Forgive yourself

When I began learning meditation, about 20+ years ago, the school of thought was that you could force your brain to be silent – that is how enlightenment would come. Stare at the flame of a candle, think blank thoughts… when I hear this now, it seems preposterous. Through decades of research, we have a better understanding of the human brain. Learning to achieve a cessation of mind chatter, a silencing, is like training a puppy. Which, anyone who has had a puppy knows, can be frustrating, annoying, and requires patience and consistency. And now that mediation, yoga, mindfulness, and any activity that is supposed to bring about a greater sense of self is all the rage in the Western world, the pressure to do so – especially here in our United States of Competition, is great and inevitably linked to failure. In that mindset, if you’re unable to achieve a pretzel body and a quiet mind, its more likely you’ll give up and go eat a bagel. At least, that’s what I do. Along with some general beating up on one’s self. ‘It’s not for me, I’m not good enough, I can’t do it,’ yada yada. What we don’t learn, what we can’t learn until someone has brought us up this way or taught us, is that it’s alright to forgive yourself. It’s imperative, actually.

I read an article recently about the founder of Spanx. When she was growing up, at the dinner table her father would ask what she had done to fail that week. He’d high-five her if she had a failure to share, defining failure as ‘not trying’ instead of ‘not succeeding’. We can’t grow or learn without struggle, and failures. And so, I forgive myself – for not meditating the last couple of days, for not making a blog entry yesterday, for overreacting to something my stepdaughter said last week, for not communicating to my man about my needs, for making a social faux pas with a friend. I used to hang on to all of these failures. Each and every one, and they would pile up and I’d feel that I couldn’t possibly achieve anything – good relationships, self-care, progress in my writing, or ever truly realizing what good I am to the world. It is a work in progress to let these things go, to realize I was lazy – which is a quality I abhor in others – and that everything is still going to be all right. But I’m trying.

Last night

I was supposed to go to a write-in. A place where writers come together, are given a prompt, they write for 15 minutes, and then are (positively) critiqued. I’ve been before and its ok, but last night I said I was going and I didn’t. I lied. I mean, I didn’t LIE LIE. I left on time, got on the bus, got off near Port Authority, walked to the building, and then just kept walking. The problem is that I knew that was going to happen. It was my plan all along. I’m embarrassed and ashamed, of course, but honestly I liked that no one knew where I was. I love the anonymity of NYC. I love that I can be at 42nd and 8th and its a hell hole, wall to wall people, and no one notices me. I loved that I didn’t have to be with my stepdaughters and our little family last night because I can only handle them in spurts, especially if the older one is having a tough time aka being a raging, irresponsible, bratty bitch.

So, I went to the one decent place for food (which I will not disclose here in case you all frequent it and then it will no longer be a safe haven for me,) and then caught a movie. I’ve actually done this before, just once. Maybe this makes it a habit now, I don’t know. Because I desire it. Not the lying part, just the being alone part. It would be hurtful to my man if he knew I didn’t want to be with them. Actually, him either. We have plenty of time without the girls, but we use that time to be together or travel or sometimes with my son. It strikes when it strikes, the need to escape.

I saw a police officer riding a horse the wrong way down a one way street. I heard bits and pieces of bizarre conversations. I smelled smells that made me hold my breath and cover my face with my scarf. I bumped into many shoulders and said many ‘Pardon me, excuse me’s. Best of all, I forgot everything I was worried about, everything I was thinking about, before I got there. I felt anger (at the throngs of slow moving people,) sadness (at the homeless, drug-addicted, and destitute strangers,) blinded (by the lights,) and a strange sense of calm that only comes from being still in the center of chaos. I wish I could achieve this at home, when the storms come, but I am too reactive, too emotional, too personal. It matters to me, and I need to take care of myself so that I do not explode, say all of the wrong things, have a negative impact on those kids.

So, since I can’t go much further than NYC because 1. we don’t have a car and 2. I need to be home at a reasonable hour, Times Square on a Friday night it is.

The Closeted Map

In 2011, when I got the job offer that would change my life, the one thing I knew for sure was that I wouldn’t squander the opportunity. That’s what I thought then, anyway. I moved to Brooklyn and got my one bedroom apartment in a then-borderline neighborhood, where I would live gloriously and terrifyingly alone for the first time in my life. At 41 years old.

The apartment had one long wall of mirrors in the living room, which reminded me of something out of a porno or a cheesy romantic hotel in the Poconos. I’d recently been reminded of the ‘change your mind, change your life’ Oprah manifesto and started a massive vision board. Even though I think vision boarding is for people with too much time on their hands and not enough guts to just go and do. So, I ended up with a 10 foot wide wall of maps and modern houses and sexy, handsome men and ocean vistas. (A month after I moved, I got a Facebook message from someone I’d met more than 10 years earlier. She wanted to set me up on a blind date with her brother. Last month I married him. But that’s a story for another day.)

