Wisteria

 

My peoples and I are headed out of town this Sunday for a little communion with mighty Ozark mountains, so I will miss a Monday post this week, and will instead leave you with this little ode to my favorite spring bloom and her unrepressed Big Love.

 

Wisteria, you indiscriminate springtime slattern,

throwing yourself at the most wanton vacant parking lots

bottlesdiaperscigarettes strewn among the weeds

concrete busted in places

Or against the sagging telephone wires, threaded through dead trees

A tangle of barren brown branches no one cares about enough to prune.

 

Here is where you stretch yourself out, long and luxurious?

Here is where you bloom, all those fecund floral grapes dangling?

Like Bacchus himself had partied a little too hard

On the wrong side of town

Is for the shock effect, like a rebellious teen, this display of poor taste?

Have a little pride! we want to shout.

Or maybe –

You and your jiggling purple petals not quite that vapid.

Flinging all that plummy glory around,

decorating the forgotten armpits of our city

as if to say, I stand with Pema Chodron:

Compassion is not our service to those on the margins,

but our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.

 

Wisteria, magdalen blossom who reminds us of our better selves,

the indiscriminate self that doesn’t first size up,

the self that shares our best jokes with whoever comes along,

the self that looks for beauty everywhere, in every dandelion-filled driveway

because we’ve learned the hard way that

it all matters.

All of it.

Molting Stress

 

Yesterday I prepared for a bearded dragon funeral that never happened.  Thank God.  My son’s beardie, Blades Beauvais-Abney, a four-month juvenile bearded dragon of ambiguous gender, had been on a hunger strike since last Wednesday. Which would be a big deal for anyone, but seemed especially alarming for a creature about the size and weight of a cereal bar.  When the crickets he normally pounced on like a tiny, heartless velociraptor started crawling all over his listless face, we mobilized from worry to action.  It was unsettling to watch an instinct predator let his prey waltz all over his nose.  Fundamentally disturbing in the same way that seeing your parents cry feels deeply disturbing, as though a foundational shift in the universe had upended the natural order of things.

The veterinarian who squeezed us in felt his tiny tummy, noted his color, discovered and confirmed maleness (surprise!) and told us not to sweat it.  Apparently Blades was shedding his skin for the first time in his young life and was simply too freaked out to eat. Molting stress, it turns out, is a pretty normal thing for young lizards.  The young lizards, however, don’t know how normal it is and a few of the more high-strung, nervous types decide to limit all movement and bodily activities, even if it means sustaining life, until the whole thing just goes away.

You can imagine it, right?  I mean, even with our big(ish) human brains, wrapping one’s head around the idea of something like menstruation is a pretty wild thing.  For Blades and his chia seed noggin, going from enjoying a nice sit on his heat rock to noticing that all his skin is falling off had to feel pretty apocalyptic.

So ride it out, the vet said.  She said I could try him on some pureed sweet potatoes or, horrifyingly, small cockroaches.  “They love cockroaches!” she chirped. “HmmMmm,” I said and wrote down “SWEET POTATOES,” underlining it twice. Henry and I left the vet’s office, relieved and giddy, headed home with our pale and skinny – but alive – beardie, rather than a euthanized one in a shoebox as I had feared.

In the same day, as it happened, I hit the crux of a tension that had been brewing at the yoga studio where I teach.  A volley of emails had been ponging around for the better part of a month, negotiations and counter negotiations on things such as admin support, class schedule, average number of clients and who uses what props.  But we weren’t really talking about those things.  We were really talking about their notion of the value I and my class brought to the studio, and my own notion of that value.  And because our estimations did not match up, we kept circling, around and around.  The owners telling me they couldn’t offer admin support, me requesting we move the class to another time, them saying that was not possible, me pointing out that my Iyengar-trained group shares thousands of dollars worth of props with the studio, them countering that actually they were doing us a favor by storing the props for us. We were both contributing to a vibe that, in short, sucked. I complained to a friend, in my most calm, centered yoga teacher voice, “THE LAST FUCKING PLACE there should be drama and stress is in yoga.”

