The kiss

This weekend, my friends Jill and Jay, two of the most beautiful people I know, took the leap and tied the knot.  A relatively small group of us gathered on a farm in Western MA to witness it all and celebrate with them.  The weekend was glorious in more ways than one.  I will need weeks to process what I felt there amidst old friends, great music and beautiful country.  I will need weeks for it all to sink in. 

For now I am just buzzing with the joy of it.

During my most lizard-like days over the last 3 years, Jill and Jay have been my sun.  When I am cynical about love, relationships or silly notions of hope, I lie down on a rock next to them and just soak in the energy from their partnership, bask in the glow of the way they care for each other.  Theirs is a simple, honest, modest true love which radiates out from their little inner world and makes us all feel warmer.  But it also buzzes with tremendous passion, a hot white streak, a super nova.

It is something extraordinary to witness.  It is simply light.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon this post by Kyran over at Notes to Self on marriage.  At the time that I first read it I was stunned by the beauty of her writing and the honesty with which she told her story.  I appreciated it for the literature it is. 

Today I went back to it.  I had meant to send it on to a couple of friends who themselves are struggling with their less than perfect partnership.  I thought the empathy in her piece would be good for them, that the happy ending would give them hope.  Just to be sure, I read the piece again, along with the long string of comments from readers who agreed that Kyran had just captured the beautiful essence of marriage. 

Again, this piece of writing moved me, but in a way that surprised the hell out of me.

I wanted to throw up.  For what I felt was not hopefulness, empathy or joy.  No, what bubbled up inside of me today was raw, unadulterated, spitting envy, cynicism and derision. 

Unlike Kyran and so many of those who left comments there at Notes to Self, my experience was not one of finding my way back to each other–I did not have that if you sit down and work hard and focus and negotiate it will all be beautiful fairy tale ending.  Like them we worked hard at saving our marriage but ours was a journey of great pain, heartache and profound disappointment with no sunrise on the other end.  A love that didn’t exactly die but just in a fit of desperation gave up. 

And I realized a few things about myself.  I am completely comfortable in the company of couples that have healthy strong relationships, who dwell in a place of love and respect for each other.  They give me great hope.  I also have tremendous empathy for those whose true loves fell apart or who are struggling and not sure where it will all end up.  But those people–the ones who were terribly unhappy but then figure out how to make it work and find their love again–the ones who are able to say they went to the edge of breakup and made it back–sometimes multiple times over–those  couples make me want to spit with envy and call them things like smug.  They make me a bit uncomfortable not because of anything else other than that they succeed where I failed.  Because they have what I wanted.  Because they won and I lost.

When you catch a glimpse of your wounded self in the mirror of your soul it is never pretty. 

Every once in awhile something happens that causes me to shine a spotlight around the dark corners of my heart.  The places where the air is stale and the cobwebs are thick.   Today Kyran’s piece surfaced in me the small jealous ugly self, the part of myself I rarely see anymore but who hasn’t (much to my chagrin) disappeared completely.

More upsetting that the discomfort of the envy was actually realizing that this ugly part of myself still exists.  Between my recent brush with insecurity and now this I am having some real quality time with the parts of myself I had hoped I’d outgrown.

Now the question is what to do with them now that they show up.

There was a time, not too too long ago when I would have given voice to my ugly self–when I would have given her permission to just go to town.  I would have ranted and raved about the stupid smug people who actually believe in love and who think that kind of struggle is beautiful.  I would have thought unkind thoughts.  I might have even spoken them aloud. 

Over the last few years, however,  when the uglies have shown up I have been on a mission to lock them out.  Their kind are just not accepted here in MY heart.  I give them a good talking to and tell them why they are not welcome here anymore.  I tell them exactly what I think about them and smack ’em around a bit too.  I remind them that they are no longer part of me–thank you very much.

But tonight, driving home in my car, (the place where this drama all played out) I was too damn tired.   I didn’t have it in me to buzz with anger.  I didn’t have the energy to beat myself up either.  So instead, I just stood on the edge of my emotions and put my arm around my ugly self and sat in silence–uncomfortable silence mind you–but silence.  There was nothing else to do but sit with her and listen to Bob Dylan.

