May 28, 2012 § 15 Comments
I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. – from Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
I haven’t been here in a while. I haven’t been writing anything other than my bi-monthly column about chefs, mostly because of all the work that goes into moving to another state and trying to find a place to live given that it may be four weeks or four months until a home on the Camp Lejeune Marine base is ready for us. There is the packing of course, but there is also the getting rid of things, the collection of school and doctor and dentist records, the phone calls to turn off the power and the water, the endless calls to see if that home is still for rent, if that apartment is furnished, if we can sign a lease for fewer than three months. There is also the way the anxiety of moving turns my brain into static, and if I am honest, I have have been avoiding writing because of the way it forces me to face what is really going on.
At Oliver’s kindergarten drop-off, the other moms are very nice to me. “You look so great,” they say, “So relaxed,” and I laugh and lie and say, Thank you, it’s all going well.
This afternoon in yoga, while we held downward facing dog for what felt like way too long, Kelly, who was teaching, told us to press our thigh muscles onto our femur bones and I rebelled. I didn’t want to engage my legs, which is another way of saying I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in the present moment which is always right here. I wanted to roll up my mat and flee. I wanted to bolt from the 98-degree room and into the 90-degree day outside. I wanted to disappear into the crowded streets of Georgetown. I wanted to run into the air-conditioned haven of Dean & Deluca, to look for a new pair of shorts in J.Crew, to climb fully-clothed into the claw foot bathtubs in Waterworks.
Last Thursday, Oliver and my mom and I made the day-long drive up to Grand Island, New York, which is about a mile away from Niagara Falls. My cousin Jeremy and his wife graciously hosted us and Oliver was able to visit with his cousins and his godmother – Sister Mary Judith – who married Scott and I almost seven years ago, near a rocky beach just south of San Francisco. Sister Mary Judith is my father’s cousin and is in her mid-seventies, but she looks much younger. Before she became a Catholic nun, she was Homecoming Queen, and to me, she still has a sense of royalty about her. On our trip last weekend, she told me stories about when she helped run a school for African-American children in South Carolina in the late 1950′s. She told me about the time she spent in Africa, prior to that, and about my grandparents and aunts and uncles, whose own parents came over from Ireland and landed in Queens and Buffalo, New York.
On Friday, Jeremy took the day off from work and took us all to Niagara Falls. I was surprised by how accessible Niagara Falls is with the free parking in the state park and the easy walk in, just a few blocks from downtown Buffalo. It was a beautiful, sparkling day with bright sun and a cool breeze and we walked down from the parking lot onto a wooded trail which hugged the river. The river was so calm and quiet that I would never have guessed that it was about to jump off a cliff. The kids played on the wide, flat rocks at the edge of the river and they ran over the foot bridges that led us out to Goat Island. There was a small piling up of whitewater as the wide river bubbled around the boulders and the bank and you could tell the water was running fast, but there was a stillness at the surface that belied the drop up ahead.
Moving is kind of like that. You get word and then you wait, your life staying pretty much the same except for that static under the surface, which feels an awful lot like panic. The waiting itself becomes a kind of current, your life becoming flooded with the possibility that you are leaving it, until one day you look up and realize you are completely submerged in the leaving, so tired of the waiting that you just want it to be over already so your new life can start. According to some scholars, the name “Niagara” comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra,” meaning “point of land cut in two.”
I used to think of surrender as a kind of ease. I used to think that I would be able to surrender once I was a different kind of person: once I meditated more or had more time, or became more wise. But standing there, looking at the falls, feeling the cold mist on my face and listening to the rush of that water, hearing the rush of my own blood through my ears, I thought that maybe surrender wasn’t a matter of ease but of courage. I watched that water, as it moved steadily, unhindered by what was in its path until finally, the Niagara River pulled its knees into its chest and leapt, the water gathering up and then falling from that sharp, dolomite ledge.
After we left the Falls we were hungry and tired and Sister Mary Judith and my mom and I headed to a grocery store to get some snacks for our return drive back to D.C. I told her my thoughts on surrender and she nodded. “Surrender is an act of courage,” she said, simply, and I rested in that, confident in her half-century of spiritual commitment.
This afternoon, as I held downward facing dog, while I was wishing I was anywhere but in my legs, Kelly said, “We think we can find ease by relaxing into something, but really, it’s the pushing out of something that creates the ease.” She told us to press our palms into the floor, to squeeze our thighs back to lift our hips and I thought of those falls – their height, their majesty, their courage. I took a deep breath and pressed down and back, feeling an ache in my legs and also a tiny bit of ease in my heart. I felt an infinitesimal opening as if maybe there was a place for me after all, despite the fact that I am a moving target, despite the fact that as soon as I begin to get comfortable, it’s time to press on and move out again. I pressed back into the pain and the cracking open and the fear and called those falls back to me, those daring wonders with their willingness to drop their history and their loves and their beliefs about where they should be, and instead, press onward and over the edge.
In honor of moving, I am having a month of giveaways. This week, I am giving away 2 copies of Bruce Dolin’s wonderful book, “Privilege of Parenting.” Kristen wrote such a wonderful review of the book that I won’t even try to duplicate her efforts and you can read her review of the book here. Bruce writes compassionately and wisely about how to hold our children by holding onto ourselves first, by breathing through our own fear and shame and sadness in order to put an end to the karma we don’t want our children to carry. Unlike some parenting books, which give generic and unlikely scenarios, Bruce helps us deal with life’s messiness, and like yoga, shows us that the messiness is part of the beauty. Just enter a comment below and I’ll draw a name at Random on Friday, June 1.
