January 22, 2013 § 20 Comments
Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness. And feed the hunger. – Indigo Girls
I am not proud of how I felt when I first read about Asia Canaday. Katrina Kenison linked to this letter on Facebook which Jena Strong posted on her blog. The next day, Christa posted it too, these beautiful writers forming a circle around Jena and Mani and Asia, asking the rest of us for help in the form of a dollar or a prayer.
I am embarrassed to say that instead of joining the circle, I circled around it. I shut my eyes and shut my computer, feeling anger well up inside of me, maybe even fury. Just eat, I heard a voice in my mind say and then I was overcome by an emotion I can’t even name and I had to sit down.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that I was actually furious with myself for doing the same thing Asia is doing now. When I was 16, I ate as little as I could, getting so thin that sometimes my legs became bruised from sleeping. I try not to think about those days, about the pain and helplessness I made my family go through. I try not to think of the way people used to look at me, their eyes wide with a certain kind of repulsion.
I’m angry too that this is still happening. After I clattered catastrophically through my own disordered eating, I turned away from the topic entirely, choosing to believe that childhood obesity was what we had to worry about now, not anorexia. Mani’s letter made me open my eyes, reluctantly, to the truth that in addition to living in a country with epic obesity and great starvation, 24 million people suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Clearly, we are a nation with big issues around food.
And yet, this is not an issue about food or even hunger but about our beliefs of our own worth. Maybe I’m wrong but I think all eating disorders are slightly different manifestations of the same problem: a conviction that we don’t deserve to be here, a kind of longing to disappear, by either literally shrinking ourselves or by hiding under layers of fat. This is how much someone who is anorexic is suffering: starvation is preferable to the emotions she or he is feeling. The feelings are so enormous and out of control that self-inflicted pain feels better.
We can do the usual things I suppose. We can give money and support research and stop asking if this dress makes us look fat. But I think what might be even more powerful is to look at the ways we starve ourselves on a daily basis, even if we don’t have an eating disorder. Every time we tell ourselves that we can’t take a break just yet, or we don’t deserve that job, each time we eat a sandwich standing over the sink or resist the urge to sing out loud. When we tell ourselves that that we aren’t strong enough to enter that race or leave that guy, we send clear messages to ourselves and the world about what we believe we are allowed to have. Every time we ignore what Geneen Roth calls “the knocking on the door of our heart,” we are finding a way to disappear, to stay small, and we are passing this on to each other like a plague.
Of course I am not talking about you but about me. I still have very set ideas about what I need to get done before I can go to bed at night. I want to exercise and meditate and do yoga. I need to squeeze in time to write and time to make dinner, pack lunch. I have to clean the bathrooms and hey, are these pants getting tight? I received an email from a friend today whose family was recently taken down by the flu. She wisely told me she was going to try to find a way to get the space and the time she has when she’s sick so that she doesn’t have to get sick to have it. I felt my heart lighten as I read this and then grow heavy again at the ways I refuse to receive what is always on offer to me like an open palm: a breath, a kind word to myself, space and time, even if it is only a moment.
In Buddhism, there is a character called a Hungry Ghost, a creature with a tiny mouth and a bloated distended stomach, a narrow throat that makes eating so painful, the ghosts haunt each generation with their empty bellies, with their ravenous unmet needs, with their boundless, aching hungers. Some Buddhists leave food on their alters for the ghosts, delicacies that satisfy an unnamable longing. Learning about this brought tears to my eyes. Is it possible that we could be this compassionate to each other? To ourselves?
