Saturday, June 26, 2010

Putting My Mat Next to Hers: The Mother and Daughter Yoga Mala

I celebrated the summer solstice by completing a yoga mala, a practice named for the string of prayer beads used in many Eastern traditions. The mala, usually practiced during solstices or the New Year, consists of 108 sun salutations, one for each of the beads on the string.

One. Hundred. And. Eight.

It took me a few days to write this blog this because I couldn’t lift my hands to reach the keyboard until today. Also, all my meals have been eaten over the sink, since I’m declining to make that long reach for plates on a shelf that’s suddenly too high for my whimpering biceps.

But really, I’m fine.

The best part of the practice was that my 15-year-old daughter, Emma, did it with me. I was conducting my usual mombabble the night before: I’mdoingthemala tomorrow BLAH BLAH BLAH [insert the sound of Charlie Brown adults here], when I heard myself saying that the mala was good luck for the season ahead, and that many people said it was yoga magic. Turns out I had her at “good luck.” She was dressed and ready to go at 6 a.m. the next day, a gloriously sleep-in-able summer morning. I wondered if she were the only teen awake at that hour in the entire Twin Cities.

We arrived at the yoga studio. It’s a sacred place for me, a location that has offered safety, wisdom and great leaps of growth over the years. I love Tarana the way ten-year-olds still fiercely love their threadbare stuffed animals of babyhood. Emma’s impression? Not so much. Its pumpkin patch sincerity was lost on her, and she blasted off a series of fish eye signals, quickly letting me know that this joint was too smelly, too hot and entirely too full of saggy, lumpy grownups. I closed my eyes, made a mudra and thought about how the Buddha never had teenagers.

The instructor suggested that we form a circle shape. She called it a mandala, but I knew it from kindergarten days as “a big cherry pie.” She talked about how this shape was conducive to mutual support, allowing us to draw upon the energy of our neighbors during the practice.

That’s when I knew I’d be able to complete every last one of those one oh eight salutes, because my mat was next to the world’s single greatest renewable energy source, Emma Bao Wei.

We got started. One sun salutation. Two sun salutations. I thought about how someone needed to write the yoga equivalent of Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer On The Wall for malas.

I tried very hard to Stay on My Mat during the practice, and not get all Mommyish on her when she sat one out in child’s pose. But I felt her; oh man, did I feel her. There is no way to be close to Emma and not know she’s there.

Fifty sun salutations. Fifty one sun salutations.

She was still generating power. Her energy pummels me into submission on a regular basis, but today I was using it to push my ancient keister over the finish line. She dragged me along with her, as I’m sure she feels she’s been doing for quite some time now.

One hundred and seven salutations. One hundred and eight sun salutations. If the instructor had said, “Let’s do one more for good luck,” the class would have risen up and rolled her in her own yoga mat. We were done.

I looked over at Emma. She raised an ironic eyebrow and wiped her beautiful brow. She, as always, was ready for more.

Today, June 26, is the fifteenth anniversary of the day Emma was first placed in my arms. It was another hot, stuffy and magic-filled room, just 6,950 miles away from the yoga studio where we finished our mala together. I remember how light she was when I held her. And how heavy. For someone who had the weight and volume of a loaf of Wonder Bread, she also seemed to contain quite of few of Mr. Whitman’s multitudes, perhaps several more than the average person.

I remember looking in her eyes. I thought it was me who was was assessing her, but I realize now that she was also completing a good once-over. The look I got back from those dark, dark eyes was steady and strong. “This chick isn’t much,” it said, “but I think I can make it work.” She’s been doing her best these past fifteen years, dragging me along toward the places she knows she wants to go, pushing me over the finish line by dint of her endless power and unfailing tenacity.

I knew I loved her from the first moment I held her. And the more I’ve gotten to know her, the more I’ve realized that she will always be essentially un-holdable. This is a person who will power the world someday, and I’m just lucky enough to have had my mat next to hers for these past fifteen years.

I love you, Emma. Happy Adoption Day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Like Daughter, Like Mother

On a steamy June afternoon just a couple weeks ago, I stopped in the middle of my day to slip into a summery frock, a triple string of pearls and a big straw hat. I combed my hair and put on lipstick. A quick glance in the mirror, and I judged myself to be one hundred percent adequate. The reason that I was abandoning my workaday uniform of stretched-out tshirt and oft-mended yoga pants? Mary Katherine had spent the week at a creativity camp, and parents had been invited to an Artists’ and Writers’ Tea for a concluding celebration. The minute Mary Katherine and her fellow camper, Meg, heard “Tea,” they saw an opportunity for dress-up, and they had both expended considerable effort in their choice of attire for the day. I had decided to follow Mary Katherine’s lead and, as my mother might say, Make an Effort.

