May 27, 2011 § 22 Comments

My heart.

Yesterday, I had to take Gus to a cardiologist. That is such a strange sentence to write. It’s like saying I drove by a tornado. Or, I flew over an earthquake and watched the ground shake. Gus was fine – I knew he was fine – but still.

But still. The phrase that is itself a heartbeat.

Yesterday, driving to the hospital, parking in the huge underground garage, taking an elevator to the lobby and another to the fourth floor made me realize how close I live to disaster. How ridiculously easy it is to get there. At Gus’ last well-child visit, the nurse practitioner heard a faint murmur. “It’s probably nothing,” she said. “But I would like to rule everything out.” If you take one look at Gus, at his muscled calves, pink cheeks, and round belly, you know he can’t possibly have anything wrong with his heart. But still, every time I reminded myself of that, I thought about those eighteen-year old basketball players, those young athletes who collapsed after a lay-up, their autopsies revealing a hole in the wall of their hearts. A leaky valve. An aneurysm. But still. But still.

The thing about being me is that I often don’t know what I am feeling. I try, I really do. I ask myself what is going on, whether I am angry or sad or afraid. I try to tap into sensation, but usually what I get is just a sense of numbness. A single phrase: I’m fine. It’s only later, when I notice that I have eaten three brownies or that I can’t seem to get out of the car, do I suspect that something might be up.

Yesterday, when I looked in the mirror, I realized that I dressed up for the doctor’s appointment. Huh, I thought. That’s funny. Instead of my usual cargo pants and tee shirt, I pulled on a pair of Ann Taylor khakis, a sleeveless shirt, and open-toed shoes. I’m fine, I told myself, as I tottered on my heels down the quiet hallway to the cardiologist’s office. Everything is just fine.

When Dr. Hougan walked into the waiting room at two minutes past ten, a starched white coat over his dress shirt and tie, I let out my breath. There are some people who have such a calm about them, you can practically breathe it in, like perfume. My husband is like that and so is my yoga teacher. I think it’s why I am doing my yoga teacher training with Rolf Gates because he has it too. Those people. Those calm people. They walk into the room and it’s like: Finally. The grown-ups have arrived.

Dr. Hougan sat down in one of those miniature chairs designed for children, ran a hand through his silver hair, and hunched over a chart. While Gus played with a pristine set of Thomas trains, Dr. Hougan asked me some questions. After accurately guessing Gus’ height and weight he spent the next five minutes playing trains with him. “Come on,” he said, rising slowly and holding out his index finger to Gus. “Let’s go watch a movie.” To my surprise, Gus put his hand in his and walked beside him back to the exam room.

The doctor put an ancient Thomas the Tank Engine VHS tape into a small TV hanging over the exam table. “I love this one,” he told me, looking up at the TV. “Ringo Starr is narrating. Did you know that?” He laid a soft blanket on the exam table and I sat down with Gus and removed his tee shirt. The doctor turned on a sonogram machine and explained that he was going to look at Gus’ heart. Gus laid back and looked at me, his eyes wide. “I not stared Mommy,” he told me. “This not starey for me.” My own heart broke in half. But still. But still.

While the doctor deftly moved the ultrasound wand and Gus stared up at his movie, I was looking at the inside of my son’s heart. I watched my baby’s blood fill and empty paper-thin rooms made of tissue. I have been reading some of Joseph Chilton Pearce’s work lately, skipping around, but taking it in. He is known for his work in trying to reform education and he often talks of early bonding and creativity in children. He’s a writer, but in the 90’s he became interested in neurocardiology, or the effect of the heart on the human brain. He was fascinated by the fact that in embryos, the first thing to form is a neural crest, from which develops the cardiovascular, cranial, and vagus nervous systems. Heart. Mind. Will. All three from a single origin. Pearce calls the heart “compassionate mind” and believes it has an equal impact on our thoughts as the thalamus and prefrontal cortex.

In a 1999 interview, Pearce said, “The great challenge of the coming ages of humanity would be, in effect, to allow the heart to teach us to think in a new way.” If there is Heart, Mind, and Will, I am all Mind and Will. I can figure something out. I can even figure everything out and get it done right. But allow my heart to teach me something? 

When my mom was visiting last week, she asked me what my heart’s desire was. “To be a good mom,” I said. “I mean, like a really good mom.” It was the first thing that popped into my mind, and it’s true. But still. There might be something more that I am not allowing myself. There might be something I really want to do. What is my heart’s deepest desire, I wonder as I watch Gus’ heart. Oh, I’m too old now, I think and shake my head. I have kids.

But still. But still.

