MCA + Emily En Route = BFF

MCA DNA screen shot.pngCheck out the increds holiday gift I just received…

Merry Christmas, Emily!

We re-posted your blog post from foreeeeeever ago on our very important and objectively awesome blog, MCA DNA.

And we said nice stuff about you, too.

Aaaaaand we went ahead and threw in an extra link to another one of your old posts. Just for fun.

In case you’re curious, you can read it here.

Love,

Your Favorite Contemporary Art Museum in the World
(Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)

(Fainting…)

It’s true! Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago reposted from Emily En Route.  If you could see me right now, you’d know I was giving you all a dainty Queen Elizabeth wave from a very regal pile of dog hair.

I entered this fun little contest (#mcainspired – they asked how you support local artists and/or display art in your home, so I sent them this photo of my garage) on a lark, I won, they gave me a membership, I told them how much I love taking my kids there, I overshared a couple blog posts with them and–boom!–they go and re-post this. The wonder!

Naturally, I want to obsessively thank and hug them, but I’ll save their magnanimous social media team from my fawning and instead fill you all in on one of my favorite places in the 312…

If you’re not apprised, know that MCA Chicago is good for anyone of any age who needs the sparkle of art in their world. (In other words, that’s everyone. Duh.)

If you live in Chicago, or plan to visit, take your kids to the MCA. In my experience, everyone from the front desk to the security guards go out of their way to help kids experience the art in an age-appropriate, accessible, joyful way.

Trust me, even if your grown-up self doesn’t “get” modern art, your kids will love the outlandishness of some of what they see. If you do go, snap a pic of your kids and tag #mcachicago.

We want to spread the art love and let people know what a gem of a place it is for families, so any snaps you can share to that end would be divine.

For your to-do list:
•Get excited for the Pop Art design exhibit opening this week
•Stay tuned for my reaction–and that of my kids–to the likes of Charles Eames, George Nelson, Ettore Sottsass, Achille Castiglioni and Robert Venturi
•Post pics of your kids enjoying the MCA to #MCAChicago

Not to worry, I’ll soon return to second-person tales of uncoupling, single mom-ing, dating, divorce and more. I just had to geek out about this for a quick sec…

 

MCA DNA screen shot.png

Uncoupled: The wedding anniversary

Note: My 10th wedding anniversary was last week. It was a hard, strange day. And a beautiful milestone.

You’re 36 years old staring at the speaker in a conference room with two other people. Your client has just changed everything and the timeline holds firm. You haven’t slept a full night all week and you’re not sure why it’s hitting you so hard today, but the content of this conversation makes your cheeks hot. Your colleagues (you think that’s what you call them?) smile and nod reassuringly at you. You’re trying to stay peaceful and professional. But you want to throw a chair through the window.

You’re tired.

You’re 26 years old and think you’re fat. The estilista has just used hot glue to secure a fresh fichus leaf to the bobby pin holding dark waves behind one ear and you’re doing your makeup. You’re snapping at your sister, your mom, your friends. It’s already been a long day and the judge hasn’t even arrived. Your dress is lace. You designed it yourself. Almost everyone you love is donning sunburns, guayaberas and fancy party dresses in your favorite restaurant, where Chef Francis is serving your favorite meal. Your favorite Cuban orchestra will play your favorite music and girls in skimpy dresses will teach you all how to samba. Your friends are on vacation for this. You’ve been playing host to them—in a place you live—for three days of parties, beach outings and excursions. You’re minutes away from getting married.

You’re exhausted.

Both boys independently crawled into bed with you last night, one waking you up an hour after you shut your laptop because of his growing pains, spawning your mole-like journey through the dark hallway into the shocking light of the bathroom, fumbling around for the kids Motrin with squinting eyes at 1:30 am; and the next kid waking you at 5 am to ask you to scoot over so he wouldn’t fall off the bed. You should’ve gotten up then but, as happens to the mind in the wee hours, a now-vanished dream sequence convinced you of another hour of sleep, so you turned off your alarm and, warmed by the two small bodies snuggled panini-style against you, drifted back to sleep for nearly two more.

You oversleep. Dry shampoo. Yoga tights. A long, wool cardigan. Necklace. Ponytail holder. Riding boots and some makeup. It’s the best you can do. You yell at your kids when they refuse to wear pants. No luxurious bath drawn by your little sister on the terrace of the oceanfront Presidential Suite. No team helping you zip your dress, curl your hair, put on your shoes, hug you and bless you. No freshly plucked leaves glued into your hair. (because Mexico.) No bouquets. No orchestra. No bridesmaids. No judge. No shaman. No white bikini for the honeymoon at One&Only. No groom.

