August 24, 2011 § 16 Comments
What happens when you move every 2 years, as we do, is that you begin to make bucket lists of things to do before you move again. We made one this summer with the boys. It’s on a piece of red construction paper and most of the items are crossed off: “camping” on the foldout bed on the back porch area, taking a tour of DC in a double-decker bus, going to the beach. Yesterday, we were going to cross another one from the list: going to the top of the Washington Monument.
As we ate a late lunch yesterday, the boys and I talked about what it was going to be like to see the city spread out before us. What I love about the Washington Monument is not what it looks like, but what it does for the Mall. The Monument unfurls the sky, as if the Mall were a big circus tent with the most beautiful ceiling. I wanted to be inside that place and look out into all that blue air.
After Gus finished his lunch, he slid down from his chair and went into the living room to color by the window seat. Oliver and I kept talking until the floor began to shake and rumble. After spending 15 years in California, I have been through enough earthquakes to recognize one when it came. But still, my brain said no. I held onto the table as my mind told me, “This is Virginia. There are no earthquakes here.”
But the earth was saying, yes.
The floor began to roll and the heavy oak table splayed out from under me as if it were a young colt. I heard the kitchen cabinets bang open and the glasses fall out. “Let’s get Gus,” I told Oliver and we ran to the living room as the floor heaved beneath us. Gus began to cry and raised his arms to me. “The funder is hurting my ears,” he said. I picked him up and spun around, not sure what to do. I knew you are supposed to stand in a doorway, but I heard glass breaking and watched the light fixtures swing, so that didn’t seem like the greatest idea. Instead, I do what I do best. I ran. I took the boys out the front door and into our yard.
As we stepped into the grass, the earth became still again. It was silent. I could feel Gus shaking in my arms, or maybe that was me. I told myself that there was nothing to be afraid of, but there was an eerie sense of deja vu to the whole experience, as if I had done this before. As if this were not the first time I stood in my front yard after the earth shook itself off like a wet dog.
Down the block some kids had come out of their homes. Across the street, I saw my neighbor Paul huddled by his front door with his tiny little dog. Every neighborhood has a bright, happy person, the one in the old convertible who loans you his lawn mower and always gives you a big wave. Paul’s that guy. He’s not someone who hides out with a chihuahua.
I waved to him and he came out of his house. “What was that?” he asked.
Seriously, Dude? said the voice inside my head. “It was an earthquake,” I said out loud.
“Are you sure?” he asked, stepping forward and down his steps.
I could feel Gus shaking against me and I put my hand on Oliver’s head. “Yes,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Oh,” he said, looking relieved. He walked out to the edge of his yard. “When the plane hit the Pentagon on nine eleven,” he told me, “It felt like a truck hit our house.”
Ah, I thought. There it is. We each have our own unique epicenters of fear.
After a few minutes of dusting ourselves off, we all went back inside. The boys were excited and kept telling me they weren’t scared. “I not stared of earthquakes Mommy,” Gus kept saying, so I told them that earthquakes hardly ever happened in Virginia. That it was over and we were all just fine. Oliver wanted to know what caused an earthquake and I told him that sometimes the planet settles a little and then goes back to normal. I had no idea what I could say that would bring comfort. I couldn’t tell them it would never happen again because what if it did?
I went back into the kitchen to clean up the glass on the floor, but really, it was an excuse to take a breath and stop shaking. It didn’t work. For the rest of the day, I felt as if I were choking back sobs that had nothing to do with the earthquake. It took me until evening to figure out that maybe the strange sense of deja vu I felt had something to do with moving every two years. I am someone who wants to put roots down more than anything, but I guess what I am supposed to learn is this lifetime is how to deal with being transplanted, how to be shaken up a little.
It’s really so silly that I am afraid every time we move. We are given professional movers. We are given enough money to rent a new house and to move our cars and replace the food we always have to give away or toss out. But it’s the little things that throw me for a loop, like having to use a GPS the first few times I go to the grocery store. Going to the park for the first time and sitting by the sand box alone. Knowing that it will be months until someone in my new area code will call me on the phone. I have a Philadelphia cell phone number, a California driver’s license, an Oregon license plate, and a Virginia address. Last year, when we moved to Alexandria, the soundtrack of our first summer was, “Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-turn.”
All day yesterday, I kept telling myself how unfounded these fears were. That what I was afraid of had already happened to me: the earthquake, the difficult moves, the loneliness. Right now I am fine, I kept telling myself. We’re all just fine. We would move again and we would be fine there too. We always found a doctor when we needed one, a school, and enough friends.
