Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It's What I Know.

The school's absence policy is strict: two weeks of missed classes and you are out.  Armed with this reassurance from the dean, I walked into class, prepared to go to the mat on this issue.

"I've been recovering from surgery. I have a baby. I'm a veteran. If you drop me, I'll lose my stipend." The student stood in front of me as I prepared for class to begin, his arm wrapped in a cast. Persistently, he repeated his reasons for staying in the class as he washed a Percocet down with soda. My resolve buckled. I told him to sit down, and I caved to his every request for missed materials and laborious recounting of past lectures.

As I left class, I felt myself slip into a familiar pattern of thinking: trapped between my "take a hard line" self and my "Yes! Limitless compassion for all!" self. Fueling this vacillation was my old self-loathing, angry and ashamed that I had been unable to take the stand I'd committed to.

On my way home from work, a stanza from Ani Difranco's new album stuck out like a neon vacancy sign blinks at weary travelers:

"I walk past my own self-loathing
Like I walk past animals in the zoo
Trying not to really see them
And the prison they didn’t choose."

One of the reasons I love that stanza so much is because it pictures the self-criticism so aptly as a series of traps. It is like a prison, but, as a friend once told me, it's a prison with an open door; we can walk out at any time. "How frightening it could be out there!" we think, and cling desperately to the bars of our own cells. Because there's something familiar in those old negative patterns, isn't there? We grasp onto our suffering, afraid that if we let it go something new and more terrifying will replace it.

In the past few years, I've cultivated technique after technique for dealing with this, ah, problem. Yoga provides me with a baseline of strength and awareness from which to address this stuff directly. Meditation, prayer, and biofeedback training arm me with methods for interrupting these thoughts mid-stream. But sometimes I get too tired to fight, and let's face it: these techniques don't provide an easy 180 out of suffering. And fighting means facing the fact that those old patterns are still there.

So, fine, I'll say. Let the student stay in class. Let nepotism continue. Let me continue to lie awake at night, haunted by streams of self-criticism and doubt. I may not have chosen this prison, but it's what I know.

I've never been much of a gardener, but I imagine this is what folks mean when they say it's like getting stuck in a rut. It can be so easy, so comfortable, to keep pushing your wheelbarrow forward on that familiar path. But a rut is a rut; at some point, we've got to get the strength to heave our barrows up and out and to continue on, forging a new (if bumpy) path forward.

Wheelbarrow/ "So much depends..."

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Scalpel Moments

When I was 18, I cut open a pig.
Small pig

I don't mean that I enjoyed a nice pork chop, or that I wrapped filet mignon in bacon. I literally took a baby pig, sliced it open with a knife, and poked and marveled its insides.

I guess the knife part gives it all away. It was a biology lab I took my first semester of college, and the one dissection we had to do was of a fetal pig.

I remember the first day of class, when the instructor announced that we'd be doing the fetal pig dissection. "No fucking way," I thought to myself.

I was young, high on Ani Difranco and burgeoning liberal beliefs, and there was no way I would let this injustice stand. I discussed this with my mother, who encouraged me to abstain and to bring a brochure from AAVS to the instructor. I put the brochure in my bag, and on the second day the class met, I had fortified myself, ready to broach the topic with the instructor.

"Don't trip," my lab partner (and former McDonald's coworker) said. "I'll dissect it when the day comes. And you get to miss one lab per semester; you can just be absent that day." My political standpoint crumpled in the face of this opportunity for laziness. Plus, the instructor was kind of scary, and I didn't want to get into it with an instructor my first semester of college.

Inevitably, the day to dissect the pig arrived. My lab partner's one absence coincided with D-Day. My last-minute protestations to the instructor fell on deaf ears, of course, and the pig was placed in front of me. Bigger, pinker, and waaay cuter than I expected, the pig lay tragically on the tray, scalpel neatly placed beside it. I didn't know what I was going to do. As the only person without a lab partner, I felt the victim of some great injustice. I was an English major, for Chrissakes. In what possible context would I need to know what the insides of a dead pig look like?

