Robert Smithson's drawings for his "Spiral Jetty."

Robert Smithson’s drawings for his “Spiral Jetty.”

A friend wrote yesterday of her daughter who is in college and already worrying about what she’ll do for work when she’s done. I remember that feeling – fear mixed with aniticipation. It didn’t start for me until I had left a graduate school program, not fitting into the PhD mold but also not finding an alternative. Floating between temp jobs and a restaurant, then a teaching certificate program and Microsoft – always thinking I should be moving up, up, up. Seeing life as a hierarchy, a ladder to greater and greater stability.

Slowly, it started dawning on me that life is a spiral, not a ladder at all. You return and return to the same lessons, each time with a little more knowledge under your belt. I first expressed this during a therapy session in my late 20s, voicing it as though it was the newest, freshest idea the world had ever heard. I had no clue that I’d simply stumbled on what for many spiritual paths is a given. Rebirth, renewal, falling, beginning again.

What continues to be challenging for me now, even firmly in this spiral of life, is the new normal. When has something shifted and we are best served by accepting the new now. When is it a problem that needs to be addressed? I think here of my back. Last year at this time I was in considerable pain – literally crawling upstairs some nights. Working in the garden this weekend has reminded me of how just a year ago I couldn’t do these simple tasks – bending over, tilling, planting,  moving the hose around the yard. And part of me – as well as many other people I trust – was counseling acceptance. This was the new normal. But another part of me wouldn’t accept it, and that’s how I discovered the cyst – which led to healing.

When do we fight the power? And when do take a deep breath and bring that Mona Lisa smile to our lips and think, ‘Yes. This too.’ Neither is an easy path. Something came up with my daughter and school recently – a class she isn’t being allowed to take because of standardized test scores, despite swimmingly stupendous grades. I fought it a bit – and I got pushed back. So I started to accept. And then in sharing it with a firey friend, I heard, “Push back!” And so I may just try that again. Which serves her best? I’m not entirely sure.

It’s a dance, dodging this way, sitting down that way. Sprinting and then swaying slowly. Open the soft naked parts of yourself to the elements, and then hug in tight under the warmest of blankets. Twisting and turning, swimming hard and then floating around the spiral.

baby stuffCleaned out the medicine cabinet this weekend. Threw away my ex-husband’s cologne that didn’t have much aroma left. Threw out a jar of pinkish goop that a friend had given me for stretch marks. Tossed cough syrup and kid’s cherry-flavored Tylenol. Disposed of a broken thermometer and a half-used bar of soap in a baggie. Saved the bottle ylang ylang essential oil that I bought at the little Tibetan shop in Pike Place Market, circa 1992. Kept the mouthwash that I brought home from Vegas last month. Paused for a moment over these two items – an infant nasal suction that I think we used once unsuccessfully and a tube of diaper ointment that also went largely (entirely?) unused.

Really – my kids were babies and in need of such items just 10 years ago?  Now, we have hair gel and acne medication, deodorant and tampons. For an instant, I thought of keeping these as some memorial of their tinier selves, but then thought of how I’d never save the Clearasil or maxi-pad for similar reasons. Bodies are bodies at whatever stage – ever changing and yet remarkably the same. My hands, looking so worn and old lately and with a twinge of stiffness settling in, are still the hands that changed their diapers, that did my own hair when I was in high school, that held my parents’ hands to cross the street. The same hands that reached for the ylang ylang in that musty shop and applied the cream to my stretched belly. The same hands that tied up the garbage bag and wiped down the medicine cabinet.

We saw Divergent last weekend. It took me a second to grasp that Ashley Judd is the older, plainer mom, not the dazzling, young heroine. Oh yeah, we’re abnegating moms; we wear gray sack dresses and don’t look in mirrors. But in the second part of the movie when she appears at a time of crisis with a really big gun in hand, Tobey leaned over with a triumphant grin, “She’s a kick ass mom!” He  knows how much I love kickass moms.

The screen is full of awful moms, absent moms, crazy moms, narcissistic moms, passive-agresive moms, dead moms, vapid moms. Too few are the ones who are baring their authentic, imperfect souls. Here are a few who inspire me and offer a mirror.

1. I cry every time I watch the parachute scene from The Incredibles. Holly Hunter, aka Helen Parr, aka Elastagirl, flies the plane, expects the most of her children (“Create a force field around the whole plane!”), and then envelopes them with love to soften the landing.

