Conviction

You might never have known what she’s been through when you see her in your weekly yoga class, arriving on time every Tuesday, appearing, as she consistently does, to be so well put-together, a tall pretty blonde, donning the Lululemon yoga pants and corresponding black lycra jacket favored by stay-at-home moms and PTA presidents, freshly pedicured, a mother with the means to work out (and maybe work, depending on whether she prefers hiring a nanny to take the children to the zoo and Music Together classes or taking them to the park herself, but definitely with the seniority and flexibility to take them to the pediatrician when the cough lingers too many days or the fever spikes too high); no, you might not expect, based on her warm smile and the sturdy, effortless look of her Warrior II, that she had grown up with loving parents but ones with a strong German penchant for stoicism, an inflexible puritan work ethic and demand for perfection, that she had been directed her entire life, when facing grief, sadness, anger, or fear to go into her room and come out when she could be a good girl again, a childhood that would render her unprepared for the maelstrom of emotion she would experience by being widowed at the age of 39 when her husband committed suicide by jumping from a parking structure, the classic stock broker’s death on a gorgeous fall day following Black Friday, leaving her with two young sons, ages 6 and 8, and the monumental task of parenting them as a single mother while grieving her own loss, and that it takes every ounce of her concentration to hold the stance, grounded in her feet, steady in her legs, arms outstretched and parallel to the ground, eyes resting just past her outstretched fingers, inhaling and exhaling and trembling, repeating the mantra to herself, “I can do this, I can do this.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And resolve.

!Yo Puedo!

I grew up in a devoutly religious home. We went to church services twice a week. Religiously, as it were. When I was a little girl, I used to write Bible verses on a slip of paper and keep them in my pocket. Usually a verse from a favorite Psalm or Bible story, almost always including a promise of presence and power. Often these messages began with the angel’s command, “Fear not.” Even if I didn’t pull it out to read, the folded verse reminded me of divine presence, like tucking an angel in my back pocket.

Shortly after Sam’s death, we flew across the country for a family bar mitzvah. Sam was a Cuban Jew, and I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but just trust me on this point. One of my cousins used to have a stand-up comedy routine she entitled “Jewbans.” Anyway, we flew to Little Havana (Miami) to join the celebration.

My cousin’s sister “Alexa” is a cancer survivor, a stunningly beautiful woman with the most amazing, gentle green eyes. Graced with strength, fortified by family, blessed with intellect and heart and humor, she is a princess warrior. She is one of those women whose power and gentleness emanate in equal parts. I had never met her before, and I found my place next to her, soaking up her energy and warmth. She didn’t speak much English, and I only speak a poquito de Spanish. But pain is a universal language, and suffering levels the playing field.

Several of us cousins stayed up late one night, folding programs, preparing party favors and name cards and centerpieces. We laughed and chattered — in a mix of Spanish and English — and eventually our work was done, but we kept up the conversation, softer voices, still hands. I didn’t sleep much in those days, and I was grateful for the female companionship in the late hours.

Alexa looked at me with her beautiful green cat eyes, and she saw me. She saw the confused and wounded little girl, tucked tight in a ball. She saw the grizzly bear mother, rising to her full height, roaring, claws outstretched, prepared to eviscerate any threat to her cubs. She saw the young mother bird, gently folding a chick under each wing and singing her little ones to sleep. And she saw my own inner princess warrior, a prayer in one hand and a sword in the other. Without judgement, and with recognition, she saw all of me. I curled up in her arms and wept.

It is one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other — a place to be known and safe, a place where the frightened child and the fearsome warrior both reside.

Throughout the week, Alexa would offer me words of encouragement, mostly in Spanish. At the end of the week, she presented me with a single white 3×5 card: Yo puedo! No tengo miedo! Soy fuerte! Salgo adelante! Yo si puedo! SI! And on the opposite side, like the answer to a vocabulary flash card, in English: “Don’t forget: “I can!” 

From the early stages of my process, I was determined not to get stuck in my grief. I still keep Alexa’s card in my wallet, not unlike the Bible verses I carried with me as a child, so that I will see her words and think of her eyes and remember: I can!

This morning I’m planning the route for my run. I am tired and busy and I don’t really want to run at all, not even with my trusty side-kick, the defective hunting dog. But my girlfriend has talked me into another half-marathon (um, yeah… more on that later), and according to the training schedule, I need five miles. I do not even want to go that far today.

I lace up my running shoes and head out anyway. I aim low. I might walk a few miles, but only to take the edge off the dog. After the first mile, I start to wonder whether I could hit the three-mile mark and yet avoid the construction that seems to be afflicting the local streets this week. All this makes me think about how Life’s construction zones sometimes block my intended path and send me in another direction. I have several friends for whom Life has recently thrown up a big DETOUR sign, which has forced them to stop, gather their strength and start again in a different direction. Several are facing really big things: cancer, career changes, marital issues, the death of a sibling, financial challenges, parents in declining health and crises of faith. And, of course, the adage is true: a mother is only as happy as her least happy child. Fathers too. My own least happy child is decidedly downcast, and I spend the first part of my run on the verge of tears.

I think of my friends, many of whom picked me up and dusted me off when Life threw me a curveball, knocking me to the dirt. The least I can do is to keep running, like a prayer in motion. I decide to run by one girlfriend’s house in particular, not necessarily to stop (although I would if she wanted me to), but more like an intentional prayer loop, holding her tangibly in my thoughts and heart. It will add an extra mile to my route, but that’s what friends do. And as an incentive, I intend to let myself walk the last mile home.

