by Ali Valdez
Once I was walking on a warm afternoon when a porcelain-skinned woman with piercing blue eyes moved past me wearing a fancy hat seemingly out of a theatre wardrobe. This is Kirkland in summer; people wear caps, but not burgundy brimmed hats with lace accents. Boldly out of place, she resembled an eidolon, anachronistically formed and awkwardly dropped into the twenty first century suburban beach town. There was that moment of eye contact stuttered in half recognition, but momentum was engrained in our strides, so we kept walking in opposite directions. As the breeze shifted, we both found ourselves turning around and practically running into each other’s arm.
This was my teacher.
I had not seen my teacher Celeste in many years, almost a decade, when she took me under her wing as the mentor for my first vinyasa teacher training and ongoing studies afterwards.
Celeste always seemed from another time; the hat expressed this perfectly. Her voice was soft and gentle. She still embodied feminine gentleness, and like the porcelain complexion, an air of fragility. We agreed to meet again for lunch when our schedules aligned.
That next weekend, we sat down, shared lunch and stories. We caught up, she inquired on how my yoga studies were going.
As a teacher of teachers, it is always like homecoming when you can be the student again; wanting your teacher to be proud of you, pleased that the investment of their gifts and time proved worthwhile.
Am I truly on the right ‘track’ with this thing called yoga? Well, only your teachers truly know.
Over our lunch, the intelligence of this soft spoken woman soared with creative projects she was ideating, the caliber of book list she suggested staggering, and the kind sincere quality of how she lovingly listened confirmed that she still cared for me so many years gone by. We said our farewells, vowed to keep in touch and I was blessed with continued email exchange for a few months. Then there was silence. Life is busy, so I kept going forward in mine. Last March, once again she went the opposite direction by stopping in her’s.
My heart was so grateful for this small window in time. I had no real way of knowing that would be the last one I would have. I am no expert on suicide or depression, but I can tell you this week my heart was broken when I was notified that Celeste had taken her life. This is the first time that the act of suicide, like a spiraling wayward planet, crossed through the orbit of my life. After the numbing jolt of reading the news, I stood frozen with shock. Thoughts moved through my mind dense like sap, recalling our final conversation. It is hard not to play back and see if there were indicators, clues that should have been identified. What was I so consumed about in my own life that I failed see transparently into her’s and what would be her last few months of life?
There are two recurring images in my mind as I reflect on her memory. First, the haunting look when we walked past each other that autumn day: the soul guarding web in her eyes, wound up tight like a well-kept secret until we both turned around and how quickly they poured open freely with trust and affection once I called her name.
The second is a sacred image she kept in her private teaching studio in Capitol Hill: the green Tara, a tantric Tibetan Buddha “mother of liberation,” symbolizing the protection from fears and the great obstructions, true aspects of a teacher.
Here is a beautiful picture of Celeste, like the Green Tara and the associated Tara mantra: OṀ TĀRE TUTTĀRE TURE SVAHĀ, roughly Star, quickly save me from suffering and put me on the path to spirituality.
Embodying goddess quality, Celeste glided around ethereally like a proper Vata with flowing scarves and the posture of a principal ballerina. She inspired and encouraged me as a woman to be a woman, flowing and graceful in movement in this masculine practice years before it was rampantly popular with my gender.
Green Tara is divine feminine, something Celeste embodied completely if not without some vulnerability.
I very much thank and esteem my teacher for all that she offered me, practical teaching of asana and pranayama, introduction to Tantric philosophy and pragmatic things like being one of her designated substitutes, providing entrees into studios and being a reference when I was just starting out teaching something other than Bikram. It hurts to swallow the hard truth that she is now gone, a small sweet light quietly dimmed and perhaps one colored in hues of depression, hopelessness and despair. There are no facts surrounding her passing that I know well, other than that she was greatly loved by me and will be sadly missed. Good night, dear Celeste. God Bless you.