I am going to echo Jena’s request that you leave a dollar or a prayer here for Asia and her fiercely loving mother, Mani. I am also going to suggest that we take an hour or a minute to honor our own hungry ghosts. Maybe we can sit down to eat breakfast or drink the whole cup of coffee (while it’s hot!!). We can carve out a few minutes to gaze at the sky or down at our toes. We can tell ourselves that we are allowed to dance terribly, that what we write can be awful, that we deserve that job, that we can ask for that hug. We can gently remind ourselves that eating kale doesn’t make us a better person, that we are allowed to go to bed at eight o’clock, that we don’t have to finish the whole thing, that there will be more, always enough if we take time to listen to the delicate thrum of our hearts, if we pause for a second to tell ourselves – even if we don’t believe it yet – that we deserve for our life to be good, that we already are good enough.
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.
July 2, 2012 § 11 Comments
Too often we give away our power. We overreact. We judge. We critique. And we forget to breathe. – Seane Corn
In mid-June, Scott’s parents flew in from Oregon and my own parents drove down from Pennsylvania to visit us here, in North Carolina and to attend Scott’s change of command ceremony on Camp Lejeune. Because I couldn’t possibly imagine our families in this strange extended-stay hotel with us, we rented a house on Topsail Island for a week. It was such a relief to be able to open a door and let the boys run outside, to sit on the beach without driving there, to walk near the warm waves at night and wake up and do yoga on the deck outside our bedroom.
And then it was time to leave. My little blue Prius was so full of suitcases and sand toys, cardboard boxes full of peanut butter and oatmeal, raisins and spirulina powder, a pint of berries and an eight-dollar jar of red onion confit I bought at Dean and Deluca in Georgetown before we moved because I had to have it. The boys could barely fit into their car seats, and on the passenger seat next to me was a laundry basket full of bathing suits, my Vita-Mix blender, a Zojirushi rice cooker, and a Mason jar full of the seashells we found on the beach.
It was a little after eleven in the morning. It was past the time we were supposed to be out of the beach house and hours until we could check into our hotel. We had already spent the morning on the beach, and as I steered the heavy car out of the driveway, I realized I had nowhere to go.
You’re homeless, you know, said The Voice inside my head. You are 39 years old and you have no place to live.
I am not, said the Other Voice. I am not homeless.
And yet, you have no home, said the Voice, So what would you call that?
We spent some time at the Sneads Ferry library and checked out some Magic Treehouse books on tape to listen to in the car. We drove to a park with a big boat launch in Surf City and boys watched with fascination as pickup trucks hauling fishing boats expertly backed up to the water and set their boats free. We watched a big blue crab walk sideways in the brackish water and the boys threw leaves at the tiny fish that shimmied near the docks. We went to a pizza place for lunch because I knew there were clean bathrooms there and we went back to the beach where the boys were cranky and kept grabbing each other’s shovels.
The night before, when we were still in the beach house, I felt a lump on the side of Gus’ neck and my heart leapt up into my throat. I asked my father-in-law to take a look and he told me it was nothing. “Don’t waste a doctor’s time with that old thing,” he said, which comforted me greatly, but still, while the boys stole each other’s beach toys on that homeless day, I was on the phone with a pediatrician’s office. “Why don’t you come in tomorrow?” the receptionist asked me and I felt my unreliable heart writhe and squirm again.
I gave the receptionist my name and my insurance information. She asked for my address just as Gus hit Oliver on the head. We had gotten a PO box the week before, but I hadn’t memorized it yet, and it was clear that if I didn’t get off the phone, one of the boys would hit the other with a plastic dump truck or the bright yellow buckets I bought a few days earlier. “I don’t have it right now,” I told the receptionist. “We just moved here. Can I bring it tomorrow?”
The next day, we arrived early for Gus’ appointment. The waiting room was nearly empty and as I was filling out form after form, a nurse came out and stood by the receptionist. “She didn’t have her address yesterday, so I couldn’t start the file,” I heard the receptionist say in a loud whisper. “Honestly who doesn’t have an address? Who are these people?”
