May 10, 2013 § 1 Comment
Today I am over the moon to be with The Kitchen Witch. When I first read Dana’s blog, I was completely bowled over by her sense of humor, her imagery, and her honesty. Reading her blog makes me feel as though we grew up together, went to the same slumber parties and hung out together after school drinking Tab. She will make you laugh until your stomach hurts, and in the next sentence, she will crack your heart wide open. And then she will feed you with one of her delicious stories about her little girls and a recipe that you can make from what’s in your fridge – and still impress everyone you feed.
April 23, 2013 § 10 Comments
When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. – Anna Quindlen
About a week ago, I wrote a post that I never should have written. I knew it about an hour after I hit “Publish,” even before the comments began to come in. Write what you know is the golden rule. And I wrote about what I didn’t know, which is what it’s like to be a girl today.
So now I am attempting to write what I should have written then, which is what it’s like to be the mother of boys in a society that still gives women the short end of the stick. Not that I know what I’m doing of course in raising these boys, but I am familiar with the struggle, with the getting it wrong.
The other day at the park, Oliver and Gus were on the swings and we were having an abstract conversation about helping people. “Especially if they are girls,” Oliver said, pumping his legs, and soaring higher.
“What?” I asked, taken aback. “Why if they are girls?”
“Well, remember Mommy?” Oliver said on a downswing, “You told us we should hold doors open for girls?”
Shit, I thought, because I remembered completely our conversation on chivalry. I remembered telling them that they should hold doors open for everyone but always for girls and women. And now? Did I need to retract or amend that in some way? ”It’s a good idea,” I said, “To help anyone who needs it.”
“Right,” said Oliver, leaning back as if his feet were going to touch the sky, “But especially girls.”
I loved Anna Quindlen’s book “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” because she was so honest about how hard it was to raise boys to be feminists. In an interview with Terry Gross, Quindlen said: When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. That’s asking them to be different from people — certainly different from the macho men who they might see on TV or hear around them. I just felt like the payoff ultimately was going to be so great.
What I wish she wrote more about was how she managed to accomplish this.
Lately, Gus has been obsessed with the fact that girls don’t have penises. “Mommy?” he asked while eating his breakfast the other day, “Do you really not have a penis?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Does Naomi have a penis?” he asked referring to our 4-year old neighbor.
“Does Leah?” he asked about the little girl down the street.
“No,” I said, “Only boys.”
He was silent as he pondered this, and I told Gus what the amazing Carol Castanon said to the children at Oak Grove School, when Oliver went there: “You’re thinking about what it’s like to be a girl and what it’s like to be a boy.”
“No,” said Gus, “I’m just wondering how the pee gets out.”
Later, we took 4-year old Naomi to story hour with us, and in the car, Gus was telling her about how he could get across the monkey bars with his hands, which I know for a fact he can only do if I hold him up the entire way. It was hard not to laugh but I love how much confidence Gus has, how he still believes he has magical powers.
“Four-year olds can do a lot,” I told them, but they were intent on coloring in the back seat and ignored me.
“I accidentally made it across the monkey bars once,” Naomi told Gus, and I gripped the steering wheel as the word “accidentally” twisted in my gut. ”I’m not allowed to use markers when I have my dress on,” she continued, and in the rear view mirror I watched as she smoothed her purple tulle skirt.
“They’re washable markers,” I told her, but still, she gave the marker back to Gus in his camouflage pants, and I thought back to a few weeks earlier when an old friend informed me that I was the first Cornell female to win a race at Penn Relays. “Oh, that,” I told him, rolling my eyes. “Well that was a fluke anyway.”
There is something in the way girls are treated today that makes me feel culpable, probably because I am. There is something in the way that I defer, or deflect, or – despite my denying it – place my worth in the way I look or how clean the house is that is likely rubbing off on the current generation. Because how can it not?
Today I thought of Gus and Naomi while listening to NPR, to an interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution. She was talking about listening to former Avon CEO, Andrea Jung, speak at a conference about all that she had given up in order to become CEO. “No male leader does that,” said Hewlett. ”I feel that many of us are still mired in the expectations of the 1950s.”
Something shifted in me when I became a mother, and I am still trying to right myself. For decades I was stalwartly feminist. I was never going to be the one to stay home, wash the dishes, or change the diapers. And then my son was born and I couldn’t imagine leaving him with anyone else. To be honest, this has more to do with my controlling nature than my maternal instincts, but still, in saying Yes to this, I said No to what I thought I had wanted for years. I said No to an income and a business card and to being a female in an executive role.
Many military wives wear their role with pride. They wear sweatshirts emblazoned with “Marine Wife” or bumper stickers or window decals that say “I Heart My Soldier,” and I’m not really in that camp either. “I don’t really mind being a name or a number,” my friend and fellow Navy wife, Mae, said to me a few years ago, “But I do mind being my husband’s name and number.”
In some ways I have one foot in two different worlds and below me, watching my every move, are my two boys. “Hold the door,” I tell Oliver and Gus, and then in the next breath, I am telling them that women are just as strong as men. It’s no wonder they are confused, because most of the time, i am too.
Once, when we were living in Coronado, I went for a run with Oliver, who sat in the jogger with his books and his blanket, his eleven Matchbox cars and a bagel. We lived very close to the SEAL base where my husband worked and sometimes, I saw Scott and his battalion doing their PT run while we were out. Scott is a Seabee – an engineer – and he and his group were always friendly if we met on the road. On that morning, it was foggy, and I saw a group of soldiers ahead of us in their standard PT gear, so I picked up my pace to catch up. “Let’s see if that’s Daddy,” I told Oliver, and in a few minutes I was gaining on them.
As I got closer though, I saw the letters EOD on their backs, which stands for “Explosive Ordinance Disposal.” These are the people who diffuse bombs and they tend to be rather hard core. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at that point. I was by the golf course, on a wide road with few cross streets, and my only choice was to slow down or pass them. There were only about ten of them, running in a line behind a heavily muscled young man, and I moved way over to the center of the road to pass. “Good morning,” I said and waved and the guy in front did a double-take when he saw us. Then he jumped off the road and onto the golf course. “Drop down,” he yelled at the guys behind him. “Drop down and give me fifty, you pussies.”
I ran the rest of the way home feeling terrified that I had done something wrong, that I had gotten someone into trouble, and also a bit relieved that I was still, in some manner, capable in the ways I used to be. If I’m honest, this is also how I feel much of the time: mostly terrified and sometimes capable.
And this is what I would like most to change because it’s the terrified bit that gets passed on like a secret, that becomes the karma of the next generation of girls and boys. It’s the fear of not being enough that becomes inherited, and it’s the trait that I most want to be recessive, to become extinct. My good friend Sarah keeps reminding me lately that I don’t have to be so black and white, that we live in the grey area most of the time, and I am trying to remember this, that it’s not about being a CEO or a housewife, strong or weak, terrified or capable. Perhaps it’s just about being a human being doing the best that we can. Maybe what I need to impart to my own sons is that women and men aren’t really that different after all.
Except for the penises of course.
April 17, 2013 § 14 Comments
I thought of you and where you’d gone and let the world spin madly on – The Weepies
I had something to post this week, but after Monday it was like, who cares. After Monday, I wanted to respond, but I was too angry to be helpful, too bewildered to even sit down, really.
On Tuesday, my son was in his first school musical put on by the most amazing bunch of kindergarten, first, and second graders I have ever seen, and I cried though most of it, the beauty and sadness coiling around me like a hurricane.
I read somewhere that what a hurricane wants most is peace, that it spins to resolve itself.
What has resolved my own spinning during these last few days are Lindsey’s words, Katrina’s words, and Jen’s words, this song by the Weepies that I have been listening to on repeat, and Anne Lamott’s words below.
In the yoga class I taught tonight, we did a lot of core work so that we could meet the present moment with integrity, exactly as it was, no matter what. And as usual, my students were braver than me.
Wherever you are, whatever you are feeling, I wish you peace.
From Anne Lamott’s Facebook page, April 17, 2013:
Frederick Buechner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
But it is hard not to be afraid, isn’t it? Some wisdom traditions say that you can’t have love and fear at the same time, but I beg to differ. You can be a passionate believer in God, in Goodness, in Divine Mind, and the immortality of the soul, and still be afraid. I’m Exhibit A.
The temptation is to say, as cute little Christians sometimes do, Oh, it will all make sense someday. Great blessings will arise from the tragedy, seeds of new life sown. And I absolutely believe those things, but if it minimizes the terror, it’s bullshit.
My understanding is that we have to admit the nightmare, and not pretend that it wasn’t heinous and agonizing; not pretend it as something more esoteric. Certain spiritual traditions could say about Hiroshima, Oh, it’s the whole world passing away.
Well, I don’t know.
I wish I could do what spiritual teachers teach, and get my thoughts into alignment with purer thoughts, so I could see peace and perfection in Hiroshima, in Newton, in Boston. Next time around, I hope to be a cloistered Buddhist. This time, though, I’m just a regular screwed up sad worried faithful human being.
There is amazing love and grace in people’s response to the killings. It’s like white blood cells pouring in to surround and heal the infection. It just breaks your heart every time, in the good way, where Hope tiptoes in to peer around. For the time being, I am not going to pretend to be spiritually more evolved than I am. I’m keeping things very simple: right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe; telling my stories, and reading yours. I keep thinking about Barry Lopez’s wonderful line, “Everyone is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together; stories and compassion.”
That rings one of the few bells I am hearing right now, and it is a beautiful crystalline sound. I’m so in.
April 5, 2013 § 23 Comments
“Oh mother!” Beezus was all enthusiasm. “Just think. You’re going to be liberated!”
Ramona was pleased by the look of amusement that flickered across her mother’s face. “That remains to be seen,” said Mrs. Quimby. – from Ramona the Brave, by Beverly Cleary
I have two boys and we play a lot of Legos. What I love most about Legos is that they have a life of their own, that while they now come with instructions and in complete kits, they inevitably end up as something different altogether. Oliver recently designed and built two research ships, led by the genius Dr. Invention, and they search the Arctic Sea looking for sick and injured animals while also mining the ocean for potions that cure them.
What I don’t love about Legos is the sets they design for girls. They make me crazy. When I was little, we had a bin of Legos and I remember spending hours in my living room making boats with tiny rooms, spaceships, and little zoos. This was before Lego came out with people, so we even had to make those. I could have been the girl in the photo above with my red pig tails, rolled up Billy the Kid jeans, and Keds.
My sons always have enjoyed playing with girls more than boys, so we have a lot of little girls in our house, often playing Legos or some version of animal rescue or pretending they are cats. And the girls build things too, despite the fact that we don’t have Lego Friends sets, which the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood described as, “so jam-packed with condescending stereotypes it would even make Barbie blush.”
Of course, I am not the only one who wants to strangle someone at Lego and the debate over gender-specific toys has been going on for years. A little over a year ago, Peggy Orenstein wrote a fantastic Op-Ed for the New York Times on this topic and she writes about it frequently on her blog. But lately, my hatred of Lego Friends and all things Barbie and Disney has deepened. I hate that little girls seem to be running around in tutus and tiaras all the time. I hate that girls’ clothes so often have a ruffle or something sparkly. I hate when Oliver’s and Gus’ friends ask me if I want to play “princess.” No,” I want to say vehemently. “I don’t want to play princess. Why don’t we play CEO instead?”
Maybe it’s because I am growing closer to these girls or maybe it’s because they are growing up and I am deeply afraid for them. Let me be clear: this is not a post about parenting girls but about being a girl now, which I imagine to be excruciatingly difficult.
I was born in 1973, six months after Title IX was signed into law. And although my mother was about as traditional as it gets (she went to secretarial school and worked as a corporate secretary in Manhattan before marrying my father and then leaving her job to be a stay-at-home), she was also a bit of a closet rebel and and quiet hippie, even though she would probably say this wasn’t true. Way before Michael Pollen began writing about food, my mom drove us to an orchard 20 minutes away to get local fruits and vegetables, I don’t remember her ever not being politically progressive and some mornings when I woke up, she was doing yoga moves while someone on TV named Joanie wore a white unitard and lifted her knee to her nose. We listened to a lot of Carole King and Simon and Garfunkel growing up, and for a while, we boycotted grapes.
More importantly, she was a feminist, although she might say this wasn’t true as well. “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” was a mantra she frequently repeated. She signed me up for swim team when I was four, telling me – as she would for years to come – “If you can jump in that pool (or run that race or take that job) then you can do anything.”
Once, I came home from school when I was eight or nine and told my mom that I wanted to be a mother when I grew up and she laughed at me. “Oh you don’t want to be that,” she said, while zooming one of my brother’s Matchboxes back to him. “You’re going to grow up to do something much more important than that.” It’s a testament to my mother’s love and devotion that I didn’t interpret this to mean she didn’t want to be a mom, but rather, that I was destined for a better lot than she had, that I was supposed to do something in the world.
We were also lucky, because in the 70′s and 80′s we had the Women’s Movement. I still have images in my head of women in jeans and tee shirts marching in Washington, carrying signs with the initials E.R.A. We had a force behind us, a maelstrom of protection and righteousness and passion for equality that spun around me and propelled me through an ocean of naysayers: girls can’t be doctors, girls can’t run as fast as boys, girls can’t build things. Those comments always lit a fire under me. Oh yeah, well just watch me.
I don’t think we have those women now and that makes me sad, both because I truly believe the Women’s Movement has completely stalled out and also because the girls who are eight and ten and twelve now are without the role models I once had. I am grateful for Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg (whose new book I have not yet read) and Oprah, but somehow the role models now lack the panache and passion of Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem.
I really loved Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and of course I’m not new to the table on this issue either. In fact I’m about eight months late. But I just love how she seems to describe my life and my choices (although at a much higher level), that perhaps if I wanted to I could have kept the corporate gig going through my kids’ childhood, but I just didn’t want it badly enough. As Slaughter says, I knew I was replaceable at work, but not so much at home. Sheryl Sandberg would probably say I should want it more, that I let women everywhere down by not trying harder, and maybe I have. Maybe this is even why the women’s movement is so stymied. Maybe we don’t want it badly enough anymore. Maybe we’re too comfortable.
Or maybe it’s because we blame each other too much. Maybe it’s because we don’t respect each other’s choices. Maybe we are too busy arguing about whether or not Ms. Slaughter or Ms. Sandberg is right that we are completely missing the bigger picture. A part of me thinks this isn’t what men would do. If men were the ones who wanted to be “liberated,” I have a feeling they would gang up, form a team, order a pizza and then call a lobbyist in Washington or someone on Wall Street who played hockey with someone else’s brother back in high school. They would see that what we truly need is affordable childcare, flexible work hours, job sharing, and the ability to telecommute. They would start a movement with funny YouTube videos, interviews with Jimmy Fallon, and free beer.
Or do I think that solely because they are already in power, and we, as women, are not? And who is to say those ideas would even work? France, despite having affordable childcare and excellent healthcare is 57th on the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, below Cuba and Uganda. (According to the World Economic Forum, the Global Gender Gap measures gender-based disparities based on: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment).
As I read this report, the word empowerment struck me particularly. We as women are just not empowered. As soon as a woman CEO makes a controversial decision, she’s all over the media, critiqued not only for her ideas, but for her suit and her haircut. Perhaps most destructive though is that we don’t have each other’s backs. We’re constantly criticizing each other’s choices, parenting decisions, how often we show up to the PTO meetings or the the happy hours at work.
Finally, here at the end of my rant, you would probably expect some answers or at the very least, ideas, but I am all out. Frankly, I often feel like a sell-out, because I gave it “all” up to marry a guy in the Navy, an organization which does not exactly advocate equal rights for women. As a commanding officer’s wife, I am also the one who organizes meal trains, hosts baby showers, and wears heels when a senior officer comes to dinner or for an event. On these occasions, I am the one who cooks the dinner, or orders the salad, and tries to keep my mouth shut. It’s not very empowering, to be honest, and I have a deep sense of letting Gloria Steinem – and maybe my mother – down.
For a long time, I’ve felt that if we could organize – no, empower – military wives, we could change the world. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy changing diapers and making pb&j’s and trying not to think about too much about what this says about me.
And perhaps that is what is what I am upset about, that I am culpable. That by making a choice that was right for me, I haven’t helped the girls who have come after me. Or maybe it’s the other way around and true liberation means doing what is right for oneself, no matter what it looks like.
April 1, 2013 § 16 Comments
And the day came when the risk it took to stay tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin
Last week I began an Ayurvedic, 21-day group cleanse with one of my favorite and most influential yoga teachers, Laura Plumb. I realize that a cleanse is not blogworthy or even very interesting. And yet, I have always had such a strange relationship with both food and cleanses that have nothing to do with either food or cleanses*.
Ayurveda is a sister science to yoga and I could say a lot about it that may or may not be accurate, but basically, it’s about living closer to nature, eating foods that are in season, and practicing ways of being in harmony with natural rhythms, like getting up at sunrise and winding down at sunset. It’s very simple.
And yet, simple doesn’t mean easy, at least for me. During the first seven days of the cleanse, we eliminated coffee, sugar, alcohol, dairy, wheat, and meat. I don’t eat meat or much dairy or wheat, but still, without sugar or coffee or a glass of wine on those “hard days” I thought I was going to die. “When you want to reach for the sugar or the wine, or the coffee, ask yourself, who are you without the sugar or the coffee or the wine?” Laura asked us all on our group phone call and I didn’t like the answers: sad, overwhelmed, burned out, bored, frustrated, irritated. I just want to be happy and peaceful all the time and it feels wrong to have any other emotion elbow its way in and plop itself down.
I have written before about cleanses, about how, for me, it’s never about what I am giving up but what I’ve already lost. It’s about rolling up my sleeves and finally looking at the original wound, at the ways I was torn apart at the seams and the clumsy methods I used to patch myself together: an extra glass of wine, a pot of coffee at 3 pm, those five chocolate chips eaten with my eyes closed, standing in a corner of the kitchen. A cleanse for me is less about what I’m eating and more about removing the tight and messy stitches. It’s about looking into the open gash, the jagged scar, the emptiness in my heart that has nothing to do with the hunger in my belly.
One girl in our group posted so beautifully and honestly to our Facebook page about why she wanted to do the cleanse:
“I have begun to notice the ways that I outsource for guidance, minimize my own power, and fog-out when things become uncomfortable. Food is a major outsource for me and I want to reclaim the power of my body and what I put into it.”
I could completely relate.
Since I began teaching yoga less than a year ago, I’ve been profoundly aware of the ways in which I am not living my practice and the way I eat is one of them. For the most part, I eat a healthy, mostly plant-based diet. Except, when something tough happens and I outsource, mostly to chocolate. About a month ago, when I had my students move into pigeon pose, I felt like a fraud. I was instructing them to feel their way into their breath and then breathe their way into their feelings, inhale by inhale. And yet, in my own life, I was jumping ship when the sensations became too strong.
Last week, I read Anais Nin’s famous quote at the beginning of class when everyone was in child’s pose: And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. In class we did a lot of “blossoming” poses: vashistasana (side plank), ardha chandrasana (half moon), garudhasana (eagle) and then unwinding. Most of the people who come to my class are beginners, older woman, or young Marines with back and knee and hip injuries so I always give plenty of modifications. We do planks with knees down, side plank with the top leg in front, sole of the foot on the ground. Even so, I watched them stumble and struggle and sigh and giggle and then try again on the other side without a moment of hesitation. Tears filled my eyes and my heart ached with how fearless they all were, how remarkably vulnerable.
In pigeon pose, I had planned to talk more about unfolding, about being open, about blossoming, but it just felt all wrong. Instead, I shared something Rolf Gates had said in our teacher training, something that I didn’t really fully understand until I watched my own class so gamely lift their hands and hearts to the sky. “When I think back to all of my constricted states, all those times I was jealous or angry or afraid,” Rolf told us, “I realize that I needed all of those constricted states in order to truly open.”
As everyone folded into pigeon pose, blankets under their bums, I shared what Rolf had said and how exhausting it can sometimes be to be constantly told to unfurl! dream big! blossom! transform! grow! shift! evolve! When we look at the life cycle of a flower, how many days does it spend deep underground, coiled up, curled tight? Maybe the same is true for ourselves. Maybe we’re allowed days or even seasons of being colorless, tight, and protected; angry, jealous, and afraid. Sad, overwhelmed, burned out, bored. In the yoga DVD I do some mornings, Baron Baptiste says, “We can’t force a rose to open. We’ll just break off the petals.” And yet, how often do I do that to myself?
Spring isn’t for the faint of heart. Cleanses aren’t for punks. Learning how to open takes time. Sometimes it takes fear and anger and jealousy. Sometimes, it takes chocolate. Mostly it takes sunlight and warmth, kindness and true nourishment. For me, it seems to take a cleanse, a bare-bones diet and a balls to the wall process of self-inquiry and truth telling.
This week, as I started my (surprisingly delicious) mono-diet of kitchari and greens (and the dates I can’t quite do without yet), I walked outside and was stopped in my tracks at the tulips poking their green shoots through the dirt in my front garden, effectively giving the finger to my neighbor who said they wouldn’t grow. Yes! I said, doing a fist pump. Yes!
Kate is the winner of last week’s giveaway! I selected the winner through Random.org.
* I want to emphasize how important it is to do a cleanse with guidance and NOT to do a cleanse solely as a way to lose weight or to punish yourself for overindulging. Also, stay away from those ghastly Master Cleanses!
March 16, 2013 § 24 Comments
Often we have to break down in order to break through – Renee Peterson Trudeau
When a publicist emailed me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing a book on my blog, my first reaction was no, thank you. However, after hearing about Renee Peterson Trudeau’s Nurturing the Soul of Your Family, I agreed to at least read it and then decide.
And I was hooked after the first page.
Rather than trotting out a 10-step plan for perfection, Trudeau begins her book by talking about how chaotic her early years were and she freely shares challenges she had with her husband and son. Like many other books, she emphasizes the importance of self-care, but in Nurturing, it goes beyond pedicures and massages. “Nurturing yourself is not selfish,” she writes. “It’s essential to your survival and well-being.” What I loved was that Trudeau outs many of the ways our society doesn’t promote self-care and often shames mothers into feeling selfish if they put their own care on a par with their families’. Instead, Trudeau takes multi-tasking out at the knees by illustrating how much of our own lives we miss when we try to do too much: we react, we take things personally, we lose compassion, and we miss the good stuff.
This isn’t to say that Nurturing the Soul of Your Family is an easy read, however. While Trudeau is relentlessly compassionate, she is also relentless. The book is divided into five sections that focus on healing and supporting yourself, reconnecting to what you love, spending time together as a family, doing less and learning to say no, and finding support. Within each part are journaling exercises, new practices to try on your own or with your family, and really tough questions that demand honest answers. And I appreciate this so much! My own family is in a time of growth as Gus, my baby, is now four, and Oliver, seven, is in his first year of full-day school.
This winter has been a tough time of growing and molting for all of us. Oliver broke his arm in November while riding his bike and was in a cast for eight weeks. He’s already a sensitive kid, and being sidelined during recess and play time was devastating to him. Additionally, right after his cast came off, his entire school participated in a jumping rope fundraiser for the American Heart Association, which proved difficult with his arm. His seat was changed on the school bus, his new seatmate sometimes teased him, and his best friend from Washington, DC stopped returning his letters. One day he came home from school upset and told me that he doesn’t want to only have girls as friends but sometimes the boys are really rough. The months of January and February were difficult in our house, full of tantrums and unexplained meltdowns, tears and anxiety.
Added to this, I’ve felt my own unraveling this winter. It seems that the more yoga I do, the more I recognize unhealthy patterns and even unhealthy friendships that I’ve had to come to terms with. For years I’ve been able to bury my head in the daily tasks of raising babies and toddlers and preschoolers, but this winter, I’ve had more time to face my own fears and obstacles.
One morning last week, after the jump rope competition, and after Oliver reinstated himself on the recess monkey bars, he woke up upset and cranky, yelling at me before he had even climbed down from his bunk bed.
“Oliver,” I asked, feeling weary already, “What is it you need?”
He lay his head in my lap. “I want to stay home with you,” he said, in an uncharacteristic moment of vulnerability. “I want comfort.”
He wanted to read in bed, watch a movie with his brother, eat Starbucks lemon pound cake, build new Lego sets, go down to the bay and visit the “secret” cave. I explained that if he didn’t go to school that day, the following Monday would be that much harder, but we made a plan for a lazy afternoon full of Legos and reading, and even lemon muffins, which I adapted from Ina Garten’s supposedly “healthy” recipe (we all know better, Ina).
And I had Trudeau’s book to remind me that my to-do list could be put on hold for a day, that I could trust myself to recognize that my son needed comfort more than he needed to be reminded not to yell, and that I didn’t have to ignore my own needs in order to meet his.
Today, as I lie in bed on this gorgeous spring day, trying to recover from the bronchitis that won’t seem to leave, my husband glanced at Trudeau’s book, laying next to me. “Huh,” he said, “Maybe I’ll read that.”
Hopefully you will too. I’m giving away a copy of Nurturing the Soul of Your Family to one lucky reader. And you all get my adaptation of Ina Garten’s Lemon Yogurt Cake, below.
1 cup spelt flour
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup almond meal (Bob’s Red Mill is good)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup almond milk
1/3 cup sugar
3 extra-large eggs
zest of 2 organic lemons (organic is preferable because you are using the rind)
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup coconut oil, melted and cooled
juice of 1 lemon
For extra lemony-ness:
juice of 1 lemon
1-2 tablespoons agave nectar
For the glaze:
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2-3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line muffin tins with muffin cups.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into 1 bowl. In another bowl, whisk together the almond milk, sugar, the eggs, lemon zest, and vanilla. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold the coconut oil into the batter, making sure it’s all incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared tin and bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until the muffins are set and a toothpick comes out clean.
Meanwhile, for extra lemony-ness, cook the juice of one lemon and the agave nectar until it boils and then simmer for a minute. Set aside.
When the muffins are done, pour a tablespoon of lemon/agave mixture over each muffin. It will be quickly absorbed.
For the glaze, combine the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice and pour over the muffins. My kids love the glaze because … well, obviously. But these are also great without the glaze.
March 11, 2013 § 17 Comments
Oh, I’ve missed it here and I’ve missed all of you. I wish I could give you a good reason why I haven’t been to this blog in a long time, but I don’t really have one, other than to say I’ve been digging. I turned 40 in January, and Scott and the boys built me a garden. Because I live in The South, we’ve already planted kale and mesclun, sweet peas and arugula. I’ve also tried my hand at flowers and on a cold and windy day last week, I ripped open a brown paper bag full of tulip bulbs. Supposedly they are late blooming, but my British neighbor shook her head at me and wagged her own trowel in the sharp breeze. “Nah,” she said, “You need a frost. They’re not going to grow.”
But still, Gus and I raked away the pine needle “mulch” base housing dumped all over our front garden beds last fall and we dug a few inches down, because that’s as far as you can go here before you hit sand. I had to pause and figure out which way to plant the bulbs because it wasn’t entirely clear which way was up. By the time I finished, my hands were cold and covered with dirt that seemed to be baked in, caked under my nails, streaked across my face, where I paused once to itch my nose.
I’ve been doing another sort of digging as well this winter, a much less interesting sort, so I won’t bore you with the details. I think maybe it had something to do with turning 40, with the realization that the days of waiting for my real life to begin were over. This is it, I thought, as I blew out the candles and then began to panic a bit. At 40, time isn’t as luxurious as it once was. Time now seems to be cracking a whip, stamping its foot, whispering in my ear in its dry, husky voice.
Or maybe it started with books: Katrina Kenison’s Magical Journey allowed me face my own looming compost pile and Danielle LaPorte’s Fire Starter Sessions dug its fingers into my shoulders and pushed me to the ground. I called my yoga teacher, Laura Plumb, and in our sessions, she has been encouraging me to sit quietly and then to push my fingers into the soil, even though I keep worrying about the worms and the bugs.
“Live into the questions,” she reminds me and still, I want only clear answers, a way to scrape the confusion away and wash it clean. But of course, there have only been more questions, which I think are probably the garden variety questions that stay-at-home mothers my age begin to ask. Questions mostly about what I can ask for, how much I am allowed to have, whether or not it’s OK to take something and claim it for my own. And there are other questions as well, the kind that come from living on a Marine base, surrounded by guards, an ocean, and a chain link fence. Questions about freedom and obligation, prerogative and service.
I’ve been asking questions that I’m not sure you can ask anymore in this age of competitive parenting. Questions about a purpose beyond making lunches and cleaning up spilled juice. Selfish questions about carving out time for myself, about an interior life, which has been limited since the birth of my oldest son. These are not questions about how to love my family less, but about how to love myself more.
In January I dug through shame, in February anger, and now, in March, I am stalking fear, with the help of Ana Forrest’s book, Fierce Medicine. I have been practicing handstand again and forearm balance in the middle of the room, where I feel both hopeful and hopeless, clumsily hamstrung between gravity and flight. I awkwardly hop from my forearms, I plant my hands down into the floor and sometimes hover before I realize that I may actually be doing it, which causes me to come tumbling down onto the wood floor, the bedrock, the facts of my life that stand as they are, immutable as granite.
There is the fact that I don’t yet work, that we will never afford childcare or someone to clean our house or private schools. There is the fact that we move every two years, that I get frustrated because my choices are limited, that I am scrubbing the toilets with a brush and my Ivy League education. There is the fact that an almost daily yoga practice has not made me into a better person, but rather, revealed the ways in which I am selfish.
I have been trying to blast away the earth to clear a space for my life. I have been desperately clawing at stone in an attempt to build a foundation. I have been using a dull knife to scrape out a sacred space in the bedrock, an alter in the midst of the duties and the obligations. I have been trying to erase what is there so I can start again.
But maybe I have been going about this all wrong. It might be that while I have been railing against the boundaries in my life, they have been the walls keeping everything in place. It could be that I have to start building here, on these uneven rocks. What I should probably be doing, is not trying to bludgeon the earth, but drawing a blueprint of a castle that will fit in the land I have purchased. Maybe I should be learning how to live in narrow hallways and odd-shaped rooms. It might be that the duties and the obligations are the tight things that will grow, that maybe the flower is not more holy than the crust of the Earth.
January 22, 2013 § 20 Comments
Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness. And feed the hunger. – Indigo Girls
I am not proud of how I felt when I first read about Asia Canaday. Katrina Kenison linked to this letter on Facebook which Jena Strong posted on her blog. The next day, Christa posted it too, these beautiful writers forming a circle around Jena and Mani and Asia, asking the rest of us for help in the form of a dollar or a prayer.
I am embarrassed to say that instead of joining the circle, I circled around it. I shut my eyes and shut my computer, feeling anger well up inside of me, maybe even fury. Just eat, I heard a voice in my mind say and then I was overcome by an emotion I can’t even name and I had to sit down.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that I was actually furious with myself for doing the same thing Asia is doing now. When I was 16, I ate as little as I could, getting so thin that sometimes my legs became bruised from sleeping. I try not to think about those days, about the pain and helplessness I made my family go through. I try not to think of the way people used to look at me, their eyes wide with a certain kind of repulsion.
I’m angry too that this is still happening. After I clattered catastrophically through my own disordered eating, I turned away from the topic entirely, choosing to believe that childhood obesity was what we had to worry about now, not anorexia. Mani’s letter made me open my eyes, reluctantly, to the truth that in addition to living in a country with epic obesity and great starvation, 24 million people suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Clearly, we are a nation with big issues around food.