To say that making the first incision was the hardest part would be an understatement. I couldn't have felt more dread and disgust as I would walking toward a pile of writhing caterpillars (of which I am intensely afraid). I understood that I was most definitely not going to take a stand, that I was going to participate in what I thought was a strange and unnecessary process. But once the skin gave way to the blade, once it pulled away to reveal the tiny, compact organs, the resistance dropped away. There was the pale heart, the maroon liver; there were the daffodil-colored intestines that could be unraveled like a ball of yarn. Not only was it not as bad as I thought it would have been, it was actually kind of cool.

I thought of that pig yesterday as my mind mapped out brilliant excuses to skip out on yoga (these scalpel moments present themselves all the time, don't they?). This time, the pig was far too cute, and I talked myself out of a Bikram class. How many wonderful experiences do we miss out on because we resist and fight? As Jack Kornfield says, "This resistance is a pushing away or closing off to the experience, just the opposite of opening to it."

I'm not really sure what the "takeaway" for this piece is, exactly, but maybe we can take a page out of Kornfield's book and just keep opening to experience. Pick up that blade and get to work! :-)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Motherless? Never.

In the tiny black and white photo I keep in my mom's old jewelry box, Richard looks like a short Peter Sellers. Richard was a small man, my grandma confirms, smart as a whip and capable of handling any task, from cleaning a dove he'd shot to arguing both sides of a political issue at a party.

Peter Sellers, my grandpa's doppelganger
You could say my mom was fatherless at a young age. Richard, her father, died when she was ten. You could say I was motherless at a relatively young age, too. By the time I was 19, I knew my mom wouldn't be around to celebrate my buying my first home or being granted tenure. You could say that these things are tragedies.

It ain't easy when we experience losses that go against "the natural order." The death of a child or the loss of a parent at a young age is not a walk in the park. Recently, I had to put my 14 year-old cat, Lily, to sleep. Although my mom initially rebelled against my idea of bringing this white cat home ("Think of all the white hair over your purple furniture!), she immediately fell in love. When I went on trips around the world, Lily would curl up with her foster mother. When I had to surrender that cat's life, it felt like I was cutting yet another string that connected me to my mother.

But is it really true that those who have lost parents are really motherless, fatherless? What does it mean when a parent dies?

I had dinner and a lovely walk with a friend of my mom's recently. As the sun began to set, the frogs by the river started croaking their rusty evening songs. We talked about getting older, teaching, and raising children (this includes pets, of course :-).

That night, I had one of those "Oh, now I get it!" dreams that shed light on one of those issues that has held you captive for years. In the dream, I was sitting at my grandmother's counter top, looking at the spot on the stove where my grandma usually stood as my brother and I ate our dinners. Instead of my grandma in the kitchen, though, it was Richard, the grandfather I never knew except for memories told and retold by my mother and grandmother, tied to the tiny black and white photo.

"It's OK your grandma got remarried," Richard said. From his quiet and sweet demeanor, I knew who he was immediately. "I'm glad she had a stepfather, someone to take care of her and give her brothers and a sister. And I'm glad you had a grandfather."

I awoke from the dream stunned. I am careful to write down dreams that seem like they might have something to offer, and I hastily jotted it down.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a mother, to be mothered. I think I've been working these past few years to understand that I'm OK without a mother. I'm trying to accept that it's OK that I've found ways to be mothered--and to mother--even without her lovely presence. I think one of the hardest parts about the healing process after someone dies is to begin to be alright with the fact that you're going to get that love elsewhere. But I don't think we should worry about that. The human heart is vast enough to preserve a space for those we've lost while making room for new opportunities for love.

So when a female friend pays for my glass of white wine and cheeseburger after an evening of laughter and tears, or when another friend envelops me in a random embrace after noticing my long face, I accept it: I'm still being mothered.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It is enough.

“What is the totality of life? Listen and attend carefully. The totality is simply the eye and sights, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and taste, the body and sensations, the mind and mind objects. Anyone who tried to describe a totality beyond this would not know of what they were speaking.” –the Buddha, the Totality Sutta