May 27, 2011 § 22 Comments
Yesterday, I had to take Gus to a cardiologist. That is such a strange sentence to write. It’s like saying I drove by a tornado. Or, I flew over an earthquake and watched the ground shake. Gus was fine – I knew he was fine – but still.
But still. The phrase that is itself a heartbeat.
Yesterday, driving to the hospital, parking in the huge underground garage, taking an elevator to the lobby and another to the fourth floor made me realize how close I live to disaster. How ridiculously easy it is to get there. At Gus’ last well-child visit, the nurse practitioner heard a faint murmur. “It’s probably nothing,” she said. “But I would like to rule everything out.” If you take one look at Gus, at his muscled calves, pink cheeks, and round belly, you know he can’t possibly have anything wrong with his heart. But still, every time I reminded myself of that, I thought about those eighteen-year old basketball players, those young athletes who collapsed after a lay-up, their autopsies revealing a hole in the wall of their hearts. A leaky valve. An aneurysm. But still. But still.
The thing about being me is that I often don’t know what I am feeling. I try, I really do. I ask myself what is going on, whether I am angry or sad or afraid. I try to tap into sensation, but usually what I get is just a sense of numbness. A single phrase: I’m fine. It’s only later, when I notice that I have eaten three brownies or that I can’t seem to get out of the car, do I suspect that something might be up.
Yesterday, when I looked in the mirror, I realized that I dressed up for the doctor’s appointment. Huh, I thought. That’s funny. Instead of my usual cargo pants and tee shirt, I pulled on a pair of Ann Taylor khakis, a sleeveless shirt, and open-toed shoes. I’m fine, I told myself, as I tottered on my heels down the quiet hallway to the cardiologist’s office. Everything is just fine.
When Dr. Hougan walked into the waiting room at two minutes past ten, a starched white coat over his dress shirt and tie, I let out my breath. There are some people who have such a calm about them, you can practically breathe it in, like perfume. My husband is like that and so is my yoga teacher. I think it’s why I am doing my yoga teacher training with Rolf Gates because he has it too. Those people. Those calm people. They walk into the room and it’s like: Finally. The grown-ups have arrived.
Dr. Hougan sat down in one of those miniature chairs designed for children, ran a hand through his silver hair, and hunched over a chart. While Gus played with a pristine set of Thomas trains, Dr. Hougan asked me some questions. After accurately guessing Gus’ height and weight he spent the next five minutes playing trains with him. “Come on,” he said, rising slowly and holding out his index finger to Gus. “Let’s go watch a movie.” To my surprise, Gus put his hand in his and walked beside him back to the exam room.
The doctor put an ancient Thomas the Tank Engine VHS tape into a small TV hanging over the exam table. “I love this one,” he told me, looking up at the TV. “Ringo Starr is narrating. Did you know that?” He laid a soft blanket on the exam table and I sat down with Gus and removed his tee shirt. The doctor turned on a sonogram machine and explained that he was going to look at Gus’ heart. Gus laid back and looked at me, his eyes wide. “I not stared Mommy,” he told me. “This not starey for me.” My own heart broke in half. But still. But still.
While the doctor deftly moved the ultrasound wand and Gus stared up at his movie, I was looking at the inside of my son’s heart. I watched my baby’s blood fill and empty paper-thin rooms made of tissue. I have been reading some of Joseph Chilton Pearce’s work lately, skipping around, but taking it in. He is known for his work in trying to reform education and he often talks of early bonding and creativity in children. He’s a writer, but in the 90’s he became interested in neurocardiology, or the effect of the heart on the human brain. He was fascinated by the fact that in embryos, the first thing to form is a neural crest, from which develops the cardiovascular, cranial, and vagus nervous systems. Heart. Mind. Will. All three from a single origin. Pearce calls the heart “compassionate mind” and believes it has an equal impact on our thoughts as the thalamus and prefrontal cortex.
In a 1999 interview, Pearce said, “The great challenge of the coming ages of humanity would be, in effect, to allow the heart to teach us to think in a new way.” If there is Heart, Mind, and Will, I am all Mind and Will. I can figure something out. I can even figure everything out and get it done right. But allow my heart to teach me something?
When my mom was visiting last week, she asked me what my heart’s desire was. “To be a good mom,” I said. “I mean, like a really good mom.” It was the first thing that popped into my mind, and it’s true. But still. There might be something more that I am not allowing myself. There might be something I really want to do. What is my heart’s deepest desire, I wonder as I watch Gus’ heart. Oh, I’m too old now, I think and shake my head. I have kids.
But still. But still.
“This is the mitral valve,” Dr. Hougan told me as I watched a pair of butterfly wings flutter open and closed on the monitor. It was like watching a plywood gate hold back the ocean. I remembered how Oliver’s heart looked on the ultrasound when I was only five weeks pregnant with him. It was a pulsating puddle of light, a magic drop of beating water. But this. This was magnificent.
“It’s amazing that all of this happens without us thinking about it,” I said as I watched. I wasn’t quite sure I even spoke out loud until the doctor nodded emphatically. “I know,” he said. “It’s beautiful. Of course the neurologists always say that the heart is dependent on the brain, but I say, without the heart, there would be no brain.”
The doctor removed his wand from Gus’ chest and wiped off the gel. “I am happy to tell you that Gus has an innocent murmur. There’s nothing wrong here and I will never have to see you again.” He smiled at me.
“Thank you,” I said, taking his hand. See, I told myself. Everything is fine.
Leaving, we made the journey in reverse. We tottered through the carpeted hallway. We took an elevator down. I bought Gus a toy school bus in the gift shop. We took the elevator further down into the hot garage. I bucked Gus up in his seat and drove away from the hospital feeling a sense of profound relief. Everything is fine, I kept saying silently. We avoided disaster. We pressed our backs against the hallways, like spies, while catastrophe continued on.
I should feel great, I thought, but there was my own heart, beating like crazy in my chest. But still. But still.
May 19, 2011 § 12 Comments
Usually after I pick Oliver up from school at noon, I take the boys to a park down the street. It’s a great park with two play structures, a big baseball diamond, and trails that loop down to the neighborhood below. They are perfect trails for kids because while they end at busy sidewalks, the short trails themselves are overgrown and a little dark. “Did you know that this is a rain forest?” one of Oliver’s friends asked me a week ago when he came with us on our walk. “Lions live down here.” Together Oliver and his friend walked over a tree that had fallen across a shallow ravine, and for a few minutes, they sat there, their legs straddling the tree as if they were on horses, talking about whatever five-year old boys talk about.