I don’t stop and knock at my friend’s door because I don’t want to interrupt. (Not to mention that I suspect she would prefer a “virtual hug” from her panting, sweaty friend.) But I do hesitate for a moment — even though I’m afraid I might not get moving again — in an expression of solidarity. Like the song says, “When you’ve got troubles, I’ve got troubles, too.” I hold her in my heart and inhale. I exhale encouraging thoughts in her direction.

Inhale, exhale, repeat. Another of my favorite mantras.

Yo puedo! (I can!)

I begin to move again, first walking, then running, mentally pushing myself with the same thoughts I directed toward my friend. As I approach the home stretch, I am still thinking about several friends and the challenges ahead.

No tengo miedo! (I am not afraid!)

I remember their strength, their faith, their capacity for love, forgiveness and humor. I am winded. I’ve now achieved the prescribed 5 miles and can completely justify walking the last hill. My legs are heavy.

Soy fuerte! (I am strong!)

But as I contemplate the pain, anger and fear facing some of my friends, I press on. These women and men propelled me along my own healing journey with their strength and positive energy, and they inspire me still. I aim to encourage them and offer support along theirs.

Salgo adelante! (I’m moving forward!)

It is not until the steep hill home that my own tears spill over, but this is the place real strength lies, where the wounded little girl and the princess warrior make their way. Because the fact of the matter is that vulnerability and humility often require more fortitude than climbing up a hill. The tears and the sweat run together in one salty mess. Which is why I recommend wearing sunglasses on a run.

Yo si puedo! SI! (Yes, I can! YES!)

I reach the top and smile.

Whether you call it prayer, intention or desire, I believe that there is power in the positive thoughts that we radiate toward our loved ones. In fact, I know this to be true because I have experienced time and again the lift that comes when friends hold me in their hearts.

That extra hill was for you, my friend.

!Si, yo puedo!”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And words of encouragement.

Volume Control

When our boys are bickering over whose turn it is to play on the xBox or take out the trash or use the car, or venting frustration over whatever the latest unfairness might be, our frequent response is: “You are 100% responsible for your 50%.” Meaning that you cannot control everything (or anything, really) that other people do (particularly if those people happen to be your brothers), but you can control yourself.

Needless to say, this concept has little appeal to the kids. They are far less interested in changing their own position than they are in transforming their siblings into compromising, understanding, selfless individuals. When they groan that the coach or the teacher is unreasonable, they would prefer to change the grading rubric than to get an early start on their training schedule or summer reading. Our refrain frequently falls on deaf ears.

These are among the many parenting occasions when I long to transform my children into rational human beings who appreciate the wisdom in maternal advice. Instead, I am reduced to following my own recommendation. The trick is figuring out what constitutes my 50%.

I have a pair of friends from college who are like the brothers I never had, in all the ways that older brothers can be. They were protective and helpful, showing me around campus and introducing me to friends. They also taught me how to play quarters and corralled my roommate and me out to a country bar to learn the Texas two-step. Bobby and Earl were a pair, and if you met either, you likely knew the two of them. In fact, once you knew them, it was awkward to say one of the names without the other. Like milk and cookies. Or maybe not quite.

Earl and Bobby devised a system for the music on their road trips — this was before iPods and satellite radio — to keep the tunes playing and promote relative harmony in the truck. One took over the dial for the tuner and the other controlled the volume. We went to school in Texas (I mentioned the truck), and there was a lot of ground to cover between our little school in Houston and their respective homes. That’s just a lot of time on the road. Their arrangement worked well: When the “tuner” liked the song, he kept that station playing, and if “volume control” didn’t care for the song, he turned the volume low. The tuner would then change the station, and once he found something they both liked, the volume came way up. Simple, but effective.

Sometimes I like to be reminded that even when I don’t have complete power over a situation (and in fact, I never do), I can still exert control over something. I can turn the volume up, down, or even off. I am a girl who finds comfort in silence, so that helps.

I tried a new yoga/pilates class on my vacation. The instructor brought a lovely energy to her practice, and she used words like beautiful, strong and yes. She said, “I love this pose!” so enthusiastically so many times that we laughed, which was another way she brought smiles to our faces, even while she was treating us to additional ab work in the form of a plank. I think she genuinely loves that tortuous chair pose and was strong enough to have sat there for the duration of the class. Her joy became contagious.

I don’t know why her class made me think of Bobby and Earl, except that hers is the kind of exuberant soundtrack that they would have tuned into and cranked up the volume on, exactly the consonance I want to invite into my life. I cannot control the “haters,” as my sons call them, but I can choose to turn the volume low on their disheartening messages of inadequacy, fear and inertia.

As a parent, I cannot control everything my sons do. After all, that is their 50%. I bring the boys to church and serve them veggies, but it’s up to them to find their own inspiration and eat broccoli.

Humbled again, I turn toward my own 50%. I love and cherish my sons and their father. I eat brussel sprouts (Roasted at 425, olive oil, salt & pepper. Better than potato chips. Trust me!). I try to be kind. I read inspirational books. I walk the dog. Some days farther than others. I take a deep breath. I listen.

From time to time, I participate in a friend’s Wellness Camp exercise program. It’s kind of like a a 40-day boot-camp-style exercise program, only completely unlike boot-camp. We train hard, but we also meditate daily. She motivates with words like strength, balance, joy, healing and grace. I turn the volume way up on her messages of health and wellness. One morning while we were working out at the track, we heard another instructor (he-of-the-drill-sergeant-style) bellowing at a group of boot-campers to “Run like a Rottweiler is chasing you!” I am so grateful my friend never yells at me to run like a dog is hot on my heels. Life is hard enough. For the long haul, I’d prefer beauty, light and love to power me through.

I don’t have complete control, of course, but I do have some. And I exercise my choices thoughtfully, adjusting the volume on the incoming messages up or down or off with intention. Just enough to keep the peace on my journey.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little volume control.