Ten years ago you cried as you left your wedding reception, groom’s hand in yours. You were glad it was over. You were tired from all the festivities, all the care you took in planning a fabulous getaway for out-of-town guests. You were ready to get on with life as a married woman. You were ready to check into a resort for three days and not do anything but rest and be with an incredible man who adored you. Some people tell you it was the most beautiful wedding they’ve ever attended. They may just be saying that. They’re probably just saying that. It mattered to you then, this calculated perfection. It doesn’t matter to you now. Objectively, though, it was one hell of a party.

Today, the day flies by—so fast, so furious, so busy—and eventually you can’t ignore the rising feelings even one more minute. You text Brian, your groom of this day 10 years ago:

“Really working the compartmentalizing over here today. About at my breaking point with work, plus the emotion of today. How’re you holding up?”

He writes back:

“I am in a good space. All is as it should be… And I just don’t see it as an end. We are still there for each other but just in different ways. The last 10 years have been exactly how it should be.”

You read this text while sitting on the office couch with Jeff, who has children your age and used to be a trauma counselor. You’re making last-minute revisions to a presentation. When you’re not working together, you have highly engaging conversations, at least you think so, about all manner of topics. You heart is warmed by Brian’s text, and you get teary.

“Today is my anniversary,” you tell him, wanting to share, thinking you can handle it. But you can’t. Tears well. “It would be 10 years.” He looks you dead in the eyes for a long second and says something to the effect of Oh, dear. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? No wonder!

He reveals that, even though he divorced from his first wife when his 40-year-old son was an infant and he deeply adores his present-day wife of 30+ years, he still prefers quiet on the day of his first wedding anniversary. It’s too much. He still feels it. He gets it.

He gives you permission to be out of sorts, permission to be a mess. He’s got this. He tells you something like, it’s a wonder you’re as sharp as you are today. This is a really big deal. And this is just your first one. Huge.

It is a really big deal. You nestle into a vulnerability in which you’re grateful to feel safe and warm—it’s miraculous, really—and you keep working side by side till the presentation is done.

It’s almost 4 pm and you’ve held it together long enough for this day. So when Lindsey checks in to see if you’re doing ok amidst the client craziness, you tell her what’s up. She immediately stands and wraps her arms tightly, warmly around you because she knows, too, that it’s a really big deal. You almost let rip with a sob, but decide to stuff it down because you are, after all, on a tight deadline, and that’s what the car is for on your drive home from the train.

The point is, you know you could cry if you wanted to. People would see you, and it would be ok. It actually would be. You make a mental note of the revelation that, eight months into your new job, you have safe spaces there. Thank God.

Later, one of your favorite guy pals messages you to vent some of his pain over a recent, devastating breakup. You also briefly share what you’re going through. He immediately sends you a Dropbox of the new Adele album. And he writes: “I wonder who else is on the verge of tears here today, let’s band together.”

You suggest reserving a conference room for a group cry. You both laugh at the idea. He thinks it sounds like a scene from a romcom. Sometimes it helps to pretend you’re in a movie…

Now it’s night. Instead of writing the presentation you absolutely must write tonight if you want to have a weekend, you sit on the couch remembering every detail you can from 10 years ago, crying till your mascara pools into your already dark under-eye circles. (You hope you’ll wrap it up soon, for the love of all that’s good, so you can get on with the presentation and get to bed, but you know you can’t rush this.)

As you sit there remembering and crying, when you really remember that day, and those 10 years of marriage gone by, you recall all the things Brian showed you, perhaps the very best of which was to trust the flow of life.

“All will unfold as it’s supposed to,” he often told you, starting the evening of your very first date 12+ years ago, when you told him how impractical this all was. You didn’t know he would end up being one of the best decisions of your lifetime, even if it didn’t work out how either of you anticipated.

“All is as it should be,” he wrote to you on the 10-year anniversary of your marriage. “And I just don’t see it as an end.”

Excavating

“Oh my gosh, I love Sarah McLachlan!” you hear your 19-year-old self say from somewhere deep within your 35-year-old body. “I’d love to be your date! Thanks for inviting me.”

Fast forward. The house lights are dimmed. You’re seated close enough to Sarah McLachlan that the definition in her triceps as she plays the piano is making you think about doing planks when you get home. You’re expecting this show, which she’s performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center, to be a night of throwback nineties nostalgia. (Silence, haters. I see “cool” shows sometimes, too.)

Hold on. Hold on to yourself. This is gonna hurt like hell.

All things considered, you’re doing well and feeling pretty light and airy these days. But, to your surprise, what looked to be a fun date on the surface becomes, three songs in, a private excavation of buried grief.

You’d neglected to remember that Sarah McLachlan writes about lost love laced with gratitude, acceptance and well wishes, which are themes that parallel the path of you and your former husband. Sure, some aspect of this music once spoke to you as a teen, but it hits you dead-on at 35.

