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.
January 16, 2011 § 4 Comments
In the beginning of winter, I wrote about darkness, how it scares me. This year, I decided, instead of hiding out from winter and merely enduring it and waiting (desperately) for spring, I would embrace the darkness, the cold, the short days and long nights. This applied to myself as well. Since I can remember, I have always had shadows lurking at the corners of my life, things I didn’t want to deal with, demons that made me cover my eyes as soon as they appeared, that made me walk too quickly past the corners they were peeking from. This December, I decided I would deal with their darkness too. Come on Demon Children, I implored. Bring it!
Well, here’s what happens when you invite in your monsters: they show up in about a nanosecond. They have a big ol’ party in your head. They trash the joint.
“Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart,” writes Rilke, “And try to love the questions themselves.” This is more difficult than it sounds. Unlike the patent leather sheen of New Year’s Resolutions, all of this unresolution, to me, is as dirty as old snow. For the past two weeks, I have been trying to write about my monsters and demons and unresolutions. I have been blogging about them (and then deleting the posts) almost every day. Mostly, I have been writing about the hard time I have with being a Navy Wife. Basically, I am about as anti-war as it comes, and yet, my housing and food and life are pretty much paid for by the military. It poses a moral dilemma at times for me. Additionally, many roles of the Navy Wife are at odds with the feminist upbringing I had in the late 70’s. But I am digressing. You can read all of this in the posts I deleted. I trashed them because every one sounded like a big bitch fest. Finally, I put down my laptop. I stepped away from the computer. I didn’t need to send all that garbage out into the universe. Instead, I realized, I needed to dust off my meditation cushion, sit my ass down, and deal with the mosh pit inside my head.
I have to say, the first session was pretty tame. I lasted maybe nine minutes, but it was peaceful. It was quiet and still, with the exception of Oliver calling from his room occasionally, “Mommy, is quiet time over yet? Is is thirty minutes now?” I felt sadness and more than a little fear but it was manageable. Still, I had the feeling that I didn’t really know what I was doing, that I was doing it wrong, which is kind of my own special mantra. Then, the other night in yoga I heard two guys talking about a meditation class. “Dude, are you going to the realm of the Dharmakaya?” was what one asked. “Count on it,” said the other. “How is that class?” I asked. “Awesome,” said the guy named Marcus. “You should check it out.”
Because my intention for this year is to experience more pleasure, I thought maybe I would. It sounded nice: a class to teach me how to meditate. Maybe it would even have a chapter on how to evict monsters. This isn’t something I would normally do because I already have so much to do. (Make sure we have a family dinner! Clean up! Be there for the boys at night!) It seemed too decadent to leave the house tonight (on a Sunday!!) at 6 pm, but I did it anyway. I drove away from the mess of dinner and two little guys with cabin fever and drove off with my buckwheat-filled meditation cushion. Pleasures!!!
At the yoga studio, the check-in desk is usually manned by thin, lovely yoga teachers with long hair. Tonight, a heavier woman sat at the desk wearing a sky colored cable-knit sweater and black pants. She looked like the mother of a yoga teacher, like someone who shopped at Talbots rather than Lulumon. “Hey,” she said when I told her my name. “You brought your own cushion! Great!” No, I thought. She’s the teacher?
When Mimi walked into the room, all 17 of us were arranged in a lopsided circle on blankets and blocks. Mimi put her hands on her hips and stared at two people in the back. “Ha!,” she said. “You thought you were sitting in the back.” She turned to the front of the room. “You,” she said, “Marcus, you get into the center.” Marcus looked at her. “I’m underdressed,” he said. “If I had known I was going to be in the center of the Dharmakaya, I would have worn a collared shirt.” Mimi laughed again. “Too bad,” she said. “Now move.”
What happened next was strange. She formed Marcus’ group into a tiny square with one person making each side and then arranged all of us around this little box. As we moved closer together in this strange formation, I began to feel safe. Cozy. Mimi told one of the women – a yoga teacher – to stand up and look at the shape we made. The yoga teacher paused and looked a little surprised. “It’s an eight-pointed star.” Mimi nodded. “I just formed you all into a yantra. Google that word when you go home. Yantra means sacred shape.” Sacred shape. I loved it. I loved that together – most of us strangers – our bodies made a sacred shape. I wanted my family to be a yantra. Maybe I even wanted my life to be a yantra too.
