April 23, 2013 § 12 Comments
When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. – Anna Quindlen
About a week ago, I wrote a post that I never should have written. I knew it about an hour after I hit “Publish,” even before the comments began to come in. Write what you know is the golden rule. And I wrote about what I didn’t know, which is what it’s like to be a girl today.
So now I am attempting to write what I should have written then, which is what it’s like to be the mother of boys in a society that still gives women the short end of the stick. Not that I know what I’m doing of course in raising these boys, but I am familiar with the struggle, with the getting it wrong.
The other day at the park, Oliver and Gus were on the swings and we were having an abstract conversation about helping people. “Especially if they are girls,” Oliver said, pumping his legs, and soaring higher.
“What?” I asked, taken aback. “Why if they are girls?”
“Well, remember Mommy?” Oliver said on a downswing, “You told us we should hold doors open for girls?”
Shit, I thought, because I remembered completely our conversation on chivalry. I remembered telling them that they should hold doors open for everyone but always for girls and women. And now? Did I need to retract or amend that in some way? “It’s a good idea,” I said, “To help anyone who needs it.”
“Right,” said Oliver, leaning back as if his feet were going to touch the sky, “But especially girls.”
I loved Anna Quindlen’s book “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” because she was so honest about how hard it was to raise boys to be feminists. In an interview with Terry Gross, Quindlen said: When you’re saying to your boys, ‘OK, there’s a certain kind of privilege that comes along with being a white man and you should not take that’ — that’s a kind of craziness. That’s asking them to be different from people — certainly different from the macho men who they might see on TV or hear around them. I just felt like the payoff ultimately was going to be so great.
What I wish she wrote more about was how she managed to accomplish this.
Lately, Gus has been obsessed with the fact that girls don’t have penises. “Mommy?” he asked while eating his breakfast the other day, “Do you really not have a penis?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Does Naomi have a penis?” he asked referring to our 4-year old neighbor.
“Does Leah?” he asked about the little girl down the street.
“No,” I said, “Only boys.”
He was silent as he pondered this, and I told Gus what the amazing Carol Castanon said to the children at Oak Grove School, when Oliver went there: “You’re thinking about what it’s like to be a girl and what it’s like to be a boy.”
“No,” said Gus, “I’m just wondering how the pee gets out.”
Later, we took 4-year old Naomi to story hour with us, and in the car, Gus was telling her about how he could get across the monkey bars with his hands, which I know for a fact he can only do if I hold him up the entire way. It was hard not to laugh but I love how much confidence Gus has, how he still believes he has magical powers.
“Four-year olds can do a lot,” I told them, but they were intent on coloring in the back seat and ignored me.
“I accidentally made it across the monkey bars once,” Naomi told Gus, and I gripped the steering wheel as the word “accidentally” twisted in my gut. “I’m not allowed to use markers when I have my dress on,” she continued, and in the rear view mirror I watched as she smoothed her purple tulle skirt.
“They’re washable markers,” I told her, but still, she gave the marker back to Gus in his camouflage pants, and I thought back to a few weeks earlier when an old friend informed me that I was the first Cornell female to win a race at Penn Relays. “Oh, that,” I told him, rolling my eyes. “Well that was a fluke anyway.”
There is something in the way girls are treated today that makes me feel culpable, probably because I am. There is something in the way that I defer, or deflect, or – despite my denying it – place my worth in the way I look or how clean the house is that is likely rubbing off on the current generation. Because how can it not?
Today I thought of Gus and Naomi while listening to NPR, to an interview with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women Are the Solution. She was talking about listening to former Avon CEO, Andrea Jung, speak at a conference about all that she had given up in order to become CEO. “No male leader does that,” said Hewlett. “I feel that many of us are still mired in the expectations of the 1950s.”
Something shifted in me when I became a mother, and I am still trying to right myself. For decades I was stalwartly feminist. I was never going to be the one to stay home, wash the dishes, or change the diapers. And then my son was born and I couldn’t imagine leaving him with anyone else. To be honest, this has more to do with my controlling nature than my maternal instincts, but still, in saying Yes to this, I said No to what I thought I had wanted for years. I said No to an income and a business card and to being a female in an executive role.
Many military wives wear their role with pride. They wear sweatshirts emblazoned with “Marine Wife” or bumper stickers or window decals that say “I Heart My Soldier,” and I’m not really in that camp either. “I don’t really mind being a name or a number,” my friend and fellow Navy wife, Mae, said to me a few years ago, “But I do mind being my husband’s name and number.”
In some ways I have one foot in two different worlds and below me, watching my every move, are my two boys. “Hold the door,” I tell Oliver and Gus, and then in the next breath, I am telling them that women are just as strong as men. It’s no wonder they are confused, because most of the time, i am too.
Once, when we were living in Coronado, I went for a run with Oliver, who sat in the jogger with his books and his blanket, his eleven Matchbox cars and a bagel. We lived very close to the SEAL base where my husband worked and sometimes, I saw Scott and his battalion doing their PT run while we were out. Scott is a Seabee – an engineer – and he and his group were always friendly if we met on the road. On that morning, it was foggy, and I saw a group of soldiers ahead of us in their standard PT gear, so I picked up my pace to catch up. “Let’s see if that’s Daddy,” I told Oliver, and in a few minutes I was gaining on them.
As I got closer though, I saw the letters EOD on their backs, which stands for “Explosive Ordinance Disposal.” These are the people who diffuse bombs and they tend to be rather hard core. I wasn’t quite sure what to do at that point. I was by the golf course, on a wide road with few cross streets, and my only choice was to slow down or pass them. There were only about ten of them, running in a line behind a heavily muscled young man, and I moved way over to the center of the road to pass. “Good morning,” I said and waved and the guy in front did a double-take when he saw us. Then he jumped off the road and onto the golf course. “Drop down,” he yelled at the guys behind him. “Drop down and give me fifty, you pussies.”
I ran the rest of the way home feeling terrified that I had done something wrong, that I had gotten someone into trouble, and also a bit relieved that I was still, in some manner, capable in the ways I used to be. If I’m honest, this is also how I feel much of the time: mostly terrified and sometimes capable.
And this is what I would like most to change because it’s the terrified bit that gets passed on like a secret, that becomes the karma of the next generation of girls and boys. It’s the fear of not being enough that becomes inherited, and it’s the trait that I most want to be recessive, to become extinct. My good friend Sarah keeps reminding me lately that I don’t have to be so black and white, that we live in the grey area most of the time, and I am trying to remember this, that it’s not about being a CEO or a housewife, strong or weak, terrified or capable. Perhaps it’s just about being a human being doing the best that we can. Maybe what I need to impart to my own sons is that women and men aren’t really that different after all.
Except for the penises of course.
July 31, 2012 § 18 Comments
I can’t read Jena Strong’s beautiful memoir in poetry, Don’t Miss This, without thinking of Jena herself, whom I had the pleasure to meet last December. Last year, after I read on her blog that she was in Washington, DC, I emailed her, and the next thing I knew, I was pulling up in front of her hotel and she was folding her tiny body into my car. We ran along the Potomac and later, went out for breakfast. And somehow, after that brief morning visit, I felt as if I had known Jena for years.
