Time to write has been hard to come by these past few weeks, which might surprise you, since we began practicing self-quarantine in earnest on March 14. Except: March 14 is when the last of our three twenty-something kids arrived home. They came in from grad school in Boston, work in Austin, and most heart-wrenchingly, a California college senior year cut short with all the subtlety of a guillotine-blade. So although I’ve not left the house in nearly two weeks, except for wooded dog walks, I’ve been readjusting to the….ummmm…fullness of daily life in a house that was a tight fit when they were teens, let alone full-blown adults with Zoom meetings, class assignments, workout schedules (can you say “Peleton”?) and understandable needs for personal space. John, too, is working from home, as am I. Ay-yi-yi. I spent an inordinate amount of time getting us properly provisioned. I’ve found my groove with produce from Misfit Markets (gorgeous, “ugly” fruits and veggies, mostly organic, not uniform enough for Whole Foods, delivered to the house—use my discount code, please: COOKWME-MY3PXG); groceries via Instacart or Amazon fresh; and TP from some hopefully legit EBay entity by the unreassuring name of “AmberCity” medical supply. It hasn’t arrived yet. Fingers crossed.
I’ve tried to keep my meditation and dance practices going, attend to my clients, check in with my parents in New York and Long Island regularly, and not overdo news consumption. I am trying to keep my heart open and my feelings engaged, even though such intensity around me, in my house, in my communities, in my human family, triggers old traumas. My well-developed self-protections—eat, numb, stay uber-productive, hole up, don’t feel—assert themselves here and there. Okay, so I overdid things a bit and bought SIXTY rolls of toilet paper from the aforementioned “AmberCity,” at a cost of nearly two dollars a roll, not including “Amber’s” ( I am imagining here a sun-kissed California blonde, perhaps a realtor or bartender, hawking medical supplies as a side gig) shipping fees. A little bit of panic buying there. I’m human. My neighbors will know who to come to when they run out of loo paper.
Don’t let my breezy tone fool you. I’ve been much preoccupied by general anxiety about the coronapocalypse. And more specifically, by worry for my friends and fellow singers, Emily and Deb, both of them ER docs here in Boston. I feel a great yearning to connect with Divinity, to affirm what this moment might mean for us, the human species. How may we understand the suffering; how tolerate the anxiety and uncertainty; how might I, with such a modest footprint in the world, meet this moment with something approaching generosity and mettle. In these two women, both mothers, one with small children, the other a single mom of a teenager, I see such courage. Not because they sashay guns-blazing, face-masked and loaded for healing, into their respective hospitals, but because they are each terrified of what lies ahead for them and their families, and yet, they still show up. Both were off this week; both return to work tomorrow to face weeks of shifts during the zenith of the corona crisis here in Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reports dizzying levels of COVID-19 infection among our healthcare community. Yet these women, who daily are rocked by changing federal and local guildelines, a dearth of the equipment that might protect them, and the inability to practice social distancing in their workplace because how can doctors and nurses maintain six feet of personal distance when the typical ER bay is hardly six feet wide; these two breathe deeply in their front yards, then steel themselves to punch in for the rest of us, simpering about our reduced income, or inabililty to find toilet paper.
That’s a rant. Sorry.
Anyway, I did a free write after meditation the other day, and here’s what landed. I share it with you in the hopes that you will say a prayer tonight for doctors and nurses, hospital admins, nursing home aides, all those brave souls across the world who are the soldiers in this war. As if you weren’t already.
Where For Emily, Deb, Scott and healthcare workers everywhere
Dear God, where are you in this moment? Evangelicals say: here lies retribution Mounting up indifferent to the beloved, Like discarded masks in an ICU hazardous waste bin, Or corpses of crinkle-eyed Italian grannies who stirred Steaming marinara pots with a paddle of bosomy love, Or—looming ahead, perhaps—tattooed American youth Sun-loving and sleek-bellied, hauled out on Miami Beach In a wailing wallow of cavalier revolt, Because you want it; because here is how they say We are to learn.
This has not been our relationship, yours and mine, That cruelty is your instrument. I concede: suffering is one of your best tools; Reeling us back from depths of self, Invisible cord spinning around the spool, pulling taut. The pestilence of coronas upon our heads Comes not merely because you are pissed, As if our shallow imagination is all you can muster. I see it in myself, the heart closed around My own little cadre of loves, children, home, friends —mia, mon, mein. Fierce selfishness overtakes and who could complain If you said “basta,” felling us with a sweep of your cosmic hand. We are incorrigibly dust.
And yet I hope you will not, because Love might still Come creeping shyly, or better yet, striding boldly Into this moment when we must acknowledge, surely, That we are all yours, the trees and air, water and sky, The pulse of life in the woods that sustains On these shut-in days— They are yours and I am yours and we are in it together. And I kiss the air with gratitude for the sun As the pine needles crunch beneath my feet. I wish I had the same compassionate heart for Humans as for these trees. We can be jerks.