Mimi asked us to close our eyes, and in her calm, matter of fact voice, she told us how to breathe. “Breathe into your body and send your breath out and down through the floor.” Next she told us to breathe out of the right side of the body and then the left. It felt strange, like mist rising on only one side of a lake. She told us to send our breath out the front of our body and to the back. She told us to send out breath to each other, to the mothers and fathers of everyone in the room, and then to the people in Tucson, to people everywhere who were suffering. She told us to send our breath out to the Dharmakaya, out into pure spaciousness. She called in the masters to be with us: the Rinpoches and the goddesses and something called the Brothers of White Light, which I still need to Google.
I have never meditated like that before. It felt magical. It felt like time travel and a little like flying. I was so busy breathing that I even forgot to tell myself I was doing it wrong. But even better was this sense of safety I felt. Since I moved to DC I have only felt aggression. I have only felt a vague and nameless hostility. Tonight in that tiny little room, I felt warm. I felt safe. I felt cozy, somehow sheltered by Mimi’s voice and those great spirits from the Dharmakaya. I felt like I haven’t felt since we left Ventura. Relief, sweet relief flooded me. The monsters even took a break and stepped outside for a smoke.
The final part of the meditation may have been my favorite though. Mimi told us we were going to do a hand-clapping practice of the Lion-Faced Dakini. What? I know. Bizarre, right? But here’s the thing. This Dakini is like the bad-ass of the deity bunch. She’s got your back. According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, she clears obstacles of the most pervasive and malignant kind. She is regarded as the wrathful manifestation of Guru Rinpoche. To me, she looked a little like Pink. We were going to call on her and our manta went something like this:
By the blessings of the Great Truth
May all curses, sorcery, black magic and so forth,
And hateful enemies be reversed! (Here we all clapped a big thundering clap)
May all negativities be sent back to the harmful maras! (clap)
Completely reversed with no trace remaining! (clap)
By the strength of this wrathful female’s awareness mantra,
May the maras that cause obstacles to the accomplishment of awakening
And all harm doers without exception be annihilated,
And may all intentions be achieved as though wish-fulfilling.
I love that mantra. It made me feel like a superhero, especially the part about “black magic and so forth” and reversing the harmful maras. I thought of Wonder Woman in her bodysuit holding up her palms and sending those lightning bolts right back to the villains. Annihilated. Take that! Shazam!
That lion-faced dakini is no joke. She made me feel safe and powerful at the same time. Or maybe that was Mimi or the energy in the room, or whatever happens when we all make a sacred shape together. Whatever is was, I am hooked. I’m going back for more.
January 1, 2011 § 3 Comments
Yesterday I was able to spend the afternoon with one of my best friends. She has been like a sister to me, since we met 16 years ago (that long! it doesn’t seem possible!). Julie lives in Ashland, Oregon, about an hour from Scott’s parents’ house and since we were flying out of an airport close by, we decided to spend the day together. As a treat, Julie made massage appointments for us at Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens in Ashland. Cho means “to become clear or serene; pure.” Zu means “with water.”
It’s been so long since I have done something like that for myself. I don’t think I am one of those “mom martyrs” who doesn’t take any time for herself because I do. I run or go to yoga and take time to write. I rent movies on Netflix and watch them. But I haven’t had a massage in years. It seems so frivilous in this economy. Too decadent and undeserved and unnecessary. And yet, yesterday, there I was, soaking in one of Chozu’s outside hot baths, watching the steam hit the cold air while I sipped lemon water.
Not only was I watching the steam, I was watching my thoughts spin so fast that it was scary. I haven’t meditated in a long time and haven’t done yoga in the two weeks we were away despite packing my yoga gear. In the time we spent with Scott’s parents, I was in a state of best behavior and in a kind of spinning. I didn’t sleep well and I had bad dreams. I know it wasn’t that I was staying with Scott’s family, who are more than warm and kind and generous. For months there has been a spinning within me, a resistance to the present moment, a resistance to feeling much of anything because I had too much to do. Because as a mother, I could only participate in happy thoughts, positive energy, pep talks to myself. In the baths though, the feelings I have been avoiding rose up in the steam and became clear. They solidified as Fear and Shame, two twin specters that manage to shrink me to almost nothing.
Here’s the part where you usually hear about the trauma I suffered when I was 9 or 12 or 21. But guess what? There isn’t any trauma. I was raised in a happy home with a stay-at-home mom who I think actually liked that role. My mom waited at the bus stop for us after school because she missed us. She bought wheat germ and actually used it. She played with Matchboxes and with my doll house. High school wasn’t all that fun of course, but due to the fact that I was a pretty good runner, I escaped full-blown nerd status. I went to an Ivy League school that my parents paid for. I have absolutely nothing to complain about and suffered no major incident that would cause these feelings.
