Both Sides Now

Both Sides Now
 

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
Joni Mitchell

One of my favorite songs as a child was Joni Mitchell's "Both sides now". She writes; “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now from up and down and still somehow it’s cloud’s illusions I recall I really don’t know clouds at all”. I didn't really grasp the deeper meaning of the lyrics at the time, but something about the song resonated with me. Joni’s voice and words evoked deep melancholy for something(s) I hadn't yet experienced. She was capturing longing I felt, but couldn’t put into words or distinct thoughts. There were times, listening to her song again and again, I was afraid I would break wide open and possibly break down. I yearned for a connection with so many un-lived things, but still I felt so alone in the world. There was a sorrow I carried within me. My fairytale was just beginning. I knew the forest ahead was soon to get thick. The only way out was through.

I really didn't understand life, until I experienced death. As a yoga teacher, I talk about letting go and going with the flow. I mean what I said, but it was all still a lovely mental construct. I talk about understanding how our attachments can cause us to cling to life as we know it. If we stay attached to the pain and don’t grieve and move things through, we will suffer. Of course the more deeply we love, the more painful the loss when things are ripped away from our lives. Pain is inevitable in the messy dance of life, but the suffering is optional. The process is much like that of the butterfly, the metamorphosis is a struggle, it’s fierce and the old form must die off before the new form can take shape.

It wasn't until I experienced the death of my mother, my dogs, my marriage and my teacher of 20 years that I experienced a rupture so deep I had no choice but to die inside and birth a new version of love. It started when my mom had a stroke and went into a coma. Watching her lay in a hospital bed lifeless yet alive inside was heart-wrenching. My mother was a strong and powerful woman. She taught me so many valuable lessons. The one that stands out the most is to be true to myself. She always wanted me to live a life that is not pre-prescribed, encouraging me to be courageous and make my own way. My mother had a passion for life and to see her locked away in a body that was almost gone felt like keeping her in prison. The doctors were clear she had suffered tremendous brain damage and her chances of living the way she wanted had passed.

 Photography by Tom Chambers

Photography by Tom Chambers

I like to joke my mom was the original cougar in her prime. My mother was an athlete and a lady. She and my dad married in the early 60’s. When they met, my mom was a divorcee with two kids while my Japanese father was 12 years her junior. A mixed-race couple was not common growing up in Orange County. Our family loved to go on camping and fishing trips throughout my childhood. I have vivid memories of sitting beside my mother and playing the piano. One of the greatest gifts she instilled in me was my love for music and animals. We always had dogs that I would bring home, and horses we would ride together for hours in the hills. She had a warrior spirit and marched to the beat of her own drum. I always felt like she spent many of her days giving me as many tools as possible to live a creative, inspired life. One of my mother’s favorite artists was Cat Stevens. “Morning Has Broken” was a song she used to play on the piano and it kept playing in my head while I watched and held her broken body in the hospital bed. It was a very dark night before the morning would ever arrive.  

For weeks in the hospital, me, my dad, and all my family members gathered around her bedside. Watching my father break down daily in bouts of sadness and deteriorating health beside my mother was painful. I had just started teaching yoga when my mother had her stroke. I struggled to make peace with the odd juxtaposition of starting a new chapter of my life, while witnessing the ending of the most important one. The decision of whether to keep my mother on life-support weighed heavily on us all and we were wrestling with the decision to let her go. We knew she would be angry with us if we let her waste away in a bed, it would deprive her of her dignity to live. Sitting by her side and holding her hand, I had a slight smile inside because my mom was a fighter and I knew in my heart and soul this was a battle that needed to end so she could finally be at peace. The warrior in me wanted to hold on to what she once was, but I could feel her asking to be released from the her body’s shackles.

I was the last person in my family to agree to let her go. We made the hardest decision of my life and removed her feeding tubes. The agony of losing the person who gave me life was magnified by the guilt of releasing her from her dying body.  It was a slow journey and she finally let go in the beginning of March. Winter was ending and I was chilled to the bone with tears and grief. Spring never felt so far away.  

 Photography by Tom Chambers

Photography by Tom Chambers

Not long after, while I was still processing the loss of my mother, another tragedy struck. Out of the blue my beloved dog suddenly got sick. His kidneys began to fail him. He was a sweet soul that I found wandering the streets in downtown LA. I named him Mickey because of his large ears and even larger heart. At the time I found him, I had two dogs and my hands were full. I just couldn’t let him go. Mickey brought so much unconditional love to a time in my life when I wasn’t so good at attracting it. No matter what, I vowed to stay by his side through his painful journey. In trying to save him, I tried different treatments, took numerous trips to the vet, sat with him as he would throw up looking at me the entire time with those pleading eyes to make it better. It broke my heart to see him in pain and still smile at me with his weakened eyes. I watched him wither away until finally I had to make the choice again to let another beloved go. I wasn’t there when my mom finally slipped away, but I knew I had to be there with him when he transitioned.

