Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What I learned from geese, lichen and coccolithophores

Bejeweled grass.

The other night I woke up at 4 a.m.. Jovie was snuggled in on one side of me as she often is early in the morning. The dog was squeezed in on the other. It was tight quarters. I wasn't ready to be awake, but couldn't go back to sleep.

I tried to focus on my breathing. Because via meditation and yoga, I'd heard that can help. Just concentrate on the in and out, in and out.


As I lay there in the dark, the room warm and still around me, I tried concentrating on my breathing. Only, instead of just following my breath, I found myself trying to control my breath. The rhythm of my breathing didn't seem calming enough – relaxing enough for sleep. So I focused on making it so. But that only made me more aware of how wrong my breathing was. How it was making me feel light-headed, but not sleepy. 


I put my hand on the dog's stomach, hoping his natural respiration would help guide my own. But his breathing was faster than mine, probably because he's smaller. So then I thought I'd listen to Brad – but he must've been dreaming – his was irregular (and maybe a little bit snore-ish). So I just lay there. Awake. Kind of angry because I couldn't even breathe right.


All it is, is breathe in, breathe out, right? Breathe in, breathe out.


But that's not quite right, I realized. Because there's a pause after breathe out, before breathe in. It's not a constant thing. It's breathe in, breathe out, pause, breathe in, breathe out, pause. 


Like the sound of ocean waves at the beach.



Otherwise, it's kind of like hyperventilating or the feeling I get after I walk up the stairs cuz I'm really out of shape. It's too much. Me assuming my conscious mind knew more about the right way to breathe than my unconscious mind. Me deciding that the solution was more doing, less pausing.


I need to just allow the waves to roll in, rather than control the current. Eventually, I drifted back to sleep.



***

Maybe it's not a mistake that we use the ocean as a tool for relaxation. That the sounds of waves are soothing to us. I just learned that the ocean is responsible for every other breath we take (we can thank the forests for the other half). During an episode called Epic Battles, RadioLab shared a story about these little one-celled marine plants armored by a unique limestone coating that live in enormous colonies on the surface of the ocean. They're called coccolithophores. Despite their tiny size, these organisms can be seen from space as milky turquoise swirls; they are responsible for the famous White Cliffs of Dover. And they produce oxygen, which is good for us oxygen-breathing sorts



Coccolithophores and other phytoplankton as seen from space.
Photo courtesy of NASA/Flickr
Currently, researchers are trying to get a better understanding of the impact of giant blooms of these tiny creatures – particularly the role they do or don't play in global warming. 

They can survive and actually thrive in nutrient-poor areas of the ocean, providing a food source where other phytoplankton might be scarce. In addition, their light color reflects visible light, that would otherwise be absorbed in the ocean and stored as heat. Given concerns about our warming seas, this is probably a good thing. 


They are made using carbon, so researchers believe in the long-term they might actually reduce the amount carbon in the atmosphere that could go on to form greenhouse gases and  contribute to global warming. Then again, the short-term picture is a bit foggier. With every new coccolith comes the creation of a CO2 molecule – the plant sucks back in most of the gas as food, but some of it does escape into the atmosphere. (By the way, don't quote me on the exact science of any of this ... I'm attempting to distill information with my painfully clumsy brain).


As with all life, coccolithophores are complicated and we don't understand the big picture yet. They have their good points and bad points, just like the rest of us.


They're really beautiful on a micro level. Here's one through an electron microscope:



Photo courtesy of Public Library of Science Journal
***

I was thinking about coccolithophores and respiration while walking the dog today and listening to Krista Tippett's interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli. Trying to draw connections between my experience and the world at large (and small I guess).

In the interview Rovelli discussed many fascinating things – among them, the meaning of time: 



"It’s not either there is time, or there’s not time; it’s what we mean by time. When we think about time, for instance, we think time is the same for everybody, and we know it’s not true. Time passes a little bit faster in the mountain, and a little bit slower near the sea. The more high you go, the more time passes fast. So it’s relative to how we move, where we are, and so on. I think that, in the fundamental equation of the world, as we have understood so far, we can forget about time. 
They’re not about how things evolve in time. It is about relations between — with invariables. I think that’s more or less we can understand. The real problem is, from there, to come back, and in this timeless world, to understand what is this thing that we experience as time. And that’s a problem in thermodynamics, and also, I think this probably is related to what we are as human beings. To a large extent, what we call time is our memory, our anticipation. I think we’re going to understand entirely what time is when we better understand what we are. So I think that time is an approximate thing, not a fundamental thing in the world. Like up and down. Up and down makes sense here on Earth, but not in space."
He went on later:
"We perceive reality not from the outside, but from the inside. And there is this little difference between each one of us, obviously. And we have to keep this into account."
This stuck out to me. The way we perceive reality.

See, we assume because we know what it's like to be ourselves, that we know what it's like to be a human in general.That we can look at another person and know them and understand them on a certain level just by virtue of the fact that they're also a human. But really, it's relative, right? Even for identical twins – conceived and borne from the same place, their experiences aren't exact. Not quite. So our experience in this life is just our own. Our partner's experience is his own. Our children's experiences are their own. 

