Uncertainty

February 14, 2011 § 7 Comments

Last night was Sunday, which meant that from 6:30 until 8:15, I went to meditation class at my yoga studio in Alexandria taught by Mimi Malfitano. This meditation class is a bit different from the classes I have attended before at other Shambala Buddhist centers where I simply sat and watched my breath. Mimi talks about archetypes and the dharmakaya – the realm of pure space, the essence of the universe. But make no bones about it. Mimi is the real deal. She studies Dhogchen Meditation at the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies and volunteers at the Washington National Cathedral’s Crossroads Program. She has clearness to her and a peace that I don’t encounter very often. And as I have written, her sweaters alone keep me coming to class. Cable-knit, mock-turtleneck, cashmere. There is something about a Buddhist on a meditation cushion wearing street clothes that gives me great comfort. Last night she had on an argyle sweater that will sustain me into August.

In class, Mimi talked about Valentine’s Day. She talked about our hearts and how it is so easy to get stuck in our lives. “We feel anxiety or stress or unhappiness, but this is just the surface. What we want is to go below these feelings. What is under the anxiety?” she asked. “Only by going deeper and opening our hearts will we get unstuck.”  Fear,” someone in the room said. “Fear is below anxiety.” “Yes,” said Mimi. “Or uncertainty.” Fear. I am always afraid and of everything. This morning I got up early and went for a run before the sun came up. I was terrified that a raccoon was going to sneak up on me or that an opossum was going to fall from a tree and land on my head so I ran in the center of the road. That is, I did until a car came around the corner too quickly and almost took me out. How embarrassing I thought, if I was run over by a car because I was afraid of a raccoon.

Uncertainty is another big one for me. In fact my fear is probably a result of my uncertainty. I hate the feeling of groundlessness, the way it flips me upside down and leaves me clawing at the air. And yet, most days, I will tell you I am comfortable with it and I have made peace with the fact that we move every two years. That yes, Scott will likely be sent to Afghanistan for six months or a year, but he will be safe over there on a base. No, I don’t know where I will live in 15 months. It might be California again or it may be Gulfport, Mississippi. Or it might be somewhere else. And I am okay with it. It is fine. We are lucky that Scott has a job, that we don’t worry about the economy. It is fine. We will be fine. Everything is just fine.

But still.

Daily, I dread the time between 2 and 5 pm. It is the black hole in my day, the time when I am rendered powerless, when I can’t decide whether to go to the market or to the library or the park. I thought maybe it was because our morning routine ends when Gus wakes from his nap and we have no plans. I thought it was because children are never at their best during the late afternoon. I thought everyone dreaded those 3 hours.

When the clock moves into the 3 o’clock hour, I start to make tea and drink it by the pot. I stand in front of the refrigerator and stare at the oranges and the milk. I sometimes herd the boys up and we go to the park if it isn’t too cold or we simply stay inside the house, while inside myself, I am going a little bit crazy. I stand in front of the washing machine taking deep breaths while the boys drive their trucks in the adjacent playroom. I remove the hot towels from the dryer and join them with my mind spinning. What is going to happen next? is the question that swirls in my head until the darkness falls, until the key turns in the lock and my husband comes home, until it is finally – and once again – over for the day.

Sitting in meditation last night, I tried to unspool the anxiety I feel every afternoon. As my breath quieted and my body softened, I had a thought. Could it be that the groundlessness I feel from 2 until 5 every day is a recreation of the uncertainty I feel about my own life? After we moved to Alexandria and unpacked, I told myself that I was settled, that the feeling of groundlessness was tamed now, its girth cinched up tight. I told myself that I had left those feelings of uncertainty in the garage in the empty cardboard boxes.  But could it be that every day, I was unpacking them? Could it be that I was actually recreating daily, on a small scale, what I so greatly feared in its actual form: that tremendous gut-clenching uncertainty?

A year before I met Scott, a friend of mine set me up on a blind date with a guy in the US Special Forces. We never actually went out because he never returned from Afghanistan. I never met him and I don’t remember his name, but every time I convince myself that Scott will be fine,  I think of him. I think of Francis Toner, a Seabee Officer (like Scott) who was killed by an insurgent while jogging on a base in Afghanistan. I tell these fears to Scott and he nods. He hugs me. And then he tells me the truth, which is that he could get hit by a bus crossing the street. That he could be killed while in his office at the Pentagon. Disasters can strike at any time, even on hot dry days in September, when the sky is so blue it hurts. Even then. Especially then. In her memoir Devotion, Dani Shapiro writes “the world could be divided into two kinds of people: those with an awareness of life’s inherent fragility and randomness and those who believed they were exempt.”

The question is what to do about this fear, which is like my fear of North American rodent-like mammals. The raccoons are everywhere. Claire Dederer, in her amazing memoir Poser talks about her fear of mountain lions on a hike with her husband. She tries to prepare herself for an attack. She visualizes the lion in the tree, the way it will crouch and leap at her, the way it will hold her head in its jaws. What really happens is that it starts snowing. Instead of being attacked by a mountain lion, they are blinded by a blizzard. Dederer writes that she couldn’t believe it. “All along, I had been worried about the wrong goddamn thing.”

Maybe the problem isn’t that I’m worried about the wrong goddamned thing, but that I’m so goddamned worried. In Devotion, Shapiro writes that “I didn’t know that there was a third way of being. Life was unpredictable, yes. A speeding car, a slip on the ice, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever. To deny that is to deny life – but to be consumed by it is also to deny life. The third way – inaccessible to me as I slunk down the halls – had to do with holding this paradox lightly in ones own hands.”

When my son Oliver was young, a wonderful teacher at his preschool told me about “now” and “next.” As in, now we are eating breakfast and next we will brush our teeth. Now we are playing with trucks, and next, we will start cutting carrots. I try to take a breath and think of that. Now I am taking the clothes from the dryer. Next I will play with the boys. Now we are cleaning up and next we will read a book. Now I am turning the pages and next we will go for a walk. Now I live in Alexandria. Next I will live somewhere else. Now Scott is here. Next …..

I can’t go that far yet. Now. Stay. Stay. Now. Rinse, wash, spin, repeat.

Now is all we have. Next is if we get lucky. Anything after that is just gravy.

Walking on My Hands

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.

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