My yoga class is special. (Or special to me, I’m learning painfully.)   I had inherited the class, along with a fellow teacher, from one of the world’s few master Iyengar teachers who had retired in Shreveport, Louisiana of all places after teaching and establishing Iyengar centers around the world. She was a true guriji, a hardass master teacher who could see straight into my heart, my tight shoulders, the place where I would hold back from really trying or where I clenched my jaw and hardened my eyes – and from that vantage, would exact a transformational change from me.  I had practiced for nearly 20 years before coming to Karin, but had never, not in Los Angeles, nor DC nor London, found a teacher as masterful as she. And thousands of people felt the same way I did.

Karin was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in both lungs, a freight train of a diagnosis that railroaded her in six months. Before she died, she asked me her in her no nonsense way to continue her classes with another teacher in our group. She was on oxygen in her bed, giving me her last class and I was 6 months pregnant and weeping from the enormity of the gift. I kept apologizing for crying, knowing she was not a crier, and she said, “you deserve this.”

At the time I thought “this” meant her last few classes and her trust in continuing to teach with her discipline, I did not know then that what I was being given was the community of people who would be glued together through our shared grief and awe in what we had possessed. “This” was actually a group of beautiful people would continue to come to my and my co-teacher’s classes, even though I was a pale facsimile of Karin, every Saturday for years afterwards – preserving this tiny culture of practice that she had instilled in us.

When things started to get a bit wonky at the current studio, it was the community, the communion, of these people that grounded me. I watched Cheryl, a long-timer with shoulder and hip issues, help a newcomer set up for a chair shoulder stand, transmitting kindness and a piece of Karin’s knowledge through this forum we stubbornly persist in continuing every week.

I thought about the way that grace is transmitted by all of us showing up for each other, for what we shared together, as well as for our own selves. I thought about how teaching yoga, even more than practicing, transcends me – takes me out of my own self while I remain hyper aware, crystalline, clear. In teaching, I feel like I am hitting a note, just right, and it is ringing out and reverberating, clear and strong. I realized that I was committed to teaching and if to no one else, then to this group.  Iyengar is different.  Iyengar is weird. We can be tedious. We use tons of props, spending a long time on anatomy and alignment. We’re kind of a cerebral bunch. I think it’s a great, safe and challenging way to practice, but not everyone agrees.

On the phone with a friend yesterday morning, I was going through how I would negotiate going forward, how I would remind the owners about how they had courted me and my co-teacher to bring our group there and promised me a weekly class in addition to the group’s class, which had never fully materialized. I was going to remind them of this and ask that that be honored. My friend gently asked me if I was saying this because I expected them to agree and give me another weekly class.

When she said that, something shifted. She was very tenderly asking me whether I wanted to bludgeon them over the head with my feelings in order to get what I wanted or to enter something on the godforsaken record. For the record. I saw how I was trying to force it, to force what I wanted on someone else.  When I was little and couldn’t make a Rubik’s cube work, I would peel off the little colored squares and re-stick them on to make the “win.” They were crooked, of course, the edges peeled up where I had bent them. It was unimpressive and unconvincing to everyone else, and frankly – not very satisfying to me either.  So, when I paused in that conversation, I felt the all those little red and blue and yellow squares line up, tight and neat. What if I didn’t convince them of my worth? What if we just shared different opinions on that score? What if there’s nothing personal here, just a situation that is not fitting in the way I had imagined.

In the pause, I remembered that nothing good comes from saying anything “for the record” and that I cannot make someone appreciate me any more than they do – or at least certainly not by arguing it.  There had been so much stress and anxiety in trying to fit my brand of teaching into another’s idea of teaching. And like a too small pair of pants, it was uncomfortable. The more I tugged, the more twisted up it became and the more harumphy I got.

