Archive | parenting

The Center of the Universe

On Monday, I visited the dentist’s office. Mundane, I know, but bear with me. My dentist’s assistant, Marilyn, is a kind and compassionate woman who greets me with soft and welcoming words. I sat in the big dentist chair and waited for the dentist to come, and it suddenly occurred to me that Marilyn plays a small role in the drama of my life. I come into her office in the midst of my hectic rushing-about life, blowing in through the door like some wind of confusion. The intense energy of me pauses for these few moments on her chair, then moves out through door, corridor, waiting room, main door, and parking lot to continue its rushing about in the world, attempting to do no harm. And to me, that is all Marilyn is: these few moments of respite from rushing about while waiting for the dentist to come, her few kind words, the gentle touch of her hand.

Now this may come as a surprise, but Marilyn too lives a full and whole life. She does not exist in the dentist’s office solely to greet me once or twice a year and assist briefly in my care. To her, patients come and go, playing small roles in the drama of her life, which encompasses her relationships, thoughts, feelings, emotions, confusions, moments of happiness and moments of sadness, her own probable attempt to move through the world while doing no harm. In her life, I play a minor and probably somewhat inconsequential part, a tiny burst of wind and energy, now here, now gone, making room for another patient to come through the door.

Shocking, right?

As a teen, I often imagined us humans as bubbles floating through life. Some bubbles never touch, but some get to stop together for a while and interact so that for at least a few moments the bubbles nearly overlap. I still love walking after dark in the street and imagining how people live behind their curtained (or sometimes open) windows, living their bubble-life.

So yes, I am not the center of the universe. And most likely neither are you, even if you believe you are. It’s our minds that play this trick on us, pretending to be important and one-of-a-kind, filled with illusions about how everyone else is thinking about us, and how they act on purpose to affect us. How everything moves forward in the world to either accommodate us or hinder us.

Some years ago, a friend recommended I read a parenting book which, translated from the Hebrew, was titled Fly Little Bird. One of the points which struck me in the book was the idea that as a child becomes an adolescent, we parents find our place shifts away from being center-stage in our children’s lives. Instead, they are now the main actor, the ones in the limelight, and we are relegated to a smaller role. This, the author implied, was how it should be, the normal and healthy way for our children to grow up. I remember reading this all those years ago and thinking how true this was. When a baby is born, mom and dad are the most important figures in her life. She is totally dependent on them for nearly every need, her safety, health, nourishment, entertainment, warmth, even movement. But as she grows into a toddler, she becomes gradually more independent. She can now eat on her own, move herself from an unpleasant situation on her own, remove a layer of clothing if she’s too hot, or put one on, start using the bathroom independently, and more.

Then, seemingly overnight, the baby turns into a teenager, surprising the heck out of most parents I’ve met. Whatever role we had in their life is turned on its head. Some of the changes I’m finding in my teens are: they don’t want to eat my food, they don’t want to go places with me, they’re not interested in talking to me, they get mad if I don’t do what they ask, they decide what they’re going to wear or what they’re doing, and more: friends, how much water they’re drinking or not, whether to get boba tea 4 or 7 times a week, which movies or series to watch, what music to listen to, whether a full stop at a stop sign is necessary and with what speed to merge on the freeway. Crazy decisions, normal decisions, important decisions, everyday decisions, critical-to-the-continuation-of-life decisions. And I am (mostly) out of the picture, or just peeking in through the window, wondering about the bubble of their life and whether I’ll get to interact with them again after they turn 25.

It’s not necessarily easy or simple to accept that I am not center stage in Marilyn’s life, but it’s ridiculously hard to consider that from now on, while I’ll always play some role in my kids’ life, it is actually my job to set them free and allow them to fly.

Time to move out of the limelight, Sigal.

Curiously, I think some people would not agree with me. Many of us parents identify so deeply with being a parent that we really believe our children belong to us, are a part of us, and that all they do reflects directly on us. Some of us might believe that it is our responsibility and our duty to make sure that our children end up productive members of society, good and upright people, honest, successful and happy. Sounds seductive, doesn’t it? But do we really have this much control over another person’s life?

What I think is the truth sounds a lot less lovely than this, for it affirms the fact that we no longer have control over how our teenagers will turn out (and that perhaps the control we thought we exerted before was also an illusion). These newly-minted human beings are walking their own path, with a lot of minor actors in the drama of their lives of which we are only one or two. We can be present to them and as available as possible if they need us. We can be supportive and loving. We can hope and pray that we have given them a good foundation, that the schools we chose gave a good foundation, and that the choices they make now moving forward will be good ones. But no matter how much we try, we cannot make those choices for them, and definitely not for long. Not in a way that will, in fact, promote their happiness.

