On wading in: Day 9. Seeing clearly.

There are a number of things that my husband and I are not good at, and one of them is regular household maintenance.  He is genuinely relaxed about it, whereas I suffer a low-grade chronic anxiety over all the neglect.  Doesn’t matter: we don’t do a thing.

But sometimes I get to realizing that my life would be happier without the chronic anxiety.  And that maybe some of the things I’m anxious about are, in fact, fixable.  So every once in a while, we get all over it (see Day 7: Gettin’ it done).

What I don’t usually anticipate are the lovely results.  For the past two days, for example, I’ve been opening all the blinds on all the windows and gazing out the windows admiringly.  When teased about this behavior, I responded truthfully: “But I’m loving looking OUT the window instead of AT the window.”  Because that was what I had done for the last, oh, five years.  I’d look at the clouded, spotted, smudged surface that was supposed to be glossy clean, and I’d feel like a failure.  It was a very quiet voice and a very quick sort of seeing, but it was there.  Today, I just see the emeralds and golds and blues of this early fall day.

As ever, there’s a lesson here for me.  Letting go of, or doing away with, the obstacles to joy is a whole lot easier than I think.  It may take time, organization, and elbow grease, but it’s something, often, that I can plan for, engage others in, and DO.  What it takes most of all, though, is a willingness to see clearly what the obstacle is — and how to fix it — and, most importantly, how to honor its removal and revel in the joy of a new openness in my life.

Today was an “Ezra-Mama-Chi day,” as Ezra has coined them (in case you couldn’t tell from the order of names), from Len’s departure at 7:45 until his return at 6:45.  And it was the best such day we’ve ever had.  Why?  I think it had to do with all that clear sunlight streaming into the house and all the crystalline simplicity it brought with it.  Playground?  Why sure.  Duck pond?  Absolutely.  Hungry for muffins?  Let’s make some.  We’ve got this here zucchini and our favorite new recipe (Martha Stewart’s recipes really are, often, impeccable).  Naptime was later than usual because of all the story requests, but hey — there are worse things than extra reading.  There was one small meltdown, which I met with love (“I KNOW how hard it is to listen sometimes, but I REALLY want to read you stories before bed, and Mama can’t read to a boy who doesn’t listen…so what do you think?  Can you work harder on listening?  Let’s practice!”).   I did, of course, flash forward a few times to all the Things I Have To Do Tomorrow, but for once I could see clearly: tomorrow is tomorrow.  Let’s write those puppies down and look at the list…tomorrow.

In short, I felt powerful, loving, loved, contained, expansive, generous, whole.  My work felt new, my life fulfilling, my family part of my art.  This, I imagine, is perhaps the whole point.

On wading in: Day 7. Gettin’ it done.

I am a big list-maker.  But as we’ve discussed before, I may not be proficient in the most USEFUL kinds of list-making: the kind that actually spell out your tasks for the day.  Today, in typical over-achiever fashion, my list said this:

Pressure washer (code for: rent one; use it on all external surfaces of the house; borrow a ladder from somewhere to get up high).

Wash windows (code for: all of them.  Inside and out.  We have three floors with TONS of windows).

Edge  beds (we have nearly three-quarters of an acre, and much of it is landscaped with perennial beds…all of which need edging.  NEW edging.  Not clean-up edging).

Mulch beds (see above).

There was something else on it, but I forget what.  Because this list embodies what should be, oh, three or four days worth of work.

But you know what?  Turns out that when you stop worrying about how ridiculously over-ambitious the list is and just DO things, things get done.  It’s startling.

I suppose this is kin to being in the moment…just embracing the work before us without trying to strategize a better way or bundle chores for greater efficiency.  We just DID it.  And loved it.  And we’re amazed by how beautiful the house looks now.

There’s a subtext here about stewardship…one of my chronic self-disappointments is not taking good enough care of the wonderful things I have.  (And Len’s laid-back attitude doesn’t always help, if you see what I mean.)  But it seems that actually DOING things is far easier and less stressful than worrying about getting it done.  (And of course we didn’t do it ALL, but we did a great deal and it feels delicious.)  Who knew?

