July 7, 2011 § 25 Comments
A few months ago I went to a book group at a yoga studio in Georgetown. The group was going to discuss Momma Zen, by Karen Maezen Miller. Finally, I thought, when I first saw the flyer. When I lived in Ventura and my son went to Oak Grove School in Ojai, we had parent meetings every month. The early childhood teachers were present and we discussed topics such as sibling rivalry, anger, creating partnership with children. It seemed a given that we were all good parents, all trying our best. I came away from the meetings feeling more knowledgeable, better equipped, and supported by other parents.
I was excited as I drove into Georgetown. I thought I might make some new friends or finally find a sense of community. But the book group was as much like my old parent meetings as DC is to Ojai. The yoga studio owners and book group leaders were kind and genuine. I think they wanted the same things I did. They asked questions about our challenges as mothers and about the areas we wanted to improve. It was the answers that did me in. The grim, pinched faces. The tired voices expressing how hard it is to be patient, to stop saying “just a minute,” to go on a quarter mile walk that takes an hour. I just felt sad as I sat there and very, very homesick for Ventura. The unkind part of myself felt virtuous (so good!) when I saw that I have changed a bit since I my early days as a mom, but another part of me felt equally hopeless. As much as these women depressed me with with their unhappiness, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Before I had children, I ran at 100 miles a minute. Slowing down back then, seemed to be a huge waste of time.
Children make you slow down, no doubt about that. They demand your presence in every single moment. At my son’s school, I learned that if you relax into it, if you let yourself fall into the present moment, it can feel like flying. It feels like joy and happiness and safety. It feels like love.
But it’s still a bit unnatural for me. It’s something I have to work at every day, and as I sat in that book group, I wondered why slowing down seems to be such a challenge for many mothers in my generation. Maybe it’s the technology we all adapted to in our twenties: the email, the phones, the web. Or maybe it’s that motherhood is what we were told to avoid. Go to a good school. Get a good job. Make good money. To some mothers, parenthood is the thing that robbed them of their success and freedom. To others, motherhood became another job, the ultimate career. Many days I hear Jackie Onassis’s words in my head: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” Be a good mother. Or else.
I loved Claire Dederer’s memoir Poser because she explores our relentless pursuit of good in motherhood and shows how it robs us of the real. The fun. She writes about her own “goodness project,” her constant quest for the admiration that would confirm her virtue, and she brings forth an idea that her perfectionism has to do with growing up in the late sixties, during the time in which many women – who were wives and mothers – were leaving their homes. They were joining communes, going back to work, or moving in with hippie boyfriends.
I was born almost a decade later than Dederer in 1973. I grew up with Title IX, the ERA, and Billie Jean King. Geraldine Ferraro and Mary Lou Retton. Those Virginia Slims ads. My mom’s friend lived in Manhattan and wrote for Working Women Magazine. I still remember the covers. Those women with their feathered hair and their briefcases. You’ve come a long way baby.
I remember the books I loved growing up, the trail of breadcrumbs that might have led to such a thirst for achievement. There was Herstory and another one called Anything Boys Can Do Girls Can Do Better. You can guess what that one was about. I was inspired by that book and maybe a little bit scared. It was clear that as a girl, I was going to have to work my ass off.
If Dederer drove herself to be good in order to make up for her own wayward mother, I wonder if my generation is so strident about motherhood, so relentless in our quest for virtue because we know no other way. We have always had to be better than the men in order to be considered as good as. Quite probably, I could relate most of my failings to growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I could blame Reagan and Madonna and Gloria Steinem. Wasn’t it also Jackie O who said, “There are two kinds of women: those who want power in the world and those who want power in bed.” Yowza.
But there is something in blaming our youth that doesn’t ring true to me, just as I didn’t buy Dederer’s assertion that Seattle hipsters treat attachment parenting as a religion because their parents got divorced. There just has to be something else that drives us to mash steamed carrots for our toddlers and sign up for Mommy and Me Yoga. (Um, yeah, I am talking about myself here.)
