10/24/2012 11:23 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Yoga and Cigarettes: Remembering My Gram 'Ruthie the Rock'

I'm sitting in the church my grandmother used to bring me to for Mass. The big church, with the high ceilings and all the pretty stained glass windows. Gram would have been wearing her white gloves, and she would have driven us here in her blue Grand Marquis. The tinge of nostalgia is mixed with the bittersweet, or maybe those two are always really one and the same; that which we can hold onto in our minds eye, but is energetically always shifting and changing, as things have the tendency to do when people either step into or depart from our lives. "The relationship hasn't ended, it is just different," a literary mentor of mine once phrased it to a fellow colleague who had just heard a piece about the memories of a late husband. Somehow, the beauty of that comment had a way of releasing all of us who heard that piece from the cold steel handcuffs of emotion, into a space that became laced with tenderness.

My grandma is here today too, but this time, I'm wearing all black, and my Uncle is standing on the altar, reciting her eulogy, reminding us of her voracious appetite for life. A woman of faith, a mother of responsibility, a wife of integrity and duty, a grandmother of chocolate chip ice cream-laden love.

As I've gotten older, I have fallen out of the tradition of organized religion, but my spiritual roots have remained strongly intact; my yoga practice and yoga teaching, no doubt, the foundation around which my new inner temple has been built and the space within which my own spiritual pieces of self have been resurrected. So for me, the experience of religious tradition now lies in regular visits to my yoga mat, and what it means to feel connected to one's soul has now made its way back into what feels like "[my] own personal Jesus. Someone to hear [my] prayers. Someone who cares." In the words of Johnny Cash, a man who also knows what it feels like to have lived a life.

Though she wasn't always overly affectionate, my grandma had other ways of showing her love. Every time we were about to hang up the phone she would reminded me, "now don't let anyone steal you, and stay away from the bad people." It was her own perpetual sermon. I'd laugh, assure her I would heed her advice, and she would feel better for having said it.

The priest's sermon at her Funeral Mass today is one that holds significant meaning for those of us still alive, its the one about the disciples in the desert, in the midst of their own long strange journeys, being tempted by the devil.

He is offering food to those weary starving travelers, a dose of sustenance when they have no guarantee when (or if) it will ever come again. It makes me think about my own personal and human journey right now as a yoga teacher, freelance writer, and now part time caterer, making some extra cash to support my spiritual dreams. Its felt like the non-guarantee of anything in life kind of journey, the humbling acknowledgement that I too am mortal and that life's only constant is continuous change, and its only guarantee that taxes must be paid, and that death will one day come.

I'm sitting a few rows back from the altar, next to the brother who I know loved Gram just as much as me, and behind, next to, and in front of my sister, my Grandmother's daughter and son, my cousins, aunts and uncles who I know couldn't have loved her any less than I did. While the priest's words are falling down around us all like both noiseless and saturated rain, I'm thinking about just how important it feels to have faith in one's life and in one's higher purpose.

The Bhagavad Gita talks of this pleasure vs. pain experience -- the things we do, say and choose in the moment that feel like comforting sweet nectar, but that can turn out to be poison to us in the end. I've come to learn that the irony seems to lie in the fact that when we surrender into that which feels painful in the momentary wilderness and desolation of our lives, only then perhaps can we truly discover our own inner sanctity of healing that already lies within. Our own brilliant waters that allow the pieces and memories of others who have touched our lives to continue to float inside, even though the relationship with them may have changed.

I always knew my grandma had depth in the waters of her soul. Everyone did. She loved the beach and the beauty of a well-scripted birthday card. Nothing would stop her from having birthday cards sent on time, or from swimming in the freezing cold waters near my parent's home when she would come down to visit us. "Ruthie the rock," as she was known, was only too fitting a nickname.

And like any worthwhile character, she had her vices to compliment all of her pious virtues -- the most memorable being white tic tacs and Marlboros.

I suppose it existed in her mind as the "see no evil, hear no evil" kind, where if we didn't see it, or hear her talk about it, it didn't exist. She would sneak the cigarettes in the upstairs bathroom at her house, leaning outside the window to diffuse the smoke, while her white and black tile floor lay there as the only silent witness. Her house always smelled of dove soap mixed with cigarettes, and I didn't really ever differentiate the two until I got older. They just seemed to go together. She was known at times as a woman of few words, a master of the meaning held within a gesture, or a genuflect. And perhaps also a professional when it came to balancing out the casual butt with the religious use of a mint.

Despite numerous surgeries into her 80s, she always spoke the familiar refrain "what will be, will be." And as I sat in that Church again, in a familiar wooden pew on a raw October Tuesday, surrounded by the siblings and cousins who also knew Grandma as the one with our second stockings, the wearer of lady blue slippers, the casual parlayer of $5 under your pillow for no reason, and her house as the sanctuary space of central holiday command, I know my tears weren't only for the lifetime of a woman's memories being resurrected, but also for the collective consciousness floating above us all, reminiscent of the exoneration and freedom that lies in knowing one is living her life with sleeves rolled up, windows rolled down, sunglasses on, a full tank of gas. Perhaps, even, a half pack of cigarettes on the side. Leaving behind the legacy of reverberating footprints that pulse with what it feels like to have faith in one's own life, in a soul's higher purpose, and in knowing we can handle whatever comes our way as we continue on in what feels like our 106 million mile sojourn to Chicago.

Yoga And Cigarettes