Tag: Breathing

18Sep

The New Here

Next to my desk, a window opens onto the landscape of community. Puppies take on sidewalks with the zeal of cartographers while their owners shuffle behind in contrails of cigarette smoke. Utility trucks linger in the road to socialize with light posts and the odd pothole. A street sweeper dodges double-parked cars, painting cleanliness in drunken zigzags down the pavement. Women in house dresses putter on their balconies, shake tablecloths into the wind, rest their elbows on the ledge and survey the neighborhood with unabashed attentiveness. I wonder if they notice the masking tape still labeling our windows. On second thought, of course they do. They’re not afflicted with polite indifference like we the Americans.

We’ve been in this house less than two months, and I’m still walking through it with the curiosity and hesitancy of new acquaintanceship. I’m not used to its voice as it settles in for the night or the design of morning sunlight on its floors. I still drive toward our old house on automatic pilot, forgetting every. single. time. that we live on the other side of the neighborhood now. It’s only half a mile, but my perspective is still struggling to make the jump, to detach itself from one sense of home and apply itself to another. It’s okay. I’ll get there. And sitting at my desk pretending not to watch our new neighbors from behind a not-yet-cleaned window is as much a part of the process as unpacking has been.

~~~

I’ve been gone for a few months, not just from my blog but from myself as well. I don’t know how to put it any more truthfully than that.

Here in the spaciousness of retrospect, it’s not difficult to see how it happened, how life started amping up at a time when my heart was already dangerously threadbare, how I chose what looked the most likely path to surviving this summer. I shut down my inner life. We were scheduled to start moving the day after returning from a long and draining business trip, and the rest of the summer was already strung up in deadlines and impossible hopes like prayer flags on a spider web. There was simply no time to feel anything. No space for rumination, no margins in which to transcribe my heartbeat. The jaws of busyness were digging into me as effectively as a bear trap, and I had no energy for MacGyvering my way out. The next best option was to stop caring and, via that clumsy mental trickery, to stop feeling trapped.

I don’t recommend it, for the record. Self-smothering works to an extent, but at some point, your oxygen-deprived muscles will lose their grip on the pillow and air will rush into your lungs, driving like a spearhead against their atrophy. It usually happened in the wee hours of the night for me—the slipping resolve, the rush of thoughtsfeelingsdesireshurts, and the gasping pain of trying to breathe and trying not to all at the same time.

It was a hard summer, but one stippled throughout with moments of sheer beauty: toasting under the Barcelona stars to a full and hard-won decade of marriage with my Dan… standing awed and brimful next to my little sister and brother-in-law as they pledged their own marriage into being… sifting an inaugural rain of flour and cocoa over my new kitchen… reading adventure stories with the girls nestled like puppies beside me… dancing… kissing… tasting…

…until my need to engage in this messy, gorgeous, multifaceted human experience outweighed my urge to retreat from it.

It has been is a hard road back to life. The night still tugs at the sleeves of my mind instigating restlessness. I have to ration my energy, which only refills these days at the drip-slow pace of a morning in bed or an afternoon without responsibility. Joy and motivation and clearheadedness have been slow to return, and words slower still, but this return to blogging—a prospect that tinged my summertime periphery with anxiety—is proof of the more comprehensive return to myself.

~~~

Sunlight traces my desk with long September arms. The air outside rustles like notebook paper, and the compulsive energy rifling through it brightens my mind as effectively as caffeine.

This isn’t going to be the same kind of autumn as the last few have been for me. Rather than the usual heel-clacking charge into work and projects and PTA mode, I’m approaching the next month or so as a recovery period. The biggest change is that I’m no longer teaching. I stumble over my own tongue when trying to explain this to the kindly curious in my life. My reasons for stopping are valid, necessary even, but balancing my sanity on them for all to see makes me feel like nothing so much as an unsuspecting audience member called into the ring to perform a tightrope act.

There is such expectation hidden in the fine print of adulthood, especially here in Italy where nineteen mothers out of twenty work outside the home. Granted, most of them have nonne to cook their dinners and watch their littles, but it would be unfair of me to pin my career on the availability of relatives. For one thing, teaching has never felt like a career to me but rather an interim activity, a source of revenue and C.V. references during years when more authentic professional paths seem closed to me. Throughout this last decade of marriage and new motherhood, I’ve chosen jobs based solely on my ability to do them, and while I will always be grateful for each opportunity and experience, I can’t continue in this temporary holding pattern. It’s time to slip out of the parade of exhausting and unfulfilling jobs and directed my one wild and precious life’s energies toward finding My Work.

