Freedom

Dear Everyone,

Today I decided to liberate myself. I’ve been waiting for it to happen on its own—that is, after more time, more space, more dreams, more practice, more yoga, more therapy, more writing things down, more martinis with L.B., more talks with Ang, more Toby love, more overall, darling Maud, period—and I guess maybe it happened. My challenge was breaking free from my sadness and preoccupation without shutting down my heart, without building a wall of anger, which was how I’ve “liberated” myself so far in this lifetime. I am really adept at that, and I’ve hurt people with that particular habit and defense.

So. Berkley has always used a phrase with her boys—”Fly, baby, be free”—which I’ve decided to adopt today. Fly, baby, be free: that’s to you, whomever you are, and to me. Everyone gets to fly, and if you want to come back and visit, you can. If you don’t, that’s completely fine: Fly, baby, be free.

Anyway, now’s the time to tell you why I’m talking so much about yoga these days. I think it has to do with a day over the winter when this completely cool and sexy psychopharmacologist I was visiting told me that I was experiencing “learned helplessness.”

I knew what “learned helplessness” was from having written a piece about stress a few years before: Some scientists were experimenting on dogs in the nineteen-seventies, you see, and discovered that if they put the dogs in a box with a doorway, and shocked them, the dogs would run through the doorway to safety. But if they put the dogs in a box with a doorway and held them in place (by putting their back legs in slings—ugh) and then shocked them a few times (ugh X ten), when the dogs were finally set free, they wouldn’t run through the doorway. They’d learned helplessness.

So. That was my diagnosis. (I’m not pointing fingers here.) What I was surprised to discover when I started dragging my sorry self to yoga this past winter, just to get a little space in my joints, is that I was slowly changing my circumstances for the better. Slowly I was getting physically stronger. Slowly I was starting to look better, and feel better physically. All I had to do was show up in shorts and T-shirt, and someone would tell me what to do for an hour and a half, and on top of that, the good teachers would talk every class about freedom. Or they’d talk about not being so hard on oneself. Or they’d ask if there was something we’d done that day that made us feel proud. Yesterday Colleen talked about looking inside our bodies in meditation and seeing that there was infinite space—there are infinite possibilities.

So this is what I’d like to tell you this rainy morning, as the birds are singing their socked-away songs, and the light is bright from behind the clouds: I don’t want to be a glass-half-empty person anymore. I’m beginning to look around me and I see that part of myself reflected all over the place, in lots and lots of grumpy, angsty, sad people and situations. I’m not stuck in sling, and I can see the door, even though sometimes I feel like I don’t know how to get from here to there.

This is why I’m talking so much about yoga. Because when I take the two ferries to Sag Harbor and walk into Colleen and Rodney’s studio and they’re in there smiling—even though I’m sure they’ve got serious stressors of their own—I feel like I’m walking through that door to a place where I’m not only not helpless, but I’m happy and I’m free and safe.

Little Girls

Yesterday morning I was headed into the city to see a play, when I spotted a little girl standing on the sidewalk on a main road in Greenport. She was holding two plastic grocery bags filled with something, and she crying, the tears visibly running down her cheeks from the other side of the road, going 30. I pulled my car into a driveway a few yards up, turned around, and stopped near her. I got out.

It’s a funny thing about approaching a child who’s alone. They’re not supposed to talk to strangers, and strangers are not supposed to talk to them, so it’s a little tricky. I stood about five feet from her, and asked if she was alright. She wiped the tears from her eyes, and said, very faintly, “I want to go to my friend Kelly’s house.” I looked at her grocery bags—they were filled with clothes. I looked at her shoes—they were purple terry-cloth booties, probably slippers, and one was hanging off her foot; she was stepping on the part that was supposed to go up her leg. She had a hodgepodge of cornrows and dreads and braids—someone did not delight in doing her hair.

I said, “Are you running away?” And she nodded her yes. I said, “Ah, right. I ran away at your age, too”—she was about eight—”I know what that’s like.” She nodded again. “I want to go to Kelly’s house,” she said again. I said, “Where’s that?” And she pointed in the direction of the bay. “Over by the school,” she said. She was still crying.

Right about then a car pulled up along side her. Behind the wheel was a matronly black woman, and beside her a hefty guy in his thirties with an earring and a t-shirt. “Are you alright, sweetie?” she said to the little girl, giving me a dirty look through her windshield. “Where’s your mommy?” The little girl looked slightly scared, and wiped more tears from her eyes. “She’s home,” she said. “I wanted to go to my friend Kelly’s house.” The woman said, “Is everything alright at home? Is your mommy alright?” The girl said, “She’s asleep.” It was about 10:30, a nice day. The woman asked who her mommy was; she listed a few names, one of them being Megan. The little girl said, “My mommy is Megan.”

