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The Stretch

I used to do a lot of yoga. I’m not a naturally flexible person so yoga was a particular challenge for me. Not only was it a challenge to reach for my toes in a forward bend, but it was also a challenge to avoid looking in the mirror to see just how far I had to go. I hated that feeling of stretch, of being unable to do something I set out to do.

But I stuck with it. I kept pushing that edge, easing into it and sitting with the intensity until it subsided then easing into it again, this time a little farther, playing that edge of pain and fear, not quite going straight into it, but just pushing the border. Once in a Yin Yoga class we held a hip opener for a million years, and I felt my right hip relax beyond any relaxation point it had reached before, and I suddenly thought that this relaxation might be boundless and therefore my body might be boundless and then what did that mean for me? Panic rose up through my chest along with the urge to run out of the room, and I might have had my leg not felt like it wasn’t a part of me anymore.

Stretching changes things. It changes me and my idea of myself. It opens spaces in my body that I didn’t know were closed.

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Waste Not, Want Not

Nearly six years ago, my daughter watched intently as the woman I’d hired stood at my kitchen counter and washed, dehydrated, and encapsulated my placenta. Today I planted the remaining capsules under the tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in my garden.

In retrospect, I’m not quite sure why I had my placenta encapsulated in the first place. I could say that I had it encapsulated because I couldn’t stomach the idea of making it into a smoothie or a stir-fry, but that doesn’t address the question of why I decided to consume my placenta in the first place.

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Love and Marriage

When the music started, I rose with the rest of the congregation, but I didn’t look towards the doors at the back of the church. I kept my eyes on my brother, my little brother, the man with the beard and the fancy suit, standing on his own with the icons and the altar.

His face was drawn, a crease between his brows.

Until.

The doors opened and his eyes found her. He exhaled, his shoulders eased, and a smile dissolved the tension around his eyes. My smile mirrored his and my eyes filled at the love in his face.

She joined him there and they joined hands and she joined our family.

This is what marriage is about. I am so grateful I was there to witness it.

Dealing with Stress

Due to some discord in my community, I’ve been feeling a great deal of emotional stress lately. It kind of sucks, but it’s also provided me a chance to recognize some of the ways in which I manage stress. These are my instructions to myself, and I thought some of you might find them helpful, too.

1. Keep breathing.

I tend to hold my breath or breathe just at the very top of my lungs when I’m stressed. Taking a moment or two to breathe slowly and deeply seems to help. If I remember, I also add in a couple of metta phrases because—well, it couldn’t hurt.

2. Eat well.

My inclination is to drown my sorrows in a bag of potato chips, a bar of chocolate, and a dry martini, but those foods just accentuate my anxiety symptoms. It’s not as satisfying in the short term, but sticking with fruits, veggies, and other whole and healthy foods leaves me feeling better.

3. Take an e-mail break.

This might not work with every stressful situation, but this particular conflict is playing out largely in a frenzy of e-mail reply-alls, which means I get a phenomenal headache and my left eye twitches every time I look at my inbox. Checking e-mail only during two or three set times each day and logging off the rest of the time has been helping. I do worry that I’ll miss something important that’s unrelated to the stressful stuff, though, so if this lasts much longer, I’ll set up a filter and funnel all of the unpleasant e-mails to a folder I can look at when I feel ready for it.

4. Go outside.

Spring arrived in New England not a moment too soon. I take several walks a day, both with my kids and on my own, and while the sunshine and birdsong and peeping frogs don’t cure my headaches, they sure make them easier to bear.

5. Exercise.

Rather than curl up under a quilt, which is what I want to do, I’ve been getting up at 5:30 every morning and doing an hour of Fitness Blender workouts. Admittedly, I do not enjoy these workouts while I’m doing them, and I curse Daniel and Kelly with every jumping lunge or flutter-kick squat, but I feel deliciously exhausted afterward and ready for a shower and the rest of my day.

6. Keep an open heart.

As much as I want to close up and run away or lose myself in fantasies of moving to Asheville (North Carolina) or Brisbane (Australia), I’m doing my best to keep myself here both physically and emotionally. “Cut and run” is practically my motto, but I suspect sticking around offers me a great chance for spiritual growth and learning.