So then, I think, it's essential that we stay curious. Stay curious about each other. Even the people we are closest with. Even with the people with think we know everything about. Stay curious like children. Stay curious about the world because our curiosity not only builds understanding, it creates joy. Like the little boy toddling along the sidewalk who, at the sight of Snacks, began giggling and pointing. Who spun his head around and grinned as we passed, hoping to watch more of this wonderful thing called doggy.


It will break your heart open.



My lichen specimen.

You'll start marveling at the world you've always thought you knew. Even in the mundanity of your own neighborhood, another patch in the endless quilt of suburban sprawl. You'll spot lichen flowering on a stick and marvel at how delicate and beautiful it is. Which makes you want to learn more about what lichen is, exactly. Where you'll learn that it's actually the result of two symbiotic organisms: a fungus and algae existing because of each other. The alga photosynthesizes food, providing nutrients for the lichen, the lichen offers a safe place for alga to be – protecting it from ultraviolet rays.

You'll look down, where your eyes will open to spring bursting around you – the emerald moss and the rain sparkling on greening grasses soaking in the sun and thaw.


And you'll look up to watch the birds.

As I headed home from my walk, I saw a flock of geese flying over head. An undulating "V" in the sky. I thought about how lucky it must be for the geese at the ends of the two legs of the "V". Long distance flying must be so easy when you're catching the draft from all the others up ahead. How tiring it must be for the ones at the front. Carrying the load of air resistance over miles and miles. 


The sky was a downy gray, and their movement felt like a dance just for me, so I stopped to watch them. I observed the geese periodically shifting positions. Sometimes the "V" became an "A". It occurred to me that maybe the goose at the front wasn't always the goose at the front. That the constant switching toward the front of the flock was to give the leaders a break.


When I got home, I did some Googling – and found this from the L.A. Times: Birds Flying in a V Take Turns in the Top Spot, Study Finds. Researches tracked flocks of Northern bald ibises and found that when flying long distances, there was no one bird that took the front spot for long periods of time; instead, they'd spend seconds or a minute in that position, before rotating with neighbors.


“All the birds contribute almost equally to the investment in leading the flock,” biologist Bernhard Voelkl said.


Watching the birds made me think about how dependent we are on each other. Like lichens. Like our dependence on this microscopic ocean creatures for breath. 


And how we're stronger when we work together. And how it's too wearying for any one of us to lead the flock for long periods of time. We each have to take our turn, then we each have to move aside for the next leader. 


As tumultuous as life feels in our country, in our world right now, it's hard not to feel as if we have to race to the front of the flock to take a stand – to be the tip of the spear of progress and change. I don't know about you, but I'm not so sure I have a clear picture about what I'd do up there in the front. Not yet anyway. But I think I'll know when it's my turn to take the lead. And in the meantime, the birds in the middle are no less critical. They provide draft for those behind them. And those birds help the ones behind them. We all carry each other that way. 


What does any of this have to do with the other thing? What does lying awake at night have to do with phytoplankton? What does phytoplankton have to do with relativity? What does lichen have to do with bird formations? Maybe nothing more than a jumbled compilation of the things that catch my attention in a day. You know how I love attempting to weave discordant things together into neat little packages. Hoping to find harmony where maybe there is none to be found. 


Maybe the only common thread is me and the next shiny thing.  


But maybe not. 


Maybe it's that we're better together. We're better as a species when we collaborate. Maybe it's that we really need each other to survive. And not only each other, but the other living things that surround us – even the tiniest organisms. The planet is this living, breathing thing that shapes us as we shape it. Symbiosis is beautiful. And we needn't feel so small and powerless in this vast universe. We all play a role. Even when we don't know what it is.


Maybe the thread is just to be curious. To observe the world around you. To be open to the lessons it's trying to teach you. Our daily existence as the classroom for the very meaning of who we are and why we are here.


Those answers that are so complex they require a lifetime to digest. The ones that you get when you come back to your breath. 

The answers to the things that keep you awake at night. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Learning that silence isn't silent



"Have you ever tried meditation?" I asked my sister, Jen a couple weeks ago. 

We were hanging out in our sister Laura's kitchen, our various children running amok, discussing over various frustrations with our mental health.

I figured out of the three of us Jen would be the most likely candidate for being a bit Zen-ny. After all, she'd lived on Haight Street in San Francisco, sold handmade jewelry at the gay pride parade there and worked at The Fillmore. For whatever reason, in my mind, that somehow meant she'd probably also explored Eastern philosophies. Well that, and she kept a Buddha in the little garden outside her condo. 

And as it turned out, she had. Jen told me years ago she'd gone to meditation regularly at this Buddhist temple not far from her house. And she'd loved going.

"Wanna go again?" I asked. 

I've never meditated. Not really beyond the five-minute or so Savasana at the end of a Yoga class, which always ends up being less contemplative thought and more trying not to fall asleep. But I just finished reading two Buddhist-y books ("When Things Fall Apart" and "The Art of Happiness"). And in listening to On Being, I've found a common thread among these kind of deep thinkers with questions about our existence and purpose and the universe and all: They devote time to not doing things. The spend each day, praying or meditating or just being. And they seem to be figuring things out. 

I really want to find a path to some inner peace. 

