Grandmummy’s 102nd Birthday

Photo by Katryna Nields

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

I am breaking my “no faces of my kids on the blog” rule today for a couple of reasons. First, because this is a picture of Elle two years ago, and she just seems like a totally different person. Second, and more importantly, because today is my grandmother’s 102nd birthday, and I just love this picture of four generations of oldest daughters, oldest children.

My grandmother is a phenomenon. We always knew she would live past 100. In the 70’s when Willard Scott celebrated centenarians on the Today Show, we’d all nod smugly and say, “I can’t wait till Grandmummy gets to be on.” She discovered yoga in her 60s and spent the second half of her life traveling the world: Russia (USSR then), South America, India, China on several occasions, including in 1972 post-Nixon’s visit when she discovered acupuncture and began seeing an acupuncturist once home in her native New York. She took me to Greece when I was ten. She took Katryna to Kenya when she was ten, and she took all of us to Paris and London at various times. She spoke many languages; in fact French was her first. She was a dancer and actress and continued performing until the beginnings of Alzheimer’s slowed her down in her mid 90’s. She loved modern art, theatre, the color of tomatoes, strangers––she was famous for regaling New York cabbies–– and often befriended single gay men, inviting them to live rent-free in her apartment’s spare room in exchange for household chores and company.

She is complicated. And wonderful. And we are every bit her descendants. In Elle, I see all sorts of her complicated, wonderful, adorable traits. We just sang happy birthday to her, Elle in the tub, while my grandmother was shown a picture of us as we sang. I was told to say who I was several times.

My grandmother went to Smith for her Freshman year and then spent a year at the Sorbonne. Smith wouldn’t accept the Sorbonne’s credits, so my grandmother dropped out. One of my relatives will have to correct me here, but I think she then opened a hat shop and hung out in Greenwich Village to support her acting and dancing, but that might be my fantasy version of her life. At any rate, she lived with her parents until she married at 35, which was of course shockingly old in the early 40’s. She had my mother at age 36 and my aunt Sarah at age 40. This turned out to be a hopeful omen for me while I was starting my own family in my late thirties and early 40s.

So as a tribute to my grandmother, I spent the day reading my Anusara yoga teacher training manual and fretting about my gadgets. Here is a litany of my woes:
-My iPhone has a scratch in the top of the screen and needs to be either fixed, which will involve me living without a cell phone for several days or weeks, or replaced; either way I will have to drive to Holyoke Mall, which I hate.
-My classic iPod which I sent away to KingiPod.com thinking it needed a battery replacement turns out to need a whole new logic board. This will cost me upwards of $140, not counting shipping. A new machine is $250.
-Also, I’d sent KingiPod.com my antiquated iPod Mini which I’d tossed in the kitchen table drawer in 2004 when its battery died, in the hopes that it too could be replaced (I had been told at the time that they were discontinuing the thing and thus weren’t making replacement batteries. Turns out they do make a few, but KingiPod doesn’t service minis.)
-My digital camera’s lens broke
-My MacBook’s hard disk is completely full, so full that Microsoft Word stopped working just as I was trying to send our book proposal to our agent, so I had to send him the doc on Google docs and then I had to buy a hard drive, which I still haven’t figured out how to work.
-My ancient and beloved Beatles watch broke when I absentmindedly took a shower with it on.

Though my woes are somewhat less severe than oh, 99.98% of the population’s, I still feel frustrated by all this. I get this awful sinking feeling in my stomach, tightness in my jaw and an angry tingling in my chest every time some element of my kingdom of technology fails me. And I hate that when I have so many delightful events, work, projects, people in my life that I have to spend time addressing the broken iPods. Do I have to? No. I can live without all this stuff. But I hate the waste. I hate that I bought it to begin with. I get mad at myself and tell myself I am a stupid consumer. The stupid consumer in me shrieks, “Things shouldn’t break! Things cost too much! They always break one month after the warranty is up! It’s an evil conspiracy!” This does not bring me inner peace or allow me to be helpful and loving toward others.

