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 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.
February 28, 2011 § 3 Comments
This winter I have been confronted by my own fear on numerous occasions. My fear of rodents and rodent-like animals is evident on the mornings when I (actually get out of bed to do it) run early, before dawn. I am vigilant, running down the middle of the road, throwing caution to the wind in order to avoid a 30-pound creature. The thing is though, sometimes the raccoons are real. I saw one a few weeks ago walking over the snow with its horrible arched back, its nose on the ground. It was across the street from me and when I tried to continue running it stood up on its fearsome hind legs and hissed at me. I had to stand there for a long time in the cold and wait until it walked away.
Today before yoga, the instructor came over to me and asked if she could “spotlight” me when demonstrating jumping back into chataranga. “What?” I asked and looked behind me. Who was she talking to?
“I can’t do it yet,” she told me.” Do you want to demonstrate?”
I stared at her. I have been working on jumping back for a while now, and sometimes I can do it but most times I can’t. “Thank you,” I said. “Really. But I am afraid I won’t be able to do it in front of everyone.” Cara, the teacher, was lovely about it. “It’s OK,” she said, “Don’t worry.”What I was thinking was, I can do jumpbacks? Seriously?? Me?
Immediately, I started freaking out. During our first downward dog, I was shaky and had butterflies. My back hurt. No way was I going to be able to do a jumpback now. My entire class was ruined. My heart was pounding. The raccoons were back. They were all around me, gnawing on my mat and walking all over my yoga towel with those paws of theirs.
I tried to watch the fear, to just stand in the cold until it was gone. i am not even sure where it came from. The thing about yoga though is that when the raccoons come – and they always come – there is nowhere else to go. You just hang out wherever you are and try desperately to breathe.
I am not sure why I was so freaked out by the attention. Sometimes I wonder if despite the fact that I always complain about feeling powerless, I actually prefer that feeling to the responsibility that comes with being powerful. Maybe I just didn’t want to be the person who could do a jumpback because then I would have to go through the complicated process of explaining that I wasn’t. That really, I was the person who couldn’t do the jumpthrough. Yoga was my safe place. I just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want any extra work there. I didn’t want to be useful. As much as I want to live yoga and be yoga, maybe I really don’t. Or maybe I believe I am not allowed to.
Tonight, in meditation, the hits continued: we had to partner up. (Partner up? No way. Shit. Can I sneak out?) I hate partnering up. It reminds me of holding sweaty hands in Brownies. Square dancing in gym class. Speed dating. Great, just great. Even meditation was going to be a bust today.
The experience was pretty full-on. I sat across from Jesse, a sommalier who is about my age. At first I was glad. I love Jesse. He’s always smiling and fun and I often place my mat next to his in yoga class because he can do jumpthroughs. I would be safe with Jesse. Then we began the awkward process of moving our mediation cushions closer together so that our knees were almost touching. Jesse and I smiled nervously at each other. We laughed. Ha ha.
I tried to take a deep breath. Oh god, this was awful. I was wearing a tee shirt I wore to a bonfire yesterday and it still smelled like smoke. I had gotten out of the shower 20 minutes prior and showed up to meditation with no makeup, my wet hair pulled back, my breath probably smelling of the balsamic vinaigrette I put on the salad we had for dinner. If I had known we were partnering up to enter the dharmakaya, I would have primped.
As Mimi led us in meditation, I felt myself holding my breath, even as she told us to inhale, to exhale deeply into the earth. I couldn’t breathe. I had no idea who I was supposed to be now, sitting in front of this yoga friend. In each area of my life I had a specific persona. At school I was the Good Mom. At the park I was the Playing Mom. With my extended family I was the Weird One Who Moved to California. With my friends I was who they needed me to be. At yoga I was the Invisible One (Who Can’t Do Jumpthroughs). These were important distinctions. They required preparation. Consistency.
But now, I was sitting in front of a yoga person and I couldn’t be invisible. We were extending to each other, sending each other our heart energy. Oh, jeez, I thought, feeling myself shake a bit. I just wanted my husband. He was my one safe person who I dropped all the personas for. Who was I supposed to be now?
