alma

On Doing Enough

I often get to the end of a day and feel like I didn't do enough. Not enough as in, I only took care of myself, Alma, my dog, and work. Maybe ran. Maybe read a little. Said a prayer. Since when is that not enough? In what insane world is that a below par day?

I took a few hours off last week to take Alma to her 5-year appointment. She was anxious about whether or not she'd have to get a shot, but excited about all the fun things the doctor would do: check her ears, ask her questions, peek in her mouth, ask her to count to ten. Since I didn't know whether she'd have to get a shot, I explained she may not have to, but that we'd find out when we got there. She said she'd be ok if she had to -- she wouldn't cry. I said I'd be there either way.

Well, she had to get a shot. And from the moment she learned it was coming to the time it took three of us (me, two nurses) to hold her so they could administer the shot was mercury rising. Her fear escalated and she started to anticipate the shot, tried to bargain her way out, and I explained to her that thinking about it was the thing that made it scary, that it actually would only last a moment if she could just be brave for a second, just one second. When the nurses came in, Alma looked dead into my eyes and begged PLEASE MAMA I DON'T WANT IT. I lowered my gaze to meet hers, gently turned her shoulders so her heart could face mine, and clasped her little hands. I asked her what we do when we're afraid.

She swallowed and replied, "We do it anyway. We are brave."

She still cried and struggled and I winced at having to hold my baby while they did the small thing they had to do. But she made it, of course. I was there. We had a giggle later on and she got to tell her dad how terrible it was.

And you know? That was the *only* thing I needed to do that day. Or week. Or month. That would've been enough.

Our busy-ness is so often just clutter and noise and the "enough" part is the one or two moments we get to show up for the ones we love and assure them they'll be alright.

November

I took this picture five years ago today in Salem, MA with my fancy Nikon DSLR. I was walking my dog, Addie, around our yellow, half low-income housing apartment complex in my black yoga pants and long down puffer coat, my boots crunching the frozen grass. When I stopped to take this shot Addie leached forward to smell something and the camera nearly hurled out of my hands. My body surged with agitation; why couldn't I just take a picture of this beautiful light without also nearly breaking my $600 camera? Why was everything so hard? When would everything stop being so goddamn hard all the time? I had no business owning a $600 camera. Less than two months prior, the four of us (me, my husband, Alma at 6 months old, and our dog) were living with his brother and wife in their cozy but tiny home, with their two small kids and dog. They’d invited us in as a way to get back to the east coast after an ill-advised six-month stint in Colorado. We arrived the last week in August, two days before my 32nd birthday.

They’d given up their bedroom to us on the second floor where their kids also slept. Alma’s crib was set up in their closet. They slept on the pull-out couch in the living room of the first floor. When the bed was pulled out it took up the entire room, so anyone who wanted to get to the kitchen had to climb over the corner of it and the legs underneath. The humility and kindness of it all was crushing.

It was a clown car scene – four adults, three children, two dogs, and one billion ounces of life force packed into that 1,000 foot home. We tripped over each other a lot. The kids had a ball.

One cold fall night we’d all walked to a neighborhood party with the kids my husband and d I stayed behind after the party ended. We drank Absolut and Sprite and Absolut and Ginger with the guys who hosted until we were both smashed and stumbled back late into the house. We were loud stumbled around the kitchen - I think I tried to make tea. When we woke to the morning routine, I was filled with crippling dread and my husband didn't remember much. We said we were sorry but I never got over it myself – the lack of respect. I felt like a teenager again: embarrassed, selfish and self-righteous. Weren't we allowed to have fun? Shouldn't we be able to blow off steam after the past six months of insanity? I was not a teenager, though. I was 32 with an MBA and a husband with two big degrees and a six-month old baby and we were both unemployed and lost as fuck.

One morning toward the end of the two-month stretch there, I checked our bank account and we had exactly $110 in it. Total. Our phones were ringing constantly with 800-numbers; we’d stopped answering. Bankruptcy was a foregone conclusion, we just had to make the phone call to a lawyer and get the process moving. My husband started working at Whole Foods a few weeks prior just to get the energy moving in the right direction, to send some kind of signal to the universe.

$110 and I had no idea what to spend it on. Food? Diapers? I remember thinking I wanted a pedicure. Wine. Should I take it out of the bank in case a bill got processed and we were over-withdrawn? I closed my eyes and squeezed my fists together tight. Alma was sitting beside me on the bed, rolling around making baby noises and I thought, FUCK. NO.

