Friday, June 15, 2018

#MomGoals

I imagine that pregnant ladies are very contemplative. Or at least I would be. Having taken the non-biological route to parenthood, I can't really say. But I think I'd probably spend a large part of those 9 months thinking about what sort of parent I want to be, what I want to teach my kid, the values I want to pass on, and reading every parenting tips book in the library (God knows I can use the advice). 

Instead, I've had sort of a parenthood "baptism by fire" and didn't have a lot of time to think about a lot of this stuff in advance--I was desperately hoping that D'Assise would someday be my child, but I was quite convinced it wasn't going to happen. In the past two years, I've had to do a lot of learning on the go and answer a lot of questions on the fly (How do you actually punish your kid? What is a reasonable bedtime? Should D'Assise be a vegetarian? Should I at least make him eat his broccoli?). 
I laughed when I saw this Onion article,"Expectant Parents Throw Some Values Together At Last Minute": 

"With their baby daughter due to arrive any day now, expectant couple Drew and Francesca Mott have reportedly been scrambling this week to cobble together a working system of ethical principles and moral values they can pass along to their first child. “We kept putting off building a set of prescriptive personal beliefs, but now we’re down to the wire and still haven’t hammered out firm attitudes toward right and wrong, self-discipline, generosity, table manners, personal integrity, or any of that,” said the soon-to-be father as he and his wife quickly attempted to slap together a coherent worldview encompassing the basic nature of mankind, one’s obligations to others as human beings, and what defines a well-lived life."


Over the past two years, most of my thinking about what kind of parent I want to be happens in the brief seconds before my head hits the pillow at the end of the day. But as a kid, there were two parents that I idolized in movies: Miss Honey, from the movie Matilda, and Elizabeth James, the Mom from The Parent Trap. As a young '90s kid, they were my definition of #MomGoals. 

Miss Honey from Matilda is now 50 but hasn't changed a day
Miss Honey, badass extraordinaire. (image source) 

Elizabeth James, the one and only. (image source)

Let's talk about Miss Honey for a second. 
image source
In my seven year old mind, Miss Honey was my adult idol. I wanted to be exactly like her when I grew up. Not only was she the best teacher ever despite her truly tragic past, she was gentle and kind, but also totally badass at the same time--standing up to Miss Trunchbowl and Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and pulling Matilda out of the chokey. She also lived in a cute little cottage surrounded by wildflowers, hosted tea parties, and let Matilda go rollerskating inside the house. 

Miss Honey (image source)
Elizabeth James. 
parent-trap-disneyscreencaps.com-4798
(image source)
Part of this might have been my fierce desire to have a twin (it took me until around age 10 to realize that it wasn't gonna happen), but Elizabeth James from The Parent Trap was the definition of a cool Mom in my book (that is, before Amy Poehler showed up in Mean Girls). She was a glamorous wedding dress designer in London, she brought her daughter into the photo shoots to pose with the models, and she had an awesome butler. Her one flaw was that she clearly didn't realize that divorcing a California vineyard owning, wine-collecting babe was a bad idea (Lizzy, honey, what were you thinking?). 
(image source)
Recently I realized that both Miss Honey and Elizabeth James are single mothers as well. Ok, at least until the very end of the Parent Trap, when (spoiler alert!) Elizabeth James falls back in love with Nick Parker. Miss Honey is even an adoptive single Mom like me. 

I started asking myself what made these two prototypes stand out so clearly in my head as a young girl, and I think what really impressed me as a kid was how much time they spent with their children (alright, shipping your daughter off to a six week summer camp on another continent notwithstanding) and just how much fun they had together. There's a line at the end of Matilda after she gets adopted by Miss Honey that I really love: "Matilda found that life could be fun, and she decided to have as much of it as possible." 


Ignoring the fact that I seem to have questionably formed my parenting philosophy solely through '90s kids movies, spending quality time with D'Assise and just having fun together are definitely two of my parenting goals. Even though being a single Mama can be really, really tough sometimes, life with D'Assise has been a lot of fun. If E.E. Cummings is right that "the most wasted of all days is one without laughter", I don't think I've wasted a single one the past two years. Even when I was sick with malaria a few months ago, D'Assise tried to cheer me up by surprising me with mustache disguise glasses on, which made me laugh out loud. We have tickle wars and dance in our pajamas while brushing our teeth and speak in different accents to make each other laugh. 


In July, we'll be celebrating two years together as family, and I'm taking D'Assise to see the ocean for the first time on the Kenyan coast to celebrate (!!!) I may not have being a parent completely figured out (still haven't decided if I should make D'Assise eat his broccoli, plz help...), 

tumblr_nw6z3mXUD81s8as3do1_400
(image source)
...but I think have this having fun thing down alright. 



Saturday, May 26, 2018

We're Moving.

We're moving.

I've mulled this decision over and over (and over and over again) for a couple months, and I made the final decision a number of weeks ago now, but it feels so hard to actually type out those words and admit to my myself that it's actually happening. In August, D'Assise and I will be moving from Rubengera, in Rwanda's western countryside, to the capital city, Kigali. D'Assise has been struggling a bit at his school here, and the decision is purely based on sending him to a different school in Kigali, with smaller class sizes and an American curriculum.