And then there are my girls, something like three feet taller and twenty years older here on the other side of summer. They’re loping ahead of me, more independent and articulate every time we sit down for bedtime stories (“You look tired, Mom; would you like me to read tonight?”), and I’m suddenly, fiercely, desperate to harness this fleet-footed stage of childhood, to slow time down with the full force of my attentiveness and appreciation. Time. Time off, time out, down time. Time to notice. Time to be with.

I don’t know how I can explain this urgency without jabbing barbs of discontent or regret into my fellow mammas. Neither do I feel capable of telling them that the trajectory of my career and the trajectory of my soul-identity have never matched and that I need this time, as fundamentally as I need oxygen, to find the right track. I’m plagued by the suspicion that I’m asking more than my share out of life. I worry that my explanations will either imply judgment or invite it, and the last thing I want my personal soul choices to do is to propagate unhappiness. Second-guessing is my first nature, here as in every growing process.

One surprising benefit of this summer’s withdrawal from life, however, is that I’ve returned without my former addiction to respectability. I still prefer others’ approval, of course, and I can’t entirely stop wondering how I line up in the estimations of the other parents at school, the customer service agent, the dressing room attendant, the gray-haired woman whose balcony perch allows her a perfect view of our bedroom. I don’t want to be viewed as flighty or incapable any more than I want to show up to a social event wearing the wrong clothes, but if I am to be the subject of others’ whispered conversations (which is already assuming myself far more important than I probably am to my acquaintances’ thought lives), so be it. The desire to fit in no longer holds the reins of my mind.

The view from here is welcome but unfamiliar, ever so slightly off-kilter with newness. This neighborhood and this season, both experienced before through younger versions of myself, tug equally at my imagination and insecurities. There is so much potential here for life to slump back into its old ruts, for me to grow disillusioned with forging a new path and return to the parade. I’m ever aware of the delicate effort it takes to remain present and accounted for. There is also potential for change, though—the new house a tangible excuse for cultivating new habits and the September wind as worthy a conduit as any for fresh starts. And delicate effort or not, I am here.

13Jun

Give It Up For Sanity

The school year has been blazing to an end in a last glorious succession of ceremonies and recitals and plays and class dinners. Folks, we haven’t seen white space on the calendar in three weeks. Ordinarily, we could focus our energy outward on all these events and just half-ass our way through home life, but rental agencies have been showing our house, and if you’ve ever had to get a building inhabited by two miniature artists and their work-from-home parents ready for viewing on a daily basis, then you know how absolutely minuscule I feel by day’s end.

Granted, I tend to lose perspective within two minutes of our schedule filling up, but it makes sense that I would feel like only a quarter of a person if only a quarter of my soul-waves are getting any airtime. When you’re moving and freelancing and juggling the unique physical-emotional-socioeconomic needs of your children and trying to keep your small family world spinning on its axis, there isn’t a whole lot of room left over for navel-gazing, not to mention frivolities like reading poetry in the bathtub or, say, communicating clearly with your spouse.

I know some people who seem to thrive on busyness, but I am not one of them. Sleep deprival and deadlines turn me into a manic-depressive robot (emphasis on the depressive). I have one of those high-maintenance souls that need long stretches of quiet—endless stretches, really, because if I can see the end, my mind will paint it as a deadline, and then the gentle work of steeping myself in reflection will take on all the pressures of a high-stakes job—and breathing room cluttered by nothing except for fresh flowers and the steam swirling off a cappuccino. I also need ungodly quantities of sleep. Think toddler on Benadryl.

The problem is in trying to arrange these amenities for myself while ever conscious of 1) how much I’m needed in the domestic and social and occupational circles beyond my own head, and 2) how little right I have to ask for luxuries like space and time when I’m already so very privileged. When I try to look at my life through a global perspective, I’m paralyzed by the disparities in women’s rights and opportunities, and if I am lucky enough to have fresh flowers and hot coffee on my desk, how could I possibly ask for a side of endless quiet?

