Responsibility

January 28, 2011 § 5 Comments

I have never really been an Oprah fan in the sense that I watch her show. It has always seemed a bit tawdry to me. However, I love, love, LOVE her magazine, O. I think it’s a decade old now and I haven’t missed an issue. It combines everything I love: spirituality, great clothes, big glossy pages, Martha Beck.

In the last issue, Oprah wrote that she has a sign posted on her makeup door that says: “Be responsible for the energy that you bring into this room.” She went on to say that for her new network: OWN, she feels responsible for the energy she is sending out to TV screens everywhere. I loved that concept of owning your own energy. Just reading that unstuck something deep inside that for a long time had been inflexible. For my entire life, I have been told I am too sensitive in a way that implied I wanted to be that way. When I walk into a room, I can tell if someone has just had an argument, and the way the air shimmers with anger stays with me all day. I can tell what kind of mood someone is in by the way they walk, by the way they hold their head. I can tell how my husband’s day was just by the way he turns the doorknob to come into the house. I don’t view this as a positive. I think it makes life more difficult. It makes my skin hurt. It makes me worry about things I have no control over. Since I have moved to DC, I have felt the anger of the city constantly rubbing against me, like sandpaper. It wears me out. The hostility here is wearing me down.

Adding to this, I have been having a difficult time with my 5-year old. For one thing, this is nothing new, as he is a challenging kid. Or I should say he challenges me.  He’s pretty smart, he’s sensitive, and he’s strong willed. In many ways, he is much like me, and I react to him because at times, he outwardly exhibits all that I don’t like about myself. He can be too loud, too emotional, too attached to his ideas, too argumentative.  I can say all of this because he is a wonderful, wonderful little boy. He is kind and funny and he tries harder than anyone else I know. I adore him. And yet, for the last several weeks, I haven’t liked him very much and this bothered me greatly. What is wrong with me, I wondered. What kind of lousy mother am I anyway? What am I doing wrong?

Of course, this feeling of inadequacy in myself only made my interaction with Oliver more difficult. Each new encounter became a battle, a power struggle. One time I carried him to his room. Another time, I yelled. Stop yelling, I said through clenched teeth. And we all know how effective that is. Most nights during the last month, I felt hollowed out. Exhausted. Like a failure. I was analyzing everything. How I spoke to him, whether or not I raised my voice when I asked him for the fifth time to put on his coat, what exactly I was doing that was causing him to put his hands on his hips and yell at me or kick at me, or yell “blah blah blah,” and dance around the kitchen when I asked him to wash his hands.

When I read Oprah’s missive: Be responsible for the energy you bring into this room, I suddenly got it. It wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong.  It was the energy that I was bringing to the situation that was mucking our home life up. It was my own anger and frustration and feelings of inadequacy that were adding meaningless meaning to our interactions. If I thought about it sanely, all that was really happening was that Oliver was acting how he was acting and I just didn’t like it very much. There was nothing wrong. There was nothing to be fixed. There was just what was happening and there was my reaction. And only one of those things was within my control.

Since this revelation, things have changed a little bit. It has gotten easier, less fraught, and more gentle. I have been given a little bit of grace, each time I remember to be responsible for the energy I bring to the boys. Let me make it clear: it’s still not easy. It’s still far from perfect. Oliver sometimes runs around with his underwear on his head in the morning instead of getting dressed. “That’s enough!” I’ll call, but it’s different now. My jaw isn’t clenched. I am not really all that upset.  I am not quite there yet,  but I’m better. We’re better.  And all that it took to create this seachange was a slight shift in energetics, a barely perceptible willingness to be responsible for something that most of us don’t believe even exists.

A decade ago, if I had known I was going to write this post I would have laughed. Rolled my eyes. Energy. Jeesh. Whatevah’. Today I went to see a sports medicine/chiropractor guy about my hip. It’s the left one, where I carry Gus for much of the day, and it’s been so locked up, my left shoulder is a good inch higher than my right. Dr. Skopp is about as bare bones as you can get. His office has plaster walls, a single massage table in the center. On a shelf are his awards as the trainer for the US Triathalon Team, the US Cycling Team, and others. He has mustache. He is the opposite of New Age. But after he did his Active Release on my IT band (not fun) and did a quick adjustment, I stood up and felt a rush of energy through my stomach. I felt something like happiness flood through me from my navel to the top of my head. I felt two inches taller. “You’re going to think I’m some California crazy,” I said as he scribbled something in my chart. “But I just felt this energy swoop through me.”

Dr. Skopp frowned at me. “Not crazy,” he said. “That’s physiology. When you’re muscles are locked up, everything is locked up.”

