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.

And another thing I’m learning from the kids

I’m greatly impressed, lately, by the power of silence.  And not just the kind you think I mean, where the noise finally subsides and we can hear the ringing in our ears and take a deep breath before it all starts up again.  No, I mean the kind of silence that is intentionally made and kept as a conscious choice.  My older son, Ezra, likes to ask for silence in the car on the way home from daycare.  And tonight, as I lay next to him at bedtime and asked if he wanted a song, he said, “Not yet, Mama.”  And he lay quietly for a good long while.  I used to listen, in the silence, for the things I wasn’t hearing: the music, the conversations, the stories.  I used to plan for what would come next or imagine what might have been.  But lately I’m just trying to do what he does: to hear the world as it is and his own presence in it, without comment or contribution.  Just listening to all that comes in on the breath and noticing all that goes out with it.  The world is a full place indeed, and those places of quiet are one of my son’s many gifts.

On being too many things

If any of you share my somewhat shame-faced but whole-hearted love of the cheesy dance movie “Center Stage,” you’ll recognize this brilliant line: “Girl, you are too many things!”

It comes when the gorgeous and talented but attitudinally-impaired Yva Rodriguez has just danced her stunning surprise lead role in the academy director’s major new piece, and her performance shocks everyone not just because she was a substitute: she was flawless.  She was inspired.  She brought individuals to tears and the house to its feet.  Most importantly, she realizes for the first time that she truly does LOVE this work, this life, and that her own sense of self-importance and defensiveness really take a back seat to her passion and joy in the work. Her best friend, Eric O. Jones (“O as in Oprah — she’s my idol”), offers her that unforgettable line, perfect in its capacity to honor all the many facets of herself.  It’s not “Oh, yay, you did a great a job,” or “What a terrific career opportunity” or even “congratulations on overcoming your obvious fears of success.”  It’s “you are too many things!”  You are all that and more: scared and courageous, brilliant and flawed, vulnerable and hostile and beautiful.  That’s the kind of encouragement we all need.

We had some reminders in our house recently of the risks of underestimating ourselves, of curling up in our shells because we’re tired and sore.  We’ve also had some reminders of how crucial it is to do just that kind of retreat.  The challenge, I guess, is knowing when or in which fields it’s okay to hide out, and when to more forward, trusting the path to open up ahead of us with fewer brambles than before.  Part of the challenge, too, is knowing how to ask for guidance, who to ask and with what kinds of framing.  Do we seek to be better at what we do, or to help out more where we are, or do we try to challenge and nurture our core selves, whatever that might look like?  Does the latter always advance the former?


Image by Leonard Bartel of LE Bartel PhotoArts. Check out his other brilliant work online at http://www.bartelphoto.com.

This stuff seems purely academic in a certain way, except that when you pile it all up, it takes on form and begins to loom.  It casts dark shadows.  Like this.

When the exhaustion and the irritation and the career concerns and the money worries and the new-computer-buyer’s-remorse are all heaped together, they start to look a little like that guy.  So I’m glad that I get to actually SEE him, to remember that he’s a children’s toy, that we can pick him up and move him around, that his long shadow is just a result of where we’ve put him in relationship to the sun.  It helps.

It also helps, I find, to revert to the present mode again.  To realize that even if it’s not the time to haul out every tinkertoy in the known world right before bath, it MAY be time to put the baby down first and then spend extra long with the Dr. Seuss-a-thon the three-year-old wants.  It MAY be time to hold said three-year-old extra close for longer than usual, because he is your child and he makes you whole and this is why we are alive.  We are indeed too many things, all at once, and we’re no good at living in that kind of story.  We want the drama of a particular narrative and the resolution of conclusions; we want plots that unfold with tidy themes.  There’s rarely enough room for the outrageous glory of the everyday while fatigue hums along our bones like wires.  We cannot contain in language, or even sometimes in our hearts, the enormous bog-wallow that is our lives, everything steeped in everything else, our fears and ambitions and concerns and hopes.  The closest we can come, I guess, is to accept the bigness and the touchingness and the inextricability — and to keep showing up, right here, right now, to see what’s rising to the surface.