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The first thing you need to know is that I am scared to death of driving… or I used to be.

Weird, right? A grown woman who has never once had an car accident or even a traffic ticket, who passed her driver’s test the first time, is scared to drive? Well, I am a grown woman, but I moved to New York City as soon as I graduated from college, and you don’t need to know how to drive in New York City. You need to know how to walk to the curb and stick your arm in the air to hail a cab, and/or how to use the subway system. And it’s true I’ve never been in an accident or even gotten a ticket, but then again, I drive so infrequently that I’ve always chalked both those facts up to sheer statistical luck. And I did pass my driver’s test the first time, but that is only because I refused to take it at all until I was 22 years old. And again, there’s that luck thing.

You see, I’ve always believed that I’m a lucky person. And, as you may know, our beliefs are pretty much running the show. Our beliefs (the ones we know about and the ones we don’t) draw us into complicated situations, lead us to form relationships with some really interesting people — basically manifest whatever we believe right into our lives, so that we can experience what we think, and reinforce it… or choose to change it.

I chose to change my fear of driving. I did this for the reason we all decide to change things: because it finally became harder to hold onto the fear than it would be to live without it. Long story short, I decided it would be a good idea for me to drive my car (which I’d always thought of as my husband’s car, seeing as I never drove it) from our nice safe home in Brooklyn to my new office in Manhattan, parallel park on a busy street, work a few hours, drive two hours upstate in Friday afternoon rush hour traffic, then the next day drive back home and park in an extremely tight and overcrowded public parking garage.

Anyone who knows me could tell you that that sounded like a truly terrible idea.

I would never have attempted it if I didn’t have a close relationship with Source, All That Is, God… whatever you want to call it. I also have a nifty way of changing beliefs called ThetaHealing. So I prepped myself for my first solo NYC drive by Theta-changing some beliefs… little things like “I am a terrible driver,” “I have no sense of direction,” “I will seriously injure someone if I attempt to drive,” fun stuff like that. Still, I felt pretty shaky. Would Source come through for me on this one? Sure, I trusted the Creator of All That Is to handle my emotional life, my relationship with my husband and children, and heal my clients — but could I trust God with me behind the wheel in New York rush hour traffic?

I was so scared that I literally was praying (with my eyes open!) the entire trip in to Manhattan. I made a wrong turn due to some construction and got horribly lost, even with my GPS. But I did not panic or even curse. God was right there; I could feel it. It actually seemed pretty funny, getting lost.

When I finally arrived at my new office, my wonderful colleague Sarah was standing in a parking space right by the office, guarding it so no one else could take it. When I started to pull into the space — the part of the journey I was most nervous about, seeing as the last time I had successfully parallel parked was the day I took my driver’s test over 20 years before — the car right in front of me pulled out, so that all I had to do was go slightly to the right and drive forward a few feet and I was perfectly parallel parked. Yes!

Later, the rush hour traffic was even worse than I’d imagined, but I kept my cool in an hour or two of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I had the best company possible, an unlimited channel of unconditional love and joy. I just hung out and drove… it was, to my amazement, easy. I didn’t expect easy!

My GPS, I realized later, was mysteriously set to avoid all major highways, so it kept giving me the worst directions possible to go upstate. But I stayed tuned in to Source, at times taking the scenic route the GPS was leading me on, at other times trusting my own instincts and going a different way (“Recalculating!” my GPS kept squawking).

I wasn’t surprised at all when, the next day, at the end of my journey, I searched all the floors of the parking garage for a space, circling further and further down into the garage, and I could practically hear Source saying, “It’s okay. Just keep going. The perfect space is waiting for you.”

Finally I saw a space. It seemed a little tight for my big car, but… “Is this it?” I asked God. “You could do that if you wanted,” came the response. “I have something better though.”

I drove on. And found a nice corner space, with no cement columns lurking nearby and enough room to center my car between the others just right. I parked my car effortlessly. By that time, I didn’t feel scared at all. I felt powerful, in the flow, free. Kind of like a person who just conquered a lifelong fear. And proved to herself yet again that the Creator of All That Is is always there for us… even in rush hour traffic.

This blog entry was first published on www.ThetaHealingNYC.com.

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I want to share with the world my near-relaxation experience. You’ve seen articles and books by people who have had near-death experiences, right? Their hearts stopped for several minutes, they floated several feet above their body in the ER, they saw beautiful bright lights, they experienced such rich unconditional love that they spend the rest of their lives in a state of joy, spreading the news that love is the only important thing.

I personally love reading stuff like that, and I wish to heavens I could be that way. Like really feel that way, know for sure that love is more important than the fact that my three-year-old just tried to put sunblock on the cat. But I keep forgetting.

I am much better now than I was just a couple of months ago, though. And it’s all because of my near-relaxation experience. It happened over spring break, when we were visiting family who are considerate enough to live in Florida, not all that far from Disney World, actually… so that when we visit  our extended family, we also get to bask in the sun, go to the beach, and meet Cinderella. (I am actually one of those people you hear about who loves Disney World. You can be as self-righteous as you want about it, but I say Disney is so successful because they know family entertainment like no one else on the planet, and if you had thought of building a real castle for a fictional fairy tale character,  surrounding it with giant mice who talk and fun rides with tunes that stick in people’s heads for decades, then you’d have a multi-million-dollar business too.)

Anyway. Between Disney World and the beach and the awesome swimming pool at my in-laws’ housing complex, I began to relax. I didn’t know what was happening at first. I just knew I felt happier than usual, and that even when bad things happened (such as when I sustained a cut deep enough to require 4 stitches), I maintained my equanimity. I was not robbed of my joy by my immediate circumstances, even when said circumstances involved an ER. Wow, right?

I felt that maybe it was the sun, the way it lapped against my skin all day, every day, never letting me down the way it does in New York. After a few days of unconditional sun, my body seemed to remember long-gone summers consisting of nothing other than playing warden and freeze tag and kick-the-can; it seemed to forget BlackBerries and conference calls and coffee.

Or maybe it was the dearth of grocery shopping and cooking and cleaning. “Where do you want to eat?” was the closest I got to planning a meal, “Did you take down the do not disturb sign?” the closest to cleaning. That, my friends, is deeply relaxing.