I know this isn’t how compassion is meant to work; my freezing up with assumed guilt isn’t going to make the world a better place any more than it’s going to force my body-soul-mind mechanism to operate efficiently. Also, I’m cringingly aware of just how often I end up writing variations on the theme of Self Care Matters Even When Life Gets Busy. (I don’t dare scroll through my archives right now.) However, I have to admit that I still have zero idea HOW to maintain my own inner balance when life fills up. Everything that I do on a day-to-day basis feels important—indispensable even—so what do I give up in order to meet my ridiculous but necessary soul-needs?

This isn’t a hypothetical question. I really would like to hear from you, find out what you sacrifice in order to keep yourself whole and healthy, hear how you prioritize sanity in the thick of your own busy lives. Do you let the health food aspirations go and hire Papa John as your weeknight chef? Do you sweep your kids’ Legos under the bed when no one’s looking? Do you stock up on dry shampoo and pharmacy-grade deodorant and downgrade personal hygiene to “a nice idea?” What is it that you give up in order not to give up on yourself?

Help wanted

High-maintenance minds want to know.

20May

Twenty-Minute Vacation

I woke up this morning in deep dark funk territory. You know it, yes? That mapless bog of unfocused angst reeking with a sense that you should be doing something else! but no clarity as to what that something is or how you should summon the energy to do it? That one.

For me, the funk is almost always tied to a lack of writing time. Words are my anchor to the human race, and I can’t drop the daily practice of communing with them without also relinquishing my hold on sanity. I know this… and yet my relationship with writing is a complicated and painful one that I walk away from on a regular basis. All it takes is one day of tasks clamoring for absolute precedence; others step into their place the following day, and within the week, I am clinging to a defeatist mantra, a lifesaver carrying me out to open sea—I can’t do it all, I’m not enough, I have to let the inessentials go, let the hobbies go, let anything remotely falling within the self-care category go. There is no time for self-care selfishness, no justification for pouring valuable hours into something without direct and measurable benefit to my family. I can’t do it all; I just have to suck it up and accept that there is no room in my life for writing.

The funk inevitably follows, though I can sometimes power through for weeks before admitting I’m lost. Sometimes. Other times, the crash follows hard on the heels of a busy weekend, and I wake up to a beautiful wide-open morning with complete paralysis of soul. When this happens, there is little I know to do. Nearly every option I come up with is dredged in my sense of futility and promises to make me feel worse about myself. Wash the dishes? Sure! If you’re okay with my letting the occasional plate shatter on the floor in a fit of Kirkegaardian misery or my stabbing the occasional husband with an errant steak knife. Go for a run? Why not! I need another reason to feel the breathless, side-crampy extent of my failure at life. Read the Bible? Clearly you don’t know much about my mangled relationship with that particular text. Work on taxes? Are you f-ing kidding me??

However, I say nearly every option because I have discovered one—am discovering one—that lifts me out of the bog rather than engineering new sinkholes under my feet:

Meditation.

Now, before you indulge the mental picture of me in the lotus pose with a beatific smile and a halo of silent tranquility gracing my head, please understand that I am awful at this. Truly terrible. My meditation practices would give the Buddha high blood pressure were he unfortunate enough to witness me sitting crookedly against a pile of sofa cushions with my phone timer ticking down twenty minutes beside me. All the worse if he could see my mental process, which involves a lot of chasing thoughts down rabbit trails and yanking myself back on a leash and precious little of the focused silence I’m trying to achieve.

Still, I’m always shocked when the timer goes off and twenty minutes have passed in the guise of three. I know I’m terrible at meditation—buzzing around the spectacle of my own spiritual practice, hyper-aware of everything from my newness at this to the sound of traffic outside—but it works anyway. While my mind spends those twenty minutes fighting its golden retriever tendencies with all its might, my overwrought soul gets a twenty-minute vacation. It sips margaritas on the beach and naps under the palm trees and returns to me in a kind of time-warp glow. I might not be stumbling onto enlightenment or ascending to new spiritual heights here, but I am giving myself a desperately-needed break from my own mental bombardment.