One day after many attempts to keep him alive, he gently led me to the car and let me know it was time to go. We made our final trip to the vet and my heart sank as I buried my head in his. I looked into his eyes and held him through the passageway of death to the other side. I had this vision of my mom opening her arms and welcoming him so he would not be afraid or alone. I knew in that moment it was a gift to be present through this sacred passage.

Again the pain was tremendous but somehow I knew it was stripping away the veneer of selfish love and opening a new version of true love. Sometimes we love in a way that is safe and within the parameters of our comfort zone. Mickey loved with all of himself, he loved the parts of me that felt broken and unlovable. What I felt was unconditional love, learning to love beyond the conditions of what I thought love should look like and allowing it to transform me. My whole world felt cracked open, and as my heart ached there was a deeper version of love developing within. I was learning to love the shadow side of life, that in the darkness we are often called to love the truth, even if it’s painful. There is no life without death, and that things have to end for beginnings to happen.

Life seemed to get back on track for a while. I kept myself busy with work, teaching yoga, making jewelry, and spending time with my friends. Somehow I knew deep inside I was avoiding the pain, deep grief, loss, and, really, guilt.  The avoidance of the sadness started to turn in on my thoughts and feelings about myself. Maybe there was more I could have done? Did I really try every avenue? Logically I knew I had made the compassionate choice, but the illogical voices of self-loathing and fear screamed otherwise. Making the choice to end the life of those you love feels like a betrayal.

I was beset by the deep conflict of those decisions. A war was being waged daily within my heart and head. I summoned all my skills and tools that I had learned through years of self-work and therapy. I doubled down on my rinsing work, releasing anger and rage, processing my pain and sadness through writing and yoga. I was able to get into my body, move through the trauma and discharge physically, energetically, and psychically the shadow beliefs that were clouding my life. This helped me get clarity and regain my footing so I could move forward. It was like the story of “The Princess and the Pea;” I could feel this gnawing discomfort of regret, but couldn't locate how to heal it. With all the tools I had, there was still something that was keeping me tethered to the pain and the clouds were back.

“But now they only block the sun they rain and snow on everyone So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way”.
 Photography by Tom Chambers

Photography by Tom Chambers

As the days became sunnier, the clouds began to form again. My other beloved dog Sunny became sick and suffered from extreme pain of arthritis. She was a beautiful white pit bull with a brown patch over her right eye. She was deep, wise, and really didn’t have a sunny personality. Her fierce intensity and depth made her presence so powerful. She was royal and I often sat in the sun with her in the counsel of her presence. As the days passed, she wasn’t able to hold herself upright, eat, or even walk to the door. Her mind was there, but her body was failing. I tried acupuncture, meds and herbs. They helped somewhat and only for a time. It was as if she was being frozen in her body and I could see the fear in her eyes. My vet who is an angel came to my house, I held Sunny in my arms on her bed, and told her how much I loved her as the injection began to ease her pain and soften the ice into rain. When I let go it seemed like everything I had held back cracked open and the floodgates couldn't be stopped. My tears flooded my head and heart, I couldn’t think or see straight. I had no choice but to surrender, give up the control and illusion that I was ok, I felt stripped open and I hated the feeling. The loss of my mother, my two beloved dogs, and the discontent I was feeling in my marriage ripped open a hole I didn't know how to fill. I had been filling myself up with relationships, experiences, material objects, and substances to feel whole. All of my bullshit was up for review.

I was married at the time of losing my mother and my two pups. When Sunny slipped away, a deep discontent woke up inside of me. My husband was a loving, supportive man, but there was an intimacy that was missing, and the walls that contained my feelings crumbled. From the outside looking in, everything looked “normal”. On the inside it felt like I was suffocating. He didn’t do anything wrong, I avoided having the deeper conversations in order to keep order in our lives and maintain the peace.  What I learned is that I needed to stand up and fight for the passion that was dying. He would try and calm my fears and quiet them down, but I needed to listen and commune with them. He wanted to sleep and I desperately needed to be awake. The communication died and so did the lifeline between us. I had gone to sleep and when the princess awoke from the fairy-tale, she had no one to kiss and no one to save her.  I felt alone and didn’t know how to revive our life together, so I chose to leave and move out. I left in an abrupt way and hurt someone that I still love until this day. He didn’t understand what was happening and it felt the more he came toward me, the more I retreated to search and hopefully find something that had been missing for a very long time. Avoidance became the glue that kept us together, and I could no longer stay bound to the illusion of a marriage.

I had to wake up and address how I was not loving myself and staying in a life that felt empty. As I tried to navigate the pain, the confusion of what I lost pulled up to the surface the grief I had been avoiding. Loss had a way of quieting when I was busy, this forced me to slow down and the noise became so loud that I didn’t trust what I was hearing.

