Balance

October 13, 2011 § 16 Comments

Coasting

You should see Gus on his bike. Damn. My words are useless against the beauty of his little body on his pedal-less, birchwood bike. Every time he rides it, he turns heads. People do double-takes. Some of that might be because he’s only two and a half and he’s flying down the bike path, his legs swinging like pendulums. But mostly, it’s because of his command of gravity, even as he’s poised between two spinning wheels. The best way to describe the way Gus rides his bike is to tell you to close your eyes and think of Haile Gebrselassie finishing the Berlin Marathon or to remember Jacinto Vasquez, coiled tightly on the back of Ruffian as he rode her to victory in the Acorn Stakes.

Oliver is equally talented on his bicycle, but in a different way. You watch Oliver and you see each muscle at work, the beauty of a body engaged. Perhaps this is because Oliver learned to ride on a bike with training wheels. What he learned first were the mechanics, the how, and then he learned balance. Gus learned balance first, and the mechanics were secondary, which I believe is an important distinction. I may think I have balance because I can make three meals a day, host a multi-kid playdate, get Oliver to school in clean clothes, and get myself to yoga, but these are merely the mechanics. It may feel like balance but the fact is, some days, my stomach hurts. Some Most days, I have tremendous momentum but zero stillness.

What I have noticed about all good athletes, is that no matter how great their velocity, there is always a still point somewhere near the heart. In the middle of all that motion, there is always a place that is motionless. Gus has that, even at two. I watch as he rides away from me, his back a tiny column of stillness, a fulcrum of quiet around which all else revolves.

Usually, autumn is a smooth season for me. For years, I reveled in cross-country season, in running through trails and fields scented with fermenting leaves and fallen apples. I met Scott in October and Oliver was born on Halloween. Normally, I cruise happily through October’s blue skies and red trees. This fall, though, has been a bit different. It would be accurate to say that I am struggling a little with the back-to-school routine, with the sudden playdates and calls to be a volunteer at silent auctions and bake sales. I am resentful that my solitary summer adventures with the boys have been exchanged for shorter days, endless rain and other people. This October doesn’t look like what October is supposed to look like and it bothers me. It is either 79 degrees and raining outside or 60 degrees and sunny. There are only these bold extremes and I feel yanked between the two.

Last night during another rainstorm, I hit a bunch of traffic on the way into DC (huge surprise there!!) for my yoga class. I turned on a podcast of Tami Simon interviewing Tessa Bielecki, Christian mystic, former monk and Mother Abess of the Spiritual Life Institute. Of course, she was talking about balance. “I don’t like the word balance,” she said, “as much as I like the word balancing.” She talked about that crazy tightrope walker, Philippe Petit,who did a tightrope wire stunt between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. She said that we don’t so much find balance as we keep hovering between two fixed points.

For years, I have been trying to balance life as a stay-at-home mom with the fact that I grew up in the seventies when women’s lib was in its heyday. When I was little, I had books in my room with titles like “Herstory” and “Whatever Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better.” At some point, I decided there were two kinds of women in the world: those who raised children and those who did Important Things. Even now, I find it challenging to balance my own beautiful life with the one I thought I was supposed to live.

On Monday, I went to yoga and we did a lot of handstands, which was fine with me. For almost two years now, I have been wrapped in a notion that if I can learn how to stand on my hands, I can handle anything  hurled my way. On Monday night, I kicked up a into a handstand, took my toes away from the wall, and stood on my hands for more than a few seconds. I have never been in a handstand for that long before and as my weight was shifting from the base of my palms to my fingertips, I was elated. But there was  a steadiness too, a sense of being reduced to only a pair of hands and a heart, hovering over the earth.

After I listened to the podcast with Tessa Bielecki, I watched the YouTube video of Philippe Petit on his tightrope. You know the craziest part of it all? At one point in his stunt, he lay down on his wire, 1300 feet above the ground with no net below. He lay down, his long stick balanced on his chest and his legs dangling over lower Manhattan. Afterwards, the police charged Petit with trespassing and decided he needed to be handcuffed to a chair for his own safety. While he was sitting there, someone asked why he did such an insane thing as to try to balance between two skyscrapers. Petit shook his head and said, “There is no why. When I see a place to put my tightrope wire, I cannot resist.”

I pretty much resist everything. I realize that this takes a lot of energy, but it feels safer than throwing caution to the wind and lying down, although I am not sure why. Lately though, the mechanics are beginning to wear me out and maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps this is a call to stop pedaling like a crazy person and coast for a while. Perhaps I will find balance only when I surrender to the imbalance, to the unbending truth that balance can only exist between polarity, between gravity and a tiny body, between the jagged earth and the infinite sky.

