June 29, 2011 § 14 Comments
Gus had a milestone this week. Or maybe we both did. In a matter of days, he became officially weaned. Officially no longer a baby. Okay, I can guess what you are thinking right now. But before you hit “delete,” this is not a post about the virtues of nursing your child. I have never found those diatribes to be particularly helpful.
I don’t think this is a post about mourning the loss of babyhood either. I am sure I will change my mind in a few years, but the boys seem to be growing at a good pace right now. I think if they grew up any more slowly, I might collapse under the weight of diapers. Or from exhaustion. Life is so much easier now than even a year ago, and it gets more interesting and fun each day.
I think I might be writing about how awestruck I am by how gracefully my two and a half year old was able to let go of something he loved. Something that made him feel safe. For the last few days I have been thinking about the death grip I have on my own creature comforts. I have been noticing that I even hold onto things that I no longer need. The list is long but it includes worry, fear, anxiety, and doubt.
The very process of helping my son let go of his babyhood seemed to bring all of my own fears to the surface. First, there was the fact that I had to decide this, that I had to be in charge. I waited a while for the real grown-up to appear. I scoured many parenting books and called friends and even a lactation consultant back in California. Still, Mary Poppins failed to materialize at my door. Instead, I went to the dentist, who told me that the impacted wisdom tooth, which has been bothering me for years, really needs to come out now. He wants to implant some artificial powdered bone in my jaw, and the whole procedure requires a slew of sedatives and painkillers that kids don’t need in their bodies.
I came home and realized it was time to say No to my son. And saying No is something I hate doing. To anyone. Recently, I mustered up all my courage and told my son’s school that I could not work on the newsletter during the next school year because I have no free time, and what happened next? I am suddenly in charge of the school’s silent auction. I say suddenly as if these things just happen to me. As if I have no agency here, in the matter of my own life.
On the first day I told Gus “No,” he cried for about five seconds while my gut twisted in agony.
“Gus, do you want to get some books?” I asked holding him tightly.
He wailed and pushed me away.
“Let’s get your blanket,”I suggested, trying again. The lactation consultant told me to remind Gus of all the ways he can get comfort from me and of all the ways he can comfort himself.
More wailing. And then, he was quiet. Solemnly, he blinked the tears from his eyes. “I want to play cards,” he said and slid from my bed. I watched him run off like the world’s smallest gambler and waited for what would happen next. A few seconds later, Gus returned, holding his pack of Curious George Animal Rummy playing cards. I helped him back up on the bed and watched him deal. Literally.
There are still so many things I don’t want to deal with. There are so many aspects of myself I don’t want to know about. And yet, it’s funny, how when you shine a little light into those places, it’s never quite as bad as you think. This morning I emailed the school’s Silent Auction Committee and told them I couldn’t do it. I still feel awful about it. Irresponsible. Unreliable. Careless. But under that, I am also relieved. I think of how cranky I would be after staying up night after night, putting together an auction book, worrying about whether or not other people were doing their jobs. I think of how mad I would get a the boys for making noise while I was on the phone, trying to get a merchant to donate a free bike tuneup, or dinner for four. I think about how impossible it would be to get anyone to donate anything with my boys running around their store.
On the morning of Gus’s milestone, I decided to have a party, inspired by Kristin Noelle’s recent post. For once in my life, I was going to run towards something and not away. As Gus dealt the cards for animal rummy on the bed, I told him about it. “Can I have bawoons mommy?” he asked as he lined up his cards on the sheets. There was George, the Man with the Yellow Hat, Hundley the Dog.
“Sure,” I said.
His eyes got wide. “And cupcakes?” he asked and I nodded. “Why not.”
That evening, the boys came out to dinner wearing the party hats I had put in the back of the closet after Gus’ birthday in January. “We’re ready for the party,” they told me. I explained that we still had to go to the cupcake store, that we had to pick out the balloons, that we still had to eat real food. “We don’t need dinner,” Oliver said. “Let’s go right now.”
“Um, no,” I said, for the second time that day. It didn’t really feel any easier to say no this time. Maybe it will always be hard. “You have to eat your vegetables first,” I instructed. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said that line.
After they ate some carrots and cucumbers, the boys climbed into the car and we stopped at Cake Love in Shirlington. “Is it your birthday?” asked the kid behind the counter after Gus and Oliver picked out their cupcakes. They were still wearing their yellow and blue paper hats. I cringed, thinking Oliver was going to tell him the real reason for our fete, but instead, Oliver just shook his head. “We’re just having a little party, that’s all.”
