First day of school

I have had it only a few times, a sudden sense of arriving at my own front door, of being home without even knowing that I’d been away.  I felt it twelve years ago, when I first unrolled a yoga mat in the back corner of the Baron Baptiste Power Yoga Studio in Cambridge.  Never mind that the room was heated to 102 degrees and I’d dressed, unwittingly, in sweatpants and a heavy, long-sleeved shirt.  Never mind that I couldn’t bend over and come any where close to touching my toes, that I had no idea what a downward-dog was, that my body felt so ungainly and awkward and disconnected from my brain (not to mention my heart) that I spent most of the class sweating desperately and watching everyone else flow through a series of poses that looked at once impossible, and impossibly lovely, to me.  I did what I could (which wasn’t much) and knew, the way we sometimes do know these things, that I’d finally arrived at a place I’d been seeking all my life.

There was a part of me even then that dreamed of full immersion.  Sometimes, I fantasized about what it might be like to study deeply, to practice for more than an hour and a half a couple of times a week, perhaps even to one day teach this practice I loved so much to others.  And always the ever-ready critic in my brain responded with all the reasons why that would never happen:  It was too late.  I already had a job, a well-paid sedentary one that required me to be at my desk every day. My kids and husband needed me. I’ve never been athletic and never will be. No matter how many years I spend on a yoga mat, I won’t have a “yoga body.” I can’t do a handstand. I’m too shy. Too uncoordinated.  Too old.

Twelve years later, and I’m even older than I was then.  But I’m also sensing that it’s time to attend more closely to my soul’s deepest longings, rather than to that inner voice that tells me what I’m not and can never be.  The truth is, my children no longer need me day in and day out, the way they once did, and my husband is quite able to take care of himself.  I don’t get paid to edit books on someone else’s schedule anymore.  And a yoga body is not the goal or the point of what I do on my yoga mat (although I certainly appreciate every little bit of core strength I manage to acquire).  The reasons I practice, the reasons I keep a mat spread on the floor between my kitchen and living room, have more to do with learning than with doing.  I practice yoga because I clench my jaw till my teeth ache, and tuning in to my breath is a gentle, necessary lesson in letting go.  I practice because so often I fail at being the wife, the mother, the friend I yearn to be, and learning to accept myself as I am on my yoga mat helps me accept who I am in the world.  I practice because I tend toward judgment, and yoga softens my rough edges.  I practice because I get so easily lost in worry or regret or plans that I miss the beauty right under my nose, and yoga is a lovely wake up call, my own daily reminder to be fully present in the moment–by-moment experience of being alive.

Early this morning, I threw all of my doubts and fears and nerves and excitement into the car, along with my yoga mat and duffel bag, and drove to the Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts.  For the next month, I’ll live in a dorm room here with a bunch of other aspiring teachers and practice yoga two to eight hours a day.  All afternoon yesterday, as I vacuumed and dusted, watered plants and changed the beds, I fought back tears, wondering if I’d been nuts to think I could do this, and how I could possibly have imagined that being away from my home and family for such a long time was a good idea.   Every insecurity that’s ever plagued me came roaring back:  the embarrassment of showing up for the first day of first grade with a lunch box that was horribly wrong; third grade – the wrong stockings; eighth grade – the wrong friends; tenth grade – the wrong everything.  It’s been years since I’ve endured the butterflies in the stomach that always marked the first day of school –  but today is the first day of school all over again, and those butterflies knew just where to find me.

Funny, how I almost had myself convinced that I’d constructed a solid, reasonably confident  grown-up self –  and then all it took was the anticipation of a single step out of my  own well-established comfort zone to bring me right back in touch with the uncertain child I once was.

“Nervous?” my own son Jack asked me at breakfast this morning.  “Very,”  I admitted, “but in a good way.  And grateful, too.”  As a girl, I took refuge in books and the world of my imagination.  Since I didn’t quite fit in, I mostly opted out, choosing solitude and stories over socializing and physical activity, both of which were too scary to deal with.  So much easier to disappear than to negotiate the complicated social hierarchy of my more with-it peers or to risk embarrassment in gym class.  I was the master of the independent study, the sick note, the excused absence.  Given that I also managed to get through four years of college without spending a single night with a room mate, setting foot in the gym, or donning a pair of sneakers, what I’m about to do now does seem a little radical. Or, maybe I’m just finally ready to show up – not only on my yoga mat, not only for my family and my friends, but also for the beautiful, challenging privilege of finding out who I am, who I might, even yet, turn out to be.