April 6, 2012 § 14 Comments
“Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.” – Bhagavad Gita
“Where can you run to escape from yourself?
Where you gonna go?
Where you gonna go?
Salvation is here.” – Switchfoot
A few weeks ago, on a cold, rainy, Saturday, I was cleaning the bathrooms and washing our wood floors. Much has been written lately about the virtues of cleaning, but I am not convinced that these aren’t written by people with maids. By the time I was halfway through I was cranky, and I stopped in front of the upstairs window that looks out into our steep backyard to see if it was still raining. I watched the drizzle for a minute and was about to pick up the paper towels again but noticed two bright blue jays perched on a bare branch below. It’s not that blue jays are rare, exactly, but still, I don’t see them very often, especially not two, their wings too bright for this day, their bodies too fat for the thin branch they were bobbing on. As I stood, I saw a third jay perched high up in the sapling, and then, while I was still marveling at my luck, another one landed, its square wings folding under him. Despite the day and the chore and the remaining bathroom, I felt delight flutter in my throat. It felt like more than I was allowed to have.
Winter always drives me a little bit crazy. There is something about the gray and the cold and the onerous task of putting on coats and scarves that makes me feel suffocated and a bit desperate at the same time. By the time the forsythias bloom, their brightness isn’t even a consolation. I want to hurry them along. I want to usher in the daffodils and the cherry blossoms and then the tulips. I want to bypass spring altogether and get to the fat, fleshy leaves of summer. If I had a mantra, it would be hurry up. It would be get here already.
I signed up for a cleanse a few weeks ago. At the time, I signed up just to feel better. I am a pretty sensitive person, but then I go and forget this. I drink too many mugs of coffee and glasses of wine because it seems like this is what you do when you’re an adult. It’s comforting to hold something in your hand like a talisman. Some mornings, I carry my coffee from room to room like a sword. “En garde,” I want to say to the tedious tasks of brushing two foamy mouths, getting two squirming boys into coats, listening to the gossip in the school parking lot.
For the first few days, I was terrified of The Cleanse. What would happen when I took away the coffee and the sugar and the alcohol? And more importantly, what if I didn’t like what remained? Because really, it’s not about the caffeine or the chocolate, and that’s why cleanses can be such a bitch. It’s never about what you’re giving up, but about what you’ve already lost.
For over a month now, I have been reading Maya Stein’s luminous poem, “you will know (for T)”. The line: “Listen. The birds will teach you everything you need to know about flight,” has been reverberating inside my head and heart. I have been trying to fly through the drizzle with my own winter body. I have been trying to soar but something keeps pulling me back. I went to yoga one night, when I was particularly exhausted, thinking it would help, even though I know that’s not the point. I usually love Bakasana (crow pose), but that night, during the jump-back, I fell flat on my face. In Garudasana (eagle pose), I felt dizzy and nauseous, and by the time we got to Vrksasana (tree pose) I gave up completely. I bent down into Balasana (child’s pose) and felt my racing heart beat against my mat. It occurred to me then that maybe the problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to fly, but that I hadn’t yet learned how to land.
After a 3-day headache and bone-crushing exhaustion, what I discovered was that being on a cleanse was easier than my normal life. There was something about a weekly call and a payment sent, a secret Facebook group and a recipe for kitchari that gave me license to take care of myself, to take an extra five minutes to apply Ayurvedic oil and make lemon tea. During the first week, Laura sent us an email about Pratyahara, which is one of the limbs on the eight-limbed yogic path. Pratyahara literally means “to turn inward.” In her email, Laura wrote: “Pratyhara is an invitation to drop into your heart, to come home to yourself.”
I have been spending so much time trying to soar that I have forgotten to come back to earth. So much of my life has been spent trying to prove myself, trying to earn a seat at the table. I waste so much energy trying to be twice as good in order to be considered as good as. I have been so busy plumbing the depths of what is expected of me that I have forgotten to listen to what I already know to be true.
In my yoga teacher training, we studied the ways a yoga class sequence follows both the chakras and the eight-limb path of yoga. Vrksasana (tree pose) is the part of our practice that corresponds to both the heart chakra and Pratyahara. It is the moment we leave the oceanic flow of the Sun Salutations and turn inward. We engage our core in order to open our heart. We begin to surrender our will and listen to the rush of blood in our ears. We balance our bodies on a single ankle bone and trust that it will hold.
If the birds will teach us everything we need to know about flight, then surely they can also teach us how to land. And what is landing if not forgiveness? What is turning inward if not an act of trust? One morning after I started the cleanse, as I awoke before dawn to do my Sun Salutations, I thought of those plump blue jays, landing on that skinny branch. I inhaled my arms high in my dark living room and bent my creaky body over my knees. I felt my feet on the cold wood floor. “I forgive L,” I thought and felt a tidal wave of sadness sweep me under and catch in my chest. I stepped back into downward facing dog and looked back at my knees. “I forgive myself,” I thought and felt myself land – wobbling, haltingly, shakily – on the thin branch of a new tree, not entirely trusting that it would hold, but wanting it to, more than anything.
Maya Stein’s full poem is below:
January 23, 2012 § 26 Comments
My yoga studio has a program twice a year called “Commit To It” in which you practice yoga and meditation for 40 days. The studio is a Baptiste-style power yoga studio and I am sure this program is inspired by Baron Baptiste, who claims that doing 40 days of yoga will transform your life. I am dubious of claims like this, probably because I don’t really like commitment very much. But early in December it seemed like everywhere I looked, people were doing “Challenges.” Even a book I was reading – Sacred Contracts, by Caroline Myss – had a section on how 40 days is the time necessary to manifest an intention.