Nevertheless, there’s a hand on your knee. It belongs to a smart, handsome man you’ve been seeing.* He’s fun. He’s clever, generous and chivalrous. A bespoke investment banker with higher ed street cred that both inspires and kinda annoys you. He’s one of those people with an insane bandwidth for both doing the demanding work he does and finding spare time to write screenplays, cook like a chef and do improv. Which makes you feel kinda dumb because you know you’ve never had that kind of bandwidth. He obviously doesn’t have kids, though. Duh. Your friends know him by the moniker “Gucci Loafers.”

“Are you sure he’s not a lesbian?” your co-worker asks the day of the show.

Not likely. But he’s complex. And maybe worthy of your attention. However, a few bars into “I Will Remember You,” you’re zooming to the center of your heart and staring at the ceiling to stop the tears from coming. You know all the words and yet it is as if you’re hearing them for the very first time.

You elect not to create a detailed grid of all the lyrics and the emotional response they trigger (you’re welcome, haters) but let’s just say you spend some time eyeballing the ceiling to ward off tears, holding your sniffles till the applause, laughing inappropriately and turning your head to the side to hide your far-flung facial expressions from Gucci Loafers. You basically look like a crazy person.

This is not at all what I expected out of the evening, you think, accepting the situation and chuckling to yourself as tears pool in your eyes, I guess I needed to feel a few things?

Sidebar: What becoming a single, working mom really looks like sometimes

Moving through a transition as massive as this one is odd. You know it’s big, and yet you just keep putting one foot in front of the other—sometimes walking, but mostly running, eyes up—because it seems like that’s what you have to do. It’s harder to slow down and breathe deep than it is to keep a fast pace.

You go to work at your new job, you probably try too hard, you attempt to build co-worker relationships and navigate office dynamics, you hold it together, you hold it in, you dive into time with the kids when you have it, you try your darnedest to cook and do housework when you don’t, you scrounge for time to exercise, you try to keep up with dog walks and dog hair, you call your lifelines in heavy tears when you fail at all of it. You use your newfound kid-free weekends to make up for lost time with girlfriends and you date around, you work your ass off to stay grounded and keep it all together. Even when you pause to meditate at night, it doesn’t matter how long you sit in physical stillness because you barely ever slow your mind down enough to actually check in and ask yourself, “Sweetheart, what are you feeling?”

So when Sarah McLachlan is singing your precise story, and you can’t turn the station, it gets real.

You suddenly know what Roberta Flack was talking about

After the show, you write a long email to your former husband:

“It was like she was singing about all my own heartache and grief and love for you as we part ways as husband and wife. I literally found myself streaming secret tears during certain songs. Could not get my abiding appreciation for you, nor the deeper sense of loss, though it’s the right path, out of my heart. It hit a deep, deep nerve in a really cool, if not hilariously inappropriate, place (on a date with someone who probably didn’t pick up on the fact that I was totally engrossed in my grieving rather than the fact he was treating me to a nice concert.)

…On listening…tonight…it reminded me so much of how deep and sad and pure and beautiful this all is. And how, even in sadness and grief, we are both so supported by God, the masters, our guides, angels and each other.”

This email opens up an exchange between you and your former partner that you previously couldn’t have imagined. You show him your true vulnerability, the sense of loss you feel and the hope you have for the future. You let him know it’s not all rainbows for you right now, even though you made it look like it was. You honor the love that was always there and still is and always will be. You both exchange the equivalent of a monumentally awesome e-hug.

The next day your eyes are swollen from all the feeling of things and crying, so you work from home. Feeling this stuff is hard work in and of itself. And, for whatever reason, it was Sarah McLachlan who made you do it. It wasn’t a cool show by hip-guy standards, but it was one of the most important shows you’ll see this year. When you do go back to work the following day, the haters make fun of you. And you laugh really hard. Because it’s funny. Really. It is.

*Epilogue:

It’s been over a month since the concert. It was a legit turning point for you in your grieving process, and you still have a way to go, but you’re soaring higher than you were when you originally drafted this blog post, which was the day after the concert. (it takes you longer to actually post stuff now that you’re a working girl.)

You haven’t seen Gucci Loafers since the show and, because you love tales of irony, here’s why: You’d suspected it for a while, but following the concert of Madame Lilith Fair Founder, conversations in the black car—it was always a black car—on the way home confirm his patriarchal (and potentially misogynistic?) leanings. Hilarious, right?

Fitting daintily within the patriarchy was fun for a minute, but it’s not really your scene, so you fade out. “Well, at least until Tori Amos goes on tour and he calls you with tickets,” your co-worker chides you over lunch, making you almost choke on your food.

You don’t hear from Gucci Loafers much after that, either, so you figure he saw something equally glaring and repulsive in you during that conversation. In other words, you probably won’t be crying about him at your next girl power concert. And he’s not crying over you.