But on Tuesday, the boys and I were alone. We had the park to ourselves and went down the trails that now smelled of summer. It had been raining and was so humid that white spots of mold covered the ground. There was the delicate scent of honeysuckle. There was the sweet stink of dead animal. The boys ran on ahead, Oliver stumbling on legs that have suddenly grown too long, and Gus following steadily behind on his sturdy calves.
I wanted to love this moment. But I was too exhausted. I was swatting mosquitoes. I was worried that a muskrat-like animal would pop out in front of us. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all I had taken on lately. Mostly I was annoyed at myself. For the two years I lived in Ventura, I learned how to simplify, how to pare back and slow down. And in just one year in DC, I have learned to spread myself back out, to sign up for too much, and say no to too little. Lindsey recently wrote about how there sometimes isn’t enough of her to go around, and that was exactly how I felt on Tuesday. Like I was having endurance issues. Like parenting was just one more thing that I had to cross off the list.
Just then, Oliver raced by me on the trail, his arms outstretched in front of him and his palms pressed together. He was making engine noises and weaving back and forth. ZZZooom. BBBrrrooom. I knew he was pretending to be in a space ship, but really, he looked like a very short pilgrim racing to Mecca. It looked like he was praying. Oh my God, I thought, feeling a chill go through me, which happens whenever the boys share a secret from their world. The hairs on my arms stood up, because frankly, these frequent instances seem more than just coincidences. Their connection with Spirit is almost too strong to bear.
I placed my own palms together at my heart, the way I do during a yoga class, and inside my chest, a door swung open. Why didn’t I do this more often? Why didn’t I pray?
Sure, I sometimes said a prayer when I was desperate, something along the lines of “Please God let that hair I just plucked out of my chin be a one-time fluke.” Or “Thank you God for Gus not screaming anymore.” Or “Please God let no one make a comment that my kids are eating pb&j again.” But these aren’t prayers. They are desperate pleas. Negotiations. The only time I pray is when I am on my yoga mat. I hardly ever pray when I really need it.
The boys stopped ahead of me in a clearing. Down below I could see a sidewalk and a street full of houses, but the boys thought we were in the middle of nowhere, on some great Tuesday safari, full of adventure. I kept my palms together over my heart and felt my Catholic childhood melt into my yoga practice. Namaste. In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. I thought of the metta meditation, which I have seen everywhere lately: May I be protected and safe. May I be peaceful and free. May I be healthy and strong. May my life unfold with ease.
The boys were still running around with their arms outstretched. I pulled out my phone. “Hey Oliver,” I said, “Can I take a picture of your hands?” He stopped for a second and waited until I held up my camera phone. After I took the picture, he started running again. “We’re in a rocket ship Mommy,” he yelled as he and Gus ran circles around the clearing. His hands were still pressed together and he raised them to the sky. “Do you see Mommy?” he called. “This is how I steer.”
I held my hands, also in prayer, up to the sky. Maybe I should start steering this way too.
May 12, 2011 § 13 Comments
On Saturday, while Oliver was in the midst of a major meltdown, I kept digging in my brain for what to do. I kept trying to remember what the books said. I knew Oliver had a busy week – too busy. He has been playing with an older boy at school, a charismatic funny child who also likes to push boundaries and do things like climb over the school fence during morning circle. We had two playdates after school and another day spent visiting a nearby public works station where we climbed into dump trucks and snow plows. To put it simply, I had done too much.
So I knew why Oliver was having a meltdown over nothing. But I wasn’t able to stop it. I couldn’t quiet his flailing arms and legs, one of which hit his brother in the head. “Don’t be so quick to get to the solution,” his former teacher used to tell me. “Try to stay more in observation mode.”
But I couldn’t. I was in panic mode, not observation mode. I was on the floor with Oliver while he was yelling his head off, trying to keep his brother safe, feeling compassion and fury and love and frustration beating along with that overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. Of failure.
After it was finally over, I set Oliver up in his bed with some books for a rest and I took Gus down to the sandbox. I needed to be outside. I needed to breathe. I needed to escape. I wanted to hide from the barrage of thoughts that kept saying I had failed yet again, that I hadn’t provided an ideal environment, that my son was not behaving the way he should, that my life had fallen so far short of what I had imagined it was going to be. I wanted to disappear for a while into someone else’s life. Seeing how I was sitting next to a People magazine with photos of the royal wedding, this was easy to do.
I flipped through the pages of People for a few minutes wondering what it must be like to be Kate and Pippa, but Gus needed some attention too. He was digging for “gems” – cheap glass stones I bought at Michael’s that are typically found in vases of flowers. Last fall, I bought a bag of every color and buried them in the sand for the boys to find. I thought it would keep them busy for an hour or two, but five months later, they are still digging. A corner of the sandbox is now a “mine” and another corner is a “gem store.”
“Here you go Mommy,’ Gus said, filling an old coffee pot up with colored stones and giving them to me. “This is a cucumber,” he said, handing me a flat green piece. “Here’s your carrot,” he said, handing me a clear stone streaked with orange. “Eat this before your ice cream.”
I smiled and put down the magazine. I had just been engrossed with photographs of Princess Di’s saphire necklace, Kate Middleton’s earrings, her Cartier tiera stuffed with diamonds. But here, all along, right in front of me, my child had been handing me fistfuls of jewels.
As we sat there, a dove flew into the light above our heads. A couple of months ago, we found a nest in there with two small eggs and since then, the mother has been diligently sitting on it, her tail feathers peeking out over the top. A few weeks ago, the birds hatched and now are almost full-grown. The parents have gotten used to us there in the sandbox and, for the most part, ignore us, which makes me feel honored. On Saturday, as Gus’ fingers were curled around colored stones, the father bird flew back to the nest in a flutter and coo. He opened his beak and the baby bird stuck his head all the way into his father’s mouth to eat what was presented in such a royal manner. It beat the pants off any magazine wedding.
Most of being a parent, for me, has felt like a long, slow dismantling. An unpacking of all of my ideas of how it is supposed to be, how I am supposed to be. There was this idea I had, before I was a mother, of what my children would be like. And somehow, this thought – based on nothing more than an idea – became the ideal.
But being a parent is never ideal. It’s not anything like the magazines tell you it will be. Photographs can tell you nothing about either the gems or the meltdowns. Parenting is gritty and hard and uncomfortable. Before you can even begin to make progress you have to backtrack first. You have to let go of who you thought you were. You have to give up on the ideal temperament and the ideal environment. You will probably have to give up on your dream of an ideal family. You might have to give up your job. You will definitely have to give up your freedom. And for sure you will give up on the idea of yourself as the ideal parent. Yes, definitely that. Especially that.