The woman stuck her head out the window and said, in my direction, “I know where she lives; I’m going to go get her mother. Will you stay here?” I said yes. I wondered why this woman, who clearly thought I was untrustworthy, trusted me to wait with the little girl. I imagined her describing me later as a white lady in jeans and a poncho. (Maybe it was the cashmere poncho from Eileen Fisher that made her feel I wasn’t a serial killer.)

The little girl and I waited together, her looking miserable, and me trying to make her feel a little better—but about what? I asked if she’d had a fight with her mom, and she said, “No.” She was still wiping the tears out of her eyes, still saying she wanted to go to Kelly’s. Finally the matronly woman drove by, and the little girl said, “There’s my mommy.” She pointed at one of the hooptyest cars I’d ever seen, coming down the road. The thing was listing to the northwest, and the entire hood was rusted.

It was a white woman who parked and stepped out. She was in an enormous t-shirt and pajama bottoms. She was pasty, and she was very fat. She looked at the girl from across the street with barely disguised fury. She said, “What are you doing?!

I looked into this woman’s face when she reached us, and realized she was probably not yet 25. I said, “She’s a really good kid,” but the mom wasn’t listening. She wasn’t even present. She was overtaken by her emotions, and who knew what they were: rage, shame, fear, embarrassment, hopelessness, helplessness.

For the rest of the day I wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to call the police, rather than getting the mom. Maybe the mom needed a little supervision. Maybe the little girl needed a witness. Maybe she was going to be fine. Maybe she wasn’t.

One time I found a baby in nothing but diapers toddling alone past my apartment in L.A. She was probably fourteen months old (Maud was just two at the time). She didn’t speak. I picked her up and walked back in the direction of where she came, hoping to bump into her mom. But there was no one on the street. I walked with the little girl for three blocks, asking her if she lived in any of the houses. Finally she pointed to one. I went up to the door, rang the doorbell, and her mother answered. She had no idea the baby was gone. She didn’t seem alarmed.

When I got home, I called the police and told them what had happened. They sent an officer over there to see what was up, and then he came by my place. The cop said there was nothing he could do. He said something like, “It’s very hard to take a baby away from her mother. It’s not often an ideal situation for the child. Unless the mother is a drug addict, we don’t recommend pushing for it.”

That was, I think, a good example of emptiness. There is no one way to look at it; there is nowhere to land.

Spring and Sashay

I took a one-hour “sweaty express” yoga class two evenings ago in the city, because Bronnie wanted to get her yoga on and have dinner but not get home too late. I’ve taken this teacher’s stretch classes before, and I’ve liked them. I like him. This class, though, was in fast-forward mode, where you couldn’t actually get into a pose before the teacher was yelling at you to get into the next one, and the next. At one point he must have caught me glaring at him (I hated gym), because he said to me, genuinely apologetic, “I’m sorry—this is just a different kind of thing.” This was the sort of thing I’d like to see Robin Williams and Nathan Lane do on film: Nathan Lane would be screaming like a girl and Robin Williams would be braining him with a strap.

Photo from the ferry on the way back from Colleen's studio
Anyway. In contrast, I went out to Colleen’s studio on Saturday morning, where Rodney taught what might have been the best class I’ve ever taken. (There was a pack of teenagers in the class, and that made it particularly fun—teenagers can be such magic.) The subject of Rodney’s class was how there’s a point about twelve fingers above our heads that’s the still point of our bodies, while our pelvises are the part of us that are supposed to rock and bob, spin and sashay. Rodney said that for most of us Americans, our pelvises are locked, and our heads are the thing that’s doing the rocking, bobbing, spinning, and sashaying.

Anyway, teenagers included, we spent the class locating the space between our hips and our legs—making circles with our tailbones in all sorts of poses—looking for lightness there, and also light. It was one of those classes that is so subtle that you feel like you haven’t done a sweaty express class, and yet when you get home you can barely walk.

At the end of class, Rodney told a story about how when he was a kid, he’d put part of his mother’s button collection onto a string, and pull both ends—tight and loose, tight and loose—until the buttons started to spin. He said that’s what we’re like: we’ve got these still points on either end (over our head, and below our tailbones), and in between we’re, as he put it, hurricanes. That’s how it should be, he said—out of control and yet still. Or at least that’s sort of what he said. I was listening with my body.

