November 22, 2011 § 23 Comments
For weeks I have been trying to write just one single post. I have filled up WordPress windows, Word documents, and notebook pages and still have nothing to show for it. A few days ago I threw in the towel and focused on other things. Right now, in addition to working towards my 200 hour yoga teaching certification, I am taking Rolf Gates’ online “The Chakras as Life’s Roadmap,” which has opened my life up in ways I didn’t believe an online course could do.
Last week, we were talking about the heart chakra and since then, I have been aware of the ways I refuse to commit to both myself and my spiritual practice. I have integrity, but only until my breaking point. I love but only until it becomes too difficult. I give, but only to people I believe are deserving. I have committed to yoga, but only up to my edge and no further.
My response to this observation was to exercise more. Last week I ran more miles than I have in months. I went to the yoga studio four times, including to a hot power yoga class, which I swear would have turned Baron Baptiste himself into a whimpering puddle of sweat. On Saturday, when I was so sore I could barely walk, I realized that this body of mine, the one I have vilified for so long is truly my greatest teacher. Maybe that is why this chakra class is so powerful for me because the physical realm is the world in which I learn the most. Make me sprint for five kilometers and I will finally tell you what is bothering me. Tell me to hold Warrior II for two minutes and the bricks I am mortaring around my heart will start to crumble. Push me to my physical edge and I will start to understand my emotional edge as well.
On Sunday morning, my quads were still as shaky and unresponsive as they were the previous afternoon and I was seriously reconsidering the trail race I had signed up for that morning. A few months ago I signed up for the entire five-mile Backyard Burn Trail Running series because they are fun and I love running in the woods, but on Sunday, the prospect of dodging tree roots and sloshing through streams sounded about as pleasant as another power yoga class. “Just do it for fun,” Scott told me and I glared at him.
I ended up going, mostly because Scott told me to. I drove the thirty minutes out to Fountainhead Regional Park although I wasn’t sure why. I was too tired to push myself, to do my best, and I didn’t know any other way to approach a race. Why show up if I wasn’t going to show up fully? Why race if I didn’t want to win?
I started in the back of the pack this time, unlike the day in October when I sprained my ankle. When the air horn blew announcing the start of the race, I was surrounded by men in bandanas who looked like former football players and women who carried small bottles of Evian and asked if it was okay to walk part of the course. As we headed up the road towards the woods, we began to fall in line in preparation for the trail. As the road turned into a rocky, root-studded single track, we were running single file, in silence. I listened to the sound of our feet thudding against the ground, and a feeling came over me, so strongly that I wanted to lie down and rest my head against a bed of moss. Instead, I struggled for a word that would describe what this was, this endless line of bodies heading into the woods for no other reason than because they said they would.
No, I thought, pushing that word away. This snaking line of runners wearing breathable fabrics was nothing like the processions of my youth in St. Columba Church. This colorful parade moving toward the finish line was nothing like the solemn walk to the alter to receive a stale wafer. And yet, what were we doing if not moving toward something sacred? What was this if not an agreement to meet somewhere together and pray? I haven’t been to Mass in years, but a vague passage from the Gospel of Matthew popped into my head: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The race was put on my Ex2, a fabulous group of people, who had even come out the day before the race to blow the leaves from the single-track trail so we wouldn’t kill ourselves on the roots or the precipitously steep downhills that seemed to be made solely of rock and moss. As I ran and listened to our breathing and our footfalls, I noticed another, occasional sound of someone swishing through the leaves on the side of the trail.
Swish, swish, swish.
“On your left.”
“Go for it.”
What I began to notice was that the swishings were never isolated. Someone would pass someone and almost immediately after, someone else would enter the leaves. Then another. A runner about five people ahead of me passed someone and I felt the need to pass the person ahead of me.
Swish, swish, swish.
“Passing on the right.”
Instead of being competitive, it was lovely. Here, we were saying to each other, I’ll take over for a while. It was so small this sound, this decision to leave the trail and enter into something new, but it was powerful. It inspired people. As I ran, Big Little Wolf’s recent post popped into my head. Her post from the day before inspired me with her adament support of Ashley Quiñones, who, at 31 needs a new kidney in order to live for another decade. Medicaid – Ashley’s only insurer – will not fund the necessary surgery, which is estimated at $250,000.
