October 28, 2013 § 40 Comments
“Apprentice yourself to yourself, welcome back all you sent away.” – David Whyte
I am approaching this space with chagrin, a sense of hands wringing in the space at my center. In August, I vowed I would write here more, and once again I have broken my word, those promises I make to myself that are more fragile than they should be.
In the spirit of true disclosure, September and October have been a bit of a boondoggle around here, and when things get tough, I tend to hide. Or, I tend to make myself so busy that I have no time to sit still, or to think, or to begin the clumsy and tedious process of sorting through words, picking them up and throwing them back as if they were tiles in a box of Scrabble.
I love the month of October, but it has an edge to it for me now as it is the month when we begin to get a hint of our next orders – Scott’s next assignment – the place to which we will be moving next. Every odd year in October, I get a whiff of endings as the leaves fall down and I need to prepare myself for the leaving and then, for the arriving. This year, I was relaxed about it and far too confident. We had thought this would be the move where we prioritized where we wanted to live rather than the right career move. This was going to be a move for family and not solely for the job, and I was excited about the liklihood of us moving to either The Netherlands or back to California, which is the place where I feel most at home.
So, it was a bit of a sucker punch that the Navy came back with two options, each requiring Scott to deploy for a year. He will choose between Bahrain and Djibouti and then the Navy will send him to one or the other, regardless of his choice. “Jabooty?” I said to Scott when he called me from work. “I don’t even know where that is.” It sounded like the punch line to an old Eddie Murphy joke.
“It’s in Africa,” he said, “Near Somalia,” and I said what the hell.
For the last month or so I have been wondering how on earth I will parent our two boys alone and how I will shore us all up enough to get through a year without Scott, whom we all adore and lean on to a ridiculous extent.
Right now, I can’t imagine it.
Two weeks ago I went to open the fridge in the garage and had a strange sensation of being watched. I glanced up and saw the beady eyes of a tree snake, its body wound around the freezer door. I ran back into the house calling, “Scott! Scott you need to come out here now!!!”
Last Friday, I discovered there was a mouse living in the seats of my car and I almost had a heart attack. I called Scott who was on his way to give a speech and cared not a wit about the fact that rodents were living in my car, so I texted the strongest and most stalwart of my neighbors. “I’ll be right over,” Tammy texted back, and together we tore apart my Prius and found that my emergency granola bar stash in the trunk had been raided, the wrappers shredded and stuffed into the interior of the back seat.
My other neighbor across the street, Miriam, drove by on her way home and leaned out the window of her minivan. “What are you guys doing?” she asked. When we told her, she parked in her driveway and walked over with her four-year old daughter and her yellow lab. “If it were me, I would get a new car,” she told me and I explained that getting a new car would require driving this one someplace first, and I wasn’t about to get in.
“Really?” Miriam asked. “But you’re so brave.”
“What gave you that idea?” I asked, and she shrugged. “I don’t know. You had a snake in your garage. Or maybe it’s because you have boys.”
“No,” said Tammy, who has a daughter and a son. “Boys are easier.”
And so the conversation turned again to the every day ordinary, as it always does, and Gus circled around us on his bike. We were gathering up the shredded paper and my reusable grocery bags, now ruined with mouse droppings, and I felt a tide of panic begin to ebb in. I am used to this now, the anxiety that seeps and slides until it rises up to my throat. “How on earth am I going to get through a year on my own?” I asked the women next to me and instantly felt silly because these women were Marine wives. Scott was gone for 8 week intervals during the first two years of our marriage, but these women have already been through more than five deployments each, their husbands away more often than they are home.
“You’ll call us,” Tammy said matter of factly as she slammed my trunk shut, and I felt something sink down and land.
“Yes, you’ll call us and you’ll get a dog,” said Miriam and then told me about the time a raccoon jumped out of the garbage can at her while her husband was gone. “If you’ve ever wondered why I take my trash out at noon, now you know.”
Gus once again circled our piles of seat fluff, and then the school bus pulled up and all of our children spilled out. Oliver and Gus got on their scooters and rode over to their friends across the street and Miriam’s girls were excited to add another “nature story” to the newsletter they are creating for the neighborhood, entitled The Saint Mary Post. “Mrs. Cloyd,” Miriam’s oldest said breathlessly as she pulled a notebook out of her backpack. “What was your reaction when you discovered mice were living in your car?”
What is my reaction to anything? I thought to myself. Out loud, I said, “EEEEEEEEEK!” which Laura Fern wrote down, her pencil pressing hard into the paper.
I’ve started running again after a slew of injuries, but I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I jog slowly for a few miles. The other morning, after the boys got on the bus and the tide of panic was rising up my ribcage, I laced up my shoes and set out. I thought about my reactions, how usually they are negative, because most of the time I am afraid. Most of the time, I am the opposite of brave. On that morning jog I was angry about the deployment, angry because this was supposed to be the move where I got to choose. This was supposed to be my turn. Mine. Not the Navy’s.
Well then, said a small voice inside me, Choose this.
“No,” I said back, but then I felt that softening again, the landing and I wondered if I was allowed to choose something I didn’t want, if it was even possible, if maybe, choosing has nothing at all to do with wanting. I don’t want a mouse in my car or my husband to leave. I want what I want and inside me, wanting has always been fierce, its claws always pulling me away and out and up. Look at this, wanting says, racing up to me on scurrying feet. Isn’t it lovely?
And now I am trying to put the wanting aside, which is something new for me. Shh, I am telling it, Not now. I use soothing words like hush and sometimes a firm word like stop. I am practicing.
Yesterday I had to teach yoga, which requires me to drive. I went out and stood in front of my car. I opened the door and removed the empty mouse traps Scott had set the night before, but their emptiness proved nothing to me. “I think it’s gone,” Scott had said as he looked under and around the seats, but I wasn’t buying it. You never know when those feet will scrabble up your spine, when those sharp teeth will sink in, grabbing your attention away and out and up.
I got in the car and fastened the seat belt. “Hello mice,” I said into the meaningless quiet and then I got the willies just thinking about them. I wanted a new car. I wanted another option. I wanted things to be different.
And then to myself I said, Shh. Not now. Drive the car.
I am still practicing.
