Tuesday, January 24, 2012

yoga – a personal history

I recently started a new yoga class. Restorative yoga to be exact. And it's sent me on a mental retrospective of my encounters with this practice. Oh, won't you join me as we trip through the land of yoga memories?

My very first experience with yoga was at a studio outside of Washington, D.C. A friend and I went to check things out and found ourselves in a light-filled room with a dozen others game for the challenge of twisting ourselves into pretzels – or whatever this class would turn out involving. We did a few classic beginner things – downward dogs, warrior ones and twos – and then it was time to go.

At the end of the class, as we relaxed on our mats, eyes closed, the teacher spoke in a sing-songy voice about releasing this and that, ending her speech by calling our attention to our toes which she suggested were like “little stars.” “And now they are twinkling!” she gushed. This would make the whole hour worthwhile. I dared to lift my gaze and found, as suspected, my friend shaking almost uncontrollably on her mat, attempting not to burst out in raucous laughter. Of course, I joined her, both of us straight as twigs in a violent wind storm, sniggering and snorting in the back of the room.

It was the kind of place that had lots of free merch – magnets and such. White on black bumper stickers that read “I'd Rather Be Doing Yoga” with their website address underneath. We went to a couple more classes, but the twinkling toes only sustained us so far before other things like happy hour filled in the space.

There were more unnoteworthy classes over the years before I landed at a quiet little studio in Pacific Grove, California. Isaac was 10 months? 11? Something in that range of major separation anxiety and in order to attend, I'd first have to pry myself out of his clutches, shouting “I love you!” and slamming the door while he screamed on the other side. It was helpful. The yoga, that is. It was a “gentle” class I took with another friend, also post-partum, with lots of personal attention from the serious woman who owned the place.

Sometimes the instructor wrote a column for the local paper that she'd copy and hand out to us. They said what any newspaper column in 700 words by an “expert” says, which is to say, they said nothing.

Much later I'd go back to the same instructor when my back was so f-ed up I needed to do something and so I tried a private yoga class from the serious woman. It was around that time that she warned me away from another yoga studio I'd later attend, much closer to where I had moved to. They wouldn't know how to take care of my back, she warned.

This woman had many environmental allergies and when they started air-spraying the county for the “plague” of the brown moth because Schwarzenegger's friend owned the planes, she informed us she was leaving town and didn't know when she could return. I'd have to find someone else to force me to stand in tree pose, it seemed. But time does funny things and later I saw she was back in town and working at the studio she'd warmed me about.

I took yoga classes in tiny, beautiful studios where everyone whispered and instructors would wander around while people reclined under their eye pillows saying things like, “I'm just going to adjust you slightly, Kathryn.” Then, Invariably they'd say, “There, is that better?” And invariably, it wasn't.

I've been to a prenatal yoga series where extra time was built in so we could talk about how we were feeling. This never worked well for me and I always left feeling like I'd revisited middle school and I still wasn't popular.

I've also taken many yoga classes here and there at the local sports center where instructors come and go with more frequency than help at the fast food counter. It's like taking a survey class in college where there is a huge room of people a few of whom know something about what they are doing, many who are checking their watches regularly, and several who just showed up because it fit in their schedule.

One of the instructors there was a woman who was fond of yelling out “If you aren't breathing, you aren't doing yoga!” If you aren't breathing, you probably have bigger problems than whether or not your sun salutations are smooth and flowing, but who's keeping track?

These classes are always a blend of a Madonna concert, with the chick up front bounding around on her headphones, and Psych 101, where the professor and the girl in the front row discussed Skinner and the rest of us 100 peons are ignored whole-heartedly.

I spent time in each new scenario trying to describe or support my claims to past yoga experience. I'd admire the pretty candles, trying to remember that “this is my practice” and if it doesn't feel good I shouldn't do it...except the one and only one time I tried out hot yoga. At that one the teacher, who was dressed in something like spandex fatigues, told us all we could do every pose fully, today if we just wanted to. I left wondering why she hated us so much.

I once took yoga in a filthy gymnasium at a closed school. There was a stage filled with old props and sets from high school theater productions and lots and lots of folding chairs folded along the sides of the room. It was run out of the city's rec department and consequently cost almost nothing and went on for weeks and weeks. It was heaven. The woman leading it often sent us to beaches and mountains on guided meditations. Isaac was a toddler by now and my need for relaxation was at such a level and my selfishness so highly developed that I once stayed on in class though Mike was home trying to take care of him while vomiting copious amounts of bile. I was glad I did. Palm trees, baby. White sand and the sound of waves washing over pebbles. You were good until your arm would stretch off the mat and hit the cold, grimy gym floor.