But, oh, the beauty of our spirits and how you shine through us Like fingers of light through stained glass Our own particular colors swirling with you. And that’s how life makes someone like Emily, Who will leave her two small children at home And go to a workplace she fears may be the death of her— Literally—because she took an oath. Because she is honorable and strong and kind. Because she doesn’t know where that strength comes from, Only that even though she aches to strip off her scrubs Leaving them heaped on the floor of the hospital Parking garage, to step naked into a life that is clean and free, She cannot, because you make her who she is. We are you.
I don’t know quite what this experience will call up in me, Only that you make me what I am. And love me as I am. And for today, that will have to do.
A few weeks ago, the TV host and snarkmaster Bill Maher did a segment on the obeisity epidemic where he argued that “it’s time to bring fat-shaming back.” Oh, Bill. Sigh. He decried the recent trend of being more sensitive towards the concerns of fat people as a kind of PC joke: surely there is some group of people in this country whom “we” all can agree deserves our derision, his logic goes. How dare those fat people advocate for themselves and insist that the “rest of us” treat them with empathy? Maher’s small-mindedness is just another example of the epidemic of other-ing that is sweeping our culture, a new battle line than can be drawn allowing us to sit in judgement of one another, fanning our own moral superiority like a peacock flourishing its tail. Let’s beat on people who are fat now, who may be experiencing health problems, shame and depression as they suffer the sneers of those folks who don’t struggle with their weight. Clearly, Mr. Maher’s logic goes, these lazy lardos bring it on themselves, this epidemic is of their own making and the only way to solve it is for “everyone else” to make them feel horrible about themselves. Yeah, that’ll fix it.
I don’t want to dwell here on Maher’s smart-alecky style nor his lack of compassion – insensitivity is his brand. He didn’t get where he got by being kind, after all. I DO want to point you all, though, towards the late night host James Corden’s brilliant response. Here’s the you tube link. With a cheeky twinkle in his eye and great generosity of heart, Corden, himself a fellow of size, shared his own vulnerability, while deftly pointing out statistics that Maher’s diatribe obscured: Much of our obesity epidemic is due to poverty, a lack of access to nutritious food, and the business imperatives on farmers, food processors, restaurants, and manufacturers to get us all to eat more. They don’t force us to put the fork to our lips and shovel it in, but they sure do push us to pile it on the plate.
Mr. Corden’s response showed humor, warmth, clear thinking, and heart. And guts. It was downright moving to me, as a person who has struggled with eating and weight since girlhood and kilts that showed my bum. When he said: “I have been on and off diets incessantly my entire life long, and this (gesturing to his plump torso) is where it’s gotten me,” my heart lurched. That is ME. When he took on the misconception that people are overweight because they are lazy or stupid, I felt another inner “YASSS!” I am a fitness teacher, I teach four cardio classes a week, work out with a personal trainer twice a week, walk my dogs daily for an hour. I eat little to no processed food, cook everything myself, make mayonnaise and spaghetti sauce from scratch, and generally eschew dairy and gluten, while keeping sugar to as dull roar as much as I can. I never eat fast food. I don’t binge. Whatever goes into my mouth, you’d better believe I know: how many calories it has, how many grams of protein and fiber, whether it will boost my balking metabolism or stall it. I can cite recipes from every diet ranging from Atkins to Paleo to Whole30, and I have been on them all. I religiously read labels to understand the nutritional value of the foods I eat. I do all this, obsessively, and it is exhausting. Like James Corden, this is where it gets me: 30 pounds overweight. I’ve gained an average of pound a year in my thirty years of marriage, ten of those since menopause ground my already pokey calorie-burning capacity to a virtual standstill. I’m human: I soothe my anxiety with snacks, a habit borne of childhood trauma, which taught me that food rarely failed me the way people did. Food certainly never yelled at me or hit me or belittled me for sport. Is it really so bad that I chew on my feelings? I’m not addicted to Attavan; I didn’t become an alcoholic, like so many in the gene pool before me. I don’t take my unresolved shit out on anybody else. I am vulnerable to sugar or white wine, and I can definitely overindulge if I am not fucking VIGILENT. Which, at least half the time, I am. I am that person who never has a slice of cake at your birthday party, who routinely passes on the restaurant bread basket, who eschews butter on her corn of the cob or will take a spoonful (or three) of dessert off the shared plate but rarely order her own. If I am seeing you after a long absence, you may not be thinking “she looks heavier,” but you’ll never convince me of that, because I am thinking, “she probably notices I’ve gained weight.” (True confession: I will have noticed your weight change, however infinitesimal.) When you ask, “have you lost weight,” which you mean well, I think, “oh geez, the whole time I’ve known her, she’s been thinking I should lose weight.” I am both delighted and furious that you should notice and feel it’s appropriate to comment on the relative comings and goings of my flesh. I’ve been skinny and I’ve been zaftig and I’m here to tell you: I am ME, at any weight, and my body has been a great friend to me.
