41

January 28, 2014 § 30 Comments

No matter how old, there must be cake.

No matter how old, there must be cake.

The number forty is highly significant across all traditional faiths and esoteric philosophies. It symbolizes change – coming through a struggle and emerging on the other side more enlightened because of the experience. – Dr. Habib Sadeghi

Usually, I begin my yoga classes with child’s pose or a simple seated meditation, but really, meditation is too strong of a word. We breathe in. We breathe out. And inevitably, a Marine in the back of the class is trying so hard not to laugh out loud that he is silently shaking. Usually, I have to close my own eyes and press my lips together so that I don’t start laughing myself.

It’s always a bit awkward in the beginning when I’m asking them to come into cat cow pose and then downward facing dog. Some people are looking around and vigilance pulls up the chins of others. No one is breathing and you can feel the tension rising off bodies like steam.

Then I ask them to come into plank pose, and like magic, all the giggling stops. After about ten seconds in plank, the vibrations in the room begin to settle. After thirty seconds, the disparate streams of energy begin to gather. After a minute, the quiet comes down like a curtain falling.

I don’t have them hold plank to prove anything, or even to quiet the laughter. There is something so familiar about that pose for Marines and athletes – something almost comforting about being in a high push-up. And yet there is something else about plank that gets right to the heart of our own vulnerability. Maybe it’s that our pelvis wants to collapse in a way that would showcase our weakness. Maybe it’s that plank pose demands us to soften the space behind our hearts. Or maybe it’s the quiet of the pose itself, the stillness required to hold ourselves straight and stare at a single spot on the floor.

After plank pose, it’s different in the room. I can say inhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe in. I can say exhale and 30 sets of lungs breathe out. I can place my hands on someone’s shoulders and they no longer want to flinch.

It was my birthday this week and I have been thinking an awful lot about vulnerability. 41 is a year that lacks the spunk of the thirties but also the dire nature of that four-oh milestone. 41 is not yet old but definitely no longer young. 41 is a bit like jumping into the shallow end of a freezing cold pool and hopping up and down, your arms over your head. 41 is about being in it but just barely. It’s about stopping by the mirror and knowing that you still look much the same as you did at 20, but undeniably, your skin is thinner and creased. What is left may look the same, but it’s only a veneer of who you used to be, and soon that will be gone too, and the true self – the real face that reveals our own creased and softened souls – will emerge.

41 feels a lot like being in plank pose.

Most of my fortieth year was spent on my back, staring up at the clouds that seemed to be rushing by too quickly. Last winter, I woke up in the cold sweat of panic attacks and during this past summer, I couldn’t sleep. 40 required waking up to the fact that I was living in a way that was not sustainable, that I couldn’t forego rest anymore in the name of getting things done, that I needed to stop saying yes when I meant no, and that I desperately wanted to stop asking for permission. Chocolate and wine were no longer staving off that terrifying feeling of fragility, and the warning hum underneath was becoming so loud I felt a little crazy. Last year, a line from Hamlet wove its way into my days: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

For 39 years, what I wanted more than anything was to be tough. I would rather be angry later than vulnerable now. It’s easier to be the master of my own fate than to place it into someone else’s palm and close their fingers around those thin shards of glass. I had thought that toughness would scare the fear away. But it turns out that fear stays anyway and makes you want to giggle. It makes you want to yell or run or it wakes you up in the middle of the night and squeezes at your heart.

People talk about vulnerability now as this great thing and I suppose it is. But what they don’t often tell you is that one part of vulnerability is to take a good and honest look at yourself, which feels a bit like sticking your head into the mouth of a monster. Asking the questions is only one part of the equation. It’s sitting still with the answers that’s the kicker. There is the way that I think I am in the world, and then there is the way I actually am.

Sometimes I wonder how on earth I became certified to teach yoga. Of all the experiences in my life, teaching renders me the most vulnerable. It feels like taking off my skin. Before each class I feel like Hanuman, when he ripped open his chest to show Ram his devotion. Ram, Ram, Ram beat his heart.

