February 28, 2011 § 3 Comments
This winter I have been confronted by my own fear on numerous occasions. My fear of rodents and rodent-like animals is evident on the mornings when I (actually get out of bed to do it) run early, before dawn. I am vigilant, running down the middle of the road, throwing caution to the wind in order to avoid a 30-pound creature. The thing is though, sometimes the raccoons are real. I saw one a few weeks ago walking over the snow with its horrible arched back, its nose on the ground. It was across the street from me and when I tried to continue running it stood up on its fearsome hind legs and hissed at me. I had to stand there for a long time in the cold and wait until it walked away.
Today before yoga, the instructor came over to me and asked if she could “spotlight” me when demonstrating jumping back into chataranga. “What?” I asked and looked behind me. Who was she talking to?
“I can’t do it yet,” she told me.” Do you want to demonstrate?”
I stared at her. I have been working on jumping back for a while now, and sometimes I can do it but most times I can’t. “Thank you,” I said. “Really. But I am afraid I won’t be able to do it in front of everyone.” Cara, the teacher, was lovely about it. “It’s OK,” she said, “Don’t worry.”What I was thinking was, I can do jumpbacks? Seriously?? Me?
Immediately, I started freaking out. During our first downward dog, I was shaky and had butterflies. My back hurt. No way was I going to be able to do a jumpback now. My entire class was ruined. My heart was pounding. The raccoons were back. They were all around me, gnawing on my mat and walking all over my yoga towel with those paws of theirs.
I tried to watch the fear, to just stand in the cold until it was gone. i am not even sure where it came from. The thing about yoga though is that when the raccoons come – and they always come – there is nowhere else to go. You just hang out wherever you are and try desperately to breathe.
I am not sure why I was so freaked out by the attention. Sometimes I wonder if despite the fact that I always complain about feeling powerless, I actually prefer that feeling to the responsibility that comes with being powerful. Maybe I just didn’t want to be the person who could do a jumpback because then I would have to go through the complicated process of explaining that I wasn’t. That really, I was the person who couldn’t do the jumpthrough. Yoga was my safe place. I just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want any extra work there. I didn’t want to be useful. As much as I want to live yoga and be yoga, maybe I really don’t. Or maybe I believe I am not allowed to.
Tonight, in meditation, the hits continued: we had to partner up. (Partner up? No way. Shit. Can I sneak out?) I hate partnering up. It reminds me of holding sweaty hands in Brownies. Square dancing in gym class. Speed dating. Great, just great. Even meditation was going to be a bust today.
The experience was pretty full-on. I sat across from Jesse, a sommalier who is about my age. At first I was glad. I love Jesse. He’s always smiling and fun and I often place my mat next to his in yoga class because he can do jumpthroughs. I would be safe with Jesse. Then we began the awkward process of moving our mediation cushions closer together so that our knees were almost touching. Jesse and I smiled nervously at each other. We laughed. Ha ha.
I tried to take a deep breath. Oh god, this was awful. I was wearing a tee shirt I wore to a bonfire yesterday and it still smelled like smoke. I had gotten out of the shower 20 minutes prior and showed up to meditation with no makeup, my wet hair pulled back, my breath probably smelling of the balsamic vinaigrette I put on the salad we had for dinner. If I had known we were partnering up to enter the dharmakaya, I would have primped.
As Mimi led us in meditation, I felt myself holding my breath, even as she told us to inhale, to exhale deeply into the earth. I couldn’t breathe. I had no idea who I was supposed to be now, sitting in front of this yoga friend. In each area of my life I had a specific persona. At school I was the Good Mom. At the park I was the Playing Mom. With my extended family I was the Weird One Who Moved to California. With my friends I was who they needed me to be. At yoga I was the Invisible One (Who Can’t Do Jumpthroughs). These were important distinctions. They required preparation. Consistency.
But now, I was sitting in front of a yoga person and I couldn’t be invisible. We were extending to each other, sending each other our heart energy. Oh, jeez, I thought, feeling myself shake a bit. I just wanted my husband. He was my one safe person who I dropped all the personas for. Who was I supposed to be now?
Mimi started to read us a Buddhist text about Wish-Fulfilment. I tried to concentrate but I couldn’t listen to the words, send out my heart energy, and freak out at the same time. Fuck it, I thought. Wish-Fulfillment will have to wait. I gave up.
What happened is what always happen when we surrender. My heart opened up. I could breathe again. It was only Jesse after all. He didn’t have an arched back or too many sharp teeth. All I had to do was send him love and receive it. And soon that is what happened. I felt us sitting together inside of a giant heart. I could feel it beating and it held us up.
Afterwards, when we talked about our experience, Jesse said he felt safe, that there was a warm, benevolent energy around us. He said he felt as though we were in a container. Wow, I thought. He felt that too. It made me wonder what would have happened if I surrendered in yoga class and actually did the jumpback in front of class. Would it have been any more terrifying than this?