“I am a new person,” I promised my husband at the end of our vacation. “A relaxed person. I have achieved vacation mind, and I am taking it back to New York with me this time.” He smiled politely, and waited.

It’s true that things unraveled a bit with time. The first week back in real life, I maintained vacation mind, but only with effort and great longing. I kept saying things like, “Don’t you think we should all start working two weeks a year, and vacationing 50 weeks a year?” No one seemed to hear me. By the second week, freezing in New York, surrounded by other freezing New Yorkers, all of whom were checking their email on their iPhones while running to the subway stop, I felt back to normal. That is, stressed. (That’s why I call it a near-relaxation experience. I think real relaxation is more permanent.)

So how to maintain it? One’s near-relaxation experience? That’s the big question. Because it’s not just me who needs this. They say that 85% of all illnesses are caused by stress. Even if stress hasn’t actually caused a specific illness, I see people around me negotiate their day-to-day stress by trying such methods as extreme caffeine consumption, alcohol, drugs, denial, stopping speaking to their family of origin, hiring childcare workers for sixty hours a week, and good old-fashioned anxiety attacks.

Since my near-relaxation experience, I’ve become better at seeing what interesting little methods I’ve been using to deal with stress, which has helped me to make some changes in my life, which are at least helping me on my journey toward achieving actual relaxation. I didn’t get catapulted to that illusory state, vacation mind, but being even halfway there is a whole lot better than before, when my chosen methods of defense against stress were caffeine, deep denial (“No, I’m fine! I feel great! My eyes always look red like this, it’s hereditary!”), and occasional bouts of crying and promising myself to change. So here goes:

Tara’s Tips for De-stressing:

1) A) Admit that I am stressed, B) decide that I have the right to a life that is not stressed, and C) decide that such a thing is possible.

2) Take 10-15 minutes evert day, at any point possible, to sit on my bed looking out the window at the sky while doing absolutely nothing. Often I end up giving myself a little ThetaHealing during that time, which is like going into a meditative state and changing your feelings and beliefs about things (example: “I’m a terrible mother” to “I give my children unconditional love, which is really all they need”). But I never tell myself, “Time to go sit on the bed and do Theta.” I tell myself “Time to go sit on the bed and look at the sky and do nothing,” and then I do it. The day goes better no matter what happens to me while sitting on the bed. Don’t ask me why.

3) Ban all electronics after 10 pm. This includes the computer and the television set. And anything that starts with an “i,” I’m looking at you, iPhone and iPod and iPad and all your sneaky little friends and relations. (I know, dear reader, your heart just skipped a few beats. I don’t want to ruin your whole life. I’m just telling you what’s helping me.)

4) Get in bed at 10:30 even if it means lying there till 11:30 or 12:00, when I used to go to bed. (Another tough rule. I too love Jon Stewart, who comes on at 11 pm, and my husband has this weird thing for that incredibly depressing show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which comes on at 10, along with re-runs of “The Family Guy.” I kiss them all goodbye in exchange for 7 hours of sleep, which I promise you feels immeasurably better than 6 hours of sleep and 3 cups of coffee.)

5) Go to the acupuncturist and allow him to stick needles in me that are supposed to de-stress my system. (I know, why can’t my rules be like “Go eat all the ice cream you can hold”!?! Geez.)

That’s what I’m doing so far. It’s going pretty well. I do believe, however, that another vacation in Florida would be extremely helpful. Don’t you agree?

Happy de-stressing, and please share with me on this blog your own Tips for De-Stressing. Thanks.

 

Y’shua Who?

I just saw the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit: long-lost manuscripts from around 60 CE, discovered in a cave by a Bedoin shepherd in the 1940s, like impossibly delicate but determined telegrams catapulted from the distant past to us, to now.

Because I was visiting the exhibit with an alumni group from Houghton College, a retired theology professor had begun by giving us an overview of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We were all walking around reading the little plaques beside different artifacts from the period, and I was feeling cerebral and pure — you know, for spending my perfectly nice Saturday afternoon poring over Biblical artifacts.

But finally I paused and asked a favor of the Divine: “Hey, God? Please let my heart feel this now, not just my head.” As always, I was seeking that sensation of Godness, the divinity I am convinced can be found in the day-to-day. Surely a girl could feel God amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, right?

I thought perhaps the scroll fragment of the Ten Commandments would make me feel connected to the Divine — I mean, come on, the Ten Commandments copy from like 0 BC! It was fascinating. But to my head, not my heart. Then it seemed like maybe the 3-ton stone from the Wailing Wall would do it for me. I touched it, closed my eyes, waited. But no. I had to sneak and open my eyes to make sure I was touching the real Wailing Wall sample, not one of the fake ones surrounding it, because my heart didn’t feel a thing.

I began to feel a bit testy, and I knew it was because I was annoyed with… well, with God. I wished that I was above that, but really, it had been at least two, two and a half hours, I was getting a little headache, and God was remaining His usual mysterious and  opaque Self.

Then I saw them. Six or seven boxes, each a couple feet deep and a few feet long, carved from stone…. most of them stately yet simple, one embellished with two large, beautiful flowers. My heart skipped a few beats, and tears came to my eyes, though I had no idea what these boxes were. They looked a bit like caskets, perhaps? I gazed, transfixed. I overheard someone explaining to her companion, “Ossuaries, boxes that held the bones of the dead.”

Yes. I continued to stare at the boxes, my heart overflowing and warming my body. There were words scratched onto some of the boxes. They were in Aramaic or Hebrew, I wasn’t sure which. It was odd, I noticed, how the boxes looked quite lovely, as if they’d been made with great care, their corners fitting just right even after two thousand years, their design symmetrical and smooth… but the words, which must be names, were scrawled on. They were not centered and not engraved but scratched on helter-skelter, like ancient graffiti.

They must have been running away, I thought. They were running for their lives from their enemies with their most cherished possessions, and they were forced to leave them behind. And before they left, they scratched onto the boxes their loved ones’ names. So that, even if they never returned, somebody, someday, would know. What does it say? What are their names?

“Maryam. Josephus. Y’shua.” Mary. Joseph. Jesus.