Like a psychic wedgie.

I felt tremendous relief from not having to convince them that I am great and should have another class. I could shed that too small skin, this thing I was trying, so unsuccessfully and with so much consternation, to make fit, and look for something else rather than continue to be eaten up by my tiny freaked-out reptile brain.

I called the owner, told her we accepted their terms for our Saturday class and that I was planning to teach a weekly class somewhere else.  The call lasted 90 seconds and was actually pleasant.

Then I hung up and went out to buy a frozen yogurt and new yoga pants. You need new pants when you molt.

 

 

Epilogue:  Sadly, while Blades the bearded dragon survived molting stress, he later succumbed to a calcium deficiency and passed from this earth.  Also, those new yoga pants didn’t work and to be returned. …But whatevs! – Henry has a new reptile and I am a lot happier having loosened the white-knuckled grip on what I thought ought to be, even if just a tiny bit.

The runaway

This past weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the live storytelling event and podcast, “All Y’all”, during which I told the basics of this story.  While the podcast version turned out quite a bit different – much more in there about me and how my mom’s death when I was 14 informs my parenting – the nut of the story is below.  Thanks for reading!

 My 8-year-old daughter ran away for 45 minutes yesterday.

It was a carefully orchestrated protest about inequity and social justice.  I bought her twin brother a CHIPOTLE BURRITO for lunch after his eye appointment while she was still in school. Johnnie Cochran himself wouldn’t be able to get me acquitted if she were to press charges. So really, what choice did she have but to dash upstairs while I was distracted with the toddler, quickly pack a bag, grab her pooch’s leash, and set off to make her own destiny?

After about 20 minutes, it became clear that this was no ordinary dog walk.  Henry set off on his scooter to look for her and came back, worried and empty handed.  For my part, I’ve had to learn to ride the edge of the emotional wake churned up by my high strung daughter, who is so like me, adopting the false calm voice of telemarketers or Sesame Street hosts in an attempt to reel her back.  But if I’m honest, that’s just my strategy to keep from going batshit crazy with frustration and running away myself.

I knew she would not stray from our small three-by-three block neighborhood, I knew she’d be back soon, and I knew that her dog would tear out the jugular of anyone who got close to her.  The bigger question was – how loud should I yell at her when she came back?  (There was once a priest at my Catholic middle school who would ask, “Just how hot ARE the fires of hell?”)

But the funny thing about the fake calm voice is that it does sometimes actually calm me.  I breathed. I backed up. I gave her a little space in my head and heart.  I realized that my anxiousness was less about her running away than my own tiny inequity protest. To be frank, I was a little pissed she was running away for such an unfair reason. A burrito!  I mean, what was I supposed to do – pull her out of school at noon to deliver her burrito and keep things perfectly even? After ten more minutes – I went down the street to look for her with her two-year-old brother, who we affectionately call Loki, god of chaos.  Loki insisted that he push the empty recycling bin along with us, so – for the visual – it was me and what appeared to be an independently moving garbage bin rolling down the middle of Maryland Ave.   When I saw her a block away, with her overstuffed backpack slung over one shoulder, she turned away from me and started trotting in the opposite direction.  I shouted, “Are you running away?”

“YES!”

“I wish you wouldn’t”

“I AM!”

“I love you and can’t live without you.”

“GOODBYE!”

“Okay.  I hope you come home soon.”

I turned around and walked back home.  I could sense her taking peeks over her shoulder to see if I would turn around and come after her, but I did not.  I worried that maybe I should have, maybe I was teaching her that my love is conditional, that I lied when I said I would go to the ends of the earth for her, that her take-away would be that I simply didn’t love her enough to chase her down the block.   But other seemingly well-adjusted adult friends reported similar things that they shouted at their children’s retreating backs or their parents called after them:

“Stay off the streets, take warm clothes and have fun!”