Actually, I really hate how that sentence looks. Like, I'm going through some sort of Desperate-Housewife-y-weekend-in-Ojai-the-universe-is-telling-me-shit phase (when really, I'm just going through an add-a-"y"-to-a-bunch-of-random-words phase). Really, I'm trying to look at life as less phase-y and more journey-y (but not "Don't Stop Believing'" Journey – more like my experiences have answered lots of questions and raised a lot more questions about the bigger picture. So like a quest for truth. But not, like, my truth (which is kind of barf-y)).

But now I feel really judge-y.

Let me begin again. I'm trying to hit this depression from all angles. I'm on medication and in therapy, but I don't want to be on medication or in therapy forever so I need to add another tool to the 'ol self-care utility belt (it's like Batman's, only with more pillow mist and journaling).

So on Thursday, Jen and I headed to Ekoji Temple to meditate. I had next to no idea what to expect. I'd never been in a Buddhist Temple. Never read specifically on what a meditation practice should look like. I didn't have mantras or prayer beads at the ready. I just showed up.

Which, I guess, is all you really need to do. 

A man named Mark greeted us at the door and asked if we'd been before. Jen told him she'd been there years ago. He welcomed her back. We took off our shoes and walked into a large room that resembled the various Catholic church sanctuaries of my youth (you know, minus the stained glass with the stations of the cross and the giant crucifix, etc.). Instead of the cushions Jen had promised, there were long rows of chairs. We took a seat. There were maybe 10 other people scattered throughout the room. Nobody was talking. It was quiet and profoundly still with the musky scent of incense.

The overhead lights were switched off. Mark walked wordlessly down the center aisle, bowed at the altar(?) at the front of the room, sat down and rang a gong.

And then we just ... sat. Quietly. In the flickering light of a single candle. I borrowed some yoga practice and concentrated on my breathing. In and out. In and out. 

There was no direction from Mark or anyone else. No imagining myself floating on my favorite body of water. No picturing my thoughts drifting away like bubbles or balloons. Just sitting. And breathing. I decided early on I was not going to worry about the fact that I had no idea what to do. I was pretty sure there were no prerequisites. Instead I sat, sometimes concentrating on my breathing. Sometimes repeating the phrase "I am here, I am here." 

If I found my mind drifting from the moment, I labeled it "thinking" as directed by "When Things Fall Apart" and let it go. Returned to breath. 

At one point the gong rang again. And one by one, everyone stood up, went to the altar bowed a couple times, did something with the incense and shuffled around the room. I had no idea what they were doing. Or what I was supposed to be doing. So I continued sitting. Jen did too. Eventually, the gong rang again. Everyone sat down and we meditated some more. 

At the end Mark directed us to pages in books in front of us. And together we chanted. Well I attempted to chant. I half chanted, half listened. Enjoying the community and the opportunity to experience something new. The gong rang again, and it was over. Mark invited everyone to have tea and cookies. And that was that. Jen and I chatted with Mark as we were leaving – we both had questions that he kindly answered. I'm sure much to Jen's dismay, I suggested we sit down for tea with the others. Why not?

Sitting there, in the quiet dark of the temple I found myself hearing all sorts of things. The whir of car engines driving past outside. The swish of pant legs rubbing together. Throats being cleared. The gurgle-popping noises of stomachs digesting. The drippy sound of my own swallowing, which seemed deafening. 

It occurred to me that even when it was quiet, life was not quiet. That no matter how far you attempt to retreat from it, there is no way to vacuum every last bit of noise. It seemed an important epiphany. It meant I could bring this moment of peace into my day-to-day. There was no real difference between the noise the spit makes in my throat and the noise Lily makes when she's banging on the bathroom door, begging to be let in. I realized it was all relative. And if I could live in the moment while sitting in this temple, I could live in the moment while ... umm ... sitting... while I'm in the bathroom and a 6-year-old with no respect for personal space screamed that if I didn't let her in, she'd go potty on the floor. 

It's all the same.

So we don't need to wait for the perfect moment to be here right now. 

It was affirmation for me. That despite the fact I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing in that room on that night, that I was in the exact right place. That my attempts to bring myself back to the present moment while in the throes of whatever angst I was feeling at any given moment were on target. Being here was enough.

Being here is enough.

"We got to sit in a dark, quiet room that smelled good," I texted Laura the next day. "It was heaven." Jen agreed. Laura and Sarah would have to go with us the next time.

We all need an hour to just concentrate on being.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

For the women I love on International Women's Day

Courtesy of Sarah1258 (my sister) 
It's International Women's Day. And also a Day Without Women.

There's so much I want to write about women and their vast intelligence and depthless souls. So much I want to write about the strength I've found in women and the solidarity I've found in women the wisdom I've found in women the creativity I've found in women and the inspiration I've found in women. The women I know and the women I've never met but am still bound to by that third eye. That sixth sense. That deep and abiding belief in that which is unnamed but all encompassing and filled with goodness. 


But if I said all I wanted to say about women, it would no longer be International Women's Day. It'd probably be St. Patrick's Day or Easter or Mother's Day.


So I'll try to be brief. Here's a roundup of women who've shaped me, consoled me, inspired me and challenged me. It's certainly not a complete list. Like, not even close.  


Mom 


The first woman I ever met. Who I knew even before I knew we were separate entities. Mom gave birth to six children epidural-free. She then raised those six children while working as a nurse and going to school to get her bachelor's then her master's. She's a renaissance woman. She cooks, bakes, quilts, gardens and never stops learning. She's an advocate for young nurses and passionate about reimagining how our society views death and dying. From her I learned to laugh loud and long and not to worry so much about clutter on your counters or paint in your hair. 