I am working with Rolf Gates on my 500 hour teacher training, and in our last meeting via Skype I shared some of my challenges with teaching, mostly, that I don’t feel I am up to the task. Rolf laughed after I was finished and said,”Welcome to your first ten years teaching yoga,” which I found oddly comforting. He could have easily been saying, Welcome to your forties. And then he told me that teaching is like pointing at the moon. What’s important, he said, is that our students understand the moon.

The way I see it, there is no way to understand the moon without first standing alone in the dark. There is no way to understand anything unless you pay attention to the way it waxes and wanes, to the way it turns its back to you or slips behind a cloud. The glow and the radiance: it’s only a fraction of what it really is.

About three years ago, I wrote that I felt as if I was on the precipice of something, but couldn’t see far enough down to know what it was. Now, I see that what I was gazing into was the mysterious space that houses our hearts. That my task is to simply crouch in the doorway and pay attention to the storm, to the call of the wind and the violent lashing of the branches. My job at 41 is to sit in the eye of the hurricane, rip open my heart, and listen.

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Warrior Pose – Giveaway

July 4, 2013 § 34 Comments

Bhava Ram, aka Brad Willis

Bhava Ram, aka Brad Willis

Before I can talk about the book Warrior Pose; A War Correspondent’s Memoir, I must first tell you about the writer, who was one of my first yoga teachers. When I met Brad Willis (now Bhava Ram), I was still shocked by motherhood and by my very challenging 15-month old son, who regularly bit me hard enough to break the skin, threw epic tantrums, and stole other toddlers’ toys. I missed my old life in Palo Alto, I missed living alone, and I didn’t like being a Navy Wife. I longed for old my  job and resented that now, I was the one cleaning the toilets and dealing with this impossible child while my husband was off in Guatamala and Thailand and South Korea.

One day, I was so overwhelmed by Oliver’s tantrums, with his hair pulling and his hitting, that I put him in his room behind his baby gate and retreated in tears to my own room, so I didn’t do something I would regret. Already I had done things I regretted and I needed help, which may be the two most humbling words in the English language.

Bhava taught at the San Diego yoga studio I went to and he lived a few blocks away from me in Coronado. When I told him my reasons for my visiting him in his home office, I had to concentrate on sitting upright in my chair, because what I really wanted to do was to throw myself down on the floor and sob. “Can you give me a yoga practice for patience?” I asked him. “I really want to be a good mom.”

Bhava regarded me for a second and at first, I thought he was going to tell me to leave. Instead, he told me that I was doing more yoga while cleaning the toilets and taking care of my son than I would ever do on my mat. He said that the first person I needed to take care of first was myself and that of course there were things that we could do. He created a practice for me, full of forward folds and inversions, hip openers and gentle twists. The practice only took about 20 minutes and I did the poses in our moldy old apartment while Oliver napped. Every time I practiced, it was like visiting someone I wanted to be someday. And so I continued to visit Bhava and take what I thought of as his “lessons.” One day, he told me the story of the Bhagavad Gita. He told me about Arjuna, who didn’t want to fight in the civil war that was ripping his family apart and how Krishna told him his life depended on it.

“Why on earth would Krishna want Arjuna to fight?” I asked, interrupting him.  “How can a yoga text be about war?”

Bhava gave me a look he often gave me, which was a mixture of befuddlement and frustration. He explained that this was a metaphor, that the real battle was with our egos. He looked at me pointedly and still, I wouldn’t let up. “Yes, but why is a yoga text about war?”

“You know,” he said then, “you are a bright person. You could be great if you would apply yourself to this.” Like many of Bhava’s comments, I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or an insult. He challenged me, sometimes baiting me. Once he told me that I was emotionally stuck which at first made me furious, but later felt as though he had given me a gift. He gave me permission to feel what I was feeling, if only because he became cross when I didn’t. Bhava was an unlikely teacher for me, but also perfect. He must have known that to come at me softly was to lose me. I was cynical of yoga, of all this feel-good, unscientific fluff. I was so defensive, so resistant to changing, that when Bhava gave me a mantra to try, I told him I wouldn’t use the word surrender. “I hate it,” I said. “Surrender is like giving up.”