WOW. No wonder my heart had freaked and my eyes had teared up. But then I continued to read. The plaque said that the names that we translate as Mary, Joseph, and Jesus (more accurately Joshua) were very common in the period when Jesus lived and died, and it is quite unlikely that these were THE Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Besides, the plaque went on, Jesus’ body was said to be buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea. Or, it may cross your mind, in heaven. (But that didn’t bother me — it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Jesus’ bones were around somewhere. After all, if you had already conquered physical reality by rising again after being dead, surely it wouldn’t be that hard for you to leave your physical bones behind after your ascension so they could be laid to rest with your earthly parents’ bones, could it?)

It was a real buzz-kill, that plaque saying those weren’t the real Mary and Joseph and Jesus. But my heart knew what my heart knew. Those boxes were something important. It bothered me, though, that the historians felt it wasn’t really them. Why was my heart telling me there was something crucial, something Godly, about those boxes?

I figured it out on the subway, on my way home to my two precious girls and my husband. Those boxes held someone’s mother, someone’s father, someone’s son and brother. Does it matter whose?

Did it matter to Mary, the mother of Jesus, whether or not Jesus had just saved sinners all over the world by dying on the cross? Or did she simply grieve her son, the little boy whose knees she’d kissed when he scraped them, whose little bony shoulders she’d hugged on his first day of school, whose eyes she’d looked into every day with adoration and joy and pride?

We are all Mary, every mother. We are all the child of parents who will die or who have died. We are one who would, if necessary, carry our loved ones’ bones with us for as long as humanly possible and then spend precious minutes scratching their names so that somebody someday would know. We all love, and lose, and grieve without end, and hope somebody remembers, every one of us. As soon as we are born, we are destined to die. As soon as we enter a family, we are sure to lose each family member someday. This is part of what touches us as Christians: the horribly humble gritty tearstained desperate humanness that God became a part of when God dwelt among us.

Maryam, Josephus, Y’shua. We remember you, whoever you were.

Reason for Existence Number Five

Here we are, on Leap Day, February 29th. If you look at it a certain way, this is an extra day — a free bonus round. If you tend toward introspection, or if you are beginning to notice that the days and years are flying by more quickly than you ever imagined they would, then you might ask yourself: what will I do on this spare day that has been plopped onto my lap? What will I do in this extra 24 hours I am given once every four years?

This would perhaps lead you to the question: what is truly important to me?

And that would probably — if you didn’t already have to stop thinking about it because you had to go to work, or do the laundry, or pick up your kid from school, or just give up and go on Facebook — that would probably run you straight into the classic: why are we here?

Like most of you, I’ve tried a few different answers to this question. I’ve tried the “I’m here to be as perfect, in fact as Christlike, as possible” answer. That’s a good one; it kept me going for the first 20 or 30 years. It took a lot — a chronic pain condition, deep theological confusion, and a permeating sense of failure — to get beyond it and keep looking.

I’ve tried the “I’m here to save the world” answer. That is very time-consuming and quite interesting, and can keep you really busy for decades. But the thing is, it’s extremely tiring. So you might, like I did, get tuckered out by how the world is STILL not saved no matter how hard you work at it. (The world is just real stubborn that way.)

I’ve tried the “I’m here to create art that changes the world around me” answer. That was fine for a while, but it didn’t seem like anyone was really noticing my art much, and that eventually got to me.

Then I tried the “I’m here to be an incredible mother to my incredible children” answer. This is killer because it starts not working out like you planned as soon as you get home from the hospital and are so exhausted you forget to be grateful for this new little (constantly crying and never sleeping) life, and keeps getting more complicated from there. See “permeating sense of failure,” above.

So what? What will I do with this extra day, what is important, why am I even here?

The best I can do is quote my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. It was a couple of days ago. We were rushing back from something or other (we are always rushing to or back from something or other). I was getting her out of her stroller, but she didn’t want to get out of it and was resisting my efforts.

“Come on, let’s go, what’s the matter?” I said.

“Mommy,” she said, “When are we going to lie on the ground and look up at the clouds?”

I had forgotten. Plus it’s really cold out and the ground is wet. And also I have to return 219 emails and set up a parent-teacher conference and call that client back and pay my AmEx bill and call the oven repair guy. I remember so much, every day. I work so hard; we all do. I think that’s why it’s so confusing: what is important, why we are here. But I think she got it, my kid. At least it’s as good a working answer as my first four reasons for existence, the ones I’ve tried out so far. I like it a lot, in fact. I’m going to do it every day from now on (except the lying on the ground part, which may in inclement weather be amended to just standing still).

“I am here to lie on the ground and look up at the clouds.”  It’s working out great so far.

 

 

 

Seeing The Way the Stars See

Recently I was at my outrageously talented teenaged niece’s orchestra concert. It was some kind of special youth orchestra made up of the very best teenaged musicians from each school in the state — like a high school music teachers’ Dream Team. The whole extended family was at the concert: my niece’s parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. It was just after Thanksgiving, so everyone was in town, and we all sat in a long row, big and little, the oldest of us 83 years old, the youngest 2 years old.

We came early, four carloads of us, and perched politely on our padded chairs, scanning the program for my niece’s name. She is so pretty (blonde, blue-eyed, with that sort of bronze glowy skin I previously thought only Malibu Barbies possessed), and so smart and sweet-natured, that it seems almost unfair for her also to be preternaturally musically gifted. It’s as if God decided to cash in all His chips right when she was born, like just this once He said, “Forget the whole flawed humanity thing. Let’s just get one completely and totally right for a change.”

So there we were in this huge concert hall, specks in the sea of other families of other talented teens, and finally the concert began, the rich classical music swelling and billowing over all of us. And suddenly I got that same feeling you get sometimes at the beach, when you are sitting in the sun on your towel in the sand, and you sort of forgot that there might be thousands of other people who might go sit in the sun on their towels on the sand too. But there you are, amidst way more humans than you’d imagined, with their sunblock and cigarette smells, their radio and kid sounds. Then if you can accept that there are thousands of other people sitting on their towels on the sand just like you, all facing towards the ocean, if you can close your eyes or look way out toward the horizon, where a ship the size of the Statue of Liberty looks like a toy boat, you get this feeling: this almost dizzy feeling of unity, of being one of many instead of one of one. You can get the same exact feeling standing outside late at night, staring up at the stars. You can dissolve into the rest of the universe, feel your molecules melding into the mix of other molecules in the air and sky and galaxy. This is a way to experience the Divine in your day-to-day life.