After class, I stopped at Trader Joe’s to get some fruit. At the entrance were tiny little weeping pussy willow trees. I love pussy willows and the boys and I talked about getting an Easter Tree and decorating it with felt eggs. (How Waldorf of me! How Good!) The tree was perfect, so I took it home and removed the little tag it came with to see how much water it needed. Instead of care instructions, what I found was a little story. Apparently, this little tree was a “Tree of Enchantment. Among the most graceful of trees, it is connected with all that is feminine-dreaming, intuition, emotion, enchantment, healing and revitalization. The willow’s flexibility symbolizes resilience and inspires us to move with life rather than resist what we are feeling.”
Below that were the real care instructions. It told me to make a wish, tell the tree my deepest desire and then tie a loose knot in one of the branches. After my wish was fulfilled, I was then to thank the tree. My heart opened a little bit more. I guess I got my wish-fulfillment after all.
February 20, 2011 § 10 Comments
The winter has ended here in Alexandria, and for that I am so grateful. I know, people here say it will snow again, but whatever. Big whoop. Winter as I remember it – below zero temps, icy roads, wind so cold it hurts, snowdrifts so high you can’t even see the tops of parking meters – is over. In fact, here, it only lasted a few weeks.
Now, instead of winter we have mud. The park the boys love the most is called The Pit because it used to be the staging area for houses in our neighborhood when they were built in the 1930’s. Now, it’s a big park with an asphalt play area, a big sand box, abandoned bikes and scooters and toys, and a mini woods with a trail kids can run on. In the summer it is scorching, and now, in late winter, it has mud like quicksand.
We went the other day and were the only ones there except for two moms on the asphalt area. They were the Perfect Moms, as I call them, right before I scold myself for judging them. But really, I am not judging, I am just envious of their blow-outs, their perfect figures, the way they can look beautiful in down jackets. They wear cute flats or the fur-lined, Sorel snow boots I covet but can’t justify spending money on based on the fact that I live below the Mason Dixon Line. Most of the time, these perfect moms don’t have sons.
The day we went to the park, the two Perfect Moms were talking while their young daughters played. My own boys roared passed them, their coats flapping in the wind and their sturdy LL Bean boots making them look like tiny astronauts. Tiny astronauts headed for the mud.
I tried to make eye contact with the moms as we went by but they were deep into their own conversation. Just as well. My red hair was -as usual – a crazy cloud around my face, I had on a baggy fleece jacket, and my own feet were tromping by in a pair of Lowa (not cute) hiking boots. Oliver took one of the scooters that “live” at the park and headed straight into the mud and Gus followed behind. The mud was so thick that Gus’ boot got stuck and he started crying. The scooter Oliver was using also got stuck and he laughed, delighted at the force of the mud, at the pull of Nature.
I was waiting for it. I knew it was coming: “Girls, Stay OUT of that MUD,” called the Perfect Moms. I closed my eyes. Usually, I tried to at least make eye contact or wave. Sometimes, if I am feeling friendly, I ask if it is OK my boys are playing in it. Today though, I just didn’t care. Oliver and Gus had been forced inside by the weather for too long, housebound while their neurotic mother followed behind them with a broom and a dustpan. “Don’t jump on the couch, don’t run in the house, wipe your feet.” I had been a broken record for weeks now. If they wanted to play in the mud, then they could damn well play in the mud.
I thought we would last longer than we did, but it was only about 15 minutes before Oliver’s boots got stuck in the mud while he himself was still moving forward, his arms on the handlebars of the scooter. He was launched out of his own boots and landed headfirst into the mud. If it wasn’t my child, I probably would have been doubled over laughing. It was kind of hilarious, actually, like something you see on YouTube. But as I ran over, I could see Oliver was upset. Gus also came running over, and as he saw the mud running from Oliver’s hair to his nose, he started to cry. I comforted Oliver and wiped the mud from his face and Gus too settled down. “Nice work,” I told Oliver, meaning it. “That was pretty cool.” Oliver smiled. “Did you see that?” he asked after he had calmed down. “Absolutely,” I said, and then Oliver got upset again as more mud ran into his face. “It’s OK,” I said. “There’s a towel in the car.”
Unfortunately, we had to march by the Perfect Moms on our way out. “Ewww,” said one. “Look at all that mud. Someone’s going to have to do a lot of laundry tonight.”
I smiled at them, one of those tight smiles that really means “Shut the fuck up.” Yoga, I thought. Remember the yoga. This depresses me, the fact that although I have been doing yoga for years, I still have these loud, ungenerous thoughts.
Inside my trunk were two huge fleece blankets for covering the boys up on school runs, when the heat in the car doesn’t turn on fast enough to warm them up. I told Oliver to take off his hat and coat and shirt. His boots. All of it went onto a blanket and I bundled him into my fleece jacket. I carried him into the car and got Gus bundled in as well. Oliver was so dirty that there was mud in his ears, inside his nose.
The Perfect Mom was getting her own daughter into her Range Rover. “I love a mom who’s prepared,” she said in her singsong voice.
