June 30, 2014 § 40 Comments
Don’t let fatigue make a coward out of you – Steve Prefontaine
It’s been over a month since Scott left for Bahrain and June has been like most other Junes. And it’s been like nothing else I have ever experienced. The end of May seems ages ago, and yet, here we are, already sliding into July. We have navigated a trifecta of holidays without Scott: Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and our ninth wedding anniversary. Gus graduated from preschool, the boys began another round of swim lessons, and Oliver fell at a birthday party and needed his face glued back together. We got a puppy (more on that later) and I fixed the internet after a storm blew it out. I take out the trash now and lug those huge water bottles onto the cooler and send in the bills. I have stacks of unread books and blogs but I drove to Pennsylvania and back, where I saw a Mennonite man in Walmart. He reminded me so much of myself in the way he looked out of place, the mud on his boots coming from another time altogether.
Like most anything that can be anticipated, this first month of deployment was both harder and easier than I imagined. As my friend Lindsey writes, “My life is exactly as I planned it and nothing like I expected.”
Scott’s leaving left a gap in my own life, a rabbit hole, where I have been tunneling between my old life and this new and different world. I have solitude to contend with now and a heightened sense of responsibility which lays across my shoulders like a fur robe. Sometimes, it is heavy and grave, and other times, it’s a rich privilege to be reminded of my own capabilities.
I was single for many years, but since I have gotten married, I have abnegated so many responsibilities, maybe even responsibility for my own life. It’s so easy to call into the other room that the internet is down, that the sink is being weird, that I don’t know how to print out my insurance card, that I shouldn’t bother trying to do anything with my life because I’m just going to move again in two years.
This has been sobering.
It’s so easy to be powerless and to blame – to say if only - to imagine that someone or something is keeping you from something. And it’s now both embarrassing and liberating to realize that that someone was me.
Over the past few years, I have taken the wife role so seriously: The laundry and the cooking and the work events that felt so mandatory. Now that it’s only me, I see how so much of that nonsense is optional and that I really do have a say, even if it’s only to say screw it.
The week after Scott left, all three of us were exhausted and staggered through our days with a varying degree of tears (sometimes mine). We have been able to FaceTime with Scott almost daily, if only for a few minutes, and this seems to satisfy Gus, who holds the phone over his Lego creations and his Lego man and says, “This part is where he keeps his gems, this red piece is the control panel, and this piece here is left over from Oliver’s Thunder Driller,” until Oliver begins to yell that now it’s his turn and Gus has had enough time.
Saturdays are the hardest. Scott used to take the boys for most of the day while I drove 90 minutes to a yoga studio or simply did errands. Now Saturdays are glum and Oliver is usually in a foul mood. This Saturday I had the terrible idea of trying to replicate the “Daddy Days.” I made cinnamon rolls and took the boys rock climbing, and by noon, all of us were yelling. My friend Alana coined the term “coming out sideways,” and this is how Oliver’s – and my own – feelings are being expressed.
I have been heartened lately by thoughts of distance running, which I can’t do anymore but which I did for many years starting with my first cross country race when I was eight. In college, cross country races were about three miles, and the first mile was always the most difficult for me. While I could run one pace for a long time, I had no natural speed. To even get a half-decent position by the middle of the race, I had to take off from the start as if lions were chasing me, dodging the melee of elbows and hair ribbons, pony tails and spikes. By the time I made it to mile two, my breath was thin and ragged, my stride uneven, and I felt about as shredded as I do now.
Joanie Benoit once said that the key to racing is to find your pace, and then find your place in the pack and get comfortable there. I have been thinking about this advice a lot, thinking that maybe it’s OK that I end most of my days feeling weak and shredded, because this is what mile one looks like. I remember the way my breath came back in mile two – two footfalls per inhale – and hope that tomorrow I will hit my stride and the footing will be better. I am trying to be patient, both with myself and with my boys. I am trying to do less and slow down more, which is difficult for someone who is used to running, if not fast, then constantly.
When I look back on June, I’ll remember that we got through, but just barely. And yet, what an interesting time this is, like one of those bizarre social experiments from the seventies: What happens to a traditional stay at home wife when you take away the husband?