While we were running, I rather obnoxiously asked about, what she calls in Don’t Miss This, “the shattering realization” that she was gay. “How did you know?” I wondered, wanting to know less about the specifics and more about how someone can so courageously make such a leap of faith. Jena graciously answered my questions and for the next six miles, we discussed what living authentically means, how much courage that takes, and how confusing it can be, how difficult it is to determine if we are doing it right.
In her memoir, Jena describes the “undiscovered rooms, the Chinese boxes I kept trying to get to the bottom of …There were the velvet boxes holding round golden promises, the dented cardboard boxes containing journals, crushed repositories of my existence.”
Reading Don’t Miss This is almost like sitting beside Jena herself. Her words on the page contain her warmth, her grace, her fearlessness. Her writing is mesmerizing and sharp, taut and fluid. In structure, the memoir in poems is divided into three parts: She Who Stays, Landmine, and What I’ll Miss.
For me, She Who Stays, was the most searing section of the book. She writes about what happens before the earthquake of her coming out, those days of so much suffering, of keeping so much inside. One poem in particular, “How the Light Gets In,” made me shiver in recognition:
Later, after the dishes and the laundry,
the diapers and the dishes again,
I felt the tightening in my chest,
martyrdom rising in me like an unstoppable wave
when the family breakfast ended
in spills and tears and anger
as I sat feeling powerless
to the shadow side of their closeness.
Jena writes of the harrowing task of telling the truth, of becoming who we are supposed to be, about who we have been all along, those parts of ourselves that we try to squirrel away and hide. In the second part of her book, Landmine, Jena writes with the stark discipline of a warrior, when, as she beautifully pens in “No Retreat”:
There is nothing left to do.
Only to look back
at the path of jewels you’ve walked
to arrive here at this place of no retreat.
In “When It Happens,” she writes about what no retreat looks like:
having learned to be calm
having learned to be patient
to stay still in a storm
that swept our houses clean.
Reading Jena’s poetry, it is impossible not to harken back to your own dear life, to call to yourself the times that you stayed when you should have fled, when you ran when you should have stayed, when you failed to listen to the small, insistent voice inside yourself that always tells the truth. And reading her poetry is to become at peace with that precious voice, to hear it ringing clearly in whatever tone and note is true for you. In “Night Poets,” you can’t help but be called to:
step out at 2:30am,
the moths banging against
the bare fluorescent bulb,
do as she taught and listen hard –
Jena’s final section of the book, What I’ll Miss, is a unromanticized narrative of what is gained when you tell the truth, and also, what is lost. In “Falling Seasons”:
Tonight is all flickering flame
and a prayer to the waning moon
high above my children’s beds,
a head bowed in gratitude
for the strong medicine
I received today,
all four directions
answering the quiet call
for a longing I couldn’t name.
This section, more than the other three, contains a hush, a silence, a heart that is at peace. This final part of the book is about the quiet after the explosion, the calm after the storm. It is a paen not to banging down doors and breaking into a new life but to moving through fear “An animal on all fours, quietly and with measured steps.”
More than anything, Jena’s poems open up the bottles full of emotions we have corked tightly, hidden in the back of the closet, buried in the recycling bin of a bright supermarket at midnight. She gives voice to everything that doesn’t quite fit, that refuses to be named in the light of day. And yet, Jena’s memoir is also full of unbridled joy and the victory that comes from staying present, even when that present moment aches.
Your shame, all those moments
when you wanted to hide,
to disappear, to retract and retreat –
these are your gifts.
Look inside. Don’t run.
To win a copy of Jena Strong’s book, leave a comment below and I will pick a winner at random on Thursday, August 2. You can read Katrina Kenison’s review of Jena’s book here and Lindsey Mead Russell’s review here.
February 15, 2012 § 23 Comments
The student asks the master: “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?” The master replies “Chop wood, carry water.” “And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student. “Chop wood, carry water,” replies the master.
The summer after my sophomore year in college, I received a marine biology internship at the University of North Carolina Marine Lab in Morehead City, North Carolina. I remember boarding the plane in Ithaca, desperate to leave it behind as quickly as I could. That April, I qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5000 meter run and then the next month, I came in last place in the NCAA championships in Austin, Texas. Of course this was only a single race, and in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal, but at the time, it felt like Disaster. Until that point, I thought I could be a runner for the rest of my life, or at least until I turned 30. But stumbling off that burning hot Texas track in May, a wet sponge in my hand, I knew then that I wasn’t among the greats. Even now, it is still one of my biggest memories of failure.
My internship that summer offered me an escape. For two months, I would be working with a team of scientists along North Carolina’s barrier islands, researching endangered sea scallop populations. We would be sailing around the same islands that sank Blackbeard’s ship, which seemed fitting. The head of the lab was a grand professor who only visited once a month, and my boss was a cranky lab tech named Hal, who was afraid of the water. Most days, I hopped on the boat with a grad student named Hunter, who had just returned from studying penguins in Antarctica and another named Thea, from Greece, who was as beautiful as her name. We rode around in a motor boat the university purchased at auction, that used to belong to drug runners. Every couple of weeks Hunter would toss our research logs and sunscreen from the console and reach his big hand in there, feeling around for a secret panel. “Don’t you think they would have hidden a stash of something in here?” he would ask about the drug runners. “Wouldn’t it be great if we found something they left behind?”
Before I left Ithaca, I had started dating a sweet engineering student who was on the cross-country ski team, and who is now the godfather of my youngest son. He made me a mix tape before I left and all summer long he sent me 5-page letters and brown cardboard boxes full of banana muffins he baked from scratch. Instead of answering his letters, I spent many of those summer nights on the back of a motorcycle with a boy named Wilson, a grad student at the Duke Marine Lab. One rainy night, Wilson showed up at the door of the horrible house I shared with the other interns with a helmet in his hands. “This is for you,” he said in his southern accent and as we rode away, he yelled back to me that it was really easy to crash a bike in the rain. I thought he was the most dangerous boy I had ever met.
If I believed I had failed on that Texas track, then my summer in North Carolina was research into the other side of failure, into what happens when you no longer care about the consequences. I drank beer on the front lawn with my other underage roommates late at night, Jimmy Buffet blaring on someone’s boom box. Karen, one of the roommates, came out of the closet that summer, and every time I washed my dishes, she tried to give me a massage. I went running late in the evening and the marines from Camp Lejeune drove by in their pickup trucks and sometimes threw bottles at me, their Semper Fi bumper stickers bright in the glow of their tail lights. I hated those marines with their short hair cuts and their tattoos. By the time August rolled around I hated the fleas and the roaches too. I was sick of the heat and a bit tired of Wilson and his Yamaha. I wanted to go back to Ithaca and be myself again. I was homesick for my roommates on Catherine Street and for my old life. Before I boarded the airplane bound for Ithaca, I kissed Wilson goodbye, grateful that it would be the last time, confident that I would never see North Carolina again, that it was a random chapter, a couple of months of bad decisions, a fluke, just like that day on the track.