(I know.  You did.  Whatever, smarty-smarterson.)

Even better was that our post-cleaning, post-mulching, post-mowing trip to the garden for kale for dinner involved a little spell of flower-picking, too, and Ezra wanted to carry them all into the house.  He knows how to take care of their tender stems, he says.  And then we made three bouquets which are gorgeous, and then Ezra said we had to have a Celebration at dinner.  Because of the flowers.  To celebrate the flowers.  So we did.  My heart is smiling all the way down to my toes.

On wading in: Day 5. Quieting the critic.

The problem with having an active, well-educated brain is that you tend to use it more often than you need to.  You tend to think of it as a problem-solver…of ALL problems.  But in my reality, that brain causes a lot of problems, too, and I need to be careful how I use it.  (And when.  Mindfulness practice mostly happens at 4 am here at my house.)

Example: yesterday’s hopes for “going under.”  I enjoyed the day, but I wouldn’t describe it as immersive.  I stepped from stone to stone across the river rather than dive right in.  Which is fine.  I mean, I’d like to have accomplished more, but it was fine then, and it’s fine now.  And that fine-ness, that relaxation with how I’ve been doing, is what enables me to keep moving forward. (And trust me, this is an atypical response.  I must be growing up or something.)

Here’s a more typical pattern (see if you recognize any of this!):

1. Make a vast and impressive list of really critical things to take care of;

2. Spend most of the available time alternately re-organizing the list and eating chocolate on the couch;

3. Accomplish one important thing off the list and get halfway into another;

4. Spend the next three days in an analytical downward spiral over why I never get anything done.

My physical therapist is trying to convince me to use a lacrosse ball to release trigger points in my back.  You stand with your back against a wall with the ball between you and the wall and you roll around, leaning on the ball.  It’s transformative.  It’s painful.  It’s illuminating.  And, apparently, it’s necessary, because you can’t really strengthen muscles that are all tied up in knots.

See where I’m going with this?  A relaxed, forgiving attitude toward failure turns out to be not only not a problem — it’s a positive solution.  That’s right.

And if you get your head around that before I do, let me know.  I’m still working on it.  But I realize it’s true, my BODY knows it’s true, even though (because?) it gravitates against most of the self-evident “truths” we get taught: that lists are made so we can check things off; that our job is to check off as many of them as we can; that discipline is next to godliness (or something); that NOT checking things off constitutes failure; that failure is bad.

Today, instead, I’ll try these on as truths:

1. Lists are made to help us see clearly our commitments and desires.  It’s a vision exercise as well a form of task management.  I need to know which is which.

2. Our job is to live wholly and well, fulfilling our many commitments and desires (listed or unlisted) over time, and that may mean RESTING.

3. Discipline is useful and necessary and it is also a skill we practice and, at times, eschew.  We get to be the deciders.  And we can TRUST ourselves, trust our desires and whims.   Discipline alone is only one avenue toward achievement.

4. A revolving to-do list may indicate failure — but of which kind?  The delicious kind that suggests we had much, much better things to do, which have filled us with glee?  The painful kind that indicates we had to spend our time doing things not on the list (doctor’s visits, soothing troubled children, plumbing)?  The mundane kind that tells us we really don’t WANT to be doing the things on the list, and maybe we’d do well to delegate or let go?  The terrifying kind that might tell us the list is not specific enough, since we’re totally paralyzed and overwhelmed?  The exhilarating kind that means we’re onto something big here and a list will never contain it?

5. Failure is not bad.  It means we’re learning something.

“SEE?” my inner critic gloats.  “You USED me for this, and look how much it helped!”

“Yes,” I say.  “Thank you. Now go lie down.”

On wading in: Day 4. Going under.

