March 6, 2011 § 2 Comments
This winter, I made a commitment to embrace darkness. It was my first winter after years in California, and I decided to hibernate inside myself this year. Since I moved to DC, it is clear to me that this is a place for me to do some work. Maybe a bit of cleaning out. There is something purifying about being brand new in an uncomfortable spot of earth. You learn quickly what works and what doesn’t. There is no room for posturing and lying to yourself gets very tiring. My hope for this winter was that I would be able to learn more of my truth. I wanted to learn what it is down there in my own darkness that scares me so and makes me run. Spin. Climb the walls everyday from 3 until 6 pm.
What I found was that it wasn’t quite so scary after all. And that it was scary all the time. What I am proud of is that I was sometimes able to sit with that darkness, that unfathomable abyss. I found my soul in there, humming away. I found rituals that calm and soothe. I found a gentle, yielding compassion down there, that I can snuggle into any time I remember. (But often, it’s the remembering that is hard). I found that I am a novice with intensity, that I feel things so deeply that I need measures of comfort, ways to breathe through the difficult spots.
I could go on and on. That is the way the darkness is. But after a while, if you steep too much, you can become bitter. The darkness itself becomes so interesting that it can be easy to get stuck there in the mire of it all, the brambles catching at you a bit too fiercely.
This month, the ground is thawing and the buds are cracking open. The northern hemisphere is opening up once again to light and it seems like the right time for it. I think that I too am ready for the light. I am getting too pulled in by my own inky night. It is time to breathe out and move again. It’s time to turn my face back to the sun.
I work on my son’s Waldorf school newsletter, and this month, I needed a quick little article for the front page. Usually, I can whip these things out pretty fast. It was easy to write about spring, throw in a Rudolf Steiner quote, bang out a few sentences that talk about the rhythm of childhood. It took me ten minutes, most of it on autopilot. After I was finished, I read it through and was surprised to see that I wrote these sentences:
“Winter is an ideal time to reflect upon our lives, our homes, and our hopes for the year ahead. As we move out of this dark cocoon into spring, we find that our visualizations for the future begin to manifest right along with the flowers and the buds on the trees. Spring is a time for expansion, growth, and renewal.”
Jay-sus, I thought after I read it. Where do I come up with this shite? I went to the delete button but stopped myself. True, it wasn’t the most well-written thing I have ever done. Also true was that it was cheesy as hell. But it was actually my deepest desire. I had written what I wanted most: for my time in the darkness to be a transformation. I wanted my highest self to manifest in my everyday life.
I decided to leave it in. Who really reads these newsletters anyway? And it seemed a bad omen to delete what I really want, not just for myself but for all of us. Spring is here, the flowers are making their hard journey towards the light. I hope my own journey is moving forward, even if only dirt clod by dirt clod, bit by bit. I have been spending time on Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden site. I read it the way I read Sanskrit. I just like the sounds of the flowers and plants, even if I have no idea what they mean or look like. I love her post about her seed orders. For the most part, I have no idea what she is talking about, but I want to. Someday I want to be someone who can look through a seed catalog and know what “keepers” are, to know what herbs keep the bugs away and what vegetables to plant close together. I read her site the way I used to look at yoga magazines, feeling like a bit of a fraud, that I will never be someone who can do a handstand so why bother?
Then, last week, my husband came home from the hardware store with a handful of seed packets. Tomatoes. Wildflowers. Grass for our scraggly lawn. It seemed like a start for myself. I went to Gardeners.com where they have a tool to help you plan your own kitchen garden. There is a bare plot behind our house that Scott is going to help me dig up next week. Just writing this down is a little exciting for me. I can order seeds. I can read Margaret’s beautiful posts and learn about tubers and the best peas for freezing.
While this was my first winter in a long time, it is also my first spring. I am ready for the light, for the seeds of new beginnings. I bought a great new cookbook called Clean Start by Terry Waters. I love it because the recipes are organized by season, they are all gorgeous and easy, and she uses every kind of vegetable imaginable. In the back cover I found this quote:
Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings. Not all things are blest, but the seeds of all things are blest.The blessing is in the seed – Muriel Rukeyser.
