Who Are You?

What do you do?

It’s a question I get asked a lot lately. Maybe since my youngest child is in Second Grade, the people around me are wondering what I’m doing with my days, what, exactly I am. It seems I have reached the point where Stay at Home Mother  isn’t always a socially acceptable answer anymore. I suppose once your kids can cut their own meat and text you from their friend’s house, the full-time Mothering Thing may have run its course.

So often, I find myself having the same conversations with other suburban mothers – at birthday parties, the bus stop, soccer fields. We all have the same things on our minds: Do you work?  Are you going back to work? Do you feel pressured to work? We ask these questions cautiously so as not to spark a small battle in the larger Mommy War.  But, more often than not, we are on the same page, torn between wanting to greet the afternoon school bus and find fulfilling outside work. We are grateful to have the choice and mindful enough to not let either role fully define us.

We are told, from an early age, that we must be accountable for our time, in some pre-defined productive way. Folding laundry, playing Uno and Monopoly, volunteering in the classroom, and shuttling kids to and from after school activities, are not always received with respectful nods.  ‘Yes, but WHAT are you’, they ask again at the cocktail party, demanding a job title, a former career track even.

Is it a societal thing, to define ourselves by occupation?  When I worked outside the home, in my windowless office, I still dreaded that small talk banter of ‘What are you? What do you DO?’.  I would cringe, take a deep breath, and explain what exactly I was. I didn’t feel energized or glamorous as I plunged awkwardly into the definition of a Corporate Compensation Manager. There was so much more I wanted to say. I was more than a job title then. And I am more than a mother now.

Last weekend I overheard a group of middle-aged friends discussing their careers and what and who they wanted to be. It was a lively conservation, but one man’s comment particularly stuck out: ‘It’s like, you start a career in your 20s and the next thing you know you are 45 and stuck, doing something that you never wanted to do in the first place’.

Yes.

We grow, we change, we shift tracks.  A job title, whether it is Parent or Compensation Manager, Artist or House Keeper, shouldn’t (and can’t) be our whole identity.

Perhaps the question we ask of each other should be rephrased. The next time we find ourselves mingling in a crowd of small-talkers, wine glass in hand, maybe, instead of asking ‘What are you’, we should ask, instead: ‘Who are you’.  The answer would be more interesting, don’t you think?

I am a mother, wife, friend, yogi, writer, reader, vegetarian, dog walker, thinker, seeker, accidental suburbanite, recovering corporate girl. I am a whole and complete person.

Who are you?

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Sitting Still

Except for the tapping of my pen, the room is silent. The beautiful Berkshire mountains are laid out in front of me. The people around me are curled up on cozy chairs reading inspirational books, tilting their heads back to feel the winter sunlight on their faces and occasionally nodding off. Me?  I am still glistening, in a sweaty kind of way, from noontime vinyasa.

I’m at Kripalu for a rare solo getaway.

Have you ever done this, gone away by yourself? In the planning stages, it sounds like a brilliant escape: forty-eight glorious hours alone! Realistically, it feels not quite right, uncomfortable, even. It feels like choking down a spoonful of self-indulgence peppered with guilt. I have that pit-in-my-stomach feeling that I should be somewhere else. That familiar feeling that sits in our gut, quietly at first, waiting to be noticed, when we call out sick to work or check out from whatever it is we are supposed accomplishing. This little itch of a feeling is making it nearly impossible to relax.

I don’t know why, exactly, I am denying myself this gift of time away, of stillness, of peace and quiet. But I am. Instead of melting into this sliver of solitary time, I am wondering if the kids are squabbling at home. I am worrying my son will not want to go to soccer camp in the morning. I am thinking about the dirty kitchen floor, the sofa cushion the dog chewed, and the empty refrigerator that will greet me when I return home.

Is it a maternal thing, this guilt?  I’m here and I want to be there. I’m there and I want to be here. It seems we are always where we don’t think we should be. I don’t remember being caught in this time trap before I had kids.

What will it take to trust in ourselves that we are exactly where we are supposed to be. That we are giving ourselves exactly what we need, at this moment, today, tomorrow, yesterday.That we are receiving everything we are supposed to be receiving. What will it take to gain this trust in ourselves?

I haven’t found that trust in myself, yet.

I do know that today, at this moment, I am here. I am sitting quietly in this solarium on the fourth floor of this converted old seminary, scribbling down these thoughts from inside my head, and trying to appreciate this time that is wholly mine.

