Looking Back on the Year

by David Shaddock

So many times we say hindsight is 20/20.  It is with great relief that I realize that 2020 is now only hindsight.  As the year fades into the rear view mirror of memory, I feel the momentary need to pause and consider what we’re so gladly putting behind us.  It wasn’t all bad. 

I’m reminded today of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, which famously begins It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  A Tale of 2020 could start the same way, for Heartwood at least.  The year began with horrible wildfires in Australia, burning away much of the bush and imperiling millions of wild animals.  Some of those were the world’s most dangerous snakes, but others were koala bears.  We made contributions to a fund to save the koalas (and the snakes, I guess), during the month of January when every indicator told us we were going to have our very best financial year ever, with every course we offered that month bursting at the seams and boasting a waiting list.  February was equally busy and we couldn’t wait to catch our breath in March, when our last spring students would leave and my massage therapy training at Manatee Technical College began its spring break. 

March 10 saw us sleeping in until the unheard-of time of 6 am, and then getting up to start our ten-day juice fast.  I was determined to go back to school with six-pack abs showing, so every day I worked out and we made juice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  After the fourth day Ginny cracked and looked up research that told us it was much healthier to break the juice fast each evening with a protein meal.  And she decided that making the juice into smoothies by adding bananas and whey powder made for a more survivable beverage.  So we didn’t quite make the ten day pledge, but I lost 11 pounds and she cut out six.  And I felt great, especially after kicking my caffeine habit.  I haven’t had a cup of coffee since. 

But March 23, when I was supposed to go back to classes, we were told to stay home and hunker down.  We started zoom classes to keep our training going, and Heartwood began online work as well.  Denver and Ginny began putting huge amounts of effort into filming training sessions we’d always wanted to do, but never found the time.  Denver poured herself into anatomy and posture focus work, with help from other teachers and students who were willing to come to Heartwood, and Ginny dove deep into philosophy and marketing work.  We held ourselves to high standards in terms of video quality, investing in light boxes and better microphones to go with our broadcast-quality camcorder and tripod. 

The upshot was that, although we weren’t able to hold many of our normal courses, we were able to serve our community of teacher trainees using online tools, Zoom, and Thinkific.  We actually were able to graduate several groups of very engaged and highly competent teachers from allover the world after holding 200 and 300 level courses with the blessing of Yoga Alliance. 

I say we…  honestly, this was Ginny and Denver, and also Rachel Belle, who had come to work for us in the spring to help out in the office, teach some coursework, host some Zoom sessions, and generally fill in the gaps.  What was I doing? 

Well, in March during what I thought was my 13 days of spring break, I tore apart the old office and lobby and turned it all around, with Ginny’s advice and suggestions.  We now have a secure area for three people to work the office, more privacy for the bathroom, and a lovely boutique area that Ginny keeps stocked with amazing merchandise at bargain prices.  This all seems to be a favorite with our crowds of customers—but we don’t get crowds anymore.  Covid has changed all that.  No overlapping classes, no simultaneous trainings, no overflow students.  Everything is limited, and so far, due to all that caution, we have yet to see a case of Covid here.

So with all the bad comes a lot of good.  If we pay attention, we have a balance—sometimes shifting in one direction and other times coming back in a more positive way.  We watch the plight of black people in now-publicized peril, and feel their anguish, but we are heartened as more and more Americans and those in other countries become more aware and more active.  We are dismayed at the loss of our beloved country’s standing amongst the nations of the world, but we see the moves we’re making toward getting back on track.  We are heartsick as we hear stories of people taking online trainings that teach them little or nothing, but then we still have would-be teachers seeking quality education and willing to do the work to find us. 

I passed my medical board exam for massage therapy on my first attempt, which was an incredible relief, and then graduated my course and was licensed, right in the middle of a ban on massage work.  So it was hard getting started, but that freed me up to make more improvements on the property.  We now have blacktopped driveways all over Heartwood except for our gravel parking lots, a hefty expense by our standards but a long time coming and this will keep down our dust levels and make the property neater and cleaner year round.  And I have an excuse to dig out my size 14 Rollerblades. And we installed a new, bigger septic and upgraded the electricity to keep up with our growing needs.