As of now, I have no idea, but it feels like something of a privilege, if a hard-earned one. Lindsey and Aidan have been writing about marriage this June, and I think it’s kind of a wonder to have a 12-month separation that isn’t due to unhappiness. I have a marriage sabbatical, or maybe a marriage retreat, and I am intrigued by this idea of hunkering down and peeling off the traditional garb I was never very good at anyway. I am clueless as to what the next eleven (gasp!) months will bring, but it’s still early in the race. We’re still finding our pace.
May 26, 2014 § 22 Comments
If I were out at sea, I’d want to know someone was waiting for me, wouldn’t you? – from “Seating Arrangements” by Maggie Shipstead
When I first read The Odyssey, in ninth grade, I thought that Penelope was a bit of a drag with her weeping and begging to be put out of her misery. I smugly thought I knew what she was doing, spending her nights unraveling the shroud she had been weaving all day in order to keep her suitors at bay. There didn’t seem to be anything more to it. The only reason I even remember the class at all is because it was where I first learned about symbolism, which felt a bit like opening a secret door.
Now, I see Penelope’s sabotaged weaving as something much different. I see the unraveling as something that happens when a person physically leaves a marriage, no matter how much love or faith remains. Until Scott left for Bahrain, I hadn’t realized how much a marriage depends on both threads, woven together in words and shared experiences and in presence. I had taken for granted the way Scott and I can look at each other and smile (or grimace) at something Oliver or Gus says, however innocuous, because it conjures up a shared, but private history. Frankly, I am surprised by this, by how I have allowed myself to become so entwined in another person’s life. For 32 years I was single, and mostly unattached. Naively, I had thought I could be in a marriage but keep my solitude and independence, that I could create a life with someone but not miss them too much if they went away.
Scott works long hours normally, and during April and May, he was gone before sunrise and often came home after dark. While I knew the weekends would be difficult, I didn’t think this deployment would make much of a change to my weeks. I had thought I was stronger than I am and I am completely caught off guard by how much I miss Scott, how much I depend on his steadiness, his sense of humor, and the ways he allows me to completely fall apart.
Now, he is living in a hotel room in Manama (it might be months before an apartment can be obtained because of security clearances) and he can Facetime with us in a computer lounge on base. He calls in the mornings or in the afternoons here, which in Bahrain, is after 10 pm. He sends beautiful emails detailing the delicious shawarma dishes he eats, the fresh fruit juices on the menu instead of cocktails, the rug shops that are open until late at night. “When you visit,” he says, “We can pick one out.” I think of those thick and colorful tapestries, and I feel myself coming undone.
Scott told me that the international school where we would have sent the boys is on the edge of a Shia village, or a black zone, forbidden to Americans because of sectarian violence. He told me about the big fence around the school and the graffiti on the walls, the armed guards who ride on the school buses. On one of his first nights there, the street with American restaurants was closed because protesters were burning tires. Scott also sent beautiful photos of the Manama skyline sparkling at night, of the tan and empty desert, and the twin spires of the Grand Mosque, which my mother accurately pointed out, “look so much more interesting and exotic when they are in your own email box instead of in a magazine.” When I talk to him, I can almost feel the heat he describes or smell the bahji puri, but mostly, I just feel so far away.
My neighbor’s husband is in Guantanamo Bay for nine months, and the other day, while she was walking her dog, she warned me the weekends are the worst, and this holiday weekend proved her right. Oliver has been extremely difficult lately, both needy and angry, and I am trying to be understanding while also holding the line that must be held for him. Of course, I am flooded with doubt over every decision. Oliver loves boundaries even as he rails against them, making faces at me, talking back, telling me he doesn’t care that he has lost his screen time. In a single day, I am both the meanest mom on the planet and the best mom in the world.
Today, we drove 90 minutes to Wilmington, mostly because I couldn’t stand the sight of one more father firing up a grill and because I was feeling angry and needy myself. We went to a historical, working plantation and then to a children’s museum. “I know you’re having a hard time,” I told Oliver, after I made him sit down because he wouldn’t leave his brother alone. He looked at me with his father’s eyes and said, “It feels like a piece of my heart fell down into my stomach.”