But not in the bad way, not like you’re thinking.  I mean it as in swimming lessons, as in my three-year-old who loves the water but is afraid to put his face in or actually go under.  (Not surprising, considering his first total submersion in conscious memory involved falling off a dock…)

I mean it in the sense of this extended metaphor, that life itself is this vast and beautiful body of water and we dip our toes.  We wander along the strand.  I’m working on wading all the way in, and what I find is fear.  Not of drowning, per se, since I’m awfully good at survival, but of never wanting to get out.  (Here my fellow Mainers are laughing heartily, since the waters here are COLD.  Staying in is not a winning proposition.)  But you hear what I’m saying.

I know artists (of many stripes: academics, builders, designers, cooks, writers, painters, photographers, etc.) who get so immersed in their work that it’s hard for them to resurface.  They skip meals and neglect their families and commitments, or at least experience transitions back to dry land a little like a fish: there’s gasping and often a little thrashing about.

I am afraid of that.

I LOVE the work I am doing — the reading, the writing, the scholarship, the design; the complexities of play with children; the management of many lives.  But I’m always afraid that if I dive right in to the art, to “my work,” I might not be able to come back. And I NEED to come back.

This is where you’re wisely examining my metaphor and saying, “But Anna, who said you had to look at life as a matter of safe, dry land (dry in every sense) versus joyful, life-giving sea?”  And you’re right.  It’s a false binary. But for survival-oriented kids, and perhaps anyone taught that creativity and contemplation were wasteful, it’s reasonable to see a divide.  So here I am.

The intention today, then, is to put my face in the water.  Perhaps even to try going under.

On wading in: Day 3. Breathing.

Today I’m all about the intention.  I woke before the kids this morning (which means before the light and pretty much before the birds) and lay in bed turning over all the little pages and post-its in my mind, until I realized that I was tense.  I became planful and a little anxious just in the process of sorting and sifting my commitments for the day.  I forgot to breathe.

At the gym, I was reminded how critical breathing is, though I kept forgetting to do it well or thoughtfully; on the way home, I tried singing along to Adele and realized that my vibrato has become chronic lately not because of age but because of lousy breath support.  When I breathe the way I was trained to (as an athlete, as a singer), I remember my wholeness.  My posture improves, my face relaxes, the limits of my body become both obvious and right.

I know these things.  But still, my busy little brain keeps moving me right past my body and into the next abstraction. This is not how I live best.  (For the record, it’s not how anyone lives best: see Jon Kabat Zinn and others’ The Mindful Way Through Depression or most any basic Buddhist or yogic text for more on the power of the breath.)

The agrarian writer and critic Gene Logsdon says that firsthand experience is what makes a good writer.  I’d say it’s what makes us good HUMANS — a willingness to be present, with mindfulness and intention, to whatever shows up.

So today it’s clear to me that the intention, the breath, need to come first.  And in my effort to wade in more fully to this rich and rushing life, I need to set those intentions early in the day.  Smooth stones in my pocket, I carry them with me.

On wading in: Day 2

I’m enjoying the fact that Day 2 is September 2nd…and also painfully aware that when I miss a day, we’ll all know it.  But hey.  This little practice is more for my benefit than yours, so perhaps I’ll be the only one to care.  (Assuming you can live through the agony of missing a post from me…I know, I know.)

Today was a mixed bag of a day.  It was our second Sunday and it sure felt like it.  (Explanation: when I was an academic, someone once explained to me that the summer months could be best understood if labelled as weekdays: June is the Friday night of summer; July is Saturday; August is one long Sunday.  Sunday always involves a little relaxation and introspection, but it’s mostly filled with housework, homework and dread.)  We had this beautiful gift of a four-day weekend, and I was all giddy with a sense of possibility before I realized a) it would rain the whole time; b) we had no plans and it was Labor Day weekend; c) we don’t really have disposable income at this time; and d) we have tons of stuff to do around the house.  So we decided to make it a staycation of sorts, with predictable results.  We loved having two Saturdays (I lobbied briefly to call it three Saturdays and one Sunday, but let’s be real) and used them well, with a picnic by the river and lots of fun garden time.  There was picking of homegrown veg (based on Alice Waters’ Simple Food refrigerator pickle recipe), singing, dancing, and a whole lot of important house and yard work.  But today the rain was INTENSE, and we loafed about all morning and then spent the afternoon with friends we haven’t seen in ten years.  Which was satisfying in itself.  And now…and now…