I am told that it is here, in moments like these, when we can actually feel grace.  I’d like to say that something, someone came down and touched me and I cried tears of joy for finally loving my hurt and icky self.  Or that my ugly, mean self kissed me goodbye and left. 

None of that happened.  Instead I drove to Target and bought some nylons for a wedding I will attend this weekend.  But by the time I got there, the tears that had welled up in my eyes had dried.  And when I got home, I had room in my heart to greet my ex who was playing with Max.  I also had room in my heart to feel empathy for those who have been to hell and back.  Empathy and envy mixed together in a murky muddy shade of gray. 

And right now, that kind of a shift is enough.  Its really just fine with me.

Yesterday, after Max’s karate class, a quick breakfast and sweep up of the kitchen, Max and I tumbled into our car and drove 40 minutes to the airport.  We were early. We checked the monitors with wild anticipation and staked out good seats right by the door where the arriving passengers enter.  Max ran back and forth and checked the arrival stats every five minutes–He came back triumphant at last.  “Mommy”  he squealed with joy “Its arrived!”.  Five minutes later my dear dear Erica and her oldest daughter Olivia were walking through the doors into our our arms as tears welled up in my eyes and ran down my cheeks.  We hugged for what seemed like an eternity.  A piece of my heart lives with Erica.  It was nice to feel it close.

We have been friends since we were four.

It was sometime in kindergarden when she slipped her arm through mine and we whispered to each other that we would be friends forever.  We meant it.  Our friendship quickly turned into something that would forever cement our whole families into one.

She lived just up the street from me–a 2 minute bike ride away.  My bus stop was at the end of her road–Huckleberry Lane.  Her house was just a quick stop off on the way into town on a hot summer day.  Our mothers carpooled us to religous ed, drama class, dance class.  We played for hours in each others backyards. Many a Friday night our families dined together.  The grownups then retired to the living room for a cocktail while we hid away in her bedroom listening to Billy Joel records, whispering our fears to each other.  We gave each other nicknames and practiced our dance moves.

When we got to middle and high school, Erica was considered a cool kid.  She was pretty and athletic and hung out with all the jocks.  I was considered a nice kid, a smart kid, but I hung with another slightly less in-crowd.  No matter, Erica included me and brought me along, refusing to buy into the nonsense of silly cliques.  She even introduced me to my first serious boyfriend, a dreamy Canadian hockey player with blond hair and a sweet smile, someone who was part of her gang. 

The summer we turned twelve our families started vacationing together every summer, something we would continue to do all the way through college.  We laid on the beaches all day working on our tans and then wandered the beaches at night looking for boys. 

When my parents went out of town, I slept at her house.  It was on one such weekend that we both got in trouble with the police–being at a keg party when we should have been at the movies.   We both spent a lot of time in the church youth group after that.

She visited me at college whenever her school’s hockey team played ours.  We stayed up all night whispering confessions to each other and never once uttered a word of judgement.

Together we have been through three marriages and two divorces.  I held her after her dad died, borrowing a friends car to drive up and be there for the funeral.  Between us we have birthed 4 children. 

When I sat and cried with a screaming infant on my lap, she consoled me for hours.  When the newness of motherhood got to be too much for me to take, she left her daughter with her husband and boarded a train.  She helped me give Max his first bath and she did my laundry.  When she was on bed rest for five months with her twins I called her almost every morning on my way into work to check in on her.  Max and her children have grown close despite the  300 miles between our homes.  We try to see them for at least an afternoon a couple times a year.  On one such recent visit, these four wee ones (ages 5,6 and 7) linked arms themselves and whispered to that they too will be friends forever. 

But those visits never seem to be enough for Erica and I.  There are mouths to feed, boo-boos to kiss, hurts to sort out.  Neither of us is really able to finish a thought.  Little ears are always listening

Every couple of months, the phone will ring at 9 pm.  “Are they asleep?” we whisper to each other referring to our children.  If they are, we then settle in and start to talk.  It will be hours before we get off the phone, bleary eyed and yet we still feel there is so so much more to say.  Hanging up feels like a betrayal.