I tried to find any other way that we would be able to keep living here while getting D'Assise more support in school, but I exhausted my options. Boarding him in Kigali would have been way too hard on me (I'm already freaking out about him going to college...in 10 years). After I finished my Peace Corps service and before I adopted D'Assise, I would only get to see him on weekends, and it was never enough. I felt like he was growing up too fast and I was missing everything. Getting him additional tutoring also wasn't really an option: his school day is currently 7 am until 5 pm, and then he gets tutored in French for an hour after he gets home from school already, which leaves little time for any additional tutoring. Moving to Kigali made the most sense when I considered his best interests long-term.


* * *
Even though the decision has been made and I have a house and school set up for us in Kigali, and I'll luckily be continuing in my same job, I can't help but think to myself, "This wasn't the plan."


 The initial plan was to live in rural Western Rwanda until D'Assise went into high school, and then to make the move to the city. When I adopted D'Assise, I carefully weighed whether to stay in southwestern Rwanda near the Congo border, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer and where D'Assise grew up, or to move to Rubengera, where we currently live now in western Rwanda, or to move to Kigali. My friend Diana even made a detailed decision matrix with these three location options, with different weighting for various important factors (although if my memory serves me well, "proximity to Auntie Diana" was the most heavily weighted factor). To be honest, I feel a little bit guilty about the move--like I should have chosen better when I initially adopted him. 


I think this decision has been so difficult because so many things about our life right now are truly wonderful, and both D'Assise and I are happy exactly where we are. We have a small house that really feels like our home. If I could pick this three-room house up and move it with us everywhere for the rest of our life, I probably would.

A few pictures of our little house




It's one of the most beautiful natural settings I've ever seen, with lush, rolling green hills, stunning sunsets over Lake Kivu, and lightning rippling over the Congo mountains in the distance at night.

I mean....come on
My office is literally a five minute walk away from our house, and I feel fulfilled in so many ways here, professionally and personally.
Office views 
D'Assise also has so much freedom here--I don't worry about setting up play dates for him or about him getting hit by a car. He can do what he wants on weekends as long as he's back by dark, and he often spends Saturdays exploring the nearby hills and forests, or playing basketball with his friends. It's hard to walk away from a happy place.


* * *
I have a lot of worries about our move, even though deep down I know it will probably all be fine. How will D'Assise handle the move (he's never lived in a city before)? Will he like his new school? Will he make new friends? Will I make new friends?



One of my biggest fears is parenting by myself. I realized the other day that I have never parented alone even though I've been a single mom for nearly two years now, and D'Assise has lived in a community his entire life. At the convent, D'Assise had 9 parents including the nuns and myself, and here in our compound, there are about 25 community members. Most of our meals are cooked and eaten communally, and every Friday night is spent at pizza night with my friends and colleagues. I'm not sure I remember how to cook for less than 15 people.

D'Assise "helping" make pizza at Friday pizza night
It was this amazing community in Rubengera that welcomed D'Assise and I in our first two years as family. It was here that we celebrated the adoption, surrounded by friends and colleagues. If I need to work late, there's always someone around to keep an eye on D'Assise. When I got malaria last year and was bedridden for about a week, my friends here made sure everything was okay with D'Assise and brought me food. 

When D'Assise is feeling grumpy, a community member is nearly always able to cheer him up. Last week, D'Assise told me one night that he really wanted to make guacamole for communal dinner the next day. I completely forget the following day and made some myself, and D'Assise was devastated when he walked into the kitchen. I tried telling him that it was okay and that he could make guacamole next time, but he was on the verge of tears and I couldn't manage to cheer him up. Thinking quickly, I told D'Assise he could make some more, and whispered to my friends to act psyched when he brought it to the table. They went along with it, and D'Assise couldn't stop talking about how everyone loved his guacamole. Community members for the win!

On the bright side, a lot of my worries about the move have been calmed by the fact that D'Assise is probably the most chill kid alive (and definitely more chill than his mother) and has an incredible ability to roll with the punches. I fretted for a couple weeks over how to tell him we were moving (should I take him on a walk? On our morning bike ride to school? Should I be serious or just casually drop it into our conversation?). Then one morning, I talked to our tutor/nanny about moving to Kigali with us and asked him not to tell D'Assise about the move yet because I hadn't told him. Something was clearly lost in translation because that day I came home from work and the very first words out of D'Assise's mouth were, "WE'RE MOVING TO KIGALI?!"



Oops.

I was caught off guard, but asked D'Assise how he felt about moving.

"GREAT, NEW FRIENDS!"he replied, absolutely beaming.

"Will you miss your old friends?" I asked, thinking of how hard it was for me to move as a kid.

"Yeah, but I'm going to make a lot of new ones too," he replied nonchalantly.

Here's to missing old friends and this fantastic community, but making new friends (and strengthening existing friendships!)



Kigali, brace yourself. We're coming for ya. 




Saturday, May 19, 2018

The One and a Half Culture Kid

It wasn't until I became an expat that I heard the phrase "Third Culture Kid"for the first time. For the uninitiated, Third Culture Kids, or TCKs for short, are kids whose parents are from one culture but who grow up in another culture that neither parent is from.


After spending this past December with D'Assise in the U.S. with my family for the second part of my maternity leave, I've wondered what the appropriate terminology would be for his situation. He's not a Third Culture Kid, because's he's growing up in his own culture, surrounded by people who look like him and speak the same language. But he's also not just a Rwandan kid, either. He's adopted certain American mannerisms and tastes through me. I decided that the appropriate term is probably a One and a Half Culture Kid, an interesting amalgam of both, but not quite fully a Two Culture Kid since we've never lived together in the U.S. before.