“Uh huh,” I said back.”Thanks.” I loaded the bundle of mud back into the trunk of my own very dirty Prius, feeling like I was in high school, that somehow, I didn’t have the DNA to be cool, that I had missed something fundamental to my development. That even if I could afford a Range Rover, mine wouldn’t be as clean as the Perfect Mom’s. My hair would never be that straight. If I wore ballet flats, they would be filthy within hours.
Whatever, I told myself. The boys seemed happy. “I didn’t get mud on my nose,” Gus kept saying on the way home. “Mommy, did you see that fall I did?” Oliver asked.
At home, I raced up to start the bath. I herded Oliver and Gus downstairs into the laundry room and peeled off the rest of their clothes. Scott came home right after and put them in the bath, marveling at the mud that was caked into almost every tiny fold of skin, every finger, and every toe. I went back down to the laundry room and began to remove the wet liners from the sturdy boots. They could be washed. I took apart the 3-in-1 coats, which required 8 snaps to be undone. I went back upstairs and back out to the car to clean the car seats and to take in the mittens and hats. My own fleece, now full of mud.
I had to pause for a second outside and catch my breath. Suddenly, this simple task seemed insurmountable. The mud. The dirt. Every time I cleaned it up, it appeared again. It lasted for days. I found it in a corner of the kitchen, under the dining room table, on my jeans. It was never going to go away. I thought of something Lindsey posted: “Do I ever arrive anywhere without a car trunk full of things that need unloading, unpacking, putting-into-place?”
My life would always be a mess. I would always have unkind thoughts, eat too much chocolate, be unable to go vegan. I would never be one of those lovely, graceful yoga teachers. Hell, I wouldn’t even be someone with Sorel boots. Really , was it too much to ask for? I just wanted to be fixed already.
This winter, I made a commitment to embrace the darkness, to really go within this year and see what I could dig up. In the words of Alana at Life After Benjamin, I vowed to go in with my Mag light and tool kit. I wanted to excavate the ruins. I wanted to find something gleaming that would be worth saving. I wanted to find some gem within myself that shone brightly. And there have been discoveries, semi precious jewels that are banged up and a bit cloudy but that might be valuable someday. There have been moments where I haven’t eaten the chocolate, or poured the glass of wine or madly tried to clean the house in order to just feel better. But I still do all of those things. I still try to escape my own skin sometimes. I still try to outrun myself in the hopes that the me who I don’t like so much won’t catch up. Standing there outside as the cold came back and the darkness fell, and still, loads of laundry to do and mud to sweep up and soon a bathtub to scrub, it all just seemed too much. Perhaps I was beyond any kind of redemption. Maybe there was just too much dirt.
I thought of what my college track coach used to tell me before big meets, when I was so scared I couldn’t see straight. “You know what to do,” he would say. “After the gun goes off, it’s just work. Just do the work.” Then the work was running around a track 13 times, putting one foot in front of the other for 5000 meters, trying to make my split times, trying to run faster than the girl next to me. Now the work is more nebulous, the pain more diffuse, the epiphanies diaphanous, the questions looming.
But there are voices too. There are blogs, this kind of other-world where people are greeted by the words of their hearts. There are echoes from the past, of others with more guts than me. “Tell me,” Mary Oliver asks as I turn the dog-eared pages, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
February 16, 2011 § 6 Comments
Yesterday, I received a comment from Kristin Noelle about my post Uncertainty. She wrote: The raccoons are everywhere. That is my new go-to quote when talking about reasons to fear. Now we just need a comparable one for trust…
I have been thinking about her comment for the last two days. Especially yesterday when I got so caught up in my own fear, I made myself miserable, even when nothing was wrong. Trust, trust, trust. You would think it would be easy, but I forget all the time. And yet, if fear is the poison that holds us back, trust is the anti-venom. In yoga, there is a practice called Pratipaksha Bhavana or “cultivating the opposite.” What it entails is simply thinking a positive thought immediately after thinking a negative one. When fear is felt, one should cultivate trust – if one remembers. The problem is in the remembering.
I have been thinking about a way to remember to come back to trust after fear much as we try to remember to come back to our breath in meditation after the mind takes us away. What I thought about was Joseph Campbell and his discussion of ritual in The Power of Myth. In his book, he talks a great deal about the lack of rituals in our culture, especially in adolescence. ( I also think we lack rituals in middle age as well.) In my own adolescence, running became my ritual. Every day during high school and college, I tied up my shoes and tried to outrun prelims and rejection and leaving home.
The rituals I cultivated in my 20’s were achievement! advancement! ambition! Now, in my late 30’s, my rituals involve small children. Making the beds. Cutting apples. Spreading peanut butter. Folding laundry. I unfurl my yoga mat and come into downward dog. These are the acts that now ground me in the now, in the present moment. And of all my “rituals,” these are undoubtedly the most healthy.