I accept that these reactions are likely projections of my inner shame onto you. And yet: Bill Maher makes it crystal clear, judge-y is how a LOT of people who don’t struggle with their eating and their body images feel when they see fat tissue on another person’s body. They think they know your story: you lack character or self-control. Your will is weak. You’re out of touch with your feelings. You’re a glutton. They have no idea of the relentless, obsessive self-management required for some of us to wrangle our bodies into compliance with the cultural notion that we should look other than we do, or the 24/7 burden of feeling less-than because we fail. When you’re heavy, even just a little, you may walk around feeling badly about yourself because your body is an insult to an ideal aesthetic; as a culture, we’ve internalized that aesthetic like a brand on our psyche. “Normal”-weight people aren’t immune; you, too, recoil at your own tissue and walk around steeped in shame that you’ve had to size up your jeans from a four to six. Persons-of-struggle-free-normal-BMI, you can feel as much self-loathing as you like over those extra six pounds. You may even be able to lose it and keep it off. I am happy for you, genuinely. And envious of you, too. I’d like it to be easy, and it isn’t. It never has been for me, and it never shall be. And that’s simply how it is.
Mr. Maher frames his piece as concern over a health epidemic, and certainly, we may all have compassion for the health struggles of our fellow travelers in this incarnate lifetime. Yet, I wonder: would he look at me and make assumptions about my health based on my generous bum, or the little fold in my lower back I’ve developed in the last few stressful years? He doesn’t know my blood pressure or HDL to LDL ratio, but I bet I could give him a run for his money. My primary care doc is pretty darn thrilled with me. I’d love to have him come to one of my classes and see if he can keep up with me on a dance floor.
I think it’s sad that Mr. Maher sees undermining other people’s body positivity as something we can (and should) do to fix them. But then I think: he’s just a human being, and he has his foibles and frailties. Maybe he secretly forges checks or shoplifts; perhaps he struggles with a porn addiction or suffers from ceaseless tinnitus and that’s why he’s so cranky. We’ll never know about his brokenness because we can’t SEE it on his person, fleshily peaking over his belt. He’s lean and strong, he looks “good,” and I imagine he works at it. You know what? It’s ok that having the personal courage to share his inner demons isn’t part of Maher’s brand. He serves his purpose, and his humor, although oftentimes cruel, can also be intelligent and laugh-out-loud funny.
I’m just grateful that it IS James Corden’s character to express, with humor and generosity, his own fragility. In so doing, he honors the dignity and beauty of everyone anywhere who struggles with anything at all. So thanks, Mr. Corden. I think you are way sexier than Bill Maher, just saying. Generosity of spirit is big turn-on for me. Now get back to that pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
Post script: I wrote this post in response to James Corden’s piece the day after it aired. I set it aside and just opened the document this morning when cleaning off my desktop; it was cryptically titled “It” and I had forgotten I’d written it. But I have to admit that I may have balked at posting the reflection because of my shame, and a hesitation to go streaking, naked and fleshly, out into the world, baring my inner frailty.
The couple next door had a baby last Thursday, April 4. The day before, I visited the very-soon-to-be
new mom. She had that look of weary ripeness that visits expectant mothers in
the last days of a pregnancy, when your pelvic floor feels papaya-tree-heavy
and seems to hang somewhere down around your knees. She’s a midwife and her husband is an MD. They
have a two-year-old daughter who was born at home shortly after they first
moved in, and they planned another home birth.
Wednesday night, there was a wind storm, gusts of air whooshing around
the house and jangling the little iron bell that hangs outside our back slider,
its “ding, ding, ding” sounding into the darkness. As I went to bed, I recalled how my labor
with Nate began with a similar weather event and wondered if perhaps the swirling
air would usher in the neighbor’s new baby, Mary Poppins-like. Thursday afternoon, a steady line of cars
coming and going out their drive suggested it was so. Their newborn son arrived at 2:45 p.m., robustly
On Friday afternoon, I walked through a break in the line of
hemlocks that separates our properties to meet the new kid on the block. He was
exactly as he should be: ears whorled like pink seashells, perfect fingernails,
a delicate cap of gossamer hair, his skin so soft but red-raw at the insult of
being expelled into the harsh air. I sat
with his euphoric parents, still high on the drama and wonder of birth, and we
all marveled at the perfection of a newborn (when you’re fortunate, like them,
and like us, to have lustily healthy babies). We laughed about how much you
forget about infants, what alien little beings they are at first. They
told me the baby’s birth story, how gentle their dog had been as she lay near
the birthing tub, how the big sister initially wanted nothing to do with her
little brother until love worked its magic and she relented, planting kisses on
his beautifully round, be-capped head, the big family meal they shared Thursday
evening with visiting grandparents while the little guy slept off the stress of
his big move. What an adventure it is, I
thought as I walked home, to have another human being emerge from your body,
flesh of your flesh, and to watch them grow into themselves.
I, too, had an April baby, and today she turns 21. My heart brims at the thought of all the richness and joy she has brought into our lives. For a while, I wasn’t sure I wanted a third child. We had a boy and a girl, under two years apart, a young dog, a house constantly under renovation. Perhaps the days of newborns, sleepness nights and unwieldy car seats, sore nipples and midnight diaper changes, should stay in our rearview mirror. But as Nate and Lucy got older, I developed a nagging feeling that someone was missing, our family was incomplete. John is a third child, my younger brother Welles is, too. Where would I be if their parents had decided to stop at two? The world would be without two pretty amazing guys. And Mia herself made it clear, from the great beyond, that she wanted to come, knocking on the door of my soul, left ajar, whispering to me to let her in.