But then, it’s not that kind of shame. Or maybe it is. What I think of is “an embarrassment of riches.” A shame at not having done more with what I have. The shame that comes from watching an Olympic gymnast and seeing what is possible. The shame that comes from going to a market in a Mexican neighborhood and watching while the woman in front of me has to put food back because she doesn’t have enough money while in my pile I have blueberries. Organic milk. It’s a shame acquired in the usual ways I suppose, the prosaic incidents of personal failures and heartbreaks and disappointments. The silly embarrassments of being human. Lost dreams and friends that eventually fade like storybook characters. And the fear? I have a sneaking suspicion that I am afraid of things that have already happened. Most people probably make peace with all of this, but I haven’t yet. There in the Chozu baths, they rose like apparitions as I sat naked in that hot water surrounded by stones and bonzai trees.
“Pam?” called the massage therapist from around the corner. “Why don’t you get dried off. We’re in the first building on the right.” I padded after her, the concrete cold under my feet and crawled into the blankets on the massage table as if it were a cocoon. How hard we all work as mothers, I thought. How rare it is to have time to think, to have the luxury of actually meeting our demons face to face instead of only catching a terrifying glimpse in the darkness of night, as the digital clock flashes 4 AM, or in the gauzy light of afternoon, in that gloomy hour between 5 and 6 pm when everyone in the universe except mothers seem to be meeting in some glamorous hotel, sipping cocktails so cold they make your head hurt.
What surprised me about the massage was the sadness that spilled out as the therapist worked on my back, right behind my heart. Sadness spread like honey from a broken jar, sweet and as golden as sunshine. Tears pooled up in my eyes, but it was a sweet release, something that I have held onto for far too long. The body, I thought, keeps track of everything. It records events exactly as they happen. My feet are almost always cold now, because of the near frostbites I had as a child because I refused to get off my horse in the Pennsylvania winters, instead, letting the iron stirrups turn my feet into white ice. My back is tight from carrying Gus so often on my left hip. My Achilles tendons nearly always crack now, memories of chronic tendonitis from college running. There are age spots on the side of my face, where the sweat ran the sunscreen off during long Sunday runs in San Diego when I was in my twenties. The body records so accurately each act of kindness, each misstep: an exact karma, where every infraction is carefully paid for.
My mind is less reliable. My emotions seem to record only the stories I have told myself about what happened. My twin towers of Shame and Fear seem to dominate, seem to be the prevalent narrative about my life and I am not sure how truthful they are. And even if they are a steady non-fiction, I am not sure that I want to keep reading. As the massage therapist worked her gentle magic, I saw the stories I tell myself scattered on the floor: books thrown carelessly down, their spines up, or their pages turning in the breeze.
It’s time to clean house, I thought. It’s time to organize, to put these dusty old books on shelves where they belong, their spines straight and pointing out, organized by date or size or subject matter. This year, I want to sweep out all of the stories, all of the lies I tell myself, all of the dust and detritus that no longer serves me.
I am not sure how to do this. I think it might start with that sweet, gentle release of sadness behind my heart. I think it might have to do with staying inside the joy a little more, with believing it, with staying in the present moment and finding some measure of pleasure there. “You Americans are so good at entertaining yourselves,” says an Italian in the movie Eat, Pray, Love, “But you don’t know anything about pleasure.” These lines stayed with me from the movie. Pleasure, I think now. That is what I want for this year. More pleasures. By this I don’t mean more decadence or entertainment. I mean less suffering. Maybe I even mean “staying present” but I don’t think so. I think I mean pleasure, even if it’s only in my breath or heartbeat or a small measure of kindness or compassion. We are on this earth for such a short time that I want to enjoy it more. I want to relax into, as Pema Chodron calls it, “this one good life.”
Tonight, on our last night in Ashland, Scott, Oliver, Gus and I ate dinner at Creekside Bistro, where we demolished a large pizza. “What do you want for this year Oliver?” I asked him after explaining New Year’s Resolutions. “I want to go home, Mommy,” he said, which made Scott and I smile. It’s been a long trip. And yet, don’t we all yearn for home, for that delicate feeling of total acceptance and rest? “I want to more pleasure in the present moment. Less suffering,” I said. Scott nodded. “I want more joy in the present moment.” Gus was busy with his sticker book. “What do you want this year Gussie?” Oliver asked. “Do you want more ice cream? Do you want more ice cream next year?” In true form, Gus ignored all of us, and continued with his stickers. Then the waitress arrived with our pizza. “Pizza,” Gus said as she set the plates down on the table, the silverware, the tall metal stand on top of which rested the pizza. “I want pizza!”
Here’s to 2011. Here’s to wanting the pizza when it arrives. Here’s to feeling sweet sadness and rich pleasure even in the everyday monotony of being alive.