Meditating makes me realize how much attention I typically give to each and every thought that comes bounding into my head, how I ascribe equal importance to them all even when logic would demand I place some on hold for more appropriate times and throw others out on their destructive asses. I have no thought-filter. I simply absorb and interact with each new string of mental clatter as if it were valuable and urgent and true. Purposefully deprioritizing the yammer in my head, however, is showing me how subjective it all is—how reflective of emotion and circumstances and the weather outside my window. It is not all true, and almost none of it is urgent. When I forcibly silence my thoughts (or at least try to) is when I finally begin to understand them, to see their origins and motives and what it all means for my penetrable heart.

You should know that the funk didn’t entirely disappear with my meditation this morning. The twin pests of impatience and indecision were waiting on the other side of those twenty minutes to be swatted away again and again throughout the day. The difference was that I had the energy to swat them away. I had the optimism to lace up my running shoes and head to the park before lunch. I had the confidence to push all the complications and doubts and martyr complexes to the side and start writing this for no other reason than that I needed to write it. I had a lookout tower there in the funk, above the funk.

Tomorrow, I very well may wake up neck-deep in the muck and malaise again. If not tomorrow, then next week, or the week after. It’s going to happen again. But maybe next time I won’t need to cycle through my roster of futile options before admitting that less is more and what I really need to do is to not do—to sit and be and fight-rest my way toward the silence that lifts me up and out.

~~~

Do you meditate (or have you ever tried it)? Are there any meditation practices that work especially well for you? 

26Mar

Life Tetris

I’m at the gym spying on the girls’ swim lesson with one eye and watching the clock with the other. Twenty-nine minutes until I’ll need to whisk them into their bathrobes, usher them to the showers, and begin the forever-long process of drying and lotioning and braiding. They’re off to Kidsville then, and it’s to the weight room for me, followed by Zumba, followed by supper and the girls’ bedtime routine and the reluctant winding down of evening. Twenty-seven minutes now, a pittance.

My mind has always bent clockwards this way, warily monitoring that old taskmaster Time. Each minute registers as a loss punctuated by a quick chime of guilt, so I tend to play my days like Tetris, filling every possible space and trying to best the previous day’s score. It’s a crummy way to live, and I know that, but old perspectives die hard, and I long believed “redeeming the time” meant treating each and every second as an emergency.

(Nineteen minutes now.)

I write about prioritizing so often because it is an all-encompassing part of my thought life. When I was a child, prioritizing was a biblical mandate; now, it is simply how I try to make practical sense of my limited and ever-full time. Even if the passing of time does not qualify as an emergency (a point on which I still waver), I still have to choose what will get done and what will be callously neglected not, and folks, it’s hard! All the things I want to do with my time are good things, worthy things; I’m not agonizing over how to fit an extra hour of Angry Birds in between soap opera reruns here. My debates are over how best to love the people around me while taking care of myself and finding satisfaction at the end of the day… and the process might as well be ancient Sumerian calculus for how well I comprehend it.

(Twelve minutes.)

According to my imagination, finding balance would involve morphing into a Pioneer Woman-style superhuman who lovingly raises a houseful of children, cultivates a social life, cleans All The Things, and keeps up with the latest TV shows while rocking at her dream career. In the real world outside my weird and dramatic head, balance probably means something a lot less glamorous—choosing between quantity and quality, for instance, or accepting sleep deprivation as a way of life. Almost certainly, it necessitates making peace with that clock on the wall, so that’s where I’m focusing this afternoon.

Tick. Not an emergency. Tock. Not even a minor peril. Tick. Definitely not the end of the world. Tock. Not evidence of failure either. Tick. You’re okay. Tock. No, I really mean it. Tick. Even if all you’ve done for the last three minutes… Tock …is stare into space looking for the right word. Tick. It’s part of the writing process. Tock. Just as listening is part of the relationship process. Tick. Just as sleeping is part of the daily process. Tock. Just as breathing is part of the living process.

(Zero minutes. Enough.)

~~~

Do you play Tetris with your time as well? What helps you release your grip on the controls and relax into the process of living?

4Mar

Tracking Heat

 FB Status

The flu is unconcerned with timing, with the fact that you are in an all-out race against a translating deadline or that your husband’s schedule is triple-booked or that your daughter has been looking forward to celebrating her eighth birthday since the day she turned seven. The flu cares not that you are desperate to write again, so desperate that innocuous phrases snag on barbed wire somewhere in your throat and you lash out at loved ones for inching too close to your restlessness. The flu doesn’t mind that you will worry to the point of dizziness over your husband’s blanked-out face and your children’s griddle-hot skin or that you will lose yourself entirely in the tides of disinfectant and chicken soup and acetaminophen rising through the house.