Santa Claus: D'Assise is still dubious 
The "one" is for his inherited Rwandan culture. He is, and always will be, Rwandan. His favorite foods are still Rwandan classics like rice and beans, boiled potatoes, and boiled green bananas. When I first adopted him, I tried to send him with an American packed lunch like I grew up with (sandwiches, sliced apples, etc), but his lunch bag came back full every day. Finally, he just told me that he missed having Rwandan food and asked if he could get lunch at school each day.

D'Assise dressed as a traditional Rwandan intore dancer at a friend's wedding
The "half culture" is American culture that he's taken in through me, our American friends and colleagues, and visits to the U.S. (he's spent about 15 weeks in the US over the past year and a half).  D'Assise has taken a liking to some American foods, like pancakes on the weekends and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, just like your average American nine year old kid. He's been sucked in to the world of American sports (although perhaps this is because of the influence of my friend Jeremy, who happily shows him Mets baseball games at every available opportunity...). His English is getting pretty close to fluent and he laces his sentences with Americanisms like "you guys", although he still sometimes structures his sentences in the way that they would be structured in Kinyarwanda, his native tongue (for example, asking "We will go where today?" instead of "Where will we go today?").
Pancakes: D'Assise is 100% on board. 

* * *
He's walking sort of in the middle of these two cultures, not fully in either one. Like many Rwandan kids, he eats some bananas for breakfast each morning, but unlike most Rwandan kids, he eats them with a healthy smear of peanut butter. His song requests when we play cards in the evening are sometimes African artists (Sauti Sol, the Ben, Miriam Makeba, P Square) and sometimes American jams (The Supremes, Lizzo, Beyonce, Macklemore).

A few weeks ago, as we were playing "Guess Who?" before going to bed, D'Assise said something that highlighted his unique position. In between turns, he said, "When we go to America, everyone asks me about Rwanda, and they don't know what it's like. When I'm in Rwanda, I talk to my friends at school about America, about the Children's Museum and the Zoo and ice cream and ice skating and the big ferris wheel, but they don't understand either."

D'Assise trying out ice skating in December
All of this has made me think about the parts of each culture that I want him to inherit, and other parts of each culture that I want him to question. I love that Rwandan culture values community and family so much. Many celebrations just involve spending time with loved ones, and life moves a lot more slowly here in many ways. Yet I also love the energy and drive and tenacity of Americans. I love the amazing fusion of American food and music and art and literature that result from having such a wonderfully diverse country.

* * *
The three most challenging things in navigating this one and a half culture kid situation as a mother who comes from only half of that equation have been how I parent when Rwandan and American culture diverges on how to display affection, crying, and corporal punishment.

The first challenge has been how Rwandans and American differ in expressing our love. Generally speaking, compared to Rwandans, most Americans are pretty open with our emotions and showing and telling people we love that we love them. It's a normal thing in America for mothers to kiss their children, for instance. At funerals I have gone to in America, attendees are often encouraged to hug their loved ones a little closer, and advice columns in American newspapers always advise telling people you love how much you love them before it's too late. My parents told me (and still tell me) "I love you," almost every single day (probably a bit more than normal, but I digress). Below are actual screenshots of a normal messaging conversations between my Mom and I:



This is pretty much the opposite of Rwandan culture. I don't mean to say that Rwandans don't love each other, just that Americans and Rwandans often express it differently. One example to illustrate this point: every single one of my grown Rwandan friends have said that if they were talking to their parents on the phone and said "I love you Dad", their Dad would immediately ask them if they were literally dying or if they urgently needed money. When I talk to my own Dad on the phone and tell him that I love him, his response is almost always, "I love you more!"

Naturally, the cultural divide on emotional openness and displays of affection has been sort of confusing to D'Assise. As an American parent, I say "I love you" about three billion times per day to D'Assise (including multiple extremely embarrassing variations of that, like "I love you more than you'll ever know" and "I love you more than all of the cheese in the world."). I think I say "I love you" even more than I would to my own biological child because I wake up every day feeling like I've won the lottery. The chances of us getting to be a family were infinitesimally, almost impossibly, small, but here we are as a family, six years after first meeting. But for D'Assise, this is kind of weird. He's asked me before, "Why do you need to say I love you every day when I already know how much you love me?" To most Rwandans I know, it doesn't necessarily need to be said, it's just understood.

Even though it's impossible for me to stop telling him how much I love him, I have tried to respect his wishes about other forms of affection. He never likes me to kiss him, whether in public or just at our house, because "none of my friends' Moms ever kiss them." This sort of breaks my Mama heart, but at the end of the day I want to respect that. Hugs are somehow still cool though, and sometimes he'll just ask me for a hug at the end of the day, and it makes my American heart burst.


* * *
The second thing that has been challenging parenting my little one and half culture kid has been differing views on crying and talking through difficult emotional topics. This might sound dumb, but I actually think about it a lot. In my six years in Rwanda, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen Rwandans cry. This includes attending genocide remembrance ceremonies, hearing testimonials from close friends about their own harrowing experiences during the genocide and its aftermath, and funerals. Even when D'Assise was just a toddler, if he ever cried for any reason, the nuns would slap him in the face and say, "Don't cry. Only weak people cry." This was not at all unusual. The cultural norm in Rwanda is that crying (especially for men, and especially in public) is taboo. I've definitely witnessed this in the U.S. as well, but to a much greater extent in Rwanda.