(Internet is limited at Kripalu, and my schedule these next four weeks will be intense.  I’m a rusty student, with a fat textbook to read and lots of homework to do.  So. . .while I hope to continue with a weekly blog post, I may be a little less connected here so that I can be a little more connected with matters of breath, spirit, and awareness. )

Spirit. And books for you!

Last month, my pal Margaret Roach and I gave away four books each – and in return, you gave us hundreds of thoughtful comments and generated the best reading list we’d seen anywhere. So of course, we thought: Let’s do this again! This time, we’re celebrating the official publication date of Margaret’s And I Shall Have Some Peace There, as well as the new paperback edition of Dani Shapiro’s gorgeous memoir, Devotion. What better way to enjoy the gift of these ordinary days of February than with good books and good friends?

If there’s one thing (actually there are many, but you’ll figure that out!) that our three stories have in common it’s that we all touch on matters spiritual. As writers, as women, as humans, we have each found ourselves longing for something ineffable – call it more feeling, more spirit, more love, more faith in life as it is. And we’ve drawn closer to this “more” in the most ordinary places: the garden, the yoga mat, the kitchen sink, the dinner table.

Reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion, last year, I found myself thinking, “Oh, if only she had written this book sooner, I wouldn’t have had to go to all the effort of writing one myself!” It was an odd notion, for Dani’s spiritual odyssey – from a deeply religious and traditional Jewish childhood to a profoundly transformative exploration of Buddhism and yoga — bears almost no resemblance to my own casually Protestant rural upbringing and midlife floundering.

And yet, again and again, the questions that plagued Dani as she dealt with the early loss of her parents, her infant son’s critical illness, and her nagging self-doubt and anxiety, seemed eerily similar to my own sense of loss and confusion as my children grew into adolescence and I felt the old routines and rituals that had sustained our family life begin to slip away. How could we be so very different, and still have so much in common?

I’m not even sure now who sent the first Facebook message, but, having tread so closely upon one another’s heels through this rocky territory of loss and change and letting go, meeting face to face seemed like a small, yet utterly necessary, leap to make. It wasn’t long before we managed to get ourselves seated across from one another over a couple of lattes, talking as if we’d been friends all our lives.

The last time I saw Dani, I brought her a signed copy of Margaret’s bound galley, eager to connect even more wires and expand our little group. So what if, at first blush, Margaret’s story of leaving the fast-paced world of New York publishing for a solitary life in the country appeared to have little bearing on Dani’s explorations of faith and doubt and motherhood? I was coming to see that, once you peel away the first layer of external circumstance in any of our lives, what’s left, pulsing right below the surface, is practically universal: the yearning for connection, contentment, meaning, and peace.

And perhaps this is the most wonderful thing about reading and writing memoir – private, unknown, and unlikely meetings of the heart and soul occur within the pages of books every single day. Certainly the relationship between author and reader can be as intensely personal, as intimate, as healing, as any in real life. As it turned out, Margaret herself was already a devoted Dani fan. We had all discovered one other in print first, had read each other’s work with a sense of deep and abiding recognition, and had realized, with sighs of relief, that we weren’t alone in our seeking after all.

Spirit. I search for it all the time, everywhere. And then I remember: it’s always right here, right where I am, whenever I pause long enough to really pay attention to the world, whenever I notice what’s already right in front of me. Certainly, I find it expressed in the words of these two extraordinary writers I’ve come to know and love, both in print and in life. What a pleasure it is to introduce them to you, to make our circle even bigger, to invite everyone in.

“Much has already happened, and has formed the shape of our lives as surely as water shapes rock. We can’t see what’s coming. We can’t know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won’t always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge.”
–from Devotion by Dani Shapiro

“The greater Garden, capital G, perpetually tries to take over the relatively puny one that I have placed in its shadow. It musters forces far greater than a barn full of tools and these two hands. . .will be able to keep at a distance forever. We are small, we are nobody—but when we are out there toiling—turning the compost, harvesting the year’s sweet potatoes, planting only the biggest cloves of the previous garlic crop to continue to improve our own strain—we are also part of something infinite.”
–from And I Shall Have Some Peace There
by Margaret Roach

TO ENTER TO WIN ONE OF SIX SETS OF 3 BOOKS EACH, comment here and on Margaret and Dani’s sites. Tell us: Where do you seek and find spirit in your life? If you’re feeling shy, no problem, you can simply say “Count me in!” (But we do love hearing from you, and the more answers to our question, the more interesting the conversation!) Leave a comment on all three sites and you’ll triple your chances of winning our books.

