Thursday, July 24, 2014

Can't wait to smell the cow shit.

Last weekend at the Farmer’s Market, I saw a necklace on a pretty college girl working at a food stand.  It was a string of random numbers hammered into a metal plate.  It reminded me of a tattoo I saw once on the forearm of a waitress, displaying the same kind of array.  “The numbers are coordinates of my hometown,” the girl explained when I asked.  Her food stand was busy, so I didn’t inquire more, but I stood there wondering what was so special about this place she called home.  And that waitress – she had a permanent reminder of where she came from.  But, why?  I asked myself whether I would ever sport a tattoo or necklace displaying the coordinates of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a place I stopped referring to as “home” many years ago when the mountains embraced me like no place ever had before.  What would drive me to ever want this kind of reminder?  Would it be the fond memories of this place I grew up in?  Or would it be to honor the challenges of being me then, of being in a very different place – mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally – from where I am now?

When we think of our hometowns, we experience a wide spectrum of emotions, don’t we?  I am sure some people want nothing to do with the place they once called home.  And others of us feel something deep and unnamable when we conjure up images of our childhood place(s).  For me, Lancaster evokes a mixture of emotions.  I remember the landscape and being outside a lot.  The smells and the memories.  I see a lot of laughter with family and friends.  I see a place where people knew me then, and that brings a kind of comfort only poetry (if I could ever learn to write it) can describe.  I appreciate where I began and am grateful of the evolution of my self since my days of living there.  I often reflect on the experiences that began to shape me, change me, shift me.  These are all parts of what drives me to return. 

This weekend I am taking Calvin back to Lancaster during my favorite season to be there.  I have hopes for this time in my hometown.  I would like to find the ways in which my current home is inspired by my past one.  I would like to be able to show Calvin where I grew up and expose him to a little bit of the magic.  I fear, however, that maybe I’ve romanticized the details and it won’t appear for us.  Or perhaps the places will be so different that as I introduce Calvin to all of it, I will be introducing myself too.  I have these expectations of what landing at these coordinates will bring us, and I don’t want to be disappointed.  Obviously, at the surface of it all, I won’t be.  I will love to see my mom and Pop-pop and the friends we happen to run into.  I will love the time in a special place and to show Calvin the simplicities of growing up in farm country.  But, I wonder what will rise up for me while I am there.  I wonder whether anything will – of course it will – and when it does, what I will allow it to teach me.

Above all, I am excited to be there with Calvin in this season, for it is the time of humidity and a constant layer of sweat.  Of the bugs that are awake both in the thick mornings and sticky nights.  Of the sweet smells of cow manure and honeysuckle.  The season of rich green lawns and rolling fields of tall corn.  The time of creamy Pine View Dairy ice cream and calves trying to steal off the top scoop.  Of hazy sunsets and driving back roads with the windows down that is like being in a dream.  It is the time of my childhood, of bare feet and neighborhood hide-n-seek and catching lightening bugs until our mothers called us in for bath.  Of lifeguarding and swim meets that ended with the House of Pizza.  Of sitting on the deck, swatting flies, and drinking a cold Yuengling Lager.   It is the season of admiring the flowers and bitching about the neighbor spraying pesticides.  Of walks and hikes and trickling creeks under old railroad tracks and swimming in the pools of family friends who are like family themselves.  It is the time… Of my dad’s most vibrant life and most dreaded death.  Of being young again and telling old stories.  It is a magical season, a season that invites me to call 40.0397° N, 76.3044° W “home.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sorry if I hurt your feelings.

A few days ago I was at the dentist getting an old filling replaced.  I’ve never loved the dentist, but I also don’t have a strong aversion like some people do, so I go every 6 months like I’m supposed to.  This time, the dentist showed me a clear mouth guard-like piece of equipment that he’d use to keep my jaw open.  It suctioned and did other fancy things, and he told me to think of it like a snorkel.  I didn’t think much of it until it was taking up every bit of space in my mouth, and I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe.  Or swallow.  Or talk or tell them it was uncomfortable and I wanted it out, out, out, out.  Out!  As my mind raced away from me at an unstoppable pace, an image of my shivering, still-intubated father freshly out of surgery on the stretcher invaded the space of my brain.  It was so sudden that I can’t help but imagine that it was some kind of PTSD-related image, something my brain tucked away in a dark corner but in that moment of panic and association chose to bring forth.  I ripped the mouth guard out shocking the duo hovering above me with their masked faces and abruptly sat up breathing rapidly, shaking, and crying.  Between breaths I tried to explain myself and definitely sounded like a lunatic, but I like to make people feel at ease and work hard to do so.  Even in the midst of a panic attack, I apologized and did my darnedest to justify my behavior.  They were both super cool and understanding and even mentioned that the dental chair can bring up a lot for people (who knew?!).