The thing I liked most about my stupid vision board was that I had many different maps. A World map, a U.S. map, a map of the West Indies, a map of the Middle East. I wanted, and want, to go everywhere. For everywhere that I’d already been, I put a purple dot and for everywhere I wanted to go, I put a red dot. I loved wondering which dot I would turn from red to purple. When I moved to NJ, into our new home, a sweet condo that accommodated our mixed family, I realized that my man’s sense of style was very different than mine. I’m not a messy person, at all, but he’s anal. He’s sloppy sometimes but he’s compulsive about clutter. Now that I’ve pointed it out, he’s more relaxed and can let things lie but when it came to decorating our home, there would be no paper maps on our bedroom walls. So, I put them in our closet. They are piled on top of each other, with the World map facing my clothes and laundry. In order to find room for my jewelry, I thought I would put tacks on the wall and hang my necklaces there. Space saver! I decided to put tacks in all of the red and purple dots, and now my jewelry hangs from Paris and Harare and Tokyo and Bali.

But today, when I went to put a necklace away, I noticed that there was no dot or tack on Israel, which is where we’re taking our honeymoon over Christmas. I remember occasionally thinking about going there, the way I thought about seeing the ballet in St. Petersburg. Not high on the list, and apparently, not on the list at all.

I wonder lately about that vision board. In the last four years, I found my man, we traveled to many beautiful beaches and cities, and we have decorated our home in a lovely modern style that we both like. But lately, I’ve felt stuck. Probably because I was laid off a year ago and I’m in a ‘what-am-I-doing-with-my-life’ crisis, and my son is off to college in a year, and I live with two girls who don’t particularly like me on any given day, one of whom has serious mental health issues, etc. I’m feeling like I need to take the map out, as well as any other dreams that I have tucked away. Its difficult to stay focused on my goals when I have to go into a closet to find them.

Where to start, part deux

I had the strangest dream last night. My boy was little and we were on a double decker bus with Amanda Plummer. He was talking about his friends who traveled, who were the children of diplomats and lived all over the world. And then I left them behind but kept going on the roof of this bus. There was more, something about my old job, and grocery shopping with a cart that was ten times its normal size and I couldn’t reach to put in the sandwiches from the deli. But the sandwiches kept falling apart anyhow, they were stacked high and the lettuce was soggy. The store wasn’t open yet, actually, but I was trying to get food and I couldn’t reach or get what I needed but I was starving. And then there was a splash of walking by an abandoned amusement park with hundreds of people waiting in line for it to open. It was dark and strange and I tried to tell them they were closed but they couldn’t hear me. Like zombies except they weren’t, just ordinary people, with kids even, that wanted to ride the rides…

So. That’s what I woke up to. I had a good meditation session this morning – I cried and my mind went on a tangent. Something about facing my fears, I imagine but that’s the thing about dreams and monkey mind, you can never quite put your finger on what was the point.

I met some new Moms yesterday at the park with Jennifer. She didn’t have school because of Yom Kippur and I’ve become acquaintances with one of her friend’s Mom. Through her, she introduced me to three other Moms, one of whom I really liked. However, I find when I talk about my transition here, to living in NJ, I get depressed. I am funny, of course, but while they are laughing at my self-deprecating and honest jokes, are they also thinking, WTF or Let’s stay away from this one because she’s got lukewarm juju about our sweet home town? Prolly. And I don’t blame them. I bet by the time I actually embrace living here, we’ll be ready to leave. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a hell hole, its just not where I want to be. I don’t gravitate toward the monochrome, the vanilla, the all-look-same. Yeah yeah, this town has an area of affordable housing where the ‘poor people’ and ‘hobos’ live, this is all according to the girls, but that’s the most fucked up part. Despite there being a shred of diversity, which could add to the community, people here still see them as others. When I try and explain this to the girls, they put on sad, pouty faces and say how they feel sorry for the people in the projects, and its so sad they have to live like that, and on and on. While we are encouraging and teaching empathy, by our words and example, I fear that we are perpetuating pity also. ‘Those’ people are mostly smart, often educated, working men, women and children, just like us. While their opportunities have been different or non-existent, I don’t feel sorry for them. I don’t pity them. I feel for them, yes, but I don’t see them as less-than because of their circumstances. Also, what good is all the pity if we’re not doing anything to help them? The girls fear those kids because they are different. Its not that they don’t have a handful of black kids at their school, they do. And they always have a story to tell about them – they live in the projects, their Dads left and they have no money and its so so sad. This just isn’t the reality, though. Yes, I am sure this is true for some of them but its also true for some of the white kids! And the hispanic kids! Parents get divorced, people struggle with money, children are mistreated – and it is all awful. But how do we get our children to see that they are all the same… children? And what they need is friendship, not pity?