But my all time favorite was a restorative yoga class given in Seaside, California.

Now, your average yoga instructors tend to have certain features in common. Their hair is perfectly smooth and framing clear green eyes, mascara perfect, skin unblemished. They are petite and slim. My instructor for restorative yoga was probably four and a half feet tall and quite charmingly plump. I never noticed her mascara, probably because she didn't wear any. Two or 3, or at most 4 people would show up to class and she would greet us each every time like it was our birthday. There was no talk of “challenging ourselves” and every pose was held for at least 20 minutes and pretty much designed to put you to sleep. I'd routinely come to my senses in a puddle of drool, hugging my bolster. Jeanni knew what she was doing and I loved her for it. She spent her time bouncing among us offering extra blankets. It was like a class in sleep. Pure magic.

The studio was located on a busy street and it was impossible to completely block out the sounds of the real world. Maybe that could even be another reason why it worked for me. No one was pretending that we were sitting on top of a mountain in India, or that we'd rather be doing yoga above anything else in our lives, or that pregnancy was bliss, or that pressing our heels into the ground more deeply would save us. We were just tired.

So pass the eye pillow and elbow me if I snore. And if, as I'm drifting off, I can still hear a low rider driving by screaming the wail of Mariachi music as it zooms through the intersection, maybe that's not such a bad thing. It may not be palm trees, but the lights dancing in a bright blue pattern around the license plate that I just know are there, those are pretty, too.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

situational narcolepsy

It's winter. I know, I'm a little late with the admission. It snows here. I know, again...

You may not be aware of this fact, but the weather here in Western Massachusetts has everything to do with my husband. Mike grew up around here, goes my logic, and so, consequently, he must be responsible for all this slushy gunk. Conversations in our house go something like this:

Me: (said with malice, the tone implying an explanation is expected pronto) “It's snowing...”
Mike: (said with determined nonchalance, the kind that can only be cultivated if you are as steadfastly nonplussed as my guy is by most everything and married to me for the last decade) “Yes, it is.”
Me: “Fine!!” (stomps off)

I'm getting practical in my old age. I exchanged the stylish, semi-if-I-don't-step-into-a-serious-puddle-water-resistent boots I had bought and instead got hard core bootage insulated down to -25 degrees Fahrenheit. The man who sold them to me told me they looked great with my outfit, which I thought was kind, if not a bit pushy.

I thought I was well on my way to recovering from my childhood, throughout which I never had the proper attire to – as they say -- “enjoy” the snow. However, I've discovered that my feet are still cold in my new boots. Perhaps I am a vampire. Or perhaps, what they meant was that until it gets below -25 you won't die or require that your foot be amputated after walking to the mailbox. They just couldn't fit all that on the tag.

My almost 7-year-old son is still stuffing himself into size 4/5 snow pants. The trick of the thus-far mild winter here is that I didn't feel compelled to gear up on things like that early enough and now most things are sold out. Plus, as far as the retailers are concerned, it's “past season” on things like that – Break out the lawn sprinklers! It's January! There are actually many parenting-in-winter lessons I'm learning the hard way, but sopping wet mittens left in school bags overnight are for future blog posts, so let us soldier on...

Calling around to see who might still have a pair of snow pants that would fit Isaac, at one point I found myself on hold with an outdoor outfitter listening to awful 80s music. Ah, but all the 80s music was awful, you might say. Almost all. It was the decade when being a musician – I've said it before – was about owning a synthesizer and a lot of eyeliner. On hold they were playing “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats. They should really warn a person before just whipping out the worst music available on you. This link back to the formative 80s was another episode of east coast/childhood flashbacks for me.

The east coast, if not here specifically, was where I had to be. And over the having to be t/here, I accumulated a bit of baggage around it.

The west coast was where I chose. Things are easier where the sun shines. California was always just a little on the vacation side. Just a tad unreal. There was a sprinkling of freedom there drawn from the stores that follow you to new and different lands. Vacations are vacations because you don't have your own life's routines to follow. Or, in this case, because you have perspective. You know what else it could be.

I left my routines once before I trekked to California, when I lived in Europe. Life always felt easier to me abroad, freer and more vibrant – it came to you – no need to go planning and gearing up to figure out how to have the biggest, greatest adventure. Pretty much if you just managed to take the bus in the right direction you had triumphed. And if you took it in the wrong direction – adventure!