You wish him general wellbeing and expansion, and you’re thankful to him. After all, he facilitated your all-important excavation and the subsequent connection with your former partner, freeing you to move to the next level of healing. Gucci Loafers also taught you, as dating does, a few things you know you want in a man at some point, and a few things you know you don’t. And, single lady friends, that is some valuable information…

New life

I’m pointing headfirst toward the bottom of a 45-degree incline. In other months, this is our local sledding hill, but today the slope is lush with grass and warm earth, which is getting stuck beneath my fingernails.

Six small hands grip my ankles, hoisting my legs in the air behind me. “Go, wheelbarrow! Faster!” a pack of kids cheers. And, so, I go. Down the hill, one hand at a time, giggling while maintaining a feeble plank pose as three kids, one of whom is Charlie, gleefully wheelbarrow me toward the bottom. Just for kicks.

Soon, I’m laughing so hard I’ve lost my breath. “C’mon, Mommy!” my own kids yell. I feel Kip remove my shoes and tear away with them, laughing ecstatically, saying, “I’ve got your shooooooooes, Mommy. Twy to catch meeeee!” As I laugh and clumsily traverse my hands down the sledding hill at their egging, I note that every aspect of my being is in deep, deep joy.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way.

For the past year, at least, I’ve been climbing a hill so steep, so craggy and so fraught that despite my best affirmations for clarity, joy and lightness of being, I just couldn’t get there. (Click here for veiled references to this. And here, and especially here. ) My joy was half-joy at best. And my lightness of being? Nonexistent.

So the euphoria of wheel barrowing down a hill on the last day of school, which I took off work to spend at a park with the boys and a ton of their classmates, is not fleeting or trivial. It is a milestone. It is pure. It is real. It is relief. It is a new beginning. It is a miracle.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtube_gdata_player&v=63QPunDIxqA

New way of being

I’ve felt inclined to keep it off the internets till now, but there is a reason why the hill has been so steep. Why it feels so good to be moving downhill again, why I went back to work full-time, why I haven’t posted in months and why this moment of unadulterated joy feels so significant…

My husband and I separated this past spring. As we explained it to the kids nearly three months ago, we love each other and we love them, but we decided to get “unmarried.” (sounds less harsh than “divorce.”)

This decision was not plucked. It took many, many months, perhaps even years. We ultimately underwent Katherine Woodward Thomas’ Conscious Uncoupling process (like Gwyneth), and today, after treading through much anguish, grief, reconciliation and redemption, all of which still surfaces in waves, we live in separate homes, share equal time with the kids, have family dinners, take vacations together and openly discuss surreal things like Tinder dates and financial strategy.

There’s no easy way or finger to point to explain why we decided to end our marriage. Most days, there’s no blame, wrongdoing or bitterness. Both of us feel devastated in our own ways at times, but no one feels wronged. As marriage and uncoupling are too complicated to untangle publicly, I won’t. The hard truth is that I love this man with my purest heart, and he holds me in a similar regard but, quite simply, it became clear that our souls were calling us to begin our relationship anew. We emerged from the pain, suffering and hard, hard work of discernment with a new, very intentional way of being: devoted soul-friends and co-parents.

The phoenix process

“During times of transition, amid everyday stress, and even when we face seemingly insurmountable adversity, life offers us a choice: to turn away from change or to embrace it; to shut down or to be broken open and transformed.”

– Elizabeth Lesser

In her book Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser reveals the theory that to evolve and transform, we sometimes must be broken open and endure what she calls the “phoenix process,” which involves the fire of transformation from which we rise completely changed and somehow more opulent than before.

It took one hell of a journey through the fires of transformation to get to where we are now. Apart from the emotional discovery aspect, Brian and I had to get a lot of things in place before we moved into this new way of being—my securing gainful employment that felt good to my soul and met my material needs, the solidfying of our financial strategy and his finding a new place to live nearby, all in ways that honored our own spirits, the love that is our foundation and the wellbeing of our boys.

Uncoupling can be a long, slow, intentional, excruciating process, one I would not wish upon anyone, and yet the transformational magnitude of which I would hope for everyone. It involves much crying and gnashing of teeth, but from the fire rises a phoenix. In our case, two of them, and hopefully four, once the kids complete their own phoenix processes, through which we are committed to assuring them of our steadfast love and God’s.

Vacationing in my old life

I’m not a stay-at-home mom anymore. I work full-time for strong, caring, inspired people I’m growing to adore, doing work I love. It’s a totally new life and it can be as demanding as it is gratifying. I have no idea how to cook for myself or my kids or find my way through the dog hair on my living room floor on some days, and yet sometimes, I feel guilty that I enjoy this new working-girl life as much as I do. Which is why taking advantage of a slow week to immerse myself in the kids’ last day of school felt like a vacation into old, comfy, familiar grooves of my recent former life.

