Gratitude

November 9, 2010 § 6 Comments

On Friday, I locked myself out of the house. It was both a stupid and innocent thing to do. Gus and I were going to pick Oliver up from preschool and I made it out the door with our usual pile of stuff: diapers, wipes, water, snacks, books, a Thomas train or two. We were both buckled into the car, when I realized I left my keys in the house. And, yep, the door locked behind me on my way out. At first, I wasn’t worried. We had a spare hidden in a fake rock by the garage. But then I remembered that the week before, Gus was playing with it, lost the key, and I hadn’t yet replaced it.

Shit, I thought. Shit, shit, shit. How was I going to get Oliver from school? How was I going to get Gus down for a nap? How was I going to get into the house? I started to panic a little. Okay a lot. And then I saw my husband’s red key ring in the back seat. I had borrowed his spare car keys last week and they were still in my car. They were there for the same reason I forgot to put the spare house key back in the rock: laziness, a stupid mistake. But there they were, shining and waiting for me. In an instant, everything changed. I could get Oliver from school! We could meet my husband at work and get his house key! We were mobile!

Thank you, I thought. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Suddenly, this stupid mistake filled me with gratitude. Gus was strapped into his car seat and not locked inside the house. I had keys, a wallet, a mobile phone. Since we were going to have a picnic in the park after school I had snacks, bottles of water, warm sweaters. I could have been walking out barefoot to take out the trash, but instead. I had shoes on my feet!  In seconds I had gone from cursing to praying.

Everything didn’t work out as smoothly as I thought, of course. It turned out my husband didn’t have his house key at work, either, so I had to call a locksmith. The boys and I had to wait outside for almost an hour and Oliver had to go to the bathroom. The price to reenter our house was $236.44. And yet, through it all was a feeling of tremendous gratitude. The whole day had the vibration of a prayer to it. My boys were with me. We were safe. We had shoes. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Once we were inside our house again, the boys ran to the playroom as if it were brand new. I made a pot of coffee and took my time, appreciating my kitchen, the music playing, the sound of happy children, the smell of the coffee. Later, we went out and played in the leaves. The boys handed them to me as if they were offering me jewels and I accepted them, those gorgeous colors of flame and fire. Even in summer’s death, there is such beauty, such wonder.

The next day in yoga, Carolyn, the yoga teacher talked about the end of daylight savings time, how some people get depressed in the early darkness. She said we needed to stay positive, to see the light during this dark time of year. She mentioned that we could get up early and be greeted by the dawn now, that winter was a time to go within, to try something we had never dared to before. She said we shouldn’t be afraid.

I have always been one to get depressed with the lack of sun in the winter. In fact, that is one of the reasons I moved to California fifteen years ago. During my senior year at Cornell, I was so cold, I promised myself that winter would be my last. And now, I am facing my first winter in almost two decades. I am afraid of the cold dark days, the slush and sleet I will be trudging through. I am dreading the horrible flu I always manage to get around the winter solstice, the illnesses the boys will get, the way that tattered Christmas decorations hanging in January always break my heart a little bit. I am afraid of so much – of everything really, and all the time.

It’s no secret that I don’t want to live in Virginia, that I don’t like Washington, DC very much. I am tired of the endless aggression, of people blaring their car horns when I stop for someone in a crosswalk, of the way two parents pushing a single stroller can each be on a separate cell phone call, their baby staring straight ahead. Sometimes I think this whole city has absorbed the energy of a partisan government and there is so much tension, so much anger, so much unrest in everything. I don’t like the weather here or the landscape. I don’t like my son’s school and I feel like an outcast still. I am so homesick for California that there is always a place in my chest that is a little bit sore with the missing. And yet, by seeing only the darkness, I am missing out on all that there is here to be amazed by and grateful for: the kindness of our neighbors, the size of our house, the trees that soar into the sky, the autumn in its riot of color. And more importantly, it seems that there are lessons here for me that only this city can offer: how to slow down while all around me is moving so quickly, how to be alone, how to listen to the steady beat of my own human heart.