Finally, I did give up, or I began to, anyway, because it could be argued that I am still a bit of a curmudgeon. I kept signing up for  his workshops because when I left them, I felt closer to the person I wanted to be than to that old self, who angered so quickly. I often cried during his classes, which was embarrassing, and once I did his 21-day Journey Into Yoga program, which was uncomfortable because as a group, we decided to refrain from alcohol and sugar.

One day, during Journey Into Yoga, I stayed after a vinyasa class to wander through the studio’s boutique, looking at the soft yoga tops and the Ayurvedic oils that Bhava’s wife Laura makes. Bhava walked up to me, said hello, and smiled, which is to say his whole face lit up. “Hi,” I said back.

“I just wanted to say that I see you,” he told me.

I panicked when I heard this and felt everything become very still. Did he think I was shoplifting?

“I see who you really are,” he said, pointing at my heart. “And you’re an amazing person.”

I don’t remember what happened next because my eyes filled with tears and I had to turn my head away and stare at a bookcase for a while. This comment from Bhava was so unlikely and so surprising, although  if he had told me this any sooner, I wouldn’t have been able to accept it. I moved my hand up to steady myself and I saw that it was shaking, that my entire body was shaking. I stood in the corner of the boutique for almost a minute trying to regain myself, grateful no one else was around, and then I left. I stepped out into the San Diego sunlight and felt lighter, as if I had gotten out of something.

That was the last time I saw Bhava because we moved to Ventura shortly after, but I often hear his voice in my head. “But sometimes I just gotta do it,” a student once said to him about looking around the studio during class. “No,” he replied in his deep voice. “You don’t just gotta. That’s the whole point.”

To read Warrior Pose is to have Bhava’s voice in your head too, and it’s a wonderful voice telling an incredible story.

Bhava Ram used to be Brad Willis, a war correspondent for NBC, who used to work with Garrick Utley and Tom Brokaw (you can watch footage here). The first half of the book is a can’t-put-down account of his career from his start as a college student at Humboldt State, where one day, he walked into the local TV station and got a job as a reporter. He moves to Dallas and then Boston, where he interviews Oliver Tambo in South Africa, watches leaders of a drug summit in Cartagena do lines of coke after dinner, and covers child prostitution in Bolivia. Along the way, he breaks his back while trying to shut a window during a storm while vacationing in the Bahamas in 1986. Surgery is his only option, but because he doesn’t want his career to suffer, he opts to suffer instead, the pain increasing each year.

While he’s in Kuwait, covering the Gulf War in the early 90’s, his pain is constant, and becomes another character in his book: Pain and what Brad Willis does to avoid feeling it.

The introduction of the book states that Warrior Pose is a story about all of us, and while I was doubtful at first, underlying Willis’ crisp pose is a mythology that makes this statement true, in the way that all myths are about the indomitable spirit of the human heart.

Willis’ career takes off while in Kuwait, and I stayed up much too late reading the detailed accounts of his experiences as pool reporter, which means he was chosen out of all international journalists to cover dangerous and high security missions and then bring his notes back to “the pool” of waiting journalists. He bribes a Sunni guard and sneaks into  northern Iraq, where he is later airlifted into a Kurdish refugee camp. He drives through deserts that rain oil, and while embedded with the First Marines, he crosses human carnage so horrible, he finds the upper lip of an Iraqi soldier on his pant leg.

And yet, his pain continues to trail him, despite the valium and vicodin and alcohol until finally, Pain brings Willis to his knees. Willis collapses in Manila, while covering the country’s corruption and poverty. When he is finally back in San Diego, he sees a doctor who tells him, “I don’t know how you managed it. You’ve spent seven years with a mildly broken back and now it’s a major break.”

Willis took a year leave from NBC to heal his back, which refused to cooperate. By Willis’ 50th birthday, he was confined to a bed or sofa or mobile lounge chair, addicted to pain killers and stout beer, which soothed his throat because guess what else? He had Stage IV throat cancer now too, likely a result from inhaling the toxic air during the Gulf War. Willis was pretty much dead man walking.