September 26, 2012 § 16 Comments
I want to remember the way the butterflies here careen towards my head in their ridiculous flight and make me duck, every time. I want to remember my next-door neighbor, the way he came striding over to me in his camouflage and combat boots, the sun high and his shadow arriving first. “I’m Bobby,” he said, just as I was wondering whether to advance or retreat. “Let me know if we can do anything for you while you’re getting settled, anything at all.” The next day, the woman across the street walked over in the rain with a plate of cookies and her phone number and I felt something settle, despite the boxes we had yet to unpack.
I want to remember the way I feel in the morning, how in the half-second after my alarm goes off, I am still not sure where I am. I want to remember how much I despise yoga at five in the morning and how very much I need to throw down my mat, to hear the particular sound it makes on the wood floors when the house is dark.
I want to remember these days, when my insides feel full of the sharp click of needles. I stare down the street at the identical houses and realize I am both tourist and native. The morning after we moved in, I waited for the school bus with Oliver for the first time, feeling such camaraderie with the other mothers. After the bus drove off, one of them told me her husband had been to Iraq and Afghanistan five times, once for fourteen months. I went back into the house after that, into a different sort of day.
I want to remember the sharp taste of the ocean, the bitter reminder of a war, a heat so impressive that it sometimes feels as though I have landed on the tongue of a dragon.
I want to remember what it was like to run through the cornfield behind my house when I was nine, my hands slapping hard at the leaves. I want to remember leaning over the withers of the pony I leased every summer, the moment when she gathered herself up and then exploded into a gallop. Her exquisite speed made my eyes useless until finally I closed them and wound my fingers through her mane.
I want to remember what artillery practice sounds like on Camp Lejeune, the air imploding on itself and the windows rattling as if in an earthquake or a battle. I want to remember the way my new friend folded herself onto the floor of our house, the walls still smelling of paint. She talked about her autistic son, each detail a gift, beads carefully strung. I want to remember what she quietly called testimony, the way she turned her face briefly towards the ceiling and said that her son gave her faith, that he caused her to believe in God and trust in this life.
I want to remember the man with nine fingers who came to fix the air conditioner, whose Carolina accent sounded like a banjo playing in the night. He asked me if I was from Mississippi and when I shook my head he told me, like a prophesy, that I was going to learn to cook black-eyed peas. I want to remember the way he talked about getting injured in the first Desert Storm and how he alternatively called me Ma’am and Sugar. Shuguh.
I want to remember the soldiers in the field next to the post office and how they were taking turns carrying each other over their shoulders, wrists and ankles dangling towards the ground. I want to remember the way Oliver runs with his arms outstretched, pretending he’s a falcon and the way Gus throws his head back and laughs when anyone says the word “stinky.” I want to remember Oliver racing off on his bike, sometimes tossing his legs over his handlebars and how Gus rides away from me, his back straight, one training wheel perpetually off the ground.
I want to remember my college teammate tell me at breakfast one morning what it was like to live in Bosnia in 1992, how her mother made her sneak up the street and check for snipers before she went to school. I want to remember the camping trip to Mexico my second year out of college, how my friend calmly described what it was like to flee the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and travel to Turkey under the cover of night.
I want to remember my new yoga teacher reading from Meditations from the Mat, and how relieved I was to hear something so dear and familiar to me I wanted to cry, hunched over in child’s pose, my forehead pressed against the ground.
I want to remember every bit of how uncomfortable I am here because I am not someone who does uncomfortable well. I am someone who runs like hell from uncomfortable, who would rather turn away than look at the woman in front of me with the baby and the food stamps. I am not here to give testimony to a god but instead, to the way the world crouches between beauty and despair, each a tragic partner to the other. I can only bear witness to those dark and fragile moments before dawn, when it looks as though things could go either way.
September 10, 2012 § 16 Comments
“Sometimes life hands us gift-wrapped shit. And we’re like, “This isn’t a gift, it’s shit. Screw you.” – Augusten Burroughs
“Well Jacksonville’s a city with a hopeless streetlight.” – Ryan Adams
This has been a very difficult summer for me for reasons that have more to do with my own mind and less to do with what actually happened to me. When we moved from Washington, DC to Jacksonville, North Carolina, we knew we would have to wait at least six weeks until a house was available for us on the Marine base here. I just didn’t think that at least six weeks would actually stretch out until fourteen weeks, longer than a Southern summer, all of us sleeping in one room from Memorial Day until weeks past Labor Day.
I am trying to realize how lucky I am to have the privilege of staying in a hotel for this long, and if you could see this town, you would understand. It’s the kind of place where a steady stream of women and children file into the WIC office, and the Division of Employment Security always has a few men sitting on the curb outside, their arms wrapped around their knees. Driving from our hotel to the base, where Oliver just started first grade, we pass countless pawn shops and tattoo parlors, a Walmart, a Hooters and a windowless, cinderblock “gentlemen’s” club called The Driftwood. Before I arrived in Jacksonville, I didn’t believe places like this existed outside of New Mexico or movies starring Michelle Williams. I recently discovered that one of my favorite musicians – Ryan Adams – grew up here, and as I again listen to him crooning those heartbreaking lyrics, I am not surprised. Jacksonville, North Carolina may be the saddest, hottest, dirtiest town I have ever set foot in.
In early August, one of the housekeeping staff stopped me on the way down the hall. She held out her palm and asked me if the small, brass, semi-automatic bullet in her hand was mine. “Um, excuse me?” I asked, feeling my jaw drop open and then I shook my head. “No,” I said, “No, we don’t have a gun.” Jesus, I thought as I walked away and then I turned around. “Where did you find it?” I asked and the woman told me that it was right behind the bed where my sons have been sleeping.
Later that month, I took the boys to the indoor pool one afternoon. We did this a lot as Scott was traveling for a couple of weeks and it rained every day he was gone, the sodden hem of Hurricane Issac dripping over Jacksonville. On that grey day, Gus jumped into the pool, into my arms, before I was ready and his head banged into my eye. “You’re bleeding!” said another woman in the pool so we all got out. By the time we were back in our room, I could feel my eye swelling. The next day – Oliver’s first day of school – there was no amount of concealer that could cover the purple and green lump under my eye and the gash right above it. I met Oliver’s teacher noticing her eyes flickering with concern as they focused on my shiner, knowing that there was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound as if I was making an excuse for something. I told Scott it was a good thing he was out of town.
I’m not who you think I am, I wanted to scream, which has been sort of a mantra of mine all summer, mostly to myself. Since June, I have been trying to convince myself that I am not homeless or a failure or a lousy mother but it’s been challenging as I keep finding myself in situations where it’s easy for people to take one look at me and get the wrong idea. All of my life, I have been an incredibly judgemental person, and this summer, my judgements were turned inward, towards myself. Or maybe that’s where they’ve been all along.
