Squinting into the wind, I looked up at the big, grey cloud threatening rain above me. Surrounded by light blue sky and jolly white puffy clouds, I nearly laughed: the menacing cloud was actually the shape of a heart. At that moment, I knew what I wanted my gravestone to say.
“Leave when it’s still good.” Of course. I smiled happily to myself.
You may think it morbid that naming my gravestone would bring me such pleasure; alas, I had been thinking about death most of the morning. The death of women past, to be clear. Most recently, the death of my partner’s grandmother, Babe, and her sister, Mary-Jane. Unlike Babe, who suffered from dementia in her later years, Mary-Jane died at age 99 the brain of a fox. Babe and Mary-Jane had been apart for some years, no longer able to travel to each other’s states to meet. And yet they remained with one another in spirit. In fact, it was Babe’s inability to recall Mary-Jane that helped my partner’s mom begin the grieving process for her mother. Her mother’s spirit that was lost, evident in the fact that her mind could no longer recall loved ones.
My move to Seattle in March to live with my partner’s family is related to the passing of his grandmother. Like many elderly, Babe had accumulated years of treasured-- and not-so-treasured-- items in her home. My partner’s family had moved into the home years ago to better care for Babe. Now, the sorting process: what to keep? What to heap? What will make us weep? Their goal is to sell the home within a few years; there’s a lot of items, and memories, to get through before then.
As I walked down the seaside, thinking of the mind in death, women past, and their home thereafter, I realized my last relocation was also connected with the death of a special lady. Shortly after my move from the States to England I visited the home of my deceased heroine, Auntie Val. Val was actually my Grandmother’s Aunt. My grandparents and I had the task of clearing her fantastic home to prepare it for sale. It’s very difficult to describe the type of emotion I felt at that time; something like adoration, loneliness, and spirituality. Each trinket we picked up had a story; my Grandmother surprised herself by the memories she held of my Aunt. Like Babe, Auntie Val lost her self-sufficiency to the recesses of dementia. Like my partner’s mom, my grandmother dissociates the woman Val was in her final years as being different from the woman’s travels, tales, and talkative nature. Her legacy.
We may think that Mary-Jane left when it was still good, her brain communicating with her body. I think otherwise. I think all the ladies left when it was still good, because their legacy was established. Even though their bodies and minds died at different rates, these women’s legacies were created before, and lived on after, their actual passing.
Many people lightly explain yoga as “mind-body” connection. But that’s a very reductionist view of the pursuit. Us yogis realize our mind and body is already connected: when we practice pranayama, we come to see that we breathe all day long without actively thinking about it. We use yoga to become aware of that connection, and then move past it. We see that something special is created when our mind and body merge. That is our legacy, our spirit, the difference between ourselves and a cadaver. Without the body there is no mind; without the mind there is no body; put them together, and there’s a fully functioning human. If that’s all it takes to make us function, then what makes certain people shine? What lives on after they’ve died? What happens to the human when just one part of the mind-body connection wavers?
When we mourn someone’s passing, we grieve their complete human packages. Not their mind; not their body; but the way they choose to live their life. By making decisions that establish their unique objectives and persona, they create a legacy. One day at a time, for many, many years. When that legacy is detailed in stories passed through generations, then that character lives on. One of my mantras is, “WWAVD?”-- what would Auntie Val do? With her legacy, I create mine.
When I was clearing out Auntie Val’s house, I remember thinking quite clearly that when I died, I wanted to die like her-- a lady with a life of great stories, who was remembered for her positive attributes and who’s legacy would be carried on. Now, preparing to help clear the house of another lady, I experienced the same feeling of timelessness. As I walked, I visualized my gravestone and the woman buried below it.
I had gone on the walk that morning to blow off steam. I was supposed to be earning money. Instead, a client cancelled on me. It was the fourth time that week. After thinking of grandmothers, death, and trinkets for some time, I wondered why I wasn’t bothered by the lack of income I’d had that week. I realized that the legacy I wanted to create was not, “Obsessive about money.” In fact...
That woman’s legacy was not on her plate.
That woman’s legacy was not in her bank account.
That woman’s legacy was not in her harmful habits.
That woman’s legacy was not in her social anxiety.
That woman’s legacy was not in her wine glass.
That woman’s legacy was not in blind ambition.