Erica has a heart so big and wide open.  Her generousity knows no bounds.  She is beloved and needed by everyone.  I see in her face how she is so tired from her constant giving–she doesn’t complain as she reaches down into her last bit of energy to give it to someone else.  I want to wrap her in my arms and protect her from the world which doesn’t know how lucky it is that she is in it.  She is one of my heros.

This summer was the first year since we were twelve that we didn’t sit on the beach in Rhode Island together for at least one afternoon.    My heart has been aching ever since.

So Erica invented a new tradition.  She realized we needed more time for late night whispering.  While we craved two weeks away on a beach somewhere, we both knew that this thing called life meant we could not do it anytime soon.  So she decided that she would bring each of her children down for an overnight visit.  Each child would get one-on-one time with Max–and leave us to huddle together and talk.  No men, no sibling rivalry to sort out.  Just quality time, wine and chocolate.  And so, yesterday she arrived for the first of these  visits. 

We wandered through downtown yesterday, Max showing off our little community to Olivia.  We walked into the movie rental place and I told her a long and complicated story while the kids picked out a video.  She looked at me with a wry smile on her face and interrupted me.  “So essentially what you are telling me is this…” and then went on to sum up in 10 words or less a secret held so deep within my heart I had not dare say it outloud to anyone not even myself.  After 34 years she can not only read my mind, she can read my heart. And she does it without an ounce of judgement.

Today when it was time to return them to the airport, her daughter lay on the floor by the door and cried.  “I don’t want to leave” she sobbed.  I wanted to join her begging Erica not to go.  I wanted to lay my body across the door and hold on to her ankles.  I thought to myself, “Livie and I could take her…”  But after all these years I know she will be back so I decided to instead support Erica as a parent and I picked up my keys and loaded the car, holding Livia by the hand.  It was all I could do to leave them at security.  Max and I secretly prayed that they would miss their flight and have to come home for and live with us “for a million years” or at least one more night. 

They are home now, safe and sound.  Back in their lives as we are back into ours.  I will see her at Thanksgiving.  We will drink coffee while the kids run wild.   It won’t be enough time.  It never is. 

And when it is time to get in the car, I will slip my arm through hers, rest my head on her shoulder and whisper to her that we will be friends forever.  And I will count myself among the lucky for the gift of a true old friend.

I just spent the last hour struggling through a guitar lesson. 

Wow I am dreadful at guitar.  But I have secretly always wanted to play.  I love to listen to someone picking out a song.  I am that person who is always hovering at the park, sitting close enough to the stranger strumming that I can bask in the glow of their music.  A kind of peeping-Tom–a “listening-Tom” I guess it would be called.

Truth be told, I have always had a weak spot for a guy with a guitar on his lap.  If he was talented, it was all over.  Good night Irene.  But all too often I realized it was the music not him I loved.  I just wanted to listen to the live guitar, songs played for an audience of one– let the music wash over me and seep through the cracks in the stone wall around my heart right into that vulnerable place where my soul lived.  A guitar could reach where no person ever could.

So I became a perpetual groupie.  I had to be in order to get my fix of music–the thing that could get me high. 

Because, see I had a story I told myself.  It was a story that said I couldn’t play the music myself.  I could dance while others made music.  But play…oh dear me, no.  I was bad at it.  I would never be good at it.  Never.  There was no use in trying.

The man I married wasn’t a guitar player.  But like me he loved it and always wanted to play.  We shared a common guitar envy. His father played so beautifully it would make me weep.  His brother in law too.  There was music all around our house–Los Panchos in the kitchen, Bob Dylan in the car.  We could listen to guitar for hours–any kind really.  And one day, we said, one day we would learn–or rather I intended to pay for him to learn.  I would sit at his feet and swoon.  Because my story (and I was sticking to it) was that I couldn’t play.

There were other stories I told myself too.  Stories like “Our love is so durable that we can withstand anything” or stories like “I need him to function, let alone make my heart sing“.  When I was pregnant with Max I would stand in the shower and cry for fear that he would die and leave me all alone with our child.  I believed my stories so fervently.  I thought I wouldn’t survive without him.  I thought I would blow away.