Entries close at midnight Saturday, February 19, with winners to be drawn at random (using the tool at random [dot] org) and announced the next day.

Remember: Once you post your entry here, go see Margaret and Dani to triple your chances. And if you’ve been sent over to my site by one of them, Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. If you like what you read, do come back – you can subscribe in the box to the left.

Want the Books Now?

Presence

It’s been a week of snow and ice and the kids at home. Henry left early yesterday morning to fly back to Minnesota; Jack and I are about to start packing the car, in the hope that we can get out ahead of the latest snowstorm — a couple more inches predicted for today — and get him back to school before dark.

As always, there is a little bit of a letdown, as the house goes from full to empty again. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, and I guess I am. I know, at least, that silence has its own sound, that the scent of aftershave lingers in empty bedrooms, that even a damp towel left on the bathroom floor can tug at my heart. I know that I might as well dump the rest of the whole milk and toss out the half bag of tortilla chips, rather than wait for them to get stale sitting in the drawer. I know to wait a few days before changing the sheets on their beds; that it will be easier then.

And I also know how lucky I am. The other day, Henry and I struck a deal: he’d climb up Pack Monadnock with me if I’d make his favorite outrageously caloric pasta dish for dinner. The snow was deeper on the mountain than we expected, the going was slow, and, although he didn’t complain (much) there was no question that Henry would have much preferred to be home chatting with his friends on Facebook than slogging up the trail with his mom. He went hiking for me. That night, with pleasure, I cooked for him.

Last night, we hosted a Super Bowl party here for five of Jack’s friends and their parents. Jack sat at the kitchen island in the morning, chopping peppers for the chili. He played sous chef, opening the cans, rinsing beans, taste-testing for spice and heat. Cooking is definitely not his first choice of activity for a Sunday morning, but he knows that his help — and his company — means a lot to me. “I’ll do any mother-son activity you want this morning,” he’d offered when he got up, “just, please, don’t ask me to go hiking!”

Whenever our boys are home these days, it feels as if the time is too short and the demands are too many. How to balance their eagerness to see friends with our eagerness to see them? How to stay on top of work that needs to get done and still make space for the kind of hanging out that gives rise to connection and conversation? The fact is, we can’t tie the kids down and insist that they talk to us. And there’s not much we can say, at this point, that will affect the choices they make or the things they do. There is much about each of their lives that we don’t even know; for the most part now, those lives unfold elsewhere.

And yet, more and more it seems that the ties that bind — stretched to the snapping point at times during adolescence — are being rewoven and reinforced as our sons come and go, and as we create new ways of being together as a family. Home, once the only place to be, assumes a different significance as a resting place where nourishment, acceptance, and embrace are always available. When the four of us sit down to dinner, we still pause for a moment as we always have; we hold hands and say the grace we’ve always said. For quite a few years, it seemed to me that the gratitude at our dinner table was rote, not felt. As teenagers, the kids endured the ritual, went through the motions, their minds elsewhere. Now, though, I sense a return to feeling. A sense that our sons are glad for the comfort of continuity, for our rare moments of togetherness and the traditions that have always bound us as a family.

For so many years my husband and I have expressed our love simply by being present. As if, somehow, the very fact of our full attention might be enough to carry us through the roughest patches of parenthood. After all, what else did we have to offer? Sometimes, paying attention means hanging in there through some very unpleasant moments. It means not shying away from intensity but confronting it. It means addressing trouble head on, insisting on the truth, ensuring consequences, holding feet to the fire. Sometimes, to put it bluntly, being present really sucks. Parenting an adolescent is not for the faint of heart.

This morning, though, as I look back at the last few days, the word that comes, surprisingly, to mind is “presence.” It seems to me that my sons have been present — present in a way neither of them could have been just a short time ago. It is as if the self-absorption of the teenaged years is giving way now to a new, more adult awareness, to a realization that we are all connected after all. I wonder if one essential part of growing up is coming to see that happiness isn’t necessarily derived from doing exactly as one pleases. More often, in fact, we find happiness when we choose to please someone else. Giving of ourselves, we receive even more in return. We parents, of course, live and breathe the truth of this. But it can take a long time for our children to acquire such wisdom. A hike in the snow, sharing the cooking tasks, saying our blessing — these are small gestures in the grand scheme of things. But to me they feel like love coming full circle. Sometimes, still, I doubt my mothering; certainly, in the midst of family strife and conflict, I wonder if attention is really enough to save us. Receiving my children’s attention in return, I begin to suspect that it’s the only thing that will.