Motherhood, too often, feels like a competition. Another endurance event with the prize being your child’s perfect behavior. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m so competitive it drives me crazy most of the time. The other morning I went out for a run – a slow jog, I told myself – and before I knew it, I had caught up to a girl whose ponytail had been bouncing in front of me for a mile or so. “Hey crazy lady,” I asked myself as I charged up the next hill, now committed to my new pace, “What are you doing?”
Sometimes I wonder if we are so relentlessly strident in our quest to be good because we are so afraid of what will happen if we stop trying to hard. We’ll get fat. We’ll get fired. We’ll mess up our kids’ chances to go to Harvard.
Last week, Bruce at Privilege of Parenting wrote a fabulous counterpoint to Lori Gottlieb’s Atlantic article, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy.” I’ve gone back to that post a few times because there was so much wisdom there. I found tremendous comfort in this paragraph:
Thus as parents let’s not beat ourselves up, nor give up, let’s admit that we’re not perfect and neither are our kids; let’s let go the notion that our kids (or we) will be happy when they get to Harvard or become doctors (but instead bank on the idea that if they find their place in the group and contribute, even at Taco Bell, this may be better for them and for our world than the nightmare we’ve been propagating).
On the 4th of July, a new friend from my yoga teacher training took me to my first hot yoga, or power yoga, class. “Is it Bikram?” I asked, apprehensively. I went to Bikram once, years ago, and couldn’t get out of bed for the rest of the day. I was not going back to Bikram again. She shook her head. “No, it’s not that hot. You’ll be fine.”
So off I went. For the first hour I was fine, despite the heat. I was sweating like mad and it really stunk in the room, but I was okay. Until I wasn’t. Until the room started to spin and my heart began pounding in a way that did not feel right. I had chills up and down my neck and was hugely grateful I hadn’t eaten breakfast. The instructor told us it was time to move into handstand. “Challenge yourself,” she shouted and I told myself to buck up and ignore the pounding in my body. But it was the Fourth of July. There were fireworks to go to. We had people coming for dinner. I couldn’t spend the day in bed.
I decided to lie down right there, in the middle of the room. The thermostat near me read 96 degrees so I closed my eyes and listened to the 66 other people in the class jumping up and standing on their palms. I felt like an idiot lying there. Water was dripping on my head from the ceiling and I realized that it was the condensed sweat of all the other people in the room who were working so hard to be good.
Last summer, as our family moved from California to DC, I told the boys and Scott that 2010 was going to be The Funnest Summer Evuh!!! I needed something to spur me on and ignite my sense of adventure when I felt such sadness. I haven’t quite settled on a theme for this summer yet. I thought it might be The Most Peaceful Summer Ever as the boys have been bickering a bit. But lying there in that crowded yoga studio, I thought that maybe this was going to be the Summer I Let Myself Off the Hook. I am going to let myself off the hook for my bad days. For the lovely mornings I sometimes interrupt by saying, “Hurry up, put your shoes on. We have to get to the park!” The days I focus more on the crayons under the couch, the Legos strewn on the floor, the spilled milk, the incessant shouts of little boys than I do on the fun parts. The evenings I spend beating myself up for not signing the boys up for swim lessons or Yoga 4 Kids or music camp. For giving in and buying the assorted pack of sugar cereals that I normally don’t allow into the house. The nights I spend beating up other mothers in my head for making me feel badly about what I am beating myself up about. Better than. Worse than. It seems like a two-way street, but really, it’s a dark alley that leads to a crack house.
Freedom. I always thought it meant something you fought for. Something earned. But maybe it’s also the act of gently emancipating yourself. Maybe it’s as simple as dropping the chains we are twisting around our own necks. Last year, I thought that walking on my hands – embracing uncertainty – was the full expression of freedom. But this Fourth of July, it seemed that lying on my back was more authentic. This Independence Day, for me, seemed to be about allowing other people’s sweat to drip on my face and not needing to add to the heat. Because we are all working so very hard. And maybe we already are good enough.