Late this October, I removed the mosquito netting from the sand box, thinking that even in DC, mosquitoes didn’t hang around this long, but I was wrong. Even though the sun had already set, I saw three mosquitoes land on Gus’ cheek by the glow of the citronella candles. As I was swatting away, Scott came home from work and ran out to meet us. “Well,” he said breathlessly as the boys drove their trucks in the sand, “I know where we are moving to next.”
I held my own breath for a second. “Where?” I asked, hoping he would tell me that we were heading back to California.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he said. “North Carolina. I got the CO job. I’ll be in charge of the construction project on Camp Lejeune.”
A week ago we all went to Florida for a 5-day vacation. We spent a day at a nature center in Polk county, a day in Legoland, and 3 days with my parents in their rented condo on the ocean. The Spanish moss hanging from the trees made me feel as though the entire state was haunted. It made me think of ghosts. Moving every two years is a bit like being a ghost. You stay on the outside for a long time, watching what goes on in this new place. You hover at the edge of playgrounds and school yards, standing alone while old friends gather in tiny, intimate circles. You circle neighborhoods, trying to remember which street you live on now, you take exit ramps often, because you have gone too far. Three times now, we have moved back to places I used to live as if I am haunted by my own Ghost of Lifetimes Past.
This spring or summer we will do that again. I will once again return to North Carolina, to the scene of that crazy summer, Blackbeard’s wreck, those hot, hot barrier islands. Sometimes I wonder if that summer really happened, and then I look down at my left thumb, where a scar remains from where a blue crab got me, and I am reminded that it was real.
This winter, I have been crossing paths with a red fox. The first time, I was taking a walk at night, and something raced by me so fast I thought it was a ghost. I didn’t see it as much as I felt it. I heard the rush of it as it ran by me. I saw it again the other morning as we were going to school. It trotted across the street in front of our car, its red tail floating behind like a banner. I told Bruce at Privilege of Parenting about it as he is the ultimate resource for all things mythical and magical.
“It does seem the clever Trickster has arrived,” he wrote to me in an email, “And I imagine he has much to teach us.”
One noticeable thing about doing yoga is that I have begun to realize that most of my 30-some years before doing yoga were spent in a state of abject panic. What yoga has given me is a new voice, one that says, It’s going to be OK, and Take a deep breath, and Soften. Last week, I was on the phone with the head of Early Childhood Education of one of the schools in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Camp Lejeuene is three hours from the nearest Waldorf school, an hour away from a Quaker Friends school, 168 miles away from a Trader Joe’s and over 50 miles from a yoga studio. Trying to find a school for Oliver, who has only known Waldorf education is proving to be a daunting task.
The woman on the phone was lovely, and despite the fact that there are over 700 children in her elementary school, despite there being only one twenty minute recess each day and that the school lunches begin at 10 AM in order to accommodate all of the children, I liked her. And then she said, “Don’t be intimidated by all the tattoo parlors and used car dealerships you see as you drive through Jacksonville. It’s really a nice town once you get used to it.”
The yoga voice tells me to take a deep breath, that it’s all going to be OK. But still, that old voice pipes up. “Tattoo parlors?” It asks. “Used car dealerships? Are you out of your mind?”
I wonder now if knowledge of this move was the source for some of the anxiety I experienced this autumn. For twenty years I have blocked out that summer in 1992, and now pieces of it come back, as if it were something I dreamt. I remember Amanda, the intern who answered every question with “Boy Howdy.” I remember that Wilson and I sat on the edge of a dock in Beaufort while he told me about his traumatic childhood. I remember how sick the heat made me and way the air smelled on the beach while the pelicans flew in formation along the sunset.
One day this November, I needed to run so badly that I called a sitter to come for an hour. When she arrived, I pelted down our block and onto Russell Road, Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto blasting in my ears. I ran as fast as I could until my lungs started to hurt and my legs began to ache and still I kept going until I hit King Street in Old Towne Alexandria where I leaned against a telephone pole.
As I turned back home, still thinking about North Carolina, a new voice appeared out of nowhere. Even over the music, it clearly said: “Your work will be there, waiting for you.”
Work? I thought. What work?
I thought of the work I do now, that of wiping noses and folding tee shirts with trucks on them, cutting peanut butter sandwiches in half. Reading Magic Treehouse Mystery books and feeling little boys curl into me with their signature scent of sweat and dirt and Johnson’s shampoo.
As my feet moved more slowly, towards home, I realized that this work might be enough, even in this strange new town, in this desolate outpost with its tattoo parlors and Piggly Wigglys. In the absence of organic tomatoes and coconut water and Lululemon reatail stores, there will still be this work of caring and cleaning and comforting. When we move, I will assuredly be a ghost again. I will get lost going to the grocery store and I will hover on the outside of conversations. I will take Oliver for a tour of his new school while he stays glued to my side and tells me that he doesn’t like this school, that he won’t go and I can’t make him. Afterwards we will find a place that sells ice cream cones and the next day, I will fold laundry and wipe counters. I will perform what seems like mundane tasks, but which are really my sustenance, my necessary work. Maybe this is what comforts me now, this notion that no matter where I go, there will be wood to chop and water to carry. That really, this is what we all do, every day, whether we want to or not, each of us stumbling towards enlightenment.
October 20, 2011 § 17 Comments
Sunday morning, I left the house before eight and drove south to Prince William County to do a trail race. I really love these races because they seem more like a party in the woods than a hard-core race. Usually, about 100 or so people show up at some Virginia state park in compression tights or old school cotton socks, in Lululemon running skirts, or in my case, frayed Adidas shorts I bought in 1999.
On Sunday, I positioned myself towards the front of the pack, which I typically don’t do. By the second mile, I was running with another girl and a few men and I was having the best time. It was a spectacular morning with a bright blue sky that hasn’t been visible much this autumn. The ground was covered with gold leaves but the trees were still green and bright. I passed the girl next to me and then she passed me back. The race was everything I loved about running: there was hard work and exertion and a sense of pure joy that everyone who came together in the woods created. It was so much fun that I thought about slowing down a bit, just so I could enjoy it even more.
And then I fell.
My ankle, which I have sprained a zillion times before, turned sideways, and with an oomph of breath, I was flat on my face. The people I was running with stopped and waited while I got back up, but I shook my head. I hobbled a few steps, but I knew I wasn’t finishing the race.
As I walked back the way I came, I felt like crying, as if I were ten years old again and had just been booted out of the game. People streamed by me as I walked the wrong way on the course, and I felt as isolated and alone as I ever have. I kept telling myself that I was fine, that everything was fine, but it’s a funny thing to be alone in the woods. I kept losing my way and it was cold. As I headed up the final hill, my left hand was throbbing in addition to my right foot, and when I looked down, I saw that a piece of skin was missing from my palm. Blood was trickling to each of my fingers, making my hand look like a macabre Halloween decoration.
When I finally made it back to the start, I picked up my sweats and headed to the first aid tent. As usual, there was the requisite cheesy guy waiting for his free massage. “Oh wow,” the trainer – a local chiropractor – said when she saw me. “You really bashed up your knee.” I looked down at my leg. I hadn’t even noticed my knee.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I was just looking for some ice?”
