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Stunts and House Finches

Nellie Bly, one of my heroes. Image from Wikipedia

I have a great weakness for stunt journalism. From Nellie Bly to Bill Buford to Gretchen Rubin--I'll read it all. I'm entranced by the stories of people choosing to go without seemingly essential things for a year or more, or attempting to read all of the Encyclopedia Britannica or the complete works of James Joyce, or electing to abandon their workaday lives to buy a failing/abandoned/ancient chateau/hostelry/dairy farm in Maine/Tuscany/Provence. 

The fun of it is the vicarious experience, the insider's view. Every time I finish something from the genre, I wish I could think up my own stunt, write about it, and get it published. But I haven't come up with anything original yet--at least not anything my family would put up with. (The closest I've come to stunt journalism is The Great Cinnamon Roll Project.)

Now, I'm sure there are some who would consider my daily life to be as foreign and as challenging as some of these stunts. After all, it's not every day you meet an actively publishing writer who also teaches five days a week and is the primary caregiver to five children--with two more in college. Of course, none of that seems remarkable to me, because I live it--and I didn't take any of it on for the sole purpose of spinning a good yarn about it later. It's just my life (and, unlike the above stunts, there's no end in sight).  

I've recently jumped into something rather stunt-like, however. I'm about two thirds of the way through a Sixty-Day Challenge at Bikram Yoga Pasadena. (If you like, you can read my daily diary of the experience.) To the outsider, even one session of Bikram yoga might seem like a stunt; each class entails ninety minutes working through twenty-six yoga asanas and two breathing exercises (all done twice) in a room that is heated to 105 degrees F with 40% humidity.

But Bikram aficionados try to make it to class three to five times per week, and will on occasion take on a thirty- or sixty-day challenge: doing a session every. Single. Day. For a month or two. It's that simple.

Except it's not, not if you have a life as busy as mine. Not even, apparently, if you're single and have a flexible work schedule, as Paige Williams and Aimee Macovic both were/had when they did their own Sixty-Day Challenges. Exercise this intense is demanding for the beginner, and its effects are cumulative. Ninety minutes really means more like two and a half hours when you count the prep, travel, and recovery time. Eating needs to be built around the classes, too; you don't want to eat for a couple of hours beforehand, and you don't feel like it for a long while afterward. And then there's the hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom), hydrating (bathroom). 

Given all my responsibilities, the stars really need to align for me to get to the yoga studio consistently. Sick kids, booked-solid days, and family trips to Disneyland--in other words, reality--all need to be taken into account.

Fortunately, there's a provision for days missed: you simply make up the class by doing two in one day. Which I've done twice now. Which is brutal. And which I'll have to do three times more by April 29th in order to complete my own personal Challenge.

(I have to finish! I already ordered the T-shirt.)

So, why take on something so difficult, if my life is already so complicated? I won't go into the details of some nagging health challenges, but that was definitely a factor. The bigger issue, though, is that I hope that a regular Bikram practice will be a catalyst for me in my writing life--which is really just an outgrowth of my mental/emotional/spiritual life.

Catalysts fascinate me; it's one of the reasons I love stunt journalism. What's the touchstone that allows people to make wholesale changes in their lives; whence cometh the paradigm shift? Can it be pinpointed? Can it be engineered, or does it need to drop from the sky? Can people really redefine who they are through a series of choices? Can they make the changes stick? I hope so; I choose to believe so. I've read about many others for whom Bikram has been a catalyst--for healing, for renewed energy and perspective, for professional pursuits. I figured I'd give it a try. (It is, after all, more reasonable than sailing around the world or buying a B&B in Fiji.) 

Forty days into the Challenge, I'm still floundering writing-wise, but clarity is slowly coming. Change is coming, too: new attitudes, recommitment. I have renewed faith that I need to keep working at it: keep writing, keep submitting, keep writing some more. 

As I write this post, house finches are building a nest under the eaves of my balcony, a mere six feet away from where I sit. The French doors are open, and the cool April air wafts around me. The finches--one ruby-headed, one brown, both lovely--show up with a piece of dried grass or hair or dryer lint and disappear behind the beam where their project nestles. They reappear and search for something else--just the right piece of material. I've seen them pick up and drop the same thing several times, fluttering around to consider it in between. They warble to each other as they go. Will it work? Can we make it fit? Is there something better?

The finches remind me of myself as I draft and edit. Cutting, pasting, reworking, starting from scratch when the whole thing falls apart. Or in yoga, struggling to find my balance, my edge, a new level of strength and grace. Piece by piece, moment by moment, breath by breath, choice by choice, building a new reality.

Because as energizing as the vicarious thrill of reading is, real life is ideally at least as satisfying--and if it's not, perhaps the reading inspires us to make changes necessary to bring our real lives into line with our hopes and dreams. Or to change our hopes and dreams to fit the awesome life we're already living--if we choose to see it that way. When it comes right down to it, the finches and I don't do what we're doing as a stunt; our work and our choices are who we're becoming. 

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