Sometimes I think Washington DC needs a chiropractor. At the very least, it needs an adjustment. DC is an intense city. It hums. Most of the time, everyone seems just about this close to losing their shit. Sometimes it seems that the centrifugal energy here is so great, that the city might levitate. I think it has a lot to do with the state of our government, the fact that 10 miles from my house is the Capitol, where Congressmen and Senators are screaming at each other and turning off microphones in the middle of speeches. Vitriol. Power. Politics. That energy  spins out. Like poison, it reaches everyone in the city.

The other day I went for a run on Four-Mile Run Trail (which is made of asphalt) around Reagan National Airport and along the Potomac. On top of a little hill, I looked over at the city. To my right was the gentle, romantic dome of the Capitol. To my left was the white blade that is the Washington Monument (and I don’t have to remind you what that looks like, now do I?) Feminine, masculine. Rich, poor. Black, white. Republican, democrat. Government, non-profit.  This is a city of opposites. Of contrasts and conflicts. It is at the corner of Things Getting Done, and Look, They’re Doing It Wrong.

It’s tough to not get caught up in that energy, in the madness of it all. I have to work hard not to hate it here, to not become so disenchanted that I stop trying. To not become so worn down by the weather and the sharpness and the impatience that I too become cold and sharp and impatient.

It snowed on Wednesday night. The next day, the Pentagon had a two hour delay. Schools were closed. And it was my birthday. Scott gave the boys breakfast while I went for a run in a world gone white. I skirted ice patches and jumped over slush puddles. The piles of snow by the side of the road made the hills seem less steep. The sun came out and the trees were bejeweled with diamonds. I was having so much fun, that I had run for a couple of miles before I realized I had left my iPOD at home. I climbed up one hill and then ran down another into the town of Del Ray, a kind of hippie enclave that I love because it seems so different from the rest of Alexandria. It feels like an exhale. Down the hill I was running, a father was walking up, pulling two kids on a sled and the mother was close behind with a dog on a leash. I waved to her and she waved back. “Doesn’t it feel good?” she asked, and something in me melted. Yes, I thought. Yes. It is such a rarity to hear such a soulful battle cry in this city – like finding life on Mars.  I smiled and waved at her again and felt something shift, some basic goodness that snow and dogs and children seem to reveal. I ran down through Del Ray, past the Cheesetique and Wine Bar and the Homemade Pizza place and the Dairy Godmother, which is the frozen custard shop that President Obama sometimes takes his kids to.

For the first time in a long time, I felt real happiness. There wasn’t any reason for it. Nothing happened other than a birthday and a snowfall and a friendly greeting. Nothing in my life had changed except for the energy I received and brought to it.  I realized that it is pointless for me to practice Warrior I and II and III while wearing Lulumon gear if I can’t be a warrior in my own life. That it’s useless to sit cross-legged and chant the lion-faced dakini mantra to deflect negativity if I can’t deflect some of that negative energy in my own life. What the yoga teachers say is true: our natural state is one of bliss. What they don’t tell you is the work it takes to remove all the obstacles that stand in the way of bliss, the work it takes to be responsible.

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Peace

December 29, 2010 § 4 Comments

We are staying at Scott’s parents for almost two weeks this holiday. They live in Oregon, up in the mountains. It’s such a welcome break from DC. There are wide, snow-covered fields where cattle and horses nonchalantly snuff at the ground, the air is dry and still, and some days, all I can hear is the wind in the pine trees and the snow as it falls from the branches. I have been running almost every day even though at almost 5000 feet, I am out of breath almost as soon as I start.

In some ways the trip has been stressful for me. I am much like my oldest son. I love routines and out of my own cozy nest, I feel a bit not myself. I realize how tied I am to place, how quick I am to put down roots, to fill my refrigerator with familiar food and hang pictures on the walls, to get to know the running routes. And yet, being away has been good too. If it has gotten me out of my comfort zone, it has also gotten me out of my own head and out of my own way.

The other day, a bird – a dove – was trapped behind the chicken wire that was protecting a young tree from deer in my father-in-law’s yard. My husband went out to rescue it, but none of us thought the bird would come to him. Three minutes later, he walked into the house with a dove in his hands. Oh jeez, I thought, as 23-m0nth old Gus rushed to Scott and the bird. “Dat a bird daddy?” Gus asked leaping up to see what Scott was holding. “Dat a bird?” That bird is going to have a heart attack, I thought. My husband is going to get his hand pecked off. “Don’t let that bird go in the house,” my father-in-law said, “Or we’re really going to be in trouble.”