And so we let go and trust.

We set them free to be their own center stage and allow them to figure out on their own the fact that they too are not the center of the universe. (A humbling and wonderful insight which I wish on us all).

And we pray that they survive this crazy teenaged time.

So fly little birds. Mamma’s in the nest in case you need to find a safe place to land. But from now on you’re responsible for your own worms and direction in life.

Man, admitting that is hard.

May the Force of love, compassion, patience, and inner fortitude be with us all.

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The Avocado Sushi Dilemma

Some time ago, Dar and I tried a new sushi restaurant in town. Our sushi requirements vary considerably: Dar prefers rolls made out of strange sea life: clams, sea snails, and octopus, while I gravitate to faceless land life, such as cucumber, carrots, and avocado. In this case, while we were adventurous in trying a new restaurant, we stuck to our usual ordering routine. Dar ordered a tako sunomono salad, while I ordered an avocado sushi roll. What we got, however, was far from the safe choices we thought we made. Dar’s tako sunomono had disappointingly-little tako and a whole giant pile of sliced cucumber. My avocado sushi had so much avocado dripping from it, that it could more accurately be described as sliced avocado than a sushi roll.

Sushi takes finesse, balance, delicacy. Even the simplest roll could become inedible by a heavy-handed, inexperienced, or overzealous chef. No wonder becoming a chef is such an arduous process of schooling and on-the-job training. Whether it’s too much avocado, too little avocado, a rotten, stinky avocado, or whatever quality of rice, a sushi chef must tread a fine line in making his or her creations.

In contrast to sushi chefs (who at least get paid for their efforts and who will, in fact, receive compliments when they make an especially yummy roll), parents must walk the fine line of how much avocado to put in a roll without job-specific training or schooling and certainly without ever receiving any positive feedback (except, perhaps, after the children turn the ripe age of forty-five). I am referring, of course, not to making sushi for our kids, but to our efforts to bring them up in the way least damaging to their self-esteem, capabilities, potential, well-being and more. We cook for them, drive them around, help them with their homework, encourage them, pick them up when they fall, and stay up late at night if they have the stomach flu and are throwing up all over the floor. And yet somehow, no matter how much we try, the fine line of how much avocado to put in the sushi roll eludes us. Making the perfect son-or-daughter roll seem as far away as one of Pluto’s moons. Or more.

Raising children, we could argue, is much more complicated than making sushi. For one thing, those darn kids keep changing on us in ways that avocado does not. Things that worked well when they were three are useless by the time they’re seventeen, or arguably, even by the time they turn five. Learning the skills needed to deal with the issues they bring home, whether it be limit-setting, bedtime, homework, interest in boys, getting the first period, drinking alcohol, or learning how to drive, is a constant race against the clock. Before we’re experts in one thing, the kids have already “been there, done that,” and are on to something completely new which we couldn’t have imagined if we tried. We never become experts, instead constantly finding ourselves face-to-face with the limitations of our own knowledge and experience.

Being parents is the hardest job in the world. Sure, there’s moments of gratitude, joy, and satisfaction, but if anyone tells you they never experience the humbling sensation of truly not knowing what to do, well, they’re probably just not paying enough attention… or else, they’re using the well-known and oft-used tool of bluffing their way through it all. We have to bluff once in a while as parents, you know, because just imagine if the kids knew how little we know.

I’ve been thinking about this avocado-sushi dilemma lately, noticing my see-sawing attempts between too much, too little, overripe, and raw to parent my teenagers who are growing (and surprising me constantly) by leaps and bounds. This morning, for example, a grumpy teen rejected the waffle breakfast which she requested specifically last night. Dar has been telling me for weeks now to stop making them breakfast, and yet my desire to please the kids is nearly impossible to overcome. Waffle breakfast turned out to be too much avocado. In contrast, my son who just turned seventeen, told me he did not want to celebrate his birthday this year. I therefore did not put up decorations in the house. No decorations turned out to be too little avocado. But without hardly ever receiving compliments when I do a good job, and always heaps of complaining, how do I even know when I’ve made the perfect roll?

Are we back where we started, with an inedible roll, with an imbalanced, guilt-or-resentment-induced parenting style, or just worried that we’re messing up our kids so badly that we need to start saving for that psychiatrist fund?