This was not happening.

I spent four hours that day on the phone with some woman at the Massachusetts unemployment office. I’d filed a few weeks before but between two states and a bunch of extra paperwork, we’d got lost in the process somewhere and I’d about given up. I paced outside behind the house on the phone, watching my flip-flopped feet take step after step on the hot black driveway, willing this woman to please, please, please make a miracle happen and help get this processed. Before we hung up, she told me I’d receive a check in the next few days for six-thousand and some dollars. I cried.

Shortly thereafter, we moved into the yellow, half low-income housing apartment complex in Salem. It was October, Halloween month. I got a couple good consulting gigs and my my first regular yoga class on Monday nights at the YMCA down the street. He kept looking for jobs and worked at a place for free for a year, until he got a paying gig. He hated both. Things blur together after that, but the photo was taken about a month after we’d moved in, in November of 2009.

I remember looking through the lens of my camera and feeling the stark juxtaposition of the gorgeous, glowing dusk light on those tree berries against the heaviness of what we’d gone through and were still in. How much I hated him. How much I loved him. How grateful I was to be back by the ocean, and how desperate the winter already felt. How madly I loved my daughter, and what a burden she was, too. How life-giving the cold air felt in my lungs, and how trapped I would feel when I walked back inside.

Today: Pay Attention

Came across some old photos by accident and have been carried away on a trip. Today: pay attention.

I am often unable to wrap my mind around Alma. The fact that she even exists, breathes, speaks, walks, smiles, blinks, produces tears, sings music, dances. It’s so far beyond my comprehension. I often experience the paradox of looking at her and feeling like I’ve never seen her before, she’s new again and again, like continually discovering a strange, beautiful, mysterious being who is so alien just by the impossibility of her existence, yet so intertwined with my own heart I experience her joy and pain before she does.

I can actually feel the slippage of time when I watch her do something, ever so gradually more independent, on her own. And the harder I grasp the more quickly it slips (of course). So I try to watch. Absorb. Be still. Notice. Stare. And there is never enough time.

Pay attention. Just yesterday there was this. Came across some old photos by accident and have been carried away on a trip.

Today: pay attention.

I am often unable to wrap my mind around Alma. The fact that she even exists, breathes, speaks, walks, smiles, blinks, produces tears, sings music, dances. It’s so far beyond my comprehension. I often experience the paradox of looking at her and feeling like I’ve never seen her before, she’s new again and again, like continually discovering a strange, beautiful, mysterious being who is so alien just by the impossibility of her existence, yet so intertwined with my own heart I experience her joy and pain before she does.

I can actually feel the slippage of time when I watch her do something, ever so gradually more independent, on her own. And the harder I grasp the more quickly it slips (of course). So I try to watch. Absorb. Be still. Notice. Stare. And there is never enough time.

Pay attention. Just yesterday there was this. :)

image

To Alma: Month Seven

Dear sweet girl, We’re near month eight, but instead of combining the two months I wanted to make sure this month received its own documentation. It’s been a big one. Two weeks ago, your father got a job. A job! It will pay him! It all happened very fast and right when we’d reached another end of the rope. The night before he got the offer, we were lying in bed, both feeling extremely despondent, but not saying so. The living situation was getting tough on everyone; since we’ve moved in one or more of the adults have been sick, and so the kids have been sick on and off too, and we’ve just been passing bugs around to one another, mutating them, and then sharing the new bug with the next victim. I don’t get sick very often, maybe once a year, and I’ve been carrying around this nagging cold/cough/grossness for nearly two weeks. I think my body had had enough. We needed to know that there was a light at the end, that we’d be able to move into our own place not just eventually, but very soon.

And he got an offer. Just like that, after two meetings that spanned over 4 days, he got a (good) offer. Both of us were quite in disbelief and unsure whether to trust anything. But it was real, he started today, and at the end of this week, we’re moving into our own place for the first time in almost eight months. HOO-RAY.

I woke up this morning and thought, it’s moving week, and I clicked my heels together and immediately started making a list of things we’ll need as soon as we move in, even before. Cleaning supplies! Toilet paper! Laundry detergent! Paper towels! I went online and ordered my little heart out. Over the course of the next several days we’ll receive bulk quantities of household necessities and I am going to pass out from the sheer joy of unpacking and organizing and using them! I even ordered you a new toy, because while your new home is extremely exciting for us, it’ll likely seem very bare, quiet and less colorful to you, less the two screaming cousins and the smattering of toys at your disposal.