That woman’s legacy was not in her egotism.
That woman’s legacy was not in her rude outbursts.
That woman’s legacy was not in her silence.
That woman’s legacy was not in her workaholism.
Suddenly, my values poured into my heart like a raincloud just burst. I saw my sisters; my partner; I saw my parents; I saw my own healthy body; I saw a curious mind; I saw new friends; I saw adventure; I saw a comfortable retirement; I saw pain, sacrifice; I saw success, and love. I knew that every step, every day, every rain cloud represented another chance to assert the woman that would eventually die. The woman who lived life with a big heart, grey or white or any other color.
Upon my entrance to my flat, the big heart cloud poured rain on Malta. I rejoiced in my good timing. I didn’t expect to be so lucky again. But if I lived as the brave women did before me, I could handle the next storm. I might even turn it into a story...
I’ll never forget when I first met Josette. I was trudging up the hill from St. Julian’s into Ta Giorni, the first time of what would become many a forlorn commute. I had given myself three days to find a job, a flat, and some semblance of a Maltese identity. At least that was how long I’d asked my Couchsurfer to host me for. I was mid-way through a day full of timetables, apartment viewings, interviews, bus rides, currency exchanges, etcetera. Typical to Malta in spring, the wind was howling. I was trying desperately to keep my interview-ready hair free of sweat and dust while navigating around a place I’d never been with limited access to WiFi. Exasperated, I thought, “I need to eliminate some variables here.”
That’s when I rounded the corner onto Josette’s hair salon. I don’t recall what it’s name was; just the classy brand, a silhouette surrounded by a wave of hair that looked much better in the wind than mine. Checking my watch, I decided that 15 minutes was plenty of time for a capable stylist to chop my hair off. I charged in.
It was the first time I’d receive a most characteristic Maltese gaze, the one they reserve for foreigners who they do not expect to notice. It is like being regarded and disregarded at once; like looking into someone’s eyes that are shaded by a hat in the sun. “Are you available to give me a haircut? One that’s very short?!” I asked.
Fumbling with my mobile phone, I Googled ‘Emma Watson short hair.’
“Like this,” I said, displaying the image of Emma Watson with a Twiggy-style do.
Josette jutted her chin out, made a soft clicking noise, and muttered mela. It was the first time I’d here the resourceful term. “So short?” she asked, peering at me over her spectacles.
“Yes. I have fifteen minutes. Can you do it in fifteen minutes?”
I pointed the clock, on the hour. “Can we finish by one?”
Her mouth partially open, she looked at me, the clock, and the photo. “Your name?” she asked.
“Emily. What’s yours?”
Shaking her head slightly, she stood up with a sigh. “Josette.”
That was the 9th of February 2016, the first of many serendipitous days that have made my lucky life in Malta. Jogging up the street with a new sweat-free coif, I did in fact claim the next flat I looked at. Jogging back down the street an hour later, I did in fact land the next job I interviewed for. It was like getting launched from a rocket. And now, after flying so high for two years, landfall is finally in-view: I’ll be moving from Malta this March, two years and one month from when I launched.
My relationship with Josette in many ways encapsulates my successful journey here. With time to spare and feeling guilty for the momentary havoc I’d wrecked on her otherwise peaceful salon, I popped in to thank her again. By way of her customer, who provided translations when Josette and I couldn’t make ourselves understood, Josette asked me about my life-- where was I from? Was I living here? Did I work? When I explained the situation, Josette started “WhatsApp”-ing madly. She connected me with people who had flats to rent and told her friends about my yoga classes. My original interpretation of her being standoffish was incorrect. Consequently, it would be the first of many times I misunderstood Maltese interactions.
My first job was as a waitress at the Hilton. I only planned to work part-time, wanting the locally-based gig so that I could get a bank account, a steady income, and a few friends. In fact, I worked overtime, commuting past Josette’s hair salon twice daily. When Josette was there she waved gaily at me, and often came to the door asking me to come in for a chat. For the first few months I would stay, comforted by the warmth and familiarity. We didn’t speak much, as her English was limited, but she always asked how I was getting along in Malta. As I became more consumed in my own life, I stopped finding time for Josette.