Having a baby is a bit like being in a foreign country – not the “easier” part, but you barely have to step outside your door to have an adventure. With baby, whatever I accomplish feels huge. Except when it doesn't. Except when it feels like my life has been stolen away from me and may never come back. But again, I veer off track. Baby is both motivator and deterrent for getting outside in this chilly season. I feel extra trapped in a lot of ways, but also off the hook if I don't do much, not to mention distracted from the winter itself.

Yesterday, Rhys and I went out for a short walk. My mission: bank accounts for the boys. It was cold, but not frigid. I have a coat now; I have boots saving me from amputation. The problem was the wind. It was wicked gusty. Like his brother before him, Rhys hates the wind. Even smallish breezes steal his breath and freak him out. After his mother's best efforts to shield him failed yesterday, as I've seen him do in the past, freak out was followed by pass out. He went instantly to sleep. I think it's some deep biological defense. I call it situational narcolepsy. It'd be quite pleased to come down with it myself, but so far I can't even get back to sleep after a 4 am feeding, while the baby snores on.

I do wonder about how my kiddos will remember their childhoods - one that begun in the west, the other in the east; one that knows enough to miss the beach, the other whose tiny little cheeks are actually chapped from wind and cold. What will they choose, when the choosing is theirs?

If the ghosts of my own childhood continue to cast long shadows here in the east coast winter, plowed streets or not, it's going to be a bumpy road.

I say, we can go where we want to
A place where they will never find
And we can act like we come from out of this world
Leave the real one far behind
-- “Safety Dance,” Men Without Hats

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In a room where a baby is sleeping

In a room where a baby is sleeping, there is both an overflow of thoughts and a stagnation of thinking. In this indeterminate period while youth is so extreme, where fragility is named next to frustration, we move in isolation, quiet and bemused in our fortune and our hopelessness. There is a self, forgotten or misplaced that mocks us from its dark corner and we arrive before it desperate and out of breath just as the baby stirs again and on looking back we find the self has vanished into the shadows. In a room where a baby is sleeping, worlds are born and die away in instants, in our minds, in our fogged hours, in a room where a baby is sleeping.

Monday, January 16, 2012

feminism never accounted for homeownership

I recently walked down into the basement of our house for the first time since we bought it. Like most of what motivates me to attempt anything beyond sleep these days, it had to do with the baby. I needed to tell the guys installing insulation in our breezeway of a house that there was a baby asleep above them. I wanted to sound friendly in a threatening kind of way. It's an art.

For their part, two of the men were trying to convince the third, apparently a transplant from Puerto Rico, that it “wasn't that cold” on this particular day. I would have stayed to side with my compañero, but I don't linger in the basement of our house. The last time I spent any time in my little field stone salon was before I'd signed on the bottom line, when the house inspector was here taking notes on the boiler and shaking his head.

I left that meeting no more the wiser about boilers or anything else down there or in the rest of the house, for that matter. In short, I can't keep up. I have no idea why we need a roof vent or what the chimney in the storage room has to do with the water heater or whether or not our siding is grounded. Where Mike nodded authoritatively at the inspector's assessments of everything from the circuit breakers to the door locks, I tagged along behind occasionally saying things like “Could you repeat that?” as if I'd figure it out if I heard it again.

When Mike headed for the basement door the other day after the tub wouldn't drain mumbling something about “the trap,” I had a vague notion of what he meant, but well, not really, and certainly not enough to go into the basement and find this trap thing, just enough to know it was a crummy job and I was glad I wasn't doing it. I leaned in to him and hooked my arm in his. “Oh, honey! I crooned with mock glee bending one leg at the knee, “We're homeowners!!”

I feel like buying a house has been a major assault to my feminist identity, on the off-chance that any of it was left in the first place. Mike plans projects like installing ceiling fans and dimmer switches while I think about table runners. When I question whether he might electrocute himself while ticking off his to do list, he offers reassurances that only reinforce the divide between us.

“I took classes in electricity stuff in high school,” he shrugs, the confidence pooling at the corners of his mouth like cookie crumbs.

I look over at my husband and blink methodically. “I took Home Ec. where I learned how to sew a bean bag frog. I'm so glad we were equally prepared for the world.” And here I was thinking I'd been super lucky – the semester after ours the class had gotten into a huge rice fight and from then on everyone had to stuff their frogs with boring soft filling.