Day 7

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried keeping a blog or writing as a habit. Its not that I don’t write, I just write sporadically. I’ve kept a journal since I was about eight years old. In the last decade, I write in a journal on two different occasions… on planes, and when I’m super super stressed out about something and can’t sleep. Now, because I have traveled every 4-6 weeks for the last decade or so, I have plenty of entries. It’s a mechanism to deal with anxiety I might feel about flying and it’s also a way to reflect on what’s going on in my life at that time. Separately, I’ve taken numerous writing classes – memoir, screenplay, dramatic writing. I’ve done the Artist’s Way, taken workshops in writing + yoga, and free writing flings. In the moment, when I am working on my writing, I feel challenged and if I’m lucky, inspired. Sometimes, I even write good shit. The problem, of course, is consistency. I have spent most of my life believing that I am not a writer because hello, writers write. Every day. All the time. It’s the work they can’t not do, as Scott Dinsmore says. Or said. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what defines a writer?

For me, though, I sometimes hate it. Yes yes, the blank page, the fear, the doubt. Moreover, though, am I wasting my time? Shouldn’t I know already? Shouldn’t I feel a deep compulsion, every day, to tell my stories? I think I used to. I have suppressed those feelings for the last 20 years. When I was young, I dreamed of telling stories through film and books, not being able to dream yet of an internet connecting me to the world. I had an active imagination, I had fun with my stories, and I moved to California believing without a doubt that I would make it in Hollywood. Boy, was I dumb. And thank god because if I hadn’t taken the leap, I wouldn’t have had such a wonderful, adventurous life. More fodder for the page, I guess.

Maybe I am more afraid that this isn’t the work I can’t not do (note: as a grammar nerd, this sentence tortures me.) But it’s the work I can do now. I’m in a position in my life where I finally have the time to find out. I am not trying to figure out how to avoid a late notice from the electric company. I’m not worrying about bouncing checks to my ex for rent and wondering how much interest he’ll charge me. I have stability despite the fact that I’m not working, because my supportive, generous husband wants me to take this time to figure out what’s next for me. And I do, too. Which is terrifying, of course, but also liberating – and I still need to find a way to see that I deserve it. That I don’t need to be suffering. And that just because I am white and educated and privileged, doesn’t mean I can’t also complain from time to time. I know who I am inside and what I believe, I know my level of compassion. Maybe the problem is that the work I can’t not do is work I actually can’t do. Humanitarian work? Diplomatic work? Or is it writing screenplays and memoirs about my life which I think is extraordinary but honestly it’s not. And isn’t that the point? That my stories will resonate, that despite our obvious differences, we are fundamentally the same?

So, today is day 7 of the writing challenge. I’m not ready to find out how to monetize my blog or get 100,000 followers by this time next year. I’m not ready to say this is the work I can’t not do. I feel that this work, this expression, much like my journaling, actually just allows me to get the spinning mind down on paper and frees it up for what’s next. I have to remind myself, every morning, that today is a new day, a new opportunity. I only need to see the 10 feet in front of me, I don’t need to know where the road ends.

Be the adult.

I joined a meet-up for Stepparents. I’m not a joiner, so this was difficult for me. I like to try new things, see what sticks, but once I decide to do something with regularity (re: yoga for the last 25 years,) I end up hating the joiner culture that surrounds it. Most would call this community, I do recognize that.

So, last night, I went back and forth in my mind of all the reasons why I wasn’t going to go – I would have to drag my ass at night to Manhattan, it was in a crap part of town, I didn’t know anyone, they would surely be lame, or god forbid, they would think I was lame (I wasn’t, FYI, I was hilarious.) And then, like magic, Jason called from his business trip to ask my what my plans were. I had a choice to lie, which in these circumstances I just call not-sharing-every-detail, but decided to tell him I was conflicted about going. He reminded me, as always, that it is good to push ourselves out of our comfort zone yada yada. He wasn’t the one going into a room full of strangers. But he is my mirror and he was right, so I went.

They weren’t lame. I mean, they were a little weird, some of them, but not lame. I did my brutally honest, self-deprecating schtick and they laughed out loud at points. Over the course of the two hours, though, I realized that despite all of our stories and backgrounds being very different, we did actually have a connection. A feeling of not being at home in our homes. A feeling of selfishness and helplessness. And a desire to learn skills and hear advice to make it work.

