mindfulness

What’s Right in Front of You

On Monday afternoon as I turned onto a freeway onramp, a mother duck and her ducklings crossed directly in front of my van. Both of my kids were strapped in the backseat. As I hit the brake, I checked my mirrors, worried that someone might rear-end me. But strangely, even though it was rush hour, this particular onramp was empty for the moment. I put on my hazards and watched as the group crossed together, all of them unified in their determination. The whole thing took about eight seconds. As I drove off, I argued with Stump about whether or not I’d killed the ducks.

“You ran over them,” he insisted.

“No, honey, I stopped. They made it to the other side. If I had hit those ducks I’d be crying right now.”

Smoke came to my defense. “She didn’t hit them. I would be crying too if she did.”

When we got home, there was a box on my doorstep. Inside, I found a gift from my sister: two ceramic mugs that had been shipped across the country. The mugs were wrapped in bubble wrap, and the box was full of packing peanuts. As I sat on the floor admiring the mugs, Stump took two handfuls of the foam and threw them like confetti. Smoke laughed. Before I could intervene, Stump picked up the box and dumped all of the peanuts on the floor. My muscles tensed as I prepared myself to lift him and remove him from the scene. But then I stopped myself. In the world of a three-year-old packing peanuts are a special occasion. Since the damage had been done, I might as well let him enjoy it.

Stump and Smoke threw peanuts in the air. They rolled around on the floor. They stomped on them. I watched as a number of the peanuts broke into many pieces.

I stayed there, cross-legged on the floor, just watching. I am spending time with my kids, I told myself. It felt like a spinoff of last week’s mantra, Parenting is not hard. This wasn’t the early evening activity I would have planned for them, but it was the one they had chosen, and really it was no better or worse than a walk to the park or a romp in the backyard. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t thrilled about it; it only mattered that I was there, on the floor in the moment, half-grumpy and half-calm.

When their fun began to wane, I asked them to help me pick up the peanuts, and they did. (Their effort was a little lackluster, I admit, but it was something.) I spent ten minutes vacuuming the tiny left-behind pieces, and then we moved on to dinner.

All of this is part of a life strategy I’m trying to cultivate called Dealing with What’s in Front of Me. The mama duck walks in front of my car so I stop. My kid dumps the packing peanuts on the floor and so we play with them. I’m trying to move into the mode of responding to my world—and responding to it fully and with patience and zest—rather than controlling it.

I’ve been playing with this strategy at work as well. These days, when I teach a class, I try to remember to look around the room and breathe, to not just be a talking, disembodied head. Rather than planning six activities and working to move us through each one on a schedule, I try to leave room to let my students surprise me, and they do. When I ask questions, I try to let go of my own prescribed answer. On the days when I succeed at that, my world feels altered. I come home feeling connected to something that’s bigger than me.

I think about the mother duck and her experience of the freeway. I think about her standing on one side of the onramp, her babies lined up behind her, anticipating her next move: all that focused concentration. In the span of a single moment, the noise of traffic quiets just enough for her to go. Once she starts, there is no hesitation. She commits to that moment and to her own impulse. That trust becomes the thing that, more than any other thing, protects her.

Image Credit, Mother Duck and Ducklings: Carole Smith Berney

The Summer of Less / More

Lately I’ve been dreaming about Colorado. C1Two summers ago Kellie and I packed her truck and took the boys to live on an 800-acre ranch for the summer. We did this for no logical reason, except that we had an opportunity and we seized it. It was a hard summer. Though the mornings were often beautiful and sunny, by afternoon the clouds rolled in and they often brought lightning and hail. Smoke, who was four at the time, complained of being bored and homesick. Stump, who couldn’t even crawl yet, wasn’t much of a diversion for him. Meanwhile I struggled to keep up with a workload of teaching online and editing while our internet was spotty and Kellie was busy building a barn.

But of course those challenges aren’t what I’ve been remembering. I’ve been remembering how every night, just after dark, my family fell asleep in one room and I sat among them, writing in the dark, listening to their breathing. I remember the garden snakes who warmed themselves on the same rocks every day, and the chickens who refused to stay inside the fence. More than anything, I remember the massive herds of elk who moved through the land every day on a schedule.

