The Things We Carry

Tension.  Anxiety.  Worry.  My own load is invisible, but  it’s definitely been taking a toll.  This week I learned that while I’ve been stretching my spine in downward dog, practicing deep breathing in meditation, walking the back roads of New Hampshire with a grateful heart, I’ve also been clenching my jaw.  Clenching so hard and so fiercely and for so long, that I’ve cracked my back teeth and pushed my bite out of alignment as a result.

It took my dad the dentist to figure it out, after I’d called him for the fifth morning in a row to describe my sleepless nights and to confess that I’d begun counting the hours between painkillers.  “Put two rolls of cotton between your teeth so they don’t touch, then sit down and completely relax for a half hour, and call me back,” he advised.  Still the good daughter, I did what he told me, weird as it sounded.  Within moments, I caught myself clamping down on the cotton rolls — clamping down as if they were a couple of bullets I’d been told to bite while undergoing primitive, excruciating surgery without anesthesia.  Except of course, this was not surgery.  This was my own everyday life.  And apparently, in order to survive it, I’d been holding myself in some kind of death-grip.

The truth was a bit of a shock.  I took a deep breath, made myself relax, and then caught myself clamping right down again.  For thirty conscious minutes, then, I focused on relaxing my jaw completely.  Deliberate, intentional relaxation.  And bit by bit, I felt the pain that had plagued me for a week simply drain away.  Could it really be that simple?

This morning, I watched as my son Jack got ready to head up into the White Mountains for a three-day hike with a friend.  It’s his first big adventure without an adult along, a true test — for us parents as well as for him. When he proposed the trip at the beginning of the summer, his dad and I  were noncommittal–not wanting to nix the idea, yet not at all sure he was ready to take off on his own into the mountains. Back then, August seemed like a long way off.  If we said nothing more about his plan, we figured, he might very well forget the whole idea, or never manage to get it organized, or change his mind.

Instead, over the course of many phone calls, he and his friend chose a date, got some advice about a route, and finally, with our blessing and my credit card, reserved a couple of AMC huts.  The funny thing is that by the time he was actually ready to go, I was ready to let him.

A year ago, this boy of mine was driving me crazy.  I despaired of him ever growing up, wising up, straightening up. . .cleaning up.  All of a sudden, though, he IS grown up.  At six feet tall and 160 pounds, he is a lot bigger and stronger than I am.  And finally, it seems that his brain has caught up to his body.  I send him to the grocery store with a list, and he comes back having made exactly the right purchases. (It was not so long ago that I requested a cucumber and he returned with a zucchini.)  He calls home, meets his curfew, texts me when something goes awry and sometimes just to say “hi.”  He asks me how my day was, puts his dishes in the dishwasher and walks the dog.  He gets up on time and goes to bed at a reasonable hour.  He reads good books and then wants to talk about them. He still trashes his bedroom, and then just before I open my mouth to say something about how it looks like a bomb hit in there, he turns on some loud music and starts cleaning it up.

Last week, the two of us had an interesting conversation.  “With you, Mom,” he said, “it’s all about honesty.  I know that honesty means more to you than anything.  And so now I feel like I can’t ever lie to you.  Even sometimes when I’ve done something that I don’t want you to know about, I always feel better after I’ve told you.”

I thought about that for a few days, somewhat reassured in general sort of way.  And then something came up that kept me awake for a good part of a night, worrying not so much about what I already knew, but about what might be.  In the morning, Jack and I talked again.  “Ok,” I said, “I think I really need to know a little more about what happened last night.”  The story he told me made perfect sense.  I knew that it was the truth.  It didn’t thrill me, but it was so, so much better than all of the really terrible scenarios I’d spent the night imagining.  Now it was my turn to tell him something.

“I can always handle the truth,” I said.  “I may not like it, but if I ask for it, it’s my job to figure out how to deal with it.  And I think the truth is probably always going to be a lot better than whatever I can dream up in my mind.”

It’s late now, and Steve and Henry have already gone to bed.  I was just about to wrap this up and turn off the lights, when a text came in from Jack, who is settling into his sleeping bag on the top of a mountain far away.  “Hey mom,” he wrote, “random service spot here.  Everything is going fine.”