“Did you turn an ankle?” the trainer asked and I nodded.”Just sign in and I’ll be right with you,” she said and handed me a clipboard. I wasn’t really interested in getting worked on next to the guy with the too-tight shorts. My plan was to get a bag of ice and hit the road, but the trainer grabbed my bloody hand. “Oh my God,” she said, holding my fingers, “What are you, a marine?” This made me laugh as I am as far from a marine as you can get. My idea of camping is staying in a Holiday Inn Express.
“Here,” she said, shoving me down on her table. “Lay down.” She sprayed my hand with an econo-size bottle of Wound Wash and laid a soft piece of gauze in my palm. She held my foot in her hands and told me I sprained the anterior tendon in my foot. “And you jammed your bone too,” she said. “I’m going to adjust your foot.”
By this time, I was too tired to argue. I lay back on the table and let the trainer do her thing. I was trying to figure out where I went wrong, why I fell. I think I may have a belief that if I follow all the rules and do everything right, bad things won’t happen. And if something doesn’t go as planned, it must be something I did, something that I can prevent from happening the next time.
On Monday, the day after the race, the boys and I drove to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where my parents live, for my mother’s birthday. About a month ago, during that endless rain, the town had a horrible flood. The Susquehanna river rose over its banks and across the road, uphill into the town. Water covered pickup trucks to to their roofs, the farm buildings on the fairground were almost completely submerged, and some people had to leave their homes in rafts. A friend of mine told me that one morning, she watched group after group of evacuated people walking through town, wearing their pajamas. FEMA was called in as was the National Guard. I was so grateful that my parents live on top of a big hill, that despite losing power and water for a week, they were very lucky. Some of the worst damage, however, happened almost a mile from the river, when Fishing Creek overflowed its banks and washed several houses right off their foundations.
My mother called me during the flood and told me about some of her friends, whose homes filled up with water. My mom’s friend B’s lovely home had eighteen inches of mud on the first floor and some of her other friends had several feet of water in their basements. My mom also told me stories about all of the people who helped. An eleven-year-old boy was able to collect enough cleaning supplies and canned goods to fill a pick-up truck. The local university wrestling team went door to door, asking people if they needed help carrying their ruined appliances to the curb. My mom said that they came to another friend’s house and carried out his washing machine, his dryer, and his useless freezer. “I wanted to pay them,” my mom’s friend told her, but they wouldn’t let him. “Just come and watch our matches,” they said.
In my parents’ pristine basement, there are two wooden pallets covered with a sheet. “Those are B’s dishes,” my mom told me. My mother had taken them all home from her friend’s mud-filled home and washed them by hand. Next to the clean pots and white plates were a small stack of Pyrex pie plates. “I haven’t gotten to those yet,” my mother told me. “Just look at the mud.” I picked up a pie plate, coated in dried red clay. I scraped at it with my fingernail but the mud didn’t budge. Next to the dirty dishes was a soup pot filled with Log Cabin syrup, A1 steak sauce, rice vinegar, and cooking sherry. “She saved these too,” my mother told me, but I wasn’t going to judge. This is what happens when we fall: we clutch at what we can. B took maple syrup and I grabbed onto a rock.
Standing there in the cold cellar, I felt the damage of that flood in a way that couldn’t be conveyed over the phone. That red dust. The half-empty bottles of ketchup that were saved. And I also saw into the heart of my own mother. I saw that she was the kind of person who wouldn’t say to her friend: Oh honey, just buy another set of Calphalon for god’s sakes. Instead, she stood in front of her own sink and tenderly scrubbed mud from dessert plates and soup bowls because she knew that these weren’t just a collection of dishes but a collection of memories. They weren’t coffee mugs and saute pans as much as they were Thanksgiving dinners and birthday parties and rainy Tuesday evenings.
It’s true that by living in this world, you will learn what loss is. You can work your entire life to pay for a roof over your head and watch your home be washed away by the tiny creek across the street. To be true to yourself, you may have to walk alone. You will spend days feeling cold and lost and injured. But it is also true, that by living in this world, you will learn kindness. Someone may hold your bruised foot in her hands and guide the bones back into place. When you are too weak to lift another thing, a wrestling team may show up at your door. A stranger will wash your wounds and a friend will wash your dishes.
About 10 years ago, my friend Cathy, who first taught me how to meditate, conned me into going on a 3 day meditation retreat with her at the Zen Mountain Center. It was only when we arrived that she explained that the retreat would be done in silence. After the first too-quiet meal of vegetarian chile and cornbread, I stood awkwardly in line, waiting to wash my dishes. When it was my turn, a man in front of me, whose name I would later learn was Tomas, took my bowl and plate from me. I tried to take them back, but he held them close to his chest and shook his head. What I wanted to say was, “Please don’t. Please let me clean up my own mess,” but that was against the rules.
On the final day of the retreat, we all sat in a circle and were allowed to share something we had been wanting to say during the retreat. When it was my turn, I said, “I want to thank Tomas for washing my dishes.” Tomas put his hand over his heart and bowed his head towards me. “Thank you,” he said, “For letting me.”
September 29, 2011 § 18 Comments
Scott and I did a duathalon two weeks ago, which is kind of hilarious if you knew how out of shape I am. It’s even more hilarious because it was my idea to begin with. I thought it would be fun. I thought that somehow, doing an off-road-trail-race-mountain-bike-ride-relay would make us into a certain kind of family, much like the beautiful ones I flip through in the Prana and Patagonia catalogs.
What really happened is that the night before the race, I tried to convince Scott to do the whole 6 mile trail run and 8 mile mountain bike ride by himself. He said no. I tried to convince him to ask a buddy of his to do the run instead of me. Scott laughed. “Come on,” he said. “It will be fun.”
It wasn’t that much fun, to be honest. On the way to the race, I felt myself regress back to who I used to be when I could run sixteen minute 5Ks. On the way to the race, while the boys shouted out the names of trucks on the highway, I started to get tunnel vision. It became difficult to concentrate on what everyone was saying. It was as if I was in some invisible time machine and all I wanted to do was to pull up the hood of my Champion sweatshirt and blast U2 on my Walkman. You are being ridiculous, I kept saying to myself as I fought to keep my tone light and pulled out snacks for the boys. Even though I am the poster child for “weekend warrior,” my brain still thought I was gunning for the Olympic Trials.
It was a pretty low-key race to say the least. And still. There I was, walking up to the Virginia State Park public restroom with Oliver, thinking I should be doing some striders or drills or something to get my heart rate up. By the time the race actually started and I chugged up the little road that led to the trail, I was exhausted. All that useless adreneline had pumped blood away from my hands and feet which were now numb and cold, and I could barely breathe. I spent the first leg of our relay beating myself up for being such a freakazoid about this silly little fun run. As I finished the 2.5 miles and ran into the transition zone, I watched other couples hand off. A team of guys yelled “goGoGO,” at each other and a cute young couple kissed. I kept running until I reached Scott and the boys. “I’m sorry,” I said, gasping for air.
As Scott did his 8 mile ride, I watched the boys ride their own bikes on some little trails. Oliver rode fast and bounced over rocks and Gus imitated his every move, even though he’s on a little Skuut with no pedals. I was mesmerized by them because they were so mesmerized by riding in the woods. Watching them reminded me of a quote from one of my beloved George Sheehan books: “First and foremost: Be a good animal.”
