Here is the talk I gave at Chapman University, about adoption and the role of imagination in forming our identities. Hope you enjoy it! Please pass it along if you do.
Here is the talk I gave at Chapman University, about adoption and the role of imagination in forming our identities. Hope you enjoy it! Please pass it along if you do.
I’ve been struggling with a bizarre case of massive stage fright. I speak in public a lot, and this anxiety has been an intensely unpleasant aspect of my life for the past two years. When it happens, it’s practically an out-of-body experience. It’s not logical. There’s no talking myself out of it. I do every creative visualization technique in the book, and still I have an overwhelming urge to run for my life out the back door.
All of this was very inconvenient for my Tedx talk last week, at Chapman University. About an hour before I was scheduled to go on, I broke into an empty classroom, lied down on the floor, and tried to shake off the paralysis that had crept into my limbs. My entire body was a block of ice. I couldn’t remember anything. I mean, anything. I couldn’t remember my own address for the release form. It was bonkers. When I actually got up there, it went great (will post the link soon!). But the hours, even days, leading up to it were torture.
So why the hell do I keep doing this to myself?
Here is the answer. Because I have some things I want to say. Also, because I want to know what’s on the other side of this. And because when Tariku hits a wall of fear someday, what will I tell him? Oh yeah- I felt that way once, and I quit?
I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from the World Cup.
I’ve always loved soccer. Here’s me, the early soccer years…
The World Cup players are warriors. They are amazing. Check out black-eyed Dempsey playing with his broken nose (hot!). They have to know how to lose and keep fighting (which will NOT happen Thursday against Germany, btw). They accept the inevitability that they will screw up sometime, and when they do it will be in front of thousands of people. And they will have to keep playing. When a ball gets by Tim Howard into the goal, he stands back up and stops the next one. Watching the games puts some fight in me
So Tariku and I have been avidly watching, and I’ve been letting the energy crawl into my blood. When I got up on stage last week, I told myself I was getting in the game. And when my son faces something daunting and frightening one day, I will be able to tell him that it is a noble fight, to do the thing that scares you.
It’s been a long while. I wish I could say that I’ve been absent because the fam and I have had our toes sunk in the mud by a lake somewhere woodsy, or that we’ve been busy hunting for abalone shells, enjoying these last days of spring before the summer descends.
The truth is, we moved onto a new house in the middle of multiple work deadlines (sorry, Becky, I swear I’ll have the new book finished in a jiffy), the end of the school year, and Scott being in and out of town. I was hardly stopping to smell the roses. The best I could do was convince the movers not to trample the roses.
I had a disorienting experience when I saw at all of our stuff on the truck. Everything looked huge and tiny at the same time. I was like- Who are we, anyway? Who would we be if this truck just drove away and never came back? Scott was like- are you smoking weed? And I was like- way to undermine a poetic moment. And then we moved our entire existence six miles away, to the top of a big hill.
I have missed this blog space, because without it, I lose my frame. I lose my outlet, which has been a life-saver for me over the last six years. Six! I just checked. And in the middle of all this crazy change, I find that it is still here for me, waiting. So hello, again!
We were worried about how T was going to handle the transition. I’m happy to report that he was a peach. He loves the new place. We can see tons of airplanes from our wide windows and that is all T needs to be happy. That and a corn dog once in a while.
In truth, it was me who had the hardest time with the move. Scott was a bit taken aback by my high-strung emotional reaction.
What if the next house doesn’t have good luck? What if it doesn’t keep us safe? I cried to him.
Honey? It’s not the house that keeps us safe.
So, yeah. Some stuff going on. About security and home. About time and loss.
Speaking of time, T just graduated from kindergarten. His school handles things in a low-key way, which I appreciate There are no tiny caps and gowns, no ceremonies. At 12:30pm last Friday, I went and picked him up at school, then we went swimming at his friend’s house and that was that. Next year the grades start to have numbers, and there just aren’t very many of those numbers if you really think about it.
We were lucky enough to have a remarkable teacher this year. The kind that come around once in a blue moon and you remember for rest of your life. I am deeply grateful to all the teachers out there who have extra love for the kids who struggle- for the outliers, the special ones. The beginning of the year was rocky, but his teacher saw his big bright light and she believed in him. Slowly, he became what she saw him to be. He did beautifully.
He won the Doctor Award at school, because he takes such good care of his friends. I was nearly as proud as the day when he said, out of the blue, “Hey Mama, Lou Reed is cool!” This kid is my hero.
He went to the airport to watch the jets with his Auntie this morning (his Saturday ritual), and before he left he stood next to me and pointed out the picture window toward the airport.
If you ever miss me too much, he said, I’m right there at LAX. It’s not far.
It was never really the house at all.
I am packing my books, pulling the dusty tomes down from a high shelf, when my dead friend’s poetry chapbook falls and hits me on the head. It is hot pink and stapled at the fold.
How I felt about her art always changed with how I felt about her, and our complicated friendship. It was:
Raw, vulnerable, essential…
Indulgent, sentimental, over-exposed.
Shifting all the time.
She made me angry and delighted. She was the one I called every day, with whom I shared a secret band name even though neither of us had any musical talent whatsoever. The one who got a matching tattoo. The one who was always spilling over at the edges. The one whose laugh was not very ladylike- almost exactly like mine. She made me feel less alone.