Sisters 


My coven. The other three-quarters of my whole self. My first and lifelong friends. 



  • Jen dressed me for my first real date and continues to awe me with her strength, work ethic and ability to identify and empathize with the pain of others. 
  • Laura. Laura is my second mother. My spiritual adviser. My conscience. She knows my soul better than I do.
  • And Sarah has taught me to fight for myself, take care of myself and through her own commitment to art, believe in the power of my own creativity.
Friends


  • Stephanie - She knew teaching wasn't the right fit for her and she didn't give up on pursuing a career that brought her happiness and fulfillment. She still sends the coolest cards and packages (always with glitter) and offered a dorky, overalls-wearing freshman a much-needed friend.
  • Becky - Her commitment to her friends and family have shown me the value of loyalty and offered an ongoing illustration for what love looks like.
  • Megan - She's always feverishly pursued enlightenment. And so teaches the rest of us to do the same.
  • Cassie - One of my best friends from college. She took a lapsed Catholic to a Methodist church on Sundays and reminded me that faith doesn't have to be confined by walls or creed. It can be found in each other.
  • Carla - She's always challenged me in the best ways - challenged how I look at people and the world around me. She fought and continues to fight for a better life for herself and her family and by doing so is an example for the importance of staying true to who you are while not getting mired in your own family history.
  • Katy - We never see each other anymore and communicate infrequently - but I feel her gentle spirit in the breeze and find solace knowing she is out in the world offering a quiet, but powerful example for feminism, strength and motherhood.
  • Laura - She's a working mom who's also a runner, a coach and steadfast friend. If she were a song she'd be "Won't Back Down" by Tom Petty. And that's why I look up to her.
  • Melissa - Don't let her narrow frame, sweet voice and propensity for cats fool you. She's a relentless seeker of truth. Tireless and passionate about finding answers and sharing stories. 
  • Kristen - The woman gave birth to a baby in her living room. This should be enough of an example of what a badass she is. But it's not even nearly enough. There's fire in her belly that warms everyone she meets. She is compassion personified.
  • Erica - One of my favorite mothers. Someone, I think, who still doesn't know her own influence and ability, but who's learning day by day.
  • Brittany - She's a quiet person, but her enormous generosity, kindness and creativity speak loudly on her behalf.
  • Ellen - From the second she walked into the YDR office for her job interview, I knew I wanted to be her friend. She's enormously creative and imaginative with so much heart. And endlessly, effortlessly hilarious.
  • Georgia - I miss our afternoon chats on her porch front porch in York. Georgia mentored me through the young years of motherhood - giving me much-needed support and my children a third grandmother. 
  • Kristi - Life beats her up over and over and still she pulls herself up, climbs mountains, laughs, creates and finds joy. Because of her, I love the Earth and its creatures better. More deliberately. More wholly.
  • Janna - We only just met this fall and already I know we'll be lifelong friends. At least I hope we will. Because our candid conversations about motherhood, spirituality and life in general feed my soul the way her incredible cooking fills my stomach.
Family


  • My Syracuse Aunties - They're always laughing, always plotting the next fun day, always making the most of their lives. They've always made their nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews feel special -- even when they only saw them a couple times a year or hardly at all. They've taught me that family is family -- not matter how much time has passed or how many miles have separated us.
  • My mother-in-law - Susan Jennings the First. A tough act to follow as a wife and mother. She's not only a generous, tireless host who's dedicated to making sure her family is happy and healthy, but she's also a super talented artist. My girls and I are forever benefiting from her wisdom and kindness.
  • My sister-in-law - Jen wants to be the captain of a pirate ship. She's shown me not to lose sight of my dreams, to slow down and have fun and never be afraid to embrace your inner buccaneer. 
  • My aunties-and-cousins-in-law - Ann, Maria, Jean, Sam, Ashley, Rhiannon, Chrissy and Loan - whether it's dancing at the beach, sipping egg nog on Christmas or flying down a giant inflatable waterslide for a graduation party - the Williams sisters and their progeny sure know how to celebrate life. There's no group of women I'd rather have acquired as family. And on the other side Betsy and Pauline - such passionate, educated, firey ladies -- they show me what conviction looks like. 

Teachers 

  • Mrs. Elder and Mrs. Lynn. My fifth and sixth grade teachers. Mrs. Elder always treated me as an equal. Less as a student more as a co-learner. She was worldly and drove an awesome VW Bus that I got to ride in once, when she took me and a couple other Geography Bee competitors out to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Mrs. Lynn knew I was a writer before I knew I was a writer. She fueled my love of reading and of writing.
  • Mrs. Dixon introduced me to journalism as the adviser of my high school newspaper where I served as art editor and editor my senior year. She always spoke her mind and always challenged us to speak ours. She was a mother bear when it came to defending our staff from an interloping principal and took pride in our successes. For some reason, she saw me as a leader. My senior year was a gauntlet, but she gave me the strength and taught me the hard lessons I needed to get through it.
  • Mrs. Gray was my AP U.S. History teacher. Her passion for the American story was contagious. I'll never forget her reading the letter Sullivan Ballou sent home to his wife during the Civil War or blasting "We Didn't Start the Fire" in our classroom. She transformed the stuff of dusty books into reality -- these were real people, just like us, experiencing monumental events, just like us, and they have much to share from their lessons. 
  • Mrs. Orlando and Mrs. Buley - Lily's kindergarten teacher and her assistant. I visit their classroom once a week and get the pleasure of watching these two awesome woman wrangle a class of 20-plus wiggly, enthusiastic, emotional and eager 5 and 6 year olds learn to read and write, but more importantly, learn to love learning and show compassion for each other. They are artists. Truly.