At some point around the two-week mark, you will feel your own head start to close in heavy around you, and you will say Enough. You win. You will stare sickness right in the face, unblinking, as you cancel your classes for the day; though the flu doesn’t care any more than it did before, you do. You will put on your favorite flare-leg jeans with the tattered hems and the superglue splotches and sit down on your daughters’ floor to build a LEGO village with them. You will take their temperature 537 times over the course of the morning and administer Gatorade with a straw and read aloud about dragons and forget to do your makeup. You will not succumb, even though you said you would.

Later, as your children sweat through fevered naptime dreams, you will fling open windows to the afternoon light. You will leave clean socks to await rescue on the laundry line and bread crumbs to be fruitful and multiply on the kitchen floor. You will sit down to reclaim yourself, though at first, the restlessness will act as saboteur. The tea is too hot, the deadline too pressing, that Alicia Keys’ video still making you cry with the satin and the toddlers and the late night bills. The flu doesn’t care about artist-souls on fire, only about blazing skin and resignation. After two weeks of ‘round-the-clock work, it’s hard to imagine anything more.

But you are more. You are more than your actions—the swish of a toilet bowl brush, the clack of foreign keys—and more than your worries. You are more than your body, its molecules spread too thin over a swath of too many days. You are more than this stage of mama-life or its million smaller stages, the illnesses and growing pains that keep you on your toes in every sense of the phrase. You are more than what you do to pay the bills.

So you put on your reading glasses and follow the tremulous glow in your veins that indicates that somewhere, somehow, some part of you is still on fire. You won’t find the flame instantly; your children are due to wake up soon, and you may have to sniff the trail back out by moonlight. Or perhaps the flu will finally catch up with you, and the only heat you’ll comprehend is the viral surge in your belly. There is sure to be something, some inconsiderate upset of life that will leave you doubting again if you are anything more than the on-duty vomit scooper.

But at least until the afternoon light dwindles and responsibility calls, you will focus on the truth that you are more, that losing yourself implies having a self to re-find… and it will be grace enough for the night shift.

18Feb

Sacred to Silence

I’m sitting in the gym café while the girls hip and hop their funky little hearts out upstairs. Behind me, espresso cups clatter their way to the dishwasher, which swishes steadily behind the occasional train-blast of the milk steamer. All around me, voices upon voices—soccer buddies jostling for sandwiches to fill the bottomless void of their teenage stomachs, trainers discussing workout plans with seat-shifting clients, children playing Rabid Banshee Tag while their mothers chat and pretend not to notice the other patrons huffing in their direction, P!nk expressing her punchy brand of heartache over the speakers. One hour ago, I was teaching English to a room full of first- and second-graders whose speaking voices, as any elementary teacher knows, are approximately the same volume and pitch as rioting cats, and before that, there was the unsuccessful attempt to nap to the groove of our friendly neighborhood jackhammer.

Folks, I’m all noised out.

I think that this, more than anything, explains why I was so supportive of Dan’s plan to give up television shows for the month. Here’s the truth of things—we’re work-from-homers and small-child-wranglers, and there is nothing as mind-numbingly delicious at the end of a day as sinking into the sofa cushions and zoning out to a good murder mystery, or two… or three… But that was where the problem was, because no number of charmingly predictable plot-lines was sufficient to empty our minds of the day’s noise. The television just piled on top of it, muffling rather than quieting, and reasonable bedtimes would come and go without us ever quite managing to zone our way into tranquility.

So we gave up the numbing agent that never actually numbed, and that first evening, after corralling the kids into bed, Dan and I stood looking at each other like strangers on Mars. What was he doing there? What was I doing there? What is proper etiquette on Mars anyway? Does this other life-form even speak English? In the end, the only thing we knew to do with our tired selves was to put them to bed.

