I am so grateful. And rather amazed to hear myself saying so. In a few weeks, I’ll no longer have a job or any known source of income – which is more than enough to make me wake up with a start many nights. My dear madre has conspired to see to it that I have a soft landing pad on my duff. Hopefully whatever fall there is won’t be too hard – or too long lasting. In the meantime, I keep tossing proverbial sticks in the fire and believe (though I can’t promise you I’ll say the same thing if you ask me in two days – especially at 2 a.m.) that one of them will light on fire – brilliantly – at just the right moment. Any minute now…

Namely to do work that is worthwhile in the company of good people; to be there for my kids; and to maintain this home, which is a gift unto itself.

In addition to applying willy nilly for jobs at places that range from banks and libraries to the Department of Epidemiology (just got the letter from the latter today, informing me they’d found someone more “suitable” and wishing me “luck” in my search – which feels akin to being handed a face mask at the beginning of an H1N1 outbreak), I am meditating on what I want:  namely to do work that is worthwhile in the company of good people; to be there for my kids; and to maintain this home, which is a gift unto itself. I am more sure that I want to teach again – but something new, something with a spin. Writing through grief? Yoga for teens? How to have a good divorce ? … There’s something out there that I’m supposed to be sharing more actively, and I’m excited – albeit a bit terrified – to pull it out of my velvet top hat.

Tobey and Bella on the Gulf of Mexico - the sweet life.

As I wait for this year 2010 to arrive, an inexorable wave that is just out of reach, I sit here, tea cup in hand, and smile with pleasure for the many beautiful moments that shine brighter in my memory than any of the dark places of 2009. I can be dark – yes, I have my moments – but Lexapro free as I am of late, I amaze myself at my ability to see plenty of light. For this, I credit the moments that have provided me with grounding –  like the two times I visited  the ocean this year. I’m thankful that at 43 I am no less enthralled by the power of water. The Atlantic — well, really the Gulf of Mexico — provided the most LOVELY day of all 365. Just one day. Perhaps seven hours, when you come right down to it. At a friend’s beach house with my mom and my kids. They dug for sand crabs and carved out  moats, while I read Peter Mayle’s fluffy but totally pleasurable Hotel Pastis cover to cover. Wow. Talk about gratification.

A page from Dan Eldon's journals.

There was also Los Angeles and my dear friend Kathy’s house. I was there working on another book about her son, Dan Eldon. I spent a day with his journals – such amazing reminders of what a life well lived looks like. It looks like Pleasure. It looks like Passion. It looks Curious and Open Ended. The journals always leave me feeling wide OPEN to possibility, so I was in a good space when I left them, first to visit  my friend Kyle’s store – a craft shop that is an act of love by one single mama/artiste  – and then to listen to my friend Hope read from her book – a book that gets to the heart of motherhood and the soft spine of creativity. Later that night, meeting Barb at Lucques, I had one of my favorite meals of the year.  I don’t remember what I ate, but I vividly recall talking and talking in a cozy room while people brought wine and refilled water and Barb laughed. The next day – capping off all of this creative energy – I stood with my toes in the the Pacific, remembering its ineffable return and our briny beginnings.

The wishing rocks, Topanga Beach, Malibu, USA

One of the greatest ongoing blessings of my year was my yoga practice. I took classes with several outstanding teachers in Los Angeles, including Bryan Kest. A trip to San Francisco brought me to two studios in the Mission, the most memorable of which was a lovely class with a buoyant teacher named Peter Guinosso. My own little corner of the earth is now teeming with yoga. The opening of Heartland Yoga, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, makes me feel ever more at home here; my belief that I belong and have a like-minded community, ever more intact. I remain amazed, after more than 15 years of practice, as to how powerful yoga is for me as a creative force – or, rather, as a tool to renewing my creativity and shedding any hunched-shoulder weariness that comes with mamahood or from gray jobs.

Shoes awaiting their yogis, Santa Monica.

Oh, for the time in my life when I used to keep a journal in which I wrote the title of every book I read and by year’s end, pages had been filled with appraising comments and explanation points.