I’ve been thinking a lot today about the things we carry, both literally and emotionally.  I watched the seventeen-year-old boys pack their packs, watched them trying to anticipate what they would need, what was worth lugging up into the mountains and back down again.  Their enthusiasm was great to see, though I was less impressed by the rations they were taking — Slim Jims, Ritz crackers, Pop-Tarts, and a sausage. They insisted on carrying their own pillows from home.  And I resisted the urge to check to make sure they had toothbrushes and clean underwear.  (I did insist on hats and four apples.)  And then it was time for them to shoulder their loads and be on their way.  They probably took too much stuff; their packs looked pretty heavy to me.  But what they have is what they chose to carry.

Me, I’m ready for a lighter load.  I’ve laid down my burden of worry, at least for now.  The mouth guard my dad made me will help me to remember to relax my jaw, to give my poor teeth some rest.  And meanwhile, a more conscious part of me has already chosen to let go.  I’m sure that Jack is fine out there.  He’ll have a good night’s sleep and so will I.

Toothache

It started on our first day at the lake, a little sensitivity on a back molar as I bit into a piece of blueberry pie.  I winced, took a sip of coffee, and passed my dessert over to Jack, who was happy to have it.  We were thirty minutes from the nearest town, and three hours from my dad, the only dentist I’ve ever had in my life. There wasn’t much I could do, other than try to distract myself.  For three days, I managed to feign bliss and good health. I walked and ran, swam, did yoga, participated in each evening’s FGOS (family game of Scrabble), read books on the shore, savored every meal with my husband and our two sons.  Except for when I had to actually chew.  Suddenly, the simple pleasure of eating together had become a kind of torture.  And then came the moment, midway through the week, when I just had to give up.  I couldn’t fake it for even one more martyred minute.  I was in pain whether I was eating or not.  Lots of pain. The blast-right-through-and-pretend-it-isn’t-happening trick didn’t work at all once my jaw swelled up and the tears began pricking at the backs of my eyelids.

“Chronic physical pain is one of the harshest teachers you can have,”  writes Eckhert Tolle.  Amen.  Laying in bed, trying to take deep, calming breaths while my jaw throbbed and my temples ached and the pain pulsed in my head with every beat of my heart, I began to get a little panicky.  How much worse could it get? I wondered.  And what the heck was going on anyway?  I, the dentist’s daughter who’d gone through life without so much as a real cavity, was not supposed to get some random, debilitating toothache.   Especially not during the one precious week we all look forward to throughout the other fifty-one weeks of the year, our expensive, idyllic, end-of-summer retreat on a gorgeous lake in Maine.

Steve and Henry and Jack commiserated.  They brought me mint tea, ice cream, and hot washcloths for my brow. Word went out around the campfire, so to speak, and before long, friends in nearby cabins were offering antibiotics and painkillers, acupressure treatments and goldenseal.  I walked up the road, called my dad on my cell phone, and read the words on the proffered bottles to him.  “Take the antibiotics,” he said.  “Take the painkillers.”

I spent the rest of the week in a haze of pain and woozy stupor.  Time slowed down, and I told myself that wasn’t such a bad thing.  I read a book that I don’t remember reading, sat on the porch, slept in the sun, and spent a lot of time curled up in bed, listening to the sounds of kids playing on the beach and boats whizzing by.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been repeating a meditation by Adyashanti that strikes me as radical, simple, and incredibly challenging: “Allow everything to be exactly as it is.”  Sometimes, sitting cross-legged on my pillow, after a nice long yoga practice, I can actually do it.  Having used my body, calmed my mind, gotten back in touch with my own center, it is possible for me to sit in stillness, to breathe, and to allow everything to be exactly as it is.

But I’ve been humbled here by an unexpected sock to the jaw.  We’re back at home now, and there are lots of things that I ought to be doing.  Instead, I’ve been to see my dad three times.  He opened a back molar, found a crack in the tooth, put in a bonded filling. The pain, however, isn’t going away.   X-rays don’t show a thing, but the throbbing in my jawbone is real, the jolt when I chew is real, the desperation at 4 am, when the pain extends from ear to chin, is real.  I type these words with a couple of cotton rolls stuffed between my upper and lower teeth, to keep them from touching each other.