“Write when you find work!”

“Your brother will want to sleep in your room!”

And less validating, but my favorite: “I never ran away, but I once tucked my hair up under a Braves cap and pretended to be a visiting British boy cousin for five hours at a family reunion. No one said anything.”

In letting her run away – then come home when she was ready – I was trying to tell her:  I love you enough to let you push away from me. I love you enough to let you test your own feet out in the world, to pretend you’re one of the Boxcar Children while you eat your easy-peel clementines and crackers in the neighbors’ lawns like a tiny hobo.  I love you enough to let you experience the fear that comes with true independence and then find your way back again, and learn you will be all right.  All on your own.

Who hasn’t run away, just once? At least to the end of the driveway?  To experience both the heady intoxication of being alone and free on the earth – as well as the terror of being alone and free on the earth. I decided that in at least this one instance with Charlotte, I won’t curtail the headiness and I won’t soothe the terror.  Because experiencing the full arc of both of those emotions during her little 45-minute social experiment will hopefully be just one more stepping stone to growing into a resourceful and resilient adult.  An adult who feels brave enough to chart her own course but careful and wise enough to look out for herself.  An adult that loves to spend time with me but doesn’t live in my basement.

Charlotte came back, of course.  About 5 minutes after I walked in.  She would have probably lasted another 30 minutes but her dog had taken off after me back to the house.  When she came in, I took my time finishing what I was doing, then casually helped her unpack her bag: a pillow that doubles as a stuffed animal/nightlight, four books, the remains of her snacks, and a dollar.  I complimented her on such thorough packing and attention to survival detail, and said that I bet she’d like some hot chocolate.  It wasn’t until she was in the bath later that night that we talked about the dangers in what she did and how it could have been so worrying.

It is such a painfully thin line to walk between wanting to tell my children that the vast majority of the world is good and kind, AND — we must be aware of and protect ourselves from the very small 1% who isn’t.  I want my children to look both ways before they cross the street, to not talk to strangers, to not be dangerously naïve, but I also don’t want them to look at the world through fear-narrowed eyes and see danger and otherism everywhere. Charlotte, ever analytical, asked me to figure out what 1% of the world’s population is, and then said, “Waitasecond — there are 70 MILLION bad people in the world????”

<Parenting Fail>

The whole notion of free range parenting has been a hot topic of discussion lately, led in part by Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who let their 10 and 6-year-old children walk a mile home from libraries and playgrounds through tony neighborhoods in Bethesda, Md. recently and were investigated by police and child protective services.  It made national news. While Maryland officials later cleared the Meitivs of child neglect charges, it spawned a heated discussion of what constitutes neglect and child endangerment.  (Many also pointed out that no one even notices the children alone on the streets in low income neighborhoods just a few miles south of the Bethesda in Anacostia, DC.)  For those of us who grew up in the 1980s or earlier, childhood was, by its very essence, free range.  So much so that that phrase was never used because it was easier and simpler to just say “childhood” or “parenting.”  Not only our neighborhoods, but surrounding creeks, ditches, wooded lots – all were open for exploration without parental guidance or scrutiny.  For all the hang ups we experienced as kids latch-keyed to our divorced chain-smoking Boomer parents, we had self-exploration and resilience – generationally speaking – in spades.

I know we have some greater dangers and considerations now – and not just of the boogeyman variety.  Distracted drivers on the roads, fewer open spaces, Internet predators, easier access to drugs, crushing levels of homework and school pressures on children.  And frankly, I’m a total worrywart about my kids too. I hover and helicopter most of the time, eavesdropping and correcting grammar in their conversations from one room over, bounding up the stairs at the first cry of a fight.  I am conflicted on this issue, and I will leave the more nuanced discussions of childhood development, psychology and cultural perceptions of – and realities in – modern day safety to the experts.

