March 13, 2011 § 4 Comments
With the coming of spring, I expected something of a transformation. We had a few days of really warm weather: soft breezes, sunlight you could feel, flowers beginning to break through the soil. This is it, I thought. Spring. The end of winter. (Now ask me how that went. Four days later, we had snow.)
In a way, I have always believed transformation was like this: a sudden and dramatic shift happening from the outside in. Before a new job, I buy new clothes, as if confidence comes in a shopping bag. I believe that if enough people like me, I will be able to like myself. I have been trying to ramp up my freelance writing, so I thought I would buy a new theme for my blog and get a real website. (That was something of a disaster as apparently you need to know code, which I don’t.) At 38, you would think that I know that transformation is not something that can be purchased at Barney’s. It isn’t full of warm and gentle breezes. It doesn’t have a homepage.
Last Sunday I woke up to cold driving rain. Hard rain, coming down in sheets. “You don’t have to go Sweetie,” Scott told me as I pushed back the covers and looked out the window. “It’s paid for whether or not you actually run.” I had signed up for a trail race series months ago, thinking that by the time the first race started I would have lost 15 pounds and gotten in shape for it. The first 10-mile race was that morning at Hemlock State Park in Clifton Virginia. Needless to say, I was not in racing shape. I still weighed 120 pounds. (OK, 125.) At 5’2″, it’s not like that weight makes me a candidate for a heart attack or anything. But it’s still too much. It’s an extra 15 pounds of chocolate eaten when what I really wanted was love. It’s the bread and butter I ate when what I really needed was comfort. It’s the extra glass of wine and piece of cheese eaten when no one was looking. It’s not as though I mow through a bag of double stuffs or anything like that. But what I do is probably more damaging, more insiduous. I eat standing up: a handful of animal crackers after Oliver has had a meltdown that ended in him trying to kick me. I eat chocolate when I wash up the dishes at night or a teeny sliver of cake because what I really want (more time to write, greater ease with my first born, a friend who lives in my area code, compassion for myself) isn’t available at that moment.
Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God as well as a number of other beautiful books on women and food would say I am eating behind my own back. Perhaps it isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Except that it is. Because Roth would also say that how I do anything is how I do everything. Behind my own back. As if I had to hide from myself.
Last week I had to go to the dentist. The office was in Roslyn, a veritable mecca of office building and Department of Defense Headquarters. Outside my dentist’s building, a well-dressed woman was huddled into her long coat smoking a cigarette, reading a romance novel, and drinking a Dr. Pepper. Her work badge was still hanging around her neck, but she was most definitely not at work. I felt her defiance as I walked by, as sort of If I’m gonna be stuck in a cubicle at 1500 Wilson Boulevard, you can be damn sure I’m getting my smoke break. She may as well have been holding up her middle finger. She reminded me of myself except that I don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk when I eat chocolate. I hide, just as I hide from my own messy and marvelous life.
That’s why I got out of bed last Sunday and put on my running shorts. Socks that I knew would be soggy in about 5 minutes. Sometimes I feel so powerless over my own situation. I have fallen into doing what is easy rather than choosing my heart’s desire. The race was a promise I could keep. If integrity means doing what you say you are going to do, then I needed to begin again. I needed to run the race I said I would run.
To quote Lynn Jennings, the course at Hemlock State park was pretty much a boondoggle. A donnybrook. It was hilly and it was wet. It rained the entire time. We ran along a creek and had to jump from boulder to boulder. It was so muddy by the end that I slid down an entire hill on my feet. I went down another on my butt. The course was so washed out for the last two miles that I held onto trees at points to avoid sliding down a ravine. It took more than an hour and a half to run ten miles. After about an hour, it began to feel like childbirth: fatigue with a sense of panic thrown in. How long was this going to last? Was I going to finish? There was just the work in front of me and the great unknown of when it would end paired with the knowledge that even if I knew when it would be over, it wouldn’t matter. I thought of the book my son Oliver loved so much: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a big one. It’s a beautiful day. We’re not scared.
And yet. And yet I felt more myself than I have in ages. Running in the woods has always grounded me to the planet, tethered me to my own soul. When I was 16 and a senior in high school, I lay in bed one September morning and told myself that I would break the school record on every cross-country course I ran that year. Two months later I accomplished it. Three years later, I was the top US finisher at the Junior World Cross Country Championships in Boston. For a while, I had an insane sort of integrity about running. I did exactly what I said I was going to do.
Last Sunday, in the rain, I remembered that old self. She inhabited me again as my toes scrambled for purchase on tree roots. Only now instead of trying to win, I was trying not to finish last. I was running in the back with the former football players. I was trying to beat a girl with pink socks. Oh how the mighty have fallen, I thought as a photographer nabbed a shot of me as I slipped and fell. What happened to me, I wondered even as I already knew. It’s so easy for tapas, or zeal, to become obsession. My own integrity and commitment to running spiraled into a mania that ended with a broken pelvis and a stress fracture in my hip. My integrity had led me to pain and loss and grief. Somehow, I had let myself believe that dreams were too risky, too elusive.
Then, I heard a small voice in my head tell me that it’s never too late to be who you might have been. I have no desire to run competitively again. For one, I don’t have the pain tolerance. For another, there are other things I want to do. I want to be a better wife and friend. I want to write more. I want to meditate daily and have more faith. I want to believe in myself again. I want to surrender more and resist less. I want to help. I want to leave behind more light than darkness. I want to transform myself from someone who hides in her kitchen eating chocolate into someone who lives gracefully, who keenly feels the pain and joy and boredom and love of the present moment and then releases it so that the next can come. Transformation. Why was it taking so long?
I just finished a really good book called Ravenous, by Dayna Macy, in which she chronicles her own relationship with food from an olive grove to a slaughter house to her own hometown. When she is trying to change her own habits of overeating, she talks to her yoga teacher who tells her: “When you develop new samskaras and replace fantasies with clear vision, you’re leaving an old order behind. That order may not have been healthy but it was familiar and comfortable. When you leave it behind you enter a kind of transition state, a bardo in Tibetan terms. Being present in this state requires faith, because you’re not sure where you’ll land and fearlessness, because it’s so unformed.”
I was living a bardo as I ran in the rain and through the mud. I had no idea where my feet would land. I only knew where to go because I was following the runner ahead of me. Towards the end of the race, I could only focus on what was in front of my feet. Mud, leaves, roots, rocks. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We have to go through it. The course was in the middle of the woods along a stream. The sky was grey and the ground was brown. At one point, when I was disoriented and cold, I thought it was cross country season again. October. Halloween. My favorite time of year. No. I shook my head quickly. It was March, not October. It struck me then, that in the woods, spring and fall look exactly alike. That sometimes, dying and being born are kind of the same thing.
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.