The pain lesson was not on my to-do list for this week.  But here I am, the student who’s just been dragged in by her ear and shown to her seat in the classroom.  “Resistance is futile” is the theme for the day.  Getting on with my life — cleaning the house, doing the back-to-school shopping, exercising — isn’t an option.

And so I remind myself to accept what is.  Instead of fighting the pain, I am trying to bring all those years of yoga practice into this moment.  How hard it is, to truly surrender.  But that’s what I’m up to today.  Giving in. In the grand scheme of things, one sore jaw isn’t much, and yet it can so easily seem to be everything.  (Certainly trying to avoid it, and then fighting it, has taken up most of my attention and energy for the last week.)  I’ve concluded that it’s time for a different tack.  Time to bring some acceptance into my nonacceptance, and to see what happens when I allow everything to be exactly as it is.

One good thing

A young father lay dying.  Our sons, then in third grade together, had been playmates since kindergarten.  When word came that Richard was ill, I’d brought soup to the door, then lemon cake.  Such small gestures; just a way to say, “I am thinking of you.”  One day I stayed on to chat with Richard in the quiet house, and later his wife Jane called and asked if perhaps I could come again.

So it was that in the midst of my busy life with two small children, I was invited to pause, and to draw close to death.

Richard’s decline was slow; there was time for the work of letting go.  As the months went by, he moved from the sofa in the sun-drenched living room to the darkened bedroom upstairs; from recounting anecdotes of his childhood into a tape recorder for his boys to hear when he was gone, to listening while my friend Lisa and  I took turns reading the “Tibetan Book of of Living and Dying” aloud at this bedside; from festive meals shared at the table to sips of coffee and bites of cake.  There was nothing to do, day after day,  but show up with an open heart.  The lesson, I came to see, was all about being there — allowing, listening, learning to be less afraid of what might come and more accepting of things as they were.

“How are you doing?” I asked him once as the end drew near, not sure at all how to ask my real question:  “How can anyone suffer so, and yet go on?”

I think often, still, of Richard’s answer:  “As long as there is one good thing in every day,” he said, “life is worth living.”

One good thing.

Most days, I lose count by breakfast time.

The Shallows

It is August and the goldenrod is in bloom alongside the road.  Last night, I lay in bed, windows opened wide, and listened to the thrum of crickets, a symphonic prelude to summer’s end.  I think back to all the things I was so sure I’d do this summer, to the private to-do list I wrote for myself the first week of June, and realize that I’ve made precious little progress on any of those projects.  What have I been doing all this time?

The fact that I’ve managed to write a weekly blog entry, answer most of my e-mail, read and sometimes comment on the blogs of a few friends and fellow writers, and stay current with my pals on Facebook doesn’t exactly fill me with  a sense of accomplishment.  And yet, I tell myself, I’ve been busy–many days, really, really busy–just trying to keep up with the flow of news and information and communication that shows up on my computer screen each morning.

Over the weekend, Jack and Steve and I visited my parents in Maine.  Cell phone reception is spotty and there is no internet out on the spit of land where their house nestles on ledge, surrounded by water on three sides.  We didn’t do very much — the guys played tennis on a neighbor’s court, we went to the Farmers Market and to the Pancake Breakfast at the library, took walks, read books, cooked and ate and cleaned up.  The three days we spent hanging around the house seemed long and leisurely and lovely.  It occurred to me that, for the first time all summer, it really and truly actually felt like summer.    And then I realized why:  my computer was sitting untouched in a straw bag in the bedroom.  Freed from its siren call, unable to click, tweet, type, or browse, I was forced to give my complete, undistracted attention to the physical world before my eyes and at my fingertips.  Sky.  Water.  Flowers.   Family.  Books.  A pad of paper and a pen. It felt strange, and sort of wonderful to curl up on the couch and write by hand, in different colors of ink, on big sheets of blank paper.  I doodled, sketched, and even created a brand new, A to Z, pie-in-the-sky  to-do list, including everything from “try writing an essay for the Oprah magazine” to “find a birthday gift for John.”   Instead of making me anxious, the process was strangely calming, as if in committing all these random thoughts and ideas to paper I was already moving a step closer toward realizing some of them.