All I can say from my vantage is that I want my children to explore the world, and thereby have full range to explore and know themselves – and I’m simultaneously scared as hell at every horrible scenario my overactive imagination can cough up. But I do think Maurice Sendak, the famed children’s book author, was spot on when he once said that a child needs to explore something a little scary when she is feeling safe, when she has boundaries she can trust.  He was describing why his beloved Where the Wild Things Are was so beguiling for generations of children, who needed to explore not only the monsters under their beds but also their own potential to become a monster, within the safe confines of a book’s pages and their bedcovers. Exploring those issues from safe places inoculates us, in a way, from experiencing the most devastating effects of those fears in real life.

When Charlotte and Henry play, together or with their friends, they play orphans whose parents died tragically (thanks, Disney), or stowaways, fugitives and castaways stuck on raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean, or as members of a ragtag band of kids living off the land using giant leaves as dishes.  It feels kind of funny to be walking by them with a basketful of warm, folded laundry – an example of how I spend my nearly every waking moment giving them love and comfort — and hear them fantasize about deprivation.  But it is because of that total security that they are able to play out and conquer fears.  This is important organizing.  It’s foundational for resourcefulness.  They can play with the notion that every bit of their security could be destroyed and “here’s how I will survive” and “let’s make an imaginary berry smoothie.”

I know that for me, playing orphan on a deserted island, spending long, unsupervised hours building a fort by the neighborhood creek, and a couple of attempts tying a handkerchief to a pole to set out on my own, have a good bit to do with my own resilience and belief in myself.

And for that reason, I know I won’t be asking Charlotte how she tore the knee of her new navy leggings or what was going through her mind when she used an orange peel as a bookmark and scrawled an inscrutable note in the margins of a book that day. For her to be the grown woman who will stand straight on her own, yet lean towards me when she needs to, I need to let her have the space for some mysteries in her own journey.

Joy is Connection, however she arrives

Sometimes joy slides across the table inside a card from a sparkly-eyed friend who says, I see you.  Sometimes joy is at the kitchen island in the form of my partner, standing still and waiting to hear how my day actually was while the toddler boomerangs like a drunk monkey off our legs.  Very often it’s crouched in the sleepy early morning light of pre-tweens who still need to be cuddled to wake up. Almost always joy is on the other end of the phone, even when it weighs 100 pounds.

Regardless, joy is recognizable by its distinguishing feature: connection.   And, critical on my end, awareness. The glasses I’ve been wearing lately have been especially clearer than usual and I think it’s largely that reason that I’ve been able to notice more of the quiet little joys around me, held out in open palms like bright quartz from so many friends and family in my circle.

Mind you, I’m talking about joy – deep and quiet satisfaction – like a long draught of water. Not the shaken up soda can of happy.

I have a friend who calls the gates to her heart her “switches.” She locates them – there are two – just below the collarbone, right and left. When the switches are thrown open, everything can get in, everything gets noticed. But this is exhausting and can feel unsustainable, so we close them.  The only trouble is, closing the switches becomes habit, and the opening muscles weaken.

Thomas Merton said, “If you want this force to change you, open to it.”

Still — I can be slow and stubborn.

So sometimes joy has no choice but to come in a like a heavily-pierced and cranky bruiser, bar stool raised overhead just in case I’m not paying attention.

The founder of a community development organization I once worked for said we can wake up by making visible the invisible, so that the lines of connection and caring become as prominent as the utility wires.  He and his team went around with yard signs and bumper stickers and lapel pins that simply said, “We Care.”  It changed the vibe of several neighborhoods and has made a true positive impact, citywide.

But the power of distracting technology, to do lists, new plans, even relationships – that busy us so that we avoid making friends with the part of ourselves that really matters – can still act as a bell jar over us, individually.  I’m terribly guilty of refreshing my Facebook feed at a red light out of some antsy loneliness for my own self and habituated resistance to be bored and drift for even 60 seconds.