I like to think that moving so often has made me into a certain kind of person. As Dominique Browning so eloquently put it, moving puts me on the other side of the desk. As I get lost in an attempt to buy milk or as my heart breaks as my son tells me that he misses his friends, that he is so scared of starting a new school that it feels like lions are chasing him, I become everyone who has ever been scared or lonely or lost. I become the woman who holds up the line in the grocery store because the cashier doesn’t know how to take food stamps. I become the elderly man who keeps asking you to repeat yourself. I become the child who is having a tantrum because he can’t tie his shoe. I tell myself that moving so often has made me compassionate. It has made me strong, good in a crisis. It has made me into someone who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, will grab the laptop and the diaper bag, the extra bottle of water.
Yesterday, as the boys and I stood in our front yard after the ground stopped moving, I looked down at the chipped polish on my bare toes. Oliver was in his socks and Gus had a dirty diaper. Apparently I am not the person I thought I was. It turns out, I am the person, who, in a fire or a hurricane or an earthquake, doesn’t even remember her shoes. It turns out that maybe the only thing fear has taught me is how to be afraid.
At three o’clock yesterday, an hour after the earthquake, they closed the Washington Monument. Today, all the buildings on the Mall were closed. The earth is still now, but they are checking for damages. They are looking for cracks and picking up rubble from the Cathedral floor.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment. It is clear that there is so much more work for me to do here, on this ground level. I am not ready yet to climb into a tall, slim obelisk and look out over the world. What I still need to learn is how to be comfortable with the earth shifting under my feet.
August 22, 2011 § 11 Comments
Wild. I have been somewhat obsessed with this word lately. Maybe it’s because our own summer is a little wild with most of our days spent outside and the two boys growing like wild flowers. Today, Oliver asked if I had put Gus’ clothes in his drawer because they were all too small for him. I stared at Oliver in his too-small shorts. “No,” I said. “Those are yours.” Were yours. Were: that is the word that is used most often when you are a parent. Once you were my baby. Now you are my boy.
Wild is also this month’s Jivamukti yoga theme. The way Jiva classes work is that each month, the teachers design their classes around a universal theme. What’s interesting is to see how each teacher explores this theme differently. Or, to see how a teacher evolves her classes during the month. My favorite teacher, Kathy, started out this month teaching an uninhibited class. She played “Wild Wild West” and had her students dance. When I took her class last week, she admitted she was tired of that. “I’ve been thinking about wild animals,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about how sensitive and still they are. How they listen.” The class she gave that day focused on listening – to ourselves, to each other, to the world. “In nature,” she said, while we were in pigeon pose, “One bird begins to fly and they all follow. One giraffe begins to run and they all organize around that single moment. They all act as one because they know all is one.”
I have been thinking about my own wild self, about how I haven’t paid very much attention to it. “Shh,” I always say. “Be quiet.” Perhaps, I am worried that if I listen, I will become so completely out of control that my life will become unmanageable. Perhaps, I believe that my wild self cannot be trusted.
In my late teens and twenties, I suffered from pretty much every eating disorder that has ever been diagnosed. It’s not something I really want to write about, but as I get older, I realize that of the thousands of women I have met, maybe three have been immune from eating disorders. Food seems to be the universal sword by which we women wage war upon ourselves. “I am not enough,” is what we are really saying when we eat too little or too much. I am so useless and unworthy that I don’t deserve to eat. Or, I am so worthless, I need to be filled with something other than myself. It’s all the same thing: We don’t believe we deserve to be here. We don’t believe we can be trusted.
This Saturday, I took Jivamukti from Hari (or “Uncle Hari” as he is affectionately named). Hari talked about wild. He talked about our relentlessly wild minds. He talked about the chaos that ensues when do whatever we want. He talked about the beauty of rules to tame our wildness. Specifically he spoke about the Yoga Sutras, about the Yamas of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), and Brahmacarya (moderation). He talked about how within those rules, we can experience great freedom and how sometimes, it is the rules themselves that enable us to be truly wild. His words reminded me of what Shakespeare once wrote about the sonnet, that it was because of their strict structure that he could come up with such lyric poetry.
On Sunday, when Scott went out for a morning bike ride and threw his ClifShot wrapper away, he discovered a raccoon in our trash can. All I know is, it’s good he found it and not me. Nothing fills me with fear more than small North American mammals and rodents. And a raccoon looks like both of these combined.
“Anyone want to come help me get the raccoon out of the trash can?” Scott asked when he came home.
Oliver and I both shook our heads.
“I’ll go!” Gus called and followed his dad outside in his bare feet.
Oliver and I stood inside by the window and watched as Scott maneuvered the trash can and leaned it on its side, away from the house. Gus came dancing in a few seconds later, he eyes bright. He held out his arms. “The raccoon was this big!” he said.