Eventually, I transitioned from working at the Hilton to teaching yoga and Pilates; writing; and picking up other odd jobs. The next time I was to see Josette was at The Corinthia Hotel’s pool. I had my head down, sneaking in from the seaside between SUP yoga lessons to grab a much-needed coffee. “Emily!” I heard in her uniquely hoarse voice.
“Josette!” I squealed, hugging her (with a sigh of relief- she wasn't pool security).
“These are my grandkids!” she proudly displayed two kids who gave me one eyeball of an acknowledgment as they snacked on hobz sandwiches that I could tell were lovingly folded by Josette’s own hands. Dozens of other children and a score of mothers and grandmothers sat nearby. Curiously, the Maltese love big hotel amenities as much as tourists. Many families book summer-long discounted memberships to hotel pools, spending the summer splashing full-price paying visitors with a callous lack of remorse. Josette was delighted to see me in my bikini that day, earning an income in the sun and sea. She clucked and smiled, a round mother hen.
Like a typical expat, I soon left my home on the edge of San Gwann for the more centrally-located and posh area in Sliema. On one typically crazed day, nearly a year since I’d seen Josette smiling with her grandkids at the pool, I flicked on Facebook to see a notice at the top of my newsfeed: Josette had passed away in the night. She was less than 60 years old. I read the posts on her wall. There were many from people just like me, who’d met Josette on a whim and been captivated by her compassion. I sat there recalling every time I’d run past her hair salon offering barely a nod as she smiled and waved. I wrote a simple Facebook note on her wall, thanking her. It felt hollow.
My next class passed by in a daze. I drove the long way home past Josette’s hair salon. The blinds were down; the sign said “Closed;” a wreath was on the door. I felt weak. A week later I passed by on the way to a client’s house who happened to live on the same street. There was a “For Sale” sign on the door.
After our class, my client mentioned saying that they were looking to buy a small studio where they could host their Balinese massage therapist. “There’s a hair salon down the street for sale,” the clients said. “I guess the lady who owned it had a heart attack.”
“Oh, you knew her? Do you know if we can get a good deal on the place?”
I stood looking at them, dumbfounded. Things got awkward.
“So sorry you lost your friend…”
It wasn’t until I said, “She was my first friend in Malta,” that I realized it was true.
That’s the thing about Malta. Fifteen minutes, six months, two years can pass in the blink of an eye. As soon as one expat comes the next one goes. As soon as one property is leased the next is put on the market. That’s why the Maltese have that look, that offish curiosity: they cleverly and cautiously navigate the ever-changing environment, aware of its cyclical nature.
I’d always said I would live at least two years in Malta, required that I achieved a long list of goals. With a boyfriend stuck Stateside, many a family event beckoning me home, and a taste for adventure, I will become another expat that came, tanned, made some money, and then left Malta. If I let my experience here disappear the way Josette’s presence did, I’ll forever regret it. I spend all day telling my clients they’re not too busy to invest in their body. Now it’s time to tell myself that I’m not too busy to invest in my memory, to honor this little rock that changed my worldview.
Stay tuned, my friends. During this final month in Malta I will blog daily, even if just a short “Maltese Moment.” I’ve spent the past two years burning my candle on both ends. As the moon rises, I’m ready to slow down, muse, and delight on this island life so that I can leave when it’s still good.
I was recently asked by one of my new yoga employers to describe my “yoga journey.” It was the type of email that I read, and then just sat staring at, fingers hovering over my keys, pinkie flicking expectantly like the twitch of a tired eye. My yoga journey? I didn’t realize I had one. My relationship to yoga is part of my relationship to my fitness. That’s related to my health. My health is the life force of my body. My body is vessel for my mind, creating the whole being that cradles my soul. To isolate yoga is like isolating a leaf from its tree trunk. What will drink the water? What will take the sun? In fact, there’s the matter of the sun and water themselves. A tree is a reflection of and dependent upon its surroundings. In the wrong soil, a tree will not grow.
This piece is my answer to the “yoga journey” question. My yoga journey is that of a young woman growing up. The story is of a physical being that changes as it interacts with the world. A body that responds to a mind that responds to limitless stimuli. Recognizing its own limitations, and the knowledge of others, this being seeks aid. My yoga journey is a story of ages, stages, and sages.