Next door, at Harris Teeter, Gus picked out a balloon that said “Congrats” and Oliver picked out one that said “Good Luck.” Oliver’s balloon immediately floated away once we left the store and he was left holding only the string. “That was not good luck!” he said, kicking the sidewalk so I let him get another one. It said “Get Well Soon.”
The party consisted of the boys mowing their way through their cupcakes, frosting first and then chasing each other around the living room with their balloons. For once I didn’t tell them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, that it was almost time for bed and that they needed to slow down. I thought of my brave little guy who decided it was okay to give something up. That instead of making a huge deal about it, he was going to play the hand he was dealt and have a party.
In my yoga teacher training this weekend, a girl from the training in Boston joined us to make up some hours she had missed. After her time was up, Rolf stopped all of us and announced that Elana had officially completed her training. She thanked us and Rolf and told us what a transformative experience it had been for her. Then she rolled her eyes. “I know everyone says that,” she said. “But it’s true. It’s really made me think about what I want in this life and about what’s good enough. In some respects, the way I’ve been living has been good enough, but in other ways, it’s not and now I can make some changes.”
After chasing each other around the dining room, Oliver decided to tie their balloons to their big Bruder trucks and run around with those. They made a loop through the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen, their balloons trailing over them with their bright messages.
Congrats. Get Well Soon. Good Luck.
June 21, 2011 § 3 Comments
Today, I am thrilled to accept an invitation from Lindsey to hang out on her blog, A Design So Vast for the day. (Hopefully, we are drinking some coffee right now and talking about what a great run we just had along the Charles.)
Lindsey was my second ever reader and what it thrill it was to trace her comment back to her own blog. She writes honestly and luminously about her life as a writer, about her two beautiful children, and mostly about what it means to live wide-eyed and wide awake. When she asked me to write about trust, I jumped at the chance to be a part of her blog, but was hoping she would pick something else for me to write about. Then my car was broken into, and it just seemed like the right time to write about how I try – and fail – to navigate through the world while keeping the blinds of my heart open at least a crack.
I am so excited to over there for the day. And you should be too! While you are there, look around and then subscribe. Lindsey writes daily, and reading her post each morning has become a ritual that opens my eyes – and my heart – up to the goodness in my own life. I have no doubt it will bring you a daily bunch of joy as well.
June 17, 2011 § 16 Comments
Yesterday was one of my favorite holidays: Bloomsday. It is a day given to James Joyce’s book Ulysses, a tale of two men trying to make their way back home on June 16th 1904. During the time I read it, I was looking for some place I belonged, and like both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, I was wandering rather aimlessly. I was a senior at Cornell, and while for a short time during my four years there I enjoyed some minor celebrity status as a runner, by the time I was a senior, I had been injured for about a year.
Up until Christmas I had a boyfriend, but after he moved from Dartmouth to Boulder, he stopped calling. I was devastated and thought it must have been because I was no longer a runner like he was. Additionally, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had thought I would leave college, get a sponsorship from Nike or Asics and keep running, but obviously, that was no longer in the cards. I didn’t want to go to med school or vet school like I originally planned, and I hadn’t applied to grad school. When I was asked what I was going to do after graduation, mostly I just shrugged.
The spring semester at Cornell began in January, during the darkest month of Ithaca’s dark winter. When I saw that Ulysses was offered as a graduate seminar, I signed up, almost as a dare to myself. I was told that I had to get special permission from the professor to get into the class, as it was a graduate seminar limited to senior-level English majors or grad students. I was neither. But I didn’t care. I am almost 100 percent Irish and yet the only part of my culture I was really familiar with was the Catholic Church, roller skating to Clancy Brothers records in my basement when I was little, and guarded stories of my parents’ childhoods in an Irish neighborhood in Queens, NY. For some reason, I thought a book might help.
The day before class started I went to the Big Red Store and bought all of the required and recommended reading. I walked back to Collegetown with my arms full of titles like Symbolism in Ulysses, Hamlet, and Reading Joyce’s Ulysses.
My friend Loren – an English major – looked at me as if I were crazy. “What are you going to do with all those books if you don’t get in the class?” she asked.
Again I shrugged. “What are they going to do — carry me out of the room?”
Loren stared at me. “You are so weird,” she said.
On the first day of class, I trudged through the dirty Ithaca snow to the English building and into a tiny room furnished only with a long table and leather chairs. Compared to the anatomy lab I had just come from, the overheated room was heavenly, even though I didn’t have a seat at the table. The place was packed and I was stuck in a corner near a drafty window.
