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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Belonging



Sometime this summer my mom and I had a conversation about housework.  She talked about ironing and making her own bed, and about how her home and all the stuff in it felt more like they belonged to her when she did her own housework.  As I imagined her finger tips pulling on bedsheets, it struck me as true that her hand transferred something more, invisible, yes, but definitely something more.  I might call it, a kind of cozy, essential spirit of ownership or claiming.  I could see sweet clouds of attention blooming in all corners of my mother's house, there at her stove, back near the front door, across at a side table, the silent pulse of her home beating softly.

And because my mind has not yet escaped the trap of this or that, the comparing, the measuring, the evaluation, I wondered what that said about me these days.  Because lately, I've had a lot of help with housework.  And if I'm being really honest with you all, I have to admit that I don't do as much as I think I should.

The question tumbled in my mind as my family traveled through out the summer.  From time to time it made me feel a little bit hollow, and had me wondering if I would be a better person (ha, see that...it's that halo aspiration again), or alternatively if my life would feel connected, if I did more housework.  The question would pop in and out like the moon on a cloudy night, until one day I experienced the question differently.

I was standing at the edge of Mokapu beach in Maui, the same one I wrote about last February.  Hot, and sweaty and worked out at the end of a jog, I peeled off my vacuum sealed running outfit, down to a basic bikini that I had layered underneath.  A warm breeze blew against my skin, and my toes wiggled at the edge of the enormous, unquantifiable pleasure I was about to dive into.  Right there, the question flipped for me.

If my mother's home became more hers by her touch, what happened to the ocean when I offered up my whole nearly naked body?  It was obvious that a thing so vast and unknowable as the ocean would never, could never belong to me.  And yet there was an exchange going on.  There was the salt that I licked from my lips and that dried my hair into sticky curls at the back of my neck, there was the way that the sound of my breathing, no matter how far I was from the sea, could always, always take me back to the shoreline, and there was the fact of me, my whole body submerged.  What was that?

And then it occurred to me.  The ocean did not belong to me, but I belonged to it.  Before any knowing or thinking was born in my mind, before I was ten, before I was one, before all things, I was claimed by the sea in a way that would always and forever be one of the truest things about me.  It is my homecoming, the place where I can breathe and be and remember that I am not the sum of my achievements.  The ocean is not the only thing I belong to, but it is one of the ones that is most essential.

Similarly, my mother's home belongs to her, but if I asked her, I think she would agree that she belongs to home, not just her home, but the spirit of home, the home of all things.  As a therapist she is the ultimate tender of the home fires, lighting the spark, fanning the flames, even-ing the glow of that inner fire that is each of her patients' inner home.  As a mother, she is expert at creating a sense of family and safe haven through a good meal, a hot cup of tea and an infinite collection of things that at one time belonged to one relative or another.  As a person of faith, she is Hestia's priestess, speaking the gospel of the hearth, taming the flames that cook up all that life has to offer.  Not only do I think she would agree with this, I actually think she might like it.  I hope when she reads this she feels like her housework is mythical, because I think it might just be.

And so it really was never a question of housework or being a better person, after all.   It was a question of what I belonged to over the summer and what I belong to right now.  Right now, back in Palo Alto I belong to my family, I belong to a few heartstrong friends, I belong to Palo Alto and all it means to me, to writing, to coaching and to a creaky old German Shepherd named Chicca.   There are a few other things in there, I'm sure, but for now, for this season those feel like the ones claiming me.

It's good to be home after break.  Welcome back to the blog.  I've really missed the the feeling of my writing mingling with people I care about.  Welcome back.



Friday, July 25, 2014

To be intimate with your life

"Be intimate with your life."  This is instruction I've heard more than once from Karen Maezen Miller.  It's a teaching she passes on from her teacher, Maezumi Roshi.  That she passes it on from him, gives the instruction added weight, like it's an old timer that's been around the block a few times.  

What I'm learning this summer is that being intimate with my life is sometimes like eating a summer peach, sweet and unimaginably juicy.  At times like these I follow the instruction and feel a kind of halo of goodness shimmer around me as I devour every last drop.

And then there are days like today (none of the pictures in this post were taken today!), when stuff happens that I don't particularly enjoy (let's just say the dog didn't feel well last night), when suddenly, the instruction to be intimate with my life, which was so fun and cozy last week, feels like a knowing parent pointing a finger at me.  Accordingly, I transform into a whiner (can you hear me whining??).  I wonder out loud to Graham whether or not he thinks Oprah has installed a hotline in each of her homes to deal with this situation--I'm dying to know if there is a dog owner alive who has figured out how to escape this particular intimacy, because in the moment, seriously, I need to know how to get out of this! 

