Thursday, February 27, 2020

Yin and Yang

A few weeks ago I flew down to Phoenix to spend time with my mother and stepfather. My mother is seventy-nine and my stepfather Al is ninety-two. My mom takes care of pretty much everything-- the meals, the house, the bills, the finances, the travel arrangements, communication with family and care givers. She's got a ton of energy and she's very connected. She rivals my fifteen-year-old daughter for time on her cell phone. She's always in touch with someone or researching something or getting directions on her phone.

My stepfather, on the other hand, was too old to take on a smart phone when the technology burst onto the scene. At ninety-two Al is in good shape. Though he no longer drives, he still plays bridge once or twice a week and is pretty mentally lucid. During my week visiting them I was aware of how their little universe functioned. Mom buzzed about cooking, cleaning, typing away on her laptop or cell phone, going to the gym, taking care of her houseguests (me and my daughter Lucia).  While mom was always up when I woke (early), Al slept later. He rose and dressed slowly and then took his time walking with the help of his walker or cane from the end of the house where the bedroom was to the other end of the house where he spent most of his time, in his study.  Mom spurred Al along to eat, get dressed, take his meds, and Al offered Mom the invitation to slow down and be at rest. Though I could tell it was challenging for her at times, I noticed that Mom sat longer at the table at meals,  patiently waited for Al to make his way down the hall, allotted more time to get into and out of the car. 

Al would eat his breakfast of yogurt and granola that my mom made and set in front of him, watch some news, and tinker at his desk. Sometimes he fell asleep for five or ten minutes sitting on the couch or in his chair at the dining room table. One afternoon after lunch on the patio, Lucia and my mom went out the garage to finish an art project they were working on. I said I'd clean up but Al struck up a conversation and I ended up sitting at the patio table with him for over an hour. I had the itch to get up and go into the house to do the dishes so that my mother wouldn't have to do them when she came back in, but something told me not to.

Al and I sat there, mostly in quiet, looking over the landscape of Saguaros, Chollas and Ocotillos. The multiple bird feeders on the patio hosted cardinals, cactus wren, Gambel's quail and curved-billed thrashers. Every once in a while I would ask Al what kind of bird was feeding or Al would ask me a question, something about what I was doing in my life these days or our plans for the rest of the day. A few times he fell asleep. But as quietly as he fell asleep he woke up again and resumed our conversation. After an hour or so Mom came in, walking her efficient, determined walk, to check on us. It was a natural moment to transition-- me to the dishes and Al back to his study. But the stillness and silence I felt from sitting with Al stayed with me.

I've thought about that time with Mom and Al a lot-- how this complex system of energies balances their lives. Mom is the Yang to Al's Yin and vice versa. The symbiosis of their energies makes their life as a couple possible. It's a reminder to me that we all need both. Maybe our partner or our kids or our co-worker offers some Yin to our Yang. Maybe we need a little Yang to fire things up and we find it through another person, animal or place. The point is that we all need both the Yin and the Yang energies to be in balance. And though we might weigh more heavily in one area, both the Yin and Yang energies live within each of us.

Being more Yang myself, I appreciated the experience of sitting with Al, this quiet force of stillness. And I appreciated that Mom kept his quiet world spinning with her gale-force energy. My time sitting with Al that week helped me connect with my Yin energy a little bit. Al, at ninety-two, embodies the authentic grace that comes from slowing down and the end of a very long life. I feel grateful to have had that special, enlightening time with him. I hope the feeling stays with me for a while.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Road Home

Last night terrible cramps wove their way into my dreams. I'm one of those annoying women who says, "I've never had menstrual cramps," so I didn't fully understand what they were until I woke up. When I was giving birth to my daughter Lucia fifteen years ago, the midwife asked if I was having contractions. Having never given birth before I asked her what they felt like. She said they felt like menstrual cramps. I explained to her that I'd never experienced menstrual cramps so couldn't identify if I was indeed having contractions. But now, at age 51, I know what cramps feel like. Cramps are intense. They do indeed remind me of being in labor.

In the last few years contemplating my own aging, I have become compelled to understand more about menopause, both for myself and for other women. In doing this exploration I have learned a lot about the broader implications of aging for women, in particular the stigma and shame associated with the very process of menopause. Many women my age have no one to query about what their mother's menopause was like because so many of our mothers had hysterectomies. It seemed that twenty years ago, and still today, the medical response to this change in life has been to just take out those confusing female organs.

In my research of both scientific data and personal accounts of menopause, I have generated a working theory that there is a mirror-like symmetry between pre-puberty and post-fertility (aka menopause). Physiologically, both pre-puberty and post-fertility are times when we have lower estrogen levels. Emotionally and mentally, in the time before puberty--when we are little girls-- we are playful, unselfconscious and more authentically true to ourselves. Pre-puberty, girls operate from an internal compass. Once girls enter puberty they begin the long journey of a life in which they are assessed and evaluated on their performance and appearance. Puberty launches girls into periods and cramps and dating and parenthood and peer pressure and social media and media objectification. It is exhausting and unrelenting. 

Then, in middle age, the time when our fertile window has closed, women come back to a stage more similar to our pre-pubescent selves. There is a decrease in estrogen, a slowing down, an opportunity to settle back into our true nature of childhood. This beautiful hormonal symmetry offers women in menopause a chance to re-meet this playful, unselfconscious self; we come home to our true nature again.

I don't know if the cramps will come again next month or if the cramps will be replaced with hot flashes tomorrow or next month. Maybe I'll have both. I'm prepared for whatever comes because I know, whatever it is, I'm on the road home again. 