Our new home is in Salem, MA. We’re moving in just in time for Halloween. I cannot speak for myself, but have heard, that it’ll be quite the rockin’ display of costumed folk between now and then, and you know what? Super. I have a camera and I like to use it.

The move is also coming at a perfect time because you’re not so interested in keeping quiet these days. Your napping time has also decreased and when you do nap, you won’t sleep through a fire alarm anymore, so the whole office/nursery/closet/dressing area combo we have going here isn’t cutting it. Especially now that your dad is trying to work from home, too, and that basically means we’re both vying for the same 10 square feet of space in which to work, which happens to be 2 square feet away from where you sleep and 2 feet from our own bed. I think I now know what it would be like to live in a Manhattan studio apartment, without the benefits of living in a Manhattan studio apartment.

Nevertheless, in five days, we’re moving into our new place and I consider it to be the beginning of the end of a very, very long road traveled and the start of a lighter, brighter chapter.

You’ve been hilarious this month. Your new favorite thing to do is growl. I don’t even know the appropriate metaphor, it’s not snarly like a dog and not quite as nasty as say, a tiger. But it’s a growl and you do it when you’re eating, when you disapprove of something (like me changing your diaper when the air is cold), or basically now, whenever you have an audience. It puts us in fits of laughter and strangers find you utterly charming, I’m sure.

Your two teeth growing in, plus the cold bug that’s been flying around the house, have turned your nose into a faucet. You’re sitting up fully on your own now and if you happen to topple over you know how to push yourself to your belly. Crawling isn’t quite in your repertoire just yet and my theory is that you’re going to skip it altogether, seeing as as soon as you get on your feet you nearly explode with joy and pride, so eager to step, step, step.

I can’t think of anything I don’t adore about you right now. I’m going to write that down and keep it under my pillow for when you’re a teenager. But you’re truly so sweet and fun and squishy; you’re a big, bright light and a constant reminder to be mindful. I can take you anywhere and you’re usually happy to just go along for the ride. Once in a while you’re reticent of strangers, but it doesn’t last too long and before we know it you’re growling at them straight in the face. You’re sweet but not so snuggly, when I hold you, I know you’re happy to be held but you like to keep your distance, too. And I fear that as soon as you can be on your own, you’re not going to welcome my squeezes very often. But they’ll be here.

Tap, Tap, Tap

In “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss, one of the main characters, Leo Gursky, and his best friend develop a system of communication where one of them can bang on the ceiling or floor to ask if the other one is alive. (They live in apartments above and below each other.) Three taps for the question. Two taps back means “yes”, one tap is “no”. I don’t need to point out the obvious hilarity in this system, but the theme carries out right through to the end of the book, where Leo is figuratively reunited with Alma. Alma, I said.

She said, Yes.

Alma, I said again.

She said, Yes.

Alma, I said.

She tapped my twice.

I was in yoga class on Tuesday night, we did all kinds of crazy poses I hadn’t done before. We also chanted at both the beginning and end of class, which is unusual, and I’m sure if there were any first-timers in the class they were sufficiently spooked enough to not return. But, I’ve come to love the chanting now and then. Something about the way sanskrit syllables tumble through my mouth, so foreign, and although I only know the meaning of a few words, there is a force behind the sentiment in those chants. They are all purposeful if not a bit odd, full of wisdom and so, so very old. It’s like being in the presence of someone very powerful, yet you can’t explain why, you just feel it and are glad to be there to absorb some of that wonderfulness, whatever it is. The chant we did at the end was one I didn’t recognize and was particularly beautiful. We transitioned from sitting and actually singing the words ourselves to lying down in shivasana and listening to them being sung by some amazing voice over the music system. Maybe it was God :). There’s something so raw about laying in that position at the end of practice. This is something that has really evolved since I’ve started doing more yoga. Where I used to just dissolve into immense relief that it was OVER, I started to find other things, namely space and emptiness. It’s not all peaceful in that it always feels good - oh no - but it’s whatever it is and there’s space enough for it all to exist and in that space I have learned to stay, stay, stay. With whatever comes up just stick around and let things come and go.