February 7, 2011 § 6 Comments
Last Sunday I woke up really early and decided to go for a run before the sun came up. (This is not typical). After I came home and showered, I still had about 20 minutes before the boys woke, and I crawled back into bed (the bliss of these 20 minutes tells me I need to do this every day). I lay there, warm and cozy again, and thought of a conversation I had with my dad recently about Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul. It had been ages since I read the book, but its title always resonated with me.
Care of the soul. Watering the plants. Feeding the animals. Mucking the stalls. Bringing the snacks. Each of these is an act of love. Each is an act of soulfulness. Each requires attention and time. Patience. I have done these chores repeatedly though my life, and yet, I haven’t really thought of myself as having a soul. It wasn’t that I thought I had no soul or was a soullless person. It was more that I thought of my soul the way I thought of, say, my small intestine. I knew I had one, but I didn’t really think about it while I was washing the dishes or tending to a conflict between my boys. I viewed my soul in an abstract sense, but not in an immediate sense. It was something I thought about but not something I felt. On some level, I believed that caring for the soul was for people with time on their hands. It seemed too indulgent for a middle-class person who had real work to do.
But lying there on Sunday morning, watching the grey sky lighten ever so slightly, it occurred to me that I too have a soul that needs care. I have a soul! It’s embarrassing to admit, but this was a revelation to me. I have a soul! I have a soul!
The idea that I too could care for my own soul filled me with joy for much of the day. It was a sort of ephiphany that I can only compare to the one I had when I was eight or nine and looked into the mirror at myself and realized that in the same way I wanted to know what other people were thinking, other people were wondering the same thing about me. I look back at that moment as the one when I first recognized myself as bona fide person making her way in the world and not just a child or a fourth-grader or a girl. There are no fireworks in those moments, no surges of adrenaline. Rather, there is an opening. There is a sense of belonging, an abolishing of boundaries. A small soaring. Minor moments, significant only to ourselves.
It occurred to me that for months, if not years, I have been trying to make my life feel like my yoga class and I have been failing, in no small part, because I did not really acknowledge my soul. This is kind of like trying to run without using your feet. There is the me who goes to yoga class, wearing soft clothes and drinking mint tea and connecting to something deeper for about 90 minutes. And then there is the me who is home with two boys, drinking coffee and sweeping the floor and trying to resolve conflicts over trucks and toys and sippy cups while listening to the voice in my head that keeps telling me I need a break, that this is hard, that someday, I will take a vacation on the beach where I can drink cocktails and watch as many episodes of The Good Wife as I want to.
It never occurred to me that the yoga-going me and the toilet-cleaning me were the same person. Maybe the reason I was having such a hard time getting what I wanted – a life as blissful as a yoga class – was that on some level, I wasn’t giving myself permission to have it. Here I was, trying to reconcile two worlds, when what I was really doing was splitting my own whole life into pieces.
A soul, I thought lying in bed. What would it be like if I made my whole life – not just my yoga classes – into a soulful experience? It sounded decadent. Like eating chocolate for dinner.
When the boys woke, they tumbled into my bed like puppies. I have always loved this part of the morning, when I am overcome by their physical love for me and for each other. Usually, they end up bickering about who gets which side of the bed, and we get up and move onto something else. But on the Sunday I discovered my soul, Oliver asked Gus if he wanted to play in his room. “Gus, let’s go read on my top bunk,” he said, and Gus lit up and climbed his two-year old body over me. “Okay Awlver,” he said. “yet’s go.”
Suddenly I was alone. I had already showered and brushed my teeth. I actually had time to make coffee (because as it turns out, my soul likes coffee). I went downstairs and turned on NPR (which I can only do now on Sundays as they give the daily death toll a rest) and it just so happened that Jon Kabat – Zinn was giving an interview on Mindfulness. I made my coffee and listened to the quiet sounds of the boys. I listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn. I listened to my soul happily humming. I wondered if I still wanted to take a long vacation on the beach, where I could drink cocktails and escape my own life. I decided that I didn’t. It turns out that my soul likes what it is doing. It likes the work of mothering, of resolving conflicts and making snacks. It likes the small tasks of sweeping and scrubbing and mopping. It likes cooking and caring and all of the jobs my brain thinks are monotonous. Here, I had thought I was listening to my heart, but really I had only been listening to my mind.
