December 11, 2010 § 3 Comments

The word “present” is on my mind these days. It’s the season of course of giving and receiving them, but I am thinking of the other meaning, of being present, mostly because I am having such a hard time doing so. “Never underestimate the inclination to bolt,” writes Pema Chodron, and that phrase runs through my mind all day. I am always bolting, always looking for a distraction lately. Maybe because it is Christmas and there is so much to do. Or maybe it’s because Christmastime is always a bit fraught for me and I am not entirely sure why.

This year is no exception. It is strange to celebrate Christmas in a cold climate after so many years in California. There, we went to the beach during December and forgot for a while that we were supposed to be shopping. It didn’t seem like the extended play version that is the holiday season on the east coast, the kind that starts in October and ends on January first.

Additionally, my children are challenging me, which makes me feel like a crap mother. Gus is going to be two in a few weeks and is starting in on some temper tantrums. The other day, we were riding the Metro back from the city at 5:00 pm and Gus wanted to get off. “All done,” he said, trying to get down from his seat. “Finished,” he added in case I didn’t hear. “GET OFF NOW!” he shouted, and when I held him he started to scream. “More nursing,” he said, trying something new. I have nursed this kid in just about every corner of DC except for maybe the Oval Office, but I was not about to nurse him on a Metro during rush hour. Instead, I told him stories about playing soccer and riding bicycles. I thought if I appeared unruffled, the other passengers would relax and maybe not call security on me. It worked and Gus stopped screaming somewhere between the Pentagon and Braddock Road. But still, by the time I got home, I thought I might have a touch of post-traumatic-stress-syndrome. Within minutes of walking through the door, I yelled at my husband.

Oliver has started hitting again, which bothers me like nothing else. Since he was a 15 months, he has displayed displeasure by hitting and kicking and biting.  I am not sure how much is his nature and how much is my fault. That is always the question in my head as a mother. And I can’t stay unemotional about it. His outbursts trigger my own anger and it scares me. The other day, he was really having a meltdown – something that hasn’t happened in a while – and I tried to hold him like I did when he was three. I suppose he is too old for that now, and to show me, he threw back his head towards my face. To my horror, I reached up and yanked on a piece of his hair to stop him. I am still ashamed of that. “It was just instinct,” my mother said, when I confessed of my sins to her, “you were protecting yourself.”  But if those are my instincts, how can I trust them? “You’re a good mother,” Scott tells me, and all I can think of to reply is: “A good mother, does not pull her son’s hair.”

This summer, mothering came so much more easily to me. We spent long, slow afternoons outside.We got lemonade and ice cream and went swimming. We didn’t know a single person and it was just the boys and I, safe in our little nest. From May until September there was no school, no play dates, no one else. Nothing was rushed. There were no coats or mittens or hats to struggle into. Every day was an adventure and it was easy to be a good mother. It was easy to stay present with so much space and sunlight.

These inside days are more trying for me. The sun rises too late and sets too early. All of the monsters in my head that were dissolved with the summer sun are dancing around in my head all day. Do I love my children well enough, I wonder a zillion times a day. Am I teaching them the right lessons? Am I preparing them for this world and teaching them kindness? Am I slowing down enough to appreciate the daily miracles? Am I ever going to have a friend in this strange new city? I am lonely and homesick and can’t seem to settle into DC, as wonderful and beautiful as it is. These are all thoughts that are begging for time on the meditation mat, or time on a long walk. Instead, I am afraid to feel what I am really feeling. I am afraid that I will be crushed by the weight of my thoughts, of my doubts about myself and uncertainty about the future. So instead of being still, I eat another Christmas cookie and try to push my fears away. As a result, I am living on the surface of my own life, ice skating on top of all that deepness below, the holy mystery that I know will reveal itself to me if only I surrender to it, if only I can stop running long enough to be gotten.

Today I finally put on the brakes. The laundry was in the machine and the dishwasher was running. The floor needed to be swept and dinner needed to be made, but Gus just woke up from his nap and Oliver wanted to play with his cars. So I sat quietly on the floor while Oliver vroomed Matchboxes on the carpet and told me stories about them while Gus hopped into my lap, making car noises like his brother. For an hour we were still and I was present and it was good. I even lived through it.

Maybe the secret is that we don’t have to let everything in at once. Maybe when there are small children to attend to, we just take little dips into our psyche, coffee breaks with our own chaos, a bit of horse whispering with our inner demons. All I know is that there is a great unraveling ahead of me. There are thoughts to be unspun, fears knotted up like fine chains that must be gently unkinked, doubts as wild as ponies begging to be soothed. Perhaps it’s good that it’s dark and cold. Maybe I need this season of going inward to finally explore what it is I have been given this lifetime to discover.


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