I felt tears start in my eyes and my whole face ached with shame and fury and a feeling of desperation so great that I wanted to jump in my car and watch the entire state of North Carolina recede in my rear view mirror. Hey, I wanted to say, I can hear you. Instead I said, “I’m almost finished,” and watched the receptionist jump and turn around. I walked up to her desk with my completed forms but couldn’t look at her, my face hot with the shame of having no address, no place to go, no home.
Afterwards, when the doctor told me I had nothing to worry about, that the lump was just a swollen lymph node, I was so relieved I took the boys for ice cream. The main road into Jacksonville – Western Boulevard – is particularly ugly, but the week before, on a walk, I found a little ice cream place called Sweet, which looked brand new and cozy. It was sandwiched between a Five Guys and a Popeye’s, but inside Sweet were velvet couches and soft chairs, a coffee bar and an old-fashioned ice cream counter. A sign on the wall announced that there would be a benefit tomorrow and NFL MVP Mark Moseley would be signing autographs and footballs.
The boys and I sat on a couch and ate our cones and a few seconds later, an older man sat down in a chair next to us with a coffee. His white hair was slicked back and he was wearing a black button-down shirt, black jeans, and a belt with an enormous buckle. On his right hand was a garish gold ring and on his feet were the most amazing pair of cowboy boots I had ever seen. The brown leather rippled in shades of light caramel and gold and deep chocolate. My first thought was to sneer at his outfit. Where do you think you are, Texas? asked The Voice, and then I thought of the receptionist we just left and was flooded with a new shame.
I wanted to be nothing like that receptionist, nothing at all like her, so I looked at the man and said, “Those are some really nice boots.”
The man stretched out his legs and lifted the toe of one boot into the air. “Thanks,” he said. “They’re gator skin. I have four pairs.”
“Four pairs?” I asked, delighted, as I always am when someone has exactly what they want, when they unabashedly showcase more than I think any of us are allowed to have.
He nodded at me and I tried to imagine four pairs of those boots lined up in my bedroom closet. In my head I thought of the tiny wooden closet in our old Virginia house and once again, I remembered I was homeless.
“So how do you like our ice cream?” the man asked me and I nodded and then said, “Oh so this is your place?” because sometimes it takes me a while.
The man nodded again and I watched the sunlight flash on his tacky ring. “I own the Five Guys and the Popeye’s and I wanted to bring in something different,”he said.
I told the man that my friend owns a Five Guys at the ballpark in DC and the man said, “Charlie? I know Charlie. Are you from DC?”
I said that I was, that we just moved here. “Your husband on the base?” he asked and I told him that Scott was a Seabee, that he was part of the huge construction project on Camp Lejeune. “I met with some Seabees last week,” he said. “I’m trying to get Five Guys on the base.” He asked me more about Scott’s job and then we talked about DC for a while. Oliver asked if he could have the rest of my melting ice cream come and I gave it to him. “I lived in DC for fourteen years,” the man said, “I was the kicker for the Redskins. It’s a great city.”
“The Washington Redskins?” I asked, as if there were any other kind. I am not a football fan, but my father and brother are and I grew up around detailed conversations about Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, Refrigerator Perry and Mean Joe Green. When I think of those long ago Saturday mornings, I can still hear the tinny theme song of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I can hear Jim McKay’s voice as he announces … the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
I looked up at the sign in front of me: NFL MVP. “So that’s you?” I asked pointing to it. “You’re Mark Moseley?”
The man took a sip of his coffee and nodded. “And that’s a Super Bowl ring,” I said, looking at the thick gold band on his right hand and stating the obvious.
“Mmmhmm,” he said, holding it up. Someone came over then and Mr. Moseley regally rose from his chair and said, “I hope y’all come back and see us again.” And then to the man who joined him, he said, “She just moved from DC. She knows Charlie.” The boys held up their sticky fingers for me and I got up for some napkins and felt something else rise inside me. Maybe it was relief or maybe it was happiness and maybe it was the fact that I had felt seen by this man with the beautiful boots. Moving always has a way of making me feel invisible, as if by changing locations, I have erased some essential part of myself, some piece that the man with the Super Bowl ring just handed back to me.
