elegy for jenna morrison: yoga community leader
On November 7th, my dear friend and colleague Jenna Katherine Morrison was killed in a bicycle accident close to her home. She is survived by her dear husband Florian, and Lucas, her little man.
Her sudden absence has provoked a flood of grief, togetherness, and resolve. Outcries and accolades have rung out through our city, joining those that she had joined through her relentless outreach and hopefulness. Yesterday morning I rode with close to 1000 cyclists in procession to the accident site to install a “ghost bike”, painted white, at the impromptu shrine that as blossomed at that corner. We rode silently, except for occasional outbursts of bell-ringing.
Then we gathered last night at Bloor Street United Church to hold each other, to sing. There was dancing at the end.
You can read some of our outpouring on this Facebook page, as well as learn details on how to contribute to the fund for her son and husband.
I was honoured to be asked to speak at the service about her public impact on our various communities. These are my remarks.
This week has made me feel so terribly present, so alive, so awake.
I’m going to speak to Jenna’s many public faces. I worked closely with her for four years, building yoga community, and alongside her as a yoga therapist in our studio.
But before I begin, I think it’s best to start by getting Jenna back into our bodies and our breathing. So I have a little exercise for you. To do it you’ll have to find someone close to you that you don’t know — which might be hard, so feel free to get up and move around the church. Go ahead — do it — I’m serious!
First: hold your partner’s forearm in one hand and pinch their triceps with the other hand. We all know where Jenna would have really pinched you, but we’ll be modest – this is a church, after all.
Now ask your partner: how is your family? how are they doing? or: hey how’s your work going?
Whatever your partner says — you have two Jenna-choices: empathize, or celebrate.
Okay, good. Clearly, she’s here.
One of the most difficult things about preparing these remarks has been to separate my private feelings about her from her public and communal impact. I struggled with this for a while, and then gave up, because I realized that the deepest gift of Jenna’s presence was this very paradox: that she was intensely intimate, but with so many people. Somehow, she was personally engaged — with literally hundreds. She made everyone feel like family, by ignoring or perhaps not even seeing the boundaries we too often build between the personal and the communal.
Every love relationship, every pregnancy, every child, every illness, every family struggle: they were hers. And when the van broke down, or little Lucas was ill, or when Florian got sick: we knew it. Because she wore her heart on her sleeve. This empowered her friends, students, and clients. She was human, and she let you know that she understood pain and confusion. This gave her the ability to meet everyone, exactly where they were.
Jenna was truly non-denominational. She excluded no one. And as much as she learned about others, she never presumed to know enough to judge. She had deep faith, not in ideas, but in doing things. She used spirituality in the most pragmatic way — as a language to strengthen the relationships she could feel. Like every mother, she had less time for theology than for hugs and endless service. She used spirituality to describe what she was already doing naturally. This is real yoga, to me.
She had way more energy than even I did for yoga community. She elevated me out of my fatigue and cynicism, my general volunteer burnout. When’s the next meeting? She’d ask. I’d feel exhausted and non-committal and mumble something about “soon”. But then she’d pinch me a bit and ask again. And then she’d go home and stay up till 2 in the morning typing out meeting minutes.
She was our right arm with festival organization. a stuffed clipboard, everything either in her head or her baby bag. Whipping pens out of her topknot. knowing all 70 volunteers not only by name, but also their schedules, their partner’s names, their kids, their eccentricities.
She said: We have to do this matthew. We have to bring people together. We’re not doing enough in this world. Yoga means union, right? Right?
Then there was the more focused community of her students and clients. People of all ages and walks of life. the injured, people with cancer, women who had miscarried over and over again, women recovering from c-sections, women who had trouble breastfeeding. Children she taught postures to with animal names. Older people to whom she gave just a few more inches of mobility through little chair-stretches. When students climbed up the stairs at our studio, it was like they were going to Lourdes, with Jenna standing there in the candlelight, in her teal sarong.
Then there is Jenna, the cyclist. The range of communities she served gave her no choice but to travel throughout the city. It was natural to her: her way to be present, even pervasive. She needed to see everyone, and be seen, so that her body could always feel what it knew: that it was her role to join distances and people together.
Cycling expresses an implicit love for community. It puts you on the street, in real time, outside of the alienating bubbles of steel and glass. You make eye contact with others, you hear everything, you don’t spew fumes, you understand the economy between effort and movement. You feel the weather, and your heart. And you save money, so that you have to sell your soul just a little bit less to make your daily bread. All of these things make for empathy. All of these things folded into what made Jenna an always-better caregiver and therapist.
Then there is Jenna the woman and mother. Organizing for Lucas’ playschool. One of the hearts of the Howard community. Always knitting the maternal tribe together. There’s so much to say here, but I’m unqualified. So I’ll speak to this Jenna by addressing my fellow men here tonight:
We have watched women throughout our lives become strong and self-aware. If you are like me, you have admired them, and perhaps felt a little insufficient, a little lost. Jenna believed that boys must resolve their traumas to become men, because we have so much to offer, such strength and leadership and lust for life. So tonight, let us put away boyish things. Let us soften our irony and cynicism, and dispel any apathy, and push back against the banal. And as we listen to Florian’s story in a moment, may we understand what it feels like to be drawn out of our solitude by love, to be believed in, to be repeatedly elevated and healed by feminine kindness and hope. Let us rise up to meet the strong women around us. Let us answer to them. Let us use our bodies the way they use theirs: to make things real.
Today is my 40th birthday. I’m not trolling for attention! I’d simply like to tell you that I have received the most sorrowful, most poignant, most beautiful, most inspiring gifts this week that I could imagine, as I begin this more burnished phase of my life:
First: the feeling of all of us here, shocked and in shock by a sudden absence, but already sensing how our hearts will grow to fill what is missing. But with us it will not stop at consolation. We feel the surge of her life as we embrace, in silent awe of her virtues, as we galvanize around her family, as we absorb her life into our own and begin to enact her future through our hands.
Second: to realize that Jenna represents us and our values of family, community, ecology, charity, empathy; that we aspire to be the flesh and blood of a kind society. And that we understand that the flesh and blood of kindness need bricks and mortar, and paint, and lines on the road, and safety curbs, and maybe even some truck guards to protect us from the wheels of the machine. These are the materials of a more just, a safer, and a more personal city. We have the will within our flesh. Now we need some armour for our tenderness.
Third: the inescapable fact that we must, over all odds, and against all baser instincts, be present and good to each other in this short and uncertain time we have. For we are all loveable.
Finally: that it is possible and even natural to remember what is essential every day: that the very purpose of living is to discover yourself by loving others. Jenna didn’t philosophize these things to me. She showed them to me, both then, and today.
Just last sunday, November 6th, after her class upstairs at 391 Ontario Street: she came down to the apartment to ask me – what can I bring to your birthday party? I said – just bring yourself, Jenna. that would be perfect.
Just bring yourself: that would be perfect.
She cannot come to my birthday in the way we thought she might. I must go to hers instead, with you.
In closing, I ask you: what can we bring to her celebration? what will we do now? what light and care and activism and empathy will be released when this sorrow cracks open? I think we should all get together, and share our hearts, and take care of her family, and share our life-practices, and bring each other sweets, and pinch each other a lot more, and talk about it. And we should do this very soon.