It is a relief. You thought, perhaps, that you were the center, that the way you blew it at work the other day or yelled at your child with such anger that she burst into tears was really it, the center of the day, or the family, or the world. You thought it was incredibly important. And there on the beach, or at the concert, or staring up at the starry sky at midnight, you realize: nope. I am not the center. I am one of the teeny, tiny, microscopic points. Thank God.

It’s all in the perspective. I think a lot about perspective. Once, after I’d had several miscarriages then by mistake gone to a movie where one of the main characters had a miscarriage, I was sobbing in a public restroom. I used to do this a lot. Several women came in and out of the restroom, and I really think, believing in the kindness of strangers as I do, that if I hadn’t been inside a stall they would have perhaps tried to help out a little. I heard them listen, hesitate, quietly walk back out. I think they might have wanted to put an arm around me, hand me some wadded-up toilet paper for Kleenex, maybe slip me a Xanax. But they took my location, my choice to remain in the stall, as an unspoken request to be left alone. So I stayed in there crying by myself, my husband waiting patiently in the lobby, which wouldn’t have been all that unusual, as I said, except for the fact that this time, I couldn’t seem to stop. It was like I’d understood before that I had experienced these wrenching losses, and that some of my friends had also, but this completely innocent fictional character in a movie now too? No. It just made life seem impossible, out of the question.

But it was our date night, we’d gotten a babysitter, our dinner reservations were made. Despite my intense angst, I was super hungry. I really wanted to stop crying and go out to eat. So I prayed, again not unusual for me, but this time, I prayed to Jesus. This pretty much never happens. I always go straight to the top, to God. But at that moment, I wanted to talk to someone who had suffered, so… “Jesus?” I said inside my head, eyes closed. “I’m just wondering how to get through it, the suffering. I don’t know if three years of wanting a baby really compares to three days of horrible agony hanging on a cross, but it seems like there’s at least some correlation. So please help me.” Then I waited, crying.

And inside my head I saw the stars I love staring up at at night, whenever I get the chance. I recognized the feeling, the wonderment of staring up at the stars. But it didn’t make me stop crying. And then, as I watched, the stars wheeled around so that instead of being over me, they were under me. Same stars, different angle. And I stopped crying.

This is really all I can tell you. I didn’t see in my mind if or when I’d finally get my baby, or that she would be a girl, or that she would be dangerously tiny but otherwise perfect. I just saw the stars underneath me. The stars looked almost exactly the same from up top, by the way. Nothing about them had intrinsically changed. It seemed to be me who moved. Suddenly I was looking at  life from far above myself instead of from within myself. I couldn’t tell if that was how Jesus saw life, or God, or simply the stars themselves. Was I supposed to see life in this way from now on? Would I remember to? I didn’t know. I only knew that I saw the stars from up top and my sorrow disappeared and I got to go eat dinner. It was all a matter of perspective.

Back to my genius niece’s concert: it was lovely, and quite amazing that a bunch of teenagers playing their violins and cellos and flutes could arouse this feeling of the vastness of the universe swirling around us. Even our two-year-old sat transfixed through much of the concert. Afterwards, at dinner, as our entire family sat around several tables waiters had jammed together, my protegee niece’s dad stood up to make a toast. He raised his glass and cleared his throat. I thought the time had come to recognize this young woman’s talent, a well-deserved moment of praise and parental pride. Her father looked around for a moment at his daughter’s sister, cousins, aunts, and uncles. “To all of our children,” he said. “They are each so incredible.”

I liked his perspective.

I lost my BlackBerry the other day. Apparently, instead of dropping it into the outside pocket of my purse when I finished a call, I simply dropped it onto the sidewalk, then kept walking — leaving my faithful BlackBerry lying facedown on the ground all by itself, inert and vulnerable. It was the next morning by the time I realized this, a panicky, guilt-stricken horror filling my chest.

But, mercifully, I barely had time to consider how incredibly inconvenient this would be, or how unbelievably careless I was, or what I should do next, before my home phone rang. A man wanted to know if this was Tara Greenway? And if I had lost my BlackBerry the previous day? He apologized for calling my home phone. He’d emailed me the night before but hadn’t received a response (because I hadn’t checked my email, because I couldn’t find my BlackBerry…).

I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d dropped my BlackBerry in the middle of one of the busiest streets in New York City, but the guy who picked it up, instead of hacking into my email, or finding my personal information and stalking my children, or making a five-hour call to Tahiti, made every effort to return it to me. I gushed heartfelt thank you’s. By the time I arrived at the man’s office half an hour later to pick up my BlackBerry, I realized my feelings for this man, this honest, kind soul, were approaching a sort of puppy love.

“You’ve renewed my faith in mankind!” I told him. The rest of the day, I told everyone what had happened, and because everyone I run into also lives in New York, they were all just as surprised and delighted and impressed as I’d been.

This is not the first time I’ve felt stirrings of passion for a complete and utter stranger. There are all the men who have stopped and helped me carry a huge stroller with a heavy toddler in it up the subway stairs. “God bless her,” they often say as I thank them. If only for a few moments, I love those men.

There was a girl who ran after me to give me a five-dollar bill I’d dropped, at a time in my life when losing five dollars mattered. There was the woman who rescued my kitten when she ran out of my apartment once without my noticing as I was leaving, and returned her to me when I came back home. There was the huge homeless man who gave me directions instead of mugging me when I practically tripped over him, one late night in a deserted subway station. I was 22; it was my first month in the city. As I turned and walked away, presumably looking scared to death, he called after me, “There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” I still want to reach back through the years to give that guy an appreciative hug.

Then there’s the friend of our birth mother’s who was in the birthing room of the hospital during the birth of our daughter. She had met our birth mother only a few months before, but she coached her through the birth, staying by her side through every agonizing moment, including those emotional first few minutes after the birth: the time our birth mother said hello and goodbye to her baby.  This complete and utter stranger, in contrast to every other friend and family member of our birth mom, encouraged her to follow through on her adoption plan. Who knows how important a factor this was in our birth mother’s ultimate decision to sign the official adoption papers after the birth? Weeks later, that complete and utter stranger who was there when my daughter entered this world took the time to print out and mail to me hard copies of the photos she had taken of our baby just after she was born — an incredibly precious and rare thing for an adoptive mommy and child to possess. Although she moved out of state a few months after the birth so doesn’t have close contact with our birth mom anymore, she calls on our little girl’s birthday every year. “How do you remember?” I say. “How could I forget?” she says. I love this almost-stranger.

