November 28, 2014 § 27 Comments
When it’s time to move on, there is no one to hold your hand. – Deb Talen, Ashes on Your Eyes
All I knew was that I couldn’t handle Thanksgiving this year. Fourth of July nearly did me in. It seemed as if every dad in the world was manning a grill or out in the driveway fixing something. One of my neighbors was in his garage blasting country music from his F150, and I felt oddly unprotected, even though I couldn’t identify the threat. The cicadas were whirring, the puppy was curled next to me, and the sun was reassuringly hot. Trying to keep things normal, we rode our bikes to the pool- that special summer domain ruled by stay at home moms and kids.
But even that was ruined with men. I sat on the edge of the pool with my sunglasses on while the boys jumped in. Nearby, a general’s wife was giggling and handing out paper cups of wine in a way that reminded me too much of high school. Later, the boys played with a neighbor on a slip and slide and then ran up the driveway with sparklers. The mosquitoes were fierce and I was panicky with a loneliness that was dark enough to feel dangerous. In my head, I mentally ticked off the holiday weekends that remained. Not Thanksgiving, I thought. There is no freaking way.
Last month, I booked a cabin in Boone, North Carolina for this weekend, an extravagant purchase that left me weak with relief. Until Tuesday night, that is, when I cursed my decision. After a busy week, I was finally throwing fleeces and underwear into a suitcase, trying to find large enough mittens and warm enough socks. My neighbor brought over snow pants and I was shocked to discover Oliver is big enough to wear my old hiking boots. Despite the fact that we were leaving, the same panic that haunted me in July was tugging at my ankles; the same creeping loneliness was draping its arms around my neck. I packed and cleaned until almost midnight and then loaded up the car with board games and down coats, suitcases and dog toys.
How foolish I was, thinking I could outrun a holiday.
Still, we got into the car Wednesday even though it was raining so hard, some cars were driving with their hazards on. After only a few miles, I was hunched over the steering wheel, wondering how this was all going to work.
By now, this is a familiar question, one I ask myself daily as I struggle with patience at bedtime or sit in the front of the room before a yoga class I am about to teach. So much of teaching is about being vulnerable, about walking into an empty space and hoping things are going to work out.
On Wednesday after I loaded the boys and the dog and the pretzels and the pears, we stopped at Starbucks. I had been too wiped out to make breakfast and the kitchen was too clean. We ran through the rain, and inside, the smell of coffee was a warm comfort. It was crowded and happy with that pre-holiday hopefulness, that maybe, this year, things would be better. I didn’t hear a woman calling my name until she grabbed my arm and said “Hey you!” It was Terri, a woman who works out at the gym the same time I teach yoga. She is small and wiry with spiky grey hair and eyes the color of sea glass. She was sitting with her friend Maria.
“Oh, these are your boys,” Maria said, touching my arm and smiling. “My girls are all coming home this year.”
“All four girls,” Terri added. “They live in New York. And oh my god – Maria is the best cook. Everything she makes.”
Maria smiled modestly and told me her husband was just home from deployment and that for the first time in a long time they would all be together. I felt her joy beginning to warm through my cold hands and feet.
“You have to try her carrot cake,” Terri said. “Oh my god, I will never eat carrot cake from anywhere else ever again.”
“Are you traveling?” Maria asked me and I said we were on our way.
“Is your husband here?” Terri asked and once again, I felt that shock that I am now part of this community, one that knows what it’s like to not know what will come next.
Last month, my neighbor was almost in tears because her husband was going on yet another training exercise to prepare for his deployment in August. “He’s going to miss Halloween for the fourth year in a row,” she said. “I’m so tired of this. I just want a normal life.”
“I know,” I said, and felt the familiar longing for predictability, agency, and home. Last week, Scott called and told me he just spoke to his detailer – the person who tells him what and where his next job will be. For five years we have been trying to get back to the west coast, and each time, we get farther away from my idea of home. I miss California so keenly, it feels like a phantom limb.
“Well, “ Scott had said. “It’s now between San Diego and one other place.”
“Oh jeez,” I said, because it’s always been between California and one other place. And we always go to that other place. “So San Diego or -?”
“Guam,” Scott said and inside, my mind said I can’t live in Guam. It will be a disaster. And then I remember that it will probably be fine. Because it’s always been fine, at least after a little while, anyway.