And yet, this is not an issue about food or even hunger but about our beliefs of our own worth. Maybe I’m wrong but I think all eating disorders are slightly different manifestations of the same problem: a conviction that we don’t deserve to be here, a kind of longing to disappear, by either literally shrinking ourselves or by hiding under layers of fat. This is how much someone who is anorexic is suffering: starvation is preferable to the emotions she or he is feeling. The feelings are so enormous and out of control that self-inflicted pain feels better.
We can do the usual things I suppose. We can give money and support research and stop asking if this dress makes us look fat. But I think what might be even more powerful is to look at the ways we starve ourselves on a daily basis, even if we don’t have an eating disorder. Every time we tell ourselves that we can’t take a break just yet, or we don’t deserve that job, each time we eat a sandwich standing over the sink or resist the urge to sing out loud. When we tell ourselves that that we aren’t strong enough to enter that race or leave that guy, we send clear messages to ourselves and the world about what we believe we are allowed to have. Every time we ignore what Geneen Roth calls “the knocking on the door of our heart,” we are finding a way to disappear, to stay small, and we are passing this on to each other like a plague.
Of course I am not talking about you but about me. I still have very set ideas about what I need to get done before I can go to bed at night. I want to exercise and meditate and do yoga. I need to squeeze in time to write and time to make dinner, pack lunch. I have to clean the bathrooms and hey, are these pants getting tight? I received an email from a friend today whose family was recently taken down by the flu. She wisely told me she was going to try to find a way to get the space and the time she has when she’s sick so that she doesn’t have to get sick to have it. I felt my heart lighten as I read this and then grow heavy again at the ways I refuse to receive what is always on offer to me like an open palm: a breath, a kind word to myself, space and time, even if it is only a moment.
In Buddhism, there is a character called a Hungry Ghost, a creature with a tiny mouth and a bloated distended stomach, a narrow throat that makes eating so painful, the ghosts haunt each generation with their empty bellies, with their ravenous unmet needs, with their boundless, aching hungers. Some Buddhists leave food on their alters for the ghosts, delicacies that satisfy an unnamable longing. Learning about this brought tears to my eyes. Is it possible that we could be this compassionate to each other? To ourselves?
I am going to echo Jena’s request that you leave a dollar or a prayer here for Asia and her fiercely loving mother, Mani. I am also going to suggest that we take an hour or a minute to honor our own hungry ghosts. Maybe we can sit down to eat breakfast or drink the whole cup of coffee (while it’s hot!!). We can carve out a few minutes to gaze at the sky or down at our toes. We can tell ourselves that we are allowed to dance terribly, that what we write can be awful, that we deserve that job, that we can ask for that hug. We can gently remind ourselves that eating kale doesn’t make us a better person, that we are allowed to go to bed at eight o’clock, that we don’t have to finish the whole thing, that there will be more, always enough if we take time to listen to the delicate thrum of our hearts, if we pause for a second to tell ourselves – even if we don’t believe it yet – that we deserve for our life to be good, that we already are good enough.
January 20, 2013 § 13 Comments
“Listen. Are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” – Mary Oliver
There’s a viral blog event going around called “The Next Big Thing” in which writers give a glimpse of works in progress by answering a set of questions. I’ve been tagged by Betsy Morro, who has finished an incredible manuscript, entitled “Casualites.” I was lucky enough to read a draft, so I can tell you, when you see it in the bookstore, you must buy it!! It’s a beautiful and complicated story but it’s also a page turner. I couldn’t put my laptop down! She also has a great blog which you can check out here.
And for some insight on my “Next Big Thing,” read on.
What is your working title of your book?
Breathing Just a Little
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I am not sure exactly where the idea came from. I wanted to explore the contradictory themes of freedom and safety and what they mean to women of various ages. I am fascinated by the women’s movement that took place in the late 60’s to early 70’s and I thought this would be an interesting time to place a woman (Gloria) exploring the ideas of safety and freedom in her own marriage. Additionally, I grew up obsessed with ballet (but way too klutzy to be good at it), and Claire (Gloria’s daughter) is a dancer who had to give up what she loved and what gave her this incredible sense of freedom. I had to give up running when I was young so I tried to imagine what it would be like for a dancer to stop dancing in the 70’s in that great kingdom ruled by George Balanchine. Finally, Meg (Gloria’s younger daughter) came to me during a writing prompt. She doesn’t want to dissect a frog in biology class, and that was the beginning of this book.
Gloria’s husband is a biologist studying whales. He has tremendous freedom to travel the world and is often gone on long trips. Will is very connected to his daughter Meg, and when Meg discovers his infidelity, she has to make decisions for herself about freedom, versus commitment.
The title comes from the famous line in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?” And of course, it alludes to whales who breathe just a little. Totally cheesy, I know, but I can’t help it. I was a copywriter for way too long.
What genre does your book fall under?
Oy. I have no idea. I would like it to not be chick lit, but honestly, I have bigger problems now, like the ending.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Gloria: Rachel Weisz
Claire– Saoirse Ronan
Meg – a young Claire Danes
Will: Christian Bale (need I say more?)
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A woman and her two daughters discover the challenges and pitfalls of freedom as they unexpectedly find themselves in the middle of the women’s rights movement in the early 1970’s.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Um. I should probably finish it before I answer that.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Any day now …
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I really can’t say. I don’t want to jinx myself. I just can’t compare myself to the writers I love and emulate.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired by my own struggles with the ideas of marriage and my role in marriage versus my husband’s. I am intrigued by power in marriage and the balance of power between two people who have different goals and dreams. Do they come together or do their challenges draw them apart?
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The husband and father in this book, Will, is a scientist and behaviorist who is studying how whales communicate. In the book, he is one of the first scientists who discover that humpback whales communicate with unique “songs.” While I was at Cornell, I had the great fortune to study with Roger and Katie Payne who were pioneers in describing the dynamics of whale communication. I would like to be clear that my character Will is NOT based on Dr. Payne, but he is inspired by Dr. Payne’s research and by my own interest in the scientists who studied humpbacks.
Now the way this usually works is that I “tag” two people working on books of their own. The only two I know writing books aren’t ready to discuss yet, so … if you read this and are working on a book, consider yourself TAGGED. Just copy these questions and answer them about your own work and then link back to this blog.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some more work to do …
OH, the winner of the giveaway of Katrina Kenison’s book, “Magical Journey” is Kerry Wekelo. Congratulations Kerry! You will love every page.
January 14, 2013 § 40 Comments
If your journey brings you to a choice between love and fear, choose love. - from Magical Journey, by Katrina Kenison
I do this weird thing when I find books I love, which is to believe that the writer somehow knows me, and – even more odd – that we are friends. It happens with some writers more than others. For example, I never thought Hemingway and I could be close, but that Mary Oliver and I would have so much to talk about! For years, I have been talking to Judy Blume, Michael Ondaatje, and Charlotte Bronte. Once, my imaginary conversations translated into a real, physical meet and a genuine friendship. And it happened with the writer who might have influenced my life the most.
This is a bold statement to make, but it’s also true. I discovered Katrina Kenison’s first book, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, when my first son Oliver was a baby. This was a challenging time in my life, not because of Oliver but because of motherhood itself. When I found out I was pregnant, I had a job I loved at a biotech company in the Bay Area while my boyfriend (now husband) was stationed in Philadelphia. We were in our early thirties and had talked about getting engaged, but we both knew we weren’t close to being ready. I had always hoped that someday I would be a wife and mother, but still, marriage and parenthood caught me off-guard.
One afternoon when Oliver was about 9 months old, we headed to the library, which was always a cool haven for almost any tattered feeling. Mitten Strings for God wasn’t a title I would normally gravitate towards but I picked the book off the shelf anyway. I flipped open the pages and read: We can learn to trust our maternal selves and to have faith in the innate goodness and purity of our children.
Trust our maternal selves? I didn’t even think I had a maternal self. I took the book home and read half of it while Oliver nursed and then napped, folding down almost every page, feeling elated and also deeply at peace for the first time in over a year. If new motherhood was like walking alone through a desert, Mitten Strings was an oasis. Katrina’s words made me see that there was another way to be a mother that neither repressed who I was nor necessitated a reinvention. From her stories, I began to realize all that was really required of me was to be present, to stay.
Katrina’s books are guides for me, roadmaps and talismans, flashlights and food for when the road becomes dark and I find myself utterly alone. As soon as Magical Journey arrived in my mailbox, I dove into it, flipped to a random page and read these words: I am learning how to stay. And just as they did seven years ago, her writing soothed my ragged edges.
As I continued Magical Journey, I was struck by Katrina’s bravery in facing both her feelings and herself during such a challenging and new time in her life: her boys leaving home too early, her best friend dying too soon, the years passing by too quickly.
And yet, this is not a book about wanting to stop the clock or live in the past so much as it’s about how to stay in the present and be grateful. It’s a book on how to be sad or surprised by life, or maybe a little bit lost, and still find our way back to love, to the big kind of love, or maybe even the biggest: a love great enough to hold and welcome all the sadness and shock and terror and confusion in our lives, and still outshine them all.
For me, this is a book on how to love ourselves, even when that very idea seems repulsive. Katrina writes:
So much of my energy these days seems to go into managing disappointment in the way things are, staving off worry about what might be, fearing that who I am, at my core is not really enough. I want things to be one way, and then, when they turn out differently, I struggle, as if desperate not to fail whatever test I’ve constructed out of the moment.
I read these words and came face to face with the part of myself I try to hide from every day, the same way I whip away from a mirror or my reflection in a shop window. But confronting myself through Katrina’s words has a delicious quality to it, the same way peering into a dark closet becomes less scary when your own sweaty fingers are entwined with someone else’s. She continues:
But making the choice to just hang in there with my own rather pathetic self for a while demands a different sort of perseverance altogether, a kind of strength that lays bare all of my weakness … I have to trust that being right where I am is some kind of progress and that there is a reason I’ve been called to visit this lonely darkness.
Magical Journey closely follows the journey Joseph Campbell outlines in Hero With a Thousand Faces, therein honoring the messy, inglorious, and difficult experiences we endure as we age, change, or get hit in the gut with another of life’s unfair punts. As Katrina begins her month of yoga teacher training at Kripalu, her teacher tells her, “You are not here to remake yourself but to remember yourself.”
Just as yoga is not about fixing ourselves but about becoming more of who we already are, for me, Magical Journey is about going to the places inside of us we dread most in order to love ourselves better. Near the end of the book, Katrina realizes:
Now I see that the journey was never meant to lead to some new and improved version of me; that it has always been about coming home to who I already am.
But rather than a paradox, this process is simple if we remember what Katrina’s friend Margaret told her as she set out for Kripalu. “I forgot to tell you the most important thing,” Margaret says in a low voice, as if what she has to say is top-secret information. “Just remember: It’s all about the love.”
To celebrate this amazing book, leave a comment and I will randomly choose one winner to receive a copy of this book on Friday, January 18th. Don’t miss Katrina’s other books: Mitten Strings for God, The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and Meditations from the Mat.
December 21, 2012 § 23 Comments
I have never been a big fan of Christmas although I wish I were. I wish I were the type of person to buy presents in October, like my neighbor or write lists in a little notebook, like my husband. Instead, I am the one who waits for someone else to bring home the tree and then finds a reason to be upstairs while the lights are hung. I ignore my mother when she tells me I need some greenery on the mantle and later pretend I don’t notice her walking through the side door with an armload of pine branches.
Sometimes, Christmas makes me lonely. Occasionally, it makes me feel greedy, and a little anxious as I wonder where we are going to put all the new Legos, the Erector set, the Matchbox cars that we stick in the bottom of the stockings. I worry that I don’t have the right sort of traditions, the same way I used to wonder why I could never get my hair to feather or find a boy who would want to take me to the Christmas dance. The holidays seem to be made of extremes: brilliance and shadow, joy and sorrow, twinkling lights and the longest darkness. Last Friday’s news has made this year difficult for all of us, I think, even the most joyous. We’ve been knocked down by a certain type of grief, the kind that makes you want to fall to your knees and shove your fists into your mouth.
Yesterday, I took the boys down to the bay alone, without the other neighborhood kids. The sun was dropping quickly towards the water and the sky was heavy and low with rain. In front of us, a blue heron silently unfolded himself from a rock and beat his wings in a sure and steady rhythm. It was warm enough still for frogs, so we stood under a dripping tree for a few moments and listened to them.
On the way home, the light was so dim, I could barely see Oliver as he walked next to me, talking about Christmas traditions around the world, which he is studying now in first grade. He told me about the poinsettias from Mexico, the picnics in Australia, the way Jews everywhere light the eight candles of the menorah and remember their ancestors.
It was after five and the darkness was falling hard as it does in December, as it does every night, no matter how much we try to stop it. Time moves on, and eventually the menorah is snuffed out, the Christmas tree is hauled to the curb. It’s February or March and we are no longer hoping for snow. We turn on the news or talk to our neighbor and again learn that we humans can be more wretched than even the most horrible fictional monster.
And still. Nevertheless. I feel drawn to light a fire in that unfathomable space between my ribs, although I have no idea how to even begin. Maybe we are all hoping for a spark, striking whatever kindling we can find, fumbling foolishly in the dark for a candle or a match even as the sodden floor of our grief squanders our efforts.
After dinner last night the boys were too rambunctious, too high on Santa and red hats, the hope of a Pez dispenser this year. They asked me to make cookies and I said yes. I hunted down the cookie cutters and scraped off the Play-Doh. I melted molasses and butter on the stove and stirred in ginger and cloves, cinnamon and allspice.
I thought about what Oliver said about our ancestors and then I thought about mine. I wondered if my grandparents ever sat in front of a radio in Queens, their heads in their hands as they listened to news broadcast from so many of the wars they lived through. I thought about their grandparents who sailed to Ellis Island before the Irish Revolution and the ones before them who suffered the famine and the plagues, Oliver Cromwell and the Romans. I thought of the horrors they witnessed and the rituals they celebrated, and I wondered if maybe that’s the point of the holidays, if we keep them because they remind us how to move forward. Start by lighting the first candle. Begin by decorating the tree. Stop and watch the moon rise on the darkest night.
And so we continue. On the shortest day, we tell each other the light will return, even if we don’t quite believe it yet. We pound our anger into smooth rounds of dough, hoping the heat will transform it into something we can swallow. We consecrate the temple, laying our grief on the altar as if it were our most sacred offering. As incense wafts over the pews we make the sign of the cross and anoint ourselves with sadness. Dona nobis pacem, we sing, even though we might only be mouthing the words. Grant us peace.
November 19, 2012 § 18 Comments
But I have no faith myself. I refuse it even the smallest entry. – David Whyte
I haven’t written much in a while, mostly because of something my Buddhist friend once told me: “If you don’t know what to do, the wisest thing is to do nothing.”
But now that we have been in our house for two months, I am able to think about this summer more clearly, or at least with less fog. This move from Alexandria, Virginia to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this transition from a 100-year old house inside the Beltway to a 1950′s home on a Marine base has been a long haul from normalcy to the absurdist take on the suburbs that all military bases are. More than a move, it has been a shift; a transformation more than a transplantation. This summer dislodged something I hadn’t even noticed was loose. I think what really happened is that my definition of faith – faith with italics and quotations and capital letters – was shown to be rather flimsy and breakable, a saccharine version of something that was never meant to be sweet.
When I left the Washington, DC area, I also left a life of comfort – of Waldorf schools and yoga studios and civilian normalcy – and moved into a single room of a hotel in the saddest town in North Carolina. Every day, I had to drive by the men sitting on the curb outside the unemployment office, the woman who reeked of gin and pulled a shopping cart behind her, the harried mothers in the grocery store who slapped their children with a startling ferocity. I was only 9 hours from DC, and yet I might as well have been 9000 miles away, in this town where Spanish moss hung from the branches and the sky shimmered with heat. After pursuing comfort for almost 20 years, I had finally gotten myself to the most uncomfortable place I could find.
At first, I tried everything I could to make the feeling go away. I did a lot of yoga. I started to meditate. I tried to pray. I longed for more faith. I wanted to lean into belief as though it were a cushion, a pile of feathers, a clean bank of snow. And yet, what faced me every time I stepped on my yoga mat or drove to the grocery store was the sour knowledge that to have faith meant believing in a god who allowed horrible things to happen.
In a way, living on base has been a balm for the raw grief of this summer. I live on a street with one hundred identical houses, varying only in the color of the shingles or the doors. There are no criminals on base, everyone has a job, and no one is hungry. Our neighbors are lovely and three of them now have labrador puppies. Oliver adores his first grade teacher, and often, six children are playing soccer in our front yard. It’s as though I have traveled back in time to 1956, to a world so stable and secure and idyllic, I sometimes have to doublecheck the date.
But then artillary practice begins, and the house rattles. I see one of the five children on my street born with special needs. I drive through the base gate, by the guards with their enormous machine guns, while on NPR, there is more news from Gaza. Another neighbor ties a yellow ribbon to the giant oak in her front yard, signaling that her husband too is gone, en route to a place where the air smells like burning garbage and bombs are buried underground.
And then that feeling returns, the muffled howl that a divine god is at odds with the tragedies occurring every day. It’s so convenient to believe that everything happens for a reason, it’s so comforting to have this thought as the morning sun streams through the kitchen window, the scent of coffee and cinnamon in the air, but then I open the blinds and see the ambulance outside my neighbor’s house. I realize with a wave of nausea that her son is on the stretcher and is being loaded inside.
And so I am trying my best to believe right now in what I can see, in the immense gifts that present themselves each day, like armfuls of flowers. I take comfort in bike rides and Anne Rockwell books and waiting for the school bus. The boys and I walk down to the bay with the neighbor kids, who pretend they are kings and wave sticks at each other. They shout at me to lookit as they balance on the rocks and then we are silent as fish leap from the water. I find refuge in looking both ways before crossing the street as we all head back home. There is comfort in the click of the heater as it comes on at night, in the golden light that pours from other people’s windows on my nightly walks. I find magic in the way the deer snorts from the woods along the path, right before he rushes out – a buck! – only a few feet from me. There is the love my husband gives me, the presents he doles out daily: the smile, the hug, the dash out to the store to see if they have Uggs in my size. And maybe there is even comfort in the sadness, in the immense relief that comes from no longer having to pretend that we are safe, that everything is going to be okay, that we are all going to live forever.
I linked arms with my neighbor as we took our kids trick-or-treating. We have only known each other for six weeks, and yet, her son’s illness and her need of my help – no her acceptance of my help – have made me feel as if it has been much longer, and I am grateful for this too. As the kids ran from house to house, the two of us peered into homes identical to our own and took stock of their decor, their lighting, the flower boxes beneath their windows. We talked about what it was like to move so often, to feel the ground shift under our feet every two years and I asked her how she managed it so gracefully. “I don’t think of this as home,” she confided to me. “This is just where my stuff is for now.”
Something lightened in me after she said this and I felt a divine sort of joy as we watched our children race in their costumes. I realized that this dark Halloween night, these bright autumn days, these years of parenting small children might just be the golden ones, the sweetest ones. I took refuge in the thought that perhaps faith is not as necessary as gratitude, that maybe they are even the same thing.
September 26, 2012 § 16 Comments
I want to remember the way the butterflies here careen towards my head in their ridiculous flight and make me duck, every time. I want to remember my next-door neighbor, the way he came striding over to me in his camouflage and combat boots, the sun high and his shadow arriving first. “I’m Bobby,” he said, just as I was wondering whether to advance or retreat. “Let me know if we can do anything for you while you’re getting settled, anything at all.” The next day, the woman across the street walked over in the rain with a plate of cookies and her phone number and I felt something settle, despite the boxes we had yet to unpack.
I want to remember the way I feel in the morning, how in the half-second after my alarm goes off, I am still not sure where I am. I want to remember how much I despise yoga at five in the morning and how very much I need to throw down my mat, to hear the particular sound it makes on the wood floors when the house is dark.
I want to remember these days, when my insides feel full of the sharp click of needles. I stare down the street at the identical houses and realize I am both tourist and native. The morning after we moved in, I waited for the school bus with Oliver for the first time, feeling such camaraderie with the other mothers. After the bus drove off, one of them told me her husband had been to Iraq and Afghanistan five times, once for fourteen months. I went back into the house after that, into a different sort of day.
I want to remember the sharp taste of the ocean, the bitter reminder of a war, a heat so impressive that it sometimes feels as though I have landed on the tongue of a dragon.
I want to remember what it was like to run through the cornfield behind my house when I was nine, my hands slapping hard at the leaves. I want to remember leaning over the withers of the pony I leased every summer, the moment when she gathered herself up and then exploded into a gallop. Her exquisite speed made my eyes useless until finally I closed them and wound my fingers through her mane.
I want to remember what artillery practice sounds like on Camp Lejeune, the air imploding on itself and the windows rattling as if in an earthquake or a battle. I want to remember the way my new friend folded herself onto the floor of our house, the walls still smelling of paint. She talked about her autistic son, each detail a gift, beads carefully strung. I want to remember what she quietly called testimony, the way she turned her face briefly towards the ceiling and said that her son gave her faith, that he caused her to believe in God and trust in this life.
I want to remember the man with nine fingers who came to fix the air conditioner, whose Carolina accent sounded like a banjo playing in the night. He asked me if I was from Mississippi and when I shook my head he told me, like a prophesy, that I was going to learn to cook black-eyed peas. I want to remember the way he talked about getting injured in the first Desert Storm and how he alternatively called me Ma’am and Sugar. Shuguh.
I want to remember the soldiers in the field next to the post office and how they were taking turns carrying each other over their shoulders, wrists and ankles dangling towards the ground. I want to remember the way Oliver runs with his arms outstretched, pretending he’s a falcon and the way Gus throws his head back and laughs when anyone says the word “stinky.” I want to remember Oliver racing off on his bike, sometimes tossing his legs over his handlebars and how Gus rides away from me, his back straight, one training wheel perpetually off the ground.
I want to remember my college teammate tell me at breakfast one morning what it was like to live in Bosnia in 1992, how her mother made her sneak up the street and check for snipers before she went to school. I want to remember the camping trip to Mexico my second year out of college, how my friend calmly described what it was like to flee the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and travel to Turkey under the cover of night.
I want to remember my new yoga teacher reading from Meditations from the Mat, and how relieved I was to hear something so dear and familiar to me I wanted to cry, hunched over in child’s pose, my forehead pressed against the ground.
I want to remember every bit of how uncomfortable I am here because I am not someone who does uncomfortable well. I am someone who runs like hell from uncomfortable, who would rather turn away than look at the woman in front of me with the baby and the food stamps. I am not here to give testimony to a god but instead, to the way the world crouches between beauty and despair, each a tragic partner to the other. I can only bear witness to those dark and fragile moments before dawn, when it looks as though things could go either way.
September 10, 2012 § 16 Comments
“Sometimes life hands us gift-wrapped shit. And we’re like, “This isn’t a gift, it’s shit. Screw you.” – Augusten Burroughs
“Well Jacksonville’s a city with a hopeless streetlight.” – Ryan Adams
This has been a very difficult summer for me for reasons that have more to do with my own mind and less to do with what actually happened to me. When we moved from Washington, DC to Jacksonville, North Carolina, we knew we would have to wait at least six weeks until a house was available for us on the Marine base here. I just didn’t think that at least six weeks would actually stretch out until fourteen weeks, longer than a Southern summer, all of us sleeping in one room from Memorial Day until weeks past Labor Day.
I am trying to realize how lucky I am to have the privilege of staying in a hotel for this long, and if you could see this town, you would understand. It’s the kind of place where a steady stream of women and children file into the WIC office, and the Division of Employment Security always has a few men sitting on the curb outside, their arms wrapped around their knees. Driving from our hotel to the base, where Oliver just started first grade, we pass countless pawn shops and tattoo parlors, a Walmart, a Hooters and a windowless, cinderblock “gentlemen’s” club called The Driftwood. Before I arrived in Jacksonville, I didn’t believe places like this existed outside of New Mexico or movies starring Michelle Williams. I recently discovered that one of my favorite musicians – Ryan Adams – grew up here, and as I again listen to him crooning those heartbreaking lyrics, I am not surprised. Jacksonville, North Carolina may be the saddest, hottest, dirtiest town I have ever set foot in.
In early August, one of the housekeeping staff stopped me on the way down the hall. She held out her palm and asked me if the small, brass, semi-automatic bullet in her hand was mine. “Um, excuse me?” I asked, feeling my jaw drop open and then I shook my head. “No,” I said, “No, we don’t have a gun.” Jesus, I thought as I walked away and then I turned around. “Where did you find it?” I asked and the woman told me that it was right behind the bed where my sons have been sleeping.
Later that month, I took the boys to the indoor pool one afternoon. We did this a lot as Scott was traveling for a couple of weeks and it rained every day he was gone, the sodden hem of Hurricane Issac dripping over Jacksonville. On that grey day, Gus jumped into the pool, into my arms, before I was ready and his head banged into my eye. “You’re bleeding!” said another woman in the pool so we all got out. By the time we were back in our room, I could feel my eye swelling. The next day – Oliver’s first day of school – there was no amount of concealer that could cover the purple and green lump under my eye and the gash right above it. I met Oliver’s teacher noticing her eyes flickering with concern as they focused on my shiner, knowing that there was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound as if I was making an excuse for something. I told Scott it was a good thing he was out of town.
I’m not who you think I am, I wanted to scream, which has been sort of a mantra of mine all summer, mostly to myself. Since June, I have been trying to convince myself that I am not homeless or a failure or a lousy mother but it’s been challenging as I keep finding myself in situations where it’s easy for people to take one look at me and get the wrong idea. All of my life, I have been an incredibly judgemental person, and this summer, my judgements were turned inward, towards myself. Or maybe that’s where they’ve been all along.
I never thought I would become a military wife. I was born in the early 70′s, in the heyday of Women’s Lib, and as a teenager, I swore I would never let myself be defined by a man. A military wife was pretty much the last thing I imagined, and there is a small part of met that feels like I let someone down. This summer a bigger part feels like I’ve let my kids down, tearing them from their friends in Washington, DC and our big house there and sticking them in a single room with a bag of Legos each. Oliver, especially, has had a tough transition from his Waldorf school to his Department of Defense school, where already, he is expected to keep a journal. Tonight he had to write a paragraph about what freedom means to him.
Freedom. In Jacksonville, the word “Freedom” is everywhere: on teeshirts and bumper stickers and even on the sign welcoming you to Camp Lejeune. “Pardon Our Noise,” it reads, “It’s the Sound of Freedom.”
In yoga, freedom means to be released from the chains of our mind, and this summer, living in a tiny box, I have seen how chained I am to my own idea of how things should be, how chained I am to my ideas of how other people should be, to how I should be. What is true is that I have exactly what I want: I married my best friend, a man I am still madly in love with after a decade of being together, and I am able to stay at home with my kids, which I am lucky to be able to do. Scott supports my yoga habit, stayed home from work one day a month last year so I could go to my yoga teacher training, and he doesn’t complain about eating kale or Gardein Chik’n, which I have been making often in our hotel.
What is also true is that getting what I wanted doesn’t look the way I thought it would, and I get upset about that, some strange combination of guilt at not having a job and resentment that I have to follow someone else’s orders and traipse after a man. Every other place we have lived – San Diego, Ventura, Washington, DC, Philadelphia – I was able to pretend that I wasn’t a Navy wife, that I had nothing at all to do with the war waging in a far away desert.
In Jacksonville, I can’t hide anymore. The town is crawling with soldiers. You can’t turn your head without seeing a Semper Fi bumper sticker or a Marine Wife window decal, a gaggle of young recruits sauntering down Western Boulevard, or a young man in a wheelchair, empty space where his leg used to be. Something about this town has brought me to the bottom of myself, to the place I have been avoiding for years, covering up with power yoga and running, volunteering and a second glass of wine.
And yet, there is a relief in the crumbling of an unstable structure because once the last wall falls, you find yourself sitting in the middle of a dusty, empty space that feels a bit like what freedom might feel like if freedom didn’t stand for guns or bombs or a country’s foreign agenda. Once you find yourself on rock bottom, there is nowhere left to go. You have already eaten the cupcakes and run the miles and held Warrior II for days and nothing has worked. Nothing has changed except the myriad ways you have thrown yourself against the walls. And then, one day, after cursing the sun that beats down upon the ruins, you finally sit up and survey the jagged thoughts shredding your heart. You say, “Well then. This must be the place.”
Jacksonville is that place. Our stale and musty hotel room is that place. Oliver’s new-school anxiety is that place as is my acquired and inherited shame that I will never be good enough. In his yoga DVD, Baron Baptiste says, “That which blocks the path is the path.” This summer, I have been punched in the face with my own resistance, with my tight-fisted grip on the way I think things should be. I have been handed bullets and black eyes and I keep forgetting that these are the gifts. I forget that the lessons are handed out in the trenches, in the foxholes, in the dust of crumbling temples. I am discovering that wisdom hides in the most wretched of places, buried deep in the towns with the hopeless streetlights.
Click here to hear Ryan Adams sing about his hometown, Jacksonville, North Carolina.
July 31, 2012 § 18 Comments
I can’t read Jena Strong’s beautiful memoir in poetry, Don’t Miss This, without thinking of Jena herself, whom I had the pleasure to meet last December. Last year, after I read on her blog that she was in Washington, DC, I emailed her, and the next thing I knew, I was pulling up in front of her hotel and she was folding her tiny body into my car. We ran along the Potomac and later, went out for breakfast. And somehow, after that brief morning visit, I felt as if I had known Jena for years.
While we were running, I rather obnoxiously asked about, what she calls in Don’t Miss This, “the shattering realization” that she was gay. “How did you know?” I wondered, wanting to know less about the specifics and more about how someone can so courageously make such a leap of faith. Jena graciously answered my questions and for the next six miles, we discussed what living authentically means, how much courage that takes, and how confusing it can be, how difficult it is to determine if we are doing it right.
In her memoir, Jena describes the “undiscovered rooms, the Chinese boxes I kept trying to get to the bottom of …There were the velvet boxes holding round golden promises, the dented cardboard boxes containing journals, crushed repositories of my existence.”
Reading Don’t Miss This is almost like sitting beside Jena herself. Her words on the page contain her warmth, her grace, her fearlessness. Her writing is mesmerizing and sharp, taut and fluid. In structure, the memoir in poems is divided into three parts: She Who Stays, Landmine, and What I’ll Miss.
For me, She Who Stays, was the most searing section of the book. She writes about what happens before the earthquake of her coming out, those days of so much suffering, of keeping so much inside. One poem in particular, “How the Light Gets In,” made me shiver in recognition:
Later, after the dishes and the laundry,
the diapers and the dishes again,
I felt the tightening in my chest,
martyrdom rising in me like an unstoppable wave
when the family breakfast ended
in spills and tears and anger
as I sat feeling powerless
to the shadow side of their closeness.
Jena writes of the harrowing task of telling the truth, of becoming who we are supposed to be, about who we have been all along, those parts of ourselves that we try to squirrel away and hide. In the second part of her book, Landmine, Jena writes with the stark discipline of a warrior, when, as she beautifully pens in “No Retreat”:
There is nothing left to do.
Only to look back
at the path of jewels you’ve walked
to arrive here at this place of no retreat.
In “When It Happens,” she writes about what no retreat looks like:
having learned to be calm
having learned to be patient
to stay still in a storm
that swept our houses clean.