One thing that resonated with me was the moderator relaying a story about the conflict between her and her step-daughter. She was feeling frustrated and petulant (the stepmom,) and things were deteriorating, and she had to keep reminding herself of the golden rule – Always be the adult. Be. The. Adult.  I heard those words and immediately got grumpy and defensive. But I don’t waaaaaaant to always be the adult. I am, always, the adult! I had to be an adult before I was an adult, before I had a child of my own to parent. I am independent and responsible (despite what my ex always feared,) and now, at 45, when I’m constantly having my buttons pushed by a 12 year old who mostly hates me (and herself,) I don’t want to be the adult!

And yet. I have to. I will continue to fuck up. My relationship with the girls may or may not get better or worse, but I still have to remember that until they are adults, I have to be the adult. Their mom and dad don’t actually have to be the adults all the time, because they are forgiven for their indiscretions and foibles and even their resentment or antagonism. Its built in, this forgiveness as children. Not me, though, not the stepmother. Even when I apologize, I am not forgiven. It is remembered, and it is shaping our relationship. So, do I continue to start each week with them walking on eggshells? Deciding to see how long I can not engage with them, for fear of saying the wrong thing? Forgetting how to be myself because I know the person I am isn’t the person they choose to be with?

I don’t know. I do know better, though.

Just the two of us.

Last night I had a dream that my boy surprised me with a visit. Technically, he stole my credit card to come visit his pseudo-girlfriend and happened to bump into me on the street but its my dream and I can interpret it however I wish. In the dream, though, I remember feeling so elated. I wanted to show him everything. There was a humpback whale in the Hudson, there were horses running wild, there was a huge kitchen with a wood fired oven and plenty of space for cooking, there were trees and fresh air and also beautiful little homes and all the people we loved, looking for adventure. And then I woke up at 6:30am because my husband is not here next to me. He’s traveling for work and whenever he’s gone, I wake up early, even though I hate that he wakes up early every day.  I’m sure there’s a psychological term for this. Anyhow, what I loved most about the dream is that while it was outlandish, it was also exciting and hopeful. Or maybe it was sad. Maybe it was about me letting go of my 17-year-old and recognizing that I have shown him what I can, that his motivations are his own. Maybe that’s not a sadness but a resignation on my part. Maybe the outlandish nature was really for me, to see that I have more life ahead of me that can be wonderful, even without him.

I spend a good deal of each day fighting the guilty feeling of leaving my son. Not just four years ago when I moved to NYC for a job but 16 years ago when I left his father. At the time, I had nothing, no money, no support, no full-time job, and my father had just died. I remember watching Oprah in the afternoons when my boy napped. One day, she was talking about how you can’t change your life if you can’t change your mind. Change your mind, change your life. I don’t know what it was about that moment but I believed that if I stayed with my ex, my soul would wither away. I would die there. So, I left. We shared custody of our boy, but we were never married and I never filed for child support, despite the vast difference in our incomes. I was a pushover and my ex was a bully. Neither of those qualities are admirable but I don’t regret my decision. Except, every day, I feel the weight of missing my son. Of course all parents miss parts of their children’s lives… they go to school, go to friends’ houses, take piano lessons and play soccer games. But its different when you can’t kiss your child on the forehead every night before bed. When you can’t ask them about their dreams every morning. When you see a bruise or a cut on them and have to ask how it happened. When you make all sorts of excuses why its necessary to stop by their school during the day, just to see them for a minute. I don’t know if my ex has ever felt these things. Some people say that mothers feel differently, have different needs, but I’m not sure about that. I think the difference is a willingness to acknowledge the sadness, the missing out, and the choices we’ve made that create our circumstances.

Fortunately, technology has allowed us to stay close. I don’t know how people did it in decades past. My son and I text daily, FaceTime a couple times each week, and use the old phone, as well. Still, these conversations aren’t natural. They are sometimes forced as opposed to the organic flow of conversation when spending time in a room with someone. Technology isn’t nuanced, its very black and white. People can be misunderstood, especially when we can’t see a facial expression or reaction. If we hadn’t had 13 years before I left to create a solid foundation, I’d be more worried about our relationship. But despite everything, our distance, his teenage years, my worries and guilt, we are good. I like to pat myself on the back occasionally for how well he turned out. He’s communicative, emotional, and honest. And we are often acknowledging how grateful we are to have each other, to be perhaps non-traditional (most of his friends never talk to their parents about anything substantive,) and to have the right amount of parent-teen friction. I hope he will always know how much he is loved, that even when the world seems to be against him, I will always have his back. And that despite being a family of five now, somewhere in my heart and mind, it will always be just the two of us.