We lost our beloved India, the best Heartwood dog ever, but within a short time Ginny had found a puppy replacement, an adorable little Australian shepherd.  We named him Shiva as a reminder to our yoga students that Shiva is the name for the male energy & supreme consciousness in the Hindu tradition.  He has a lot more male energy than we’d like at the moment, but day by day he’s settling into a more mature groove.  At four months, he’s over 30 pounds and he just loves people.  We have high hopes that he’ll grow into a great Heartwood greeter and protector.  Wish we had some sheep to keep him busy, though.

Along the course of this year, Denver and I both were able to return to massage work under safe circumstances.  Some truly wonderful people have come into my life this year, some through massage and others through trainings, but some through business relationships.  I feel truly blessed that so many remarkable friends appear at Heartwood, and so many appreciate the calm and peace that seems to envelop anyone who enters the front gate. 

There are a lot of new homes in my family this year.  Neva bought herself a house in Baltimore, since she’ll be stationed at Fort Meade for most of her work in the Air Force.  Her significant other moved in with her several months later and they got to enjoy the Covid shutdown under the same roof.  I didn’t get to see my mother from March until the end of the summer when I helped her move up to Amelia Island near Jacksonville, where she now lives in the downstairs master suite at my older sister Laurie’s gorgeous new home.  And Denver and her fiancé Nick bought a house together about ten minutes from Heartwood, a lovely two-story place in a gated community.  All seem happy and content with their new digs.

We are here at Heartwood, utterly grateful that during the time of the shutdown we were quartered in a place with seven acres, gardens and pathways, and a pavilion for exercise.  We had cases of bamboo toilet paper that had arrived on a delivery schedule but were unused because we didn’t have customers.  We had three refrigerators and a freezer full of food which we dove into and prepared hundreds of great meals, at home, and finding ourselves saving thousands of dollars because we weren’t running off to restaurants to grab a quick meal or get away from work for an hour here or there.  Ginny has continued to exercise and shed weight, and I’ve been working hard and staying in shape by hauling materials, digging trenches, and working around the place.  And our biggest project yet is still underway but almost completed at this point—a total teardown and renovation of our house kitchen.  I’ve added two feet to the old kitchen layout, and we bought custom cabinets that give us an embarrassing amount of storage.  All the old 1983 appliances are now replaced, and we love the new look and increased utility. 

So it was a hard year in many ways but it was a rich and rewarding year in many others.  Yes, I’m very glad to see the end of the 2020, with its destructive wildfires and horrid weather and political turmoil and rampant illness and utter isolation.  But I am grateful—grateful that I’m Buddhist enough to live in the present, not fearful of the future and always forgiving of the past, and grateful that so many good things happened last year to make us appreciate what we do have here in Heartwood and those who come here to share our lives. 

If You Build It – they may or may not get it.

The other day, a yoga teacher visited Heartwood, toured the grounds with my daughter and said, “What a gorgeous and unusual place, I’d love to buy a center like this one day.”

Denver smiled and replied, “You can’t buy a place like this. You have to build one from scratch. Nothing was here until my Mom got an inkling to make a yoga center out of an old piece of agriculture property. Only vision and hard work leads to owning this kind of place.”

She didn’t get the feeling that the woman fully believed her.

Later Denver said to me, “Everyone loves the idea of Heartwood, but I don’t think many understand how much work and ingenuity was required for you and David to create this place. And they have no clue about how much work this little 7 acres is to maintain. Some yogis may think they want a Heartwood of their own, but they’d change their mind once they realized that the work is never ending and most of what they love out here cost money and demands ongoing effort, but doesn’t support paying the bills.”    

That is certainly true, but David and I don’t mind the effort because we look at Heartwood as “living art”. Sometimes, hard work has a purpose unrelated to the equation people so often make of calculating a measurable return on investment for their time and money. Art for art’s sake fuels something deep inside. For the creator, there is an alignment of creative energies that makes the artist feel connected to self and the divine. For those witnessing and enjoying the creation, there is pleasure and the reminder that beauty & inspiration can provide us with opportunities for insight and inner connections.   

David and I design spaces that meld with nature and celebrate our love of Yoga and spiritual studies. We seek utility with each project – a view or place to sit, dream, meditate or practice. We imagine people visiting and being called to pause, breathe and convene with the natural world. Considering we started the idea of Heartwood with just a run down, overgrown agricultural property and scant resources to devote to development, what we have done thus far feels satisfying. We know we won’t have the stamina to keep at this forever, and our limitless dreams for this place will never be fully realized (at least by us). We have inspiration for dozens of projects that most likely will never manifest due to our age and limited resources. But for now, Heartwood still calls to our creative spirits.