I hope not. And in fact, I would like to suggest a different perspective, one that is possibly less concerned with results and feedback and more with faith, trust, and kindness: the mindfulness approach. In the mindfulness approach, how much avocado we put on the roll is not the main issue. Instead, we focus on what it feels like to have put too much or too little avocado (or the wrong kind of avocado altogether) on. Whenever we don’t know what to do, or feel we’re doing it all wrong, we pause and focus on what thoughts and emotions come up, and rather than push the avocado (or situation) away, yell at the waiter and the chef, and stomp back home to write an angry review, we stay with the frustration, anger, sorrow, fear or whatever comes up. The mindfulness approach is not about doing or fixing, but about being. Being with all these difficult feelings and thoughts, our wishes to be better, to do better, our love for our kids, and our desire to be good parents (or at least better than our own). The mindfulness approach isn’t mistake-centered, but kindness-centered. It acknowledges how hard it is to get it right, it stresses the intention, the effort, and what is present in, well… the Present. And it always allows you to start back again from scratch.

Every day is a new day, in the mindfulness approach.

So try this next time you’re frustrated by the kids, or yelled at them, or behaved in any of the multitude of ways that you promised yourself you would never do again:

Stop (that’s already a big step).

Take a few breaths (at least three or five).

Observe what’s happening in your body — are you contracted? overwhelmed with shame? is your belly tight? Is your mind sizzling with thoughts? Is the inner critic in the forefront? What sensations do you feel in your jaw, your eyes, your hands? And though this is really hard, try to stay with these sensations. It is difficult to be with all this, with the contraction, the shame, regret, sadness, anger. Really hard. But stay with the feelings for as long as you can, and remind yourself that you are not to blame. Parenting is objectively hard, and it is normal and natural for these feelings and thoughts to come up. You are doing your best, and you are not alone. We’re all of us doing as best as we can. All us parents are struggling to stay afloat in this parenting pool of thick mud.

When you’ve noticed your heart is back to normal, or when you’re ready to continue, proceed with your life. Make the next son-or-daughter roll again, and again, and again, a million times, even if you’ll never get it just right. And continue to be kind to yourself. This parenting stuff sure is tough.

This practice, perhaps you noticed, has the acronym STOP: Stop, Take a few breaths, Observe your body sensations, feelings and thoughts, and Proceed. And it is, in fact, a practice. We do it again and again, and not in order to get the roll perfect. That is not the point. We do this until it is easier to notice how we feel, what we sense, and what we’re thinking, and then we continue to do it. We do this practice to develop kindness for ourselves, for our children, and for other parents who are suffering like us. We do this to gain some inner (rather than outer) peace, a little bit more perspective, and perhaps, one day when we’re really really old, a wisdom to be kind to our own kids when they too struggle with this parenting stuff.

***Many thanks to Sheri, from whom I learned this practice, and to Julie, who reminded me that breathing just once before observing is not enough.

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Walking My Dream

A few days ago I had an illuminating conversation with my daughter Eden. I had asked her, Would you like to hear about a dream I want to do?

She replied: “Does it include me?”

I said: No….

She said: “I don’t want to hear about it.” And then she added: “I think parents should only have dreams that include their kids.”

Not quite knowing how to react (were her words a cute thing to say or completely unfair?) I did not respond directly. At first I was blown away by the realization of just how much resistance I could expect from the kids when I tried to go for one of those dreams that do not include them. Then, after talking this over with my therapist, I was startled by another realization:

When my daughter has kids, if she still subscribes to this belief, she will think that she can only have dreams that include her kids, and if she has any dreams that do not include her kids, she will not follow them.

One of my dreams that does include my kids is that they will be free.

At least partly, I think, my kids watch me following my dreams. I’ve climbed mountains and gone on backpacking trips. Dar and I even ventured as far away as Prague and Israel without them. I try very hard, however, to fit the timing of fulfilling my dreams so that it does not disrupt the kids’ schedule. I go hiking and backpacking when they are with their dad. I went on a meditation retreat on dates that promised the least days away from them. I cancel anything if it interferes with their needs.

Me on top of Rainier

Me on top of Rainier

If I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2688-mile-long trail that traverses California, Oregon and Washington, I would not be able to fit it on the days that the kids are with their dad. I would not be able to be there if they had a cold. It would take me at least a day (or likely more) to get back if they needed me or if, heaven forbid, some emergency threatened them. I would be really, really far away.

But I would be walking my dream.

Some people have said to me: “Why don’t you wait till the kids are older? People hike the PCT even in their sixties.”

I don’t have an answer to the question, not a good one anyways. Except, of course, that I could say: When you look into your own heart, and touch your own dream, do you really want to wait for some imaginary better time to do it? Until the kids are older? Until you’ve retired? Until some made-up set of conditions are met? Or would you like to spread your wings today, now, this moment? Would you like, right now, to be free?