7. Connect with my senses.

On my walks, I look for rabbits and newly-opened flowers. I take my camera and look for new angles on the same old sights. I tune into my kids, especially when they’re playing harmoniously together. I smell the herbs and spices as I measure them into the soup, and I taste the grapefruit on my tongue. These things ground me.

8. Do something for someone else.

Taking meals to a friend or looking up fun, new dessert recipes to delight my family or surprising my spouse by doing the dinner dishes while he’s reading to the kids at bedtime help me take the focus off of my own stress and anger, fear and self-pity. Hugging people also helps.

9. Sleep.

When I’m stressed, I don’t sleep as well, which means I need to stay in bed longer to get enough rest to function well. I’ve been trying to prioritize an early bedtime over other important but less time-sensitive tasks (like my own pleasure reading). I definitely feel the difference when I’ve gotten a solid eight hours (or more).

10. Keep my family and friends close.

Maybe it’s the oxytocin release of being with loved ones, but it’s been helping to make time in my schedule just to be with my spouse, my kids, and my friends. All of them are precious to me and remind me that I’m precious to them, too, and that helps neutralize some of the negative effects of working through this conflict (even though—or perhaps because?—I rarely talk with them about it directly).

These are the things that have helped me during this most recent stressful time. They don’t erase the stress completely (and I certainly don’t do all of these things perfectly all the time), but every little bit helps.

What do you do to manage stress in your life?

Satisfaction.

Learning to Ask Questions

“Mom, Laura Ingalls Wilder was wrong,” said my five-year-old one morning while I squeezed lemon wedges into hot water for the “lemon tea” he’d requested. “She said kids like drinking cambric tea because it makes them feel grown up, but I drank cambric tea and I didn’t feel grown up at all.”

I felt unaccountably sad hearing this insight. While I like that he’s learning that not everything he reads applies directly to real life—a lesson I hope he will extend to what he reads online as he gets older—I had no idea that he’d asked me to make him cambric tea because he wanted to feel grown up. Of course he wants to feel grown up. I remember striving for adulthood and all of the rights and privileges I imagined I would inherit upon attaining that magical state. It’s just that I’d not heard this from him before.

Now that it’s in my awareness, though, I’m noticing that both of my children talk about growing up with some frequency. I can hear them working out what it means to be an adult. They talk about their future careers, how many kids they’ll have, who they’ll marry.

Their discussions give me insights into how they see the world. The other night, my son said at dinner, “Women and men do things differently.” When asked for examples, he said, “Well, I know men and women both go to work—” he glanced up meaningfully, it seemed, at jobless me, “—but only women do things like give birth, adopt…”

He trailed off and after a pause I said, “Well, men don’t give birth, but they can adopt.”

“They can?” he asked, eyebrows raised, and I wondered what chain reaction of understanding this piece of information had set off.

It reminded me of a discussion about marriage we’d had a few weeks ago. My daughter said, “I want to get married when I grow up, but I’m not sure yet if I’m going to marry a man or a woman.”

I assured her that she didn’t need to make that choice at age nine, and she’d figure it out when she found someone she loved.

“Well, I have to marry a woman,” my son chimed in.

“Why’s that?” I asked. He looked at me with the “duh, Mom” look he’s already perfecting.

“Because men can’t marry men. They can only marry women.”

“Actually, men can marry men,” I said, and named for him two male couples we know who are married. Then he went on a tangent about how he wanted to invite them to his sixth birthday party, which at this point involves hiring a bus to take everyone we know into Boston to ride the swan boats and eat pizza. We’ll pick blueberries on the way home then have cake and play Legos at our house, outside because our house isn’t big enough for all of the people. (For the record, these are his plans, not mine.)

I’ve recognized all along that my children’s world view is being shaped by their everyday experiences, but these conversations highlight the limited control I have over this world view. My children see the gender roles played out by their parents, and they extrapolate those to apply to the whole species. Our church and social circle include many more women couples and hetero couples than men couples, and apparently my son has interpreted this to mean that he’s restricted in whom he loves. Of course my kids draw these conclusions from their observations, but still it surprises me.