I mention all this because I am in some amount of conflict as to how much love I should really expect from complete and utter strangers, and how much love I should reasonably, healthfully give in return. You see, I’m from a small town, where there really are no complete and utter strangers. You say hello to everyone you meet on the street, of course, because you know them, or your parents do. You help mow the lawn or rake the leaves when someone is sick; you bring over a casserole when someone dies; you drop what you’re doing and help out other people, as a matter of course. You love and are loved.

In New York City? Not so much. I am in an almost constant state of mild and bewildered disappointment in my fellow man, because my fellow man typically does not say  hello to me when I pass them on the street. They don’t smile when they ring my groceries up at the grocery store. They don’t tell me when my purse is hanging open a little, instead choosing to swipe my wallet from said purse. (I am a slow learner. Some variation of this has happened to me at least four times in the past twenty years. I keep forgetting I live in New York and not in Houghton.)

So why don’t I toughen up? Get some freaking boundaries? Realize I’m not in Kansas anymore?

Because I refuse to give up: I want complete and utter strangers to love me. And I want to love them. I want to be, I am, the person who coaxes a smile out of  the overworked, underpaid check-out girl. I am the New Yorker who patiently pantomimes directions to tourists who speak no English, the sucker who misses my train in order to escort them to the right subway if they’re especially confused. I am the neighbor who knows the names of the families on each floor of the five-story apartment building next to our house, and says hello to them whenever I see them, forcing them to say hello back to me (though this took years to accomplish and I still can see them stiffen just a little when they notice me… presumably thinking Dammit, there’s that nosy woman who insists on asking me how I am every time she sees me, now I have to stop and say hi).

I want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony… and, you’ve probably noticed: the world has God-awful pitch most of the time. But not all the time. Sometimes — fairly often really — a guy returns my BlackBerry. A woman rescues my kitten. And I keep believing, and keep loving, and keep running into love, everywhere I go.

 

Recently I celebrated my birthday.  It wasn’t a big birthday, nothing ending in a 0 or even a 5.  Just a random birthday.  Everyone was very nice about it.  My family gave me gifts.  My friends sent me cards.  My Facebook friends wished me happiness on my Facebook wall.

The thing that made this birthday special, almost divine, was that I decided that on that day, everything I did, said, or thought, would be good enough.  I decided that for the whole day, I would be incredibly kind to myself, the way I am most of the time to other people.  I would be patient, considerate, polite; I’d laugh at any little joke I made to myself in my head.  If I did do something I felt was wrong, I’d forgive myself, and let myself off the hook guilt-free.  That’s right.  Without any self-lecturing or self-loathing, I’d just automatically forgive myself, right there on the spot, the way I forgive my children when, every once in a while, they look at me with wide somber eyes and say “Sorry, Mommy.”

I have to tell you, it was incredible.  In the morning, almost right off the bat, I yelled at my two-year-old, because instead of getting dressed and getting in her stroller so we could make it on time to an appointment, she ran around the house buck naked laughing like a hyena.  She is one of the few people I know who looks absolutely adorable buck naked, but still.  After five or ten minutes, the charm wore off, and she didn’t seem to be taking into account that it was my birthday and all.  So I yelled at her.  I also may have grabbed her and thrust her little limbs into her little clothes in a much firmer way than was necessary.  On a normal day, I would have spent at least the next hour feeling by turns guilty and falsely accused (by myself!) about this.  I would have swung back and forth between deep remorse (“how could I treat her that way?”) and desperate self-justification (“she needs clear boundaries”).  It is actually quite time-consuming.

But, because it was my birthday, I forgave myself.  It took about five seconds.  I barely knew what to do with the rest of my morning.  There was so much space in my head now.  What do people think about when they don’t take the time to analyze their every thought and action and deem whether each is morally justifiable or not?  What do you feel when you don’t feel guilt?

The answer, I can now tell you, is:  you think about whatever is going on around you at the time.  You feel the sun or the rain or the chill breeze on your body. You listen when your child is talking to you.  You notice little things that normally may slip right past, lost in the pointy chaos of remorse.  (That day, my birthday, I noticed that when my toddler hops like a frog across the room, she says “Rabbit, rabbit,” instead of “Ribbit, ribbit,” as if she thinks frogs are calling for rabbits to come out and play.)

It was just so fabulous.  I decided to extend the whole thing a bit.  I decided to spontaneously forgive myself the day after my birthday as well.  That day was the real test, because I did something that I have always gotten furious with myself for.  I got lost.  I have lived in New York City for over twenty years, and I have lived in my present home for over four years, and I think that I should be able to go about my business in this large but extremely familiar city without getting on the wrong train and ending up in Harlem instead of Brooklyn.  But every few months, I make a mistake, and I get lost.  And then, I get unspeakably angry with myself.  And then, I start to cry, yes, cry like a six-year-old girl who’s lost her way.  It is so embarrassing.  (Once when I was in the crying stage of getting lost, a total stranger stopped me there on the street in Manhattan and asked me if I was all right.  It happened to be on one of the anniversaries of September 11th, and he seemed to firmly believe I was a World Trade Center widow.  He wouldn’t leave me alone until I explained that I was crying because I couldn’t find the address of my new hairstyling salon since I was on West 28th Street instead of East 28th Street.  I felt so shallow.)

So I got lost the day after my birthday.  I got on the wrong subway, and by the time I realized it was hurtling through the dark far from my destination.  But, because I was in such a euphorically good mood left over from being so nice to myself the day before, I remembered, just before I entered the angry phase of getting lost, that I was going by this new forgiving-myself policy.  And I didn’t bother to get angry.  I thought I might still cry, but no.  I didn’t even want to cry.  That’s when I realized that the crying phase had actually been caused by the anger phase; I’d been crying in response to how furious I was at myself for making an unintentional mistake.  So then, instead of getting off the wrong train and getting on the right train in an uncontrollably emotional state that warranted deep concern from passersby, I just got off the wrong train and got on the right train, all happy.  It was so simple.