“We’ll find out soon,” he said. “I’m pushing for California.” But we both know it’s mostly out of our hands.
I told Terri Scott was in Bahrain and we were running away to Boone. Terri gave me a high-five. “You’re breaking the mold girl! Good for you.”
As we left the store, an older man with a rain-spattered Life is Good shirt held open the door for us and we stood under the outside awning, watching the rain bounce on the pavement.
I did not yet know what the day would bring. I had no idea that outside of Durham, I would drive through a soup of fog and truck spray and rain or that outside Charlotte, the skies would clear, revealing a ragged V of geese. I didn’t know I would stop for gas in a place so scary, it was like something from a Stephen King novel or that the flat land of eastern North Carolina would be so comforting: the low cotton fields and the leaning shacks; the plywood signs announcing boiled peanuts and sweet corn and “tomatos.” (They always forget the “e”). I didn’t yet know that our cabin would be snug and warm and I didn’t know that Wags would be so scared of the stairs I would have to carry her up and down every time we took her out. I didn’t know that for the first time, I wouldn’t get lost, that we would find the hiking trail I read about online and that it would snow as if on cue. I hadn’t yet discovered that pumpkin pie and hot chocolate were the only Thanksgiving foods we would need and that all the things I thought were so important would turn out not to matter very much after all.
Then, I only saw that it was raining hard. I only hoped things were going to work out. I only knew I had been trying really hard to run away from things that are impossible to avoid. Thanksgiving, deployment, the unknown.
“Wait here,” I said to the boys, “And I’ll bring the car around so you won’t get wet.”
“No,” they both said, protesting loudly.
“OK,” I said, watching the rain slant sideways in the wind. “We’d better go.” I took their hands and we ran towards the car, towards the mountains, towards the day.
June 30, 2014 § 40 Comments
Don’t let fatigue make a coward out of you – Steve Prefontaine
It’s been over a month since Scott left for Bahrain and June has been like most other Junes. And it’s been like nothing else I have ever experienced. The end of May seems ages ago, and yet, here we are, already sliding into July. We have navigated a trifecta of holidays without Scott: Memorial Day, Father’s Day, and our ninth wedding anniversary. Gus graduated from preschool, the boys began another round of swim lessons, and Oliver fell at a birthday party and needed his face glued back together. We got a puppy (more on that later) and I fixed the internet after a storm blew it out. I take out the trash now and lug those huge water bottles onto the cooler and send in the bills. I have stacks of unread books and blogs but I drove to Pennsylvania and back, where I saw a Mennonite man in Walmart. He reminded me so much of myself in the way he looked out of place, the mud on his boots coming from another time altogether.
Like most anything that can be anticipated, this first month of deployment was both harder and easier than I imagined. As my friend Lindsey writes, “My life is exactly as I planned it and nothing like I expected.”
Scott’s leaving left a gap in my own life, a rabbit hole, where I have been tunneling between my old life and this new and different world. I have solitude to contend with now and a heightened sense of responsibility which lays across my shoulders like a fur robe. Sometimes, it is heavy and grave, and other times, it’s a rich privilege to be reminded of my own capabilities.
I was single for many years, but since I have gotten married, I have abnegated so many responsibilities, maybe even responsibility for my own life. It’s so easy to call into the other room that the internet is down, that the sink is being weird, that I don’t know how to print out my insurance card, that I shouldn’t bother trying to do anything with my life because I’m just going to move again in two years.
This has been sobering.
It’s so easy to be powerless and to blame – to say if only – to imagine that someone or something is keeping you from something. And it’s now both embarrassing and liberating to realize that that someone was me.
Over the past few years, I have taken the wife role so seriously: The laundry and the cooking and the work events that felt so mandatory. Now that it’s only me, I see how so much of that nonsense is optional and that I really do have a say, even if it’s only to say screw it.
The week after Scott left, all three of us were exhausted and staggered through our days with a varying degree of tears (sometimes mine). We have been able to FaceTime with Scott almost daily, if only for a few minutes, and this seems to satisfy Gus, who holds the phone over his Lego creations and his Lego man and says, “This part is where he keeps his gems, this red piece is the control panel, and this piece here is left over from Oliver’s Thunder Driller,” until Oliver begins to yell that now it’s his turn and Gus has had enough time.