There are still so many things I want: to do Pincha Mayarasana in the middle of the room and not crash over, to have more time to myself, to have the boys not grab things from each other and then yell about it, to look like one of those girls in the Title Nine catalog, to not live in Washington, DC. But it turns out that I have everything I need. My soul is happy.
January 28, 2011 § 5 Comments
I have never really been an Oprah fan in the sense that I watch her show. It has always seemed a bit tawdry to me. However, I love, love, LOVE her magazine, O. I think it’s a decade old now and I haven’t missed an issue. It combines everything I love: spirituality, great clothes, big glossy pages, Martha Beck.
In the last issue, Oprah wrote that she has a sign posted on her makeup door that says: “Be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room.” She went on to say that for her new network: OWN, she feels responsible for the energy she is sending out to TV screens everywhere. I loved that concept of owning your own energy. Just reading that unstuck something deep inside that for a long time had been inflexible. For my entire life, I have been told I am too sensitive in a way that implied I wanted to be that way. When I walk into a room, I can tell if someone has just had an argument, and the way the air shimmers with anger stays with me all day. I can tell what kind of mood someone is in by the way they walk, by the way they hold their head. I can tell how my husband’s day was just by the way he turns the doorknob to come into the house. I don’t view this as a positive. I think it makes life more difficult. It makes my skin hurt. It makes me worry about things I have no control over. Since I have moved to DC, I have felt the anger of the city constantly rubbing against me, like sandpaper. It wears me out. The hostility here is wearing me down.
Adding to this, I have been having a difficult time with my 5-year old. For one thing, this is nothing new, as he is a challenging kid. Or I should say he challenges me. He’s pretty smart, he’s sensitive, and he’s strong willed. In many ways, he is much like me, and I react to him because at times, he outwardly exhibits all that I don’t like about myself. He can be too loud, too emotional, too attached to his ideas, too argumentative. I can say all of this because he is a wonderful, wonderful little boy. He is kind and funny and he tries harder than anyone else I know. I adore him. And yet, for the last several weeks, I haven’t liked him very much and this bothered me greatly. What is wrong with me, I wondered. What kind of lousy mother am I anyway? What am I doing wrong?
Of course, this feeling of inadequacy in myself only made my interaction with Oliver more difficult. Each new encounter became a battle, a power struggle. One time I carried him to his room. Another time, I yelled. Stop yelling, I said through clenched teeth. And we all know how effective that is. Most nights during the last month, I felt hollowed out. Exhausted. Like a failure. I was analyzing everything. How I spoke to him, whether or not I raised my voice when I asked him for the fifth time to put on his coat, what exactly I was doing that was causing him to put his hands on his hips and yell at me or kick at me, or yell “blah blah blah,” and dance around the kitchen when I asked him to wash his hands.
When I read Oprah’s missive: Be responsible for the energy you bring into this room, I suddenly got it. It wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong. It was the energy that I was bringing to the situation that was mucking our home life up. It was my own anger and frustration and feelings of inadequacy that were adding meaningless meaning to our interactions. If I thought about it sanely, all that was really happening was that Oliver was acting how he was acting and I just didn’t like it very much. There was nothing wrong. There was nothing to be fixed. There was just what was happening and there was my reaction. And only one of those things was within my control.
Since this revelation, things have changed a little bit. It has gotten easier, less fraught, and more gentle. I have been given a little bit of grace, each time I remember to be responsible for the energy I bring to the boys. Let me make it clear: it’s still not easy. It’s still far from perfect. Oliver sometimes runs around with his underwear on his head in the morning instead of getting dressed. “That’s enough!” I’ll call, but it’s different now. My jaw isn’t clenched. I am not really all that upset. I am not quite there yet, but I’m better. We’re better. And all that it took to create this seachange was a slight shift in energetics, a barely perceptible willingness to be responsible for something that most of us don’t believe even exists.