I watch myself turn on my life so quickly, in an instant really.  If it weren't for the further instruction "You don't have to like it," I'd be downright depressed with myself.  

Having gotten over that hump, it did occur to me that there is a kind of agreement in the intimate life.  That to enjoy the clear waters, you probably also have to be willing to clean up the mess (and get over the bit about the halo already).  

If this really is the deal, and I think it may very well be.  Then there's no question.  

I'm in.  I'm so in.







Saturday, June 21, 2014

Celebrate :: In Print!

This is a fun post to put up!  My first article in a national magazine!  

Here are some pics of the spread.  You can find Scholastic Parent & Child in your pediatrician's office, or you can order it online.  




The cover looks like this:



Not much to say here, except, that the fact that this happened at all had everything to do with stepping across an imaginary threshold.  On one side was the version of me who walked into Books Inc in Palo Alto one day, looked at all those books, and decided the world did not need to hear from one more person.  There were too many books already, what point was it to try to write, and who was I to think I had anything to say anyway.

There was no pit in my stomach, no adrenaline pumping up my heart rate, none of the body sensations that come to mind when you think of fear.  But it was fear all the same.  It was a quiet, peaceful resignation. It was maybe even a certain kind of hiding that slinks behind an unskillful understanding of what "zen" might look like.  

There is a part of me that feels sad about that moment, that decision to turn away from a dream I had harbored.  But there is a bigger part of me that is grateful for the girl who gave up.  Because what came out of giving up was writing for myself, writing because I love to write, writing because I am a creature who figures out her world by words.  I gave up (turns out temporarily) the dream of publishing, but the writing never stopped.  

Then one day I started blogging, and friends and family started to hang out here with me--I think some of you started thinking of me as a writer before I even thought of myself that way.  Thank you does not say enough for how much your company around here has encouraged me. 

This past January, in a coaching session with Sherri Lassila, I woke up again to the dream of professional writing.  This time there was the heart rate pumping, the pit in my stomach, all the embodiment of fear.  

I wrote about my fear here, here and here and then I stepped across the threshold and stopped being afraid to try.  

Having crossed the gate I was able to get practical about what it would take to move forward in this job called professional writer and decided to take a class called Writing about Parenting that was taught by an actual editor (I realized--a professional writer needs to know editors!).   I wrote this piece while taking that class.  For those of you that are publishing, you should know that Scholastic Parent & Child has just launched a new personal essay section of their magazine and they are currently taking submissions (the key for me was going to the beach in February while they were planning their June-July issue!).

So much for not much to say...ha!  That's what you get for hanging out with a writer.

PS  The editors picked the headline for the piece, and if you haven't read it already, the post in which I wrestle with what it feels like to be the author of an article called Badass Moms, you might want to check it out.  It is my most popular blog post yet.






Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What do you have for lunch the day your hero dies?


What do you have for lunch
the day your hero dies?
May 28, 2014


You settle on a hard boiled egg.
Smack the brown shell against the counter top.
Crunch its sharp bits beneath your finger tips.

Yes, Maya must have one day
eaten a hard boiled egg.
She must have felt the smooth curve
of the white in her hand.
She must have spread it open
the white, then two halves of the inside sun
and eaten them with salt.

But today it is you
eating the egg,
you taking each bite slow
you becoming the woman you will be
without Maya.


Thinking this
you look across the mountain
of breakfast dishes
still in the sink.
At noon, a heap of tiny
failures.


What will you do now
that she is gone?


First things first.
You will get the dishes done.
You wipe every bit of
crumb and scum out.
You stack the load neatly
and start the cycle.


Then you look out the window
to the green trees
illuminated
And beg pray promise her, 
Maya, that you will try
in your however small way
to continue her work


to say the thing that cannot be said
and get up the next morning
to rise.

***

And Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Shivering Chrysalis



When I went into Eloise's classroom on Monday I saw something I had never seen before.  The class is hatching Painted Lady Butterflies.  The ladies have been in their chrysalises for awhile now, and everyday at drop off we check to see what's happening.  Most days it's looked like nothing.  The sack hangs there looking dry and lifeless.  

But on Tuesday one of them was tremoring, shivering, shaking.  It looked to fall right off it's perch--alien moves threatening violence on a tiny scale.  I watched for what felt like a long time (how does three or four minutes feel so long when I'm just watching and sitting and breathing and waiting).  And it kept right on shaking.

The next day, Tuesday.  There it was, but now stock still as if nothing had happened.  I had hoped that at night, she would fly out.  But no, there were more long days of waiting.

