I have been trying to stay a little bit quieter lately. I would never have thought of myself as someone who is uncomfortable with quiet. I certainly love it when I’m by myself. But I guess I do feel responsible for “filling up” silences with other people much of the time. I feel like it’s up to me to entertain, to keep the energy going. I try to be a good listener, but what I usually do is ask question after question after question and listen as attentively as I can to the answers. But that is still guiding the conversation. It’s a relief to realize that I don’t have to always do that, to entertain or to keep the energy up or to keep the focus on the other person. Let go a little bit of the shape of things. Let a conversation trail off. Let the energy be low. It’s relaxing. Maybe all that hyper, enthusiastic energy is annoying at times. What is wrong with just sitting, having an okay time, a quiet time?
Hanging on the wall at this lake house where we are staying for a luxurious two weeks, there is a sign that provides the “Lake Rules”—swim, relax, sleep in. Despite torrents of rain, at times unrelenting, far more rain than not rains so far, we have managed to swim just about every day. Relax, absolutely, and even sleep in. My kids are old enough now (10 and 5), far too attached to their cousins (14 and 13), deliriously happy in the playroom, to care much about waking me up anymore. And so, for the first time that I remember since entering parenthood, I am waking up when I choose to on vacation. That has meant sleeping in until 8, generally, and—after a particularly bad night with my younger up and sick for several hours—even until close to 10.
That extra sleep I surely needed, yet now feel ready to return—if not to the early, early mornings of vacations past—to awaking early enough to greet the morning.
The air is wet, so the matches won’t light. It takes me seven tries. I stretch out a beach towel, and practice four sun salutations, taking deep, slow breaths (but continuously needing to remind myself to do this, even during yoga, even during these moments alone). I had wanted to hang the suits and towels on the porch, hoping they’d catch one of the rare moments of sun, but everything out there is still wet.
So many ways to enjoy the magic of this early morning at the lake. So much that feels possible now that somehow doesn’t for much of the rest of the day. Practicing yoga. Sipping coffee and staying at the water. Reading the book I brought, The Point of Vanishing, by Howard Axelrod, sent to me two years ago from my dear friend Matt in Seattle. Take quiet, nothing notes in my journal. Attempt to write something semi-coherent here. Take a walk. A quick little swim. Anything at this hour feels more purposeful, more imbued with meaning. The angle of the light, the solitude, the quiet, the invitation of another day.
Yesterday I practiced tree pose in public, accepting that to improve, to expand my practice, I will need to be like the Chinese ladies in Chinatown, practicing Guang Chang Wu and various martial arts in an empty basketball court every morning. Inward focus, no matter the setting.
Now, as I am attempting to stay balanced in tree pose, an animal appears in the field across the street. It is a deer, gracing me with its presence. I feel this is a sign I am still enough, like Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Now, coming out of tree pose, out of my yoga sequence, folding up my “mat” and pouring a cup of coffee, I notice various sounds—birds, a dog barking, a plane maybe overhead, insects buzzing, I’m never sure which ones. Someone starts stirring upstairs, the kids are growing louder, probably getting hungry and ready for breakfast.
The air here is enchanted, the lake rules easy to follow, but “sleep in” is one I’ll ignore as many days as I can.
What happens when we turn inward and can’t find anything to say? We finally clear a little bit of space, find a spot on our couch, open up our journal, or a new post on our blog, and…stare at the blank space, feeling more intimidated than comforted by it?
But perhaps I am skipping a step. Turning inward with the intention of writing isn’t turning entirely inward, especially if the writing is meant for an audience. It is turning inward to go outward, to create something, even something as small as a fleeting thought on an ordinary summer morning, to produce something. It is not enough to just be, to absorb and soak up the blank space; this kind of inward-focus has to have some output. In a journal, if we’re fairly certain no one will read it, we might feel free to write anything at all, a list of things to do that day, a quote, an affirmation, an observation about the tree outside our window. But on a blog it’s natural that censors will stand guard and protect us from sharing too much, or too little. There is the risk of TMI (too much information) and the risk of saying something trivial.
MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes about the limitations of our digital lives in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.Her emphasis on the importance of human connection is one I share. I am equally horrified by the scene of families or friends in a restaurant all on separate devices. And yet I am at the edge, just beginning to scratch at the surface, of a new kind of understanding of alone together.
Trying to bring writing and yoga practice into alignment, I am asking myself to be alone (through yoga/meditation) but together (share it on this blog). At the end of my yoga class, each student fully absorbed in Savasana, we are alone together. Coming out of that focus, into the room, into the final “Om” and “Namaste” is difficult, disorienting. We are coming back to each other, in a way, to the rag-tag group of neighbors in a community room in Manhattan, about to be unleashed to the streets full of people, and back to our lives, but the communion we felt together but alone in yoga class slips away. Back together, we feel more separate.
Similarly I have been noticing more and more how my lifelong attempts at togetherness, belief in sorting through issues and difficulties and different points of view in conversation, often results in me feeling more alone. Rather than work through and sort out in conversation with others, I am relying more and more on retreating, meditating, going inward. It would be neat ending, a clear point, to say that ability to disconnect, go inward, meditate for a few minutes, write in my journal, allows me to ultimately feel more connected to others, but I am not sure that is true. Relying less on others, believing less in the ability to see eye to eye, accepting differences and distances, makes me feel more connected to something but not necessarily to other people. There is perhaps a loneliness to it, to saying, I disagree, don’t like the way you’re acting or treating me or other people, but I’m going to try not to say anything about it anymore.