I’m not who you think I am! I had wanted to scream at that receptionist, just as I had wanted to ask the NFL MVP, Who do you think you are? How little we think we are allowed. How much we think we need.
It was late in the afternoon so the boys and I left Sweet and headed back to our Hilton Home2 to find that once again, housekeeping hadn’t shown up. I set Oliver up with his first-grade workbook and gave Gus some crayons and construction paper. I unrolled my yoga mat in the space between the two beds. I knew I probably only had a few minutes, but I could do some sun salutations in that time. I could give myself back to myself.
Without my friends and the lush Virginia woods, without the comfort of the worn oak floors of my Virginia kitchen, without the hot Georgetown yoga studio, without the refrigerator full of kale and overflowing book shelves and a city to hate, who was I? I looked around the room at the things I had deemed essential: crayons, books, and Legos, a rice cooker and too many shoes, an expensive jar of red onion jam and a long flat sticky mat. How little I think I am allowed. How much I think I need to make up for this.
The discomfort of this discovery is fragile and sharp and I carry it the way you would a piece of broken glass or an armful of thorny roses, a burning match or a dying starfish, objects shaped like heartbreak, whose beauty and wreckage are inextricable. This move to Jacksonville has been a crucible I have stepped into, the heat and shimmer of concrete and sand a mirror to what lies inside of me: the elusive shadows of beauty and bright piles of wreckage.
I do a few sun salutations and then I walk over to Oliver. I put my hand on Gus’ neck and feel the lump there, the beautifully benign node. I remember the way my own heart beat a year ago when I took Gus to the pediatric cardiologist to check out his heart murmur. I remember the way I exhaled when the doctor told me that Gus had an innocent murmur, that I had nothing to worry about.
How lucky I am, I think, as I look around our tiny hotel room, how narrowly I have edged through those clear panes of disaster. I think of my penchant for drama and realize suddenly that moving is neither a disaster nor the end of the world. Disasters are the only disasters. The end of the world is the only end of the world. I stand still for a moment and listen to the boys tell me about their artwork. Gus’ healthy neck is bent over his paper and I see how little I need. I feel stuffed full of all all I have been allowed to have.
June 11, 2012 § 21 Comments
“No Meg, don’t hope it was a dream. I don’t understand it any more than you do, but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to understand things for them to be.” – from A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
Jacksonville feels like a stain. It looks as dirty and tired as a bar after last call. We are staying in an extended stay hotel on Western Boulevard, the main business route, which is an aggregate of Old Navys and Olive Gardens, Walmarts and Wendy’s. The air smells like fried chicken and cigarette smoke and the sunlight bounces off all that asphalt. At night, shadowy packs of boys walk along the strip, their jeans low on their hips. Yesterday, I went to the grocery store and a man in a wife beater and flip flops leered at me. He parked his cart by the shelves of raw chicken thighs and made comments at women who walked by him. I turned sharply into the aisle with the detergent and held a box of Downey sheets up to my nose wondering how I ever could have complained about Washington, DC.
We will probably be staying at the Hilton Home2 until the beginning of August, when a house will be available for us on base. On the first floor of the hotel, a fitness center with a television is adjacent to a laundry room. Twice, I let the boys watch Disney Junior while I used the elliptical machine and slipped quarters into the washing machine. On Thursday, I struck up a conversation with another mother of two boys who is staying at the hotel because her house burned down last month. Marines in camouflage come out of other rooms on our floor, and from behind closed doors, I hear Southern accents and babies crying. I smell food being microwaved and Ramen noodles cooking. The night we arrived here, I had a quiet meltdown – conscious of the thin walls and my sleeping boys – thinking that at 39, I am too old to be living in a place that smells like someone else’s dinner. What was the point of the college degrees and all that striving? I thought back to another hotel room eight years ago in San Francisco. I was up all night helping the president of my company write her presentation and at five in the morning, I staggered off to Kinkos with it, thinking that finally, I was on my way. I would never in a million years have believed that I was on my way here to a town overflowing with soldiers.