Finally, when you are left with nothing of what you started, when you are reduced to only your complexity – your unorganized pile of questions – then and only then can you begin. You will probably feel a bit unmoored. Shipwrecked. Lost. And then will you be handed a coffee pot full of gems. Your lights will be filled with birdsong. You will begin to notice the miracles that are right there, that have suddenly sprouted up under your eaves. The miracles that have been there all along.
April 8, 2011 § 10 Comments
This afternoon, after Gus was down for a nap, Oliver tiptoed into my room. “Mommy,” he whispered. “Do you want to play Mr. Dealership now?”
“Of course!” I whispered back and he grinned and hurried down the stairs to the playroom. Mr. Dealership has become our new game and often this time is the highlight of my day. I don’t have much time alone with Oliver, so Gus’ naptime is kind of like a standing date for us. Today I went down to the corner of the playroom, where my “dealership” is. I sat with the basket of clean laundry that needed to be folded while Oliver loaded up his car carrier with Matchboxes and drove them over to me. “Mr. Dealer Manager?” he asked me, “Do you need some monster trucks?”
“Absolutely,” I said in my best used car salesman voice. “And some car parts too.”
The “car parts” were just Gus’ alphabet blocks that also got loaded up on the truck. Oliver used a Lego front loader truck to hand them off to me. “Here’s a C box,” he said. “That’s the carburetors. And here’s an M box. Wait, it’s a W box. Hey, it’s an M and a W. Cool.”
That’s what I love about kids. They are so open. Their wonderful beginner’s minds are so full of awe. To me, an M is never a W. It is only an M. A man is never a woman. A McDonalds is never a Wendy’s. A malasana is never a warrior II. When I start something new, I don’t think of it as cool. I think of it as hard. I think of it as strange and difficult. My own beginner’s mind forgets that it’s a beginner’s mind. It thinks it should know everything already, even as all around me, the world is made new again.
Obviously, spring is the season to flower and take flight. For me anyway, this spring is about taking risks as surely as this winter was about embracing the darkness. Taking risks. Letting go. Oh, there is so much I can let go of: the stories I tell myself, my tight grip on every minute of my day, my fear.
Today, Oliver reminded me of another spring 20 years ago when I was a sophomore in college. That year I qualified for a spot on the US Cross Country team as a junior, which meant I could run in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships held in Boston that year (1992). A few days before the race, there was a massive snowstorm that buried Franklin Park. The weather stayed in the 20’s and the wind came through the city like a freight train. Still, we showed up to run the course the day before the race, all of us bundled into our US-team GoreTex, sick of the snow and wishing that the race was held in another country, like say, Morocco or Mexico. As we trudged up Bear Cage Hill, we heard a lot of yelling and laughing. Whooping. We came around the corner and there was the Kenyan team, dancing around in their green and red sweats. They bent down to the ground and then pointed at the sky. They laughed and yelled things at each other in Swahili. Runners in general are a pretty neurotic bunch and I wondered if maybe they were doing some good luck ritual.
“Hey,” one of the US runners yelled to the Kenyan team’s American translator. The translator waved back at us. He too was grinning. “Hey,” the US runner yelled again, “What’s going on?” The translator loped over to us, and the US runner asked, “What are they saying?”
The translator looked over at the Kenyan team and then turned back to us and shrugged, his palms up. “They’re not saying anything,” he told us, smiling. “They don’t have a word for snow.”
We all stood, silenced by that. The Kenyan team was still jumping around and laughing, pointing at the snow and touching it, as if it were alive. Sometimes they grabbed each other’s hands and put snow in their teammates’ palms and watched it melt. We watched for a while, until finally, one of the US guys lowered his head and started to run again, up that hill. We all followed, quiet for a while, humbled and in awe. “No word for snow?” someone asked after a few minutes. “Did you see how happy they were?” someone else asked. I felt such a love for those Kenyans then, dancing around with their big joyful hearts.
The next day, on the starting line of the race, it started to sleet. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under my singlet and my bare legs were slathered with olive oil to stay as warm as possible. Before the race, my college coach screwed 3/4 inch long spikes into my racing flats so I wouldn’t slip on the ice. Next to me was the Kenyan women’s team. They were shivering in their nylon shorts and singlets and their toes bounced up and down on the white snow. They were running barefoot. For most of the race, I followed the bloody footprints they left behind.
Arguably, Kenyans are some of the most efficient distance runners in the world. To them, running is not just sport, it’s culture. It’s transportation. They are masters at running fast for a long, long time, yes, but they are not masters of snow. I would have bet that day in 1992, in Franklin Park in a snowstorm, the Kenyans wouldn’t have run their best. And that would have been OK because after all, they don’t even have a word for snow. And those words are so important, right? Don’t we need the label to define our experience? Don’t we need the story to explain ourselves?
Or maybe we don’t. That day in Franklin Park, the Kenyan teams won every race.
Tonight, as Oliver as going to bed, he looked up at the glow in the dark stars on his ceiling and asked, “Do you know what the brightest star in the night sky is?”
“No,” I said, curious to see what he was going to tell me. “What is it?”
“It’s the nut star,” he said solemnly. “If you get lost, you can follow it.”
Nut star? “Do you mean the North Star?” I almost asked, but I bit my lip. Who cares, I thought, stopping myself. Nut or North. M or W. Scared or brave. Beginner or master. Better than or Worse than. Who cares. I think of the way the Kenyans opened up their hands to that crazy foreign snow. I think about how my son just wants to soak in experience. We’re all just out here dancing in the snow. We’re all running uphill on our bloody feet. We’re all just trying to find our own nut star.
March 30, 2011 § 7 Comments
Here’s how you know I am not an optimist: I hate spring. True, I am blown away by the colors, by the way the flowers wait for the perfect moment to unfurl, by the gentle breezes and (FINALLY!) the warm sun. But there’s another side of spring too, and it never fails to break my heart. I am always cautious when the forsythia bloom. That pretty much guarantees another snowstorm. But when the magnolia trees are heavy with flowers? When the cherry blossoms ridicule the snow with their white? When the sun pushes on your back like a hand? Come on.
And yet, I fall for it each and every time. I count on the winter to be over. I breathe a sigh of relief. Then bam. The temperature drops, the wind blows cold, it snows, the kids get sick.