Jason Crandell, the yoga teacher, recently posted this on Facebook: “Your edge is the threshold in a pose—or moment in seated meditation—where physical, mental, and emotional resistance comes rushing to the foreground. Reaching your edge is like applying an enzyme that ignites a reaction and magnifies your physical, mental and emotional patterns.”
This leaving has revealed a jagged edge I didn’t even know was there. I didn’t realize my husband’s journey across an ocean would dredge up all the other times I had been left, and even worse, the magnification of all the ways I abandon myself. I hadn’t known this fact about myself, which is that my constant doing might become my own undoing, that I don’t really know how to stop, how to be still, how to let go. I know how to fill a space with yoga or reading or meditation or watching TV, but this is wildly different from doing nothing or becoming empty.
For the first few nights Scott was gone, I didn’t really sleep. As another dawn began to leak through the night, I felt as though vines were wrapping themselves tighter and tighter around my chest. Already, I was thinking of cleaning the house, going on another cleanse, doing a 40-day meditation sadhana. I know how to tighten and how to restrict. I know how to take away and how to cleave at the messiness until I am clean and sharp. But as I lay there, listening to the buzzing satin of the dawn, it became clear that while I know how to fall apart, I have no idea how to unravel.
Images have been in my mind and heart lately: kelp fronds waving in cold oceans, wind chimes untwisting in the wind, the line from the Tao te Ching that reminds me to have faith in the way things are. I don’t yet have enough faith to believe that everything happens for a reason. There is too much darkness in the world for me to believe in both this and a benevolent god. But I have a sense that in my own good life, I am getting lessons I need to learn. Today, in the plantation, we peered into a weaving studio with a spinning wheel and a loom. Outside, sheep grazed and inside the wool was carded. Fabric was woven together and dyed and sewn into something that can be worn. And yet, I was focused on the undoing of it all, the unweaving, and the unraveling, and what it might feel like, when I too learn how to twist and untwist in the wind.
October 28, 2013 § 40 Comments
“Apprentice yourself to yourself, welcome back all you sent away.” – David Whyte
I am approaching this space with chagrin, a sense of hands wringing in the space at my center. In August, I vowed I would write here more, and once again I have broken my word, those promises I make to myself that are more fragile than they should be.
In the spirit of true disclosure, September and October have been a bit of a boondoggle around here, and when things get tough, I tend to hide. Or, I tend to make myself so busy that I have no time to sit still, or to think, or to begin the clumsy and tedious process of sorting through words, picking them up and throwing them back as if they were tiles in a box of Scrabble.
I love the month of October, but it has an edge to it for me now as it is the month when we begin to get a hint of our next orders – Scott’s next assignment – the place to which we will be moving next. Every odd year in October, I get a whiff of endings as the leaves fall down and I need to prepare myself for the leaving and then, for the arriving. This year, I was relaxed about it and far too confident. We had thought this would be the move where we prioritized where we wanted to live rather than the right career move. This was going to be a move for family and not solely for the job, and I was excited about the liklihood of us moving to either The Netherlands or back to California, which is the place where I feel most at home.
So, it was a bit of a sucker punch that the Navy came back with two options, each requiring Scott to deploy for a year. He will choose between Bahrain and Djibouti and then the Navy will send him to one or the other, regardless of his choice. “Jabooty?” I said to Scott when he called me from work. “I don’t even know where that is.” It sounded like the punch line to an old Eddie Murphy joke.
“It’s in Africa,” he said, “Near Somalia,” and I said what the hell.
For the last month or so I have been wondering how on earth I will parent our two boys alone and how I will shore us all up enough to get through a year without Scott, whom we all adore and lean on to a ridiculous extent.
Right now, I can’t imagine it.
Two weeks ago I went to open the fridge in the garage and had a strange sensation of being watched. I glanced up and saw the beady eyes of a tree snake, its body wound around the freezer door. I ran back into the house calling, “Scott! Scott you need to come out here now!!!”
