August 21, 2013

I’m Not a Community Activist. ~ Michele Bickley

But we did have a flood.

I’m not a “community activist.” I’m only doing my part to be part of my community… and doing a little yoga along the way.

It all started almost two years ago, when we decided to move from Los Angeles all the way to Ellicott City, Maryland.  Yes, this was a conscious choice. I was pregnant with our second baby, and we wanted to move closer to family and away from the LA madness. So, after 13 years in LA, we packed up a pod, our two-year-old daughter and cat, and moved clear across the country to a place that could not be more different then Southern California.

We bought an historic stone home on Main Street beside a gentle stream and farmette complete with sheep, chickens, and ducks. We could walk to the quaint little town where there was a fabulous wine bar, restaurants, interesting shops, and a fantastic live music scene. Ah, this is the good life. And it was—

For one week.

The next week, Tropical Storm Lee passed through with a flash flood of epic proportions. Within minutes, our beautiful house was surrounded by raging water on all sides and our basement yoga and music studio (with all of our unpacked belongings still in boxes) filled with six feet of water. Did I mention I was eight months pregnant? Yup.

As the water poured into our home, my husband and I ran boxes as fast as we could from the studio to the first floor. Then, when the water came within an inch of our kitchen windows, we ran boxes from the first floor up to the second. I was doing yoga breathing like you can’t imagine, telling my unborn son that he was not going to be born that day.

Cars were washing down the street that had become a river in front of our house, all of our fences were uprooted and carried away, our shed slammed into our cars and pinned them together before they could float down stream, and massive granite boulders were tossed blocks down the road like legos. At one point, I couldn’t imagine the rising water ever stopping, and I had flashes of news reports from Hurricane Katrina. How long would we be stuck here? Would we need to climb out on the roof? What was happening?! I locked our cat on the top floor and ran cans of beans up there, trying to plan what my daughter could eat if we were stuck.

Soon after that, an emergency rescue team came to evacuate us. They harnessed my daughter, me and my big belly, and my husband, taking us one-by-one to higher ground across the raging river once known as Main Street.

Almost as quickly as it had started, it stopped. The water was gone, but she had left her mark. Our little town of Ellicott City, especially the west side where we lived, had been devastated. Some people lost everything.

I mean everything.

Miraculously, there were no major injuries or deaths. Personally, we had 75 thousand dollars of property damage, but the important things we lost were priceless—photos, yearbooks, childhood journals, our entire library, my daughter’s first toys, high school love letters, my wedding dress… There was so much mud. I mean, who knew the places mud could get into?

It was a dark and confusing time, but we experienced how humanity shines in moments like this. Strangers, family members, new neighbors, and friends we hadn’t seen in years came out of the woodwork to help. They scrubbed mud, sent money, cleaned and rebuilt, and offered things we didn’t even know we needed. Friends from across the country even started a fund-raiser. We felt so blessed to have so much love and support. Somehow, when our son was born less than two months later, our house was rebuilt and things were functioning again. We were living our life. We were back in the game and grateful for a healthy baby and family.

And then we had the first big post-flood storm. Our house ended up fine. No flood this time. No flood of water, that is, but a massive flood of feelings and I guess what you would call some PTS (Post Traumatic Stress.) So, apparently, there was some emotional baggage from our experience with a natural disaster. What to do with all of these feelings and the new discovery of living in a home, the one place you are supposed to feel safe, that could flood at any time?

Insert yoga here.

And I did.

We were tending to the psychological effects rippling within our family. The daily practice of yoga helped to calm the anxiety and sooth the stress. My pranayama practice blossomed (alternate nostril breathing and rain storms are now forever linked for me), new mantras were repeated, and our whole family did yoga play-time together to dissolve tension in our bodies and minds.

However, outside of our family and home there were major issues. All around us, our river’s infrastructure was damaged and the river itself was failing, and no one was addressing the dangerous health and safely problems in our community.  Stonewalls were crumbling, culverts were blocked by debris, banks were eroding, and massive toxic sedimentation was washing down our river out to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean with every storm.

In yoga, when we come to our mat to practice, we learn how to pay attention to things—like our body, breath, alignment, and ability to have a pointed focus. We connect to those precious things in order to find health, peace, strength, and balance (to name just a few.) On the physical level, it becomes apparent how a very small adjustment to one part can shift and change the whole body. A simple rotation of the arm in down dog can open our shoulders, free up our wrists, help our back open, spine lengthen, and create more space for our lungs to fill with energizing breath.  This translates into everything…small changes and small choices can affect big things. But, first we need awareness before any action can happen.

On our mat, when we become more aware of our self, we create space that gives us the ability to become more aware of others and what is going on around us. More space to connect to prana, “the flow of life.” We are deeply connected to the universe — everyone and everything in it. And, in the simplest terms, in regards to energy, there is no way to separate interconnectedness except through illusion. When we “yoga,” we yolk, join, unite. We connect breath and movement. We join attention, focus, and intention. We unite body, mind and spirit.

This “yolking” we do is so much bigger than what happens on the mat. The exciting parts of yoga actually occur off of the mat—when we take what we have learned from our practice and apply it to life while life is in session.

Yoga of action is acting without being attached to the fruits of acting.

And for us, life now included a river that needed some action. We learned that in our little river, what we could fix upstream would reduce the amount of water that flows down stream, help with flood protection, and simultaneously prevent pollution from spreading all the way to the ocean.

So, I chose to get interested. And, every action I took helped me to breathe a bit deeper.

We started knocking on doors, neighbors met, ideas were developed, people “in important places” that could make changes were contacted (again and again and again!), meetings with government officials were arranged, pro-active groups and Facebook pages were built for our “Ellicott City Flood Solution,” collaborations with local non-profits were formed, and lobbying for our community began.

We had no idea if anything was going to come of our work and if our actions would help the big picture. But the rain wasn’t stopping, so neither were we. Just knowing that we were doing something… was something.

And in yoga, like life, everything is something. Every breath, every movement, every sensation contributes to the whole.  And, low and behold, where attention goes, energy flows! Sometimes it does only takes one action to start a chain reaction.

Soon, the community came together for annual stream cleans, neighbors gave testimony at the public county budget meetings where local politicians heard the importance of fixing the life blood that ran through our town, the county commissioned several flood studies and stream assessments, funds were allocated for flood projects (fixing walls and retaining water, for starters) and The Center for Watershed Protection joined forces with the Flood Solution. From this we received several grants for important projects (like building rain barrels in town, creating rain gardens, painting storm drain stencils for storm water awareness, and designing a water detention pond upstream.)

A little movement had started “a little movement.” And this particular little movement, called the Ellicott City Flood Solution, was showing me how people really do want to help. People want to do good things. People want to feel connected to each other and united under a common purpose. And, I am just one of those many, many people.

So, next time you’re on your mat, twisted into a pose like Garudasana, and you drop your elbows a bit down and forward and realign your hands above, be prepared…that tiniest of adjustments, that smallest of actions, may have just contributed to preventing your next flood.

Like elephant journal on Facebook.

Assist. Ed: Jade Belzberg/Ed: Sara Crolick

Get interested:

Ellicott City Flood Solution

The Center For Watershed Protection


The Patapsco Heritage Greenway

Baltimore Sun Article about the flood:

Baltimore Sun article Budget for EC Flooding:




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Michele Bickley