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.