I never thought I would become a military wife. I was born in the early 70’s, in the heyday of Women’s Lib, and as a teenager, I swore I would never let myself be defined by a man. A military wife was pretty much the last thing I imagined, and there is a small part of met that feels like I let someone down. This summer a bigger part feels like I’ve let my kids down, tearing them from their friends in Washington, DC and our big house there and sticking them in a single room with a bag of Legos each. Oliver, especially, has had a tough transition from his Waldorf school to his Department of Defense school, where already, he is expected to keep a journal. Tonight he had to write a paragraph about what freedom means to him.
Freedom. In Jacksonville, the word “Freedom” is everywhere: on teeshirts and bumper stickers and even on the sign welcoming you to Camp Lejeune. “Pardon Our Noise,” it reads, “It’s the Sound of Freedom.”
In yoga, freedom means to be released from the chains of our mind, and this summer, living in a tiny box, I have seen how chained I am to my own idea of how things should be, how chained I am to my ideas of how other people should be, to how I should be. What is true is that I have exactly what I want: I married my best friend, a man I am still madly in love with after a decade of being together, and I am able to stay at home with my kids, which I am lucky to be able to do. Scott supports my yoga habit, stayed home from work one day a month last year so I could go to my yoga teacher training, and he doesn’t complain about eating kale or Gardein Chik’n, which I have been making often in our hotel.
What is also true is that getting what I wanted doesn’t look the way I thought it would, and I get upset about that, some strange combination of guilt at not having a job and resentment that I have to follow someone else’s orders and traipse after a man. Every other place we have lived – San Diego, Ventura, Washington, DC, Philadelphia – I was able to pretend that I wasn’t a Navy wife, that I had nothing at all to do with the war waging in a far away desert.
In Jacksonville, I can’t hide anymore. The town is crawling with soldiers. You can’t turn your head without seeing a Semper Fi bumper sticker or a Marine Wife window decal, a gaggle of young recruits sauntering down Western Boulevard, or a young man in a wheelchair, empty space where his leg used to be. Something about this town has brought me to the bottom of myself, to the place I have been avoiding for years, covering up with power yoga and running, volunteering and a second glass of wine.
And yet, there is a relief in the crumbling of an unstable structure because once the last wall falls, you find yourself sitting in the middle of a dusty, empty space that feels a bit like what freedom might feel like if freedom didn’t stand for guns or bombs or a country’s foreign agenda. Once you find yourself on rock bottom, there is nowhere left to go. You have already eaten the cupcakes and run the miles and held Warrior II for days and nothing has worked. Nothing has changed except the myriad ways you have thrown yourself against the walls. And then, one day, after cursing the sun that beats down upon the ruins, you finally sit up and survey the jagged thoughts shredding your heart. You say, “Well then. This must be the place.”
Jacksonville is that place. Our stale and musty hotel room is that place. Oliver’s new-school anxiety is that place as is my acquired and inherited shame that I will never be good enough. In his yoga DVD, Baron Baptiste says, “That which blocks the path is the path.” This summer, I have been punched in the face with my own resistance, with my tight-fisted grip on the way I think things should be. I have been handed bullets and black eyes and I keep forgetting that these are the gifts. I forget that the lessons are handed out in the trenches, in the foxholes, in the dust of crumbling temples. I am discovering that wisdom hides in the most wretched of places, buried deep in the towns with the hopeless streetlights.
Click here to hear Ryan Adams sing about his hometown, Jacksonville, North Carolina.
July 2, 2012 § 11 Comments
Too often we give away our power. We overreact. We judge. We critique. And we forget to breathe. – Seane Corn
In mid-June, Scott’s parents flew in from Oregon and my own parents drove down from Pennsylvania to visit us here, in North Carolina and to attend Scott’s change of command ceremony on Camp Lejeune. Because I couldn’t possibly imagine our families in this strange extended-stay hotel with us, we rented a house on Topsail Island for a week. It was such a relief to be able to open a door and let the boys run outside, to sit on the beach without driving there, to walk near the warm waves at night and wake up and do yoga on the deck outside our bedroom.
And then it was time to leave. My little blue Prius was so full of suitcases and sand toys, cardboard boxes full of peanut butter and oatmeal, raisins and spirulina powder, a pint of berries and an eight-dollar jar of red onion confit I bought at Dean and Deluca in Georgetown before we moved because I had to have it. The boys could barely fit into their car seats, and on the passenger seat next to me was a laundry basket full of bathing suits, my Vita-Mix blender, a Zojirushi rice cooker, and a Mason jar full of the seashells we found on the beach.
It was a little after eleven in the morning. It was past the time we were supposed to be out of the beach house and hours until we could check into our hotel. We had already spent the morning on the beach, and as I steered the heavy car out of the driveway, I realized I had nowhere to go.
You’re homeless, you know, said The Voice inside my head. You are 39 years old and you have no place to live.
I am not, said the Other Voice. I am not homeless.
And yet, you have no home, said the Voice, So what would you call that?
We spent some time at the Sneads Ferry library and checked out some Magic Treehouse books on tape to listen to in the car. We drove to a park with a big boat launch in Surf City and boys watched with fascination as pickup trucks hauling fishing boats expertly backed up to the water and set their boats free. We watched a big blue crab walk sideways in the brackish water and the boys threw leaves at the tiny fish that shimmied near the docks. We went to a pizza place for lunch because I knew there were clean bathrooms there and we went back to the beach where the boys were cranky and kept grabbing each other’s shovels.
The night before, when we were still in the beach house, I felt a lump on the side of Gus’ neck and my heart leapt up into my throat. I asked my father-in-law to take a look and he told me it was nothing. “Don’t waste a doctor’s time with that old thing,” he said, which comforted me greatly, but still, while the boys stole each other’s beach toys on that homeless day, I was on the phone with a pediatrician’s office. “Why don’t you come in tomorrow?” the receptionist asked me and I felt my unreliable heart writhe and squirm again.
I gave the receptionist my name and my insurance information. She asked for my address just as Gus hit Oliver on the head. We had gotten a PO box the week before, but I hadn’t memorized it yet, and it was clear that if I didn’t get off the phone, one of the boys would hit the other with a plastic dump truck or the bright yellow buckets I bought a few days earlier. “I don’t have it right now,” I told the receptionist. “We just moved here. Can I bring it tomorrow?”