Next year, come May, I would like to spread my wings, pick up my backpack, and go hike the PCT. Uri will be almost 16. Eden will be 13. I will be 44. Dar will be kissing the other side of 50. I feel in my heart that it’s time, that I am ready for taking this freedom. In the last year I was beset by asthma, an inflammation in my foot, the flu, and back pain. I would like to follow my dreams now, while I still, maybe, can. While I’m still young enough and healthy enough and fit enough. While I still want those dreams. While they still mean something to me.

I hope that by walking my dream, my kids will see that dreams matter and that fulfilling them is as important as anything else we do in our brief, magical flash of life. I hope that my kids will learn and remember that they matter, and that while many things are important, so are those dreams that lie in their heart.

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My Television Dukkha (Suffering)

Sometimes I look at my children, and it seems to me they lead very strange lives. They go to school for most of every weekday, leaving home at 7:30am and returning only around 4pm — almost the equivalent of a full-time adult job. Once at home, they need to manage their time between after-school activities, such as basketball and football practice or gymnastics, and their homework, which could take as much as an hour-and-a-half every day. After the homework is complete, oftentimes the kids elect to sit in front of the television, the xBox or their iPads, staring at the screens for hours at a time.

Here’s what my and my sister’s life at their age looked like:

We had school from 8am to 2pm at the longest, often coming home at noon. We had homework, and I sure read a lot, but I spent a lot of time outside, in our garden or the street, playing. I also played the piano. My sister went to jazz and aerobics classes and took karate lessons. But we often played with friends. There was only one channel on television in Israel. For some two hours each afternoon the programming was only in Arabic, and in the evening, it was more for adults. And so, though we watched some television, our life was not focused on it, except perhaps somewhat during summer vacations, when there was more programming oriented to our age. But even then we spent most of the day playing with friends outside, reading (me), or going to the beach and the pool. We did not have a computer till I was in my teens, and even then, games were limited and the internet not invented yet. Our lives were focused on friends and on being outside, and, for me, on books.

When I look at my kids, I wonder what this indoor, screen-oriented life would look like when they’re adults. I worry that they are self-numbing. That they don’t really know what to do with their time other than this digital easy choice. The fear that as a parent I ought to control this better seizes me, and I feel desperate and hopeless at the same time. Somehow, whenever I talk to other parents, they don’t have this problem at all. “We hardly watch television,” one mother told me the other day. “She’s too busy with soccer practice,” said another.

Once school is done for the day, most kids around here head to sports practices, music lessons, horseback riding lessons, and many other after-school activities. Their time is so tightly scheduled that it is impossible to make plans for playdates during the week, and even the weekend is often tough. While admittedly riding horses or playing soccer does sound much better in every way (healthier, more educational, morally more correct perhaps) than watching television, I wonder sometimes if all these activities are simply another symptom of our non-stop society that is so afraid to pause for a moment and get bored.

This morning, I went to meditation practice at Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. I was tired, and my head kept whip-lashing as I fell asleep and woke up sitting on the pillow. I had looked forward to coming, eager for a half hour of uninterrupted quiet, a half hour of not needing to talk, not needing to do anything, a half hour of simply being in the moment, even if that moment was full of sleepiness. After the meditation, Robert Cusick spoke about the Eightfold Path and how to end suffering (dukkha in Pali). As he spoke, my listlessness transformed itself into a panic about this television issue. I was ruining the kids’ lives. I was not doing my duty by them. What kind of a parent was I? The image of my daughter staring at the television last night came to my mind, and my chest filled with such tightness, such desperation, such helplessness, that I wanted to jump out of my seat, to do anything except experience that.

In my mind, action was paramount. I was going to go back home and sit the kids down for a talk. No more television. Ever. Not on weekdays at least. I was going to talk to Dar about not getting Uri the Playstation he wanted for his birthday. That’s it. No more. I was done with screen time. I was going to be better this time. I’ll make them check-in their iPads in the kitchen. I would be on top of making sure the TV was always turned off. No computer for me either. Possibly not even for Dar. I will let them be bored. It’s better than this digitalization of our life. We’ll go to the pool instead, or I could schedule them some music lessons again. We will be a screen-free home. In my frenzy, I was no longer at the meditation hall. Instead, I was fighting the kids, fighting, in a way, against this awful sin it seemed to me that I was committing against their life.

Fortunately, Robert Cusick’s words interrupted my self-torture, bringing me back to the hall. He was telling a story about something that happened in a class he taught the other day. The class began, he said, with a guided meditation. As everyone was sitting, and he was already guiding them in the meditation, late-comers trickled in. The door opened and closed. Chairs creaked and scraped. Bags thumped down on the floor. Sound was happening, but he noticed some of the meditators were opening their eyes, glancing back. In our heads, he explained, a simple noise transforms into stories: who is coming? why are they late? don’t they know the class started already? don’t they know they’re interrupting the meditation? But it was just sound that was happening. Only sound. Nothing else. The rest were stories that were going on in people’s heads.