“I think most people have good hearts,” Big Little Wolf said in an email to me, which I read just an hour before the race. “The world is just so damned overwhelming, we don’t know what to do, how to help. So – one at a time, right?”
One at a time we jump into the leaves. One at a time we run through the woods. One at a time, we cross the finish line.
Right before the finish line, as I came out of the woods, I saw Scott and the boys, sitting in the grass and I was so thrilled to see my tribe that I felt lit up inside. Oliver shyly clapped and Gus was smacking his hands together so hard I worried about his little palms. Scott took a photo of me (see above) and while I usually hate every picture taken of myself, I kept this one because I remember what that was like, to come out of the woods and see this overwhelming, overflowing, heartbreaking love.
Most times, right after the race I take off before the awards ceremony because I have better things to do than stand around and see if I won a pint glass. Scott has won so many in his mountain bike races that they keep falling out of our cabinets. On Sunday though, after Scott told me I won my age group, the boys wanted to stay and go up to the podium with me. Right after that, the race director announced that they were going to give away iPODs and two, hundred dollar bills. Scott, who knows I never win anything, got the boys ready for a mountain bike ride in the woods, and I think I surprised him my telling him I was staying for the giveaway. “I’m feeling lucky,” I told him. “And I never feel lucky.”
Ten minutes later, when my name was called out as the winner of a crisp, new, hundred-dollar bill, I was not surprised. “You’re so calm,” Jim, the race director told me. “You’re so quiet.”
Instead of telling Jim I knew I was going to win, I smiled and said thank you and took the money.
Big Little Wolf asked us to come up with a five-year plan in honor of Ashley but I don’t do five-year plans anymore. I used to live according to plans and training schedules and goals, but then I married someone in the Navy and started moving every eighteen months to two years. I learned to let go of plans. My five-year plan is for my family to still be alive and healthy and as happy as we are now. My five-year plan is to not to plan but to live in the moment.
So, instead of a plan, Ashley can have my $100 dollar bill. For why else did I win it, me, who has never even won a game of bingo?
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.
Swish, swish, swish. Passing on the right.
Please take a moment and visit Big Little Wolf to learn about the important work she is doing to help raise money for a life-saving kidney transplant for Ashley Quiñones, aka the Kidney Cutie, aka the sister of Kelly Miller of The Miller Mix.
September 15, 2011 § 23 Comments
In my world, I’m standing just inside the door.
In my world, I’m speaking, to the ocean’s roar.
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror.”
The beginning of September has flattened me. Literally. I am lying on the floor in pigeon pose and my yoga teacher, Gopi, is sitting on top of me, shouting at me in her British/Indian accent. “Thassit gurl. Get in thair.” She sticks her elbow into my butt and I see stars. It takes all I have inside me not to cry. That’s how everything has been lately; on top of me, all sharp elbows and painful edges.
I like to write blog posts when I have something figured out, at least to some degree. Right now, I have nothing figured out. Right now, I feel like I am wearing clothes that are both too big and too tight. It’s been weeks since I have written anything at all.
Gopi is talking about change, which is obvious now in the weather and the red tinge on the leaves that hang over our living room window. Yesterday it was ninety-one degrees. Now it is fifty-one. After I picked Oliver up from kindergarten at noon today, I took the boys to the park to ride their bikes in the warm sunshine. This afternoon, at home, we watched the front blow in, cold air on a freight train straight from Canada. I have one east coast winter under my belt after 17 in California, and frankly, I am anxious about doing it again. We had a week of 100 degree temperatures in May and three in June and July. August was hot too. Until now, winter has seemed so far away. I want it to stay away. And I want it to be here already so I can stop worrying about it.
“What in your life,” Gopi asks, ” Is the catalyst for a heart revolution?”
