I loved her because she never demanded you do anything special or outstanding. I loved that you could always find malted milk tablets in the glove compartment of her Volvo. When she would say, “Let’s go to the market for fish,” that was the world, being with her and going for fish. And it was enough. Enough to be at the dinner table eating bluefish and talking about how you went swimming that day.
“Oh, how lovely,” she’d respond, and mean it.
I loved that she sat at the head of the dinner table, listening with her eyes wide and a red lipstick smile. She did daily things on a timetable and got her hair set the same way and kept the same cleaning lady and gardener for years.
I loved her because she’d write letters to me in college and say things like, “Focus on you. Put the guys on the back burner.”
I’m thinking about her this morning, as I stand below the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, about to lead hundreds in a yoga session. Thanks to my Madonna head-mike, my voice carries all the way to the top step, where Rocky strutted his stuff.
“I am here because I believe in living beyond breast cancer, and I believe in the women I have come to know intimately who have survived,” I say, my voice echoing. “I dedicate this day to my grandmother, Kathleen Converse, who suffered from breast cancer in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She had enormous courage and she inspired me with her love.
I dedicate this day to her. ”
Salvador Dali’s face is painted on the steps in red, black and white in celebration of an exhibit. Now the surrealist and his swirling greased mustache are covered by yoga mats. Men and women pay homage to their own survival, or the memory of loved ones, or simply their passion for yoga. Even though it threatened to rain, they’re here, early this Sunday morning.
So we begin, and I realize I’m not in charge. Yes, my voice leads, but something greater takes over. I call it my Inner Ray Charles. I close my eyes, I think I know why singers close their eyes; it’s to stay present, to feel each word as it arrives. I say, “Let’s begin with Om.”
I think back to how this began, and am amazed that my idea and vision have become reality. I was practicing yoga one hot afternoon in June by myself on the art museum steps. The spray from the fountains wafted by on the breeze. I was worried about something, probably whether I had enough money or whether my boyfriend was faithful, and then — in Warrior II pose, a deep lunge face forward, as my right arm pointed down the flag-lined parkway, left arm back toward the museum — I took deeper breaths, drank in the incredible skyline, watched people and clouds drift. I suddenly felt calm, connected to the city, my body, the sky.
”I have got to share this with as many people as possible,” I thought. “How fantastic. I will. ” And in the next breath, “Damn. Now I’ve got to carry through.” Inspiration is nice. Action is real.
The crowd Oms, and sounds like bees in a hive. Yoga is like that; a group of bees being led one by one, all working toward the same end, to create a hive, a body that sustains with energy, with vitality. The honey is the communal juice, the pure intention to be part of something greater than oneself.
And as I stand here, conducting the class, I know I’m not leading it at all. I’m the conduit to some Higher Power. I’m like a conductor leading an orchestra, but the symphony is in each person. The grace comes when we breathe and relax long enough to receive it.
The sun comes out. Clouds break and swirl like dance partners. Hundreds of arms reach to the sky. I feel my grandmother.
I hear her voice: “You didn’t have to do this for me. You didn’t have to go and make such a fuss. But I’m honored you did. I love you.”
Reaching toward the sun,
I answer with my body.
I love you too.
Jennifer Schelter ’94 (M.F.A.) is the founder and creative director of the Yoga Schelter studio in Philadelphia, and leads the annual Yoga Unites for Living Beyond Breast Cancer event on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps. For information or to purchase her new DVD, go to www.yogaschelter.com.