I laugh about all the photos people post online of their feet—they’re meant to show that the person is totally relaxed, enjoying the view. But I can understand the appeal of them, too. Feet selfies—is that a thing? It’s a way to show not only the scenery, often but certainly beautiful or at least super cozy (Sunday in bed, “hygge”-style) or charming (backyard, coffee, the newspaper, etc.). Here I am! They say, but also, I’m thinking of you. I’m not just here, I’m also imagining you (my friend, followers, audience) imagining me.
(I’m not here, right now, where I was in this photo—tip of the North Fork Long Island. I’m in rainy NYC. But headed for greener pastures.)
This (the skyline in the distance) is all I really saw of what I guess is downtown Houston. I’d never been to Texas before, so I was curious to explore a bit, although the neighborhood where I stayed (for a work trip) did not really invite exploration. Even just dashing across the street to Target became a bit daunting as I wandered up and down looking for what ultimately passed for a crosswalk. Not pedestrian-friendly, I suppose, is the shorthand. Suburbanish- sprawl. Though that may have just been this neighborhood (Memorial City). I realized once at Target—where I ran to grab last-minute items like notecards and name tags for the focus groups I was to run—that there was an easier way back, a romantically-named “skywalk” which you can see on the right-hand side of the photo.
No time to be a flâneur in Houston, then (a wanderer, a la Baudelaire and later Walter Benjamin), but time to read in the evenings, while eating dinner by myself with a glass of wine and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner—a slow, quiet book full of the cicadian buzz of Vermont summers, midnight canoe rides and afternoon naps.
In the airport on the way back I caught sight of a relatively new book on anxiety, First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson, At the gate the attendant announced a three-hour delay and I was tempted to run back to the bookstore and grab that book. (In the pages through which I’d flipped, Wilson mentions her love of flânerie—strolling through a city, observing, not consuming—and every other piece of text I’d skimmed jumped out at me—meditating in “grim” places, the “grimmer the better” –in an airport among the groans of travelers who’ve just heard of a delay perhaps?) But I resisted. I still hadn’t finished Stegner’s book. Why buy a book on anxiety, on slowing down, on immersing oneself in the moment, when there was a moment right there to immerse myself in? (Those Vermont summers.) Not to say I won’t buy it at any point, but I felt the better move at that moment, the authentically simple, minimalist, slow living-approach was to just finish the book I’d already begun. (Tell that to the dozens and dozens lying around the house here, half begun.)
In the end I finished the book on the flight, felt wonderfully weary at the end, a bit dazed (and anyway the flight delay ended up rapidly contracting shortly after it was first announced).
Maybe at some point I’ll get to see more (any?) of what Houston has to offer. For now, I’ll thank it for giving me a little bit of time.
Funny this picture of a monkey cradling its baby comes up when I search images for “self care.” The first time I heard the expression “self care” was from a neighbor dad who mentioned that he was leaving a neighborhood BBQ for an hour of “self-care.” It made me laugh. It sounded first of all like something you wouldn’t mention in public, if you’d engage in it at all. Definitely something you’d keep to yourself. I’ve since changed my mind. I would still feel funny mentioning “self care” in public, but I now see that as my problem, driven by a misguided loyalty to capitalism’s infatuation with productivity.
Anne Lamott in an interview once spoke about how radical it is to protect time for rest. Some people don’t place a high value on sleeping very little, always getting something done. I admire them. I’m trying to be more like them.
I’m in Houston now, working on an evaluation for a teacher training program. The days (only two so far, though it feels like far more! yesterday I couldn’t get online at night and therefore couldn’t post here) are full and tiring in a great way. In the evenings I can practice self care in a way it’s hard for me to do at home. I can shower. Put on a robe! Read in bed. Write in my journal. Or watch HGTV. (My parents were planning to move my entire childhood. Those house hunter shows bring back good memories of all those Sundays going to open houses.) This kind of self care—king-size bed to myself!—does feel a bit indulgent. But the kind that I’ve heard people at this conference mention seems essential. They are talking about self care for teachers. Teachers are, of course, always caring for others. Without finding ways to unwind and refuel, they won’t be able to sustain the challenges of day.
Teachers, mothers, women in general— maybe the quickest to laugh at the idea of self-care are the ones most often in need of it. Yet like the monkey, the instinct is always to care for someone else. The conventional wisdom goes that we need to care for ourselves before we can care for others effectively, like the oxygen mask. But the instinct is hard to overcome.
This morning I had a little bit of time to myself. I had some work I needed to do to prepare for a work trip to Houston (where I am now). Part of me wanted to launch into the work, to at least get that done, and forget yoga and writing, which are Want Tos, not Have Tos. But as I found myself nervously digging around my backpack, pulling out my files and laptops, I knew the extra 10 or 15 minutes I’d gain by skipping my routine wouldn’t be a gain. It would likely mean an entire day of feeling a little scattered, a little off center, never quite caught up. Everything would have a quality of anxiety to it because I hadn’t taken the time I needed to begin the day peacefully, thoughtfully, an opportunity I’m so very lucky to have. How many people in the history of the world, even in the world now, get to make a choice about how to begin their day?
I couldn’t find a good place—or a place at all—in my mother-in-law/sister-in-law’s house to do my yoga stretches, so I went out into already beating hot Queens concrete backyard, put down a beach towel, and did two sun salutations, that’s it. Then I took out my journal and wrote a page and a half. Again, very little, but honoring those two habits felt so purposeful. I knew because I gave myself that opportunity I would work better, in a more organized way, in a less frantic way, and I have.
I’m now in Houston.
I don’t have much experience with these glass, parking lot, mostly non-walking cities. There is plenty of the solitude I’m always seeking, but in a strange form.