March 22, 2011 § 6 Comments
This evening, while taking a walk through this gorgeous spring night, I re-listened to Seane Corne’s podcast: Yoga – Meditation in Action. It’s incredibly beautiful and perhaps the best explanation of yoga I have heard. I was especially struck this time around by this:
“To really understand love, to understand what they call the Light, you have to understand the opposite. You have to understand and embrace the Shadow, or what love is not. The Shadow is also considered the Dark. The darkness within us. And that’s the beautiful part, because if it’s in me, it’s also in you. And if I can understand it in me, then I can also understand and recognize it within you without judging it. I will only judge your Shadow if I am judging my own.”
There are so many aspects of myself – of my own Dark Shadow – I want to understand and transform. Many times I feel selfish spending so much energy towards this when it’s so petty and small, but Rolf Gates says, “What you heal in yourself, you heal in the world. And what you heal in the world, you heal in yourself.” So I hold fast to the belief that if I can transform my own darkness into light, then I can help to transform those dark qualities in the world as well.
Words I am drawn to lately include: healing, clean, light, love, surrender, gentle. For a while now, I have been actively intending these qualities and seeking them, but they haven’t really been showing up in my life except for love, which I have in spades from my family and friends. I have been frustrated by the fact that I keep doing the same things I always do, saying the same things I always say, thinking the same thoughts I always think. I have been making baby steps at changing my diet, but not really. I have been toying with joining a running group but I haven’t yet. I have only now, in the last month – after a decade of trying – been making meditation a daily practice. I want my life to mirror my yoga practice but I don’t stay plugged in to that divine hook-up past noon. I forget. I stay solidly human instead of remembering that we are all made of light, that we are really spiritual beings having a human experience instead of the other way around.
Last week, I told Alana at Life After Benjamin that I was doing a 21-Day Challenge and was going to give up wine, chocolate, and dairy products and see what happened (I picked these because these are things I am “attached” to). It’s 6 days in, and it would be an understatement to say that it has been perfect. But I don’t think that is the point. The point I think is to notice what a change in habits brings up in me: Anxiety. Fear. Craving. Aversion. What I learned by doing, is that true freedom requires letting go and letting go is scary. Intense feelings come up but intense feelings are only sensations. And sensations pass. Change is uncomfortable, but by holding our discomfort and breathing through it, the burning pain becomes a cleansing fire. I learned that I will inevitably fall but that I can always begin again.
This small act (which let me be very clear here is not being executed perfectly or even very well) gave me a bit of courage to look into more intense feelings, such as my own Dark Shadow. Bruce, at Privilege of Parenting gave me some guidance lately to look into my own Shadow. He suggested that my fear of raccoons on my morning runs might actually be able to tell me something about my deepest self if I approached it with a sense of curiosity. He told me this a few weeks ago, but I have been too afraid to look very closely until now. The Shadow concept is so obtuse for my linear, analytical mind.
Last night while meditating, I imagined the raccoons and their terrible arched backs, their dirty fur, their sharp, yellow teeth, those beady eyes. Bam. There were those feelings of terror and aversion and extreme distaste. I tried to breathe and not think, to imagine “raccoon” without thinking “raccoon.”
What came into my head was the word Protection. Instantly, I thought of Lindsey’s reference to one of my favorite U2 song’s “Kite” in her post. “You need some protection, the thinner the skin.” Then I thought: Protection? What needs protection? The raccoon? My dark side? Myself? And I reminded myself that I was meditating for crissakes, and I wasn’t supposed to think.
Today, the word Protection has been in my thoughts. I have often been told I am too sensitive. I feel many times as if my skin is on inside out. I am very anxious, I always want to do what I am supposed to do, I am deathly afraid of Doing It Wrong. Many times, I am a doormat, throwing my own needs aside for someone else only because I believe that if I don’t, they won’t like me, that I will be filled with regret and guilt and sadness. And then of course, I suffer, my family suffers, and most people that come into my path suffer when I am in this space. I have no boundaries. Actually, I have no Protection.
Yesterday, on Facebook, my yoga teacher, Jessica – the one who said that if you are going to walk through this world with an open heart, you better have a strong core – posted this:
“I am ready to really “Spring” forth along my path and without apologies or hesitation open up the the full realm of womanhood. There’s a certain fierceness with me right now that has been unfamiliar but I’ve prayed for it to come and balance out the softness of the mother and to support the young one within. Here we go….”
