The highest compliment my daughter Sara can pay is that something is “so soft!” Whether it’s the cat, her favorite blanket, pajamas, or a shirt she covets at the mall, it just doesn’t get better than that.
We tease her about it, but you know, she’s on to something. Softness is underrated. Everything is about being harder, tougher, sharper. Everyone strives for a hard body, not a soft one.
But really, we all need more softness.
I was thinking about this today because I woke up stressed about everything I needed to accomplish. I imagined myself surging through the day like a battering ram.
But then I realized that wasn’t going to work. If I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that rigidity will get you nothing but hurt. When you steel yourself, something is bound to snap.
The way to real stability is through introducing something soft. You need to be supple and flexible in order to be strong.
So I tried that as I moved through my day. I sat in front of the screen working for an hour, but then I went to yoga, which got my blood flowing again and my mind refocused. I took a break for lunch and let my mind wander while I ate instead of trying to multitask on my phone. Then I turned my favorite music up loud in the car on my way to an appointment.
And now I’m sitting here working again, but I’ve stolen away from the copy to write this.
It would seem to make sense that you should “buck up” when you need to get through something, and maybe sometimes that does work, because being rigid does protect you from feeling things. If that’s what you want. But if you remind yourself to be soft and open, at least some of the time, you have a chance at feeling something.
“You are very grounded lately!” my friend Jennie remarked while we were texting about something mutually frustrating. It was nice to hear. I feel it, but it’s always good when someone else notices it, too.
I am grounded. Even with lots of complicated stuff going on in my life that could easily knock me off balance — and sometimes does — I feel pretty solid. I know that no matter what happens, I can handle it. I’ll be okay. Maybe even more than okay.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned about being grounded: It’s not as much of an effort as you think. Some effort and engagement are required, sure. But more than that, you just have to let it happen. It’s counterintuitive (like so much of life): You actually need to do some opening up and letting go in order to root down and find your grounding.
Here’s the best way I can describe it, courtesy of my yoga practice today and every day. When I lie on my back at the end of class in that final resting pose we call savasana, I always take note of my lower back, which more often than not is curved slightly up and away from the floor. I take note of it, and then I forget about it. I concentrate on my breath, noticing as it enters and leaves my chest. I feel the up and down motion, and I feel the support of the floor underneath me.
A few minutes later, when we start to come back to ourselves, I take note of my lower back again. Always, it has moved gently down to the floor, nice and flat against it. It doesn’t feel like an effort, and there’s no arching or straining at all. My breath and the support of the ground (gravity!) have helped it to release.
That’s being grounded. It doesn’t have to be forced: If you just slow down, let go, and breathe, it can happen.
Easier said than done? Yes. But still easier than you’d expect. And how comforting to know that just by breathing you can support yourself.
This month used to just be the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I don’t know how much I ever really noticed it. Gone are the warm, vivid days of early fall; the leaves are almost all off the trees, and the wind turns colder. Before, I guess, I didn’t think there was much to see or feel about it. It was a trudge toward my favorite holiday, that day of gratitude and good food, after which it would just get cold and dark and miserable for at least three months.
Perhaps it was growing up in Chicago that made me hate the cold so much. Of course I enjoyed being out in the snow as a kid; I can remember making huge forts during some of the blizzards of my childhood. But as I got older I mostly just hurried myself from inside to inside, getting through the bitter, icy outdoors as quickly as I could. Huddling under a layer of blankets so heavy in my cold, dark bedroom that I almost couldn’t breathe. Biding my time until it got warm again and I could emerge.
Then, in November of 2003, I had a baby. It was November 5, to be exact. The day before she was born, it was warm enough that I could walk to the nail salon in my Brooklyn neighborhood in flip-flops for my last pedicure before motherhood, the leaves on the sidewalk crunching around my bare toes. A few days later, when we took her home, it was cold enough to see your breath, and I worried that the heaters in our apartment building had not yet kicked on, that she’d freeze to death.
