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.
April 8, 2011 § 10 Comments
This afternoon, after Gus was down for a nap, Oliver tiptoed into my room. “Mommy,” he whispered. “Do you want to play Mr. Dealership now?”
“Of course!” I whispered back and he grinned and hurried down the stairs to the playroom. Mr. Dealership has become our new game and often this time is the highlight of my day. I don’t have much time alone with Oliver, so Gus’ naptime is kind of like a standing date for us. Today I went down to the corner of the playroom, where my “dealership” is. I sat with the basket of clean laundry that needed to be folded while Oliver loaded up his car carrier with Matchboxes and drove them over to me. “Mr. Dealer Manager?” he asked me, “Do you need some monster trucks?”
“Absolutely,” I said in my best used car salesman voice. “And some car parts too.”
The “car parts” were just Gus’ alphabet blocks that also got loaded up on the truck. Oliver used a Lego front loader truck to hand them off to me. “Here’s a C box,” he said. “That’s the carburetors. And here’s an M box. Wait, it’s a W box. Hey, it’s an M and a W. Cool.”
That’s what I love about kids. They are so open. Their wonderful beginner’s minds are so full of awe. To me, an M is never a W. It is only an M. A man is never a woman. A McDonalds is never a Wendy’s. A malasana is never a warrior II. When I start something new, I don’t think of it as cool. I think of it as hard. I think of it as strange and difficult. My own beginner’s mind forgets that it’s a beginner’s mind. It thinks it should know everything already, even as all around me, the world is made new again.
Obviously, spring is the season to flower and take flight. For me anyway, this spring is about taking risks as surely as this winter was about embracing the darkness. Taking risks. Letting go. Oh, there is so much I can let go of: the stories I tell myself, my tight grip on every minute of my day, my fear.
Today, Oliver reminded me of another spring 20 years ago when I was a sophomore in college. That year I qualified for a spot on the US Cross Country team as a junior, which meant I could run in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships held in Boston that year (1992). A few days before the race, there was a massive snowstorm that buried Franklin Park. The weather stayed in the 20’s and the wind came through the city like a freight train. Still, we showed up to run the course the day before the race, all of us bundled into our US-team GoreTex, sick of the snow and wishing that the race was held in another country, like say, Morocco or Mexico. As we trudged up Bear Cage Hill, we heard a lot of yelling and laughing. Whooping. We came around the corner and there was the Kenyan team, dancing around in their green and red sweats. They bent down to the ground and then pointed at the sky. They laughed and yelled things at each other in Swahili. Runners in general are a pretty neurotic bunch and I wondered if maybe they were doing some good luck ritual.
“Hey,” one of the US runners yelled to the Kenyan team’s American translator. The translator waved back at us. He too was grinning. “Hey,” the US runner yelled again, “What’s going on?” The translator loped over to us, and the US runner asked, “What are they saying?”
The translator looked over at the Kenyan team and then turned back to us and shrugged, his palms up. “They’re not saying anything,” he told us, smiling. “They don’t have a word for snow.”
We all stood, silenced by that. The Kenyan team was still jumping around and laughing, pointing at the snow and touching it, as if it were alive. Sometimes they grabbed each other’s hands and put snow in their teammates’ palms and watched it melt. We watched for a while, until finally, one of the US guys lowered his head and started to run again, up that hill. We all followed, quiet for a while, humbled and in awe. “No word for snow?” someone asked after a few minutes. “Did you see how happy they were?” someone else asked. I felt such a love for those Kenyans then, dancing around with their big joyful hearts.
The next day, on the starting line of the race, it started to sleet. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under my singlet and my bare legs were slathered with olive oil to stay as warm as possible. Before the race, my college coach screwed 3/4 inch long spikes into my racing flats so I wouldn’t slip on the ice. Next to me was the Kenyan women’s team. They were shivering in their nylon shorts and singlets and their toes bounced up and down on the white snow. They were running barefoot. For most of the race, I followed the bloody footprints they left behind.
Arguably, Kenyans are some of the most efficient distance runners in the world. To them, running is not just sport, it’s culture. It’s transportation. They are masters at running fast for a long, long time, yes, but they are not masters of snow. I would have bet that day in 1992, in Franklin Park in a snowstorm, the Kenyans wouldn’t have run their best. And that would have been OK because after all, they don’t even have a word for snow. And those words are so important, right? Don’t we need the label to define our experience? Don’t we need the story to explain ourselves?
Or maybe we don’t. That day in Franklin Park, the Kenyan teams won every race.
