On Preservation

You guys, I recognize that it might appear that I am focused on a theme of face plants right now.

But this is totally different.  TOTALLY DIFFERENT! This is the Wisdom of child’s pose.  This is the child’s pose of Power. Of Self Actualization. Can you not see the Wisdom and Power and Self-Actualization?

It’s subtle.  Look closer.

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Closer still.

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When I see a yoga student drop to child’s pose in the middle of one of my classes, I always think, “That’s one smart yogini right there.”

It’s interesting that to an untrained eye it might look like a face plant borne of despair or defeat – but actually, it’s the ultimate go-to-ground power play to restore oneself, one’s most essential self.  Too often I wait until things get to a near-shattering point before taking child’s pose, my breath ragged, some deep unnamed interior muscle near strained.  But the more I practice, the better I am getting at politely showing my ego the door and assuming child’s pose instead of down dog (or whatever the seemingly ambitious choice in life is) when I know I need rest more than productivity.

Right now I am feeling elated by this work in writing, excavating, analyzing and getting “out there.”  But to tell you the God’s honest, I’m feeling pretty exhausted too.  So I am taking a child’s pose of Power with this short entry this week.   And it feels salient, not only because it’s what I need to regain a little quiet in my head and heart, but also because preservation is necessarily the fraternal twin of usefulness.  There is no effective usefulness without self preservation. And without self kindness, without sometimes quite literally folding in half and pressing my face to my knees to make the world go soft and dark – I spin out of control.

I once took a wheel pottery class with these lovely, experienced older potters.  Delighted with a new student, they were all too happy to show me how to work the wheel, applying steady pressure on the foot pedal to keep it spinning, while moistening the clay as it began to reveal itself.  In my enthusiasm (and impatience) my foot got heavier, the wheel spun faster and the clay began to rock in an undulating asymmetrical orbit, its arc widening wildly and gaining a sickening momentum.  I remember the room getting very quiet for a beat or two before the once-affable faces of those ladies turned to disapproval, then horror, as the clay finally flung itself around the room over all of us in a thousand small wet, cloying pieces.  It never occurred to me to let my foot up off that pedal.

We fling ourselves out to the world and it is good and healing and expanding.   And we reel ourselves back within our interior selves, and it is just as good, just as healing, just as expansive.

The trick is knowing, of course, when to do what. And really, there’s no trick at all. It’s simply flexing most fundamental and often most flaccid muscle we’ve got — listening.

If you are feeling in a similar space, a call to quiet and go within, a moment needed to fold in half and shore up a little energy, I challenge you to send me a picture of you in your own child’s pose of Power, Wisdom and Self Actualization!  On your kitchen floor, on aisle 34b of Target, near your office desk — wherever you might be called to double down on your energies, aggressively building up the supply for your next great leap.  Send it on and I will upload next week in what will hopefully be a collage of raw, unbridled primal strength, genius self-insight, and Oprah-like emotional intelligence.

(one tip – I suggest a quick check for red bugs or ants or other bities if you plan to go nose down in Child’s at your neighborhood park’s spring fling festival).

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On Usefulness

I am so genuinely confused by women who’ve had multiple children AND who are able to show their midriffs. I mean, really, my biggest emotion around this — bigger even than jealousy (although that is there for sure) — is just total incomprehension. It seems to bend the laws of physics. Was there a vitamin I missed? Are they a separate species?

But that is not the essay I’m going to write today.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fueling power of feeling useful.

Being of actual and real use to someone is a far greater gift than any kitchen utensil, any all-expense-paid vacation, maybe even any post-multiple pregnancy abs. Positive usefulness in another person’s life will make you taller and kinder, your smile wider, your hair bouncier, your heart more open. Feeling useful to someone else might even save you. It has for me, although it seems to be one of those lessons I have to remember to remember every 30 minutes, with a start of happy surprise each time.

There was an entire period of time in late 2014 that — when I conjure it up in my head — the only image that comes to mind is of me facedown on the playroom carpet. No doubt because metaphysically, psychically, emotionally, I was. I had been struggling to feel of value with my work and my family, to feel a sense of real meaning, that I was contributing in a way that was resonating and valued. The part time-ness of both working and parenting meant that of course I felt I was doing neither well, constantly interrupted and too hamstrung at work to reach my full potential, and too distracted and busy to effectively manage the whack-a-moles at home, losing my cool with the kids and going all Babadook far too often. I felt demoralized by own effort – simultaneously exhausted and disappointed in myself on all fronts.