The next day, we arrived early for Gus’ appointment. The waiting room was nearly empty and as I was filling out form after form, a nurse came out and stood by the receptionist. “She didn’t have her address yesterday, so I couldn’t start the file,” I heard the receptionist say in a loud whisper. “Honestly who doesn’t have an address? Who are these people?”
I felt tears start in my eyes and my whole face ached with shame and fury and a feeling of desperation so great that I wanted to jump in my car and watch the entire state of North Carolina recede in my rear view mirror. Hey, I wanted to say, I can hear you. Instead I said, “I’m almost finished,” and watched the receptionist jump and turn around. I walked up to her desk with my completed forms but couldn’t look at her, my face hot with the shame of having no address, no place to go, no home.
Afterwards, when the doctor told me I had nothing to worry about, that the lump was just a swollen lymph node, I was so relieved I took the boys for ice cream. The main road into Jacksonville – Western Boulevard – is particularly ugly, but the week before, on a walk, I found a little ice cream place called Sweet, which looked brand new and cozy. It was sandwiched between a Five Guys and a Popeye’s, but inside Sweet were velvet couches and soft chairs, a coffee bar and an old-fashioned ice cream counter. A sign on the wall announced that there would be a benefit tomorrow and NFL MVP Mark Moseley would be signing autographs and footballs.
The boys and I sat on a couch and ate our cones and a few seconds later, an older man sat down in a chair next to us with a coffee. His white hair was slicked back and he was wearing a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and a belt with an enormous buckle. On his right hand was a garish gold ring and on his feet were the most amazing pair of cowboy boots I had ever seen. The brown leather rippled in shades of light caramel and gold and deep chocolate. My first thought was to sneer at his outfit. Where do you think you are, Texas? asked The Voice, and then I thought of the receptionist we just left and was flooded with a new shame.
I wanted to be nothing like that receptionist, nothing at all like her, so I looked at the man and said, “Those are some really nice boots.”
The man stretched out his legs and lifted the toe of one boot into the air. “Thanks,” he said. “They’re gator skin. I have four pairs.”
“Four pairs?” I asked, delighted, as I always am when someone has exactly what they want, when they unabashedly showcase more than I think any of us are allowed to have.
He nodded at me and I tried to imagine four pairs of those boots lined up in my bedroom closet. In my head I thought of the tiny wooden closet in our old Virginia house and once again, I remembered I was homeless.
“So how do you like our ice cream?” the man asked me and I nodded and then said, “Oh so this is your place?” because sometimes it takes me a while.
The man nodded again and I watched the sunlight flash on his tacky ring. “I own the Five Guys and the Popeye’s and I wanted to bring in something different,”he said.
I told the man that my friend owns a Five Guys at the ballpark in DC and the man said, “Charlie? I know Charlie. Are you from DC?”
I said that I was, that we just moved here. “Your husband on the base?” he asked and I told him that Scott was a Seabee, that he was part of the huge construction project on Camp Lejeune. “I met with some Seabees last week,” he said. “I’m trying to get Five Guys on the base.” He asked me more about Scott’s job and then we talked about DC for a while. Oliver asked if he could have the rest of my melting ice cream come and I gave it to him. “I lived in DC for fourteen years,” the man said, “I was the kicker for the Redskins. It’s a great city.”
“The Washington Redskins?” I asked, as if there were any other kind. I am not a football fan, but my father and brother are and I grew up around detailed conversations about Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, Refrigerator Perry and Mean Joe Green. When I think of those long ago Saturday mornings, I can still hear the tinny theme song of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I can hear Jim McKay’s voice as he announces … the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
I looked up at the sign in front of me: NFL MVP. “So that’s you?” I asked pointing to it. “You’re Mark Moseley?”
The man took a sip of his coffee and nodded. “And that’s a Super Bowl ring,” I said, looking at the thick gold band on his right hand and stating the obvious.
“Mmmhmm,” he said, holding it up. Someone came over then and Mr. Moseley regally rose from his chair and said, “I hope y’all come back and see us again.” And then to the man who joined him, he said, “She just moved from DC. She knows Charlie.” The boys held up their sticky fingers for me and I got up for some napkins and felt something else rise inside me. Maybe it was relief or maybe it was happiness and maybe it was the fact that I had felt seen by this man with the beautiful boots. Moving always has a way of making me feel invisible, as if by changing locations, I have erased some essential part of myself, some piece that the man with the Super Bowl ring just handed back to me.
I’m not who you think I am! I had wanted to scream at that receptionist, just as I had wanted to ask the NFL MVP, Who do you think you are? How little we think we are allowed. How much we think we need.
It was late in the afternoon so the boys and I left Sweet and headed back to our Hilton Home2 to find that once again, housekeeping hadn’t shown up. I set Oliver up with his first-grade workbook and gave Gus some crayons and construction paper. I unrolled my yoga mat in the space between the two beds. I knew I probably only had a few minutes, but I could do some sun salutations in that time. I could give myself back to myself.
Without my friends and the lush Virginia woods, without the comfort of the worn oak floors of my Virginia kitchen, without the hot Georgetown yoga studio, without the refrigerator full of kale and overflowing book shelves and a city to hate, who was I? I looked around the room at the things I had deemed essential: crayons, books, and Legos, a rice cooker and too many shoes, an expensive jar of red onion jam and a long flat sticky mat. How little I think I am allowed. How much I think I need to make up for this.
The discomfort of this discovery is fragile and sharp and I carry it the way you would a piece of broken glass or an armful of thorny roses, a burning match or a dying starfish, objects shaped like heartbreak, whose beauty and wreckage are inextricable. This move to Jacksonville has been a crucible I have stepped into, the heat and shimmer of concrete and sand a mirror to what lies inside of me: the elusive shadows of beauty and bright piles of wreckage.
I do a few sun salutations and then I walk over to Oliver. I put my hand on Gus’ neck and feel the lump there, the beautifully benign node. I remember the way my own heart beat a year ago when I took Gus to the pediatric cardiologist to check out his heart murmur. I remember the way I exhaled when the doctor told me that Gus had an innocent murmur, that I had nothing to worry about.
How lucky I am, I think, as I look around our tiny hotel room, how narrowly I have edged through those clear panes of disaster. I think of my penchant for drama and realize suddenly that moving is neither a disaster nor the end of the world. Disasters are the only disasters. The end of the world is the only end of the world. I stand still for a moment and listen to the boys tell me about their artwork. Gus’ healthy neck is bent over his paper and I see how little I need. I feel stuffed full of all all I have been allowed to have.