“This is the mitral valve,” Dr. Hougan told me as I watched a pair of butterfly wings flutter open and closed on the monitor.  It was like watching a plywood gate hold back the ocean. I remembered how Oliver’s heart looked on the ultrasound when I was only five weeks pregnant with him. It was a pulsating puddle of light, a magic drop of beating water. But this. This was magnificent.

“It’s amazing that all of this happens without us thinking about it,” I said as I watched. I wasn’t quite sure I even spoke out loud until the doctor nodded emphatically. “I know,” he said. “It’s beautiful. Of course the neurologists always say that the heart is dependent on the brain, but I say, without the heart, there would be no brain.”

The doctor removed his wand from Gus’ chest and wiped off the gel.  “I am happy to tell you that Gus has an innocent murmur. There’s nothing wrong here and I will never have to see you again.” He smiled at me.

“Thank you,” I said, taking his hand. See, I told myself. Everything is fine.

Leaving, we made the journey in reverse. We tottered through the carpeted hallway. We took an elevator down. I bought Gus a toy school bus in the gift shop. We took the elevator further down into the hot garage. I bucked Gus up in his seat and drove away from the hospital feeling a sense of profound relief. Everything is fine, I kept saying silently. We avoided disaster. We pressed our backs against the hallways, like spies, while catastrophe continued on.

I should feel great, I thought, but there was my own heart, beating like crazy in my chest. But still. But still.



May 19, 2011 § 12 Comments

Oliver the astronaut pilgrim

Usually after I pick Oliver up from school at noon, I take the boys to a park down the street. It’s a great park with two play structures, a big baseball diamond, and trails that loop down to the neighborhood below. They are perfect trails for kids because while they end at busy sidewalks, the short trails themselves are overgrown and a little dark. “Did you know that this is a rain forest?” one of Oliver’s friends asked me a week ago when he came with us on our walk. “Lions live down here.” Together Oliver and his friend walked over a tree that had fallen across a shallow ravine, and for a few minutes, they sat there, their legs straddling the tree as if they were on horses, talking about whatever five-year old boys talk about.

But on Tuesday, the boys and I were alone. We had the park to ourselves and went down the trails that now smelled of summer. It had been raining and was so humid that white spots of mold covered the ground. There was the delicate scent of honeysuckle. There was the sweet stink of dead animal. The boys ran on ahead, Oliver stumbling on legs that have suddenly grown too long, and Gus following steadily behind on his sturdy calves.

I wanted to love this moment. But I was too exhausted. I was swatting mosquitoes. I was worried that a muskrat-like animal would pop out in front of us. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all I had taken on lately. Mostly I was annoyed at myself. For the two years I lived in Ventura, I learned how to simplify, how to pare back and slow down. And in just one year in DC, I have learned to spread myself back out, to sign up for too much, and say no to too little. Lindsey recently wrote about how there sometimes isn’t enough of her to go around, and that was exactly how I felt on Tuesday. Like I was having endurance issues. Like parenting was just one more thing that I had to cross off the list.

Just then, Oliver raced by me on the trail, his arms outstretched in front of him and his palms pressed together. He was making engine noises and weaving back and forth. ZZZooom. BBBrrrooom. I knew he was pretending to be in a space ship, but really, he looked like a very short pilgrim racing to Mecca. It looked like he was praying. Oh my God, I thought, feeling a chill go through me, which happens whenever the boys share a secret from their world. The hairs on my arms stood up, because frankly, these frequent instances seem more than just coincidences. Their connection with Spirit is almost too strong to bear.

I placed my own palms together at my heart, the way I do during a yoga class, and inside my chest, a door swung open. Why didn’t I do this more often? Why didn’t I pray?

Sure, I sometimes said a prayer when I was desperate, something along the lines of “Please God let that hair I just plucked out of my chin be a one-time fluke.” Or “Thank you God for Gus not screaming anymore.” Or “Please God let no one make a comment that my kids are eating pb&j again.” But these aren’t prayers. They are desperate pleas. Negotiations. The only time I pray is when I am on my yoga mat. I hardly ever pray when I really need it.

The boys stopped ahead of me in a clearing. Down below I could see a sidewalk and a street full of houses, but the boys thought we were in the middle of nowhere, on some great Tuesday safari, full of adventure. I kept my palms together over my heart and felt my Catholic childhood melt into my yoga practice. Namaste.  In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. I thought of the metta meditation, which I have seen everywhere lately: May I be protected and safe. May I be peaceful and free. May I be healthy and strong. May my life unfold with ease.

