a black belt, having achieved this feat at the age of 22. Vitor begins class by teaching a series of moves that cause me to wonder what the hell I have gotten myself into. He begins in a standing position, facing his opponent, his hands clutching different places on the opponent’s Gi. Then he somehow uses his foot placed at the top of his opponent’s thigh, then hops up, wrapping both legs around his opponent’s back, slides his back down the opponent’s legs, and ends up shoulders on the ground. From this position, he once again uses leverage to somehow wrap his body around the opponent, causing the opponent to fall dramatically backwards on the mat with a loud SLAP.

Vitor looks at everyone and says, “Everybody got this? Any questions?”

No one has any questions.

“Great," says Vitor, "Go find your partner." And I am left standing there. In my giant diaper. I mean Gi.

It is at this moment that I give serious thought to slinking out the door.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is terrifying to me not just because of the physicality and, frankly, the physical intimacy of it, but because I’m afraid I'm so pathetic that no one will want to be my partner. I haven’t felt that way since high school. And that is entirely by design. I mean why would any sane person put themselves in a position of guaranteed humiliation? By choice! I guess I could have partnered with the only other woman in the class, but she seems so confident and intimidating it doesn’t even cross my mind to partner with her. She's just too amazing.

After a few seconds that stretch out like geologic time, another instructor—Marco— materializes beside me. Like a baby bird, I imprint on Marco, who becomes my savior for the next 60 minutes.

I Am Leverage, Not Muscle

While the other groups of two practice the sequence, Marco explains that Jiu Jitsu is not about who is strongest. It is about figuring out what leverage you have, and exploiting that leverage using the moves you learn each time you come to class. “After a while,” he says, “you build kind of a library in your mind of different moves to match different situations.”

For a second I fantasize about Jamie Dornan trying to jump me in a parking lot stairwell. I imagine his surprise as I tackle him, I see his eyes bulging as I choke him. I am just about to kill this imaginary Jamie when I realize Marco is waiting for me to stand up and practice the move I’ve just learned.

I cannot believe how winded I am after each sequence. And while the movements are pre-set and have awesome names like “the Ezekiel,” and “the Guillotine,” the entire experience of sparring in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is all improvisation, but based on very specific choreography. I'm not particularly athletic, and God knows I'm not a sporty kind of gal, but choreography? That I can do. I think to myself, maybe I can actually do this.

As a class, we learn 3 other sequences, and before I know it, an hour has passed. The class ends the same way it began—we line up (this time I know my place in the pack). We slap our palms on our thighs as we bow, then shake hands and thank the instructors, and our classmates individually as we file past one another, the line snaking in on itself. More than one sweaty, burly, more advanced classmate smiles at me and says, "good job today." I am so elated, so proud of myself and so overcome by the kindness and camaraderie shown to me after just one class that I ignore the fact that I am standing—in my bare feet, mind you—in a puddle of someone else’s sweat.

Upon leaving the mats, I return to Saint Marco (as I now think of him) and thank him, and ask if I should partner with him again next time, given how remedial I am compared to everyone else. He smiles, and gently suggests that I find a woman to work with, if possible.

"You might feel more comfortable. Me? I am Brazilian. I don't care. But some people feel strange about wrapping their legs around someone they don't know if it’s a man."

I turn purple once again, as it now dawns on me that I have just spent the better part of the hour doing exactly this with Saint Marco. I later reflected in a distant sort of way how attractive all the instructors are, but honestly, I am too busy surviving class without soiling myself to really notice. In fact, rarely do I notice this. There is such an air of intense respect in this studio that people’s appearances don’t even register. It’s like this crazy little bubble of sweat, silence and focus. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

The Gi Goes On

By the next class, I am able to take Marco's advice and pair up with another woman. The first woman I roll with is a purple belt. She is kind, feminine and gorgeous. Somehow her Gi looks elegant and correct (Mine still looks like a giant wool diaper). I am overwhelmed with relief to have found my partner, but half way through, she bails. She moves to the other end of the studio to train for a major Jiujitsu competition. It occurrs to me that she will face another woman on the mat, will wrestle with everything she’s got, and one of them will emerge victorious. I feel as though I have slipped into the rabbit hole, and all of the rules of femininity and beauty no longer apply. It makes me wish I could have slipped into this rabbit hole a long time ago.

It’s now been 10 or so classes, and every time I pull up to the studio, I fight the urge to go to Starbucks instead, drink a latte, and check Facebook.

My ego hates Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and wants nothing to do with it. After all, BJJ is easily the most humbling part of my week. At work I feel sure of my capabilities and I know I'm good at what I do. At home, I'm loved unconditionally and feel completely safe. But on the mat? I'm the lowest of the low. I am most likely the cause of snickering and even pity. And I don’t even get to wear a cute outfit. As if that isn't bad enough, I am by far the oldest person out there most days, and often the only woman, and believe me, none of the guys are particularly phased or impressed by my presence.

But my soul -- my soul loves BJJ. It gets my mind into the present moment. I surrender any need to liked, any need to show off, any need to be anything other than what I am: a humble beginner. After an hour, I feel like my mind has gotten a delicious rest from its own crazy loops. I feel rested. Electric. And ready to kick ass. More than once have I gleefully demonstrated the Guillotine choke hold or scissor sweep on my poor unsuspecting husband. I think he secretly likes it.

I recently overheard the owner of the studio, Caio Terra, coaching his students before a competition (as an aside, little did we know that Caio is a 9 time black belt world champion and famous in the world of BJJ). In his wonderful Brazilian accent Caio said,

"Whatever emotions you feel as you compete… embrace them. Fear? Nerves? Excitement? Welcome them all in. Why? Because this is being alive. Feel the emotions, and get on with it."

Maybe that's why I’m still showing up to Jiu Jitsu. When I leave the mat, every fiber of my being: every cell, every vein and artery, they all hum with aliveness. At age 41, I guess I'm finally up for that kind of living.

OSS!!!!!