Thoughts on pride and independence

I am in my favorite spot in the library. Ruthie is purring next to me. I have a cold and just woke from a nap. There was a marvelously intense rainstorm last night. Today is hot, steamy, sunny, and blue. Periodically I look at a framed black and white Neal Preston photograph I just hung. It is Freddie Mercury in sweats and a crown, leaning against a door jamb, one Converse-clad foot crossed over the other, a lit cigarette down by his side. He has a gentle, hint of a smile on his mustachioed face. It was 1977. I smile back at him. I love Freddie because even when it was hard, he stayed true to himself, and he was great because of it. There is a profound lesson in that.

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I hung him in here because I spend so much time in this room. It is peaceful, there are no screens. I always have a puzzle going, my books and countless treasures surround me. My students and I meet and work in here. Windows and natural light are all around. I enjoy watching the birds eat from the feeder I hung in a crepe myrtle. I enjoy watching my cats watching the birds, their feline jaws clacking and moving with instinct and desire, guttural sounds of hunger emanating from their cores. Recently, a zealous squirrel removed the feeder from the branch; I suppose he became impatient by having to hang upside down to access the food, so he tossed it to the ground below. You have to hand it to squirrels; they’re crafty.

On the way to the airport last Thursday, I was overcome with anxiety, and it sucked. Not because the boys were leaving, but because my tank had been empty for a week already (weeks?), and yet I had a hefty few days with them ahead. To get to camp, we fly to Portland, Maine, rent a car, drive 90 minutes to Belgrade, and then do everything possible to pass the time until we can actually move to camp the next afternoon. None of it is a big deal, but Tom couldn’t come with us, and though the boys were immensely excited, they were also nervous about saying goodbye and being homesick.

As we unloaded and said goodbye to Tom, an incredibly terrific woman who taught both boys in 4th grade and who I am lucky to call a friend, walked up. She was heading to Portland too, to visit her brother. Could we head to the gate together? Her presence and company seemed like a gift from some guardian angel. I did not mention my anxiety but appreciated the way having her near felt like a balm. You never know what someone else is holding; kindness and love count for a lot.

It is beautiful in Maine, endlessly serene. Before driving to Belgrade, we hugged our teacher friend goodbye and went to the boys’ favorite comic store, Casablanca, in Portland. While they were looking, I walked over to Bard for a coffee. It, too, felt like a gift. We wandered around trying to decide on a spot for lunch, and I considered that I could live in Portland were it not for the winters. Bookstores, great food, antiques, a slower pace, the water. As it was PRIDE month, celebrations of LGBTQ were everywhere, including a large rainbow flag flying just below the Stars & Stripes at City Hall. Another gift, for what is greater than to love and be loved for who you are. To be able to be and celebrate that openly and proudly. The world still has a long way to go- in more than 70 countries, homosexuality is still against the law. But 50 years after Stonewall, things are better here, and I am thankful. Let’s hope such progress holds (and continues).

We spent the night in a rented house with friends from camp, a lovely spot with a dock on Great Pond. The boys swam and played for hours, burning seemingly endless energy before we forced them inside to change for dinner. I was thankful to be with these wonderful families, people we just met last year but who are already treasured friends. I shared of my difficult morning; they understood completely, shared ways they felt the same, didn’t judge.

All our boys wanted to make the first boat from the mainland to camp on Friday, so we made it happen. As Jack and Oliver lugged their gear up the island’s dock, I followed with my small bag, smiling at their independence and legs that are starting to look more man than child. I listened with deep happiness as counselors from last year called out to them with joy: “Grossi brothers! You’re back!” And the boys beamed, and so did I. I moved them in and helped them pick spots for their hammocks, visited the wood shop and dining hall, the common rooms and the boat launches, happy for the total absence of screens and electricity, for open-sided tents and the water lapping at the shores and the loons. I am so enormously grateful that they get this time off the grid and away from everything, including the hideously awful military tanks our idiot in chief has brought in for the 4th. I am also grateful for this time for me and for Tom, time to reset, rest, and figure out how to harness what we all learn about independence and self-care this summer and maintain it when they get home.

After our goodbyes which were far less teary and hard than last year, I drove back to Portland, treated myself to a delicious dinner and beer, wrote each boy a letter, and turned out my lights at 8:45. Bliss. I spent next morning at Longfellow Books, communing with an amazing Maine Coon named Buddy in a map shop, enjoying the student and faculty art show at MECA (fell in love with Lewis Rossignol’s work and bought some), and then flew home to a quiet evening with Tom.