I don’t really understand any of this. But because I am so crappy at commitment, I thought I would try out a 40 day yoga challenge of my own just to see what would happen. It was simple. From December 2 until January 9, I would do yoga. And since I really like yoga, I figured it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Most of it, in fact, was quite easy. Leaving for yoga at 7 pm – when my kitchen counter is stacked with dirty dishes and the bath is filling and my kids are pretty much running on fumes – is not a difficult thing at all. Most days, I bolted, a smoothie in hand, my yoga mat riding shotgun as I peeled out of the driveway. Even when I was going to power yoga, which is new for me and pretty much kicks my ass every time, I was happy to flee, to run away from the messiest part of my day and allow my husband to do the dirty work.
But I had other days as well. There was the morning I woke at 5 am to do Rolf Gate’s video and was so stiff I could barely move. Halfway through, I saw my reflection in the windows against the pre-dawn sky, and I looked so horrible – so un-yogalike- that I burst into tears and went back to bed. Another afternoon, I was practicing at home while the boys had some quiet time, and I heard them arguing between their rooms. “BOYS!” I yelled up the stairs, “NO FIGHTING!!” I looked down for a moment, at my hands in prayer position over my heart, and I sighed, chagrined.
Ironically, the most difficult part of my 40 days was after my trip to Kripalu for New Year’s. As is always the case, I brought myself to Kripalu too, which was unfortunate. I balked at sharing a bathroom with twenty other people. I wanted to turn the heat down in the room but I couldn’t find the thermostat. I wanted a cup of coffee but had to wait in line behind a woman who decided that no one could move until she finished cutting up her apple. There was something so human about my New Year’s Eve weekend there, so bare and raw, that I have been feeling a bit unraveled ever since.
What most astounded me about Kripalu was the sense of camaraderie, maybe even equality. You might find yourself in the dining room scooping slices of lemon caper tempeh next to your teacher. You may see your classmates coming out of the shower. You might take a walk and find someone sitting on a bench, crying. For me, there was such a powerful sense that not a single one of us is better than another. At first, I was ecstatic and comforted by this idea. And then, I became depressed. If there wasn’t a perfect person out there, then who was going to save me?
A few days after I returned from Kripalu, Colin, one of my yoga teachers said. “Yoga is a process of subtraction. It is not a process of addition.”
I finished my 40 day challenge, but I pretty much staggered over the line. On Day 41, I didn’t go to yoga. Instead, I poured a glass of wine and was looking forward to eating a dinner that wasn’t a liquid. And then: “Mommy?” Oliver called from the top of the stairs, “I had a big leak in the bathroom and I can’t clean it up.”
I put down the wine and picked up the paper towels and the Mrs. Myers. “Mommy?” Oliver called again. “Gus has a stinky diaper and he won’t get out of my room.”
Afterwards, I remembered that earlier in the day, when Oliver had a friend over, I reached into the pantry-slash-broom-closet to grab a bag of pretzels for their snack and knocked a bottle of maple syrup onto the heavy mixer below. That evening, as I reluctantly opened the closet door and stared at the broken glass and syrup that lay before me, it hit me that nothing had changed. Nothing had been transformed. 40 days of yoga and I was still incredibly annoyed at the fact that some days, my biggest work is to clean up messes, to wipe noses and bums and clean pee off the floor. Fuck transformation, I thought. Fuck yoga. All those poses, all that sweat, all that holding reverse warrior for ten breaths while my thigh muscles tried not to explode.
As I scrubbed the mess in the broom closet, I realized how terrified I am of subtraction. I thought with embarrassment of how confidently I wrote about standing in my own emptiness, about creating a clean well-lighted place for myself. It was so easy to say those things in early December, before winter set in. It was so easy to say I would be as empty as the trees when it was still autumn, when the ground wasn’t covered in snow and ice and sleet. It’s easy to be confident before the storm hits and the power is lost. You think you’ll be so eighteen hundreds with your candles, but then the lights go out and you crack your shin on the coffee table.
The other night in yoga, Patty, the owner of the studio had us do one-legged planks and chaturangas (push-ups) for the first twelve minutes of class. A thought went through my head that I was going to die and then another that there was more than an hour to go. I was already shaking and in the 98 degree heat, rivers of sweat dripped from my forehead. From my position just over the floor, I saw Patty’s bare feet stop my me. No, I thought, Please God no, just before she rapped on my back, right behind my heart.
“Soften,” she commanded and I tensed up. “No,” she said firmly, “Soften. Right here.” The room was full, all 62 spaces holding a person on a mat. “Look,” Patty said, “Everyone around you is softening because they want it so badly for you.” I felt myself lighten. We had all paid to be here, in plank pose for what seemed like a million years, because each of us wanted to be stripped down, melted through the heat. We wanted the sculpture inside the stone and this is how we were going to find it.
There is something about subtraction that feels like losing. There is something about not wanting that feels like not having. There is something about letting go that feels a little too much like giving in. There is something about taking everything away that feels a lot like staring at a closet full of broken glass.
“Go,” Patty says after she asks for a second Eagle Pose. “You can write your story about the pose or you can just do the pose.”
