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.
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 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.