Stoicism, keeping a stiff upper lip, and not necessarily expressing emotion are valued much more highly in Rwanda than they are in America (there's a Rwandan comic who has a sketch about how the difference between American friends and Rwandan friends is that you can be friends with an American for five minutes and know all about their love life, their divorce, their battle with cancer, and you can be friends with a Rwandan for five years and not know their last name).

I want D'Assise to know that I don't have any tolerance for being dramatic or a crybaby, like pretending to be hurt in soccer to get attention when he's not really hurt or whining when he doesn't get his way, but that there is absolutely nothing wrong with crying if you're feeling overwhelmed or sad. There is no harm in talking about how you're feeling with someone you trust; this is not a sign of weakness. When I try to talk to the nuns about this, they scoff at me and say that I'm going to raise a weak man, but I am more afraid of creating a man who suppresses his own emotions and bottles everything up and can't talk about it. I hope he questions the pressure for people, (men especially) to be un-emotional and strong, to not ever cry or to rarely share feelings.


* * *
A third cultural difference is on corporal punishment. While people in my parents' generation or grandparents' generation would likely have experienced corporal punishment when they were kids, I think there has been a sea change in American culture, and I know very few people in my generation who say they would ever beat their children. I personally could never in a million years beat D'Assise, no matter what he does. I just wouldn't have the heart to ever do it, nor do I think it's actually effective.


However, corporal punishment is definitely the norm in Rwanda today. The only fight I ever got in with the nuns I lived with at my Peace Corps site was when D'Assise was just three. One of the nuns had just brought in a larger pitcher of fresh milk from our cows, and just minutes later, our resident convent toddler knocked it over, smashing the pitcher and splattering the milk everywhere. Although the American aphorism teaches us not to cry over spilt milk, our Mother Superior picked up a stick and began beating poor D'Assise with it. Tears streamed down his little face and he began crying out for mercy. I stood between my Mother Superior and told her to stop it. I couldn't bear watching him getting beaten for something that was just a mistake and that he was too young to understand.

My Mother Superior paused, utterly shocked at why I was standing in between her and D'Assise. It was this moment of complete cultural confusion. To her, I was spoiling the child by sparing the rod--he needed to be beaten to show him not to do it again. To me, an innocent three year old was getting the stuffing knocked out of him for doing what three year olds do, and I was horrified.

D'Assise at three <3
Even now, six years later, I had to send D'Assise to school with a note that said "Please don't beat my child. Thank you." It's common for teachers to use corporal punishment on kids who are late to school or who misbehave in class. My nanny once asked me if I could give her permission to beat D'Assise when he did something wrong (I had forbidden her to ever lay a hand on him). I don't know if this is something that is going to change anytime soon in Rwanda; most Rwandans in my generation also say they would use corporal punishment on their kids. For the moment, I think D'Assise is happy to agree with my American views on this particular topic.





Saturday, February 3, 2018

Nightswimming. Or, Watch Out 2018.

Finally, it was my very last full day at the yoga retreat center. The time had gone much more quickly than I had anticipated. I had reserved my last day for writing about the future: How can I be my best self in 2018? Should I stay in Rwanda for another year? Another five years? Forever? What's best for D'Assise? What are my long-term goals? What do I want to do with this time that I have on earth? How can I be a good Mama to D'Assise and rock it at my job and have a social life and stay in some semblance of shape and get enough sleep and not drive myself insane (just keeping it real over here, guys)?

Of all the topics on my list of 33 things, writing about the future was by far the toughest. Unlike the past, it did not involve rote transcription of memories from the past year. Unlike the present, it did not involve gazing inward at my current self. Writing about the future involved Decisions with a capital D. Decisions that would affect not just me, but also the life of my son. And Decisions are tough.

I slowly knocked them down one by one, pausing to take swimming breaks and to go to my three yoga classes that day.



I made a few resolutions for 2018:
1) Do more yoga (is this too obvious of a resolution to write while at a yoga retreat...?)
2) Read more books (give me your recommendations!)
3) Read more books with D'Assise (chapter books, here we come!)
4) Cook more small group dinners and host more parties at my house this year.
5) Listen more, talk less.
6) Smile politely when (mostly single, mostly childless, mostly well-meaning) people give me unsolicited parenting advice. Two small public service announcements: a) when I want advice on how to raise my kid, I'll ask for it and b) The only people I take unsolicited parenting advice from are my own parents, since they raised me and lived to tell the tale, and my two grandmas, who raised 7 and 8 kids before microwaves and disposable diapers were a thing.
7) Cultivate gratitude more. Make sure to tell all the amazing people in my life how much I love + appreciate them often.
8) Give zero fucks when someone doesn't want to date me because I have a kid, and never let myself feel guilty, inferior, frustrated, or disappointed, even for the briefest of micro-seconds. Dating for the first time as a single Mama last year was sort of a rude awakening for me. In the car ride on the way to our adoption hearing, one of my lawyer's questions to me was, "You are now single. What if you get married and your husband does not accept D'Assise?" I literally laughed out loud it was such a ridiculous question. It was completely unfathomable to me that having an (awesome, energetic, hilarious) kid who is literally the biggest joy in my life and the best thing that ever happened to me would ever be a reason someone wouldn't want to date me, but I quickly realized how naive I was last year. No matter how it started, as soon as I would reveal that I'm a parent, things quickly came to an end. In 2018, I'm just not going to care. I have everything that I could have ever asked for or wanted in life by getting the chance to be D'Assise's Mom.
9) Do the things I'm afraid to do.