Stage 1: The Bullet
With little effort I am able to recall my first soccer game. I remember running on a breakaway. I can feel the soft thud of leather-polyester blend on my foot. My friend, a boy named Stuart, ran parallel to me, calling “Pass! Pass!” Little wisps of hair caught my eyelashes. My arms swung, propelling me. I kicked the ball. I’ve not got the faintest clue if Stuart received it. But I know my cheeks bunched in a smile.
Until the age of about 13 my physical and emotional selves were blissfully ignorant to their blissful ignorance to people’s comments about my “long legs” and the fact that my body might be somehow separated from my mind and health. I ran, kicked, jumped, ate, played, and loved without inhibition. My mother learned how to cope with her energetically reckless firstborn. My dad was my sage, a fisherman, soccer enthusiast, and ski-instructor. He named me “Bullet” because of the way my blue helmet head bobbed on skis down the mountain behind him. In summer I rollerbladed endlessly with my first friend-and-sage, Jenny Lucas. We fuelled with Dr. Pepper and raw cookie dough. Stretching and boys? Who had time?!
Sometimes, at night, I found a little hill in the greenbelt that wound its way through suburbia. I sat there with my black dog, stretching my feet in front of me, feeling the soft cement under my legs. Looking back, I think those dusky hours were my first savasana.
Stage 2: Delighted Detachment
It was around the age of 13 that I first conceptualized my body as separate from my soul. I will never forget the moment. I was in the shower listening to Destiny’s Child. It was in the home of my Auntie Val, a sage to me then and now (in memoriam). I glanced down at the warm water running over my body and for the first time saw curves. The water dropped from elevated sections of body like little rivers over cliff ledges. Since when was the possible? That’s when I learned to look at my body.
Throughout High School I explored my physical/ spiritual/ emotional connections with delighted detachment. I am truly blessed to be of sound mind, body, and spirit, so my American high school experience presented unlimited opportunities. Despite pimples and a big nose, my womanly features deemed me “hot.” At the same time I also explored spirituality, attending different religious gatherings with my family and journaling. Of course, I was forever an athlete, except athletics were social and stress-reducing activities. Friend-sage Jen Davis and I spent cross country practice flirting with boys or secretly eating chips and queso at her house, which was conveniently located on most of our running trails. As egotistical as all high schoolers are, I didn’t recognize sages of that time: Coach Selle, my cross country coach who expressed such patience, knowing my chattering mouth inhibited what would surely have been a stellar running career. Staci Stech, my English teacher with a cool demeanor and love for written words who demonstrated spiritual writing. My boyfriends, whose love and curiosity taught me the meaning of deeper relationships.
It was during this stage that I also witnessed my first yogi. I cannot recall where, I think probably the local “rec center.” I just remember seeing this man in loose, thin, lungi-style brown trousers. He was in happy baby position. So, I saw everything he used to make his baby happy. I remember feeling totally repulsed. I swore I would never do yoga.
Stage 3: Foundations
I went through intense psychoanalytical changes from the ages of 17-22. I see this stage as a slow-growth process of foundation building that dictates the rest of my life. While I became sexy, strong, and bountiful, I slowly developed into a pawn of social pressures that formulated negative personal habits. I loved my body and it loved me back. I was athletic, smart enough to study, excitable, and feminine. And yet I remember one scene, at the age of 17. My friends and I had come back from a late party and were eating bags of chips. One friend complained about her belly; another her butt. We all acknowledged that I had “the best body” and it was “because I worked out.” Comments like these incited my doing short exercise videos in my room after school, before dinner. This was the first sign of little rules and judgments that would come to rule my life and the false “sages” that my unwitting friends, family, and greater society would become.
And yet my first three years of college were magical. I studied, partied, ate, performed, and kissed to my heart’s desire. Very special friends became sages, people I was honored to know. Certain professors pushed me toward my best skills, challenging and empowering me. I discovered a love of group fitness, aerobics and, surprisingly, yoga. “Why do you like yoga if you’re so hyper all the time?” people asked. “You never stop moving.” Yoga just felt right.
A deep yogi instinct sent me to India to study-abroad. Yoga there was like jumping into the Mediterranean Sea on one of its colder beaches. For five months I practiced at least 3 times a week with a single teacher in an inner-city ashram. After a perfect puja and dripping bamboo canopies my slight yoga instructor forced my toes over my head, barked military-style Sanskrit at me, and guided me through the most ethereal whole-body connections I have ever experienced. At the end of classes I felt everything. One time, sexier than Lakshmi. Another, angrier than Kali. Sillier than Ganesh. More tired than The Buddha, under his tree.