I’m in a place in my life that so many are, the accumulation place.  My friend K calls it the oyster place.  She says we accrete and accrete, growing and building so much – families, careers, friends – and it’s beautiful, this bedded-down and ever-fattening oyster, but it’s complicated too and can be simultaneously busy and stagnant.  Somewhere along the way, we need to Go In, and shuck the excess and focus more on ourselves and our interior architecture. Then, ultimately, we get to be a nautilus, finding buoyancy and jet propulsion from an internal motor. (K loves the life aquatic and knows that sometimes joy comes in the form of a good metaphor).

Occasionally, joy is a prankster, who catches me by surprise by letting me know my idea of the world is not nearly so precise and correct – yet still, there might be hope for me.

In mid-September of 2013, when I was 8.999999 months pregnant, I attended a silent retreat at the 200-year-old Jesuit monastery in Grand Couteau, Louisiana. My OB was not happy I was going 4 hours away at 38 weeks, but I felt an important tug to get space and quiet before bringing in this new life who had surprised us all.  When you show up anywhere THAT pregnant, you get attention. When you show up at a retreat center among a lot of older ladies THAT pregnant, you are like a golden retriever puppy in a first grade classroom.  As I sat down for the opening session, a lovely woman with a high mound of white curls and enormous eyes exclaimed, “Oh, hello dear! It’s so wonderful that you made it.” She patted my knee and nodded, continuing, “How have you been these past few months?”  My mind, racing to place her and her familiarity, quickly took me back to my uncle’s funeral eight months before, where this white-haired lady had told me she was the one who helped my mother load the U-Haul in the middle of the night and leave my father with my brother and me, when we were 6 and 4.  What coincidence!  I leaned in just as the retreat leader entered the room and asked we begin our 4 days of silence.

On the last night, we did a contemplative mediation during which our guide told us to put our right hand on the shoulder of the person at our immediate right.  Mine landed on this same woman’s shoulder, and immediately tears streamed down my cheeks. Imagine this world!  A person helps another in a time of crisis, helps her move half the country away in the dead of night with her two small children. Thirty-two years later, this same person happens to sit next to one of the children, grown and carrying her own baby and missing her mother terribly, and that grown woman has the opportunity to lay her hand on this woman’s shoulder for a full five minutes, silently thanking her and marveling at the magic of this world. Imagine!

The next morning, after we had broken silence and were all wheeling our suitcases across the parking lot to go home, I caught up with her. I told her I was so moved that she was here, that it was so healing for me to put my hand on her shoulder and thank her for helping my mother during the previous night’s meditation, especially in this time in my life when I was yearning for my mother the most.

She blinked, her white curls jiggling, “What’s your name, dear?”

“Elizabeth Beauvais.”

“And your mother was?”
“Sara Lynn Cooper Beauvais.”

“Oh sweetheart,” she paused, “I don’t know you.  I just thought you were cute.”

 

Did it matter?

Did it matter that I had mistaken her? Did it matter that this Gabriel Garcia Marquez situation of magical, patterned coincidence I had imagined all weekend didn’t actually exist if I got what I craved – connection? When my hand was on her shoulder, I was truly comforted, I was held.  Whoever the hell she was.  I think about that story often, not only to laugh at myself, but also to remember that what matters is the place where I’m listening to life.

My favorite passage in my favorite Rumi poem reads,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
there is a field. I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.

My experience in life is totally different if I am listening, if I am in attunement, to that field — as opposed to being attune to the surface. It’s like the first violin at the start of a concert.  We can’t know it outright; we have to listen for the precise note, just as it is played. If everyone in the orchestra started with C minor, imagining for themselves the tone and pitch, it would never work. But if they hear the note first – if I can get quiet enough to hear the pitch within, I can attune to the deeper field.  I can drop down below the surface of wrongdoing and rightdoing, and I am listening in a different way, and then everything becomes a doorway.

And behind each doorway, there is a joy.  In whatever shape she takes.