July 29, 2011 § 18 Comments

Starting Out (at Scott's mountain bike race)

I have a pretty terrible sense of direction, which I inherited from my mother. I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating way, like when people say they can’t cook or walk in high heels (both of which I can do fine) but in an honest way, as in I have problems with activities that involve spatial relations, like geometry or memorizing a dressage course. Figuring out how to get somewhere.

When I was little, my mom often relied on the help of strangers when we were lost. “Excuse me,” she said to a man once, when we were in New York City and about to cross Houston Street, which in the eighties, wasn’t the best neighborhood in the world. “Uh, you should really turn around,” the man told us. He spent a long time explaining where the subway was, and even quizzed my mom until he was sure she knew how to get back uptown. “See?” my mom said as we hustled back across the street, “New Yorkers are the nicest people in the world.”

When I was sixteen and was living in England for the summer while my dad worked at a college in Birmingham, my mom and I used our BritRail pass at least once a week. “Where do you want to go today?” she would ask me at the train station and together, we would lean in close over a Fodor’s guide. Once she asked the ticket agent where we should go, and he looked up, astonished and maybe even a little embarrassed for us. Crazy Americans. My mom thought that was hilarious.

During one of our trips, we headed for a town in the west of England. I forget the name. Maybe it was near The Cotswalds. It was supposed to be artsy and quaint, but when we got off the train, we were surrounded by fields of sheep. “Well, it’s definitely quaint,” I said, looking around. My mom looked worried. As we walked down the road towards the village, the signs were different. They were brown and the words had too many l’s and y’s. “Mom?” I asked and she shook her head. “I did it again,” she said. “I think we’re in Wales.”

Lately, I have been thinking of how much time I have already wasted in my life. All those weekends frittered away on Netflix movies or lying on the beach in my twenties. All that time I spent in San Diego, even after I knew I didn’t want to live there forever. All those crappy apartments and bad bosses and lousy boyfriends. I wish I started yoga when I was 20 instead of 30. I wish I went to grad school or found a career in investor relations sooner so that I could have more money now. I wish I wore more sunscreen. I wish, I wish, I wish. All those wrong turns. All those mistakes. All those days you don’t get back.

That day in Wales, my mom looked at a map and then shrugged. “What good is this going to do me?” she asked, folding it back into her bag. We giggled and then set off for the town’s High Street. It was 1989 and supermarkets and malls didn’t exist yet in the UK. We found a little store and bought a box of oatcakes, two bottles of Perrier and ordered a hunk of cheddar, which was wrapped up for us in parchment paper. We walked back up the hill to the station to wait for another train. We opened our packages and sat in the grass watching the sheep and the wind move through the uncut field. It was a long time ago, but for some reason I remember that day so vividly. There was something about our train adventures that felt decadent and somewhat mischievous. There was something about that summer, about being sixteen in another country – in the wrong country even – with those thick oatcakes crumbling in my mouth and nowhere to be. It didn’t matter that we were lost, because that summer, maybe more than any other time, I belonged to myself completely.

A few weeks ago, Oliver and I set out to visit my cousin in Pennsylvania. My aunt and uncle were in town and I wanted to see them as well as my cousin, her husband, and their own four-year old son. It will be an adventure, I told Oliver. He was excited to see his cousin and to have a trip without his brother. And it was an easy trip, although I knew I shouldn’t have taken the 95. We had some traffic but not much until we hit the Ben Franklin Bridge outside of Philadelphia. There, traffic stopped, and as we sat, high above the ground, my phone beeped. A message popped up, which read: Battery Low. Phone Will Shut Down Shortly.

No. That voice in my head started to panic. Because of my lousy sense of navigation, I had relied on my phone for ages. I never even looked at a map when I set out anymore, which had only made my directional handicap worse. I had everything in my phone: contact numbers, GPS, email. And shortly, I was going to have nothing.