The boys were still running around with their arms outstretched. I pulled out my phone. “Hey Oliver,” I said, “Can I take a picture of your hands?” He stopped for a second and waited until I held up my camera phone. After I took the picture, he started running again. “We’re in a rocket ship Mommy,” he yelled as he and Gus ran circles around the clearing. His hands were still pressed together and he raised them to the sky. “Do you see Mommy?” he called. “This is how I steer.”

I held my hands, also in prayer, up to the sky. Maybe I should start steering this way too.


May 12, 2011 § 13 Comments

On Saturday, while Oliver was in the midst of a major meltdown, I kept digging in my brain for what to do. I kept trying to remember what the books said. I knew Oliver had a busy week – too busy. He has been playing with an older boy at school, a charismatic funny child who also likes to push boundaries and do things like  climb over the school fence during morning circle. We had two playdates after school and another day spent visiting a nearby public works station where we climbed into dump trucks and snow plows. To put it simply, I had done too much.

So I knew why Oliver was having a meltdown over nothing. But I wasn’t able to stop it. I couldn’t quiet his flailing arms and legs, one of which hit his brother in the head. “Don’t be so quick to get to the solution,” his former teacher used to tell me. “Try to stay more in observation mode.”

But I couldn’t. I was in panic mode, not observation mode. I was on the floor with Oliver while he was yelling his head off, trying to keep his brother safe, feeling compassion and fury and love and frustration beating along with that overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. Of failure.

After it was finally over, I set Oliver up in his bed with some books for a rest and I took Gus down to the sandbox. I needed to be outside. I needed to breathe. I needed to escape. I wanted to hide from the barrage of thoughts that kept saying I had failed yet again, that I hadn’t provided an ideal environment, that my son was not behaving the way he should, that my life had fallen so far short of what I had imagined it was going to be. I wanted to disappear for a while into someone else’s life. Seeing how I was sitting next to a People magazine with photos of the royal wedding, this was easy to do.

I flipped through the pages of People for a few minutes wondering what it must be like to be Kate and Pippa, but Gus needed some attention too. He was digging for “gems” – cheap glass stones I bought at Michael’s that are typically found in vases of flowers. Last fall, I bought a bag of every color and buried them in the sand for the boys to find. I thought it would keep them busy for an hour or two, but five months later, they are still digging. A corner of the sandbox is now a “mine” and another corner is a “gem store.”

“Here you go Mommy,’ Gus said, filling an old coffee pot up with colored stones and giving them to me. “This is a cucumber,” he said, handing me a flat green piece. “Here’s your carrot,” he said, handing me a clear stone streaked with orange. “Eat this before your ice cream.”

I smiled and put down the magazine. I had just been engrossed with photographs of Princess Di’s saphire necklace,  Kate Middleton’s earrings,  her Cartier tiera stuffed with diamonds. But here, all along, right in front of me, my child had been handing me fistfuls of jewels.

As we sat there, a dove flew into the light above our heads. A couple of months ago, we found a nest in there with two small eggs and since then, the mother has been diligently sitting on it, her tail feathers peeking out over the top. A few weeks ago, the birds hatched and now are almost full-grown. The parents have gotten used to us there in the sandbox and, for the most part, ignore us, which makes me feel honored. On Saturday, as Gus’ fingers were curled around colored stones,  the father bird flew back to the nest in a flutter and coo. He opened his beak and the baby bird stuck his head all the way into his father’s mouth to eat what was presented in such a royal manner. It beat the pants off any magazine wedding.

Most of being a parent, for me, has felt like a long, slow dismantling. An unpacking of all of my ideas of how it is supposed to be, how I am supposed to be. There was this idea I had, before I was a mother, of what my children would be like. And somehow, this thought – based on nothing more than an idea – became the ideal.

But being a parent is never ideal. It’s not anything like the magazines tell you it will be. Photographs can tell you nothing about either the gems or the meltdowns. Parenting is gritty and hard and uncomfortable. Before you can even begin to make progress you have to backtrack first. You have to let go of who you thought you were. You have to give up on the ideal temperament and the ideal environment. You will probably have to give up on your dream of an ideal family. You might have to give up your job. You will definitely have to  give up your freedom. And for sure you will give up on the idea of yourself as the ideal parent. Yes, definitely that. Especially that.

Finally, when you are left with nothing of what you started, when you are reduced to only your complexity – your unorganized pile of questions – then and only then can you begin. You will probably feel a bit unmoored. Shipwrecked. Lost. And then will you be handed a coffee pot full of gems. Your lights will be filled with birdsong. You will begin to notice the miracles that are right there, that have suddenly sprouted up under your eaves. The miracles that have been there all along.