The first time I ever was able to identify a true panic attack, Angus and I were walking the paths around our neighborhood in midday summer heat.  This was before kids, and we were having some stupid argument when suddenly I stopped mid-step, felt what seemed like my heart threaten to beat out of my chest, my head spin with dizzy light-headedness, and my limbs go tingly and numb.  Assuming next I would pass out, I immediately knelt to the cement and sat down breathing as deeply as I could under the blazing sun and discomfort of what I thought was heat exhaustion or some kind of blood pressure shift.  It wasn’t until later when these episodes started happening more often, and mostly during exercise, that I realized I was having panic attacks and that I had felt them before.  I recalled a morning in Baltimore while driving to work when the same thing happened.  I managed to make it into the front office of the elementary school where I worked and broke down into sobs thinking I was having some kind of heart attack.  In the ER, after a battery of inconclusive tests, the doctor suggested anxiety, and I pushed it from my mind as a possibility.  Anxiety couldn’t cause such an out-of-the-blue physical response, could it?  It wasn’t like I was overly upset in either of these situations.  The full body experience of anxiety was unpredictable, and this started making me more anxious, which in turn obviously sent my body into a tenuous space where the unnerving energy existed close to the surface just asking for a trigger to set it off.

Over the years since that walk there have been many chunks of time and experiences that have thoroughly challenged my ability to cope, to ward off the part of me I know has a tendency to spiral out of control.  Death, injuries, pregnancies, births, postpartum.  Life.  Anxiety manifests itself in different ways in both the positive and negative.  Lately, I’ve been having a lot of anxious dreams, many of which are recurrent in their themes and plots.  I am sure many of you can relate.  Teaching a class of unruly students who refuse to listen.  Waking up to an intruder with a gun standing over the bed ready to shoot.  Losing my spouse or children to any number of tragic situations.  Being chased through a maze of a house knowing the entire time I will be caught.  It is a hefty list, a weighty one.  These dreams deliver me to morning shaken and plagued with the lingering feeling that things are not all right.   

Many of you might judge the inner experience I share as worthy of prescription medication, but I have never gone down that route.  I will if I feel like I need to, but for now my coping strategies are sufficient.  Most of my life isn’t lived in this space, but some of it is.  When life gets stressful, I have a tendency to plan.  Plan a trip.  Plan a date night.  Plan, plan, plan.  But if I really peel down the layers of what is good for me, what can lift me out of the overwhelming spin, it ends up being pretty simple:  Moving my body over the earth or water.  Committing myself to a weekly practice of yoga.  Traveling to new and old places.  Writing and painting.  Cooking.  Spending time with the people I love.  Making time for spirituality.  Talking it out.  Being present.

Besides coping mechanisms, I’ve learned to see the positive in being blessed with a tendency toward anxiety.  Being more introspective and analyzing of life has improved my creative process.  I am a better artist and writer because I get to process the uncomfortable.  I get to write the hard, and that is something special because it touches a deep part of my own soul and hopefully the souls of others.  Also, I’ve realized that worrying makes me more attune to other peoples’ feelings.  It has provided me with an intuitive sense of knowing when someone else is in pain.  I don’t always know what to do or say to make him or her feel better, but I like the way genuine empathy feels.  It opens me to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human and the processes we all go through in spaces of love and loss.  Having anxiety has also made me ask questions, important ones, about life and what it is I truly want.  The awareness I have found in times of unease have often been the most moving.  Opening myself to answering the questions (and different ways of doing so) and being okay with what I discover is an ongoing process that is moving me closer to spending larger periods of time as my authentic self, which is pretty freaking rad. 

One of my best friends and I joke about our anxiety all the time.  We often call each other needing to talk out a spiral or receive assurance that everything will be okay even though we might have potentially, inadvertently, maybe, just maybe done something to hurt someone’s feelings or ruin a chance at a career or scar our kids for life.  It is good to know we are not alone and to help each other stop from slipping into an irrational place that will benefit no one.  Anxiety can be a beast, but it doesn’t always have to be.  If we allow it to – if we allow discomfort to flow through us – we can often discover much more than we ever knew possible.

What have you learned about your self when you open in this way?  Where do you find inner peace?  In perceived weakness, what goodness have you found?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The left one was bigger.