Tonight, as Oliver as going to bed, he looked up at the glow in the dark stars on his ceiling and asked, “Do you know what the brightest star in the night sky is?”
“No,” I said, curious to see what he was going to tell me. “What is it?”
“It’s the nut star,” he said solemnly. “If you get lost, you can follow it.”
Nut star? “Do you mean the North Star?” I almost asked, but I bit my lip. Who cares, I thought, stopping myself. Nut or North. M or W. Scared or brave. Beginner or master. Better than or Worse than. Who cares. I think of the way the Kenyans opened up their hands to that crazy foreign snow. I think about how my son just wants to soak in experience. We’re all just out here dancing in the snow. We’re all running uphill on our bloody feet. We’re all just trying to find our own nut star.
January 28, 2011 § 5 Comments
I have never really been an Oprah fan in the sense that I watch her show. It has always seemed a bit tawdry to me. However, I love, love, LOVE her magazine, O. I think it’s a decade old now and I haven’t missed an issue. It combines everything I love: spirituality, great clothes, big glossy pages, Martha Beck.
In the last issue, Oprah wrote that she has a sign posted on her makeup door that says: “Be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room.” She went on to say that for her new network: OWN, she feels responsible for the energy she is sending out to TV screens everywhere. I loved that concept of owning your own energy. Just reading that unstuck something deep inside that for a long time had been inflexible. For my entire life, I have been told I am too sensitive in a way that implied I wanted to be that way. When I walk into a room, I can tell if someone has just had an argument, and the way the air shimmers with anger stays with me all day. I can tell what kind of mood someone is in by the way they walk, by the way they hold their head. I can tell how my husband’s day was just by the way he turns the doorknob to come into the house. I don’t view this as a positive. I think it makes life more difficult. It makes my skin hurt. It makes me worry about things I have no control over. Since I have moved to DC, I have felt the anger of the city constantly rubbing against me, like sandpaper. It wears me out. The hostility here is wearing me down.
Adding to this, I have been having a difficult time with my 5-year old. For one thing, this is nothing new, as he is a challenging kid. Or I should say he challenges me. He’s pretty smart, he’s sensitive, and he’s strong willed. In many ways, he is much like me, and I react to him because at times, he outwardly exhibits all that I don’t like about myself. He can be too loud, too emotional, too attached to his ideas, too argumentative. I can say all of this because he is a wonderful, wonderful little boy. He is kind and funny and he tries harder than anyone else I know. I adore him. And yet, for the last several weeks, I haven’t liked him very much and this bothered me greatly. What is wrong with me, I wondered. What kind of lousy mother am I anyway? What am I doing wrong?
Of course, this feeling of inadequacy in myself only made my interaction with Oliver more difficult. Each new encounter became a battle, a power struggle. One time I carried him to his room. Another time, I yelled. Stop yelling, I said through clenched teeth. And we all know how effective that is. Most nights during the last month, I felt hollowed out. Exhausted. Like a failure. I was analyzing everything. How I spoke to him, whether or not I raised my voice when I asked him for the fifth time to put on his coat, what exactly I was doing that was causing him to put his hands on his hips and yell at me or kick at me, or yell “blah blah blah,” and dance around the kitchen when I asked him to wash his hands.
When I read Oprah’s missive: Be responsible for the energy you bring into this room, I suddenly got it. It wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong. It was the energy that I was bringing to the situation that was mucking our home life up. It was my own anger and frustration and feelings of inadequacy that were adding meaningless meaning to our interactions. If I thought about it sanely, all that was really happening was that Oliver was acting how he was acting and I just didn’t like it very much. There was nothing wrong. There was nothing to be fixed. There was just what was happening and there was my reaction. And only one of those things was within my control.
Since this revelation, things have changed a little bit. It has gotten easier, less fraught, and more gentle. I have been given a little bit of grace, each time I remember to be responsible for the energy I bring to the boys. Let me make it clear: it’s still not easy. It’s still far from perfect. Oliver sometimes runs around with his underwear on his head in the morning instead of getting dressed. “That’s enough!” I’ll call, but it’s different now. My jaw isn’t clenched. I am not really all that upset. I am not quite there yet, but I’m better. We’re better. And all that it took to create this seachange was a slight shift in energetics, a barely perceptible willingness to be responsible for something that most of us don’t believe even exists.