2. Keep your inner geek real.

Mrs. Weir (Freaks and Geeks) makes me cringe – please, lord, never let me be that geeky of a mom. And yet, she kept it real. She wore her love on her sleeve, and she always wanted the best for her kids. She sparkled when they sparkled, and deflated when they were in pain. When Lindsay runs away to a Dead concert in the final episode, lying to her parents about going to the gifted and talented summer camp, you cheer for her freedom — but my mind instantly went to her mom. Part of me was that 16-year old girl, lighting her own path; more of me was the 40-something mom worried for her daughter.

 

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3. Dig deep.

I was never an ongoing Judging Amy viewer, but I happened on to it a number of times just when I needed Tyne Daily’s strong mama the most.  One night, she helped a wayward friend of Amy’s give birth in an inflatable birthing pool in the backyard. She waded in, held the woman, and created a container of strength for what could have been a terrifying situation. I sobbed.

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4. Evolve

Sure she was an oddball and an occasional doormat, but Rush Fisher (Six Feet Under) evolved, and she wasn’t afraid to do it in front of her children. She lost her husband, inherited an odd family business, tried to understand and support three very different kids, fell in love again, and learned about herself.  She went forward with humility and became more beautiful as the show went on.

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5. Feed, clothe, and curse when you need to.

“You will never touch our children again!” So speaketh Mrs. Weasley, the  mom who knitted ill-fitting sweaters, waited up for her family to materialize in the fireplace, provided the only mothering Harry Potter ever knew, and got to utter the most famously grown up venom in the entire series, “Not my daughter, you bitch!
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I washed my car about a month ago on a day of respite from the omnipotent cold. The white doors were white again, not smudged in mud. The floor rugs clean of sand and salt. I did it slap-dash fast, Tobey sitting in the car in his cast watching, his face peeking out as I rubbed the window with the big sudsy brush.

It wasn’t a good job because I knew it wouldn’t last, but it was necessary. Washing away January and December and November before that.

Last night, my friend Hannah talked about the process of moving her and her 11-year old son away from this town where they’ve lived for much of their lives, of the sorting out the old and boxing the needed:  “I just want everything to be organized for a moment.”

It’s a dream we have – a hope — that we can hold everything perfectly if just for an instant:

Each insurance policy, every 401K, the letters from your grandmother, every piece of medical information, those poems you wrote in 3rd grade that you love, the DVD of your first reading at Prairie Lights, your divorce decree and your marriage license, your kids’ best pieces of art, the registration for your car and the deed to your house, the full-on astrological reading, the estimate to have your windows restored, your first dog’s ashes, the note from the flower shop that your dad sent you when you were in high school, the notebook you kept at yoga training, your favorite pajamas, the locket from your grandmother.

All of it. Just right. Just so. For a moment. If you were a good person, you would know where it was. If you were worthy, it would all be here, at finger’s tip. In this life, maybe you’ll get it done. Maybe.

News came that a friend died the other day, a young woman from my yoga training who went way too soon from ovarian cancer. Another man I knew tangentially took his life last week. He’d been my son’s teacher for awhile and would show up at summer potlucks of mutual friends. The brother of a dear friend took his life a few weeks back – a violent, painful death. Waves and waves of lives ceased. Now. Abruptly. Done. No time for order. No “everything in the right place now” – or later. The papers and lockets and the envelopes of hair suddenly hyper important and meaningful. Suddenly utterly irrelevant.

“I wanted to keep his toothbrush forever, to cherish it,” a friend told me about her brother’s death at 22 years old.

But on we live – messily. In complete order and complete chaos our hearts find their way – ba-boom, ha-boom – each day. We find the papers we need when we need them. We learn to accept that things will be lost along the way. Wash it clean, the car will get dirty again.

IMG_0372Three and a half years ago when I started my teacher training at Kripalu, the first discussion point was a fill-in-the-blank: “Yoga is….?”  The textbook answer is that yoga means “union” or “yoked.” But the point was – and is – that yoga means a million different things.

I am back  in this home of sorts. Tonight, in a class with a septugenarian on one side of me and a woman who just couldn’t get comfortable on the other, I thought of how yoga has been my church for more than 20 years. I was about 26 when I started going to a little Iyengar studio on Capitol Hill in Seattle to help with my back. I was at the height of Microsoft commuting and computer sitting; of course my back hurt! Around the same time, I joined a Buddhist study and meditation group for my spirit. I was in my mid-twenties, without a clear path; of course my soul was restless.  And I was in the thick of psycho therapy – for my mind, right? Which, of course, was really the same as my soul. And all of it was connected to my body in ways I didn’t yet understand.