Mimi started to read us a Buddhist text about Wish-Fulfilment. I tried to concentrate but I couldn’t listen to the words, send out my heart energy, and freak out at the same time. Fuck it, I thought. Wish-Fulfillment will have to wait. I gave up.
What happened is what always happen when we surrender. My heart opened up. I could breathe again. It was only Jesse after all. He didn’t have an arched back or too many sharp teeth. All I had to do was send him love and receive it. And soon that is what happened. I felt us sitting together inside of a giant heart. I could feel it beating and it held us up.
Afterwards, when we talked about our experience, Jesse said he felt safe, that there was a warm, benevolent energy around us. He said he felt as though we were in a container. Wow, I thought. He felt that too. It made me wonder what would have happened if I surrendered in yoga class and actually did the jumpback in front of class. Would it have been any more terrifying than this?
After class, I stopped at Trader Joe’s to get some fruit. At the entrance were tiny little weeping pussy willow trees. I love pussy willows and the boys and I talked about getting an Easter Tree and decorating it with felt eggs. (How Waldorf of me! How Good!) The tree was perfect, so I took it home and removed the little tag it came with to see how much water it needed. Instead of care instructions, what I found was a little story. Apparently, this little tree was a “Tree of Enchantment. Among the most graceful of trees, it is connected with all that is feminine-dreaming, intuition, emotion, enchantment, healing and revitalization. The willow’s flexibility symbolizes resilience and inspires us to move with life rather than resist what we are feeling.”
Below that were the real care instructions. It told me to make a wish, tell the tree my deepest desire and then tie a loose knot in one of the branches. After my wish was fulfilled, I was then to thank the tree. My heart opened a little bit more. I guess I got my wish-fulfillment after all.
February 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
Last night was Sunday, which meant that from 6:30 until 8:15, I went to meditation class at my yoga studio in Alexandria taught by Mimi Malfitano. This meditation class is a bit different from the classes I have attended before at other Shambala Buddhist centers where I simply sat and watched my breath. Mimi talks about archetypes and the dharmakaya – the realm of pure space, the essence of the universe. But make no bones about it. Mimi is the real deal. She studies Dhogchen Meditation at the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies and volunteers at the Washington National Cathedral’s Crossroads Program. She has clearness to her and a peace that I don’t encounter very often. And as I have written, her sweaters alone keep me coming to class. Cable-knit, mock-turtleneck, cashmere. There is something about a Buddhist on a meditation cushion wearing street clothes that gives me great comfort. Last night she had on an argyle sweater that will sustain me into August.
In class, Mimi talked about Valentine’s Day. She talked about our hearts and how it is so easy to get stuck in our lives. “We feel anxiety or stress or unhappiness, but this is just the surface. What we want is to go below these feelings. What is under the anxiety?” she asked. “Only by going deeper and opening our hearts will we get unstuck.” Fear,” someone in the room said. “Fear is below anxiety.” “Yes,” said Mimi. “Or uncertainty.” Fear. I am always afraid and of everything. This morning I got up early and went for a run before the sun came up. I was terrified that a raccoon was going to sneak up on me or that an opossum was going to fall from a tree and land on my head so I ran in the center of the road. That is, I did until a car came around the corner too quickly and almost took me out. How embarrassing I thought, if I was run over by a car because I was afraid of a raccoon.
Uncertainty is another big one for me. In fact my fear is probably a result of my uncertainty. I hate the feeling of groundlessness, the way it flips me upside down and leaves me clawing at the air. And yet, most days, I will tell you I am comfortable with it and I have made peace with the fact that we move every two years. That yes, Scott will likely be sent to Afghanistan for six months or a year, but he will be safe over there on a base. No, I don’t know where I will live in 15 months. It might be California again or it may be Gulfport, Mississippi. Or it might be somewhere else. And I am okay with it. It is fine. We are lucky that Scott has a job, that we don’t worry about the economy. It is fine. We will be fine. Everything is just fine.