What ultimately saves Willis is his love for his son, Morgan. When Morgan is two, he tells Willis to “Get up Daddy!”  when Willis is unable to play with his son. Shortly after, Willis’ wife and friends stage a bungled intervention that nevertheless lands Willis in rehab and then in the San Diego Pain Clinic, where he discovers yoga.

While the first part of Warrior Pose reads like a thriller, the second half, when Willis stays on his knees and then begins to rise, is more like poetry. Willis does not spare his ego and instead writes honestly about the harrowing climb up from the depths. What struck me the most was how small Willis allowed himself to become, how broken he admitted to being. And yet there is nothing pitiful about this journey. After 7 nights in rehab, when Willis gives up all of his pain killers cold turkey – which reads a lot like a visit to hell –  Willis begins at the beginning. He takes a yoga class as part of his curriculum at the Pain Center which changes everything. This is it! he writes, and begins to study yoga with a startling velocity. At one point, he takes over 200 yoga classes in less than three months.

Ultimately, Warrior Pose is less about becoming a yogi, and more about listening to an inner voice, which, it could be argued, is really the same thing. It is a book about a father’s devotion to his son and a tribute to what is available to us, if only we are able to receive it.

I am giving away a copy of Warrior Pose to one commenter, which I will choose at random. I am also giving away five copies of Bhava’s Gayatri Manta, which he performs with Hans Christian and Donna DeLory, Madonna’s former back-up singer. Bhava’s album is called Songs of My Soul. You can sample the Gayatri mantra and the album here or on iTunes.

Transition

September 15, 2011 § 23 Comments

First Day of School

In my world, I’m standing just inside the door.
In my world, I’m speaking, to the ocean’s roar.
Jackson Browne, “Time the Conqueror.”

The beginning of September has flattened me. Literally. I am lying on the floor in pigeon pose and my yoga teacher, Gopi, is sitting on top of me, shouting at me in her British/Indian accent. “Thassit gurl. Get in thair.” She sticks her elbow into my butt and I see stars. It takes all I have inside me not to cry. That’s how everything has been lately; on top of me, all sharp elbows and painful edges.

***

I like to write blog posts when I have something figured out, at least to some degree. Right now, I have nothing figured out. Right now, I feel like I am wearing clothes that are both too big and too tight. It’s been weeks since I have written anything at all.

***

Gopi is talking about change, which is obvious now in the weather and the red tinge on the leaves that hang over our living room window. Yesterday it was ninety-one degrees. Now it is fifty-one. After I picked Oliver up from kindergarten at noon today, I took the boys to the park to ride their bikes in the warm sunshine. This afternoon, at home, we watched the front blow in, cold air on a freight train straight from Canada. I have one east coast winter under my belt after 17 in California, and frankly, I am anxious about doing it again. We had a week of 100 degree temperatures in May and three in June and July. August was hot too. Until now, winter has seemed so far away. I want it to stay away. And I want it to be here already so I can stop worrying about it.

“What in your life,” Gopi asks, ” Is the catalyst for a heart revolution?”

***

On Labor Day weekend, the week before school started, Scott and I flew back to northern California for a wedding.  We saw friends in Marin, San Francisco and on the Sonoma coast. We had pizza in Berkeley with my friend Stephanie and I got to hold her gorgeous 7-week old baby. We drank too much red wine with Scott’s friends from college in a house overlooking the Pacific. We went to my friend Michelle’s wedding and spent the whole time with my friend Loren and her wife Audra. Stephanie and Loren and Michelle were my cross-country and track teammates in college. They know me so well, even now, and I miss them. I miss what it was like to be together every day. I miss that.

The trip back from California to DC was hard – it always is. Something happens to me when I fly eastward over the Mississippi River. I contract. I become the smallest version of myself packed into the tightest bundle. I protect myself from what is inevitably coming. I try to ward off what has already happened.