Fierceness. Ah. That word lit a fire within me. Yes. Tonight, listening to Seane Corn’s podcast she said that yoga was “anything but fluff. It’s a fierce journey.”
I keep trying to analyze my shadowy raccoon teacher. I try to understand it, but shadows defy logic. If you turn to look at them, they move, they shift shape and mock our attempts. But somehow, out of my own darkness, I have retrieved two words: Protection and Fierce. All along I have been trying to cultivate Gentle and Good and Light, but these qualities cannot survive without protection or ferocity.
Tonight as I was walking, I stopped to touch the buds on the trees. For a month now, I have been watching them through a snowstorm, sleet, rain, grey skies, and cold temperatures. They stayed closed, refusing to yield, safe under their tough shell. Only now, when it is safe, have they come out, gentle and soft. I think of the raccoon who stood on her hind legs in front of me a month ago in the snow, who refused to let me pass, while I stood, my heart pounding and breath steaming in the cold air. “Maybe she was protecting her babies,” my husband said at the time.
I am grateful to Bruce for his gentle guidance and wisdom and to all those who have stopped by here. Each comment is full of grace and wisdom. I am so grateful to this glorious spring. After a decade in California I forget what a reprieve it is, what a gorgeous rebirth it is, what a celebration of color and light. And I think now I may also be grateful to the Dark Shadow, what I try constantly to cover up. Perhaps it was only trying to give me its own dark wisdom. Maybe it was only trying to give me what I needed all along.
February 28, 2011 § 3 Comments
This winter I have been confronted by my own fear on numerous occasions. My fear of rodents and rodent-like animals is evident on the mornings when I (actually get out of bed to do it) run early, before dawn. I am vigilant, running down the middle of the road, throwing caution to the wind in order to avoid a 30-pound creature. The thing is though, sometimes the raccoons are real. I saw one a few weeks ago walking over the snow with its horrible arched back, its nose on the ground. It was across the street from me and when I tried to continue running it stood up on its fearsome hind legs and hissed at me. I had to stand there for a long time in the cold and wait until it walked away.
Today before yoga, the instructor came over to me and asked if she could “spotlight” me when demonstrating jumping back into chataranga. “What?” I asked and looked behind me. Who was she talking to?
“I can’t do it yet,” she told me.” Do you want to demonstrate?”
I stared at her. I have been working on jumping back for a while now, and sometimes I can do it but most times I can’t. “Thank you,” I said. “Really. But I am afraid I won’t be able to do it in front of everyone.” Cara, the teacher, was lovely about it. “It’s OK,” she said, “Don’t worry.”What I was thinking was, I can do jumpbacks? Seriously?? Me?
Immediately, I started freaking out. During our first downward dog, I was shaky and had butterflies. My back hurt. No way was I going to be able to do a jumpback now. My entire class was ruined. My heart was pounding. The raccoons were back. They were all around me, gnawing on my mat and walking all over my yoga towel with those paws of theirs.
I tried to watch the fear, to just stand in the cold until it was gone. i am not even sure where it came from. The thing about yoga though is that when the raccoons come – and they always come – there is nowhere else to go. You just hang out wherever you are and try desperately to breathe.
I am not sure why I was so freaked out by the attention. Sometimes I wonder if despite the fact that I always complain about feeling powerless, I actually prefer that feeling to the responsibility that comes with being powerful. Maybe I just didn’t want to be the person who could do a jumpback because then I would have to go through the complicated process of explaining that I wasn’t. That really, I was the person who couldn’t do the jumpthrough. Yoga was my safe place. I just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want any extra work there. I didn’t want to be useful. As much as I want to live yoga and be yoga, maybe I really don’t. Or maybe I believe I am not allowed to.
Tonight, in meditation, the hits continued: we had to partner up. (Partner up? No way. Shit. Can I sneak out?) I hate partnering up. It reminds me of holding sweaty hands in Brownies. Square dancing in gym class. Speed dating. Great, just great. Even meditation was going to be a bust today.