We all know how this story ends.  We've known since preschool after all.  This thing that alternates between appearing lifeless one day and shaking violently on another, will eventually emerge a Painted Lady, rich with browns and orange.  She will fly off like grace itself.  The kids will celebrate.

But what I want to remember today is the quivering--the stopping and starting.  And it's partner, the quiet ghost sack that hangs there looking more than half dead.  And the strange unattractiveness of it all--the icky weird pouch and the raging vibration of life stuck inside its shell.  I want to remember that this is what it takes.  Stopping and starting, shaking violently, being a little weird and ugly.  All that comes before being a butterfly.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Friday May 16, 2014


"Maybe children wake to a love affair 
every other morning or so; if given the chance,
they seem to like the sight and smell and feel of things so much.
Falling for the world could be a thing 
that happens to them all the time."

--William Kittredge, Hole in the Sky

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Time for a cup of tea


Every afternoon last week I looked up around 4PM to see what was going on.  Clouds streaked across the sky racing toward an invisible weather front.  And although each day started off calm and still, by late afternoon the strangest wind had hunkered down on Palo Alto.  It blew in incredible gusts tinged with the premonition of fog.  Trees bowed and their leaves flapped against each other with such frothy vigor that it sounded like we were in the middle of a hard rain.  Dust swirled, lawn chairs tipped over, tennis balls blew sideways across the court.  And still, the California sun continued to cut it’s harsh blinding light across the end of the day.

Like it always does, the weather touched everything--there was such motion and commotion that it was hard to keep track.  Camping trip, dance performance, track meet, possibly a new school for Eloise, Graham’s work, school volunteering, a send off for my long time buddy, who had the same stuffy as me a thousand years ago, and who will drive back east for good at the end of the month.   

This past week was a whirlwind in an actual whirlwind.  And I chalk up the galloping feel of my last post, at least in part, to what it felt like to be riding that energy last week.

This week the wind has died down, and it is a relief.  

It feels like time to sit down for a cup of tea, want to join me?

Friday, May 9, 2014

What It Means To Be a Badass Mom

Photo credit:  Peter Olivetti

My friend Anne and I are about to be outed.  On June first we will be presented very publicly as Badass Moms.  And truth be told, badass was Anne’s word and then I wrote it down, so we brought it on ourselves, but it started off as one of those funny things said between two friends, something that popped out on in the wake of a small adventure between two stay at home moms.  The word showed up as a surprise to us, which is what makes the piece fun and funny and probably why after writing for awhile in a cozy between-Facebook friends kind of a way, a decent scrap of my work found its way to a really good editor at a national magazine.  


That said I never imagined showing up anywhere in public as a badass.  In fact, when my mom read a draft of the piece she said, “It’s great.  It captures exactly how badass you are,” meaning, of course, in agreement with the piece itself, just barely.  


And in the time between submitting and reviewing the final proofs I’ve had to think about what it means to be a Badass Mom, not a nice mom, not a loving mom, not a good mom--not that there is anything wrong with those aspects of momming--I hope there are moments when I rise to the occasion of all of that.  But life is about to dub me a Badass Mom, which feels a little weird (and according to my fourth grader, slightly inappropriate).  And so it’s something about myself I’ve had to ponder.  I have had to try it on for size, to stand in front of the mirror, to squat down, to look at myself and think, can I wear this thing?   


What I’ve decided is that it fits--it fits me and the things about motherhood that move me and amaze me.  Badass fits the feats I see my mom friends pull off in the everyday and in the most extraordinary of days.  It fits the moms, like my own mother, who dress in suits, or the ones who throw on jeans, it fits the moms who didn’t shower today, or who were on air at 5AM, or who stay in their pajamas writing or who wear uniforms of any kind that demurely conceal their secret strength, their jaguar, their wolf, their diva, their wizard, their high priestess, their collection of experiences that has wizened them and made them ready for the anything and everything that will happen today or tomorrow or in the far future.  


Being a badass mom means you had a baby.


By accident, right on time, or after years of trying.  After countless days of peeing on sticks and poking in the belly, in the middle of a settled life, in the month your husband left you,  before the right partner showed up, or the year your grandmother died, you did it.  You lived through morning sickness and spotting, anxiety, and losing one or two or many along the way.  You survived the seven month fetus, the five month fetus, the one you pulled out of yourself alone on a hospital bed.  Badass means you counted chromosomes and kidneys, you listened to the tiny timpani drum heartbeat thrumming, while you laid on the table your own heart  full of hope or dread, or most of the time both.