To my surprise, my husband bent down and let Gus pet the bird. Five-year old Oliver lifted his head briefly and went back to his Legos. But Gus was mesmerized. He stroked the bird’s feathers and his eyes were wide with wonder. “Want to hold the bird daddy,” Gus said.

“We have to let him go Gus. He has to go home,” Scott told him.

I watched the bird who was so calm in my husband’s hands. I would have been freaking out if I was the dove, but there he was, the very symbol of peace, a spot of irridescent purple under his eye.

“Want to hold the bird daddy,” Gus kept saying and skipped next to my husband even as he walked out onto the snow-covered deck into the cold morning air. Gus doesn’t like the cold, but there he was, waiting for my husband to place the bird in his hands. Although a lot of things happened this Christmas, the memory of that morning is tops for me. Gus stood with his feet wide apart in his red footie pajamas, his eyes on the sky and the bird clutched close to his chest as if it had been just been within his own heart, inside his own cage of bone rather than trapped behind a fence of wire. And then, without warning, Gus opened his hands and stepped back as the dove beat its wings, scrambling for purchase on Gus’ fingers and creating momentum. There was a moment of furious wing beats and then silence. The bird took flight and we all watched it go.

Gus danced into the house, his own arms outflung like the dove’s. “I held the bird? I let it go? Bird go home! Bird fly!” He danced into the living room spinning. He saw a calendar hanging on a wall with a photo of a bald eagle. “Like that bird,” he said, pointing to the photo. “My bird fly like that bird.”

This metaphor was not lost on me, how tightly I hold onto my boys and how I need to let them go. Oliver is now five and craving independence. For the first time, he is in a school that does not welcome parents in the classroom. I feel powerless most days, not knowing what is happening for the three hours when he is out of my care. When I ask about school: about the golden walnuts or the crown of yarn or the games he plays, he tells me that it’s a secret. For a while I wanted to take him out of school. It seemed too unstructured, too rough sometimes. My son needed to feel safe. He needed to be with me for just one more year.But while I was struggling with what to do and with making a decision, Oliver figured things out for himself. He made friends. He made bread and was proud to help knead it. He learned to fold the pillowcases and later to stuff them with pillows for rest time. He told me that he liked his school. While I struggled and worried, Oliver got on with the business of living his own life.

Lately, I have been reading some great posts about parenting from Bruce at Privilege of Parenting and Kristen at Motherese. They both talk about true attachment parenting and about how “attachment” does not mean “clinging.” Bruce wrote a wonderful peace about how we must know our children and keep our own issues separate from theirs, how we need to raise them as they ask to be raised by teaching them what they need to know and by honoring their unique gifts. Kristen wrote about several books that are out now. One spoke about our common fantasy of creating perfect environments for our children. How our generation of mothers share a belief that if we eliminate impurities from our kids’ diets and close their eyes and ears off to violence and buy just the right toys, our children will be perfect. And we in turn will look like perfect parents.

That rang so true to me. I have read dozens of parenting books. I have the entire Dr. Sears library on my bookshelves. I want to create a bubble for my boys and prevent anyone hurtful from entering. I don’t want them to hear a mean word or be on the receiving end of a cruel act. This in itself is not bad of course. Of course it makes sense to keep media to a minimum and to shield children from as much evil as we can. But it’s a short distance from doing our best to trying to control our children. It’s a fine line between keeping our children safe while they are in the nest, to hindering their flight. It’s a very slippery slope from trying to be a good parent to trying to look like a good parent. I am a good candidate for a helicopter parent. I love to hover. I believe that if I worry about something enough, it won’t happen. I subscribe to a cheap religion of bargaining instead of praying, of tithing anxiety in exchange for best outcomes.

This of course does not lead to happy children or secure children or peaceful children. This dove today taught me that. Gus taught me that. He showed me that I need to hold my little birds close when they need me, to snuggle their softness and revel in the way their hearts beat like crazy to get out. But I need to let go too. I need to let them fly, in small doses now, but in increasingly longer intervals. After all, that is my job. I am only here to prepare them for their own journey home, for their own precarious flights.

How to Be Lost

October 2, 2010 § 3 Comments

I had a day today that brought me to my knees. Actually, my oldest son, about to turn five, brought me down single-handedly. There wasn’t any one thing he did, but rather everything. The adamant way he abjectly refused to ride his bicycle down the hill from our house to the arts festival down the street, the consistent whining during the ensuing walk there, his insistence to stop in front of every driveway and block his brother from getting by, the way he spoke to his father and me all day, as if we were part of horrible episode of Supernanny. His four, long tantrums, in which he alternatively told me he needed a hug and a kiss and then hid his head in his pillow and told me to go away.