Then, and I’m not making this up, I got lost every single day for the next five days.  It was remarkable.  I got on the wrong train several times.  I walked the wrong way for ten blocks, I went to the wrong office, I was just a complete and total screw-up.  I wasn’t particularly tired or distracted; I wasn’t going anywhere I hadn’t been dozens of times before.  I just kept getting lost for no apparent reason.  I am positive it was the universe, or maybe my inner self, testing me, or giving me practice: “Lost again.  Late again.  Are you sure you’re going to forgive yourself?  Again?!  Really?”

And I did.  Every time.  After a while I even got amused.  “How cute,” I would think to myself.  “I got lost again.  Time to forgive myself.”

So, although the way-cool cowboy boots my husband got me are incredible, and the framed picture of my children my babysitter got me is precious, it turns out the best birthday gift I’ve ever gotten is from myself.  It’s my birthday, my year, my life, and I’ll forgive myself if I want to.  And I want to.

 

Possums, Disney, and the ER

Three sentences my husband and I never thought we’d utter during our summer vacation, but did:

1)  “Sweetie, I shoveled the possum.”

2)  “So then they tied her down to the table with sheets and stitched the nail back on.”

3)  “Thank God for Disney.”

Let’s start with (1) the possum.  It’s the simplest.  One thing about the new country house that we all love is the difference in animal life there.  In the city, an animal sighting is almost always a bad thing, beginning with alarm and ending with an urgent yell to my husband to destroy or at least banish the animal, because said animal is invariably a mouse, roach, or pigeon.  Those are pretty much the wild animals we have here in New York City.  But in the country, we gleefully spotted a groundhog that came into our backyard nearly every day, lounging around and adorably munching apples that had fallen from our apple tree.  Our backyard also hosted two deer, several frogs, countless squirrels and chipmunks, dozens of iridescent-winged dragonflies, billions of crickets, and one exciting day a medium-sized snake.  Then there was the huge snapping turtle in the middle of the road nearby; we actually stopped the car to move him to the side of the road so he didn’t get run over.  (He didn’t like that, and yes.  He snapped.)

The possum we found at the very end of our long driveway was, as you may have guessed by the shoveling remark, dead.  We were first saddened by this:  it seemed probable that he had been hit by a car.  (Though possibly, we told our 10-year-old, he lived a long happy  life and died of natural possum-related causes.)  Soon enough our melancholy at the temporal nature of life passed and we began to wonder:  what the heck are we going to do with this dead possum?  So that’s why Larry shoveled the possum off the road and into the bushes.  He believes in composting.

I guess it’s time to explain (2) the tying down with sheets and the stitches.  Have you ever had a two-year-old with a crushed fingertip and an itty-bitty fingernail hanging from it?  I do hope not.  But if you have, then you know that you rush her to the nearest ER.  And you know that they don’t just let the fingernail fall off, spray some Bactine on it, and hope for the best, the way they did when we were kids. (One friend told me that when she was little and crushed her finger in the car door and it swelled up horribly, the ER doctor burned the tip of a paperclip with a lighter, poked it into her finger to drain the fluid, then put some iodine and a Band-Aid on it and sent her and her horrified mother home.)  But for our baby, they decided to stitch the teeny nail back on, to preserve the nailbed for the new nail to grow in, the doctor said.

“You realize you’re going to have to put her under general anesthesia to do that,” I said.  I can’t even get her to sit down and eat her applesauce; I knew I’d never be able to get her to lie still while a surgeon stitched her fingernail back on.

“We have something called papoosing,” said the doctor.  “But actually we used to just call it sheeting.  Because we basically tie the child down with sheets to the table. It’s necessary.”  He left the room abruptly and without further explanation. It had taken him about two hours to get to us at all, having larger problems there in the ER than a toddler with a hurt finger, and clearly he didn’t have time to waste with niceties.

The procedure was just exactly as horrible as it sounds.  At one point I became afraid that my sweet baby might have a heart attack, because she screamed so hard for so long that for a minute or two she went silent and started just gasping and gulping.  I’d never heard of a toddler having a heart attack, but you never know.  “Do you think she’s going to have a heart attack?” I said to the nurse.  The nurse said no, and asked if I wanted a cup of water, which made me wonder where his priorities were.

Strangely enough, I started liking the doctor halfway through the procedure, as I watched him again and again attempt to take a stitch, stop when the baby flailed her hand a little, attempt it again. He never uttered a word, just doggedly pursued his goal while his small patient fought him with every fiber of her being and I cradled her head, whispering and murmuring to her as she screeched. When he finally finished, they were the tiniest stitches I have ever seen, like something on the inside of a wedding dress, except in black, with a little dried blood around them.

This was the first full day of our vacation.  Each day after that, for 10 days, we had to take the dressing and bandages off our baby’s teeny finger while she howled with fear, wash it with soap, spray it with antiseptic, and re-wrap it.  (She was brave though, and tried to comfort all of us by yelling periodically through her tears the things we kept telling her: “It’s not going to hurt!  Easy-peasy! Easy-peasy!”) This explains (3) my deep and rather sudden appreciation for Walt Disney and all his descendants and cohorts.  Because if it weren’t for TANGLED, Disney’s version of Rapunzel, we never, ever would have been able to change those bandages every day.  Only the bright mesmerizing graphics of a cartoon and the brain-etching songs of Mr. Disney’s studio could have kept our little one’s attention long enough to perform our medical maneuvers.

This is not what I’d planned.  We went to the country to unplug, to read Laura Ingalls Wilder books, to do arts and crafts with wooden clothespins and yarn.  It was only my base lower nature that threw that TANGLED DVD from Netflix into my computer case in the first place. But oh, how grateful I became.  How humbled I was.  I didn’t even try to cover up the fact that my two-year-old and ten-year-old can now both recite nearly every lyric of TANGLED in a near-autistic manner, complete with character accents and inflections.  I decided to think it is cute.  Because I admit it saved our collective butts.

The divine moment in all of this?  After that long morning in the ER, where one little girl suffered and screamed and sobbed; the other little girl, compassionate to the bone, sat for hours helpless and horrified on her beloved little sister’s behalf; and we parents swung madly between empathy, guilt, and sorrow — after all this, my two-year-old, as her daddy lifted her out of her carseat when we finally got back to the little house, looked straight at me as I sat recovering in the front seat and declared loudly and clearly: “I’m okay!”  She was smiling.

