Monthly Archives: March 2012

mindfulness

Last night, Ryan and I rolled our mats out onto the carpeted 2nd floor of a freshly stuccoed behavioral health clinic near our house. The lights overhead are fluorescent and there is a constant rumble of air conditioning—it is always too cold, as it tends to be in these types of buildings. On one wall, there are several poster-sized photos of the clinic’s employees, under the phrase “Teamwork.” The employees wear toothy, gleaming, teamwork-y smiles and bright, solid polo shirts. These overly happy, middle-aged white people are posed in an assortment of humorous positions—back to back with arms crossed, and even in a pyramid. When I look at the photos, I imagine the details of the pyramid formation, knees digging into quivering, doughy backs, a photographer nervously clicking. The idea seemed hilarious and harmless, but there’s been a violation; the intimacy is forced. It is uncomfortable to think about.

Hugh, our leader, a tiny Irishman with a heavy brogue, a receding hairline, and exaggerated, almost cartoonish, facial features, tells us to lie down. He leads us through a series of movements, simple yoga poses and stretches, and tells us to breathe and feel our abdomens rise and fall and not to release so far that we are no longer being mindful. Mindful. That is the word of these last few weeks in this class. “Breathe,” he reminds us, constantly, and then he inhales so deeply and exhales so dramatically that I am a tiny bit jealous. I want to breathe like Hugh.

Ryan and I are fascinated with him. In our weekly meetings, he drops hints about what his life used to be like before he discovered mindfulness. “I used to live on Weetabix and adrenaline,” he says, and god I want to know what that means. He used to drink excessively. He was a journalist. He’s seen war. But he never elaborates. “What do you think?” he always asks. After we practice our yoga, we sit in a circle and Hugh talks to us about the past week. I feel an irrational urge to please him. He asks me if I did my yoga and quizzes us about the body’s reaction to stress and I want to tell him the right answer. When he looks at you, he twists his mouth and furrows his forehead and stares intently. He is listening in a way that people rarely do and it is unnerving, and almost exhilarating. The meetings take place every Wednesday between 6pm and 8pm, so we are always hungry, but we can tell that Hugh frowns upon eating during his class, even though snacks are made available. He allows us a five-minute break, during which I quickly gulp down an oatmeal cookie and some green tea, returning to the circle empty-handed. I do not want to disappoint him.

We are in week 4 of an 8-week autism study about stress and parents of children with special needs. Parenting is a stressful job for anyone, we were told by the doctor conducting the study, but parents of children with special needs have much higher levels of stress and therefore suffer increased health problems, including higher mortality rates. I know that I have a problem with stress, and I can’t blame my children for that. It’s always been this way. Of course, as I have gotten older and my responsibilities have grown, my levels of stress have increased. I have so many obligations to so many people and much of the time I feel as though I’m disappointing everyone, doing a sub-par job in every area of my life. I do not need to be told that this manifests physically—I get sick and can’t sleep. I feel knots of pressure in my shoulders and neck. Worse, I get irritable with the people who love me the most. I run regularly, which helps, but not enough. So when I heard about this study in January, I signed us up.

The first night of the study, we went around the room, introducing ourselves and explaining why we were there. Many of the parents are dealing with the same sorts of problems Ryan and I deal with—balancing our obligations, managing the particular uncertainty that comes with raising a child with special needs, feeling as though we are failing. One of the women started crying, which made several of us cry. We recognized something in each other. Hugh stared back at us and listened. Then he told us to lie on the ground, our calves propped up on our chairs. The room was hot and crowded. My arms rubbed up against the stranger next to me. Hugh instructed us to close our eyes and spent several minutes asking us to think about our bodies while we “noticed” our breath. I wanted to get the hell out of there. Panic started to rise up into my chest. I began formulating a to-do list. The trunk of my car needs to be cleaned. I need to put my clothes away. I need to pack Ben’s lunch. I do not have time for this. I do not have time.

We were given a notebook and a cd with Hugh’s voice on it and told to do this “body scan” every night. In the past weeks, he has given us many other exercises to help us be mindful, or aware, of what we are doing, what we are thinking, the sensations in our bodies. I have struggled with my own resistance against this. I do not like to dwell. I do not like to sit in a circle with other people and talk about it. I like to push it away and move forward and knock down whatever is in front of me. Even though it can be exhausting, a part of me likes to be in “fight” mode, even when I don’t need to be. There’s that Avett Brothers song that says “Ever since I learned to speak/ I used all my words to fight/ with him and her and you and me/ but it was just a waste of time.” Ryan says that reminds him of me. I am starting to realize that while this has served me well in many ways, while this has helped me to survive, it is not good for me and it is time to stop, or at least to try.

It is easier to be cynical and to make fun of the photos on the wall or to be annoyed with that one parent who wears boots with her sweatpants and talks about how her diabetes makes her have to pee all of the time. But that doesn’t get me anywhere. It helps that Hugh can be funny and that I can tell he’s been through some dark places. So I am lying down as many nights as I can, and I am listening to Hugh’s voice telling me to notice my toes and the spaces in between, to feel the sensation of my breath as it enters my body, to notice my thoughts and allow them to pass. I am giving it a chance, and I think it is beginning to help.

