Sunday snippet

I’ve come to a level of acceptance that I’m a Mother first and a Writer second in a way that just thoroughly pissed me off when my kids were little. And what made it worse was that there was no one to be pissed at.

You ever feel really tired and think, “I kind of wish I could get sick and just lay in bed for a few days?” (Then, of course, your friend who was just sick for a few days says with big, earnest eyes, “I wanted to die, it was that bad!) AND you go see Contagion in which everyone gets sick then their vision blurs, they foam at the mouth, convulse and die … and well, you watch what you wish for.) But the bottom line is that it’s 4:43 p.m. and the weekend is nearly over. I’m sitting on a stripped bed that needs to be made. Only half the tomato sauce has been cooked and there’s still half a box of veg needing to be chopped and cooked before it goes bad. People will be asking “What’s for dinner?” any minute. Math homework needs to be tackled. And … and I’d really like to curl up with a book and go to bed early. Or better yet, I’d like to write. All. Night. Long.

But that ain’t happening.

I just saw a wonderful play by a local writer, Megan Gogerty that’s more or less about just that – the desire to write when you’re faced with being a mother. It’s also about losing your pee muscles, the icy stares of other mothers at toddler time in the library, and the truth of Dolly Parton. Describing her life with a baby and then a toddler, Gogerty helped me to relive many of the finer moments of my kids’ earlier days when I tried to shove “mother” and “writer” in the same box in a peaceable manner. I, too, made a trip to NYC with a baby in tow in order to “work” – sleeping hardly a wink and hauling a stroller up and down subway stairs. I, too, nearly went crazy when my kid – the second, less Buddha-like child – turned two, suffering from insomnia, weight loss, depression, and anxiety – to name a few of my maladies. I, too, tried to find it hysterical but often just wanted to ball up and cry. When, toward play’s end, Gogerty looks at the audience and asks “Does it get easier?” part of me wanted to reassure her, but that seemed a bit false.

Not easier but different, I could say. I am of the mind that you actually do get more work done when children are little and still nap. As my kids have gotten older, I’ve found that the only way to write is to disappear. Otherwise it’s soccer-violin-football — a non-stop cycle. And when it’s not that it’s cooking and teaching and refereeing. I have to be out of sight: in a cafe, at a friend’s house – matters not so long as I’m gone. Some writers even check into hotels in order to churn out the work. And when I read her memoir, Blood, Bones, Butter, I was struck by chef-writer Gabrielle Hamilton writing on the subway or in the car – hugely inadvisable but I get it – just in order to get in a few pages between cooking and parenting.

So you never get more done, but you stop resenting it so much. You turn a corner and surrender to it. I’ve come to a level of acceptance that I’m a Mother first and a Writer second in a way that just thoroughly pissed me off when my kids were little. I was trying to do both all out and it’s really not an option. Unless you want to be super pissed all of the time. And what made it worse was that there was no one to be pissed at. It wasn’t the kids’ fault. It wasn’t mine. Not the fault of the “muses.” It was just a pissy situation. I hated male writers for it (ok, I still do sometimes), and I secretly roll my eyes at the output of child-free artists. (When Gogerty learns that a friend earned a big award, I found it very diplomatic of her not to say whether the woman had children or not.) But after awhile, you get too exhausted being pissed and do what you can.

Which means that you come to find a small reprieve in and even a brilliance to your ability to sit on an unmade bed at – now 4:54 pm – on a Sunday afternoon while the tomatoes remain downstairs in their red jackets and your ex-husband texts on his phone on a sofa in the livingroom  and your children watch a cartoon, still damp from soccer. All of that life going on around you and you’ve opted for a moment to write. To spill onto the page. You’ve managed in less than a quarter of an hour, to get nearly 1,000 words off your chest and out into the world.

Karen Maezen Miller, who I so admire, wrote this week that her blog would be short,  just a mention of people’s writing that she recommended, because there are so many words in the world right now. Too many, she inferred. This struck me as true, so true that it’s left me silent and somewhat guilt ridden. What do I have to say? But I say it for myself as much as anyone else. Or for my family’s well being. If I don’t write I get edgy and mean. I bark more and have been known to make people cry. I’m a better person when I write. Which is what I knew when my kids were little, and I still know now.  I also know I’m better when I exercise and  when I don’t have the second glass of wine … so I don’t always do what is “best.” But I try to have hope that when my kids grow up and apart from me – in a way that I already fear, dread, and looking totally forward to – the words will spring up, not only cushioning what could be a blow but buoying me and showing me a way through – just as they’re showing Gogerty through toddlerhood and some other writer through teendom. Keep following the word trail.

(Ha! I just noticed the banner on Megan Gogerty’s  web site: “There is always hope.”)


Soft and Supple Will Prevail

Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail. ~ Lao-tzu

It is a mistake to think we practice to change our lives, because life changes by itself. We practice to change the way we live, to face the facts of the matter. ~ Karen Maezen Miller

I am going away in a few weeks to what I’ve been calling “yoga camp.” I’m going to Kripalu in far western Massachusetts to get my teacher certification. How badly do I want my certification? I’m honestly not sure. I’ve been doing yoga for about 18 years without it, and sometimes it’s hard for me to imagine teaching now at age 44, with my ankle getting all gimpy and while carrying some extra weight. But maybe now is exactly the right time.

More so, I am going in order to enter a transformational space. To wake up every morning for a month in a place that was sacred to the Native Americans who lived their for centuries and then to the Jesuits who built a chapel there and then to the ashram that would eventually fall on bad times before rebirthing itself as a retreat center. I want to wake up every day surrounded by people who are on their own conscious journeys of transformation and discovery. I want to eat food that’s been made with the intention of feeding people on such a journey. I want to embrace others who will surely come forward on the first day or two there and say what I am also thinking: “I’m not sure why I’m here; I’m not sure I deserve this.”