A decade ago, if I had known I was going to write this post I would have laughed. Rolled my eyes. Energy. Jeesh. Whatevah’. Today I went to see a sports medicine/chiropractor guy about my hip. It’s the left one, where I carry Gus for much of the day, and it’s been so locked up, my left shoulder is a good inch higher than my right. Dr. Skopp is about as bare bones as you can get. His office has plaster walls, a single massage table in the center. On a shelf are his awards as the trainer for the US Triathalon Team, the US Cycling Team, and others. He has mustache. He is the opposite of New Age. But after he did his Active Release on my IT band (not fun) and did a quick adjustment, I stood up and felt a rush of energy through my stomach. I felt something like happiness flood through me from my navel to the top of my head. I felt two inches taller. “You’re going to think I’m some California crazy,” I said as he scribbled something in my chart. “But I just felt this energy swoop through me.”
Dr. Skopp frowned at me. “Not crazy,” he said. “That’s physiology. When you’re muscles are locked up, everything is locked up.”
Sometimes I think Washington DC needs a chiropractor. At the very least, it needs an adjustment. DC is an intense city. It hums. Most of the time, everyone seems just about this close to losing their shit. Sometimes it seems that the centrifugal energy here is so great, that the city might levitate. I think it has a lot to do with the state of our government, the fact that 10 miles from my house is the Capitol, where Congressmen and Senators are screaming at each other and turning off microphones in the middle of speeches. Vitriol. Power. Politics. That energy spins out. Like poison, it reaches everyone in the city.
The other day I went for a run on Four-Mile Run Trail (which is made of asphalt) around Reagan National Airport and along the Potomac. On top of a little hill, I looked over at the city. To my right was the gentle, romantic dome of the Capitol. To my left was the white blade that is the Washington Monument (and I don’t have to remind you what that looks like, now do I?) Feminine, masculine. Rich, poor. Black, white. Republican, democrat. Government, non-profit. This is a city of opposites. Of contrasts and conflicts. It is at the corner of Things Getting Done, and Look, They’re Doing It Wrong.
It’s tough to not get caught up in that energy, in the madness of it all. I have to work hard not to hate it here, to not become so disenchanted that I stop trying. To not become so worn down by the weather and the sharpness and the impatience that I too become cold and sharp and impatient.
It snowed on Wednesday night. The next day, the Pentagon had a two hour delay. Schools were closed. And it was my birthday. Scott gave the boys breakfast while I went for a run in a world gone white. I skirted ice patches and jumped over slush puddles. The piles of snow by the side of the road made the hills seem less steep. The sun came out and the trees were bejeweled with diamonds. I was having so much fun, that I had run for a couple of miles before I realized I had left my iPOD at home. I climbed up one hill and then ran down another into the town of Del Ray, a kind of hippie enclave that I love because it seems so different from the rest of Alexandria. It feels like an exhale. Down the hill I was running, a father was walking up, pulling two kids on a sled and the mother was close behind with a dog on a leash. I waved to her and she waved back. “Doesn’t it feel good?” she asked, and something in me melted. Yes, I thought. Yes. It is such a rarity to hear such a soulful battle cry in this city – like finding life on Mars. I smiled and waved at her again and felt something shift, some basic goodness that snow and dogs and children seem to reveal. I ran down through Del Ray, past the Cheesetique and Wine Bar and the Homemade Pizza place and the Dairy Godmother, which is the frozen custard shop that President Obama sometimes takes his kids to.
For the first time in a long time, I felt real happiness. There wasn’t any reason for it. Nothing happened other than a birthday and a snowfall and a friendly greeting. Nothing in my life had changed except for the energy I received and brought to it. I realized that it is pointless for me to practice Warrior I and II and III while wearing Lulumon gear if I can’t be a warrior in my own life. That it’s useless to sit cross-legged and chant the lion-faced dakini mantra to deflect negativity if I can’t deflect some of that negative energy in my own life. What the yoga teachers say is true: our natural state is one of bliss. What they don’t tell you is the work it takes to remove all the obstacles that stand in the way of bliss, the work it takes to be responsible.
December 7, 2010 § 3 Comments
It’s been a month since I last posted and it is good to be back. I left because for a change, I had people paying me to write. And then I paid people to teach me how to write better. I had deadlines!! (Such a glamorous word to me, because I have always wanted to be a writer. And deadlines is such a writer’s word.) This fall I took 3 writing classes through UCLA Extension Writing Program and was paid to write two articles on local food and farmers. I knew the articles would be work, but I thought the classes would be easy. I mean, it’s extension, right?
All 3 classes were outstanding and I learned a great deal about the craft of writing. Additionally, I was able to workshop the first 40 pages of a novel I am finally putting on paper. This was probably the first time I have been out in the world like this (even though it was all online) since my oldest son was born 5 years ago. It felt good to do something for me, to learn something a little more tangible than how to mother, how to care, and how to love well.