I realize that may strike you as an outlandish statement. But here’s the woo-woo, goosebump-raising story behind it. John and I had begun talking about when to
start trying to get pregnant—I had just turned 37 and chop-chop! The media at the time was full of studies reporting the
decline in a woman’s fertility after 35. We believed we may be heading into the fourth
quarter of the game, just minutes left on the clock to score.
Unrelated to family planning, one dreary March weekend we took a drive to Gloucester to visit an old friend of my mom’s, Sue, who was that rare bird: a legitimate psychic medium. I thought it would be fun to give John a past life reading for a birthday gift. When Sue was done reading for him, she sent him off, then crooked her finger at me, saying, “let me do something for you today.” “I’m okay,” I told her. Having already had my past lives read by her years ago, I didn’t feel the need to unearth increasingly exotic incarnations over and above the court jester, tough-as-nails rancher’s wife, and “beam of pure, cosmic light” she had read in the book of records for me when I was younger.
“I’ll read your chart then,” she said, “Sit.” She gestured to a much-used couch across from
her desk, cushions dented by the heavy bottoms of Sue and her husband, a local
cop. She pulled out a large volume of astrological
data, no internet charts back then. After asking for the particulars of my
birthplace, date and time, she began running her fingers down the columns,
flipping pages, silently studying. Several
minutes passed before she put the book down on the table and looked at me with
her wide blue eyes, guileless and a little myopic.
“So,” she said, “when were you thinking of getting
I’d known Sue since my twenties, so I wasn’t as gobsmacked as you might think that she knew to ask this question. She had an otherworldly stillness about her, with a sometimes-hazy expression suggesting she may be seeing through veils of illusion that appear as brick walls to the rest of us. I mumbled something about maybe starting to try in the spring. She thumbed through the book and said, “So they’d be born maybe next February? Nope. That’s not the baby for you. That’s not who this is. This is someone very clear.”
She kept reading the tome before her. “April,” she announced with quiet authority. “This soul needs to be born in April. You and John will be in love with that
baby. Their Jupiter will sit on your
Pisces and that’s just unbelievably expansive for all of you.” She turned back a few pages. “That means you should get pregnant in
July. Which is perfect, because whoa,” she giggled, “You will be very fertile in July.” Something about my moon sign. I know the exact date Mia was conceived (which
might mortify her): July 4th,
the day we started trying, and our only encounter before John went on a
business trip. I knew immediately I was pregnant; I took a pregnancy test seven
days later, before I’d even missed a period, that confirmed it.
I can tell you that Sue was breathtakingly on the money: having Mia in my life has been an amazingly heart-opening, expansive experience. Sue was also right that Mia’s spirit is very clear. John always describes her as an old soul. I had two other psychic experiences of Mia when I was pregnant with her, so I’m convinced she was in touch with me from whatever realm she inhabited before her birth. One was a dream I had when I was three or four weeks pregnant. We were staying on Nantucket with our in-laws and preparing to celebrate Nate’s fifth birthday in early August. One muggy afternoon, I felt nauseous and lay down for nap, thinking vaguely about baby names, and just as I was waking up, a voice sounded in my dreaming mind: “How about Grace?” it said. “I like ‘Grace.’” Only four weeks pregnant, I didn’t know yet the baby was a girl; my first ultrasound wouldn’t be for another month. Her middle name is Grace because she asked for it directly as far as I’m concerned. The second was also a nap-born dream, this time when I was perhaps two months pregnant. In it, I met her twice, initially as a baby of eight or nine months old. She was sitting on the floor, blond and blue-eyed like Nate, surprising, since John, Lucy and I all have dark coloring, and I expected Nate to be the outlier. This dream-baby looked directly at me with the most clear-eyed, intelligent, knowing gaze. My dreaming mind thought, “Oh, so she knows what she is here for. I just need to not get in the way.” The dream fast-forwarded to a girl of around seventeen, sitting outdoors at a picnic table with friends. A long, thick braid of dirty blonde hair hung loosely across her shoulder, and she was laughing, a wide-open guffaw that held nothing back. In both instances, at nine months old and at seventeen, that dreamed-Mia matched the real-world girl, both physically and energetically: direct, vibrant, present, committed, even when she beats herself up, as we human beings are wont to do.
Mia has not always seen herself with the same clarity as the rest of her family. She was prone to the same self-doubt as any other teenager, the complicated friendships, the exhaustion of caring so much, the dramas, the working through of identity, the family vulnerability to disabling anxiety. It hasn’t been an easy path, being the third child when your siblings are hyper-achievers and also at a different stage of development than you are. She spent a lot of her childhood racing to keep up, finding herself wanting in comparison to her brother and sister. But she is crystal clear to each of us: her rock-solid competence and executive skill, her creativity and keen intellect, her passion, her natural emotional intelligence and extraordinary empathy. Mia’s heart is as big as Jupiter. An introvert, she’ll insist that she “hates” people and prefers the company of dogs. I suggest that she loves people (well, certain ones), deeply and passionately, and that caring so much, being so loyal and concerned, living up to her own high standards of devotion when others fall short, this sometimes saps her strength. People don’t give back as freely as dogs.