As we sat in traffic, I scribbled out the phone’s directions on a notepad before it shut down. Highway 1. Lincoln Highway. Highway 13. I fumbled around in the glovebox and found a map of Pennsylvania that my father must have stashed in there. Thank God. I took a deep breath. I could do this. No problem. We would just get there the old-fashioned way. I wondered what my mom would have done and decided that she would get as far as she could go and then ask for help.

I made it to Highway 1, felt victorious for a few seconds, and then started to panic again. Had I passed the right road? Had I gone too far? I decided to stop somewhere and ask, so I pulled into the first Wawa I saw (because I prefer them to 7-11’s) and waited in line at the cash register with Oliver. “Mommy,” he asked, “Are you lost?”

“We’re fine,” I whispered and told him I would buy him a lemonade.

The man behind the cash register was wearing a turban and he smiled at me. He reminded me of my Kundalini yoga teacher and I instantly relaxed. I showed him my map and spread it out next to the jar of mini Reeses and racks of energy shots and cellophane-wrapped packs of chewing gum. “Excuse me,” I began, thinking of my mom. “I’m trying to find Lincoln Highway.”

The man smiled at me. “You’re on Lincoln Highway,” he said.

“I am?” Seriously, I thought. This is fantastic.  I asked how far Highway 13 was.

“Oh,” he said, “Maybe four traffic lights. You’re so close.”

“Thank you,” I said and for some reason I felt the need to tell him that my phone died, that normally, I was more prepared than this.

“Oh,” he said again, “These things happen. Some days, mistake, mistake, mistake and you think, why is this?” He waved his hands and said, “It’s fine, this happens all the time.”

Back in the car, I followed the man’s directions and tried to make a left onto Highway 13, like he said, but there was a fork in the road and the intersection went three ways. I couldn’t tell where to go, and because I wasn’t sure which left to take, I went right. I do this kind of thing all the time. Rather than make a slight error, I choose to do things completely wrong, as if instead of just making a wrong turn, I would prefer to be in another country all together.

I had to stop again.

This time, I picked a Dunkin’ Donuts, where unfortunately, the man behind the counter didn’t know the area well. He gestured to the building next door and told me to go to the cigarette store.

“Excuse me,” I said to the man behind the counter of the cigarette store. He was selling lottery tickets. “Do you live around here?” The man looked shocked and a little bit scared. Crazy lady. I waved my map in the air. “I’m just asking because I’m a little bit turned around.”

“Mommy,” Oliver asked, clutching my hand. “What do they sell in this store?”

I bent down so I could talk into his ear. “Cigarettes,” I said, as neutrally as I could. “We’ll just be a minute.”

“I’ll help you,” said the man buying a lotto ticket. “Where do you want to go?”

“Yardley,” I said and he told me he lived there too. “I’ll meet you outside,” he said.

“Come on,” I said to Oliver, feeling as though I was reliving history, only now, I was playing my mother. There is something so humbling about being lost, about being unsure, about relying on people you don’t know. It always makes me want to cry, but not in a bad way. Sometimes I think it’s just relief at no longer being in charge, a sense of dropping the reins and surrendering. I really wanted to see my aunt and my cousin. I knew I was going to get there. I just wasn’t sure when. As Oliver and I walked back outside, I noticed the bright sunshine, the long line in front of the Rita’s Water Ice place next door, and the green leaves on the trees across the street, that summer feeling that only comes after a very cold winter.

The man came out and waved us over to his Ford Explorer. I stood a cautious distance away and Oliver pulled at my arm and told me he was hot. “I’m waiting for my wife,” the man told us and he waved at a woman with a red water ice in her hands. She walked over and we said hello. After she asked where I was going, she told me that I was very close. It was right around the corner. She started to give me directions but then her husband disagreed and they spent a minute or so arguing about it. “I’ll get the GPS,” he said finally and she went back to Rita’s to get more napkins.

He reached into his truck and turned on his GPS, and when the directions came up, he shook his head and smiled. “My wife was right,” he told me even though his wife wasn’t around to hear. “I should have known.”