Dammit, I think, when I pick up the book. There goes my night. Now I’m gonna cry and hit the chocolate. I don’t have time for this. I’m moving, after all. Deadlines, kid on spring break, busybusybusy.
And then I slide down the wall, sit cross-legged on the carpet, and begin to read. How marvelous. To pause and have a visit with her tonight. When all I could think of was a to-do list.
I will meet you anywhere anytime, Jennifer Grant. I miss you every day, my friend.
I am grateful that the universe saw fit to drop her poetry on my head tonight.
We have been kicking around the idea of moving for years, dragging our feet. Then within a course of a month, KABAM, we have a new house and our old one is sold. It happened in a flash.
It has been a shock to my system. I’m all busted up about leaving. I’m not simply a touch teary and sentimental; I’m sitting on our front porch and sobbing.
I remember the first time we saw our little green house with the neat white trim, the golden afternoon light filtering through the camphor and jacaranda trees. It was love at first sight. We couldn’t believe our luck when we got it.
We waited for a child for two solid years in that house. We did not have the baby we so desperately wanted, but we did have our nest and I clung to it. I decorated his room with a zeal I don’t believe I will ever summon again for things like curtains. I spent some of the hardest days of my life in that house.
I was sitting at our weathered farm table when I finally got the call:
You have a beautiful eight-month-old son. His name is Tariku.
My neighbor was pregnant with twins at the time. We spent many afternoons together, drinking lemonade on her porch. Something deeply lazy and serene washed over us as we slowly adjusted to the idea of the sea change before us. Those twins are now Tariku’s closest buddies and we haven’t had a moment of serenity since.
As Scott and I prepared to go to Africa, I sat on the bright green carpet in Tariku’s room under the painted starry night sky, while I packed and plotted and planned. I tried out various nicknames. It was Tariku’s room. Terry’s room. T-Bone’s room. T’s room. I sat in the rocker for hours and looked at his photos and was able to trust, for just a moment, that it would be fine somehow. That he would come home to us after all. That the world was about to shatter into something entirely new.
For the last five years, I have started all of T’s bedtime stories:
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Tariku Moon, who lived in a little green house on Mount Royal Drive…
That era is ending now, never to return. Like the sweet sounds he used to make before he could form words. Like the smell of his baby head- some combination of powder and cookies and fairy dust- as he napped on my chest in the rocker. Like the small, shifting weight of him as I carried him around for hours in the Ergo, my little kangaroo.
We have been through so much here. I think I am partly grieving the couple Scott and I were when we moved into the house, with all of our hopefulness and naivetè, seven years worth of mistakes and missteps still ahead of us. It was a freer, wilder time. It would be dishonest of me to say that absolutely everything is better now that we finally have the child we always wanted. We are tired. There are crazy new lines on my face. I have to pack a lunch box every morning and, man, does that start out cute and get old quick. Still, when I step back and look at the home we made, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I realize how happy we have been, how lucky we are to be growing and moving on.
We bought a dynamite place in a snazzy-cute neighborhood, with lots of fantastic cafés, artisanal grilled cheese, overpriced denim and clever mustaches. There are also tons of families, beautiful park space and a terrific farmer’s market. Our new pad is light and bright and vibrant. I am sad to leave, but I am also thrilled about the sense of wide open possibility. We might just be buying bunk beds… Also, my new kitchen is SWEET.
We are leaving a home that we have loved and of which I am proud. Our happiness has been in these walls but it is not of these walls. We will take it with us when we go.
Onward, to the next adventure!
On the morning of his birthday, Tariku woke me up saying, “Your baby is six today!”
I immediately teared up. He put his arms around me and said, “It’s okay, Mama. Everyone has to grow up sometime.”
I am not even making this up. He writes the best dialogue, that kid.
He was eleven months old when we brought him home from Africa. His legs were like skinny, limp noodles. When I tried to look into his eyes, he often looked away. We were worried about his motor development. We were worried about his lungs. All I wanted to do was hold him to my chest. All I wanted to do was feed him and fatten him up.
For three months, he was no more than five feet from my body at any given time. I pretty much just fed him and walked around with him; that was the shape of our days. I held him and wandered in circles around the neighborhood, the house, the mall. And slowly, slowly, I felt him relax into my body. Slowly his eye contact improved. Slowly, his muscles caught up and in no time he was zooming around the house. It was the hardest and scariest and most tender time in my life, those initial months with T.
When I say he relaxed into me slowly, I mean it took years. It has only been the last six months that I feel something big has shifted in him. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly. Certainly, many of his trauma-based behaviors have subsided. There is something even sparklier and more alive behind his eyes. He is less afraid. I feel like I’m just getting to know my son.
We held his birthday at HIS spot: Proud Bird Restaurant. Proud Bird is one of those historic Los Angeles hidden gems. It’s right across the street from LAX and the airplanes pass directly overhead. He likes to sit on their patio for hours every Saturday, never losing his wonder at those marvelous beasts taking to the air.
It was a special thing for him to be able to share it. T was friendly and sweet and, as always, exploding with that wild joy of his. Not that long ago, being around crowds used to pitch him into a panic. His party was a huge success. A triumph, really.
His birthday happened to coincide with the hatching of our last butterfly. We raised five of them from caterpillars and the late bloomer was a real holdout. I was starting to get worried for the other ones in there, waiting around.
We got the Butterfly Garden as a Christmas present and I was a little bit resentful, initially. I thought, Really? You’re going to make me order worms in the mail? It turned out to actually be fascinating and fun for all of us. I’m not sure who was more excited when they started to emerge.