Writers


There's no way this list will ever be totally finished. But here's a roundup of woman authors and the books that have shaped me:


  • Elizabeth Gilbert - "Big Magic"
  • Amy Poehler - "Yes Please"
  • Tina Fey - "Bossy Pants"
  • Jenny Lawson - "Furiously Happy"
  • Barbara Kingsolver - "Flight Behavior," "The Poisonwood Bible," "Animal Vegetable Mineral"
  • Zora Neal Hurston - "Their Eyes Were Watching God"
  • Ann Lamott - "Bird by Bird"
  • Harper Lee - "To Kill a Mockingbird"
  • Michelle Alexander - "The New Jim Crow"
  • Maria Semple - "Where'd You Go Bernadette?"
  • Pema Chödrön - "When Things Fall Apart"
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder - "The Little House on the Prairie" series 
  • Anna Sewell - "Black Beauty"
  • Lois Lowry - "Number the Stars" and "The Giver"
  • Elizabeth Winthrop - "The Castle in the Attic"
  • Monica Furlong - "Juniper"
  • Madeleine L'Engle - "A Wrinkle in Time"
  • Krista Tippet - "Becoming Wise"
  • Cheryl Strayed - "Wild"
  • Jane Austen - "Pride & Prejudice"
  • A special shout out to Beth Vrabel and Megan Erickson for their commitment to sharing the stories that take over their lives and for giving a voice to characters often found in the margins.  
And finally, my daughters, who sing loudly, dance constantly, question everything and love more honestly than anyone I know. I'm never going to stop fighting for the ideal: A world where women are valued as much as men. Where we're treated with as much respect as, given as much compensation as and heard as clearly as men. I'm never going to stop fighting for the seats at the table we set. 

It is time.


I'll close with a word from my spirit mother:



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Looking ahead and behind

August 28, 2017.

This date is looming. Just 180 days away. 

It's the first day of school.

On that day Lily will start first grade and Jovie will start kindergarten. 

Boom. Boom.

I'll walk them both to school and then walk home (no doubt sobbing) to my empty house. For seven hours, all will be quiet and still. Kind of morgue like, but without the dead bodies.

I know I'm supposed to look forward to the sudden peace the school year will bring. I'm supposed to relish the hours I can do what? Grocery shop alone? Go to yoga? Read a book? 

I can do all those things now. 

I was supposed to have another year before they were both gone the whole day. I'd been planning on that. Up until we moved that is. 

In York, Jovie would've only been in kindergarten for a half day. We would've been able to ease out of our mutual co-dependence and ease into days where we didn't get to take impromptu naps together on the couch or play Legos for hours. 

And sure, we'll have summers and vacations, etc. There will be weekends. But it won't ever be the way it's been. 

Their little years went by so quickly. Too quickly.



It's been 2,175 days (nearly six years) since I left my job at the York Daily Record. In that time, I gave birth a second time – just 19 months after the first time; changed thousands of diapers; potty trained two children; and painted everything from walls to cabinets to tummies to carpets



I've made snow forts and pillow forts and read stacks and stacks of picture books about princesses, talking bears and Seussian creatures. I've broken up fights, brushed away tears, zipped coats, buckled carseats, doled out fruit snacks, mopped up spilled drinks, scrubbed dirty feet and cuddled tired girls. 

I've rushed to the emergency room with a baby who'd fallen down the stairs and rushed to the pediatricians with a toddler who needed stitches. I've walked miles and miles around neighborhoods pushing strollers or pulling wagons. I've attended dozens of playdates and had dozens of awkward conversations with moms covering everything from sleep habits and tantrums to picky eaters and where to find deals on children's clothing. 

I've sighed in exasperation, screamed in fury and cried over how futile it all felt.



I've muddled through days and days and days where nothing much happened except the magic of witnessing childhood. 



Back in 2011, when it was just Lily and me, the hours felt so long. They'd yawn on as I'd marvel at her little toes, the way her eyes sparkled as she looked at me and the soft coos she'd make when something caught her interest. It was the best kind of tedium. And then Jovie arrived and time quickened. They went from being babies to bumbling toddlers to opinionated preschoolers in what had to have been just a fraction of a second. 




I feel so far removed from the person I was six years ago – that woman who wore dress clothes and sat in a cubicle and attended meetings in an always-freezing conference room. That woman gave and received performance reviews, spoke in newspaper jargon and wrote meeting agendas. She thought who she was professionally was the same as who she was in life rather than just a part of the spectrum of her personhood. That her worth could only be measured by her success at work. 

Who was she?

I think about having another baby. Pushing off the next stage just a bit longer. Returning to onesies and swaddling and kissing the top of a downy-soft little head. The girls have been asking for a sibling. With two trial kids under my belt, I might finally be the cool mom I've always wanted to be.