Here I am, trying to imagine what this project of wading in means.  Partly, it seems to mean paying attention to things so that I can develop a habit of living in the moment and recollecting it with some reasonable calibration to reality.  That’s not a strength of mine.  I notice the dramas: the joys and failures.  I tend to discount the mundane.  But in life with kids, the mundane is kind of the point. It’s the source of the joy.

All this is reminding me of this brilliant new series I’m creating (and scholarship I’m writing) for the Maine Humanities Council on the agrarian novel.  It’s not much of a category in the US, you see, though it should be.  It’s farm literature that illustrates a love of the land, a reverence for the ordinary, an appreciation of people and nature and the routine, miraculous systems of nature.  It tends to be skeptical of gimmicks and passers-by, preferring deep roots and time-tested solutions.  It pays attention, sitting quietly for a while to make room for the wise, the funny, or the beautiful.  Just in case they show up.  That’s the kind of approach I’m trying to take to my life these days…and it’s nice to be living it even as I let my ever-scrambling intellect go play with the abstractions.  Gene Logsdon says “firsthand experience” is the difference between the agrarian writer and the writer; I’d argue, today, that firsthand experience is the difference between happy living and muddling through.  Not just HAVING the experience, but showing up for it.  Being present with it, sharing it with others, and remembering it as best you can.  These are my work, today.

What’s yours?

On wading in: Day 1

Rabbit rabbit, or whatever you say to herald the new month.

It’s September.

Everyone’s going back to school, cleaning up, settling down.

Except for me. I’m jumping off a cliff.

Well, that’s what it feels like anyway. I’m wading into a vast unknown ocean of freedom to choose my projects and commitments, and I’m equal parts thrilled and horrified. So to avoid checking out entirely and spending the next month with my head in the sand, I’ll be starting a little group instead. The September group, I’d like to call it. Join us by following and commenting here, and by checking in on Facebook (The September Group: On Crafting a Life).

What’s funniest is that sticking my head in the sand is only half of my usual response to freedom and opportunity. The other half is manic activity, and what’s kind of worrying is that we never quite know how long these cycles will take. And when it’s, say, six months in the sand, well, that’s not really something we can afford. So like all efforts toward health, we’re not trying to eliminate the pendulum swings, but rather to bring them back to center a little more quickly. And that seems mostly like a process of mindfulness.

So here I am: Day 1 of a 30-day adventure in checking in, writing down, reaching out. I’m looking forward to hearing what all of you have to say about your lives and projects. Here’s mine, today:

My baby boy got his first haircut today — I couldn’t bear to cut it too short, which was fine because he kept wanting to hold the comb. He loved how it sounded when he ran it against the edge of the water glass. (And how fascinating that his big brother could always sit perfectly still and watch a show, but Chi is all in love with how everything works and sounds and feels…)

We spent some excellent time in the garden, earning Chi his new nickname: Tomato Joe. He CANNOT leave them alone. Seeds everywhere. It’s gorgeous. And if any of you have ever considered growing haricot vert (bush green beans that don’t get huge): try Masai. From Fedco Seeds. I’ve never seen a more prolific bean — and so delicious! And patient with a late harvest! Also, I have to note the asclepias (butterfly weed) in its orange profusion of gorgeousness. It’s self-sowing and I’m letting it, because I’ve seen zero butterflies this year. Total. And not one in my garden. I am gravely worried for our world.

I finished Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation last night, and I can’t recommend it enough. Silly, beautiful, profound, painful, awe-inspiring, concerning, and consciousness-raising. It’s a fun trip and one you’re glad you took.