Here’s the thing I didn’t expect: it was cool but it was also gruesome. I had a jar full of caterpillars and food and poop pretty much on my dining room table for a week. Then they turned into cocoons straight out of the movie Alien, in which they turned to goo. When they hatched, I sat watching them, mesmerized by metaphor and miracle, and then out of the blue one of them started bleeding. I almost had a heart attack. I looked it up and found that it’s normal for them to bleed- they expel the last vestiges of the caterpillar they once were. Seriously, real life butterflies are not a Hallmark card.
When it was finally time to let them go, Tariku cried and got mad at me because he was going to miss them. It took him about fifteen minutes to come out of his room. Resolute and silent, with a tear-streaked face, he took the habitat outside, gently laid his hand on the top of it and said goodbye. Then he set them free. We laughed and ran after them until we finally gave up and just practiced our cartwheels for a while.
It is impossible to raise butterflies and not meditate on growth and transformation- the bloody complicated mess it all is.
It is also impossible not to marvel at the prize: wings.
She showed up in the lobby of the Omni Hotel in Jacksonville. Scott and T and I were hunkered down in a sitting area around the corner from the door, and there was a mirror on the wall, so I could see her reflection before she spotted us. She was taller than me, shiny and pretty with a mane of wavy red hair, black leather boots, dark jeans with white stitching at the seams and a salmon colored V-neck sweater. She got the blue green eyes- the sister I haven’t seen in twenty years.
Almost everyone who knows me is asking right now… What sister?
Many years after I was born, my birth father had another daughter. I met her once when she was seven and I was twenty. I was still casting about for an authentic sense of identity at the time, an understanding of my own adoption story. As was typical of me, I had boundless curiosity and very few emotional tools with which to metabolize the things that curiosity often unearthed. Instead, I walked away. I was always a runner when things got tough.
Now I am an adoptive mother myself. I have learned to hold different truths at the same time. I have become more comfortable with living in a world of fewer absolutes. This time, when my sister appeared out of the blue with the hope of reconnecting, I ran toward her instead of away.
Florida was surprisingly freezing- 40something degrees, wind blowing, persistent mist. I greeted her swathed in every candy-colored tropical layer I had brought with me, topped with a wool coat my sister-in-law happened to have in her car. My toes were tinged with blue in my open-toed sandals.
My sister has a son almost exactly Tariku’s age, so not only did I have new sister in an instant, but T had a new cousin. The boys were immediately lit-up and at ease. They played hide and seek behind the hotel couches, peek a boo around the granite columns. We piled into her car and navigated the looping highways to a crumbling bowling alley. The trees threatened to swallow the road, a hundred shades of green on green.
So now there is this. A sister. And the million fears and hopes that kind of a sea change brings. Will I invite new family into our life just to wind up disappointing them? Is there room for this? Is there time? Will I get to have this thing I dreamed of in all my childhood imaginary play- a sister to my heart and soul? Is that a corny thing for a grown woman to still long for? Is it smart to introduce an attachment into T’s life when it might not pan out? How do you weave so many threads into the tapestry?
As the boys hurled their lime green balls down the lane, she and I ate gross fried chicken fingers and talked about our lives. We wondered if we looked alike. We traded stories and dreams and apologies. I cried a little. It was a start.
She wrote me a letter when she was eight and cut it into a puzzle. She has saved it all these years and gave it to me when we parted. It is sitting in an envelope on my desk. I take handfuls of it out of the envelope, delicate like flower petals.
What does the puzzle letter say? Not even she remembers. It is a precious thing. I haven’t put it together yet.
We are all a little bit dazed today, having just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas. A cruise may not seem like a likely choice of a vacation for us, but this was a rock cruise- a Weezer cruise to be specific. A boat full of bands and music fans, the climax of which was an epic afternoon show in a secluded cove on an island beach.
I honestly had no idea what to expect. Julie the cruise director subtly organizing love matches during shuffleboard tournaments on the Lido deck? Trying to navigate our five year old through a gauntlet of smoky casinos and boozy spring breakers?
What I discovered is that our week on the cruise wasn’t about pina coladas in the hot tub (though there certainly were a few) or the basking by the pool (it was surprisingly blustery and cold), but rather about family.
My experience of family has always been a shifting thing, kind of like our time on the boat. Sometimes the wind kicked up and the water roiled navy and white as the deck under me listed from side to side so noticeably that I had to lie down and hold onto my head. Sometimes the ocean was kind and ridiculously turquoise, giving no indication of the whole alien world churning beneath its surface.
Our life is rich with extended family, including the Weezer fam. I confess that I have always secretly enjoyed all the annoying minutiae of traveling as a band. I rarely get impatient when being herded through airports, into buses, into arenas, onto gangplanks. I love being in the midst of the whole motley crew of us: the wives, the come-and-go girlfriends, the kids, the babysitters, the parents, the cranky tour manager (sorry, Stu). Once on board, the always thoughtful and creative fans showered us with cards and tiaras and patches and posters, much of it made with their own hands. As a kid running around the house belting out “Join the Circus” from the musical Barnum, this is what I always hoped my life was going to be. A strange dream, maybe, but I was right- it’s pretty wonderful.