But, I don't know. It just doesn't feel practical. And anyway, I'd just  be back in this place again in six short years. I don't know that that's the solution. Though it's painful to think about – no more babies. That's a doozy.

How do mothers navigate this phase of life? The school-aged years? I'm at a total loss.

For a while there I figured when the girls were at school full-time, I'd just be a writer. I did finish that novel after all. And I've done all this freelancing for the past six years -- newspapers, websites and magazines. And this blog and all. I could be, like, a Writer writer. The one with a capital "W." But with the depression has come this death in me where words are concerned. At least the words required for the types of books I thought I'd write. I thought I could write books. And that thought seems kind of absurd to me right now. 

So if I can't write my way to a solution, then what's next? I'm not sure I had a fallback plan. 

It's probably too late to become a veterinarian, right? 

That I have this problem is a luxury. I understand that. It's a luxury that how I fill the hours my kids are at school isn't a matter of survival for our family. I have time to figure it out. Instead of whining, I should be grateful and just enjoy these last six months with the girls. Get excited for the prospect of new beginnings. 

I am grateful. So grateful for the past six years at home. They have transformed my life. Molded me into a better sort of person. They have taught me so much about what matters most during our short trip in this life. 

Each other. 

So maybe that's the answer for now. Focus on them rather than the question of what's next. Somewhere in there I'm sure I'll figure out what it is I'm meant to be doing. If I'm not doing it already.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The day the frogs came out


A Wood Frog at Riverbend Park.

This past weekend, Brad's parents fled the more than foot of snow on the ground at the house in the Poconos to visit us. 

On Sunday, to celebrate Spring in February, we took them and the girls to Riverbend Park in Great Falls. 

As we sat at a picnic table eating lunch among the other families swarming the park to revel in the unseasonable weather, Brad made a wry observation.

"It's like President's Day is the new Fourth of July."

And looking out across people grilling and kicking soccer balls and even kayaking in the dead of winter, it did indeed look like summer – save for the fact that all the trees were bare.

Earlier, we'd taken a walk on a crowded path along the Potomac River. We saw leaves starting to form on the trees. Perennials poking through the dirt. Sap running on one maple tree was covered in ants, flies and moths. 

We'd been walking maybe 30 or 40 minutes when the girls started grumbling. 

"I don't think I can walk much farther. I'm soooo hungry." "Moooooom, my legs are tired. I'm starrrrrving." "Mom. My stomach is empty. It's saying, 'I need lunch!'"

Heeding to the girls' increasingly desperate pleas for lunch we headed back to the parking lot. 

The pond.

The path took us past a pond – in the middle of the woods. A kind of magical sight on its own. As we neared the pond we heard an odd sort-of quacking sound that got louder the closer we got. Like there was an entire flock of arguing mallards – well kinda. Like, an entire flock of arguing mallards who'd just sucked on a giant helium balloon. Only when we came within view of the pond, there were just two lone ducks floating on it. And neither were making a peep.

The quacking was in stereo though. We scanned the pond and around its banks. In addition to the quacking, there were irregular plopping noises. The sun glittered off the backs of shiny things surfacing then diving in the water. 

"What are those?" we all wondered aloud. 

And then with a crackle, something leaped out of the leaf litter on the shore and splashed in the water. 

A frog on a log.

A frog. 

Then another. 

Then another.

There were dozens of them.

All swimming along the shoreline. 

The pond and the hoppin' hillside.

We looked up the hillside that lead down to the water and heard the distinct rustle of dry leaves as frog after frog jumped toward the water in an amphibious parade.

It was so very strange. 

And a bit unsettling. At least to me. I'd just read Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior" about a kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies (that's what a group of butterflies is called – a kaleidoscope – so perfect, right?) mysteriously landing in a forest in Appalachia instead of Mexico where they'd overwintered for thousands of years previously. An entomologist/ecologist arrives to study the butterflies – he blames climate change for their unprecedented behavior. The butterflies taking a winter break in the mountains of the Southeast United States is not just a strange phenomena or a miracle from heaven (as the locals in the story believe it might be); as the temperatures fluctuate between unseasonably warm to freezing, the entire swarm of butterflies is at risk of dying out, decimating the species.  

As I watched these frogs wake up from their winter hibernation and make their way to the pond on a 72-degree day in the dead of winter I had a sickening feeling. It's too soon, I thought. Too early. What happens if it the temperatures go down again and they all freeze to death? Frogs are one of those indicators of environmental health– what were these February mating calls telling us about the health of our planet? 

Still, it was hard not to delight in the moment. The reverberant frog quacking. The girls shouting in glee "There's one! There's one!" The vibrant blue sky and the sweatshirts tied around waists. 

Left up to me, I would've camped out by that pond to watch the frogs. But the girls' hunger pangs resurged as soon as their interest in the frogs flagged. We trekked onward.

But I worried about those frogs. 

At home, I pulled up pictures I'd snapped on my phone and started Googling pictures of frogs native to Virginia. I came across the Virginia Herpetological Society, which not only had pictures of different frog species, but also recordings of their calls. This made for a fun activity for the girls and me – comparing our memory of the quacking frogs to the recordings online. Eventually, we heard a match: The Wood Frog.