Today I was wondering if I could cultivate some sort of ritual to disarm the fear and general ickiness I feel once the clock strikes 2 pm. Lately, I have been feeling “stuck” during the late afternoon. This is an empty time of day, without structure, and it mimics the uncertainty in my life as a military wife. Usually, everything is fine during these hours, but my fear transforms this time into a bit of a panic. What are we doing? Where are we going next? If I could think of some way to imbue the quality of trust into these difficult hours, perhaps I could cultivate the opposite of what I usually feel. Then, rereading Thomas Moore’s amazing book, Care of the Soul, and I found this:
Ritual maintains the world’s holiness. Knowing that everything we do, no matter how simple, has a halo of imagination around it and can serve the soul, enriches life and makes the things around us more precious, more worthy of our protection and care.
A halo of imagination. Holiness. What if I could infuse my dreaded “unhappy hours” into something holy? What if I could make the ordinary sacred? I need something to remind myself to trust.That even though I may not know where I am living in 15 months, I know where I am living right now. That bad things may happen to me but right now, there is nothing wrong. That some day I will die but right now I am alive.
Moore cautions against “making up” rituals because they “may support our pet theories but not the eternal truths.” But still, I can think of many everyday rituals that are ordinary but also support an awareness of something greater, something timeless. In my son’s preschool, they taught the children now and next. We wash the clothes and then we dry them. We breathe in and we breathe out. These are small, ordinary gestures that remind us to trust that in the present moment, nothing is wrong. And present moments are all we have.
I am thinking about maybe taking the boys for an afternoon walk as a way of creating a ritual or something sacred in the pre-dinner hours. Here in DC, spring is arriving timidly but most assuredly. It is in the 40’s and 50’s most days and there are oceans of mud to run through. For me, connecting to nature dissolves much of my panic. I am not sure if Thomas Moore would call it a ritual, but it is something that can be a little holy, at least to me.
Today, we walked down a path near a local park. Gus insisted on carrying a rock the size of his head and Oliver imagined that we were Star Wars Kitties, which is kind of a heartbreaking portrait of where he currently is right now: one foot in his preschool world of innocence and the other in a world where light and dark, good and evil are so clearly evident. In a way, it was almost fitting as he was calling to mind Joseph Campbell himself, whose book Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place. I was Anakin, Oliver was Luke, and Gus, of course, was Yoda. “Hold you me,” is what he says when he wants me to carry him. I tried to make the walk feel sacred, if only to myself. I tried to notice the air, the warm sun, the buds starting on the trees.
It was good. I am not sure if it was a quality of trust, or of simply having to remember to meow and use the force at the same time while also attempting to keep Gus from wiping out, but the afternoon was pleasant. I didn’t feel the yawning abyss of uncertainty. It was peaceful. Maybe, it even felt a little bit holy.
February 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
Last night was Sunday, which meant that from 6:30 until 8:15, I went to meditation class at my yoga studio in Alexandria taught by Mimi Malfitano. This meditation class is a bit different from the classes I have attended before at other Shambala Buddhist centers where I simply sat and watched my breath. Mimi talks about archetypes and the dharmakaya – the realm of pure space, the essence of the universe. But make no bones about it. Mimi is the real deal. She studies Dhogchen Meditation at the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies and volunteers at the Washington National Cathedral’s Crossroads Program. She has clearness to her and a peace that I don’t encounter very often. And as I have written, her sweaters alone keep me coming to class. Cable-knit, mock-turtleneck, cashmere. There is something about a Buddhist on a meditation cushion wearing street clothes that gives me great comfort. Last night she had on an argyle sweater that will sustain me into August.
In class, Mimi talked about Valentine’s Day. She talked about our hearts and how it is so easy to get stuck in our lives. “We feel anxiety or stress or unhappiness, but this is just the surface. What we want is to go below these feelings. What is under the anxiety?” she asked. “Only by going deeper and opening our hearts will we get unstuck.” Fear,” someone in the room said. “Fear is below anxiety.” “Yes,” said Mimi. “Or uncertainty.” Fear. I am always afraid and of everything. This morning I got up early and went for a run before the sun came up. I was terrified that a raccoon was going to sneak up on me or that an opossum was going to fall from a tree and land on my head so I ran in the center of the road. That is, I did until a car came around the corner too quickly and almost took me out. How embarrassing I thought, if I was run over by a car because I was afraid of a raccoon.
Uncertainty is another big one for me. In fact my fear is probably a result of my uncertainty. I hate the feeling of groundlessness, the way it flips me upside down and leaves me clawing at the air. And yet, most days, I will tell you I am comfortable with it and I have made peace with the fact that we move every two years. That yes, Scott will likely be sent to Afghanistan for six months or a year, but he will be safe over there on a base. No, I don’t know where I will live in 15 months. It might be California again or it may be Gulfport, Mississippi. Or it might be somewhere else. And I am okay with it. It is fine. We are lucky that Scott has a job, that we don’t worry about the economy. It is fine. We will be fine. Everything is just fine.
Daily, I dread the time between 2 and 5 pm. It is the black hole in my day, the time when I am rendered powerless, when I can’t decide whether to go to the market or to the library or the park. I thought maybe it was because our morning routine ends when Gus wakes from his nap and we have no plans. I thought it was because children are never at their best during the late afternoon. I thought everyone dreaded those 3 hours.