***

Last weekend, during my yoga teacher training, something shifted and we all started to get it. Instead of sitting there, feeling confused, I felt close. I felt connected. Rolf talked a bit about our contracted states of fear, aversion, and jealousy. He said that when we move beyond our contracted states, we will realize that we needed each of them in order to arrive at this new, expansive place.

***

Tonight, Gopi is hell-bent on opening our hips. We do some crazy thing with our legs behind our heads. I am close, but my leg gets stuck somewhere by my pony tail and I can’t get it under. We do some other terrifying move to open our hip flexors where only my left heel and the top of my right foot remain on the floor. Gopi makes us chant three Om’s while we hold that pose. “Whatever you ease into eases up,” she tells us. In that moment, I hate yoga.

***

For a long time now, I have felt as if I were on the precipice of something: transformation, change, growth. I don’t know. It’s nothing big, nothing earth shaking. Just something new. But I can’t quite get there. It gets stopped, somewhere in my head. I get stuck, just inside the door.

***

Oliver started school last Thursday, during the rains that didn’t stop. We stayed inside all week, and it felt like winter. Oliver doesn’t like transitions so much. Like me, he tries to protect himself from what has already happened. Since school started, it’s been one meltdown after another. It would be one thing if he walked in the door, threw down his blue race car backpack, and began to wail. Instead, it’s more diffuse. Yesterday, he flung himself on the ground because I reversed the bath/dinner schedule. The day before, he stomped out of the room because I got him a new toothbrush. “I won’t brush my teeth!” he yelled at Scott, “until I have a toothbrush with batteries in it.”

***

Tonight in class I think about what in my life might be a catalyst for a heart revolution. Maybe it’s my yoga teacher training. Or maybe it’s Oliver’s tantrums. Stay, I tell myself during the heart of them. Breathe. Sometimes I can. And sometimes I can’t.

Next, Gopi has us doing heart opening poses. Our arms are entwined behind our backs and we bow forward into the geometry of devotion. Please, I think as my heart moves towards the floor. Please.

***

Last Sunday, I set an intention to keep my heart open, to stay in the moment and hold space for Oliver’s transition. What happens is what always happens when I finally act like the grown up and do what I am supposed to do. Oliver stops yelling and starts crying. He asks for a hug with both arms. We bypass anger and move straight to the heart of his anxiety. What also happens is that I become exhausted from all that life being hurled straight at me. When I become a wellspring to my son, I become a drought to myself. I wonder if there is a way to bring the two together, to nourish both of us at the same time.

In our teacher training, Rolf told us to be the thing we loved. What would happen if I could remember the word devotion? What if I could become that?

***

Later in class, we do Hanumanasana or seated splits with one leg straight out in front. The pose is named after the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, who devotes his life to the god Rama. When the demon king who presides over Sri Lanka abducts Rama’s wife, Sita, Hanuman and Rama travel from India to Sri Lanka to rescue her. During the battle there, Rama’s brother becomes wounded and to live, he requires an herb that only grows in the Himalayas.

Hanuman so loves Rama that he says he will accomplish this impossible task. With one foot still in Sri Lanka, he stretches himself all the way back to India. He can’t find the herb, so he lifts up the entire mountain and carries it back to Sri Lanka, where Rama’s brother is saved. Hanumanasana embodies Hanuman’s devotion, each leg in a different country, arms high in the air, carrying a mountain.

I can never get into this pose all the way. Mostly I just hover, uncomfortably, suspended a few inches off the ground, my hands on the floor.

***

On Labor Day, on the way home from the wedding, I bought Gail Caldwell’s book, Let’s Take the Long Way Home in the San Francisco airport. The book is about Caldwell’s experience of losing her best friend – Caroline Knapp, another of my favorite writers – to breast cancer at the age of 42. In the book, Caldwell writes, “I was in the corridor of something far larger than I, and I just had to stand it and stay where I was.”

***

Tonight, I go into Hanumanasana the way I always do: I squeeze my front thigh and flex my front foot. I walk the toes on the other leg back until they can’t go any further. Tonight I do this until I feel something under my front hamstring. It takes a split second until I realize that what is directly under my leg is the floor, which has miraculously risen up to meet me.