As Robert Cusick spoke, I suddenly understood. What was happening for me, thinking about the digital usage at home, was fear — fear that I am not a good enough mother. The rest was just stories that I was telling myself that I thought could happen in a future that hasn’t even happened yet. The need I felt to act, like the need the meditators felt to see who was coming, was a reaction to the fear, but there was no real, urgent need for me to act. If I acted now, I’d be acting from that fear and ignorance, from a place of heaviness and helplessness and despair. Instead, I can do what I’ve heard people talk about countless times in meditation: I can simply be with this fear. I can hold this fear and myself with compassion. I can experience it and see that it is just a fear, even if it does seem to me such a terrible, scary fear. And let go of the need to react.

Perhaps, once I’ve learned to hold my fear (this fear of not being a good enough mother) with compassion, I will be more capable of acting wisely with regards to the television/ipad/xbox situation at home. Right now, I realize I cannot. Right now, any action I take will not really be an action, but a REaction, and as such will probably go the way my resolutions regarding the TV had gone before: to guilt and more helplessness and fear. I have a long way to go in learning to hold this fear. It’s a big one for me. And so, for today at least, I’m not going to do anything except be kind to myself about it as much as I can. I’m going to trust that the sense of urgency I feel is a passing sensation. That this situation (which is largely in my imagination anyways) is not critical. That I cannot build or destroy anything in one day, and that the kids, god willing, will not be quite as irretrievably ruined as I fear by another digital day.

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A Hopeful Mom’s Birthday Wish List

alpacaAbout a week ago, my daughter called me to her room to show me her birthday wish list which she’d posted on her door. Beneath signs declaring “No Bully Zone” and “Don’t come in, I mean YOU!” a list hung, titled: “NOTICE — Birthday Wish List,” with many orange arrows pointing down. A quick glance confirmed two fears. One, purchasing all (or even half) of the items on the list would exceed any reasonable amount I’d planned to spend on her birthday. Two, the very first item was a second Furby, by itself an overpriced and undesirable (at least in my eyes) item. There is almost nothing I’d be more reluctant to bring into my home than another Furby, and if you’ve spent time in the company of a Furby, you probably know why I was already prepared to do bodily harm to the first.

My birthday precedes my daughter’s by more than two months, and her list reminded me of a subject I struggle with on every birthday and special day in our family. After my divorce, I decided that instead of expecting gifts from the kids on my birthday, I would prepare a surprise table with gifts for them. The custom, began in an earnest desire to let go of expectations and be filled by the joy of giving, turned into an as-earnest effort to find balance between my desire to give the kids the moon and my wish to teach them to be moderate in their requests and to appreciate what they have. The result of my joy-of-giving experiment was merely getting more lists, this time of what they want me to give them for my birthday, as though, clearly, the only reason I was born was to satisfy their cravings.

Since it seems I can’t win in this particular path, and since my birthday literally does come first, I decided this year to try something new. I purchased some special markers at the art store and posted my own birthday wish list where the children can’t possibly miss it: on the shower door. And since I can, and since I’m proud of my choice of items on my list, and since my sense of humor thinks it’s funny, I’ve decided to share my list with you.

My Birthday Wish List

alpaca1. A backpacking ukulele (This item I am planning to buy for myself to bring with us when Dar and I go to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail this summer).
2. A sony A6000 camera (Yet another item I am planning to buy for myself. I’m very excited about the possibility of finally having good photos that were not taken by the iphone camera).
3. Hugs and kisses (Sometimes the best things in life are free).
4. Appreciation for my cooking (I’d probably be willing pay good money for that one, but I’m hoping to get it for free for my birthday).
5. Jewelry (Something with a nice rock on it. Hey, I may never wear it, but I can appreciate a good rock like any other woman).
6. A Newfie (I doubt Dar or the kids will get me this one, but I figured it’s good for manifestation purposes to mention it. In any case, we only bring rescue dogs into this house, so even a pure-bred Newfie must be a rescue).
7. Two llamas (My dad once sent me an article about how smart llamas are, and ever since then I really want llamas. They’re social creatures, apparently, so I want two. They also need to be rescues, and I’d prefer it if the giver of the gift will also build them a barn).
8. New veggies in my veggie garden (I’m willing to wait till spring for this one, but it would be great if the kids, Dar, and I could plant them together).
9. A bigger yard for the chickens (I keep feeling that their house is too small. I think they’ll enjoy more space for pecking and wandering about).
10. A hike with the children (There’s probably more chance that the kids will get me a Newfie than for them to take me on a hike willingly, but again, I figure it’s always good to say what I want and leave the rest to the universe to take care of).