So I’ve been trying to work with the malfunctioning of my gadgets as a spiritual practice. Questioning the thoughts, I find that maybe iPods are supposed to break as soon as their warranty is up, and that maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world that my little pieces of metal and lithium and God knows what else predictably turn into litter. After all, a tiny device that contains my entire library of CDs plus podcasts, photos and audiobooks––which at one time filled 8feet by eight feet worth of shelf space in my house and now fits in the palm of my hand is a miracle! Once, we were all amazed by it. Now, we all have at least two and toss them in the bottom of our knapsacks. (This was why my digital camera’s lens broke. I have since bought a little sack for it, made from recycled plastic bottles.)

Maybe the real cost of an iPod is not $250 but more like $600 over the course of its lifetime. Certainly anyone who is awake to the food activist movement knows that the real cost of $2.50/lb chicken that lived for a mere 49 days before it was slaughtered is far more when you factor in the environmental and social costs. Things should break. Things should cost so much. Things DO cost so much; more than we pay up front.

This is my habitual dilemma: wondering to what extent I should be accepting life on life’s terms (that iPods break and that if I want one I am going to have to devote way more money and time and attention than I might like, but it’s worth it to me to enjoy the gifts of music and wisdom it can give) or try to change the injustices of the world (in which case, I’d probably come to the conclusion that iPods are just a part of the corrupted system and refuse to buy one; or I might instead lobby Apple to make longer-lasting, more easily fixable machines). Along these lines, when do I accept that my daughter’s tantrum is just a phase in a normal three-year-old’s development, and when do I move in to lend a hand? If I move in too often, I have been told, she might equate “have tantrum” with “get mom’s love” and that might be BAD. But how can I just leave her alone with her painful feelings? That doesn’t feel right either.

Once again, it probably comes down to “the wisdom to know the difference.” And interestingly, I am usually able to accept her tantrums as developmentally appropriate and also be with her while she’s having one, without shaming her or losing my own temper. Today, I have little wisdom for iPods, the crumbling infrastructure that is my gaggle of gadgets, but I do have this: When I sit with my breath and calm my own system, clarity eventually returns and some direction comes to me, either to act or to wait a little longer.

We mothers these days are so hard on ourselves. In the course of three days, five different important people in my life said something to the equivalent of, “Nerissa, you have got to stop beating yourself up!” Tom says I was always hard on myself, but I feel like it’s more pronounced since motherhood, particularly being the mother of two, and why should this be surprising? If a person has some tiny unresolved perfectionist tendencies to begin with, motherhood is a flagrant opportunity to completely bash oneself with recrimination. Because isn’t motherhood (or fatherhood) the ultimate testing grounds for the nature versus nurture debate? (And of course parents represent the bulk of the “nurture” part of the equation.) Isn’t this where we have the most difficulty setting our boundaries? In the case of mothers who carried their kids in utero, this separation from one to two is literal. A helpful mantra for me in all this is, “Well, the story’s not over yet.” Maybe the kids will turn out all right, but we’ll be putting some pennies in the therapy jar just in case they don’t.

And the great thing about Inquiry is that when I take some parental action and then immediately worry about its eventual ramifications, like for instance, how I’ve just bribed Elle with the promise that I will get her a Krazy straw if she does what I want all day, including take a nap, and then have some self-critical thoughts about my behavior, I get to ask, “Really? Is it really true that because you bribed her she will never do anything from her own volition? Have I really corrupted her in some damning way?”

And doesn’t love count for anything? My grandmother was a five-foot tall fire cracker. She had a temper that flattened people twice her weight. She and my mother could argue for years about the same issue (often, which was better, New York City or the Washington suburbs.) In the early years of our career, she would arrive in a taxi to our gigs in the seediest clubs in Soho and then call one of us to tell us how terrible we were. She wanted us to be cabaret singers, I think. Or maybe tap dancers. Once she said to me, “Well, at least you’re pretty, because you haven’t got any talent.”

And we love her so so so much. In a way, I love her more for her struggles with her daughters, with Smith College, with her triangle pose, with the artistic path her granddaughters chose. And when I breath myself to calmness, when I unite with my inner divinity, when I follow Mary Oliver’s gorgeous advice to be “idle and blessed,” all of life is as easily lovable as that girl who was an older sister in 1909 and a frail, tired, intrepid yogini looking out of her seventh floor window in New York City tonight.

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