1. Some things are easier to practice than others. I’m running a half marathon in Philadelphia in November. It’s my fourth. Once again, I made a training schedule for myself, based on programs I found online. All I need to do is run the allotted number of miles on the Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of each week until that weekend. As my wind gets better and the weather cools down, I’ll get slightly faster and slightly more efficient. I’ll be able to run 13.1 miles. Not because I’m a superhero or even particularly good at running. But because I put in the time. And there’s pleasure in putting in the time, feeling and seeing the progress. In getting to the point where it actually feels good, where stopping feels worse than going.
2. Yoga is probably the thing that best taught me to practice. To slow down, breathe, not jump in blindly but take my time, to see the beauty in staying in a moment and moving to the next not with fear or obligation but with curiosity and an open heart. And not coincidentally, it’s the physical exercise where I can most obviously see and feel my progress.
3. God knows motherhood is a practice. From the earliest days, once you feel like you’ve “mastered” something, it changes. Every phase (the word you only realize in hindsight) feels like it will never, ever end, and then once it does, you can hardly remember the details, because there’s a new challenge to grapple with. When my two girls were babies and then toddlers I felt like the biggest failure at it all, because I could not give each of them 100 percent of my attention at the same time. Of course I couldn’t. But I considered that a personal failure, not a literal impossibility. I’m gentler with myself now, but as they become teenagers and the challenges are bigger, more serious, and there are fewer ways I can actually “fix” and help because they need to do more of it themselves…there’s a letting go that feels impossible, as well. All there is to do is practice.
4. I’m trying to practice feeling my feelings without taking some desperate action to feel better. I’ve prided myself on being able to feel deeply (I used to be ashamed of it, and then one day realized it wasn’t actually a curse, but a strength of sorts), but in the past few years I’ve realized that feeling things acutely, not being someone who can deny or avoid feelings, doesn’t mean you’re good at sitting with them. I have fallen into a pattern of feeling something uncomfortable and then taking questionable actions in an effort to feel better. And it doesn’t always lead to feeling better; sometimes it leads to more of the same, or worse.
5. To that point, does it count as practice when you do the wrong thing again and again, even with full knowledge that it’s pointless, and it will only hurt you?
6. Accepting other people. Not as you want them to be or wish they were, but as they are. Trying hard not to wallow in sadness that they don’t feel the way you want them to feel or do what you want them to do. Trying to remember that love means acceptance. Meeting a person where they are, as who they are, scars and all, and loving them still. Even if they’re not in your life the way you want, or even at all, even if they don’t want to be or just don’t know how. That’s actually loving a person.
7. Letting the past go. The cliché is that it only hurts *you* to hold on to anger, resentment, bitterness, disappointment. That’s so clear and obvious, you’d think it would be easy to let go of things, because who wants to feel all of that? What is it about holding on that feels like some sort of protection, some insurance that the other person won’t get to inflict all of that on you again? It makes no sense. Still, it’s frightening to think about letting it go completely. It feels like giving up. It feels passive and meek, even though it’s actually an act of self-care. I definitely need to practice this, in small ways, perhaps, so I can allow myself to do it in the big way.
8. I am someone who appreciates structure, schedules, plans. Setting goals and making to-do lists. Feeling like I have all the information I need. Feeling in the know, not in the dark. I do what I can to set things up this way.
9. Things don’t always go to plan. Another practice is getting more comfortable with that. You can create some foundation, structure, boundary, but it won’t always remain stable.
10. Still, I think it’s worth doing. Creating structure. I absolutely believe that the more I write, the better chance I have at getting to the heart of things. I am completely on board with the idea that you have to write a lot of "bad" stuff, a lot of confusing, indecipherable stuff, before you get at what you really want to say. In fact, it may be the only way to find out what you want to say. Also, I keep forgetting, when I start to feel a sense of dread that I “should” do this—it feels great. It feels amazing.
11. So I’m trying to make a new mantra out of what a friend and teacher wrote the other day: “We’re here to practice.”
I made friends with the waves last week.
I truly love to be near and on the water, and especially the ocean, a Midwestern girl who still finds the saltwater new and exciting after half a lifetime living near it. But I'm sorry to say I've been one of those moms who stands on the store and lets the surf nip at my toes while watching my girls dive under the crests, waving at them when they pop their heads back up.
I've been constantly impressed with their lack of fear, neither of the tide nor of the cold. They just jump right in with glee, and stay in for hours.
I never learned to do that in the Wisconsin lakes of my youth. Or even Lake Michigan. We didn't go swimming anywhere but the town pool very regularly. And my mother wasn't one to go in very far, either. I never had a chance to embrace it.
This summer I decided I had no more excuses. There was no reason not to stride right in. The water is warm(ish) in August, and in Ocean City, where we go each summer down the shore (that's Jersey talk for "going to the beach"), the water stays fairly shallow, even when you walk pretty far out.
My family was already 50 yards ahead of me the first day, but I kept moving and let the small waves slap at me. The soft sand below the surface was uneven, undulating in small hills that made me imagine a tiny dessert down there. I had to pay attention so I wouldn't stumble, while slowly starting to move myself in time with the rhythm of the water.
I looked back to shore, or out to my girls, I don't remember where, and a wave pushed at me and knocked me off balance. I landed on my rear end in neck-deep water. And I laughed.
It felt like a nudge of "let's do this, already!"
It also made me think of the way my cat bops the side of my head when we play.
And I realized I'd been looking at the ocean all wrong. It's just a big cat who wants to play with you. It's stronger than it thinks it is, and sometimes you feel such affection for it that you forget how strong it is, and it can hurt you. But what it wants to do is engage.
My new tattoo was in the process of healing while we were down the shore. It's the Sanskirt word "spanda." It's the pulsation of the universe, the up and down, the contraction and expansion. It moves like the ocean. The universe undulates. And we don't have a choice about whether to play along. I chose to put it on my arm to remind myself that everything that goes up will come down; everything that recedes will crest again. And our work is to ride the waves.