I think that’s why I love our garden so much. It’s evidence. It’s proof that we’re actually moving along, that we aren’t stuck or sliding backwards. I’m not really doing it for the food. I am sure much of what we grow will get eaten by squirrels and those damn raccoons. I am more in it for the miracle. For that astonishing transformation of tiny seed into a plant with fruit. That too breaks my heart.
I actually didn’t think anything would even grow in our little uncomposted, unfertilized, unprepared square of dirt. And then, one day, there was a tiny spinach leaf, as green as anything, as tiny as an ant, peeking up through all that dirt. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
It reminds me of another day in March, six years ago, when I had my first ultrasound. For most new moms, this is a glorious day, but for me, it was full of dread. Pretty much the last thing I wanted was to be pregnant. I had a job I loved in investor relations for a successful biotech company. I had an amazing boss I ran with twice a week, I regularly sat down with the CEO to write his quarterly conference calls, and I was working (writing!!) for a company that was trying to cure cancer. I had a boyfriend who lived all the way across the country. I had a cute apartment in Palo Alto while Scott lived in a former HUD house in Philadelphia. We had been dating long enough that we knew it was time to either get married or break up, but I really didn’t want to be a Navy Wife. And I really, really, really wasn’t ready to be a mother. We talked about an abortion because it seemed the sensible thing to do.
I like to think that from the first moment, I knew I would have that baby, but I am not sure. I do know that Oliver’s light was bright, that it was as intense as he – as a five-year old – is now. He felt like a flock of fireflies under my heart, like a lighthouse beam. He felt like a yes.
But still, on that first visit, Scott and I were talking to the doctor about our options. It was too impossible to have a baby.”Stay here,” the doctor said after we talked that rainy day in another March, and then she left the room.
A technician came in after a while and asked us to follow her. The hospital was part of the Stanford hospital and it was always under construction. She led us to a drafty trailer and had me get up on a table. “We don’t usually do an ultrasound so early, but well -” She shrugged. I wasn’t sure if we had to get one because we were considering an abortion or because she wanted us to change our minds. Sometimes I wonder if she saw something in Scott and I that we couldn’t see yet in ourselves, but maybe that’s just me, trying to make what happened seem better than it actually was.”It’s really too early for a heartbeat,” the technician said, putting that cold get all over my stomach. “But we’ll see.”
I almost didn’t look. But when I did, there on the screen, in black and white, was something that looked like an amoeba. It looked like the sun. I always thought that first heartbeat would be the whoosha whoosha like on the TV shows, but Oliver’s first heartbeat was like a silent movie, a steady beat whose absence of noise was shocking, like the quiet of the Grand Canyon.”Wow,” said the technician. “We don’t usually see that at five weeks.” How on earth, I wondered, can that become a person? It seemed too impossible. It was science fiction. And it was in my stomach.
Now that five-year old holds out a grubby palm full of seeds for me to inspect. “What are these Mommy?” he asks. “Are these the tomatoes?”
“They’re peas,” I tell him.
“Those sweet kind?” he asks.
“Don’t like peas,” Gus says. “They’re yucky.”
Do you know that bumper sticker that reads, “What if they held a war and no one showed up?” That’s kind of how it was for me. The night before the abortion was scheduled, I rented a few Sex & the City DVDs and bought a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for dinner. If I kept that baby, I would have to give up my great apartment. I would have to quit my job and move 3000 miles away from my friends. I would have to live in that goddamned HUD house. But if I didn’t keep the baby, I would lose the light that was pulsing silently within my ribcage.
That night, I left a message on my doctor’s voicemail, canceling the appointment. The next day, instead of going back to Stanford Hospital, I went to work, alternatively elated and flooded with panic. What have I done? What have I done? became a mantra for a while, another kind of heartbeat.
Now I know what we did. It was nothing extraordinary. We just started a garden.
March 14, 2011 § 7 Comments
We started a garden. It’s weird that I am so happy about it because I am not really a gardening type. I have never been particularly interested in plants or horticulture. But I had a few freelance assignments last year about local food and farmers in San Diego. I was so inspired by those men and women, by their fierce tenacity and determination. Their desire to feed people real food and their refusal to submit to fast, easy solutions. Farmers, I am convinced, are a grounding force in our chaotic world.
I didn’t really put all that much effort into this garden. It was just an intention, a hope. There is a patch of mostly bare soil outside a basement window in the back of our house. It doesn’t get much sun in the summer and we didn’t do anything to prep the soil. But two weeks ago, I showed Scott the spot I wanted to dig up. The next day, he was out there with the boys shoveling. Gus was busy pouring dirt into a bucket and Oliver loved using his new wheelbarrow and rake to dump weeds over the steep edge of our yard. “Mommy,” he said, “I think I am going to have my own gardening company someday because I am so good with these tools.” At one point, we were all out there digging. This was new for me, this family time. Isn’t that awful? But for the last year, Scott and I have been tag-team parents on the weekends. He goes mountain biking and when he comes home, I go for a run. I go to yoga and when I come home, I’ll get Gus down for a nap. Occasionally we’ll go out to dinner or go for a walk, but not often enough.
Scott surprised me again last weekend. Last Friday after the rain, I went out with the boys for a few hours to dig up the soft ground. I thought we did a great job and even Scott was impressed. “But look at all those old tree roots,” I told Scott. He shrugged off the roots. “It should be OK,” he said. The next day, when I came home from yoga, my small efforts were totally blown away by Scott and the boys. He dug way deeper than I could have and he and Oliver and Gus got rid of every single root. “I thought that they might take too much water away from your plants,” Scott told me. I looked out into the now gorgeous patch of earth.
The next day, Scott lined the garden with bricks. He made furrows in the ground and we all made tiny holes in the surface. We brought out those awesome packs of seeds as if it were Christmas. We ripped them open after showing each other the cheesy photos on the front: lettuce and spinach, peas and nasturtium. “Can I put the seeds in?” Oliver asked while Gus threw things over the edge of our backyard. “What does that seed look like?” he asked and I handed him tiny grains of lettuce, big round peas that will hopefully become sweet, flowering plants. I read Margaret Roach’s incredible gardening blog everyday now. My mom just bought me a subscription to an organic gardening magazine.
On Saturday, after hearing the full magnitude of the earthquake in Japan, I silently dedicated our little piece of land to that beautiful country. I feel now much as I did after September 11th. I was in San Diego then and felt so horribly helpless. My brother had moved to New York, to his girlfriend’s apartment on John Street on September 10th. For most of the next day, I couldn’t get in touch with him. He was supposed to start his new job at Bank of America and I had no idea whether his office was in midtown or downtown. I didn’t know he was on a ferry to Hoboken, that he was watching the horror as it happened.