When his wife came back, the man told me to just follow them, that they were going that way anyway. I shook my head and tried to protest. “It’s just down the block,” his wife told me. “It’s no problem.” Again, I had that feeling of wanting to cry, of wondering why I was ever angry or sad or confused about anything, because this world is such a very nice place. I marveled at how I could have ever felt lost when there was all this help, everywhere.

I ushered Oliver back to the car, told him what a good sport he was, and promised him that we were almost there, that before he knew it, he’d be playing in the back yard with his cousin. I followed the Ford Explorer out of the shopping center, across the street and down the block. Sure enough, after a third of a mile, we came to my cousin’s street. I had been so close, all that time, circling around, but missing the mark completely. I expected the man to stick his arm out the window of his Explorer and point to the street, honk his horn and drive off, but instead, they turned down the street ahead of me, driving slowly until we reached the house. He pulled over while I drove into my cousin’s driveway and they didn’t leave until I got out of the car and waved at them. “Thank you,” I yelled, but I knew that no one could hear me.

How could I say thank you? How do you repay those kindnesses that are just given to you, without any expectation of return? I have had so many of those people in my life, people who have just turned up and said, I have an extra bed, stay as long as you like, or I know someone at that company, why don’t I send them an email, or Turn around, that’s not a neighborhood you want to be in.  I have been thinking about being lost, about all the time I think I wasted, that maybe wasn’t really wasted at all. There were all those years of wrong turns that led me to my husband. There were those bad jobs that taught me so much. There are those times  where we feel so unfound in our own lives, so stagnant, and yet, maybe, that is where the magic is. Maybe instead of being lost, we are merely shoring up. We are in a gathering place, where the best thing to do is to sit in the grass, find some cheese and crackers, and wait for the next train.



July 20, 2011 § 14 Comments

A rare moment of stillness.

Scott and the boys were in the back of the house when I came home, in a funny little room where we stuck the TV. “Mommy, Mommy!” they called. “We’re watching the Tour de France.” They were giddy from staying up past their bedtime and excited about watching their father’s favorite sport. I am not a cyclist like Scott, but I like the Tour de France. The stages are a kind of yardstick by which I measure summer. I watch as the black route of the Tour winds through France and see how much time of my favorite season I have left. On the TV, it was at the end of a stage and the commentators were excited. “And you know,” I heard the announcer say in his lilting accent, “He’s just trying to hold onto that yellow jersey for one more day.”

“Stay and watch,” the boys said, so I did for a little while. But it had been a long day and I was tired. The boys were squirrely and I could tell they were 10 seconds away from bickering again. Scott told them it was almost time for bed, so I kissed them good night and made a run for it. I wanted to stay and watch. Or more accurately, I wanted to want to stay and watch. But I felt like the guy in the yellow jersey, like I had been holding on all day for the end of the day. Like some days I was holding on for just one more day.

In my last post, I wrote about letting myself off the hook. I wrote about lying on the floor in a yoga class while everyone else was trying to do a handstand. It was an apt metaphor, but as I tried to live it, I realized that letting myself off the hook by lying down was about as nuanced as assuming that the word “sit” means the same thing to a dog as it does to someone meditating.

Lindsey, of A Design so Vast wrote a comment on my last post that stopped me cold. “There is such a fine line for me,” she wrote, “when it is truly authentic to let myself off the hook, and when it is being “lazy” or not “trying” hard enough.”

That’s it, I thought after I read it. That’s why I can’t let myself off the hook either. It’s such a fine line for me too. At some point, doesn’t forgiving ourselves for our mistakes turn into excusing ourselves for poor behavior? When does letting myself off the hook for being a little tired or cranky turn into an all-access pass? This may be why I am a person of extremes. I am not comfortable with grey areas. I like the sure realms of black and white.

I also like the predictability of the outsides of things. I know how to dress the part, how to talk, and how to behave so that I appear to be the person I want to be. For the most part, during the day, I am patient. I try to be present and to pay attention to my sons’ stories and games and emotions. I know what it takes to raise children, and I try to conform to that standard. But some days, my insides belie this. Some days, after Gus’ epic two-year old tantrums, or a helacious car trip filled with bickering, I am screaming too, on the inside. I might be asking the boys if they want to read a book or get a drink of water in a calm voice, but in my head, I am out the front door like a shot and sprinting down the street into someone else’s life.

