do no harm – to YOU

“The theme of class today is ahimsa,” said Betsy at the beginning of Thursday’s yoga class. I knew the word and was startled that Betsy had somehow gotten into my head and heard the vitriol there. She had chosen this theme just for me. I shrunk down on my mat for a moment, ashamed. But then I straightened my spine. Clearly, this was just where I needed to be.

Ahimsa is part of a code of conduct in a number of traditions, including yoga, Buddhism, and Jainism. These codes – much like the Ten Commandments – provide rules by which to lead a good life. In several of these traditions, ahimsa comes first and is a code against doing violence toward others. Many people have used ahimsa as reason for practicing vegetarianism, and it’s certainly used as a reminder of kindness toward others. But what my yoga teacher was getting at, and the reason I’d heard the term before, was because we should also practice nonviolence toward ourselves. And most of us suck at it.

May I proffer that artists suck a lot at this. We have an army of voices, well-honed from the stingiest writing workshop to the meanest crit group:  Is it good enough? Is it bright enough? Red enough? Bold enough? Smart enough? Straight enough? Round enough? Will anyone care?

Each of us – and I am so sure of this, even if you are nodding your head NO – has her one tiny but significant domain of mamahood perfection.

And if anyone is worse than artists, it’s probably mothers. The load of shame and guilt and not-enoughness that mothers heap upon themselves could keep a bull whip factory in business for lifetimes. We are never the Queen of the PTA. The one who brings all of the right snacks in the perfect containers. The one with the handmade birthday invitations and the kid-perfect party. Well – that’s not true. Often we are. Each of us in her own particular way, at her own particular thing is PERFECT. Each of us – and I am so sure of this, even if you are nodding your head NO – has her one tiny but significant domain of mamahood perfection. The issue is that we are not perfect – or even close – in many, many others and those are the areas that we focus on.

As an artist who isn’t getting her work done – certainly not at the speed or level that she would be doing if she were not a mother (I’m reminded of Hope Edelman’s comment that every child a woman has means one less book she could have written) – I beat myself up. You do too, don’t you? I feel sorry for myself and make myself a victim – almost as damaging as the bullwhip – and I compare myself endlessly and without clarity to women who seem to be doing it all (when if I stopped and examined, I could see the ways in which this isn’t true).

This behavior, this utter lack of ahimsa, is reaching a frightening, Mengele-like zenith because I am currently looking for a job. My temp gig is ending in another month or two, and there are no clear options in sight. Looking for work fills me with dread. It reminds me of how much I am not an artist in the day-to-day way in which I long to be. It also reminds me of the way in which I do not and will not ever fit into corporate culture. (Years ago, I was downtown Seattle with my parents on a bright spring day that turned unexpectedly hot. We were having lunch at a restaurant, surrounded by working girls in brightly matching suits and blouses, and I was berating myself for my lack of working girl moxie. The heat drove me to take off my sweater.  Then later in the bathroom I realized that I had on a black bra and looked ridiculous. I couldn’t even get this right, much less purchase and wear a cobalt blazer and skirt. I cried to myself, locked in a stall, and the moment has remained with me ever since – a beacon of my failure as A Worker.)

Looking for work also brings me face to face with the ever difficult issues of being a single mother with school-aged kids who get sick and have conference days and snow days and those three entire damned months of frolic known as summer vacation. Could I really take a job in a city a half hour away, for instance, where I’d be working eight to five? What would happen when the school nurse calls?

Looking for work brings me face-to-face with my worst demons: Money. My desire to Create. And my desire to be the best mother possible. Something’s got to give. And what gives first is any slim ability I have to be kind to myself, to cut myself some slack.

Even though it was two days ago, and I’ve struggled many times since to be kind to myself, I’m going to take Betsy’s advice and find ways to be kind to my artist-earner-mama self. I’m dreaming up a funky video project about my work – something I can send people that declares who I am and what I can offer, something that will actually be fun to make and perhaps useful in the longrun. I’m going to breathe deeply for the next few days before my kids go on a week-long trip with their dad, at which time I can steep myself in yoga and baths and reading the comically diverse books I got at the library.

I’m going to watch myself and give myself secret, silent fist bumps when I do something really well — nothing is too small. I know how to use semi-colons – no small feat!  I give good answers to some of my kids’ weirder questions. I am good at spooning. My pets do not go hungry. I am making my ex-husband a birthday cake, and just this morning I had the kids call his mom to wish her happy birthday. I do a great camel pose. I can order off a menu in French. I got my sidewalk fixed just when the city asked me to so. I recycle.

Nothing is too small. It’s all worthy of a quiet moment of celebration.

There’s a Buddhist saying:  “Practice like your hair is on fire.” Can I bring that same passion – a passion akin to what I focus on my missteps and my shortcomings – to ahimsa? Marrying passion with gentleness, seems like a very good practice to try my hand at for awhile – black bra and all.



4 thoughts on “do no harm – to YOU”

  1. Jennifer, thanks for the reminder. I was just talking to a friend this morning–another writer–about how much we doubt ourselves and our work, as a matter of course. I have a deep and flooding sense that I will be discovered as a fraud, and my work will be discovered as trash, despite the praise this really important piece of my writing got recently. Such a hard thing to silence those whips!

  2. Jennifer – Thanks for sharing this. I’m always amazed how a theme for my yoga class just comes to me, and I’m glad it reached you because I know I needed to remember the concept of ahisma too this past week (and literally most days and weeks throughout the year). If only we all treated ourselves as well as we treat others….
    Thanks for your writing….

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