A hand at my back

I walked in off the street, to a yoga class billed as “Sweet Vinyassa.”  It’s been a week of new places and new faces, from the moment I arrived last Wednesday night on the doorstep of a friend I’d never met in La Canada, California, to this morning, when I found myself asked to bend over backwards and let go.

A week after my book came out, an e-mail appeared in my in-box:  “You and I are kindred spirits,” it read, “and we would be fast friends if we were to meet.”  Fast forward six months — and my husband and I were unpacking our bags in Tracy’s guest bedroom.  Suddenly, my world felt a whole lot bigger.

Tracy and I had written back and forth after that first letter, and from the very beginning something just clicked.  We became friends even without meeting.  And so when she invited me to come to California, to stay at her house and speak to a large parent education group at a church in her town, a little voice inside me whispered, “Just say yes.”

I haven’t been to California for twenty years.  The thought of speaking in front of a large group makes my palms sweat.  Leaving my home is always hard for me. I’ve never stayed over night with someone I didn’t already know.  And yet. . .

I turned 51 last fall, and something inside me shifted.  After years of putting off travel, adventure, experiences that might take me right out of my comfort zone, I finally began to ask myself:  If not now, when?  Facing up to the hard, cold fact of half a century plus on the planet, I also had to confront the truth that anything I put off now, to some undetermined point in the future, might not ever happen at all.  So I made a vow to myself on my birthday last year to accept the adventures that are offered to me, even if they do make my palms sweat.

And so, last Monday I bought myself a gray silk Eileen Fisher suit on sale for half price (the most beautiful, grown-up thing I’ve ever owned), and on Wednesday morning my husband Steve and I got up early, shoveled ten inches of fresh snow, and headed for the airport. In the last few days, thanks to Tracy’s vision, hard work, and hospitality,  I have given a talk to two hundred smart, incredibly welcoming women.  I have spoken and read at a bookstore, signed well over a hundred copies of my book, and been the guest of honor at the loveliest ladies’ tea party imaginable.  I took a hike into the Southern California mountains with a group of women who felt like old friends before we’d panted our way up the first hill.  And I had the great joy of sitting down at the end of a long day, kicking off my shoes and getting to know my email pen-pal  really well, face-to-face at last — not to mention her kind, funny husband and her three beautiful, nearly grown children, who conspired to make two perfect strangers from the east coast feel like old, dear friends.

After photos and hugs and good-byes in La Canada on Saturday morning, it was on to LA, to meet another e-mail friend, writer and Zen teacher Karen Maezen Miller, whose book Hand Wash Cold will come out this spring. After two months of e-mails back and forth, and books exchanged and read avidly, Maezen and I took all of about thirty seconds to acclimate to one another in person.  And then we walked through her 100-year-old Japanese garden,  ate orange muffins, jumped into her nifty electric car, and made our way into the city for a dharma talk at the Zen center that is her spiritual home.

“This is really my life?” I thought, as Steve and I took our places, sitting cross-legged on plump round pillows at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles, the only “civilians” amidst a room full of Buddhist monks with shaved  heads and long black robes.  And yet, after three days of non-stop talking and smiling, it was a relief to be silent, to bow and to sit and to listen.  To be reminded that the only moment is the present moment, the beautiful gift of right here and right now.  Sun poured through the windows.  Silence ripened. My mind, nothing but busy for weeks and weeks, grew quiet at last.

Now, with the “work” part of this trip behind me,  I’m on holiday in Ojai, enjoying a bit of vacation with my husband at a quaint bed and breakfast.  It feels good to relax and exhale, to take a long walk, read a book on the porch, wander through the farmer’s market.  And yet, even here, the opportunity to stretch presents itself.

“Just bend your knees and allow yourself to let go,” the yoga teacher suggested to me this morning.  She’d picked me, the stranger who’d just happened to show up in class, to demonstrate a backbend.  No, I’d never done one before.  (I’m pretty sure that’s why she chose me, actually.)  But after a week of letting go and having faith that where ever I was, was exactly where I was meant to be, bending over backwards didn’t seem all that scary.

Two pairs of strong hands supported my back, as I reached my arms up over my head and started to go over. And moments later I was in a place I’d never been before, palms on the floor, heart lifted, feet planted, back-bending.

Tonight, as I sit in front of a cozy fire in our Ojai B&B, far from home, typing these words, I feel just a little bit like I did this morning when I bent over backwards.  Which is to say, I am reminded that life is one big invitation to say “yes” and then let go.  What I loved most about this week was not the book sales and accolades from fans of my work (nice as that was!), but rather that sense of support, right at hand when I needed it most.  There was a moment, as I stood in front of the crowd giving my talk, when my legs stopped shaking and I began to sense instead the warm, supportive energy in the room.  I realized it then; was made aware of it again this morning in a yoga class where I knew not a soul:  Let go, and you’ll be caught.  Let go, and then feel the joy of knowing that there will a hand at your back if you need it, ready to hold you, to guide you, to make sure you don’t fall over, or fall apart, or fall through the cracks.

Speaking to a room full of women was sort of like bending over backwards.  In each case, I met myself in a new place, thanks to some help from strangers who were just friends I hadn’t met yet.


Texting, praying

My guess is that if you are reading this, you’ve probably seen the YouTube video I made a couple of months ago.  There is a line in there that my kids like to tease me about.  Well, there are a few actually.  But the one that I take the most flak for is: “You learn to text, and to pray.”