What happened to us this weekend in Maine seemed almost profound — time expanded. Each moment felt fat and full and rich. Meanwhile, something deep inside me relaxed and let go.  The really surprising thing is that, without the ability to so much as check my e-mail, the vague anxiety I’ve had for weeks, about not ever being caught up or on top of things, disappeared altogether.  I read a bound galley I should have read weeks ago and wrote a quote for it (better late than never).  I finally came up with an idea for a new video for the paperback of “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” — another task that has had me stumped all summer.  It wasn’t so much that I was actually getting anything “done,” but rather that I could feel myself coming back in touch at last with that small, capricious part of me that observes and imagines and creates from the inside out.

Driving home on Sunday afternoon, we were quiet in the car.  Jack stretched out in the back seat, reading “Slaughterhouse Five,” without his earbuds in.  A rarity.  Steve drove, without the radio on.  I sat beside him, utterly absorbed in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”

Talk about finding the right book at the right time.  If you are sitting in front of your own computer at this moment, reading this blog entry, my guess is that you will be as provoked and disturbed and challenged by this extraordinary book as I am.  I consider myself a thoughtful person — engaged with the world, focused on the things that matter, present in my own life.  I earn my living by writing about being in the moment.  And I do so by sitting in front of my laptop, typing words onto a screen.  Nicholas Carr is making me pause and reflect on what’s really going on here.  His research is unsettling, to say the least.

I have a vivid memory of a specific turning point in the writing of my first book, “Mitten Strings for God,” twelve years ago.  I sat on the floor, surrounded by drafts, stacks and stacks of paper that I had written by hand, typed onto the computer, printed out, and then cut up with scissors and taped together.  The room was a mess.  The pages were scrawled all over with arrows and deletions and pen marks in different colors for different levels of rewrites.  And suddenly, casting my eyes over this chaos, I saw exactly how to put it all together.  It seems like a lifetime ago, an ah-ha experience that I will never repeat no matter how many more books I write. Now, thanks to Nicholas Carr, I understand why.  It’s not simply that I have a different approach to writing now, although I do.  It’s that I have a different brain altogether.  A brain that has been radically changed and shaped by the way I use it day in and day out, interacting with the very machine upon which I type these words.  (It has been years since I wrote longhand, and then typed my work onto the computer. And if you think that small cognitive shift is meaningless, think again.)

The fact that “The Shallows” is not the blockbuster, break-out book of the summer is a surprise to me, for it has certainly rocked my world.  It has shown me, irrefutably, what’s at stake as I go about my own daily online business, how the ingrained habits of my wired life have already changed the way I think, the way I see and interact with the world, my ability to reflect, read deeply,  concentrate, and even — hard as this is to admit — my relationship with myself and the people I love the most.

Week after next, Henry will be done with his summer job, Jack will take a break from his apprenticeship in Boston, and the four of us will spend a week together, as we always do, on a lake in Maine.  A couple of years ago, bowing to pressure from the guests, the owner of the rustic old camp we return to year after year installed wi-fi in the main lodge.  The change was subtle at first.  Fewer people played Scrabble after dinner. The teenagers seemed to lose interest in flirting with one another over the perennially unfinished jigsaw puzzles, and began chatting with friends back home instead.  There was room at the game tables.  The place grew quieter.  The books on the shelves were largely untouched.  The guy who was always looking for a game of Bridge never even got out his deck of cards. Last year, we looked around one night and laughed:  the couches were full of people, all gazing at their laptops.

This year, I’ve decided that my vacation will be a vacation from my computer as well.  Steve, who read “The Shallows” first and then pressed it into my hands, is all for that.  Although we’re long past the stage where we can make such a call for our kids,  I’m hoping that they’ll at least consider taking a break from Facebook and YouTube.  I’m looking forward to a few games of Scrabble after dinner and to evenings that seem to stretch interminably toward bedtime.  For myself, I already have a to-do list:  Read deeply.  Have long talks with my husband and my boys. Listen for loons.  Write in my journal.  Notice everything.  Be amazed by the world.

P.S.  My wise and witty friend Karen Maezen Miller has posted some very thoughtful related reflections about social media in “Death by Twitter,” over at Smartly .  Have a look.  And then, let me know your thoughts:  As we grow ever more accustomed to and dependent on our technology, what to we trade away in return for speed and ease and efficiency? What have we already lost?