Each place I have lived during the last six years has taught me something. In Philadelphia, Oliver was born, ironically, two hours from the town I drove 3000 miles away from when I was 21. In San Diego, I learned how to be an adult, a mother, and a wife. In Ventura, I was taught how to trust my heart and to believe in goodness. Washington DC taught me how to be alone and then how to be with people. I spent a year with this guy:
And despite being so lonely for my first year there, things like this began to happen:
Tonight I went for a walk along Western Boulevard, a four-lane highway with sidewalks but no crosswalks. After a while, my walk began to feel like a game of chicken with the pickup trucks and I started back to the hotel. I passed by Ruby Tuesday and the House of Pain tattoo parlor, Food Lion, and a dilapidated barber shop. Even though it was nine at night, a couple with a small child was going into Hooters. I wondered briefly if I should be afraid and then decided I shouldn’t. I figured I could outrun an attacker, and if I couldn’t, I would put up a good fight.
Coming towards me was a group of young Marines. Maybe I wasn’t as different from them as I thought. I too am the kind of person who would fight to the death to protect myself, and as they approached, I realized I am ashamed of this. The boys looked so innocent as they walked by me, so young. I wondered if they signed up to serve and protect and if they were surprised when they found out what was asked of them. Or maybe they weren’t. When I looked up, one of them said hello with a smile that lit up his face. And then they all looked at me for an instant, their faces lovely with youth.
I thought about how complicated it is to serve, how the word protect sometimes also means kill and how much that bothers me. I thought that some of those young boys might be headed off to a war I despise while others might build a school somewhere or save a child. They would all be trained to shoot and a few might have to pull the trigger when it counted. I thought about how much I hate being part of the military, how paying the cashier at the market sometimes feels like handing over blood money. And I thought of how proud I am that my gentle husband is a part of the same organization I hate, because he has watched over his own share of young men with such devotion. How contradictory it is to protect a freedom, how much freedom is taken away to accomplish that, how the choice to serve takes away so many other choices.
And then I thought about the first Power Yoga class I took at Downdog Yoga in Georgetown. For the last six months, that studio has served and protected me, which I never would have thought possible after that initial class, which I wasn’t sure I could even finish. On that morning, last July 4th, as we celebrated freedom, I was trapped in my own thoughts of how thirsty and tired and miserable I was. “I’m so hot,” my mind kept saying. ImsohotImsohotImsohot.
Gradually – and despite my best efforts not to – I fell in love with Power Yoga and began to practice at the Downdog studio four times a week, at least. On my second to last class there only six days ago, Kelly, who was teaching, told us that if we were uncomfortable, then we were in the right place. “That’s what you’ve come for,” she said. “To be uncomfortable and to see what’s underneath.”
As I finished my walk under the streetlights on a sidewalk that was still hot, I felt the same way I did in that first yoga class in Georgetown. I don’t want to know what’s underneath. I don’t want to see how I judge, how I hate, how I break every yogic value I strive for. I want to know why I am here in this strange town near the ocean. I want meaning and reason. I want validation that I am in the right place.
But the night gives me nothing other than the smell of fried chicken and hot concrete, the sound of my own sharp panic and stale discomfort. And maybe this is why I am here: to be uncomfortable. To crack off another layer. To cleanse myself here, in this city that looks toxic and not a single bit lovely in the dark.
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.
January 5, 2012 § 27 Comments
The biggest, most persistent fear in my life is that there will not be enough for me. I worry that there won’t be enough money or time or luck. I worry that what I love has already been taken. I worry that I will have to keep proving myself worthy again and again and again.
Lately, my life has proven this fear to be absurd. If 2011 was the year of anything, it was The Year of Gifts.