Tonight I read that by 2050 — the year my daughter turns 49 and by which time I may have grandchild – the world population will have increased such that there will be the equivalent of two more Chinas. I read this just after looking at heart aching photographs of birds caught in the oil in the Gulf. An animal’s holocaust, I read someone saying – so true. This news, these images made me all the more ready to go.

And believe me, I almost haven’t gone several times.  The idea came to me suddenly this winter and ever since I’ve been putting it into motion. I move forward with the idea and my life seems to move forward along with it. I hesitate with the idea – grow fearful and pause, and my life seems to pause, too. It is important – somehow – that I go ahead with this. I’m not sure what I’ll find there, what will click or shift in myself, but I’m confident that something will. It is only a month. Though this sometimes sounds like forever in terms of being away from my kids, I also know that it is not so much. And yet – enough.

Just going is part of the lesson I am meant to learn.

Shell and her daughters in Mexico.

I think of my friend Shell who has gotten herself to writing retreats in Mexico and then Hawaii and then San Francisco — took her daughters along on the first two — despite living a pretty bear-to-the-bones existence. Of another writer friend, Hope, who years ago took her daughter to a shaman in Belize despite having no prior reference or belief in such a healing system. And from that experience her life changed, the way she mothers and the way she operates in “the West” shifted profoundly. There is also my other friend Hope who last summer met a Dutch woman while hiking the Dingle Way in Ireland. They were both caring for elderly mothers who were ill. Along the route, they would run into each other and as women hiking alone, they of course started talking. The conversation continued through email and phone calls and then visits. Now, they are together – getting married as soon as  Hope gets to Antwerp, where she’s moving.

Each of these women went when it wasn’t the safe thing to do. None of them has or will regret it.

Seeing people’s reaction to this trip has been full of lessons. People are enchanted. People I hardly know are so happy for me and full of good will.

I think all of us want to live our lives in the truest way. We’re battling and puzzling out this whole work/money/spirit conundrum — year after year we fiddle with it. So many of my mama friends do this — my old photographer friends – Flynn and Julia, one on each coast. I think of how we met at Microsoft years ago and how we could still be there — safe and with ample money in the bank. Instead, each of us scurries for works; grits our teeth on deadlines; and prays that freelance jobs will pay.

Flynn and Juniper

And though yoga camp is clearly not any solution to this conundrum — I’ll be amazed if I actually make any money from teaching yoga, assuming I find a place to teach — it is part of the puzzle. It is the leap of faith.

I’ve been struggling lately with doing the right thing versus doing what is in my heart. A dear friend pointed out that these, in theory, should be the same thing; if something is “right” it should also be good for the soul, and vice versa. Too often I get in a tizzy about work deadlines and bills and my messy house and the roof that needs repairing and my body’s need for more consistent cardiovascular exercise. I whip myself with these shoulds and have-to’s. I have been very good at this form of self-abuse since I can remember. But more and more I see myself do it, and I know in my gut that it’s not helping anything.

The night before mother’s day, I emailed a bunch of artist-mama friends who inspire me and asked them to send me photos of themselves with their children. More than a few sent me photos and some sent little stories or memories. I was excited. But then I felt like I had to do something very clever with them. What was supposed to be fun was suddenly yet another reason why I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Ugh.

So the photos have sat. But the feelings behind them and what they represent have not. And that’s this sense of a group of women who can be fearless, who combine their passions for their art and their children, and who somehow manage to stay afloat financially — I mean, no one’s roof has fallen in on her yet. Their examples continually inspire me. Such as Karen, who just today wrote:  “Enlightenment, Dogen Zenji taught, begins with the recognition of impermanence, the moment we perceive the utter and astonishing transience of life, the moment we see through the constructed illusion that anything stays put. …It is a mistake to think we practice to change our lives, because life changes by itself. We practice to change the way we live, to face the facts of the matter.”

Julia, Jen, and Karen - with kiddos

This kind of practice is why I’m going to Kripalu. This kind of noticing – slow, thoughtful, daily, and patient. Ahhhh, thank you Karen for reminding me – again!

And I’m thankful for my friend Jen. We’ve only spoken a few times but each time it’s been long and very, very fruitful. I type out things she says as we talk because they’re just so good. Her story of bringing her friend’s daughters from Rwanda to live with their mother in the US is awe inspiring — makes me feel downright lazy, though I know this is the last thing Jen would want. What she’s said before is, “If you want to stay in that house, then go around and love it. Light candles. Burn incense. Do a smudge. Tell it you’re staying despite the roof and the windows; they’ll wait. Just be there.”  … and here I am. Staying where I feel it is right to be. Listening to my inner voice.

Monica and Gabe - then and now

Down the street is Monica, who has gotten a bill supporting midwifery passed in Iowa. More amazing to me than her very impressive state capitol lobbying is the story she shared with me of having her son Gabe when she was 19. The tale is long and has many dips and arcs, but suffice it to say, even then at such a seemingly tender age, Monica was clearly someone who LISTENED to herself and who followed what she needed to do without falling off course from the shoulds and the have-tos–not to mention the perhaps even more awful supposed-tos. Her guides led her down a not very easy though a fairly specific path–that of young, single mother, and fearlessly she followed. This has made her who she is today:  resplendently strong and open-hearted.

“Why are you going; what do you want?” my friend Chris asked me two weeks ago about Kripalu when I was hesitating, when I nearly called them and asked them to send  me a refund. “To surrender and go deeper,” I said without hesitation. Which is, of course, the essence of yoga itself — exhale and surrender; inhale and try to reach just a centimeter further, to lunge just a tad further. Let go in order to become more.


a sign at Kripalu

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