                 
* * * 

By the end of that day, I had nearly finished the journal I'd brought with me. I went to my last evening yoga class. I laid in savasana, the final resting posture, for long after the class ended, just feeling the warm ocean breeze on my face, and trying to hang onto the feeling of being completely rejuvenated and calm. I went up to my last dinner in the beautiful cafe, and then returned to my little beachside house. I sat on my porch, gazing at the stars and thinking about my resolutions (and trying not to think about my 40 something hour flight back to Rwanda) for a few hours.

View from my porch!
I knew that the next morning, I was going to attend the two-hour early morning yoga class, pack up my room, and then head to the airport to catch my flight, and that I wouldn't have enough time to go for one last swim. This was it, my last chance to go for one final swim before returning to the landlocked life in Rwanda. I felt the same mix of sadness and nostalgia that I felt in my childhood at our last day swimming in the cold Atlantic waters before returning to Nebraska. I wanted to go for one last dip. The only problem was that it was around 2 am. And I'm terrified of swimming at night.

This is mostly because I have a huge fear of sharks, which I blame on having been shown Jaws at far too tender an age; that opening scene pretty much ruined me for ever considering the idea of swimming at night.

Nonetheless, I found myself slipping into my swimsuit and slipping out of my room, walking down the path lined with palm trees towards the hidden beach. I took off my sandals on the shore and felt the cool sand underneath my feet. The moonlight lit up the shoreline and the stars gleamed bright above. As a little girl, my Dad would always point out the constellations he knew at night, making us find the North Star and the Big and Little Dippers and even Orion. Orion was always my favorite to locate. Orion's belt is made up of three stars called the Three Sisters, and being one of three sisters myself, I always imagined myself as that middle star in his belt, millions of miles away.

As my toes dipped into the water, my brain started to freak out a little bit, going through a rapid fire list of reasons that this was a bad idea. "There could be sharks, and you're afraid of sharks! You're not even with a slower-swimming friend, so you would definitely get eaten! Are saltwater crocodiles a thing in Thailand? That would be an extremely painful death! It's 2 am and you should go to bed so that you're well rested for the yoga class tomorrow!"

I kept inching into the lightly lapping waves, and my mind grew ever more desperate to prevent me from going further. "If you get stung by a jellyfish there will be no one to pee on you!!!!!!" it finally pleaded exasperatedly, and I laughed out loud at my mind's ridiculous last-ditch effort.

I located the Three Sisters in the sky above me, and plunged into the dark water. It was a pure and utter rush, feeling the cool saltwater surround me and being guided only by the moonlight. I didn't stay in long or swim very far from the beach, but my heart was still racing when I got back to shore.

Resolution #9: Check.

* * *
The next morning, I woke up early for my final two hour class, a bit bedraggled from my night swimming adventures of the night before. I knew that in just a few more hours, my silence would come to an end and I'd be free. But as I packed up my little room after the challenging morning class, it felt like leaving both paradise and prison. Part of me wanted to run as fast as I could to the exit and yell at the top of my lungs, and part of me wanted to linger, unsure of what to do now that the prison door was open. 

It felt like paradise in that I was living in an idyllic little beach banda on an island in Thailand, removed from the stresses of real life and any responsibilities whatsoever. I spent my days writing and swimming and doing up to five hours of yoga a day. I was sleeping so well that I had vivid dreams every single night, and my coffee consumption went from drinking an entire French press every day to just a small cup at breakfast (as D'Assise would say, the struggle is real). 

The cute cafe where I'd have breakfast and just one cup of coffee :)
It felt like a prison in that I had been living with a strict set of rules the past six days: no talking, no listening to music, no phone, no computer, no alcohol, yoga classes three times per day. Although I'd felt tempted, I resisted the urge to get to know my fellow yogis, avoided small talk in favor of smiles and nods, resisted the urge to bolt out of down dog pose and explore the rest of the island, and struggled through the no-music rule, often finding myself playing songs in my head during the week. I had longed to break almost of the rules I'd set for myself during that week. 

I ended up breaking silence three times during the week. Two were intentional (mass and talking to D'Assise halfway through to make sure he was doing okay), and once was unintentional. On the third day, my sunscreen supplies had run out, and I was in desperate need of a re-stock. I headed to the mini-mart across the street from the yoga retreat center and braced myself for the exorbitant price of sunscreen. I walked the aisles and found a tiny bottle of sunscreen, about the size of my palm, with no price on it. Even though I had mentally prepared myself and my wallet to get price gouged, when the lady rang up the price and the screen flashed "570 baht" (about $18) I was so shocked I cursed out loud before I could stop myself, and then swore again when I realized that I'd just broken my vow of silence unintentionally over overpriced sunscreen. You win some, you lose some.

All in all, I felt pretty proud of myself with sticking through the silence nearly the whole time. Not being able to listen to music was a huge challenge. I realized how much of my normal everyday life is spent listening to music. In the mornings, I wake D'Assise up with either "Here Comes the Sun" by The Beatles, "Send Me on My Way" by Rusted Root, or "Take Care" by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx. We play a Beatles mix as I get his breakfast ready and he brushes his teeth, and then I put my playlists on random as we bike to school while blaring our bluetooth speaker (partially to actually listen to the music and partially as a makeshift bike bell to let people know we're coming through). I listen to music as I work, and then I turn on a nighttime mix with Bon Iver and The XX and Belle & Sebastian on it when D'Assise and I play a quick card game before going to bed. All in all, I'm probably listening to music for 80% of my waking hours, and the musical deprivation I felt during the yoga retreat was intense.