Saturdays are the hardest. Scott used to take the boys for most of the day while I drove 90 minutes to a yoga studio or simply did errands. Now Saturdays are glum and Oliver is usually in a foul mood. This Saturday I had the terrible idea of trying to replicate the “Daddy Days.” I made cinnamon rolls and took the boys rock climbing, and by noon, all of us were yelling. My friend Alana coined the term “coming out sideways,” and this is how Oliver’s – and my own – feelings are being expressed.
I have been heartened lately by thoughts of distance running, which I can’t do anymore but which I did for many years starting with my first cross country race when I was eight. In college, cross country races were about three miles, and the first mile was always the most difficult for me. While I could run one pace for a long time, I had no natural speed. To even get a half-decent position by the middle of the race, I had to take off from the start as if lions were chasing me, dodging the melee of elbows and hair ribbons, pony tails and spikes. By the time I made it to mile two, my breath was thin and ragged, my stride uneven, and I felt about as shredded as I do now.
Joanie Benoit once said that the key to racing is to find your pace, and then find your place in the pack and get comfortable there. I have been thinking about this advice a lot, thinking that maybe it’s OK that I end most of my days feeling weak and shredded, because this is what mile one looks like. I remember the way my breath came back in mile two – two footfalls per inhale – and hope that tomorrow I will hit my stride and the footing will be better. I am trying to be patient, both with myself and with my boys. I am trying to do less and slow down more, which is difficult for someone who is used to running, if not fast, then constantly.
When I look back on June, I’ll remember that we got through, but just barely. And yet, what an interesting time this is, like one of those bizarre social experiments from the seventies: What happens to a traditional stay at home wife when you take away the husband?
As of now, I have no idea, but it feels like something of a privilege, if a hard-earned one. Lindsey and Aidan have been writing about marriage this June, and I think it’s kind of a wonder to have a 12-month separation that isn’t due to unhappiness. I have a marriage sabbatical, or maybe a marriage retreat, and I am intrigued by this idea of hunkering down and peeling off the traditional garb I was never very good at anyway. I am clueless as to what the next eleven (gasp!) months will bring, but it’s still early in the race. We’re still finding our pace.
June 18, 2014 § 37 Comments
“Have faith in the way things are. Love the world as your self; then you can care for all things.” – Lao Tzu
I was right in front of Oliver when he fell. I was sitting in my friend Jill’s gazebo taking a bite of watermelon at her son’s ninth birthday party as Oliver ran towards us. He and all of the boys were still in their bathing suits but had moved out of the pool and were now playing a complicated game of tag. Or maybe it was hide and seek. Oliver was running as if he was going to hide in the bushes around the gazebo, but he slipped on some dry leaves, and his face hit the wooden step. I jumped up and ran around behind him, but Jill reached out her arms and pulled Oliver up through the bushes, the gash on his face open like a second mouth. “Let me get Jon,” Jill said and handed me a beach towel.
Jill’s husband is a Navy doctor, and after what seemed like a long time, he walked over to us and calmly removed my shaking hand from the towel I was pressing into Oliver’s face. “Let me take a look at that.” After he replaced the towel he said, “Well, you can take him to the ER or I can take care of it here.” Sweat was dripping from Jon’s face. I looked down at his sneakers and realized Jill must have found him during his run.
“I want to stay here,” Oliver said.
Jill shrugged. “If it were our kid, we definitely wouldn’t go to the ER.”
Five minutes later we were sitting in their air conditioned kitchen while Jon dabbed at Oliver’s wound with Q-tips and unwrapped a package of Dermabond. “I’m going to teach you how to breathe while I do this,” Jon had said before he began, and I watched while together, he and Oliver inhaled and exhaled slowly, my own chest rising and falling, my own heart beginning to slow down.
“You’re doing great, buddy,” he told Oliver as he dripped hydrogen peroxide into the gash. “I’ve worked on Marines who yell and scream when I do this.” Oliver closed his eyes and squeezed my hand, and I had to look away and gulp air through my mouth. Last year, Jon returned from a deployment near the Helmand Province, an area rife with both insurgents and IEDs. Jon is an orthopedist, and I didn’t want to think about the injuries he saw there.
“You all made it back from Afghanistan, right?” I asked Jon after Oliver had been patched up and was proudly showing the other boys his bandage.