It all helped, but only yoga has remained my constant. It got me out of my head and into my body. And perhaps even more than writing, it’s been a lifelong opportunity for practice. Every day I am on my mat whether in movement or in stillness.

Like any decent practice – to the page, to a god, to a relationship – it forces me to deal with the tough stuff, the “hard shit,” as one of our Kripalu teachers so eloquently put it.

It shouldn’t have been surprising then that returning to Kripalu wasn’t all easy. The stuff burbled and gurgled up. “Nooooo!” part of me yelled. “I’m here to have fun, I’m here for joy, I’m here to relax.” And then I remembered all of the times in the month of my  teacher training that were spent in tears (“I’m going home!”) or out in the lake screaming. Indeed, this place is filled with good food, natural beauty, sweet people — but you’d better be prepared to show up.

Showing up is what yoga has helped me do in life.

Yoga kept me strong and flexible through two pregnancies. It was the safety zone during my dad’s illness and my divorce. It’s been the sure thing during depression and anxiety. Last winter, when my back hurt so much, it was the thing that I did not want to give up but that helped me to give it up. (It’s like the cute love interest in the movie who convinces the girl that she shouldn’t be with him any more – at least not for now; he’s that good.)

There was a young woman in my class last week who was clearly not at all sold on yoga. It was her first-ever yoga class – a friend had brought her – and she had a lot of questions and thinly disguised tolerance for certain yogic ways. Afterward, when I asked how she’d found the class, she arched an eyebrow;  “I haven’t been that uncomfortable in a long time.”

I can’t blame her for the distrust. Yoga has been sold as the great tonic, the beautifying, slimming, energizing cure all. It’s not. But any worthwhile church is going to demand that you show up, bow deeply to your shit, and then dedicate yourself to loving it.

Magnolia-1999There are well-known people who die and in their passing a thread to an earlier time is snipped, a thread you thought was already gone. Shirley Temple died yesterday and I had to admit that I hadn’t known she was still here. As with Esther Williams, who died recently, I had a sense of surprise that our hash-tagged, hydroponically grown world still had any connection to that of a tap-dancing girl about whom FDR said:  “For just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

There are others who pass and it’s the thing you dreaded but knew was inevitable, the passing of someone who is growing improbably older despite remaining stunningly relevant. Pete Seeger, you were amazing. Katherine Hepburn, I kept fearing your death until you were actually gone. And I’ve calculated the Dalai Lama’s age and possible life expectancy an embarrassing number of times.

There are people who pass too soon and whose death comes like a punch to the gut because they seemed beyond death, bigger than death, a mighty opponent. Lou Reed, really?

And then there are other people whose oeuvre serves as a reminder of who you were at different times in your life, who seem so human that of course they would die and yet you feel connected to their suffering, it inspired you to grapple with your own – and hearing of it, of their pain and the darkness, you wish you could cover them up, protect them, shield them. You wish you could have bought them a sandwich and a cup of coffee – talked them off the bridge. You wish you could trace a tear down their cheek and hug them to your chest and tell them what it’s meant to you that they’ve shared their gift but, really, they don’t need to share it any more. Just breathe, just sleep – feel the warm earth underfoot, bite into a July peach, kiss the warm hair of a daughter, hum a favorite tune. Take in every simple thing, Philip Seymour Hoffman; be alive and joyful in the smallest moment. Alive. I so wish you were.

Sitting in the bleachers  above the swimming pool, the temperature outside dropping below zero poolafter a day’s reprieve – yesterday: sunny and mid-20s, momentarily glorious –  I wait for my daughter’s events by clicking one by one through the hundreds of contacts that automatically appeared on my new phone last week. Apple has not made this easy – no mass extermination possible, each one an individual reckoning.

The names go back more than a decade, names that help me pinpoint about when I must have gotten my first cell phone (10 years?), names that can largely be erased but only after my brain tabs through the possible connection — the recalcitrant book editor or the one in the spike heels? nondescript mom from preschool? designer associated with the museum project in Brooklyn that sounded so promising? high school friend’s wife with interesting business idea? Sometimes I can’t locate the person at all, which is distressing. As girls churn through the 100 butterfly in the water below me, I wonder out loud, “Who are these people?” reminded of Butch and Sundance riding in exhaustion and looking over their shoulders:  “Who are those guys?”