I forget how I acquired my first George Sheehan book, but it must have been from my parents who took up running in the late 70’s. Sheehan was a cardiologist who ran at lunch time and in weekend races, but mostly, he was a thinker. His books were kind of like a guidebook into the soul of running and had so much to do with why I loved the sport.
Be a good animal.
When it was time, the boys (begrudgingly) got off their bikes and we waited for Scott to come in so I could run my second and final leg. He rode over and gave me a high five and I headed off again into the woods. This time it was easier. This time, I didn’t care so much. This time, I remembered how to land on the edge of tree roots and slop through streams. Running in the woods has always been something special for me. Like gears syncing up, my heart and head become aligned and the pattern of the universe reveals itself a little bit, like a rent in the lining. My body too knows how to be a good animal.
I swam in my first meet when I was five and ran in my first race when I was eight. I competed for decades and I know how to do it, how to prepare for it. As I ran through the Virginia woods last week – or more accurately, as I jogged while people passed me – I realized that my pre-race tunnel vision and macabre sense of concentration were simply habit. All my body wanted to do was to be a good animal, to do what it was trained to do, like a slobbery Newfoundland who wants only to jump into the lake and save the swimmer from drowning.
What also occurred to me after the race, when I had a moment to think, were all the other things I do that are simply habit. It’s so easy to blame ourselves for being too selfish or too submissive, for eating too much or not enough, for yelling too much or for not standing up for ourselves, for doing too much or doing too little. But really, these are merely habits that, at one time, served us well. When I was in my twenties and making my way out of a dark tunnel of disordered eating, I read all of Geneen Roth’s wise books. “There are exquisitely good reasons,” she wrote, “for doing what we do, for believing what we believe.” We are so quick to feel ashamed, but most of the time, our bodies are just trying to be good animals. They are trying, as they always do, to save us.
September 27th marked the New Moon for the month, which I have recently learned is a good time to gather some intentions and wishes for what you want to bring more of into your life. It’s also a good time to get rid of worn-out habits that don’t serve you anymore. Jeesh. I’m rolling my eyes at myself, even as I write this, because normally, this isn’t the kind of thing I typically take part in. I’m just not a visionboard kind of gal, I guess. But, I recently took a 4-week online course entitled Self-Love Warriors put on by Jenn Gibson of Roots of She and during the month, there was a conversation about new moon rituals that intrigued me.
And so, eye-rolling at myself aside, I am thinking of some new habits I want to cultivate as we move into fall. As usual, that list includes eating more kale and less sugar. Getting more sleep and committing to fewer activities. But I think first and foremost what I want to do is to respect the good animal part of myself – that true and loyal part of each of us that is committed to our survival at all costs. Perhaps your good animal is wiser than mine and has led you into nurturing behaviors. Or maybe your good animal is like my own and dashes off unexpectedly after a squirrel in the woods. Regardless, our good animals deserve gratitude rather than shame for bringing us this far into our own good lives, hearts beating, blood pumping, lungs breathing.
July 7, 2011 § 25 Comments
A few months ago I went to a book group at a yoga studio in Georgetown. The group was going to discuss Momma Zen, by Karen Maezen Miller. Finally, I thought, when I first saw the flyer. When I lived in Ventura and my son went to Oak Grove School in Ojai, we had parent meetings every month. The early childhood teachers were present and we discussed topics such as sibling rivalry, anger, creating partnership with children. It seemed a given that we were all good parents, all trying our best. I came away from the meetings feeling more knowledgeable, better equipped, and supported by other parents.
I was excited as I drove into Georgetown. I thought I might make some new friends or finally find a sense of community. But the book group was as much like my old parent meetings as DC is to Ojai. The yoga studio owners and book group leaders were kind and genuine. I think they wanted the same things I did. They asked questions about our challenges as mothers and about the areas we wanted to improve. It was the answers that did me in. The grim, pinched faces. The tired voices expressing how hard it is to be patient, to stop saying “just a minute,” to go on a quarter mile walk that takes an hour. I just felt sad as I sat there and very, very homesick for Ventura. The unkind part of myself felt virtuous (so good!) when I saw that I have changed a bit since I my early days as a mom, but another part of me felt equally hopeless. As much as these women depressed me with with their unhappiness, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Before I had children, I ran at 100 miles a minute. Slowing down back then, seemed to be a huge waste of time.
Children make you slow down, no doubt about that. They demand your presence in every single moment. At my son’s school, I learned that if you relax into it, if you let yourself fall into the present moment, it can feel like flying. It feels like joy and happiness and safety. It feels like love.
But it’s still a bit unnatural for me. It’s something I have to work at every day, and as I sat in that book group, I wondered why slowing down seems to be such a challenge for many mothers in my generation. Maybe it’s the technology we all adapted to in our twenties: the email, the phones, the web. Or maybe it’s that motherhood is what we were told to avoid. Go to a good school. Get a good job. Make good money. To some mothers, parenthood is the thing that robbed them of their success and freedom. To others, motherhood became another job, the ultimate career. Many days I hear Jackie Onassis’s words in my head: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” Be a good mother. Or else.
I loved Claire Dederer’s memoir Poser because she explores our relentless pursuit of good in motherhood and shows how it robs us of the real. The fun. She writes about her own “goodness project,” her constant quest for the admiration that would confirm her virtue, and she brings forth an idea that her perfectionism has to do with growing up in the late sixties, during the time in which many women – who were wives and mothers – were leaving their homes. They were joining communes, going back to work, or moving in with hippie boyfriends.
I was born almost a decade later than Dederer in 1973. I grew up with Title IX, the ERA, and Billie Jean King. Geraldine Ferraro and Mary Lou Retton. Those Virginia Slims ads. My mom’s friend lived in Manhattan and wrote for Working Women Magazine. I still remember the covers. Those women with their feathered hair and their briefcases. You’ve come a long way baby.
I remember the books I loved growing up, the trail of breadcrumbs that might have led to such a thirst for achievement. There was Herstory and another one called Anything Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better. You can guess what that one was about. I was inspired by that book and maybe a little bit scared. It was clear that as a girl, I was going to have to work my ass off.
If Dederer drove herself to be good in order to make up for her own wayward mother, I wonder if my generation is so strident about motherhood, so relentless in our quest for virtue because we know no other way. We have always had to be better than the men in order to be considered as good as. Quite probably, I could relate most of my failings to growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I could blame Reagan and Madonna and Gloria Steinem. Wasn’t it also Jackie O who said, “There are two kinds of women: those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed.” Yowza.
But there is something in blaming our youth that doesn’t ring true to me, just as I didn’t buy Dederer’s assertion that Seattle hipsters treat attachment parenting as a religion because their parents got divorced. There just has to be something else that drives us to mash steamed carrots for our toddlers and sign up for Mommy and Me Yoga. (Um, yeah, I am talking about myself here.)
Motherhood, too often, feels like a competition. Another endurance event with the prize being your child’s perfect behavior. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m so competitive it drives me crazy most of the time. The other morning I went out for a run – a slow jog, I told myself – and before I knew it, I had caught up to a girl whose ponytail had been bouncing in front of me for a mile or so. “Hey crazy lady,” I asked myself as I charged up the next hill, now committed to my new pace, “What are you doing?”