Reading Jena’s poetry, it is impossible not to harken back to your own dear life, to call to yourself the times that you stayed when you should have fled, when you ran when you should have stayed, when you failed to listen to the small, insistent voice inside yourself that always tells the truth. And reading her poetry is to become at peace with that precious voice, to hear it ringing clearly in whatever tone and note is true for you. In “Night Poets,” you can’t help but be called to:
step out at 2:30am,
the moths banging against
the bare fluorescent bulb,
do as she taught and listen hard -
Jena’s final section of the book, What I’ll Miss, is a unromanticized narrative of what is gained when you tell the truth, and also, what is lost. In “Falling Seasons”:
Tonight is all flickering flame
and a prayer to the waning moon
high above my children’s beds,
a head bowed in gratitude
for the strong medicine
I received today,
all four directions
answering the quiet call
for a longing I couldn’t name.
This section, more than the other three, contains a hush, a silence, a heart that is at peace. This final part of the book is about the quiet after the explosion, the calm after the storm. It is a paen not to banging down doors and breaking into a new life but to moving through fear “An animal on all fours, quietly and with measured steps.”
More than anything, Jena’s poems open up the bottles full of emotions we have corked tightly, hidden in the back of the closet, buried in the recycling bin of a bright supermarket at midnight. She gives voice to everything that doesn’t quite fit, that refuses to be named in the light of day. And yet, Jena’s memoir is also full of unbridled joy and the victory that comes from staying present, even when that present moment aches.
Your shame, all those moments
when you wanted to hide,
to disappear, to retract and retreat -
these are your gifts.
Look inside. Don’t run.
To win a copy of Jena Strong’s book, leave a comment below and I will pick a winner at random on Thursday, August 2. You can read Katrina Kenison’s review of Jena’s book here and Lindsey Mead Russell’s review here.
July 23, 2012 § 7 Comments
I am the ritual and the worship
the medicine and the mantra
the butter burnt in the fire
and I am the flames that consume it –
Bhagavad Gita 9.16, Translated by Stephen Mitchell
I first tried reading the Bhagavad Gita in high school. It was an old Penguin edition from the late 1960s and I couldn’t get through even two pages of the introduction. It was so disappointing to me that I couldn’t understand it. I had just finished reading Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which served as my introduction to eastern philosophies, and I was enamoured with Seymour Glass and even more so with his brother Buddy. I had an idea that the Gita held secrets or answers or at least smarter questions.
When I was still living in Alexandria, Virginia, before we moved, I was desperately missing my yoga teacher training so I went back over the reading list Rolf gave us. On the list was Bhagavad Gita, A New Translation by Stephen Mitchell. Honestly, if it didn’t say “New Translation,” I wouldn’t have ordered it, and even when it came, I waited a few weeks to open it. And then one night, I skipped the introduction completely and dove into poetry so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.
The story itself is simple. The Gita takes place on the battlefield at the beginning of a war between two clans in India a few thousand years ago. Arjuna is a warrior who has friends and teachers in both clans, and before the battle begins, he has his charioteer Krishna drive him out to the middle of the battlefield where he realizes the futility of such a war. In my mind I think of Kurukshetra as the Battle of Gettysburg – each side connected to the other – and of course, the ancient story symbolizes the war between our divine nature and our egos, our heads and our hearts, each of them both friends and enemies to the other.
Arjuna decides he is not going to fight in the war because it’s violent and wrong, and as a spiritual text, you would think this is where the story is going to go. But Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer – who also happens to be God (or the Divine) incarnate – tells Arjuna that he must fight and he launches into a long teaching about the nature of life and death, the inevitability of war, and the importance spiritual practice. Until I moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina, this element of the Bhagavad Gita baffled me.
I am the butter burnt in the fire and the flames that consume it. Those lines in the Gita, when Krishna tells Arjuna that the secret to life is Faith, bring me to my knees each time I see them. And yet, this spring, I still didn’t understand them. I still puzzled over the connection between Love and War. Why did the Gita take place on a battlefield? How could God be in both the butter and the flames that consumed it? In May, I still thought that God should pick a side.
When I first came to Jacksonville, I was appalled by this town. If it had a smell it would be hot asphalt and cigarettes. If it had a color it would be a bruise, the blood-red of the Marine flag and the indigo of the ocean, the blue-black of the daily thunderstorms and the angry orange of the sun as it rises each morning, the heat both searing and liquid, like something squeezed from a bottle.
But slowly, the color began to subtly change and shift: I began to see the white undersides of the storm clouds, I detected the silver scent of ocean in the air and the yellow stretch of languor in the heat. I took the boys to a park one day where grass-colored dragonflies the size of candy bars flitted around us. I discovered a tiny red market where the owner sold me fresh-caught scallops and called me “Sugar.” When I went into Barnes and Noble one day, a young Marine held the door open. “After you Ma’am,” he said. We sat near each other in the cafe, both of us on laptops, and soon, four other young Marines gathered in front of him and started talking quietly. I looked up at one point, surprised to see them standing the way children do around someone with a new toy. They were so young still, like puppies with oddly shaven heads.
“So how are they treating y’all?” the boy who opened the door for me asked them.
“Well, OK I guess,” said one of the newcomers.
“I’d have to say pretty good,” said another. “Except we have to listen to the speeches they give all the eighteen year olds about how we shouldn’t buy a BMW on a Private’s pay.”
As I listened, I learned the oldest among them was twenty-one, that a few of them were probably going overseas soon, that another one was having an elective surgery next week, the announcing of which made the rest of them stand quietly for a few moments.
There is a butt-naked quality to Jacksonville that is both exhilarating and terrifying, appalling and refreshing. I have seen mothers smack their children in the grocery store and have seen Marines riding high up in Humvees wave at my boys. One day at the beach we almost left because the cigarette smoke was so thick and on another day, while I was swimming in the warm waves, five dolphins popped up so close to me I could have touched them. I was mesmerized by their bright, clicking conversations, their small neat teeth, the speed with which they whipped and rolled under the waves.
The other day, driving behind a car with a bumper sticker like the one in the photo, I felt myself melt and soften into the sadness and salt of this town. I surely felt God – or whatever you might call It – while I was swimming with dolphins, but I felt it just as surely when I was sitting in front of those young soldiers in the bookstore, when I saw that mother hit her child, when I turn on the news and hear Syria, Aurora, Famine, Flood. I certainly don’t understand the Bhagavad Gita, but I do understand a bit better now that love doesn’t pick sides, that sometimes there is no side.
Kindness and hatred, faith and fear are so entwined with each other, each choice so near to the other that it can leave you breathless at times. But even in the darkest moments love is there, always, melting in the fire, willing itself to be consumed. It hovers over our heads like the black and gold butterflies here, like the heavy bodies of the MV-22 Ospreys, which lift up and into the sky, going off wherever it is they are going to go, doing whatever it is they are going to do.
July 16, 2012 § 46 Comments
Your story and mine are sure to be different, but if hearing my story allows you a moment away from yours, if it leaves you with a sense of hope, then this story was worth writing down – from Preemie, by Kasey Mathews
So begins Kasey Mathew’s beautiful memoir, Preemie: Lessons in Life, Love, and Motherhood. I was in the passenger seat of my car when I first read this sentence and Scott was steering the car down the 395 out of Alexandria, out of Virginia, out of my life for two years and into North Carolina. We had left the boys with my parents for four days and were going down to try to find a house near the Marine base, Camp Lejeune. What I remember about that April day was the sun through the windshield and the blue sky and Mathew’s words: if it leaves you with a sense of hope, then this story was worth writing down.
The next few pages took me surely and swiftly away from my life and onto the pitching and turning roller coaster that was hers in late November of 2000 when she went into the hospital halfway through her pregnancy because she hadn’t been feeling well. Mathew’s writing is clean and sharp with intense imagery and dialogue that makes you feel as though you are eavesdropping. Add to this that Mathews is a masterful story-teller, creating not just a narrative about what happened but a thriller that will whip you around sharp corners and through the blinding chiaroscuro of light and dark that was her life the during first five years after giving birth to her 1 pound 11 ounce daughter, Andie. Before I read Preemie, I knew that Mathews had set out to write this book to comfort other women who had or will give birth to premature babies, the ones who have to defy odds in order to take a single, unassisted breath. But what she did was to write a book that is both a comfort and a tribute to anyone who has had to stare disaster in the face. In the first chapter, she writes with shattering clarity about those early hours in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. when she found out that she wasn’t ill but in labor five months early.
“Why is this happening?” I asked. “What did I do?” My voice sounded far away.
“You didn’t do anything.” The nurse on my right held
my hand without looking at me. “This isn’t your fault.”
Their shoes squeaked as they jogged alongside me.
“I know I did something.” The nurses exchanged a look.
My body started shaking. I was so cold. “I never should have
played paddle tennis.”
“It’s nothing you did,” several nurses said at once.
I thought if I could figure out why this was happening, I
could make it stop. I searched for clues, chronicling the past
week’s activities and ingestions. The bath I took Saturday
must have been too hot. I ate sushi. Just vegetables, but
maybe it was the ginger. “I put ginger on some sushi.” They
gripped my ankles tighter. I could see their hands on my legs,
but realized I couldn’t feel them.
Finally, I clutched a nurse’s arm. She was walking back-
wards, facing me, guiding the gurney down the hall. I dug
my fingers into her flesh. I needed to know she was real. She
looked at me. Her eyes, framed in dark circles, softened. I
thought I’d found my sympathetic audience. “You don’t un-
derstand,” I said to her in a more coherent, controlled voice.
“This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me.”
She held my gaze for a moment, and I waited. A gold
cross swung at the base of her neck. She continued to look at me. And then she said, “It does now.”
The voice and structure of Preemie are as impressive as its pacing. Often while reading, I flipped the pages back, trying to determine how Mathews had managed such a skillful flashback, such sparse but evocative details, such humor, even as she depicts events that must have been excruciating to live through. She describes the smell of paint in the first house she and her husband lived in, the beer they drank in the summer, their conversations as they lied in bed, sleeplessly staring up at the ceiling. Her sense of structure is both subtle and precise. Mathews places a gentle hand on the reader’s back and loops us through the past and the future until we finally look up and realize we are back at the middle, right where we started. Preemie is a book that reads like a race car.
Preemie is also a book about growing up, about how we transform from a twenty-something into a grown-up and about how growing up is less an age or a decision and more about the choices we make, the steady accumulation of days until we realize we are no longer auditioning, but rather, that we have gotten the part. Throughout the book, Mathews writes with a raw honesty about how it took her days until she was ready to hold her newborn, how hard it was to leave her healthy, two-year old son Tucker and head to the hospital, how she was both overjoyed and overwhelmed to finally take Andie home. “We had so many dreams,” her husband says at one point. “And now everything’s changed.”
During the first precarious months of Andie’s life, Mathews and her husband remodeled their home in record time (because they could not do any construction once Andie was home), suffered a cancer scare, and navigated an almost-daily commute to the Boston hospital to visit Andie all while trying to maintain a normal life for Tucker. And yet, these challenges were only warm-ups for Mathew’s ultimate challenge, which was learning how to trust herself.
Mathews turns to alternative healthcare for reasons that are a mystery even for her. She pursues, Reiki, energy work, and cranial-sacral therapy first as a last resort and then later, as a believer, as someone who has learned that babies need to be protected from the bright lights of the NICU, that to truly heal requires more than hospital beds and prescriptions.
In one of my favorite sections of the book, in a chapter entitled, “Healers,” Mathews describes her first visit to Karen McCarthy, an energy healer. On the phone, McCarthy explains that we humans are not just physical bodies, that we have emotional and spiritual bodies as well. Because Mathews doesn’t understand this at the time, she tells her curious husband that they are going to “a mind-body kind of thing.” Mathews describes the Berber carpet in Karen McCarthy’s house, her turtleneck, and firm handshake. She writes about the sometimes mystical events that surround her life from the perspective of a doubter, who believes only because she can no longer disbelieve.
As Andie continues to grow, so does Mathews. She becomes in equal measures, softer and more fierce. In peeking down every dark alley that might somehow reveal a possibility for her daughter, Mathews details the elliptical journey of her own healing as she travels fearlessly into the center of her own beating heart. She writes about her own transformation with humor, grace, and gritty honesty. This is a story about what happens when the worst happens. It is not so much about rising from the ashes as it is about being reborn in the flames. It is about learning how to trust: in ourselves, in the unknown, and in impossible miracles.
To celebrate this beautiful book, Kasey is giving away a copy of her book to lucky someone. Leave a comment and I’ll randomly pick a winner on Thursday, July 19th.
July 2, 2012 § 11 Comments
Too often we give away our power. We overreact. We judge. We critique. And we forget to breathe. – Seane Corn
In mid-June, Scott’s parents flew in from Oregon and my own parents drove down from Pennsylvania to visit us here, in North Carolina and to attend Scott’s change of command ceremony on Camp Lejeune. Because I couldn’t possibly imagine our families in this strange extended-stay hotel with us, we rented a house on Topsail Island for a week. It was such a relief to be able to open a door and let the boys run outside, to sit on the beach without driving there, to walk near the warm waves at night and wake up and do yoga on the deck outside our bedroom.
And then it was time to leave. My little blue Prius was so full of suitcases and sand toys, cardboard boxes full of peanut butter and oatmeal, raisins and spirulina powder, a pint of berries and an eight-dollar jar of red onion confit I bought at Dean and Deluca in Georgetown before we moved because I had to have it. The boys could barely fit into their car seats, and on the passenger seat next to me was a laundry basket full of bathing suits, my Vita-Mix blender, a Zojirushi rice cooker, and a Mason jar full of the seashells we found on the beach.
It was a little after eleven in the morning. It was past the time we were supposed to be out of the beach house and hours until we could check into our hotel. We had already spent the morning on the beach, and as I steered the heavy car out of the driveway, I realized I had nowhere to go.
You’re homeless, you know, said The Voice inside my head. You are 39 years old and you have no place to live.
I am not, said the Other Voice. I am not homeless.
And yet, you have no home, said the Voice, So what would you call that?
We spent some time at the Sneads Ferry library and checked out some Magic Treehouse books on tape to listen to in the car. We drove to a park with a big boat launch in Surf City and boys watched with fascination as pickup trucks hauling fishing boats expertly backed up to the water and set their boats free. We watched a big blue crab walk sideways in the brackish water and the boys threw leaves at the tiny fish that shimmied near the docks. We went to a pizza place for lunch because I knew there were clean bathrooms there and we went back to the beach where the boys were cranky and kept grabbing each other’s shovels.
The night before, when we were still in the beach house, I felt a lump on the side of Gus’ neck and my heart leapt up into my throat. I asked my father-in-law to take a look and he told me it was nothing. “Don’t waste a doctor’s time with that old thing,” he said, which comforted me greatly, but still, while the boys stole each other’s beach toys on that homeless day, I was on the phone with a pediatrician’s office. “Why don’t you come in tomorrow?” the receptionist asked me and I felt my unreliable heart writhe and squirm again.
I gave the receptionist my name and my insurance information. She asked for my address just as Gus hit Oliver on the head. We had gotten a PO box the week before, but I hadn’t memorized it yet, and it was clear that if I didn’t get off the phone, one of the boys would hit the other with a plastic dump truck or the bright yellow buckets I bought a few days earlier. “I don’t have it right now,” I told the receptionist. “We just moved here. Can I bring it tomorrow?”
The next day, we arrived early for Gus’ appointment. The waiting room was nearly empty and as I was filling out form after form, a nurse came out and stood by the receptionist. “She didn’t have her address yesterday, so I couldn’t start the file,” I heard the receptionist say in a loud whisper. “Honestly who doesn’t have an address? Who are these people?”
I felt tears start in my eyes and my whole face ached with shame and fury and a feeling of desperation so great that I wanted to jump in my car and watch the entire state of North Carolina recede in my rear view mirror. Hey, I wanted to say, I can hear you. Instead I said, “I’m almost finished,” and watched the receptionist jump and turn around. I walked up to her desk with my completed forms but couldn’t look at her, my face hot with the shame of having no address, no place to go, no home.
Afterwards, when the doctor told me I had nothing to worry about, that the lump was just a swollen lymph node, I was so relieved I took the boys for ice cream. The main road into Jacksonville – Western Boulevard – is particularly ugly, but the week before, on a walk, I found a little ice cream place called Sweet, which looked brand new and cozy. It was sandwiched between a Five Guys and a Popeye’s, but inside Sweet were velvet couches and soft chairs, a coffee bar and an old-fashioned ice cream counter. A sign on the wall announced that there would be a benefit tomorrow and NFL MVP Mark Moseley would be signing autographs and footballs.
The boys and I sat on a couch and ate our cones and a few seconds later, an older man sat down in a chair next to us with a coffee. His white hair was slicked back and he was wearing a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and a belt with an enormous buckle. On his right hand was a garish gold ring and on his feet were the most amazing pair of cowboy boots I had ever seen. The brown leather rippled in shades of light caramel and gold and deep chocolate. My first thought was to sneer at his outfit. Where do you think you are, Texas? asked The Voice, and then I thought of the receptionist we just left and was flooded with a new shame.
I wanted to be nothing like that receptionist, nothing at all like her, so I looked at the man and said, “Those are some really nice boots.”
The man stretched out his legs and lifted the toe of one boot into the air. “Thanks,” he said. “They’re gator skin. I have four pairs.”
“Four pairs?” I asked, delighted, as I always am when someone has exactly what they want, when they unabashedly showcase more than I think any of us are allowed to have.
He nodded at me and I tried to imagine four pairs of those boots lined up in my bedroom closet. In my head I thought of the tiny wooden closet in our old Virginia house and once again, I remembered I was homeless.
“So how do you like our ice cream?” the man asked me and I nodded and then said, “Oh so this is your place?” because sometimes it takes me a while.
The man nodded again and I watched the sunlight flash on his tacky ring. “I own the Five Guys and the Popeye’s and I wanted to bring in something different,”he said.
I told the man that my friend owns a Five Guys at the ballpark in DC and the man said, “Charlie? I know Charlie. Are you from DC?”
I said that I was, that we just moved here. “Your husband on the base?” he asked and I told him that Scott was a Seabee, that he was part of the huge construction project on Camp Lejeune. “I met with some Seabees last week,” he said. “I’m trying to get Five Guys on the base.” He asked me more about Scott’s job and then we talked about DC for a while. Oliver asked if he could have the rest of my melting ice cream come and I gave it to him. “I lived in DC for fourteen years,” the man said, “I was the kicker for the Redskins. It’s a great city.”
“The Washington Redskins?” I asked, as if there were any other kind. I am not a football fan, but my father and brother are and I grew up around detailed conversations about Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, Refrigerator Perry and Mean Joe Green. When I think of those long ago Saturday mornings, I can still hear the tinny theme song of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I can hear Jim McKay’s voice as he announces … the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
I looked up at the sign in front of me: NFL MVP. “So that’s you?” I asked pointing to it. “You’re Mark Moseley?”
The man took a sip of his coffee and nodded. “And that’s a Super Bowl ring,” I said, looking at the thick gold band on his right hand and stating the obvious.
“Mmmhmm,” he said, holding it up. Someone came over then and Mr. Moseley regally rose from his chair and said, “I hope y’all come back and see us again.” And then to the man who joined him, he said, “She just moved from DC. She knows Charlie.” The boys held up their sticky fingers for me and I got up for some napkins and felt something else rise inside me. Maybe it was relief or maybe it was happiness and maybe it was the fact that I had felt seen by this man with the beautiful boots. Moving always has a way of making me feel invisible, as if by changing locations, I have erased some essential part of myself, some piece that the man with the Super Bowl ring just handed back to me.
I’m not who you think I am! I had wanted to scream at that receptionist, just as I had wanted to ask the NFL MVP, Who do you think you are? How little we think we are allowed. How much we think we need.
It was late in the afternoon so the boys and I left Sweet and headed back to our Hilton Home2 to find that once again, housekeeping hadn’t shown up. I set Oliver up with his first-grade workbook and gave Gus some crayons and construction paper. I unrolled my yoga mat in the space between the two beds. I knew I probably only had a few minutes, but I could do some sun salutations in that time. I could give myself back to myself.
Without my friends and the lush Virginia woods, without the comfort of the worn oak floors of my Virginia kitchen, without the hot Georgetown yoga studio, without the refrigerator full of kale and overflowing book shelves and a city to hate, who was I? I looked around the room at the things I had deemed essential: crayons, books, and Legos, a rice cooker and too many shoes, an expensive jar of red onion jam and a long flat sticky mat. How little I think I am allowed. How much I think I need to make up for this.
The discomfort of this discovery is fragile and sharp and I carry it the way you would a piece of broken glass or an armful of thorny roses, a burning match or a dying starfish, objects shaped like heartbreak, whose beauty and wreckage are inextricable. This move to Jacksonville has been a crucible I have stepped into, the heat and shimmer of concrete and sand a mirror to what lies inside of me: the elusive shadows of beauty and bright piles of wreckage.
I do a few sun salutations and then I walk over to Oliver. I put my hand on Gus’ neck and feel the lump there, the beautifully benign node. I remember the way my own heart beat a year ago when I took Gus to the pediatric cardiologist to check out his heart murmur. I remember the way I exhaled when the doctor told me that Gus had an innocent murmur, that I had nothing to worry about.
How lucky I am, I think, as I look around our tiny hotel room, how narrowly I have edged through those clear panes of disaster. I think of my penchant for drama and realize suddenly that moving is neither a disaster nor the end of the world. Disasters are the only disasters. The end of the world is the only end of the world. I stand still for a moment and listen to the boys tell me about their artwork. Gus’ healthy neck is bent over his paper and I see how little I need. I feel stuffed full of all all I have been allowed to have.
June 11, 2012 § 21 Comments
“No Meg, don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” – from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
Jacksonville feels like a stain. It looks as dirty and tired as a bar after last call. We are staying in an extended stay hotel on Western Boulevard, the main business route, which is an aggregate of Old Navys and Olive Gardens, Walmarts and Wendy’s. The air smells like fried chicken and cigarette smoke and the sunlight bounces off all that asphalt. At night, shadowy packs of boys walk along the strip, their jeans low on their hips. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store and a man in a wife beater and flip flops leered at me. He parked his cart by the shelves of raw chicken thighs and made comments at women who walked by him. I turned sharply into the aisle with the detergent and held a box of Downey sheets up to my nose wondering how I ever could have complained about Washington, DC.
We will probably be staying at the Hilton Home2 until the beginning of August, when a house will be available for us on base. On the first floor of the hotel, a fitness center with a television is adjacent to a laundry room. Twice, I let the boys watch Disney Junior while I used the elliptical machine and slipped quarters into the washing machine. On Thursday, I struck up a conversation with another mother of two boys who is staying at the hotel because her house burned down last month. Marines in camouflage come out of other rooms on our floor, and from behind closed doors, I hear Southern accents and babies crying. I smell food being microwaved and Ramen noodles cooking. The night we arrived here, I had a quiet meltdown – conscious of the thin walls and my sleeping boys – thinking that at 39, I am too old to be living in a place that smells like someone else’s dinner. What was the point of the college degrees and all that striving? I thought back to another hotel room eight years ago in San Francisco. I was up all night helping the president of my company write her presentation and at five in the morning, I staggered off to Kinkos with it, thinking that finally, I was on my way. I would never in a million years have believed that I was on my way here to a town overflowing with soldiers.
Each place I have lived during the last six years has taught me something. In Philadelphia, Oliver was born, ironically, two hours from the town I drove 3000 miles away from when I was 21. In San Diego, I learned how to be an adult, a mother, and a wife. In Ventura, I was taught how to trust my heart and to believe in goodness. Washington DC taught me how to be alone and then how to be with people. I spent a year with this guy:
And despite being so lonely for my first year there, things like this began to happen:
Tonight I went for a walk along Western Boulevard, a four-lane highway with sidewalks but no crosswalks. After a while, my walk began to feel like a game of chicken with the pickup trucks and I started back to the hotel. I passed by Ruby Tuesday and the House of Pain tattoo parlor, Food Lion, and a dilapidated barber shop. Even though it was nine at night, a couple with a small child was going into Hooters. I wondered briefly if I should be afraid and then decided I shouldn’t. I figured I could outrun an attacker, and if I couldn’t, I would put up a good fight.
Coming towards me was a group of young Marines. Maybe I wasn’t as different from them as I thought. I too am the kind of person who would fight to the death to protect myself, and as they approached, I realized I am ashamed of this. The boys looked so innocent as they walked by me, so young. I wondered if they signed up to serve and protect and if they were surprised when they found out what was asked of them. Or maybe they weren’t. When I looked up, one of them said hello with a smile that lit up his face. And then they all looked at me for an instant, their faces lovely with youth.
I thought about how complicated it is to serve, how the word protect sometimes also means kill and how much that bothers me. I thought that some of those young boys might be headed off to a war I despise while others might build a school somewhere or save a child. They would all be trained to shoot and a few might have to pull the trigger when it counted. I thought about how much I hate being part of the military, how paying the cashier at the market sometimes feels like handing over blood money. And I thought of how proud I am that my gentle husband is a part of the same organization I hate, because he has watched over his own share of young men with such devotion. How contradictory it is to protect a freedom, how much freedom is taken away to accomplish that, how the choice to serve takes away so many other choices.
And then I thought about the first Power Yoga class I took at Downdog Yoga in Georgetown. For the last six months, that studio has served and protected me, which I never would have thought possible after that initial class, which I wasn’t sure I could even finish. On that morning, last July 4th, as we celebrated freedom, I was trapped in my own thoughts of how thirsty and tired and miserable I was. “I’m so hot,” my mind kept saying. ImsohotImsohotImsohot.
Gradually – and despite my best efforts not to – I fell in love with Power Yoga and began to practice at the Downdog studio four times a week, at least. On my second to last class there only six days ago, Kelly, who was teaching, told us that if we were uncomfortable, then we were in the right place. “That’s what you’ve come for,” she said. “To be uncomfortable and to see what’s underneath.”
As I finished my walk under the streetlights on a sidewalk that was still hot, I felt the same way I did in that first yoga class in Georgetown. I don’t want to know what’s underneath. I don’t want to see how I judge, how I hate, how I break every yogic value I strive for. I want to know why I am here in this strange town near the ocean. I want meaning and reason. I want validation that I am in the right place.
But the night gives me nothing other than the smell of fried chicken and hot concrete, the sound of my own sharp panic and stale discomfort. And maybe this is why I am here: to be uncomfortable. To crack off another layer. To cleanse myself here, in this city that looks toxic and not a single bit lovely in the dark.
May 28, 2012 § 15 Comments
I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. – from Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
I haven’t been here in a while. I haven’t been writing anything other than my bi-monthly column about chefs, mostly because of all the work that goes into moving to another state and trying to find a place to live given that it may be four weeks or four months until a home on the Camp Lejeune Marine base is ready for us. There is the packing of course, but there is also the getting rid of things, the collection of school and doctor and dentist records, the phone calls to turn off the power and the water, the endless calls to see if that home is still for rent, if that apartment is furnished, if we can sign a lease for fewer than three months. There is also the way the anxiety of moving turns my brain into static, and if I am honest, I have have been avoiding writing because of the way it forces me to face what is really going on.
At Oliver’s kindergarten drop-off, the other moms are very nice to me. “You look so great,” they say, “So relaxed,” and I laugh and lie and say, Thank you, it’s all going well.
This afternoon in yoga, while we held downward facing dog for what felt like way too long, Kelly, who was teaching, told us to press our thigh muscles onto our femur bones and I rebelled. I didn’t want to engage my legs, which is another way of saying I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in the present moment which is always right here. I wanted to roll up my mat and flee. I wanted to bolt from the 98-degree room and into the 90-degree day outside. I wanted to disappear into the crowded streets of Georgetown. I wanted to run into the air-conditioned haven of Dean & Deluca, to look for a new pair of shorts in J.Crew, to climb fully-clothed into the claw foot bathtubs in Waterworks.
Last Thursday, Oliver and my mom and I made the day-long drive up to Grand Island, New York, which is about a mile away from Niagara Falls. My cousin Jeremy and his wife graciously hosted us and Oliver was able to visit with his cousins and his godmother – Sister Mary Judith – who married Scott and I almost seven years ago, near a rocky beach just south of San Francisco. Sister Mary Judith is my father’s cousin and is in her mid-seventies, but she looks much younger. Before she became a Catholic nun, she was Homecoming Queen, and to me, she still has a sense of royalty about her. On our trip last weekend, she told me stories about when she helped run a school for African-American children in South Carolina in the late 1950′s. She told me about the time she spent in Africa, prior to that, and about my grandparents and aunts and uncles, whose own parents came over from Ireland and landed in Queens and Buffalo, New York.
On Friday, Jeremy took the day off from work and took us all to Niagara Falls. I was surprised by how accessible Niagara Falls is with the free parking in the state park and the easy walk in, just a few blocks from downtown Buffalo. It was a beautiful, sparkling day with bright sun and a cool breeze and we walked down from the parking lot onto a wooded trail which hugged the river. The river was so calm and quiet that I would never have guessed that it was about to jump off a cliff. The kids played on the wide, flat rocks at the edge of the river and they ran over the foot bridges that led us out to Goat Island. There was a small piling up of whitewater as the wide river bubbled around the boulders and the bank and you could tell the water was running fast, but there was a stillness at the surface that belied the drop up ahead.
Moving is kind of like that. You get word and then you wait, your life staying pretty much the same except for that static under the surface, which feels an awful lot like panic. The waiting itself becomes a kind of current, your life becoming flooded with the possibility that you are leaving it, until one day you look up and realize you are completely submerged in the leaving, so tired of the waiting that you just want it to be over already so your new life can start. According to some scholars, the name “Niagara” comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra,” meaning “point of land cut in two.”
I used to think of surrender as a kind of ease. I used to think that I would be able to surrender once I was a different kind of person: once I meditated more or had more time, or became more wise. But standing there, looking at the falls, feeling the cold mist on my face and listening to the rush of that water, hearing the rush of my own blood through my ears, I thought that maybe surrender wasn’t a matter of ease but of courage. I watched that water, as it moved steadily, unhindered by what was in its path until finally, the Niagara River pulled its knees into its chest and leapt, the water gathering up and then falling from that sharp, dolomite ledge.
After we left the Falls we were hungry and tired and Sister Mary Judith and my mom and I headed to a grocery store to get some snacks for our return drive back to D.C. I told her my thoughts on surrender and she nodded. “Surrender is an act of courage,” she said, simply, and I rested in that, confident in her half-century of spiritual commitment.
This afternoon, as I held downward facing dog, while I was wishing I was anywhere but in my legs, Kelly said, “We think we can find ease by relaxing into something, but really, it’s the pushing out of something that creates the ease.” She told us to press our palms into the floor, to squeeze our thighs back to lift our hips and I thought of those falls – their height, their majesty, their courage. I took a deep breath and pressed down and back, feeling an ache in my legs and also a tiny bit of ease in my heart. I felt an infinitesimal opening as if maybe there was a place for me after all, despite the fact that I am a moving target, despite the fact that as soon as I begin to get comfortable, it’s time to press on and move out again. I pressed back into the pain and the cracking open and the fear and called those falls back to me, those daring wonders with their willingness to drop their history and their loves and their beliefs about where they should be, and instead, press onward and over the edge.