While I have gone through my life thinking I never win anything, this fall I won a $100 bill during a random drawing and a few weeks ago, the Fairy Hobmother granted me a $50 Amazon gift card. This afternoon, my neighbors brought over the biggest stuffed dog I have ever seen. It’s bigger than Oliver and Gus put together and is now sitting on the couch in the funny back room of our house that is neither a porch or a sunroom. My neighbors are older and I am guessing that they have forgotten what Christmas is like with small children, when your house is strewn with new plastic toys and you keep running out of batteries. A giant stuffed dog is the very last thing I need and yet, it fits in perfectly amid the excess and the clutter. To me, it’s a sign of all I have. When they brought it over I imagined the universe laughing at me. You think there’s not enough? Well then get a load of this!
Gus birthday is January 3rd and pretty much the last thing anyone wants to do on that day is eat cake. And still, there I was, cracking eggs into a mixing bowl and melting heavy cream and chocolate for the frosting. So much sweetness, I thought as I poured in the vanilla.
The night before I made the cake, my mom and I drove to my house from the Berkshires, where we spent a New Year’s together at Kripalu. Another gift, getting to spend the end of 2011 with both my teacher, Rolf Gates and my mother. “Your mom is like another you,” Rolf told me after he had lunch with her. “You guys are like Thing One and Thing Two.”
The other big gift of Kripalu was getting to meet Katrina Kenison in person. Not only do I admire and love her writing, but her first book, Mitten Strings for God, literally changed my life. I bought the book from a library book sale when Oliver was nine months old. We were living in Coronado, a small island off the coast of San Diego, and I remember the August afternoon I opened the book. It was warm and sunny and I was rocking in the blue denim glider, nursing Oliver. When Oliver was born, I was not really prepared to become a mother and even after nine months I was still surprised by my position in life. Katrina’s book was both a lighthouse for me and a map. She showed me another way to do things. Reading her book, I discovered that motherhood wasn’t something to achieve or plow my way through. On page 72, she writes, “To begin, we need only create a “listening” space, tune in to the world around us, and have faith that our own inner storytellers will guide us.” To me at the time, this was a revelation. That I even had an inner storyteller was news to me.
The second day we were at Kripalu, my mom woke up with a stomach bug. Although my mother will tell you I overreacted drastically and was preparing to LifeFlight her out of the Berkshires, I was a little worried. My mom never gets sick and on the handful of times in her life she has been sick, it’s been serious enough to warrant a visit to the ER. Vertigo. Inner ear infection. Strep throat. In our tiny cinderblock room at Kripalu, I followed the advice of WebMD and waved my finger back and forth in front of her face. “Really,” my mom said, rolling her eyes at me. “I’m pretty sure I didn’t just have a stroke.”
The previous night, in Rolf’s yoga class, he asked us, “Where in your life do you draw the line between good and bad? Right and wrong? Okay and not okay?” I thought of my own line, the thick black thread that grants a tiny space for Okay and an infinite depth for Not Okay. I thought of how my own body becomes a line sometimes, tense and rigid when things don’t go the way I want them to. “What if,” Rolf continued, “There was no line?”
After I was pretty sure I didn’t have to rush my mom to the hospital, I thought about Rolf’s words. If there was no line, then falling out of tree pose didn’t mean that my yoga class was ruined. If there was no line, then my mistakes in life didn’t automatically qualify me as a failure. If there was no line, then my mom having a stomach bug wasn’t going to ruin her trip to Kripalu. Such relief.
The relief was instantly followed with terror. If there was no line, then I couldn’t pack all the moments I labeled as Wrong into garbage bags the way I took old toys to Good Will. If there was no line, then I would need to allow everything in. I would have to feel it all.