When the clock moves into the 3 o’clock hour, I start to make tea and drink it by the pot. I stand in front of the refrigerator and stare at the oranges and the milk. I sometimes herd the boys up and we go to the park if it isn’t too cold or we simply stay inside the house, while inside myself, I am going a little bit crazy. I stand in front of the washing machine taking deep breaths while the boys drive their trucks in the adjacent playroom. I remove the hot towels from the dryer and join them with my mind spinning. What is going to happen next? is the question that swirls in my head until the darkness falls, until the key turns in the lock and my husband comes home, until it is finally – and once again – over for the day.
Sitting in meditation last night, I tried to unspool the anxiety I feel every afternoon. As my breath quieted and my body softened, I had a thought. Could it be that the groundlessness I feel from 2 until 5 every day is a recreation of the uncertainty I feel about my own life? After we moved to Alexandria and unpacked, I told myself that I was settled, that the feeling of groundlessness was tamed now, its girth cinched up tight. I told myself that I had left those feelings of uncertainty in the garage in the empty cardboard boxes. But could it be that every day, I was unpacking them? Could it be that I was actually recreating daily, on a small scale, what I so greatly feared in its actual form: that tremendous gut-clenching uncertainty?
A year before I met Scott, a friend of mine set me up on a blind date with a guy in the US Special Forces. We never actually went out because he never returned from Afghanistan. I never met him and I don’t remember his name, but every time I convince myself that Scott will be fine, I think of him. I think of Francis Toner, a Seabee Officer (like Scott) who was killed by an insurgent while jogging on a base in Afghanistan. I tell these fears to Scott and he nods. He hugs me. And then he tells me the truth, which is that he could get hit by a bus crossing the street. That he could be killed while in his office at the Pentagon. Disasters can strike at any time, even on hot dry days in September, when the sky is so blue it hurts. Even then. Especially then. In her memoir Devotion, Dani Shapiro writes “the world could be divided into two kinds of people: those with an awareness of life’s inherent fragility and randomness and those who believed they were exempt.”
The question is what to do about this fear, which is like my fear of North American rodent-like mammals. The raccoons are everywhere. Claire Dederer, in her amazing memoir Poser talks about her fear of mountain lions on a hike with her husband. She tries to prepare herself for an attack. She visualizes the lion in the tree, the way it will crouch and leap at her, the way it will hold her head in its jaws. What really happens is that it starts snowing. Instead of being attacked by a mountain lion, they are blinded by a blizzard. Dederer writes that she couldn’t believe it. “All along, I had been worried about the wrong goddamn thing.”
Maybe the problem isn’t that I’m worried about the wrong goddamned thing, but that I’m so goddamned worried. In Devotion, Shapiro writes that “I didn’t know that there was a third way of being. Life was unpredictable, yes. A speeding car, a slip on the ice, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever. To deny that is to deny life – but to be consumed by it is also to deny life. The third way – inaccessible to me as I slunk down the halls – had to do with holding this paradox lightly in ones own hands.”
When my son Oliver was young, a wonderful teacher at his preschool told me about “now” and “next.” As in, now we are eating breakfast and next we will brush our teeth. Now we are playing with trucks, and next, we will start cutting carrots. I try to take a breath and think of that. Now I am taking the clothes from the dryer. Next I will play with the boys. Now we are cleaning up and next we will read a book. Now I am turning the pages and next we will go for a walk. Now I live in Alexandria. Next I will live somewhere else. Now Scott is here. Next …..
I can’t go that far yet. Now. Stay. Stay. Now. Rinse, wash, spin, repeat.
Now is all we have. Next is if we get lucky. Anything after that is just gravy.
February 11, 2011 § 8 Comments
A few days a month, we play hookey from preschool. My son Oliver is 5 and next year, he will officially be a kindergartener. It won’t be so easy to take days off then, so I do it now, while we can. Instead of driving off to his Waldorf school, we head the other direction to the Braddock Road Metro and ride the rails into DC. Usually, we go to the National Museum of American History and spend all our time in the transportation wing, which is full of streetcars, old-fashioned trains, buses, and glimpses of Americana through the 20th century. It’s a pretty amazing place.
Usually these no-school days are great. We get to play a bit longer in the mornings and we stop for a special snack. I tried really hard to make today a fun day too, but there was much complaining by my five-year old despite the cinnamon rolls for breakfast and the ability to read in bed for a little while. I am in the last stages of a bad cold and my throat still hurts. I was tired today and I wasn’t sure how much stamina I had.
During our outing, I kept looking at my watch, wanting to be somewhere else for some reason. I was aware that I wasn’t enjoying the present moment but could not shake a general sense of grouchiness, a feeling that we weren’t getting to see all that we needed to see at the museum. I was in a hurry despite the fact that there was nowhere else I had to be. I wanted to relax into the moment and into the day but I was annoyed by Oliver’s whining and the way he kept pushing his brother out of his way.
Finally, at noon I called it quits by the robotic car, which was designed by Stanford for DARPA. On the wall over the car was a video of the race it had won, despite having no driver. It kind of creeped me out, but Oliver, who loves anything with wheels, was hooked. “OK buddy,” I told him after the video was finished. “We need to pack up and go now.”