Last Friday, I discovered there was a mouse living in the seats of my car and I almost had a heart attack. I called Scott who was on his way to give a speech and cared not a wit about the fact that rodents were living in my car, so I texted the strongest and most stalwart of my neighbors. “I’ll be right over,” Tammy texted back, and together we tore apart my Prius and found that my emergency granola bar stash in the trunk had been raided, the wrappers shredded and stuffed into the interior of the back seat.
My other neighbor across the street, Miriam, drove by on her way home and leaned out the window of her minivan. “What are you guys doing?” she asked. When we told her, she parked in her driveway and walked over with her four-year old daughter and her yellow lab. “If it were me, I would get a new car,” she told me and I explained that getting a new car would require driving this one someplace first, and I wasn’t about to get in.
“Really?” Miriam asked. “But you’re so brave.”
“What gave you that idea?” I asked, and she shrugged. “I don’t know. You had a snake in your garage. Or maybe it’s because you have boys.”
“No,” said Tammy, who has a daughter and a son. “Boys are easier.”
And so the conversation turned again to the every day ordinary, as it always does, and Gus circled around us on his bike. We were gathering up the shredded paper and my reusable grocery bags, now ruined with mouse droppings, and I felt a tide of panic begin to ebb in. I am used to this now, the anxiety that seeps and slides until it rises up to my throat. “How on earth am I going to get through a year on my own?” I asked the women next to me and instantly felt silly because these women were Marine wives. Scott was gone for 8 week intervals during the first two years of our marriage, but these women have already been through more than five deployments each, their husbands away more often than they are home.
“You’ll call us,” Tammy said matter of factly as she slammed my trunk shut, and I felt something sink down and land.
“Yes, you’ll call us and you’ll get a dog,” said Miriam and then told me about the time a raccoon jumped out of the garbage can at her while her husband was gone. “If you’ve ever wondered why I take my trash out at noon, now you know.”
Gus once again circled our piles of seat fluff, and then the school bus pulled up and all of our children spilled out. Oliver and Gus got on their scooters and rode over to their friends across the street and Miriam’s girls were excited to add another “nature story” to the newsletter they are creating for the neighborhood, entitled The Saint Mary Post. “Mrs. Cloyd,” Miriam’s oldest said breathlessly as she pulled a notebook out of her backpack. “What was your reaction when you discovered mice were living in your car?”
What is my reaction to anything? I thought to myself. Out loud, I said, “EEEEEEEEEK!” which Laura Fern wrote down, her pencil pressing hard into the paper.
I’ve started running again after a slew of injuries, but I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I jog slowly for a few miles. The other morning, after the boys got on the bus and the tide of panic was rising up my ribcage, I laced up my shoes and set out. I thought about my reactions, how usually they are negative, because most of the time I am afraid. Most of the time, I am the opposite of brave. On that morning jog I was angry about the deployment, angry because this was supposed to be the move where I got to choose. This was supposed to be my turn. Mine. Not the Navy’s.
Well then, said a small voice inside me, Choose this.
“No,” I said back, but then I felt that softening again, the landing and I wondered if I was allowed to choose something I didn’t want, if it was even possible, if maybe, choosing has nothing at all to do with wanting. I don’t want a mouse in my car or my husband to leave. I want what I want and inside me, wanting has always been fierce, its claws always pulling me away and out and up. Look at this, wanting says, racing up to me on scurrying feet. Isn’t it lovely?
And now I am trying to put the wanting aside, which is something new for me. Shh, I am telling it, Not now. I use soothing words like hush and sometimes a firm word like stop. I am practicing.
Yesterday I had to teach yoga, which requires me to drive. I went out and stood in front of my car. I opened the door and removed the empty mouse traps Scott had set the night before, but their emptiness proved nothing to me. “I think it’s gone,” Scott had said as he looked under and around the seats, but I wasn’t buying it. You never know when those feet will scrabble up your spine, when those sharp teeth will sink in, grabbing your attention away and out and up.
I got in the car and fastened the seat belt. “Hello mice,” I said into the meaningless quiet and then I got the willies just thinking about them. I wanted a new car. I wanted another option. I wanted things to be different.
And then to myself I said, Shh. Not now. Drive the car.
I am still practicing.
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.
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.
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.
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.