After I fall out of wheelbarrow and we all land in the grass like puppies, the kids end up together in a grove of pine trees and I rest in the shade. Other moms mill around or plop in the grass near me, little girls stop by to throw their arms around my neck for quick hugs, there are scraped knees and makeshift rope swings.

“What are you guys working on?” I ask the kids, who are collaborating like bees, with great purpose.

“Oh, we’re collecting sap to make glue,” Max says. “We’re going to sell it to the glue factory.”

“And we’re gonna be rich!” Charlie adds. “Oh! Guys! I found a ton of sap up here! Quick! Somebody pass me a pinecone!”

Six first graders and one five-year-old Kip bustle around collecting pinecones and coating them in sap from the upper branches of the pine tree. There’s tapping of twigs against tree trunks, faux drilling and branch bending. It reminds me of the kind of play we did as kids—totally unstructured and improvisational, full of outrageous ideas that seem totally feasible and promise ultimate triumph. Play with a vision.

“We’re going to sell all the sap to the glue factory, use the money to buy a couple other companies that make us even more money and we’ll become so rich that we all go live in a mansion!” Charlie tells me superfast on the drive home.

“What will you guys have at your mansion, buddy?” I ask.

“Machine guns! And a pool.”

I laugh. The audacity of it all! The innocence! The joy. It’s back again. I text Brian: “So happy I’m with the boys today. I hope you’re having a great morning!”

Pure joy.

With any luck, at least until my next adventures in being broken open again, because it’s rarely just a once-in-a-lifetime thing, after all, the joy will stick around for a while. At the very least, it’s deeper than it ever was before. At long last.

Part 2: Context-free excerpts from my Vancouver journal

I had the chance to get away in November. Getting away is good for everyone, and I really needed it. My rock-solid friends, Amin and Gary, invited me to stay with them in Vancouver. And they gave me the grand tour. Food, hiking, biking, strolling, arts, cooking, shopping and exploring. We didn’t slow down but to sleep at night, and it was a magnificent gift. Following is Part 2 in a series of journal excerpts from the long weekend away. 

Watching water lap against smooth rocks at Deep Cove.

Watching water lap against smooth boulders at Deep Cove.

Day 2 –midmorning, Vancouver

As Amin and I drove to the trailhead at Deep Cove for a hike this morning, convertible top down and coats zipped, I looked up into the sky, where unusual November sun filtered through the cedars. That mountain road, those sun-laced trees and the easy silence as Amin drove had us both feeling such peace.

In the next moment, Kylie Minogue came on Amin’s ipod and, though he rushed to find a better song for our reverie, I stopped him because, well, it was a remix. We commenced car dancing. And laughing.

We were headed for the trees. The glorious, sky-high cedars and firs who’ve lived longer than my great-great-greatest grandparent. We crossed the Capilano Suspension bridge and went way high up into their canopy.

About to cross the Capilano Suspension bridge.

About to cross the Capilano Suspension bridge.

The oldest trees, I learned, their bark is thick enough to withstand a forest fire. We hiked over their roots, which cover the ground in a squiggly pattern of wood emerging from dirt, and unlike most other hiking trails I’ve ever walked, our feet made no sound when treading. Not like the crunch-crunch-crunch of decomposed granite. Soft, deep, dark, needle-paved earth. I could almost feel the forest around me saying, “We got you, Emily. We got you.”

magical rainforest

To quote Robert Louis Stevenson: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”

The peace of nature was interrupted by the squawking of a large group of tourists, presumably a big, extended family taking an adventure in the woods. At the top of the trail, on a rock outcropping overlooking Deep Cove, Vancouver and the Pacific, five twentysomethings from the group cackled and screeched loudly as they sat overlooking a scene that, to me, inspired reverence and reflection. And silence. But they didn’t stop talking the entire time Amin and I sat there. All I could do was laugh. And I laughed so hard. Here I was in the mountains to recharge and revel in their stillness and the everpresent soundtrack is the high-pitched, uneven cadence of valley girl Chinese.

Amin atop the peak of the Deep Cove trail.

Amin atop the peak of the Deep Cove trail.

Earlier in the hike, shortly after passing a sign informing us of bridgework being done, we heard the sounds of indie rock echoing from a creek bed. Moments later, we approached five young Carhartt-clad forestry guys sawing and hammering a new passageway across the stream, rocking out to Liz Phair. We looked at each other and laughed. Between the loud tourists and the blaring boombox, it was all paradox.

And then there was the angry bearded gentleman cursing at his toy 4×4 truck as he hoisted it off the ground with one hand, clutching a remote control in his other. “Fuck!” he yelled at his truck. Perhaps it had tipped over? Not weathered the terrain as he’d hoped? “Go ahead.” He growled and moved out of the way for us to pass.

“This is not the experience I had planned for you,” Amin said apologetically.