Rarely, though, do I hover over delete, unsure of whether to remove someone from this little machine that wakes up with me and goes to bed with me. If I can’t remember, if there’s no resonant feeling, then they’re gone. Deceased therapist book editor who didn’t seem to really like me nice woman at crafts museum with whom I never did work woman who changed her name several times and each one is recorded here man with whom I had a flirtation cousin of my ex-husband fraternity brother of my too-long dead father handyman who moved away babysitter who grew up momentary best friend dog sitter. All gone. Erased. But hovering out there in whatever techno ether world allowed them to descend on  my phone last week. Ghostly, they wait for my memory to need them, to recall a connection that no longer exists.

I watched my son walk away down the clinic hallway. I’d tied the gown in the back as tightly as I could but there was still a gap, and I could see his shoulder blades and plaid boxers. On his feet were bright blue socks that the nurse had given him. Walking beside him was the anesthesiologist, a woman a bit older than me who I liked because she hadn’t babied him. He is ten going on twenty; he doesn’t need babying.

He looked back and I waved. I kept looking but then my phone slipped out of my hand, and I bent to pick it up. When I looked again, the double doors had closed behind him.

I sat in the recovery room waiting – talking to Chris about the house and trips, about the possibility of summer and the realities of work. I deleted messages from my phone and sipped super strong black tea. Out of the sliding glass doors that reminded me of the hotel room at Adventureland where we stayed when I was six, doors that I’d run into two or even three times in a weekend causing my parents to laugh and call me a klutz, I saw a gurney.

Tobey’s eyes were closed. I took his hand and they opened, grey-blue and tired. We’d gotten up at 5:30 and he’d just had surgery on his foot. Of course he was tired. His face was chalky white. It’s been below zero for days; outside it’s blowing snow over colorless ice and tufts of lifeless grass. We’re all pale. But he looked drained. I thought of his lively soul – witty, curious, insouciant, and yet sweet. It seemed like his body was there but Tobey hadn’t entirely arrived yet. Where are you my love?

In the next hour, he managed a few sips of Sprite and a bite of applesauce. His skin tone returned to normal January white instead of  creepy sick gray. He still seemed to be nodding off, but as the nurse went through the aftercare instructions, he opened his eyes and thanked her. When another nurse wheeled him out of the clinic, pushing as slowly as he’d requested, he thanked her too. Genuine, heartfelt gratitude from a kid who had just had two fused bones separated.

You see your kids every day and if you’re like me there are plenty of times when you think, “Am I doing this right? Am I messing up?” Tobey doesn’t jump up to help with the groceries when I come home weighted down with bags. He can spend hours on Minecraft – which, yes, I allow with a guilty conscience. He swears. He doesn’t always brush his teeth.  He sometimes has to be cajoled into reading.

When I heard Tobey thanking these women, it felt as if his truest self was there – a solid, confident and very kind soul. Both nurses melted  a bit, grateful to be recognized by a boy sporting a mammoth ace bandage and with a vomit bag laid across his lap “just in case.” It wasn’t a thank you prompted by a parent but the real deal, what thank you’s are at their best. Not perfunctory but one soul recognizing another.

Tonight, at the end of my yoga class , I pressed my hands against my chest and felt the rise and fall. What amazing contraptions bodies are – able to be cut open and put to sleep, woken back up, drugged and iced, kissed and massaged. And beneath the skin and bones: the heart. Beyond the skin and bones: the spirit. Mind boggling when you stop to really notice it.

I got home to find Tobey propped on the sofa watching an old Star Trek, his foot elevated on a stack of pillows. “Hi mom!” he said, clearly glad to have me home. The mom part of me kissed his head. But another part sat down next to him with total respect for his journey. How he picked me, I’ll never know. But what an amazing gift he is. Thank you.

 

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable. – Kahlil Gibran

letters_stackThe email chain came through so earnestly; “We’re starting a collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting Interfaith devotional exchange.”  At first, I thought we was my friend and the other person she’d listed–the person from whence it came and the woman whose name would move to the top of the list.  But then I received the same message from someone else and I read more closely; “we” became  much larger — everyone and no one.

The email said not to think too much about the quote you shared with another, so I copied the Khalil Gibran quote that’s been on my kitchen cupboard for years:  “And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy.” It sustained me through some really dark, shitty times. It still makes me breath more deeply and reminds me to drill down, to see the dust motes the way that Scorsese did in Hugo: Beautiful.