In honor of moving, I am having a month of giveaways. This week, I am giving away 2 copies of Bruce Dolin’s wonderful book, “Privilege of Parenting.” Kristen wrote such a wonderful review of the book that I won’t even try to duplicate her efforts and you can read her review of the book here. Bruce writes compassionately and wisely about how to hold our children by holding onto ourselves first, by breathing through our own fear and shame and sadness in order to put an end to the karma we don’t want our children to carry. Unlike some parenting books, which give generic and unlikely scenarios, Bruce helps us deal with life’s messiness, and like yoga, shows us that the messiness is part of the beauty. Just enter a comment below and I’ll draw a name at Random on Friday, June 1.
April 22, 2012 § 26 Comments
When the soldier arrives,
bleeding in the doorway,
can you recognize him as yourself
and let him in?
- From Yoga Heart, Lines on the Six Perfections, by Leza Lowitz
There is something so strange about walking around inside someone else’s house and trying to decide if you want to live there or not. We do this every two years, each time we move, and I am always unsettled by the experience of being a voyeur as well as what people tend to tell you while you are peering behind their shower curtains.
We have never lived on a military base. As a single officer, Scott could always get a much nicer place off-base than on, and when he married me, I had absolutely no desire to live on a military installation. I am embarrassed to admit this, but after years of protesting wars, of voting for Gore and Kerry and Obama, being married to a soldier feels a bit like going to the dark side. The fact that my yoga classes and my children’s organic yogurts are paid for by the same money that funds the war in Afghanistan is a little too messy for me. So I avoid these feelings by living off-base, by pretending that I am not really a Navy Wife.
When we went to North Carolina last week, we assumed we would live in town, but what surprised me was that in Jacksonville, there doesn’t seem to be an “off-base.” Camp Lejeune only has housing for 25 percent of the soldiers who work there, so most people live outside the base in homes that were put together too quickly or in the apartment complexes that surround the gate.
Amy* opens the door of the first house for rent on our list.”Come on in,” she says in her delicate southern drawl. Her tanned feet are bare and she is wearing a bohemian tunic and a dark skirt. She looks like a shorter and younger Julia Roberts, her thick hair twisted on top of her head. Her home is immaculate and candles are burning in the dining room. There are flowers in the space above the fireplace where a TV would go, and Amy tells us that her children don’t watch television. She shows us the granite countertops and the hardwood floors and the walk-in closets, but all I can think of is the neighborhood, which looks vaguely apocalyptic. Coldwell Banker started building the subdivision in the middle of a field but then abandoned it partway through, perhaps because they ran out of money. All the pine trees have been cut down, but there are still flags marking lots that have not been sold and most of the homes have For Sale signs in front of them.
Amy then leads us up to the bonus room, which takes up half of the second story and she tells us about her 15-year-old son, Max, what a great kid he is and how the two of them were alone for years while her husband was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, she tells us about her six-year old daughter whose birth took place while her husband was deployed. She explains that her labor came on so quickly that when her friend came to pick up Max, she told Amy to get into the car too so she could take her to the hospital. When they were halfway there, her friend had to call 911 and the paramedics delivered Amy’s baby in the back of their EMS truck in the Wal-Mart parking lot. “You know,” Amy says, “The big one on the road into Jacksonville?” She laughs and smiles. “I kept asking for something for the pain. Just a Tylenol or something but they kept telling me it was too late.”
Her daughter runs into the house then and asks for a bag. “What will you be wanting that for?” Amy asks, laughing again.
“For my pet butterfly.” Emma says.
Amy hands Emma a plastic sandwich bag and rolls her eyes at us. “You know what it’s like,” she says to me and I smile.
A second later, Emma is back. “Mommy, I need a spoon!”
Amy hands her the spoon and asks her why she needs it.
“The butterfly is dead,” Emma says and Amy’s mouth forms a silent, “Oh.”
The second house we look at is next door which is awkward, but I have already spoken to Penelope on the phone and she is expecting us. We are greeted by an enormous yellow lab and then Penelope comes to the door and says hello. The dog barks at me and I jump. “Oh, he’s all talk,” she says looking down at the dog, who now has his hackles raised.
In Penelope’s house, the place above the fireplace does have a TV and Cartoon Network is blaring even though no one is watching. Penelope’s husband is in the kitchen. He’s still in his combat boots and his camouflage pants. He is staring at us with his arms folded in front of his chest, and he takes the big dog from Penelope and holds him by the collar. Even though it’s cool in the house, I am sweating. Penelope is wearing a pair of blue scrubs with a stain on the front and a photo ID badge, which says she works in the lab. They chose linoleum and carpet for their home instead of hardwood and granite and someone has left a blue duffel bag on top of the stove.
Penelope tells me they have to move to San Diego and she looks as though she might cry. “I can’t find a place to rent there,” she says. “Every place I call has 100 people looking at it. Well, not really but you know what I mean.” I tell her about Carlsbad and Scripps Ranch and she nods. “We really want a place in Poway,” she says, “So I can sign my son up for football there. I hear the school is good.”
I nod and ask her if she’s been to San Diego before and she smiles. “Just once,” she says, “Right after Matt graduated. I drove out to Miramar to see him and then we drove back to Ohio together. I had just turned eighteen and all I cared about was being with him.” There is silence for a moment as a one-eyed tortoiseshell cat wanders into the room. Penelope tells me that she and her husband have been married for sixteen years now but it doesn’t feel that long. “We were going to retire in Jacksonville,” she says. “But then Matt called me from Afghanistan and said, ‘How do you feel about California?’ I thought he was joking. I said, ‘get out of here.’”
We tell them we’ll be in touch and we go outside to our car parked on the street. A man with a short, short haircut is driving an old Willys Jeep around the development. Because there are no trees, we can see him the entire way around and he waves to us.
Scott tells me that we can also live on base, that it might actually be nicer there and after he says that, it feels like someone is grabbing my stomach and squeezing it as hard as they can. We drove on base earlier that afternoon and it was nothing like the Navy bases we lived near in San Diego and Ventura. As we drove onto Camp Lejeune, a convoy of tanks was driving out. Marines with helmets and goggles were manning the guns and staring straight ahead. We had to stop at a cross walk while another group of soldiers ran across the street. One of them stepped out in front of our car, his feet wide apart and his hands clasped behind his back. He stared at us, expressionless until his group was safely on the other side.
That night, we meet one of Scott’s Marine friends for dinner. Jeff is a company captain in his early thirties and when Scott was stationed in Ventura, Jeff worked for him for a little while. In passing, Jeff mentions coming back from Afghanistan last August and I ask him what it’s like over there. “How do you go from fighting a war to this?” I ask, gesturing at the restaurant, which overlooks the water, and to the people who are eating fish tacos or sautéed grouper.
Jeff smiles as if I’ve said something funny. “The first time I came back from Iraq, I stayed drunk for 6 months.”
I ask him what happened after that, and he tells me that he heard Tony Robbins one day on a TED Talk and that changed him. “For my 30th birthday I went to Fiji to do Tony’s workshop.” He completed Tony’s workshops twice more, including once in Australia.
I tell Jeff that I have made Tony Robbins’ green soup before in my Vita Mix. Jeff nods. “Yeah, Healing Soup. During one workshop I did Tony’s cleanse for a week.”
“Did you walk on the hot coals?” I ask.
Jeff nods. “Three times,” he says. “I kept thinking cool moss. Cool moss.”
I ask him what he did the last time he was in Afghanistan and he tells me that he was in charge of about 250 men who were fighting there. I ask him if his soldiers are scared when they go out into battle and Jeff shakes his head. “They’ve been trained to kill for 7 months so it’s like we let them out of a cage. They want to fight. The trouble happens when they come back home. They don’t know how to not do that any more.” Jeff tells me that the perfect soldier is between 18 and 24 years old. “What was that Michael Moore movie called?” he asks and none of us remember. “Moore got some of it wrong. He filmed a kid in a tank in Iraq listening to “Fire Water Burn” as loud as it can go and shooting people like it was a bad thing. Well who else do you want defending you?”
Jeff tells us that sometimes, after they get back, he has to help soldiers stay out of trouble. “One guy,” he said, “It took 6 months before he stopped fighting in bars because they’re so used to that.” Jeff explains that the programs that try to help soldiers when they are home are more of a bureauocratic nightmare than a help. He tells us that he comes up with his own programs for helping his troops. “I try to find ways to set goals for them and motivate them. I try to help them move forward because they can’t go back.”
“What people don’t get,” he continues, “Is that when a Marine is in a company, for the first time in his life, he’s with a group of guys who won’t let him down. No matter what. Then he comes back from Afghanistan after a year and his girlfriend’s cheated on him and his buddies don’t show up and all he wants to do is go back to his company. But he can’t because the company doesn’t exist any more. It’s all different when he comes home.”
Later that night, back at the Swansboro Hampton Inn, where we are staying, I start to cry and I have trouble breathing. My heart starts to race and it feels like I have no skin so I climb into the bathtub, where things seem a little bit better. I stare up through the shower curtain at the stacked white towels and the extra rolls of toilet paper and then down at my left hand, where during graduation from my 200 hour yoga teacher training, another graduate wound a purple thread around my wrist and then tied it. We did this to symbolize something we wanted to bring into our lives, and when it was my turn, I said, “Faith.”
It occurs to me then that it is hypocritical of me to believe I am a spiritual person when everything is going my way, and then to shake my fist at the sky when things get scary. I wonder if maybe the reason I am sitting in a bathtub trying to breathe has less to do with living on a Marine base and more to do with the fact that I am now having to face the part of myself I have avoided since becoming a Navy Wife.
Before I had anything to do with the military, I went to an Ivy-League school and was cross-country captain. I met Scott when he was going to grad school at Stanford and for a while we lived in Palo Alto and spent too much money on Thai food on Saturday nights just because we could. For most of my life, I put all my faith in being special, which may just be another way of saying I think I am better than everyone else. Even my yoga teacher training was another exercise in being special, in becoming more spiritual. But it’s one thing to think we’re all one while chanting Om and wearing Lululemon and it’s another thing entirely to think I am one with the 18-year old soldier who is shooting the hajis and with the enemy who is shooting back, with the man in the combat boots and the dog who is all talk. Maybe I was sitting in a bathtub because I was having to face the part of me that doesn’t want to recognize the soldier as myself.
The next day I tell Scott I’m ready to check out some of the homes on base so we drive out to the end of Camp Lejeune by Bogue Sound. It’s mostly pine forest and salt water rivers. I think in North Carolina, they call it low country. “Wow,” Scott says, “This is nice.”
I have to agree. A bike path winds next to the road and the neighborhood has sidewalks. “This looks more off-base than off-base does,” I tell him.
We are visiting our friends Chris and Paige. Scott will be taking over Chris’s job as the officer in charge of construction on base and we drive through their neighborhood, which is quiet and faces the water. The homes are two-story Cape Cods with blue shutters and sunrooms on the side. When we arrive, Paige is outside under a tree, reading with her 7-year old son. After we say hello, she gives me a tour of their home with the refinished oak floors and the curving staircase that leads to the big bedrooms upstairs. She tells me that by living on-base, Scott won’t have to go through the traffic to get through the gate, which sometimes can take over an hour. “But it’s stressful here too,” she continues. “The Marines come back from Afghanistan and their lifestyle is a little bit different if you know what I mean.” As if on cue, a police car drives into her neighbor’s driveway and Paige sighs.
We go back downstairs and I follow Paige to the kitchen where she makes a smoothie for her son, Sam, and then leads me outside to the backyard. “Sam’s tutor’s husband was on the Osprey that went down in Morocco,” she says quietly so no one will hear. “You see a lot here. You see guys with service dogs because of their PTSD and then you see the men walking around without an arm or a leg and it hits you.”
I tell Paige a bit about what I have seen over the past couple of days and how sheltered I have been from the fighting and the training and the deployments over the past decade. I think of how I tried to pretend that I wasn’t a Navy Wife as if it were possible to repudiate a war. I told myself that I wasn’t responsible for the war because I never voted for it, but really I am culpable if only because I live in the United States, because I expect there to not be a sniper at the end of my street, and because when I flip the switch, I expect the light to turn on. I am responsible for the war because these expectations necessitate a military that is ruthless and unflinching. They necessitate a service that trains 18 to 24 year olds how to fight so that I don’t have to carry a gun.
In the neighbor’s driveway, the police car is still there. We stare at it for a moment and then Paige shakes her head. “The war is right here,” she says. “It’s right here.”
*Some names have been changed
April 6, 2012 § 14 Comments
“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.” – Bhagavad Gita
“Where can you run to escape from yourself?
Where you gonna go?
Where you gonna go?
Salvation is here.” – Switchfoot
A few weeks ago, on a cold, rainy, Saturday, I was cleaning the bathrooms and washing our wood floors. Much has been written lately about the virtues of cleaning, but I am not convinced that these aren’t written by people with maids. By the time I was halfway through I was cranky, and I stopped in front of the upstairs window that looks out into our steep backyard to see if it was still raining. I watched the drizzle for a minute and was about to pick up the paper towels again but noticed two bright blue jays perched on a bare branch below. It’s not that blue jays are rare, exactly, but still, I don’t see them very often, especially not two, their wings too bright for this day, their bodies too fat for the thin branch they were bobbing on. As I stood, I saw a third jay perched high up in the sapling, and then, while I was still marveling at my luck, another one landed, its square wings folding under him. Despite the day and the chore and the remaining bathroom, I felt delight flutter in my throat. It felt like more than I was allowed to have.
Winter always drives me a little bit crazy. There is something about the gray and the cold and the onerous task of putting on coats and scarves that makes me feel suffocated and a bit desperate at the same time. By the time the forsythias bloom, their brightness isn’t even a consolation. I want to hurry them along. I want to usher in the daffodils and the cherry blossoms and then the tulips. I want to bypass spring altogether and get to the fat, fleshy leaves of summer. If I had a mantra, it would be hurry up. It would be get here already.
I signed up for a cleanse a few weeks ago. At the time, I signed up just to feel better. I am a pretty sensitive person, but then I go and forget this. I drink too many mugs of coffee and glasses of wine because it seems like this is what you do when you’re an adult. It’s comforting to hold something in your hand like a talisman. Some mornings, I carry my coffee from room to room like a sword. “En garde,” I want to say to the tedious tasks of brushing two foamy mouths, getting two squirming boys into coats, listening to the gossip in the school parking lot.
For the first few days, I was terrified of The Cleanse. What would happen when I took away the coffee and the sugar and the alcohol? And more importantly, what if I didn’t like what remained? Because really, it’s not about the caffeine or the chocolate, and that’s why cleanses can be such a bitch. It’s never about what you’re giving up, but about what you’ve already lost.
For over a month now, I have been reading Maya Stein’s luminous poem, “you will know (for T)”. The line: “Listen. The birds will teach you everything you need to know about flight,” has been reverberating inside my head and heart. I have been trying to fly through the drizzle with my own winter body. I have been trying to soar but something keeps pulling me back. I went to yoga one night, when I was particularly exhausted, thinking it would help, even though I know that’s not the point. I usually love Bakasana (crow pose), but that night, during the jump-back, I fell flat on my face. In Garudasana (eagle pose), I felt dizzy and nauseous, and by the time we got to Vrksasana (tree pose) I gave up completely. I bent down into Balasana (child’s pose) and felt my racing heart beat against my mat. It occurred to me then that maybe the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to fly, but that I hadn’t yet learned how to land.
After a 3-day headache and bone-crushing exhaustion, what I discovered was that being on a cleanse was easier than my normal life. There was something about a weekly call and a payment sent, a secret Facebook group and a recipe for kitchari that gave me license to take care of myself, to take an extra five minutes to apply Ayurvedic oil and make lemon tea. During the first week, Laura sent us an email about Pratyahara, which is one of the limbs on the eight-limbed yogic path. Pratyahara literally means “to turn inward.” In her email, Laura wrote: “Pratyhara is an invitation to drop into your heart, to come home to yourself.”
I have been spending so much time trying to soar that I have forgotten to come back to earth. So much of my life has been spent trying to prove myself, trying to earn a seat at the table. I waste so much energy trying to be twice as good in order to be considered as good as. I have been so busy plumbing the depths of what is expected of me that I have forgotten to listen to what I already know to be true.
In my yoga teacher training, we studied the ways a yoga class sequence follows both the chakras and the eight-limb path of yoga. Vrksasana (tree pose) is the part of our practice that corresponds to both the heart chakra and Pratyahara. It is the moment we leave the oceanic flow of the Sun Salutations and turn inward. We engage our core in order to open our heart. We begin to surrender our will and listen to the rush of blood in our ears. We balance our bodies on a single ankle bone and trust that it will hold.
If the birds will teach us everything we need to know about flight, then surely they can also teach us how to land. And what is landing if not forgiveness? What is turning inward if not an act of trust? One morning after I started the cleanse, as I awoke before dawn to do my Sun Salutations, I thought of those plump blue jays, landing on that skinny branch. I inhaled my arms high in my dark living room and bent my creaky body over my knees. I felt my feet on the cold wood floor. “I forgive L,” I thought and felt a tidal wave of sadness sweep me under and catch in my chest. I stepped back into downward facing dog and looked back at my knees. “I forgive myself,” I thought and felt myself land – wobbling, haltingly, shakily – on the thin branch of a new tree, not entirely trusting that it would hold, but wanting it to, more than anything.
Maya Stein’s full poem is below:
March 11, 2012 § 17 Comments
To receive is to accept, not to get. It is impossible not to have, but it is possible not to know you have.
A Course In Miracles
Lately, I have been consumed with thoughts of moving from northern Virginia to North Carolina, which we will be doing in early June. It’s not like it’s a surprise of course. Because my husband is in the Navy, we move every two years, like clockwork. And yet, each time we think about packing up, I am shocked by how attached I am to the place I am living. Even if I don’t like it all that much.
I am insanely great at complaining about moving. Honestly, I should get some kind of award. “You did know I was in the Navy before you married me?” my husband sometimes asks me, “Right?”
Scott will have a great job on Camp Lejeune, which is the biggest marine base in the country. It will be nice to be close to the ocean again and I am looking forward to leaving the fast pace of DC. But still, all I can think of are the public schools and the fact that there aren’t any yoga studios down there. I keep thinking of all that I am not going to have.
When I went to Kripalu for 3 days at the end of December for a yoga workshop with Rolf Gates, I knew it was too big to understand right away. It was wonderful and difficult. It was nurturing and confronting. It felt like home and it felt like the middle of nowhere. In a small way, it reminded me of what it’s like to be me, always on the go, always looking ahead, preparing to leave while we are still unpacking the boxes.
On the first day of our workshop, Rolf had us do an exercise I have done with him before a few times. “Spend the next 5 minutes,” he told us, “Writing about who you want to be and what you want that experience to be like.” I remember the first time I did it during the first week of my yoga teacher training with Rolf last April. Then, I had picked up my pen and paper with a sense of panic. Who do I want to be? Yikes.
What eventually made it onto paper that first time was that I wanted to teach yoga to military wives, like me. This idea had been in the back of my mind for a while, but seeing it on paper for the first time made my hands shake a little. It seemed like more than I was allowed to ask for. Most likely, I would not be up to the task.
As I prepared to do the exercise for a third time on that cold December day at Kripalu, I thought I knew who I wanted to be. I still wanted to teach yoga on a military base. What else was there to say? I paused, with my pen in the air and looked out the floor to ceiling window. Brown leaves sailed against the colorless sky and I thought about how wonderful it was at Kripalu and how far it was from North Carolina.
And then I sat up and felt a rush of something like lightning fill my insides. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I got exactly what I wanted.” Here I was, complaining about moving to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, to the biggest marine base in the country, and yet, what had I asked for six months earlier? Who do I want to be? What do I want that experience to be like?
My heart was pounding and I looked around the room at so many heads bent over notebooks. There was the huge purple wall of the studio. There was the bare winter day outside. And then there was me on my mat, feeling as though I had just won the lottery. I felt my face turn up into a grin and tried to stop it. Eventually I gave in and just allowed myself to be happy, to be a little bit ecstatic, to believe if only for a little while that miracles happen, that sometimes, you get exactly what you ask for.
When I returned from Kripalu, I went online and found the web site for the gym on the Camp Lejeune base. In true military fashion, it took 12 phone calls to finally get in touch with the group exercise instructor and I had to leave a message. She called me back right away and I told her I was interested in teaching yoga.
“When are you moving?” she asked.
“Well, that’s perfect timing,” she said. “We’re opening up a mind body studio in July with a big yoga studio on base and we’re going to need instructors.”
What’s been so interesting to me over the past few months is how I keep refusing to receive what I am given, even it it’s exactly what I wanted. What’s almost comical is how my mind keeps turning to fear rather than gratitude, how it keeps spinning towards panic rather than joy.
Even now, after 21 months of despising Washington DC, I am thinking of all that I am going to miss here: the amazing, bigger than life yoga scene, the Baptiste-style power yoga studio I found in Georgetown, right along the canal, the Dean & Deluca micro-ground chai tea I have become addicted to, the mountain bike trails and the museums and how just when you think winter is never going to end, you wake up and see that the cherry blossoms are already pink against the cold sky.
On my way to yoga yesterday, my usual route around the Pentagon was closed and to get to the Key Bridge, I had to take the George Washington Parkway, and then zip up past Arlington Cemetery. I drove by the back side of the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is probably my favorite landmark in the city. This strikes me as odd as I am usually not a fan of anything war-related, but there is something about all those men leaning in to put that flag in the ground. Driving the way I did, I had a clear view of the only man not touching the flag, the one reaching with outstretched fingers, the one whose hands never touch the flag, who is forever holding onto the air.
Seeing that man always brings tears to my eyes, and yesterday I realized it might be because he reminds me so much of myself. I wish I could just relax into all the good things in my life, but I have never stopped being the girl who is always waiting for something bad to happen. I keep thinking that if I win, I’ll be safe, but what happens when I win is that I immediately begin to fear losing.
A few weeks after repeating “Soften” like a mantra, I stopped making my bed before leaving the house. (This was a teeny bit difficult as I am a compulsive bed-maker).The boys and I spent so many cold and decadent afternoons huddled under our fleece sheets and down blankets reading books. Gus and I fell asleep sometimes while Oliver slipped out to play, and once or twice, in the evening, instead of going to yoga, I went back under those covers. It was delicious. It felt like more than I was allowed to have, and yet, it had been there all along.
Now that spring has arrived and the daffodils are coming up everywhere, I am trying to let go of my habit of reaching with my fingers outstretched. I want to enjoy what I have already received, which turns out to be a lot.
Yesterday, Gus and I went to Whole Foods to get a slice of vegan pizza (again, not likely to be available on Camp Lejeune) and in the parking lot, he stopped by a pothole filled with white confetti and pointed to it. “What is all of this Mommy?” he asked and my first reaction was to try to swoop him away. “It’s trash Gus,” I said, “Don’t touch that.”
But then I looked again and saw that the pothole wasn’t filled with trash at all. It was overflowing with cherry blossoms.
PS In my quest to “lighten up” I am participating in a 21-day cleanse with Laura Plumb, my yoga teacher in San Diego. She and her husband are amazing and together they founded the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts. Laura will be leading the cleanse which will be completely supported with 3 group phone calls, emails, recipes, and if you choose, a care package full of Laura’s Ayurvedic spices, jam, and kitchari mix. The food-based cleanse (so you won’t be starving and eat half a cake by your third day) begins on March 20th, so if you would like to join me click here. There are 3 very affordable options.
February 15, 2012 § 23 Comments
The student asks the master: “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?” The master replies “Chop wood, carry water.” “And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student. “Chop wood, carry water,” replies the master.
The summer after my sophomore year in college, I received a marine biology internship at the University of North Carolina Marine Lab in Morehead City, North Carolina. I remember boarding the plane in Ithaca, desperate to leave it behind as quickly as I could. That April, I qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5000 meter run and then the next month, I came in last place in the NCAA championships in Austin, Texas. Of course this was only a single race, and in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal, but at the time, it felt like Disaster. Until that point, I thought I could be a runner for the rest of my life, or at least until I turned 30. But stumbling off that burning hot Texas track in May, a wet sponge in my hand, I knew then that I wasn’t among the greats. Even now, it is still one of my biggest memories of failure.
My internship that summer offered me an escape. For two months, I would be working with a team of scientists along North Carolina’s barrier islands, researching endangered sea scallop populations. We would be sailing around the same islands that sank Blackbeard’s ship, which seemed fitting. The head of the lab was a grand professor who only visited once a month, and my boss was a cranky lab tech named Hal, who was afraid of the water. Most days, I hopped on the boat with a grad student named Hunter, who had just returned from studying penguins in Antarctica and another named Thea, from Greece, who was as beautiful as her name. We rode around in a motor boat the university purchased at auction, that used to belong to drug runners. Every couple of weeks Hunter would toss our research logs and sunscreen from the console and reach his big hand in there, feeling around for a secret panel. “Don’t you think they would have hidden a stash of something in here?” he would ask about the drug runners. “Wouldn’t it be great if we found something they left behind?”
Before I left Ithaca, I had started dating a sweet engineering student who was on the cross-country ski team, and who is now the godfather of my youngest son. He made me a mix tape before I left and all summer long he sent me 5-page letters and brown cardboard boxes full of banana muffins he baked from scratch. Instead of answering his letters, I spent many of those summer nights on the back of a motorcycle with a boy named Wilson, a grad student at the Duke Marine Lab. One rainy night, Wilson showed up at the door of the horrible house I shared with the other interns with a helmet in his hands. “This is for you,” he said in his southern accent and as we rode away, he yelled back to me that it was really easy to crash a bike in the rain. I thought he was the most dangerous boy I had ever met.
If I believed I had failed on that Texas track, then my summer in North Carolina was research into the other side of failure, into what happens when you no longer care about the consequences. I drank beer on the front lawn with my other underage roommates late at night, Jimmy Buffet blaring on someone’s boom box. Karen, one of the roommates, came out of the closet that summer, and every time I washed my dishes, she tried to give me a massage. I went running late in the evening and the marines from Camp Lejeune drove by in their pickup trucks and sometimes threw bottles at me, their Semper Fi bumper stickers bright in the glow of their tail lights. I hated those marines with their short hair cuts and their tattoos. By the time August rolled around I hated the fleas and the roaches too. I was sick of the heat and a bit tired of Wilson and his Yamaha. I wanted to go back to Ithaca and be myself again. I was homesick for my roommates on Catherine Street and for my old life. Before I boarded the airplane bound for Ithaca, I kissed Wilson goodbye, grateful that it would be the last time, confident that I would never see North Carolina again, that it was a random chapter, a couple of months of bad decisions, a fluke, just like that day on the track.
Late this October, I removed the mosquito netting from the sand box, thinking that even in DC, mosquitoes didn’t hang around this long, but I was wrong. Even though the sun had already set, I saw three mosquitoes land on Gus’ cheek by the glow of the citronella candles. As I was swatting away, Scott came home from work and ran out to meet us. “Well,” he said breathlessly as the boys drove their trucks in the sand, “I know where we are moving to next.”
I held my own breath for a second. “Where?” I asked, hoping he would tell me that we were heading back to California.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he said. “North Carolina. I got the CO job. I’ll be in charge of the construction project on Camp Lejeune.”
A week ago we all went to Florida for a 5-day vacation. We spent a day at a nature center in Polk county, a day in Legoland, and 3 days with my parents in their rented condo on the ocean. The Spanish moss hanging from the trees made me feel as though the entire state was haunted. It made me think of ghosts. Moving every two years is a bit like being a ghost. You stay on the outside for a long time, watching what goes on in this new place. You hover at the edge of playgrounds and school yards, standing alone while old friends gather in tiny, intimate circles. You circle neighborhoods, trying to remember which street you live on now, you take exit ramps often, because you have gone too far. Three times now, we have moved back to places I used to live as if I am haunted by my own Ghost of Lifetimes Past.
This spring or summer we will do that again. I will once again return to North Carolina, to the scene of that crazy summer, Blackbeard’s wreck, those hot, hot barrier islands. Sometimes I wonder if that summer really happened, and then I look down at my left thumb, where a scar remains from where a blue crab got me, and I am reminded that it was real.
This winter, I have been crossing paths with a red fox. The first time, I was taking a walk at night, and something raced by me so fast I thought it was a ghost. I didn’t see it as much as I felt it. I heard the rush of it as it ran by me. I saw it again the other morning as we were going to school. It trotted across the street in front of our car, its red tail floating behind like a banner. I told Bruce at Privilege of Parenting about it as he is the ultimate resource for all things mythical and magical.
“It does seem the clever Trickster has arrived,” he wrote to me in an email, “And I imagine he has much to teach us.”
One noticeable thing about doing yoga is that I have begun to realize that most of my 30-some years before doing yoga were spent in a state of abject panic. What yoga has given me is a new voice, one that says, It’s going to be OK, and Take a deep breath, and Soften. Last week, I was on the phone with the head of Early Childhood Education of one of the schools in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Camp Lejeuene is three hours from the nearest Waldorf school, an hour away from a Quaker Friends school, 168 miles away from a Trader Joe’s and over 50 miles from a yoga studio. Trying to find a school for Oliver, who has only known Waldorf education is proving to be a daunting task.
The woman on the phone was lovely, and despite the fact that there are over 700 children in her elementary school, despite there being only one twenty minute recess each day and that the school lunches begin at 10 AM in order to accommodate all of the children, I liked her. And then she said, “Don’t be intimidated by all the tattoo parlors and used car dealerships you see as you drive through Jacksonville. It’s really a nice town once you get used to it.”
The yoga voice tells me to take a deep breath, that it’s all going to be OK. But still, that old voice pipes up. “Tattoo parlors?” It asks. “Used car dealerships? Are you out of your mind?”
I wonder now if knowledge of this move was the source for some of the anxiety I experienced this autumn. For twenty years I have blocked out that summer in 1992, and now pieces of it come back, as if it were something I dreamt. I remember Amanda, the intern who answered every question with “Boy Howdy.” I remember that Wilson and I sat on the edge of a dock in Beaufort while he told me about his traumatic childhood. I remember how sick the heat made me and way the air smelled on the beach while the pelicans flew in formation along the sunset.
One day this November, I needed to run so badly that I called a sitter to come for an hour. When she arrived, I pelted down our block and onto Russell Road, Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto blasting in my ears. I ran as fast as I could until my lungs started to hurt and my legs began to ache and still I kept going until I hit King Street in Old Towne Alexandria where I leaned against a telephone pole.
As I turned back home, still thinking about North Carolina, a new voice appeared out of nowhere. Even over the music, it clearly said: “Your work will be there, waiting for you.”
Work? I thought. What work?
I thought of the work I do now, that of wiping noses and folding tee shirts with trucks on them, cutting peanut butter sandwiches in half. Reading Magic Treehouse Mystery books and feeling little boys curl into me with their signature scent of sweat and dirt and Johnson’s shampoo.
As my feet moved more slowly, towards home, I realized that this work might be enough, even in this strange new town, in this desolate outpost with its tattoo parlors and Piggly Wigglys. In the absence of organic tomatoes and coconut water and Lululemon reatail stores, there will still be this work of caring and cleaning and comforting. When we move, I will assuredly be a ghost again. I will get lost going to the grocery store and I will hover on the outside of conversations. I will take Oliver for a tour of his new school while he stays glued to my side and tells me that he doesn’t like this school, that he won’t go and I can’t make him. Afterwards we will find a place that sells ice cream cones and the next day, I will fold laundry and wipe counters. I will perform what seems like mundane tasks, but which are really my sustenance, my necessary work. Maybe this is what comforts me now, this notion that no matter where I go, there will be wood to chop and water to carry. That really, this is what we all do, every day, whether we want to or not, each of us stumbling towards enlightenment.