Later that afternoon, we met up with yet more of our “relations” for a reunion that makes me tear up every time I think of it. We have remained close with all of the eight families with whom we traveled to Ethiopia on our adoption trip, but T rarely sees the kids because we all live in different parts of the country. To our delight, a couple of them decided to come sail with us.
I am wary of superimposing my own fantasies of some mystical aspect to their friendship, but objectively, it was pure magic. The kids were beyond thrilled to see each other and kept shouting the things they had in common to literally every passerby who would listen (We were all born in Ethiopia! We all have brown skin! We all have pink parents!). I know that they felt the commonalities extended beyond the obvious, but they didn’t have words for it yet. I’m not sure I do either.
I can only say that there is a deep connection between these kids, and between us, their parents. It is very relaxing for Scott and me to be around the people with whom we shared the most meaningful time in our life. There is so much that is just recognized and understood and doesn’t need to be explained.
My heart is full every time I think of the unbridled joy on their little faces as they ran around the ship deck, upending everyone’s Mai Tais and commandeering the hot tub.
As the boat rocked me to sleep each night, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for this life of ours, so abundant with music and family.
Thanks to everyone who made the cruise so special.
I’m at a friend’s cottage in Joshua Tree right now. I got here while it was already dark, so I’m looking forward to waking up tomorrow to the pink and grey swirled sunrise above the boulders, framing the spiky, exuberant silhouettes of the Joshua trees.
I am reminded of the last time I was here.
Last year, we came to the the desert to shoot this video for Scott’s song, “Watch the Shadows.” We were a rowdy crowd: DJ Mendel (director), Kaz Phillips Safer (DP), Anais Borck (actor/pure loveliness), SS711 (soulmate/star), Tariku Moon (dinosaur wrangler/hellraiser), and me (cooker of pancakes/holder of sunblock).
It was a crazy and memorable weekend. We all worked our asses off in the desert sun, and wound up with that satisfying exhaustion that comes from pouring yourself into something you believe in.For a few different reasons, Scott hadn’t released the video yet. But something tragic happened last week and it lit a fire under his ass.
I got a call from DJ telling me Anais had died. The causes are unclear, but basically she died in her sleep at 31 years old.
I spent time with Anais both in NY and LA. It’s almost impossible not to talk about how beautiful she was. It usually annoys me when physical beauty is the first thing remarked on when someone dies tragically young. But. She was. She was like Disney Princess Fairy Angel pretty. Tall, effortlessly fashionable, blonde hair falling around her sculpted face, saucer stormy ocean blue eyes. She was gorgeous at the breakfast table, in curlers and horn-rimmed glasses.
She was kind and sweet, with something fragile or lost hovering around her edges. She always seemed to me not quite gritty enough for this world. I am glad I knew her, even a little.
Anais was a joy to work with- uncomplaining and game for anything. Tariku and I hung around the shoot all day. I was sort of the all-purpose set mom, toting water and sunblock and trail mix and making sure everyone was all right. Tariku was my assistant and he thought Anais was swell. He couldn’t get enough of her.
When my best friend died, I spent many sleepless nights combing the internet for any hint of her. We thought that we’d release this video now, finally, so that Anais’s loved ones, who are out there in the dark, hungry to see images of her, may spend some time with her soulful, indeed, beautiful, face.
Also, it’s an amazing song that has lived too long in Scott’s studio. It’s time.
Fifteen of us met in the bordello-red rehearsal room of the Fais Do-Do nightclub, on a Saturday afternoon. We arrived eager, reticent, caffeinated, exhausted, hopeful, skeptical, open, closed. A myriad of emotions ebbed and flowed throughout the course of the afternoon. The participants brought a level of vulnerability and courage that knocked me out. This workshop was a perfect three-hour distillation of why I find teaching so rejuvanating. Bianca and I were on a high for the whole next week.
This workshop has been a dream of mine and Bianca’s for months. It was born of a conversation we had while hiding out in a sun dappled corner of a coffee shop, brainstorming about our shared passion- how to make art in a fully embodied way.
I told her that in spite of my years of dance classes, I secretly knew that I had learned to put on a good show of things while not truly feeling my body at all. I was always working on the surface, convinced I could fool everyone and they wouldn’t notice I was clumsy, shy, messy, flawed.
The body is our greatest recording device, home of all that has happened to us and, to paraphrase Eve Ensler, I was totally obsessed with my body but didn’t inhabit it at all.
Problematic, because I have a life now that most days I would actually like to feel. I also have a writing life that requires I be able to feel. Every morning, when I face the blank page, I discover anew a pressing reason to push through the shame and fear and find a way back to myself.
Bianca and I synthesized an amalgam of movement and writing exercises designed to facilitate a greater flow between body and intellect. This workshop was our first laboratory and it was electric. We left inspired, edified and dedicated to further exploring this fertile territory.
Writer and entrepreneur Rachel Resnick attended the workshop and wrote a wonderful piece about it. You can find more at her website, Writers on Fire. Thanks also to Rachel for the pictures. I didn’t actually snap any myself because for once in my life I wasn’t hiding behind a camera!
Last year Tariku renamed his “Gotcha” Day (the anniversary of the day he was finally in our arms), “Cha Cha Day.” Which is obviously the most awesome name for any day. Woe to the mother who expresses enthusiasm for such a thing… This year the Cha Cha name was strictly verboten. But between you and me, I’m keeping it.