In Olympia, where we live full-time, it’s not hard to find nature. Sometimes deer walk down our neighborhood roads. It’s a ten-minute drive to the forest. I can walk the kids down to the beach and sometimes see seals swimming in the water. But visiting the beach is not the same as living in wilderness. Here in town, I can’t recreate the feeling of waking up in the mountains and walking to the outhouse through wet grass to take my morning pee, or the feeling of watching the evening slowly gather around you as the elk descend from the hills, munch grass and bugle at each other, and then disappear in time for the first stars to appear. C2I keep thinking about how this would be a good year to return to Colorado, because Stump is old enough now to play with Smoke and I can imagine them chasing each other with sticks and scrambling up the gravel road. But that adventure isn’t in the cards this year. We will not be dropping everything, packing the truck, and living in the wilderness—at least not for three uninterrupted months.

Since I can’t have Colorado, I’ve been asking myself how I can strip away my life this summer, to make room in my cells for some growth, to reclaim the balance that I lose every year over the course of nine months of teaching and working and parenting. I want my life to be quieter, with space to notice the changing sky, the ants, the birds, my own two children. And so, I’m working to identify the things that clutter my life, to reduce them in hope of making room for what feeds me.

Less internet / more real life

This might mean going to bed at the same time as my kids, lying in bed awake to take in the dark, or letting Smoke stay up late so that we can read together. It might mean keeping my Macbook closed for most of the day, unplugging my modem, and keeping my smart phone out of sight.

Less digital / more analog

Recently a friend shared this: How to Replace an Instagram with a Sketchbook. The idea is that we consider drawing our lives for a change instead of constantly snapping photos. I want to. And while I’m at it, I want to spend more time reading books and stories and essays that are printed on actual paper.

Less packaging / more slow food

No to microwaved lunches and single-serving yogurt containers. Yes to canning all of the fruits. Yes to this post by the Zero-Waste Chef: 5 Zero-Waste Baby Steps

Less driving / more walking, running, and biking

The goal is for the car to get lonely. The goal is for a tank of gas to last a couple of weeks at least.

Less stuff / more room Maybe I’ll finally get around to recycling my old computers. Maybe I’ll even read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

What will you be doing less / more of this summer?

How Best to Love a Body

bannanaI stepped into winter in jeans that fit perfectly. They did not require a belt, but they had just the right amount of give. These jeans were, in fact, the best fitting pair of pants I’ve ever owned.

Now, on the other side of winter, these jeans are uncomfortably tight. In fact, all of my pants that once had give are now uncomfortably tight. And so it’s time to address the situation and choose a strategy. But I get stuck, tangled in the fine line that separates self-care and self-deprivation. Sometimes it seems less like a line and more like a web.

The way I see it now, I have three options:

Option 1: Buy new pants. I ask myself if this would be the most self-loving choice. After all, I’m pushing forty. I can’t hang onto my current pant size forever. Twice already in my life I’ve had to pack away clothes I know will never again fit me. I expect this will happen again and again and again if I am lucky enough to live to be old. So the answer might have been, yes, self-love = new pants, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been neglecting nutrition. Over the winter I’ve fallen deeper and deeper into the rut of pasta and bread. When I gaze into my refrigerator, I pack a lunch of what I have, and often this simply looks like two tamales, a hard-boiled egg, and some crackers. Nothing green, or orange, or red. With this in mind, I’m not ready to give up on my pants just yet.

Option 2: Give up things. Two years ago I gave up gluten and dairy and then spent a long summer living in the mountains. In the photos I look lean and tan, and I remember how my ailments stopped ailing me. I consider cutting wheat and dairy out of my diet today, and I think also about what it would mean to eat no sugar. As in none. Not just no pastries, no candy, but also no Thai food, no ketchup, no honey in tea. I don’t think of myself as someone with a sweet tooth, and yet I get the feeling that this would be a revolution for my body. My appetite would be ruled by hunger, not cravings.