Here are some snapshots I will be holding in my minds’ eye today as she celebrates her milestone birthday at college across the country:
Mia, Eve and Chessy, Chessy, Eve and Mia, Eve, Mia and Chessy. Girlhood friends from our small suburban town, it’s hard say one’s name without immediately calling to mind the other two. Nursery school and glitter, ballet classes, birthdays, playdates, hours spent out in our pool playing “mermaid” tag, baking, piercing, attending each others’ crew races and theatrical performances, visits to Grammy’s Florida house and a college road trip to see Chessy in frigid Maine. They haven’t gone to school together since they were five years old, and you know there are probably more road trips to come. They are strands of a braid.
Mia singing, always singing, toddling after her older sister/second mother, Lucy, also always singing, in matching cotton dresses with pink rosebuds. The day we brought Mia home from the hospital, Lucy announced, “She’s mine. My own little baby girl.” I don’t have a sister. I hear from friends that some sister relationships drive them crazy–toxic, competitive, bitchy. But the first hint of tension I ever saw between our daughters was last summer when their grandmother was clearing out a closet and asked if anyone wanted a vintage Coach bag. Mia snatched it up before Lucy knew what hit her, and Lu was annoyed to have been scooped. I asked them that day if they had ever fought. They looked at each other quizzically, their minds running down the years. “No,” they said, in unison. This spring, they are celebrating their milestone birthdays (Lucy turns 25 in May) with “sister tattoos.” Mia’s will read “April come she will,” and Lucy’s “May she will stay,” a quote from the Paul Simon song. The artwork will feature a drawing of their birth-month flowers, daisy for Mia, hawthorn for Lucy. I’m not a tattoo person myself, and they know I struggle to make peace with it when they permanently ink their beautiful bodies. But that is pretty damn sweet.
Mia feisty, throwing herself at life, skiing with gusto to impress Nate and breaking her thumb, or riding a bike too fast to keep up with an older friend and getting a concussion and a fractured front tooth. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, she fought off the EMT trying to give her an IV as if he were Satan’s spawn. He looked astonished at the resistant strength of this injured little seven-year-old. Her girlhood bookshelf was lined with a multicolored collection of discarded plaster wrist casts from her many fractures, displayed alongside her Harry Potter audio CDs and Flower Fairy chapter books. She got another concussion performing in a high school play, when fellow actors failed to catch her in a choreographed trust fall. The girl commits.
Me and Mia in curled up in her twin bed or my king one, with story books, or just talking, sometimes in the dark. I lay beside her nightly while she fell asleep until well into elementary school, and it was precious time for me.
Raising children is an education for the parents as much as
the kids. Here are a few of the key things Mia has taught me:
Baking is good therapy.
Dogs are better therapy.
We are fucking over the planet and it’s terrifying.
When this gets you down, you should go sing.
Bi-sexuality is a fully-realized expression, not a phase, a fiction, or a stop on the spectrum along the way to something else.
Knitting is good therapy.
Self-compassion is hard work.
Shitty first drafts are easier said than done.
Sarcasm is an art form.
The patriarchy has gotta go.
And perhaps, most importantly, at least for me:
11. We just need space to feel our feelings, not fixes to make them go away or “better.”
When Mia is hurting, she doesn’t want hugs. All the well-intentioned words in the world only make her crazy. All she needs from me, really, is presence, the unspoken reassurance, “I’m here if you need me.” And I always, always, always will be. Even some day, hopefully several decades from now, when I’m gone, I will be there for her. I’m planning to reincarnate as a southerly breeze, or maybe a Corgi. Either way, I’ll find her if she calls me.
I am so glad that those Cosmic forces of love and wisdom
drew you to me twenty-one years ago, dearest Mia. If it was just the luck of the draw, well,
damn, I won the lottery when you showed up in my womb. If that old soul of yours chose me to be your
mom, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I can only say it’s been an honor,
a privilege, and a great, great joy.
P.S. No, this does not mean you are getting a puppy for your birthday.