Here is an example of how out-of-character this getup was for me: I’ve been dealing with the slow decline of my beater car, Dottie, for quite some time now. Bob at the garage and I have become quite close, and I swear that this man should consider a career as a hospice counselor if he ever tires of the mechanical racket. We share long, deep discussions about quality of life and when to let go. Lately, I’ve been seeing him at least once a month. On my way to the tea, I stopped by to see if Dottie would be able to join me on a weekend leave. Bob, clearly not recognizing me, asked if he could help; I identified myself, and he was, as the bard says, sore amazed. He kept leaning in and peering around, to see if that was me under the eyeliner. “You look great!” he exclaimed, but I knew that what he really meant was, “You look a lot better than you usually do!”

When I arrived at the tea, all the other mommies, dressed in approximately the same sort of gear I’d been enjoying just a half hour ago, turned and gaped. Was it the hat? The pearls? A few made comments about how they could certainly tell that Mary Katherine and I were mother and daughter, since we both had such a sense of style (the “over the top” and “excessive” were silent). I smiled, drank my pink lemonade from a plastic cup, and didn’t give a damn what they thought. I knew that Mary Katherine would be pleased that I’d made an effort, and that’s all that counted.

In matters of style, I’ve drawn great joy from Mary Katherine’s involved fashion machinations. “See?” she will tell me, face aglow and finger wiggling, “The earrings and the trendy belt are the same color as my nail polish!” A recent triumph was an outfit that was black-and-white polka dots from headband to ballerina flats; the best part, she said, was that some were white polka dots on a black background, and some were black polka dots on a white background.

When someone cares this much about something, and it’s someone I love, I make an effort. I follow Mary in so much more than matters of apparel, though. I listen to her great enthusiasms for performers and theater and plays. I observe her wisdom in dealing with the rough waters of middle school. I listen to the way she talks to people, and I try to follow her lead. No one ever speaks with more consistent, tangible love in their voice than Mary Katherine.

So while the mommies in the comfy clothes seemed sure that I was creating a little mini-me at home, schooling her in the things I cared most about, they were mistaken. I'm the one following Mary Katherine, because the road she travels invariably leads to joy and kindness and long bouts of laughing. And if I look a little spiffier every now and again because of that, so much the better, I suppose.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I'm Not From Around Here

This September, I’ll have lived in the Twin Cities for 17 years, so you think by now I’d know my way around. But in many respects, I still feel like a resident alien. For one thing, I’ve never bothered to learn any geography beyond the alphabet-number grid in my immediate area, along with the office locations of people who are paying for my writing services. If I can expect to find a garage sale in your alley or a big fat check in my mailbox after I’ve worked for you, I’ll remember your address. Otherwise, when you tell me you live in something that always sounds like happyapplegoldenvalleyville, expect a glazed look that signals my apathy and incomprehension.

Granted, there were many aspects of life in these parts that I took to 17 years ago like a Lutheran laps up the watery decaf. I loved how smart everyone seemed to be, and what good spellers they were. I would see people walking along Minnehaha Parkway with books in their hands, raptly reading, and I wanted to offer a round of applause.

But I soon learned that public applause Was Not Done. I also learned about loud laughing, talking to strangers, and exhibiting excess in any form. I eventually got used to the unearthly quiet in movie theaters before the show started. After the first couple parties I attended, I learned to leave my shoes at the door, but I never quite picked up how a few crackers and one bottle of warm wine could constitute the catering for a party of 20 people. I once went to a Christmas party where the host told me he was serving Champagne cocktails. Yes, I said, before he even offered, and shared with him that I had yet to reach my lifetime quota of Champagne. Alarmed, he retreated to fetch my cocktail. After about twenty minutes of fumbling about with his ingredients (clearly, this guy was not a large-batch sort), he handed me a thimbleful of liquid with a flourish that signaled that this, in toto, would be my refreshment for the evening. I left with much less Champagne than I had been hoping for, but much wiser in the ways of what passed for Norwegian hospitality.

I love it here, I really do, but whenever I meet someone I really like (“goofy and opinionated” usually sums it up), I invariably ask, “You’re not from around here, are you?’

I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, a town that has been described as the first Southern city and the last Eastern city. I have happily shed many of the norms of my birthplace, from the hard “a” (“fahrest pahrk” and “highway fahrty fahr”) to the brutal, brain-melting heat. I was happy to start working for a Twin Cities company that had a casual dress code, and it is with great pride that I report that I, who once wore a suit, pantyhose and heels to work every day, now wear a skirt about three times a year. I don’t miss St. Louis' close-mindedness or snobbery. Living in a place where no one cares where I went to high school, or at least doesn’t ask in the course of what passes for normal conversation, is freeing.

Still. There are times when my eastern brashness / southern exuberance smack up against Minnesota culture like a big ol’ walleye, and I find that I am staring at yet another wrinkly cat butt of Northern disapproval.

There was an incident just this week, when I walked into the post office and found no workers behind the counter and one woman standing in line. She was dressed in a way that I found bizarre 17 years ago and don’t even remark upon to myself these days – that bold combination of beige and tan (hair, face, clothes) that says, “native.” Thinking someone must be already fetching her parcels, I took my place in line. Finally, she turned to me for what must be her annual Conversation with a Stranger. “I’ve been waiting here quite some time,” she confided, quietly (I know that last part is probably understood, but, for out-of-towners:  she was annoyed, so she was whispering). “I wish they had a bell or something.”