A few weeks ago, we met Scott for lunch at the Pentagon. What impressed me most were not the three intense security checks before we even got to the building, but the huge quilt hung by the entrance, each square representing a person killed there on September 11th. Tears welled up as soon as I saw it. My god, that terrible day. We ate lunch with Scott at one of the Pentagon’s many food courts and then walked through the building, over the big green lawn at the center of the Pentagon, passed the restaurant smack dab in the center of that lawn like a bull’s eye. You never know. You just never know when disaster will strike.
That fall, in 2001, I was depressed. I felt hopeless and heartsick. The innocence of our country had been shredded. I cut Billy Collins’ poem “The Names” from the New York Times and almost memorized it. Let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound ….
I feel that way now. Helpless. Powerless. Groundless. Incredulous. The only disaster I remember from my youth is Mount St. Helens. There weren’t events like this, were there? Tsunamis and earthquakes and floods. Haiti and Japan and New Orleans and Thailand. Tonight during savasana in yoga, I felt the weight of all that in my chest. It flattened me until I felt as thin as a sticker. Someone would have to peel me off the floor, from under the weight of this destruction. There is absolutely nothing to do except to click on the red cross on my computer, the one that says “Donate.”
And yet it does no good to be powerless, to be depressed. I think about the parts of my day that are hard. The hours between 3 and 6 pm. The clean-up after dinner. The bickering. The laundry. I think about a natural disaster destroying all the parts of the day I don’t like and my heart hurts thinking about how much I would mourn the loss of them. I would miss the fighting, the boredom that sets in at 4:13 pm. I would crave a kitchen to clean, clean shirts to fold. I have no emotional response to photos of the devastation in Japan because it doesn’t seem real to me. But the faces – those faces! The loss. 10,000. It almost doesn’t register.
Today I am grateful for the hard parts of my day. I am so grateful to the garden, which might be one of the most romantic gifts my husband has ever given me. I didn’t ask for it and he made it beautiful. He dug much further down than I could. He lined it with brick. He told me we can build a fence to keep out the squirrels and chipmunks and the fox that lives in our neighborhood. His face lit up as he dug a 2 inch hole with a stick and dropped in spinach seeds.
We are waiting now to see what is going to come up. We are watering and trying to be patient. We know that it might be a bust this year, that bugs and blight and that fox might steal our small harvest away. But no matter what we pull up, we will have enough. We already have abundance.
The Names – Billy Collins
Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.
February 20, 2011 § 10 Comments
The winter has ended here in Alexandria, and for that I am so grateful. I know, people here say it will snow again, but whatever. Big whoop. Winter as I remember it – below zero temps, icy roads, wind so cold it hurts, snowdrifts so high you can’t even see the tops of parking meters – is over. In fact, here, it only lasted a few weeks.
Now, instead of winter we have mud. The park the boys love the most is called The Pit because it used to be the staging area for houses in our neighborhood when they were built in the 1930’s. Now, it’s a big park with an asphalt play area, a big sand box, abandoned bikes and scooters and toys, and a mini woods with a trail kids can run on. In the summer it is scorching, and now, in late winter, it has mud like quicksand.
We went the other day and were the only ones there except for two moms on the asphalt area. They were the Perfect Moms, as I call them, right before I scold myself for judging them. But really, I am not judging, I am just envious of their blow-outs, their perfect figures, the way they can look beautiful in down jackets. They wear cute flats or the fur-lined, Sorel snow boots I covet but can’t justify spending money on based on the fact that I live below the Mason Dixon Line. Most of the time, these perfect moms don’t have sons.
The day we went to the park, the two Perfect Moms were talking while their young daughters played. My own boys roared passed them, their coats flapping in the wind and their sturdy LL Bean boots making them look like tiny astronauts. Tiny astronauts headed for the mud.
I tried to make eye contact with the moms as we went by but they were deep into their own conversation. Just as well. My red hair was -as usual – a crazy cloud around my face, I had on a baggy fleece jacket, and my own feet were tromping by in a pair of Lowa (not cute) hiking boots. Oliver took one of the scooters that “live” at the park and headed straight into the mud and Gus followed behind. The mud was so thick that Gus’ boot got stuck and he started crying. The scooter Oliver was using also got stuck and he laughed, delighted at the force of the mud, at the pull of Nature.
I was waiting for it. I knew it was coming: “Girls, Stay OUT of that MUD,” called the Perfect Moms. I closed my eyes. Usually, I tried to at least make eye contact or wave. Sometimes, if I am feeling friendly, I ask if it is OK my boys are playing in it. Today though, I just didn’t care. Oliver and Gus had been forced inside by the weather for too long, housebound while their neurotic mother followed behind them with a broom and a dustpan. “Don’t jump on the couch, don’t run in the house, wipe your feet.” I had been a broken record for weeks now. If they wanted to play in the mud, then they could damn well play in the mud.
I thought we would last longer than we did, but it was only about 15 minutes before Oliver’s boots got stuck in the mud while he himself was still moving forward, his arms on the handlebars of the scooter. He was launched out of his own boots and landed headfirst into the mud. If it wasn’t my child, I probably would have been doubled over laughing. It was kind of hilarious, actually, like something you see on YouTube. But as I ran over, I could see Oliver was upset. Gus also came running over, and as he saw the mud running from Oliver’s hair to his nose, he started to cry. I comforted Oliver and wiped the mud from his face and Gus too settled down. “Nice work,” I told Oliver, meaning it. “That was pretty cool.” Oliver smiled. “Did you see that?” he asked after he had calmed down. “Absolutely,” I said, and then Oliver got upset again as more mud ran into his face. “It’s OK,” I said. “There’s a towel in the car.”
Unfortunately, we had to march by the Perfect Moms on our way out. “Ewww,” said one. “Look at all that mud. Someone’s going to have to do a lot of laundry tonight.”
I smiled at them, one of those tight smiles that really means “Shut the fuck up.” Yoga, I thought. Remember the yoga. This depresses me, the fact that although I have been doing yoga for years, I still have these loud, ungenerous thoughts.
Inside my trunk were two huge fleece blankets for covering the boys up on school runs, when the heat in the car doesn’t turn on fast enough to warm them up. I told Oliver to take off his hat and coat and shirt. His boots. All of it went onto a blanket and I bundled him into my fleece jacket. I carried him into the car and got Gus bundled in as well. Oliver was so dirty that there was mud in his ears, inside his nose.
The Perfect Mom was getting her own daughter into her Range Rover. “I love a mom who’s prepared,” she said in her singsong voice.