We threw him a small party, just a few friends and neighbors. We ate cake, moved the coffee table out of the way in the living room and danced to “What Does the Fox Say” like sixteen times. And we told the story of his adoption. A family fairy tale, woven through with sorrow but ultimately triumphant. I stole the denoument from psychologist and author Brenè Brown (with whom I’m obsessed):
You are imperfect. You are wired for struggle. You are worthy of love and belonging.
I always get reflective and nostalgic around his Cha Cha day. I wrote this poem early that morning. I suppose it is less for him, exactly, and more for the moms out there. He’d rather have a dance party than a poem at this point anyway. I thought I’d share it with you.
TO MY SON ON HIS CHA CHA DAY
Perhaps I know what other mothers do not.
Of necessity, I know that you were never
mine to begin
with that you are merely a loan
so precious that, Gollum–like, even though I have it in
hand it leaves me wracked with longing
like cherry blossom festivals or a great
song you hear at the coffee shop and can’t
Perhaps I know too what other mothers
all know that you have always been mine
settling into my skin
long before there was even a seed
of you taking root miles from here.
These fingertips caught fire some nights for
reaching, the same that first touched your silk
Out of nowhere you say:
I was only a baby when Jesus died on
the wooden cross. I think it was, yes
I know it was a
Tuesday. In March.
I was there.
It wasn’t my fault.
I have no idea where
you got ideas of fault
or God at all.
I wake up to your vinegary breath, your hands
on my face, a
mastiff puppy’s paws, too big,
for your tectonically shifting frame
a missive from the future these
hands, that I cannot read
except to know it
Somewhere on a red dirt road
flanked by corrugated tin lean-tos painted
blue/green like a sea that is
nowhere to be found, by waxy green leaves of false
banana trees and round huts the same color as the
ground, miles every day she walks in rubber
flip flops toward the well
and back again, red kerchief over her
braids, carrying a burden of
water, dreaming a shared
Motherhood has given me a whole new reverence for being a beginner. Of course, our kids have to learn absolutely everything from scratch. Once again, I am forced to love in my son all that I have found frustrating and humiliating in myself for most of my life.
When I think about the failure and the falling inherent in being a beginner, a young girl appears to me. She is always about twelve-years-old, dressed in a tennis skirt and wearing French braids so merciless she can barely blink. She is as tightly strung as her tennis racquet. You suck, she says. What kind of serve is that? Your backhand is pitiful. You are an embarrassment. All those years of lessons and this is what you have to show for it? You might as well just quit.
There was a time I listened to that girl in the tennis skirt. Why try and fail?
But if I have learned anything in my adult life, it is that sometimes you have to trick yourself into taking yourself seriously, even if all the evidence is piled up against you. You have to get up in the morning, get out to the track, and hold yourself as if as if you’re an Olympic athlete, even if you’re struggling through 3 miles at a snail’s pace. If a stack of rejection letters and a battered ego is all you have to show for your writing life, you must still sit down every day as if you are Faulkner himself, and write your heart out. Beginning again and again is a noble fight.
I have been radically humbled and adrenalized these last few days, as I’ve begun to ski. T and I tagged along for some shows Scott is playing in Aspen (duh, of course we did) and I threw T straight into the “Powder Panda” ski school. He clung to me at first and acted like a little jerk to the instructor (who was a peach- thanks, Billy at Buttermilk Mountain!). By the time I showed up to check on him at lunchtime, he reluctantly tore himself away from his new friends and dismissed me with, “I’m doing great, okay. I love you. BYE, Mama!”
The extent of the outdoorsiness of my childhood was the ubiquitous scent of Pine Sol in our relentlessly climate-controlled house. I want my son to have a different connection with the mountains and ocean and sky that that. How can I ask him to do something I’m unwilling to do myself? So I got my cold tushie out there in the snow and took some lessons and fell on my face like a dork. By the end of our time in Aspen, T and I were bombing down the green trails together. I felt exhilarated and alive and proud of both of us.
I was a beginner, with laughter. And what I got in return was the view from the top of a snowy mountain. I got to shout a big WOOOHOOO when I made it down my first blue run. I got that blissful exhausted feeling of an earned dinner, a deep sleep and happily sore legs the next morning.
I want to etch this feeling into my body and take it with me into 2014.
As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t make resolutions. But if I did, I’d say I want to dance more.
Happy New Year! Happy beginnings, today and all days.
This holiday was more stressful than usual, for no particular reason. Sure there were work deadlines and money hemorrhages and family drama and too much food and too little sleep, but there always are. So why this year did I feel so shut down? Even my latkes sucked this year, and my latkes NEVER suck. I found myself curled in a ball on the upstairs couch more often than I would have liked.
When I begin to get overwhelmed and anxious, I react by trying to control the situation. I have multiple to-do lists, color coded, on different sized note pads and post-its. I’m sure if I get to the end of the to-do list, I will find…freedom. Aaahh. Spaciousness. Wide sky. I’m convinced that if I just throw myself with enough gusto into doing doing doing, I will round a corner one day and see the finish line. I will run through the ribbon with my arms held high in a victory pose and then (and only then) will I feel at peace.
I’m not sure why I persist in this delusion, when it has never once worked.
In service of this unrealistic goal. I employ generous measures of self-denial. The first form this denial takes is neglect of my physical self– rejection of my body and its needs. I don’t eat or I mindlessly eat too much. I don’t exercise, because I don’t have time. I don’t stretch and my old back injury acts up, so I take more and more ibuprofen and muscle relaxers and “power through.” The ibuprofen upsets my stomach, so I scarf antacids by the handful. I don’t sleep well because I can’t stop running through the list in my mind.