Sometimes, you get to learn things slowly, step by step. And sometimes you get your gums cut open and a tooth yanked out. Sometimes you get some words of wisdom to take home with you and sometimes you get some cute little ice packs and a bottle of horse-sized ibuprofen. The whole procedure to get my wisdom tooth out wasn’t that bad, to be honest. That day, I think I even said, “Piece of cake.” It was the next day that did me in, after a trip to the park and another to Target and another back home to make a batch of gazpacho soup. And then the day after that, when I could barely get out of bed, where I stayed put drinking watermelon cucumber juice and reading an ancient copy of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.

I had come to a the proverbial wall. It was mile 22. It was that stage in the Tour de France where the hills appear as if someone wrinkled up the rug. I could no longer keep going. I was done. Kaput. Down for the count. I could barely hold on for an hour, much less a day. And I hate feeling helpless like nothing else. Usually, I just clench my jaw and keep going. Except I couldn’t clench my jaw. Instead, I just lay there with a steady tattoo of pain in my mouth and a feeling in my body as if I had been run over by a truck.

I suppose someone wise would call that surrender. I think I would call it an ambush. Whatever it was, it had the power to paralyze me until the dust could settle a bit. It packed enough of a wallop so that something inside me could peel open. It had enough oomph to remove a wrapper I hadn’t even known was there.

It enabled me to see what the world was like when I became still.

Last night, I was finally enough of myself to roll out my yoga mat again. I lit my battery operated candles and placed my seated Buddha in front of my mat. It had been almost a week since I practiced the script from my yoga teacher training, and I get nervous when I stay away from it too long. I am way more type A than the typical yoga teacher. I talk too quickly. I think too much. It’s apparent to me that I am not a natural at this and I will have to work harder than most of the other students will.

Pretty much, as soon as I began reading the script into my recorder, I wanted to quit. It’s just not happening today, I thought and stood back up. But during our last teacher training we talked about commitment. About why we have a yoga practice even though sometimes it’s inconvenient. Or not fun. I looked at all the candles in the room. I said I would do this, I thought.

So I sat back down and kept reading. I came to a line that reads, “Breathe into your softness. Breathe into your stillness.” I had read that line hundreds of times before, but this time, it seemed brand new. Breathe into my softness? Breathe into my stillness? Could that place I found when I was lying in bed with ice packs on my face really be inside me?

I wanted to leave again. I decided to stay. I played the recording of the script I just read and began to practice. I moved into child’s pose. I heard my own voice say, “Breathe into your softness. Breathe into your stillness.” As I began the endless repetitions of lifting my  leg high and stepping it forward, inhaling to a long spine and folding again, I wanted to stop. As I moved into Warrior II, my muscles were tight and tense again. Breathe into your softness. Breathe into your stillness.

Was there some way to do this without fighting it? Was there some other way of navigating my daily duties of peacemaking and sweeping crumbs and wiping faces that didn’t end with me waiting at the edge of the driveway for my husband to come home so I could peel off to yoga class? Was there some way to find ease, even if I am not an easy person?

It seemed as if I was in Warrior II for ages. My legs hurt. My mouth hurt. I thought of those cyclists, the way they climbed those hills all warm and loose as if their muscles were made of maple syrup. I used to know that place from my old running days, the place you found after you accepted the pain. Acknowledged it. And then kept going anyway.

Last week showed me that I have no idea how to let myself off the hook. I tried, but it turned out that the hook has me. So I am going to try this instead: I am going to try to find some cool, still place to retreat to when it gets too hairy. Supposedly, it’s always there, even when it’s crazy, even when there are tiny bare feet and broken glass and your kids are (once again) fighting over the fire truck. Instead of trying to ride the fine line where compassion ends and anarchy begins, I’m going to pull my bike over to the side of the road. I’m going to try to find some shade. I’m going to ditch the yellow jersey.