On Labor Day weekend, the week before school started, Scott and I flew back to northern California for a wedding. We saw friends in Marin, San Francisco and on the Sonoma coast. We had pizza in Berkeley with my friend Stephanie and I got to hold her gorgeous 7-week old baby. We drank too much red wine with Scott’s friends from college in a house overlooking the Pacific. We went to my friend Michelle’s wedding and spent the whole time with my friend Loren and her wife Audra. Stephanie and Loren and Michelle were my cross-country and track teammates in college. They know me so well, even now, and I miss them. I miss what it was like to be together every day. I miss that.
The trip back from California to DC was hard – it always is. Something happens to me when I fly eastward over the Mississippi River. I contract. I become the smallest version of myself packed into the tightest bundle. I protect myself from what is inevitably coming. I try to ward off what has already happened.
Last weekend, during my yoga teacher training, something shifted and we all started to get it. Instead of sitting there, feeling confused, I felt close. I felt connected. Rolf talked a bit about our contracted states of fear, aversion, and jealousy. He said that when we move beyond our contracted states, we will realize that we needed each of them in order to arrive at this new, expansive place.
Tonight, Gopi is hell-bent on opening our hips. We do some crazy thing with our legs behind our heads. I am close, but my leg gets stuck somewhere by my pony tail and I can’t get it under. We do some other terrifying move to open our hip flexors where only my left heel and the top of my right foot remain on the floor. Gopi makes us chant three Om’s while we hold that pose. “Whatever you ease into eases up,” she tells us. In that moment, I hate yoga.
For a long time now, I have felt as if I were on the precipice of something: transformation, change, growth. I don’t know. It’s nothing big, nothing earth shaking. Just something new. But I can’t quite get there. It gets stopped, somewhere in my head. I get stuck, just inside the door.
Oliver started school last Thursday, during the rains that didn’t stop. We stayed inside all week, and it felt like winter. Oliver doesn’t like transitions so much. Like me, he tries to protect himself from what has already happened. Since school started, it’s been one meltdown after another. It would be one thing if he walked in the door, threw down his blue race car backpack, and began to wail. Instead, it’s more diffuse. Yesterday, he flung himself on the ground because I reversed the bath/dinner schedule. The day before, he stomped out of the room because I got him a new toothbrush. “I won’t brush my teeth!” he yelled at Scott, “until I have a toothbrush with batteries in it.”
Tonight in class I think about what in my life might be a catalyst for a heart revolution. Maybe it’s my yoga teacher training. Or maybe it’s Oliver’s tantrums. Stay, I tell myself during the heart of them. Breathe. Sometimes I can. And sometimes I can’t.
Next, Gopi has us doing heart opening poses. Our arms are entwined behind our backs and we bow forward into the geometry of devotion. Please, I think as my heart moves towards the floor. Please.
Last Sunday, I set an intention to keep my heart open, to stay in the moment and hold space for Oliver’s transition. What happens is what always happens when I finally act like the grown up and do what I am supposed to do. Oliver stops yelling and starts crying. He asks for a hug with both arms. We bypass anger and move straight to the heart of his anxiety. What also happens is that I become exhausted from all that life being hurled straight at me. When I become a wellspring to my son, I become a drought to myself. I wonder if there is a way to bring the two together, to nourish both of us at the same time.
In our teacher training, Rolf told us to be the thing we loved. What would happen if I could remember the word devotion? What if I could become that?
Later in class, we do Hanumanasana or seated splits with one leg straight out in front. The pose is named after the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who devotes his life to the god Rama. When the demon king who presides over Sri Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, Hanuman and Rama travel from India to Sri Lanka to rescue her. During the battle there, Rama’s brother becomes wounded and to live, he requires an herb that only grows in the Himalayas.
Hanuman so loves Rama that he says he will accomplish this impossible task. With one foot still in Sri Lanka, he stretches himself all the way back to India. He can’t find the herb, so he lifts up the entire mountain and carries it back to Sri Lanka, where Rama’s brother is saved. Hanumanasana embodies Hanuman’s devotion, each leg in a different country, arms high in the air, carrying a mountain.