Sometimes I wonder if we are so relentlessly strident in our quest to be good because we are so afraid of what will happen if we stop trying to hard. We’ll get fat. We’ll get fired. We’ll mess up our kids’ chances to go to Harvard.
Last week, Bruce at Privilege of Parenting wrote a fabulous counterpoint to Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic article, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” I’ve gone back to that post a few times because there was so much wisdom there. I found tremendous comfort in this paragraph:
Thus as parents let’s not beat ourselves up, nor give up, let’s admit that we’re not perfect and neither are our kids; let’s let go the notion that our kids (or we) will be happy when they get to Harvard or become doctors (but instead bank on the idea that if they find their place in the group and contribute, even at Taco Bell, this may be better for them and for our world than the nightmare we’ve been propagating).
On the 4th of July, a new friend from my yoga teacher training took me to my first hot yoga, or power yoga, class. “Is it Bikram?” I asked, apprehensively. I went to Bikram once, years ago, and couldn’t get out of bed for the rest of the day. I was not going back to Bikram again. She shook her head. “No, it’s not that hot. You’ll be fine.”
So off I went. For the first hour I was fine, despite the heat. I was sweating like mad and it really stunk in the room, but I was okay. Until I wasn’t. Until the room started to spin and my heart began pounding in a way that did not feel right. I had chills up and down my neck and was hugely grateful I hadn’t eaten breakfast. The instructor told us it was time to move into handstand. “Challenge yourself,” she shouted and I told myself to buck up and ignore the pounding in my body. But it was the Fourth of July. There were fireworks to go to. We had people coming for dinner. I couldn’t spend the day in bed.
I decided to lie down right there, in the middle of the room. The thermostat near me read 96 degrees so I closed my eyes and listened to the 66 other people in the class jumping up and standing on their palms. I felt like an idiot lying there. Water was dripping on my head from the ceiling and I realized that it was the condensed sweat of all the other people in the room who were working so hard to be good.
Last summer, as our family moved from California to DC, I told the boys and Scott that 2010 was going to be The Funnest Summer Evuh!!! I needed something to spur me on and ignite my sense of adventure when I felt such sadness. I haven’t quite settled on a theme for this summer yet. I thought it might be The Most Peaceful Summer Ever as the boys have been bickering a bit. But lying there in that crowded yoga studio, I thought that maybe this was going to be the Summer I Let Myself Off the Hook. I am going to let myself off the hook for my bad days. For the lovely mornings I sometimes interrupt by saying, “Hurry up, put your shoes on. We have to get to the park!” The days I focus more on the crayons under the couch, the Legos strewn on the floor, the spilled milk, the incessant shouts of little boys than I do on the fun parts. The evenings I spend beating myself up for not signing the boys up for swim lessons or Yoga 4 Kids or music camp. For giving in and buying the assorted pack of sugar cereals that I normally don’t allow into the house. The nights I spend beating up other mothers in my head for making me feel badly about what I am beating myself up about. Better than. Worse than. It seems like a two-way street, but really, it’s a dark alley that leads to a crack house.
Freedom. I always thought it meant something you fought for. Something earned. But maybe it’s also the act of gently emancipating yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as dropping the chains we are twisting around our own necks. Last year, I thought that walking on my hands – embracing uncertainty – was the full expression of freedom. But this Fourth of July, it seemed that lying on my back was more authentic. This Independence Day, for me, seemed to be about allowing other people’s sweat to drip on my face and not needing to add to the heat. Because we are all working so very hard. And maybe we already are good enough.
June 17, 2011 § 16 Comments
Yesterday was one of my favorite holidays: Bloomsday. It is a day given to James Joyce’s book Ulysses, a tale of two men trying to make their way back home on June 16th 1904. During the time I read it, I was looking for some place I belonged, and like both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, I was wandering rather aimlessly. I was a senior at Cornell, and while for a short time during my four years there I enjoyed some minor celebrity status as a runner, by the time I was a senior, I had been injured for about a year.
Up until Christmas I had a boyfriend – my first love – but after he moved from Dartmouth to Boulder, he stopped calling. I was devastated and thought it must have been because I was no longer a runner like he was. Additionally, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had thought I would leave college, get a sponsorship from Nike or Asics and keep running, but obviously, that was no longer in the cards. I didn’t want to go to med school or vet school like I originally planned, and I hadn’t applied to grad school. When I was asked what I was going to do after graduation, mostly I just shrugged.
The spring semester at Cornell began in January, during the darkest month of Ithaca’s dark winter. To say I was depressed would be an understatement. When I saw that Ulysses was offered as a graduate seminar, I signed up, almost as a dare to myself. I was told that I had to get special permission from the professor to get into the class, as it was a graduate seminar limited to senior-level English majors or grad students. I was neither. But I didn’t care. I am almost 100 percent Irish and yet the only part of my culture I was really familiar with was the Catholic Church, roller skating to Clancy Brothers records in my basement when I was little, and guarded stories of my parents’ childhoods in an Irish neighborhood in Queens, NY. For some reason, I thought a book might help.
The day before class started I went to the Big Red Store and bought all of the required and recommended reading. I walked back to Collegetown with my arms full of books with titles like Symbolism in Ulysses, Hamlet, and Reading Joyce’s Ulysses. My friend Loren – an English major – looked at me as if I were crazy. “What are you going to do with all those books if you don’t get in the class?” she asked.
Again I shrugged. “I’m just going to keep showing up, I guess.”
Loren stared at me.
“Well what are they going to do?” I asked. “Physically carry me out of the room?”
Loren let her breath out in a long, slow whistle and walked away shaking her head.
On the first day of class, I tromped through the dirty Ithaca snow to the English building and into a tiny room furnished only with a long table and leather chairs. Compared to the anatomy lab I had just come from, the overheated room was heavenly, even though I didn’t have a seat at the table. The place was packed and I was stuck in a corner near a drafty window.
Dr. Schwarz walked into the room and took a seat. I didn’t know it at the time, but he is one of the most renowned Joyce scholars in the country.“Well,” he said in a thick New York accent. “It’s a little bit crowded in here.” He explained that the way the seminar worked was that he would give each student one of the eighteen chapters in the book. “Therefore,” he said, “I can’t have more than eighteen people in here. “ He got out his roster and started calling out names.
When he got to mine, he paused. “I don’t think I know you. You’re an English major, correct?”
I shook my head. “Pre-med,” I said and Dr. Schwarz wrote something on the paper.
“You did know that this class is restricted to upper-level English students?” he asked.
I nodded and felt my face get hot.
On the day of the second class, a week later, the same thing happened. But this time, Dr. Schwarz stopped me on the way out. “I know you have this idea that you can get into this class,” he said, pronouncing idea like idear. “But you can’t. I’m sorry.” Again I nodded. “Okay,” I said.
On the third week of class, I made my way from the folding chairs lined up against the wall to the leather seats at the table. I counted. There were only sixteen people in class that day, and this time, when Dr. Schwarz took attendance, he just ignored me. “Someone tell me the symbolism of the scene between Buck Mulligan at the top of the stairs and Stephen,” Dr. Schwarz said and I raised my hand quickly.