“The medical corps all came home,” he answered. “But not all the Marines.”
Most days, as I cut peanut butter sandwiches in half, pull weeds from the tomato beds, sit in my friend’s bright kitchen as she dumps the watermelon rinds from a birthday party into the trash, I often forget I am tied to the military, even as artillery booms across the water and helicopters fly overhead. This war has been going on for so long that I am numb to the stories, as if they belong to someone else’s life or to another world completely. And then something happens – another civil war, another battle for Falluja, another story from a friend or neighbor – and I realize that closing my eyes doesn’t mean things stop happening.
Perhaps the biggest impact of Scott living in Bahrain is that the stories I used to think were relegated to an imaginary world are now intertwined with my own. I am too aware that things I thought only existed on the news are actually happening in my lifetime, in real time.
When I do Facetime with Scott, I sometimes see the Manama skyline from his hotel, the industrial, unfinished city and the sand surrounding it. He is apartment hunting now, and in the photos he sends, I can see the Persian Gulf from a window over the kitchen island or sometimes from the bedroom. Water view, he types underneath, as if he is trying to sell me on the place.
Last week, Scott told me about a brief he had to attend about Ramadan, in which he was reminded he could not eat or drink in public and that he was required to wear long sleeves and pants. Ramadan, I think, and remember a friend who left Afghanistan in the 1980s, as a child, because her father was a Freedom Fighter. During one Ramadan right after college, I had my first chai tea in her tiny apartment while she told me about the meals her grandmother used to cook when it was time to eat again.
For so long, I have lived in small, narrow rooms, consumed by my own private joys or struggles, or simply the questions of what color pawn I want to be, when we are going to the pool, what we are having for dinner. I like being insulated like this, safe as houses. In fact, I long for a permanent home of my own with a keen and insistent wanting. I can’t wait until we can stop moving every two years like bedouin. Maybe I am even a little bit obsessed as I cut photos out of magazines, pour over Pottery Barn catalogs, and sometimes take paint swatches from Lowe’s, as if I had rooms to swath in color. So it’s probably no accident that each place I have lived has taken me further from my ideal of home, to the point where our family is no longer even together on the same continent.
My friend Christa once told me we keep getting the experiences we need until we learn the lessons, and I believe this may be true. A few months ago I read an interview by Chip Hartranft in which he defined abhyasa – traditionally translated as practice – as to sit and face what is real. When I told Rolf about this during my training, he said, “To sit and face what is real and allow it to be exactly as it is.” This may be the central lesson of my life right now: Can I keep my eyes open and let things be? Can I have faith in the way things are?
Oliver’s bandage fell off a few nights ago, which was a relief because it had gotten pretty gross. He was wearing only his pajama bottoms when he came to find me brushing my teeth, and he had to drag a step stool over to see himself in the bathroom mirror. The scar on the top of his cheekbone was small and neat, another stitch in the fabric of himself, holding together the being and the becoming. He turned from side to side, his torso lean and fragile. “You know Mommy,” he said with a big grin, “I think it looks pretty good.”
May 26, 2014 § 22 Comments
If I were out at sea, I’d want to know someone was waiting for me, wouldn’t you? – from “Seating Arrangements” by Maggie Shipstead
When I first read The Odyssey, in ninth grade, I thought that Penelope was a bit of a drag with her weeping and begging to be put out of her misery. I smugly thought I knew what she was doing, spending her nights unraveling the shroud she had been weaving all day in order to keep her suitors at bay. There didn’t seem to be anything more to it. The only reason I even remember the class at all is because it was where I first learned about symbolism, which felt a bit like opening a secret door.
Now, I see Penelope’s sabotaged weaving as something much different. I see the unraveling as something that happens when a person physically leaves a marriage, no matter how much love or faith remains. Until Scott left for Bahrain, I hadn’t realized how much a marriage depends on both threads, woven together in words and shared experiences and in presence. I had taken for granted the way Scott and I can look at each other and smile (or grimace) at something Oliver or Gus says, however innocuous, because it conjures up a shared, but private history. Frankly, I am surprised by this, by how I have allowed myself to become so entwined in another person’s life. For 32 years I was single, and mostly unattached. Naively, I had thought I could be in a marriage but keep my solitude and independence, that I could create a life with someone but not miss them too much if they went away.