The plan the whole time is that, when I reach this mythical finish line, I will “take better care of myself.”
Perhaps you have such a plan. Perhaps you imagine the finish line is January 1, and you can abuse yourself in a method of your choosing until then, when things will finally change, like, forever after.
Except they won’t, and you know it. When I began to face the truth– that my resolutions almost always crumbled before January 15 rolled around– I stopped making them. Now, I try to see the New Year as a useful marking of time rather than a clean slate. Because I have come to believe there is no such thing.
My body is the scene of more that one crime in this lifetime. Crimes done to me and crimes I’ve committed against myself. I have legitimate reasons for wanting to shut it off at the slightest provocation. I resent my body and its annoying needs, its troublesome memories and emotions, its alarming register of the passing years. But I have learned time and time again that it is my only way back to feeling grounded and present in the world.
I went to an exercise class on Christmas Eve (dreaded because I had played truant for so long). I went for a long walk, when I had absolutely no time to do so. I began rolling out of bed into a yoga pose or two. Slowly, I started to feel a bit less like a walking to-do list and more like a human inhabitant of this earth.
So again, I go back to the beginning. I go back to my body. Not one day a year, but every day. Each morning, I must choose to say, Hello, Body! I know you, house of all I’ve witnessed and thought and experienced in this lifetime. I see you, you have carried me this far. I feel you, and you are not half bad.
Love and light to all of you, from all of us!
Remember this guy? Remember how adorable and yet how incredibly challenging he was for a while there? It seems he slept for a total of about 5 hours in 3 years. My body was more decorated with bite marks than it was with tattoos. And I have a lot of tattoos.
Well, here he is in his first school play. I didn’t mess with the picture at all to create that effect. The way the light fell in the room made him glow. He stood there like a champ, looking calm and proud, and when his turn came, he flashed that giant smile and gave ‘em the Tariku razzle dazzle and got the only laugh in the whole show.
And another thing….
If there was a way to leave bite marks on the world, she would have. I always understood my son, with all his wildness and fear and anger. I had the same thing, for a long time. We’re both a little better now.
T is quite a cook these days and he asked for a chef’s hat for Hanukkah. We have been cooking up a storm. This is really the first year we’ve done much Hanukkah celebrating, as it usually seems to get lost in the shuffle and holiday stress. But it’s easier for me now somehow. It’s not so laborious as it once was to have a few people over for dinner and light the candles. There is a bit more ease to my days. Not because I’m less busy, but because I’m less of a basket case.
This holiday season, I am thankful for healing and change. And for patience, when I have it. And for faith, which is there even when you think it isn’t.
On gratitude and guilt- the text of my latest post up at Huffington Post Women:
During my recent week in Paris, the mornings came quickly. I felt pressure to do something important with my limited time, as if there was a tick tock soundtrack to my days. I mostly didn’t listen. What I did: met friends for dinners and drinks and lunches and more drinks, saw the fantastic Surrealism exhibit at the Pompidou, bought a pair of boots and an orange glass ring; sat alone and ate a duck fois gras and fig tartine that might have been the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
I crossed the Seine one night on the Pont des Arts (laden with thousands of pad locks, inscribed with messages of love) while the full moon hung in a gauzy web of clouds above me, the water beneath shimmering under the amber streetlights. Gratitude broke over me like rain.
And then just as quickly, I felt guilty. How corny and sentimental– to stand on a bridge over the Seine in stupid too-expensive boots and feel lucky, feel happy. In an instant, I became a grotesque shadow version of the person I was not three seconds before. I had been feeling pleased with my sporting attempts at French, but suddenly felt foolish and embarrassed. I had felt aware of the delicious cold air on my face, but suddenly became aware only of my stumble on the cobblestones, my perpetual clumsiness.
Whenever I feel joy, I’m sure I’m going to be punished for it. How dare you be happy when you’re so far from your family? How dare you, when the bodies of typhoon victims line the streets of the Philippines? How dare you, when children are starving? How dare you, when your ancestors were herded onto railroad cars and then gassed and burned in Poland? How dare you be happy in this world of such enormous suffering?
I have a similar train of thought about my writing. How dare you take these hours to write? How dare you when your child needs you right now? How dare you when you are a clown compared to the brilliant writers that came before you? How dare you sit around writing about your silly life, in clunky and clichéd prose? How dare you when your house is a filthy disaster area? How dare you when you could be doing more important things for the world? And on and on.
I imagine that I am Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, during the scene in which she has just been coiffed and pampered and is skipping merrily around Oz, waiting for the wizard to grant her deepest desire. It is at just this moment, of course, that the witch appears, interrupting the giddy song by skywriting in black smoke:
For years, I read it as a call to Dorothy to surrender, but that is incorrect. That would be Surrender (comma) Dorothy. No, this is a call to the city itself to give up the cursed girl. But Oz doesn’t surrender Dorothy. Instead, Dorothy walks out herself to meet the witch.
I had lunch with a Buddhist expat friend of mine at a delicious hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Marais, and we talked about my inability to experience joy without guilt. He spoke about developing a consciousness that allows you to observe the emotions as if they’re waves in the ocean, cresting and receding and then cresting again. Joy and guilt and despair and exhaustion and anxiety and curiosity and complacency and awe and longing and disgust and bliss. Again and again. Until you can watch them all and not attach so desperately, but rather see them for what they are: feelings — mutable, neither good nor bad, but human.