Outside of that woozie, delightful entire-book day on the beach, my reading was woefully limited this year. Oh, for the time in my life when I used to keep a journal in which I wrote the title of every book I read and by year’s end, pages had been filled with appraising comments and explanation points. Hopefully, I’ll experience that again, but for now, I get through 1/3 of the Sunday New York Times – always starting with the Style section (shame, shame). With the oh-so-sad demise of Gourmet, I have become a fan of Chow, which I read online as steadfastly as the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle.  I love the little dashes of honesty and wit that I find online among friends like Aimee at Artsyville and Karen at Cheerio Road.  And I enjoy bumping into new friends and new ideas, such as How Art Saved My Life and Bulls Eye Baby.

The life of a single mama doesn’t even lead much time for films. Most of what I’ve seen, I’ve seen with my kids. Often, this is satisfying, but sometimes, as on my birthday when we sat in a movie theater during a rainy beach vacation, watching Up (a good movie, but not what I had in mind that day), I want to cry. As with reading, I remember being in my 20s in Seattle and going to movies all of the time. Matinees alone. Weekends with friends. Rainy days. Summer nights. The Neptune. The Egyptian. The Harvard Exit. The Guild.  Now, the kids and I forego the big screen of the mall cineplex and snuggle up with my computer to watch in bed. We went on a documentary spree last winter, my favorite of which was Girls, Rock! More recently, I saw a documentary about a Tibetan monk in search of the reincarnation of his lama. Unmistaken Child is a beautiful film that raises unique questions about spirituality – who leads, how they’re chosen, what is valued. Food, Inc. made me once again struggle with just what to buy at the grocery store, an overwhelming ethical dilemma worthy of Martin Luther. Undoubtedly, though, the film that  hit closest to home was Everlasting Moments, which I saw in NYC last March. Set in Sweden in the early 1900s, a woman gets a camera and discovers both a gift and a passion – which spells joy and trouble, not necessarily in that order.

So that trip to New York in March also brought about one of several Food Moments of the year. Most memorably:  oodles of  noodles and other goodies round a lazy susan in a crammed Chinatown restaurant with five friends who didn’t previously know each other — three writers, an editor, a photographer, and a painter. Loud but blissfully so! Another meal so loud that I nearly lost my voice was at avec with April on a weirdly mild winter night in Chicago. We couldn’t get in until 9:00 pm and by the time we left, it was well after midnight, but we were more that sated. So happy, that place. Then there were the croissants — oh, too many croissants for one woman to have eaten alone whilst working on a book in a borrowed apartment — from Tartine in San Francisco.

And the steamed oatmeal from Doma — so good that I’ve slowly been adapting it at home on my stove, which has seen plenty of action with boules of no-knead bread, chocolate gelato, and Mark Bittman’s divine – I mean really, on-your-knees divine roasted corn salad.

Steamed oatmeal - recipe, please?Hands down, though, the best meal of the year was a mid-July feast in honor of Bastille Day. The place: Kristin and Kat’s screened-in porch. My attire:  a Chinese red dress. The menu: 7 or so courses, climaxing with a variation on a Patricia Well’s Mediterranean rabbit.  The company: Impeccable. Especially the man at the far end who piqued my interest. A week later, I introduced myself on Facebook. I have a lot of women in my life, I basically said, and they are wonderful. But I am trying to cultivate some male friendships. Are you game? The answer pinged back, indeed, and we haven’t stopped talking yet.

And that, folks — along with generous mothers and block parties celebrating the neighbors’ legalized marriage, along with stellar children’s holiday concerts and a nest of baby hawks in the alley — is reason enough for hope at the end of a year that could be overwhelmingly gloomy. When the glass could seem half empty, Life threw a party, replete with glasses of rose and marinated olives. It brought a lovely human being into my midst and suddenly so much that felt impossible is within bounds. Jobs. Money. Even a new roof. All is within the bounds of the possible. All is within the potential waves of the coming year. Salut!


Unconventional Teachers

“We aren’t supposed to look the same. We aren’t a bunch of fucking drones.”

“My teachers had been encouraging me to paint with my kids, to work in my surroundings, but I’d just sort of rolled my eyes at them, like, ‘Yeah, right,’” Jill tells me over lunch. She has three kids under the age of seven and helps run a sugar importing business with her husband in L.A. A photographer and painter before having kids, she’s returned to painting again in the past year after relegating herself to pen and ink (very funny ones to say the least) during the kids’ infancies.

I get her “Yeah, right” attitude. If I had a dollar for every piece of advice people have given me about how to write while taking care of two kids… My therapists haven’t been able to avoid this kind of advice giving (something I find really annoying in a therapist, actually), nor my doctor, and certainly not my mother-in-law or many male friends. Only other women friends with creative bents have totally avoided it, and that’s because they’re all in the same boat – the same yeah, right boat.