I can never get into this pose all the way. Mostly I just hover, uncomfortably, suspended a few inches off the ground, my hands on the floor.
On Labor Day, on the way home from the wedding, I bought Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home in the San Francisco airport. The book is about Caldwell’s experience of losing her best friend – Caroline Knapp, another of my favorite writers – to breast cancer at the age of 42. In the book, Caldwell writes, “I was in the corridor of something far larger than I, and I just had to stand it and stay where I was.”
Tonight, I go into Hanumanasana the way I always do: I squeeze my front thigh and flex my front foot. I walk the toes on the other leg back until they can’t go any further. Tonight I do this until I feel something under my front hamstring. It takes a split second until I realize that what is directly under my leg is the floor, which has miraculously risen up to meet me.
“Yes!” I think to myself. “Yes!” and then I am instantly humbled. I have been practicing yoga consistently since I was pregnant with Oliver. It has taken me more than six years to come into the shape of this pose.
At the park today, watching Oliver ride around like a crazy person on his bike, I found myself wondering how many weeks it would take until he feels more settled at school. Maybe next week. Maybe never.
I keep wondering when I am going to get there: back to California, my leg over my head, the end of winter, the end of tantrums, and of course what I really want, which is to become a more spiritual person. I thought if I did a lot of yoga, it would happen on its own. There is something to that of course, but it’s not that easy. It requires a bit more stretching than that. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get around these big corners. There’s a lot of hanging out, suspended over the ground, feet in two different countries. It might be that I never get there, that this is all there is, right now: waiting and staying and standing it.
June 5, 2011 § 18 Comments
A couple of months ago at breakfast, Oliver asked me for a Batman story. I almost spit out my coffee. “Batman?” I asked. “How do you know Batman?”
“Daddy told me a Batman story last night,” he said.
“Oh really,” I said. What I meant was, You go to a Waldorf school, kid. You probably don’t want to be talking to your teachers about that. Superheros, to me, were about violence and destruction and bringing down the enemy. It was a little too much like living in DC.
When I asked Scott about it later, he looked at me funny. “What’s wrong with Batman?” he asked. “He’s a cool guy. He fights crime and takes care of Gotham City.”
“What is Batman’s story anyway?” I asked.
“He’s just a normal guy,” said Scott, “Who puts on a suit to become Batman.”
“Well yeah,” I said, “But what’s the story behind that? Is he from another planet, or does he have bionic powers? Does he fly?”
“No,” Scott said patiently. “He’s just a man. With no powers. And he puts on a suit.”
“That’s it?” I asked. “Well, where’s the superhero part?”
Scott shrugged. “He’s Batman.”
That night, I listened to the next installment of the Batman story. During which Batman encounters the Joker robbing a jewelry store and proceeds to get on a super deluxe Bat Mountain Bike to catch the robber and restore order to Gotham City. Rather than remind me of DC Comics, Scott’s story reminded me of Joseph Campbell, of The Power of Myth and of Star Wars. The battle of dark and light and good and evil that I so often wrestle with.
Recently, I noticed – with a fair amount of horror – that sometimes, I try to change Oliver’s behavior not because it is wrong or inappropriate or hurting anyone, but because it reminds me too much of my own. I don’t know when I realized this. I think it might have been at dinner, when he got up in the middle of the meal to change his fork, “because the pasta made it a little dirty.” Or maybe, it was the other day when we were reading and Oliver was drumming his hands, his right and left ones making identical patterns on the table. I tried to distract him with a high five because I saw too clearly, my own anxious nature dancing through him. He’s afraid to learn to tie his shoes and put his face in the water and of taking the training wheels off his bike. Trying anything new with Oliver is like getting a wild animal to take seeds from your palm. You go very slowly. You prepare for the worst. You know at some point, he will run away and pull the blankets over his head.
In short, Oliver is very much like me.
That night, while Scott was telling the boys another Batman story, it became startling clear to me that I dislike my inner Bruce Wayne so much that I am unable to embrace anyone else’s, even my son’s. Especially my son’s. Please, I was really saying, when I went to stop Oliver’s drumming fingers. Don’t be like me. Here. Put on this cape. Be Batman. Be invincible so that nothing bad will ever happen to you.