Two years later I had another baby, this time in late November, on the 23rd — the day before Thanksgiving. She was born in Hawaii (you can read about that here), where it was, of course, hot and sunny; her first beach day was when she was only a few days old. Then we swaddled her in blankets and got back on the plane, went home to the cold, where I could see the skeletal branches of the tree outside my bedroom window while I nursed my new daughter.
Becoming a mother made me notice the passage of time in a new way. Those early days were measured in minutes and hours, and going outside into the fresh, brisk air was a relief after being cocooned inside with a newborn, or — worse — a newborn and a toddler.
The month of things curling into themselves, moving back toward the earth to sleep, became for me the time when new life began. I took my first daughter out for long walks in her stroller, in Prospect Park; no longer did I barricade myself inside for the duration. I not only went outside; I stayed outside, for hours. I looked around me. The bare branches of the trees were sharp and angular against the sky; the leaves still clinging to them were lovely in their starkness. I noticed how the sunlight was whiter and clearer — purer — and how the breath moved more easily through my lungs. In late afternoon, the early twilight felt thrilling and heartbreaking. It often brought tears to my eyes (sometimes it still does).
November became a sacred space for me.
This year my older daughter turned 10; my younger one is almost 8. Each year I honor this month as the time I came alive to the cold seasons and saw them for what they are — a beautiful, contemplative time when the earth takes its rest.
I also honor this month as the time I became a mother, which taught me to see everything differently.
I am nothing if not sentimental. I love photographs, letters and yearbooks, old school awards and report cards, ticket stubs from national monuments and museums and programs from theater productions. A huge cardboard box of Duran Duran posters, pins, books, magazine pictures, and even stories I wrote about the members of the band (never mind) is still tucked away in the closet of my bedroom in the house where I grew up.
When it comes to my children — I still have certain tiny outfits they wore as babies that I won’t get rid of. Scraps of paper upon which they scrawled their first drawings, then letters and words. Video clips of them singing together where I hardly recognize them, they’re so little. Art projects from preschool and kindergarten.
As they move through elementary school, I keep fewer of the papers that pile up. But I still treat some of the things that pass through their hands (and backpacks) as relics. And I put my phone in their faces to snap pictures every chance I get.
It’s important to me to document life in these ways.
All that said, I can also be ruthless about getting rid of things. Clothes that no longer fit? Bye. I’d say the same about clothes I just haven’t worn in decades, but I never keep them long enough. When I finally got around to going through a cabinet of old bills and other files a few years ago, I relished the task of getting rid of all that paper. Even books, items I thoroughly love — if it’s something I didn’t like, or just thought was okay, I am happy to let it go, to make room for future tomes I might treasure and keep forever.
So. Sentimental, yes, most definitely. But a clean slate also appeals.
I am a homebody — I inhabit a space thoroughly when I’m in it. But as it turns out, I am also able to move to the next place fairly easily. Each time we’ve moved since we came to the East Coast — from our Hoboken apartment to one in Brooklyn, then to two other places in Brooklyn and finally to the little South Orange house where we’ve thus far raised our daughters — I have made a point to take one last walk through the empty space and acknowledge that I loved it there before closing the front door for the last time. It doesn’t feel painful to do that; it feels wonderful, a beautiful ritual. I actually look forward to doing it when we move from here, whenever that might be.
Somehow along the way I’ve understood that the buildings where so much of our lives happen aren’t really dependent on brick and mortar for their significance. I can truly say I’ve loved all of my homes, from the very first one on North Bernard Street in Chicago to my college dorm rooms (okay, maybe not the freshman year one so much, though I did love my roommate) and apartments, to all the places I’ve lived as an adult. But despite being someone who cherishes symbols in a lot of ways, I have been able to locate myself where I am, and not necessarily in the places I’ve been.
Yet, there is a learning curve. And I’m still very much on that curve. As much as I’m confident, even exhilarated, about moving from one physical space to another, moving away from circumstances, situations, feelings and people can be a different story.