Our favorite pastime is walking the grounds with a cup of coffee after hours, looking at what is blooming or enjoying evidence that people are using our spaces. We take stock of all the work needed to be done to maintain our projects, then share ideas for upgrades or new spaces that start with “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if . . .”

We call Heartwood “Living” art because, like life, our creations often grow, thrive, then decline and die. (For the Yogis, I’d say the gunas are truly represented here-  Rajas, Sattva, and Tamas in all stages around the property.)  

We once had a beautiful bottle garden gracing the property. Dozens of reclaimed colored bottles hung from trees and surged up out of the ferns. I scoured Goodwill looking for colored bottles and dragged dozens of huge bottles home from Homegoods. The bottle garden turned out so beautiful Country Garden’s Magazine featured it along with our Chakra garden in an 8 page spread. Our bottle garden became a signature area of Heartwood. David designed all kinds of contraptions for keeping frogs out of the bottles and to stop the dog from knocking them down. He designed a variety of caps for the tops, landscape lighting to illuminate the bottles at night and mounts so that when the ferns grew too robust the bottles would be elevated for display. I had to clean the bottles every few months and took charge of replacing those that broke or wore out. Again and again I sealed the tops and changed the wires to hang them so they would catch the light.

Despite our efforts to maintain this pretty area, time and the Florida sun slowly deteriorated the bottles.  Hurricane Irma took down several of the trees holding up the bottles. Slowly our bottle garden grew tired and old.  I tried moving the bottles, but the new location just wasn’t the same. Eventually, that lovely little work of landscape art became history. Am I sorry we put so much time and effort, not to mention money into all those bottles, considering they are now history? Not at all. Because that bottle garden was not only fun to create but left us with memories of Heartwood’s early stages of development that will be with me forever. And how is missing the bottles any different than my missing the tulips that boom for only a few days each year? All things are impermanent. What is important is to appreciate what you have while you have it, and not grasp onto what is meant to die or no longer be present for you.    

The law of the universe reveals that while something fades, something new comes into existence.  Creative inspiration usually starts with an innocent comment, like, “Gee Dave, look at this cool labyrinth picture on this journal therapy e-mail I received. Wouldn’t it be fun to have something like that out front where those dang trees keep dropping limbs and nothing will grow? Of course, that would be a huge undertaking, and who knows if anyone would ever walk a labyrinth way out there. We certainly couldn’t afford to make a big old labyrinth when there are so many practical things we need . . . but dang, doesn’t that look fascinating . . . ”  and thus, the seed of an ongoing conversation has been planted.  

For fun we start talking about what kind of labyrinth we would make and how big, if only . . .. We next start reading about labyrinths, sharing history, folklore, and other tidbits of information over dinner (which is a much nicer conversation than talking about bills or politics). We start noticing Labyrinths in our travels or around town.  In time, our random comment has blown into a loose plan that if ever we can spare the time and money, we will certainly build one.”

Before you know it, our random idea has become a quest, and we skip taking a vacation one more year and instead, David is out there mathing it up, plotting out a labyrinth with engineering precision and I end up spending what would have been my vacation time that season and the next 2 laboriously and painstakingly painting the dang thing over and over to keep the path from fading. Just like when you buy a couch and suddenly feel you have to paint the living room and buy new rugs because they now seem shabby, we start landscaping the area and adding additional details. Up comes a “before I die” board, and a river rock path. This spills out to a bamboo grove with meditation benches. And since it is so lovely out there now, why not build a pavilion so we can practice yoga near the energy of the labyrinth? Voila! Who can miss a bottle garden when there is a whole labyrinth to maintain!

For many people, building a labyrinth would seem a frivolous or wasteful use of limited resources, but every time I spy someone walking the labyrinth, I’m convinced that what was at first an unlikely idea was meant all along to be a collaborative project bringing purpose and meaning into our marriage and our world. No, I never regret any of the time or effort devoted to the artistic unfolding of Heartwood. Building Heartwood fulfills our Dharma.