On the night of January 3rd, after we were home, after Gus’ birthday cake was eaten and the candles blown out and the presents opened, I went out for a run. Usually, I am a morning runner, shuffling down the sidewalk before the sun comes up, but on Tuesday night, I was restless, sick to death of cake, and floating in a sea of Too Much. Sometimes, only a run will do, no matter that it’s bedtime and twenty-one degrees out.
I headed down my favorite route along Russell Road where the bright streetlights lead to the King Street Metro in Old Town Alexandria. On my way, I passed a creche that was still up and it was so beautiful that I stopped right there, my breath steaming in the frigid air. A baby was in the manger and two wooden figures covered with beautiful cloth were kneeling beside it. In the wind, the figures were rocking, almost as if they were weeping.
Because it is early January, I have been thinking about the birth of Jesus for weeks, but never once did I think of Mary going through the labor of birth. I never thought of her as having those searing contractions or going through the moment of transition, when the world heaves and rolls itself upside down. Standing there in the cold under three layers of lycra and fleece, I thought of the night Gus was born. I made Scott walk with me, up and down the bike path near our townhouse in Ventura. I had to keep stopping, and I leaned against the eucalyptus trees that lined the path and inhaled their scent. When my own transition came, five minutes after we got to the hospital, I thought for a moment that the reflection of the lights on the linoleum floor was really the night sky. “I can’t do it,” I told the nurse, “I want the drugs after all,” but she shook her head. “You’re doing it,” she said. “You’ve already done it.”
I thought that the gift of January 3, 2009, was the birth of my second son, whole and healthy, swaddled in his pink and blue blanket. But maybe the pain of labor was also the gift. I thought that the gift on the first Christmas night was that Jesus was born and was lying in a manger. But of course his death was the gift as well.
I have no resolution this year, only the usual questions and worries and wonders. The gifts I received in 2011 are piled too high for me to wish for anything for this year. My two boys. My husband. Our home. My friends who live everywhere and my loneliness in this city. My yoga practice and all the suffering that brought me to my mat in the first place. The joy and the pain. The light and the shadows, all of them gifts, equal in measure.
My wish for you in 2012 is that your year be filled with gifts. Even more, I wish that everything you receive be a gift, if not at first, then someday. “I always say that things will work out,” Rolf told me, “And that’s only because they always do.”
If you wish to be visited by the Fairy Hobmother, leave a comment here and she may bestow her gifts on you as well. And, I am giving my own gift of Mitten Strings for God to two people. If you read Mitten Strings for God, then I’ll send The Gift of an Ordinary Day. If you’ve read that, then I’ll send Meditations from the Mat (written by Katrina Kenison and Rolf Gates). And if you’ve read all of Katrina’s books, then you are a very lucky person.
Happy New Year!
December 17, 2011 § 22 Comments
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
― Mary Oliver
Gopi read us this quote before a yoga class this October during an unseasonable cold snap. I didn’t really want to be a yoga that night as I was fighting a cold and I was feeling tired and maybe a little depressed that already it was beginning to feel like winter. On that October night, Gopi explained that she was in the midst of celebrating the feast Duwali, or the Hindu festival of lights, which involves lighting oil lamps to signify the triumph of good over evil.
I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but in the last few months, my writing has been stuck. Although I started this blog as a way to write freely, my tendency towards perfectionism is even creeping into these hallowed grounds. This morning, I had the humongous pleasure of getting to meet Jena Strong of Bullseye Baby. We went for a run from Old Town (Alexandria) and finished with omelettes at Pain Quotidian. “Just give yourself permission to write and don’t even reread it,” she told me. “Liberate yourself from wanting it to be good.”
Last winter, I decided I wanted to explore my own darkness, which, let me tell you, is not something I advise. It’s like asking for patience. Or tolerance. Ask for those things and you are guaranteed to have a difficult day. And last winter was difficult. The most vivid memory from last winter is of the grey view from my kitchen window as I stood there, waiting for the water to boil, watching the clock crawl from 2:23 to 2:24, hoping that the boys could play together without shrieking before I finished measuring the tea. Last winter was interminable. Picking my way through my own darkness was like turning the knob of a closet that hadn’t been opened in 38 years. It wasn’t pretty.