But what superhero doesn’t have an alter ego? I was listening to an interview with Jack Kornfield – SuperMeditator – the other day in the car and he was talking about freedom. He said, “True liberation is the freedom to be who you are and not someone else. To hold yourself with compassion and say ‘This too, this too.’ It doesn’t mean you don’t have your stuff. But it’s about letting all that in along with the good.”
Last week in my yoga teacher training I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to teach yoga. Instead, I wanted to be like a yoga teacher, especially my teacher Jessica, in California. She is tiny and beautiful. She wears gauzy sweaters and knows the stories behind all of the Hindu gods and goddesses. She reads poetry before class and then kicks our butts until we are wrung out.
It’s possible that I might have thought that I would sign up for my own teacher training, put on a gauzy sweater, and become Jessica Anderson. It’s possible, that I have been having a difficult time with this teacher training because that hasn’t happened yet. It’s possible that I believe that transformation means that I will become someone else, someone brighter and shinier and Better with a capital B.
After one of the sessions last week, I walked out with one of Rolf’s assistants, who owns a yoga studio in Georgetown and is herself an amazing yoga teacher. I confessed that I was having a challenging time trying to integrate what we learned into a yoga class. Patty narrowed her eyes at me. “Remember,” she said, ” All you have to do is read the script. That’s all we asked you to do.” I sighed. I was trying to do more than that. I was trying to use everything we learned and add it to something that was already perfect. Patty jabbed her finger into my sternum.”Your problem is that you aren’t OK with where you are,” she said. “And you need to be. Because that’s where you are.”
I walked away feeling simultaneously horrified and relieved. Horrified that I was still Clark Kent. Relieved that I didn’t have to be Superman. Patty is tough. She isn’t warm and fuzzy and she doesn’t wear gauzy sweaters. But after I talked to her, I realized that what she gave me was a big dose of compassion. Just be who you are, she was telling me, not someone else.
Compassion. That’s the real magic cape. The secret ingredient. The happy ending. The Margot Kidder of all emotions. The way Lois Lane always looked at Clark Kent, as if there was something familiar behind those glasses.
The hell of the Superman story (at least in the ancient movie I remember) is that Clark Kent never does remove his glasses and allow Lois Lane to see him. Instead, he puts on a cape. But perhaps, true transformation it is less about putting on a magic suit (or a gauzy sweater) and more about removing the layers. It’s about being okay with being not quite okay. It is a nod to all of the mess. This too. Yes. This too.
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.
December 29, 2010 § 4 Comments
We are staying at Scott’s parents for almost two weeks this holiday. They live in Oregon, up in the mountains. It’s such a welcome break from DC. There are wide, snow-covered fields where cattle and horses nonchalantly snuff at the ground, the air is dry and still, and some days, all I can hear is the wind in the pine trees and the snow as it falls from the branches. I have been running almost every day even though at almost 5000 feet, I am out of breath almost as soon as I start.
In some ways the trip has been stressful for me. I am much like my oldest son. I love routines and out of my own cozy nest, I feel a bit not myself. I realize how tied I am to place, how quick I am to put down roots, to fill my refrigerator with familiar food and hang pictures on the walls, to get to know the running routes. And yet, being away has been good too. If it has gotten me out of my comfort zone, it has also gotten me out of my own head and out of my own way.
The other day, a bird – a dove – was trapped behind the chicken wire that was protecting a young tree from deer in my father-in-law’s yard. My husband went out to rescue it, but none of us thought the bird would come to him. Three minutes later, he walked into the house with a dove in his hands. Oh jeez, I thought, as 23-m0nth old Gus rushed to Scott and the bird. “Dat a bird daddy?” Gus asked leaping up to see what Scott was holding. “Dat a bird?” That bird is going to have a heart attack, I thought. My husband is going to get his hand pecked off. “Don’t let that bird go in the house,” my father-in-law said, “Or we’re really going to be in trouble.”