In the end, Paris did not surrender me, in spite of the old demons that flew around leaving trails of smoke in the soft grey sky. Instead, I kept my stupid-but-still-very-sassy boots firmly planted on its cobblestones, one foot after the other, as the waves of emotion rose and broke and rose again. And I found that the joy was there– somewhere in the lacy foam on the very crest of the wave, impossible to grab and even more impossible to keep, but there.
The original letter is hidden somewhere safe in Paris….
November 19, 2013
As I write this, you are at home with your dad and I am bumming around Paris. I hope you’re not too mad at me- either right now or when you someday read this. I’ve never been able to shake my wanderlust and, for as long as I can, I will always go off on an adventure now and then. I miss your face all the time when I’m gone.
In a life blessed with a lot of wandering, you are still my grandest adventure.
As I sit here, I picture you as a young man- tall and wild, curious and joyful (as you always have been)- rambling through these beautiful streets one day. I hope you’re having the time of your life. I wish for you a wondrous journey, filled with love. I wish for you a safe journey home.
I love you to the moon and back. Remember that? Stop rolling your eyes. Call your old mom sometime, she misses you.
Settling into my friend’s place in Paris right now. The sky is soft and grey and I’m drinking a strong coffee and staring out the window at the last of the fall foliage and thinking about a remarkable book I devoured front to back on the plane- Elif Shafak’s memoir, Black Milk: On The Conflicting Demands of Writing, Creativity and Motherhood. Of course, this very conflict is at the forefront of my mind, as I embark on a week away from my little guy. Once again, the synchronicitous universe drops exactly what I need to hear right into my lap.
In the book, Shafak talks about two dominant images of motherhood, from which we are expected to choose:
1. The traditional mother- a paragon of selflessness and self-sacrifice. We give up every trace of individual desire so that our families might thrive.
2. The quintessential superwoman- effortlessly juggling husband, career, kids, and home, all without breaking a nail or skipping a Pilates class. You can have it all. If you don’t, you must be doing it wrong.
As different as these two views seem to be, they have one thing in common: They both focus solely on what they want to see, disregarding the complexity and intensity of motherhood, and the way in which it transforms a woman and her crystal heart.
Throughout the book, Shafak regularly converses with six, finger-sized women she calls “Thumbelinas,” or her “inner harem.” These colorful and divergent little gals represent some of the distinct, persuasive and often conflicting voices inside of her.
I found the idea so intriguing and resonant that it inspired me to conjure my own Thumbelinas. I didn’t intend to write this for anyone’s eyes but mine and frankly I’m a bit embarrassed by how naked it is, but I found the exercise so thought provoking and useful that I thought I’d share it.
My Thumbelinas (inspired by Elif Shafak):
Ms. Dignified Artist
Weathering a life of both hardship and triumph, she ages gracefully. Famous photographers take black and white photos of the dignified lines on her face. Capable hands, clay under her nails. Her emotional life is intensely feminine but her assertion of voice is masculine. Clothes like a Maoist. Could forget to eat. Could live alone in the desert and kill rattlesnakes with her walking stick, its tip sharpened to a point for just this purpose. Secretly tossed in turbulent waters of insecurity and doubt. A lifetime of painful and storied relationships that never quite worked, but instead were transformed to art by alchemy.
Mrs. Trophy Wife
Eternally coiffed, nails done, fingers wrapped around the steering wheel of a luxury SUV, no tattoos, expensive clothes and lots of ‘em, feet never see a flat shoe, waist never sees a size beyond 2. She is smart enough not to care about being smart- would far rather be powerful. Uncontrolled by sentiment, she’s my funniest Thumbelina. And my meanest. Lives on juice cleanses and laxatives and Chardonnay.
Miss Boozy Good Time
Fat fingers, sun damaged, inked to the gills, everything been pierced at one time or another, needs love more than money but never quite gets enough of either. Muffin tops and eyes sinking into face bloat and cleavage spilling out of the top of her shirt. 20 years and 20 lbs ago, she was so punk rock. She knew everything. She was unafraid of consequences. She was bold and ready to join the carnival and unaware that any of the other Thumbelinas existed or ever would exist. She can take it on the chin. She can laugh at herself.
Ms. Busy Busy Bookworm, Phd
She has always been most comfortable hiding behind a pair of thick-framed glasses. Her happy place is the library. Her treasure is her Grandmother’s first edition of The Magic Mountain in German. She keeps it where a picture of a boyfriend would be on her desk. She favors clothes that make her look like Sylvia Plath at Smith in the 50s, like cashmere twin sets (bought vintage of course, her adjunct professor job doesn’t allow for new cashmere). She’s a little bit chubby because she eats while she reads and she reads a lot, the pages of her books stained with peanut butter and mocha lattes. She doesn’t think about her body much at all- she feels like a head on a stick. She plans every year to go to temple for the High Holidays, to make her parents happy, to stay connected to something, but she never does. She is happiest in a world of ideas.
She would like to think that she wears her hospital gown like Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted but more likely she looks like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. She is sick. People take care of her, until they don’t. No makeup, big eyed, at odds with her body and her nervous system and always, always in pain. She watches hours and hours of television. She doesn’t eat regular meals; her days have no shape. She eats comfort food- grilled cheese, macaroni- exactly when she wants to. She likes the shades drawn. She is always planning to get better. There is always another illness.