I ate my last breakfast at the retreat center and jumped into the waiting taxi to head to the airport. I was free at last. I asked the taxi driver if I could plug my phone into his stereo, and he agreed. I blasted Lizzo's "Water Me" as loud as he let me, sang along to the lyrics at the top of my lungs, and stuck my head out the window to dance at passerby like a total crazy person. "I am free, yeah, yeah, come water me...," I sang along to the main verse, the wind whipping my hair as we drove through the island's villages, until we reached the airport and the driver politely asked me if he could turn down the music to go through security and if I would mind coming back inside the car and rolling up the window.

So was the silent yoga retreat "worth it?" Hell yeah.
Did I have some huge revelations and make some tough decisions? Yep.
Was it one of the hardest things I've ever done? Also yes.

I'm starting 2018 relaxed and refreshed and rejuvenated and ready to take on the world.

Watch out 2018, I'm comin' for ya. 


In case you missed it:
Part 1: Into the Silence
Part 2: Your Work is Not Here

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Your Work is Not Here

When my hand would start cramping up from so much writing in my journal, I'd go for a swim in the crystalline blue bay to relax and clear my mind (or occasionally to ponder about my likelihood of developing serious carpal tunnel syndrome in my wrists, while floating on the gentle waves).



If I had a choice, I would choose to spend the majority of my waking hours in the ocean. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a landlocked state and still live in a landlocked country--the ocean is exotic to me, a rare resource that I'm never quite sure when I'll see again.

During my childhood, we would go on family vacations every other year to a beach on the New Hampshire seacoast. Let me remind you for a second that I'm from Nebraska. So my parents would take turns driving four kids, multiple beach floaties, fishing poles, my Dad's oldies mixtapes, food to last us until New Hampshire, and occasionally a grandma or dog packed into in our '90s minivan halfway across the country. Despite narrowly avoiding World War III on several occasions, there was no feeling like that first glimpse of the ocean as our minivan rounded King's Highway. Despite the brisk 60 degree New England water, my siblings and I would be at the beach from morning to sunset, coming in to sun ourselves on the rocks when our limbs went numb from swimming. I always felt a mix of sadness and nostalgia during my final swim on our last day at the beach, knowing that I was headed back to the Great Plains and wouldn't get to smell that powerful saltwater scent and feel the waves supporting my body for another two years.



My enchantment with the ocean remains today (thankfully, the Thailand water was much warmer than the frigid New Hampshire seacoast of my childhood). I'd soak in it for as long as I could and then eventually, when my hands were more wrinkly than raisins, I'd go back to my writing in the open-air beachside hut. I finished writing about the past after nearly three days and moved onto the present and the future. Even though writing about 2017 took me a long time, the present and future were much more difficult to write about.

Much of what I wanted to force myself to think about under my "present" category was the person that I am today: What are my fears? What are my flaws? What are my strengths? What are my regrets? What am I grateful for? What makes me happy in life? Whereas writing about the past only required a cursory glance at a pile of memories in my mind and a lot of transcribing of those memories, writing about the present and future necessitated a much high degree of processing and contemplation.

I started on flaws. It was relatively easy for me to write about most of my flaws compared to some of the other present and future topics, and I quickly had a list of 21 idiosyncrasies, flaws, and insanities, one coming right after the other. I can be impatient. I can be a perfectionist at times. I'm often running two minutes late, and I want to be a better listener than I am. On and on my pen moved across the pages, thoroughly documenting my faults on the pages of my bright green journal.

I moved onto regrets. Even though I try to not have regrets, there are things that I definitely wish I could change about 2017. I'll spare you the details, but if it makes you feel any better, know that if I offended you or was impatient with you or you were on the receiving end of my very long list of faults in any way whatsoever, I probably spent multiple sleepless nights analyzing and examining every aspect of the interaction in my head over the past year and that I'm sincerely sorry.

* * *
And then I started to write about my strengths. I stared at my journal for a long, long time. Finally I wrote:
1) I'm alive. I'm a living, breathing human being.
"Wow good one, keep going," my mind said sarcastically.

2) I'm not addicted to anything.
"You're really on a roll now," my mind continued.

After pausing awhile longer, I added an addendum to #2.
2) I'm not addicted to anything. Except coffee.

I hesitated, and then revised it again:
2) I'm not addicted to anything. Except coffee. And cheese.

I kept staring at my journal again, waiting for my strengths to jump out of the page at me.



I went to my afternoon yoga class, my mind distracted the entire time trying to think of what my strengths are.
"Clearly not your triceps," my mind whispered after I struggled through what seemed like the hundredth chaturanga of the class. My mind can be a real asshole sometimes.

After the yoga class, I was still agonizing over this question. To be completely honest, it's far easier for me to see my own flaws. I can be my own worst critic. I went out for another swim, trying to reset. I've got to have other strengths besides not being dead and not being addicted to anything but coffee and cheese, right?

I swam further out into the large bay, until the yoga retreat center was a cluster of tiny beachside houses in the distance, and then I stopped to just float on my back. Unlike at the retreat center's sheltered beach, I was out in open water now, and the waves lightly jostled me to and fro. I closed my eyes and felt the bright sunlight warming my face and smelled the seawater and smiled to myself.

And then:
"You are capable of very deep love." 