I just wasn’t the same when I came back from India. It was like watching the sunset over a humid sea. Everything is there: pink, yellow, blue, grey. But it hovers behind a fuzzy shadow, its edges a little less crisp than science intended them to be. My sun was there, bright and beautiful, but lacking sincerity. In college the world began to tell me that I was physically “perfect.” To become that way I must be taking great care. To others, my God-given love of vegetables became “healthy eating.” My adoration of exercise became “staying fit.” “What exercises do you do to get legs like that?” These insinuations planted a deep guilt and doubt within me. Would cookies make me fat? Other people say they will… The very “should” became an internal compass. Fears about losing my body became rules about what exercises I should do. Food became calories that should be eaten, based on calories that should be “burned.”
Stage 4: Doing
And that’s how I became a human doing instead of a human being. By my final year in college I was a robot. Exercise, work, intern, homework, sleep, repeat. My sages weren’t real. They were the people on the cover of magazines. They were CEO’s whose 10-question interviews I read online. They were my friends who were as good at “faking it” as I was. My biggest sage was the impossible Emily I strived to become.
Any my yoga...what a shame. I only did yoga as a complement to a full day of exercise or on days when my body was too malnourished for Body Combat and I too guilty to relax. I was perpetually unhappy with my yoga classes, going into them with the expectation that I would experience a divine spiritual appeal that would make the class “worth it.” I blamed the teacher for leading to class poorly and usually thought they were too easy. I nearly always left for savasana. And when I did stay to lay, I didn’t pray. In fact, I often cried.
I fed myself on comments like, “How do you stay so thin?” and, “Are you a rock climber? The muscles in your arms are so developed”! and, “Why don’t you just eat a burger?” It’s a curious thing in American society that you can’t comment on an obese body but are at liberty to speak of a thin one. The world thought thin was better than fat. The thinnest were the best. I’m ashamed to type that sentence. But, it was my truth. I was a human doing, not a human being.
Stage 5: Planting
Enter one of the greatest sages of my life, Kim Merkel. She was a fitness instructor who tracked down my mother’s contact details. Kim, my mother, and most everyone else recognized my sickly stage. Kim and I first connected when I was the wildest aerobic attendee at her classes. People told us we acted alike. She offered my advice about getting certified in Group Fitness. She saw the irony in the fact that I was overexcericsing at the same time I was leading others to find their optimum fitness. Kim calling my mother was the last straw. I finally allowed me mother to be my sage when she walked me to the Eating Recovery Center.
After regaining the necessary weight, I was allowed to practice yoga. Oh, the sages…I was coaxed and cooed by teachers like Susanne and Carrie Varela. I smiled walking into the studio and smiled walking out. I felt small movements in my muscles. I made friends with other yogis. I was shy in my body. No one seemed to care. Although my period never returned, a physical and spiritual repair commenced. Through yoga and love, I grew into my current stage.
Stage 6: Being
In this stage, every day is a journey of connecting my being with my doing. I’m a tree that recognizes the soil it needs to thrive, although this recognition doesn’t make the soil easier to farm. Roots run deep. I hope one day I can have a conversation about “healthy eating” again without feeling resentful. I hope I don’t feel the need to defend myself for eating “unhealthy.” I hope that I won’t feel like I “should” exercise. However, I’m proud to write these sentences because they show my intention. So what if I can’t touch the ground. At least I am bending my way toward it, know what color it is, and am enjoying the stretch anyway.
Today my yoga practice and instruction are founded on this “journey.” I ask myself what my sages would do and try to make them proud, fictive observers and muses. I look at my yogis knowing that I cannot fathom what brings them to their mats. I stay true to myself as an instructor, knowing that there’s not much else I can do to make it “right.” When the yogi is ready, I will be there. Most importantly, I teach yoga because it helps me. It helps me feel graceful, energetic, strong, sexy, grounded, and confidant, the way I was born to feel. It shows me the unification between mind, body, and, soul. It’s me doing human being.
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
Everything on this website is Copyright © 2017 by Emily E. Stewart, Sole Trader. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.