The day he walked out the door, all those stories that I had used to protect myself, the stories that formed the protective wall around my heart, they started to crack.  Some shattered immediately, blown to bits by the bomb that just went off in my life.  Others started crumbling more slowly.  Some would need a couple of well placed sledge hammer blows to move.  Three years later they are still falling away.

So here I am, tonight, Wednesday, the night of my third lesson.  I sit on the couch with my new friend Jeff.  The night this summer that I sat in his back yard and heard that he taught guitar, I realized that the universe had delivered a gift to me.  “Girl“, the universe said to me, “Girl, its time you got rid of that story–the one that says you can’t play for yourself.  Its time you learn to play your own music.”

Jeff helped me buy a cute used guitar–perfect for me.  A pretty little sound.  The day he delivered her to me, just days after I turned 38, was one of the craziest most blissful nights I had in a long time.  She became a symbol for me–of my new independence–of my new fearlessness.  Of a heart that lives so much lighter without all those stories around me.  My first two lessons were fun.  I was feeling empowered, amazing–a woman who could do anything.  A woman who wasn’t afraid of kicking those story boards down and grinding them beneath her mighty feet.  Triumphant.

So imagine how suprised I was tonight to find myself sitting with my dear new friend, unable to play for him–terrified, nervous.  Unable to start showing him my homework assignment that I had so diligently worked on all week.  A nervous wreck–completely freaked out.  Paralyzed.

 I was suddenly awash in my fear and an unexpected vulnerability bubbling up from somewhere unknown.  I was standing in my shower again–naked and sobbing–believing my stories again–or at least the story that said I wasn’t any good at music.  I wanted to put my guitar down and beg him to play for me…Dylan, Wilco, the Rev Gary Davis, the Beatles…anything so that I wouldn’t have to strum on my own.  Jeff (I should say for the record) plays in a way that can make my heart break from the beauty of it.  “Play my friend” I wanted to beg.”get me high.  Just don’t make me play for myself.”

But even more disappointing than my inability to play, was my fear.  Afterall I am now supposed to be the girl who is embracing doing things that scare her…Who is not afraid…Who pushes the limit…Who says “yes” to life and “no” to can’t.  I am the girl who dropped all the stories, who walks lighter without them.  Who is so carefree and silly.  I thought of all the paths I have walked down in the last several years with a bounce in my step.  Of the challenges I  tackle with nary a shudder.  I am the girl who faced her worst fear and LIVED.

So why was I sitting on my couch paralyzed.  Why was I unable to start? 

 I wanted to throw that scared silly child out the window.  She really was pissing me off.  She was blowing my cover and exposing me as someone who was not fearless but terrified, nervous, weak, vulnerable–a complete wreck…a fraud. 

Jeff is one of the most encouraging people I have met since my 4th grade teacher.  

“Breathe” he told me.  “Breathe.  Its just me.”  I breathed.  I then closed my eyes.  I tried tapping my foot.  I couldn’t find a tempo.  I laughed nervously.  I admitted to him how scared I was and I felt so so small for having to admit it. 

After what felt like an etermity I knew I couldn’t do this on my own.  I said, “Play with me please’.  He started to play so so slowly and told me to join him when I was ready.  I did.  And then when I was going–he dropped out.  And my lesson got started.  And I was neither scared nor fearless.  Just there.  Attempting to make my own music. 

And so my lesson goes.  Jeff playfully kicks my butt for rushing.  He writes me a note in big block letters:  SLOWLY!!! it says.  My impatience is getting in my way and tripping me up.  Over and over again he gently reminds me that I am holding on to the guitar too tightly.  That I need to loosen my grip.  Hold it all so much more lightly.  We spend the better part of the hour deconstructing a superhero theme song.  Its unrecognizable now but with practice…aaah I will play for my own inner superhero.  While we work through my mistakes, drilling down on the difficult things he draws my attention to the things I am doing well–The things I couldn’t do three lessons (or even three minutes) ago.  He draws my focus away from the horizon to the baby steps I have taken up this mountain.  He pushes me and makes me practice the hard parts over and over again.