“Uh huh,” I said back.”Thanks.” I loaded the bundle of mud back into the trunk of my own very dirty Prius, feeling like I was in high school, that somehow, I didn’t have the DNA to be cool, that I had missed something fundamental to my development. That even if I could afford a Range Rover, mine wouldn’t be as clean as the Perfect Mom’s. My hair would never be that straight. If I wore ballet flats, they would be filthy within hours.
Whatever, I told myself. The boys seemed happy. “I didn’t get mud on my nose,” Gus kept saying on the way home. “Mommy, did you see that fall I did?” Oliver asked.
At home, I raced up to start the bath. I herded Oliver and Gus downstairs into the laundry room and peeled off the rest of their clothes. Scott came home right after and put them in the bath, marveling at the mud that was caked into almost every tiny fold of skin, every finger, and every toe. I went back down to the laundry room and began to remove the wet liners from the sturdy boots. They could be washed. I took apart the 3-in-1 coats, which required 8 snaps to be undone. I went back upstairs and back out to the car to clean the car seats and to take in the mittens and hats. My own fleece, now full of mud.
I had to pause for a second outside and catch my breath. Suddenly, this simple task seemed insurmountable. The mud. The dirt. Every time I cleaned it up, it appeared again. It lasted for days. I found it in a corner of the kitchen, under the dining room table, on my jeans. It was never going to go away. I thought of something Lindsey posted: “Do I ever arrive anywhere without a car trunk full of things that need unloading, unpacking, putting-into-place?”
My life would always be a mess. I would always have unkind thoughts, eat too much chocolate, be unable to go vegan. I would never be one of those lovely, graceful yoga teachers. Hell, I wouldn’t even be someone with Sorel boots. Really , was it too much to ask for? I just wanted to be fixed already.
This winter, I made a commitment to embrace the darkness, to really go within this year and see what I could dig up. In the words of Alana at Life After Benjamin, I vowed to go in with my Mag light and tool kit. I wanted to excavate the ruins. I wanted to find something gleaming that would be worth saving. I wanted to find some gem within myself that shone brightly. And there have been discoveries, semi precious jewels that are banged up and a bit cloudy but that might be valuable someday. There have been moments where I haven’t eaten the chocolate, or poured the glass of wine or madly tried to clean the house in order to just feel better. But I still do all of those things. I still try to escape my own skin sometimes. I still try to outrun myself in the hopes that the me who I don’t like so much won’t catch up. Standing there outside as the cold came back and the darkness fell, and still, loads of laundry to do and mud to sweep up and soon a bathtub to scrub, it all just seemed too much. Perhaps I was beyond any kind of redemption. Maybe there was just too much dirt.
I thought of what my college track coach used to tell me before big meets, when I was so scared I couldn’t see straight. “You know what to do,” he would say. “After the gun goes off, it’s just work. Just do the work.” Then the work was running around a track 13 times, putting one foot in front of the other for 5000 meters, trying to make my split times, trying to run faster than the girl next to me. Now the work is more nebulous, the pain more diffuse, the epiphanies diaphanous, the questions looming.
But there are voices too. There are blogs, this kind of other-world where people are greeted by the words of their hearts. There are echoes from the past, of others with more guts than me. “Tell me,” Mary Oliver asks as I turn the dog-eared pages, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
February 16, 2011 § 6 Comments
Yesterday, I received a comment from Kristin Noelle about my post Uncertainty. She wrote: The raccoons are everywhere. That is my new go-to quote when talking about reasons to fear. Now we just need a comparable one for trust…
I have been thinking about her comment for the last two days. Especially yesterday when I got so caught up in my own fear, I made myself miserable, even when nothing was wrong. Trust, trust, trust. You would think it would be easy, but I forget all the time. And yet, if fear is the poison that holds us back, trust is the anti-venom. In yoga, there is a practice called Pratipaksha Bhavana or “cultivating the opposite.” What it entails is simply thinking a positive thought immediately after thinking a negative one. When fear is felt, one should cultivate trust – if one remembers. The problem is in the remembering.
I have been thinking about a way to remember to come back to trust after fear much as we try to remember to come back to our breath in meditation after the mind takes us away. What I thought about was Joseph Campbell and his discussion of ritual in The Power of Myth. In his book, he talks a great deal about the lack of rituals in our culture, especially in adolescence. ( I also think we lack rituals in middle age as well.) In my own adolescence, running became my ritual. Every day during high school and college, I tied up my shoes and tried to outrun prelims and rejection and leaving home.
The rituals I cultivated in my 20’s were achievement! advancement! ambition! Now, in my late 30’s, my rituals involve small children. Making the beds. Cutting apples. Spreading peanut butter. Folding laundry. I unfurl my yoga mat and come into downward dog. These are the acts that now ground me in the now, in the present moment. And of all my “rituals,” these are undoubtedly the most healthy.
Today I was wondering if I could cultivate some sort of ritual to disarm the fear and general ickiness I feel once the clock strikes 2 pm. Lately, I have been feeling “stuck” during the late afternoon. This is an empty time of day, without structure, and it mimics the uncertainty in my life as a military wife. Usually, everything is fine during these hours, but my fear transforms this time into a bit of a panic. What are we doing? Where are we going next? If I could think of some way to imbue the quality of trust into these difficult hours, perhaps I could cultivate the opposite of what I usually feel. Then, rereading Thomas Moore’s amazing book, Care of the Soul, and I found this:
Ritual maintains the world’s holiness. Knowing that everything we do, no matter how simple, has a halo of imagination around it and can serve the soul, enriches life and makes the things around us more precious, more worthy of our protection and care.
A halo of imagination. Holiness. What if I could infuse my dreaded “unhappy hours” into something holy? What if I could make the ordinary sacred? I need something to remind myself to trust.That even though I may not know where I am living in 15 months, I know where I am living right now. That bad things may happen to me but right now, there is nothing wrong. That some day I will die but right now I am alive.
Moore cautions against “making up” rituals because they “may support our pet theories but not the eternal truths.” But still, I can think of many everyday rituals that are ordinary but also support an awareness of something greater, something timeless. In my son’s preschool, they taught the children now and next. We wash the clothes and then we dry them. We breathe in and we breathe out. These are small, ordinary gestures that remind us to trust that in the present moment, nothing is wrong. And present moments are all we have.
I am thinking about maybe taking the boys for an afternoon walk as a way of creating a ritual or something sacred in the pre-dinner hours. Here in DC, spring is arriving timidly but most assuredly. It is in the 40’s and 50’s most days and there are oceans of mud to run through. For me, connecting to nature dissolves much of my panic. I am not sure if Thomas Moore would call it a ritual, but it is something that can be a little holy, at least to me.