“No, it’s perfect!” I said, and I meant it. Because a.) I was with an amazing friend, b.) the richest experiences, they are almost always layered, and c.) it reminded me not to be attached to my own ideas of what something should be, but to accept what is. Perfect.

After our hike, a stint relaxing on the banks of Deep Cove and a few bites of a honey maple donut (aw, yeah), we drove back into the city to eat a late lunch at Japadog—Hot Doug’s Asian cousin—where various types of sausages are slathered in Japanese-style toppings like seaweed, teriyaki, yakisoba and bonito flakes. My fries were drizzled in a shoyu-butter sauce. I was so very, very in my element.

Yay, Terimayo!

Me. In my element. This is the Terimayo, y’all.

Full and happy, we came home, Amin worked quietly in his office and I fell asleep on their couch to the tick-tick-ticking of his keyboard, blanketed in the setting sun, a lush throw and the sheen off English Bay.

Good thing I got a nap because Amin capped our blissful day with sushi at Kingyo Izakaya and tickets to Flashdance the musical that night. Totally spoiled.

Good thing I got a nap because Amin capped our blissful day in the outdoors with sushi at Kingyo Izakaya and tickets to Flashdance the musical that night. Totally spoiled. And how ’bout that outstanding photobomb in the background?! Thumbs up to you, too, friend.

My body and I swim a race, have a breakthrough.

Early morning stillness on Lake Michigan last Sunday before the 2014 North Shore Triathlon.

Early morning stillness on Lake Michigan last Sunday before the 2014 North Shore Triathlon.

Saturday night I sat in a hot salty bath with nerves in my tummy over an email I’d just received from one of my swim team friends.

Hi Emily;

I went to the pre race meeting this afternoon.  They said that depending on the water temp and waves tomorrow morning we may not be swimming.  Instead we will do a 1.5 mi run in place of the swim if it is called off.  Just wanted to give you a heads up.  See you tomorrow.  I will be there by 5:30-6.

Toussaint

Is this some kind of cruel joke? I don’t run. I signed up to swim the first leg of a triathlon relay—not run. Running hurts my shins, like, a lot. I have a recurring nightmare in which I try to run and I can’t. In dreams and on earth, I’m not that good at running. And I don’t like doing things I’m not good at. (I know, get over yourself, Emily.)

So I did what I always do when I’m anxious—made myself busy. Packing my bag, returning texts and emails, filling water bottles, digging out a sports bra, doing dishes, searching for my very old running shoes…

And then I noticed my shoulders felt a little sore from a dryland workout two nights before, so I filled my tub with the hottest water I could stand, poured cup after cup of Epsom salts and a few drops of Eucalyptus oil into it, lit a candle and sunk beneath the surface for a good 30 minutes.

I do a lot of my processing submerged in hot water in darkened bathrooms. And, in this particular session, I had an actual chat with my body:

“Hey, legs. Thanks for being there. So… you may end up having to run tomorrow. I know we’ve been planning to swim in some really cold water—and thanks for being ready for that—but I just want to give you a heads up that the water might be too cold, and we might be running instead. Did you hear that, knees? I know you’re not really used to running, so how do you feel about this? I don’t want to do anything you don’t feel like you can do, so let me ask you, legs, knees, hips and body, are you cool with a 1.5-mile run?”

Then it happened. My body talked back. Like an instant message in my brain:

“Girl, look at us,” my legs said. “Of course we are cool with a 1.5-mile run. We can do that. You can do that. We’ll have fun together.”

“Wow, legs! Thanks!” I replied. “I promise to take reeeally good care of you all day afterward, regardless of whether we swim or run. Thank you so much for being up for anything, body. I’m so grateful to you.”

I woke at 4:45 a.m. and, in my walk to Betsy’s house, saw a woman in a peach party dress closing the car door while her nicely dressed male companion puked in the gutter. I love a late night, but I was surprised to discover I was much happier being on the early riser end this morning.

Amanda, Betsy and I mug for the camera in the wee, chilly hours.

Amanda, Betsy and I huddle up in the wee, chilly hours.

We drove in darkness to Wilmette, where we learned the swim was still on, so I pulled up my wetsuit and tried to wait till the last minute possible to remove my shoes. On the beach, the sand was extra cold. I overheard that the water was 52 degrees, just one degree over the cutoff for a swim cancellation. Crowds were gathering—600 people, to be exact. Almost everyone was smiling, or laughing, about what they were about to do. I was excited. And nervous. All the women looked so fit, so strong, so young. What if I couldn’t hang with them?

600 athletes gathered on the beach before the North Shore Triathlon last Sunday.

Swimmers begin gathering on the beach before the North Shore Triathlon, in which nearly 600 athletes competed last Sunday.

I watched four waves of male swimmers enter Lake Michigan before me and no one shrieked in pain or turned back from the chill. Then my wave was called. I waded in, water seeped through my wetsuit. I lost my breath, and then it felt invigorating as I bobbed among the others. “So do we just swim right this way, following the buoys all the way down?” I asked to no one in particular, probably super annoying, but I’m a double-checker from way back.