Tuesday night as I was laying there, it happened to be particularly peaceful. I felt very well taken care of surrounded by the pretty music in that dark, warm room and the tiredness that had settled into my body after all the turning and bending. And then I got a tap, tap, tap in my belly. My body perked up to take notice of what felt like…kicking! And indeed, tap tap tap, it was the first time I could unmistakeably identify the movement in my stomach as baby movement. I took in a long, deep breath and a huge smile grew on my face as I moved my hand to my belly over the spot where she was moving. Tap, tap.

"Hi, little girl."

Re: Stacks

Tonight I returned to Baptiste Yoga Studio in Cambridge for the first time since July 10. I remember the exact date because it was the last day of a 40 day bootcamp that I did there earlier this year. With the exception of a few days early on in the 40 day experience, I was pregnant and did not know it. When the 40 days were up I was so relieved that I didn’t have to return there again - not until I was ready at least - because holy hell was that a rough ride. I remember thinking it was much harder than I thought it should have been, and having been semi-regular to the practice I thought I knew what to expect. But physically, mentally, emotionally, it was just really tough. I threw up a couple times during morning practices, and I blamed it on the heat or dehydration or the night of drinking before (NOT part of the program). I also cried more times than not, which was equally surprising. I’d cried before, during practice or at the end while lying in shivasana, from the mere release of letting go whatever it was that I’d been dragging around. But every single time? I’ve come to learn since then that yoga can have that effect - through releasing your physical body you often tap into and unlock emotional stuck points and memories you’ve been storing. At the time, though, I just thought I was a mess, and in many ways I was. I mean, I was pregnant and I didn’t even know it. Nevermind anything else, my body was busy trying to build a human and I was dragging it through grueling 90 minute practices in 100 degree heat every single day. Not kind.

I also went on a fruit fast diet for a few days somewhere in there. I remember being blindingly tired as well but too stubborn, too frustrated to give in. Was I not listening to ANYTHING that they were saying in the practice? All that stuff about being where you are, surrendering, having some compassion for yourself and your body, letting go and just BREATHING now and then? I wasn’t. In fact, when my mind goes back there now I can still feel the tightening sensation that accompanies holding one’s breath for a very long time.

But that too was part of where I was and part of the journey. Toward the end of the 40 days I decided to try yoga at South Boston Yoga. It was such a breath of fresh air for my mind and my body at the time, to go through a practice that was completely different in every way and it wasn’t hot! Hallelujiah it wasn’t hot in there. My mindset at the time was that it couldn’t be as good or as powerful as Baptiste, because physcialy it just felt so much easier, not to mention the instructor made jokes and laughed and the general pace was just slower and less intense. But it was good enough, and it was so much closer to home, and I just needed a break from all the madness that ensued in that 40 day program for a while. Little did I know that I was cracking open the door to all the other aspects of yoga that until then I’d been unaware of (namely, all the non-physical aspects that I’d heard of buy ignored I just want a good workout blah blah blah). And little did I know that I’d end up in a teacher training program through the first instructor I had there at SBY, and also that, oh, I was going to find out a thing or two about a “good” and “powerful” experience.

I didn’t think I’d return to Baptiste until my pregnant days were past me. If you’d have asked me a month ago I’d have said “no way Jose, can’t do it.” But I started to get inquisitive about it a few days ago and today I found myself checking the schedule and the hesitation was gone, I actually felt excited about taking my pregnant body to class and seeing how it felt. What I discounted was that I would also be taking my pregnant mind to class, too, and the host of things I’ve cultivated through teacher training and just living life in the past few months. Namely, a new well of patience and a some compassion for where I am and also where I am not these days.

And it was so, so great. I found myself comforted by the known sequences and habituation of the practice, the familiar jolly Scottish accent of one of my favorite instructors, the room itself, and even the heat - the heat! It reminded me that change can be ever so incremental, maddeningly unnoticeable until something reminds you of your previous state and you are able to see the contrast so clearly. Oh, so I haven’t been beating my head against a wall? I haven’t been walking in circles for days and weeks and months on end? I can grow and open up and things can change? Phew. PHEW.