There seems to be this balance in dealing with our own wild minds, and it’s one I haven’t quite figured out yet. On one hand, if we let ourselves go completely, life becomes crazy. We can’t parent our children or successfully sustain any type of relationship. On the other hand, if we force too many rules upon ourselves, we end up hiding out somewhere in the dark, eating trash. The raccoon reminded me of what Anne Lamott once said about her own thoughts: “My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” It reminded me of what Rolf Gates says about compassion: “Starving people eat garbage. And sometimes we are those starving people.”
After a month of “Wild” Jivamukti, I am no closer to understanding the term. I think of wild horses and snow-capped mountains and wild geese landing on a lake during my friend’s beautiful wedding. I think of children who crave rules and structure and a rhythm to flow into. I think of myself as I approach the age of 40, which is undoubtably the beginning of middle age. I think of the lack of rules and structure and rhythm we have for midlife unless it is the sting of a Botox needle or the sound of a wine bottle opening or the pain of a breakdown.
But there has to be more than this, right? RIGHT???
When I was young, my father listened to Joseph Campbell’s audiotapes while we were in the car, which now, I am grateful for. Somewhere in my brain are the transcripts to all of those tapes. In my mind, I can hear Campbell talking about the importance of ritual and how our current society is sorely lacking, especially in adolescence.
He didn’t speak about middle age that I remember, but that period of life is most certainly lacking in ritual as well. I knew how to be wild in my twenties. I know how to be wild with and about my children now that I am in my thirties. But how am I supposed to be wild in my forties? How do I know which voice to listen to? Is it the one who tells me follow the rules or is it the one who tells me to abandon them and carve my own path.
Luckily for me, as these things go, I received a message, just when I needed it. It was from someone I do not yet know who read my “Heart” post. She shared the following poem she wrote when her own child was a toddler, and in her poem, I found that harmonious balance between our wild nature and our civilized selves. I found that connection with another soul, which I am thinking may be the only ritual that counts for anything.
What could be a better symbol of the relationship between savage and civilized than our own wild hearts beating in their cages of bone?
Thank you Holly.
In the dawn of my awakening
I reach over
and put my hand
over the soft skin of her small chest
over her tiny heart
I feel it beat with strength, with rhythmic determination
that same tiny heart that beat inside my belly not so long ago
that beats faster while she pedals her two-wheeler
that same growing heart
that closes a little more with each life lesson learned
Eckhart Tolle tells us to be quiet, to be still
to open to the extraordinary moments, that define presence
that life really is beyond our senses, beyond our consciousness
and that she and I, you and I
are really one
So be quiet, be still –
listen and feel the beating of her heart,
my heart, your own heart
the pulse of the universe
and the voice of God
-Holly Brook Cotton 7/24/08
August 9, 2011 § 14 Comments
I’ve long believed that what has kept writers, again myself included, from fully transcending their personal experiences on the page was fear of incompetence: I can’t write a plot that involves a kidnapping because I’ve never been kidnapped, etc. But what if it’s the opposite? What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? … Maybe we’re afraid that if we write what we don’t know, we’ll discover something truer than anything our real lives will ever yield.
– from “Don’t Write What You Know,” by Bret Anthony Johnston, the Atlantic Fiction 2011
I read these words while I was sitting outside the Lodge at Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon. We were there for two days for a dear friend’s wedding while the boys were three hours away at their grandparents’ house. We have never left them for that long before and after 12 hours of sadness and a bit of anxiety, I came to a place of peace. I came to the realization that they were having a blast.
Sitting there, looking up at those snow capped mountains, I also came to a place of homecoming. I came to another realization that even though I spent half my life on the east coast, it’s never been home to me the way the west is, where I’ve spent the other half of my life. I’ve been working so hard to make Virginia home, but that experience has been like walking with my head down, gazing at the cracks in the sidewalk. Virginia is just the ground floor of truth and trying too hard to love it is like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It’s been like trying to deny my own discreet and infinite hunger.
But of course this is not about Virginia, is it? What I’m really talking about is my own tendency to try to drink from a block of clay rather than molding it into a bowl that can hold water.
This quote pertains directly to my own experience of writing fiction, of writing 50 pages and then being stopped by the paralyzing fear of being incompetent. And it also pertains directly to my own experience of living, of being afraid to dream, to rise past the ground floor of truth because I am afraid I will do it too well. That the world I envision for myself may be too lovely for someone like myself to inhabit. That to abide in the world I long for means making myself open to disaster. That sometimes, being available to beauty is the most terrifying thing there is.