Animal

March 26, 2011 § 4 Comments

Oliver and I on the beach in Ventura

It rained this week and the temperature dropped from 70 to 40. March: the time of shadows and great shifts. Wind. The boys and I stayed inside during the rainstorms, although as soon as the skies cleared, I bundled them in coats and made them do wind sprints around the traffic circle at the end of our block. It was that kind of week, that kind of preschool boy energy.

What has been on my mind lately is change. How difficult it is for me to drop old habits, old ways of thinking. I wish I could stay in that sacred space for longer than an hour or two. I wish I could stay hooked up to that divine spirit, the place that always feels like home to me. I wish my own personal transformations were as easy as winter turning to spring. But then, I think, even winter doesn’t always turn to spring so gracefully. It’s going to snow tonight and our little garden is covered with tarps and cardboard. Perhaps change – like the seasons – takes two steps forward and a step back.

Today, I decided to let myself off the hook. I decided to let the entire world off the hook for a change. I think of what Claire Dederer wrote in “Poser” about how motherhood became a “Goodness Project” for her. I think of how hard we all try to be good and that maybe, I would have an easier time with change if I learned how to surrender more and try a little less. A few weeks ago, the fields near our house were filled with Canadian Geese on their way north. Those good animals, who without trying at all, fly in perfect formation.

And now, I am going to hand it over to Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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.

Suffering

September 27, 2010 § 2 Comments

The idea to give up suffering is not unique to me, of course, but I have been thinking about it a lot. Always I am in the process of giving something up: chocolate, wine, complaining, dairy products. I have this idea that if I restrict some part of myself – the feline part, the aspect of myself that craves warm sunshine and sweet pleasures – that I will fit the mold I am supposed to fit, that I will somehow be able to lop off all the parts of myself that I am not as fond of. I realize that this doesn’t make any sense. I just finished a yoga workshop with Rolf Gates who asked us this very question. “Why is it that we think that if we kick ourselves around enough, we’ll be good people?”

On Saturday, I decided to try out this idea. What would happen, I wondered, if I stopped trying to get my life to look like the inside of a magazine, if I stopped obsessing about the outsides of things: fluffing the pillows just so, cleaning up the endless parade of Thomas trains, trying to get the golden tan and perfect abs of a swimsuit model?

I lasted about two minutes. As soon as I left my bedroom at ten of seven Saturday morning, I tripped on a stack of children’s books and immediately told my son (not even five) that he needed to be a bit more responsible about his things. “It’s OK, I’ll clean it up” my husband said, coming out of the bathroom with toothpaste still on his lip. “Go. To. Yoga,” he mouthed. I sighed. Already I was failing. Only now I was beginning to suffer about the fact that I couldn’t seem to stop suffering.

In yoga class, I felt like I had been given someone else’s body. Someone older and remarkably inflexible. I have just started running again and my hips are tight. I could barely manage downward dog and still breathe. What would not suffering look like right now? I asked myself. My body answered by sinking into child’s pose, which I rarely ever do. My usual mantra is “Do it right or don’t do it at all.” Hardly conducive to a lack of suffering.

On the way home I decided to stop at the store. Instead of calling my husband and checking to see if he needed anything, I continued on and took my time selecting apples, some chocolate chia seeds, coconut milk yogurt. No suffering, I thought to myself. I am going to enjoy myself. When I came home, Scott came running out of the house to meet me. “I almost called the yoga studio,” he said. “We’re really late for Oliver’s project.”

“What?” I asked. “I just went to the store.” Then I looked down at my watch and realized I was home almost an hour later than I said I would be.

“Oliver’s project,” Scott repeated. “It’s today at Lowe’s.”

“Oh God,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I had forgotten that Scott signed he and Oliver up for a father-son-build-a-firetruck project from ten till eleven. And then I added, “But you didn’t tell me. How was I supposed to know? I really wish you would learn to communicate more with me. I can’t do all the work here.”