“Fold,” Colin says as we move into Parsvottanasana and for some reason, I lose my balance even though both feet are on the floor. I see his bare feet next to me and again, I think No, go away. And then I feel his hands on my hips, steadying me, his palm on my back, right behind my heart.
Before my 40-day yoga challenge, I thought that yoga was going to fix me. Now instead of having that hope, I have my practice, which is kind of the opposite of hope. I have no idea what I learned during the 40 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
I am guessing it’s somewhere between Go and Fold.
January 5, 2012 § 27 Comments
The biggest, most persistent fear in my life is that there will not be enough for me. I worry that there won’t be enough money or time or luck. I worry that what I love has already been taken. I worry that I will have to keep proving myself worthy again and again and again.
Lately, my life has proven this fear to be absurd. If 2011 was the year of anything, it was The Year of Gifts.
While I have gone through my life thinking I never win anything, this fall I won a $100 bill during a random drawing and a few weeks ago, the Fairy Hobmother granted me a $50 Amazon gift card. This afternoon, my neighbors brought over the biggest stuffed dog I have ever seen. It’s bigger than Oliver and Gus put together and is now sitting on the couch in the funny back room of our house that is neither a porch or a sunroom. My neighbors are older and I am guessing that they have forgotten what Christmas is like with small children, when your house is strewn with new plastic toys and you keep running out of batteries. A giant stuffed dog is the very last thing I need and yet, it fits in perfectly amid the excess and the clutter. To me, it’s a sign of all I have. When they brought it over I imagined the universe laughing at me. You think there’s not enough? Well then get a load of this!
Gus birthday is January 3rd and pretty much the last thing anyone wants to do on that day is eat cake. And still, there I was, cracking eggs into a mixing bowl and melting heavy cream and chocolate for the frosting. So much sweetness, I thought as I poured in the vanilla.
The night before I made the cake, my mom and I drove to my house from the Berkshires, where we spent a New Year’s together at Kripalu. Another gift, getting to spend the end of 2011 with both my teacher, Rolf Gates and my mother. “Your mom is like another you,” Rolf told me after he had lunch with her. “You guys are like Thing One and Thing Two.”
The other big gift of Kripalu was getting to meet Katrina Kenison in person. Not only do I admire and love her writing, but her first book, Mitten Strings for God, literally changed my life. I bought the book from a library book sale when Oliver was nine months old. We were living in Coronado, a small island off the coast of San Diego, and I remember the August afternoon I opened the book. It was warm and sunny and I was rocking in the blue denim glider, nursing Oliver. When Oliver was born, I was not really prepared to become a mother and even after nine months I was still surprised by my position in life. Katrina’s book was both a lighthouse for me and a map. She showed me another way to do things. Reading her book, I discovered that motherhood wasn’t something to achieve or plow my way through. On page 72, she writes, “To begin, we need only create a “listening” space, tune in to the world around us, and have faith that our own inner storytellers will guide us.” To me at the time, this was a revelation. That I even had an inner storyteller was news to me.
The second day we were at Kripalu, my mom woke up with a stomach bug. Although my mother will tell you I overreacted drastically and was preparing to LifeFlight her out of the Berkshires, I was a little worried. My mom never gets sick and on the handful of times in her life she has been sick, it’s been serious enough to warrant a visit to the ER. Vertigo. Inner ear infection. Strep throat. In our tiny cinderblock room at Kripalu, I followed the advice of WebMD and waved my finger back and forth in front of her face. “Really,” my mom said, rolling her eyes at me. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t just have a stroke.”
The previous night, in Rolf’s yoga class, he asked us, “Where in your life do you draw the line between good and bad? Right and wrong? Okay and not okay?” I thought of my own line, the thick black thread that grants a tiny space for Okay and an infinite depth for Not Okay. I thought of how my own body becomes a line sometimes, tense and rigid when things don’t go the way I want them to. “What if,” Rolf continued, “There was no line?”
After I was pretty sure I didn’t have to rush my mom to the hospital, I thought about Rolf’s words. If there was no line, then falling out of tree pose didn’t mean that my yoga class was ruined. If there was no line, then my mistakes in life didn’t automatically qualify me as a failure. If there was no line, then my mom having a stomach bug wasn’t going to ruin her trip to Kripalu. Such relief.
The relief was instantly followed with terror. If there was no line, then I couldn’t pack all the moments I labeled as Wrong into garbage bags the way I took old toys to Good Will. If there was no line, then I would need to allow everything in. I would have to feel it all.
On the night of January 3rd, after we were home, after Gus’ birthday cake was eaten and the candles blown out and the presents opened, I went out for a run. Usually, I am a morning runner, shuffling down the sidewalk before the sun comes up, but on Tuesday night, I was restless, sick to death of cake, and floating in a sea of Too Much. Sometimes, only a run will do, no matter that it’s bedtime and twenty-one degrees out.
I headed down my favorite route along Russell Road where the bright streetlights lead to the King Street Metro in Old Town Alexandria. On my way, I passed a creche that was still up and it was so beautiful that I stopped right there, my breath steaming in the frigid air. A baby was in the manger and two wooden figures covered with beautiful cloth were kneeling beside it. In the wind, the figures were rocking, almost as if they were weeping.
Because it is early January, I have been thinking about the birth of Jesus for weeks, but never once did I think of Mary going through the labor of birth. I never thought of her as having those searing contractions or going through the moment of transition, when the world heaves and rolls itself upside down. Standing there in the cold under three layers of lycra and fleece, I thought of the night Gus was born. I made Scott walk with me, up and down the bike path near our townhouse in Ventura. I had to keep stopping, and I leaned against the eucalyptus trees that lined the path and inhaled their scent. When my own transition came, five minutes after we got to the hospital, I thought for a moment that the reflection of the lights on the linoleum floor was really the night sky. “I can’t do it,” I told the nurse, “I want the drugs after all,” but she shook her head. “You’re doing it,” she said. “You’ve already done it.”
