I took the photo at the top of this post a couple of days ago, just walking down the street. I almost didn’t stop, but the colors in the yarn caught my eye. Upon closer inspection, I saw that the artist had not only cozied up the meter pole; she had also stitched us a message: “You Are All Beautiful.”
Monday was the first day where we could take off our shoes and let our tender pale feet begin to develop their summer calluses. It was the first day where the bugs were more than a curiosity to my kids; the first day we had lunch and dinner outside. I took the kids over to a friend’s house and the two of us moms watched our older ones swing on her swing set while we cuddled and breast fed our little ones. She was telling me about a friend of hers who was expressing some distress about the fact that she was choosing to pursue her career full throttle at the expense of spending time with her kids. It seems like there’s always some new variation on this one. In her friend’s case, the mother was wistful about all that she was missing in order to not compromise her very successful career. My friend said, “The hard part is, in the beginning you are feeling bad for your child. All the mommy your baby doesn’t get. But later, you feel bad for you–all the child and child-time you don’t get.”
I’ve taken on a practice this Lenten season. A Catholic friend of mine told me she’d given up negative thinking. How hard could that be? I thought. Way easier than giving up caffeine. I always like to take something on rather than give something up. And so I adopted the practice as well, and found almost immediately that just as with meditation I cannot do it anywhere close to perfectly, or even 25% of the time. But, again like meditation, the practice is actually in the noticing that you are not present, not positive, and then gently steering your mind back to a friendlier turf. You do this over and over and over, as Jack Kornfield says, the way you train a puppy to pee on the newspaper instead of on your rug. And while I haven’t had a single day that was truly free from negative thinking, let alone complaining––which is the audible version of negative thinking–– I have to say I have never been happier in my life. I don’t feel as compelled to make everyone do what I want them to do. I seen to be happy just observing and participating when called upon. People delight me. Everything seems fresh and amazing. Best of all, I have stopped beating myself up. I don’t waste my time being annoyed with myself for failing so miserably at the task of thinking positively. I just go, “Oh, well. I am learning. Nice trying!”
The difference might also be that because I have to drop the thought, I don’t get to fondle it, nurture it, explore all the intricate nuances of how right I am and how wronged I have been, how things really would have been so much better if they’d gone the way I’d wanted them to go, how rotten it is that the beautiful 77 degree day we had yesterday has morphed into 45 and drizzly today.
So when I start to feel my jaw tighten and my eyes get hard like a lion about to pounce, or when I feel that queasy feeling in my gut, I get reminded that this is not good for me. I think about something joyful–usually my kids or Tom or my writers making great literature and telling some crucial bit of truth, or that one detail about my kitchen that is going to completely change my life forever for the better (the filtered hot/cold spigot on my new sink!)– and my mouth turns up, my forehead uncrinkles, my heart feels peaceful and the cycle is broken. It’s as if I have a screened-in porch, where before I was at the mercy of the mosquitoes and yellow jackets. I still see them, but now they can’t get at me.
Last Friday I got an email from Elle’s pre-school. Her graduation is now scheduled for June 10 from 6-7:30pm. Also scheduled at that time is the Jam for the Fans dinner and Meet and Greet, and the open mic which we’d hoped my father would participate in. When I read the email I immediately spun into panic mode. I called Katryna, and she very calmly told me to just call the school and nicely ask if they can change the date.
“Why not?” she said. “The only thing you have to lose is their opinion of you.”
So, with great dread (for I care deeply that people hold me in good opinion, but I care more about seeing my daughter’s graduation) I did just that. I even tried to bribe them, telling them I would lead the graduates in some stirring folk song appropriate for the occasion, something like Aikendrum.
They did not change the date.
I indulged in some negative thinking. This stinks! I thought. Not only am I missing my beloved daughter’s moment of glory, but I am also missing all her classmates, most of whose music teacher I have been for the past two years. It would have been so fun to get the kids to perform! And all those wonderful parents, friends I have made, shoulders I have cried on while we watched our kids go from diapers and temper tantrums to confident organized almost-kindergartners. This was one of those moments my friend was talking about. Elle might be fine without me, but I wasn’t sure I was going to be fine missing this event.
And then I decided to see what might be good about this new schedule, or at least about this state of affairs.
1. Elle’s grandparents will be in town for Jam for the Fans. Maybe they can shoot over and see a portion of the event.
2. Maybe Elle is meant to be mad at me. Maybe it’s good that her dad is the good guy and they can have some special time together.
3. Maybe we can have a special Mommy/Elle celebration some other time. Ditto the kids and their song.
4. Maybe the Fans will tell me to come late to the Open Mic and see my daughter graduate.
Funny that Katryna had to think of this last one. It never occurred to me that I could ask my fans (who, after all, are my employers) if they could spare me for an hour.
Jesus said, famously, “Judge not that you be not judged.” He didn’t say this in a wagging-a-finger, Law-of-Congress-kind-of way. He said it as the Law-of-Physics-kind-of fact that it is. When we judge, we enter a state of judgment and judgmental-ism. The opinions start ricocheting off any available surface; they are like little arrows stabbing us constantly. Judgments create pain. The Buddha, a tad less famously said, “Opinions just go around bothering people.” I am so lucky to have work I adore, work that feels more like a calling than a way to make a paycheck. Some moms when they give up their paycheck gig feel very clear and good about their decision. Some moms are able to keep doing the work they love while missing very few beats in the saga of their kids’ lives. I wanted to be so comfortably famous and successful by the time I had kids that I’d be able to chuck them in the back of the tour bus with a full time excellent nanny who would also be one of my best friends and a traveling Kodaly or Dalcroze teacher who also loved to play soccer, and maybe my bandmates would have kids my kids age and we could all go around the country together, one gigantic preschool on the road. Katryna and I would be selling out shed dates and big theatres and then spending the mornings in the lobbies of the hotel, chasing our kids up and down the elegant carpets past flower arrangements the size of my Suburu. My kids would see the country, pooling into Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon whenever we toured these areas. I would have it all.
And that didn’t happen. And what I have today is so much better, so much richer, primarily because it is real and not a projection of what if. The projection misses the mosquitoes and the yellow jackets–rarely do such commonplace villains get written into fantasy. But why begrudge the mother who has this? And why pity the mother who doesn’t? How could I have predicted that the best moment of my recent life was getting to watch my daughter play a variation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” onstage with a bunch of other kids on a Sunday afternoon while my son ran around on the grass outside. The best parts are always your real life. The best parts are when you stop, wherever you are–be it in the middle of your detested job, the middle of your never-ending afternoon, the middle of your peak moment onstage or in the operating room, the middle of your walk down Crafts Avenue–and let the voice tell you the truth. You are beautiful.