January 23, 2012 § 26 Comments
My yoga studio has a program twice a year called “Commit To It” in which you practice yoga and meditation for 40 days. The studio is a Baptiste-style power yoga studio and I am sure this program is inspired by Baron Baptiste, who claims that doing 40 days of yoga will transform your life. I am dubious of claims like this, probably because I don’t really like commitment very much. But early in December it seemed like everywhere I looked, people were doing “Challenges.” Even a book I was reading – Sacred Contracts, by Caroline Myss – had a section on how 40 days is the time necessary to manifest an intention.
I don’t really understand any of this. But because I am so crappy at commitment, I thought I would try out a 40 day yoga challenge of my own just to see what would happen. It was simple. From December 2 until January 9, I would do yoga. And since I really like yoga, I figured it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Most of it, in fact, was quite easy. Leaving for yoga at 7 pm – when my kitchen counter is stacked with dirty dishes and the bath is filling and my kids are pretty much running on fumes – is not a difficult thing at all. Most days, I bolted, a smoothie in hand, my yoga mat riding shotgun as I peeled out of the driveway. Even when I was going to power yoga, which is new for me and pretty much kicks my ass every time, I was happy to flee, to run away from the messiest part of my day and allow my husband to do the dirty work.
But I had other days as well. There was the morning I woke at 5 am to do Rolf Gate’s video and was so stiff I could barely move. Halfway through, I saw my reflection in the windows against the pre-dawn sky, and I looked so horrible – so un-yogalike- that I burst into tears and went back to bed. Another afternoon, I was practicing at home while the boys had some quiet time, and I heard them arguing between their rooms. “BOYS!” I yelled up the stairs, “NO FIGHTING!!” I looked down for a moment, at my hands in prayer position over my heart, and I sighed, chagrined.
Ironically, the most difficult part of my 40 days was after my trip to Kripalu for New Year’s. As is always the case, I brought myself to Kripalu too, which was unfortunate. I balked at sharing a bathroom with twenty other people. I wanted to turn the heat down in the room but I couldn’t find the thermostat. I wanted a cup of coffee but had to wait in line behind a woman who decided that no one could move until she finished cutting up her apple. There was something so human about my New Year’s Eve weekend there, so bare and raw, that I have been feeling a bit unraveled ever since.
What most astounded me about Kripalu was the sense of camaraderie, maybe even equality. You might find yourself in the dining room scooping slices of lemon caper tempeh next to your teacher. You may see your classmates coming out of the shower. You might take a walk and find someone sitting on a bench, crying. For me, there was such a powerful sense that not a single one of us is better than another. At first, I was ecstatic and comforted by this idea. And then, I became depressed. If there wasn’t a perfect person out there, then who was going to save me?
A few days after I returned from Kripalu, Colin, one of my yoga teachers said. “Yoga is a process of subtraction. It is not a process of addition.”
I finished my 40 day challenge, but I pretty much staggered over the line. On Day 41, I didn’t go to yoga. Instead, I poured a glass of wine and was looking forward to eating a dinner that wasn’t a liquid. And then: “Mommy?” Oliver called from the top of the stairs, “I had a big leak in the bathroom and I can’t clean it up.”
I put down the wine and picked up the paper towels and the Mrs. Myers. “Mommy?” Oliver called again. “Gus has a stinky diaper and he won’t get out of my room.”
Afterwards, I remembered that earlier in the day, when Oliver had a friend over, I reached into the pantry-slash-broom-closet to grab a bag of pretzels for their snack and knocked a bottle of maple syrup onto the heavy mixer below. That evening, as I reluctantly opened the closet door and stared at the broken glass and syrup that lay before me, it hit me that nothing had changed. Nothing had been transformed. 40 days of yoga and I was still incredibly annoyed at the fact that some days, my biggest work is to clean up messes, to wipe noses and bums and clean pee off the floor. Fuck transformation, I thought. Fuck yoga. All those poses, all that sweat, all that holding reverse warrior for ten breaths while my thigh muscles tried not to explode.
As I scrubbed the mess in the broom closet, I realized how terrified I am of subtraction. I thought with embarrassment of how confidently I wrote about standing in my own emptiness, about creating a clean well-lighted place for myself. It was so easy to say those things in early December, before winter set in. It was so easy to say I would be as empty as the trees when it was still autumn, when the ground wasn’t covered in snow and ice and sleet. It’s easy to be confident before the storm hits and the power is lost. You think you’ll be so eighteen hundreds with your candles, but then the lights go out and you crack your shin on the coffee table.
The other night in yoga, Patty, the owner of the studio had us do one-legged planks and chaturangas (push-ups) for the first twelve minutes of class. A thought went through my head that I was going to die and then another that there was more than an hour to go. I was already shaking and in the 98 degree heat, rivers of sweat dripped from my forehead. From my position just over the floor, I saw Patty’s bare feet stop my me. No, I thought, Please God no, just before she rapped on my back, right behind my heart.
“Soften,” she commanded and I tensed up. “No,” she said firmly, “Soften. Right here.” The room was full, all 62 spaces holding a person on a mat. “Look,” Patty said, “Everyone around you is softening because they want it so badly for you.” I felt myself lighten. We had all paid to be here, in plank pose for what seemed like a million years, because each of us wanted to be stripped down, melted through the heat. We wanted the sculpture inside the stone and this is how we were going to find it.
There is something about subtraction that feels like losing. There is something about not wanting that feels like not having. There is something about letting go that feels a little too much like giving in. There is something about taking everything away that feels a lot like staring at a closet full of broken glass.
“Go,” Patty says after she asks for a second Eagle Pose. “You can write your story about the pose or you can just do the pose.”
“Fold,” Colin says as we move into Parsvottanasana and for some reason, I lose my balance even though both feet are on the floor. I see his bare feet next to me and again, I think No, go away. And then I feel his hands on my hips, steadying me, his palm on my back, right behind my heart.
Before my 40-day yoga challenge, I thought that yoga was going to fix me. Now instead of having that hope, I have my practice, which is kind of the opposite of hope. I have no idea what I learned during the 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
I am guessing it’s somewhere between Go and Fold.
January 5, 2012 § 27 Comments
The biggest, most persistent fear in my life is that there will not be enough for me. I worry that there won’t be enough money or time or luck. I worry that what I love has already been taken. I worry that I will have to keep proving myself worthy again and again and again.
Lately, my life has proven this fear to be absurd. If 2011 was the year of anything, it was The Year of Gifts.
While I have gone through my life thinking I never win anything, this fall I won a $100 bill during a random drawing and a few weeks ago, the Fairy Hobmother granted me a $50 Amazon gift card. This afternoon, my neighbors brought over the biggest stuffed dog I have ever seen. It’s bigger than Oliver and Gus put together and is now sitting on the couch in the funny back room of our house that is neither a porch or a sunroom. My neighbors are older and I am guessing that they have forgotten what Christmas is like with small children, when your house is strewn with new plastic toys and you keep running out of batteries. A giant stuffed dog is the very last thing I need and yet, it fits in perfectly amid the excess and the clutter. To me, it’s a sign of all I have. When they brought it over I imagined the universe laughing at me. You think there’s not enough? Well then get a load of this!
Gus birthday is January 3rd and pretty much the last thing anyone wants to do on that day is eat cake. And still, there I was, cracking eggs into a mixing bowl and melting heavy cream and chocolate for the frosting. So much sweetness, I thought as I poured in the vanilla.
The night before I made the cake, my mom and I drove to my house from the Berkshires, where we spent a New Year’s together at Kripalu. Another gift, getting to spend the end of 2011 with both my teacher, Rolf Gates and my mother. “Your mom is like another you,” Rolf told me after he had lunch with her. “You guys are like Thing One and Thing Two.”
The other big gift of Kripalu was getting to meet Katrina Kenison in person. Not only do I admire and love her writing, but her first book, Mitten Strings for God, literally changed my life. I bought the book from a library book sale when Oliver was nine months old. We were living in Coronado, a small island off the coast of San Diego, and I remember the August afternoon I opened the book. It was warm and sunny and I was rocking in the blue denim glider, nursing Oliver. When Oliver was born, I was not really prepared to become a mother and even after nine months I was still surprised by my position in life. Katrina’s book was both a lighthouse for me and a map. She showed me another way to do things. Reading her book, I discovered that motherhood wasn’t something to achieve or plow my way through. On page 72, she writes, “To begin, we need only create a “listening” space, tune in to the world around us, and have faith that our own inner storytellers will guide us.” To me at the time, this was a revelation. That I even had an inner storyteller was news to me.
The second day we were at Kripalu, my mom woke up with a stomach bug. Although my mother will tell you I overreacted drastically and was preparing to LifeFlight her out of the Berkshires, I was a little worried. My mom never gets sick and on the handful of times in her life she has been sick, it’s been serious enough to warrant a visit to the ER. Vertigo. Inner ear infection. Strep throat. In our tiny cinderblock room at Kripalu, I followed the advice of WebMD and waved my finger back and forth in front of her face. “Really,” my mom said, rolling her eyes at me. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t just have a stroke.”
The previous night, in Rolf’s yoga class, he asked us, “Where in your life do you draw the line between good and bad? Right and wrong? Okay and not okay?” I thought of my own line, the thick black thread that grants a tiny space for Okay and an infinite depth for Not Okay. I thought of how my own body becomes a line sometimes, tense and rigid when things don’t go the way I want them to. “What if,” Rolf continued, “There was no line?”
After I was pretty sure I didn’t have to rush my mom to the hospital, I thought about Rolf’s words. If there was no line, then falling out of tree pose didn’t mean that my yoga class was ruined. If there was no line, then my mistakes in life didn’t automatically qualify me as a failure. If there was no line, then my mom having a stomach bug wasn’t going to ruin her trip to Kripalu. Such relief.
The relief was instantly followed with terror. If there was no line, then I couldn’t pack all the moments I labeled as Wrong into garbage bags the way I took old toys to Good Will. If there was no line, then I would need to allow everything in. I would have to feel it all.
On the night of January 3rd, after we were home, after Gus’ birthday cake was eaten and the candles blown out and the presents opened, I went out for a run. Usually, I am a morning runner, shuffling down the sidewalk before the sun comes up, but on Tuesday night, I was restless, sick to death of cake, and floating in a sea of Too Much. Sometimes, only a run will do, no matter that it’s bedtime and twenty-one degrees out.
I headed down my favorite route along Russell Road where the bright streetlights lead to the King Street Metro in Old Town Alexandria. On my way, I passed a creche that was still up and it was so beautiful that I stopped right there, my breath steaming in the frigid air. A baby was in the manger and two wooden figures covered with beautiful cloth were kneeling beside it. In the wind, the figures were rocking, almost as if they were weeping.
Because it is early January, I have been thinking about the birth of Jesus for weeks, but never once did I think of Mary going through the labor of birth. I never thought of her as having those searing contractions or going through the moment of transition, when the world heaves and rolls itself upside down. Standing there in the cold under three layers of lycra and fleece, I thought of the night Gus was born. I made Scott walk with me, up and down the bike path near our townhouse in Ventura. I had to keep stopping, and I leaned against the eucalyptus trees that lined the path and inhaled their scent. When my own transition came, five minutes after we got to the hospital, I thought for a moment that the reflection of the lights on the linoleum floor was really the night sky. “I can’t do it,” I told the nurse, “I want the drugs after all,” but she shook her head. “You’re doing it,” she said. “You’ve already done it.”
I thought that the gift of January 3, 2009, was the birth of my second son, whole and healthy, swaddled in his pink and blue blanket. But maybe the pain of labor was also the gift. I thought that the gift on the first Christmas night was that Jesus was born and was lying in a manger. But of course his death was the gift as well.
I have no resolution this year, only the usual questions and worries and wonders. The gifts I received in 2011 are piled too high for me to wish for anything for this year. My two boys. My husband. Our home. My friends who live everywhere and my loneliness in this city. My yoga practice and all the suffering that brought me to my mat in the first place. The joy and the pain. The light and the shadows, all of them gifts, equal in measure.
My wish for you in 2012 is that your year be filled with gifts. Even more, I wish that everything you receive be a gift, if not at first, then someday. “I always say that things will work out,” Rolf told me, “And that’s only because they always do.”
If you wish to be visited by the Fairy Hobmother, leave a comment here and she may bestow her gifts on you as well. And, I am giving my own gift of Mitten Strings for God to two people. If you read Mitten Strings for God, then I’ll send The Gift of an Ordinary Day. If you’ve read that, then I’ll send Meditations from the Mat (written by Katrina Kenison and Rolf Gates). And if you’ve read all of Katrina’s books, then you are a very lucky person.
Happy New Year!
December 17, 2011 § 22 Comments
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver
Gopi read us this quote before a yoga class this October during an unseasonable cold snap. I didn’t really want to be a yoga that night as I was fighting a cold and I was feeling tired and maybe a little depressed that already it was beginning to feel like winter. On that October night, Gopi explained that she was in the midst of celebrating the feast Duwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, which involves lighting oil lamps to signify the triumph of good over evil.
I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but in the last few months, my writing has been stuck. Although I started this blog as a way to write freely, my tendency towards perfectionism is even creeping into these hallowed grounds. This morning, I had the humongous pleasure of getting to meet Jena Strong of Bullseye Baby. We went for a run from Old Town (Alexandria) and finished with omelettes at Pain Quotidian. “Just give yourself permission to write and don’t even reread it,” she told me. “Liberate yourself from wanting it to be good.”
Last winter, I decided I wanted to explore my own darkness, which, let me tell you, is not something I advise. It’s like asking for patience. Or tolerance. Ask for those things and you are guaranteed to have a difficult day. And last winter was difficult. The most vivid memory from last winter is of the grey view from my kitchen window as I stood there, waiting for the water to boil, watching the clock crawl from 2:23 to 2:24, hoping that the boys could play together without shrieking before I finished measuring the tea. Last winter was interminable. Picking my way through my own darkness was like turning the knob of a closet that hadn’t been opened in 38 years. It wasn’t pretty.
But then again, the monsters that I expected never appeared. I was afraid I would find a nest of beady-eyed rats or a never ending abyss of blackness, but all that was there was dust. There were cobwebs and a view of the world that was no longer accurate. There were old stories and beliefs about myself that had never been true to begin with.
This October, when Gopi read Mary Oliver’s words, I realized that what I had given myself last winter was a gift. When you sweep out the closets, you discover what you packed away in boxes so many years ago. I had to get my hands dirty but it is clear to me now that an excavation took place. What I discovered last winter was that the darkness in my life was of my own making, and if it was of my own making, it could be of my own dismantling as well.
I wish I could say that what rushed in to fill the void darkness left was golden light thick as honey, but that was not the case. Instead, what stood in the closet of my heart was emptiness. Space. A clean sense of nothing, which turned out to be as scary as the blackness.
This October, I suffered from a rather acute case of anxiety, strong enough that Scott gently suggested I go to the doctor. Instead, I called up Laura Plumb, my former yoga teacher in San Diego and an Ayurvedic practitioner. I told Laura that I constantly felt the need to outrun whatever was chasing me, that I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with a racing heart, that I was afraid of something that had no name.
Laura explained that this was a very autumnal feeling, that October was a season of falling away and of letting go of what not longer serves us.
“It’s clear,” I told her, “That my anxiety is no longer serving me, but I don’t know how to be without it.”
“Well,” Laura said, in her voice, which always reminds me of bells ringing, “We can let go and know there doesn’t need to be the next thing yet. We can stand in our own emptiness.”
I get through each day by trying hard: to be a good mother, to keep the house clean, to keep up my spiritual practice, to nurture those around me. It’s as though I believe that things happen because I exert enough force. It’s as though I believe if I worry enough, the disasters will stay away. My anxiety is my talisman, warding away the suckerpunch that will inevitably happen as soon as I let my guard down.
I don’t know how to stand in my own emptiness. My existential fear of emptiness is perhaps what underlies all of my fears: If I let go, the next thing will never come. If I stand still, I will be left behind.
Laura reminded me of the trees. “They lose all their leaves,” she told me, “They stand bare all winter and trust that spring will come.”
This winter, I have no need to explore the darkness. This winter, I am standing in what Hemingway called, “the clean well-lighted place” (there are shadows of the leaves). I am going to practice trusting that the next thing will come: that the next word will appear, that the next idea will organically arise, that the earth will keep spinning even though I have stopped swatting at it with my hand. This winter I am lighting a clay lamp and admiring how clean the emptiness is, how ready it is for something beautiful. This winter, I will see what it means to belong to myself completely and have faith in my own human heart. In the words of Jena, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be good, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be anything other than what it is: this barren landscape, these empty trees, this waiting space.
As an aside I just want to mention what a fabulous time it was to meet Jena, whom I have only previously known here, in this alternative online universe. She emailed me yesterday to ask if I could bring an extra fleece for her to run in as she packed light. When she rummaged through the bag of clothes I brought for her this morning, she said, “Ooohh, I LOVE your wardrobe.” Ahhh, I thought, someone who appreciates my workout clothes: the jewels of my closet. We had such a fun run on this cold grey day, where the sun barely made it over the hills, except for one slim ray that pierced the Potomac. We had such a luxuriously long breakfast and I learned so much from this beautiful, wise woman. At Pain Quotidian, we ran into someone I know from the yoga studio and he assumed we were old college buds. This warmed my heart. Because while my tenure in DC has been lonely, this space here has been rich. To know that the people I meet here translate into friends in real life is the best Christmas gift I could receive. I am so grateful to this space and to my new, real-life friend Jena. Check out her blog at Bullseye Baby.
November 22, 2011 § 23 Comments
For weeks I have been trying to write just one single post. I have filled up WordPress windows, Word documents, and notebook pages and still have nothing to show for it. A few days ago I threw in the towel and focused on other things. Right now, in addition to working towards my 200 hour yoga teaching certification, I am taking Rolf Gates’ online “The Chakras as Life’s Roadmap,” which has opened my life up in ways I didn’t believe an online course could do.
Last week, we were talking about the heart chakra and since then, I have been aware of the ways I refuse to commit to both myself and my spiritual practice. I have integrity, but only until my breaking point. I love but only until it becomes too difficult. I give, but only to people I believe are deserving. I have committed to yoga, but only up to my edge and no further.
My response to this observation was to exercise more. Last week I ran more miles than I have in months. I went to the yoga studio four times, including to a hot power yoga class, which I swear would have turned Baron Baptiste himself into a whimpering puddle of sweat. On Saturday, when I was so sore I could barely walk, I realized that this body of mine, the one I have vilified for so long is truly my greatest teacher. Maybe that is why this chakra class is so powerful for me because the physical realm is the world in which I learn the most. Make me sprint for five kilometers and I will finally tell you what is bothering me. Tell me to hold Warrior II for two minutes and the bricks I am mortaring around my heart will start to crumble. Push me to my physical edge and I will start to understand my emotional edge as well.
On Sunday morning, my quads were still as shaky and unresponsive as they were the previous afternoon and I was seriously reconsidering the trail race I had signed up for that morning. A few months ago I signed up for the entire five-mile Backyard Burn Trail Running series because they are fun and I love running in the woods, but on Sunday, the prospect of dodging tree roots and sloshing through streams sounded about as pleasant as another power yoga class. “Just do it for fun,” Scott told me and I glared at him.
I ended up going, mostly because Scott told me to. I drove the thirty minutes out to Fountainhead Regional Park although I wasn’t sure why. I was too tired to push myself, to do my best, and I didn’t know any other way to approach a race. Why show up if I wasn’t going to show up fully? Why race if I didn’t want to win?
I started in the back of the pack this time, unlike the day in October when I sprained my ankle. When the air horn blew announcing the start of the race, I was surrounded by men in bandanas who looked like former football players and women who carried small bottles of Evian and asked if it was okay to walk part of the course. As we headed up the road towards the woods, we began to fall in line in preparation for the trail. As the road turned into a rocky, root-studded single track, we were running single file, in silence. I listened to the sound of our feet thudding against the ground, and a feeling came over me, so strongly that I wanted to lie down and rest my head against a bed of moss. Instead, I struggled for a word that would describe what this was, this endless line of bodies heading into the woods for no other reason than because they said they would.
No, I thought, pushing that word away. This snaking line of runners wearing breathable fabrics was nothing like the processions of my youth in St. Columba Church. This colorful parade moving toward the finish line was nothing like the solemn walk to the alter to receive a stale wafer. And yet, what were we doing if not moving toward something sacred? What was this if not an agreement to meet somewhere together and pray? I haven’t been to Mass in years, but a vague passage from the Gospel of Matthew popped into my head: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The race was put on my Ex2, a fabulous group of people, who had even come out the day before the race to blow the leaves from the single-track trail so we wouldn’t kill ourselves on the roots or the precipitously steep downhills that seemed to be made solely of rock and moss. As I ran and listened to our breathing and our footfalls, I noticed another, occasional sound of someone swishing through the leaves on the side of the trail.
Swish, swish, swish.
“On your left.”
“Go for it.”
What I began to notice was that the swishings were never isolated. Someone would pass someone and almost immediately after, someone else would enter the leaves. Then another. A runner about five people ahead of me passed someone and I felt the need to pass the person ahead of me.
Swish, swish, swish.
“Passing on the right.”
Instead of being competitive, it was lovely. Here, we were saying to each other, I’ll take over for a while. It was so small this sound, this decision to leave the trail and enter into something new, but it was powerful. It inspired people. As I ran, Big Little Wolf’s recent post popped into my head. Her post from the day before inspired me with her adament support of Ashley Quiñones, who, at 31 needs a new kidney in order to live for another decade. Medicaid – Ashley’s only insurer – will not fund the necessary surgery, which is estimated at $250,000.
“I think most people have good hearts,” Big Little Wolf said in an email to me, which I read just an hour before the race. “The world is just so damned overwhelming, we don’t know what to do, how to help. So – one at a time, right?”
One at a time we jump into the leaves. One at a time we run through the woods. One at a time, we cross the finish line.
Right before the finish line, as I came out of the woods, I saw Scott and the boys, sitting in the grass and I was so thrilled to see my tribe that I felt lit up inside. Oliver shyly clapped and Gus was smacking his hands together so hard I worried about his little palms. Scott took a photo of me (see above) and while I usually hate every picture taken of myself, I kept this one because I remember what that was like, to come out of the woods and see this overwhelming, overflowing, heartbreaking love.
Most times, right after the race I take off before the awards ceremony because I have better things to do than stand around and see if I won a pint glass. Scott has won so many in his mountain bike races that they keep falling out of our cabinets. On Sunday though, after Scott told me I won my age group, the boys wanted to stay and go up to the podium with me. Right after that, the race director announced that they were going to give away iPODs and two, hundred dollar bills. Scott, who knows I never win anything, got the boys ready for a mountain bike ride in the woods, and I think I surprised him my telling him I was staying for the giveaway. “I’m feeling lucky,” I told him. “And I never feel lucky.”
Ten minutes later, when my name was called out as the winner of a crisp, new, hundred-dollar bill, I was not surprised. “You’re so calm,” Jim, the race director told me. “You’re so quiet.”
Instead of telling Jim I knew I was going to win, I smiled and said thank you and took the money.
Big Little Wolf asked us to come up with a five-year plan in honor of Ashley but I don’t do five-year plans anymore. I used to live according to plans and training schedules and goals, but then I married someone in the Navy and started moving every eighteen months to two years. I learned to let go of plans. My five-year plan is for my family to still be alive and healthy and as happy as we are now. My five-year plan is to not to plan but to live in the moment.
So, instead of a plan, Ashley can have my $100 dollar bill. For why else did I win it, me, who has never even won a game of bingo?
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Swish, swish, swish. Passing on the right.
Please take a moment and visit Big Little Wolf to learn about the important work she is doing to help raise money for a life-saving kidney transplant for Ashley Quiñones, aka the Kidney Cutie, aka the sister of Kelly Miller of The Miller Mix.
November 3, 2011 § 20 Comments
For the past few days, some of my favorite bloggers have been writing about self-care at Life After Benjamin, Chicken and Cheese, A Design so Vast, and Her Suburban Life. Also, Carry it Forward and Food: A Love Story consistently write about taking care of ourselves in an authentic way.
Self-care is a strange word. It sounds vaguely institutional and somewhat primitive and yet it’s a concept that has been rather fascinating to me for the past few years. It would not be inaccurate to say that I started out my adult life having no idea how to take care of myself. I knew the basics of course. I knew what I should eat and how much exercise and sleep I should get. But in times of stress, all those good ideas went out the window. In times of stress – which in my twenties and early thirties was about five days per week- I subsisted on less than six hours of sleep, cheese, green olives, and coffee.
It’s funny the things that didn’t work for me. “Treat yourself the way you deserve to be treated,” people would tell me, or “Become your own best friend.” The truth was, I felt like a slacker who had been given tons of opportunity and fortune but who had squandered it all away. I was treating myself the way I believed I deserved. And I had no interest in befriending as someone as lame and myself.
It’s funny what did work too. When I was pregnant with Oliver, I was unmarried and living 3000 miles away from my boyfriend (who later became my husband, poor guy). I was working in investor relations and it was a job in which even if I did everything perfectly, it was guaranteed someone would still yell at me at the end of the quarter. But one day, as I got off the train in Palo Alto and was walking down Emerson Street to my apartment, I passed a yoga studio that offered prenatal yoga. For years I had been meaning to go to yoga, but I didn’t want to be the only one in the class who didn’t know what she was doing. I peered in the window at the women, lumbering like elephants with their big bellies. I was only three months pregnant at the time. I figured I could do at least as well as them.
That was how I started with yoga: as a competition. But after my first prenatal class, I lay in savasana and felt quiet for the first time in years. Once you find something like that, you begin to notice its opposite. You gradually become aware of when you are not quiet and then you try to figure out how to get yourself out of that mess. You may try meditation next or getting more sleep. Or, if you’re like me, you may try to eat half the can of frosting instead of the whole thing.
To be honest, I am the least qualified person to write about how to take care of yourself. I have only recently started to get more sleep. And when the going gets tough, I often stop my meditation practice and start drinking coffee. Last week, during which I had to make a Halloween costume, plan and host a birthday party for six six-year olds, make a graveyard cake, take care of sick children, and finish up homework for my teacher training, I may or may not have eaten seven fun-size Twix bars one night and called it dinner. I know, you don’t have to say it.
But I am working on it. At least I am passed the point I used to be, when I thought self-care was for wimps, for people with too much time on their hands. In the last couple of years, I have read a gazillion books on the subject. More importantly, I met with my yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson, from YogaWorks in LA and with Laura Plumb, Ayurvedic devotee, yoga teacher, and educator. They both offered invaluable advice and instruction. I still don’t do everything I wish I did, but below are some notes from the trenches, which sometimes get me out of my own way:
1. Start Where You Are: This first rule could also be called “Don’t Make Things Worse.” If you eat a pound of chocolate, do your best to avoid eating another pound to make yourself feel better. If you haven’t washed your hair in a week, then put on a hat rather than beat yourself up. If you are feeling badly about yourself, be gentle with your heart. As Geneen Roth writes, if you find yourself standing in front of the refrigerator eating leftover Chinese food with your fingers, pull up a chair. Be kind to yourself. Sit down. Just stop making things worse, and things will get a whole lot better.
2. Start Slowly: After I consulted with Laura last week and she told me about the Veda-reducing diet that would reduce my anxiety, I immediately wanted to roast vegetables, cook up a pot of kitchari, and buy lavender-scented oil. This was during the Halloween/Birthday Extravaganza Week, and I knew that if I went gangbusters, I would probably have a meltdown. So, for a change, I slowed down. Instead of cooking up a storm, I made one pot of tomato soup. I started meditating for ten minutes a day. I went to bed fifteen minutes earlier at night. I bought a single bottle of organic sesame oil to practice Abhyanga. Baby steps.
3. Plan: When I met with Jessica eighteen months ago, she told me that in order to keep herself sane and healthy she planned out her week. She decided how much yoga and mountain biking she needed and what food she needed to buy to make healthy meals. My first thought after she told me that was shock. I couldn’t imagine doing that. If I had enough time to sit and make a grocery list and a schedule, then clearly I was not getting enough done in my life. Clearly, that was a waste of time. I still don’t always plan out my meals or my week. Most weeks, I don’t get to yoga as much as I want to and I often forget to soak the beans the night before. But when I do take time to plan out my week … man, life is good.
4. Pretend: aka “Fake it Till You Make It.” Here’s the deal. Often, when we need self-care the most is the time we believe we don’t deserve it. Right after we yell at our kids for fooling around when they are supposed to be getting on their shoes or the house is a mess or we totally botch something up at work, it’s easy to beat ourselves up. However, we are probably yelling at our kids and making silly mistakes because we ourselves are depleted. I am getting to where I can see this is true even if I don’t always believe it. Then, I usually pretend I am someone else, like Oprah, or Laura Plumb or Jessica Anderson and I try to imagine what they would do if they were me. Chances are, they would take a deep breath, give themselves a pep talk, make a cup of tea. What happens then is that once you start treating yourself as the person you want to be, you start to become the person you want to be. It’s kind of revolutionary.
5. Create a Ritual: In our yoga teacher training, Rolf told us that anything can become sacred once we bring our attention to it. Laura last week told me about tratak, a candle meditation that is deeply calming and centering. She also told me about Viparita Karani Mudra, or lying down for fifteen minutes with your legs up the wall. It could be a yoga class or a run or meditation. It could be a walk with your kids or spending time with your spouse. It could even be eating breakfast in silence or listening to the birds. There is something about a ritual that is soothing to our souls, that reminds us that while we live in these limited physical forms, an aspect of us is truly unlimited and connected to something bigger than we can imagine.
I once thought that devoting some time to taking care of myself would make me into a different person, into someone who was more patient, who subsisted on kale and ginger tea, who wore yoga pants every day. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Most days I wear jeans with a hole in the right leg, because that is the knee I bend down on when I am tying shoes, wiping noses, and putting the chain back on Oliver’s bike.
Taking care of ourselves isn’t about a vegan diet or taking baths, although that may be part of it. Taking care of ourselves is about treating ourselves with a level of dignity so that we remember who we truly are. If you treat yourself like a queen, it becomes more difficult to get upset about the snide remark your friend made. If you give yourself enough time to get to yoga and play something uplifting on the car stereo, it is harder to honk at the third person who cut you off in Logan Circle. On the other hand, if you eat leftover Halloween candy for dinner, it’s a lot easier to get upset at your husband for taking a business trip and leaving you alone with the kids for four days, how could he do that to you, doesn’t he know that you won’t get a minute to yourself?
Last week, Laura said something that I have been thinking about every day. She said that even if our main job is to care for other people, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a little time for our own evolution and go inward every now and then. We deserve at least that, don’t we?
And that is why I am offering my first ever giveaway. I am offering Laura’s Maha Shakti Detox Protein Powder and a copy of the Kind Diet, by Alicia Silverstone. I’ll announce the randomly selected winner on Monday.
October 20, 2011 § 17 Comments
Sunday morning, I left the house before eight and drove south to Prince William County to do a trail race. I really love these races because they seem more like a party in the woods than a hard-core race. Usually, about 100 or so people show up at some Virginia state park in compression tights or old school cotton socks, in Lululemon running skirts, or in my case, frayed Adidas shorts I bought in 1999.