* * *

By the fourth day, the silent retreat began to feel both like paradise and prison. The silence and practicing up to five hours of yoga every day was wearing on me a bit. I had become accustomed to smiling and giving a friendly nod as a greeting to my fellow yogis, but I yearned for a bit of small talk to get to know them better. How were their days going? Wasn't the breakfast delicious today? Would they fancy going for a swim with me after the yoga class? It was tough to avoid the pleasantries that would normally fill the space and time during a similar interaction outside of the yoga center, but I bit my tongue and kept to my smiles and nods.

I went to the 7 am "complete" class, a two hour class with more advanced postures, on the fourth day. I was sweating through an intense sequence already, and then the next posture was announced: Hanumanasana. Monkey pose. Full splits pose. My yoga nemesis.

Despite practicing yoga for around 15 years at this point, and being a certified yoga instructor, I cannot get fully into hanumanasana.

I was struggling mightily, getting closer to the full expression of the posture than I've ever gotten before. My pelvis hovered just a couple of inches off the floor and I felt my hamstrings stretching to their limit. Sweat rolled down my face in beads as I approached my edge.

And then:

"Your work is not here."

Excuse me? Can't you see how hard I'm working? My work is definitely here, I protested.

"Your work is not here."

I didn't understand. How could this not be my work? I was practically indignant.

"Your work is not here."

And then, I realized.


My work is not at a beautiful Thai island yoga retreat center, where I can get 8 solid hours of sleep every night and write in my journal and be detached from the real challenges and stresses of daily life.

My work is being patient and kind even when I'm sleep deprived from trying to juggle motherhood and a full time job; when I've been up with a sick kid all night and have a project due the next day and I'm wondering how I can keep it all together.

My work is not when I'm sheltered away from the hardships of humanity and sometimes cruel realities of this world, far from the nearest newspaper headline or cable news channel.

My work is in the countryside of Rwanda, where I cannot hide from the challenges of hunger and poverty and climate change some of my own neighbors face, when D'Assise asks me almost daily if we can spare extra bananas or bread to give to his neighborhood friends who didn't eat lunch that day.

My work is not when I'm doing five hours of advanced yoga classes each day with talented yoga instructors from around the world with a stunning view of the ocean, no matter how difficult the poses might be.

It's when I'm trying to fit in five minutes of meditation in between biking my son to school and sitting down at my computer.

My work is not when I'm blissfully swimming in the beautiful warm waters of the retreat center's beach.

My work is when D'Assise is chasing me around the house with underwear on his head trying to tickle me and I'm trying stay present and give him all the love and attention he deserves instead of thinking of my to do list.

My work is not at this peaceful place where I'm served artfully prepared organic vegetarian food in the center's cafe overlooking the bay.

My work is when I'm anxious about D'Assise's health and future, but I'm determined to never, ever let him know.

This is not my work. That is my work.



To be continued. 


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Into the Silence

Two weeks ago, I did something I've wanted to do for a long time: a silent yoga retreat. It was the best gift that I've given to myself, and the best money that I've ever spent.



Before I begin, I want to be clear on what I did and did not do. I spent five nights and six days at a yoga retreat center in Thailand, where I maintained silence for almost the entire time (more on this later). I did three yoga classes a day and stayed in a nice but simple beach banda facing the ocean. My meals were taken in silence, even though you could talk in the cafe if you wanted to. Some people at the retreat kept silence, others didn't. Although I didn't talk, my yoga instructors did during the classes, so it wasn't complete silence.

I didn't do a full vipassana retreat, where talking is usually strictly prohibited, as are writing and reading, and where attendees stick to a grueling daily meditation schedule, in complete stillness. Although I'm a certified yoga teacher, I still consider myself a meditation novice. Without doing yoga first, my mind tends to wander to the last time I had cheese and wondering when the next time I'll eat cheese again will be. Anyways....

I wasn't there for crystal healing, juice fasting, waking up at 3 am to chant to a guru (actually, waking at 3 am for any reason whatsoever). If that's you're thing, more power to you, but it's not what I was there to do. I knew that as a Mama with a young son being babysat by GrandMom and GrandDad, I would probably want to talk to them at some point and didn't want to choose a place that would kick me out for doing so. I chose the yoga retreat center that I did because it offered a lot of flexibility: I could go to as many as six yoga or meditation classes every day if I wanted to, or none. If I decided this whole silence thing was way over my head, I could talk to other people up in the cafeteria.

So why was I there? 
I came to clear my mind and reset at the beginning of a new year.

I came to think about some big life decisions and hard questions.

I came to listen. I'm not a super great listener, and it's something that I'm really trying to work on. Complete silence was a way to tune out all the noise and realize how I use my voice.

I came to write. In between drinking wine and watching movies on my long flights to Thailand, I'd drafted a list of 33 things I needed to write about: past, present, and future. Yes, need. Let me explain.

When I think of my own mind, I almost never think of it as a brain, as a physical organ in my body. I usually picture it in one of two ways. The first is a galaxy in Star Wars (#nerdalert). As an introvert, I can travel in any direction on lightspeed for hours on end and never reach the edges of the galaxy. There are endless planets to explore, cute fuzzy looking creatures, places that are both weird and wondrous, and a few dark parts that are best avoided in my mind. I'm almost never bored, even when I'm alone, because there's always new and exciting thoughts to think about, pleasant memories to remember, and ideas to ponder.

The second way I picture my own mind is a giant ball of yarn. Each day that I live is a small segment of yarn that enters through my ears and wraps around the ball of yarn, getting bigger and bigger. The ball of yarn continues winding day by day, until pressure starts to build up in my head.