I’m a doer of too much. I always have been. If everyone else has three irons in the proverbial fire, I have four, plus I tend the fire. My form of busy-ness may look different than others: I don’t serve on a million charity boards or ladle up meals at a homeless shelter. I don’t play five rounds of golf or ten sets of tennis a week. I don’t garden or knit or scrapbook. And I don’t have a demanding 60 hour a week job. Most of my overdoing takes place between my two ears. I think that’s what it’s like for most creative people. Wheels turn, ideas crest, crash and rise again. When I am writing or designing, time stops and my physical sensations hibernate while my storytelling mind goes into hyper-drive. It’s great to have a supercharged imagination when you need it for work, but as I’m sure you know, it isn’t always easy to turn down the volume on your own headspace. I often have gone through entire days with a sensation of inner spinning in my solar plexus: so much to do, so little time, so many threads to unravel and rewind in my thoughts. A simple interaction, say another driver cuts me off on the highway, can unspool a Tolstoyan yarn of vengeance, reconciliation and redemption in my mind. Before you know it, twenty precious minutes have ticked by in reverie. Which only escalates my perpetual sense of being slightly behind the eight ball, time-wise, with a just a few more projects to tick off my list than any reasonable person would expect to accomplish in the time I have. Which in turn keeps me firmly anchored in a realm of lists and details, errands and chores, piles to fold and pdfs to print and a clutter of necessary but shallow activities that remove me from much sense of Purpose.
Noticing demands presence; presence takes practice; practice invites silence. I don’t like how that line doesn’t quite integrate into the post’s flow, but it announced itself and it wants to sit here. So ok.
Meditation helps me quiet down the chatter. I can feel myself sinking like a plumbline, straight and heavy, into a deeper part of myself, and when I land there, something in me simultaneously settles and expands, like a beautiful bird spreading her wings as she sits rooted on a solid branch, her claws curled around the bark. She could take off at any moment, soar, do anything, go anywhere. But for now, she is content to stay. Because the silent weight of this place is deep and pleasurable—why would she rush away? Spending time here builds up my tolerance for stillness throughout the day, helps me look for places where I can offer a foundation of calm, rather than go rushing in with my rickshaw of words and solutions. It’s both a place of rest and sanctuary, and a spiritual workout, in that it takes self-discipline to surrender my to-do lists to this time when I am simply sitting and breathing, listening and being. I don’t manage to show up for it every day, and years have gone by when I have totally forgotten about the nourishment of meditative silence. It never goes anywhere far; I do.
I first encountered meditation when I took a TM class on Martha’s Vineyard, one summer during high school on a two-week family vacation. I was pissed at my mom and desperate for something to get me out of the house. I saw a flyer outside the Edgartown movie theater for a TM training one evening when I was just walking around town, seventeen and stewing. Something inside me craved release from my inner roiling. Our teacher was an aging, be-turbaned hippie with a Sanskit name I couldn’t pronounce who wore Sperry Topsiders, coral Bermuda shorts and Lacoste polo shirts. I remember a lot of discussion about layers of consciousness, how we live on the surface of the ocean, where the water is constantly influenced by the weather, doldrumy and stale, choppy and stormy. Neurologically and attentionally, this is our daily mind: reactive to whatever is coming at us, our central nervous systems wired through experience to respond and adapt. But as you descend further under the water, all becomes still, even though a hurricane may be raging above the surface. Meditation, my preppy guru described, is the practice of training yourself to hang out on the ocean floor. This was 1977, and as we’ve learned since, hanging out in such deep spaces has fantastic benefits for our overall well-being, our mental and physical health.
I love the New Testament story of the woman who wants to be healed, so she touches just the edge of Jesus’ cloak as he’s walking through her village. He feels the touch and turns to her, she who only grazed the hem of his garment with a fingertip. She’s mortified to have been caught, but he says to her: “your faith has made you whole.” When I meditate, I feel like I’m touching the hem of the garment of Divinity, just a little, and fleetingly. For me, it’s time spent in Unity with a higher purpose, with universal love, letting the cosmos gently touch a strand of my hair as I stand in the sun, eyes closed. It’s enough to keep me going through the firestorm of anxieties that is modern life, the flying squirrel acrobatics of my own thoughts, the emotions that blow across my landscape like time-lapse photography.
The poet Wallace Stevens, a lawyer by training who composed many of his poems while commuting by train to his job at the Hartford Insurance company, wrote beautifully about the sensation of meditation. (Speaking of finding flashes of divine among the quotidian stuff of our days.) Here’s one of my favorites:
Of Mere Being
The palm at the end of the mind, Beyond the last thought, rises In the bronze décor,
A gold-feathered bird Sings in the palm, without human meaning, Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason That makes us happy or unhappy. The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands of the edge of space. The wind moves slowly in the branches. The bird’s fire-fangled fingers dangle down.
Have a great weekend!
I’m going to take some time off from blogging this weekend as I am
feeling some (self-created) pressure to churn out posts simply because I said I
would. I’m going to try a little less
doing, a little more being, maybe let some fire-fangled fingers dangle down.
I have my eyes checked every six months for a number of reasons, but primarily a plumbing-related glaucoma risk: the drainage angles away from my irises are too narrow, which could cause my ocular pressure to shoot up unexpectedly, in turn damaging my optic nerve. Which would be no bueno. To address the problem, a few years ago I had a procedure called an iridotomy in my left eye. The ophthalmologist lasers a pinprick hole in your iris, preventing ocular pressure from skyrocketing. It’s the same principle as the steam vent on a pressure cooker. The eye surgeon who performed my iridotomy, which is a simple five-minute, in-office procedure, told me the only side effect might be some glare, but that only occurs in fewer than 3% of cases. So no worries.