As I scanned information about the Wood Frog's hibernation and mating habits, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

"This species is adapted to the cold and ranges farther north than any other North American amphibian or reptile. It appears very early in the year, and males are often heard calling before ice-out on the ponds."

It's not unusual for males to start quacking for mates in late January or February. 

I had not witnessed the frog-pocalypse, as it turned out. At least not that day.

Wood Frogs are found in northern forests in Canada and Alaska where winter temperatures can dive to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. And here's where things get interesting: in order to survive these temperatures, the frogs don't do what I do, which is dress myself in seven layers of wool and fleece and spend winter under a cozy throw blanket sipping tea and refusing to leave the house. 

No, when they hibernate, Wood Frogs bury themselves in leaves (unlike other species that hibernate underwater). As the air temperature dips, so does the frog's body temperature. And when air temperatures hit freezing, so does the frog's body temperature. 

"Yet wood frogs have evolved ways to freeze solid for up to eight months each year," according to the National Park Service.

You should check with NPS to learn how all this goes down, it's pretty interesting. But basically, they're these little cryogenically frozen frogsicles (their hearts stop beating, they stop breathing). And then one day in winter, they start thawing from the inside out. Their brains wake up, their legs start wiggling. Then, with fire in their loins (I presume) they start hopping in search of love (well, probably more of just a hookup. I suspect Wood Frogs are more Tinder than eHarmony if you catch my drift ...). 

I'm not exaggerating when I say I felt celebratory at learning that these frogs were just doing what they always do, instead of being the harbingers of climate doom I'd feared them to be.

Of course, that's not to gloss over a crisis in our midst. It is odd to see daffodils almost in bloom. Buds on trees. Songbirds greeting the morning from trees covered in buds rather than huddled around a snow-covered feeder. It was 72 the other day– I had to dig out summer clothes for the girls. It all feels very premature. Even a bit ominous. 

But there was some small peace in the constant chaos of our existence right now, that the day the frogs woke up doesn't have to be spoiled by all that. It can be this marvelous little island of a moment floating in the raging seas of my psyche. I really needed that, too. I mean, we really need that don't we? 

Magic in our midst. 

It's there, you know. It's right there under the leaves waiting to jump out and be noticed.

Stay vigilant.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Transforming pain into compassion

Photo courtesy of Flicker Creative Commons

The heart is a muscle.

It starts beating at 150 (or so) beats per minute when we're growing in our mother's womb. It slows to 60 to 100 beats (or so) per minute as we head into adulthood. But it's always beating. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.

It beats and beats and beats, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, until the day it stops beating.  

I've been thinking about hearts. How constant and steady they are. And how we have to take care of them – giving them the right food and exercise and all that. And even if we're not all that great at tending to our hearts, they still muddle through. 

I've been thinking about how our physical hearts relate to our metaphysical hearts – that part of ourselves that dreams, creates and loves. How it thirsts for goodness. Both metaphysically and physically. It feels warm and full when it gives or receives kindness. It feels cold and empty when it gives or receives hatred. 

Our hearts thrive when there's peace. And suffer when there's stress. 

Physically and metaphysically.

I had this thought that just like our physical heart, our metaphysical heart is a muscle. It's the steady beat of our subconscious. And it can be strengthened and weakened based on our actions. And that the stronger all our metaphysical hearts are, the stronger we'll all be.

***

This past weekend my sister sent a text to my family. Her neighbor's home was on fire -- flames shooting out of an upstairs bedroom. She was worried and sad for the family who lived there, so she went across the street as the emergency crews were working and told her neighbors gathered out front they were welcome to come to her house if they needed a place to stay.

Not wanting to be in the way of the firefighters, she returned home to prepare for friends who were coming that evening. 

She told me the next day she didn't know where the family ended up. She felt guilty for not going back outside to find out if there was anything she could do to help them, she'd gotten distracted by dinner preparations. She felt badly that she didn't do more for them.

I pointed out that she had done something. She'd reached out to them during what must have been a terrifying ordeal and offered them a place to stay. 

Even though they didn't come, that gesture meant something. It should not be diminished. 

But we do that all the time, don't we? When faced with the problems of our family or our community or our country or the world, we always feel as if we're coming up short. That we never do enough.  

I feel this way all the time. After reading "The New Jim Crow" last year, I remember just feeling so defeated. Here I am the picture of white privilege with the blinders ripped off my eyes with no real direction on what I could do to fix the broken system. 

Or, like, watching the news of Syrian refugees. All those people – all those children – being slaughtered or dying trying to escape. What could I do to heal that? 

It's all around us, this despair and worry. How do we solve homelessness and poverty? How do we save the polar bears and the chimpanzees? How do we help our veterans plagued by PTSD? How do we stop gun violence? 

In the face of all these enormous problems, I find myself paralyzed. I can't fix all the things, so I do nothing.

But when it comes to compassion, the rule doesn't have to be "Go big or go home."

Our metaphysical hearts are muscles. They're ready to be compassionate, just as our physical hearts are ready to beat. It's the thump-thumping of our metaphysical hearts that makes us human.