We never had to carry eggs around to warn us away from parenting, like in some schools, but no egg could have prepared me for the social train wreck that follows giving birth in this country. Since I will never ever learn, Rhys and I stopped in to a couple of parents' groups this past week. At one, where kids of different ages mingled in two huge rooms of complete chaos, a leader gushed to me about how many places you could put your baby down here. Yeah, I thought, if you want him to get a fungus. Another mom revealed to me in casual conversation that she started coming for what she referred to as her “sanity.” Toddlers on tricycles zoomed by us in some kind of pre-school rush hour, somewhere in the distance children were fighting over doll blankets. “I'm not sure this is sanity,” I responded, causing her to curl her lip every so slightly.

At another circle, we were meant to talk about the question of “identity” and what may have happened to ours since having kids. When it's my turn, my five-month-old is cranky and tired, refusing the boob I'm pushing into his face as I'm passed the “talking stone.” Over his crying I blurt out a few bitter-sounding things about the hospital and the snow. “May I offer a brief the reflection?” the overcareful, over-educated facilitator asks me when I'm done. “No,” I tell her and pack my things to go.

Can I tell you that Isaac is currently studying gender bias, by the way? First grade. I can only imagine what I was studying in the first grade. Jump rope songs and choosing games, I think. My mother and your mother were hanging up the clothes. My mother socked your mother right smack in the nose. What color was the blood? Green. G-R-E-E-N. You're it! I wonder if studying something changes it. Or are we all just trapped in a fish tank – blue fins fiddling with gears, pink fins applying lipstick – to be watched with interest by our children?

Monday, January 02, 2012

the post-hospital rant

When Rhys was born, the midwives looked at him and saw tell-tale signs that he was early – his fingernails hadn't made it to the end of his fingers yet; his nipples hadn't yet popped out; his ear cartilage hadn't hardened all the way...They had a list of checkpoints, none of which I would have likely noticed at all.

What I can tell you is that when Rhys was born his skin was so soft it felt like water. He felt too delicate even to kiss. Though we are fond of possessive pronouns, I would not have described him in most any way as “mine.” I doled out my kisses sparingly, with just the slightest brush of my lips against his cheek. Anything else would have felt disruptive to some sacred process that had yet to complete itself. One must show respect in the presence of miracles.

Even by two weeks old, the magic aura had waned a little and that creamy, liquid skin was already beginning to feel somewhat earthbound.

Home from the hospital, he felt untouchable all over again. Not mine. Though the place he'd been delivered back to me from did not ring to me of magic, here we were at another beginning.

Children's Hospital has more than a little in common with an airport for me. There is the bustle and noise in the lobby (which includes a CVS pharmacy, an Au Bon Pain cafe, and an art gallery), with people from all over the world coming and going. The timelessness of your stay and staleness of the air. The luggage carts in the parking garage are simply exchanged for wheelchairs. And there is the sense of entering someone else's world. Journeying in a way that you must trust rather than understand, that you no more have the jargon to ask about than you would have ability to take in the answers if they came, and they rarely do.

As you approach Children's Hospital Boston in the busy Longwood area of the city, there is a banner – utterly enormous – hanging under the name of the place: “Ranked #1 by U.S. News and World Report,” it screams. All of the “Mission Accomplished” banners were taken, I guess.

“You must be so grateful to be so close to the best doctors in the world!” I've heard this constantly since Rhys' diagnosis.

I waited, tempered in my exuberance for western medicine, even the kind that's splashed as big as thunder clouds at the entrance to greatness and “Ranked #1” by a news source that – in this time of hyper-specializations – also ranks cars, law firms, mutual funds and places to retire, and lists the “Five Great College Towns for Winter Enthusiasts” and the “Top 9(?) Political Events of 2011.” Color me conservative.

Essentially, Rhys' surgery was a success. And I am grateful. As I am grateful for many things in my life, such as the fact that I don't live somewhere where I need to hike miles every day for water and carry it home on my back. However, that does not mean I don't have the right to complain when I turn on the faucet in Northampton and lead comes out.

I feel no cozier now with the idea of doctors and hospitals than I ever did.