I am incredibly gifted at being able to go from the sense that I am failing at something to the certainty that ALL IS LOST and the only answer is to quickly move to another town and change my name and erase my life, so that Steven will have time to remarry and the kids get used to another mother before too much damage is done and the truly formative years begin. This is about a 90-second journey. Usually, I am lucky enough to either get a friendly phone call, or gin up the strength to pick up what Anne Lamott calls the “1,000 pound phone,” and the effect is almost immediate. WAITASECOND – I don’t need to stage my own death, I just needed to talk to a friend! Huzzah! That’s about a 60 second journey. But the total 2.5-minute process from bottom to top and the taste of that carpet fiber – oh man.

In November of 2014, from my face plant in the carpet, I heard the phone ring. Amazingly, it was a friend I had not spoken to in the near-20 years since college. She told me she was ready to tell her story about sexual assault in college, prompted and emboldened by the recently released Rolling Stone expose (that would later be discredited due to some very poor journalism) on a “culture of rape” at our alma mater, emblematic of the problem on campuses nationwide. “Would you help me tell this,” she asked, “maybe even just a letter to the Board of Visitors?”

I slowly picked myself up off the playroom floor, lint stuck to my cheek – I was reminded of my former self, this younger me who fought in public forums for social justice and women’s equality. And now, I was needed in the present. I was needed!

J and I worked together for months, drafting and redrafting, talking to first amendment lawyers and trying to better understand libel laws and free speech. We were able to eventually place her brave and clear-eyed piece in the Opinion section of the New York Times, (above the fold, I might add) on Sunday, April 4, 2015. This friend is perhaps the most courageous person I know, and she alone dealt with all the emotion, visibility, risk and healing of the piece – a piece which touched hundreds who commented and contacted her (and doubtless thousands more who did not). Recently she told me that she now has a new anniversary, one that supersedes and trumps the assault anniversary, and marks when she told her story publicly, helping to give voice to the thousands assaulted on campuses every year, and offering constructive criticism on a broken judicial system. She is, to me, the very picture of what heroism looks like — as well as what it looks like to heal yourself through helping others.

On the sidelines at her elbow, I felt such intense gratitude. To have been struggling with a feeling of worthlessness in my tiny world, and then be called upon to help a friend find her words and her loudspeaker felt transformational. It surprises every time she thanks me, then and now. And each time I try to tell her that the gift was all mine, the thanks is all mine to give her. She gave me a greater purpose and true usefulness, in the only way it matters. She thought she was asking for help by reaching out to me, but in effect, by needing me she was throwing out a lifeline.

Moving back and forth between the opposite sides of needing and usefulness is like the passing of the peace from hand to hand, and it happens daily in ways both tiny and beautiful.

My best friend and I have intentionally created a sacred space for each other, where we always take the other’s call, and find time to walk through the other’s need, no matter how small, how big, how tangled, how tedious. You can’t do this for many, of course. One or two at the max. But it is a relief to know she is consistently there as a safe couch I can fling myself upon and say, “So, I got this email I don’t how to interpret” or talk through the exact wording of a challenging situation. It works – both because we love each other and because I do the same for her.

Sometimes when she calls me from her office to ask me which flight she should take from DC to Bonn, Germany, I’ll have a pot boiling over on the stove, the older kids fussing about homework and the toddler finding something to turn into a missile. I will strain my brain to follow the pro’s and con’s of different routes and layovers, and my first instinct is to quickly say “Heathrow! Take the Heathrow option!” But my immediate next thought is always – how lucky am I that this friend values and wants and even needs my opinion. Her need transforms me from a frazzled mom who’s trying to time the mac and cheese production with homework completion to someone thinking through which international connections best fit my friend’s priorities and needs. For a little while, I am broader than the kitchen chaos. Not that the kitchen chaos is a negative, but sometimes we all need to be taken out of whatever 10×12 room we are occupying.

Sartre was full of shit. Hell is not other people, hell is isolating yourself while among others. Hell is living in community but not reaching out. When I was a teenager, I would sometimes wake up before the whole house and get in my car and drive around until it was time for school, sometimes for an hour or more. More than once I saw my uncle driving on the same deserted streets, though I don’t think he ever saw me. A gentle and troubled man who later took his own life, he was always a mystery to me and glimpsing him on those pre-dawn drives was as intimate a view of him as I ever got. The memory is crystal clear even now, Donnie smoking a cigarette with his window rolled down, tanned in his white undershirt, driving easy and aimless with one hand, headed towards the interstate while the sky behind him pinked and turned orange. I can’t know what he was thinking on those drives, but in my 16-year-old mind, it felt like we were out there together, cruising empty streets and sharing in a certain loneliness and a restless search for connection. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that my uncle’s lack of asking for help, of saying aloud what he needed, ultimately proved lethal.