“Yes!” I think to myself. “Yes!” and then I am instantly humbled. I have been practicing yoga consistently since I was pregnant with Oliver. It has taken me more than six years to come into the shape of this pose.

***

At the park today, watching Oliver ride around like a crazy person on his bike, I found myself wondering how many weeks it would take until he feels more settled at school. Maybe next week. Maybe never.

I keep wondering when I am going to get there: back to California, my leg over my head, the end of winter, the end of tantrums, and of course what I really want, which is to become a more spiritual person. I thought if I did a lot of yoga, it would happen on its own. There is something to that of course, but it’s not that easy. It requires a bit more stretching than that. It takes a long time, sometimes, to get around these big corners. There’s a lot of hanging out, suspended over the ground, feet in two different countries. It might be that I never get there, that this is all there is, right now: waiting and staying and standing it.

Good

July 7, 2011 § 25 Comments

Eat a good breakfast

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.

Letting Go

June 29, 2011 § 14 Comments

Ready for the party

Gus had a milestone this week. Or maybe we both did. In a matter of days, he became officially weaned. Officially no longer a baby. Okay, I can guess what you are thinking right now. But before you hit “delete,” this is not a post about the virtues of nursing your child. I have never found those diatribes to be particularly helpful.

I don’t think this is a post about mourning the loss of babyhood either. I am sure I will change my mind in a few years, but the boys seem to be growing at a good pace right now. I think if they grew up any more slowly, I might collapse under the weight of diapers. Or from exhaustion. Life is so much easier now than even a year ago, and it gets more interesting and fun each day.

I think I might be writing about how awestruck I am by how gracefully my two and a half year old was able to let go of something he loved. Something that made him feel safe. For the last few days I have been thinking about the death grip I have on my own creature comforts. I have been noticing that I even hold onto things that I no longer need. The list is long but it includes worry, fear, anxiety, and doubt.

The very process of helping my son let go of his babyhood seemed to bring all of my own fears to the surface. First, there was the fact that I had to decide this, that I had to be in charge. I waited a while for the real grown-up to appear. I scoured many parenting books and called friends and even a lactation consultant back in California. Still, Mary Poppins failed to materialize at my door. Instead, I went to the dentist, who told me that the impacted wisdom tooth, which has been bothering me for years, really needs to come out now. He wants to implant some artificial powdered bone in my jaw, and the whole procedure requires a slew of sedatives and painkillers that kids don’t need in their bodies.

I came home and realized it was time to say No to my son. And saying No is something I hate doing. To anyone. Recently, I mustered up all my courage and told my son’s school that I could not work on the newsletter during the next school year because I have no free time, and what happened next? I am suddenly in charge of the school’s silent auction. I say suddenly as if these things just happen to me. As if I have no agency here, in the matter of my own life.

On the first day I told Gus “No,” he cried for about five seconds while my gut twisted in agony.

“Gus, do you want to get some books?” I asked holding him tightly.

He wailed and pushed me away.

“Let’s get your blanket,”I suggested, trying again. The lactation consultant told me to remind Gus of all the ways he can get comfort from me and of all the ways he can comfort himself.

More wailing. And then, he was quiet. Solemnly, he blinked the tears from his eyes. “I want to play cards,” he said and slid from my bed. I watched him run off like the world’s smallest gambler and waited for what would happen next. A few seconds later, Gus returned, holding his pack of Curious George Animal Rummy playing cards. I helped him back up on the bed and watched him deal. Literally.

There are still so many things I don’t want to deal with. There are so many aspects of myself I don’t want to know about. And yet, it’s  funny, how when you shine a little light into those places, it’s never quite as bad as you think. This morning I emailed the school’s Silent Auction Committee and told them I couldn’t do it. I still feel awful about it.  Irresponsible. Unreliable. Careless. But under that, I am also relieved. I think of how cranky I would be after staying up night after night, putting together an auction book, worrying about whether or not other people were doing their jobs. I think of how mad I would get a the boys for making noise while I was on the phone, trying to get a merchant to donate a free bike tuneup, or dinner for four. I think about how impossible it would be to get anyone to donate anything with my boys running around their store.