As my sons often point out, no one makes phone calls anymore.  If I want the instant gratification of communicating with them and getting a response, they’ve told me, I should text, not call.  But I’m a terrible texter.  Truth is, I haven’t really learned to text, and despite Jack’s patient lesson on my cell phone a couple of months ago, I rarely text either of my sons.

The praying is another matter.  When my boys were little, I think I believed that if I was a really good mother, and paid attention, and did everything right, I could keep my children safe from harm.   In some kind of unspoken pact with the universe, I kept up my end of the bargain; I made sure my boys buckled seatbelts, cut grapes in half, wore bike helmets and ski helmets and mouthguards and jock straps.  We had regular check ups, talked things through, looked both ways.

One March morning seven years ago, the phone rang with the news that my best friend’s son had been killed while trying to stop a fight on his college campus.  He was twenty-one, two months away from graduation. I remember my friend saying, at the end of that terrible week, after her beautiful son had been cremated and all the friends and relatives had left to go home, “How am I going to live without him?”

Somehow, she has lived.  She carries great sadness, and yet she carries on.  She has learned to smile again, to make Christmas dinner, to be steady for her other two sons. My own older son is in college now, the other in high school.  And there is not a day that goes by that I don’t sit down, put my hands together, and give thanks for their lives, for the very fact of their existence on this earth.  I’ve long since let go of the naive belief that living well and doing good work is any kind of insurance against suffering. We live well and do good work because we are able.  And because it’s our job, as humans on this planet, to make ourselves useful and to express our love through both word and deed.  There is no deal. The fact is, what happened to Morgan could happen to any child.  And any illusion we might have of control or security is just that, an illusion.

The world is perilous and wonderful, both. Terrible things happen, and blessings rain upon us. Our children make good choices and poor ones.  They take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and march, inexorably, toward their own destinies.  And much as we may love our sons and daughters, we also learn to accept the fact that love is not protection.  It’s just love.

Prayer helps me to remember that.  So I sit quietly, saying “please.”  And “thank you.”

Asking for help

Yesterday afternoon, I got a call from a mother in distress.  The woman was a stranger to me, a single mom struggling through tough times with a troubled teenaged son.  My younger son went through his own tough time at age sixteen.  I knew right away how things were for her — the helplessness, the worry, the anger, the isolation, the sleepless nights.  Of course, it always helps to talk with a person who’s already lived through what you’re enduring in the moment.  And so, I was glad someone had given her my number and that she had had the willingness to call.  I listened, as best I could while driving down the highway, and tried to offer her the only advice I felt qualified to give:  get help.

It seems like such a simple thing, asking for help.  And yet it can be so hard.  Hard to admit, “What I’m doing isn’t working.”  Or, “I have a problem that is bigger than I am.”   Revealing the cracks–in our family life, in a relationship, in our own carefully crafted personas — means showing just how vulnerable we really are. Most of us have a lot invested in putting a good face on things, a message our children internalize early and master by adolescence.  They get pretty good at acting as if they don’t care, even when things are falling apart around them. Even when, inside, they are as lost and scared as we are.

I’ve learned a few life lessons from my teenaged sons, and most of them can be boiled down to the first lines of the Serenity Prayer, adopted years ago by 12 Step programs.  If you are sharing your house with someone between the ages of 14 and 18 or so, you might think about taping these words up on your bathroom mirror:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

In one way or another, motherhood seems to demand that we confront this idea every single day.  For much of last year, the operative word for me was “courage.”  “Courage to change the things I can” means courage to admit that things aren’t working, and that we have a responsibility to our children and to ourselves to find a better way.  More often than not, the first step on that path is the willingness to say, “We need a hand here.” And then we are called to summon in ourselves yet another dose of courage.  The courage to follow through, and to make hard choices and sometimes painful changes. The courage to be the best parents we can be, moment to moment, even when that means letting go of an ideal or a vision of the way things “ought” to be.

Asking for help ourselves, we lead the way for our children.  We affirm our own faith in the world, and strengthen theirs a little, by saying, “We aren’t alone.”

“I have to go now,” I finally said to my caller, promising that we would speak again.  I was meeting my son, to watch him play squash, a sport he discovered this winter and has taken up with a passion.  I’d never even seen a squash match till a few weeks ago, when I googled one on YouTube, so I’d know just what it was that Jack was so excited about.  Yesterday, we sat together and watched the varsity team, as he explained squash strategy and how to score.  By the time he entered the court to play, I had my bearings.  I sat with his best friend, who cheered him on in true best-friend spirit, and who kindly gave me a bit of play-by-play as the match progressed.

Afterwards, over dinner, we talked about how much has happened in a year, how good things are now, how excited Jack feels as he looks into the future, wondering where he’ll go to college, what he’ll end up doing with his life, what might be just around the corner.

These days, I’m working with the “wisdom” part of that prayer.  My sons are both so close to being all grown up.  And being the best parent I can be now means remembering that how they each “turn out” isn’t up to me and my husband anymore.  It’s up to them.

Wisdom is about knowing what I still need to keep hold of — our family values, basic agreements for living together in the house when the kids are at home, and confidence in their good judgment when they’re not.  It still means consequences that are directly related to poor decisions, although we don’t have too many of those at this point.  And it means knowing what it’s time for me to let go of:  the idea that it’s my job to make the world right for my children.

We are feeling our way into this new, more mature way of being and relating to one another.  And it’s a pleasure, realizing that I can show up, be present, and trust that my sons have learned the most important lessons I had to teach them.  Including the one that can save us all:  “Ask for help.”