Except who gets glare? Moi, of course. Little firework-like flashes of white light erupted in the lower left corner of my field of vision, probably 20 times a day, at first. The great thing about glare is that because so much of our sight is determined by how our brains interpret incoming stimulus, my brain has been able to map around the iridotomy site so that I no longer notice any flairs, although the stimulus is still there. Over a period of probably eighteen months, my brain made adjustments for all the angles and conditions in which light hits the pinprick in my iris the wrong way. And now I almost never notice it. Only if I’m in a new situation that my brain hasn’t mapped before will I actually see the glare, when the sunlight hits a puddle at a particular angle and the light bounces up to my eye a certain way, for example. Then I’ll get a little flash. But the next time I’m exposed to a similar stimulus, I won’t “see” it, or at least, I won’t notice it as much. Isn’t that absolutely wild? I suppose this happens to us all the time, when we build up tolerance to an allergen, or as in my case, our brain comes up with neuromuscular work-arounds for an injury. I find this metaphorical dimension of perceiving—where the interpretation of what we see is as important as the physical act of vision—to be awesome in the fullest sense of the word: amazing, mysterious, cosmic, and embodied, all at once.
It’s on my mind because I saw my ophthalmologist this morning. Her name is Holly, too. We laugh that when you meet another Holly, you always know her relative age, because our name was in vogue in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but not since. Because I see her every year (I alternate between her and my glaucoma specialist), we have an easy familiarity with each other. She has two boys the same age as two of my kids. One of them is severely autistic and will always live at home with her and her husband. She loves this son dearly, ferociously even, and he is a burden. Usually we talk about him, but this morning, Holly was nursing a bad cold and had barely any voice. On Monday she had a fever and cancelled all her appointments, throwing her schedule into chaos and setting her back weeks. I hadn’t ever given much thought to the pressure on physicians never to miss work. Ironic, right?
My exam went fine, although there’s a new something on my something (an opaque spot in the trabecular meshwork? I think that’s what she said. I’ll read her notes later.) There always is, when you’re aging. We’ll keep watching it. In the meantime, she wants me to start using artificial tears, since the new condition is caused in part by dry eyes. Another irony: One of the emotional issues I have been pondering lately is my inability to cry. I can feel sadness, grief, pain. But it takes a WHOLE LOT of psychological stress or physical pain for my body to actually produce tears. I’m that well-defended.
One more funny sidebar about my vision this week is that on Monday, I drove over my month-old Warby Parker progressives, which had fallen out of my purse unnoticed onto our gravel driveway. What a pain in the arse, I thought. To replace them, I’d have to drive into Cambridge, find parking in Harvard Square, schlep to the store, wait in the line with all the millennials, and pay three hundred bucks. Yet it all went smoothly. I got a parking space on Mass Ave right outside the storefront. The showroom was deserted and three bearded sales associates in knit beanies descended on me to help. Thankfully, Warby Parker has a really generous warranty for the first year, replacing not just the lenses, but also the permanently flattened frames at no cost. Duncan, my sales rep, said they’d get the replacements to me in a week and also waved the expedited shipping fee, which was nice of him. Of course, I blanked on my upcoming eye exam when I did this, so when Holly updated my prescription this morning, I thought oy, now I have to spend the three hundred smackers again. I called Warby Parker to see if they’d already filled the re-order. I was in luck, they had not. So now I will have updated lenses, new frames and better sight. For free!
Again, the body’s metaphorical intelligence astonishes. It’s all in how you look at things.
I started seeing a really great personal trainer last summer
after my bone density test showed the typical post-menopausal decline…nothing
dramatic or out of the ordinary, but because my mom and her mom both developed osteoporosis,
I figured I should get to the gym. A friend told me about a new app called “Splitfit”
that let you book a small group training session for just 20 bucks; she’d heard
about a highly recommended trainer—Kathryn—on the app from a friend of hers. So
we decided to go together. What did we have to lose?
I had forgotten how much I like weight training. It doesn’t seem like something I’d be into, given that in Nia I’m wafting around in my fancy dance pants, expressive and flowy. But when I was in my twenties, in Jane Fonda’s heyday, I’d put on my ankle weights and leg warmers and cheerfully perform any number of leg lifts or hamstring curls on the plush carpet of my hi-rise studio in Chicago’s Gold Coast. In the late 1980’s, I discovered a video workout series called “The Firm,” and I became a convert to the gospel of aerobic weight training. One price of my devotion was the purchase of a small rack of dumbbells, a weighted “body bar”, and a set of aerobic steps. (They have exactly the same set twenty-five years later at the Wellesley gym where Kathryn is based). The ladies of “The Firm” held my attention for a solid ten years, the equipment traveling with me and John from our small garden apartment in Chicago’s Old Town, to my godfather’s freebie rental property overlooking the Boston common (no kidding. I once saw Mitt Romney in the elevator), to our starter house and home to this day (four major renovations later) in Lincoln. When John and I Kon-Mari-ed the house last summer, I found ten volumes of “The Firm” videos that had been ossifying in the family room media cabinet for decades. I so relished the feeling of resistance that body sculpting entailed, gaining competence and strength against a worthy adversary, even if that foe was just a rusty fifteen-pound hand weight.