June 11, 2012 § 21 Comments
“No Meg, don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” – from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
Jacksonville feels like a stain. It looks as dirty and tired as a bar after last call. We are staying in an extended stay hotel on Western Boulevard, the main business route, which is an aggregate of Old Navys and Olive Gardens, Walmarts and Wendy’s. The air smells like fried chicken and cigarette smoke and the sunlight bounces off all that asphalt. At night, shadowy packs of boys walk along the strip, their jeans low on their hips. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store and a man in a wife beater and flip flops leered at me. He parked his cart by the shelves of raw chicken thighs and made comments at women who walked by him. I turned sharply into the aisle with the detergent and held a box of Downey sheets up to my nose wondering how I ever could have complained about Washington, DC.
We will probably be staying at the Hilton Home2 until the beginning of August, when a house will be available for us on base. On the first floor of the hotel, a fitness center with a television is adjacent to a laundry room. Twice, I let the boys watch Disney Junior while I used the elliptical machine and slipped quarters into the washing machine. On Thursday, I struck up a conversation with another mother of two boys who is staying at the hotel because her house burned down last month. Marines in camouflage come out of other rooms on our floor, and from behind closed doors, I hear Southern accents and babies crying. I smell food being microwaved and Ramen noodles cooking. The night we arrived here, I had a quiet meltdown – conscious of the thin walls and my sleeping boys – thinking that at 39, I am too old to be living in a place that smells like someone else’s dinner. What was the point of the college degrees and all that striving? I thought back to another hotel room eight years ago in San Francisco. I was up all night helping the president of my company write her presentation and at five in the morning, I staggered off to Kinkos with it, thinking that finally, I was on my way. I would never in a million years have believed that I was on my way here to a town overflowing with soldiers.
Each place I have lived during the last six years has taught me something. In Philadelphia, Oliver was born, ironically, two hours from the town I drove 3000 miles away from when I was 21. In San Diego, I learned how to be an adult, a mother, and a wife. In Ventura, I was taught how to trust my heart and to believe in goodness. Washington DC taught me how to be alone and then how to be with people. I spent a year with this guy:
And despite being so lonely for my first year there, things like this began to happen:
Tonight I went for a walk along Western Boulevard, a four-lane highway with sidewalks but no crosswalks. After a while, my walk began to feel like a game of chicken with the pickup trucks and I started back to the hotel. I passed by Ruby Tuesday and the House of Pain tattoo parlor, Food Lion, and a dilapidated barber shop. Even though it was nine at night, a couple with a small child was going into Hooters. I wondered briefly if I should be afraid and then decided I shouldn’t. I figured I could outrun an attacker, and if I couldn’t, I would put up a good fight.
Coming towards me was a group of young Marines. Maybe I wasn’t as different from them as I thought. I too am the kind of person who would fight to the death to protect myself, and as they approached, I realized I am ashamed of this. The boys looked so innocent as they walked by me, so young. I wondered if they signed up to serve and protect and if they were surprised when they found out what was asked of them. Or maybe they weren’t. When I looked up, one of them said hello with a smile that lit up his face. And then they all looked at me for an instant, their faces lovely with youth.
I thought about how complicated it is to serve, how the word protect sometimes also means kill and how much that bothers me. I thought that some of those young boys might be headed off to a war I despise while others might build a school somewhere or save a child. They would all be trained to shoot and a few might have to pull the trigger when it counted. I thought about how much I hate being part of the military, how paying the cashier at the market sometimes feels like handing over blood money. And I thought of how proud I am that my gentle husband is a part of the same organization I hate, because he has watched over his own share of young men with such devotion. How contradictory it is to protect a freedom, how much freedom is taken away to accomplish that, how the choice to serve takes away so many other choices.
And then I thought about the first Power Yoga class I took at Downdog Yoga in Georgetown. For the last six months, that studio has served and protected me, which I never would have thought possible after that initial class, which I wasn’t sure I could even finish. On that morning, last July 4th, as we celebrated freedom, I was trapped in my own thoughts of how thirsty and tired and miserable I was. “I’m so hot,” my mind kept saying. ImsohotImsohotImsohot.
Gradually – and despite my best efforts not to – I fell in love with Power Yoga and began to practice at the Downdog studio four times a week, at least. On my second to last class there only six days ago, Kelly, who was teaching, told us that if we were uncomfortable, then we were in the right place. “That’s what you’ve come for,” she said. “To be uncomfortable and to see what’s underneath.”
As I finished my walk under the streetlights on a sidewalk that was still hot, I felt the same way I did in that first yoga class in Georgetown. I don’t want to know what’s underneath. I don’t want to see how I judge, how I hate, how I break every yogic value I strive for. I want to know why I am here in this strange town near the ocean. I want meaning and reason. I want validation that I am in the right place.
But the night gives me nothing other than the smell of fried chicken and hot concrete, the sound of my own sharp panic and stale discomfort. And maybe this is why I am here: to be uncomfortable. To crack off another layer. To cleanse myself here, in this city that looks toxic and not a single bit lovely in the dark.
May 28, 2012 § 15 Comments
I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. – from Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
I haven’t been here in a while. I haven’t been writing anything other than my bi-monthly column about chefs, mostly because of all the work that goes into moving to another state and trying to find a place to live given that it may be four weeks or four months until a home on the Camp Lejeune Marine base is ready for us. There is the packing of course, but there is also the getting rid of things, the collection of school and doctor and dentist records, the phone calls to turn off the power and the water, the endless calls to see if that home is still for rent, if that apartment is furnished, if we can sign a lease for fewer than three months. There is also the way the anxiety of moving turns my brain into static, and if I am honest, I have have been avoiding writing because of the way it forces me to face what is really going on.
At Oliver’s kindergarten drop-off, the other moms are very nice to me. “You look so great,” they say, “So relaxed,” and I laugh and lie and say, Thank you, it’s all going well.
This afternoon in yoga, while we held downward facing dog for what felt like way too long, Kelly, who was teaching, told us to press our thigh muscles onto our femur bones and I rebelled. I didn’t want to engage my legs, which is another way of saying I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be in the present moment which is always right here. I wanted to roll up my mat and flee. I wanted to bolt from the 98-degree room and into the 90-degree day outside. I wanted to disappear into the crowded streets of Georgetown. I wanted to run into the air-conditioned haven of Dean & Deluca, to look for a new pair of shorts in J.Crew, to climb fully-clothed into the claw foot bathtubs in Waterworks.