“NOOOO!” Oliver yelled again. “YOU NEVER LET ME HAVE ANY FUN. IT’S NOT FAAIIRRR.” What I was thinking was: Haven’t I been letting you have fun all morning?
I signed and started walking towards the museum’s front door. I thought of a post that Lindsey Mead Russell wrote about life being a poem and a practice. “Stop and breathe,” I told myself, but I was already huffing and puffing in my winter coat. The metro station was still a few blocks away, through the wind and the frigid day. “Mommy,” said Oliver at the front door. “Do you have my red hat?” I had given Oliver his hat while he watched the video.
I looked at Oliver and felt my eyebrows knot together. “You left your hat back there?”
Oliver put his hands on his hip. “It’s not my fault. It was in your backpack.”
“You need to get your hat,” I said and we made the walk back through the museum, passed the gift shop and the ice cream shop and the coat check room, all the way to the back of the east wing. There was the hat, right next to that robotic car. Oliver picked up his hat and jammed it on his head. “This day is no fun,” he said.”I’m tired of walking.”
I had to put Gus down in order to zip up Oliver’s coat and Gus started to cry. “MOOOMMMMYYYY, CARRY ME.” Despite my best efforts, I was losing it. I felt an anger rising and then I was angry at myself for getting angry on a day that was supposed to be fun. I put all of my fury into zipping up Oliver’s coat. But I had momentarily forgotten he was still wearing it.
“HEY,” he yelled as I yanked the zipper up halfway. “THAT WASN’T FAIR.”
“Let me tell you what isn’t fair,” I said. “It’s not fair that we skipped school and ate cinnamon rolls and came to this museum and you are yelling at me. We’re going to school from now on.” Maybe I even added, “and that is that.”
“Oh my,” said the Voice in my head. “I think you said that out loud.”
Somehow we made it to the Metro. I watched my fury dance in front of me, dance through me, even as I cursed it. Even as I tried to melt it with compassion. It just didn’t work because I felt no compassion. I deserved no compassion. Did I really zip his jacket up like that? I wondered? Did I really say that out loud? I knew that the source of my irritation was not necessarily my son but the fact that my son did not appreciate what I wanted him to appreciate. I thought that I deserved wonderful behavior from him because it was a special day to me. And that’s not how parenting works. “Your kids are going to love things you think are no big deal and they won’t appreciate things you think they will love,” my own mother told me. “Whatever you do for them you have to do for your own memory books, not theirs.”
As always, in my worst moments, I think of my favorite parenting book: Mitten Strings for God by Katrina Kenison. In her chapter titled Discipline, she writes: “The issue, then, is not whether or not we can mold our children to do our bidding, but whether we can learn to ride out life’s ups and downs without losing our own bearings.” The way she writes about her son Jack is a mirror of how I feel about Oliver. She writes: “In [Jack’s] passionate, headlong rush into life, he has shown me exactly where my rope ends, where my patience runs out, where my edges fray, where my own outer limits really are. He has taught me that in order to be an effective and loving disciplinarian, I must first be able to control myself.”
I had not controlled myself. Again, I had failed.
We were sober and quiet as we rode the cold escalator down into the Federal Triangle Metro stop. We sat on a bench and waited for the Blue Line. We got seats when the train came and settled ourselves, tired and wanting to be home. “Mommy,” said Oliver, lugging up my backpack. “Can you read to me?” I pulled out Martha Speaks from the backpack and we began again. It is a book that Oliver can read too and somehow, in a matter of minutes, we were laughing at the dog. We were pulling out the flashcards from the back and playing a game with them. Gus momentarily got bored and started kicking the seat in front of us. I was tempted to just let him after our morning, but there was a woman sitting there, wearing a black coat and a hat. “Gus,” I said to him, “Please stop kicking.” He didn’t stop. “Look Gus,” I said again putting my hand on his leg. “When you kick the seat, the woman sitting there can feel it. Sit back Peanut”
Surprisingly, Gus listened to me. He seemed a bit chagrined, if a two-year old can look chagrined. He is such a sensitive little guy. “Good job,” I told him and we kept reading. At the next stop, I reached down to get another book and noticed the woman in front of us getting off. She turned to me and held out a piece of paper. She had a stern face, and my first thought, was No, please don’t complain about Gus kicking the seat. But when I read the paper, what I saw written in thick black marker was, “You’re A Great Mom.”
I can’t imagine what my face looked like to that woman. I only know what I felt. Shock, first. People in DC just don’t do that. That morning while waiting for the train, I complimented a woman on her coat and she just glared at me. Secondly, I felt immense pride and recognition. Joy. Could I really be a great mom? But that feeling was quickly followed by guilt. Oh, if only she had seen me twenty minutes earlier. I cringed a little, said thank you and shook my head, all at the same time. The woman nodded firmly at me and then she was gone, out those quick Metro doors. It all happened so fast that the boys hadn’t even noticed our exchange. Who the hell was that? I wondered. I thought about her all day: Why didn’t she speak? Why did she bestow such a kindness upon me, especially one that can never be repaid?
