Good Animal

September 29, 2011 § 18 Comments

Oliver, being a good animal.

Scott and I did a duathalon two weeks ago, which is kind of hilarious if you knew how out of shape I am. It’s even more hilarious because it was my idea to begin with. I thought it would be fun. I thought that somehow, doing an off-road-trail-race-mountain-bike-ride-relay would make us into a certain kind of family, much like the beautiful ones I flip through in the Prana and Patagonia catalogs.

What really happened is that the night before the race, I tried to convince Scott to do the whole 6 mile trail run and 8 mile mountain bike ride by himself. He said no. I tried to convince him to ask a buddy of his to do the run instead of me. Scott laughed. “Come on,” he said. “It will be fun.”

It wasn’t that much fun, to be honest. On the way to the race, I felt myself regress back to who I used to be when I could run sixteen minute 5Ks. On the way to the race, while the boys shouted out the names of trucks on the highway, I started to get tunnel vision. It became difficult to concentrate on what everyone was saying. It was as if I was in some invisible time machine and all I wanted to do was to pull up the hood of my Champion sweatshirt and blast U2 on my Walkman. You are being ridiculous, I kept saying to myself as I fought to keep my tone light and pulled out snacks for the boys. Even though I am the poster child for “weekend warrior,” my brain still thought I was gunning for the Olympic Trials.

It was a pretty low-key race to say the least. And still. There I was, walking up to the Virginia State Park public restroom with Oliver, thinking I should be doing some striders or drills or something to get my heart rate up. By the time the race actually started and I chugged up the little road that led to the trail, I was exhausted. All that useless adreneline had pumped blood away from my hands and feet which were now numb and cold, and I could barely breathe. I spent the first leg of our relay beating myself up for being such a freakazoid about this silly little fun run. As I finished the 2.5 miles and ran into the transition zone, I watched other couples hand off. A team of guys yelled “goGoGO,” at each other and a cute young couple kissed. I kept running until I reached Scott and the boys. “I’m sorry,” I said, gasping for air.

As Scott did his 8 mile ride, I watched the boys ride their own bikes on some little trails. Oliver rode fast and bounced over rocks and Gus imitated his every move, even though he’s on a little Skuut with no pedals. I was mesmerized by them because they were so mesmerized by riding in the woods. Watching them reminded me of a quote from one of my beloved George Sheehan books: “First and foremost: Be a good animal.”

I forget how I acquired my first George Sheehan book, but it must have been from my parents who took up running in the late 70’s. Sheehan was a cardiologist who ran at lunch time and in weekend races, but mostly, he was a thinker. His books were kind of like a guidebook into the soul of running and had so much to do with why I loved the sport.

Be a good animal.

When it was time, the boys (begrudgingly) got off their bikes and we waited for Scott to come in so I could run my second and final leg. He rode over and gave me a high five and I headed off again into the woods. This time it was easier. This time, I didn’t care so much. This time, I remembered how to land on the edge of tree roots and slop through streams. Running in the woods has always been something special for me. Like gears syncing up, my heart and head become aligned and the pattern of the universe reveals itself a little bit, like a rent in the lining. My body too knows how to be a good animal.

I swam in my first meet when I was five and ran in my first race when I was eight. I competed for decades and I know how to do it, how to prepare for it. As I ran through the Virginia woods last week – or more accurately, as I jogged while people passed me – I realized that my pre-race tunnel vision and macabre sense of concentration were simply habit. All my body wanted to do was to be a good animal, to do what it was trained to do, like a slobbery Newfoundland who wants only to jump into the lake and save the swimmer from drowning.

What also occurred to me after the race, when I had a moment to think, were all the other things I do that are simply habit. It’s so easy to blame ourselves for being too selfish or too submissive, for eating too much or not enough, for yelling too much or for not standing up for ourselves, for doing too much or doing too little. But really, these are merely habits that, at one time, served us well. When I was in my twenties and making my way out of a dark tunnel of disordered eating, I read all of Geneen Roth’s wise books. “There are exquisitely good reasons,” she wrote, “for doing what we do, for believing what we believe.” We are so quick to feel ashamed, but most of the time, our bodies are just trying to be good animals. They are trying, as they always do, to save us.