So that’s my birthday wish list. Now I’m all excited about it and impatient, because the kids will only see the list when they return home on Monday. I debated if to email the list to them, but I want to see their faces when they first see it on the shower door. I hope they’ll see the humor in my list, but at the same time I hope that it will also make them think about how mothers may have needs, desires, wants and hopes for their birthdays (and every day). And maybe they are getting old enough now that they can experience the joy of giving too.

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Mirrors

I’ve been reflecting lately on how much I let other people’s opinions of me have power over the way I see myself. Yesterday, for example, as I walked out of the kids’ school, the kids (ages 10 and 13) were pulling on my arms as though we were at a carnival and they were 4 again. Two parents came towards us, smiled, and I found myself saying apologetically: “Somebody’s really happy to be out of school.” As though I needed to apologize for the kids being happy. As though I needed to apologize for my parenting. As though I was embarrassed. Was I?

Seems to me that my feelings at that fleeting meeting are not trustworthy. They were confused, because instead of looking inside myself to check how I was feeling about being pulled in two different directions by the exhilarated kids, I looked outside. The other parents’ reaction (condescension, fear, embarrassment, joy — whatever it was) may have been a reflection of something I felt inside, but now I’ll never know, because at the moment that mattered, my focus was not inside, but on the mirror, on what other people thought.

Mirrors are useful things. I use my mirror to put on my contact lenses in the morning, to check for ticks on my back after a hike, and to make sure I floss in the right spaces. I could manage all these tasks without a mirror, but having one sure helps. I also, however, use a mirror to see I don’t have anything between my teeth, to comb the crazy waves out of my hair, and to confirm that my clothes match. When I use a mirror in this way, what I’m really doing is seeing a reflection of what my exterior look like, what other people see when they look at me. But is my exterior, this outward shell, really me?

Buying shoes is a good example of what I mean. When I buy shoes, I put them on, pay attention to how comfortable they are by walking about for a few steps, and then I walk over to the mirror. The mirror shows me what I look like with the shoes — what other people see when I wear the shoes — not what I see when I wear them. Fshoesor that, I really only need to look down. I care about whether the shoes are comfortable, but I also care about whether the shoes look nice — to other people! Funny enough, I have a pair of shoes that is perfect for this example. They look pretty silly from above, like Minnie Mouse shoes, seriously. But from the side they look great — I know, because I checked in the mirror. Despite the fact that when I look down, the shoes look silly, I know that the people who matter (all of you, not me, right?) will think the shoes are great.

We are probably conditioned from infancy to pay attention to what the outside world thinks. We could argue that this is necessary in a society that seeks to be built on ethical and moral laws of behavior and in which many people and cultures need to coexist. Looking outside might even be inherent in us — our mirror neurons flare up and mimic the reaction of those around us. I want to believe, however, that my inner monitor is as ethical and moral as that of the rest of the world. Now that I am almost at the beautiful and invigorating age of 42, I am beginning to care about  what I look like on the inside much more than I do about what other people think. And no, I’m not going to start picking my nose in public or wear my bra above my shirt. But I hope always to remember to pause and look inside myself (whether before, during or after the reaction of the world) and see how I feel and what I think — to find out inside what is important and true to me.

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Points of Joy

People often say that life is a roller coaster: sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down. I never particularly liked roller coasters. I remember the first time I went on one. My experience was made up of moments of dread and moments of terror. The only bright moment was when I stepped away from the car and swore I will never go on one again.

It seems to me that people get on roller coasters because they like the “high” that they get from the ride. Roller coaster passengers get that feeling of “high” because of the swift changes in height difference (apparently those changes produce some kind of hormone in the brain that makes us feel more alive) and the illusion of danger. The downs, or anticipation of the thrill, are as important as the ups, or the thrill itself. The only real “down” moment of the ride is when it ends. Unless, like me, you’ve been praying for it.

I think perhaps people use the roller-coaster-is-life metaphor because we wish that life was like that, the ride of a lifetime kind of metaphor. Just imagine! What if life was not a pan full of drudgery intermixed with a spattering of pleasure? What if it really was one unbroken stream of aliveness and joy?

On Saturday, we went for a bicycle ride in Monterey. I had been looking forward to this trip. We chose a section of the coastal trail, a trail that meanders parallel to Highway 1. I liked the idea of going on a  bike path that is not near the road when biking with the children.