It’s also been the first time in as many years that I had to do a bit of balancing, or maybe juggling? The first three weeks of class, I tried to do it all, and then stopped going to yoga in order to spend more time writing. The result was not so good. For the remaining six weeks, I tried to balance a bit better. I drank more tea and more green smoothies. I kept going to yoga but decided to stop my blog for a while. I stayed up really, really late most Monday nights. The result was better but not perfect.
I used to think that balance was about doing everything perfectly and just not letting anyone know how hard it was. Now I see that balance is sometimes about doing a little bit of everything, and sometimes it’s about making choices. And sometimes it’s just about trying to laugh as you fall down yet again.
My last post was about locking myself out of the house. For some reason – maybe the $236 price tag to get back in – that day has stuck with me. I have thought a lot about being locked out. Locked out of opportunities, locked out of youth, locked out of my own heart. That last one is a place familiar to me, or at least it used to be. I used to live there, a good distance away from myself, too busy trying to get everything right and make everyone happy.
It’s really my children who have let me back in. They gave me the keys home. In the last five years I have lived closer to the ground. Instead of circling around myself and running away from anything I didn’t want to face or acknowledge, I have had to sit still through the murky bogs of discomfort. With two babies in the house, where is there to go? And yet, when I don’t go – when I can finally stop running and just stay – the world cracks open. Who I thought I was cracked open. A few years ago when I was just starting out, when I was just realizing that I could listen to my own small tune instead of the steady thrum of the world, my yoga teacher stopped me outside of class. “I just want you to know,” he told me, “that I see who you really are.” And then he gave me a huge smile. I was stunned by this comment, and then I burst into tears.
I still don’t know who I really am. I am still learning. And there is usually a point every day when I look for an escape route. Each day I am reminded of what Pema Chodron says: “Never underestimate the inclination to bolt.” I am still learning how to be still, how to be brave, how to mold my own life into what I want it to be. But now, I can say that I am here, somewhere under my skin, swimming slowly towards the center of myself. So I have missed this blog, because it’s all part of the navigation system. And it feels as indulgent as a box of truffles. What is it about telling the story of ourselves that gives us permission to live the story out loud?
A few days ago I picked up Mary Karr’s memoir, “Lit.” The first part of the book is a letter to her son, and the first line of the letter is, “Any way I tell this story is a lie.” I loved that. That my life is not the only one with more than a little fiction in it. But I love more how she ends the letter: “Maybe by telling you my story, you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home.”
September 27, 2010 § 2 Comments
The idea to give up suffering is not unique to me, of course, but I have been thinking about it a lot. Always I am in the process of giving something up: chocolate, wine, complaining, dairy products. I have this idea that if I restrict some part of myself – the feline part, the aspect of myself that craves warm sunshine and sweet pleasures – that I will fit the mold I am supposed to fit, that I will somehow be able to lop off all the parts of myself that I am not as fond of. I realize that this doesn’t make any sense. I just finished a yoga workshop with Rolf Gates who asked us this very question. “Why is it that we think that if we kick ourselves around enough, we’ll be good people?”
On Saturday, I decided to try out this idea. What would happen, I wondered, if I stopped trying to get my life to look like the inside of a magazine, if I stopped obsessing about the outsides of things: fluffing the pillows just so, cleaning up the endless parade of Thomas trains, trying to get the golden tan and perfect abs of a swimsuit model?
I lasted about two minutes. As soon as I left my bedroom at ten of seven Saturday morning, I tripped on a stack of children’s books and immediately told my son (not even five) that he needed to be a bit more responsible about his things. “It’s OK, I’ll clean it up” my husband said, coming out of the bathroom with toothpaste still on his lip. “Go. To. Yoga,” he mouthed. I sighed. Already I was failing. Only now I was beginning to suffer about the fact that I couldn’t seem to stop suffering.
In yoga class, I felt like I had been given someone else’s body. Someone older and remarkably inflexible. I have just started running again and my hips are tight. I could barely manage downward dog and still breathe. What would not suffering look like right now? I asked myself. My body answered by sinking into child’s pose, which I rarely ever do. My usual mantra is “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” Hardly conducive to a lack of suffering.
On the way home I decided to stop at the store. Instead of calling my husband and checking to see if he needed anything, I continued on and took my time selecting apples, some chocolate chia seeds, coconut milk yogurt. No suffering, I thought to myself. I am going to enjoy myself. When I came home, Scott came running out of the house to meet me. “I almost called the yoga studio,” he said. “We’re really late for Oliver’s project.”