Last Thursday, Oliver and my mom and I made the day-long drive up to Grand Island, New York, which is about a mile away from Niagara Falls. My cousin Jeremy and his wife graciously hosted us and Oliver was able to visit with his cousins and his godmother – Sister Mary Judith – who married Scott and I almost seven years ago, near a rocky beach just south of San Francisco. Sister Mary Judith is my father’s cousin and is in her mid-seventies, but she looks much younger. Before she became a Catholic nun, she was Homecoming Queen, and to me, she still has a sense of royalty about her. On our trip last weekend, she told me stories about when she helped run a school for African-American children in South Carolina in the late 1950’s. She told me about the time she spent in Africa, prior to that, and about my grandparents and aunts and uncles, whose own parents came over from Ireland and landed in Queens and Buffalo, New York.
On Friday, Jeremy took the day off from work and took us all to Niagara Falls. I was surprised by how accessible Niagara Falls is with the free parking in the state park and the easy walk in, just a few blocks from downtown Buffalo. It was a beautiful, sparkling day with bright sun and a cool breeze and we walked down from the parking lot onto a wooded trail which hugged the river. The river was so calm and quiet that I would never have guessed that it was about to jump off a cliff. The kids played on the wide, flat rocks at the edge of the river and they ran over the foot bridges that led us out to Goat Island. There was a small piling up of whitewater as the wide river bubbled around the boulders and the bank and you could tell the water was running fast, but there was a stillness at the surface that belied the drop up ahead.
Moving is kind of like that. You get word and then you wait, your life staying pretty much the same except for that static under the surface, which feels an awful lot like panic. The waiting itself becomes a kind of current, your life becoming flooded with the possibility that you are leaving it, until one day you look up and realize you are completely submerged in the leaving, so tired of the waiting that you just want it to be over already so your new life can start. According to some scholars, the name “Niagara” comes from the name of an Iroquois town called “Ongniaahra,” meaning “point of land cut in two.”
I used to think of surrender as a kind of ease. I used to think that I would be able to surrender once I was a different kind of person: once I meditated more or had more time, or became more wise. But standing there, looking at the falls, feeling the cold mist on my face and listening to the rush of that water, hearing the rush of my own blood through my ears, I thought that maybe surrender wasn’t a matter of ease but of courage. I watched that water, as it moved steadily, unhindered by what was in its path until finally, the Niagara River pulled its knees into its chest and leapt, the water gathering up and then falling from that sharp, dolomite ledge.
After we left the Falls we were hungry and tired and Sister Mary Judith and my mom and I headed to a grocery store to get some snacks for our return drive back to D.C. I told her my thoughts on surrender and she nodded. “Surrender is an act of courage,” she said, simply, and I rested in that, confident in her half-century of spiritual commitment.
This afternoon, as I held downward facing dog, while I was wishing I was anywhere but in my legs, Kelly said, “We think we can find ease by relaxing into something, but really, it’s the pushing out of something that creates the ease.” She told us to press our palms into the floor, to squeeze our thighs back to lift our hips and I thought of those falls – their height, their majesty, their courage. I took a deep breath and pressed down and back, feeling an ache in my legs and also a tiny bit of ease in my heart. I felt an infinitesimal opening as if maybe there was a place for me after all, despite the fact that I am a moving target, despite the fact that as soon as I begin to get comfortable, it’s time to press on and move out again. I pressed back into the pain and the cracking open and the fear and called those falls back to me, those daring wonders with their willingness to drop their history and their loves and their beliefs about where they should be, and instead, press onward and over the edge.
In honor of moving, I am having a month of giveaways. This week, I am giving away 2 copies of Bruce Dolin’s wonderful book, “Privilege of Parenting.” Kristen wrote such a wonderful review of the book that I won’t even try to duplicate her efforts and you can read her review of the book here. Bruce writes compassionately and wisely about how to hold our children by holding onto ourselves first, by breathing through our own fear and shame and sadness in order to put an end to the karma we don’t want our children to carry. Unlike some parenting books, which give generic and unlikely scenarios, Bruce helps us deal with life’s messiness, and like yoga, shows us that the messiness is part of the beauty. Just enter a comment below and I’ll draw a name at Random on Friday, June 1.
March 11, 2012 § 17 Comments
To receive is to accept, not to get. It is impossible not to have, but it is possible not to know you have.
A Course In Miracles
Lately, I have been consumed with thoughts of moving from northern Virginia to North Carolina, which we will be doing in early June. It’s not like it’s a surprise of course. Because my husband is in the Navy, we move every two years, like clockwork. And yet, each time we think about packing up, I am shocked by how attached I am to the place I am living. Even if I don’t like it all that much.
I am insanely great at complaining about moving. Honestly, I should get some kind of award. “You did know I was in the Navy before you married me?” my husband sometimes asks me, “Right?”
Scott will have a great job on Camp Lejeune, which is the biggest marine base in the country. It will be nice to be close to the ocean again and I am looking forward to leaving the fast pace of DC. But still, all I can think of are the public schools and the fact that there aren’t any yoga studios down there. I keep thinking of all that I am not going to have.
When I went to Kripalu for 3 days at the end of December for a yoga workshop with Rolf Gates, I knew it was too big to understand right away. It was wonderful and difficult. It was nurturing and confronting. It felt like home and it felt like the middle of nowhere. In a small way, it reminded me of what it’s like to be me, always on the go, always looking ahead, preparing to leave while we are still unpacking the boxes.
On the first day of our workshop, Rolf had us do an exercise I have done with him before a few times. “Spend the next 5 minutes,” he told us, “Writing about who you want to be and what you want that experience to be like.” I remember the first time I did it during the first week of my yoga teacher training with Rolf last April. Then, I had picked up my pen and paper with a sense of panic. Who do I want to be? Yikes.
What eventually made it onto paper that first time was that I wanted to teach yoga to military wives, like me. This idea had been in the back of my mind for a while, but seeing it on paper for the first time made my hands shake a little. It seemed like more than I was allowed to ask for. Most likely, I would not be up to the task.
As I prepared to do the exercise for a third time on that cold December day at Kripalu, I thought I knew who I wanted to be. I still wanted to teach yoga on a military base. What else was there to say? I paused, with my pen in the air and looked out the floor to ceiling window. Brown leaves sailed against the colorless sky and I thought about how wonderful it was at Kripalu and how far it was from North Carolina.