Dr. Schwarz walked into the room and took a seat. I didn’t know it at the time, but he is one of the most renowned Joyce scholars in the country.“Well,” he said in a thick New York accent. “It’s a little bit crowded in here.” He explained that the way the seminar worked was that he would give each student one of the eighteen chapters in the book. “Therefore,” he said, “I can’t have more than eighteen people in here. “ He got out his roster and started calling out names.
When he got to mine, he paused. “I don’t think I know you. You’re an English major, correct?”
I shook my head. “Pre-med,” I said and Dr. Schwarz wrote something on the paper.
“You do know that this class is restricted to upper-level English students?” he asked.
I nodded and felt my face get hot.
On the day of the second class, a week later, the same thing happened. But this time, Dr. Schwarz stopped me on the way out. “I know you have this idea that you can get into this class,” he said, pronouncing idea like idear. “But you can’t. I’m sorry.”
Again I nodded. “Okay,” I said.
On the third week of class, I made my way from the folding chairs lined up against the wall to the leather seats at the table. I counted. There were only sixteen people in class that day, and this time, when Dr. Schwarz took attendance, he just ignored me.
“Someone tell me the symbolism of the scene between Buck Mulligan at the top of the stairs and Stephen,” Dr. Schwarz said and I raised my hand quickly.
He looked around the table and pointed to me. “You,” he said. “Go ahead.” Stately, plump, Buck Mulligan. Stately and plump. The irony there, the immediate clue that nothing in the book could be taken at face value. The only hope I held in my life then was that things weren’t what they seemed. That something would happen. That something would change.
I don’t remember my answer. It was probably something about Oscar Wilde or the Catholic Church. I do remember that Dr. Schwarz didn’t laugh. Instead, he said, “Yes. Fine.”
After class, he stopped me again. “Give me your Drop/Add sheet.” He said. “You can stay.”
“Really?” I asked stupidly, but Dr. Schwarz ignored me again. “You’re Chapter Eighteen. The Molly Chapter.”
My heart took an elevator ride to the top.
Yes I said yes I will Yes.
Those are the last words of Ulysses, and they are spoken by Molly, who is the antithesis to Stephen and Bloom. She is the affirmation. She is the physical, breathing, Penelope who is waiting for Bloom to come home. I don’t remember the chapter now. It’s basically eight sentences, one of which is over 4000 words. What I do remember was the joy in being able to spend so much time with Molly’s unbridled words. The freedom to revel in such stream of consciousness, seemingly unedited, ribald thoughts. It was May by the time it was my turn to lead the seminar, and the trees had buds. I felt the first faint stirring of hope.
Molly was the opposite of myself. She was free while I was contained. She was sensual while I was practically an ascetic. She reveled in her girth while I was ashamed of any bit of excess skin. It was incredible to me that after crashing such a class, not only did I have one of the most famous Joyce professors in the country, but I had gotten the best chapter.
I struggled though, quite a bit. I had to reread Hamlet, the Odyssey, and many other books just to know what was going on. But whenever I went to Dr. Schwarz’ office hours, he was encouraging. “You’re doing fine, “he would say. “This is a complicated text.”
During the semester, Dr. Schwarz brought in bottles of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. He took us to the Cornell Museum of Art to look at the Picassos and Giacomettis that were created in the same time period that Joyce wrote Ulysses. Dr. Schwarz is a humanist. A few years ago, I read an article about him in which he said,” Our role as humanists is to focus attention on what is special and distinct in the human enterprise… We need always remember that art is how we make sense of the world; literature is how we transform world into words and words into world. “
“Didn’t you used to run?” he asked me once during office hours. I got that all the time those days, as if I were an imposter. Once someone started to say, “Didn’t you used to be Pam Hunt?” until they caught themselves. But it was okay. That was how I felt too.
When I was a sophomore I broke record after record, as if they were dominoes fated to fall. I qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meter run. I crossed finish lines first. And I held tightly to the childish belief that having was directly proportional to wanting; that working harder than the person next to me meant I deserved a bigger piece.
Then things started to fall apart. The achilles tear. The stress fractures in my pelvis. The break in my hip. Bones snapping like Icarus’s poor wax wings.
I told Dr. Schwarz I had gotten injured.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s too bad.” He paused and then said,” I play tennis. My sons do too.”
Something untangled inside when he said that. He might as well have said, “Oh, well, who cares about all that. You’re going to be all right.”
We spent a few minutes talking about tennis, a sport about which I know nothing, and then his sons. Finally it was time to leave. As I packed up my backpack, Dr. Schwarz said, “You’re doing well in this class.” I grinned. I couldn’t help it. Something new was beginning to spark. Maybe, I thought, this is who I could be.