Let me tell you, it doesn’t take many evenings of awkward alien stare-downs with one’s own spouse to realize how desperately your habits need a facelift. There has been so much noise in our life, so much self-inflicted distraction, that we haven’t noticed the other’s voice was missing. And now, with the silence stretching between us like a foreign sandscape, we have to relearn what to do with it. How to shape our brainwaves and heartbeats into words. How to hear, really hear, the other’s meaning. How to be companionably silent together again.

In fact, I’m having to relearn how to be companionably silent with myself as well. My mind has been startling into retreat, doe-like, from the auditory clutter around me, and there has been no space for the gentle osmosis of grace. God and I have been communicating like we’re on opposite sides of a train yard. My heart’s ears are ringing as if this clattering, steaming, banshee-ing café were my whole wide world, and as much as I’d like to drown out the ringing, to muffle it with noise of my own choosing and numb every tired molecule of my being into oblivion, I know I need something different.

I need deliberate quiet, at least for now, at least until the ringing stops. I need to arrest my finger on its way to the play button and let running dishwater be the only soundtrack to my thoughts. I need to stand under the sky at least once a day and breathe it in, like I did as a child, until I’m spinning from my own smallness. I need to resurrect the art of question-asking and practice listening to hear. I need to combat tiredness with sleep (novel concept, I know) and loneliness with intention and all the many, many inescapable noises of everyday life with moments held sacred to silence.

Honestly, I don’t know that a month without television shows is going to be enough.

4Feb

Weekenders

(Weekend cuisine.)

My first waking thought on Saturday morning was a bad word directed specifically at my alarm clock. This is normal. However, the stabbing sensation behind my left eardrum was not. It seemed that the earache I’d been blurring out of my mind all week with over-the-counter painkillers and an unhealthy dose of denial was not taking no for an answer.

Spasms of pain radiated down my jawline and rear-ended each other in my tongue, which reacted to the trauma by playing dead. “Ah ink ah eeb a ahcker,” I beseeched Dan in the loudest whisper I could manage. “What’s that?” he asked, but by then, my swallow reflex had forced my throat to move, and I was busy crying. (Side note: Do you know how often our bodies swallow by instinct? I discovered thanks to the rusty jackhammer in my ear canal that it happens approximately 500 times a minute and that the more you concentrate on not swallowing, the more you feel compelled to. It’s like the yawn’s more addictive big brother.)

Through an attractive mix of tongue pantomime and bleating noises, I managed to communicate that I needed to see a doctor, and two hours later, I was hopped up on antibiotics and antihistamines and anti-inflammatories to the extent that I was finally able to drink my morning coffee. For lunch.

A few weeks ago, a sweet older lady at our church asked us if we still lived here, and I found myself explaining that while we are still living our normal weekday lives here, the weekends tend to find at least one of us sick. If it’s not two-day bronchitis, it’s a two-day flu, and if it isn’t the flu, it’s a two-day head cold, and if it’s not a head cold, it’s a two-day fever, and if it isn’t a fever, it’s a two-day adult onset ear infection. The Sickness Du Jour strikes on Saturday morning, lingers in our system through Sunday evening, and then vanishes by the time Monday morning dawns.

I know, it doesn’t sound credible to me either. If I hadn’t been the one lying around the house in various stages of facial distress all weekend, I would have thought we were trying to worm our way out of various social plans or at least our Saturday chores.

I have a theory about this though. I think our bodies notice how we push them so hard throughout the week—how we keep them up too late and strain them with long working hours and make them do horrible things like vacuuming and kettlebells—and I think they store up every molecule of fatigue for the moment of least resistance. They know we need a break, so they take it upon themselves to schedule one for us.

It’s crazy annoying, but I get the point. On the rare weekend in which nobody is bedridden, I pack every free minute with errands and home improvement projects. I don’t go to bed any more willingly now than I did as a five-year-old, and I guess a body’s got to do what a body’s got to do to get some rest. Multiply that by four family members, and we’re lucky we ever make it to church.

As much as I’d like to live by the mind-over-body principle and schedule my own sicknesses thankyouverymuch, my irritation at these mandatory time-outs softens when I consider how I would feel if they hit mid-week. Our bodies are doing the best with what they’ve got, and I really do appreciate their consideration in waiting for the weekend to break down. Even if it does mean sweet older ladies at church think we’ve left the country.

~~~

How does your body channel fatigue? Is weekend sickness A Thing, or is it just us? 

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