I thought that the gift of January 3, 2009, was the birth of my second son, whole and healthy, swaddled in his pink and blue blanket. But maybe the pain of labor was also the gift. I thought that the gift on the first Christmas night was that Jesus was born and was lying in a manger. But of course his death was the gift as well.
I have no resolution this year, only the usual questions and worries and wonders. The gifts I received in 2011 are piled too high for me to wish for anything for this year. My two boys. My husband. Our home. My friends who live everywhere and my loneliness in this city. My yoga practice and all the suffering that brought me to my mat in the first place. The joy and the pain. The light and the shadows, all of them gifts, equal in measure.
My wish for you in 2012 is that your year be filled with gifts. Even more, I wish that everything you receive be a gift, if not at first, then someday. “I always say that things will work out,” Rolf told me, “And that’s only because they always do.”
If you wish to be visited by the Fairy Hobmother, leave a comment here and she may bestow her gifts on you as well. And, I am giving my own gift of Mitten Strings for God to two people. If you read Mitten Strings for God, then I’ll send The Gift of an Ordinary Day. If you’ve read that, then I’ll send Meditations from the Mat (written by Katrina Kenison and Rolf Gates). And if you’ve read all of Katrina’s books, then you are a very lucky person.
Happy New Year!
November 3, 2011 § 20 Comments
For the past few days, some of my favorite bloggers have been writing about self-care at Life After Benjamin, Chicken and Cheese, A Design so Vast, and Her Suburban Life. Also, Carry it Forward and Food: A Love Story consistently write about taking care of ourselves in an authentic way.
Self-care is a strange word. It sounds vaguely institutional and somewhat primitive and yet it’s a concept that has been rather fascinating to me for the past few years. It would not be inaccurate to say that I started out my adult life having no idea how to take care of myself. I knew the basics of course. I knew what I should eat and how much exercise and sleep I should get. But in times of stress, all those good ideas went out the window. In times of stress – which in my twenties and early thirties was about five days per week- I subsisted on less than six hours of sleep, cheese, green olives, and coffee.
It’s funny the things that didn’t work for me. “Treat yourself the way you deserve to be treated,” people would tell me, or “Become your own best friend.” The truth was, I felt like a slacker who had been given tons of opportunity and fortune but who had squandered it all away. I was treating myself the way I believed I deserved. And I had no interest in befriending as someone as lame and myself.
It’s funny what did work too. When I was pregnant with Oliver, I was unmarried and living 3000 miles away from my boyfriend (who later became my husband, poor guy). I was working in investor relations and it was a job in which even if I did everything perfectly, it was guaranteed someone would still yell at me at the end of the quarter. But one day, as I got off the train in Palo Alto and was walking down Emerson Street to my apartment, I passed a yoga studio that offered prenatal yoga. For years I had been meaning to go to yoga, but I didn’t want to be the only one in the class who didn’t know what she was doing. I peered in the window at the women, lumbering like elephants with their big bellies. I was only three months pregnant at the time. I figured I could do at least as well as them.
That was how I started with yoga: as a competition. But after my first prenatal class, I lay in savasana and felt quiet for the first time in years. Once you find something like that, you begin to notice its opposite. You gradually become aware of when you are not quiet and then you try to figure out how to get yourself out of that mess. You may try meditation next or getting more sleep. Or, if you’re like me, you may try to eat half the can of frosting instead of the whole thing.
To be honest, I am the least qualified person to write about how to take care of yourself. I have only recently started to get more sleep. And when the going gets tough, I often stop my meditation practice and start drinking coffee. Last week, during which I had to make a Halloween costume, plan and host a birthday party for six six-year olds, make a graveyard cake, take care of sick children, and finish up homework for my teacher training, I may or may not have eaten seven fun-size Twix bars one night and called it dinner. I know, you don’t have to say it.
But I am working on it. At least I am passed the point I used to be, when I thought self-care was for wimps, for people with too much time on their hands. In the last couple of years, I have read a gazillion books on the subject. More importantly, I met with my yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson, from YogaWorks in LA and with Laura Plumb, Ayurvedic devotee, yoga teacher, and educator. They both offered invaluable advice and instruction. I still don’t do everything I wish I did, but below are some notes from the trenches, which sometimes get me out of my own way:
1. Start Where You Are: This first rule could also be called “Don’t Make Things Worse.” If you eat a pound of chocolate, do your best to avoid eating another pound to make yourself feel better. If you haven’t washed your hair in a week, then put on a hat rather than beat yourself up. If you are feeling badly about yourself, be gentle with your heart. As Geneen Roth writes, if you find yourself standing in front of the refrigerator eating leftover Chinese food with your fingers, pull up a chair. Be kind to yourself. Sit down. Just stop making things worse, and things will get a whole lot better.
2. Start Slowly: After I consulted with Laura last week and she told me about the Veda-reducing diet that would reduce my anxiety, I immediately wanted to roast vegetables, cook up a pot of kitchari, and buy lavender-scented oil. This was during the Halloween/Birthday Extravaganza Week, and I knew that if I went gangbusters, I would probably have a meltdown. So, for a change, I slowed down. Instead of cooking up a storm, I made one pot of tomato soup. I started meditating for ten minutes a day. I went to bed fifteen minutes earlier at night. I bought a single bottle of organic sesame oil to practice Abhyanga. Baby steps.