On Sunday, I positioned myself towards the front of the pack, which I typically don’t do. By the second mile, I was running with another girl and a few men and I was having the best time. It was a spectacular morning with a bright blue sky that hasn’t been visible much this autumn. The ground was covered with gold leaves but the trees were still green and bright. I passed the girl next to me and then she passed me back. The race was everything I loved about running: there was hard work and exertion and a sense of pure joy that everyone who came together in the woods created. It was so much fun that I thought about slowing down a bit, just so I could enjoy it even more.
And then I fell.
My ankle, which I have sprained a zillion times before, turned sideways, and with an oomph of breath, I was flat on my face. The people I was running with stopped and waited while I got back up, but I shook my head. I hobbled a few steps, but I knew I wasn’t finishing the race.
As I walked back the way I came, I felt like crying, as if I were ten years old again and had just been booted out of the game. People streamed by me as I walked the wrong way on the course, and I felt as isolated and alone as I ever have. I kept telling myself that I was fine, that everything was fine, but it’s a funny thing to be alone in the woods. I kept losing my way and it was cold. As I headed up the final hill, my left hand was throbbing in addition to my right foot, and when I looked down, I saw that a piece of skin was missing from my palm. Blood was trickling to each of my fingers, making my hand look like a macabre Halloween decoration.
When I finally made it back to the start, I picked up my sweats and headed to the first aid tent. As usual, there was the requisite cheesy guy waiting for his free massage. “Oh wow,” the trainer – a local chiropractor – said when she saw me. “You really bashed up your knee.” I looked down at my leg. I hadn’t even noticed my knee.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just looking for some ice?”
“Did you turn an ankle?” the trainer asked and I nodded.”Just sign in and I’ll be right with you,” she said and handed me a clipboard. I wasn’t really interested in getting worked on next to the guy with the too-tight shorts. My plan was to get a bag of ice and hit the road, but the trainer grabbed my bloody hand. “Oh my God,” she said, holding my fingers, “What are you, a marine?” This made me laugh as I am as far from a marine as you can get. My idea of camping is staying in a Holiday Inn Express.
“Here,” she said, shoving me down on her table. “Lay down.” She sprayed my hand with an econo-size bottle of Wound Wash and laid a soft piece of gauze in my palm. She held my foot in her hands and told me I sprained the anterior tendon in my foot. “And you jammed your bone too,” she said. “I’m going to adjust your foot.”
By this time, I was too tired to argue. I lay back on the table and let the trainer do her thing. I was trying to figure out where I went wrong, why I fell. I think I may have a belief that if I follow all the rules and do everything right, bad things won’t happen. And if something doesn’t go as planned, it must be something I did, something that I can prevent from happening the next time.
On Monday, the day after the race, the boys and I drove to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where my parents live, for my mother’s birthday. About a month ago, during that endless rain, the town had a horrible flood. The Susquehanna river rose over its banks and across the road, uphill into the town. Water covered pickup trucks to to their roofs, the farm buildings on the fairground were almost completely submerged, and some people had to leave their homes in rafts. A friend of mine told me that one morning, she watched group after group of evacuated people walking through town, wearing their pajamas. FEMA was called in as was the National Guard. I was so grateful that my parents live on top of a big hill, that despite losing power and water for a week, they were very lucky. Some of the worst damage, however, happened almost a mile from the river, when Fishing Creek overflowed its banks and washed several houses right off their foundations.
My mother called me during the flood and told me about some of her friends, whose homes filled up with water. My mom’s friend B’s lovely home had eighteen inches of mud on the first floor and some of her other friends had several feet of water in their basements. My mom also told me stories about all of the people who helped. An eleven-year-old boy was able to collect enough cleaning supplies and canned goods to fill a pick-up truck. The local university wrestling team went door to door, asking people if they needed help carrying their ruined appliances to the curb. My mom said that they came to another friend’s house and carried out his washing machine, his dryer, and his useless freezer. “I wanted to pay them,” my mom’s friend told her, but they wouldn’t let him. “Just come and watch our matches,” they said.
In my parents’ pristine basement, there are two wooden pallets covered with a sheet. “Those are B’s dishes,” my mom told me. My mother had taken them all home from her friend’s mud-filled home and washed them by hand. Next to the clean pots and white plates were a small stack of Pyrex pie plates. “I haven’t gotten to those yet,” my mother told me. “Just look at the mud.” I picked up a pie plate, coated in dried red clay. I scraped at it with my fingernail but the mud didn’t budge. Next to the dirty dishes was a soup pot filled with Log Cabin syrup, A1 steak sauce, rice vinegar, and cooking sherry. “She saved these too,” my mother told me, but I wasn’t going to judge. This is what happens when we fall: we clutch at what we can. B took maple syrup and I grabbed onto a rock.
Standing there in the cold cellar, I felt the damage of that flood in a way that couldn’t be conveyed over the phone. That red dust. The half-empty bottles of ketchup that were saved. And I also saw into the heart of my own mother. I saw that she was the kind of person who wouldn’t say to her friend: Oh honey, just buy another set of Calphalon for god’s sakes. Instead, she stood in front of her own sink and tenderly scrubbed mud from dessert plates and soup bowls because she knew that these weren’t just a collection of dishes but a collection of memories. They weren’t coffee mugs and saute pans as much as they were Thanksgiving dinners and birthday parties and rainy Tuesday evenings.
It’s true that by living in this world, you will learn what loss is. You can work your entire life to pay for a roof over your head and watch your home be washed away by the tiny creek across the street. To be true to yourself, you may have to walk alone. You will spend days feeling cold and lost and injured. But it is also true, that by living in this world, you will learn kindness. Someone may hold your bruised foot in her hands and guide the bones back into place. When you are too weak to lift another thing, a wrestling team may show up at your door. A stranger will wash your wounds and a friend will wash your dishes.
About 10 years ago, my friend Cathy, who first taught me how to meditate, conned me into going on a 3 day meditation retreat with her at the Zen Mountain Center. It was only when we arrived that she explained that the retreat would be done in silence. After the first too-quiet meal of vegetarian chile and cornbread, I stood awkwardly in line, waiting to wash my dishes. When it was my turn, a man in front of me, whose name I would later learn was Tomas, took my bowl and plate from me. I tried to take them back, but he held them close to his chest and shook his head. What I wanted to say was, “Please don’t. Please let me clean up my own mess,” but that was against the rules.
On the final day of the retreat, we all sat in a circle and were allowed to share something we had been wanting to say during the retreat. When it was my turn, I said, “I want to thank Tomas for washing my dishes.” Tomas put his hand over his heart and bowed his head towards me. “Thank you,” he said, “For letting me.”
October 13, 2011 § 15 Comments
You should see Gus on his bike. Damn. My words are useless against the beauty of his little body on his pedal-less, birchwood bike. Every time he rides it, he turns heads. People do double-takes. Some of that might be because he’s only two and a half and he’s flying down the bike path, his legs swinging like pendulums. But mostly, it’s because of his command of gravity, even as he’s poised between two spinning wheels. The best way to describe the way Gus rides his bike is to tell you to close your eyes and think of Haile Gebrselassie finishing the Berlin Marathon or to remember Jacinto Vasquez, coiled tightly on the back of Ruffian as he rode her to victory in the Acorn Stakes.
Oliver is equally talented on his bicycle, but in a different way. You watch Oliver and you see each muscle at work, the beauty of a body engaged. Perhaps this is because Oliver learned to ride on a bike with training wheels. What he learned first were the mechanics, the how, and then he learned balance. Gus learned balance first, and the mechanics were secondary, which I believe is an important distinction. I may think I have balance because I can make three meals a day, host a multi-kid playdate, get Oliver to school in clean clothes, and get myself to yoga, but these are merely the mechanics. It may feel like balance but the fact is, some days, my stomach hurts.
Some Most days, I have tremendous momentum but zero stillness.
What I have noticed about all good athletes, is that no matter how great their velocity, there is always a still point somewhere near the heart. In the middle of all that motion, there is always a place that is motionless. Gus has that, even at two. I watch as he rides away from me, his back a tiny column of stillness, a fulcrum of quiet around which all else revolves.
Usually, autumn is a smooth season for me. For years, I reveled in cross-country season, in running through trails and fields scented with fermenting leaves and fallen apples. I met Scott in October and Oliver was born on Halloween. Normally, I cruise happily through October’s blue skies and red trees. This fall, though, has been a bit different. It would be accurate to say that I am struggling a little with the back-to-school routine, with the sudden playdates and calls to be a volunteer at silent auctions and bake sales. I am resentful that my solitary summer adventures with the boys have been exchanged for shorter days, endless rain and other people. This October doesn’t look like what October is supposed to look like and it bothers me. It is either 79 degrees and raining outside or 60 degrees and sunny. There are only these bold extremes and I feel yanked between the two.
Last night during another rainstorm, I hit a bunch of traffic on the way into DC (huge surprise there!!) for my yoga class. I turned on a podcast of Tami Simon interviewing Tessa Bielecki, Christian mystic, former monk and Mother Abess of the Spiritual Life Institute. Of course, she was talking about balance. “I don’t like the word balance,” she said, “as much as I like the word balancing.” She talked about that crazy tightrope walker, Philippe Petit,who did a tightrope wire stunt between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. She said that we don’t so much find balance as we keep hovering between two fixed points.
For years, I have been trying to balance life as a stay-at-home mom with the fact that I grew up in the seventies when women’s lib was in its heyday. When I was little, I had books in my room with titles like “Herstory” and “Whatever Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better.” At some point, I decided there were two kinds of women in the world: those who raised children and those who did Important Things. Even now, I find it challenging to balance my own beautiful life with the one I thought I was supposed to live.
On Monday, I went to yoga and we did a lot of handstands, which was fine with me. For almost two years now, I have been wrapped in a notion that if I can learn how to stand on my hands, I can handle anything hurled my way. On Monday night, I kicked up a into a handstand, took my toes away from the wall, and stood on my hands for more than a few seconds. I have never been in a handstand for that long before and as my weight was shifting from the base of my palms to my fingertips, I was elated. But there was a steadiness too, a sense of being reduced to only a pair of hands and a heart, hovering over the earth.
After I listened to the podcast with Tessa Bielecki, I watched the YouTube video of Philippe Petit on his tightrope. You know the craziest part of it all? At one point in his stunt, he lay down on his wire, 1300 feet above the ground with no net below. He lay down, his long stick balanced on his chest and his legs dangling over lower Manhattan. Afterwards, the police charged Petit with trespassing and decided he needed to be handcuffed to a chair for his own safety. While he was sitting there, someone asked why he did such an insane thing as to try to balance between two skyscrapers. Petit shook his head and said, “There is no why. When I see a place to put my tightrope wire, I cannot resist.”
I pretty much resist everything. I realize that this takes a lot of energy, but it feels safer than throwing caution to the wind and lying down, although I am not sure why. Lately though, the mechanics are beginning to wear me out and maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps this is a call to stop pedaling like a crazy person and coast for a while. Perhaps I will find balance only when I surrender to the imbalance, to the unbending truth that balance can only exist between polarity, between gravity and a tiny body, between the jagged earth and the infinite sky.
September 29, 2011 § 18 Comments
Scott and I did a duathalon two weeks ago, which is kind of hilarious if you knew how out of shape I am. It’s even more hilarious because it was my idea to begin with. I thought it would be fun. I thought that somehow, doing an off-road-trail-race-mountain-bike-ride-relay would make us into a certain kind of family, much like the beautiful ones I flip through in the Prana and Patagonia catalogs.
What really happened is that the night before the race, I tried to convince Scott to do the whole 6 mile trail run and 8 mile mountain bike ride by himself. He said no. I tried to convince him to ask a buddy of his to do the run instead of me. Scott laughed. “Come on,” he said. “It will be fun.”
It wasn’t that much fun, to be honest. On the way to the race, I felt myself regress back to who I used to be when I could run sixteen minute 5Ks. On the way to the race, while the boys shouted out the names of trucks on the highway, I started to get tunnel vision. It became difficult to concentrate on what everyone was saying. It was as if I was in some invisible time machine and all I wanted to do was to pull up the hood of my Champion sweatshirt and blast U2 on my Walkman. You are being ridiculous, I kept saying to myself as I fought to keep my tone light and pulled out snacks for the boys. Even though I am the poster child for “weekend warrior,” my brain still thought I was gunning for the Olympic Trials.
It was a pretty low-key race to say the least. And still. There I was, walking up to the Virginia State Park public restroom with Oliver, thinking I should be doing some striders or drills or something to get my heart rate up. By the time the race actually started and I chugged up the little road that led to the trail, I was exhausted. All that useless adreneline had pumped blood away from my hands and feet which were now numb and cold, and I could barely breathe. I spent the first leg of our relay beating myself up for being such a freakazoid about this silly little fun run. As I finished the 2.5 miles and ran into the transition zone, I watched other couples hand off. A team of guys yelled “goGoGO,” at each other and a cute young couple kissed. I kept running until I reached Scott and the boys. “I’m sorry,” I said, gasping for air.
As Scott did his 8 mile ride, I watched the boys ride their own bikes on some little trails. Oliver rode fast and bounced over rocks and Gus imitated his every move, even though he’s on a little Skuut with no pedals. I was mesmerized by them because they were so mesmerized by riding in the woods. Watching them reminded me of a quote from one of my beloved George Sheehan books: “First and foremost: Be a good animal.”
I forget how I acquired my first George Sheehan book, but it must have been from my parents who took up running in the late 70′s. Sheehan was a cardiologist who ran at lunch time and in weekend races, but mostly, he was a thinker. His books were kind of like a guidebook into the soul of running and had so much to do with why I loved the sport.
Be a good animal.
When it was time, the boys (begrudgingly) got off their bikes and we waited for Scott to come in so I could run my second and final leg. He rode over and gave me a high five and I headed off again into the woods. This time it was easier. This time, I didn’t care so much. This time, I remembered how to land on the edge of tree roots and slop through streams. Running in the woods has always been something special for me. Like gears syncing up, my heart and head become aligned and the pattern of the universe reveals itself a little bit, like a rent in the lining. My body too knows how to be a good animal.
I swam in my first meet when I was five and ran in my first race when I was eight. I competed for decades and I know how to do it, how to prepare for it. As I ran through the Virginia woods last week – or more accurately, as I jogged while people passed me – I realized that my pre-race tunnel vision and macabre sense of concentration were simply habit. All my body wanted to do was to be a good animal, to do what it was trained to do, like a slobbery Newfoundland who wants only to jump into the lake and save the swimmer from drowning.
What also occurred to me after the race, when I had a moment to think, were all the other things I do that are simply habit. It’s so easy to blame ourselves for being too selfish or too submissive, for eating too much or not enough, for yelling too much or for not standing up for ourselves, for doing too much or doing too little. But really, these are merely habits that, at one time, served us well. When I was in my twenties and making my way out of a dark tunnel of disordered eating, I read all of Geneen Roth’s wise books. “There are exquisitely good reasons,” she wrote, “for doing what we do, for believing what we believe.” We are so quick to feel ashamed, but most of the time, our bodies are just trying to be good animals. They are trying, as they always do, to save us.
September 27th marked the New Moon for the month, which I have recently learned is a good time to gather some intentions and wishes for what you want to bring more of into your life. It’s also a good time to get rid of worn-out habits that don’t serve you anymore. Jeesh. I’m rolling my eyes at myself, even as I write this, because normally, this isn’t the kind of thing I typically take part in. I’m just not a visionboard kind of gal, I guess. But, I recently took a 4-week online course entitled Self-Love Warriors put on by Jenn Gibson of Roots of She and during the month, there was a conversation about new moon rituals that intrigued me.
And so, eye-rolling at myself aside, I am thinking of some new habits I want to cultivate as we move into fall. As usual, that list includes eating more kale and less sugar. Getting more sleep and committing to fewer activities. But I think first and foremost what I want to do is to respect the good animal part of myself – that true and loyal part of each of us that is committed to our survival at all costs. Perhaps your good animal is wiser than mine and has led you into nurturing behaviors. Or maybe your good animal is like my own and dashes off unexpectedly after a squirrel in the woods. Regardless, our good animals deserve gratitude rather than shame for bringing us this far into our own good lives, hearts beating, blood pumping, lungs breathing.
September 15, 2011 § 23 Comments
In my world, I’m standing just inside the door.
In my world, I’m speaking, to the ocean’s roar.
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror.”
The beginning of September has flattened me. Literally. I am lying on the floor in pigeon pose and my yoga teacher, Gopi, is sitting on top of me, shouting at me in her British/Indian accent. “Thassit gurl. Get in thair.” She sticks her elbow into my butt and I see stars. It takes all I have inside me not to cry. That’s how everything has been lately; on top of me, all sharp elbows and painful edges.
I like to write blog posts when I have something figured out, at least to some degree. Right now, I have nothing figured out. Right now, I feel like I am wearing clothes that are both too big and too tight. It’s been weeks since I have written anything at all.
Gopi is talking about change, which is obvious now in the weather and the red tinge on the leaves that hang over our living room window. Yesterday it was ninety-one degrees. Now it is fifty-one. After I picked Oliver up from kindergarten at noon today, I took the boys to the park to ride their bikes in the warm sunshine. This afternoon, at home, we watched the front blow in, cold air on a freight train straight from Canada. I have one east coast winter under my belt after 17 in California, and frankly, I am anxious about doing it again. We had a week of 100 degree temperatures in May and three in June and July. August was hot too. Until now, winter has seemed so far away. I want it to stay away. And I want it to be here already so I can stop worrying about it.
“What in your life,” Gopi asks, ” Is the catalyst for a heart revolution?”
On Labor Day weekend, the week before school started, Scott and I flew back to northern California for a wedding. We saw friends in Marin, San Francisco and on the Sonoma coast. We had pizza in Berkeley with my friend Stephanie and I got to hold her gorgeous 7-week old baby. We drank too much red wine with Scott’s friends from college in a house overlooking the Pacific. We went to my friend Michelle’s wedding and spent the whole time with my friend Loren and her wife Audra. Stephanie and Loren and Michelle were my cross-country and track teammates in college. They know me so well, even now, and I miss them. I miss what it was like to be together every day. I miss that.
The trip back from California to DC was hard – it always is. Something happens to me when I fly eastward over the Mississippi River. I contract. I become the smallest version of myself packed into the tightest bundle. I protect myself from what is inevitably coming. I try to ward off what has already happened.
Last weekend, during my yoga teacher training, something shifted and we all started to get it. Instead of sitting there, feeling confused, I felt close. I felt connected. Rolf talked a bit about our contracted states of fear, aversion, and jealousy. He said that when we move beyond our contracted states, we will realize that we needed each of them in order to arrive at this new, expansive place.
Tonight, Gopi is hell-bent on opening our hips. We do some crazy thing with our legs behind our heads. I am close, but my leg gets stuck somewhere by my pony tail and I can’t get it under. We do some other terrifying move to open our hip flexors where only my left heel and the top of my right foot remain on the floor. Gopi makes us chant three Om’s while we hold that pose. “Whatever you ease into eases up,” she tells us. In that moment, I hate yoga.
For a long time now, I have felt as if I were on the precipice of something: transformation, change, growth. I don’t know. It’s nothing big, nothing earth shaking. Just something new. But I can’t quite get there. It gets stopped, somewhere in my head. I get stuck, just inside the door.
Oliver started school last Thursday, during the rains that didn’t stop. We stayed inside all week, and it felt like winter. Oliver doesn’t like transitions so much. Like me, he tries to protect himself from what has already happened. Since school started, it’s been one meltdown after another. It would be one thing if he walked in the door, threw down his blue race car backpack, and began to wail. Instead, it’s more diffuse. Yesterday, he flung himself on the ground because I reversed the bath/dinner schedule. The day before, he stomped out of the room because I got him a new toothbrush. “I won’t brush my teeth!” he yelled at Scott, “until I have a toothbrush with batteries in it.”
Tonight in class I think about what in my life might be a catalyst for a heart revolution. Maybe it’s my yoga teacher training. Or maybe it’s Oliver’s tantrums. Stay, I tell myself during the heart of them. Breathe. Sometimes I can. And sometimes I can’t.
Next, Gopi has us doing heart opening poses. Our arms are entwined behind our backs and we bow forward into the geometry of devotion. Please, I think as my heart moves towards the floor. Please.
Last Sunday, I set an intention to keep my heart open, to stay in the moment and hold space for Oliver’s transition. What happens is what always happens when I finally act like the grown up and do what I am supposed to do. Oliver stops yelling and starts crying. He asks for a hug with both arms. We bypass anger and move straight to the heart of his anxiety. What also happens is that I become exhausted from all that life being hurled straight at me. When I become a wellspring to my son, I become a drought to myself. I wonder if there is a way to bring the two together, to nourish both of us at the same time.
In our teacher training, Rolf told us to be the thing we loved. What would happen if I could remember the word devotion? What if I could become that?
Later in class, we do Hanumanasana or seated splits with one leg straight out in front. The pose is named after the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who devotes his life to the god Rama. When the demon king who presides over Sri Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, Hanuman and Rama travel from India to Sri Lanka to rescue her. During the battle there, Rama’s brother becomes wounded and to live, he requires an herb that only grows in the Himalayas.
Hanuman so loves Rama that he says he will accomplish this impossible task. With one foot still in Sri Lanka, he stretches himself all the way back to India. He can’t find the herb, so he lifts up the entire mountain and carries it back to Sri Lanka, where Rama’s brother is saved. Hanumanasana embodies Hanuman’s devotion, each leg in a different country, arms high in the air, carrying a mountain.
I can never get into this pose all the way. Mostly I just hover, uncomfortably, suspended a few inches off the ground, my hands on the floor.
On Labor Day, on the way home from the wedding, I bought Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home in the San Francisco airport. The book is about Caldwell’s experience of losing her best friend – Caroline Knapp, another of my favorite writers – to breast cancer at the age of 42. In the book, Caldwell writes, “I was in the corridor of something far larger than I, and I just had to stand it and stay where I was.”
Tonight, I go into Hanumanasana the way I always do: I squeeze my front thigh and flex my front foot. I walk the toes on the other leg back until they can’t go any further. Tonight I do this until I feel something under my front hamstring. It takes a split second until I realize that what is directly under my leg is the floor, which has miraculously risen up to meet me.
“Yes!” I think to myself. “Yes!” and then I am instantly humbled. I have been practicing yoga consistently since I was pregnant with Oliver. It has taken me more than six years to come into the shape of this pose.
At the park today, watching Oliver ride around like a crazy person on his bike, I found myself wondering how many weeks it would take until he feels more settled at school. Maybe next week. Maybe never.
I keep wondering when I am going to get there: back to California, my leg over my head, the end of winter, the end of tantrums, and of course what I really want, which is to become a more spiritual person. I thought if I did a lot of yoga, it would happen on its own. There is something to that of course, but it’s not that easy. It requires a bit more stretching than that. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get around these big corners. There’s a lot of hanging out, suspended over the ground, feet in two different countries. It might be that I never get there, that this is all there is, right now: waiting and staying and standing it.
August 24, 2011 § 16 Comments
What happens when you move every 2 years, as we do, is that you begin to make bucket lists of things to do before you move again. We made one this summer with the boys. It’s on a piece of red construction paper and most of the items are crossed off: “camping” on the foldout bed on the back porch area, taking a tour of DC in a double-decker bus, going to the beach. Yesterday, we were going to cross another one from the list: going to the top of the Washington Monument.
As we ate a late lunch yesterday, the boys and I talked about what it was going to be like to see the city spread out before us. What I love about the Washington Monument is not what it looks like, but what it does for the Mall. The Monument unfurls the sky, as if the Mall were a big circus tent with the most beautiful ceiling. I wanted to be inside that place and look out into all that blue air.
After Gus finished his lunch, he slid down from his chair and went into the living room to color by the window seat. Oliver and I kept talking until the floor began to shake and rumble. After spending 15 years in California, I have been through enough earthquakes to recognize one when it came. But still, my brain said no. I held onto the table as my mind told me, “This is Virginia. There are no earthquakes here.”
But the earth was saying, yes.
The floor began to roll and the heavy oak table splayed out from under me as if it were a young colt. I heard the kitchen cabinets bang open and the glasses fall out. “Let’s get Gus,” I told Oliver and we ran to the living room as the floor heaved beneath us. Gus began to cry and raised his arms to me. “The funder is hurting my ears,” he said. I picked him up and spun around, not sure what to do. I knew you are supposed to stand in a doorway, but I heard glass breaking and watched the light fixtures swing, so that didn’t seem like the greatest idea. Instead, I do what I do best. I ran. I took the boys out the front door and into our yard.
As we stepped into the grass, the earth became still again. It was silent. I could feel Gus shaking in my arms, or maybe that was me. I told myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, but there was an eerie sense of deja vu to the whole experience, as if I had done this before. As if this were not the first time I stood in my front yard after the earth shook itself off like a wet dog.
Down the block some kids had come out of their homes. Across the street, I saw my neighbor Paul huddled by his front door with his tiny little dog. Every neighborhood has a bright, happy person, the one in the old convertible who loans you his lawn mower and always gives you a big wave. Paul’s that guy. He’s not someone who hides out with a chihuahua.
I waved to him and he came out of his house. “What was that?” he asked.
Seriously, Dude? said the voice inside my head. “It was an earthquake,” I said out loud.
“Are you sure?” he asked, stepping forward and down his steps.
I could feel Gus shaking against me and I put my hand on Oliver’s head. “Yes,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Oh,” he said, looking relieved. He walked out to the edge of his yard. “When the plane hit the Pentagon on nine eleven,” he told me, “It felt like a truck hit our house.”
Ah, I thought. There it is. We each have our own unique epicenters of fear.
After a few minutes of dusting ourselves off, we all went back inside. The boys were excited and kept telling me they weren’t scared. “I not stared of earthquakes Mommy,” Gus kept saying, so I told them that earthquakes hardly ever happened in Virginia. That it was over and we were all just fine. Oliver wanted to know what caused an earthquake and I told him that sometimes the planet settles a little and then goes back to normal. I had no idea what I could say that would bring comfort. I couldn’t tell them it would never happen again because what if it did?
I went back into the kitchen to clean up the glass on the floor, but really, it was an excuse to take a breath and stop shaking. It didn’t work. For the rest of the day, I felt as if I were choking back sobs that had nothing to do with the earthquake. It took me until evening to figure out that maybe the strange sense of deja vu I felt had something to do with moving every two years. I am someone who wants to put roots down more than anything, but I guess what I am supposed to learn is this lifetime is how to deal with being transplanted, how to be shaken up a little.
It’s really so silly that I am afraid every time we move. We are given professional movers. We are given enough money to rent a new house and to move our cars and replace the food we always have to give away or toss out. But it’s the little things that throw me for a loop, like having to use a GPS the first few times I go to the grocery store. Going to the park for the first time and sitting by the sand box alone. Knowing that it will be months until someone in my new area code will call me on the phone. I have a Philadelphia cell phone number, a California driver’s license, an Oregon license plate, and a Virginia address. Last year, when we moved to Alexandria, the soundtrack of our first summer was, “Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-turn.”
All day yesterday, I kept telling myself how unfounded these fears were. That what I was afraid of had already happened to me: the earthquake, the difficult moves, the loneliness. Right now I am fine, I kept telling myself. We’re all just fine. We would move again and we would be fine there too. We always found a doctor when we needed one, a school, and enough friends.
I like to think that moving so often has made me into a certain kind of person. As Dominique Browning so eloquently put it, moving puts me on the other side of the desk. As I get lost in an attempt to buy milk or as my heart breaks as my son tells me that he misses his friends, that he is so scared of starting a new school that it feels like lions are chasing him, I become everyone who has ever been scared or lonely or lost. I become the woman who holds up the line in the grocery store because the cashier doesn’t know how to take food stamps. I become the elderly man who keeps asking you to repeat yourself. I become the child who is having a tantrum because he can’t tie his shoe. I tell myself that moving so often has made me compassionate. It has made me strong, good in a crisis. It has made me into someone who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, will grab the laptop and the diaper bag, the extra bottle of water.
Yesterday, as the boys and I stood in our front yard after the ground stopped moving, I looked down at the chipped polish on my bare toes. Oliver was in his socks and Gus had a dirty diaper. Apparently I am not the person I thought I was. It turns out, I am the person, who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, doesn’t even remember her shoes. It turns out that maybe the only thing fear has taught me is how to be afraid.
At three o’clock yesterday, an hour after the earthquake, they closed the Washington Monument. Today, all the buildings on the Mall were closed. The earth is still now, but they are checking for damages. They are looking for cracks and picking up rubble from the Cathedral floor.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment. It is clear that there is so much more work for me to do here, on this ground level. I am not ready yet to climb into a tall, slim obelisk and look out over the world. What I still need to learn is how to be comfortable with the earth shifting under my feet.
August 22, 2011 § 11 Comments
Wild. I have been somewhat obsessed with this word lately. Maybe it’s because our own summer is a little wild with most of our days spent outside and the two boys growing like wild flowers. Today, Oliver asked if I had put Gus’ clothes in his drawer because they were all too small for him. I stared at Oliver in his too-small shorts. “No,” I said. “Those are yours.” Were yours. Were: that is the word that is used most often when you are a parent. Once you were my baby. Now you are my boy.
Wild is also this month’s Jivamukti yoga theme. The way Jiva classes work is that each month, the teachers design their classes around a universal theme. What’s interesting is to see how each teacher explores this theme differently. Or, to see how a teacher evolves her classes during the month. My favorite teacher, Kathy, started out this month teaching an uninhibited class. She played “Wild Wild West” and had her students dance. When I took her class last week, she admitted she was tired of that. “I’ve been thinking about wild animals,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how sensitive and still they are. How they listen.” The class she gave that day focused on listening – to ourselves, to each other, to the world. “In nature,” she said, while we were in pigeon pose, “One bird begins to fly and they all follow. One giraffe begins to run and they all organize around that single moment. They all act as one because they know all is one.”
I have been thinking about my own wild self, about how I haven’t paid very much attention to it. “Shh,” I always say. “Be quiet.” Perhaps, I am worried that if I listen, I will become so completely out of control that my life will become unmanageable. Perhaps, I believe that my wild self cannot be trusted.
In my late teens and twenties, I suffered from pretty much every eating disorder that has ever been diagnosed. It’s not something I really want to write about, but as I get older, I realize that of the thousands of women I have met, maybe three have been immune from eating disorders. Food seems to be the universal sword by which we women wage war upon ourselves. “I am not enough,” is what we are really saying when we eat too little or too much. I am so useless and unworthy that I don’t deserve to eat. Or, I am so worthless, I need to be filled with something other than myself. It’s all the same thing: We don’t believe we deserve to be here. We don’t believe we can be trusted.
This Saturday, I took Jivamukti from Hari (or “Uncle Hari” as he is affectionately named). Hari talked about wild. He talked about our relentlessly wild minds. He talked about the chaos that ensues when do whatever we want. He talked about the beauty of rules to tame our wildness. Specifically he spoke about the Yoga Sutras, about the Yamas of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), and Brahmacarya (moderation). He talked about how within those rules, we can experience great freedom and how sometimes, it is the rules themselves that enable us to be truly wild. His words reminded me of what Shakespeare once wrote about the sonnet, that it was because of their strict structure that he could come up with such lyric poetry.
On Sunday, when Scott went out for a morning bike ride and threw his ClifShot wrapper away, he discovered a raccoon in our trash can. All I know is, it’s good he found it and not me. Nothing fills me with fear more than small North American mammals and rodents. And a raccoon looks like both of these combined.
“Anyone want to come help me get the raccoon out of the trash can?” Scott asked when he came home.
Oliver and I both shook our heads.