I never did go to vet school. I didn’t go to grad school either, but what Dr. Schwarz gave me was better than a degree. He gave me a sense of worth that had nothing to do with how fast I could run or how many people knew my name. And he gave me a glimpse of how big the world is, how truly gigantic. He showed me it is enormous enough to hold all of our selves and that nothing, really, was that big of a deal. You ran, you got hurt, you read books, you took up tennis.
I think of Dr. Schwarz often, but especially in June. It’s a feeling of gratitude that comes like Christmas, it’s a sense of wonder about where I would be if it weren’t for him. In a time when I was spinning, he put his hand on the top of my head and righted me. I think maybe he showed me what grace truly is. He taught me that it lives inside, that comfort is worth seeking out, and that we are never — thank god — who we think we are.
June 9, 2011 § 16 Comments
Before last September, I had never read a blog. Sure, I read some of those New York Times blogs, but I never could tell the difference between that and a real column. All it took to change that was to start a blog. Now, I am completely blown away by the quality of writing out there in the blogosphere. And the fact that some of these amazing writers have become my friends is even more wonderful.
So it is with this sense of joy that I bring you my first guest post (which begins right under the photo). Lindsey of A Design So Vast – a gorgeous blog, the reading of which has become a daily ritual – has written a beautiful piece about trust, in particular, trust in our path through life. In our dharma. In the journey we choose, or, more likely, that chooses us. As I told Lindsey, having her words on my space here feels like hanging up an amazing new work of art. Check out her blog and you’ll see what I mean, that despite what she says, she is indeed a writer.
They say that what you wanted to be when you grew up, as a child, is the truest expression of your dreams. Well, I wanted to be a writer, and also a doctor. Somehow I got lost on life’s roads, though, and I wound up with an MBA and a 15-year career in business. Over the last few years I’ve been slowly finding my way back to that original, essential dream. I can’t point to a single inflection point, a single day that I sat down at the blank page again. But I know that two things came together to push me back to writing.
First, while I’d always charted my life course by the next goal, the next achievement, there came a time in my late 20s when suddenly there was nowhere else to go. And without a destination, I had to learn to live inside my own life, rather than sprinting through it on my way to the next shiny brass ring. To live here, now, required me to sit still. This had always been – and remains – very, very hard for me. Being still and quiet allows the shadows inside me to come up and, probably hardest of all, forces me to confront the basic fact that life passes. I had to admit, accept, embrace, even, the fact that I could not stop the relentless passage of my life. I could not outrun it.
And secondly, the experience of having my children and watching them grow startled me awake. I had not remotely anticipated the heartbreak of parenting, nor the way this realization dovetailed with the you-must-sit-here-now message that was simultaneously ringing in my ears. The passage of time took a seat at the table of my soul and refused to get up. As Grace’s pants grew too short and Whit’s shoes seemed too tight overnight, I was unable to ignore the incessant turning forward of my days.
And so I turned to the page. To cope with my own profound sadness about life’s impermanence, I chronicled it all. I took pictures constantly. I wrote letters to each child on their birthdays. I started blogging to record the little moments of everyday life that I knew I’d forget. Were all of these attempts to memorialize my days, like insects frozen forever in amber? Or were these actually efforts to better inhabit these days, because I realized quickly the details only really revealed themselves when I was paying attention?
I suspect it is both. With the perspective of years, I realize now that I was simply walking the path back to where I started: to writing. Over time my writing – particularly on my blog, and the in opportunities that came to me because of it – grew in importance to me. It’s now a big part of my life. As I learn to sit more still, I am beginning to hear a voice whispering in my ear. That voice says one single word, over and over again: trust. Trust that things are unfolding as they should. Trust that I am okay just as I am. Trust that all will be well.
I’m not yet at the point where I’m a “writer.” I still work in the business world. I am working on a book, which took me a long time to say out loud. I am taking an ongoing class with my favorite writer in the world. I am blogging. I am also parenting my ever-challenging and ever-wonderful children and working at a job I genuinely love. For now, that is the right balance for me. My life is full and rich and chaotic and tangled. Writing is now a robust and full-fledged ingredient in the mix, which is something I would never have guessed five years ago. And I keep wading through the swamp, thick with both wonder and heartbreak, trying to write it down, trying to trust.
June 5, 2011 § 18 Comments
A couple of months ago at breakfast, Oliver asked me for a Batman story. I almost spit out my coffee. “Batman?” I asked. “How do you know Batman?”
“Daddy told me a Batman story last night,” he said.
“Oh really,” I said. What I meant was, You go to a Waldorf school, kid. You probably don’t want to be talking to your teachers about that. Superheros, to me, were about violence and destruction and bringing down the enemy. It was a little too much like living in DC.