And so I’ve been weighing this option, and watching myself eat. I’ve been noticing how I do things like eat extra helpings at dinner to make up for the fact that I’m not sitting down. Or I notice how after lunch I still feel frantically hungry, but that if I keep eating I slip into a  food coma. These observations have led me to my third option.

Option 3: Eat mindfully. In preparation for maybe giving up sugar, I’ve been eating less sugar. In preparation for maybe giving up dairy and gluten, I’ve been eating less dairy and gluten.

The other day, on the back of a cereal box, I finally paid attention to that healthy plate graphic which I think has replaced the old graphic of the food pyramid. I rarely pay mind to the government’s suggestions for my health–I like to think that I’m too savvy for that, or at least too much of a hippy–and so this was the first time I really looked at it. Half of the plate was staked out for fruits and vegetables, a quarter of it for grains, quarter for proteins.

Half of the plate was for fruits and vegetables. Michelle Obama is totally right. What the hell have I been doing?

myplate-1023x1015

I read somewhere recently that you crave what you eat, meaning that your body adjusts to your eating habits and adapts its demands accordingly. And so I’ve been making every meal with that Michelle Obama plate in mind, trying to work towards 50%, trying to train my cravings. Though I’ve never been fond of bananas, I’ve been trying to talk myself into them. They seem like a kind thing to put into my body at ten a.m.—better than Cliff bar or a donut.

Oh, a banana, I tell myself as if it’s the kind of thing I’ve always liked. And then I think about how maybe it will help me feel full without feeling heavy, how it will move through my system leaving behind only energy and potassium. Oh, a banana, I tell myself with every bite, and I’m starting to believe myself that I like it.

Spring is right here.

flowerdeathLast week it rained and rained and rained. In the pauses between the rains, the robins sang. That was the first sign that spring had come.

This week the weather alternated between cold and warm, sunny and gray. Each morning before seven I looked out my window to see a brightening streak of blue cutting through the dark sky.

I remember now what it means to leave for a walk at five in the evening and not have to brace myself for darkness or outfit myself with reflective gear and flashing lights. I remember what it means to watch the sky change as I walk instead of tightening my hood in defense of pelting rain.

I remember now that nourishment isn’t just about eating stuff that tastes good, but also eating foods that offer nutrients, things that are green, orange, and red—things that crunch.

I remember now that what it means to move through my day with a small fire inside of me, to experience the day as a landscape to explore rather than a checklist to complete.

This morning the sky cleared and I brought my sons on a hike to the water’s edge. Along the trail, Smoke entertained me with theories about how trees had fallen (thieves with chainsaws), and Stump stopped at every puddle and called it the beach. For nearly an hour, no one whined. The forest cleared, and we arrived at the beach in time to witness a surprise: dozens of sailboats gliding across the bay.

boatsI was surprised to realize that, for the moment, I was doing the exact thing I wanted to be doing, meaning I didn’t wish I was in Hawaii instead, or writing instead, or watching TV, or sitting in a hot tub. I just wanted to be there, on the beach, watching the sailboats while Smoke collected rocks and Stump hit water with a stick.

Beach2Of course in the moment of noticing that I was content where I was, I realized how often the opposite is true, how easy it is to long for elsewhere.

I think of my family members in New England and imagine the snow piled up past their windowsills. I imagine them trapped inside winter, tiny little shoots of green sleeping under snow banks.

I don’t envy my New England friends, but I want to be there on the day that winter begins to melt, that first day you step outside and can actually hear the water dripping, can sense that the snow has begun its return back to the source.

Come Monday morning, in my dark cave of an office, I’ll be feeling like those sleeping greens, craving elsewhere, wishing for light.

Facing the Dentist

Any time I see a dentist appointment on my calendar, I’m tempted to cancel it. “Oh, that’s not a good time for us,” I think, before logic kicks in and I remind myself: there’s never a good time for the dentist.

Smoke needed two cavities filled earlier this week, and I prepared us both for the appointment by pretending no preparation was necessary. “So, we’re going to the dentist on Monday,” I mentioned a couple of times offhandedly.