Still, the example of moving house helps me to navigate those more complicated leavetakings.
If you imagine yourself as a tortoise, with your home on your back, it becomes a little easier — or at least less scary — to think about moving on. Everything you need, you take with you. The things you don’t — they can go.
I like to think about the neighborhoods and towns where I’ve lived the way I think of my college town — even though I’m not there anymore, it’s still there, and it’s still mine.
Everything is like that, I think. Everything you cherish, everything you find significant, the things you want to remember: You carry them with you. Whether or not you’ve got hard evidence — photographs or letters, the people who shared those things with you still in your life — it’s all there.
Did you ever read the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses? It’s Molly Bloom’s chapter, and it features a generous helping of that word: Yes.
We’re often taught that we need to learn to say no. But it’s just as important to your mental health, I think, to know when to say yes.
I was in yoga this morning. My teacher Emma’s 10:45 intermediate class is really fun. It’s small, and most of the people who come are pretty experienced yogis, so she challenges us.
Today we sat down and right before we closed our eyes she said we were going to practice handstand against the wall, with a chair, and we were going to backbend so our feet touched the chair.
I fear that I gave her an incredulous look before I closed my eyes. But once I did, I thought, Okay. We’re going to do that.
A few years ago the mere thought of having to do an inversion (the dreaded handstand, which I’ve since made friends with) or a backbend would fill me with dread. It would harden me up instantly. I’d start saying to myself, No. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. I’m scared. No.
Today, even while in the back of my mind I thought, Won’t that hurt my back? What if I fall? I also said to myself, Okay. I’ll see how it goes. I’ll do what I can do.
While we sat there opening and softening (which is what you do at the beginning of each and every yoga class), Emma talked about how being vulnerable means taking a risk. Is it scary to think of getting into a handstand and then sending your feet down the wall toward a backbend? Hell yes. It means dipping into the unknown. The question is, do you want to? Are you willing to try? Do you feel capable of trying? Do you know how far is far enough for you, where it still feels safe, and do you know where to stop?
My answer now is: Yes.
I’ve never particularly had a problem with being vulnerable. I actually adore backbends, which scare a lot of people because the intense opening through your chest can let a lot of emotion bubble to the surface. And once I figured out that they are about bending through your upper back, not your lower, and gained strength in my upper body, I became a lot less scared of full backbends.
My issue was always with reining in that openness — with finding the boundaries, slowing down, engaging before opening. (Yes, in life, not just yoga.) I’ve since learned a lot about engaging and grounding, about opening up from a safer place. I used to throw myself into a handstand attempt and hope for the best. Now I know how to properly get there, and to ask for help when I need it, and to move slowly, step by step, and see where the opening feels good.
So we did a lot of backstand prep. We did a thigh stretch, and I felt myself deeper in it than I used to be — I’ve made progress there (yoga is the very best way I’ve ever found to see and feel your progress). We did a handstand against the wall with bent knees and open heart, which I’ve done lots of times before and feel fine about. We did ustrasana, my very favorite pose, with our pubic bones pressed against blocks at the wall. We held it a long time. It felt great.
Then it came time to try. Emma helped me up. I bent my knees and pressed my feet against the wall. My arms felt good, strong, firm — not at all like they would buckle, as I’d feared. In fact, as I started to think about my legs, about letting one move down toward the chair back, I completely forgot about my arms. They didn’t need my attention.
They were a big, strong yes.
I was afraid the pose would strain my back. But as I let the toes of one foot move down toward the chair, I realized that my back felt fine. In fact, it felt good. I touched the back of the chair with my foot and breathed. Then I moved that foot up the wall and tried with the other.
Got it. Yes.
Both feet down? Not this time. That was my boundary for today. But I felt exhilarated.
Well, it’s April, and I’ve finally come up with my word/concept/idea for 2013: gratitude.
It seems like such a simple little thing, practically a cliché. Why exactly did it take me so long to come to it? I sat with a few other things: softness, stillness, here-ness. I’ll come back to those again in the coming months.