September 27th marked the New Moon for the month, which I have recently learned is a good time to gather some intentions and wishes for what you want to bring more of into your life. It’s also a good time to get rid of worn-out habits that don’t serve you anymore. Jeesh. I’m rolling my eyes at myself, even as I write this, because normally, this isn’t the kind of thing I typically take part in. I’m just not a visionboard kind of gal, I guess. But, I recently took a 4-week online course entitled Self-Love Warriors put on by Jenn Gibson of Roots of She and during the month, there was a conversation about new moon rituals that intrigued me.

And so, eye-rolling at myself aside, I am thinking of some new habits I want to cultivate as we move into fall. As usual, that list includes eating more kale and less sugar. Getting more sleep and committing to fewer activities. But I think first and foremost what I want to do is to respect the good animal part of myself – that true and loyal part of each of us that is committed to our survival at all costs. Perhaps your good animal is wiser than mine and has led you into nurturing behaviors. Or maybe your good animal is like my own and dashes off unexpectedly after a squirrel in the woods. Regardless, our good animals deserve gratitude rather than shame for bringing us this far into our own good lives, hearts beating, blood pumping, lungs breathing.



September 15, 2011 § 23 Comments

First Day of School

In my world, I’m standing just inside the door.
In my world, I’m speaking, to the ocean’s roar.
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror.”

The beginning of September has flattened me. Literally. I am lying on the floor in pigeon pose and my yoga teacher, Gopi, is sitting on top of me, shouting at me in her British/Indian accent. “Thassit gurl. Get in thair.” She sticks her elbow into my butt and I see stars. It takes all I have inside me not to cry. That’s how everything has been lately; on top of me, all sharp elbows and painful edges.


I like to write blog posts when I have something figured out, at least to some degree. Right now, I have nothing figured out. Right now, I feel like I am wearing clothes that are both too big and too tight. It’s been weeks since I have written anything at all.


Gopi is talking about change, which is obvious now in the weather and the red tinge on the leaves that hang over our living room window. Yesterday it was ninety-one degrees. Now it is fifty-one. After I picked Oliver up from kindergarten at noon today, I took the boys to the park to ride their bikes in the warm sunshine. This afternoon, at home, we watched the front blow in, cold air on a freight train straight from Canada. I have one east coast winter under my belt after 17 in California, and frankly, I am anxious about doing it again. We had a week of 100 degree temperatures in May and three in June and July. August was hot too. Until now, winter has seemed so far away. I want it to stay away. And I want it to be here already so I can stop worrying about it.

“What in your life,” Gopi asks, ” Is the catalyst for a heart revolution?”


On Labor Day weekend, the week before school started, Scott and I flew back to northern California for a wedding.  We saw friends in Marin, San Francisco and on the Sonoma coast. We had pizza in Berkeley with my friend Stephanie and I got to hold her gorgeous 7-week old baby. We drank too much red wine with Scott’s friends from college in a house overlooking the Pacific. We went to my friend Michelle’s wedding and spent the whole time with my friend Loren and her wife Audra. Stephanie and Loren and Michelle were my cross-country and track teammates in college. They know me so well, even now, and I miss them. I miss what it was like to be together every day. I miss that.

The trip back from California to DC was hard – it always is. Something happens to me when I fly eastward over the Mississippi River. I contract. I become the smallest version of myself packed into the tightest bundle. I protect myself from what is inevitably coming. I try to ward off what has already happened.


Last weekend, during my yoga teacher training, something shifted and we all started to get it. Instead of sitting there, feeling confused, I felt close. I felt connected. Rolf talked a bit about our contracted states of fear, aversion, and jealousy. He said that when we move beyond our contracted states, we will realize that we needed each of them in order to arrive at this new, expansive place.


Tonight, Gopi is hell-bent on opening our hips. We do some crazy thing with our legs behind our heads. I am close, but my leg gets stuck somewhere by my pony tail and I can’t get it under. We do some other terrifying move to open our hip flexors where only my left heel and the top of my right foot remain on the floor. Gopi makes us chant three Om’s while we hold that pose. “Whatever you ease into eases up,” she tells us. In that moment, I hate yoga.