July 7, 2011 § 25 Comments

Eat a good breakfast

A few months ago I went to a book group at a yoga studio in Georgetown. The group was going to discuss Momma Zen, by Karen Maezen Miller. Finally, I thought, when I first saw the flyer. When I lived in Ventura and my son went to Oak Grove School in Ojai, we had parent meetings every month. The early childhood teachers were present and we discussed topics such as sibling rivalry, anger, creating partnership with children. It seemed  a given that we were all good parents, all trying our best. I came away from the meetings feeling more knowledgeable, better equipped, and supported by other parents.

I was excited as I drove into Georgetown. I thought I might make some new friends or finally find a sense of community. But the book group was as much like my old parent meetings as DC is to Ojai. The yoga studio owners and book group leaders were kind and genuine. I think they wanted the same things I did. They asked questions about our challenges as mothers and about the areas we wanted to improve. It was the answers that did me in. The grim, pinched faces. The tired voices expressing how hard it is to be patient, to stop saying “just a minute,” to go on a quarter mile walk that takes an hour. I just felt sad as I sat there and very, very homesick for Ventura. The unkind part of myself felt virtuous (so good!) when I saw that I have changed a bit since I my early days as a mom, but another part of me felt equally hopeless. As much as these women depressed me with with their unhappiness, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Before I had children, I ran at 100 miles a minute. Slowing down back then, seemed to be a huge waste of time.

Children make you slow down, no doubt about that. They demand your presence in every single moment. At my son’s school, I learned that if you relax into it, if you let yourself fall into the present moment, it can feel like flying. It feels like joy and happiness and safety. It feels like love.

But it’s still a bit unnatural for me. It’s something I have to work at every day, and as I sat in that book group, I wondered why slowing down seems to be such a challenge for many mothers in my generation. Maybe it’s the technology we all adapted to in our twenties: the email, the phones, the web. Or maybe it’s that motherhood is what we were told to avoid. Go to a good school. Get a good job. Make good money. To some mothers, parenthood is the thing that robbed them of their success and freedom. To others, motherhood became another job, the ultimate career. Many days I hear Jackie Onassis’s words in my head: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” Be a good mother. Or else.

I loved Claire Dederer’s memoir Poser because she explores our relentless pursuit of good in motherhood and shows how it robs us of the real. The fun. She writes about her own “goodness project,” her constant quest for the admiration that would confirm her virtue, and she brings forth an idea that her perfectionism has to do with growing up in the late sixties, during the time in which many women – who were wives and mothers – were leaving their homes. They were joining communes, going back to work, or moving in with hippie boyfriends.

I was born almost a decade later than Dederer in 1973. I grew up with Title IX, the ERA, and Billie Jean King. Geraldine Ferraro and Mary Lou Retton. Those Virginia Slims ads. My mom’s friend lived in Manhattan and wrote for Working Women Magazine. I still remember the covers. Those women with their feathered hair and their briefcases. You’ve come a long way baby.

I remember the books I loved growing up, the trail of breadcrumbs that might have led to such a thirst for achievement. There was Herstory and another one called Anything Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better. You can guess what that one was about. I was inspired by that book and maybe a little bit scared. It was clear that as a girl, I was going to have to work my ass off.

If Dederer drove herself to be good in order to make up for her own wayward mother, I wonder if my generation is so strident about motherhood, so relentless in our quest for virtue because we know no other way. We have always had to be better than the men in order to be considered as good as. Quite probably, I could relate most of my failings to growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I could blame Reagan and Madonna and Gloria Steinem. Wasn’t it also Jackie O who said, “There are two kinds of women: those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed.” Yowza.

But there is something in blaming our youth that doesn’t ring true to me, just as I didn’t buy Dederer’s assertion that Seattle hipsters treat attachment parenting as a religion because their parents got divorced. There just has to be something else that drives us to mash steamed carrots for our toddlers and sign up for Mommy and Me Yoga. (Um, yeah, I am talking about myself here.)