The experience was pretty full-on. I sat across from Jesse, a sommalier who is about my age. At first I was glad. I love Jesse. He’s always smiling and fun and I often place my mat next to his in yoga class because he can do jumpthroughs. I would be safe with Jesse. Then we began the awkward process of moving our mediation cushions closer together so that our knees were almost touching. Jesse and I smiled nervously at each other. We laughed. Ha ha.
I tried to take a deep breath. Oh god, this was awful. I was wearing a tee shirt I wore to a bonfire yesterday and it still smelled like smoke. I had gotten out of the shower 20 minutes prior and showed up to meditation with no makeup, my wet hair pulled back, my breath probably smelling of the balsamic vinaigrette I put on the salad we had for dinner. If I had known we were partnering up to enter the dharmakaya, I would have primped.
As Mimi led us in meditation, I felt myself holding my breath, even as she told us to inhale, to exhale deeply into the earth. I couldn’t breathe. I had no idea who I was supposed to be now, sitting in front of this yoga friend. In each area of my life I had a specific persona. At school I was the Good Mom. At the park I was the Playing Mom. With my extended family I was the Weird One Who Moved to California. With my friends I was who they needed me to be. At yoga I was the Invisible One (Who Can’t Do Jumpthroughs). These were important distinctions. They required preparation. Consistency.
But now, I was sitting in front of a yoga person and I couldn’t be invisible. We were extending to each other, sending each other our heart energy. Oh, jeez, I thought, feeling myself shake a bit. I just wanted my husband. He was my one safe person who I dropped all the personas for. Who was I supposed to be now?
Mimi started to read us a Buddhist text about Wish-Fulfilment. I tried to concentrate but I couldn’t listen to the words, send out my heart energy, and freak out at the same time. Fuck it, I thought. Wish-Fulfillment will have to wait. I gave up.
What happened is what always happen when we surrender. My heart opened up. I could breathe again. It was only Jesse after all. He didn’t have an arched back or too many sharp teeth. All I had to do was send him love and receive it. And soon that is what happened. I felt us sitting together inside of a giant heart. I could feel it beating and it held us up.
Afterwards, when we talked about our experience, Jesse said he felt safe, that there was a warm, benevolent energy around us. He said he felt as though we were in a container. Wow, I thought. He felt that too. It made me wonder what would have happened if I surrendered in yoga class and actually did the jumpback in front of class. Would it have been any more terrifying than this?
After class, I stopped at Trader Joe’s to get some fruit. At the entrance were tiny little weeping pussy willow trees. I love pussy willows and the boys and I talked about getting an Easter Tree and decorating it with felt eggs. (How Waldorf of me! How Good!) The tree was perfect, so I took it home and removed the little tag it came with to see how much water it needed. Instead of care instructions, what I found was a little story. Apparently, this little tree was a “Tree of Enchantment. Among the most graceful of trees, it is connected with all that is feminine-dreaming, intuition, emotion, enchantment, healing and revitalization. The willow’s flexibility symbolizes resilience and inspires us to move with life rather than resist what we are feeling.”
Below that were the real care instructions. It told me to make a wish, tell the tree my deepest desire and then tie a loose knot in one of the branches. After my wish was fulfilled, I was then to thank the tree. My heart opened a little bit more. I guess I got my wish-fulfillment after all.
September 24, 2010 § 13 Comments
It’s nine pm and the boys are asleep. Oliver (almost 5) has taken off his pajama top and is snuggling both his NY Mets teddy bear and his stuffed baby cheetah, gripping them tightly while his eyelids flutter at his dreams. Gus (21 months) is splayed out in his crib, his curls sweetly sticking to his head. He has no need for stuffed animals. If we would allow it, he would sleep with only his soccer ball.
I sneak down to the basement playroom under the guise of cleaning up LEGOs and Thomas trains, the abandoned game of Trouble, the blocks that were alternatively a tower, a bridge, a hardware store. And I do start to clean up. I clear out a small patch of space by the wall without bookshelves before I can resist no longer. Until I give in and place my palms on the floor and line my feet into a tight downward dog. I move my right foot just a bit closer to my hands and kick up with my left. There is a brief instant before my toes find the wall. A tiny moment in which I am weightless. A miniscule period of mastery, a sliver of time where I am walking on my hands.