May 3, 2011 § 26 Comments

Always in the present moment

Yesterday – like everyone across the country – I woke to the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. At first I was rather shocked. And then I was the opposite of shocked. “Well,” I thought, “I guess they finally found him.” When I looked up from the New York Times seconds later, I just felt empty. I felt full of emotions. I felt a bit lost, close to tears.

There is a line in James Joyce’s The Dubliners that reads: “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” I have lived most of my life this way, a short distance from what was happening to me. There was my body doing things and saying things, and then, there was that something inside of me, which refused to participate, which was leaning against the wall, its arms folded over its chest or its fingers plugged in its ears. Pema Chodron writes: “Never underestimate the inclination to bolt.”That was my thing: bolting.

When you have children though, bolting isn’t very effective. I still try mightily, but it just doesn’t work. Yesterday, Oliver woke up in a bad mood and stalked into my room, demanding to stay home from school. By the time we went down for breakfast, he was yelling at me. “I WANTED ORANGE JUICE!” he said. I plunked the cup of apple juice in front of him, turned on my heel, and stomped back up the steps. “MOMMEEEEEEEE!” he cried after me and I came back to my body, still in pajamas. Still wearing glasses. Teeth still unbrushed. Oh, I thought. Here I am. Where did I just go?

It is startling sometimes what is required to stay: it takes everything you have sometimes to do absolutely nothing. To put down the armor and surrender.

By the time I returned downstairs, only seconds later,  Oliver and Gus were screaming at each other across the dining room table. My turn. NO. MY TUUURRRRNNN. I caused this, I thought. This is my own doing, my own inner world manifest here, at this sacred spot in our home. The newspaper was there also, with Osama bin Laden’s face staring up. This too is our doing. Our undoing.

I told the boys to put their hands over their hearts. I put my hand over Oliver’s heart because he is the one who gets most upset. “Pretend your nose is right here,” I told him, stealing something from Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold. “Breathe right here, into my hand.” We stayed there for a few seconds, Oliver and I. (Gus had his hand on his throat and was upside down on his chair, singing.) “What does it feel like when you do that?” I asked Oliver. “It feels like coming home from school,” he said. He laid his cheek on my arm.

How the world can change on a dime. I sat my unbrushed, pajama-ed self down at the table and watched the boys eat, take their cereal bowls into the kitchen, climb up to the Lego table and build together. I stayed.

After I dropped Oliver at preschool, Gus and I went to Trader Joe’s. We bought bread and spinach. Bananas and berries. Ice cream and vitamins. The entire time I fought the urge to cry. To bolt. It took me most of the morning to figure out what this feeling was. I realized it was fear. It was grief. It was despair. On September 11th, 2001,  I lived more than a short distance from my body. I was going through a breakup with someone I should never have been with in the first place, and for some reason, those dysfunctional partings seem to be the most painful. I was in a stressful job at a San Diego advertising agency. I was 28. I was lost. Like just about everyone, I had family and friends who worked on Wall Street. I didn’t know my brother didn’t go to work that day, that he was asleep when the planes hit the towers and woke up thinking there was an earthquake. Like just about everyone, I buried that day until yesterday.

Yesterday I just tried to not bolt. By trying to stay, I realized I am afraid of what has already happened. I am afraid that September 11th is going to happen again, that once I relax about the whole thing, the world is going to end. Because that is what happens. You relax and the baby starts screaming from the backseat of the car. You get a call from the school. You get a call that someone you love has cancer. You watch as your son falls in the ocean, even as you are running with your hand outstretched. You hear the news that a plane flew through a building. You hear the news that the enemy is dead when you aren’t even sure who the enemy is anymore.

I went to hear Karen Maezen Miller speak at a small yoga studio in Georgetown on Saturday. At the time, I thought she gave a good talk. It was worth going to. Afterward, I got a smoothie and went home. Only now am I aware of what she gave me – the basic instructions for how to stay: Don’t leave. When you do, come back. She echoed what Eckhart Tolle said: “In the present moment, we are always fine. We can always handle it if we stay right here.”

Later on Monday afternoon, the boys started yelling at each other as I was in the kitchen, peeling oranges for a snack. My hands were sticky and I felt that familiar annoyance rise up like a flame. I started to rush in to them, but wiped my hands first. I took a breath. When I walked into the living room, Gus was crying and Oliver was holding all of the Curious George books. I knelt down and listened to them. Without my saying anything they worked it out. The tears stopped. It doesn’t take any longer when you slow down, I am finding. Bolting can sometimes take much longer than staying. Sometimes, bolting can take decades.

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