For a long time now, I have felt as if I were on the precipice of something: transformation, change, growth. I don’t know. It’s nothing big, nothing earth shaking. Just something new. But I can’t quite get there. It gets stopped, somewhere in my head. I get stuck, just inside the door.


Oliver started school last Thursday, during the rains that didn’t stop. We stayed inside all week, and it felt like winter. Oliver doesn’t like transitions so much. Like me, he tries to protect himself from what has already happened. Since school started, it’s been one meltdown after another. It would be one thing if he walked in the door, threw down his blue race car backpack, and began to wail. Instead, it’s more diffuse. Yesterday, he flung himself on the ground because I reversed the bath/dinner schedule. The day before, he stomped out of the room because I got him a new toothbrush. “I won’t brush my teeth!” he yelled at Scott, “until I have a toothbrush with batteries in it.”


Tonight in class I think about what in my life might be a catalyst for a heart revolution. Maybe it’s my yoga teacher training. Or maybe it’s Oliver’s tantrums. Stay, I tell myself during the heart of them. Breathe. Sometimes I can. And sometimes I can’t.

Next, Gopi has us doing heart opening poses. Our arms are entwined behind our backs and we bow forward into the geometry of devotion. Please, I think as my heart moves towards the floor. Please.


Last Sunday, I set an intention to keep my heart open, to stay in the moment and hold space for Oliver’s transition. What happens is what always happens when I finally act like the grown up and do what I am supposed to do. Oliver stops yelling and starts crying. He asks for a hug with both arms. We bypass anger and move straight to the heart of his anxiety. What also happens is that I become exhausted from all that life being hurled straight at me. When I become a wellspring to my son, I become a drought to myself. I wonder if there is a way to bring the two together, to nourish both of us at the same time.

In our teacher training, Rolf told us to be the thing we loved. What would happen if I could remember the word devotion? What if I could become that?


Later in class, we do Hanumanasana or seated splits with one leg straight out in front. The pose is named after the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who devotes his life to the god Rama. When the demon king who presides over Sri Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, Hanuman and Rama travel from India to Sri Lanka to rescue her. During the battle there, Rama’s brother becomes wounded and to live, he requires an herb that only grows in the Himalayas.

Hanuman so loves Rama that he says he will accomplish this impossible task. With one foot still in Sri Lanka, he stretches himself all the way back to India. He can’t find the herb, so he lifts up the entire mountain and carries it back to Sri Lanka, where Rama’s brother is saved. Hanumanasana embodies Hanuman’s devotion, each leg in a different country, arms high in the air, carrying a mountain.

I can never get into this pose all the way. Mostly I just hover, uncomfortably, suspended a few inches off the ground, my hands on the floor.


On Labor Day, on the way home from the wedding, I bought Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home in the San Francisco airport. The book is about Caldwell’s experience of losing her best friend – Caroline Knapp, another of my favorite writers – to breast cancer at the age of 42. In the book, Caldwell writes, “I was in the corridor of something far larger than I, and I just had to stand it and stay where I was.”


Tonight, I go into Hanumanasana the way I always do: I squeeze my front thigh and flex my front foot. I walk the toes on the other leg back until they can’t go any further. Tonight I do this until I feel something under my front hamstring. It takes a split second until I realize that what is directly under my leg is the floor, which has miraculously risen up to meet me.

“Yes!” I think to myself. “Yes!” and then I am instantly humbled. I have been practicing yoga consistently since I was pregnant with Oliver. It has taken me more than six years to come into the shape of this pose.


At the park today, watching Oliver ride around like a crazy person on his bike, I found myself wondering how many weeks it would take until he feels more settled at school. Maybe next week. Maybe never.

I keep wondering when I am going to get there: back to California, my leg over my head, the end of winter, the end of tantrums, and of course what I really want, which is to become a more spiritual person. I thought if I did a lot of yoga, it would happen on its own. There is something to that of course, but it’s not that easy. It requires a bit more stretching than that. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get around these big corners. There’s a lot of hanging out, suspended over the ground, feet in two different countries. It might be that I never get there, that this is all there is, right now: waiting and staying and standing it.

Where Am I?

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