I knew that I would befriend Jeff when I realized that he is the only person I know who stretches metaphors as far as I do.  There was a lot of that today as we worked on very basic skills–as I tried to make my hands do impossible tricks.  A lot of his metaphors made me giggle from the absurdity.  But they worked.

But I can’t help but wonder however if the biggest metaphor of all is lost on him, this new friend who knows just a little bit about the journey I have walked the last few years.  He may miss it but I wrap my arms around it as I hug him goodbye.

I am learning to make my own music and while its imperfect, its mine.  Just mine.

I am turning a corner in my journey.  I am walking up a new path with a guitar strapped to my back.  And much of what I think I need to know as I take off on this adventure, I believe my sweet little guitar will teach me. 

Kuan Yin

Kuan Yin

This morning I woke up at 7am.  I stumbled to the bathroom, still exhausted from a late night of giggling and horribly executed pool with a group of women friends.  I climbed into the shower, turned on the water and soaked in the warmth.  After drying off with one of the fabulous Egyptian cotton towels Juan and I had acquired as newlyweds, I put on my favorite brown pants, my favorite green tee, my favorite dzi beaded necklace.  I then threw open all the windows in the house and propped the doors open wide and waited for Pat.

After the whole racoon incident this spring, Pat and I agreed that I needed to do some sort of space clearing.  But between our mutually crazy schedules, a house that was far too chaotic to bless, and my lack of focus on my feng shui studies this summer we couldn’t get it together.  After much back and forth over the last two months Pat and I had finally arrived on today as the perfect day to do it.

With Max out of the house on a sleepover, my dear housemate, my friend Pat and I were able to work together.  We lit candles in each room and went through the ancient Chinese ritual with seriousness of purpose, lightness of spirit and a great deal of laughter.  We rang bells that boomed and chimed, announcing to all the neighborhood that something sacred or blessed was happening at our place this early Sunday morn. 

I am leaning heavily on ritual this month.  Chinese rituals, Jewish rituals, Jen Lemen rituals…you name it,  I am all over it.

As a girl without much of an organized church, I am craving things that help me make meaning out of our world–out of this transitional space I am in.  To make some sense out of the waiting place where I sit.

With my divorce agreement signed, but the court date not yet set I am in divorce limbo.  I have decided I want to date again, and maybe even fall in love, but I have no idea of how this will happen and so my heart is in limbo there too.   

I can’t help but think that I am a traveler, hanging out at the airport, waiting for my connection, with no idea when it will arrive.  The longer that I sit in this place, the more I anticipate getting to my final destination & the more anxious I become.  I know that I will not always be in this space but this feeling of being stuck somewhere along the journey is maddening. 

So the rituals are soothing.  They remind me that all is as it should be.  They keep me calm.  They also give me a sense that by asking for help I have some sort of control over whether and when my journey will get moving again and I will move out of the in between place. 

Its as though I am wandering over to the ticket counter to check on the status of the delayed connecting flight–and to remind people who have the power to help that I really do want to leave this spot.  I know my ritual of checking doesn’t make it happen any sooner but it gives me a sense of control AND because I ask so gently and politely I may just win over the staff who can actually do something nice for me.  And having gone through the ritual-I can rest and relax some–talk to the people next to me, wander off to the bookstore, get a chair massage, take a nap and make the most of limbo. 

And this relief, this permission to keep living, keep exploring even when forward motion seems virtually impossible…isn’t that what it’s all really about, ritual anyway?  Its the thing you do to give you the freedom to find the most unexpected magical chocolate shop, the one you would never have known was there but for a long long layover on your way to sweet sweet dreams.

Last week, I discovered this groovy little post over at Cool People I Know.  I came to it by way of a challenge by the lovely Jen Lemen, urging us all to make a life list–to commit to paper 100 hearts desires you want to make come true.

Given that I had recently gone about rituals to shed myself of things I didn’t want (fear especially) I thought it would be a wonderful positive exercise to remind my heart of all I did want.  I set about creating my list here.  It took me a week.