Locking myself out reminded me that there is always something to be thankful for, always enough, always abundance. I am trying to remember this, to learn the lessons as they come to me. The day before I asked for steadiness, and I was given a day to practice being steady. Now was a chance to practice gratitude, to realize that I had everything I needed, that enough is as good as a feast, that I am so very lucky. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Steady, steady

November 4, 2010 § 2 Comments

This morning, both boys started crying before eight o’clock. Gus, who has a cold,wanted to nurse, but since he had been nursing for over half an hour already, I called it quits. Oliver didn’t want to go to school. “I won’t get dressed!” he yelled at me, “I won’t do it!” Like I always do when I feel overwhelmed or without an answer, I panicked a bit on the inside. That what do I do now?? question always gives me a bit of a stomachache. I thought about trying to talk to Oliver, but I could tell he needed a moment to sulk – if I went in now he would just yell more loudly. There was nothing I could do about twenty-two month old Gus, who lately, has been making his opinions very loudly known. So I waited until he (mostly) stopped crying and hopped into the shower. Gus entertained himself by throwing shampoo bottles into the bathtub and Oliver came in a few minutes later wearing a tee shirt and underwear. “Mommy,” he said, “Can you help me get my pants? I can’t reach them.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. It had passed, those childhood storms that threaten to last forever. Today, it only took eight minutes. But it made me realize how upset I get about every minor disaster and how minor disasters are the very thread of early childhood. How else can children develop a moral compass other than immersing themselves in what is forbidden? How can they be sure of their limits unless they test them?

For me it goes even deeper than that. For the past three weeks, I let myself get caught up in deadlines and people visiting, parties and new classes I am taking. I found myself spun up in stress that left me sleepless and tired, and tied up in duties that I was fulfilling instead of enjoying. This morning I felt as if I had arrived back home. My face in the mirror looked normal, my eyes no longer puffy. I am back to cups of tea at night instead of wine and I started cutting back on the caffeine a bit. Last night I vowed not to get so caught up again. I knew that part of that key is to stay present, to live with my heart forward and open and my core strong and engaged. I think I need to learn how to be steady, how to be in the world and not of it. I need to learn how to listen to my soul instead of my endless to-do list.

I used to be worse. I used to always dwell in the place of deadlines and chaos. I worked in investor relations, where one wrong move could get me fired. Back then, I existed on adrenaline and fear, chardonnay and chocolate. For me, children were the door out of that crazy, crazy world. My first son, Oliver, cracked my tailbone when he was born, and has been steadily cracking open my heart ever since. He is not easy, that one. He pushes every button I have, but has also taught me everything I know about being a mother. He, more than anyone else ever, brings me to my knees, and has shown me that kneeling, that reverence and surrender and grace and humility are the way into the present moment. Gus, the baby, is like dessert. His love is easy and freely given. He reminds me of what is good in myself and in the world. But his challenges will come too, I am certain.

This morning, when the boys were eating cereal, I opened up my copy of “Meditations From the Mat,” written by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison. (For those of you who haven’t read it, that book is like going to a concert where your favorite band opens for your other favorite band.) I was looking for something on Brahmacarya, or moderation and found this quote: “It is always 3 a.m., raining, and you are at the intersection of two maps, when your country needs you the most.” It is a U.S. military officers’ joke, but it summed up everything I know about motherhood.

For some reason, I think there will be a time in my life without trouble, hard work, or chaos. I have a parallel universe where I imagine I will live someday, in a house that will never need to be cleaned, with children who will never challenge me, and with deadlines that are always easy. Today, as I read this quote, I realized that the way it is now is the way it will always be. I will never have all the answers. There will always be a bit of loneliness and fear. There will always be things left undone. And then, as if on cue, Gus kicked a soccer ball into my full cup of tea, sending Nutcracker Sweet all over the counter, the cabinets, the cookbooks.

Someone up there was looking out for me, making sure I got the lesson.

I had asked for wisdom and for moderation and for peace. My answer was a tea-splattered kitchen. Practice, practice, practice, said Sri Pattabhi Jois, and all is coming. As I cleaned up the mess, as Oliver took the soccer ball into the other room and said, “Mommy, I told you this would happen,” I thought of the night Gus was born.  In the hospital, as he was making his way, I told the nurse I couldn’t do it. I said I had changed my mind about natural childbirth and wanted the drugs after all. She laughed at me.”The hard part’s over,” she said in her soothing Irish accent. “You’re doing it. You’ve already done it.” It was enough, what she told me. She steadied me. She gave me enough to keep going.

Really, what other choice do we have but to keep going? Karen Maezen Miller writes on her blog that when she is at the end of the rope, what she needs is more rope. “Change your perspective, and the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty.”