“You can swim wherever you want,” sassed an agro young thing who’d pushed her way to the front like she owned the race. Ok, Sassy Agro Chick, I thought.

The starter megaphoned “go!” and we took off. I resisted the urge to grab her foot and yank her back at the sound of the start. Turns out Sassy Agro Chick was hella fast. So I made sure to draft off of her. I got kicked or elbowed a couple times by bodies in the crowd at the start, but about 100 yards in, Sassy Agro Chick and I had broken away from the others.

Six, maybe seven strokes in, I started questioning my decision. The 52-degree water rushing over my head, in my ears, in my mouth, around my face…it was all so much worse than even the coldest June morning at Ad Astra. But I can’t let Sassy Agro Chick get too far ahead of me, I thought. Body, let’s do this!

We did it! Next year, we think we may do the whole thing.

We did it! And now my body and I are going to start training for all three legs next summer.

One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. I put my face down and plodded forth, counting strokes to try to stay focused. Occasionally, I popped my head up to see where I was—and to make sure I still drafting off Sassy Agro Chick. Soon we were mingling with the men who’d started two minutes before us and I eventually fell off her trail in the crowd. My arms were in shock. The cold was all-consuming. My shoulders could barely rotate. I felt as though I was clawing at the water in an eccentric dog paddle. I kicked harder, relying on my legs to move me along. A couple times, I paused for a breaststroke break, saying aloud, “This is absolutely crazy. What am I doing?”

Each time, my body talked back, “We’re doing a race. So, c’mon. Get your head back down and let’s race.”

The whole thing is a real-deal blur. It was only 500 yards, and what ultimately took me 6 minutes, 44 seconds is an icy haze. I rounded the last buoy, swam till it was shallow enough to walk, immediately yanked off my cap and goggles and started running up the beach, catching sight of my family on the way. Both boys and Brian had just arrived at the sidelines and were intently searching the crowds for me. I heard Brian say, “Boys, keep an eye out for Mommy.”

“Heeeeey!!! You’re here! Hi, guys!” I called joyfully as I jogged toward them (you’ve seen Baywatch, right? Totally what I looked like.) Charlie’s eyes lit up, Kip’s face cracked into a huge smile and Brian looked excited, and relieved, that he hadn’t missed me.

I emerged from the cold water to cheering, kisses and nuzzles on dry land.

I emerged from the cold water to cheering, kisses and nuzzles on dry land.

“Goooo, Mommy! Go, Mommy!” Charlie and Kip cheered as I passed them. Seeing their animated faces gave me the jolt of energy I needed to run uphill in the cold, squishy mud a quarter mile to the transition area. Once there, I clumsily ripped off my timing chip, almost falling down in the process, and handed it over to Betsy for the bike leg. She took off quick and my boys soon joined me, covering me in nuzzles, hugs, kisses and more cheers. “Yay, Mommy!” they said. “You look so strong, Mommy. Did you swim fast, Mommy?”

The fam loves on me after my race leg.

The fam loves on me after my race leg. Sharing the post-race glow with my kids was the best feeling ever.

Turns out I swam fast enough to place third overall for women in the swim, which was exceedingly gratifying for this old bird, even if Sassy Agro Chick did beat me. And then Betsy rocked a stellar bike leg, followed by Amanda’s mind-blowingly fast 22-minute 5K. As relays go, we placed second, beating out a team of 20-something guys and ceding victory to a charming trio of men, one of whom looked startlingly like Bill Compton (any True Blood fans out there?), so I was ok with it.

Standing around by the finish line eating bananas, drinking coffee, chatting with new acquaintances and old friends was dreamy. I got to watch a couple of my favorite swimpals, Joe and Toussaint, cross the finish line for the full triathlon, a scene that brought me so much joy I’m going to start training for one myself. They absolutely rocked their races and it filled me up to watch them doing their thing.

Toussaint and Joe, my masters team swimpals, flank me after they nail their tri.

Toussaint and Joe, my masters team swimpals, flank me at the finish line after they nail their triathlons.

All day, I found myself straight-up reveling in what my body and I had just done together. It was a breakthrough day for us. Like any relationship, we have our ups and downs, but my body and me, well, I think we’re starting to find our groove.

Instead of fixating on my various body neuroses, including the stretch marks my sons proudly tell me they created, my interior monologue was saying, “Right on, Bod. You are so amazing.”

To which my body replied, through happy tears, “Thank you so much for finally noticing.”

This is minutes before my body and I put our wetsuit to the test in 52-degree water.

This is minutes before my body and I put our wetsuit to the test in 52-degree water. And, in case anyone’s wondering, hell yes, I was wearing lip gloss.

Spiritual bootcamp, here I come (ready or not.)