Being a badass mom means that one day, hugely full and weepy to the touch, or slow and stubborn, or way too soon, or way too late, or alongside the life of some other woman, you traveled to the edge of the great primordial soup to pull life’s heavy chain across your gunwel.  Badass means you bloomed like a flower, or passed out under the gas, or flew to China, or shat on the floor, or kneeled on all fours or sank into the bathtub at home.  Badass means you were cut open or cracked open or torn apart or dried up.  You are a badass because for one second, or one minute, or forty-eight hours, you were the parted red sea, the space that makes way for life’s progress.


Badass means that after all that push and gush, all that blood and effort, all that unknowing, there came a moment of absolute clear staring silence. Badass means you touched the softest thing.  You held in your arms a piece of you who is entirely not you, the one you pulled through the portal, and is now wrapped in swaddling, breathing tiny breaths that smell as sweet as fresh cream.  


You had a baby.


Being a badass mom means you suddenly realize you are a living Russian Doll, and every age of yourself is cupped around the age before it.  Your baby cries and cries, and somewhere down in the wordless tiny version of you, you remember what it was to be a stranger on the planet, how terrifying the light after darkness, how very cold or hot or dry this place is compared to the place before. Badass is the tenderness that coos when you are at your wits end, that pats and pats and pats, or rocks and rocks and rocks, that sleeps standing up and walks all night long.


A badass mom hears her child scream like a banshee for the one-and-only-purple-sippy-cup, the guitar shirt, the giraffe lovey, the torn up blanket, the socks that don’t feel weird, the warm milk, or the cold milk or the milk that comes from a box, and remembers her own shirt that had an itchy tag, or the sniffle snuffle socks she liked that squeezed her ankles just right and made the perfect sound when she ran her fingernails across them.  A badass mom remembers the feel of her thumb pressed against the roof of her mouth, as she sucked against the night, imagining Mommy was just right there on a night she was out of the house.  A badass becomes a giant bowl, wide enough to catch the tears and tantrums and the sometimes tsunamis of our children.


For every badass mom there will come a day early on or later in the game when things take a left hand turn, when feeling every age of yourself makes absolutely no difference at all, because this kid is not you.  You wake up to the fact that your child is on a journey of their own, with a limp that will never go away, a disability, a scar on the eye, a relentless anxiety that shoots off like a gun, that keeps them up, that keeps you up and has you on the hunt.  A badass mom searches outside herself, she leans on wise friends, and sometimes on experts who teach her about her child, this animal she thought she knew so well.  She stands in the wide gulf of not knowing, her heart breaking for all the things that will never be, for the life she imagined that is never going to come.  A badass is fierce enough to love across the divide, when navigating the distance between the apple and the tree might as well be a trip to the moon.


As a badass mom you are also an old dog who can learn new tricks, or a new dog who can still do the old ones.  You run marathons, you run fifty miles in the dirt, you run 13.1 miles across the Golden Gate bridge, you run across the street to help the neighbor.  You sit silent and still in a room with strangers and feel like you’ve jumped naked into a cold pool.  You get on the plane with a xanax.  You pull a tarot card.  You’ve accepted Jesus into your heart and you post the most beautiful Scripture on Facebook.  You learn to make your mother’s best dish and you record the stories of your ancestors.  You buy four scooters and scoot across town with the kids.  You lead a team who dresses like superheroes and a team who invents the self driving car.  You empower patients.  You buy a thousand different gift tags at Michaels and learn to quilt.  You take your story from A to Z and back again.  You learn to surf and how to write like a motherfucker.  You remember who you are.


Remembering who you are means you never forgot that this whole story started with the starlight in your pants, that hides, under the fly of your jeans, tucked in the Lululemons, right behind the crease of your black Armanis.  In a moment's notice, or after an hour of foreplay, or a month of help with the dishes, or a year of nursing your first child, you can be fifty shades of gray, you can sext your husband, or you can do a lap dance or a strip tease or be on top of your partner because of the way it makes you tingle from the inside out. A badass mom has figured out, that in this chance of infinite lifetimes, having been born in human form, you’ve won the ticket to the ultimate ride, and you get onboard and slide into love over and over and over again.


A badass mom understands her place in time, she perceives that she is one link in an infinite chain of life. She is not afraid to open her eyes to the fact that at her most magnificent she is a collection of cells, a whirlwind of atoms, a pinch of stardust blowing through the universe. She no longer fears being anonymous and unknown, because she knows with hard won certainty that this is the one and only route to everything, that being tiny is the only way out of living a small life.  Being a badass mom means you are this fearless.  You have thrown your life into the lot of the devoted ones, the ones who gave it all to disappear into the flow.  You have joined the tribe who knows how let it go, how to dance with it all when it comes and to trust just as much that in the great void you will know exactly how to let it lie.


