Friday, September 19, 2014

Stuck In The Rain

I was having one of those mornings where my anxiety was high. I was running around the apartment trying to get myself and the kids ready for the day. My repetitive requests to the kids to brush their teeth, put their dishes in the sink, their snacks in their backpacks, to make their beds, and to stop playing sounded like a broken record mixed with a kitchen in a fast paced restaurant. In my early twenties, I waited on tables in my father's NYC restaurant. It was a tiny, busy place where we would call out the order to the short order cook in the corner. I never got used to the fact that you did not have to be polite and say please, or make eye contact. I had to adjust to not getting a response but to assume the request was received; it always was. Unlike that experience, in my home, requests get called out, but often I never know if anyone is taking action on them, or if they've been heard at all. Nothing was new about any of this on this particular day, but I had a busier work load all week and was nervous about teaching a new class in the afternoon. On top of this usual, morning rush, it was pouring rain.

As I stood by the door with my dog, trying to get the courage to dash the few blocks to get the car to pick up the kids, I felt dread. This day was going to be hard, I could tell. I took a deep breath and entered the downpour. I came back for my kids, one of which still did not have his sneakers on, despite my request that they be ready to go. He had nothing left to do but that one thing! I even saw him nod that he received the order! What on earth was he doing? Sigh. But, gosh I love his sensitive soul so much.

We arrive at the school and I decide I am going to do something easier for me and drop them off as opposed to parking the car and walking them in. I made sure they crossed the street safely, kissed them, and sent them on their way. As I got back in my wet dog smelling car, I notice in front of my car was a woman standing in the rain with an umbrella, pleading with her son to get out of the trunk of her SUV. I see her son mouthing the words "no," arms crossed, defiant. I can see, from her body language, the mom is getting more and more frustrated. It is pouring rain, her son won't get out and my gosh, she has a baby strapped on her chest. Without giving it a second thought, I opened my door and approached the scene. I asked if she wanted help. She looked at me as if my offer was as useless as a screen with holes in it. I ignored her defeated look and looked at the boy instead. I said, "do you not want to go to school?" He shook his head. I nodded in empathy. I asked what grade he was in. "2nd," he said.  I said, "oh wow, my kids are in second, too, who do you have?" Then he corrected himself with his mom's help. He was really in first grade. I asked if he had any friends from the previous year in his class and he shook his head. His mom informed me that they had just moved from Brooklyn (as has everyone else around here). I said, "oh" in that drawn out way when you suddenly have a deeper understanding. I asked if there was anything at all in the school day that he liked and named some subjects. He said, "no." I said, "wow, that is hard." Stumped as to what to say next, I stumbled something else out of my mouth and the next thing I knew, the boy was sliding out of the trunk onto the wet street." The mother thanked me and continued on with her son. I turned to go back to my car and called out asking his name. He told me and I said, I'd remember it. I rarely remember names, but I remember his. It all happened as quickly as a flash flood. I drove away thinking of this woman having just moved from Brooklyn with an adjusting 5 year old and a baby. Of course she would be getting frustrated in that moment standing in the pouring rain with an infant on her front. Who wouldn't! I felt flooded with compassion and then realized there was something magical about what had happened there. Suddenly, I was in a great mood. My morning felt hard, but when I saw someone else struggling, unbeknownst to me, I came right out of myself. I had a much greater purpose before me than to lament about my rushed, bull-horned morning, soaked shoes, wet dog smelling car, and nervousness about my class.

I drove on and thought about the boy, about how stuck he was in that moment. His feelings had a grip on him and he was caught in reaction to them and to his mom. I knew what this felt like. Something needed to interrupt the process going on inside him and that was all I did. I didn't say or do anything magical. I simply identified with his pain and broke the undertow he was caught in and it was done. Sometimes I wish someone would interrupt my thought and feeling processes and help me reboot again. What I was reminded of on this day is that we can do that for each other. It is made possible when our senses are open enough to see, hear, and feel what is present around us and when we have the trust in ourselves that we might have a gift to share in that moment, even if we don't know what it will look like. Our presence alone is often enough.

Between my own difficult start to the day and watching this other mother's, I wondered what it would be like if raising children was not an isolated act, but where we could depend on the community to help when we are at our wits end. What would it take, especially living in the suburbs, to create that sense of support? Could that moment I had with the mother and son, if performed in much greater numbers, be all it takes to make a difference? I'd be happy to do more. Of course, it won't always be appropriate to step in, but my eyes and heart can be open to give and receive when the circumstances do seem right.