But then again, the monsters that I expected never appeared. I was afraid I would find a nest of beady-eyed rats or a never ending abyss of blackness, but all that was there was dust. There were cobwebs and a view of the world that was no longer accurate. There were old stories and beliefs about myself that had never been true to begin with.
This October, when Gopi read Mary Oliver’s words, I realized that what I had given myself last winter was a gift. When you sweep out the closets, you discover what you packed away in boxes so many years ago. I had to get my hands dirty but it is clear to me now that an excavation took place. What I discovered last winter was that the darkness in my life was of my own making, and if it was of my own making, it could be of my own dismantling as well.
I wish I could say that what rushed in to fill the void darkness left was golden light thick as honey, but that was not the case. Instead, what stood in the closet of my heart was emptiness. Space. A clean sense of nothing, which turned out to be as scary as the blackness.
This October, I suffered from a rather acute case of anxiety, strong enough that Scott gently suggested I go to the doctor. Instead, I called up Laura Plumb, my former yoga teacher in San Diego and an Ayurvedic practitioner. I told Laura that I constantly felt the need to outrun whatever was chasing me, that I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with a racing heart, that I was afraid of something that had no name.
Laura explained that this was a very autumnal feeling, that October was a season of falling away and of letting go of what not longer serves us.
“It’s clear,” I told her, “That my anxiety is no longer serving me, but I don’t know how to be without it.”
“Well,” Laura said, in her voice, which always reminds me of bells ringing, “We can let go and know there doesn’t need to be the next thing yet. We can stand in our own emptiness.”
I get through each day by trying hard: to be a good mother, to keep the house clean, to keep up my spiritual practice, to nurture those around me. It’s as though I believe that things happen because I exert enough force. It’s as though I believe if I worry enough, the disasters will stay away. My anxiety is my talisman, warding away the suckerpunch that will inevitably happen as soon as I let my guard down.
I don’t know how to stand in my own emptiness. My existential fear of emptiness is perhaps what underlies all of my fears: If I let go, the next thing will never come. If I stand still, I will be left behind.
Laura reminded me of the trees. “They lose all their leaves,” she told me, “They stand bare all winter and trust that spring will come.”
This winter, I have no need to explore the darkness. This winter, I am standing in what Hemingway called, “the clean well-lighted place” (there are shadows of the leaves). I am going to practice trusting that the next thing will come: that the next word will appear, that the next idea will organically arise, that the earth will keep spinning even though I have stopped swatting at it with my hand. This winter I am lighting a clay lamp and admiring how clean the emptiness is, how ready it is for something beautiful. This winter, I will see what it means to belong to myself completely and have faith in my own human heart. In the words of Jena, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be good, I am liberating myself from wanting it to be anything other than what it is: this barren landscape, these empty trees, this waiting space.
As an aside I just want to mention what a fabulous time it was to meet Jena, whom I have only previously known here, in this alternative online universe. She emailed me yesterday to ask if I could bring an extra fleece for her to run in as she packed light. When she rummaged through the bag of clothes I brought for her this morning, she said, “Ooohh, I LOVE your wardrobe.” Ahhh, I thought, someone who appreciates my workout clothes: the jewels of my closet. We had such a fun run on this cold grey day, where the sun barely made it over the hills, except for one slim ray that pierced the Potomac. We had such a luxuriously long breakfast and I learned so much from this beautiful, wise woman. At Pain Quotidian, we ran into someone I know from the yoga studio and he assumed we were old college buds. This warmed my heart. Because while my tenure in DC has been lonely, this space here has been rich. To know that the people I meet here translate into friends in real life is the best Christmas gift I could receive. I am so grateful to this space and to my new, real-life friend Jena. Check out her blog at Bullseye Baby.