He looked around the table and pointed to me. “You,” he said. “Go ahead.” Stately, plump, Buck Mulligan. Stately and plump. The irony there, the immediate clue that nothing in the book could be taken at face value. The only hope I held in my life then was that things weren’t what they seemed. That something would happen. That something would change.
I don’t remember my answer. It was probably something about Oscar Wilde or the Catholic Church. I do remember that Dr. Swartz didn’t laugh. Instead, he said, “Yes. Okay.”
After class, he stopped me again. “Give me your Drop/Add sheet.” He said. “You’re in.”
“Really?” I asked stupidly and now it was Dr. Schwarz’s turn to shrug. “You’re Chapter Eighteen. The Molly chapter.”
“OK.” My heart took an elevator ride to the top. “Yes,” I said.
Yes I said yes I will Yes.
Those are the last words of Ulysses, and they are spoken by Molly, who is the antithesis to Stephen and Bloom. She is the affirmation. She is the physical, breathing, Penelope who is waiting for Bloom to come home. I don’t remember the chapter now. It’s basically eight sentences, one of which is over 4000 words. What I do remember was the joy in being able to spend so much time with this chapter. The freedom to revel in such stream of consciousness, seemingly unedited, ribald thoughts. It was May by the time it was my turn to lead the seminar, and the trees had buds. I felt the first faint stirring of hope.
Molly was the opposite of myself. She was free while I was contained. She was sensual while I was practically an ascetic. She reveled in her girth while I was ashamed of any bit of excess skin. It was incredible to me that after crashing such a class, not only did I have one of the most famous Joyce professors in the country, but I had gotten the best chapter.
I struggled though, quite a bit. I had to reread Hamlet, the Odyssey, and many other books just to know what was going on. But whenever I went to Dr. Schwarz’ office hours, he was encouraging. “You’re doing fine, “he would say. “This is a complicated text.”
During the semester, Dr. Schwarz brought in bottles of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. He took us to the Cornell Museum of Art to look at the Picassos and Giacomettis that were created in the same time period that Joyce wrote Ulysses. Dr. Schwarz is a humanist. A few years ago, I read an article about him in which he said,” Our role as humanists is to focus attention on what is special and distinct in the human enterprise… We need always remember that art is how we make sense of the world; literature is how we transform world into words and words into world. “
“Didn’t you used to run?” he asked me once during office hours. I got that all the time those days, as if I were an imposter. Once someone started to say, “Didn’t you used to be Pam Hunt?” until they caught themselves. But it was okay. That was how I felt too.
I shook my head and told Dr. Schwarz I had gotten injured.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s too bad.” He paused and then said,” I play tennis. My sons do too.”
Something eased up inside when he said that. He might as well have said, “Oh, well, who cares about all that. You’re going to be all right.”
We spent a few minutes talking about tennis, a sport about which I know nothing, and then his sons. Finally it was time to leave. As I packed up my backpack, Dr. Schwarz said, “You’re doing well in this class.” I grinned. I couldn’t help it. Something new was beginning to spark. Maybe, I thought, this is who I could be.
I never did go to vet school. I didn’t go to grad school either, but what Dr. Schwarz gave me was worth more than a degree. He gave me a sense of worth that had nothing to do with how fast I could run or how many people knew my name. And he gave me a glimpse of how big the world is, how truly gigantic. He showed me it is enormous enough to hold all of our selves. Once, I read an article in which he wrote, “Literature and the other arts are a window to who we were and who we are.” Dr. Schwarz gave me a sense that nothing, really, was that big of a deal. You ran, you got hurt, you read books, you took up tennis.
I think of Dr. Schwarz often, but especially in June. It’s a feeling of gratitude that comes like Christmas, it’s a sense of wonder about where I would be if it weren’t for him. In a time when I was spinning, he put his hand on the top of my head and righted me. I think maybe he showed me what grace truly is. He taught me that it lives inside, that comfort is worth seeking out, and that we are never -thank god- who we think we are.
March 21, 2011 § 4 Comments
I love this whole blog space. There is so much love and wisdom here. There are also free things, which I didn’t see coming. On Alana’s beautiful blog, “Life After Benjamin,” I won a cool parenting book (yay!) without even knowing I was in a contest. And Bruce, from Privilege of Parenting has been giving me free therapy for a while now in the form of insightful comments on my posts. I was born in the early 70’s, and for my generation, therapy in our twenties was pretty much de rigueur. We grew up in some interesting times (Tailhook! The Challenger! Geraldine Ferraro!). But that is another post entirely.
Bruce’s brand of therapy totally eclipses the “how do you feel” therapy of the 90’s and instead, focuses on the Soul, capital S. On a recent post I wrote about my almost debilitating fear of raccoons. Bruce replied that the raccoon might represent my Shadow Self, that if I listen quietly, that masked animal might be able to tell me the wishes of my deepest self, that the Shadow Self (my raccoon) is a creature “of the transitional time between darkness and light. Jung talks about the importance of “living our animal” and that seems to be on your plate…”
Suddenly, Bruce’s words helped me to understand the concept of Jung’s shadow self more than anything else I had studied. I tried reading books on the shadow by Debbie Ford and Marianne Williamson and Deepak Chopra, even Carl Jung himself, but they all left me confused. Why should I embrace my shadow? Why should I love it? Shouldn’t I just try to change all of the things I don’t like about myself?
However, when I thought of my shadow self as a raccoon – scrappy, clever, tenacious, aggressive – I felt a bit differently about all of these qualities that I usually try to hide and cover up. Live our animal. Perhaps, like Bruce said, the qualities I try to keep in the dark aren’t meant to be hidden. Maybe, if I expose them to light, they might even serve as guideposts. Maybe it was time to step out of the darkness and into the shadows.
After all, what is early spring if not a time of shadows? You breathe huge sighs of relief during a warm day and then you get sucker-punched with a snow storm. The buds are visible on trees but stay closed, tight-fisted and adamant in their refusal to unfurl and awaken. The flowers try to break through the soil, but it seems to take forever. It’s all just a waiting game, demanding huge heaps of patience.
Last weekend, on my way to yet another insane trail race, I sipped my Earl Grey and turned on NPR. Krista Tippett’s “On Being” was on and she was interviewing Seane Corn, the famous yoga teacher. At first I was dubious. After Rodney Yee had an affair and left his wife and kids for another yoga teacher, I have not been big on yoga celebrities. So I know nothing about Seane Corn except she started a pretty cool program called “Off the Mat and Into the World.”
I kept listening, and what did Seane Corn talk about? You guessed it: the Shadow Self. I can’t do it justice in a blog, so I highly advise you to download the podcast (free!) and give it a whirl. Seane spoke about the fact that she is an unlikely yoga teacher. She came from a blue-collar family. She is not well-educated. She was molested as a young child. But for her, yoga was a way out of the pain. It was a way into the light and a way to guide others into that light as well. What struck me the most was when she said that we don’t have a good life in spite of our Shadow Self, but because of it. Seane said that she is grateful now for the abuse and shame and suffering she went through because the darkness was transformative.