I went on with my day feeling connected to my clients and at ease and in flow with my class. At one point, I looked out the small window that graces my underground office and saw that the sun was shining. My predictions on the day had been all wrong. It turned around thanks to that boy. He doesn't know, but we helped each other that morning.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Stopping and Finding Amma in Starbucks

It was early Sunday morning. I had spent the night at my sister's and on the way home, I decided to stop in a coffee shop to get something for the road. It was a beautiful September day. The sun was out in a perfectly blue sky; it was just the right temperature, and it was, technically, a day off.  I arrived at the coffee shop feeling this sense of urgency to get home and pressure to get things done. It didn't feel like a day off. I had a list of to do's anxiously waiting to get crossed off. With my coffee in hand, I looked toward the door and saw the sunlight streaming in through the glass, forming squares of light on the dark, wood floors. They are the kind of spots that dogs like to lie in. Seeing the light, I realized I could sit down at a table and do my morning writing there and not rush out. I thought of the book I had just read about the importance of taking a time to rest in the week, to carve out a day or half a day to not "do." I read the book and agreed passionately with the author's championing for rest and yet, there I was, struggling with being able to do it. What does it take it take to put everything on pause? All of the suggestions might sound good in a book, but in a full and complicated life, how do we actually do it? Somehow it came to me that day in a Starbucks in New Jersey, a confluence of factors that changed the course of my day. This was how it happened...

I did sit down. I took out my journal and watched people come in and out. An older gentleman did what seemed like his routine. He got his drink and sat down on a couch seat, propping his legs up on the ottoman. He took out his newspaper and pulled out the comics. They still print comics, I thought to myself. And this man is reading them? How great is that. I came back to myself and my journal and this uncomfortable sense that I started the day with, and then I said, "Jean, you are okay; everything is okay." Yes, I thought. I registered it in my body. It is true. I am okay. Nothing is wrong. This is a morning to enjoy, just as I am. And yes, I have many responsibilities to take care of, but they are endless. I would like to cross some off with that specific sense of satisfaction that comes with putting a line through words, but there will be more words to add. It won't stop, but I can. I am my own boss, literally and figuratively. I am the wizard behind the curtain, the one with access to the switches. If I could just flip the right one!

I didn't realize at the time, but as I had this conversation in my head, my vision was opening up to what was around me. I was flipping the right switch. I watched another man in his 70's come over to the sofa seats, negotiating with the sunlight, and contemplating where to sit so that it wouldn't be in his eyes. I had the urge to help, though he needed none. He sat in one seat, which I knew wouldn't be right. I watched his expression and movements as if observing a rare animal making a decision. He moved. As he carefully transferred his coffee from one side table to another, I saw his hands were shaking. I saw his vulnerability and my whole self started to soften. I saw the boy he once was, the young, confident and strong man he turned into, and now the older, more fragile man he had to become. I was filled with tenderness and compassion for this stranger's whole life. I sat there and took in the man with his routine, reading the comics, and this man, with his trembling hands wanting to be comfortable, and me, trying to give myself permission to stop, and a woman who asked if she could have the coupons from the man's newspaper before she walked out the door with her young child. I felt all of our vulnerable, human selves making our ways through this life. I wanted to cry at the raw beauty of it all. I could breathe again. What happened in that moment was the critical shift. I moved from feeling separate and somehow "wrong" in my life to letting go and opening up to what is right here. Before me was this gift of people, with whom I did not interact, but whose simple presence allowed me to touch a higher place inside. 

We can often see vulnerability easily in children, in older people, and in animals. When we look deeply enough, we can see it in those people who look strong, confident, and powerful. They too, drop things, get food stuck in their teeth, trip on sidewalks, get startled, and shake inside. You can see it in the way they adjust their clothes or fix their hair. As "together" as they may appear, they are in fragile, impermanent bodies, too, and have the need to be loved just as much as the person whose vulnerabilities so easily show. I sat there and thought, wow, what else is there to do, but be gentle with each other, support each other, and share our warmth. I suddenly understood the guru, Amma, the woman who goes around and heals people with hugs. What a job! What better thing is there to do than to stay in that tender place with all people, to say my job is to give warm, heartfelt embraces. My actual job comes very close to it, but even if it didn't, why not have that as my purpose in life? In each moment, I can soften, open to humanity, and welcome people with my eyes and my presence. Words are not even necessary. I can do my part in saying, "you are okay; you are loved," and in doing that see that I, too, am okay and am loved.

I finished writing and as I headed toward my car, I thought, this is what stopping does. It reconnects us to what matters. We can keep crossing things off our lists, but in the end, we don't get to take the finished things or the list with us. In the end, it is this moment that matters. There will always be things to do. So how do we stop? What I learned today, sitting in Starbucks, is that it took a number of factors. It took remembering the wise words of Wayne Muller's book on rest and my good sense to check the book out of the library in the first place. It took being able to physically stop and to stay with the discomfort of feeling like I should keep going. One part of myself overrode that place that anxiously keeps me going. I owe that ability to meditation, which teaches me to stay, despite the Sirens calling out. All of these factors enabled me to look around with a soft lens and, in doing so, I could choose to see myself and others with tenderness. I can see the trembling hearts we all have and take comfort in knowing we are not alone. When I recognize that, I know from a deeper place that the things on my never-ending list can wait.