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My Summer with Sylvia Plath

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart.  I am, I am, I am.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

I spent much of last summer with Sylvia Plath. I took her to the beach. I had early morning coffee with her. She was poolside and bedside with me for most of July. That’s not the best summer reading, my sister pointed out as I sat, ‘The Bell Jar’ across my lap, in a creaky old sand chair watching the tide creep in and over my toes.

She was right. Ms. Plath is not the kind of friend you want to kick back with, margarita in hand, as the ocean breeze tickles your senses and reminds you that you are most definitely alive and well. Nope, Ms. Plath is more of a deep, dark winter kind of friend. She’s the one you call when you need to burrow under your down comforter at 5pm on Sunday in January. She makes you think and contemplate and wonder. She takes your frosty, winter breath away and brings it back with just a few tightly knit words. She is, she is, she is.

Yet, here I was, sharing the endless, barefoot summer with her.

There is a scene in The Bell Jar where Esther, our young protagonist, imagines herself sitting under a fig tree, its many branches reaching out in different directions. Each branch represents a life choice – a husband and family on one branch, a writing career on another, travel on another, and so on. She has difficulty choosing a branch, not because they aren’t appealing, but because she believes that choosing one means abandoning the others. Under this enormous tree of options, she ultimately starves herself with indecision and a sense of inadequacy.

I read this passage as my kids built sand castles and elaborate army men battles around my beach chair. Their laughter and energy carried over the incoming surf. I looked up from Sylvia’s fig tree and watched them. They are the branch I chose several years ago. I tried, oh how I tried, to choose more than one branch when my first son was born, but when I did, the whole tree collapsed. The weight of it all – career and family, friendships and hobbies, car maintenance and mortgage payments, dog walking, dinner making, diaper changing – was too much to carry in any meaningful way.

So I get it. I was right there with our dear Esther under that tree. I know the feeling we all experience at some point in our lives of wanting to do it all but not knowing where to begin. And when we do somehow find our way to the starting line, self doubt and exhaustion escort us right back to the emergency exit. In the quest to choose it all, we often choose nothing.

The thing is, life is made of choices – amazing, wonderful, scary choices. Those fig tree branches are laid out before us like a treasure map, ready to be explored and devoured. The trick is learning that we can’t climb the whole tree at once. Each branch has its own time and place. I saw it happen as my babies grew. As their physical need for me gradually lessened, more space grew for the next branch on my tree. Oh, it’s always a struggle, yes, but choosing something doesn’t have to mean giving up everything else. It can just mean waiting a little while.

I wish, with a little more time, a little more confidence, and probably a lot more meds, Sylvia could have known this. She would have soared higher than she already had in her short life, and, from our rickety sand chairs, would have taken us along for the ride.

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Looking Forward, Remaining Still

I’m tapping my pen, waiting for inspiration. My Ninth Grade English teacher is a young, recent college grad from Toms River, and he assigns the kinds of projects that the tenured teachers scowl at. Yesterday we dissected the lyrics to our favorite rock songs. Today we are writing a letter to our future selves. What will our address be? What will we be doing? Who will we be? Look ahead, the hipster teacher tells us, see the future. I write a ridiculously impossible letter to my future 20-something self because all I can see right now, at this moment, is the scuffed Doc Martin of the kid in front of me.

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Time to wake up, I whisper to my boys. Their room is still and dark on this January morning. They groan and grunt in my direction as they pull the covers over their heads and sink into the nests of their beds. Today is Monday, I say softly, but you have a short week! Friday is a half day and the next Monday is a holiday! I’m hoping this bit of news, this glimpse into the coming days, will encourage them out of bed. It doesn’t, of course. Right now, as the clock ticks towards 7am, all they see is the grey sky out their window and the sleep in their eyes.

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What do you want to be when you grow up? The four year old rolls the plastic truck across the waiting room floor, ignoring his father’s question. He is on his belly, legs outstretched, eye level with the truck as he watches the wheels squeak back and forth. I dunno, he answers. Sure you do! Use your imagination! What do you want to DO? The father asks again. Without looking up from the toy he answers tentatively, Um, a mechanic? Maybe an ice cream man? And then, in a voice so hopeful, Will you play with me now? The future is as mysterious to this kid as the way the wheels on his truck are able to create motion.