At some point in class, I looked out the window and saw some fluffy seed pods dancing on the wind against the deep blue spring sky.

Writing It Down to Figure It Out

I wanted to have a little chat with you, after my little tirade the other day. It’s about this blog. It’s been a little dicey sometimes, I know, in the Self-Involved Department, and under the category that Maud labelled, years ago, “Those Are The Thoughts You Keep on the Inside.” (Oh, I love my kid!) That was a category that Julia always found amusing, and thought was particularly important for me, who can be an Infuriatingly Compulsive Communicator, Especially If You’re Not Really Into Communicating. (See this blog.) Anyway.

Just FYI, I got some pretty negative feedback from a friend, last week, about my writing. So I talked to Angela about it—about whether I should stop blogging—and she said two things. One was that the original intent of this blog was not to try to be profound, or to show off my brilliant writing skills. It was, as the tagline says, to write it down to figure it out. You see, I’m pretty blown away most of the time by being a human on this planet, and very often I feel lost and confused and really, really scared. But since I was a little kid, I found that writing it down—whatever it was, even a list—helped me. It helps with the panic about death and the worry that I’m a bad person and my feeling of being, from the beginning, abandoned and alone.

So that’s what this blog is about. Angela tells me that she likes to follow “my process.” I don’t think she comes here hoping to find the blogger equivalent of Chogyam Trungpa or Ernest Hemingway.

So that’s it. I know I get sad and self-involved and sometimes I say thoughts that I should have kept inside. I know that I can be a real downer, and that the old posts, from before the breakup, were much, much, much more fun. They were more fun for me, too. (The whole world was more fun for me back then.) I’m hoping to get back to that place at some point. Right now I’m just writing it down to figure it out. It helps me. I hope it can help you too, in some way, sometimes.

Rainy Day Bird

My car is in the shop again (it’s my fault—I didn’t trust my gut the first time around), and so I took my bike out to do some shopping in Greenport. It started to rain, though, just as I was leaving Salamander’s with some potato, leek, and spinach soup and a very long baguette. Already installed on my bike were asparagus from Sep’s, and two-and-a-half feet of rhubarb.

As I was riding, I heard the birds, safely under cover in the newly bloomed trees, talking. Of course, I don’t understand Bird, but I figured if they were talking about me (which they weren’t—I’m self-involved but not crazy), they’d be saying one of two things: either “Look at that Evil-doer on that silent Machine of Destruction running away with our food,” or, “What an amazing plume of silver feathers that old bird has, with that long bread tail and that multi-headed pink penis topped with tree shade; and look at those red, grey, and blue paddles she’s using to swim through the current! Damn, she still has it going on.”

Maud bought me plaid Vans for Mother’s Day a couple of years ago. She is a particularly beautiful young bird herself, though her dad and I have always called her Moose.

Miracles

Today I took the ferries out to Sag Harbor and did Colleen’s yoga. When she was describing a kind of seated forward bend, where your back is broad, but your front is a “C” from the top of your forehead to your public bone, she said to think of it like a spinnaker: it’s full, but without wrinkles in either the front or the back. Colleen often uses metaphors from the sea, which makes sense—we are out here surrounded by the most beautiful water.

At the end of class, Colleen read this quote from Albert Einstein:

There are only two ways to live your life:
One is as though nothing is a miracle;
the other is as though everything is a miracle.

When I got home, I took my bike out of the laundry room and rode to the post office, where Chris, the postmaster, told me about his uncle who ran the old Greenport movie theatre for thirty-nine years, and when he retired, sold pizzas out of his back window on Shelter Island. The reason Chris told me this was because I’m applying for a job as a staff writer at the Shelter Island Reporter—circulation 2500—which is sort of ridiculous, but also intriguing. As part of my test, I’m writing a story about the famous Shelter Island 10K that happens every summer. The finish line is by Chris’s uncle’s house, and he always serves lots of pizza.

After visiting the post office, I road my bike to Sep’s and picked up a bag of asparagus from the pile of bags that was lying, unmanned, at the deserted stand. I was afraid to take a dollar out of the honor-system jar as change for my five, but luckily a guy drove up and took it out for me. Most minutes these days seem like learning experiences.

P.S. This is the song Colleen played in sivasana this morning. Today I was one of those people crying at the end of yoga, the tears rolling into my ears and making everything sound like the sea.