In between loads of laundry, or heating up dinner I would steal away for 5 minutes to write down something else that had occurred to me during the day. 

When I first started out, I had no idea how on earth I would get to 100.  It was all I could do to admit that I really wanted the first 20 items.   Its so easy to get into a mode of self-denial–of telling myself I can’t have it, so don’t ask for it–don’t dare to even wish.  It dawned on me how incredibly limiting and well…crippling that can be.  Afterall, the first step to making our wildest and deepest darkest dreams come true is admitting that they are there.

But the assignment was to get to 100.  Stephanie and all the other cool people on this wiki were giving me permission, to go wild.  I threw off the self-repression and shone a light into the dark corners of my soul where old wishes lay dormant.  Pretty soon, I was cranking on my list.  I had turned on a spiggot and the ideas came flooding out.  Small aspirations and big wild messy dreams.  I had to really think and prioritize.  My top 100 dreams.  Just the most important.

I have my list now and am making a point of looking at it every day.  I ask myself how the actions I took today take me a tiny bit closer to crossing just one of those things off my list.  Its a little map for myself–a compass to keep me pointed in my hearts true direction.  I know that each dream crossed off will open the door for another to take its place and that is a beautiful thing.

In order to see my list you are going to need to create your own.  Do it–I double dog dare ya…

Round the fire

Round the fire

I am back from another magical romp in the woods.  

The children self organized and made the campground their kingdom.  While they ran about feral and free, we adults did the important work of cooking,  tending the fire and napping.  This morning after breakfast we sat around the campfire all of us, strumming guitars and singing. A pastoral Von Trapp family moment twisted only by the children’s choice of songs.  (I couldn’t help but wonder what Child Protective Services would think about the fact that all of our children know this Johnny Cash tune by heart).  No matter. 

I am unpacking now.  I carry the camp chairs in and put them away for the season.  They smell like smoke, smoke from the glorious fire, tended by Eric, a blacksmith-wanna-be stoking a furnace fit for smelting.  We sat around this fire as the night grew chilly, laughing, telling stories, nursing stout and tequila, sneaking brownies the children never knew were baked, sneaking cigarettes they never knew we smoked.

The little children have been tucked into bed in the Tent-Mahal, lulled to sleep in by the whispers of a father who’s own children have grown too old now to be comforted by the cadence of his voice.   Teenage fears are not easily chased away by fairy tales but here in this tent at this moment, he is a hero to seven wee ones, a hero with the power to keep the darkness at  bay.  Covered with children and sleeping bags he is able to relive a memory and to relieve those of us who are too weary of nightly stories, who just need a beer and some quiet.    It takes a village…

The little ones are sleeping now.  Soundly.  The smoke blows in our face as the wind shifts direction and so do we, moving around the circle, shifting positons to talk, to pour a drink, to play.  We laugh and sing to homemade music, two guitars, one harmonica.  Red wine.  Tequila.  A few contraband cigarettes.  Shake thoroughly.  Instant bliss.

One by one sleepy people get up and drift away to our tiny tent city.  They drift away until it is only three of us, the roaring fire turned to bright cooking coals now.  My dear friend and I lay on our backs in the dirt and gaze at the seven sisters twinkling overhead.  Another friend fingerpicking a guitar, Texas blues for the girl with boots, bending strings that connect right to a piece my soul. 

And then it is just me, I sit at the fire, shifting the coals around, encouraging them to cool now.  I breathe in the smoke, feel the soot settle on my face.  I sit in the space of gratitude watching the embers.  I am thankful for this trip, for the laughter, for the new people, for the joy my son felt when running free, for the easy hike, the communal dinner, for my dear friend and her family, for all the families together, for the music…for the sweet sweet music. 

I lay back, the seven sisters on the other side of the sky now.  I can’t help but feel that everything is exactly as it should be at this moment.  That I, sitting alone by the fire, am exactly where I need to be.  That I can relax here in this space.  That neither the past nor the future really matter all that much.  That the now, these warm coals, this autumn wind, this feeling of rightness is what matters.  I think this feeling is called grace.  I touch it and wrap my fingers around it.  I tuck it into my hair.