I was sitting there re-living every awful second.  She had already moved on, living in the present moment, bodhisattva-like.  Being in the present moment, she was able to feel the joy of being out of the hospital, back home, lifted up into her daddy’s strong arms.  She doesn’t yet know regret.  I guess just about all her moments are divine.  I’m just trying to get back to that, to babyhood, to being in the now.  Maybe I’m a little closer now, thanks to the two pint-sized teachers God has given me.

 

Not Far Away

My last blog entry was all about how everyone’s soul is enriched and personality is changed for the better when we escape the city and go to our little retreat in the country, where we can feel the richness of the earth and see the shining of the stars.  But, friends, the honeymoon is over.  Our two-year-old saw to that last weekend.  (In fact, this is very likely why you don’t hear about many people taking their two-year-olds on honeymoons in the first place.  Two-year-olds are just not real relaxing or romantic people to be around.)

Our two-year-old doesn’t seem to like the little country house.  I can tell by the way she WILL NOT SLEEP THERE.  First she won’t go to sleep — it takes two hours to put her down for her one-hour nap — and then she won’t stay asleep.  She often sleeps through the night now, in the city.  In the beautiful, quiet, fresh-aired country?  Wakes twice every night.  This makes the people around her suffer in various ways and degrees.  It feels like she is a little despot, the Jekyll-and-Hyde ruler of our tiny kingdom, a petite queen whom we all adore and who adores us, except for these inexplicable episodes she falls into, in which she makes impossible demands, which if not fulfilled cause screaming tantrums and if fulfilled only lead to other, more impossible demands.

Anyway, something about this particular weekend of sleeplessness carried over into our regular week.  My husband and I just couldn’t catch up.  We couldn’t catch up on our sleep, and we couldn’t catch up on our joy somehow.  It seemed gone.  We fought, which is unusual for us, though we tried to stay civil for the sake of the children, working together to serve dinner and put the kids to bed, all that. But of course the children knew anyway, in their own ways.  “What are you fighting about?” my ten-year-old asked me the morning after we had tried to hash things out, and I couldn’t have explained even if I’d wanted to.  I knew what had led up to the fight, the specific events and comments, but in a larger sense, I sort of didn’t know.  I almost said, “The idea of life itself, the way it heaves up and down, and it seems like you have come through the down part and are finally coming to an up part, but then it suddenly turns in on itself and you realize you have no control whatsoever, but it’s not like a fun roller coaster, more like a falling airplane that never quite crashes to the ground. And sometimes you get confused and tired and blame the person you’re sitting beside.”  But it seemed like not quite the right thing to say to a little girl.

At any rate, we decided we definitely should not return to the country house this past weekend.  We should stay home, where we had some chance of getting a full night’s sleep.  It seemed like a good idea, until Saturday morning, when we sat in the living room looking at each other and realizing that we had two days of emptiness, sure of nothing except the incredibly dependable humidity in which New York has been immersed for as long as anyone can really remember.

But I knew we needed a shot of joy, so we decided to take our toddler to the zoo for the first time, after her nap.  One of the great things about having one child seven years older than the other is that the older one thinks the younger one is cute, and actually enjoys seeing her experience things for the first time just about as much as we do, rather than seeing her as a rival.  So a trip to the small Central Park Zoo, which may not have seemed like the most exciting thing to our older daughter, seemed like a good prospect.  But getting ready, which now involves several long negotiations of the type parents of two-year-olds often have, about whether one should or should not wear shoes when they go outside, for example, was not joyful.  Actual tears were shed.  “Why does everything with her have to take so long and be so complicated?” our older daughter, who has an inherent understanding of shoes and their benefits, lamented.  Sometimes I’m afraid she will never have children of her own, after watching how hard it seems to be for her parents.  (“I remember it used to take my mother an hour just to get my little sister’s shoes on,” I can imagine her saying to her future husband as she swallows her sixteen hundredth birth control pill.)  But by golly, we had laid our plan, and we stubbornly stuck to it.  We were going to the damn zoo if it killed us.

A line several blocks line greeted us once we finally arrived.  “We don’t have to do this,” my husband whispered to me, but I felt otherwise, and my spirit began to rise to the occasion.  “Look!  Balloon animals!!” I said, and I think Larry knew we were definitely doing this thing. He seemed to accept his fate, and stood in line while I took the girls to get a monstrous salted soft pretzel and a blue balloon shaped like a doggie.  So we ate junk food; and watched sea lions wave their flippers at us while they gulped small silver fish; and saw a great polar bear swim back and forth from an underwater observation point, his huge soft paw pads pushing off the glass window right in front of our faces.  We petted sheep’s deep woolly backs and fed goats food pellets from our bare hands.  We capped off the day by eating at a restaurant, where our little despot was for once too tired to scream or run around bothering waiters and other customers.

The next day, we went to the Friends Meeting, which felt deeply spiritual, then went to an air-conditioned mall and shopped, which felt deeply consumeristic.  But somewhere in this rather ordinary weekend, we re-discovered our joy.  It was right there the whole time, near the baby’s shoes I think, underneath some bills and papers.  We had to look for it, but it wasn’t far away.  It wasn’t even up at the country house; it was here, at home, in the middle of the noisy city.  We’ve stopped fighting.  I cannot remember what we were fighting about, except in the vaguest terms, and I think my husband feels the same, though I don’t plan to ask.  I plan to revel in the joy, the ordinary day-to-day life stuff, which does sometimes if you think about it too much seem a bit like an out-of-control airplane, but which more often seems open and airy and full of possibilities.  Anything can happen.  It will happen with these people beside me, my husband, my girls.  It is good.

I admit it: I have a secret obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder.  There, it feels good to have it out in the open like that.

It started so long ago that I can’t really remember the first time I met everyone’s favorite pioneer girl.  I do remember that when the television series Little House on the Prairie came on, my mother thought I’d be excited, since I’d already read nearly the entire Little House series… but I  refused to watch it for the whole first season. Was I was already snobbish about tv adaptations from books, at age 9?  I do remember feeling disdainful that the producers apparently hadn’t even known to start the series properly, with the first book, in the Little House in the Big Woods.  They were missing out entirely on the incredibly fun time Mary and Laura had playing with the pig’s bladder blown up like a balloon, the way Laura’s bad cousin got stung by all the bees, and how to make maple candy by pouring fresh maple syrup onto snow (which of course I tried to do one snowy day, though it was a devastating failure). But soon enough, I succumbed to Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon’s earnest ways, and now when I re-read the books — yes, I’m re-reading the books; I already told you I’m obsessed, okay? — I always see in my mind’s eye Pa looking like a buff Hollywood actor, and Laura looking like Melissa Gilbert when she was a kid.  Though, as anyone truly obsessed by Laura Ingalls Wilder should be able to tell you, Laura’s eyes were actually blue, not brown.  You see, how television corrupts history.