On the morning of Gus’s milestone, I decided to have a party, inspired by Kristin Noelle’s recent post. For once in my life, I was going to run towards something and not away. As Gus dealt the cards for animal rummy on the bed, I told him about it. “Can I have bawoons mommy?” he asked as he lined up his cards on the sheets. There was George, the Man with the Yellow Hat, Hundley the Dog.

“Sure,” I said.

His eyes got wide. “And cupcakes?” he asked and I nodded. “Why not.”

That evening, the boys came out to dinner wearing the party hats I had put in the back of the closet after Gus’ birthday in January. “We’re ready for the party,” they told me. I explained that we still had to go to the cupcake store, that we had to pick out the balloons, that we still had to eat real food. “We don’t need dinner,” Oliver said. “Let’s go right now.”

“Um, no,” I said, for the second time that day. It didn’t really feel any easier to say no this time. Maybe it will always be hard. “You have to eat your vegetables first,” I instructed. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said that line.

After they ate some carrots and cucumbers, the boys climbed into the car and we stopped at Cake Love in Shirlington. “Is it your birthday?” asked the kid behind the counter after Gus and Oliver picked out their cupcakes. They were still wearing their yellow and blue paper hats. I cringed, thinking Oliver was going to tell him the real reason for our fete, but instead, Oliver just shook his head. “We’re just having a little party, that’s all.”

Next door, at Harris Teeter, Gus picked out a balloon that said “Congrats” and Oliver picked out one that said “Good Luck.” Oliver’s balloon immediately floated away once we left the store and he was left holding only the string. “That was not good luck!” he said, kicking the sidewalk so I let him get another one. It said “Get Well Soon.”

The party consisted of the boys mowing their way through their cupcakes, frosting first and then chasing each other around the living room with their balloons. For once I didn’t tell them to stop, that someone was going to get hurt, that it was almost time for bed and that they needed to slow down. I thought of my brave little guy who decided it was okay to give something up. That instead of making a huge deal about it, he was going to play the hand he was dealt and have a party.

In my yoga teacher training this weekend, a girl from the training in Boston joined us to make up some hours she had missed. After her time was up, Rolf stopped all of us and announced that Elana had officially completed her training. She thanked us and Rolf and told us  what a transformative experience it had been for her. Then she rolled her eyes. “I know everyone says that,” she said. “But it’s true. It’s really made me think about what I want in this life and about what’s good enough. In some respects, the way I’ve been living has been good enough, but in other ways, it’s not and now I can make some changes.”

After chasing each other around the dining room, Oliver decided to tie their balloons to their big Bruder trucks and run around with those. They made a loop through the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen, their balloons trailing over them with their bright messages.

Congrats. Get Well Soon. Good Luck.

(Un) Trust

June 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

Today, I am thrilled to accept an invitation from Lindsey to hang out on her blog, A Design So Vast for the day. (Hopefully, we are drinking some coffee right now and talking about what a great run we just had along the Charles.)

Lindsey was my second ever reader and what it thrill it was to trace her comment back to her own blog. She writes honestly and luminously about her life as a writer, about her two beautiful children, and mostly about what it means to live wide-eyed and wide awake. When she asked me to write about trust, I jumped at the chance to be a part of her blog, but was hoping she would pick something else for me to write about. Then my car was broken into, and it just seemed like the right time to write about how I try – and fail – to navigate through the world while keeping the blinds of my heart open at least a crack.

I am so excited to over there for the day. And you should be too! While you are there, look around and then subscribe. Lindsey writes daily, and reading her post each morning has become a ritual that opens my eyes – and my heart – up to the goodness in my own life. I have no doubt it will bring you a daily bunch of joy as well.

Bloomsday

June 17, 2011 § 16 Comments

James Joyce, 1923 (From the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University)

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.

Where Am I?

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