3. Plan: When I met with Jessica eighteen months ago, she told me that in order to keep herself sane and healthy she planned out her week. She decided how much yoga and mountain biking she needed and what food she needed to buy to make healthy meals. My first thought after she told me that was shock. I couldn’t imagine doing that. If I had enough time to sit and make a grocery list and a schedule, then clearly I was not getting enough done in my life. Clearly, that was a waste of time. I still don’t always plan out my meals or my week. Most weeks, I don’t get to yoga as much as I want to and I often forget to soak the beans the night before. But when I do take time to plan out my week … man, life is good.
4. Pretend: aka “Fake it Till You Make It.” Here’s the deal. Often, when we need self-care the most is the time we believe we don’t deserve it. Right after we yell at our kids for fooling around when they are supposed to be getting on their shoes or the house is a mess or we totally botch something up at work, it’s easy to beat ourselves up. However, we are probably yelling at our kids and making silly mistakes because we ourselves are depleted. I am getting to where I can see this is true even if I don’t always believe it. Then, I usually pretend I am someone else, like Oprah, or Laura Plumb or Jessica Anderson and I try to imagine what they would do if they were me. Chances are, they would take a deep breath, give themselves a pep talk, make a cup of tea. What happens then is that once you start treating yourself as the person you want to be, you start to become the person you want to be. It’s kind of revolutionary.
5. Create a Ritual: In our yoga teacher training, Rolf told us that anything can become sacred once we bring our attention to it. Laura last week told me about tratak, a candle meditation that is deeply calming and centering. She also told me about Viparita Karani Mudra, or lying down for fifteen minutes with your legs up the wall. It could be a yoga class or a run or meditation. It could be a walk with your kids or spending time with your spouse. It could even be eating breakfast in silence or listening to the birds. There is something about a ritual that is soothing to our souls, that reminds us that while we live in these limited physical forms, an aspect of us is truly unlimited and connected to something bigger than we can imagine.
I once thought that devoting some time to taking care of myself would make me into a different person, into someone who was more patient, who subsisted on kale and ginger tea, who wore yoga pants every day. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Most days I wear jeans with a hole in the right leg, because that is the knee I bend down on when I am tying shoes, wiping noses, and putting the chain back on Oliver’s bike.
Taking care of ourselves isn’t about a vegan diet or taking baths, although that may be part of it. Taking care of ourselves is about treating ourselves with a level of dignity so that we remember who we truly are. If you treat yourself like a queen, it becomes more difficult to get upset about the snide remark your friend made. If you give yourself enough time to get to yoga and play something uplifting on the car stereo, it is harder to honk at the third person who cut you off in Logan Circle. On the other hand, if you eat leftover Halloween candy for dinner, it’s a lot easier to get upset at your husband for taking a business trip and leaving you alone with the kids for four days, how could he do that to you, doesn’t he know that you won’t get a minute to yourself?
Last week, Laura said something that I have been thinking about every day. She said that even if our main job is to care for other people, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a little time for our own evolution and go inward every now and then. We deserve at least that, don’t we?
And that is why I am offering my first ever giveaway. I am offering Laura’s Maha Shakti Detox Protein Powder and a copy of the Kind Diet, by Alicia Silverstone. I’ll announce the randomly selected winner on Monday.
September 15, 2011 § 23 Comments
In my world, I’m standing just inside the door.
In my world, I’m speaking, to the ocean’s roar.
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror.”
The beginning of September has flattened me. Literally. I am lying on the floor in pigeon pose and my yoga teacher, Gopi, is sitting on top of me, shouting at me in her British/Indian accent. “Thassit gurl. Get in thair.” She sticks her elbow into my butt and I see stars. It takes all I have inside me not to cry. That’s how everything has been lately; on top of me, all sharp elbows and painful edges.
I like to write blog posts when I have something figured out, at least to some degree. Right now, I have nothing figured out. Right now, I feel like I am wearing clothes that are both too big and too tight. It’s been weeks since I have written anything at all.
Gopi is talking about change, which is obvious now in the weather and the red tinge on the leaves that hang over our living room window. Yesterday it was ninety-one degrees. Now it is fifty-one. After I picked Oliver up from kindergarten at noon today, I took the boys to the park to ride their bikes in the warm sunshine. This afternoon, at home, we watched the front blow in, cold air on a freight train straight from Canada. I have one east coast winter under my belt after 17 in California, and frankly, I am anxious about doing it again. We had a week of 100 degree temperatures in May and three in June and July. August was hot too. Until now, winter has seemed so far away. I want it to stay away. And I want it to be here already so I can stop worrying about it.
“What in your life,” Gopi asks, ” Is the catalyst for a heart revolution?”
On Labor Day weekend, the week before school started, Scott and I flew back to northern California for a wedding. We saw friends in Marin, San Francisco and on the Sonoma coast. We had pizza in Berkeley with my friend Stephanie and I got to hold her gorgeous 7-week old baby. We drank too much red wine with Scott’s friends from college in a house overlooking the Pacific. We went to my friend Michelle’s wedding and spent the whole time with my friend Loren and her wife Audra. Stephanie and Loren and Michelle were my cross-country and track teammates in college. They know me so well, even now, and I miss them. I miss what it was like to be together every day. I miss that.