I found that level of gratitude amazing. I have always thought that rough times are to be endured, not exalted. I have always thought that we are who we are in spite of our Shadow, not because of it. George Sheehan, who wrote beautiful books on running maintained that he was his best self when he was a good animal. Live our animal. Anima: the archetype of the unconscious mind.
Is there an animal the represents your Shadow Self? If so, is it trying to tell you something? What discoveries await in your own Shadow? I would love to continue the discussion!
March 13, 2011 § 4 Comments
With the coming of spring, I expected something of a transformation. We had a few days of really warm weather: soft breezes, sunlight you could feel, flowers beginning to break through the soil. This is it, I thought. Spring. The end of winter. (Now ask me how that went. Four days later, we had snow.)
In a way, I have always believed transformation was like this: a sudden and dramatic shift happening from the outside in. Before a new job, I buy new clothes, as if confidence comes in a shopping bag. I believe that if enough people like me, I will be able to like myself. I have been trying to ramp up my freelance writing, so I thought I would buy a new theme for my blog and get a real website. (That was something of a disaster as apparently you need to know code, which I don’t.) At 38, you would think that I know that transformation is not something that can be purchased at Barney’s. It isn’t full of warm and gentle breezes. It doesn’t have a homepage.
Last Sunday I woke up to cold driving rain. Hard rain, coming down in sheets. “You don’t have to go Sweetie,” Scott told me as I pushed back the covers and looked out the window. “It’s paid for whether or not you actually run.” I had signed up for a trail race series months ago, thinking that by the time the first race started I would have lost 15 pounds and gotten in shape for it. The first 10-mile race was that morning at Hemlock State Park in Clifton Virginia. Needless to say, I was not in racing shape. I still weighed 120 pounds. (OK, 125.) At 5’2″, it’s not like that weight makes me a candidate for a heart attack or anything. But it’s still too much. It’s an extra 15 pounds of chocolate eaten when what I really wanted was love. It’s the bread and butter I ate when what I really needed was comfort. It’s the extra glass of wine and piece of cheese eaten when no one was looking. It’s not as though I mow through a bag of double stuffs or anything like that. But what I do is probably more damaging, more insiduous. I eat standing up: a handful of animal crackers after Oliver has had a meltdown that ended in him trying to kick me. I eat chocolate when I wash up the dishes at night or a teeny sliver of cake because what I really want (more time to write, greater ease with my first born, a friend who lives in my area code, compassion for myself) isn’t available at that moment.
Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God as well as a number of other beautiful books on women and food would say I am eating behind my own back. Perhaps it isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Except that it is. Because Roth would also say that how I do anything is how I do everything. Behind my own back. As if I had to hide from myself.
Last week I had to go to the dentist. The office was in Roslyn, a veritable mecca of office building and Department of Defense Headquarters. Outside my dentist’s building, a well-dressed woman was huddled into her long coat smoking a cigarette, reading a romance novel, and drinking a Dr. Pepper. Her work badge was still hanging around her neck, but she was most definitely not at work. I felt her defiance as I walked by, as sort of If I’m gonna be stuck in a cubicle at 1500 Wilson Boulevard, you can be damn sure I’m getting my smoke break. She may as well have been holding up her middle finger. She reminded me of myself except that I don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk when I eat chocolate. I hide, just as I hide from my own messy and marvelous life.
That’s why I got out of bed last Sunday and put on my running shorts. Socks that I knew would be soggy in about 5 minutes. Sometimes I feel so powerless over my own situation. I have fallen into doing what is easy rather than choosing my heart’s desire. The race was a promise I could keep. If integrity means doing what you say you are going to do, then I needed to begin again. I needed to run the race I said I would run.
To quote Lynn Jennings, the course at Hemlock State park was pretty much a boondoggle. A donnybrook. It was hilly and it was wet. It rained the entire time. We ran along a creek and had to jump from boulder to boulder. It was so muddy by the end that I slid down an entire hill on my feet. I went down another on my butt. The course was so washed out for the last two miles that I held onto trees at points to avoid sliding down a ravine. It took more than an hour and a half to run ten miles. After about an hour, it began to feel like childbirth: fatigue with a sense of panic thrown in. How long was this going to last? Was I going to finish? There was just the work in front of me and the great unknown of when it would end paired with the knowledge that even if I knew when it would be over, it wouldn’t matter. I thought of the book my son Oliver loved so much: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a big one. It’s a beautiful day. We’re not scared.
And yet. And yet I felt more myself than I have in ages. Running in the woods has always grounded me to the planet, tethered me to my own soul. When I was 16 and a senior in high school, I lay in bed one September morning and told myself that I would break the school record on every cross-country course I ran that year. Two months later I accomplished it. Three years later, I was the top US finisher at the Junior World Cross Country Championships in Boston. For a while, I had an insane sort of integrity about running. I did exactly what I said I was going to do.
Last Sunday, in the rain, I remembered that old self. She inhabited me again as my toes scrambled for purchase on tree roots. Only now instead of trying to win, I was trying not to finish last. I was running in the back with the former football players. I was trying to beat a girl with pink socks. Oh how the mighty have fallen, I thought as a photographer nabbed a shot of me as I slipped and fell. What happened to me, I wondered even as I already knew. It’s so easy for tapas, or zeal, to become obsession. My own integrity and commitment to running spiraled into a mania that ended with a broken pelvis and a stress fracture in my hip. My integrity had led me to pain and loss and grief. Somehow, I had let myself believe that dreams were too risky, too elusive.
Then, I heard a small voice in my head tell me that it’s never too late to be who you might have been. I have no desire to run competitively again. For one, I don’t have the pain tolerance. For another, there are other things I want to do. I want to be a better wife and friend. I want to write more. I want to meditate daily and have more faith. I want to believe in myself again. I want to surrender more and resist less. I want to help. I want to leave behind more light than darkness. I want to transform myself from someone who hides in her kitchen eating chocolate into someone who lives gracefully, who keenly feels the pain and joy and boredom and love of the present moment and then releases it so that the next can come. Transformation. Why was it taking so long?
I just finished a really good book called Ravenous, by Dayna Macy, in which she chronicles her own relationship with food from an olive grove to a slaughter house to her own hometown. When she is trying to change her own habits of overeating, she talks to her yoga teacher who tells her: “When you develop new samskaras and replace fantasies with clear vision, you’re leaving an old order behind. That order may not have been healthy but it was familiar and comfortable. When you leave it behind you enter a kind of transition state, a bardo in Tibetan terms. Being present in this state requires faith, because you’re not sure where you’ll land and fearlessness, because it’s so unformed.”
I was living a bardo as I ran in the rain and through the mud. I had no idea where my feet would land. I only knew where to go because I was following the runner ahead of me. Towards the end of the race, I could only focus on what was in front of my feet. Mud, leaves, roots, rocks. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We have to go through it. The course was in the middle of the woods along a stream. The sky was grey and the ground was brown. At one point, when I was disoriented and cold, I thought it was cross country season again. October. Halloween. My favorite time of year. No. I shook my head quickly. It was March, not October. It struck me then, that in the woods, spring and fall look exactly alike. That sometimes, dying and being born are kind of the same thing.