“I’ll go!” Gus called and followed his dad outside in his bare feet.
Oliver and I stood inside by the window and watched as Scott maneuvered the trash can and leaned it on its side, away from the house. Gus came dancing in a few seconds later, he eyes bright. He held out his arms. “The raccoon was this big!” he said.
There seems to be this balance in dealing with our own wild minds, and it’s one I haven’t quite figured out yet. On one hand, if we let ourselves go completely, life becomes crazy. We can’t parent our children or successfully sustain any type of relationship. On the other hand, if we force too many rules upon ourselves, we end up hiding out somewhere in the dark, eating trash. The raccoon reminded me of what Anne Lamott once said about her own thoughts: “My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” It reminded me of what Rolf Gates says about compassion: “Starving people eat garbage. And sometimes we are those starving people.”
After a month of “Wild” Jivamukti, I am no closer to understanding the term. I think of wild horses and snow-capped mountains and wild geese landing on a lake during my friend’s beautiful wedding. I think of children who crave rules and structure and a rhythm to flow into. I think of myself as I approach the age of 40, which is undoubtably the beginning of middle age. I think of the lack of rules and structure and rhythm we have for midlife unless it is the sting of a Botox needle or the sound of a wine bottle opening or the pain of a breakdown.
But there has to be more than this, right? RIGHT???
When I was young, my father listened to Joseph Campbell’s audiotapes while we were in the car, which now, I am grateful for. Somewhere in my brain are the transcripts to all of those tapes. In my mind, I can hear Campbell talking about the importance of ritual and how our current society is sorely lacking, especially in adolescence.
He didn’t speak about middle age that I remember, but that period of life is most certainly lacking in ritual as well. I knew how to be wild in my twenties. I know how to be wild with and about my children now that I am in my thirties. But how am I supposed to be wild in my forties? How do I know which voice to listen to? Is it the one who tells me follow the rules or is it the one who tells me to abandon them and carve my own path.
Luckily for me, as these things go, I received a message, just when I needed it. It was from someone I do not yet know who read my “Heart” post. She shared the following poem she wrote when her own child was a toddler, and in her poem, I found that harmonious balance between our wild nature and our civilized selves. I found that connection with another soul, which I am thinking may be the only ritual that counts for anything.
What could be a better symbol of the relationship between savage and civilized than our own wild hearts beating in their cages of bone?
Thank you Holly.
In the dawn of my awakening
I reach over
and put my hand
over the soft skin of her small chest
over her tiny heart
I feel it beat with strength, with rhythmic determination
that same tiny heart that beat inside my belly not so long ago
that beats faster while she pedals her two-wheeler
that same growing heart
that closes a little more with each life lesson learned
Eckhart Tolle tells us to be quiet, to be still
to open to the extraordinary moments, that define presence
that life really is beyond our senses, beyond our consciousness
and that she and I, you and I
are really one
So be quiet, be still –
listen and feel the beating of her heart,
my heart, your own heart
the pulse of the universe
and the voice of God
-Holly Brook Cotton 7/24/08
August 9, 2011 § 14 Comments
I’ve long believed that what has kept writers, again myself included, from fully transcending their personal experiences on the page was fear of incompetence: I can’t write a plot that involves a kidnapping because I’ve never been kidnapped, etc. But what if it’s the opposite? What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? … Maybe we’re afraid that if we write what we don’t know, we’ll discover something truer than anything our real lives will ever yield.
- from “Don’t Write What You Know,” by Bret Anthony Johnston, the Atlantic Fiction 2011
I read these words while I was sitting outside the Lodge at Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon. We were there for two days for a dear friend’s wedding while the boys were three hours away at their grandparents’ house. We have never left them for that long before and after 12 hours of sadness and a bit of anxiety, I came to a place of peace. I came to the realization that they were having a blast.
Sitting there, looking up at those snow capped mountains, I also came to a place of homecoming. I came to another realization that even though I spent half my life on the east coast, it’s never been home to me the way the west is, where I’ve spent the other half of my life. I’ve been working so hard to make Virginia home, but that experience has been like walking with my head down, gazing at the cracks in the sidewalk. Virginia is just the ground floor of truth and trying too hard to love it is like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It’s been like trying to deny my own discreet and infinite hunger.
But of course this is not about Virginia, is it? What I’m really talking about is my own tendency to try to drink from a block of clay rather than molding it into a bowl that can hold water.
This quote pertains directly to my own experience of writing fiction, of writing 50 pages and then being stopped by the paralyzing fear of being incompetent. And it also pertains directly to my own experience of living, of being afraid to dream, to rise past the ground floor of truth because I am afraid I will do it too well. That the world I envision for myself may be too lovely for someone like myself to inhabit. That to abide in the world I long for means making myself open to disaster. That sometimes, being available to beauty is the most terrifying thing there is.
July 20, 2011 § 14 Comments
Scott and the boys were in the back of the house when I came home, in a funny little room where we stuck the TV. “Mommy, Mommy!” they called. “We’re watching the Tour de France.” They were giddy from staying up past their bedtime and excited about watching their father’s favorite sport. I am not a cyclist like Scott, but I like the Tour de France. The stages are a kind of yardstick by which I measure summer. I watch as the black route of the Tour winds through France and see how much time of my favorite season I have left. On the TV, it was at the end of a stage and the commentators were excited. “And you know,” I heard the announcer say in his lilting accent, “He’s just trying to hold onto that yellow jersey for one more day.”
“Stay and watch,” the boys said, so I did for a little while. But it had been a long day and I was tired. The boys were squirrely and I could tell they were 10 seconds away from bickering again. Scott told them it was almost time for bed, so I kissed them good night and made a run for it. I wanted to stay and watch. Or more accurately, I wanted to want to stay and watch. But I felt like the guy in the yellow jersey, like I had been holding on all day for the end of the day. Like some days I was holding on for just one more day.
In my last post, I wrote about letting myself off the hook. I wrote about lying on the floor in a yoga class while everyone else was trying to do a handstand. It was an apt metaphor, but as I tried to live it, I realized that letting myself off the hook by lying down was about as nuanced as assuming that the word “sit” means the same thing to a dog as it does to someone meditating.
Lindsey, of A Design so Vast wrote a comment on my last post that stopped me cold. “There is such a fine line for me,” she wrote, “when it is truly authentic to let myself off the hook, and when it is being “lazy” or not “trying” hard enough.”
That’s it, I thought after I read it. That’s why I can’t let myself off the hook either. It’s such a fine line for me too. At some point, doesn’t forgiving ourselves for our mistakes turn into excusing ourselves for poor behavior? When does letting myself off the hook for being a little tired or cranky turn into an all-access pass? This may be why I am a person of extremes. I am not comfortable with grey areas. I like the sure realms of black and white.
I also like the predictability of the outsides of things. I know how to dress the part, how to talk, and how to behave so that I appear to be the person I want to be. For the most part, during the day, I am patient. I try to be present and to pay attention to my sons’ stories and games and emotions. I know what it takes to raise children, and I try to conform to that standard. But some days, my insides belie this. Some days, after Gus’ epic two-year old tantrums, or a helacious car trip filled with bickering, I am screaming too, on the inside. I might be asking the boys if they want to read a book or get a drink of water in a calm voice, but in my head, I am out the front door like a shot and sprinting down the street into someone else’s life.
Sometimes, you get to learn things slowly, step by step. And sometimes you get your gums cut open and a tooth yanked out. Sometimes you get some words of wisdom to take home with you and sometimes you get some cute little ice packs and a bottle of horse-sized ibuprofen. The whole procedure to get my wisdom tooth out wasn’t that bad, to be honest. That day, I think I even said, “Piece of cake.” It was the next day that did me in, after a trip to the park and another to Target and another back home to make a batch of gazpacho soup. And then the day after that, when I could barely get out of bed, where I stayed put drinking watermelon cucumber juice and reading an ancient copy of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.
I had come to a the proverbial wall. It was mile 22. It was that stage in the Tour de France where the hills appear as if someone wrinkled up the rug. I could no longer keep going. I was done. Kaput. Down for the count. I could barely hold on for an hour, much less a day. And I hate feeling helpless like nothing else. Usually, I just clench my jaw and keep going. Except I couldn’t clench my jaw. Instead, I just lay there with a steady tattoo of pain in my mouth and a feeling in my body as if I had been run over by a truck.
I suppose someone wise would call that surrender. I think I would call it an ambush. Whatever it was, it had the power to paralyze me until the dust could settle a bit. It packed enough of a wallop so that something inside me could peel open. It had enough oomph to remove a wrapper I hadn’t even known was there.
It enabled me to see what the world was like when I became still.
Last night, I was finally enough of myself to roll out my yoga mat again. I lit my battery operated candles and placed my seated Buddha in front of my mat. It had been almost a week since I practiced the script from my yoga teacher training, and I get nervous when I stay away from it too long. I am way more type A than the typical yoga teacher. I talk too quickly. I think too much. It’s apparent to me that I am not a natural at this and I will have to work harder than most of the other students will.
Pretty much, as soon as I began reading the script into my recorder, I wanted to quit. It’s just not happening today, I thought and stood back up. But during our last teacher training we talked about commitment. About why we have a yoga practice even though sometimes it’s inconvenient. Or not fun. I looked at all the candles in the room. I said I would do this, I thought.
So I sat back down and kept reading. I came to a line that reads, “Breathe into your softness. Breathe into your stillness.” I had read that line hundreds of times before, but this time, it seemed brand new. Breathe into my softness? Breathe into my stillness? Could that place I found when I was lying in bed with ice packs on my face really be inside me?
I wanted to leave again. I decided to stay. I played the recording of the script I just read and began to practice. I moved into child’s pose. I heard my own voice say, “Breathe into your softness. Breathe into your stillness.” As I began the endless repetitions of lifting my leg high and stepping it forward, inhaling to a long spine and folding again, I wanted to stop. As I moved into Warrior II, my muscles were tight and tense again. Breathe into your softness. Breathe into your stillness.
Was there some way to do this without fighting it? Was there some other way of navigating my daily duties of peacemaking and sweeping crumbs and wiping faces that didn’t end with me waiting at the edge of the driveway for my husband to come home so I could peel off to yoga class? Was there some way to find ease, even if I am not an easy person?
It seemed as if I was in Warrior II for ages. My legs hurt. My mouth hurt. I thought of those cyclists, the way they climbed those hills all warm and loose as if their muscles were made of maple syrup. I used to know that place from my old running days, the place you found after you accepted the pain. Acknowledged it. And then kept going anyway.
Last week showed me that I have no idea how to let myself off the hook. I tried, but it turned out that the hook has me. So I am going to try this instead: I am going to try to find some cool, still place to retreat to when it gets too hairy. Supposedly, it’s always there, even when it’s crazy, even when there are tiny bare feet and broken glass and your kids are (once again) fighting over the fire truck. Instead of trying to ride the fine line where compassion ends and anarchy begins, I’m going to pull my bike over to the side of the road. I’m going to try to find some shade. I’m going to ditch the yellow jersey.
July 7, 2011 § 25 Comments
A few months ago I went to a book group at a yoga studio in Georgetown. The group was going to discuss Momma Zen, by Karen Maezen Miller. Finally, I thought, when I first saw the flyer. When I lived in Ventura and my son went to Oak Grove School in Ojai, we had parent meetings every month. The early childhood teachers were present and we discussed topics such as sibling rivalry, anger, creating partnership with children. It seemed a given that we were all good parents, all trying our best. I came away from the meetings feeling more knowledgeable, better equipped, and supported by other parents.
I was excited as I drove into Georgetown. I thought I might make some new friends or finally find a sense of community. But the book group was as much like my old parent meetings as DC is to Ojai. The yoga studio owners and book group leaders were kind and genuine. I think they wanted the same things I did. They asked questions about our challenges as mothers and about the areas we wanted to improve. It was the answers that did me in. The grim, pinched faces. The tired voices expressing how hard it is to be patient, to stop saying “just a minute,” to go on a quarter mile walk that takes an hour. I just felt sad as I sat there and very, very homesick for Ventura. The unkind part of myself felt virtuous (so good!) when I saw that I have changed a bit since I my early days as a mom, but another part of me felt equally hopeless. As much as these women depressed me with with their unhappiness, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Before I had children, I ran at 100 miles a minute. Slowing down back then, seemed to be a huge waste of time.
Children make you slow down, no doubt about that. They demand your presence in every single moment. At my son’s school, I learned that if you relax into it, if you let yourself fall into the present moment, it can feel like flying. It feels like joy and happiness and safety. It feels like love.
But it’s still a bit unnatural for me. It’s something I have to work at every day, and as I sat in that book group, I wondered why slowing down seems to be such a challenge for many mothers in my generation. Maybe it’s the technology we all adapted to in our twenties: the email, the phones, the web. Or maybe it’s that motherhood is what we were told to avoid. Go to a good school. Get a good job. Make good money. To some mothers, parenthood is the thing that robbed them of their success and freedom. To others, motherhood became another job, the ultimate career. Many days I hear Jackie Onassis’s words in my head: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” Be a good mother. Or else.
I loved Claire Dederer’s memoir Poser because she explores our relentless pursuit of good in motherhood and shows how it robs us of the real. The fun. She writes about her own “goodness project,” her constant quest for the admiration that would confirm her virtue, and she brings forth an idea that her perfectionism has to do with growing up in the late sixties, during the time in which many women – who were wives and mothers – were leaving their homes. They were joining communes, going back to work, or moving in with hippie boyfriends.
I was born almost a decade later than Dederer in 1973. I grew up with Title IX, the ERA, and Billie Jean King. Geraldine Ferraro and Mary Lou Retton. Those Virginia Slims ads. My mom’s friend lived in Manhattan and wrote for Working Women Magazine. I still remember the covers. Those women with their feathered hair and their briefcases. You’ve come a long way baby.
I remember the books I loved growing up, the trail of breadcrumbs that might have led to such a thirst for achievement. There was Herstory and another one called Anything Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better. You can guess what that one was about. I was inspired by that book and maybe a little bit scared. It was clear that as a girl, I was going to have to work my ass off.
If Dederer drove herself to be good in order to make up for her own wayward mother, I wonder if my generation is so strident about motherhood, so relentless in our quest for virtue because we know no other way. We have always had to be better than the men in order to be considered as good as. Quite probably, I could relate most of my failings to growing up in the late 70′s and early 80′s. I could blame Reagan and Madonna and Gloria Steinem. Wasn’t it also Jackie O who said, “There are two kinds of women: those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed.” Yowza.
But there is something in blaming our youth that doesn’t ring true to me, just as I didn’t buy Dederer’s assertion that Seattle hipsters treat attachment parenting as a religion because their parents got divorced. There just has to be something else that drives us to mash steamed carrots for our toddlers and sign up for Mommy and Me Yoga. (Um, yeah, I am talking about myself here.)
Motherhood, too often, feels like a competition. Another endurance event with the prize being your child’s perfect behavior. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m so competitive it drives me crazy most of the time. The other morning I went out for a run – a slow jog, I told myself – and before I knew it, I had caught up to a girl whose ponytail had been bouncing in front of me for a mile or so. “Hey crazy lady,” I asked myself as I charged up the next hill, now committed to my new pace, “What are you doing?”
Sometimes I wonder if we are so relentlessly strident in our quest to be good because we are so afraid of what will happen if we stop trying to hard. We’ll get fat. We’ll get fired. We’ll mess up our kids’ chances to go to Harvard.
Last week, Bruce at Privilege of Parenting wrote a fabulous counterpoint to Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic article, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” I’ve gone back to that post a few times because there was so much wisdom there. I found tremendous comfort in this paragraph:
Thus as parents let’s not beat ourselves up, nor give up, let’s admit that we’re not perfect and neither are our kids; let’s let go the notion that our kids (or we) will be happy when they get to Harvard or become doctors (but instead bank on the idea that if they find their place in the group and contribute, even at Taco Bell, this may be better for them and for our world than the nightmare we’ve been propagating).
On the 4th of July, a new friend from my yoga teacher training took me to my first hot yoga, or power yoga, class. “Is it Bikram?” I asked, apprehensively. I went to Bikram once, years ago, and couldn’t get out of bed for the rest of the day. I was not going back to Bikram again. She shook her head. “No, it’s not that hot. You’ll be fine.”
So off I went. For the first hour I was fine, despite the heat. I was sweating like mad and it really stunk in the room, but I was okay. Until I wasn’t. Until the room started to spin and my heart began pounding in a way that did not feel right. I had chills up and down my neck and was hugely grateful I hadn’t eaten breakfast. The instructor told us it was time to move into handstand. “Challenge yourself,” she shouted and I told myself to buck up and ignore the pounding in my body. But it was the Fourth of July. There were fireworks to go to. We had people coming for dinner. I couldn’t spend the day in bed.
I decided to lie down right there, in the middle of the room. The thermostat near me read 96 degrees so I closed my eyes and listened to the 66 other people in the class jumping up and standing on their palms. I felt like an idiot lying there. Water was dripping on my head from the ceiling and I realized that it was the condensed sweat of all the other people in the room who were working so hard to be good.
Last summer, as our family moved from California to DC, I told the boys and Scott that 2010 was going to be The Funnest Summer Evuh!!! I needed something to spur me on and ignite my sense of adventure when I felt such sadness. I haven’t quite settled on a theme for this summer yet. I thought it might be The Most Peaceful Summer Ever as the boys have been bickering a bit. But lying there in that crowded yoga studio, I thought that maybe this was going to be the Summer I Let Myself Off the Hook. I am going to let myself off the hook for my bad days. For the lovely mornings I sometimes interrupt by saying, “Hurry up, put your shoes on. We have to get to the park!” The days I focus more on the crayons under the couch, the Legos strewn on the floor, the spilled milk, the incessant shouts of little boys than I do on the fun parts. The evenings I spend beating myself up for not signing the boys up for swim lessons or Yoga 4 Kids or music camp. For giving in and buying the assorted pack of sugar cereals that I normally don’t allow into the house. The nights I spend beating up other mothers in my head for making me feel badly about what I am beating myself up about. Better than. Worse than. It seems like a two-way street, but really, it’s a dark alley that leads to a crack house.
Freedom. I always thought it meant something you fought for. Something earned. But maybe it’s also the act of gently emancipating yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as dropping the chains we are twisting around our own necks. Last year, I thought that walking on my hands – embracing uncertainty – was the full expression of freedom. But this Fourth of July, it seemed that lying on my back was more authentic. This Independence Day, for me, seemed to be about allowing other people’s sweat to drip on my face and not needing to add to the heat. Because we are all working so very hard. And maybe we already are good enough.
June 29, 2011 § 14 Comments
Gus had a milestone this week. Or maybe we both did. In a matter of days, he became officially weaned. Officially no longer a baby. Okay, I can guess what you are thinking right now. But before you hit “delete,” this is not a post about the virtues of nursing your child. I have never found those diatribes to be particularly helpful.
I don’t think this is a post about mourning the loss of babyhood either. I am sure I will change my mind in a few years, but the boys seem to be growing at a good pace right now. I think if they grew up any more slowly, I might collapse under the weight of diapers. Or from exhaustion. Life is so much easier now than even a year ago, and it gets more interesting and fun each day.
I think I might be writing about how awestruck I am by how gracefully my two and a half year old was able to let go of something he loved. Something that made him feel safe. For the last few days I have been thinking about the death grip I have on my own creature comforts. I have been noticing that I even hold onto things that I no longer need. The list is long but it includes worry, fear, anxiety, and doubt.
The very process of helping my son let go of his babyhood seemed to bring all of my own fears to the surface. First, there was the fact that I had to decide this, that I had to be in charge. I waited a while for the real grown-up to appear. I scoured many parenting books and called friends and even a lactation consultant back in California. Still, Mary Poppins failed to materialize at my door. Instead, I went to the dentist, who told me that the impacted wisdom tooth, which has been bothering me for years, really needs to come out now. He wants to implant some artificial powdered bone in my jaw, and the whole procedure requires a slew of sedatives and painkillers that kids don’t need in their bodies.
I came home and realized it was time to say No to my son. And saying No is something I hate doing. To anyone. Recently, I mustered up all my courage and told my son’s school that I could not work on the newsletter during the next school year because I have no free time, and what happened next? I am suddenly in charge of the school’s silent auction. I say suddenly as if these things just happen to me. As if I have no agency here, in the matter of my own life.
On the first day I told Gus “No,” he cried for about five seconds while my gut twisted in agony.
“Gus, do you want to get some books?” I asked holding him tightly.
He wailed and pushed me away.
“Let’s get your blanket,”I suggested, trying again. The lactation consultant told me to remind Gus of all the ways he can get comfort from me and of all the ways he can comfort himself.
More wailing. And then, he was quiet. Solemnly, he blinked the tears from his eyes. “I want to play cards,” he said and slid from my bed. I watched him run off like the world’s smallest gambler and waited for what would happen next. A few seconds later, Gus returned, holding his pack of Curious George Animal Rummy playing cards. I helped him back up on the bed and watched him deal. Literally.
There are still so many things I don’t want to deal with. There are so many aspects of myself I don’t want to know about. And yet, it’s funny, how when you shine a little light into those places, it’s never quite as bad as you think. This morning I emailed the school’s Silent Auction Committee and told them I couldn’t do it. I still feel awful about it. Irresponsible. Unreliable. Careless. But under that, I am also relieved. I think of how cranky I would be after staying up night after night, putting together an auction book, worrying about whether or not other people were doing their jobs. I think of how mad I would get a the boys for making noise while I was on the phone, trying to get a merchant to donate a free bike tuneup, or dinner for four. I think about how impossible it would be to get anyone to donate anything with my boys running around their store.
On the morning of Gus’s milestone, I decided to have a party, inspired by Kristin Noelle’s recent post. For once in my life, I was going to run towards something and not away. As Gus dealt the cards for animal rummy on the bed, I told him about it. “Can I have bawoons mommy?” he asked as he lined up his cards on the sheets. There was George, the Man with the Yellow Hat, Hundley the Dog.
“Sure,” I said.
His eyes got wide. “And cupcakes?” he asked and I nodded. “Why not.”
That evening, the boys came out to dinner wearing the party hats I had put in the back of the closet after Gus’ birthday in January. “We’re ready for the party,” they told me. I explained that we still had to go to the cupcake store, that we had to pick out the balloons, that we still had to eat real food. “We don’t need dinner,” Oliver said. “Let’s go right now.”
“Um, no,” I said, for the second time that day. It didn’t really feel any easier to say no this time. Maybe it will always be hard. “You have to eat your vegetables first,” I instructed. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said that line.
After they ate some carrots and cucumbers, the boys climbed into the car and we stopped at Cake Love in Shirlington. “Is it your birthday?” asked the kid behind the counter after Gus and Oliver picked out their cupcakes. They were still wearing their yellow and blue paper hats. I cringed, thinking Oliver was going to tell him the real reason for our fete, but instead, Oliver just shook his head. “We’re just having a little party, that’s all.”
Next door, at Harris Teeter, Gus picked out a balloon that said “Congrats” and Oliver picked out one that said “Good Luck.” Oliver’s balloon immediately floated away once we left the store and he was left holding only the string. “That was not good luck!” he said, kicking the sidewalk so I let him get another one. It said “Get Well Soon.”
The party consisted of the boys mowing their way through their cupcakes, frosting first and then chasing each other around the living room with their balloons. For once I didn’t tell them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, that it was almost time for bed and that they needed to slow down. I thought of my brave little guy who decided it was okay to give something up. That instead of making a huge deal about it, he was going to play the hand he was dealt and have a party.
In my yoga teacher training this weekend, a girl from the training in Boston joined us to make up some hours she had missed. After her time was up, Rolf stopped all of us and announced that Elana had officially completed her training. She thanked us and Rolf and told us what a transformative experience it had been for her. Then she rolled her eyes. “I know everyone says that,” she said. “But it’s true. It’s really made me think about what I want in this life and about what’s good enough. In some respects, the way I’ve been living has been good enough, but in other ways, it’s not and now I can make some changes.”
After chasing each other around the dining room, Oliver decided to tie their balloons to their big Bruder trucks and run around with those. They made a loop through the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen, their balloons trailing over them with their bright messages.
Congrats. Get Well Soon. Good Luck.
June 21, 2011 § 3 Comments
Today, I am thrilled to accept an invitation from Lindsey to hang out on her blog, A Design So Vast for the day. (Hopefully, we are drinking some coffee right now and talking about what a great run we just had along the Charles.)
Lindsey was my second ever reader and what it thrill it was to trace her comment back to her own blog. She writes honestly and luminously about her life as a writer, about her two beautiful children, and mostly about what it means to live wide-eyed and wide awake. When she asked me to write about trust, I jumped at the chance to be a part of her blog, but was hoping she would pick something else for me to write about. Then my car was broken into, and it just seemed like the right time to write about how I try – and fail - to navigate through the world while keeping the blinds of my heart open at least a crack.
I am so excited to over there for the day. And you should be too! While you are there, look around and then subscribe. Lindsey writes daily, and reading her post each morning has become a ritual that opens my eyes – and my heart – up to the goodness in my own life. I have no doubt it will bring you a daily bunch of joy as well.
June 17, 2011 § 16 Comments
Yesterday was one of my favorite holidays: Bloomsday. It is a day given to James Joyce’s book Ulysses, a tale of two men trying to make their way back home on June 16th 1904. During the time I read it, I was looking for some place I belonged, and like both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, I was wandering rather aimlessly. I was a senior at Cornell, and while for a short time during my four years there I enjoyed some minor celebrity status as a runner, by the time I was a senior, I had been injured for about a year.
Up until Christmas I had a boyfriend – my first love – but after he moved from Dartmouth to Boulder, he stopped calling. I was devastated and thought it must have been because I was no longer a runner like he was. Additionally, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had thought I would leave college, get a sponsorship from Nike or Asics and keep running, but obviously, that was no longer in the cards. I didn’t want to go to med school or vet school like I originally planned, and I hadn’t applied to grad school. When I was asked what I was going to do after graduation, mostly I just shrugged.
The spring semester at Cornell began in January, during the darkest month of Ithaca’s dark winter. To say I was depressed would be an understatement. When I saw that Ulysses was offered as a graduate seminar, I signed up, almost as a dare to myself. I was told that I had to get special permission from the professor to get into the class, as it was a graduate seminar limited to senior-level English majors or grad students. I was neither. But I didn’t care. I am almost 100 percent Irish and yet the only part of my culture I was really familiar with was the Catholic Church, roller skating to Clancy Brothers records in my basement when I was little, and guarded stories of my parents’ childhoods in an Irish neighborhood in Queens, NY. For some reason, I thought a book might help.
The day before class started I went to the Big Red Store and bought all of the required and recommended reading. I walked back to Collegetown with my arms full of books with titles like Symbolism in Ulysses, Hamlet, and Reading Joyce’s Ulysses. My friend Loren – an English major – looked at me as if I were crazy. “What are you going to do with all those books if you don’t get in the class?” she asked.
Again I shrugged. “I’m just going to keep showing up, I guess.”
Loren stared at me.
“Well what are they going to do?” I asked. “Physically carry me out of the room?”
Loren let her breath out in a long, slow whistle and walked away shaking her head.
On the first day of class, I tromped through the dirty Ithaca snow to the English building and into a tiny room furnished only with a long table and leather chairs. Compared to the anatomy lab I had just come from, the overheated room was heavenly, even though I didn’t have a seat at the table. The place was packed and I was stuck in a corner near a drafty window.
Dr. Schwarz walked into the room and took a seat. I didn’t know it at the time, but he is one of the most renowned Joyce scholars in the country.“Well,” he said in a thick New York accent. “It’s a little bit crowded in here.” He explained that the way the seminar worked was that he would give each student one of the eighteen chapters in the book. “Therefore,” he said, “I can’t have more than eighteen people in here. “ He got out his roster and started calling out names.
When he got to mine, he paused. “I don’t think I know you. You’re an English major, correct?”
I shook my head. “Pre-med,” I said and Dr. Schwarz wrote something on the paper.
“You did know that this class is restricted to upper-level English students?” he asked.
I nodded and felt my face get hot.
On the day of the second class, a week later, the same thing happened. But this time, Dr. Schwarz stopped me on the way out. “I know you have this idea that you can get into this class,” he said, pronouncing idea like idear. “But you can’t. I’m sorry.” Again I nodded. “Okay,” I said.
On the third week of class, I made my way from the folding chairs lined up against the wall to the leather seats at the table. I counted. There were only sixteen people in class that day, and this time, when Dr. Schwarz took attendance, he just ignored me. “Someone tell me the symbolism of the scene between Buck Mulligan at the top of the stairs and Stephen,” Dr. Schwarz said and I raised my hand quickly.
He looked around the table and pointed to me. “You,” he said. “Go ahead.” Stately, plump, Buck Mulligan. Stately and plump. The irony there, the immediate clue that nothing in the book could be taken at face value. The only hope I held in my life then was that things weren’t what they seemed. That something would happen. That something would change.
I don’t remember my answer. It was probably something about Oscar Wilde or the Catholic Church. I do remember that Dr. Swartz didn’t laugh. Instead, he said, “Yes. Okay.”
After class, he stopped me again. “Give me your Drop/Add sheet.” He said. “You’re in.”
“Really?” I asked stupidly and now it was Dr. Schwarz’s turn to shrug. “You’re Chapter Eighteen. The Molly chapter.”
“OK.” My heart took an elevator ride to the top. “Yes,” I said.
Yes I said yes I will Yes.
Those are the last words of Ulysses, and they are spoken by Molly, who is the antithesis to Stephen and Bloom. She is the affirmation. She is the physical, breathing, Penelope who is waiting for Bloom to come home. I don’t remember the chapter now. It’s basically eight sentences, one of which is over 4000 words. What I do remember was the joy in being able to spend so much time with this chapter. The freedom to revel in such stream of consciousness, seemingly unedited, ribald thoughts. It was May by the time it was my turn to lead the seminar, and the trees had buds. I felt the first faint stirring of hope.
Molly was the opposite of myself. She was free while I was contained. She was sensual while I was practically an ascetic. She reveled in her girth while I was ashamed of any bit of excess skin. It was incredible to me that after crashing such a class, not only did I have one of the most famous Joyce professors in the country, but I had gotten the best chapter.
I struggled though, quite a bit. I had to reread Hamlet, the Odyssey, and many other books just to know what was going on. But whenever I went to Dr. Schwarz’ office hours, he was encouraging. “You’re doing fine, “he would say. “This is a complicated text.”
During the semester, Dr. Schwarz brought in bottles of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. He took us to the Cornell Museum of Art to look at the Picassos and Giacomettis that were created in the same time period that Joyce wrote Ulysses. Dr. Schwarz is a humanist. A few years ago, I read an article about him in which he said,” Our role as humanists is to focus attention on what is special and distinct in the human enterprise… We need always remember that art is how we make sense of the world; literature is how we transform world into words and words into world. “
“Didn’t you used to run?” he asked me once during office hours. I got that all the time those days, as if I were an imposter. Once someone started to say, “Didn’t you used to be Pam Hunt?” until they caught themselves. But it was okay. That was how I felt too.
I shook my head and told Dr. Schwarz I had gotten injured.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s too bad.” He paused and then said,” I play tennis. My sons do too.”
Something eased up inside when he said that. He might as well have said, “Oh, well, who cares about all that. You’re going to be all right.”
We spent a few minutes talking about tennis, a sport about which I know nothing, and then his sons. Finally it was time to leave. As I packed up my backpack, Dr. Schwarz said, “You’re doing well in this class.” I grinned. I couldn’t help it. Something new was beginning to spark. Maybe, I thought, this is who I could be.