“What?” I asked. “I just went to the store.” Then I looked down at my watch and realized I was home almost an hour later than I said I would be.
“Oliver’s project,” Scott repeated. “It’s today at Lowe’s.”
“Oh God,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I had forgotten that Scott signed he and Oliver up for a father-son-build-a-firetruck project from ten till eleven. And then I added, “But you didn’t tell me. How was I supposed to know? I really wish you would learn to communicate more with me. I can’t do all the work here.”
Later, after they left, I found the word “LOWES” in big letters on today’s date on the wipe-off calendar we have in the mudroom. Oh, I thought, he did tell me. And I just made him feel awful. In my desire to end my own suffering, I had somehow passed it on, chucked it into my husband’s lap. Even the silence in the house felt accusatory. Gus, my baby, not yet two, walked in. “Mommy, play,” he said. But I was already gone into the buzz of feeling bad, and on top of that, the pressure to not suffer. You are just not doing it right, I told myself.
Also on the calendar under “LOWES” was a reminder about an Octoberfest party I had forgotten about. And I needed to bring something. “Let’s make brownies,” I told my son, and instead of playing, I sat him up on the counter with me as I took brownie mix from the pantry and added melted margarine and water, letting Gus taste the thick batter. I made frosting too, following a rich vegan recipe that made me feel a bit better about myself. After I frosted the brownies, I tried a small spoonful of icing and then another. Pleasure, I thought to myself. I am going to make this day about pleasure. I am going to allow myself all that I usually restrict, all that I typically deny. The spoonful of frosting was followed by another and then more, until half of the bowl was gone.
“Mommy, play,” Gus said, wandering into the kitchen again, after the leftover frosting was in the trashcan, safe, where the part of me that can’t be trusted couldn’t get to it. Now, in addition to being miserable, I had a stomachache, a head flying with sugar. I wanted to cry with the failure of it all, with how hard I try, only to come up short. I had just been to a yoga class. Why wasn’t I fixed? I felt like a fraud, like someone who goes to mass and then yells at the car behind then while still in the church parking lot.
Somehow I had mistaken a lack of suffering with hedonism, I had confused letting myself off the hook with allowing myself to get out of control. I had thrown self-discipline out the window. I had simply externalized my suffering, handed it off to someone else, and in my pursuit of external pleasure had created a brand new type of pain. I had just gone from one extreme to the next. I had abandoned my northern Puritanical roots for a day on the Las Vegas strip and had completely skipped the middle. Why, I wondered, did moderation feel so extreme?
In the same yoga workshop in which Rolf Gates talked about the way we beat ourselves us, he stressed the need for stability. Equinimity. A sense of happiness with ordinary things, with the way life was at that moment. The workshop was held in a large gym, and even though outside, it was a normal, swampy D.C. summer, inside the gym, the air conditioner was on full blast. Those of us in yoga tanks were shivering. “How many of you practice yoga in a warm room?” Rolf asked. All of us raised our hands. “Is this room warm?” he laughed. “But it shouldn’t matter,” he continued. “You show up, you do yoga. It’s hot, it’s cold. It doesn’t matter. You don’t feel like it? It doesn’t matter. You show up. Yoga isn’t what you are doing. It’s how you are being.” I thought of that now. Being yoga. Practicing equinimity. Ignoring the whining voice in my own head the way I sometimes ignored my son’s: “I can’t understand you when you talk like that, sweetie.” A way of only paying attention to my power, to the truth, to the way things were, regardless of how I felt about them. A way to end suffering by simply ignoring it, by waking up to the present moment and just sinking in to whatever it offered. Maybe suffering was optional?
When I was moving, my yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson suggested I make a self-care package for myself, something to get me through these days and weeks of change and uncertainly. She herself had a book full of inspirational quotes, photos, poems. She told me about how she paves her weeks on Sunday nights, making sure she had what she needed in the days ahead to be her highest self: time to meditate, healthy food in the fridge, time with her children. A way of caring for the powerful part in her. I, on the other hand, had forgotten the discipline it took to be an adult. To take responsibility. I had mistaken selfishness for self-care.
So I wrote down a list of what I need for the week. Green smoothies for breakfast and chocolate-flavored tea. Poems by Mary Oliver and my fleece-lined flip-flops. More vegetables. Time on my mediation cushion and time watching Glee. Talking like Sir Topham Hatt and watching my sons giggle and race Thomas and Gordon around their wooden track. Snuggling with my husband. Simple, simple things. Things that take me out of my head and into that soft, still place behind my heart.
September 24, 2010 § 13 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.