My first reaction is to try and expand their view. “We’ve got to invite John and Elliot over to dinner!” I think. Or, “I need to go back to grad school—right away!” Or, “We need to move somewhere we can walk to things and take the bus! Quick! Buy some seeds! We need to grow our own food instead of having a monoculture lawn!”

I want to orchestrate the kind of world I want them to see as the norm. I want them to see people who love each other getting married and building families. I want them to see that our driving-all-the-time, hyper-consumptive culture isn’t the only way to live; that a big yard might be nice, but suburban living isn’t sustainable if everyone does it, and we should make our decisions with that in mind. I want them to understand from experience that billions of people speak and think and live their lives in languages other than English. I want them to see that people aren’t defined by the choices they make. I want to build my kids into the kind of grown-ups I myself wish I was.

But I can’t give them every experience, and I don’t want every social encounter and every career move and every relocation to be contrived as a “learning experience.” More than anything, I want my children to remain open and accepting, and that’s not going to get done if I limit their experiences to just those that fall in line with the specific lessons I have in mind. My children need to have a wide range of experiences, both direct and indirect, and then we need to talk about them.

And this means I need to learn to ask more questions and give fewer answers. My son didn’t need me to explain to him that a mug of water and hot milk might not make him feel grown up even though it made Laura and Mary feel that way. He thought about it, tried it out, and figured it out for himself.

Giving my children answers limits them to the answers I’ve drawn from my own personal experience. But encouraging them to ask questions and having faith that they can find the answers themselves will open up the world for them.

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“Mommy! Look!”

“Mommy! Look! Leaf buds!”

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“Mommy! Look! There’s mud on my sneakers!”

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“Mommy! Look! Crocuses!”

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My daughter’s oversized reactions to subtle signs of spring draw me out of my daily doubts and stresses and into her enthusiasm. Together we exclaim over the sounds of meltwater running beneath mounds of snow, daydream seeds toward the sunlight, and poise our ears to catch the first peeps of thawed-out frogs.

The soapy dishwater is the key.

Washing, Rinsing, Conversing: Doing Dishes with my Five-Year-Old

Mommy, I still wish I could have one of those superhero flash drives. Maybe I can get one when I’m older.

Sure, when you’re older and you need a flash drive, you can get a superhero flash drive.

There was one that was a cat queen or something. She looked like she had ears and a cape.

That might have been Catwoman. She’s like a cat superhero.

Yes, there’s Batman and Catwoman and the most awesomest one that shoots red blood from his eyes—Superman!

Superman shoots blood from his eyes?

Yes, red blood. He was fighting some green aliens with green horns, and he was shooting from his eyes—it might have been like what comes out of light sabers.

Oh, I got you. Like red lasers?

Yes, red lasers. I think we need to air-dry the rest of these dishes. This one is too big for the towel.

Yes, the cookie sheet is pretty big. Do you want me to help you? Oh, wow! You almost got it all dried! There’s just a little spot here…there! Now I’ll put it away.

Mommy, do you know about the drunkards?

The drunkards?

Yes. They do nothing but drink all the time.

Oh, yes. Drunkards. How did you hear about drunkards?

From The Little Prince.

Oh, yeah. I remember that. You’re quite the listener.

Oh, yes. I’m a very good rememberer. There was a picture of the drunkards and there were bottles of soda all around. Soda that puts sugar on your teeth. Like agave nectar. That’s sugar. But honey is made by bees.

Yes, honey is made by bees, but it’s still got sugar in it.

Yes, because the sweet liquid that’s in it is…pollen.

Actually, nectar is the liquid.

Oh, yes! Nectar is the sweet liquid and pollen is like a powder. There was powder on our car window one time and Sister told me it was pollen. It was a powder and it was the same color as nutritional yeast.

Wow, you are on fire today!

Yes, I’m a very good rememberer.

For Your Listening Pleasure

I’ve listened to some great shows in the past couple of weeks, and here are two I wanted to share with you:

Radiolab – Galapagos:

My daughter loves conservation and advocating for endangered animals. Yesterday’s homeschool nature class had a guest botanist named Henry, who took the kids on a 1.5-hour-long walk identifying trees and other plants, and discussing a program in Massachusetts called BioMap2. BioMap2 classifies land in the state to identify areas critical to wildlife species. The hope is that data collected from the BioMap efforts can help inform development decisions so that we can maintain biodiversity and rare species in Massachusetts.