And then I sat up and felt a rush of something like lightning fill my insides. “Holy shit,” I thought. “I got exactly what I wanted.” Here I was, complaining about moving to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, to the biggest marine base in the country, and yet, what had I asked for six months earlier? Who do I want to be? What do I want that experience to be like?
My heart was pounding and I looked around the room at so many heads bent over notebooks. There was the huge purple wall of the studio. There was the bare winter day outside. And then there was me on my mat, feeling as though I had just won the lottery. I felt my face turn up into a grin and tried to stop it. Eventually I gave in and just allowed myself to be happy, to be a little bit ecstatic, to believe if only for a little while that miracles happen, that sometimes, you get exactly what you ask for.
When I returned from Kripalu, I went online and found the web site for the gym on the Camp Lejeune base. In true military fashion, it took 12 phone calls to finally get in touch with the group exercise instructor and I had to leave a message. She called me back right away and I told her I was interested in teaching yoga.
“When are you moving?” she asked.
“Well, that’s perfect timing,” she said. “We’re opening up a mind body studio in July with a big yoga studio on base and we’re going to need instructors.”
What’s been so interesting to me over the past few months is how I keep refusing to receive what I am given, even it it’s exactly what I wanted. What’s almost comical is how my mind keeps turning to fear rather than gratitude, how it keeps spinning towards panic rather than joy.
Even now, after 21 months of despising Washington DC, I am thinking of all that I am going to miss here: the amazing, bigger than life yoga scene, the Baptiste-style power yoga studio I found in Georgetown, right along the canal, the Dean & Deluca micro-ground chai tea I have become addicted to, the mountain bike trails and the museums and how just when you think winter is never going to end, you wake up and see that the cherry blossoms are already pink against the cold sky.
On my way to yoga yesterday, my usual route around the Pentagon was closed and to get to the Key Bridge, I had to take the George Washington Parkway, and then zip up past Arlington Cemetery. I drove by the back side of the Iwo Jima Memorial, which is probably my favorite landmark in the city. This strikes me as odd as I am usually not a fan of anything war-related, but there is something about all those men leaning in to put that flag in the ground. Driving the way I did, I had a clear view of the only man not touching the flag, the one reaching with outstretched fingers, the one whose hands never touch the flag, who is forever holding onto the air.
Seeing that man always brings tears to my eyes, and yesterday I realized it might be because he reminds me so much of myself. I wish I could just relax into all the good things in my life, but I have never stopped being the girl who is always waiting for something bad to happen. I keep thinking that if I win, I’ll be safe, but what happens when I win is that I immediately begin to fear losing.
A few weeks after repeating “Soften” like a mantra, I stopped making my bed before leaving the house. (This was a teeny bit difficult as I am a compulsive bed-maker).The boys and I spent so many cold and decadent afternoons huddled under our fleece sheets and down blankets reading books. Gus and I fell asleep sometimes while Oliver slipped out to play, and once or twice, in the evening, instead of going to yoga, I went back under those covers. It was delicious. It felt like more than I was allowed to have, and yet, it had been there all along.
Now that spring has arrived and the daffodils are coming up everywhere, I am trying to let go of my habit of reaching with my fingers outstretched. I want to enjoy what I have already received, which turns out to be a lot.
Yesterday, Gus and I went to Whole Foods to get a slice of vegan pizza (again, not likely to be available on Camp Lejeune) and in the parking lot, he stopped by a pothole filled with white confetti and pointed to it. “What is all of this Mommy?” he asked and my first reaction was to try to swoop him away. “It’s trash Gus,” I said, “Don’t touch that.”
But then I looked again and saw that the pothole wasn’t filled with trash at all. It was overflowing with cherry blossoms.
PS In my quest to “lighten up” I am participating in a 21-day cleanse with Laura Plumb, my yoga teacher in San Diego. She and her husband are amazing and together they founded the Deep Yoga School of Healing Arts. Laura will be leading the cleanse which will be completely supported with 3 group phone calls, emails, recipes, and if you choose, a care package full of Laura’s Ayurvedic spices, jam, and kitchari mix. The food-based cleanse (so you won’t be starving and eat half a cake by your third day) begins on March 20th, so if you would like to join me click here. There are 3 very affordable options.
February 15, 2012 § 23 Comments
The student asks the master: “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?” The master replies “Chop wood, carry water.” “And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student. “Chop wood, carry water,” replies the master.
The summer after my sophomore year in college, I received a marine biology internship at the University of North Carolina Marine Lab in Morehead City, North Carolina. I remember boarding the plane in Ithaca, desperate to leave it behind as quickly as I could. That April, I qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5000 meter run and then the next month, I came in last place in the NCAA championships in Austin, Texas. Of course this was only a single race, and in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal, but at the time, it felt like Disaster. Until that point, I thought I could be a runner for the rest of my life, or at least until I turned 30. But stumbling off that burning hot Texas track in May, a wet sponge in my hand, I knew then that I wasn’t among the greats. Even now, it is still one of my biggest memories of failure.
My internship that summer offered me an escape. For two months, I would be working with a team of scientists along North Carolina’s barrier islands, researching endangered sea scallop populations. We would be sailing around the same islands that sank Blackbeard’s ship, which seemed fitting. The head of the lab was a grand professor who only visited once a month, and my boss was a cranky lab tech named Hal, who was afraid of the water. Most days, I hopped on the boat with a grad student named Hunter, who had just returned from studying penguins in Antarctica and another named Thea, from Greece, who was as beautiful as her name. We rode around in a motor boat the university purchased at auction, that used to belong to drug runners. Every couple of weeks Hunter would toss our research logs and sunscreen from the console and reach his big hand in there, feeling around for a secret panel. “Don’t you think they would have hidden a stash of something in here?” he would ask about the drug runners. “Wouldn’t it be great if we found something they left behind?”
Before I left Ithaca, I had started dating a sweet engineering student who was on the cross-country ski team, and who is now the godfather of my youngest son. He made me a mix tape before I left and all summer long he sent me 5-page letters and brown cardboard boxes full of banana muffins he baked from scratch. Instead of answering his letters, I spent many of those summer nights on the back of a motorcycle with a boy named Wilson, a grad student at the Duke Marine Lab. One rainy night, Wilson showed up at the door of the horrible house I shared with the other interns with a helmet in his hands. “This is for you,” he said in his southern accent and as we rode away, he yelled back to me that it was really easy to crash a bike in the rain. I thought he was the most dangerous boy I had ever met.