Breastfeeding my children has been by far what I am most proud of in this lifetime so far.  For those of you who don’t know my story, I’ll offer the short version.  With Calvin, nursing was extremely difficult to the point even a very Boulder “breast is best” lactation consultant shook her head and told me she wouldn’t blame me if I quit.  Later, when I stuck with it and came back to visit her when Kyle was a newborn, she told me that I was the worst case she had ever seen then proceeded to snap some photos of my nipple scars with her iPhone camera.  Nothing like scrolling through your camera roll of grandchildren and pretty scenery and coming across those puppies.  (I am all about education though, so of course I let her.)  With Kyle, nursing came easier at first, but then I started to make A LOT of milk.  At first I was received mostly with, “Wow!  You are so lucky!” and porn star boobs, but soon I realized I was not so lucky after all.  My supply was so robust that it choked my baby, clogged my ducts, and sent me spiraling into more breast infections than I’d like to remember.  And when trying to care for both a toddler and newborn, being out of commission isn’t really an option.  The hard of nursing is part of what makes me consider it among my greatest accomplishments.  My personal choice was to do everything I could to nurse through the challenges, and I am both grateful and proud that I was able to.

When it came to weaning Calvin, I didn’t give it much thought. I was working full time and didn’t have a lot of time to think about my emotions amidst the stack of ungraded essays that grew and grew.  But with Kyle weaning has been a whole different experience.  We started weaning a few months ago when my supply seemed to drop and he needed more fluids than I could provide.  Honestly, that step came with relief because it really freed me from being chained to him or the pump at specific times of day.  We were nursing in the morning and at night, and it seemed perfect for a year-old baby and a mama who was rediscovering the joy of happy hours and yoga classes.  I knew that I’d make the 14-month mark our quitting time because my brain just works that way.  Calvin weaned at 14 months, so logically Kyle would too. 

As 14 months drew near, I genuinely started to feel more ready.  I knew that we were near the end, especially because Kyle, given the choice between a bottle and breast, began to whine and point at the bottle adamantly.  He was ready.  This was right.  Before officially weaning, I decided to honor and celebrate my journey breastfeeding by doing some body henna with the same lovely woman who painted my belly during both pregnancies.  My journey with nursing evoked feelings similar to natural birth, a real connection to the earth and the passing of time, and her art expresses this wonderfully.

I nursed Kyle for the final time on a Monday morning, just the two of us in bed together, me adorned in symbolic henna, him with hair a little too long and a urine-soaked diaper.  I didn’t really know it would be the last time, which was probably for the best.

On Tuesday morning when he woke, I asked Angus to give him a bottle.  I said, “I think we’re done.”  And I rolled over in bed and enjoyed the quiet of the morning alone.

Fully awake, some new thoughts took hold.  This is it.  Is this it?  Wow, this is really it, it.  No more babies to nourish.  No more breastfeeding.  28 months on my resume.  Attachments formed.  Bonds established.  This is it.  And then the tears came.  Heavy at first, the shoulder shaking kind, then slowing to a gentle kind of weep.  I wept for the moment each of my babies emerged from my body, were placed upon my chest, and found my breast without much help.  I wept for the middle-of-the-night feedings with Calvin when Angus and I, young, delirious, and so much in love, made up silly nicknames for our firstborn and snacked on trail mix and chocolate covered pretzels.  I wept for the quiet moments with Kyle, when Angus was taking care of Calvin, and getting to fall asleep next to him in bed after nursing time and time again.  I remembered a long nap in a bedroom in Telluride with the windows open to the cool mountain air.  I wept for the complete adoration of being able to look into the eyes of my babies at my breast and for our closeness.  I wept at the closing of one chapter and the opening of another.  I let the fear seep in and let myself feel the purpose in nursing and wonder what it’d be like without it.  And then I smiled.  I laughed as I remembered the size of my left boob was often double the size of my right.  At the pool last summer, I filled out one side of the bathing suit while the other gaped open.  I laughed at the one time I squirted milk from my breast straight into Calvin’s eyeball and how he squealed.  I smiled at the evolution of my modesty.  Privacy with Calvin; who the hell cares with Kyle.  The image of me nursing for the first time in public, my boob a spectacle for many around us enjoying their brunch still makes me giggle.  Gosh, it’s been quite the ride.

And now, we are done nursing.  Kyle is officially weaned at 14 ½ months.  I am no longer lactating.  My breasts have done their job.  They are scarred and squishy, yet I am so grateful.  Here I am on the other side of nourishing two children staring “never again” in the face and moving toward feeling OK about it.  More than OK.  I am moving to a place of honor, remembrance, and excitement for what’s to come.

This morning when Kyle woke up at 7:20 a.m. cooing in his crib, I made a quick bottle of milk and went in to find him.  In the back of my mind I thought maybe he’d glare at the bottle with angst and pull my tank top down to get to my breast.  What are you thinking woman?!  Gimme the goods!  Instead, cradled in my arms, he happily sucked down the bottle of milk holding it with one hand and moving his other hand over my arm, shirt, his own sleep sack –  the “raking” reflex I am in love with.  After the bottle was empty, he sat up on my lap and looked into my eyes.  Instinctively, I took out my right breast and offered it to him and thought, well if he goes for it, I guess we won’t be done.  He looked right at me and shook his little head back-and-forth.  No, mama, he seemed to say.  Thank you, but I’m good.