The trip back from California to DC was hard – it always is. Something happens to me when I fly eastward over the Mississippi River. I contract. I become the smallest version of myself packed into the tightest bundle. I protect myself from what is inevitably coming. I try to ward off what has already happened.
Last weekend, during my yoga teacher training, something shifted and we all started to get it. Instead of sitting there, feeling confused, I felt close. I felt connected. Rolf talked a bit about our contracted states of fear, aversion, and jealousy. He said that when we move beyond our contracted states, we will realize that we needed each of them in order to arrive at this new, expansive place.
Tonight, Gopi is hell-bent on opening our hips. We do some crazy thing with our legs behind our heads. I am close, but my leg gets stuck somewhere by my pony tail and I can’t get it under. We do some other terrifying move to open our hip flexors where only my left heel and the top of my right foot remain on the floor. Gopi makes us chant three Om’s while we hold that pose. “Whatever you ease into eases up,” she tells us. In that moment, I hate yoga.
For a long time now, I have felt as if I were on the precipice of something: transformation, change, growth. I don’t know. It’s nothing big, nothing earth shaking. Just something new. But I can’t quite get there. It gets stopped, somewhere in my head. I get stuck, just inside the door.
Oliver started school last Thursday, during the rains that didn’t stop. We stayed inside all week, and it felt like winter. Oliver doesn’t like transitions so much. Like me, he tries to protect himself from what has already happened. Since school started, it’s been one meltdown after another. It would be one thing if he walked in the door, threw down his blue race car backpack, and began to wail. Instead, it’s more diffuse. Yesterday, he flung himself on the ground because I reversed the bath/dinner schedule. The day before, he stomped out of the room because I got him a new toothbrush. “I won’t brush my teeth!” he yelled at Scott, “until I have a toothbrush with batteries in it.”
Tonight in class I think about what in my life might be a catalyst for a heart revolution. Maybe it’s my yoga teacher training. Or maybe it’s Oliver’s tantrums. Stay, I tell myself during the heart of them. Breathe. Sometimes I can. And sometimes I can’t.
Next, Gopi has us doing heart opening poses. Our arms are entwined behind our backs and we bow forward into the geometry of devotion. Please, I think as my heart moves towards the floor. Please.
Last Sunday, I set an intention to keep my heart open, to stay in the moment and hold space for Oliver’s transition. What happens is what always happens when I finally act like the grown up and do what I am supposed to do. Oliver stops yelling and starts crying. He asks for a hug with both arms. We bypass anger and move straight to the heart of his anxiety. What also happens is that I become exhausted from all that life being hurled straight at me. When I become a wellspring to my son, I become a drought to myself. I wonder if there is a way to bring the two together, to nourish both of us at the same time.
In our teacher training, Rolf told us to be the thing we loved. What would happen if I could remember the word devotion? What if I could become that?
Later in class, we do Hanumanasana or seated splits with one leg straight out in front. The pose is named after the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who devotes his life to the god Rama. When the demon king who presides over Sri Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, Hanuman and Rama travel from India to Sri Lanka to rescue her. During the battle there, Rama’s brother becomes wounded and to live, he requires an herb that only grows in the Himalayas.
Hanuman so loves Rama that he says he will accomplish this impossible task. With one foot still in Sri Lanka, he stretches himself all the way back to India. He can’t find the herb, so he lifts up the entire mountain and carries it back to Sri Lanka, where Rama’s brother is saved. Hanumanasana embodies Hanuman’s devotion, each leg in a different country, arms high in the air, carrying a mountain.
I can never get into this pose all the way. Mostly I just hover, uncomfortably, suspended a few inches off the ground, my hands on the floor.
On Labor Day, on the way home from the wedding, I bought Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home in the San Francisco airport. The book is about Caldwell’s experience of losing her best friend – Caroline Knapp, another of my favorite writers – to breast cancer at the age of 42. In the book, Caldwell writes, “I was in the corridor of something far larger than I, and I just had to stand it and stay where I was.”
Tonight, I go into Hanumanasana the way I always do: I squeeze my front thigh and flex my front foot. I walk the toes on the other leg back until they can’t go any further. Tonight I do this until I feel something under my front hamstring. It takes a split second until I realize that what is directly under my leg is the floor, which has miraculously risen up to meet me.
“Yes!” I think to myself. “Yes!” and then I am instantly humbled. I have been practicing yoga consistently since I was pregnant with Oliver. It has taken me more than six years to come into the shape of this pose.
At the park today, watching Oliver ride around like a crazy person on his bike, I found myself wondering how many weeks it would take until he feels more settled at school. Maybe next week. Maybe never.
I keep wondering when I am going to get there: back to California, my leg over my head, the end of winter, the end of tantrums, and of course what I really want, which is to become a more spiritual person. I thought if I did a lot of yoga, it would happen on its own. There is something to that of course, but it’s not that easy. It requires a bit more stretching than that. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get around these big corners. There’s a lot of hanging out, suspended over the ground, feet in two different countries. It might be that I never get there, that this is all there is, right now: waiting and staying and standing it.
August 22, 2011 § 11 Comments
Wild. I have been somewhat obsessed with this word lately. Maybe it’s because our own summer is a little wild with most of our days spent outside and the two boys growing like wild flowers. Today, Oliver asked if I had put Gus’ clothes in his drawer because they were all too small for him. I stared at Oliver in his too-small shorts. “No,” I said. “Those are yours.” Were yours. Were: that is the word that is used most often when you are a parent. Once you were my baby. Now you are my boy.