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I’m sitting in bed reading The Buddha Walks into a Bar at 9 o’clock on a Thursday night. It’s cold and dark this time of year and, often, I am in bed with my books around the same time the kids are tucked into their beds with their books. I’m reading about mindfulness – about experiencing wholly the current moment. It is difficult to train our exhausted mind to stay still, but here I am, engaged and absorbed in the book and, right now, at this second, there is no extra, self-deprecating chatter in my head. Then – my phone dings its familiar texting ding. I pick it up and read a request for the next day. Just like that, the moment is gone. Distraction rolls in as I plan tomorrow.

 

Mindfulness is difficult not because we are incapable of training our minds to quiet, but because we are taught early – by technology, by society, by our culture – to consistently look forward. While there is obvious value in planning ahead, there is equal, maybe less obvious, value in understanding the now. After all, it’s difficult to stir up the future if we can’t sit still with the present.

So – quiet your mind. Appreciate this moment. It will be gone in a flash. Before you know it, that future self you had so much trouble imagining will be staring back at you wondering where you’ve been all this time.

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Fleeing Half Moon

If you practice yoga on a regular basis (or even semi-regular basis), chances are, you have a pose that makes you cringe. A pose so intimidating, so uncomfortable, you say a little prayer at the beginning of class that it won’t show up on your mat in the next 90 minutes, and when it does, you fight the urge to roll up your mat and call it a day. For me, it’s the dreaded half moon.

I can sweat my way through 90 minutes of vinyasas and breathe my way through countless sun salutations. I can fly high in a proud crow and bend backwards into a pretty wheel. I can twist my chair and flip my dog. But my half moon, oh my half moon, is clumsy and wobbly and uncertain. My standing leg shakes, my arms waver, and my breath hesitates. My gaze flits and flies everywhere but up.

I know when half moon is coming. There is no element of surprise and so my mind should have plenty of time to prepare. Warrior two turns into bent knee triangle which turns into…half freaking moon, or Ardha Chandrasana if you want to be fancy about it. Either way, it makes me queasy, regardless of any ample preparation time.

My mind not only chatters during my half moon attempt, it screams and mocks. You will fall, you hate this pose, you are weak. And then – Did you pay the credit card bill? Did you reschedule your dentist appointment? Did you email your kid’s math teacher? And so on. The chatter, the lack of letting go, is what, of course, makes me wobble and shake and whisper obscenities.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the pose our mind dreads is the one with which we should be spending some quality one-on-one time. There is a reason our thoughts point us in another, more comfortable, direction as they nudge us into a happy baby or even a no nonsense child’s pose. Discomfort activates our well-intentioned fleeing instinct. Our mind gets strong signals from our irritated body and so it screams, run! get out of that twisty, teetering position you have gotten yourself into!  It’s no dummy. While it may take every ounce of willpower, every drop of sweat to quiet our mind and convince our bodies to stay, it is so necessary. Because without discomfort there is no room for growth, there is no where to go.

So, each day on my mat, I drip and shake my way through half moon, breathing a sigh of relief when it morphs back into warrior two. Someday my leg won’t wobble. Someday my gaze will turn upward. Someday my body will melt into the pose without the back talk.  And someday I will have a new pose that makes me want to flee.

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Good Will

jeanjacket

Toss it,” he says.

“Maybe,” I tell him.

My husband and I are in the middle of our yearly closet purge. While he effortlessly tosses old shirts into the Goodwill bag, I’m stuck in a time warp.

I have found my old denim jacket: vintage 1987 – beautifully faded, flannel lined and smelling faintly of youth.

I take it off the wire hanger and I’m lost in its history.

I am sixteen. My hair is cut into a short Natalie Merchant bob – a bold statement for me. It’s 7:23 a.m. and I’m waiting outside of school, alone and surrounded by clusters of my peers. It’s a chilly, late winter morning and I hug my new jacket closer to keep from shivering. I hate this. All of it. Seven hundred ninety-eight: days until I can get out of this town, out of this school that feels more like conviction time in some demented John Hughes movie. I’m startled out of my misery by a hacky-sack landing at my feet. Ugh. But just as the first bell rings, I see him from across the parking lot. My heart pounds. I feel good.

I slip one arm into a sleeve.

I passed! Other than the dismal parallel parking portion of the test, I passed! I open the creaky door of the rusted VW, toss in my jacket, and bounce into the driver’s seat. This piece of junk won’t get me far, but I don’t care. Tonight I’ve got keys in my hand and an open road out my bug-stained windshield. I start up the engine, hit the gas and breathe a sigh of liberated teenage relief. I feel good.

I slide my other arm through a sleeve.