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This is wee Charlie and me a few years ago. Fast forward to now. This weekend, during my free time, I’ll find a nice spot on the grass and park myself here to meditate. Wish me luck.

I’ve just left behind my dogs, kids and husband, along with lists, labels and a logistical labyrinth of childcare arrangements to hop a plane to San Diego.

I’ve also just read 116 pages of a book without stopping—I don’t recall the last time I read 100 pages straight—and I got to hit the town for a late dinner with Marinita, an honest-to-God soul sister. Tomorrow I will see more beloved friends, including a beautiful new baby. I also get to see flowers, the color green and the Pacific Ocean. I should feel light and airy, ready to party, right?

But no. In the back of my mind is the real reason I’m on this plane right now: I’m here to meditate. Deeply, devotedly and for extended periods of time. Starting Friday afternoon, I’ll join other like-minded yogis and submit to the gentle guidance of the monks and nuns who will conduct the retreat I booked a couple months ago.

Sounds good, right? Meditation retreat. I mean, duh, yeah, it’ll be freaking awesome. When I leave. From the time I check into the retreat to the time I check out, though, it’s spiritual bootcamp.

Ok, I’ll say it: I’m straight-up anxious about this thing. I did it once before six years ago when I was pregnant with Charlie, so I know. There’s no spa, no yoga classes, no massage therapists and no champagne cocktails. There’s not even any talking. It’s potent and it’s wonderful. I’m equal parts apprehension and knowing. This is something I need to do. Like a tune-up for the soul.

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So…the last time I did a retreat like this was at the Lake Shrine in LA, and I was seven months pregnant. I booked some extra time with pals before checking into the retreat. At the time, Melissa, college roomie and friend extraordinaire, was studying the art of DJ-ness. She took me to Scratch DJ Academy, where she was taking classes, and showed me the art of the turntable. We treated Baby Charlie to a little scratching. Unfortunately, I retained no knowledge about DJ-ing that could possibly have made me heaps cooler today.

However it unfolds, it will be powerful, beautiful, restorative, energizing and essential. But it might suck.

Like a deep-tissue massage or a grueling myofascial session with my chiropractor, Dr. Dan Mossell, it’s not a pleasurable experience when I’m in it, but I keep going back for more because of how I feel when I leave. That’s kinda how a silent meditation retreat is. Hard-ass work, at least for a girl like me, to get quiet enough to tap into the Godforce, but once you’re in the flow, there’s no better feeling on the planet.

And so, with that lit-up, billion-watt soul high in my sights, I’ll check into a modest room on the grounds of the hermitage where my guru wrote Autobiography of a Yogi. The hermitage and gardens, which are glorious enough to beckon the immaculate Johnny Depp (my friend Joanie ran into him there once), are situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean and Swamis, an aptly named surf break. I’ll be served delicious Indian vegetarian meals three times a day, sleep in a simple dorm room, possibly share a bathroom with a stranger and follow a strict program of meditation that begins at 6:30 a.m. and continues till bedtime, with a couple breaks thrown in, all in silence.

I’m agreeing to forego the use of words, unplug the treadmill of my thoughts, still my body for loooong periods of time, turn my consciousness over to God and welcome whatever comes up without judgment or attachment.

Holy crap, that’s scary.

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When I get sick of meditating here, I can just hop up and snuggle a dog or grab a snack in the kitchen. At the  retreat, the only option is to stay put till the bell rings.

In theory, I do this on a daily basis. I sit on the bench in my little meditation nook and I do the practices I’ve learned from the teachings that resonate with me. I sit for anywhere from two minutes to an hour doing the techniques, including Kriya yoga. However, I get up whenever the heck I feel like it. If my mind wanders, I let it wander instead of guiding it back to the practices. If my head gets flooded with thoughts and to-dos, I take a break and write them down. If my body feels restless, I get up and do something else. When it comes to meditating, discipline is not my best party trick.

At the retreat, I’ll stay at the party no matter how badly I may want to leave. Either that or face the awkwardness of storming out of the low-lit chapel five minutes into a two-hour session struggling to breathe because I’m so exasperated by my own restlessness. (the last time I did one of these retreats, this is exactly what almost happened.)

Not that anyone would judge me for freaking out in the wilderness of an overactive mind—all sincere spiritual seekers have been there—but I’d just rather not make a scene, mmkay?

Say a little prayer for me as I go into this retreat? If you’re so inclined, send me good thoughts as I attempt to ride into the superconscious this weekend. If you would, pray that I experience the lasting peace that comes from deep, prolonged meditation and that I may emerge saturated in the ever-new joy of God’s love, with plenty of overflow to share with all my dear ones. Which includes you, obvi.

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I love this. Paramahansa Yogananda depicted on the wall of a local cafe in Encinitas. Surfing Swamis and superconsciousness.