To my surprise, my husband bent down and let Gus pet the bird. Five-year old Oliver lifted his head briefly and went back to his Legos. But Gus was mesmerized. He stroked the bird’s feathers and his eyes were wide with wonder. “Want to hold the bird daddy,” Gus said.
“We have to let him go Gus. He has to go home,” Scott told him.
I watched the bird who was so calm in my husband’s hands. I would have been freaking out if I was the dove, but there he was, the very symbol of peace, a spot of irridescent purple under his eye.
“Want to hold the bird daddy,” Gus kept saying and skipped next to my husband even as he walked out onto the snow-covered deck into the cold morning air. Gus doesn’t like the cold, but there he was, waiting for my husband to place the bird in his hands. Although a lot of things happened this Christmas, the memory of that morning is tops for me. Gus stood with his feet wide apart in his red footie pajamas, his eyes on the sky and the bird clutched close to his chest as if it had been just been within his own heart, inside his own cage of bone rather than trapped behind a fence of wire. And then, without warning, Gus opened his hands and stepped back as the dove beat its wings, scrambling for purchase on Gus’ fingers and creating momentum. There was a moment of furious wing beats and then silence. The bird took flight and we all watched it go.
Gus danced into the house, his own arms outflung like the dove’s. “I held the bird? I let it go? Bird go home! Bird fly!” He danced into the living room spinning. He saw a calendar hanging on a wall with a photo of a bald eagle. “Like that bird,” he said, pointing to the photo. “My bird fly like that bird.”
This metaphor was not lost on me, how tightly I hold onto my boys and how I need to let them go. Oliver is now five and craving independence. For the first time, he is in a school that does not welcome parents in the classroom. I feel powerless most days, not knowing what is happening for the three hours when he is out of my care. When I ask about school: about the golden walnuts or the crown of yarn or the games he plays, he tells me that it’s a secret. For a while I wanted to take him out of school. It seemed too unstructured, too rough sometimes. My son needed to feel safe. He needed to be with me for just one more year.But while I was struggling with what to do and with making a decision, Oliver figured things out for himself. He made friends. He made bread and was proud to help knead it. He learned to fold the pillowcases and later to stuff them with pillows for rest time. He told me that he liked his school. While I struggled and worried, Oliver got on with the business of living his own life.
Lately, I have been reading some great posts about parenting from Bruce at Privilege of Parenting and Kristen at Motherese. They both talk about true attachment parenting and about how “attachment” does not mean “clinging.” Bruce wrote a wonderful peace about how we must know our children and keep our own issues separate from theirs, how we need to raise them as they ask to be raised by teaching them what they need to know and by honoring their unique gifts. Kristen wrote about several books that are out now. One spoke about our common fantasy of creating perfect environments for our children. How our generation of mothers share a belief that if we eliminate impurities from our kids’ diets and close their eyes and ears off to violence and buy just the right toys, our children will be perfect. And we in turn will look like perfect parents.
That rang so true to me. I have read dozens of parenting books. I have the entire Dr. Sears library on my bookshelves. I want to create a bubble for my boys and prevent anyone hurtful from entering. I don’t want them to hear a mean word or be on the receiving end of a cruel act. This in itself is not bad of course. Of course it makes sense to keep media to a minimum and to shield children from as much evil as we can. But it’s a short distance from doing our best to trying to control our children. It’s a fine line between keeping our children safe while they are in the nest, to hindering their flight. It’s a very slippery slope from trying to be a good parent to trying to look like a good parent. I am a good candidate for a helicopter parent. I love to hover. I believe that if I worry about something enough, it won’t happen. I subscribe to a cheap religion of bargaining instead of praying, of tithing anxiety in exchange for best outcomes.
This of course does not lead to happy children or secure children or peaceful children. This dove today taught me that. Gus taught me that. He showed me that I need to hold my little birds close when they need me, to snuggle their softness and revel in the way their hearts beat like crazy to get out. But I need to let go too. I need to let them fly, in small doses now, but in increasingly longer intervals. After all, that is my job. I am only here to prepare them for their own journey home, for their own precarious flights.