The Radiolab show about the Galapagos asks a related question:

“Is it inevitable that even our most sacred natural landscapes will eventually get swallowed up by humans? And just how far are we willing to go to stop that from happening?”

The class inspired my nine-year-old to begin thinking seriously about what she can do to protect non-human species (which protects humans, too, by the way), and she listened with rapt attention to this Radiolab episode. I’m pleased to find that, so far, she seems energized rather than disheartened by learning about the troubles in our ecosystem.

Moth Radio Hour – Fog of Disbelief by Carl Pillitteri:

Pillitteri recounts his experience inside a nuclear power plant during the 2011 earthquake(s) and tsunami in Japan. I found this story amazing and incredibly moving. It’s interesting that I listened to this story the same day I picked up A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, in which the main character finds a diary washed up on the shore in British Columbia and wonders if it might be flotsam from the tsunami. I really enjoy those moments of serendipity.

If you listen(ed) to these, drop a note and let me know what you think! And if you listened to something awesome recently, leave a comment and let me know. I love listening to awesome stuff!

On Not Seeing Doctors

When I was a kid, I liked going to the doctor. I didn’t like the tongue depressor (quick gag reflex and a near-phobia of vomiting) nor did I care for shots (for my booster shot at age five, four grown men had to hold me down so the nurse could give me one shot), but the waiting rooms were fun, and the medicines tasted good, and I got to be the center of attention for a few minutes.

Then I turned eighteen and decided to go on birth control, and had my first pelvic exam.

I’ll not mince words: I hate PAP and pelvic exams. And when I say I hate them, I mean I’m terrified of them. I find them utterly dehumanizing. I had two okay exams, one with a certified nurse midwife in private practice and one with a male OB at a Planned Parenthood. But aside from those two okay ones, I’ve had doctors leave me splay-legged and half-naked for minutes at a time because they forgot something across the room or out in the hall or somewhere. And then there’s the thing where the nurse sets everything up and I don’t even see the doctor doing the exam until my feet are up in the stirrups. And the awesomest: Three times I’ve had doctors surprise me with a rectal exam. Even if you like people to jump out from behind furniture and throw confetti—which I don’t—this isn’t generally a fun kind of surprise. (Surprise!)

But even though I hated pelvic exams, I got them like a good girl, every year from the time I turned eighteen, because they can detect cancer and keep me from dying.

And then I found out that maybe they don’t. From the NY Times, June 30, 2014:

“The reviewers said that they could not even locate studies that had assessed whether routine pelvic exams of asymptomatic women could reduce death or disease from ovarian and other cancers, or benefit women with common benign conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or warts.”

Nope, American doctors have been putting me through a yearly humiliating exam for two decades and there’s not even any evidence supporting the practice. I have to wonder: What else are my doctors doing that’s not supported by actual evidence?

Oh! I know of another one! When I was in labor with my daughter, I had my nether regions probed by literally a dozen people, most of whom didn’t even bother to introduce themselves first, much less offer me any scientific explanation for what they were doing.

My husband could have diseases that need humiliating examinations to detect, but no one’s hounding him to bare his bottom to a stranger once a year. I wonder why that is? (That’s sarcasm. I know why that is. It’s because he’s a man and he gets to maintain his bodily integrity when there’s no reason not to.)

I’ve recently read a blog post about how doctors are bullied by their patients. I don’t doubt that this happens, but I have trouble feeling sympathy. In the doctor/patient relationship, who has the power? Nine out of ten times, I’m betting it’s the person who’s fully clothed. When I fight past the embarrassment of saying out loud that I’m having excruciating menstrual pain every month and my doctor says, “For just one or two days? I have patients who are in pain for one or two weeks around their periods,” and then he changes the subject, who’s being bullied?

So I’ve decided to opt out. Twenty years of paying someone to treat me like I’m not there is enough. If I didn’t need my thyroid prescription refilled, I wouldn’t go to the doctor at all. The least I can do is keep my pants on when I go.

Nightfall: A Gingerbread Update

Oh, dear! The gingerbread house is under attack!

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Darn you, short winter days! We are at the mercy of the gingerbread vampires!