My best work today (usually, in fact, I’m seeing) is happening when I don’t quite mean to Work. I fall into it because it’s fascinating. I’m trying now to let that falling happen. (Years ago, my insightful and loving mother-in-law gave me a card that said “Books fall open and we fall in…” and I’m realizing that books aren’t the only things the universe holds open for us.)

What else? This is clearly a strange and disjointed practice, like mind-dumps, like photo-editing at the end of a trip. But day by day, I imagine this one way we find courage and continuity and compassion and creativity. I hope so, anyway. We’ll try it for a while and see.

On parenting and patience

A dear friend and I talked today about the alarming uptick in irritation with our kids lately.  Naturally, we were unable to really HAVE the conversation because of the galloping and hollering of said kids.  (Climb the tree, climb the tractor, run barefoot into the barn; I want to SWIM but I won’t put my head under; Mama milk!  Mama milk!  You get the idea.)  So I sat down this evening to write out the rest of what I wanted to say, and it is this:

Dear Kate,
I’ve been sitting with your concerns about parenting and patience, not least because they are also mine.  I feel like maybe I hit this particular wall (at least, most notably, most recently) earlier this summer, so by now I’m both more cynical and blessedly more tolerant.  Of my own failings, that is.  I don’t like them, but I accept them and continue to work on trying to change them.

What’s trickiest for me is this: the circumstances that lead to shortness and eruptions are partly about me (have I scheduled the time I need for myself; am I using that time to best advantage; am I taking proper care of myself in all the textbook ways; am I feeding my creative energies; am I nurturing the relationships that I crave…) and partly about the world as I see it (am I using my gifts productively in the world; am I addressing problems I can see and help with; am I contributing to my kids’ lives in the ways I’d like to; am I speaking my truths to the powers that I humbly submit need to hear them).  It makes me crazy to have this bifurcated diagnosis.  I’d like to imagine that a renewed commitment to mindfulness as a practice would solve everything.  Truth is, it would help, but not solve.  I’d like to believe that finding meaningful paid work would fix things.  Truth is, it would help, but not solve.  In fact, it would create a host of other issues by draining away some of that vital attention that I now try to direct to my boys (which is, all by itself, getting harder as I get more interested in more and different things).  I suspect this is in part the curse of the smart, dedicated, socially-conscious parent: we engage with our kids and are fascinated by them, but there’s so much else that also engages and fascinates us that it’s hard to keep focus.  I feel like the theory of part-time work is beautiful, and sometimes it works out that way in real life as well.  But other times, we spend our days checking the clock or checking our email or jotting lists of things we’d rather be doing.  Of course we don’t hear everything the kids say.  They aren’t the only ones we’re listening to anymore.  And that’s hard for all of us.

Sometimes I wonder if shifting to full-time work would be a better plan.  Sometimes I wonder if giving up on work altogether and pouring myself into the kids, including home-schooling of a sort, would be a better plan.  Often I think that one or the other is an absolute necessity.  Now.  Today.  But my reality is that while I am not skilled at tacking back and forth between critical, engaging priorities, I seem to NEED it.  So I try to imagine that THIS is my work: this daily, excruciating, exquisite practice of loving everyone and everything I love according to their needs and my capacities.  That means it doesn’t always look the same, and some days feature a lot more cursing than others.  But I figure my kids must be learning some key lessons about the preciousness and precariousness of our lives, and they sure as heckfire are learning how to read and work with the moods of others.  I need to believe there’s value in that, too.

Most days, I think a little more structure would help; I turn to Pinterest for more ideas about creative play and how to get a handle on our lives.  Every day, I think a little more mindfulness would help; even a tiny practice like a three-minute meditation while the coffee brews has helped me enormously in the past.  It gives me distance from my life, in a way, and lets me see myself and my struggles in the vast context of the universe — and that, of course, lends me a little more humility and tolerance than I might otherwise be able to find.  I’ll take what I can get.  Mostly, these days, I’m working hardest on letting myself off the hook.  It feels a little like defeat, but hey.  Defeat and acceptance are siblings, I hear, and I’m trying not to ruin my life for the sake of some macho Western illusion.