I never did go to vet school. I didn’t go to grad school either, but what Dr. Schwarz gave me was worth more than a degree. He gave me a sense of worth that had nothing to do with how fast I could run or how many people knew my name. And he gave me a glimpse of how big the world is, how truly gigantic. He showed me it is enormous enough to hold all of our selves. Once, I read an article in which he wrote, “Literature and the other arts are a window to who we were and who we are.” Dr. Schwarz gave me a sense that nothing, really, was that big of a deal. You ran, you got hurt, you read books, you took up tennis.
I think of Dr. Schwarz often, but especially in June. It’s a feeling of gratitude that comes like Christmas, it’s a sense of wonder about where I would be if it weren’t for him. In a time when I was spinning, he put his hand on the top of my head and righted me. I think maybe he showed me what grace truly is. He taught me that it lives inside, that comfort is worth seeking out, and that we are never -thank god- who we think we are.
June 9, 2011 § 16 Comments
Before last September, I had never read a blog. Sure, I read some of those New York Times blogs, but I never could tell the difference between that and a real column. All it took to change that was to start a blog. Now, I am completely blown away by the quality of writing out there in the blogosphere. And the fact that some of these amazing writers have become my friends is even more wonderful.
So it is with this sense of joy that I bring you my first guest post (which begins right under the photo). Lindsey of A Design So Vast – a gorgeous blog, the reading of which has become a daily ritual – has written a beautiful piece about trust, in particular, trust in our path through life. In our dharma. In the journey we choose, or, more likely, that chooses us. As I told Lindsey, having her words on my space here feels like hanging up an amazing new work of art. Check out her blog and you’ll see what I mean, that despite what she says, she is indeed a writer.
They say that what you wanted to be when you grew up, as a child, is the truest expression of your dreams. Well, I wanted to be a writer, and also a doctor. Somehow I got lost on life’s roads, though, and I wound up with an MBA and a 15-year career in business. Over the last few years I’ve been slowly finding my way back to that original, essential dream. I can’t point to a single inflection point, a single day that I sat down at the blank page again. But I know that two things came together to push me back to writing.
First, while I’d always charted my life course by the next goal, the next achievement, there came a time in my late 20s when suddenly there was nowhere else to go. And without a destination, I had to learn to live inside my own life, rather than sprinting through it on my way to the next shiny brass ring. To live here, now, required me to sit still. This had always been – and remains – very, very hard for me. Being still and quiet allows the shadows inside me to come up and, probably hardest of all, forces me to confront the basic fact that life passes. I had to admit, accept, embrace, even, the fact that I could not stop the relentless passage of my life. I could not outrun it.
And secondly, the experience of having my children and watching them grow startled me awake. I had not remotely anticipated the heartbreak of parenting, nor the way this realization dovetailed with the you-must-sit-here-now message that was simultaneously ringing in my ears. The passage of time took a seat at the table of my soul and refused to get up. As Grace’s pants grew too short and Whit’s shoes seemed too tight overnight, I was unable to ignore the incessant turning forward of my days.
And so I turned to the page. To cope with my own profound sadness about life’s impermanence, I chronicled it all. I took pictures constantly. I wrote letters to each child on their birthdays. I started blogging to record the little moments of everyday life that I knew I’d forget. Were all of these attempts to memorialize my days, like insects frozen forever in amber? Or were these actually efforts to better inhabit these days, because I realized quickly the details only really revealed themselves when I was paying attention?
I suspect it is both. With the perspective of years, I realize now that I was simply walking the path back to where I started: to writing. Over time my writing – particularly on my blog, and the in opportunities that came to me because of it – grew in importance to me. It’s now a big part of my life. As I learn to sit more still, I am beginning to hear a voice whispering in my ear. That voice says one single word, over and over again: trust. Trust that things are unfolding as they should. Trust that I am okay just as I am. Trust that all will be well.
I’m not yet at the point where I’m a “writer.” I still work in the business world. I am working on a book, which took me a long time to say out loud. I am taking an ongoing class with my favorite writer in the world. I am blogging. I am also parenting my ever-challenging and ever-wonderful children and working at a job I genuinely love. For now, that is the right balance for me. My life is full and rich and chaotic and tangled. Writing is now a robust and full-fledged ingredient in the mix, which is something I would never have guessed five years ago. And I keep wading through the swamp, thick with both wonder and heartbreak, trying to write it down, trying to trust.
June 5, 2011 § 18 Comments
A couple of months ago at breakfast, Oliver asked me for a Batman story. I almost spit out my coffee. “Batman?” I asked. “How do you know Batman?”
“Daddy told me a Batman story last night,” he said.
“Oh really,” I said. What I meant was, You go to a Waldorf school, kid. You probably don’t want to be talking to your teachers about that. Superheros, to me, were about violence and destruction and bringing down the enemy. It was a little too much like living in DC.
When I asked Scott about it later, he looked at me funny. “What’s wrong with Batman?” he asked. “He’s a cool guy. He fights crime and takes care of Gotham City.”
“What is Batman’s story anyway?” I asked.
“He’s just a normal guy,” said Scott, “Who puts on a suit to become Batman.”
“Well yeah,” I said, “But what’s the story behind that? Is he from another planet, or does he have bionic powers? Does he fly?”
“No,” Scott said patiently. “He’s just a man. With no powers. And he puts on a suit.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “Well, where’s the superhero part?”
Scott shrugged. “He’s Batman.”
That night, I listened to the next installment of the Batman story. During which Batman encounters the Joker robbing a jewelry store and proceeds to get on a super deluxe Bat Mountain Bike to catch the robber and restore order to Gotham City. Rather than remind me of DC Comics, Scott’s story reminded me of Joseph Campbell, of The Power of Myth and of Star Wars. The battle of dark and light and good and evil that I so often wrestle with.
Recently, I noticed – with a fair amount of horror – that sometimes, I try to change Oliver’s behavior not because it is wrong or inappropriate or hurting anyone, but because it reminds me too much of my own. I don’t know when I realized this. I think it might have been at dinner, when he got up in the middle of the meal to change his fork, “because the pasta made it a little dirty.” Or maybe, it was the other day when we were reading and Oliver was drumming his hands, his right and left ones making identical patterns on the table. I tried to distract him with a high five because I saw too clearly, my own anxious nature dancing through him. He’s afraid to learn to tie his shoes and put his face in the water and of taking the training wheels off his bike. Trying anything new with Oliver is like getting a wild animal to take seeds from your palm. You go very slowly. You prepare for the worst. You know at some point, he will run away and pull the blankets over his head.
In short, Oliver is very much like me.
That night, while Scott was telling the boys another Batman story, it became startling clear to me that I dislike my inner Bruce Wayne so much that I am unable to embrace anyone else’s, even my son’s. Especially my son’s. Please, I was really saying, when I went to stop Oliver’s drumming fingers. Don’t be like me. Here. Put on this cape. Be Batman. Be invincible so that nothing bad will ever happen to you.
But what superhero doesn’t have an alter ego? I was listening to an interview with Jack Kornfield – SuperMeditator – the other day in the car and he was talking about freedom. He said, “True liberation is the freedom to be who you are and not someone else. To hold yourself with compassion and say ‘This too, this too.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t have your stuff. But it’s about letting all that in along with the good.”
Last week in my yoga teacher training I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to teach yoga. Instead, I wanted to be like a yoga teacher, especially my teacher Jessica, in California. She is tiny and beautiful. She wears gauzy sweaters and knows the stories behind all of the Hindu gods and goddesses. She reads poetry before class and then kicks our butts until we are wrung out.
It’s possible that I might have thought that I would sign up for my own teacher training, put on a gauzy sweater, and become Jessica Anderson. It’s possible, that I have been having a difficult time with this teacher training because that hasn’t happened yet. It’s possible that I believe that transformation means that I will become someone else, someone brighter and shinier and Better with a capital B.
After one of the sessions last week, I walked out with one of Rolf’s assistants, who owns a yoga studio in Georgetown and is herself an amazing yoga teacher. I confessed that I was having a challenging time trying to integrate what we learned into a yoga class. Patty narrowed her eyes at me. “Remember,” she said, ” All you have to do is read the script. That’s all we asked you to do.” I sighed. I was trying to do more than that. I was trying to use everything we learned and add it to something that was already perfect. Patty jabbed her finger into my sternum.”Your problem is that you aren’t OK with where you are,” she said. “And you need to be. Because that’s where you are.”
I walked away feeling simultaneously horrified and relieved. Horrified that I was still Clark Kent. Relieved that I didn’t have to be Superman. Patty is tough. She isn’t warm and fuzzy and she doesn’t wear gauzy sweaters. But after I talked to her, I realized that what she gave me was a big dose of compassion. Just be who you are, she was telling me, not someone else.
Compassion. That’s the real magic cape. The secret ingredient. The happy ending. The Margot Kidder of all emotions. The way Lois Lane always looked at Clark Kent, as if there was something familiar behind those glasses.
The hell of the Superman story (at least in the ancient movie I remember) is that Clark Kent never does remove his glasses and allow Lois Lane to see him. Instead, he puts on a cape. But perhaps, true transformation it is less about putting on a magic suit (or a gauzy sweater) and more about removing the layers. It’s about being okay with being not quite okay. It is a nod to all of the mess. This too. Yes. This too.
May 27, 2011 § 22 Comments
Yesterday, I had to take Gus to a cardiologist. That is such a strange sentence to write. It’s like saying I drove by a tornado. Or, I flew over an earthquake and watched the ground shake. Gus was fine – I knew he was fine – but still.
But still. The phrase that is itself a heartbeat.
Yesterday, driving to the hospital, parking in the huge underground garage, taking an elevator to the lobby and another to the fourth floor made me realize how close I live to disaster. How ridiculously easy it is to get there. At Gus’ last well-child visit, the nurse practitioner heard a faint murmur. “It’s probably nothing,” she said. “But I would like to rule everything out.” If you take one look at Gus, at his muscled calves, pink cheeks, and round belly, you know he can’t possibly have anything wrong with his heart. But still, every time I reminded myself of that, I thought about those eighteen-year old basketball players, those young athletes who collapsed after a lay-up, their autopsies revealing a hole in the wall of their hearts. A leaky valve. An aneurysm. But still. But still.
The thing about being me is that I often don’t know what I am feeling. I try, I really do. I ask myself what is going on, whether I am angry or sad or afraid. I try to tap into sensation, but usually what I get is just a sense of numbness. A single phrase: I’m fine. It’s only later, when I notice that I have eaten three brownies or that I can’t seem to get out of the car, do I suspect that something might be up.
Yesterday, when I looked in the mirror, I realized that I dressed up for the doctor’s appointment. Huh, I thought. That’s funny. Instead of my usual cargo pants and tee shirt, I pulled on a pair of Ann Taylor khakis, a sleeveless shirt, and open-toed shoes. I’m fine, I told myself, as I tottered on my heels down the quiet hallway to the cardiologist’s office. Everything is just fine.
When Dr. Hougan walked into the waiting room at two minutes past ten, a starched white coat over his dress shirt and tie, I let out my breath. There are some people who have such a calm about them, you can practically breathe it in, like perfume. My husband is like that and so is my yoga teacher. I think it’s why I am doing my yoga teacher training with Rolf Gates because he has it too. Those people. Those calm people. They walk into the room and it’s like: Finally. The grown-ups have arrived.
Dr. Hougan sat down in one of those miniature chairs designed for children, ran a hand through his silver hair, and hunched over a chart. While Gus played with a pristine set of Thomas trains, Dr. Hougan asked me some questions. After accurately guessing Gus’ height and weight he spent the next five minutes playing trains with him. “Come on,” he said, rising slowly and holding out his index finger to Gus. “Let’s go watch a movie.” To my surprise, Gus put his hand in his and walked beside him back to the exam room.
The doctor put an ancient Thomas the Tank Engine VHS tape into a small TV hanging over the exam table. “I love this one,” he told me, looking up at the TV. “Ringo Starr is narrating. Did you know that?” He laid a soft blanket on the exam table and I sat down with Gus and removed his tee shirt. The doctor turned on a sonogram machine and explained that he was going to look at Gus’ heart. Gus laid back and looked at me, his eyes wide. “I not stared Mommy,” he told me. “This not starey for me.” My own heart broke in half. But still. But still.
While the doctor deftly moved the ultrasound wand and Gus stared up at his movie, I was looking at the inside of my son’s heart. I watched my baby’s blood fill and empty paper-thin rooms made of tissue. I have been reading some of Joseph Chilton Pearce’s work lately, skipping around, but taking it in. He is known for his work in trying to reform education and he often talks of early bonding and creativity in children. He’s a writer, but in the 90′s he became interested in neurocardiology, or the effect of the heart on the human brain. He was fascinated by the fact that in embryos, the first thing to form is a neural crest, from which develops the cardiovascular, cranial, and vagus nervous systems. Heart. Mind. Will. All three from a single origin. Pearce calls the heart “compassionate mind” and believes it has an equal impact on our thoughts as the thalamus and prefrontal cortex.
In a 1999 interview, Pearce said, “The great challenge of the coming ages of humanity would be, in effect, to allow the heart to teach us to think in a new way.” If there is Heart, Mind, and Will, I am all Mind and Will. I can figure something out. I can even figure everything out and get it done right. But allow my heart to teach me something?
When my mom was visiting last week, she asked me what my heart’s desire was. “To be a good mom,” I said. “I mean, like a really good mom.” It was the first thing that popped into my mind, and it’s true. But still. There might be something more that I am not allowing myself. There might be something I really want to do. What is my heart’s deepest desire, I wonder as I watch Gus’ heart. Oh, I’m too old now, I think and shake my head. I have kids.
But still. But still.
“This is the mitral valve,” Dr. Hougan told me as I watched a pair of butterfly wings flutter open and closed on the monitor. It was like watching a plywood gate hold back the ocean. I remembered how Oliver’s heart looked on the ultrasound when I was only five weeks pregnant with him. It was a pulsating puddle of light, a magic drop of beating water. But this. This was magnificent.
“It’s amazing that all of this happens without us thinking about it,” I said as I watched. I wasn’t quite sure I even spoke out loud until the doctor nodded emphatically. “I know,” he said. “It’s beautiful. Of course the neurologists always say that the heart is dependent on the brain, but I say, without the heart, there would be no brain.”
The doctor removed his wand from Gus’ chest and wiped off the gel. ”I am happy to tell you that Gus has an innocent murmur. There’s nothing wrong here and I will never have to see you again.” He smiled at me.
“Thank you,” I said, taking his hand. See, I told myself. Everything is fine.
Leaving, we made the journey in reverse. We tottered through the carpeted hallway. We took an elevator down. I bought Gus a toy school bus in the gift shop. We took the elevator further down into the hot garage. I bucked Gus up in his seat and drove away from the hospital feeling a sense of profound relief. Everything is fine, I kept saying silently. We avoided disaster. We pressed our backs against the hallways, like spies, while catastrophe continued on.
I should feel great, I thought, but there was my own heart, beating like crazy in my chest. But still. But still.
May 19, 2011 § 12 Comments
Usually after I pick Oliver up from school at noon, I take the boys to a park down the street. It’s a great park with two play structures, a big baseball diamond, and trails that loop down to the neighborhood below. They are perfect trails for kids because while they end at busy sidewalks, the short trails themselves are overgrown and a little dark. “Did you know that this is a rain forest?” one of Oliver’s friends asked me a week ago when he came with us on our walk. “Lions live down here.” Together Oliver and his friend walked over a tree that had fallen across a shallow ravine, and for a few minutes, they sat there, their legs straddling the tree as if they were on horses, talking about whatever five-year old boys talk about.
But on Tuesday, the boys and I were alone. We had the park to ourselves and went down the trails that now smelled of summer. It had been raining and was so humid that white spots of mold covered the ground. There was the delicate scent of honeysuckle. There was the sweet stink of dead animal. The boys ran on ahead, Oliver stumbling on legs that have suddenly grown too long, and Gus following steadily behind on his sturdy calves.
I wanted to love this moment. But I was too exhausted. I was swatting mosquitoes. I was worried that a muskrat-like animal would pop out in front of us. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all I had taken on lately. Mostly I was annoyed at myself. For the two years I lived in Ventura, I learned how to simplify, how to pare back and slow down. And in just one year in DC, I have learned to spread myself back out, to sign up for too much, and say no to too little. Lindsey recently wrote about how there sometimes isn’t enough of her to go around, and that was exactly how I felt on Tuesday. Like I was having endurance issues. Like parenting was just one more thing that I had to cross off the list.
Just then, Oliver raced by me on the trail, his arms outstretched in front of him and his palms pressed together. He was making engine noises and weaving back and forth. ZZZooom. BBBrrrooom. I knew he was pretending to be in a space ship, but really, he looked like a very short pilgrim racing to Mecca. It looked like he was praying. Oh my God, I thought, feeling a chill go through me, which happens whenever the boys share a secret from their world. The hairs on my arms stood up, because frankly, these frequent instances seem more than just coincidences. Their connection with Spirit is almost too strong to bear.
I placed my own palms together at my heart, the way I do during a yoga class, and inside my chest, a door swung open. Why didn’t I do this more often? Why didn’t I pray?
Sure, I sometimes said a prayer when I was desperate, something along the lines of “Please God let that hair I just plucked out of my chin be a one-time fluke.” Or “Thank you God for Gus not screaming anymore.” Or “Please God let no one make a comment that my kids are eating pb&j again.” But these aren’t prayers. They are desperate pleas. Negotiations. The only time I pray is when I am on my yoga mat. I hardly ever pray when I really need it.
The boys stopped ahead of me in a clearing. Down below I could see a sidewalk and a street full of houses, but the boys thought we were in the middle of nowhere, on some great Tuesday safari, full of adventure. I kept my palms together over my heart and felt my Catholic childhood melt into my yoga practice. Namaste. In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. I thought of the metta meditation, which I have seen everywhere lately: May I be protected and safe. May I be peaceful and free. May I be healthy and strong. May my life unfold with ease.
The boys were still running around with their arms outstretched. I pulled out my phone. “Hey Oliver,” I said, “Can I take a picture of your hands?” He stopped for a second and waited until I held up my camera phone. After I took the picture, he started running again. “We’re in a rocket ship Mommy,” he yelled as he and Gus ran circles around the clearing. His hands were still pressed together and he raised them to the sky. “Do you see Mommy?” he called. “This is how I steer.”
I held my hands, also in prayer, up to the sky. Maybe I should start steering this way too.
May 12, 2011 § 13 Comments
On Saturday, while Oliver was in the midst of a major meltdown, I kept digging in my brain for what to do. I kept trying to remember what the books said. I knew Oliver had a busy week – too busy. He has been playing with an older boy at school, a charismatic funny child who also likes to push boundaries and do things like climb over the school fence during morning circle. We had two playdates after school and another day spent visiting a nearby public works station where we climbed into dump trucks and snow plows. To put it simply, I had done too much.
So I knew why Oliver was having a meltdown over nothing. But I wasn’t able to stop it. I couldn’t quiet his flailing arms and legs, one of which hit his brother in the head. “Don’t be so quick to get to the solution,” his former teacher used to tell me. “Try to stay more in observation mode.”
But I couldn’t. I was in panic mode, not observation mode. I was on the floor with Oliver while he was yelling his head off, trying to keep his brother safe, feeling compassion and fury and love and frustration beating along with that overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. Of failure.
After it was finally over, I set Oliver up in his bed with some books for a rest and I took Gus down to the sandbox. I needed to be outside. I needed to breathe. I needed to escape. I wanted to hide from the barrage of thoughts that kept saying I had failed yet again, that I hadn’t provided an ideal environment, that my son was not behaving the way he should, that my life had fallen so far short of what I had imagined it was going to be. I wanted to disappear for a while into someone else’s life. Seeing how I was sitting next to a People magazine with photos of the royal wedding, this was easy to do.
I flipped through the pages of People for a few minutes wondering what it must be like to be Kate and Pippa, but Gus needed some attention too. He was digging for “gems” – cheap glass stones I bought at Michael’s that are typically found in vases of flowers. Last fall, I bought a bag of every color and buried them in the sand for the boys to find. I thought it would keep them busy for an hour or two, but five months later, they are still digging. A corner of the sandbox is now a “mine” and another corner is a “gem store.”
“Here you go Mommy,’ Gus said, filling an old coffee pot up with colored stones and giving them to me. “This is a cucumber,” he said, handing me a flat green piece. “Here’s your carrot,” he said, handing me a clear stone streaked with orange. “Eat this before your ice cream.”
I smiled and put down the magazine. I had just been engrossed with photographs of Princess Di’s saphire necklace, Kate Middleton’s earrings, her Cartier tiera stuffed with diamonds. But here, all along, right in front of me, my child had been handing me fistfuls of jewels.
As we sat there, a dove flew into the light above our heads. A couple of months ago, we found a nest in there with two small eggs and since then, the mother has been diligently sitting on it, her tail feathers peeking out over the top. A few weeks ago, the birds hatched and now are almost full-grown. The parents have gotten used to us there in the sandbox and, for the most part, ignore us, which makes me feel honored. On Saturday, as Gus’ fingers were curled around colored stones, the father bird flew back to the nest in a flutter and coo. He opened his beak and the baby bird stuck his head all the way into his father’s mouth to eat what was presented in such a royal manner. It beat the pants off any magazine wedding.
Most of being a parent, for me, has felt like a long, slow dismantling. An unpacking of all of my ideas of how it is supposed to be, how I am supposed to be. There was this idea I had, before I was a mother, of what my children would be like. And somehow, this thought – based on nothing more than an idea – became the ideal.
But being a parent is never ideal. It’s not anything like the magazines tell you it will be. Photographs can tell you nothing about either the gems or the meltdowns. Parenting is gritty and hard and uncomfortable. Before you can even begin to make progress you have to backtrack first. You have to let go of who you thought you were. You have to give up on the ideal temperament and the ideal environment. You will probably have to give up on your dream of an ideal family. You might have to give up your job. You will definitely have to give up your freedom. And for sure you will give up on the idea of yourself as the ideal parent. Yes, definitely that. Especially that.
Finally, when you are left with nothing of what you started, when you are reduced to only your complexity – your unorganized pile of questions – then and only then can you begin. You will probably feel a bit unmoored. Shipwrecked. Lost. And then will you be handed a coffee pot full of gems. Your lights will be filled with birdsong. You will begin to notice the miracles that are right there, that have suddenly sprouted up under your eaves. The miracles that have been there all along.
May 3, 2011 § 26 Comments
Yesterday – like everyone across the country – I woke to the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. At first I was rather shocked. And then I was the opposite of shocked. “Well,” I thought, “I guess they finally found him.” When I looked up from the New York Times seconds later, I just felt empty. I felt full of emotions. I felt a bit lost, close to tears.
There is a line in James Joyce’s The Dubliners that reads: “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” I have lived most of my life this way, a short distance from what was happening to me. There was my body doing things and saying things, and then, there was that something inside of me, which refused to participate, which was leaning against the wall, its arms folded over its chest or its fingers plugged in its ears. Pema Chodron writes: “Never underestimate the inclination to bolt.”That was my thing: bolting.
When you have children though, bolting isn’t very effective. I still try mightily, but it just doesn’t work. Yesterday, Oliver woke up in a bad mood and stalked into my room, demanding to stay home from school. By the time we went down for breakfast, he was yelling at me. “I WANTED ORANGE JUICE!” he said. I plunked the cup of apple juice in front of him, turned on my heel, and stomped back up the steps. “MOMMEEEEEEEE!” he cried after me and I came back to my body, still in pajamas. Still wearing glasses. Teeth still unbrushed. Oh, I thought. Here I am. Where did I just go?
It is startling sometimes what is required to stay: it takes everything you have sometimes to do absolutely nothing. To put down the armor and surrender.
By the time I returned downstairs, only seconds later, Oliver and Gus were screaming at each other across the dining room table. My turn. NO. MY TUUURRRRNNN. I caused this, I thought. This is my own doing, my own inner world manifest here, at this sacred spot in our home. The newspaper was there also, with Osama bin Laden’s face staring up. This too is our doing. Our undoing.
I told the boys to put their hands over their hearts. I put my hand over Oliver’s heart because he is the one who gets most upset. “Pretend your nose is right here,” I told him, stealing something from Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold. “Breathe right here, into my hand.” We stayed there for a few seconds, Oliver and I. (Gus had his hand on his throat and was upside down on his chair, singing.) “What does it feel like when you do that?” I asked Oliver. “It feels like coming home from school,” he said. He laid his cheek on my arm.
How the world can change on a dime. I sat my unbrushed, pajama-ed self down at the table and watched the boys eat, take their cereal bowls into the kitchen, climb up to the Lego table and build together. I stayed.
After I dropped Oliver at preschool, Gus and I went to Trader Joe’s. We bought bread and spinach. Bananas and berries. Ice cream and vitamins. The entire time I fought the urge to cry. To bolt. It took me most of the morning to figure out what this feeling was. I realized it was fear. It was grief. It was despair. On September 11th, 2001, I lived more than a short distance from my body. I was going through a breakup with someone I should never have been with in the first place, and for some reason, those dysfunctional partings seem to be the most painful. I was in a stressful job at a San Diego advertising agency. I was 28. I was lost. Like just about everyone, I had family and friends who worked on Wall Street. I didn’t know my brother didn’t go to work that day, that he was asleep when the planes hit the towers and woke up thinking there was an earthquake. Like just about everyone, I buried that day until yesterday.
Yesterday I just tried to not bolt. By trying to stay, I realized I am afraid of what has already happened. I am afraid that September 11th is going to happen again, that once I relax about the whole thing, the world is going to end. Because that is what happens. You relax and the baby starts screaming from the backseat of the car. You get a call from the school. You get a call that someone you love has cancer. You watch as your son falls in the ocean, even as you are running with your hand outstretched. You hear the news that a plane flew through a building. You hear the news that the enemy is dead when you aren’t even sure who the enemy is anymore.
I went to hear Karen Maezen Miller speak at a small yoga studio in Georgetown on Saturday. At the time, I thought she gave a good talk. It was worth going to. Afterward, I got a smoothie and went home. Only now am I aware of what she gave me – the basic instructions for how to stay: Don’t leave. When you do, come back. She echoed what Eckhart Tolle said: “In the present moment, we are always fine. We can always handle it if we stay right here.”
Later on Monday afternoon, the boys started yelling at each other as I was in the kitchen, peeling oranges for a snack. My hands were sticky and I felt that familiar annoyance rise up like a flame. I started to rush in to them, but wiped my hands first. I took a breath. When I walked into the living room, Gus was crying and Oliver was holding all of the Curious George books. I knelt down and listened to them. Without my saying anything they worked it out. The tears stopped. It doesn’t take any longer when you slow down, I am finding. Bolting can sometimes take much longer than staying. Sometimes, bolting can take decades.
April 30, 2011 § 6 Comments
It’s no secret that the yoga teacher training I am doing has been challenging for me. “You’ll really do The Work,” people said when I told them I was starting a yoga teacher training this spring. “It’ll bring up Your Stuff,” someone else said. I narrowed my eyes at these comments and asked for specifics. “Can you give me an example?” I asked. “What do you mean, exactly, by ‘The Work?‘” But the only reply I received was a smile and a shrug. “Have fun,” they said.
Fine, I thought. Great. Bring it on. I would do The Work, whatever that was. I could handle My Stuff, right?
I thought I could. But these days, I just stare at a tiny digital recorder and want to hide under the bed. Our current “homework” for our teacher training is to read a script for a 90-minute yoga class (a wonderful class, by the way) and then listen to the recording and take our own yoga class. Personally, I would rather get my teeth pulled without novocaine.
I thought The Work and My Stuff might be interesting. I thought it would at least be clear. I thought it would come to me all of a piece. I thought it would be the Holy Grail, the directions for How to Get Fixed. Instead, listening to myself on tape for 90 minutes just makes me feel really lousy in a nondescript sort of way. And the “nondescript” is far worse than the “lousy.” So I hate listening to myself on tape. Who doesn’t?
Yet, I was having such a hard time with it that I fell into a hole for a week. I didn’t go to yoga. I stopped meditating. I almost wrote to the assistant for the teacher training and asked for help, but after thinking about it, I wasn’t sure that someone who barely knew me could do much. I had a feeling that this was something I needed to figure out for myself.
Later that weekend, I went for a run in the rain and tried to figure out why listening to myself on a tape recorder terrifies me so much, why it makes me feel like a total loser. I sound weak as I read the script. Uncertain. I mess it up. I talk too quickly. I make mistakes.
Could that be it? That I make mistakes? Could it be that listening to my own voice unearths a giant snarl of imperfection that I have been trying to keep covered up for years? Is it possible that I so hate the idea of failure that I have deluded myself into believing that somewhere out there is the possibility of perfection, bright and shiny as a mala bead? Could it be that I am just disappointed with myself?
As I ran, I thought of all the failures in my life, all the missteps, the embarrassments, the glaring errors. There was that really dumb thing I said to that cute guy on the cross country team in college, that my friends heard and laughed about for months. There was the vet school application to Penn that I somehow “forgot” to send in. Even worse, there were the thousands of unkind things I have said and done. Which I still do, daily. There was the awful job I stayed in for far too long. There was the job I didn’t get because I didn’t prepare for the interview. There was that unplanned pregnancy.
When I got to that last one, I paused. At the time, when I found out I was pregnant, it was awful. I was devastated. It felt like my life was ending. But now? Now, I know that it was the best thing I ever did. When I think of Oliver, I can’t imagine a time before him, a time when he was not yet. He is my failure transformed into beauty. He was my sacred mistake.
What if, I wondered, I thought of my mistakes the same way I thought about my successes? What would happen if I treated all of my mistakes with reverence, with gratitude? What would happen if instead of treating my mistakes as shameful, I treated them each as sacred?
I am not talking about celebrating mistakes – I am far too cynical for that. But even the universe depends on mistakes. Errors are not just a design flaw, they are an inherent part of the design. Without errors in DNA replication, there would be no variation in life. We would all still be single-celled protozoa. Mistakes in DNA are the only source of evolution. They are responsible for violets and giraffes and blond hair. The part I have trouble with is that they are also responsible for cancer and Down Syndrome and MRSA.
I went to a talk by Karen Maezen Miller today, which was pretty great. She talked at one point about the limits that exist only in our mind and how everyday, our children push us past our limits. “Children are the face of God,” she said. She tapped her hand on the floor. “This floor is the face of God. That accident in the parking lot is the face of God. Everything as it is, is the face of God.”
Last week, I took the boys to my parents house for two days. It’s a 4 hour car trip (5 with a stop) and it was just the three of us heading up through the mountains of Pennsylvania. I don’t like the trip very much to say the least. It makes me nervous to know that juice boxes and oranges will probably be demanded as soon as I hit construction or a windy pass in the Poconos. I was so flustered this time that I missed the entrance to the 395 and had to backtrack and turn around in a parking lot.
I stopped the car for a second and took a breath because I was so annoyed at myself for making the trip longer than it already was. And then – Sacred. The word popped into my head and something in my ribcage softened a bit. My shoulders moved away from my ears and tears came to my eyes. My heart peeled open and I came back to myself. A quote popped into my head, something Albert Einstein said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Maybe mistakes are like that too. The oak trees and the cancer. The wrong turns and the right ones. The kind thoughts and the angry words. The unplanned pregnancy and the little boy who now brings me wildflowers.