Bringing awareness to the fueling power of usefulness has a ripple effect. It’s so easy to think our meaning lies in our intelligence or industry or achievement. But it’s when we reach out with vulnerability that we open ourselves to the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.   This is the very thing I must remember to remember when I am reluctant to ask for help, to call up and say, “Can you do this for me?” Or even “Do you have a minute to listen?” It always feels like such a big deal to ask, doesn’t it? But what if I could view it as a truly caring, altruistic thing to do for someone else?

It’s worth trying. Because we cannot know how much each other needs to be needed. And because maybe you are out there, right now, in your own personal face plant, eating the turf du jour, battling your own internal demons and hoping and praying the phone might ring and your bat signal gets thrown into the night sky.

The Liquid Family

I’m not sure it’s possible to glimpse a full picture of how families work until you’ve lived a little time. Until you’ve lost people, or let other ones go, until you’ve built a few families out of several lean years of eating beans and rice and helping each other move, or raising children and helping each other move, or walking through marriages and deaths and helping each other move. You don’t really know just how fluid families can be until parts of your own dissolve, and then somehow it rains again, and family comes together — half familiar, half new — in a whole new way.

I spent a long while under the illusion that families, like histories, were factual — fixed immobile objects that created the topography of our lives. Everything else, then, gets mapped and populated around these fixtures – here a raging, white-capping river; there a gentle green valley; up north that Matterhorn of a snowy peak, jagged and critical. We think of our worlds as concrete and unchanging: my childhood WAS this, this person IS that, that particular relationship – ugh – don’t get me started. …Except of course that any Geology undergrad worth her North Face fleece would tell us that all landforms mutate constantly.

In my twenties and thirties, I saw how I could reshape my geography with chosen family, architecting what I believe are some pretty amazing shapes on my personal globe. I am not certain of too much, but I do know that if I have one talent, it is tricking, conning or otherwise dragging the kindest, funniest and smartest friends into my orbit. It’s an incredible gift to have amassed this collection. And not just for the glitter of them all – but because my friends are the people that make me an immeasurably better person.

I could write a tome about my friends – about the one who sent me a clip of Al Green singing, “Hold On…I’m Coming,” by way of letting me know she was boarding a plane, at a moment’s notice, to come to me when I was in acute crisis. Or another who calls me nearly every Friday, no matter how much work she has or what little person is vomiting in her house, and says, “tell me how you really are.” Or another still who kept me from drowning during the biggest tsunami I’ve faced and says our souls would recognize each other anywhere. Or my husband who sometimes cares more about my happiness than I do myself. If I didn’t have this double-fisted handful of incredible friends to laugh with, to sort things out with out, then I don’t know who I’d be. Or whether I’d still BE at all.

But the families we are born into can hold just as much kaleidoscope discovery. My family of origin, which I had thought of as both fixed and nearly lost, is just as kinetic, as it turns out. My brother and I are back in each other’s lives, in a way more present and clear, after a long fog of unknowing and worry. And I continue to learn, in different ways, from both of my parents posthumously. I am forever unpacking gifts my mother tucked into the 14 years we had together as I come upon new challenges in parenting, or work on getting better at self-care (the latter learning by her antithesis). I have grown greater compassion for my dad, moving to something beyond forgiveness, more akin to the tenderness you might feel as a parent for your small child who is hurting. (Aging without your parents means that even those roles become fluid and shift too). As hard and even baffling as moving back to my hometown was after so many years away, living among these ghosts has broadened my perspective of my past, helped me to drop old stories and create new patterns. And there is relief in newness.

When I first moved back to town, two months after my dad died, I went to his headstone and ringed it with pinecones I found, less to commemorate him and more to say IWASHEREIWASHEREIWASHERE. I was here all along, I was your daughter, I was desperate for your love without condition, I was desperate for your acceptance, I was desperate for you to see me, really see me, standing right here.   We are always in conversation with our parents, aren’t we? Later I dreamed of him. In the dream, he had a separate house we discovered after his death, the rooms full to bursting with my and my brother’s childhood books, favorite stuffed animals, art projects and drawings. …As our relationship has changed even after his death, I can see that really was a separate room in his heart where he kept those things, after all.

