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. )

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.”



Not an ordinary day. . .

The young, enthusiastic crew arrived at nine am yesterday, right on time.  Within minutes, our house was transformed into a film set, with cords strung along the floor in the living room, bright lights mounted on poles, a camera set up and aimed at a particular spot right next to the fireplace–that would be my spot, precisely marked off with a black square of electrical tape.

It was less than two months ago that my book group encouraged me to make a video.  At first I resisted the idea.  Too much like blatant self-promotion.  And besides, what exactly would we tape?  My friend Stephanie gave me a name and a number.  “Just call,” she said.  “Even if you don’t end up working with this guy, you will like him, and he’ll have some ideas.”  If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, you already know about “connectors,” those special people who just seem to know everyone, and who have an extraordinary knack for making friends, remembering acquaintances, and bringing everybody together.   That’s Stephanie, a woman with an uncanny ability to expand your vision of what’s possible, and then to put you in touch with exactly the right person to start making things happen in your life.  I took the leap, made the call.

Within a week, her friend Chris, a creative director for a smart young company called C3, and I had a deal and a plan:  I would write an essay to read in my living room to a group of friends, and he and his team would turn it into a five or six-minute video to distribute online.  If we both did our jobs well, we would end up with a short film that would not only get the word-of-mouth going about The Gift of an Ordinary Day, but, even more important, be a means of reaching out and making a connection with other women, and potential readers, in a new way.

For me, making this video meant taking a giant step out of my comfort zone.  I wouldn’t have had the courage to take that step without the encouragement of my friends, and the project wouldn’t have happened at all if those very friends hadn’t also been willing to give up their Sunday to come to my house, sip tea, and be my captive, attentive audience for several takes.  This is what female friendship is all about.  I put the word out weeks ago–date and time.  And everybody showed up.  My entire book group from Massachusetts drove to New Hampshire, bearing food (and wine for later).  My mom came, with her enormous coffee maker and a few loaves of cranberry walnut bread. She brought an old friend, who’s known me since I was five or so. Debbie and Maude and eQuanimiti Joy arrived, and readers instantly recognized them from the pages of the book, glad to meet real characters in the flesh.  My sister-in-law and her mother came, as did neighbors from up and down the road, a friend from High Mowing, one of Jack’s friend’s moms.  In all, we squeezed 23 women into the living room, and I read aloud to them for forty minutes or so, while the cameras rolled.

Afterwards, the videographer wandered around the house and yard, filming the grass, the sky, the trees, opening cupboards and closets in the kids’ rooms, taking what is known in the film business as “B roll” shots–mood bits that may or may not find their way into the final product.  He played his camera across old photos of me and the boys when they were little, old Mother’s Day cards, Henry’s baseball bobble-head collection.  “We have enough to be dangerous,” Chris said, as they packed up their gear.  Who knows what these hip young men, who dress in black and make a living creating images for brands like Puma and Timberland, will fashion with this raw material–a group of women of a certain age, gathered round on a Sunday morning, to listen to one of their own muse about the swift passage of time and our shifting roles as the children grow up and leave home.  I don’t know, but I do feel certain that we’re in good hands.

Till  two weeks ago, when he and his business partner Michelle came to hear me read at the Concord Bookshop, Chris had never been to a book reading.  “I didn’t even know they existed,” he confessed.  Well, till yesterday, I’d never been on film before, either.  It is new territory for them and for me, but we are all excited about the possibilities.  And we all had a lot of fun getting to know each other, welcoming one another into our respective, very different worlds.

Once the crew and guests had departed, my book group settled in for the rest of the afternoon.  We lit a fire in the fireplace, opened the wine, heated up soup, tossed a salad.  As we ate our early dinner, we got caught up on one another’s lives and kids, and planned out the rest of our own book-reading year.  Books are what brought our group together, ten years ago now, and a love of books is what we have in common.  But our lives have become inextricably, and wonderfully, intertwined as well. The stories we tell at “check-in,” about how we’re doing, what we’re struggling with, what we’re celebrating, are as important as any story on the page.  And so, month after month and year after year, we dance between literature and life, sharing both, grateful for one another’s good company, insight, and moral support.

In two weeks, my friend Stephanie is moving out of the house where she and her husband raised their two children, into an apartment better suited for her new stage of life as a single empty nester.  It’s time, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.  She has a to-do list that’s a mile long, not to mention the emotional upheaval of bringing one huge life chapter to an end and embarking on a new one.  She admitted to us that she had decided earlier in the week that there was absolutely no way she could come spend the day in New Hampshire yesterday, given the stresses in her life right now.  But then, when she woke up yesterday morning, something hit her:  “Wait a minute,” she told herself, “this is the good stuff.”  And so, she came.  And of course, she was right.  A few tears were shed in our group yesterday, many more laughs were laughed, and as everyone put on their coats last night, to head back to Massachusetts, we all reminded Stephanie that all she needs to do is say the word, and any one of us will be there — to help her get the last boxes packed,  to drive her stuff from the old place to the new, to do whatever needs doing.

What Stephanie said is exactly right:   We owe it to ourselves to show up for the good stuff.  And we also owe it to our friends to reach out to them when we need help getting through the hard stuff.  It’s all part of life, and it’s all best shared with the people who care about you.  Yesterday really was the good stuff.  I can’t wait to see what that looks like on film!