Before we moved this last time, I used to dread doing handstands in yoga class. The moment my instructor told us to drag our mats to the wall, I felt a rock fall to the bottom of my stomach. I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t. My flabby, two-baby stomach would be on display for the entire world to laugh at. My ankles would bash too loudly into the wall. I would fall. I would break my neck. I would be found out for the failure I knew myself to be.
Then, last January, three days before my birthday, my husband took me out for sushi and told me that we were going to be moving to Washington, D.C. in April. We had been in Ventura for almost two years. Two blissful years of living in a tiny strip of paradise, perfectly poised between the rugged Topa Topa Mountains and the gentle crashing of the Pacific Ocean. I ran on the beach, skirting the waves before the sun came up and then later, took my son to a lovely preschool founded by J. Krishnamurti and nestled into a sacred bowl of mountains. I knew we were going to leave Ventura eventually but I didn’t think it would be so soon. I wasn’t ready yet to leave the west coast, my beautiful friends, my yoga studio with walls the color of robins’ eggs.
The next week I got a cold. Then my asthma kicked in. I had bronchitis for six weeks and then an ear infection so painful, a small scream – my own – woke me up in the middle of the night. Obviously I was just a little bit too attached to my idea of home, to living in Ventura, to the illusion that we would stay there forever, even though I had known from the beginning, that it was only going to be for two years. In yoga, they call this clinging. Grasping. Struggling just a little bit too hard against the present moment. Stephen Levine, a Buddhist teacher, says that hell is wanting to be somewhere other than where you are right now. Or where I was going. I felt groundless, as if I was being held upside down by the ankles, the treasured pieces of my life falling out of my pockets, floating down around my ears like old pennies or pieces of lint.
Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun wrote that “The present moment is the perfect teacher. And lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we go.” But I didn’t feel lucky. I felt jipped. Terrified of the unknown. Somehow, my cozy little nook in Ventura had been transformed into the part of yoga class I detested. My mat was up against the wall and I had nowhere else to go.
So I took a breath. I watched while my beautiful yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson, placed her palms on the floor and gracefully stepped into handstand as if she were only climbing up a ladder. I watched how calm she was. How her ankles hovered just a second before her toes touched the wall. Maybe I could do that, I thought, then. Now I know that what I really thought was I need to learn how to do that. I need to save my own life.
Every day during our move I worked on my handstand, finding empty walls in hotel rooms, my parents’ house, a rented apartment, our new home. In yoga, the Sanskrit word for handstand is Adho Mukha Vrksasana, or downward-facing tree pose. I felt as though a tornado had ripped through my world. But maybe, I could learn to be a little flexible. Maybe I could manage that.
Because, while there is something in me that feels the need to fix everything, or at least make it look good, I could not fix this. I could not put ground under my feet where there was none. I could not convince the Navy to let us stay in Ventura. I could not prevent my son’s tears while he packed his own cardboard box of toys. I cannot ever be sure that my husband will never leave me, that my children will never be hurt, that we will always be safe. i cannot prevent towers from falling or oil rigs from exploding or women from being attacked while jogging through parks. There is so much that I cannot do, but I tell myself that I can do this: I can try to be OK with my feet hanging over my head. I can try to learn to walk on my hands.
Tonight, in the downstairs playroom, I kick up into a handstand, and for a millisecond I am suspended. For just a moment, everything lines up. I am in one plane, my body perpendicular to the earth, my toes reaching for the ceiling. I hover in stillness for only a second, but it doesn’t matter. It’s like anything big and beautiful: a sunset, a new baby, the first kiss. Time is irrelevant. Once you see what’s possible – if only for a second – you can’t not see it anymore. Upside down, my body seems weightless. Groundless. I am only my palms rooted in the earth and my heart, floating up between my ears. It’s only a second, but I am thrilled, shocked, humbled. And in that magical instant, right before my feet fall back to earth, I realize that there is very little difference between groundlessness and flying.