The more we tend to our hearts, the more compassionate we will be. And just as we wouldn't expect our physical heart to be able to successfully run a marathon with no training, I don't believe we should expect our metaphysical hearts to solve all the problems of all the world on a moment's notice. Rather, as with all the hard things we want to accomplish, we have to take it one step at a time. One deed at a time. And even the smallest of gestures counts toward that step. Because compassion begets more compassion. We can strengthen those muscles with each deed. 

I was reminded of this while reading a Facebook post by a former co-worker.

He's a TA with an English-as-a-Second Language class in a Pennsylvania town "where three months ago about 3 million people voted for a man who said he’d build a wall between America and Mexico and protect people who live here from people who don’t." 

Bill recently shared a story about a field trip the class took to a local coffee shop to practice using English. He described how the large group of immigrants arrived in a Starbucks 20 minutes before close, how they apologized, telling the guy behind the counter they were an ESL class. 

The barista told the group it wasn't a problem. He'd been an ESL student himself. Another patron, an old man, chatting with the students despite the language barriers. At closing, the cashiers gave the class armloads of free pastries. 

This next part gave me goosebumps:

"Someone with a long beard and torn clothing asked one of the students for money. 'I have to go to Rite Aid,' he said. 'Sure,' said Xiomara. She plucked a dollar from a thin wad of cash in her pocket. 'I always give,' she whispered in Spanish to the teacher. 'It doesn’t matter what they do with the money. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to give.'"

My responsibility is to give, I thought. Such a simple, beautiful sentiment. 

When you're fostering a compassionate heart, there doesn't need to be a scale on which your compassion is measured. You do what you can whenever you can. The act of giving, not the amount of that giving,  is breeding grounds for more compassion.


*** 

This is important, to point out I think, because we are a culture obsessed with data. And as such, we are always comparing ourselves to the work of others. But we sabotage ourselves when we do this. We sabotage the compassion already glowing within us. Because it stops being about the act in of itself and starts being about the magnitude of that act. And when someone else inevitably does more, we inevitably feel smaller. 


Now, I'm going to go out on a Zen limb here (sorry, I hit up that section of the library recently...) but bear with me.


In "When Things Fall Apart," Pema Chodron writes about the importance of learning how to be kind to ourselves and to respect ourselves. She says that when start to look into our own hearts and begin discovering what is confused and what is brilliant or what is better and what is sweet, we're discovering more than ourselves – we're discovering the entirety of the universe. We learn that everything and everyone is awake. Everything is equally precious, whole and good. When we can perceive our thoughts and emotions with humor and openness, then that's how we perceive the universe. And this liberation isn't limited to the individual - but the communities we live in, how we help our families, our country, the world, even the galaxy and beyond.


Whether it's ourselves, our lovers, our bosses, children, or the political situation, she writes, "It's more daring not to shut anyone out of our hearts and not to make the other into an enemy."


Chodron then questions how we can communicate to the heart in a way that allows a stuck situation to ventilate? 


"How can I communicate so that things that seem frozen, unworkable and eternally aggressive seem to soften up, and some kind of compassionate exchange begins to happen?"
It starts, she says, with you. With being compassionate toward the parts of yourself that you feel are unworthy of existing on this planet.


Our hearts are muscles.  When we strengthen our own by loving ourselves, then we are better able to strengthen the hearts of others.


She then quotes another Tibetan Buddhist. 


"You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion." 



See, even if you're harried, time-strapped or penniless you can strengthen your metaphysical heart by using your breath as a metronome to transform the hurt in the world into love.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.



Later on in the book, Chodron shares about a Buddhist practice called Tonglen – creating space, ventilating the atmosphere of our lives so that people can breathe freely and relax. 

"Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy."

***

The idea of walking this world with an open heart can be intimidating. At least, it's been for me. Because you're vulnerable, right? I find myself worrying about how even the smallest gestures will be received – that I'm too awkward and weird and clumsy. That for all my best intentions my overeager interactions with the world will be viewed as lame, disingenuous or desperate. 

Was that waiter offended that I told him it looked as if he'd had a long shift and could use a break? Was it weird that I told a complete stranger on the street I thought her lipstick color was really cool? Did my Muslim neighbor think I was too earnest and overdramatic when I asked how his family was doing and told him I was appalled by the recent travel ban? 

I fumble every day with compassion. I'm this gawky, hyperactive golden retriever with a ball who just wants someone to play with. Like, just relax about the ball dog. But whatever. I'll figure it out. I guess. I'm building this muscle -- there's bound to be a few aches and pains along the way.

For those, like me, who obsess over these minor interactions with others, I'll go ahead and close by going full-on Buddha with a quote from the Dalai Lama from "The Art of Happiness." 

"I think that this is the first time I am meeting most of you. But to me, whether it is an old friend or a new friend, there's not much different anyway, because I always believe we are the same, we are all human beings. Of course, there may be differences in cultural background or way of life, there may be differences in our faith, or we may be of a different color, but we are human beings, consisting of the human body and the human mind. Our physical structure is the same, and our mind and our emotional nature are also the same. Whenever I meet people, I always have the feeling that I am encountering another human being just like myself. I find it much easier to communicate on that level. If we emphasize specific characteristics, like I am Tibetan or I am Buddhist, then there are differences. But those things are secondary. If we can leave the differences aside, I think we can easily communicate, exchange ideas, and share experiences." 

We all share the same human hearts. Let's open them to each other.

Photo courtesy of Sadie Hart/Flickr