It’s late. We’re riding around our one traffic light town without a destination in mind. There’s nothing to do here but drive. Sometimes we stop at Tony’s for a slice, but tonight we’re just driving, killing time. The guy next to me in the backseat hands me a cigarette, my first. I inhale as he instructs me to, but I cough spastically and bury my head into my jacket. He hands me a bottle of Smirnoff to wash away my failure. It burns my throat and warms my belly, and it makes everything okay. I feel good.

I pull the jacket onto my back, feeling its weight on my shoulders.

A bunch of us are sitting in a booth at Bennigans on Route 46 eating mozzarella sticks and potato skins. The chatter morphs from trivial to significant. ‘Did you hear?’ ‘What a jerk’ ‘He seemed nice’ ‘Why didn’t she tell us?’ ‘I heard he hit her’ ‘I think he had a knife’ ‘Pyscho – he should be put away’  ‘What can we do?’ These words shouldn’t be ours. They’re too heavy for adolescent brains to bear. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ I sigh as I reach into my jacket for a crumpled $20. Walking to the car, the cold air smacks the bad out of the way. I feel good.

I stick my hand into one of the inside pockets and pull out a tattered Midnight Oil ticket.

I’m sitting in my dorm room 3oo miles from home on a Thursday night studying for an economics exam. The door is cracked open and they let themselves in, giggling a buzzed kind of giggle. ‘Are you ready?’ one of them says. ‘The show starts in an hour. Grab your jacket. Let’s go.’ And I do. I’m away and free, lost and young. I feel good.

“Toss it,” my husband says again, “It’s dated. It will never come back, you know.”

“I know,” I say, noticing my reflection in the mirror, “but it still fits.”

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Riding the Serendipitous Wave

While sipping my usual cup of dark roast from my usual ceramic mug, I logged into my Yahoo account this morning, as I usually do. Stuck in routine, I am. The usual junk was there, Lands End sale, the DailyOM, Eddie Bauer FREE SHIPPING!. There were a few emails from friends, one from my mom, and one from a woman I don’t know very well, who, in fact, I haven’t been in touch with for well over a year.

We have met once,  several years ago when we found ourselves at the same place at the same time and linked together by the people we knew. We got along well enough, but not well enough to stay connected on a meaningful level.  When we do exchange messages they are short, succinct notes of good will.

Hope you are well!

Merry Christmas!

Congratulations!

Today’s email was different. Today, out of the blue, without any occasion that would require good wishes, she sent me an email with a question. A simple, but inquisitive kind of question. And on this particular day, instead of hitting delete or replying with a few polite words, I allowed my fingers to tap out what my head wanted to say. What followed over the next forty-five minutes of email time was a sort of spontaneous inspirational dialogue.

She doled out words like medicine: keep strong as you move along, and trust in what you believe; those negative comments are important…they get you to evaluate what really is right for you… and make you work toward attaining it.

These beautiful words of wisdom were offered to me at just the right moment in time, and I held on to them all day. I grabbed them off the screen, dipped them in chocolate and swallowed them whole. I watered the garden with them. I sprinkled them in my salad like sunflower seeds. I kept them close, allowed them to float around me until they slowly began to fade, as words often do.

It was only then, after they slipped from my grasp, after they fulfilled their verbal duty, that I wondered, how did she know?

How did she know exactly what to say?

What bizarre set of circumstances caused this woman whom I barely know, a woman who lives 3000 miles away, to hand deliver on the silver platter that is my computer screen the precise words of encouragement I so needed? Today.

Are we all connected in some mysterious way?  Can the energy of one person reach across the country to another without our full awareness?  Energy is a powerful force, so the Jedi in my house tell me.

Or maybe the magical wonders that occur in our lives can be credited to all the angels out there trying to earn their wings. It worked for Jimmy Stewart. I think I did hear a bell ring after my email exchange this morning.

Or perhaps, more likely even, we are all riding one big serendipitous wave of life, hanging on the best we can and hoping that the tide stays high long enough for us to figure it all out. If we’re lucky, we get splashed with tiny droplets of clarity along the way.  We get thrown the occasional anchor of support and safety.  We get handed random swells of goodness from all the guest appearances who show up when we most need them.

Maybe.

The truth is, I don’t know.

And maybe it’s better that way, this not knowing.  Maybe the mysterious workings of the Universe are a mystery for a reason.

In any event, I’m glad I checked my email this morning.

Has this ever happened to you? Has someone or something showed up unexpectedly just at the time you needed it?

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