I wish I could say that my steadiness lasted all day, that nothing fazed me and that I approached everything with a sense of calm equanimity. Instead, I made my usual pile of mistakes and at the library, paid my customary fine of seven dollars (big sigh). But Gus said his first sentence (“Need a new diaper”) and Oliver put together his new LEGO kit without (much) help from me. The rain fell all day, but even that was steady, another answer to my prayers.

My work is cut out for me this fall. As we head into the darkness, my goal is not to complete every class assignment I have or to be the most accomplished mother at my son’s preschool, or to lose those fifteen pounds. My goal is to be steady, to stand in the rain at the intersection of two maps and not freak out. Practice, practice, practice, and all is coming.

Fear

November 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

There is a line from James Joyce’s The Dubliners which reads, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” I know that place, because that is where I have been living for the last three weeks. I’ve left the place beside my heart and have been inhabiting another space, an overwhelming one where there is always too much to do and never enough time.

This is not a nice, comfortable space, and it’s not very safe here. Slowly, I am finding my way back home, but the trip back is always so much longer and harder than the journey into chaos and overwhelm. It reminds me that I am not yet there, I am not yet living in a true place of peace. I still have further to go just to achieve a somewhat balanced life. I have to work so hard to stay just a little bit centered. Like William Blake, I live as if opposite extremes will lead to moderation.

Three weeks ago my editor asked me to correct an error I made in an article about local food by writing another article, a longer, more in-depth article. I jumped at the chance to prove myself, to make my editor look good, to show him that I am a writer who can be trusted. Since I just started taking three writing classes and don’t have childcare for my young sons, I had no idea how I was going to write this 2000 word article.

I poured myself into this project not because I wanted to (I didn’t) or because I am a perfectionist (I am not) but because I am so afraid of failure. And failure to me always seems so immediate, the default option, that in order to manage my fear, I scramble like someone being evacuated during a disaster. It’s only now that I realize the emergency I was running from was my life.

For three weeks I haven’t gone to yoga, I haven’t meditated, I haven’t read books for pleasure. I haven’t been sleeping well or eating right and instead, have tried to compensate with multiple cups of coffee and Halloween candy, with midnight TV and a glass (or three!) of wine because the caffeine had given me insomnia. Pretty much the only thing I did right was to not take it out on my children. But still, if you asked them, they would probably tell you their mom hasn’t been a whole lot of fun lately.

During this time my son was turning five, so I also had to plan a party. I kept reminding myself that it should be fun and simple, so I decided to have it at home, the day before Halloween. We would serve coffee and bagels and fruit and cake. But still, one of my son’s friends doesn’t eat wheat, and I barely knew the parents of the other three boys who came. We have only been living in Alexandria since June and I don’t yet have any real friends. So what started as a simple and sweet party turned into another potential failure that just had to be avoided – the house needed to be super clean, or people wouldn’t feel comfortable, we needed to have our good china out so my potential new friends felt cherished. We needed to provide stimulating (but not too stimulating) entertainment and old-fashioned fun but still come off as hip parents. I didn’t want to screw up this chance for our family to make some real connections in Virginia.

My poor husband. As I made a birthday cake from scratch, as I drove to Target the day before the party for treats and giftbags (nothing with sugar or plastic), Scott raked the leaves and planned games. The day of the party, everything looked perfect. Coffee was brewing, Scott bought bagels (and then when out to get another dozen when the first 12 didn’t seem like enough). Even Oliver said he was going to have the best party ever. He grabbed my arm as I was putting juice on the table and said, “Mommy, did you see how much work Daddy did?” I rolled my eyes and then told myself that this wasn’t a competition.

After the party – which was great not because of my efforts but because of the five, five-year olds and their siblings who would make anything special – I was exhausted. One of the moms sent me a thank-you note and another sent me an email apologizing for being out of it because it was the first time she had left her new baby. A thank you note! I was floored. Who does that anymore? She was out of it? I hadn’t even noticed. We are all so very hard on ourselves, aren’t we? We all think that failure is just a step away.

There is a card I have on my nightstand that reads, ” Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”

I am so far from that place. Maybe I will never be there. But I don’t want to be here either, so afraid of failure and rejection that I lose touch with what is going on around me, that I forget we are each afraid of those very same things. That I forget how incredibly fragile and breakable all of us are.

Where Am I?

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