He isn’t always like this. Most days, he loves adventures on his bicycle, says “OK Mommy” when I ask him to help me take laundry from the dryer, and he happily plays trains with his brother. He’s a good kid. He’s never exactly easy, but if he’s strong-willed, he’s also kind and curious, he loves helping out and learning and being in charge of small, manageable tasks.

Just not today. Today in the store he tried to climb over the check-out counter, and when I finally gave into the temptation that was sitting on my shoulder all day and hissed at him to settle down, he yelled at me that I wasn’t talking to him very kindly. Actually, he was right.

And I was at my limit. I thought about a yoga class, where an instructor told us that if we could face our limits on our yoga mat, we could do so in life as well. That yogis were radical. That yogis faced challenges head-on with a sense of curiosity, compassion, and steadiness.

Today I was not a yogi.

Finally, during dinner tonight, I cried. We were listening to Christine Kane’s beautiful son “Break,” to the verse:

You were last seen working straight around the clock, moving top speed, drinking who-cares-on-the-rocks.
Now the one and only thing that’s left to do is to find a way to break. Fall apart.
You keep holding on to things you know you can’t control. Let go now till you know how.
All the walls around your heart only keep you in the dark till the light shines where the parts have cracked away.

I didn’t sob, it was nothing dramatic. But there were definitely tears leaking out of my eyes, which both of my sons saw. It wasn’t any one thing that set off my waterworks. Rather, it was all that I had carried all day, the weight of all I had done that was wrong as a mother. In my memories, my mother was always steady, unflappable. Once I remember her washing my mouth out with soap, but she never seemed to waver in her abundant care and she never seemed to doubt herself. Today, I felt as lost as a pair of eyeglasses in the darkness. I felt dwarfed by the calm of my husband who always seems a better, more mature parent than I am, diminished by another mother who insinuated that her son wouldn’t eat birthday cake at Oliver’s party because it wasn’t healthy, reduced by son’s behavior, which seemed to be a direct result of my own skills as a mother. And finally, I was humbled by the fact that I couldn’t wait until after dinner to cry.

“Why doesn’t today bother you?” I asked my husband.

“Today was definitely hard,” he said and then shrugged. “But it’s wonderful too,” he told me, “Look at our boys.” This only made me feel worse. Not only was he calm, he had perspective on the situation that I apparently lacked.

“All husbands are like that,” my friend Suzanne said, when she called. “We have more invested in being a good mother than they do. We care more.” It was barely four o’clock there and I could hear the bleep of a checkout counter from the store where she was grocery shopping. At that moment, she felt a million miles away. I haven’t seen her for six months, since we left California for Virginia, and I missed her like crazy. Not only did I not have another “Suzanne” in Virginia, I didn’t have another friend period.

She sounded a little teary herself as we spoke. “Seriously,” she said finally, “I feel like I am going a little crazy.” She normally ran sixty miles a week, but she was injured now and she felt lost within her own life without running and its subsequent endorphin rush. We talked about her three young children, her very dependent mother, and the fact that she was coming up on a one-year anniversary of a very painful illness she suffered from last fall while she was pregnant with her son. But she told me that she didn’t feel entitled to complain about anything because of the abundance in her life. “Three of my friends are getting divorced,” she said, “And I know I have so much. But sometimes, I just feel sad. Or just overwhelmed. And there’s no way to fall apart when you have kids.”

“Ha,” I told her. “I just cried during dinner.”

“Well,” she confessed, in a hushed voice. “I went to bed last night at 6:15. And I had three glasses of wine.”

“So I’m not the only one?” I asked.

There was silence on the other end of the phone. “Who knows.”

I don’t know either.

And here’s what I am trying to figure out: Are we just selfish, over-entitled women who don’t know how to be grateful for our large and lavish gifts? Or are we making ourselves crazy by not allowing ourselves to feel the full range of life, which includes grief as well as joy; darkness as well as light. Is it OK to show our children that sometimes we feel angry and sad and upset and it’s not the end of the world? Or, should we keep up a brave front at all costs?

When my son was little and he cried, he told me, “It’s OK mommy, it’s just a little rain on my face.” That’s how I felt tonight, lying on the dining room bench.

I needed to break a bit. Fall apart. Only I don’t feel allowed. As a mother, I don’t feel entitled to feel what I am feeling in front of my family. So instead, I have an extra glass of wine or I yell at my husband. I eat too much chocolate. And honestly, I am tired of doing that, to adding pain on top of pain.

I was hoping that in writing all of this down, an anecdote would come to me, some story from my past that would clear it all up, or at least show me where I was wrong. But that hasn’t happened. I am still here, sitting in the dark.

Where Am I?

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