Later, after they left, I found the word “LOWES” in big letters on today’s date on the wipe-off calendar we have in the mudroom. Oh, I thought, he did tell me. And I just made him feel awful. In my desire to end my own suffering, I had somehow passed it on, chucked it into my husband’s lap. Even the silence in the house felt accusatory. Gus, my baby, not yet two, walked in. “Mommy, play,” he said. But I was already gone into the buzz of feeling bad, and on top of that, the pressure to not suffer. You are just not doing it right, I told myself.

Also on the calendar under “LOWES” was a reminder about an Octoberfest party I had forgotten about. And I needed to bring something. “Let’s make brownies,” I told my son, and instead of playing, I sat him up on the counter with me as I took brownie mix from the pantry and added melted margarine and water, letting Gus taste the thick batter. I made frosting too, following a rich vegan recipe that made me feel a bit better about myself. After I frosted the brownies, I tried a small spoonful of icing and then another. Pleasure, I thought to myself. I am going to make this day about pleasure. I am going to allow myself all that I usually restrict, all that I typically deny. The spoonful of frosting was followed by another and then more, until half of the bowl was gone.

“Mommy, play,” Gus said, wandering into the kitchen again, after the leftover frosting was in the trashcan, safe, where the part of me that can’t be trusted couldn’t get to it. Now, in addition to being miserable, I had a stomachache, a head flying with sugar. I wanted to cry with the failure of it all, with how hard I try, only to come up short. I had just been to a yoga class. Why wasn’t I fixed? I felt like a fraud, like someone who goes to mass and then yells at the car behind then while still in the church parking lot.

Somehow I had mistaken a lack of suffering with hedonism, I had confused letting myself off the hook with allowing myself to get out of control. I had thrown self-discipline out the window. I had simply externalized my suffering, handed it off to someone else, and in my pursuit of external pleasure had created a brand new type of pain. I had just gone from one extreme to the next. I had abandoned my northern Puritanical roots for a day on the Las Vegas strip and had completely skipped the middle. Why, I wondered, did moderation feel so extreme?

In the same yoga workshop in which Rolf Gates talked about the way we beat ourselves us, he stressed the need for stability. Equinimity. A sense of happiness with ordinary things, with the way life was at that moment. The workshop was held in a large gym, and even though outside, it was a normal, swampy D.C. summer, inside the gym, the air conditioner was on full blast. Those of us in yoga tanks were shivering. “How many of you practice yoga in a warm room?” Rolf asked. All of us raised our hands. “Is this room warm?” he laughed. “But it shouldn’t matter,” he continued. “You show up, you do yoga. It’s hot, it’s cold. It doesn’t matter. You don’t feel like it? It doesn’t matter. You show up. Yoga isn’t what you are doing. It’s how you are being.” I thought of that now. Being yoga. Practicing equinimity. Ignoring the whining voice in my own head the way I sometimes ignored my son’s: “I can’t understand you when you talk like that, sweetie.” A way of only paying attention to my¬† power, to the truth, to the way things were, regardless of how I felt about them. A way to end suffering by simply ignoring it, by waking up to the present moment and just sinking in to whatever it offered. Maybe suffering was optional?

When I was moving, my yoga teacher, Jessica Anderson suggested I make a self-care package for myself, something to get me through these days and weeks of change and uncertainly. She herself had a book full of inspirational quotes, photos, poems. She told me about how she paves her weeks on Sunday nights, making sure she had what she needed in the days ahead to be her highest self: time to meditate, healthy food in the fridge, time with her children. A way of caring for the powerful part in her. I, on the other hand, had forgotten the discipline it took to be an adult. To take responsibility. I had mistaken selfishness for self-care.

So I wrote down a list of what I need for the week. Green smoothies for breakfast and chocolate-flavored tea. Poems by Mary Oliver and my fleece-lined flip-flops. More vegetables. Time on my mediation cushion and time watching Glee. Talking like Sir Topham Hatt and watching my sons giggle and race Thomas and Gordon around their wooden track. Snuggling with my husband. Simple, simple things. Things that take me out of my head and into that soft, still place behind my heart.

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