But something about the spring sun and some purple crocuses I saw blooming in an ordinary suburban strip-mall parking lot this morning made me think: I’m grateful.
I’m grateful for the health and happiness of my loved ones–especially my daughters, who are smart and funny and thriving and simply glorious creatures. I’m grateful that I get to have something to do with their lives and their upbringing.
I’m grateful that my husband likes his new job, enjoys being a part of community theater, and just seems more content lately than he has in quite a while.
I’m grateful for the amazing community I live in, full of some of the smartest, coolest, most interesting, talented, engaged and committed people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’m especially grateful for the network of fellow parents–if ever there was a village, SOMA is it.
I’m grateful for friends who let me be myself, who truly get me, and allow me to give the same gift back to them.
I’m grateful for my self-awareness, which I’ve cultivated with a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the past five years or so. I’m especially grateful for the realization that physical awareness and wellness makes a huge impact on psychological, emotional and spiritual awareness and wellness.
I’m grateful that I have a beautiful, natural place where I go to run and enjoy the weather (good or bad) and the quiet and the light and the stillness and the familiar faces I pass regularly each time I’m there.
I’m grateful for yoga and all the ways it’s helped me to fall into place.
I’m grateful for words to read and write and for music to hear and sing and dance to.
I’m grateful to be more clear than I’ve ever been about what’s important.
The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.
A friend posted that on Facebook this morning, and it is sticking with me as I move through the day.
This is the time of the year when everything starts to move faster, and gets crazier. Every year around December 1 I try to consciously shut that down for myself.
We celebrate a secular Christmas (tree, gifts) and Hanukkah (lighting the menorah). What I love about both tree and menorah is the lights. As much as Christmas is not my favorite holiday (my parents worked in retail when I was growing up, so December was synonymous with stress), I’ve always liked the lights. I love decorating the tree and then darkening the room to watch it glow. I like that about the Hanukkah candles as well (that and the sound of my girls reciting the prayers, which they learned in preschool at a temple, and which I think my dad, who was Jewish, would appreciate).
If I focus on that glow and the quiet, and let that be the central idea of the December holidays, I’m able to stay with the peaceful part of it, and not get caught up in the low roar that starts now and goes on for the next five weeks. I’m able to better consider what it means to celebrate the end of another year.
In fact, I’ve found that being still is a great way to handle any stressful or negative situation. It goes against my nature — or what I’ve always assumed my nature to be — not to have an instant, passionate emotional reaction when something intense is going on. With practice, I’m learning to rein in the reactive part — even if I feel the emotion like a punch in the stomach. As it turns out, being still and letting others react instead, or letting situations come untangled on their own, actually works — just about every single time.
It’s not that you’re being passive or avoiding things. You just don’t have to jump on a feeling of anger or frustration or desperation right then and there. In fact, it’s often a really bad idea to do so. When I look back at the moments in my life where I did something I wish I hadn’t, I see that it’s because I reacted in a knee-jerk way, when it would have been smarter to take a step back, pause, breathe, and take time to get some perspective on what was happening and how I felt about it.
The times I’ve reacted in the heat of the moment, I did so because I had some sort of need that I imagined must be satisfied right then. I wanted the other person to justify what I was feeling, or I wanted them to feel as bad as I did. Or maybe I just didn’t want to feel it at all, so by trying to connect, I was attempting to get rid of it. Either way, I didn’t give myself time to really get a handle on the situation. I didn’t hear all I needed to hear.
Lots of emotions feel bad to sit with, but pushing them away doesn’t make them go away. Letting myself be uncomfortable often results in my moving through whatever it is, hearing its truth, and leaving it behind.
So. This is a good time of year to practice being still, to imagine a nice, porous boundary around you, one that gives you a little breathing space. It doesn’t shut people or feelings out — it lets in what’s useful and what serves you. It allows you to maintain the stillness needed to engage with everything, and everyone, in a more graceful way.