I feel curmudgeonly to admit it, but most of the quotes and poems that have arrived via the chain email have meant little to me. I read them – happy to have this little piece of connected email that is not offering 60% off or reminding me to register for a medical survey. And I am thankful to think of all of these people across the country taking the minute or two to consider the assignment, looking through bookcases or on the bulletin board for the perfect words to share.

 “If you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last.”

Only two have really spoken to me. One was from my 92-year old grandmother (I felt badly as I’d included her thinking that she’d appreciate the email but then realized that she didn’t need one more thing to do; doing it “right” was a burden.). “Always be yourself,” she wrote simply, words that meant more to me knowing the contours of her life. The other was from a man who didn’t identify himself:  “If you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last.”

Both sounded like hard won pieces of very personal advice. Wisdom from the trenches, not from the higher ground of the established poets, not from the proven ground of the greeting card (even the funky greeting card).

I think that words speak to us in the moment and only when they are really heard do they become wise. Today at the gym, fumbling with my iPhone while on the elliptical (“Do not operate a phone while on a moving machine,” is a good truism), I was trying to find the Sharon Salzberg talk I’d heard a few days ago. Not able to locate the exact spot where I’d left off, I repeated some of the recording. This time, though, I really got a particular thought. (Essentially:  We want to be generous to others, but we can only do this if we cultivate abundance in ourselves, toward ourselves.) Today I heard this message. Three days ago – whether it was because my heart was closed or there was too much background noise, who knows – I couldn’t.

So if you get the chain mail asking for a quote or thought of inspiration, go ahead and participate. But know that the most important audience for your message will be yourself, reconnecting with words that have resonated with you in the past and reminding yourself of their grace in the present.

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I’ve been working with several words in the past few months. Spacious is one. And authentic is another. Also balance and path -

- as in, “What is my right path? What is my work on this ride we call life?” Not able to limit myself to A Word — just as I can never decide between savory and sweet on a breakfast menu or, god forbid, breakfast and dinner on one of those vexing menus that doesn’t  fit a time of day — I now add another word for 2014:  Generous.

As in – I want to read authors who are generous with their characters and their readers. This is how I felt all the way through Telegraph Avenue. Months after having put it down I still miss Gwen and Valetta and Mr. Jones and their very real attempts to live fully. Ditto musicians who live their music and moviemakers who are carried away by the storytelling and the desire to share a certain truth.

As in – I am continuously thankful for my many friends who give of their time, kindness, and talents — friends who talked me off of my own particular cliffs last year, who shared in our wedding, who opened their homes to my kids.

As in – I want to eat food that is generously prepared – warming of the soul as much as the palate. Here, I think of the plate of greens and eggs and a buttermilk biscuit dripping with homemade strawberry preserves that was handed to me by Eric Menzel at his Salt Fork Farms market stand on a drizzly morning in early September. Or of a salmon that had been grilled and deboned by my friend Carey and then shared around little kitchen table along with late-into-the-night conversation.

As in – I realized how much I want to stay in this house because I am blessed by neighbors who look out for all of the creatures of my household and who teach me to repair my lawnmower, right down to a lesson in spark plugs.

As in – I want to keep doing business with tradespeople and store owners who are in love with the way an old sink matches the oddball tub and the possibility of finding a skirt that matches the just-so shirt. I found both in the final months of 2013 — an old sink brought to life by Ginny Blair and an outfit patiently put together with help from Kara at Catherine’s and my friends Cheryl and Tonya.

As in – I am honored to have kids who can tell when I need a hug and open their arms wide. Last week my son said – seemingly out of nowhere – “I’m so glad you get to go back to Kripalu. It makes you so happy, and you deserve it.” What a gem to know this and share it with me.

As in – I look forward to another year of exploring generosity with my husband (still trying out that particular word!). His ever big heart was on display in a dream I had the other night in which a friend who is in a bad spot right now came back to Iowa City for a party. At the end of it, we realized that among the gifts she received was a bright aqua washer & dryer set. We had no idea who had given these grand and much needed gifts, and as we asked around no one ‘fessed up. When I got home, the twinkle in Chris’ eye at hearing the story indicated the gifts were from him. In real life, I don’t imagine Chris giving anyone aqua appliances, but the dream spoke to his big spirit, the way in which he gives of his love, wisdom, and patience without any expectation of recognition.

So possible synonyms for generous are kind hearted, patient, creative, buttered, soulful, intentional, authentic, balanced. Authentic? Balanced? Those sound familiar. Ah, I see a path here all the way back to my heart. All the way back to remembering that being generous with myself is the most important thing I can do this year.

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