Wild is also this month’s Jivamukti yoga theme. The way Jiva classes work is that each month, the teachers design their classes around a universal theme. What’s interesting is to see how each teacher explores this theme differently. Or, to see how a teacher evolves her classes during the month. My favorite teacher, Kathy, started out this month teaching an uninhibited class. She played “Wild Wild West” and had her students dance. When I took her class last week, she admitted she was tired of that. “I’ve been thinking about wild animals,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how sensitive and still they are. How they listen.” The class she gave that day focused on listening – to ourselves, to each other, to the world. “In nature,” she said, while we were in pigeon pose, “One bird begins to fly and they all follow. One giraffe begins to run and they all organize around that single moment. They all act as one because they know all is one.”
I have been thinking about my own wild self, about how I haven’t paid very much attention to it. “Shh,” I always say. “Be quiet.” Perhaps, I am worried that if I listen, I will become so completely out of control that my life will become unmanageable. Perhaps, I believe that my wild self cannot be trusted.
In my late teens and twenties, I suffered from pretty much every eating disorder that has ever been diagnosed. It’s not something I really want to write about, but as I get older, I realize that of the thousands of women I have met, maybe three have been immune from eating disorders. Food seems to be the universal sword by which we women wage war upon ourselves. “I am not enough,” is what we are really saying when we eat too little or too much. I am so useless and unworthy that I don’t deserve to eat. Or, I am so worthless, I need to be filled with something other than myself. It’s all the same thing: We don’t believe we deserve to be here. We don’t believe we can be trusted.
This Saturday, I took Jivamukti from Hari (or “Uncle Hari” as he is affectionately named). Hari talked about wild. He talked about our relentlessly wild minds. He talked about the chaos that ensues when do whatever we want. He talked about the beauty of rules to tame our wildness. Specifically he spoke about the Yoga Sutras, about the Yamas of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), and Brahmacarya (moderation). He talked about how within those rules, we can experience great freedom and how sometimes, it is the rules themselves that enable us to be truly wild. His words reminded me of what Shakespeare once wrote about the sonnet, that it was because of their strict structure that he could come up with such lyric poetry.
On Sunday, when Scott went out for a morning bike ride and threw his ClifShot wrapper away, he discovered a raccoon in our trash can. All I know is, it’s good he found it and not me. Nothing fills me with fear more than small North American mammals and rodents. And a raccoon looks like both of these combined.
“Anyone want to come help me get the raccoon out of the trash can?” Scott asked when he came home.
Oliver and I both shook our heads.
“I’ll go!” Gus called and followed his dad outside in his bare feet.
Oliver and I stood inside by the window and watched as Scott maneuvered the trash can and leaned it on its side, away from the house. Gus came dancing in a few seconds later, he eyes bright. He held out his arms. “The raccoon was this big!” he said.
There seems to be this balance in dealing with our own wild minds, and it’s one I haven’t quite figured out yet. On one hand, if we let ourselves go completely, life becomes crazy. We can’t parent our children or successfully sustain any type of relationship. On the other hand, if we force too many rules upon ourselves, we end up hiding out somewhere in the dark, eating trash. The raccoon reminded me of what Anne Lamott once said about her own thoughts: “My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” It reminded me of what Rolf Gates says about compassion: “Starving people eat garbage. And sometimes we are those starving people.”
After a month of “Wild” Jivamukti, I am no closer to understanding the term. I think of wild horses and snow-capped mountains and wild geese landing on a lake during my friend’s beautiful wedding. I think of children who crave rules and structure and a rhythm to flow into. I think of myself as I approach the age of 40, which is undoubtably the beginning of middle age. I think of the lack of rules and structure and rhythm we have for midlife unless it is the sting of a Botox needle or the sound of a wine bottle opening or the pain of a breakdown.
But there has to be more than this, right? RIGHT???
When I was young, my father listened to Joseph Campbell’s audiotapes while we were in the car, which now, I am grateful for. Somewhere in my brain are the transcripts to all of those tapes. In my mind, I can hear Campbell talking about the importance of ritual and how our current society is sorely lacking, especially in adolescence.
He didn’t speak about middle age that I remember, but that period of life is most certainly lacking in ritual as well. I knew how to be wild in my twenties. I know how to be wild with and about my children now that I am in my thirties. But how am I supposed to be wild in my forties? How do I know which voice to listen to? Is it the one who tells me follow the rules or is it the one who tells me to abandon them and carve my own path.
Luckily for me, as these things go, I received a message, just when I needed it. It was from someone I do not yet know who read my “Heart” post. She shared the following poem she wrote when her own child was a toddler, and in her poem, I found that harmonious balance between our wild nature and our civilized selves. I found that connection with another soul, which I am thinking may be the only ritual that counts for anything.
What could be a better symbol of the relationship between savage and civilized than our own wild hearts beating in their cages of bone?
Thank you Holly.
In the dawn of my awakening
I reach over
and put my hand
over the soft skin of her small chest
over her tiny heart
I feel it beat with strength, with rhythmic determination
that same tiny heart that beat inside my belly not so long ago
that beats faster while she pedals her two-wheeler
that same growing heart
that closes a little more with each life lesson learned
Eckhart Tolle tells us to be quiet, to be still
to open to the extraordinary moments, that define presence
that life really is beyond our senses, beyond our consciousness
and that she and I, you and I
are really one
So be quiet, be still –
listen and feel the beating of her heart,
my heart, your own heart
the pulse of the universe
and the voice of God
-Holly Brook Cotton 7/24/08
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.