Walking on My Hands

September 24, 2010 § 10 Comments

It’s nine pm and the boys are asleep. Oliver (almost 5) has taken off his pajama top  and is snuggling both his NY Mets teddy bear and his stuffed baby cheetah, gripping them tightly while his eyelids flutter at his dreams. Gus (21 months) is splayed out in his crib, his curls sweetly sticking to his head. He has no need for stuffed animals. If we would allow it, he would sleep with only his soccer ball.

I sneak down to the basement playroom under the guise of cleaning up LEGOs and Thomas trains, the abandoned game of Trouble, the blocks that were alternatively a tower, a bridge, a hardware store. And I do start to clean up. I clear out a small patch of space by the wall without bookshelves before I can resist no longer. Until I give in and place my palms on the floor and line my feet into a tight downward dog. I move my right foot just a bit closer to my hands and kick up with my left. There is a brief instant before my toes find the wall. A tiny moment in which I am weightless. A miniscule period of mastery, a sliver of time where I am walking on my hands.

Before we moved this last time, I used to dread doing handstands in yoga class. The moment my instructor told us to drag our mats to the wall, I felt a rock fall to the bottom of my stomach. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t. My flabby, two-baby stomach would be on display for the entire world to laugh at. My ankles would bash too loudly into the wall. I would fall. I would break my neck. I would be found out for the failure I knew myself to be.

Then, last January, three days before my birthday, my husband took me out for sushi and told me that we were going to be moving to Washington, D.C. in April. We had been in Ventura for almost two years. Two blissful years of living in a tiny strip of paradise, perfectly poised between the rugged Topa Topa Mountains and the gentle crashing of the Pacific Ocean. I ran on the beach, skirting the waves before the sun came up and then later, took my son to a lovely preschool founded by J. Krishnamurti and nestled into a sacred bowl of mountains. I knew we were going to leave Ventura  eventually but I didn’t think it would be so soon. I wasn’t ready yet to leave the west coast, my beautiful friends, my yoga studio with walls the color of robins’ eggs.

The next week I got a cold. Then my asthma kicked in. I had bronchitis for six weeks and then an ear infection so painful, a small scream – my own – woke me up in the middle of the night. Obviously I was just a little bit too attached to my idea of home, to living in Ventura, to the illusion that we would stay there forever, even though I had known from the beginning, that it was only going to be for two years. In yoga, they call this clinging. Grasping. Struggling just a little bit too hard against the present moment. Stephen Levine, a Buddhist teacher, says that hell is wanting to be somewhere other than where you are right now. Or where I was going. I felt groundless, as if I was being held upside down by the ankles, the treasured pieces of my life falling out of my pockets, floating down around my ears like old pennies or pieces of lint.

Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun wrote that “The present moment is the perfect teacher. And lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we go.” But I didn’t feel lucky. I felt jipped. Terrified of the unknown. Somehow, my cozy little nook in Ventura had been transformed into the part of yoga class I detested. My mat was up against the wall and I had nowhere else to go.

So I took a breath. I watched while my beautiful yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson, placed her palms on the floor and gracefully stepped into handstand as if she were only climbing up a ladder. I watched how calm she was. How her ankles hovered just a second before her toes touched the wall. Maybe I could do that, I thought, then. Now I know that what I really thought was I need to learn how to do that. I need to save my own life.

Every day during our move I worked on my handstand, finding empty walls in hotel rooms, my parents’ house, a rented apartment, our new home. In yoga, the Sanskrit word for handstand is  Adho Mukha Vrksasana, or downward-facing tree pose. I felt as though a tornado had ripped through my world. But maybe, I could learn to be a little flexible. Maybe I could manage that.

Because, while there is something in me that feels the need to fix everything, or at least make it look good, I could not fix this. I could not put ground under my feet where there was none. I could not convince the Navy to let us stay in Ventura. I could not prevent my son’s tears while he packed his own cardboard box of toys. I cannot ever be sure that my husband will never leave me, that my children will never be hurt, that we will always be safe. i cannot prevent towers from falling or oil rigs from exploding or women from being attacked while jogging through parks.  There is so much that I cannot do, but I tell myself that I can do this: I can try to be OK with my feet hanging over my head. I can try to learn to walk on my hands.

Tonight, in the downstairs playroom, I kick up into a  handstand, and for a millisecond I am suspended. For just a moment, everything lines up. I am in one plane, my body perpendicular to the earth, my toes reaching for the ceiling. I hover in stillness for only a second, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like anything big and beautiful: a sunset, a new baby, the first kiss. Time is irrelevant. Once you see what’s possible – if only for a second – you can’t not see it anymore. Upside down, my body seems weightless. Groundless. I am only my palms rooted in the earth and my heart, floating up between my ears. It’s only a second, but I am thrilled, shocked, humbled. And in that magical instant, right before my feet fall back to earth,  I realize that there is very little difference between groundlessness and flying.

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