Now, it wasn’t all the perfection of yoga practice as we know it. I couldn’t do some things very gracefully and I was slipping and sliding along the mat. But I realized I have a lot more space in myself than I did before. I know a lot more about the meaning behind the poses, anatomically speaking, and I can pick up on a lot of the asanas (poses) which before just sounded like Sanskrit jibberish. All those things are kind of fun and neat. But more importantly I let myself stop when I needed to and congratulated myself for not accompanying those stops with one bit of agression or the self-degredation I’m so good at. And perhaps most importantly I understood why I was there, and that it has very little to do with sweating and bending, and a lot to do with letting go and letting go. At the end of the practice, Gregor (the instructor) said something so profound, and without any contemplation I knew exactly what he meant, and I recognized that last time I was there I would not have. He said (in Scottish brogue, it sounds so much better) "Let your mind be guided by your life, instead of allowing yourself to believe that your mind IS your life." Oh, these yogi people. They’re just full of these gems. I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t even pre-meditate these bits of wisdom he bestows on a sea of sweaty, vulnerable bodies. They just roll right off his tongue like an extension of his being as natural as his arm or leg. But to the rest of us, it takes a long time to understand what something like that means, and more importantly, to actually live it.

And here is where I bring it all back to music, again. Laying there in shivasana reminded me of this  song by Bon Iver that I’ve held so close to my heart for months now. It’s the kind of song I can’t hear without feeling a shift in my gut and a little tightness in my throat because it’s just so damn beautiful. And like all good music it bestows a certain feeling of recognition, a shared experience, so that when you think maybe you’re all alone you hear a certain song and go, "Thank God, my hips don’t lie EITHER!" or "No, that’s right, you just don’t know ‘bout me." Or in this case, when Justin Vernon sings  “Re: Stacks” you understand that someone else has found themselves in the midst of something seemingly too tough and that eventually, eventually there is an unlocking and a lift away.

The First Girl Will Always Be Alma

Last Friday, we got confirmation that the little being growing in my belly is indeed a girl (!). I had a feeling this would be the case, but it was nice (and scary) to have that confirmation. Like most girls, I’ve had my share of favorite names throughout the years. I remember the first name I liked was “Katrina” in the 3rd grade and that was TOTALLY going to be the name of my baby girl when I grew up to be an adult in one hundred years. I’ve had some real gem favorites along the way, ranging from cutesy to embarrassing to kitschy. But when I read one of my favorite books of all time, “The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss, I immediately threw all other name choices from the top of the list, as I would be naming my daughter Alma, after the narrator of the book and also the subject of the primary story (not the same person, both Almas). Alma means "soul" in Spanish, and in Italian. I think of this book almost daily and pull my copy out to flip through the dogeared pages now and then to read my favorite passages, always to a sigh, a smile, an ache or a goddam I wish I could write like that.

Those who know me best know that I claimed this name and now I’m being asked, "So, will she be an Alma?" I find myself hesitating. I suppose I’m both sad and excited to give the name away (so much as it is mine to give). Like your most favorite possession that holds unspeakable significance - that of discovering new, identifying, changing, fall in love, remembering old love, recognition, confirmation, and so much more - ah, the magic of a good book. There’s an element of reverence and attachment to both the book and the name, but how better to let it live than to give it to my own little girl?

This is a passage from the book that explains Alma, and just one of the reasons that I fell in love with her, the idea of her, and the book itself.

My mother used to read to me from The History of Love."The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma," she’d say, the Spanish book open on her lap while I lay in bed. This was when I was four or five, before Dad got sick and the book was put away on the shelf. "Maybe the first time you saw here you were ten. She was standing in the sun scratching her legs. Or tracing letters in the dirt with a stick. Her hair was being pulled. Or she was pulling someone’s hair. And a part of you was drawn to her, and part of you resisted - wanting to ride off on your bicycle, kick a stone, remain uncomplicated. In the same breath you felt the strength of a man, and the self-pity that made you feel small and hurt. Part of you thought: Pleas don’t look at me. If you don’t, I can still turn away. And part of you thought: Look at me.

"If you remember the first time you saw Alma, you also remember the last. She was shaking her head. Or disappearing across a field. Or through your window. Come back, Alma! you shouted. Come back! Come back!

"But she didn’t.

"And though you were grown up by then, you felt as lost as a child. And though your pride was broken, you felt as vast as your love for her. She was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her, like a tree that grows around a fence.

"For a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew that the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.

"Of course there are certain cases in which the boy in question refuses to stop shouting at the top of his lungs for Alma. Stages a hunger strike. Pleads. Fills a book with his love. Carries on until she has no choice but to come back. Every time she tries to leave, knowing what has to be done, the boy stops her, begging like a fool. And so she always returns, no matter how often she leaves or how far she goes, appearing soundlessly behind him and covering his eyes with her hands, spoiling for him anyone who could ever come after her."