It was time to get my ass back into therapy with my teacher and mentor of many years, Mona Miller. I was stuck and I needed help. All I can say is her work with me and my ex- husband is what saved our relationship. We are not married anymore but we learned to keep the love alive through the unraveling of our life together. Mona was so much more than a therapist, she was an intuitive coach. I worked with her for almost 20 years. She had helped me work through so much in my life, and I had taken a break for a while. As things were continuing to fall away, I knew deep inside I needed her guidance because I was falling apart. It felt like years of conditioning and maybe even generations of programming were being broken down, and an updated version of self-love was being constructed.

Things were starting to make sense, then on a Monday morning when I was on my way to see her, I received a phone call that shattered my world. I was sitting at home about to get into my car when I was hit with the news from someone dear to me. He said “I don’t know how to tell you this but Mona has been killed in a car accident”. It was complete shock, and I was in utter disbelief. This turned into anger and sadness. How the fuck could she leave me when I needed her most. My selfish love was up and I was grasping to make sense of it all. Just when I thought I was ripped open as wide as I could get, the hole got bigger and I felt like I was drowning in an abyss of grief. The grief was so big I ended up in the hospital with a kidney infection. All I could do for the next two weeks was be still, and process everything that had been dying away.

 Photography by Tom Chambers

Photography by Tom Chambers

Rinsing was a skill that Mona had taught me. It’s a process of writing things down to stimulate our subconscious thoughts and feelings rooted in fear and physically releasing them through anger and sadness work so that all of the unresolved feelings of fear have a voice. Just because something feels very true doesn’t make it the truth.  As the layers were being peeled back, I had to take time to heal the pain of separation from the people I had loved, and return to my truth that I am loved and lovable even in my broken state. Fortunately I had many friends and loved ones who put their wings around me and gave me space to heal. In my time of sorrow I felt held, heard and supported. I slowly started to return to myself, knowing that something deep had shifted inside of me. The hole that had felt empty and needy inside was no longer an abyss, but a mountain of strength and wisdom. The struggles that had taken me down were now the strength of insight and self-understanding that allowed me to return to my wholeness. Not the fairy-tale version of happiness, but a deeper understanding of what love is. Sometimes in life we have to experience who we are not, to know who we truly are. Deep self-love often comes with learning how to love our pain as much as our joy.

So much has changed since that time in my life. I have felt tremendous joy as well as loss. I look at my life and see it with such different eyes. Every season of life and each cycle we experience asks us to let something die off so something new can take root. The love that I experience in my life today is richer, because my heart has been busted open to broaden my capacity to live in every chamber. My roots run deeper into the soil and what has grown is a stronger ability to love, even the messy parts.

Whenever I fly, I love to look out over the wings onto the clouds and sky. I am often struck with a nostalgic feeling of loss and longing. The clouds appear to change and reshape before my eyes. I love cloud gazing because I see something different depending on what’s flowing within me. Flying closer to the clouds, I somehow feel closer to all those I’ve lost and as the feelings well up, I’m not afraid. The passage of time has not been a curse, but a blessing. I have opened my heart to grace and learned to live more courageously.

The journey from life to death has so many curves and we are often blind-sided, never really knowing where it will take us. I have discovered that learning to love the process has opened me up to a truer, authentic version of myself. Living life re-shapes us whether we like it or not. Growth and change come with a price. Often we must sacrifice what we know to be true and trust what we understand to be our truth. The process feels like death because it strips away our cloak of armor and reveals our naked vulnerability. This rite of passage is a pathway we walk between life and death to cross over the sacred threshold of rebirth. “But now it’s just another show you leave them laughing when you go and if you care, don’t let them know don’t give yourself away.” What I gave away cleared out a path to leave the castle of illusion and return to the temple of my being. What I learned and have always believed, is that our humanity is found not only in the beautiful but in the ugly; in the things that we throw away and discard as useless. All my dogs have been rescues found in dumpsters, under houses, and thrown out on the street. They have been the most treasured jewels in my life. I have been taken down into the murkiness of life, it gets dirty and has worn me down, but it has also worn away my need to be right, perfect, and validated. I no longer strive for perfection, I try to live in the full knowing that life is short and the sweetness can be tasted only when I stop and savor every moment. Our attachment to bright shiny experiences, misdirects us away from the raw ritual of celebrating death. I now see death not so much as loss, but as passage way that births a renewed sense of who we are. It is messy and uncomfortable, but it's in the struggle to fight for what is true and meaningful that we are reborn into the truest beauty of who we are.

I am forever humbled by these experiences and with every tear I have cried it has watered the garden of my soul. I now understand what it means to let it go and let it flow. “But now old friends they’re acting strange they shake their heads, they say I’ve changed. Well something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day.” Today I choose to live and say “I love you” right out loud because I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

 Photography by Tom Chambers

Photography by Tom Chambers


Both Sides Now

By

Mia Togo


Cover Photography by Tom Chambers