It also struck me as kind of random that she just happened to cross our path during one of the better moments of our day. It reminded me of something I read in the January 31st issue of The New Yorker. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an essay about Amy Chua and I read it greedily. Like many moms, wondering if the Tiger Mother is really going to get away with it, I am fascinated by Amy Chua. But the essay wasn’t as much about Ms. Chua’s book as it was about parenting. “Parenting is hard,” Kolbert writes. “As anyone who has gone through the process and had enough leisure (and still functioning brain cells) to reflect on it knows, a lot of it is a crapshoot. Things go wrong that you have no control over and, on occasion, things also go right, and you have no control over those either. The experience is scary and exhilarating and often humiliating, not because you’re disappointed in your kids, necessarily, but because you’re disappointed in yourself.”
I feel like that tonight. Disappointed in myself. Wanting to erase my shadow self as much as I want to erase Oliver’s. But it doesn’t work that way. Whatever I have tried to deny or cover up or not look at only grows that much stronger. So tonight I am trying to make peace with all that I don’t like about myself. I am trying to let it dissolve into the light. I am trying to remember that the source of ourselves is basic goodness. I am trying to listen to my soul, to that something that knows what to do, even if the mind I identify so strongly with does not. I am trying to trust in that soul, even if I don’t always hear its music. In a way, it’s like driving blind. Navigating by the stars. Driving a robotic car, already programmed and not much caring if you think you’re behind the wheel.
February 9, 2011 § 14 Comments
A few weeks ago I blogged about a mediation class I went to. I wrote that it was the first time since I moved to Washington, DC that I felt safe. That I felt like I was in a group of friends. That I felt like I belonged. Granted, it was a bit of a crazy meditation class. Some people saw colors and others said they felt bliss and light. I didn’t really have those experiences. I felt like I always do when I meditate: anxious, resistant to looking at all that simmers below the surface, annoyed that the lyrics to “California Gurls” keep rushing through my head.
During the week after the first class, I did what I always do: I dismiss anything that doesn’t make perfect, rational sense. I decided that the people who felt blissed out and saw colors were making it up. It couldn’t have been real. I mean, I like the idea of karma and chakras, and the dharmakaya, but deep down, I don’t really believe in it. I can’t believe in anything without fossilized proof, evidence, a theorem.
What surprises me is that I have been back to meditation five or six times. In fact, I haven’t missed a week. I don’t know why I keep going. I suspect it has to do with something I read by Pema Chodron, which said that the point of meditation isn’t to have a great experience, but to get to know your own mind, to make friends with yourself. It probably also has to do with the fact that Mimi in her Talbots sweaters is so sane, so clear.
I definitely don’t go because meditating is fun. Mostly my legs fall asleep and my neck hurts. For a few minutes I think of nothing and then congratulate myself because this is the goal of meditation, right? And then I realize that it’s not that I’m not thinking, but that I am resisting thinking. California gurls, we’re undeniable. Fine, fresh, fierce, we got it on lock.I am avoiding the plunge below the surface, that icy underworld which is just about the most terrifying place imaginable. Under the surface is where the monsters live.
While some in the class are experiencing the dharmakaya, I am cringing at the thought of how sharply I spoke to Oliver. I am wondering if I should go to New York to see a friend by myself, even though Gus is still nursing. I think of what a jerk I am to my husband sometimes. West coast represent, now put your hands up.
But then, I’m not really after bliss or colors or some Kundalini energy release. What I am after is an excavation. What I am tired of is deceiving myself. For most of my life, I have lived with blinders on, seeing only what I wanted to, trying to block out the wars and the homeless and sadness. There’s an inauthenticity to this kind of life. There is a lack of integrity in trying to pretend I am not a Navy wife when that is exactly what I am or in saying that I don’t need Washington DC friends when really, I am lonely. It doesn’t make sense to lean against the kitchen counter and eat thirteen animal crackers, when really, i just want to cry for a minute.There are about a zillion ways to hide from your own life, and I have done every one.
This month, I bought an issue of the Shambala Sun., which is definitely not something I normally read. Usually, I read the New Yorker, and US Magazine, and sometimes Real Simple. Shambala Sun is kind of hardcore. But Pema is on the cover this month. And I’ll read anything about Pema. In the magazine is an article about Pema’s “Smile at Fear” teachings, which I think is kind of great. Smile at fear. I never thought of smiling. I just sing songs like Dorothy on the yellow brick road. Sun-kissed skin, so hot, we’ll melt your popsicle. Pema writes, “The basis of fear is not trusting yourself. In a nutshell you feel bad about who you are.”
Trust myself? Sirusly? Rilly? WTF?
Oh why the hell not. Trust seems to be a big theme here in the blogokaya. Lindsey Mead Russell’s word of the year is “Trust” and every time I read her blog I am inspired. (my new favorite is one about navigating our own lives). Katrina Kenison writes so beautifully about trusting in the present moment and in letting life unfold without tugging so much at it. When I asked Mimi what to do with the fact that all I think of on my meditation cushion is all I don’t want to think about, she told me to welcome all of those monsters into the light. “The light dissolves them,” she said. Rolf Gates told me that starving people eat garbage, and the key is to realize that we are the starving people. Kristin Noelle, on her lovely blog “Trust Tending,” wrote a beautiful ritual for dealing with parts of ourselves we don’t like so much.