Anyway.  This is all to say: I feel your pain.  Holy SMOKES, I feel your pain.  And for what it’s worth, I think you are an extraordinary parent: creative, loving, attentive, compassionate, smart, nurturing, supportive, concerned.  Your soft voice and obvious enthusiasm for your kids are models to me, as is your willingness to say yes, to follow them where they need to go, to give them the room to be themselves (within safe limits).  If I could cultivate your patience, I’d imagine myself a ten times better mother.  But I know how you feel, and that’s part of the point: the feeling is not necessarily well-calibrated to reality, and when it is, it just makes us cringe.  So we try to keep our eyes clear and our heads (and hearts) in the game and put one foot in front of the other.  And as we do it, we try to sing a little song, or pat a little cheek, or generally hold our whole selves open for the ridiculous beauty that just keeps showing up.

On various forms of training

It’s always strange when things that are supposed to line up don’t: when the brilliant, highly verbal, well-adapted child refuses to potty-train until three-and-a-half; when the ten weeks of gradual and successful getting-back-into-running suddenly collapse in a new and constant bilateral knee pain; when remarkable patience and empathy in the face of all kinds of difficulty suddenly vanishes, leaving you astonished you ever behaved reasonably at all.  But that seems to be the bear of this thing called life: nothing is linear.  “Progress” is only ever incremental and more or less impossible to chart.  We can’t move forward efficiently unless we pause at every point where someone needs a hug or an ice pack or a listening ear.  It makes sense that we are this way; the part that doesn’t make sense is that we keep imagining our world works differently.  We maintain hopes and expectations that have nothing to do with reality, and, still worse, that we KNOW have nothing to do with reality.

And so, we are advised, we try to let those go.  We try to be here and now, accepting whatever is going on.  And I love that approach, I really do.  It opens me to all kinds of possibilities that I wouldn’t even NOTICE, otherwise.  But somewhere deep inside me is always that other set of voices, asking “really?  You’ve pooped on the potty before: you can do it again, no?”  I hear those voices, I try to nod to them and thank them for their good intentions in supporting our boy’s efforts, and then I ask them to please keep it down for a little while.  There’s someone else I need to listen to right now.  And I wrap him up tight in my arms and try to hear.

The grand irony here, of course, is that many of these myths of progress find their homes in various kinds of training: to use the potty; to follow a physical therapy regimen; to keep a household manageable; to build a career.  But those training arenas, those places of learning, are precisely where the myth of linear progress is most powerful and most damaging.  What we need is training in mindfulness, training in training, if you will: the kind of training that will enable us to see where we fall down and give ourselves a gentle hand back up.  We need to be reminded that we are always practicing and never perfect, that we all have accidents and make mistakes and that the trick is learning to accept it with grace.  So as much as supporting a potty-learner can be a hassle (yes, I was the recipient of a full stream of urine down the center of my back today), it’s also a good chance to say out loud to someone else these most vital lessons: we listen to our selves and then try to do what seems best.  We have courage if we are afraid.  We understand that everyone tries new things, that this is a big part of what life is about.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t.  But we keep on trying and that is what makes us who we are.  Like the lambeosaurus in Jane Yolen’s “How do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food” — we try things. Like the deal I make with my students in every class I teach: you trust me enough to give the work your all and I will trust you enough to really hear what you desire and are capable of.  This kind of testing, this exploration of trust, is one way we live out our faith in the world and in each other.

On tension

Surface tension.  Also known as total serenity.

Surface tension. Also known as total serenity.

I used to be a singer, a habit which has served me well as a parent (and not just for singing pretty songs).  Four nights a week when I was in college, my women’s acapella group would rehearse for two hours, and we’d usually perform at least one other night.  It was a lot of singing and it came from a place of extraordinary joy.  Plus, my abs were things of beauty: firm, sculpted, and in perfect support of my breath, voice, posture.