Perhaps if they were our “last chance,” if I didn't have a beautiful, mostly asymptomatic baby whose condition I had to intellectualize to visualize the danger of. But no, probably not then either. I can't. Sorry. My knees will not bend at the altar of Children's Hospital. The people I met there ranged in skill and sympathetic natures with the same curve as the population at large. A couple were exceptional, most were average, and a few sucked weenies. The information that the doctors left out of our conversations still galls me. This lack has followed us home in our less than straight trajectory to recovery; they like to label things after the fact that “happen-all-the-time” (so why don't you mention them once-in-a-while??). As I wrote to my surgeon, if only information flowed with as pathological regularity as the medical protocols do.

We all have our preoccupations. I tell people that once we left ICU, our roommate was a 5-day-old with a pacemaker whose mother spoke only a little English. They say “Wow! Isn't it amazing what they can do now!” I watch as they call for the interpreter, who is slow in coming, turn over again on my crappy cot that I shudder in thinking is all they provide a woman who just gave birth.

We meet doctors at our most vulnerable. Whether that is dressed in a backless, paper gown in their examining room, or curled, sleepless and unshowered at the bedside of our infant. For their part, the surgeons, who I'm thinking arrive to the hospital via underground tunnels like the members of Congress, likely also frequent phone booths placed discretely on various floors – in order to smoothly change between their suits and their scrubs. They are calm, assured, at work. You are not.

They had told us to plan for a hospital stay of 7-14 days. Expect 10, our cardiologist told us, offering the midpoint as a goal. But we were out in record time. Rhys plowed through all the checkpoints like a prize fighter. Surgery was over around 1pm Friday. The ventilator came out at 4pm on Saturday. The chest tube was gone Sunday morning. Two nights in ICU, two nights on the regular floor. Boom. Done. My baby kicked some medical ass.

I had planned on writing holiday cards, sewing more of the patched, felt hearts I'd been creating to keep my mind out of trouble, listening to This American Life, the long list of distractions goes on, while my son languished in bed sedated. None of it came to pass.

The beginning was incredibly tense and intense, facing the wires, the tubes, that tiny body covered in artificial bits all taped on with horrid adhesives (“Does he normally have this sensitive skin?” Gee, I don't know since I don't normally cover my son in duct tape!!), as the nurse listed the medications that were seeping into my baby in between her other proclamations of expertise (“I was actually in the operating room for Rice's surgery; so that was really cool.” Look, sweetie, you already said that and I was unimpressed the first time. Surgery is not “really cool” and I didn't name my kid “Rice!” Now shut up about the OR and tell me when he'll be off the fucking morphine!)

After encountering a few much more reassuring nurses, (one who even triumphantly advocated for me to get him back to nursing ASAP, skipping the steps of sugar water and bottle) we left ICU and headed to the regular ole cardiac unit. With a broken call button, another rookie nurse and a night crew that were apparently busy elsewhere for the duration, we barely had time to get through the gas pain that sent Rhys screaming awake multiple times that first night, fight off the second sedated echocardiogram and an extra Xray, and host the parade of hospital personnel that swing by (“I'm a nutritionist,” “I'm from lactation,” “Would you like to speak to a social worker?” “I'm the nurse practitioner on duty today,” “I'm a neurological behavior specialist,” “You qualify to participate in a study...”) before we were discharged.

In many ways, the hospital held many similarities to my labor with Rhys – it was over exceptionally fast, which, overall, was a positive thing. However, as my midwives said at the birth, you still have to go through everything, no matter how fast it happens. You're left kind of dizzy and definitely exhausted. And, frankly, there was no time to process. Forgive me if I must do that here.

You'll be happy to know, however, that according to my friends at Children's apparently none of the medicines, even the ones that are so routine they forgot to list them in the OR report, have any side effects! Ever! – AMAZING! And, I was also told –so it must be true (Children's Hospital is ranked second only to the internet in true facts, I'm pretty sure - “Ranked #2!”...) --that each and every situation that arose was, as they liked to put it “perfectly normal.” I tried to assess this most bizarre of all medical terminology while surveying my baby lost in a sea of machinery, IV lines in his hand, his foot, his neck, monitors taped to his forehead, a breathing tube down his throat, two catheters – one dripping urine, the other blood from his chest...and all I could think was that, as inviting as that CVS in the lobby is, as intoxicating as the Ranked #1 banner must feel as they swish by it on their way to their blessed jobs, as fun as it must be to eat lunch every day in that basement cafeteria laced in high fructose corn syrup, these people seriously need to get out more.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!

I couldn't have gotten through these last couple months without the support of all my wonderful friends.
Happy 2012!
May you always have a friend to lean on in the New Year! from Rhys and the rest of us.

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