Even our view of the mighty Matterhorn changes, its rocks and inclines sliding and softening, slow and viscous.

But the most surprising is the family formed without any engineering at all – neither through the luck of biology nor the butterfly net capture of friends and partners. Throughout this time, my stepmother was tunneling through her own intense grief and emerged out of the darkest part right in the middle of my life. It was like she bore her way through her own pain and came up, pick axe in hand and miner’s hat shining, right up through the floor in the middle of my living room. It was a welcome place, and surprising, as that wasn’t our proximity when my dad was alive.

We had spent parts of the past few decades not really understanding the other, my stepmom and me. We are different enough in personality, and often found ourselves in a defensive posture on what felt like opposing teams. But then children were born – which always changes things – and then time and other people’s deaths changed it more. What is so beautiful now is that our differences are not only negligible, but even endearing and something we can tease each other about. And now that we are fully able to put my parents’ old resentments and pain to bed, we can truly see each other. We don’t take this miracle for granted. It’s deliberate and full of tenderness, like slipping out of fatigues and a flak jacket to get into a bubble bath.

It’s a particular brand of family to be first thrown together by circumstance, then to choose love, to choose each other. It’s characterized by a yielding, a release of all the old stories and a willingness to laugh at how, for all our illusions of control, it’s life that changes us. And not the other way around.

All credit for the unexpected gift of my current relationship with my stepmother goes to her gigantic heart and generous spirit. While my learning to yield into an ebbing landscape has been hesitant and cautious, hers has been a driving force. While I grieved the sense of being orphaned, she lassooed me in, good and tight. While I hung on to the old landmarks and their shadows, ponderously analyzing the tea leaves of it all, she simply walked up and rang the doorbell.

I look at family now, chosen and biological, with a bit of wonder. It’s possible to lose the people who felt like the firmament, and watch so much fall away – and then, to witness family coming together again, not only in the way we think of change – as unexpected and new — but also, incredibly, from the old landforms as well.

I mean really, it’s ALL chosen family. There’s no distinction. We are not fixed and static, and so the family is fluid, breeching its levees, altering its course, changing us. The friend family, the biological family, the ones we marry, the ones with whom unlikely circumstance throws us together. It’s all chosen family, even the toughies… the people that make you crazy, the ones who never really see you like your best friends do, the ones who do come around to seeing you, although you never thought they would — even them, your spirit has chosen.

And in this mixed bag of family, I like to think we would all recognize each other’s souls anywhere.

The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: A book review

 

Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up took so many of us — and our closets and spice racks and junk drawers — by storm last summer. A tidy, beautiful and controlled storm, like the whorled patterns created by rows of T-shirts, rolled and standing on end, alert little manicured cadets ready for deployment. She taught us to move category by category throughout our homes and our lives, gently holding each object and asking ourselves with all sincerity whether the item in question “sparked joy.”

It rocked my world, as I know it did many others. I started with a huge pile of reusable grocery bags, dumped on the floor of my kitchen, and realized that of the 14 (fourteen!), there was no way I would actually use more than five. I moved to blankets, linens, towels, then kitchen cabinets, then closets (what self respecting grown person needs 23 pairs of tube socks, Steven Abney?), then the playroom, where I even got the kids in on the action. Henry: “Charlotte, you have three cat stuffed animals. The white one has never sparked joy for you.” Finally, I took a huge glass of wine into my office closet and bravely and painstakingly went through photos and letters and documents, some of which I had hauled around in milkcrates from my college apartments through the 7 homes in 5 states over 20 years since, without having ever unpacked them. Talk about an albatross. The joy thing was incredibly liberating. What joy was there in keeping my Economics notebooks? To prove I had an education? Au revoir, 3 boxes of indecipherable graphs and doodles. Or what about my grandmother’s pictures of a trip to Hawaii, wherein no actual people were featured and it wasn’t my memories anyway? Adios, 200 slides –- slides! –- of volcanos and golf courses. Or an even greater weight loss: the huge file of my parents’ divorce papers. What possible joy could I take in keeping that? Sayonara to 2 bulging files of 35-year-old receipts and other people’s pain.