Today, we walked down a path near a local park. Gus insisted on carrying a rock the size of his head and Oliver imagined that we were Star Wars Kitties, which is kind of a heartbreaking portrait of where he currently is right now: one foot in his preschool world of innocence and the other in a world where light and dark, good and evil are so clearly evident. In a way, it was almost fitting as he was calling to mind Joseph Campbell himself, whose book Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired George Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place. I was Anakin, Oliver was Luke, and Gus, of course, was Yoda. “Hold you me,” is what he says when he wants me to carry him. I tried to make the walk feel sacred, if only to myself. I tried to notice the air, the warm sun, the buds starting on the trees.
It was good. I am not sure if it was a quality of trust, or of simply having to remember to meow and use the force at the same time while also attempting to keep Gus from wiping out, but the afternoon was pleasant. I didn’t feel the yawning abyss of uncertainty. It was peaceful. Maybe, it even felt a little bit holy.
February 11, 2011 § 8 Comments
A few days a month, we play hookey from preschool. My son Oliver is 5 and next year, he will officially be a kindergartener. It won’t be so easy to take days off then, so I do it now, while we can. Instead of driving off to his Waldorf school, we head the other direction to the Braddock Road Metro and ride the rails into DC. Usually, we go to the National Museum of American History and spend all our time in the transportation wing, which is full of streetcars, old-fashioned trains, buses, and glimpses of Americana through the 20th century. It’s a pretty amazing place.
Usually these no-school days are great. We get to play a bit longer in the mornings and we stop for a special snack. I tried really hard to make today a fun day too, but there was much complaining by my five-year old despite the cinnamon rolls for breakfast and the ability to read in bed for a little while. I am in the last stages of a bad cold and my throat still hurts. I was tired today and I wasn’t sure how much stamina I had.
During our outing, I kept looking at my watch, wanting to be somewhere else for some reason. I was aware that I wasn’t enjoying the present moment but could not shake a general sense of grouchiness, a feeling that we weren’t getting to see all that we needed to see at the museum. I was in a hurry despite the fact that there was nowhere else I had to be. I wanted to relax into the moment and into the day but I was annoyed by Oliver’s whining and the way he kept pushing his brother out of his way.
Finally, at noon I called it quits by the robotic car, which was designed by Stanford for DARPA. On the wall over the car was a video of the race it had won, despite having no driver. It kind of creeped me out, but Oliver, who loves anything with wheels, was hooked. “OK buddy,” I told him after the video was finished. “We need to pack up and go now.”
“NOOOO!” Oliver yelled again. “YOU NEVER LET ME HAVE ANY FUN. IT’S NOT FAAIIRRR.” What I was thinking was: Haven’t I been letting you have fun all morning?
I signed and started walking towards the museum’s front door. I thought of a post that Lindsey Mead Russell wrote about life being a poem and a practice. “Stop and breathe,” I told myself, but I was already huffing and puffing in my winter coat. The metro station was still a few blocks away, through the wind and the frigid day. “Mommy,” said Oliver at the front door. “Do you have my red hat?” I had given Oliver his hat while he watched the video.
I looked at Oliver and felt my eyebrows knot together. “You left your hat back there?”
Oliver put his hands on his hip. “It’s not my fault. It was in your backpack.”
“You need to get your hat,” I said and we made the walk back through the museum, passed the gift shop and the ice cream shop and the coat check room, all the way to the back of the east wing. There was the hat, right next to that robotic car. Oliver picked up his hat and jammed it on his head. “This day is no fun,” he said.”I’m tired of walking.”
I had to put Gus down in order to zip up Oliver’s coat and Gus started to cry. “MOOOMMMMYYYY, CARRY ME.” Despite my best efforts, I was losing it. I felt an anger rising and then I was angry at myself for getting angry on a day that was supposed to be fun. I put all of my fury into zipping up Oliver’s coat. But I had momentarily forgotten he was still wearing it.
“HEY,” he yelled as I yanked the zipper up halfway. “THAT WASN’T FAIR.”
“Let me tell you what isn’t fair,” I said. “It’s not fair that we skipped school and ate cinnamon rolls and came to this museum and you are yelling at me. We’re going to school from now on.” Maybe I even added, “and that is that.”
“Oh my,” said the Voice in my head. “I think you said that out loud.”
Somehow we made it to the Metro. I watched my fury dance in front of me, dance through me, even as I cursed it. Even as I tried to melt it with compassion. It just didn’t work because I felt no compassion. I deserved no compassion. Did I really zip his jacket up like that? I wondered? Did I really say that out loud? I knew that the source of my irritation was not necessarily my son but the fact that my son did not appreciate what I wanted him to appreciate. I thought that I deserved wonderful behavior from him because it was a special day to me. And that’s not how parenting works. “Your kids are going to love things you think are no big deal and they won’t appreciate things you think they will love,” my own mother told me. “Whatever you do for them you have to do for your own memory books, not theirs.”
As always, in my worst moments, I think of my favorite parenting book: Mitten Strings for God by Katrina Kenison. In her chapter titled Discipline, she writes: “The issue, then, is not whether or not we can mold our children to do our bidding, but whether we can learn to ride out life’s ups and downs without losing our own bearings.” The way she writes about her son Jack is a mirror of how I feel about Oliver. She writes: “In [Jack’s] passionate, headlong rush into life, he has shown me exactly where my rope ends, where my patience runs out, where my edges fray, where my own outer limits really are. He has taught me that in order to be an effective and loving disciplinarian, I must first be able to control myself.”
I had not controlled myself. Again, I had failed.
We were sober and quiet as we rode the cold escalator down into the Federal Triangle Metro stop. We sat on a bench and waited for the Blue Line. We got seats when the train came and settled ourselves, tired and wanting to be home. “Mommy,” said Oliver, lugging up my backpack. “Can you read to me?” I pulled out Martha Speaks from the backpack and we began again. It is a book that Oliver can read too and somehow, in a matter of minutes, we were laughing at the dog. We were pulling out the flashcards from the back and playing a game with them. Gus momentarily got bored and started kicking the seat in front of us. I was tempted to just let him after our morning, but there was a woman sitting there, wearing a black coat and a hat. “Gus,” I said to him, “Please stop kicking.” He didn’t stop. “Look Gus,” I said again putting my hand on his leg. “When you kick the seat, the woman sitting there can feel it. Sit back Peanut”
Surprisingly, Gus listened to me. He seemed a bit chagrined, if a two-year old can look chagrined. He is such a sensitive little guy. “Good job,” I told him and we kept reading. At the next stop, I reached down to get another book and noticed the woman in front of us getting off. She turned to me and held out a piece of paper. She had a stern face, and my first thought, was No, please don’t complain about Gus kicking the seat. But when I read the paper, what I saw written in thick black marker was, “You’re A Great Mom.”