I looked into her watery blue eyes for a long, hard minute. Then, still making eye contact, I shouted – make that bellowed -- “Hey! Post Office People! You have customers up here!”

She shot away from me like I was carrying a big case of Talks With Outside Voice cooties. But someone showed up from the back office, and she got her package mailed, pronto.

There are so many things to like about living here, really there are. But it is sometimes dispiriting to know that what qualifies me as the neighborhood crazy lady here would rate me as utterly normal on the Upper West Side. And, with that thought, it’s time for me to go outside and start talking to strangers for a while.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Jelly Goes on Everything -- A Report from the Camp Chaperone

I recently spent four nights as a chaperone at an environmental camp for 100 sixth graders. To deconstruct that sentence a bit, I’d like to point out some key words:

CAMP: all the fun of a hotel, minus mattress, en suite bathroom, yoga studio and day spa

FOUR NIGHTS: see above note on mattress, or lack thereof

ENVIRONMENTAL: Walking barefoot in the muck pond, eating live worms, sampling tree lichen and tasting aspen bark. Plenty of bugs, oodles of ticks and a big boatload of nature

100 SIXTH GRADERS: Trickling down to me and one other mom in a cabin with 10 girls every night. (And did I mention FOUR nights?)

If you’re wondering how someone who complains as much as I do ever ended up participating such an endeavor, I blame the mommy biz, which caused me, when faced, in February, with a highly anxious daughter, to say, “Of course it will be fun! Why, I’ll even go along with you!” And then, the next thing I knew, it was mid-May, and I was packing my sleeping bag and tick spray. I had, it would be safe to say, a few misgivings.

And yet, I had a good time in some utterly unexpected ways. Of course, there was the sheer joy that arises from surviving anything awful and knowing it won’t be happening again (example: childbirth). Even in an environment that seemed very far from my own emotional setpoint, I found myself behaving in ways that were, even in a strange situation, utterly typical for me. I disliked the camp authority when it made no sense, especially when it was clear that the established rules were sheerly for the comfort of that middle-aged woman mindset that rules most institutions. I rebelled as quietly and as often as possible, and I’m sorry to report that I encouraged others to do so, too.

The best part for me came down to what I always like most, which is listening to what kids have to tell me. I delighted in every conversation I had, with the possible exception of those that happened after 11 pm nightly, when I was brandishing my flashlight and threatening bodily harm to a group of loudly wakeful tweens.

The camp included 40 students from my daughter’s city-based school, and many others from outstate Minnesota schools. The dynamics of the group split as infinitely as atoms: sporty/non-sporty, future delinquents/future student council members, country dwellers/city kids – and, of course, the largest divide -- boy/girl.

Adults were expected to sit at a different table for each meal, and kids were randomly distributed. My daughter hit the jackpot and was at an all-girl table, but another girl from her school was shipwrecked at a table where she was the only female, until I broke the rules and squeezed her into the all-girl setup. I ended up at many meals where I was flanked by boys, or back at that all-boy table. There they were, faces blank, waiting to see if I was going to be weird about table manners or cleaning their plates or whatever the last grownup had done.

I quickly brought up my worm-eating for instant street cred, and I could see them relax. I searched my memory bank for other table-worthy talk, and remembered the time I’d participated in minnow races at a tavern in Wisconsin, the kind where you had to eat your live minnow if it lost, which I did. BIG street cred. Then I pulled out my killer tale – eating Ecuadoran fried ants at Greg and Nancy’s wedding. The boys loved me, enough that they let down their grown-up guard and talked to each other about what was on their minds – Whether or not Pfiten necklaces really keep them calm when they went to bat; whose house had the best place to catch frogs; why you could tell the kids from the city because they tucked their pants into their socks, whereas the country kids weren’t afraid of ticks and kept their pants flapping (told to me by a country boy). They would start stories about dumb girls and realize halfway through that I might actually be a girl, but then I’d agree with them, and the story would continue.

Since, as a counselor said, one day at this camp was like three days anywhere else (honey, you got that right), I had lots and lots of time to talk with boys, and I gained a new appreciation for them, and for how they struggle so much in a world that seems designed by girls and for girls. I started noticing that the way they talked was so different from my daughters, who posed question after question in conversation. For the boys, everything was a declarative sentence. One boy was telling me what a great time he’d had at a game at the new Twins stadium. “Weren’t you cold?” I asked, and he told me, flatly, that no one could ever be cold there, because it would be so exciting to be at the game that you’d stay warm. Another day, they served us bagels with cream cheese and little dishes of jelly for breakfast. “I didn’t think jelly went on bagels,” I mused, trying to remember if I’d already told this table about my minnow eating and wondering if I could slip it in. “Jelly,” one boy said firmly to me, “Goes on everything.”

I’m back home now with my two daughters and their stream of friends, back in the world of nuance and tone and subtle emotional cues. I find myself missing those boys, just a bit. Everything seemed much less complicated from their side of the world. Someone who ate live worms was worth talking to. No one could possibly be cold at a baseball game. And jelly, of course, goes on everything.