Scott works long hours normally, and during April and May, he was gone before sunrise and often came home after dark. While I knew the weekends would be difficult, I didn’t think this deployment would make much of a change to my weeks. I had thought I was stronger than I am and I am completely caught off guard by how much I miss Scott, how much I depend on his steadiness, his sense of humor, and the ways he allows me to completely fall apart.
Now, he is living in a hotel room in Manama (it might be months before an apartment can be obtained because of security clearances) and he can Facetime with us in a computer lounge on base. He calls in the mornings or in the afternoons here, which in Bahrain, is after 10 pm. He sends beautiful emails detailing the delicious shawarma dishes he eats, the fresh fruit juices on the menu instead of cocktails, the rug shops that are open until late at night. “When you visit,” he says, “We can pick one out.” I think of those thick and colorful tapestries, and I feel myself coming undone.
Scott told me that the international school where we would have sent the boys is on the edge of a Shia village, or a black zone, forbidden to Americans because of sectarian violence. He told me about the big fence around the school and the graffiti on the walls, the armed guards who ride on the school buses. On one of his first nights there, the street with American restaurants was closed because protesters were burning tires. Scott also sent beautiful photos of the Manama skyline sparkling at night, of the tan and empty desert, and the twin spires of the Grand Mosque, which my mother accurately pointed out, “look so much more interesting and exotic when they are in your own email box instead of in a magazine.” When I talk to him, I can almost feel the heat he describes or smell the bahji puri, but mostly, I just feel so far away.
My neighbor’s husband is in Guantanamo Bay for nine months, and the other day, while she was walking her dog, she warned me the weekends are the worst, and this holiday weekend proved her right. Oliver has been extremely difficult lately, both needy and angry, and I am trying to be understanding while also holding the line that must be held for him. Of course, I am flooded with doubt over every decision. Oliver loves boundaries even as he rails against them, making faces at me, talking back, telling me he doesn’t care that he has lost his screen time. In a single day, I am both the meanest mom on the planet and the best mom in the world.
Today, we drove 90 minutes to Wilmington, mostly because I couldn’t stand the sight of one more father firing up a grill and because I was feeling angry and needy myself. We went to a historical, working plantation and then to a children’s museum. “I know you’re having a hard time,” I told Oliver, after I made him sit down because he wouldn’t leave his brother alone. He looked at me with his father’s eyes and said, “It feels like a piece of my heart fell down into my stomach.”
Jason Crandell, the yoga teacher, recently posted this on Facebook: “Your edge is the threshold in a pose—or moment in seated meditation—where physical, mental, and emotional resistance comes rushing to the foreground. Reaching your edge is like applying an enzyme that ignites a reaction and magnifies your physical, mental and emotional patterns.”
This leaving has revealed a jagged edge I didn’t even know was there. I didn’t realize my husband’s journey across an ocean would dredge up all the other times I had been left, and even worse, the magnification of all the ways I abandon myself. I hadn’t known this fact about myself, which is that my constant doing might become my own undoing, that I don’t really know how to stop, how to be still, how to let go. I know how to fill a space with yoga or reading or meditation or watching TV, but this is wildly different from doing nothing or becoming empty.
For the first few nights Scott was gone, I didn’t really sleep. As another dawn began to leak through the night, I felt as though vines were wrapping themselves tighter and tighter around my chest. Already, I was thinking of cleaning the house, going on another cleanse, doing a 40-day meditation sadhana. I know how to tighten and how to restrict. I know how to take away and how to cleave at the messiness until I am clean and sharp. But as I lay there, listening to the buzzing satin of the dawn, it became clear that while I know how to fall apart, I have no idea how to unravel.
Images have been in my mind and heart lately: kelp fronds waving in cold oceans, wind chimes untwisting in the wind, the line from the Tao te Ching that reminds me to have faith in the way things are. I don’t yet have enough faith to believe that everything happens for a reason. There is too much darkness in the world for me to believe in both this and a benevolent god. But I have a sense that in my own good life, I am getting lessons I need to learn. Today, in the plantation, we peered into a weaving studio with a spinning wheel and a loom. Outside, sheep grazed and inside the wool was carded. Fabric was woven together and dyed and sewn into something that can be worn. And yet, I was focused on the undoing of it all, the unweaving, and the unraveling, and what it might feel like, when I too learn how to twist and untwist in the wind.