A decade ago, if I had known I was going to write this post I would have laughed. Rolled my eyes. Energy. Jeesh. Whatevah’. Today I went to see a sports medicine/chiropractor guy about my hip. It’s the left one, where I carry Gus for much of the day, and it’s been so locked up, my left shoulder is a good inch higher than my right. Dr. Skopp is about as bare bones as you can get. His office has plaster walls, a single massage table in the center. On a shelf are his awards as the trainer for the US Triathalon Team, the US Cycling Team, and others. He has mustache. He is the opposite of New Age. But after he did his Active Release on my IT band (not fun) and did a quick adjustment, I stood up and felt a rush of energy through my stomach. I felt something like happiness flood through me from my navel to the top of my head. I felt two inches taller. “You’re going to think I’m some California crazy,” I said as he scribbled something in my chart. “But I just felt this energy swoop through me.”
Dr. Skopp frowned at me. “Not crazy,” he said. “That’s physiology. When you’re muscles are locked up, everything is locked up.”
Sometimes I think Washington DC needs a chiropractor. At the very least, it needs an adjustment. DC is an intense city. It hums. Most of the time, everyone seems just about this close to losing their shit. Sometimes it seems that the centrifugal energy here is so great, that the city might levitate. I think it has a lot to do with the state of our government, the fact that 10 miles from my house is the Capitol, where Congressmen and Senators are screaming at each other and turning off microphones in the middle of speeches. Vitriol. Power. Politics. That energy spins out. Like poison, it reaches everyone in the city.
The other day I went for a run on Four-Mile Run Trail (which is made of asphalt) around Reagan National Airport and along the Potomac. On top of a little hill, I looked over at the city. To my right was the gentle, romantic dome of the Capitol. To my left was the white blade that is the Washington Monument (and I don’t have to remind you what that looks like, now do I?) Feminine, masculine. Rich, poor. Black, white. Republican, democrat. Government, non-profit. This is a city of opposites. Of contrasts and conflicts. It is at the corner of Things Getting Done, and Look, They’re Doing It Wrong.
It’s tough to not get caught up in that energy, in the madness of it all. I have to work hard not to hate it here, to not become so disenchanted that I stop trying. To not become so worn down by the weather and the sharpness and the impatience that I too become cold and sharp and impatient.
It snowed on Wednesday night. The next day, the Pentagon had a two hour delay. Schools were closed. And it was my birthday. Scott gave the boys breakfast while I went for a run in a world gone white. I skirted ice patches and jumped over slush puddles. The piles of snow by the side of the road made the hills seem less steep. The sun came out and the trees were bejeweled with diamonds. I was having so much fun, that I had run for a couple of miles before I realized I had left my iPOD at home. I climbed up one hill and then ran down another into the town of Del Ray, a kind of hippie enclave that I love because it seems so different from the rest of Alexandria. It feels like an exhale. Down the hill I was running, a father was walking up, pulling two kids on a sled and the mother was close behind with a dog on a leash. I waved to her and she waved back. “Doesn’t it feel good?” she asked, and something in me melted. Yes, I thought. Yes. It is such a rarity to hear such a soulful battle cry in this city – like finding life on Mars. I smiled and waved at her again and felt something shift, some basic goodness that snow and dogs and children seem to reveal. I ran down through Del Ray, past the Cheesetique and Wine Bar and the Homemade Pizza place and the Dairy Godmother, which is the frozen custard shop that President Obama sometimes takes his kids to.
For the first time in a long time, I felt real happiness. There wasn’t any reason for it. Nothing happened other than a birthday and a snowfall and a friendly greeting. Nothing in my life had changed except for the energy I received and brought to it. I realized that it is pointless for me to practice Warrior I and II and III while wearing Lulumon gear if I can’t be a warrior in my own life. That it’s useless to sit cross-legged and chant the lion-faced dakini mantra to deflect negativity if I can’t deflect some of that negative energy in my own life. What the yoga teachers say is true: our natural state is one of bliss. What they don’t tell you is the work it takes to remove all the obstacles that stand in the way of bliss, the work it takes to be responsible.