I hear my friends stir, shift in sleeping bags.  I wish them deep sleep and sweet dreams while I stir the coals.  Then, minutes or hours later,  I pour water on them and watch the steam rise.

I am so gritty, so grimy from this trip.  I have finished unpacking and slip into a warm shower, before I head out to pick up the take-out we will have for dinner tonight.  Before I throw in the laundry.  Before I check my email. 

The smell of smoke wafts through the bathroom–it is washing out of my pores and running down the drain.  I want to stop it and capture it.  I do not want to let the smoke go. I want it to cling to my skin forever.   

My newest baby, Ella.  We have been doing a lot of late night struggling the two of us.

My newest baby, Ella. We have been doing a lot of late night struggling the two of us.

When Max was a few days old, Juan went off to work, my mother climbed onto an airplane and I was left all alone with a strange little person who couldn’t seem to get the hang of nursing and who screamed bloody murder whenever he was put down.  I remember sitting with him on the couch, trying to figure him out, wishing he had an owners manual attached to his little foot. 

Motherhood wasn’t going as planned. 

I assumed I would be a natural at mothering.   I had imagined that soon after delivery I would be sailing along effortlessly, nurturing and listening to my baby’s cues, managing the house, and taking a break from my stressful DC job, as good at the art of parenting as I was at everything else in my life that I had tackled.  Instead, I sat sobbing on the couch frustrated that I couldn’t figure out how to simultaneously hold him and feed myself lunch.  I was so hungry, he was so needy and we were both absolutely miserable.  

Even weeks later, I beat myself up for not knowing what the hell I was doing.  I was not effortlessly swaddling my little bambino in a sling as I arrived for my lunch appointment.  Instead I was sobbing as I tried for the 5th time to tuck him in, an hour and a half late for an appointment with a friend downtown, yellow mustard poop smeared on my arm, my breasts leaking through my shirt. 

It was then, at that exact moment that I discovered the art of baby steps. 

I stopped trying to fufill my ultimate vision and dropped my standards to the sub-basement level.  I would define victory in the smallest of ways.  “Today I went to the bathroom.”  “Today I made myself lunch.”  “Today I combed my hair.”   I remember how exhilerating it was when Max was three and a half weeks old I was able to pack him up all by myself and get to a friend’s house.  Granted, I was so exhausted from the effort of getting out all I could do was sit in her hammock swing and nurse my son sleepily, but I had done it all by myself.  For a Type-A, Washington overachiever, it seemed like a pretty lame accomplishment but to me that victory felt sweeter than anything I had accomplished in the previous 10 years of work.

It dawned on me as I was swinging there on her porch that this was the first time I had attempted to do something I wasn’t naturally good at.  I really had no choice after all.  But this was a departure from the rhythm of my life up to that point. 

See, I was used to being good at things.  As a child and young adult I was a classic overachiever.  I was interested in anything I excelled at and so I chose my activities very carefully, filling my time with things I could sail through effortlessly and then focused all my energy at being the best.  I quickly lost interest in anything that was hard.

Dance–I had been a natural since my first ballet class at 4.  It stuck and became my major extracurricular activity all the way through college.  On the other hand there was tennis and downhill skiing,  I fell too much and had a weak swing.  Swimming–I was slow and always behind the others, a little out of breathe.  I left those activities in the dust (with a bit of regret) and didn’t look back. 

As much as I sometimes wished for it, I didn’t have the option of leaving mothering behind in pursuit of something I could do so much better.  So at age 32, I finally allowed myself to indulge in taking things slow, in fumbling along in a half-assed manner, in failing every day and in taking baby steps.   

I learned the pure joy of sticking with something I was bad at, of toughing it out and struggling through.  Getting through the muck and surviving.  And while I still daily make classic mistakes that would lead many a social worker shake to her head in dismay, I have really become a pretty decent mom,.  It was a bumpy ride l to get here but looking into those big brown eyes of Max’s I know that every second its been worth it. 

Max helped me discover the pure joy of doing something because I love it not because I am going to be good at it.  And this beautiful little angel, he has opened up doors for me.  I am now free to do things for pure and utter joy of it.  There are so many beautiful things that I cant do well!  Giving myself permission to plunge into all of them has been liberating.  And it has been the biggest creative gift the universe has ever passed along.