The medicine wheel was another project fueled by curiosity and inspiration. David and I have been long interested in Indian history, spirituality and Shamanism and one day we started a random conversation about medicine wheels which turned into our both doing some research (not many pictures of formal medicine wheels for public use out there, so we didn’t have much to go on). We addressed the issue of a medicine wheel being of a different tradition than yoga, and perhaps no one would want to go out there even if we built one. We debated designs and different regional and cultural versions and then found a tradition that spoke to us. Once the concept of building a medicine wheel was a go, we had to figure out how to do so affordably. Of course, we agreed grudgingly that the best place to put this medicine wheel was an overgrown thorny area filled with tree stumps (clearing the area cost more than the actual project!) But before we laid the first stone, I could see it there in my mind.

We had a formal Medicine Wheel ceremony, laying the stones in the rain since nature chose not to make this easy, and later, completed the project with more colored stones totally blowing the budget. David built a huge bench around the entire ring inviting students to sit wherever energy called to them and made a 6-foot hoop for a dream catcher to enhance the décor of the area. To display this, we cut down some carefully chosen trees on the side of our property and dragged them over to the area to cement into the ground like goalposts. The dead trees deteriorated over time and a hurricane came a year later and knocked them down. That same storm flooded the medicine wheel so it all but floated into the ferns. Generous students arrived to help us clean up that mess and rebuild the wheel and months later, David built a more solid structure out of timber which he planted true north to hold the dreamcatcher and new windchimes. Next, he planted a shamanic garden with sage, sweetgrass, Indian Tobacco and cedar trees (all native plants used for shamanic ceremony) and we added small stone statues of animals to represent spirit guides for fun. The native herbs didn’t make it in the harsh Florida climate, but two of the three Cedar trees survived.

The medicine wheel is probably my favorite area of Heartwood. I teach a nature yoga class out at the wheel involving a semi-seated practice on the benches. The meditation and poses are steeped in shamanic themes. Unfortunately, this area can get uncomfortably sunny midday so some seasons the heat prohibits me from bringing students out to the wheel.  But never fear, David and I purchased two metal gazebo roofs some time ago at an end-of-season close out sale, and for more than a year we talked about making a few covered decks by the Medicine Wheel area so people (mostly me) could practice out there or meditate and have a shady, protected space to journal or hang out. The idea circled between us long enough that recently, we both felt it was time to act.

So David built two staggered, 12 foot covered decks. As is the case with almost every project we’ve done, people didn’t “get it” at first. They just didn’t see the vision we saw in our heads. David had several conversations with students that went something like this . . .

“What are you building out there?”

“Decks for people to practice on.”

“Where are you moving them to?”

“Um…. They’re decks. I’m building them where I want them to be. They are right where they will go.”

“Hummmm….. interesting. Don’t you think they are rather obvious, two big decks out there by the medicine wheel?”

“No more obvious than the 24 foot Medicine Wheel and 6 foot dream catcher, I suppose.”   

More than one person took me aside to say, “How do you feel about what David is building? Are you OK with that?” (As if I wasn’t the one nagging him to build those decks for two years and hadn’t given him my opinion about exactly where I wanted them. Ha.)

This week David put fans and lights in the ceilings of those newly finished decks so they will be more inviting. We are now planning some nice landscaping to keep the practice area partially hidden when you drive in and to add ambiance to the natural setting. Strategic planting will create a “room” feel for this space, but new plantings will require a watering system too. That means more work for a project that will not generate revenue, but man, what a beautiful and unique area this will be for visitors (and us) to practice. Like everything we’ve built here, it takes times for new spaces to “settle in”. Nature fills in the blanks left from construction, a few fun details will be added and soon it seems the medicine wheel had always magically just been a part of the landscape here.

I’m aware that building something like a Medicine wheel and practice decks seems an odd and unnecessary choice to those who don’t see a practical point in art for art’s sake. But if David and I didn’t find meaning and joy in Heartwood’s “living art” and instead focused only on practical projects that supported the revenue operations of this business, Heartwood wouldn’t have the charm or uniqueness it has. And I certainly wouldn’t feel as fulfilled as I do, dreaming up the next artistic project and marveling at David’s talent in making a vision manifest.  

About a week after David finished the decks, he went out to get the mail. When he returned, he handed me a cup of coffee and said, “There are two students out at the medicine wheel practicing on the decks. We both knew they had many places to drop a mat to practice, but they chose that one.

We looked at each other knowingly and smiled.