Jill goes on to tell me that she’d started thinking about a painting – imagining it and planning it out in her head. She’d bought a four-foot by four-foot board for the work, storing it at home as she kept planning. One day, her kids wanted to paint with her and she decided to take the board out; “I figured I could always just get another one.” The kids went to town. Her seven year-old daughter, Scarlet, was dripping paint and making abstract designs. “I hadn’t been envisioning an abstract work,” says Jill, “but suddenly it really worked.”

Then 18-month old Zuma picked up a crooked stick and started trundling over to the table that held big slabs of blue acrylics. He carefully dipped the stick into the paint, went over to the board and scratched away with his robin’s egg-hued stick. “He was so focused,” remembers Jill.

She watched him, then got out her camera and filmed him. “I just knew he was teaching me something. ‘Thank you for showing me I don’t need a brush to paint!’ I wanted to tell him.”

“I want to make authentic work at this point in my life; I want to lose the critic,” she says with great passion.  If learning new tricks was the point of the 20s, and honing them was the point of the 30s, becoming authentic seems to be the point of the 40s for many women I know.

Jill’s kids helped her to let go of some of her rules. It’s that wonderful way in which our teachers can come from unexpected places. Certainly, our kids can be major teachers – artistically and spiritually, especially (see Karen Maezen Miller’s Momma Zen on this). Love, patience, gentleness, and play are all lessons children have to offer. Others who can maintain a sense of play or non-attachment to the usual way of doing things can provide such lessons. A friend who works with “retards” (his loving word) says they have been his gurus because their hearts are so open, without pretense. Another friend, a bookbinder and Buddhist, finds constant inspiration in her cats.

A yoga teacher who I visit when I’m in L.A. (in fact, Jill and I were still sweating after taking his class during our painting/teacher conversation) always connects me to my most authentic self.  The lessons I learn in his sweaty, unadorned studio translate not only into my yoga practice but my life and art.

While we were all balancing in a variation of parsvottonasan, he walked around the room and said almost fiercely: “This is called standing-on-one-leg-with-your-other-leg-in-the-air position. If you could look around – and don’t – what you’d see is the beauty of a room full of eighty-some people doing the same thing all differently. We aren’t supposed to look the same. We aren’t a bunch of fucking drones.”

Bryan Kest's yoga studio after class - imagine 100 people in here... It's powerful.
Bryan Kest's yoga studio after class - imagine 100 people in here... It's powerful.

Ok, I’m a sucker for anyone who swears during yoga and makes it just a little less holier than holy. But I also love this guy’s constant reminders throughout class that we are here for ourselves. Our practice – be it on the mat or on the canvas or in rearing kids – is to be our truest self, whoever that is at the moment.

In yoga, it doesn’t mean I should look like the woman next to me who weighs forty pounds less and is twenty years younger, or the guy on the other side who runs ten miles a day and has the hamstrings to show for it.

As a writer, that doesn’t mean I should sound like Dave Eggers, much as I love his work, or succeed in the same way as this month’s hot new thing, much as I wouldn’t shirk success. It doesn’t even mean identifying the most saleable work.

As a mother, it means showing up for my kids to the best of my ability, but not pounding on myself if I forget water bottles and snacks.

It does mean practicing as though my standing leg is strong – shaking though it may be – and my other leg is extending a bit farther than I thought possible. It means being open to the possibilities of standing longer than I initially thought possible. Or of putting my leg gently down when I need to.

Which reminds me of another teacher. In helping me try to navigate some particularly strong emotions—passion and the possibility of connecting with another person, emotions that surprised and somewhat scared me—my friend/yoga teacher/Reiki teacher Jenny, said:   “Of course, it was that strong – you’re more Jennifer than you’ve ever been before.”

At first, this seemed so simplistic as to border on the childish.  But that was the point. I drank the idea—the feeling—in. Indeed, I have been learning from all of my teachers in recent years – the ones who live far outside the classroom walls, away from criticism and convention – and their lessons have been powerful. I can paint without a brush these days. The effect is a strength that comes through effort, coupled with the suppleness that comes when we abandon assumptions. Stick on board. Knee to head. Fying.

Related: See Honoring Your Inner Tutu