When I asked Scott about it later, he looked at me funny. “What’s wrong with Batman?” he asked. “He’s a cool guy. He fights crime and takes care of Gotham City.”
“What is Batman’s story anyway?” I asked.
“He’s just a normal guy,” said Scott, “Who puts on a suit to become Batman.”
“Well yeah,” I said, “But what’s the story behind that? Is he from another planet, or does he have bionic powers? Does he fly?”
“No,” Scott said patiently. “He’s just a man. With no powers. And he puts on a suit.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “Well, where’s the superhero part?”
Scott shrugged. “He’s Batman.”
That night, I listened to the next installment of the Batman story. During which Batman encounters the Joker robbing a jewelry store and proceeds to get on a super deluxe Bat Mountain Bike to catch the robber and restore order to Gotham City. Rather than remind me of DC Comics, Scott’s story reminded me of Joseph Campbell, of The Power of Myth and of Star Wars. The battle of dark and light and good and evil that I so often wrestle with.
Recently, I noticed – with a fair amount of horror – that sometimes, I try to change Oliver’s behavior not because it is wrong or inappropriate or hurting anyone, but because it reminds me too much of my own. I don’t know when I realized this. I think it might have been at dinner, when he got up in the middle of the meal to change his fork, “because the pasta made it a little dirty.” Or maybe, it was the other day when we were reading and Oliver was drumming his hands, his right and left ones making identical patterns on the table. I tried to distract him with a high five because I saw too clearly, my own anxious nature dancing through him. He’s afraid to learn to tie his shoes and put his face in the water and of taking the training wheels off his bike. Trying anything new with Oliver is like getting a wild animal to take seeds from your palm. You go very slowly. You prepare for the worst. You know at some point, he will run away and pull the blankets over his head.
In short, Oliver is very much like me.
That night, while Scott was telling the boys another Batman story, it became startling clear to me that I dislike my inner Bruce Wayne so much that I am unable to embrace anyone else’s, even my son’s. Especially my son’s. Please, I was really saying, when I went to stop Oliver’s drumming fingers. Don’t be like me. Here. Put on this cape. Be Batman. Be invincible so that nothing bad will ever happen to you.
But what superhero doesn’t have an alter ego? I was listening to an interview with Jack Kornfield – SuperMeditator – the other day in the car and he was talking about freedom. He said, “True liberation is the freedom to be who you are and not someone else. To hold yourself with compassion and say ‘This too, this too.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t have your stuff. But it’s about letting all that in along with the good.”
Last week in my yoga teacher training I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to teach yoga. Instead, I wanted to be like a yoga teacher, especially my teacher Jessica, in California. She is tiny and beautiful. She wears gauzy sweaters and knows the stories behind all of the Hindu gods and goddesses. She reads poetry before class and then kicks our butts until we are wrung out.
It’s possible that I might have thought that I would sign up for my own teacher training, put on a gauzy sweater, and become Jessica Anderson. It’s possible, that I have been having a difficult time with this teacher training because that hasn’t happened yet. It’s possible that I believe that transformation means that I will become someone else, someone brighter and shinier and Better with a capital B.
After one of the sessions last week, I walked out with one of Rolf’s assistants, who owns a yoga studio in Georgetown and is herself an amazing yoga teacher. I confessed that I was having a challenging time trying to integrate what we learned into a yoga class. Patty narrowed her eyes at me. “Remember,” she said, ” All you have to do is read the script. That’s all we asked you to do.” I sighed. I was trying to do more than that. I was trying to use everything we learned and add it to something that was already perfect. Patty jabbed her finger into my sternum.”Your problem is that you aren’t OK with where you are,” she said. “And you need to be. Because that’s where you are.”
I walked away feeling simultaneously horrified and relieved. Horrified that I was still Clark Kent. Relieved that I didn’t have to be Superman. Patty is tough. She isn’t warm and fuzzy and she doesn’t wear gauzy sweaters. But after I talked to her, I realized that what she gave me was a big dose of compassion. Just be who you are, she was telling me, not someone else.
Compassion. That’s the real magic cape. The secret ingredient. The happy ending. The Margot Kidder of all emotions. The way Lois Lane always looked at Clark Kent, as if there was something familiar behind those glasses.
The hell of the Superman story (at least in the ancient movie I remember) is that Clark Kent never does remove his glasses and allow Lois Lane to see him. Instead, he puts on a cape. But perhaps, true transformation it is less about putting on a magic suit (or a gauzy sweater) and more about removing the layers. It’s about being okay with being not quite okay. It is a nod to all of the mess. This too. Yes. This too.