I can’t imagine what my face looked like to that woman. I only know what I felt. Shock, first. People in DC just don’t do that. That morning while waiting for the train, I complimented a woman on her coat and she just glared at me. Secondly, I felt immense pride and recognition. Joy. Could I really be a great mom? But that feeling was quickly followed by guilt. Oh, if only she had seen me twenty minutes earlier. I cringed a little, said thank you and shook my head, all at the same time. The woman nodded firmly at me and then she was gone, out those quick Metro doors. It all happened so fast that the boys hadn’t even noticed our exchange. Who the hell was that? I wondered. I thought about her all day: Why didn’t she speak? Why did she bestow such a kindness upon me, especially one that can never be repaid?
It also struck me as kind of random that she just happened to cross our path during one of the better moments of our day. It reminded me of something I read in the January 31st issue of The New Yorker. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an essay about Amy Chua and I read it greedily. Like many moms, wondering if the Tiger Mother is really going to get away with it, I am fascinated by Amy Chua. But the essay wasn’t as much about Ms. Chua’s book as it was about parenting. “Parenting is hard,” Kolbert writes. “As anyone who has gone through the process and had enough leisure (and still functioning brain cells) to reflect on it knows, a lot of it is a crapshoot. Things go wrong that you have no control over and, on occasion, things also go right, and you have no control over those either. The experience is scary and exhilarating and often humiliating, not because you’re disappointed in your kids, necessarily, but because you’re disappointed in yourself.”
I feel like that tonight. Disappointed in myself. Wanting to erase my shadow self as much as I want to erase Oliver’s. But it doesn’t work that way. Whatever I have tried to deny or cover up or not look at only grows that much stronger. So tonight I am trying to make peace with all that I don’t like about myself. I am trying to let it dissolve into the light. I am trying to remember that the source of ourselves is basic goodness. I am trying to listen to my soul, to that something that knows what to do, even if the mind I identify so strongly with does not. I am trying to trust in that soul, even if I don’t always hear its music. In a way, it’s like driving blind. Navigating by the stars. Driving a robotic car, already programmed and not much caring if you think you’re behind the wheel.
February 9, 2011 § 14 Comments
A few weeks ago I blogged about a mediation class I went to. I wrote that it was the first time since I moved to Washington, DC that I felt safe. That I felt like I was in a group of friends. That I felt like I belonged. Granted, it was a bit of a crazy meditation class. Some people saw colors and others said they felt bliss and light. I didn’t really have those experiences. I felt like I always do when I meditate: anxious, resistant to looking at all that simmers below the surface, annoyed that the lyrics to “California Gurls” keep rushing through my head.
During the week after the first class, I did what I always do: I dismiss anything that doesn’t make perfect, rational sense. I decided that the people who felt blissed out and saw colors were making it up. It couldn’t have been real. I mean, I like the idea of karma and chakras, and the dharmakaya, but deep down, I don’t really believe in it. I can’t believe in anything without fossilized proof, evidence, a theorem.
What surprises me is that I have been back to meditation five or six times. In fact, I haven’t missed a week. I don’t know why I keep going. I suspect it has to do with something I read by Pema Chodron, which said that the point of meditation isn’t to have a great experience, but to get to know your own mind, to make friends with yourself. It probably also has to do with the fact that Mimi in her Talbots sweaters is so sane, so clear.
I definitely don’t go because meditating is fun. Mostly my legs fall asleep and my neck hurts. For a few minutes I think of nothing and then congratulate myself because this is the goal of meditation, right? And then I realize that it’s not that I’m not thinking, but that I am resisting thinking. California gurls, we’re undeniable. Fine, fresh, fierce, we got it on lock.I am avoiding the plunge below the surface, that icy underworld which is just about the most terrifying place imaginable. Under the surface is where the monsters live.
While some in the class are experiencing the dharmakaya, I am cringing at the thought of how sharply I spoke to Oliver. I am wondering if I should go to New York to see a friend by myself, even though Gus is still nursing. I think of what a jerk I am to my husband sometimes. West coast represent, now put your hands up.
But then, I’m not really after bliss or colors or some Kundalini energy release. What I am after is an excavation. What I am tired of is deceiving myself. For most of my life, I have lived with blinders on, seeing only what I wanted to, trying to block out the wars and the homeless and sadness. There’s an inauthenticity to this kind of life. There is a lack of integrity in trying to pretend I am not a Navy wife when that is exactly what I am or in saying that I don’t need Washington DC friends when really, I am lonely. It doesn’t make sense to lean against the kitchen counter and eat thirteen animal crackers, when really, i just want to cry for a minute.There are about a zillion ways to hide from your own life, and I have done every one.
This month, I bought an issue of the Shambala Sun., which is definitely not something I normally read. Usually, I read the New Yorker, and US Magazine, and sometimes Real Simple. Shambala Sun is kind of hardcore. But Pema is on the cover this month. And I’ll read anything about Pema. In the magazine is an article about Pema’s “Smile at Fear” teachings, which I think is kind of great. Smile at fear. I never thought of smiling. I just sing songs like Dorothy on the yellow brick road. Sun-kissed skin, so hot, we’ll melt your popsicle. Pema writes, “The basis of fear is not trusting yourself. In a nutshell you feel bad about who you are.”
Trust myself? Sirusly? Rilly? WTF?
Oh why the hell not. Trust seems to be a big theme here in the blogokaya. Lindsey Mead Russell’s word of the year is “Trust” and every time I read her blog I am inspired. (my new favorite is one about navigating our own lives). Katrina Kenison writes so beautifully about trusting in the present moment and in letting life unfold without tugging so much at it. When I asked Mimi what to do with the fact that all I think of on my meditation cushion is all I don’t want to think about, she told me to welcome all of those monsters into the light. “The light dissolves them,” she said. Rolf Gates told me that starving people eat garbage, and the key is to realize that we are the starving people. Kristin Noelle, on her lovely blog “Trust Tending,” wrote a beautiful ritual for dealing with parts of ourselves we don’t like so much.
Forgiveness is the theme here. Compassion for ourselves. Love. Bravery. Trust. Letting the light in. After a few months of darkness, I am ready for the light.