I think the real reason behind my little tv adaptation ban, though, was that I felt exposed and a little betrayed.  I loved Laura, and I sort of somehow thought I was the only one.  That a major network should suddenly take my Laura and broadcast her all over the country according to their own interpretation seemed just wrong.  I had thought of Laura as mine, my kindred spirit from a previous century.  The Little House books made me feel like the thoughts and day-to-day life of a little girl were important, significant.  I didn’t love the Little House books because I was interested in learning more about the history of the pioneers who settled the Midwest in the late 1800s, of course.  I loved the Little House books because I loved Laura.  I felt connected to her.  When I felt bored or taken for granted, I composed a little narrative in my mind about what was happening, a la Little House.  (“Tara didn’t feel like going to church, but every Sunday morning she must go.  So she put on her dress, her white tights, and her shiny black Mary Jane shoes that were hard to buckle and hurt her feet, and she went.”)  It fascinated me that the writer of the books referred to herself as Laura instead of “I.”  It made my own life seem much better when I thought of it in this way. (Another fact for obsessed Little House fans:  the very first draft of Little House in the Big Woods, rejected by a publisher, was written in the first person.  Only the subsequent draft, with a bit of editing and advice from Laura’s writer/editor daughter Rose, was written in the third person.)

There is a point to all this, other than going public with my obsession.  I’ve been thinking even more than usual about Laura and her family lately.  I think it’s the disconnect I feel from the earth and the stars, something that has always bothered me about living in New York City.  I love the city, moved here as soon as I graduated from college and never left.  But I miss the earth and the silence and the sky of the country: I miss walking my dog at night, breathing in the sharp lovely air, and feeling the earth and sky around me permeate my every cell.  The sense of perspective staring at stars gives you is irreplaceable.  And every year I spend in the city, the sense of disconnect and loss becomes a bit worse, until lately it’s almost visceral.  So.  I slowly and slyly convinced my husband that we needed a very small weekend house upstate, on a little land… for our children, for the girls, of course.  He totally fell for it.  And we spent the last year looking for a house… a little house!!… and turning down one after another, accompanied by a very patient real estate agent.  I knew I would know it when I saw it.  And I did.  It is only coincidence, I am sure, that there is a smokehouse beside the small stone house we bought… a smokehouse!  Why, I can pull out my Little House books, and go over how to smoke a pig. Now all we have to do is find and slaughter a pig, and we are all set!  Another coincidence:  there are woods, one might say Big Woods, in back of the house.  And a Lake, which I’m pretty sure looks sort of Silver at certain times in the moonlight, is down the road.

But there are, in fact, a number of differences between my lifestyle and Laura’s.  Ma did not have to pack up everyone’s bags late on a Friday night to get to the Little House, and do the same thing less than 48 hours later to come back, and Pa fought no traffic as he drove.  Laura and Mary did not harp on Ma during said traffic jam as to why they were the only ones in their class without an iPod.  If toddler Carrie constantly whined “I’m hungry!  I’m hungry!” then just as constantly refused each and every bit of food offered to her, there is no record of it.  Also, I am sure that if Ma had bought a box of macaroni and cheese to make for lunch, she would have remembered that she also needed to buy a saucepan to cook it in.

But despite all this, there were so many divine moments in our new little house in the country.  There is the way that, once there, my ten-year-old daughter seems to be enveloped by the atmosphere of the 80-year-old cottage and the surrounding woods, and, somewhat miraculously, has not once  asked if we are going to get a tv there, or if there is an Internet connection.  She did ask one time about air conditioning (which we also are not getting), but since it was 104 degrees, she can be easily forgiven for that.  On Sunday she was woken up early by birds (“There were big black crows looking in my window and going ‘CAW! CAW!’  I think they wanted my fan!” she said.)  And instead of bemoaning the acute lack of Gmail, or waking me up because she was bored, she fixed me scrambled eggs and cheesy toast for breakfast and waited for me to awaken.  I repeat, my daughter fixed me breakfast and let me sleep in.

And there was the time I finally got the baby down for her nap, and Larry had taken our older daughter for a swim in the lake, and I sat for an hour on a rock in our back yard.  This in itself is what I’ve dreamed of and lusted after for years, and I could finally feel it… the slow osmosis of dirt and grass and bees and swallows, permeating and transforming my body and mind and soul.  But then, then!  A small deer, a young doe, with huge perky ears and deep brown eyes, emerged from the woods, not twenty feet from the spot I sat.  She saw me right away, and froze, her slender front legs taking turns padding the ground nervously, her intelligent-looking eyes fixed on mine.  I didn’t move.  I strived to appear gentle and kind and deeply trustworthy.  We gazed at each other, two beings from different worlds, for a couple of long lovely minutes.  Then I heard the baby waking up from her nap, plaintively calling “Mommy!  Daddy!  Moooommmmmy!”  I had to go get her; she was alone in her Pack ‘N Play in a strange new place.  I slowly got up, still looking into the deer’s eyes.  I gradually took a few steps backward; the doe pawed the ground but remained steadfast, her eyes locked on mine.  I turned to walk back to the house, and the deer suddenly made a loud snorting sound at me and tore off through the woods.

Later I told my husband about it.  “I feel so terrible,” I said.  “I was trying to make friends with her, and then I scared her, and she made this horrible angry sound at me and ran away; she probably won’t come back now.”

“Well,” he said, “But you saw her. You had your moment.  You can’t spend your whole life staring at a deer.”

And it’s true, you know.  I live in this century, the one with iPods and iPads and a million things to do and a certain disconnect with nature.  But I can still have my moments.  I can spot and relish my day-to-day divine moments, like spotting a lovely, shy, brave deer peering out of the forest.  I just can’t spend my whole life staring at the deer.