Since Juan left, I regularly practice doing things I am bad at.  I know longer crave the praise from doing the things that I naturally do well.  Instead, I fill my free hours struggling through with no hope of ever being great, striving to be good enough.  Despite the often poor results I keep going–an addict now to the adrenline rush of the tiny victory.

I was thinking about all this this evening because I have a bunch of new projects on my plate now that really do not play to my strengths.  Struggling through them could be the understatement of the year.  I am spending hours with little results, taking my baby steps, one by one and relentlessly congratulating myself on the smallest of successes. 

I am so proud of myself to be doing so much so badly.  For finally choosing to do things for the joy of them and not for the flashy results.   

Max and jake en route to the white house

Max and jake en route to the white house

When I am called to account for my success or failure as a mother, there are only three things that will matter to me:

  1. Is my son a kind and compassionate person?  Does he treat all human beings with respect and gentleness regardless of their skin color, gender, economic status, nationality? 
  2. Is my son comfortable in his own skin?  Is he comfortable with the full range of his emotions?  Does he value himself and honor his own feelings?
  3. Does my son stand up for what he believes in, even when it is hard?  Will he confront authority in the face of injustice? Will he stand for others?

Today was one of those wonderful days when we had a chance to practice all three things. 

Nine million children without health insurance

Nine million children without health insurance

It is hard for me to believe that in this country, the wealthiest and most prosperous land in the world, there are 9,000,000–nine million–children who do not have access to healthcare.  Children who have to forgoe medicines, children who will die because simple illness goes untreated.  And it angers me that President George W Bush, a man who calls himself  compassionate, has decided to veto a bill that will fund the expansion of health insurance for children.  He will veto that bill, all the while asking for more and more money to fund a war in Iraq, a war that has been mismanaged and has lead to the deaths of so many, including many innocent children.  While I love my country and am grateful for the freedom to speak my mind in this land, sometimes when I consider these policies I just want to hang my head in shame.

Along with Andy Stern and Dennis Rivera, Max and a handful of other children delivered petitions with some one million signatures to the White House.  The petitions, collected by health care workers all over the country, asked President Bush NOT to veto this bill supported by Democrats and Republicans alike and to fully fund a program that will make it possible for so many children to live healthier lives.

On Friday, Max was invited to participate in this action.  Although I was tempted to just sign him up based on my own values, I decided to leave it up to him.  I explained to him the situation and asked him if he wanted to participate.  He was thoughtful, considered what he would miss in school and the friends he wanted to play with.  But then he said, “Yes mommy.  I want to fight for healthcare for kids–and I want to tell President Bush to end the war.”  If that was not enough, he then completely independently convinced two more friends to join him.

Max and jake

Max and jake

And so today we headed downtown into Washington DC for an adventure.  The children pulled red wagons filled to overflowing with mailbags stuffed with petitions.  They pulled them down the street to the park in front of the White House while strangers looked on and while some grown-ups even jeered at them.  They kept going, even though it was hot and scary, even though strange reporters were in their faces with cameras and microphones.  Even though the wagons were heavy and hurt their hands. 

The stood in the hot hot sun with Congressman John Dingell and Senator Ted Kennedy.  And then they held hands and crossed the street and piled the petitions at the gate in front of the White House.  They chanted and shouted and stood up against the injustice of little children left to suffer and even maybe die in the wealthiest country in the world. 

Tired kids at press conference

Tired kids at press conference

After it was all over Max and his friends were exhausted, grouchy and spent. “I am sad” he confessed to me.  But tonight when I asked him how he felt about the day, he said he felt good.  He was glad that he did what he could to help kids who can’t see the doctor.  He was glad he got to yell against a war that confuses and scares him and he was glad that he got to help stand up for the kids who couldn’t be there today.  I asked him if he would do it again, even though he felt tired and his hand hurt.

He looked at me with a startled expression:  “Of course” he said than turned back to his game.

I have seen the future.  It looks very bright indeed.