Forgiveness is the theme here. Compassion for ourselves. Love. Bravery. Trust. Letting the light in. After a few months of darkness, I am ready for the light.
February 7, 2011 § 6 Comments
Last Sunday I woke up really early and decided to go for a run before the sun came up. (This is not typical). After I came home and showered, I still had about 20 minutes before the boys woke, and I crawled back into bed (the bliss of these 20 minutes tells me I need to do this every day). I lay there, warm and cozy again, and thought of a conversation I had with my dad recently about Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul. It had been ages since I read the book, but its title always resonated with me.
Care of the soul. Watering the plants. Feeding the animals. Mucking the stalls. Bringing the snacks. Each of these is an act of love. Each is an act of soulfulness. Each requires attention and time. Patience. I have done these chores repeatedly though my life, and yet, I haven’t really thought of myself as having a soul. It wasn’t that I thought I had no soul or was a soullless person. It was more that I thought of my soul the way I thought of, say, my small intestine. I knew I had one, but I didn’t really think about it while I was washing the dishes or tending to a conflict between my boys. I viewed my soul in an abstract sense, but not in an immediate sense. It was something I thought about but not something I felt. On some level, I believed that caring for the soul was for people with time on their hands. It seemed too indulgent for a middle-class person who had real work to do.
But lying there on Sunday morning, watching the grey sky lighten ever so slightly, it occurred to me that I too have a soul that needs care. I have a soul! It’s embarrassing to admit, but this was a revelation to me. I have a soul! I have a soul!
The idea that I too could care for my own soul filled me with joy for much of the day. It was a sort of ephiphany that I can only compare to the one I had when I was eight or nine and looked into the mirror at myself and realized that in the same way I wanted to know what other people were thinking, other people were wondering the same thing about me. I look back at that moment as the one when I first recognized myself as bona fide person making her way in the world and not just a child or a fourth-grader or a girl. There are no fireworks in those moments, no surges of adrenaline. Rather, there is an opening. There is a sense of belonging, an abolishing of boundaries. A small soaring. Minor moments, significant only to ourselves.
It occurred to me that for months, if not years, I have been trying to make my life feel like my yoga class and I have been failing, in no small part, because I did not really acknowledge my soul. This is kind of like trying to run without using your feet. There is the me who goes to yoga class, wearing soft clothes and drinking mint tea and connecting to something deeper for about 90 minutes. And then there is the me who is home with two boys, drinking coffee and sweeping the floor and trying to resolve conflicts over trucks and toys and sippy cups while listening to the voice in my head that keeps telling me I need a break, that this is hard, that someday, I will take a vacation on the beach where I can drink cocktails and watch as many episodes of The Good Wife as I want to.
It never occurred to me that the yoga-going me and the toilet-cleaning me were the same person. Maybe the reason I was having such a hard time getting what I wanted – a life as blissful as a yoga class – was that on some level, I wasn’t giving myself permission to have it. Here I was, trying to reconcile two worlds, when what I was really doing was splitting my own whole life into pieces.
A soul, I thought lying in bed. What would it be like if I made my whole life – not just my yoga classes – into a soulful experience? It sounded decadent. Like eating chocolate for dinner.
When the boys woke, they tumbled into my bed like puppies. I have always loved this part of the morning, when I am overcome by their physical love for me and for each other. Usually, they end up bickering about who gets which side of the bed, and we get up and move onto something else. But on the Sunday I discovered my soul, Oliver asked Gus if he wanted to play in his room. “Gus, let’s go read on my top bunk,” he said, and Gus lit up and climbed his two-year old body over me. “Okay Awlver,” he said. “yet’s go.”
Suddenly I was alone. I had already showered and brushed my teeth. I actually had time to make coffee (because as it turns out, my soul likes coffee). I went downstairs and turned on NPR (which I can only do now on Sundays as they give the daily death toll a rest) and it just so happened that Jon Kabat – Zinn was giving an interview on Mindfulness. I made my coffee and listened to the quiet sounds of the boys. I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn. I listened to my soul happily humming. I wondered if I still wanted to take a long vacation on the beach, where I could drink cocktails and escape my own life. I decided that I didn’t. It turns out that my soul likes what it is doing. It likes the work of mothering, of resolving conflicts and making snacks. It likes the small tasks of sweeping and scrubbing and mopping. It likes cooking and caring and all of the jobs my brain thinks are monotonous. Here, I had thought I was listening to my heart, but really I had only been listening to my mind.
There are still so many things I want: to do Pincha Mayarasana in the middle of the room and not crash over, to have more time to myself, to have the boys not grab things from each other and then yell about it, to look like one of those girls in the Title Nine catalog, to not live in Washington, DC. But it turns out that I have everything I need. My soul is happy.