If I believed I had failed on that Texas track, then my summer in North Carolina was research into the other side of failure, into what happens when you no longer care about the consequences. I drank beer on the front lawn with my other underage roommates late at night, Jimmy Buffet blaring on someone’s boom box. Karen, one of the roommates, came out of the closet that summer, and every time I washed my dishes, she tried to give me a massage. I went running late in the evening and the marines from Camp Lejeune drove by in their pickup trucks and sometimes threw bottles at me, their Semper Fi bumper stickers bright in the glow of their tail lights. I hated those marines with their short hair cuts and their tattoos. By the time August rolled around I hated the fleas and the roaches too. I was sick of the heat and a bit tired of Wilson and his Yamaha. I wanted to go back to Ithaca and be myself again. I was homesick for my roommates on Catherine Street and for my old life. Before I boarded the airplane bound for Ithaca, I kissed Wilson goodbye, grateful that it would be the last time, confident that I would never see North Carolina again, that it was a random chapter, a couple of months of bad decisions, a fluke, just like that day on the track.
Late this October, I removed the mosquito netting from the sand box, thinking that even in DC, mosquitoes didn’t hang around this long, but I was wrong. Even though the sun had already set, I saw three mosquitoes land on Gus’ cheek by the glow of the citronella candles. As I was swatting away, Scott came home from work and ran out to meet us. “Well,” he said breathlessly as the boys drove their trucks in the sand, “I know where we are moving to next.”
I held my own breath for a second. “Where?” I asked, hoping he would tell me that we were heading back to California.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he said. “North Carolina. I got the CO job. I’ll be in charge of the construction project on Camp Lejeune.”
A week ago we all went to Florida for a 5-day vacation. We spent a day at a nature center in Polk county, a day in Legoland, and 3 days with my parents in their rented condo on the ocean. The Spanish moss hanging from the trees made me feel as though the entire state was haunted. It made me think of ghosts. Moving every two years is a bit like being a ghost. You stay on the outside for a long time, watching what goes on in this new place. You hover at the edge of playgrounds and school yards, standing alone while old friends gather in tiny, intimate circles. You circle neighborhoods, trying to remember which street you live on now, you take exit ramps often, because you have gone too far. Three times now, we have moved back to places I used to live as if I am haunted by my own Ghost of Lifetimes Past.
This spring or summer we will do that again. I will once again return to North Carolina, to the scene of that crazy summer, Blackbeard’s wreck, those hot, hot barrier islands. Sometimes I wonder if that summer really happened, and then I look down at my left thumb, where a scar remains from where a blue crab got me, and I am reminded that it was real.
This winter, I have been crossing paths with a red fox. The first time, I was taking a walk at night, and something raced by me so fast I thought it was a ghost. I didn’t see it as much as I felt it. I heard the rush of it as it ran by me. I saw it again the other morning as we were going to school. It trotted across the street in front of our car, its red tail floating behind like a banner. I told Bruce at Privilege of Parenting about it as he is the ultimate resource for all things mythical and magical.
“It does seem the clever Trickster has arrived,” he wrote to me in an email, “And I imagine he has much to teach us.”
One noticeable thing about doing yoga is that I have begun to realize that most of my 30-some years before doing yoga were spent in a state of abject panic. What yoga has given me is a new voice, one that says, It’s going to be OK, and Take a deep breath, and Soften. Last week, I was on the phone with the head of Early Childhood Education of one of the schools in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Camp Lejeuene is three hours from the nearest Waldorf school, an hour away from a Quaker Friends school, 168 miles away from a Trader Joe’s and over 50 miles from a yoga studio. Trying to find a school for Oliver, who has only known Waldorf education is proving to be a daunting task.
The woman on the phone was lovely, and despite the fact that there are over 700 children in her elementary school, despite there being only one twenty minute recess each day and that the school lunches begin at 10 AM in order to accommodate all of the children, I liked her. And then she said, “Don’t be intimidated by all the tattoo parlors and used car dealerships you see as you drive through Jacksonville. It’s really a nice town once you get used to it.”
The yoga voice tells me to take a deep breath, that it’s all going to be OK. But still, that old voice pipes up. “Tattoo parlors?” It asks. “Used car dealerships? Are you out of your mind?”
I wonder now if knowledge of this move was the source for some of the anxiety I experienced this autumn. For twenty years I have blocked out that summer in 1992, and now pieces of it come back, as if it were something I dreamt. I remember Amanda, the intern who answered every question with “Boy Howdy.” I remember that Wilson and I sat on the edge of a dock in Beaufort while he told me about his traumatic childhood. I remember how sick the heat made me and way the air smelled on the beach while the pelicans flew in formation along the sunset.
One day this November, I needed to run so badly that I called a sitter to come for an hour. When she arrived, I pelted down our block and onto Russell Road, Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto blasting in my ears. I ran as fast as I could until my lungs started to hurt and my legs began to ache and still I kept going until I hit King Street in Old Towne Alexandria where I leaned against a telephone pole.
As I turned back home, still thinking about North Carolina, a new voice appeared out of nowhere. Even over the music, it clearly said: “Your work will be there, waiting for you.”
Work? I thought. What work?
I thought of the work I do now, that of wiping noses and folding tee shirts with trucks on them, cutting peanut butter sandwiches in half. Reading Magic Treehouse Mystery books and feeling little boys curl into me with their signature scent of sweat and dirt and Johnson’s shampoo.
As my feet moved more slowly, towards home, I realized that this work might be enough, even in this strange new town, in this desolate outpost with its tattoo parlors and Piggly Wigglys. In the absence of organic tomatoes and coconut water and Lululemon reatail stores, there will still be this work of caring and cleaning and comforting. When we move, I will assuredly be a ghost again. I will get lost going to the grocery store and I will hover on the outside of conversations. I will take Oliver for a tour of his new school while he stays glued to my side and tells me that he doesn’t like this school, that he won’t go and I can’t make him. Afterwards we will find a place that sells ice cream cones and the next day, I will fold laundry and wipe counters. I will perform what seems like mundane tasks, but which are really my sustenance, my necessary work. Maybe this is what comforts me now, this notion that no matter where I go, there will be wood to chop and water to carry. That really, this is what we all do, every day, whether we want to or not, each of us stumbling towards enlightenment.
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.
July 7, 2011 § 25 Comments
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.