That is what it means to be a Badass Mom.

If you enjoyed this post, you will love Paradise in Plain Sight, by Karen Maezen Miller, and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. Both books instructed the style of this piece and encouraged me to be brave.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: Paradise in Plain Sight


I finished Paradise in Plain Sight in three sittings.  I read it the way hungry people stuff themselves at an all you can eat buffet.  I piled up the pages, devoured them all, and rolled away round and full.  The meal was that good. 

If you are hungry, if you yearn for the thing that is missing in your life, if you wonder why your life is taking so long or why there isn't more time, if every once in a while you tire of feeling anxious or confused or put upon....This book makes for one delicious, nutritious meal.

As in Maezen's previous books, Momma Zen and Hand Wash Cold, she offers up her life with generous honesty.  When someone asks her daughter what it's like to have a Zen priest for a mom, her daughter tells it straight up, "She yells a lot."  After buying a new house, our guide/heroine experiences that, "peculiar misery that follows as soon as you're handed what you asked for."  Later in the book she describes how she's spent a long stretch of her life living as though there were two versions of herself--one version, the as-is model, and the other version, the much-improved model.  "I am taunted by her perfection," she says. Sound familiar?  The point here is that she's a lot more like the rest of us than her Zen robes might make you think.

And at the same time, she is a sensei.  She is ahead on the path and is shining a light along the way.  Her guidance comes in the form of poetic language, "You have to rely on a sliver of moonlight, because half of every day is night," instruction, "the best place to practice is a place you don't want to be, using time you don't think you have," and straight forward presentation of Buddhist dharma concepts.  

I know, I know, you're not a Buddhist.  But here's the thing, the word dharma is often translated as truth, and can have a capital T--truth kind of a feel to it.  My experience of it is more basic than that.  Dharma feels like firm ground, it is the way things are, it is the stuff that holds steady over time and in every kind of weather.  You know it when you encounter it whether it comes from Jesus, the Buddha or Captain Picard.  So spare yourself wondering whether or not "Lessons from a Zen garden," are for you.  They are. 

With that, I'll leave you with one of my favorite passages:

"Don't worry about a thing.  It's the garden that makes the gardener, not the other way around.  All you have to do is show up."












Monday, April 21, 2014

I owe you this much


Here they are, the three Spencer sisters, invading my nephew's playroom.  August Camillo is not yet two, and my three basically took over his joint for Easter.  There was no golden crown rising, no poetry lesson, no moment of evanescent insight or beauty.  Nope, not this Easter.  There was too much chocolate, a fierce case of the "gimmees" about the too much chocolate, and a lot of grabbing to boot.

The four year old did a face plant, the second in two weeks.  A whole new shiner to explain to the pre-school teachers.  When she wasn't crying, she was lobbing stuffed animals over the side of the loft, aimed directly at my brother's mother-in-law's head.  I'm not sure what you call the mother-in-law of your brother--she is something like a mother-in-law once removed to me or something along those lines. But no matter, what I can call her is kind.  "Oh, I'm fine," she kept saying with a smile on her face as the next squirrel bomb hit her on the head.

And then there was this, Eloise's knock, knock joke to end all knock, knock jokes:

Knock Knock.
Who's there?
Hammer.
Hammer who?
Hammer his penis.

Yep, that happened on Easter.

And then I promptly fell asleep on the couch.  I only woke up because the phone in my pocket was ringing.  It was my Aunt Virginia calling from New York, she'd been trying to get in touch with someone, anyone to exchange Happy Easters, but no one else had their phone on them that afternoon.  "At least there's someone there today who's taking responsibility," she said.  "No one else is answering their phone."

Virginia, thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt.  It was undeserved.

I tell you all this, because, I just want you to know how it really is, and how I really am--falling asleep on the couch.  

I want you to have the whole picture, because the truth is, I see unspeakable beauty everywhere, but you'll never believe me, if you don't know whole picture--how I fall asleep on the couch, how I swear like a sailor, how my kids bicker fiercely,  how one lied to me, and how the first place my mind went was to pin it on her friend--just like that, so swift, "my kid would never do that," so wrong-headed.  I missed an important meeting, I dropped off my kid and someone else's at art class without waiting to see if they walked through the door.  They didn't.  The teacher never showed and I left them there for two hours unattended in the middle of town.  I was responsible for all that.  And that was just this weekend.

You see what I'm getting at? I just want to make sure you get the whole of it.  The golden crown rising was no fiction.