Mrs. Mommy Martha Stewart
Tying little shoelaces (little shoes! adorable!) and cheerfully cleaning up pee accidents on the kitchen floors (everyone has accidents sometimes, honey!) making snacks and helping with homework and blowing kisses at school drop-off and texting the other moms about soccer drama. Dressed in workout wear or nouveau-hippie silverlake garb. A pretty mom. A nice mom. A mom who gets a little snarky on the wine at back-to-school night but what the hell. Full of advice. Goes to church on Sunday. Good at solving problems. Good at making quiche.
This is just a beginning.
If you feel inspired to share in the comments, I’d love to meet some of your Thumbelinas!
The neighbors on our street all decorate for Halloween and hand out absurd amounts of candy to sugar-crazed zombie hoards. We always throw a big party and it’s a blast. We let Tariku pick the family costume theme and then I get crazy with the glue gun and next thing you know, we’ve created a mutual fantasy world into which we all can escape for one chaotic night. This year, we were an octopus, a mermaid and Neptune.
Our culture demands that mothers be perfectly wholesome, that children embody the very essence of angelic innocence. Any deviation will bring down the wrath of the haters, both online and on the playground. I love that Halloween offers us a chance to give a public voice to our darker side. Costumes are a great way of letting our fantasy or shadow selves, heroes or monsters, spiral outward into the world.
Tariku stands in front of the skeletons and ghosts hanging from the trees on our street and faces them down, saying, “I’m not afraid of you. You’re not real.” Which, of course, is both true and not true. The skeleton masks are just cheap, novelty store rubber, but the specter of death is looming over us all, just over our shoulder, all our lives.
I have always been afraid of the dark. As a child, I woke regularly from terrible nightmares, frozen with fear, imagining the darkness to be alive and swimming with menace.
This irrational terror lasted into my adulthood, until at one point a therapist suggested that I walk into dark rooms and then just stand there and lean into the feeling of fear, letting it move through me until it transformed into something new. It is embarrassing to admit that the first few times I tried it, I couldn’t do it. I would stand there rigid until a wave of fear washed over me and I ran from the room with my heart pounding. But slowly, with practice, I learned to stand quietly in the dark. Now, when I wake in the middle of the night, I sometimes intentionally walk through the house without turning on the light. My reward has been that I get to walk through patches of moonlight spilling onto my kitchen floor, that I get to experience the peace that can come from being alone in the velvety darkness.
To me, Halloween is symbolic of the potential for growth that lies in engaging with the shadow side of life rather than denying it. It’s a chance to bring your fears out into the light and dance with them, rather than running away.
It is also ridiculously fun to watch the kids explode with joy at the prospect of putting on a mask and having permission to eat a peanut butter cup or two.
I love it all. And I particularly love that Tariku thinks this octopus costume is “really, really scary.”
Scott and I have always loved the Albert Brooks movie Lost in America. In it, there is a scene in which Albert Brooks discovers Julie Hagerty gambling away the last of their nest egg in a Las Vegas casino:
She: We’re still down!
He: How down?
About a year ago, each night after putting T to sleep after yet another exhausting day, we would look at each other with stricken expressions.
Me: We’re still down.
Scott: How Down?
During that difficult time, I often felt lonely. It seemed every other mother I knew was posting pictures on FB of the beautiful organic seasonal dinner party she just threw (to which I wasn’t invited), using some table linens her three perfect kids decorated themselves with stamps they carved from potatoes. No that their kids were at the dinner party. Because they were sleeping. SLEEPING!
I spent a lot of time crying in the car and feeling hopeless. Forget trying to get on the waiting list for a good kindergarten, I was starting to think about getting on a waiting list for a good rehab. I felt unequal to this task of motherhood. It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for all of my blessings, I genuinely was. It’s just that some of the time, I was also pretty disappointed by life.
Tariku’s school aide, until recently, was still going to class with him one day a week (mostly because I was used to hanging onto her like a life-preserver), but a couple of weeks ago she called me and said, “Look, this just isn’t necessary. He’s doing amazing. He really doesn’t need me anymore.”
Then yesterday we drove down to see a circus that should have been an hour away. We left an extra hour early but still wound up late, because we got off at the wrong exit, landed in the worst neighborhood of all time, and got caught behind a police barricade. True story. And do you know what? My son was the calmest, most content person in that car. It used to be that the slightest deviation from any plan would set off an epic tantrum. This time, he was just singing and playing with his transformers and occasionally asking random questions like: If this isn’t the Cretaceous period anymore then what period it it? I honestly have no idea what parents did before google. Did they have to actually be smarter than their kids?
Now that the crisis has abated, I’ve noticed that every one of the mothers I placed on a pedestal has, at some point in this year, been down.
I recently witnessed the mom that I consider the height of PTA-going, Martha-Stewart-crafting perfection nearly have a nervous collapse, when Tariku accidentally kicked a ball of paper mache in her garage (because it looked like a ball and not like a Halloween costume in-progress). No joke, I thought I was going to have to call 911. And later she was like, I’m sorry, I’m just stretched so thin.
Meaning, y’know, I’m down.
Maybe I was really never that isolated to begin with, it’s just that all I could see were differences and not similarities. Which is to say, I have been down before and will, I’m sure, be down again. But the next time it happens, I hope to remember not to look at everyone else’s potato stamps and see them as evidence of my aloneness at the center of the universe.