While driving down, we encountered traffic as we hit Gilroy. For over two hours, we crawled like decrepit, aged snails till we finally reached Monterey. By then, my irritation and stress levels rocketed. The children complained incessantly, and the thought “why are we here” kept running through my mind. Once we got on the bikes, however, my mood lifted. This was exactly like my fantasy! We were riding down the path: Dar in front, the children following, and me bringing up the rear. It felt, quite simply, like a family. I was full of joy and life.
bikeride
One mile later, we hit a road. The bike trail had disappeared, and a sign pointed us to follow the road down a hill. There was a narrow sidewalk and no designated path for bikes. The road led us to a Costco parking lot, and my irritation and stress began to return. The children went back to complaining. “Why are we here?” They mirrored the thoughts in my mind. “This is boring.” And they were right. I had not driven over two hours to ride through a Costco parking lot! I did not sign up for this mess.

Past the parking lot, however, the trail continued past gorgeous sand dunes with views of the ocean beyond. The dunes were covered with vegetation. Flowers and low bushes intermixed with sections of pristine sand. The children got off the bikes and, taking their shoes off, began to run up and down the dunes. Dar and I hesitated one moment and ran up too.

On the way back, we passed through the Costco parking lot, and I wondered at my irritation earlier. Such a short section in the midst of so much beauty. Why had I been so stressed?

I had expected our bike ride to be one unbroken, daylong bout of pleasure, but during our ride, I realized that for me to enjoy our trip meant that I needed to recognize and give attention to little moments of fun. Life lights our path with flashes of joy. On Saturday I managed to let go of my thrilling roller-coaster expectations and enjoy the moments. And those moments made my entire day shine.

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The Shoemaker’s Shoes

shoesWe have a saying in Israel: “The shoemaker goes barefoot.” As a child, I found this saying curious. Why, I wondered, does the shoemaker go barefoot? Does he (let’s assume for a moment he is a man) have no time to make himself shoes? Or perhaps not enough materials? Or is he so poor that he cannot afford to have even the barest pair of shoes? I imagined the shoemaker in his dark den, bent over chicken-skin shoes with cardboard soles, his feet bare and curled beneath him. He could never leave his den — I knew this with certainty — because where would he go without shoes?

The shoeless shoemaker comes to remind us to use our expertise on ourselves, to care for ourselves. Think, for example, how easy it is to see solutions for our friends’ problems, but not so easy when those problems are our own! How much easier to point out their faults and the way they could fix them, but not so easy when it is we who have to do the fixing.

When I was divorced eight years ago, a friend told me that I needed to spend an hour each day doing something for myself. A joke, surely. With a two-year old and a five-year old, no mother in the world has time to do something for herself for five minutes! The seed, however, was received into the fertile earth of my mind. I began to notice how much I was neglecting myself. I was a barefoot shoemaker giving a lot of love to the children and none to myself.

I realized, over time, not only that my energy reserves were gone, but that I had no tools for refilling them. Slowly I began to build a plan for making myself shoes — fur-lined (faux, of course) and with a sturdy sole that would mold to my foot. Here are some of my favorite shoemaking tools:

  1. Giving myself a hug. It might feel weird at the beginning, but hey, the kids love my hugs, so why could not I enjoy my hug abundance as well?
  2. Waking up early in the morning, before the kids get up, and making myself a sumptuous breakfast and eating it while reading a romance.
  3. Giving myself Reiki and the self-care Maya abdominal massage.
  4. Taking fifteen minutes in the middle of the day to nap or to lie on the sofa and read.
  5. Watering my plants outside (my mother always says that watering the plants is a great way to cheer yourself up).
  6. Taking a bath (I like to put epsom salts in it and bring along my book and a glass of water).
  7. Cleaning the chickens coop (watching those peaceful being as they peck calmly around their pen just makes me happy).
  8. Getting a manicure-pedicure — how fun is that! Or a massage.
  9. Having a cup of tea, especially with milk (I take almond milk, but still).
  10.  Getting together with a friend. Even lone wolves like me need some social time.

Mostly, I try to notice when I make myself shoes or are given shoes by others. Sometimes those are flip-flops, like a peck on the cheek from my daughter before she disappears in her room, or the excitement of the dogs when I come home. Sometimes those are excellent, sturdy, long-lasting shoes, as when I go on vacation to Hawaii or Yosemite or backpacking in the woods. I use that love, those shoes, to fill up my reserves. To love and to cherish, we say in the wedding ceremony, and I think perhaps cherishing the love is what “a shoemaker with shoes” really means.

What tools do you use to give yourself love?

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Hurray! It’s Summer!