All in all, I hauled out 44 bags of trash or recycling (the tall kitchen bags, mind you), and took what amounted to $3000 worth of donations to Goodwill and area shelters. The attic and creepy, dank storage space under the house still remain, and – weirdly – the tube socks must be playing some Barry White and multiplying late at night – but I nonetheless ended 2015 feeling very virtuous indeed.

So what could possibly rival that kind of total house colonic? Friends, I am so glad you asked. For the past month, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Sarah Knight’s Practical Parody, entitled: The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck. Heavy on the practical, Knight introduces her book as one “for all of us who work too much, play too little, and never have enough time to devote to the people and things that truly make us happy.” The book is a hilarious and highly useful guide to mental decluttering, just as satisfying (if not more so) than taking out all those bags of trash and donations. And for those of us who are what Knight calls “born f*ck-givers” – overachieving perfectionists and pleasers who have spent a lifetime giving f*cks liberally to every project, task, standardized test, authority figure, friend, notion of obligation, ideal or patriotism … then, well – the book is a special treat.

Waitasec – is this just about shooting the bird at anything or anyone that doesn’t make you feel good? No way. Knight offers a careful guide to help you give fewer, but better quality f*cks, and to do so in such as way as to ensure you are not being an asshole. Carefully gauging whether someone else’s feelings would be truly hurt naturally informs whether you give a f*ck, and how much of a f*ck you might give. Bringing intentionality to your f*ck-giving, and being able to distinguish between feelings and opinions, are the twin keys to being happier without being a total dick. Applying her careful methodology in sorting through the messy squirrel’s nest of my own head and heart then became a clarifying process. And for the visually-oriented reader, she provides several helpful flowcharts and schematics.

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Knight, Sarah. On giving, and not giving, a f*ck. Page 39.

The process of tidying up my sock drawer of f*cks, if you will, has already helped tremendously in several small situations just in the past few weeks. For example, when Henry’s pet bearded dragon died last month, he immediately began begging me for a ball python, (which he had wanted from the start, but I managed to talk him into a lizard).

Now, I give a Great Big F*ck about not having a snake in the house, of course. But Henry gives an even greater f*ck about desperately wanting a pet snake, and as a twin who shares his sister’s pink and purple room, he has very little to call his own. When I examined my own f*ck, I saw it was preference-based and not actually rooted in real danger (ball pythons have no fangs, no venom, and there’s been no recorded incident of them killing a human). The math then became: Henry’s f*ck > My f*ck

We got a snake.  And importantly, I didn’t spend a ton of energy fighting or worrying the decision.

It’s not just about what f*cks you don’t give, but identifying where you do give a f*ck – and then finding the time, energy and money to allocate them accordingly. I have recently learned I love writing this blog and now happily make the time to give a f*ck to do it, even if there are dishes still in the sink at 10pm and several emails and phone calls to return. So how can do you do this on a grand scale? You create a F*ck Budget, answers Knight. Rather than explaining how it’s done, I’ll just share mine. It’s a work in progress, and of course, the f*cks expressed are mine alone. Yours would certainly look different.

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The process of creating a f*ck budget is almost more useful that the product itself because it clarifies and helps prioritize what is aspirational (feeling guilty for saying “no” to new obligations), highlights where I’ve got my allocations all wrong (dicking around on my computer at night INSTEAD of spending time with Steven) and usefully validates what I already know to be true about myself. (I hate pretzels. HATE them. And I am tired of trying “just this one special German kind” because you absolutely love it and it’s from this ah-mazing local bakery). There is power in declaring. Just writing it down for myself in these categories frees me up from ever having to “try” another bite of that nasty salty dough, and sets me on a path to get serious about that headstand.

My f*ck budget also yields a more refined sense of precisely how precious few f*cks I have to give, so that I can give them in a highly mindful and purposeful way. For example, if I have a heightened awareness that I do give a f*ck about good, quality chocolate, then I have more of a fighting chance at not sticking my head in the pantry and stress-eating the kids’ crappy leftover Easter candy when there’s a pre-dinner mutiny. I’ll save that f*ck and give it over to a really nice dark chocolate with sea salt and toffee I got during my last Trader Joe’s run in a calm, ladylike and dignified way after 9pm. Ideally.

I don’t know, you guys. There’s a lot of gimmicks out there. I’d love to Kondo the hell out of the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. But some new ideas and methods have substance and can make a dent in the entropy of our unraveled edges and loose coins. And here’s the thing: when Sarah Knight says that the 3 types of people who don’t give a f*ck are children, assholes and the enlightened – I know which one I want to be.