Shortly after that, I started taking yoga for the first time.  I listened enthusiastically to the suggestions on breathing: “Let the air fill you up!”  I can do that!  “The fullness of your breath grounds you, connecting you to the world around you.”  Yes!  But then: “Let your belly be soft.”  WHAT?  Obviously, I said to myself, these yogi people know nothing about breathing.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I find that I have lived, mostly, in a constant state of suspension between these two ideals: tension (albeit supportive) and softness (albeit chosen, and therefore disciplined).  I suspect this has something to do with the human condition: that we are given certain circumstances and we need both to accept them (softness) and to make something of them (tension).

This is the essence of Saul Alinsky’s principle, that we have to live in the world as it is and work toward the world as it should be.  It is also the essence of productivity: understand where you are that you might move forward (and the kind of non-acceptance that manifests as self-flagellation doesn’t help).  It’s the essence of teaching: start where the students are and go on from there.  And of course it’s the essence of parenting, of love, and creativity: compassion, for ourselves, our kids, our world, must undergird every disciplined effort to build and teach and grow.

All the love is making this dog tense.

All the love is making this dog tense.

We can all agree that breath (and for “breath,” from here on out, read “love,” “openness,” “curiosity,” or “spirit”) fills us up, that it simultaneously grounds us and lets us fly.  The musculature and intentionality that produce such breathing are real and profound: such breathing is our natural state (as in sleep), but in the world of our realities, pretty much everything gets in the way and messes it up.  So between nightmares and day jobs, childcare and health care, commuting and computing, we end up – most days – tangled beyond recognition.  For most of us, it takes a walk in the woods (which we don’t take) or a round of meditation (which we don’t get) to rediscover our core.  When we do, we can begin to parse our lives with a little more clarity.  Without clarity and rest, we tend to experience stress (which might be considered tension with an attitude problem).

But here’s the thing: tension itself is not bad.  Tension is a kind of discipline or structure, and its manifest in both.  There are many ways to good posture, or effective work habits, or appropriate human interaction, and tension is a part of them.  I am reminded of the persistent knee and hip pain I experienced in graduate school that stopped my running habit, and of the excruciating SI joint issues that developed in my first pregnancy and didn’t resolve long after the second.  I had worked out and stretched diligently through the first but learned in the second that rest was the only solution, so by the time I sought expert help I was not the strongest person you know.  I was, however one of the more flexible.  And that turned out to be the problem.  I didn’t have enough tension!

You maybe can't tell, but this is a tension rod holding up our puppet theater.  Tension promotes play.

You maybe can’t tell, but this is a tension rod holding up our puppet theater. Tension promotes play.

Hahahaha, she laughs, only slightly hysterical – two babies under three years old and mounting fiscal pressure that made it important to get more work and find more daycare…but it’s true.  That kind of emotional tension was keeping me from the strength-training that my body needed in order to create the muscular tension that would hold my bones in the right places.  Roughly.  Part of the pain was from too much tension; part of it was from too little.  Sound familiar?

It’s the same logic with our lives: an absence of tension doesn’t mean smooth sailing: it means we aren’t learning or pushing or changing or MAKING change.  Of course it’s delightful when in the midst of complications something goes smoothly (I still remember, as do all women who have delivered a baby vaginally while conscious, that moment of exquisite, whooshing relief when at long last that tiny body fully squeezes out of your own).  The trick to managing tension in the rest of our lives, I’m finding, is that damned balancing act.  We need some tension, but not too much; we need resilience and self-care for when we are overwhelmed by too much tension anyway; we need the right kinds of tension, at the right times and places, to keep us alert and accountable; we need counterbalancing forms of relaxation to remind us of our natural state and to help us recalibrate.  This is to say, we need the sturdy muscles of our singer’s core to give us voice, to help us run.  And we need to know how to release that posture to assume a gentler one for the yoga mat.  We need to relieve that tension through twisting core stretches and maintain it with vigorous exercise.  But what we can’t do, it seems, is sidestep the question entirely.  Which I’ll admit makes me a little grumpy.  Because I like the idea of smooth sailing.  I’ll let you know how that works out for me.