Saturday, February 8, 2020

New Cleats and Chanting

Last week I took my fifteen-year-old daughter to Dick's Sporting Goods to get new cleats. We'd been trying to find a spare hour to go to the mall in Renton for weeks and finally eked one out on a dreary rainy afternoon, between piano and dinner. It had been a shitty day already. I'd heard ten too many sound bites from Donald Trump on the radio and I was convinced, beyond measure, that his message of selfishness, laziness and stupidity was permeating the brain membranes of sane people everywhere, like the strange force that made people lose their minds in Sandra Bullock's movie Bird Box.

Dick's Sporting Goods is like Costco for sporty stuff. It's huge and echoey and I swear ghosts work there. Whenever I tried to get someone to help us they would miraculously disappear behind a rack or through a door. When I finally found someone and asked where the bathroom was because I just needed a moment to splash water on my hot flashing face, they told me where it was. After walking across the store I found the bathroom but there was a code on the door and the guy hadn't given me the code, so I walked back to try to find another ghost who might have the code. My patience, thin before entering the toxic vortex of vinyl and lycra, was almost non-existent by this point. I kept thinking, "This is the Donald Trump influence. People are selfish and lazy and stupid!"

Among all of the hundreds of boxes of cleats, none organized by size or style or even brand, Lucia finally found a pair in her size for an affordable price. We walked the block back to the register where the clerk told us the shoes would be $103. "The display said $49.99" I told him, feeling very close to punching him like a mob boss might punch an underling in Good Fellas, square in the nose with one sharp "Pop" and he'd be down. We'd just take the shoes and walk slowly to our car. I imagined the whole scene in my mind. But I didn't punch Joshua the clerk. We returned to the cleats and found three pair that might work. We walked back up to have a different clerk scan each of them to make sure they were indeed the price marked. Lucia chose a pair, I paid, and we walked out.

It was still dark. Still raining. I was starving and pumping with adrenaline. When we got in the car Lucia looked at me, very concerned. "Mommy, are you okay?" "I'm fine." I replied. "I'm just glad that's over with." But she could feel it, my rage, my fury. I'm sure to her it felt like I was about to blow. And then who would drive us home?

We drove through the packed parking lot, past the gargantuan store for all things for your pets. Past the half-block store with make ups and creams, past the health club and all the slow-fast food restaurants. When we got to Boeing field, right before Rainier Avenue South, Lucia started chanting. First she chanted Om Namah Shivaya, a chant I used to play when I taught kids' yoga at her school and my studio. I joined in, happy to be putting my energy outside of my seemingly stuck negativity. Lucia moved on to a Chakra balancing chant that I taught her a few years ago when I came home from my first trip to India. We chanted the whole way home, a good half-hour drive. We harmonized. We took turns leading. As we moved geographically away from Dick's Sporting Goods, my mind moved too, into balance, harmony and even joy.

When we drove into the driveway it was still raining. I could hear the dog barking for us to come in. As I pushed the parking brake into place I looked at Lucia, "That was so nice. Thank you." I said to her. "I thought it would calm you down," replied my teenage daughter, smiling, I think with relief that I was no longer insane. How did she know that would help? I'm not sure, but I'm so grateful for her insight on that dark, rainy, politically-depressing night. Thank you Lucia.

Monday, February 3, 2020

In my dreams.

This morning when I woke up I knew that I'd had a very deep sleep, the kind that is often filled with dreams. I lay in bed for a bit to try to get my dreams to come back and when I finally remembered, I became aware that I'd spent the whole night with my Nana. Nana has been dead for almost twenty-five years but when she was alive she was my favorite, and I felt (as did my sisters) that I was her favorite too. I know now in adulthood that what I got from my Nana in childhood was the experience of belonging, of feeling at home, truly, deeply loved for exactly who I was.

In my dream Nana knew her time on earth was coming to an end. She told my sisters and me to take the Christmas tree down and bring it to the basement garbage area of her high rise building. As my sister Katherine and I upended the tree to bring it to the elevator, we could see that the tree still had tons of ornaments that we recognized as sentimental and special. We surreptitiously put the ornaments in our pockets and took the tree down the fourteen floors to the basement. This beginning of my dream made sense to me even though Nana was Jewish and never had a Christmas tree.

When my sister and I got back up to Nana's apartment it seemed that Nana had already passed. Her things were all laid out--- clothes, shoes, jewelry, books. It was like a big, free garage sale. My two sisters and I were wandering around putting things on that Nana had worn. There were other people too who were taking things and trying them on. If they saw me or one of my sisters looking at the item, they would hand it to us and say, "You take it. She was your grandmother." It was civilized and sweet.

When I got out of bed after remembering last night's dream I came downstairs to my desk to write about it and see if more thoughts or feelings came. They did. As I recalled the dream, I also recalled Nana's face, clear as if she were right in front of me, smiling like she did as her three ragamuffin granddaughters came up to 14A ready for a snack or a diet root beer with milk (her specialty). We'd exit into her little lobby and there she'd be, standing with arms wide, smiling big behind her Ray Bans. She'd take us, one by one, into a full, long hug and send us to the kitchen to raid the fridge.

I know that my Nana had a very difficult relationship with many members of her family. Some people found her cold and judgmental. For whatever reason she wasn't this way with my sisters or with me. She gave us a gift, the blessing of feeling deeply loved and accepted for who we were. I don't know enough about how the subconscious works to understand the timing of Nana coming to me in my dreams last night. But I know enough to understand that dreams like this should be listened to and contemplated. I'm taking last night's dream as a reminder to stay true to who I am, to remember that no matter how unmoored I might feel at different times in my life, I can touch back into that memory of Nana-- the warm, smiling eyes and full, long hug.

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