Please join me and other like-minded moms for an online chat: “Mindful Mothering: Parenting in the Here and Now” on TheMotherhood.com, this Thursday, Feb. 10 at 1 p.m. Eastern. Register by clicking here. Co-hosting the online conversation will be my friends Meredith Resnick and Lindsey Mead and fellow authors Tracy Mayor and Karen Maezen Miller.

Mindful Snow Day

My husband and I were waiting at the gate, eager to see if a month overseas had changed our boy. He had turned twenty-one in December and then left us, just two weeks later, to join a group of fellow Theatre and Music majors for an intensive inter-term course in London. All through January, we read his blog posts and his daily theatre reviews, and wondered, “When did he become a critic?” It is a strange feeling, to watch your child fly further and further away from the nest, to see a shy teenager metamorphose first into a college student and then, almost before you know it, into a young man ready to make his own way in the world.

“This trip has given me a taste of what it is like to be completely responsible for myself,” Henry wrote on his last day in London. “As I near the end of my junior year of college, my mind frequently turns to what life will be like ‘in the real world’ without the consistent foundation that I have come to expect from school, home, and family. While I was still under the wing of St. Olaf on this trip, having money, tickets, and accommodations provided for me, the reality that I will have to come up with these things on my own in a year and a half is starting to hit me.”

Reading those words, while my son was winging his way back across the Atlantic, the reality started to hit me, too. Another chapter is almost over. It feels as if his senior year of high school is still close enough to touch, yet his senior year of college is just months away. How did we get here so fast? When our son appeared in the terminal, tired, rumpled, dragging his bag, my heart leapt at the sight of him. There is some latent maternal instinct that surges through me even now, urging, “hold on tight and don’t let go.” The three of us went out to dinner, Steve and I mindful of the fact that it was well after midnight London time, but unable to stop our flow of questions. And yet, even though Henry was happy to fill in details, describing the food, the plays, the people, even his drinking exploits at various pubs, it was clear that the real experience, the real growth, was invisible and inexpressible. The trip was his, not ours, no matter how vivid his travelogue. Travel changes us. Age changes us. Distance is distance, and our children grow up and leave home for lives of their own, elsewhere. Just as they should.

This week, though, Henry is at home. For a few days, he’s back in his bedroom upstairs, he’s eating breakfast with us in the morning, watching re-runs of the Daily Show with me in the middle of the day, sprawling on the couch with a book. He’s also been busy applying for summer jobs and practicing the piano, preparing pieces for a solo concert he intends to give this spring. There is not a moment that I don’t want to seize, prolong, capture, and save.

Today, I’m grateful for snow. It means that we can skip the errands and the haircut and stay put. The houseguest who was supposed to arrive tonight isn’t going to make it; all flights are cancelled. Good! We’ll eat leftovers from the fridge, light a fire, watch a movie before bed. When Henry sits down at the piano to play a suite of Spanish dances, I stop what I’m doing, become perfectly still, and listen, a grateful audience of one to this work that arises from the depths of his soul.

I’m so aware, these days, that my son’s visits now really are just that — visits. More and more his real life will occur away from us, in places determined by love, luck, career, destiny. Proof-reading his cover letter for a summer job in St. Louis, I’m a little astonished at how much he’s already accomplished in his short life, how much he has to offer a potential employer, how clear he is about his aspirations. I’m excited for him and conscious, too, that a job at a theatre far from home will be one more step in his inevitable journey away from childhood and into adulthood, a journey that began years ago, with kisses and good-byes at classroom doors, and is simply continuing now into more distant territory, as it is certainly meant to do.

And so, I remind myself that it is futile, and silly, to try to hold on to any of these moments. Why bring on such sadness? How much easier life is when I remember to keep things simple in my heart, when I allow myself to enjoy this wintery week of togetherness without mourning its passing at the same time.

“Think of mindfulness,” writes Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, “as hanging out happily.” What a wonderful instruction for a snow day with a grown-up child at home. What a wonderful instruction for life. And what a pleasure it is to just do that: to hang out happily, and nothing more.

P.S. Please join me and Karen Maezen Miller for a Mindful Mothering live chat on The Motherhood, Thu., Feb. 10, 1 pm EST