Motherhood, too often, feels like a competition. Another endurance event with the prize being your child’s perfect behavior. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m so competitive it drives me crazy most of the time. The other morning I went out for a run – a slow jog, I told myself – and before I knew it, I had caught up to a girl whose ponytail had been bouncing in front of me for a mile or so. “Hey crazy lady,” I asked myself as I charged up the next hill, now committed to my new pace, “What are you doing?”

Sometimes I wonder if we are so relentlessly strident in our quest to be good because we are so afraid of what will happen if we stop trying to hard. We’ll get fat. We’ll get fired. We’ll mess up our kids’ chances to go to Harvard.

Last week, Bruce at Privilege of Parenting wrote a fabulous counterpoint to Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic article, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” I’ve gone back to that post a few times because there was so much wisdom there. I found tremendous comfort in this paragraph:

Thus as parents let’s not beat ourselves up, nor give up, let’s admit that we’re not perfect and neither are our kids; let’s let go the notion that our kids (or we) will be happy when they get to Harvard or become doctors (but instead bank on the idea that if they find their place in the group and contribute, even at Taco Bell, this may be better for them and for our world than the nightmare we’ve been propagating).

On the 4th of July, a new friend from my yoga teacher training took me to my first hot yoga, or power yoga, class. “Is it Bikram?” I asked, apprehensively. I went to Bikram once, years ago, and couldn’t get out of bed for the rest of the day. I was not going back to Bikram again. She shook her head. “No, it’s not that hot. You’ll be fine.”

So off I went. For the first hour I was fine, despite the heat. I was sweating like mad and it really stunk in the room, but I was okay. Until I wasn’t. Until the room started to spin and my heart began pounding in a way that did not feel right. I had chills up and down my neck and was hugely grateful I hadn’t eaten breakfast. The instructor told us it was time to move into handstand. “Challenge yourself,” she shouted and I told myself to buck up and ignore the pounding in my body. But it was the Fourth of July. There were fireworks to go to. We had people coming for dinner. I couldn’t spend the day in bed.

I decided to lie down right there, in the middle of the room. The thermostat near me read 96 degrees so I closed my eyes and listened to the 66 other people in the class jumping up and standing on their palms. I felt like an idiot lying there. Water was dripping on my head from the ceiling and I realized that it was the condensed sweat of all the other people in the room who were working so hard to be good.

Last summer, as our family moved from California to DC, I told the boys and Scott that 2010 was going to be The Funnest Summer Evuh!!! I needed something to spur me on and ignite my sense of adventure when I felt such sadness. I haven’t quite settled on a theme for this summer yet. I thought it might be The Most Peaceful Summer Ever as the boys have been bickering a bit. But lying there in that crowded yoga studio, I thought that maybe this was going to be the Summer I Let Myself Off the Hook. I am going to let myself off the hook for my bad days. For the lovely mornings I sometimes interrupt by saying, “Hurry up, put your shoes on. We have to get to the park!” The days I focus more on the crayons under the couch, the Legos strewn on the floor, the spilled milk, the incessant shouts of little boys than I do on the fun parts. The evenings I spend beating myself up for not signing the boys up for swim lessons or Yoga 4 Kids or music camp. For giving in and buying the assorted pack of sugar cereals that I normally don’t allow into the house.  The nights I spend beating up other mothers in my head for making me feel badly about what I am beating myself up about. Better than. Worse than. It seems like a two-way street, but really, it’s a dark alley that leads to a crack house.

Freedom. I always thought it meant something you fought for. Something earned. But maybe it’s also the act of gently emancipating yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as dropping the chains we are twisting around our own necks. Last year, I thought that walking on my hands – embracing uncertainty – was the full expression of freedom. But this Fourth of July, it seemed that lying on my back was more authentic. This Independence Day, for me, seemed to be about allowing other people’s sweat to drip on my face and not needing to add to the heat. Because we are all working so very hard. And maybe we already are good enough.

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