In Nia, we describe strength as “packing the muscle against the bone,” and we use this prompt to create the sensation of resistance. But without progressively overloading the muscles, you just don’t develop the same power. After entrusting myself to Kathryn last summer, I learned that Nia strength and gym brawn are not equivalent. Squats, wall balls, planks, step-ups, farmer carries, bring ‘em on, load me up. I’m happy at the push-up bar. I love power drumming with the tabada battle ropes. My muscle memory must have somewhere encoded the Southern-accented voices of all those Firm video starlets, exhorting me to curl, press, fly, dip, step up; I felt at home.
I went back to see Kathryn today for the first time in the six weeks since I injured myself, to say goodbye for now. Sadly for me, but happily for her, she landed a fantastic new job in strategic marketing for Harvard Pilgrim Health’s corporate patient populations. She says she’ll still train a few hours a week, but I doubt it. She has a BIG new job and three young kids. I’m so appreciative I had those six months of working with her before her return to corporate life. She’s whip smart (clearly). Endlessly knowledgeable and creative, she puts together workouts that cultivate muscles I didn’t even know I had, and I’ve studied anatomy. I forgot to tell her before I left today that I credit much of the speed of my recovery to the fact that I had robust, symmetrical strength to draw on. More than one healthcare professional on my path of hamstring diagnosis commented on it, surprised; I guess because I’m 59 and curvy, they don’t expect me to be so hardy. On my way out the gym door today, Kathryn gave me a few additional exercises to help isolate my medial glutes, abductors and adductors, which will be critical to stabilizing my left thigh, untethered as it has become…a nifty clamshell maneuver in fetal position, a raised bridge with a TheraBand.
I’ll find another trainer to work with, and I’m sure they’ll be great, too, in their own way. But it was Kathryn who helped me reconnect to my inner gym rat, handing me a 40 pound weight for a goblet squat, telling me “you got this,” distracting me with hilarious tales about her over-committed life as a sports mom to three growing boys or her behind-schedule bathroom renovation. I’m tougher than when I met her, and I need to be. I’m grateful to her.
Another celebratory morning for me: I had an amazing sleep last night.
Normally, I roll around in the bed like a breakfast sausage in a hot pan, trying to cook all possible sides, settling only briefly before skittering away to another spot. Cordelia sleeps between me and John, a dropped anchor trapping the blankets, so that I have to pull with all my might to keep my feet covered. I’m perpetually hot, but our bedroom windows are casements, six feet tall, and the heavy frames pull out of alignment if we open them too often, so instead, I dial down the heat in the room. But then, I get cold for a while, so I keep a heating pad by the side of the bed to warm me up, which sometimes overheats like an old toaster, and I wake up to fling it out from under the duvet. John snores, a robust, where’s-the-grizzly?-growl-n-snuffle that can be heard in the kids’ rooms downstairs. I know this, because I sometimes go down and sleep in Nate’s old room to escape it. The distant sawing still reaches me, droning without respite despite the insulated sub-floor. It’s almost more annoying muted than full-throated. The moon shines directly into my line of vision through the unshaded fanlight that tops our beautiful Palladian window. At least the moonlight illuminates the bedside table, so I can see where I deposited my detestable night guard after unconsciously discarding it in frustration. I’m forever pulling it out; I only wear it because my dentist insists my teeth will be creepy little nubs by the time I’m elderly if I don’t. Some nights, when there’s no moon and the room is dark, I knock over the lamp or spill my bedside water bottle all over the sheets, my fingers groping for the toothy plastic. My PT says I’m supposed to keep a pillow between my knees when sleeping on my side, which feels like I’m wrestling a reluctant raccoon every time I shift positions. Speaking of wildlife, there is a loquacious family of owls in the woods adjacent to our land. They “whoo, whoo, whoo” in a tri-tone call and response that is charming for about three minutes. At which point I start thinking about avicide. The woods also feature coyotes and their pups, foxes and their kits, and fisher cats, whose hair-raising caterwauls bring to mind a colicky infant who happens to also be morally outraged.
In other words, I’m a restless sleeper. It’s not that my mind is busy. I’m not laying awake stewing over the day’s god-awful news or the dying of the planet. I’m not running through to-do lists for the coming day or trying to remember the name of that gal I ran into in the market who clearly knew me and asked about the kids and my writing, about whom I had not the vaguest fucking clue, not even a scintilla of “maybe from Little League? Or grad school?” It’s my BODY that doesn’t want to settle in to sleep, that refuses to surrender and let the wave take me. No doubt all those busy thoughts and worries bypassed my brain and baked themselves right into my cells, leaving me twitchy as a squirrel in heat. Some mornings, I wake up feeling stiff and achy, muscles strained from mortal combat with the bed linens.
But last night, I slumbered.
Isn’t that such a beautiful word?
It has weight, it pulls you down into its deep embrace, forms in the
mouth like a one-word poem, landing on the page of your day, solid and sure.