“I hope they don’t floss my teeth!” Smoke replied. His most recent memory was of a check-up, where apparently the flossing irritated him.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “I don’t think they’ll floss you.” I didn’t urge him to reach further back into his memory, to the times when they’ve drilled into his teeth. Sugar-bugs, they call them at the pediatric dentist’s office. As if Smoke doesn’t already know the word cavities. As if calling it something cute will make his visit to the dentist any better.

mouf

 I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have your mouth worked on as a small child. In part, this is because I didn’t have cavities until I was in my twenties. But also, I just can’t fathom how any child under ten can summon the composure to have his mouth fucked with for nearly an hour, to be prodded with metal instruments, to have rubber spacers stuck between his teeth, to have his gums coated with cloying flavored gels, to have a stinky latex barrier spread over his mouth and clamped into place. How can he stand, without the patience that comes with maturity, that feeling of the tired jaw, the raw and bleeding gums, the massive gloved fingers pushing at your cheek, the sound of the drill and that burning-hair-burning-tooth smell?

My own dentist has invested tens of thousands of dollars on personal entertainment systems for their patients. Every time I go in for fillings, the assistant offers me a set of goggles and earbuds that will play a movie that only I can see. I always say “Yes, please. Distract me,” even though I’ll miss two-thirds of the dialogue because I can’t hear over the drills. When all the work is over, I stumble out of there swollen-lipped, numb-mouthed, and groggy. It’s a strange feeling to have a movie projected a quarter inch from your eyeballs while someone drills into your teeth.

But Smoke didn’t even have this option. He had a little gas to calm him, delivered through strawberry scented nasal hood. And I had to watch. As the assistant stretched the latex dam over his mouth, she warned Smoke that he wouldn’t be able to talk. “So you can just raise your hand up if something hurts or if there’s a problem.”

“Okay,” he said just before she fastened the dam in place. He lay there, plank-like, wearing goggles and a bib, the nasal hood covering his nose.

nasal hood

We waited for the anesthetic to take effect, and for the dentist to be ready. I poked around on my phone for a minute, and then put it away, reminding myself to be present. This wasn’t my dental appointment to check out of.

When the dentist arrived with the drill, the assistant reminded him “breathe through your nose.” My attention wandered to the pictures on the wall; unicorns, gnomes, and wizards. My eyes wandered and kept wandering, failing to take in that Smoke’s left hand was raised. Was he trying to get their attention, I wondered, or was he just doing that with his hand? I couldn’t hear anything above the buzzing, but I heard the assistant tell him, “just a minute.” She gently patted his hand down.

Moments later the hand came up again. Both times he held it at a right angle. She patted it down. Up it came again. His arm rested, but the hand rose in a clear gesture: Stop.

Once the dentist had finished his drilling, they removed the metal clamps and drew back the barrier. “What is it you wanted to tell us?” they asked him.

“I’m having trouble breathing through my nose,” Smoke said.

“You’re doing a good job,” they reassured him, and closed the dam again.

I sat there silently, feeling betrayed on his behalf. I got it, I really did. They did this job all day, every day. They knew when a kid was in pain or truly struggling to breathe. They knew that Smoke was a talker, raising his hand to fill them in on every concern, and they knew that if they unclamped the dam every time he lifted his hand, they wouldn’t be able to finish anything. It was in everyone’s interest to keep going. I agreed. I wanted them to keep going. I wanted them to finish.

And yet: they had given him that option. Your hand, they had said, is your voice. And then they had ignored him. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but this strikes me as dishonest and unfair.

As the assistant applied the fillings and sanded off the edges, Smoke’s hand rose again and again, his feeble reminder that he was uncomfortable and waiting to be heard. “Hold his hand, Mom,” she instructed me during the last few minutes.

I held his hand until he was finished, unsure if this made me a comforter or a collaborator.

In the car on the way home, I told him, “I saw that you were raising your hand and I saw that they were ignoring you.”

Sometimes as a parent, I’m not always sure if and when and how I should rescue my kid. But Plan B is always this: I tell him what I saw and what I didn’t like.