I have been reading and working in the yard. One of my best friends was in town, and I was lucky to see her twice this week. I have been keeping myself as informed as I can stomach about the horrific, inhuman situation at our southern border, a situation for which I primarily blame trump and his GOP enablers. Reports by DHS inspectors who visited five facilities in the Rio Grande Valley show that:

children had few spare clothes and no laundry facilities. Many migrants were given only wet wipes to clean themselves and bologna sandwiches to eat, causing constipation and other health problems, according to the report. Children at two of the five facilities in the area were not given hot meals until inspectors arrived. Overcrowding was so severe that when the agency’s internal inspectors visited some of the facilities, migrants banged on cells and pressed notes to windows begging for help. At one facility, some single adults were held in standing-room-only conditions for a week, and at another, some single adults were held more than a month in overcrowded cells. Some migrants were forced to drink from toilets as they were given no fresh water.

Tomorrow is Independence Day, our country’s celebration of declaring itself free from monarchical British rule. In the Declaration, our founding fathers wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness… That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Don’t we care about these words anymore (taking into full account of course the fact that at its writing, the Declaration’s authors did not consider people of color or women to be equal)? Substitute trump and the GOP for Form of Government, Governments, Despotism/such Government, and King of Great Britain, and you have present-day America, a country built on magnificent democratic ideals that are in such peril right now under the tyranny of a deeply immoral man. To those Americans who can celebrate tomorrow but also be ok with forcing desperate people to separate from their children, soil themselves, starve, and drink from toilets, you are hypocritical and cruel beyond what I can imagine. If you are cool with our president yukking it up in the DMZ with Dictator Kim and diverting funds from National Parks to turn the 4th into a militaristic celebration of trump rather than America, you are the antithesis of patriots. You are traitors to the ideals of liberty and welcome. You spit on the racist, brutal history so many of us are trying to reckon with and move past. You dishonor all who have fought for greater rights and acceptance and safety on these shores, all who have died for that here and abroad. I feel so little pride in America right now.

Tomorrow is also Jack’s thirteenth birthday, and I will choose to focus on celebrating him from afar and briefly hearing his voice when he calls from the mainland during rest hour. I will think of the beautiful soul he is rather than the hideous tanks and gross incompetence and evil of trump and his followers. I will hope that one day our country is deserving of my children, our children, the people who look to America as a beacon of hope and a better life (as did, PS, all of your and my ancestors; they were ALL immigrants unless you are Native American).

On and off the mat

I know I’m supposed to settle zen-like into any spot, but every Wednesday, I subtly scan the studio while getting my mats and blocks and the strap I hate, trying to ascertain which of the remaining openings will best allow me to work and breathe and flow.

Mouth breathers and moaners try my nerves as do the chatterbugs. Except for the teacher’s even voice and some swishing as positions are adjusted, yoga should be silent. That is one reason I go. To work hard and practice mindfulness and revel in some damn peace and quiet.

I choose the spot near the door and under the fire alarm, stacking my props neatly behind me in the space between mat and wall. When I’ve acclimated to the warmer room, I bunch my socks into a tiny parcel, and tuck them under the folded-four-times blanket.

I find, in yoga, that different moods during different weeks draw me to different blanket colors. Today I choose the festive new orange and green one, both shades bright but not obnoxious. Happy and soothing like fiesta decor or sun-kissed Greek facades.

I brought some fiery red angst into class with me this morning. Fresh off of a Facebook joust with an acquaintance of my sister, I’d gone through Trump’s proposed budget cuts and stood up for the arts, LGBTQ rights at the federal versus state levels, public transportation, and effective anti-poverty measures before 9am. The acquaintance values none of those things and cares not if they are tossed out with the bathwater.

I cannot see how we can be in community with others who only wish to support and fund the exact things THEY care for while refusing space for any other values or passions to enter the mix. That is not community. That is a bunch of exclusionary islands, all sharp angles and squared corners, bashing into each other before settling at cool distances, no unity in sight. 

I am ten minutes early to class and so, after unrolling my two mats-two because of my bony back body-I lie down and shut my eyes, exhaling the ugly parry and inhaling Om. The sizzle in my chest is quieting when my hair is brushed aside by the ungainly tossing down of mats, blocks, straps, and Grip-Itz next door: that last spot has been claimed by someone with a generous array of accoutrements.

The intrusion into my limited rectangle of personal space continues for the next 75 minutes. I take this as a yogic challenge. 24" x 68" plus change is plenty, isn’t it? Is it?

