Outing our Inner Perfectionist

September 29, 2010 § 7 Comments

I have just started blogging, and at 37, I feel both too old and too young for this new sport of mine. It’s liberating and humbling and I am inspired at every turn by what is out there. In the last week, I have read two wonderful posts about contradictions; one from Lindsey Mead Russell and one from Danielle LaParte. Each was a coming out of the closet of sorts- an outing of our inner perfectionist – and each brought about a great feeling of relief in me. An ah, I can finally stop hiding my US Magazine from behind my New Yorker type of moment.

I am not sure why women of our generation feel such a need to be perfect. I see it in mothers and those without children, in working and non-working, married and single. Many of our own mothers, in the eighties, decided to “have it all,” and you would think we would have learned from them. Instead, it’s even more intense now, more fraught. Sometimes, I think that if I fit securely, definitively inside a mold or a label (NPR-listening, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberal), I will be safe. That nothing bad will happen if I toe the line and follow the rules. So I don’t mind being constrained by my own rules any more than I mind being constrained by a fabulous belt or an uncomfortable pair of shoes. Fitting in is worth the pain.

My son attends a Waldorf School, which I hoped would take us out of the striving mainstream of northern Virginia and give us a little break. Instead, I hear snippets of conversation at drop-off and pick-up that set off my internal Richter scale of anxiety. “We NEVER watch TV, Nathan has never even seen TV” to  to “We only eat oatmeal for breakfast” and “Have you had your son diagnosed for that?” Last week, I ran into another Waldorf mother in a local organic market. She looked exhausted, and while her two-month old daughter slept in her car seat, my friend told me she couldn’t talk because she was late for a CNN interview about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup. I watched as she quickly dropped milk into her cart and then sprinted off. What disturbed me most, was that instead of wondering how I could help her, I thought, Crap, now we’ll have to throw away the ketchup.

This evening, my husband, two sons, and I left my parents’ house in Pennsylvania and traveled four hours back to Alexandria, Virginia. At six, my husband stopped for gas and then mentioned heading to a nearby McDonald’s, which made me panic a little. Mostly because I wanted crispy chicken something (anything!!!) which isn’t entirely consistent with the vegan lifestyle I would like to lead.

While my almost-two year old nursed and my husband waited for his behemoth SUV to fill with gas (a non-renewable resource! a major source of pollution!) I lamented that what I wanted was at odds with who I wanted to be. “It would be easier,” I told him, “If I just stopped labeling myself. Vegan. Organic. Homemaker. Career girl.”

My husband raised his eyebrows at me. “You think?” he said.

I ignored his sarcasm. “It’s getting really hard to be perfect all the time. I should be a vegan, wear only cruelty-free clothes, serve organic food, be a fabulous wife, lose 15 pounds, have an organized underwear drawer, practice yoga every day, have an immaculate house, be present with my kids all day, have a life outside my home, be a great runner again (preferably, marathons!!!), learn to knit, meditate every day. Not feed my kids high-fructose corn syrup. Be more mellow.”

My husband got back in the car. “Or,” he said, “You could just change your definition of perfection.”

“No way,” I said, shaking my head, “Perfectionism is only what the name implies.” It wasn’t something to be messed with.

And yet, as I heard myself, I was exhausted by what I tried to do every day. The only time I have ever been successful at perfectionism was when I was in college and only did two things: I ran, and I went to class. As a result, I could run a 5K in about sixteen minutes and I made Dean’s List every semester. But what I got for my efforts were half a dozen stress fractures, boring Saturday nights in the library, and a degree I don’t really use.

My husband took the boys out of the car while I went into McDonald’s and ordered for all of us.  A Happy Meal (with the toy!), a cheeseburger meal for my husband, and the crispy chicken bacon ranch salad for myself (not vegan! not vegan!). I sheepishly brought it over to the table while my husband either didn’t notice or pretended not to. My older son Oliver sucked down his milkshake and Gus, the baby, gobbled half of my husband’s fries. Both of them ignored the apple slices. As we trooped back out to the car, I almost expected one of us to fall over and convulse or have some type of adverse reaction to the chemicals and inhumane practices we just inhaled. But somehow, we all made it out of there. Oliver removed his construction truck video from the DVD player and put in Baby Einstein for Gus. Gus didn’t try to pull his brother’s hair. We skirted traffic, and instead watched darkness fall along the George Washington Parkway. Oliver sang “Wheels on the Bus” and “Row row, row your boat, eventually down the stream …”

Later, after we finally made it home, I climbed into Oliver’s bed with both boys. Gus was nursing (again! shouldn’t he be weaned by now!!) and Oliver was snuggled next to me. It wasn’t a perfect day by any accounts. We generated more than our share of trash at McDonald’s, the boys watched about three hours of videos on our drive, I lost my patience somewhere around the Maryland state line, I didn’t exercise, and I am sure we all consumed more than the RDA of high-fructose corn syrup. But at that moment I was between two of my favorite people on the planet. Gus, nursing away, was slapping my stomach (which shook! need to do more ab work!!) and Oliver moved closer to me and signed. “Mommy,” he said, “This is the life.”