Daily, I dread the time between 2 and 5 pm. It is the black hole in my day, the time when I am rendered powerless, when I can’t decide whether to go to the market or to the library or the park. I thought maybe it was because our morning routine ends when Gus wakes from his nap and we have no plans. I thought it was because children are never at their best during the late afternoon. I thought everyone dreaded those 3 hours.
When the clock moves into the 3 o’clock hour, I start to make tea and drink it by the pot. I stand in front of the refrigerator and stare at the oranges and the milk. I sometimes herd the boys up and we go to the park if it isn’t too cold or we simply stay inside the house, while inside myself, I am going a little bit crazy. I stand in front of the washing machine taking deep breaths while the boys drive their trucks in the adjacent playroom. I remove the hot towels from the dryer and join them with my mind spinning. What is going to happen next? is the question that swirls in my head until the darkness falls, until the key turns in the lock and my husband comes home, until it is finally – and once again – over for the day.
Sitting in meditation last night, I tried to unspool the anxiety I feel every afternoon. As my breath quieted and my body softened, I had a thought. Could it be that the groundlessness I feel from 2 until 5 every day is a recreation of the uncertainty I feel about my own life? After we moved to Alexandria and unpacked, I told myself that I was settled, that the feeling of groundlessness was tamed now, its girth cinched up tight. I told myself that I had left those feelings of uncertainty in the garage in the empty cardboard boxes. But could it be that every day, I was unpacking them? Could it be that I was actually recreating daily, on a small scale, what I so greatly feared in its actual form: that tremendous gut-clenching uncertainty?
A year before I met Scott, a friend of mine set me up on a blind date with a guy in the US Special Forces. We never actually went out because he never returned from Afghanistan. I never met him and I don’t remember his name, but every time I convince myself that Scott will be fine, I think of him. I think of Francis Toner, a Seabee Officer (like Scott) who was killed by an insurgent while jogging on a base in Afghanistan. I tell these fears to Scott and he nods. He hugs me. And then he tells me the truth, which is that he could get hit by a bus crossing the street. That he could be killed while in his office at the Pentagon. Disasters can strike at any time, even on hot dry days in September, when the sky is so blue it hurts. Even then. Especially then. In her memoir Devotion, Dani Shapiro writes “the world could be divided into two kinds of people: those with an awareness of life’s inherent fragility and randomness and those who believed they were exempt.”
The question is what to do about this fear, which is like my fear of North American rodent-like mammals. The raccoons are everywhere. Claire Dederer, in her amazing memoir Poser talks about her fear of mountain lions on a hike with her husband. She tries to prepare herself for an attack. She visualizes the lion in the tree, the way it will crouch and leap at her, the way it will hold her head in its jaws. What really happens is that it starts snowing. Instead of being attacked by a mountain lion, they are blinded by a blizzard. Dederer writes that she couldn’t believe it. “All along, I had been worried about the wrong goddamn thing.”
Maybe the problem isn’t that I’m worried about the wrong goddamned thing, but that I’m so goddamned worried. In Devotion, Shapiro writes that “I didn’t know that there was a third way of being. Life was unpredictable, yes. A speeding car, a slip on the ice, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever. To deny that is to deny life – but to be consumed by it is also to deny life. The third way – inaccessible to me as I slunk down the halls – had to do with holding this paradox lightly in ones own hands.”
When my son Oliver was young, a wonderful teacher at his preschool told me about “now” and “next.” As in, now we are eating breakfast and next we will brush our teeth. Now we are playing with trucks, and next, we will start cutting carrots. I try to take a breath and think of that. Now I am taking the clothes from the dryer. Next I will play with the boys. Now we are cleaning up and next we will read a book. Now I am turning the pages and next we will go for a walk. Now I live in Alexandria. Next I will live somewhere else. Now Scott is here. Next …..
I can’t go that far yet. Now. Stay. Stay. Now. Rinse, wash, spin, repeat.
Now is all we have. Next is if we get lucky. Anything after that is just gravy.