Every year, as the last daSeay of school approaches, I find my excitement level rise. Finally, we won’t have to wake up early in the morning to go to school. I’ll have more time to spend with the kids. We can travel, have fun, relax. The kids dislike going to camp, but that’s all right with me. Hurray, I cheer, more uninterrupted, unscheduled, un-rushed time.

“I’m bored,” my son announces not five hours after we leave the school grounds. “Only seventy five more days till seventh grade.” He sighs with great drama. “I hate summer,” he announces, and as an explanation he adds: “It’s hot.”

Summer is hot. If it were not hot, I, at least, would complain. I love the longer days, the yellow sun shining in the blue, blue sky. I love the smell of sunscreen on people. For me, summer is that long ago time of my childhood, when we went to the beach and hang out in the water for hours, letting the waves carry us up and down. It’s that magical moment when the pool in the nearby kibbutz just opened, and I’d cut into the water first, like a dolphin, watching the ripples breaking the serene surface.

For my kids, summer sure is different. They do not live, like I did, within a ten minute walk from all their friends. The beach is forty-minutes away, and it is not the kindly, warm waters of the Mediterranean that await us there. My parents have a pool in their yard, but without their friends (who spend most of each day at camp), that is sometimes not an attractive option as well.

How can I make summer entertaining for the kids? How can I get them to leave the easy choice of television, computer, or Wii and have a summer the way I think a summer should be?

It turns out that getting the kids to have the summer of my childhood is possible, with a lot of (guess what?) hard work, preplanning and expense on my side. The opportunities around here, after all, are endless: picking strawberries in Watsonville, Great America, San Francisco Zoo, Saba and Safta’s pool, the pool at the JCC, hiking with friends, a camping trip to Point Reyes, San Diego for a week (there’s no lack of what to do over there), a picnic with friends, kayaking in Elkhorn Slough, paddleboarding at Shoreline, a movie or two. And more… so much more.

Would you be surprised if I told you that by the time mid-August rolls around, I am exhausted and longing for school to start?

We live in a strange world, full of exciting opportunities, yet I find myself longing for that somewhat simpler world in which I grew up. I long for our family moments on the Mediterranean shore, for a pool that has no slides coming in and out, for playing outside in the dirt with my friends, riding the bike to the park, or going exploring in the orange orchard next door. But the world is different now, and there’s no use living in the past. And perhaps it’s not that bad to be bored sometimes, or to watch too much television, or work a little harder in order to get together with a friend. After all, it is summer, and whether we work hard or not, we do it for fun.

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Don’t Push and Keep Breathing

My children are slowly edging toward teenager-dom. A scary time. Perhaps now, before all hell breaks loose, I’d do well to find some coping techniques that might work. Yesterday, at doula training, I had an epiphany, directly from labor and delivery, which I think is perfect for life. This one I intend to use: Don’t push and keep breathing!

We were discussing a phase of birth called transition. In this phase a woman moves from the early and active phases of laboring to the second stage, or actual delivery, of the baby. Transition is the hardest and most painful part of the birth. Contractions are coming in greater frequency and are longer and stronger. The baby’s head is lower in the mother’s pelvis, ready to make its way out to the world. It is putting a lot of pressure on the mother’s bottom, but the mother’s body is not yet ready for delivery, and she needs to practice this fabulous lifelong lesson: Don’t push and keep breathing!

What a wonderful lesson for the future! It is a lesson all us parents would do well to remember when the time comes for the baby’s first steps and her first attempt to go up and down the stairs. It is perfect for our son’s first day of kindergarten, his first playdates at a friend’s house, and the first time he goes to the neighborhood store by himself. It’s invaluable for our daughter’s first car ride, her first date with a boy, and for when she asks us for help with birth control. And later, too, this lesson remains: when our boy goes to college, marries, and has his own child. Don’t push and keep breathing! Let go! Stay calm!

Parenthood is a hard road, paved with mistakes, crises, and love. It can teach us so much about ourselves, some that we like and some that we really, but really, don’t like. In the doula class yesterday, we learned that one good position for a laboring woman in transition to be in is to lie on her back in bed with her legs resting on the birthing ball. The blood is flowing easier in her body. The pressure is there, the contractions are strong, but she is in a position of relaxation, and she cannot push.

Keep breathing. Don’t push. Let’s lie back with our feet on the ball and at least try to relax. Let the blood flow to our brains. Soon enough transition will pass. It’s the hardest phase, and after that, at least till the next transition, we can get some relief. The daughter or son who we brought to this world and who had taught us so much will soon be all grown up and doing just fine. Like our road, so theirs is paved with mistakes and with love. If they stumble or fall, we parents are there, ready to kiss and hug and give our support. Don’t push and keep breathing. I know we’re going to be all right.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109