From the time I was perhaps seven or eight, the only way that I've found of unravelling that pressure is to write. As I write, it feels like I'm pulling that giant spool of yarn out through my pen and onto my journal page, and I have room in my head to start afresh and collect new memories.

(To my friends who have asked me why I don't write a book, the honest answer is that 99.9% of my diaries, from around the second grade till now, are essentially pages upon pages of "omg so I have a crush on this boy" or chapters and chapters of "WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!?").

I came for self-knowledge. I wanted to gaze inward, to look equally at the parts of myself that I like and the flaws that I want to change.

I came to set goals and resolutions for 2018, as I try to be the best version of myself that I can be: the best sister, mother, daughter, friend, neighbor, colleague, human being.


* * *

I arrived at the yoga retreat center in Thailand early on a Saturday morning, tired and hungry after an overnight flight from Hong Kong and sweating from head to toe in the island humidity, still wearing pants, a black jacket, and a scarf to stay warm on the plane. 

I was excited and nervous all at the same time. Could I really do this? Would I break halfway through, desperate for human connection? Would I drive myself crazy with nothing but my own thoughts for the next six days? 

I ate breakfast overlooking the ocean as I pondered what I was about to do, and my mind began to fill with fantasies about ditching this whole plan and just having an awesome vacation in Thailand for a week. In the taxi on the way to the retreat, I'd passed delicious looking street food stalls that I wanted to eat at, beautiful beaches where I wanted to swim, and golden temples I wanted to explore. Couples on colorful motor scooters dipped in and out of the traffic from the airport and I visualized myself exploring the island on one (never mind the fact that I've never tried to drive a scooter or motorcycle in my life and would probably seriously injure myself trying). I pictured myself going on one of the rock-climbing adventures advertised back at the last bend, devouring platefuls of pad thai, trying out Muay Thai boxing, and sampling a margarita or three at that beachside bar blasting Shakira.

Sigh.

I sipped my smoothie and I reminded myself that I'd already paid for the week at the yoga retreat in full in advance. There was no backing out now. Maybe someday I'll head back to Thailand and do all those things; in fact, I really I hope I do. But it wouldn't be this week.



I had a few hours to kill before I could check into my room, so I changed into my swimsuit and headed down to the small hidden beach at the retreat center. I decided to celebrate my dwindling hours of freedom by getting my tan on (okay, sunburn), having a couple cold beers on the beach before my week of sobriety, exploring the expansive grounds, and doing a couple laps in the infinity pool. I allowed myself to take a few pictures of the yoga center, had lunch, and then a bit after noon, I locked my phone and computer away for the week and got changed for my first yoga class.

* * *
I had a difficult time keeping my mind from wandering in that first class. I wondered what other people's reasons for coming to the yoga retreat were. Where were they from? Who were they? What were their stories? A couple people had visible physical injuries; one girl came on crutches to the yoga class and modified the postures ("See?! That would have been you if you'd tried out that motor scooter like you wanted to," my mind told myself smugly). Others had other things they were dealing with that I could only guess at; I heard sobs in at least a couple of my classes that week.

After just a day or two at the retreat center, I quickly adjusted to the routine. I'd wake up with no alarm around 6:45 am, head to a two-hour 7 am yoga class, eat breakfast at the cafeteria overlooking the ocean, and then start journaling around 10 am each day. I'd write for awhile and take swimming breaks when my hand would start cramping up, then take a mid-day class or a later afternoon one, write some more, take an evening yoga class, eat dinner and write more, and then go to bed around 10 pm.

There was a small thatched hut right next to the water on the retreat center's beach that provided me necessary shade and welcome ocean breezes, and I chose it as my primary writing spot. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote, slowly conquering my list of 33 things from the past, the present, and the future.

Writing about the past took me much longer than I expected. In my previous childless life, I journaled much more regularly, but I find that it's quite difficult to find the time now. I had a lot to catch up on from 2017: vacations, work, friends, family, relationships, D'Assise, life changes, memories that were pleasant, and a few recollections that were painful. I try not to have a lot of regrets; the past has passed and there's not much we can do about it. But as I found my footing last year as a single working Mama managing a team of nearly 1,000 people, 2017 definitely taught me a lot of lessons.

I was journalling about a particularly difficult memory from last year, and I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. I stopped writing and stared out at the waves slowly lapping against the shore and the beautiful bay before me. But the sobs kept coming, quickly turning from a couple tears running down my cheek to full-out ugly crying.

There was an older woman taking a nap in the small thatched hut laying a few feet away from me. She had a floppy straw hat protecting her face as I had climbed the extremely rickety ladder into the open-air seaside hut earlier that day; I could only tell her age from her lightly wrinkled pale skin. I must have woken her with my sobbing, because she soon turned over, took off her hat, and my jaw dropped.

It was the spitting image of my paternal grandmother, minus twenty or thirty years. Rather than the elegant wispy bun my Grandma usually wears, this woman had short white hair that framed her face and had every-so-slightly sunburned cheeks. She whispered something in German to me, and then realizing that I didn't understand, she kindly asked in heavily accented English, "Are you okay?"

I nodded, not wanting to break silence, and she gave me a hug. The resemblance was so striking, I almost asked if she was related to any Eischeids, my German-American grandmother's maiden name, but I just smiled and hugged her back.

I took it as a sign that I was going to be able to make it through the week. When times would get tough, there would be a sweet, slightly more sunburned version of my grandmother who would appear out of nowhere and embrace me.



To be continued...