My minds sweeps back to a book I first read more than a decade ago: Appetites. It is profound in many ways, changing and helping me evolve each and every time I make my way through the now worn, notated, fading pages. In it the author, Caroline Knapp, discusses how we, especially women, do not feel our appetites, our desires, are worthy. And so we rein them in, mashing and folding and constraining them into the tiniest boxes possible, regardless of the costs of doing so. Which are usually great.

I think about how I’ve so neatly and thoughtfully tucked my props behind me, not wanting to intrude into or steal from my wing-women’s spaces. And yet the mate on my port side does just that. Does she notice? Care? Should I applaud her? I don’t. I’m annoyed. And as class unfolds, I casually, gently, forcefully push her strap off of my mat, her blankets away from my thigh, her panoply of blocks away, away, away.

Should I then applaud myself? For claiming my meager space in this studio? For having stood up to a white guy who hates the arts and thinks the EPA and the Department of Ed should be abolished and who’s irritated by funding public transportation (because “no one subsidizes my commute”) but supports the building of a huge fucking wall on our southern border? Why should I subsidize his fear and bigotry?

Class is underway, and I square my hips toward the front wall as I am instructed. I think about how often I so neatly and thoughtfully tuck myself around others and what they want and need, most always leaving the bitty leftovers to fill in my own contours. I am hypermobile and must balance my Gumby tendencies with more demure positions that “protect and further” my stability. This irritates me, and I consider it a second yogic challenge: how can I be so open and flexible in some respects while so rigid in others?

I consider again my body, front and back, the boundaries, the extent of my skin, my breath, my arms in various positions: robot, cactus, T (for which there is no space today). Are my ribs constrained by my hands taking in their extension and shrinkage? Or are they limited by fascia and physiology over which I have no dominion? Or both?

Can I feel as if I’m lying flat on the mat but still melt more? Like butter through a grate? Can I extend beyond my bit of space without shrugging into what I want versus what I deserve? Is it worth sternal friction to try in some way, any way, to stand up for the values I think are right for this country?  For myself? Those that are most inclusionary and expansive? Those that feel selfish but are anything but?

On Friday, I am taking my boys to my homeland: Louisiana. Door to door, from my house to my parents’, it’s about eight hours and includes two plane rides. The kids are great travelers, but we are leaving the house well before 6am, and this week has been many things. Easy is not one of them.

I am tired. My interest in Minecraft and made-up story lines is waning, but I am forever the literal, rule-oriented mother aware of both optimal screen time and the direction towards which my toes and knees should be pointing. This elicits what could be called yogic challenge 3: the degrees to which my borders and boundaries should be malleable and are versus aren't.

Being a hypermobile person, I have experienced rubber band ligaments as well as silly putty bounds. I have learned that while both feel quite nice, neither is actually too healthy. I consider that consistently stable positionality is a worthy goal. Even when it pushes the tide against my bow and is uncomfortable and frustrating. It is possible that more stringent limits might actually lead to greater liberation. Of self. In life.

And perhaps that’s really the constraint and emancipation offered by the mat. What seems to be a bounded bit of rubber is in fact only the launch pad. But before lift-off, you must stand up for but question yourself, set boundaries but accept some overreach and erosion of them, stretch but focus on a stable core. Otherwise? The noise muffles the peace, and the middle doesn't hold.

What takes the cake

Sometimes, in the blurry dervishing darkness of too much noise and too many demands, I think about cake and how much I’d like a slice. One generous slice of moist devil’s food with a perfect crumb and just enough frosting –do you call it icing?- to make the confection sleek rather than shrugging.

A cake like this withstands the gentle pressure of a fork’s slender tines only just before succumbing. For a moment the shape rendered by cake and indent made by the utensil’s push resembles one of those simple down-and-up lines young children draw to resemble birds in flight. Then the bird is gone and I’m left with a bite of cake to savor and the time to do so.

Truth be told, this cake is most sublime when I can sit in silence with it, a cold glass of milk just beyond the upper right rim of my plate. In this setting, nothing vies for attention: the cake gets it all. More accurately, my enjoyment of it does. I needn’t rush my bites or my chewing. I won’t worry about choking when someone asks a question and wants the answer now. No greedy eyes will covet my cake, no one will ask me to share. I can close my eyes and experience the cake in my mouth, from first touch on my tongue to bittersweet farewell as my swallow whisks it south.

And then I can do the same thing again and again until my plate is but a crumb-dotted palate of what was.

*a freewrite from today's class