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places in the u.s. i want to go to, in no particular order

I got married at 20, and graduated with my MFA at 24, and had two kids by the time I was 28. I was fortunate to go for two very extended trips to Yucatan in Mexico, where my stepmother is from, when I was 6 and 11 years old. These were not fancy tourist trips. I grew up poor, but my stepmother’s family was in 2nd world poverty. They cooked over a fire on a dirt ground. The walls were made of tar paper, the roofs of tin. There was no toilet. Still, it was beautiful, and I saw Mayan ruins and swam in an underground cove and learned to speak Spanish fluently (which I can no longer do).

The only trip the whole family took was to Las Vegas. My parents gambled and left us kids to wander through Circus Circus. And then we went to the Hoover Dam and fought a lot and drove home cramped together in a hostility-filled Mercury Topaz.

I worked like a maniac to get through college and so did my husband. We were barely affording food, let alone college travel. And then we had kids and that was that, though we did have a glorious five-day vacation in the Bahamas for our 10th anniversary. We did a few tourist things, but mostly we explored the island and met people and ate local food. And drank rum. Lots and lots of rum.

But now the kids are getting older and Elliott’s autism has so improved that I can see real travel on the horizon. I want to travel everywhere. Australia, Italy, Japan. But for now I am aiming small and cheaper, keeping it in the U.S.

Here are some places I have never been:

1. Austin

2. Portland

3. Yosemite

4. Yellowstone

5. Pacific Crest Trail (parts of it)

6. Appalachian Trail

7. North Carolina–Why? No idea.

8. Hawaii

9. Grand Canyon

10. Florida Keys

Now, to cross them off the list.

having too much fun

My friends and Ryan and I shared two pitchers of sangria tonight, so I am in no mood to write a thoughtful post. But I’m committed to posting weekly. I was going to post about how we had a house cleaner and I felt very guilty about it and about so-called “white guilt” and how I think it should be reclassified as “socioeconomically advantaged guilt” and all of the complications. But I’m tipsy and pizza is on the way. So I will save that idea. Enjoy your weekend. I love you, but it’s just the alcohol talking.

 

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we begin again

To my seven readers:

This is mostly a letter to myself. Please be patient.

I realize that my original blog is on the cusp of being defunct. And that is not what I want. My original blog http://bicycleirish.blogspot.com started, in earnest, with Benjamin’s birth. When I had Benjamin, it was like someone smashed me in the back of the neck with some bricks. Ben, I am sorry, but that is what it was like. I love you so much I can feel it in my skin; the feeling is something physical that I carry with me. But you were an exhausting, relentlessly screaming infant. And I struggled to find a way to be a mother in my own way, never having really had one myself, and not identifying with those mothers I saw around me, and that was hard. And I wasn’t writing anymore—I was barely combing my hair—so I started this blog as an outlet. Yes, it serves the purpose of updating people and posting photos, but mostly, it is an outlet. When my little Elliott was born, Benjamin was in the midst of many developmental delays, and we were worried. And then as Ben started getting better, Elliott started getting worse, until, finally, he was diagnosed with autism. I have been through many experiences in my life, but that time navigating Ben’s remaining delays and learning to accept Elliott’s emerging ones…that time was a thick fog. It was hard. I gained weight, I got depressed, I viewed things very narrowly. I felt lonely and venomous and uncertain of myself during that time. Some of that was reflected in my blog. The worst moments were not articulated.

Things are still hard sometimes, and I still worry, but I have come to terms with a lot of things, especially in regard to Elliott. He is starting a general education kindergarten in the fall, which I am nervous about, but, for once, I also see the possibility of him doing okay—which I can’t exactly define—of him having friends (he already has his first one) and being happy. Benjamin is his own little man, the top reader in his class, learning to play piano, a Cub Scout. He has his quirks, and his anxieties. He is unusual, like his mommy and his daddy, but that is to be expected. I feel so fortunate to have these boys who surprise me daily. I know that things can be worse, always, and I am finally beginning to exhale. My friend Michelle says that giving birth splits our bodies open, literally and figuratively, changing us fundamentally. I am beginning to look back at myself and see what I am left with. One thing I am realizing is that I care deeply about writing, and I miss it. This has been thrumming in the background for a while now, and I have been ignoring it.

I have decided to begin writing regularly again, and to start small. I will write at least one entry per week here. It might be about parenting, or it might be about something entirely different. Music, politics, books. Maybe I will post something more creative, something I am working out. In addition to this, a friend has given me some weekly time to write at the Permadirty Project Space in Claremont. It’s only two hours a week, and this is the third week I’ve been working here. Each week, I walk in exhausted, distracted, resistant.  There’s a very small Swedish guy who is always there at the same time I am, mixing music on his laptop. He seems more “artisty” than I will ever be, but I sit down anyway and I type. Two hours later, I exit elated, even last week when most of my writing felt forced and clunky. No internet, no phone. Just writing. I’m working on old projects and new ones, picking my way through the words, slowly.

I was cutting Benjamin’s fingernails yesterday, which I have been doing at least weekly since the day he was born, so it has been seven years. (!) So much of life seems to be upkeep—laundry folding, gas pumping, tooth brushing—and that can be incredibly depressing. But it can also be incredibly reassuring, reaffirming even. Everything is happening outside, but here I am, sitting on the kitchen linoleum, cutting this kid’s fingernails while he chats about Mario and Yoshi and picks the cracker out of his braces with his free hand, the same thing that has happened again and again and again and again. His straw blonde hair is sticking straight up on his head and when I am done, he kisses me with his constantly wet lips and he tells me he loves me. He sits on my legs and relaxes into my body. His head smells like sweat. We begin again next week.

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