He was right. This is the life. Our one good life. Contradictions, imperfections, and all.



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.

Married to the Military

September 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today I read a note that is being circulated by “Married to the Military”, although it was originally written by Paige Anderson Swiney in Chicken Soup for the Military Wife’s Soul. The note was followed by many, many comments, most from military wives, talking about how true this note was to them. I read it, hoping to be inspired. Instead I was outraged. Indignant. Livid. Really, really angry.

“Look at this,” I said to my husband, dragging my laptop over to where he was reading in bed. Calmly, he put his book down and read quickly. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it,” I said. “This woman has lost herself and is using the military to justify it. She’s saying her unhappiness is contributing to ‘our freedom’.”

My husband looked at me, blinked, and said, “I don’t really see the problem with it. She’s taking care of her family and her husband, so effectively, she is helping him do his job better.”

I sighed loudly. And then my anger was replaced with the emotion it is always replaced with when I read inspirational articles about other military wives. I feel like a failure for not being just the right kind of military wife. I sometimes feel badly that I don’t define myself by what my husband does, that I ask him not to wear his combat boots in the house because they scare me a little, that I question if our military really should be in Iraq. And I feel guilty for not suffering more, because what I see around me is that somehow, making yourself small is noble. It’s patriotic. It supports our troops.

In high school, I stopped eating for a year. There are probably many complicated reasons for this, but I think the biggest reason was that I felt too big, not physically, but in what I wanted. My goals were too grand, I was too ambitious. What I was asking for was too much. Look at me, I think my 83-pound body was saying. Don’t you see how little I really need?

My friend Geeta cut out a quote for me by Marianne Williamson that reads: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?

This never really made sense to me until after I read “What Military Wives are Made Of.” We live in a culture of martyrdom, especially as women, and even more especially as military wives. My friend Mai, also a military wife with a Master’s degree in engineering once said to me, “I don’t love it, but I’m OK with being known as only my social security number. But then it hit me – I’m not even my own number. I’m my husband’s.” The military culture is not exactly a progressive one. Military wives are encouraged to support their husbands as well as other wives, often to the detriment of their own dreams and goals. Even Michelle Obama, when speaking at the Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives Luncheon said, “You give your all and ask very little in return, only that we back you up so our troops can do their job.”

Um, really? Just think Michelle, I would whisper in her ear if we were at a cocktail party together, just think of what we could accomplish if we asked for a little more than that? Just think of what we could contribute if we weren’t treated like Penelope, steadily unraveling at her loom, waiting for Odysseus to return. Just think of what this strong group of military wives could get done if we weren’t pitied, or told we were “tough cookies” or encouraged to ask for so very little in return.

And then it hits me. Who are we really talking about here? Aren’t I the one attached to being small? Aren’t I the one who gravitates towards suffering in the way I sometimes often complain to my husband after he gets home from work about the laundry, my son’s meltdowns, the lack of stimulation and isolation I sometimes feel as a mother to small children. Aren’t I the one who is keeping myself down when I wonder,Why did I work so hard to get an Ivy League education, when all I really needed to know was how to set the over to three-fifty and separate the whites from the darks?

Because what is this other than playing small? Isn’t self-pity just another term for not appreciating the richness of what is around me every day? My son’s meltdowns are really telling me that he feels safe with me, that I am a haven where he can fall to pieces and collapse, rather than build up a hard armor against the world. That instead of being isolated, I have the enviable position of being cocooned off from the world for just a few years where I am allowed to build up a cozy nest for my sons to grow and learn and begin to spread their new wings. And the laundry? The grocery shopping? The endless cleanup of breakfast and then lunch dishes, of spilled juice and fingerpaints? A yoga teacher of mine (Bhava Ram) once told me, as I complained to him about these mundane tasks, that I was doing more yoga in scrubbing the toilets that in hours spent on my sticky mat.

In a yoga class a few months ago, we held extended side angle pose, Utthita Parsvakonasana, for what felt like a long time. We took the bind and made our selves compact, and then extended our bodies into a long line of energy. “What do you need to do to be comfortable in this pose?” Our instructor asked. Inevitably a few people fell over because on some level, we all believe that we are really only still standing because of how hard we try. That the only guaranteed path to success is working really really hard. That our suffering is necessary. “What can you let go of that no longer serves you?” she asked again.

I wonder now, what if I let go of suffering? What would happen if I stopped “playing small?”

Walking on My Hands

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.

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