Mum’s The Word

One day I was feeling blue. I got in touch with a shrink. We met. So affable, she was. It was refreshing to have her listening and interacting instead of trying the usual shrink tricks like nodding, jotting and staring. We had a real conversation. After our talk, she told me that I needed to grieve, furthermore that I needed to give myself permission to do so. “How?” I asked. She said to write down the experience, the feelings, the loss I felt when I miscarried – two of them. One time twins.  The other, a normal pregnancy, a ‘singleton.’ I liked what she had told me. But, I still didn’t do what she said. Instead, I bottled it up, shoved it down, and decided to move on. I cried. I was depressed. It felt like a cosmic punishment. I was afraid to try again. I never did try again. But knowing others had endured far worse, I felt like I wasn’t in a place to indulge the feelings. Our culture is hush hush on miscarriage. Move on.

My husband and I have a beautiful son who can’t miss a life he doesn’t know. In fact, he loves the amped up attention he gets, and the adult conversation that he participates in as his norm. He knows a hell of a lot more at age 7 than I did. Yes, he has at times asked why he doesn’t have brothers and sisters but has never harped on it. I feel guilt that I didn’t provide him with at least one sibling. Maybe that’s shame. In contrast, my mother, who is one of nine children, continues to reaffirm that she always dreamt of being an only child – in order to have had the unadulterated attention from her parents that she, conceivably, couldn’t get. After all, baby boomers filled the population gap following our nation’s losses in WWII. Her family had neighbors with fourteen kids. Another family had eleven.

I told myself I didn’t deserve the other babies and that’s why I didn’t get to have them. If I had deserved them, if I could’ve handled three more, they would be here. I would beat myself up and wondered simply, Why? Then I would stop myself. I was confused with how to process it. At that time, admitting I had lost anything was, to me, the equivalent of being ungrateful for the beautiful, healthy, baby boy, who I had dreamed of. My son. Wasn’t this enough? Wasn’t I grateful?

Of course I’m grateful. I know that I’m lucky to experience motherhood, at all. It’s what I was waiting for all of those other years. For me, it’s the best part of this life.

My husband didn’t feel the loss of those pregnancies like I did.

It’s impossible to relate my experience without considering tribes of women over the course of history who have shared a similar fate or, then, those who fared far worse. Women and our reproductive rights weigh heavy as I give life to this story of mine. Who can ignore what’s unfolding before our eyes with the ‘new administration.’ It fires me up when I think of plutocrat assholes making policies on what to do with my reproductive life, with my body. A woman goes through battle to get pregnant, to end a pregnancy, to miscarry, to carry full term, to give birth. Hell, just to go to the gynecologist is a chore, let alone all of the rest of it that piles up over the years.  And we just do it. No complaining. It’s a joy. It’s painful. It’s life. It’s what our sex does. Why on this earth should anyone govern how another conducts their bodies’ business. How is this still an issue in 2017?

But, I digress.

When I was into the second trimester, I was at the ultrasound appointment for genetic testing. The tech started with the cold jelly on the belly with one hand, staring into her monitor and punching keys with the other. It didn’t take her long to find that she couldn’t detect a heartbeat. No. There was no sound of that tiny, rapidly pulsing sign of life for us to hear in that stark room.  You could hear her breath. My breath. No other sign of life. She politely, curtly, told me to please wait a moment while she fetched a doctor. She looked stressed out. Upset. She dashed out. I’m sure she saw it often. The doctor came in. And he told me he was sorry. And that he had phoned my OB and that I was scheduled for a D&C asap. I don’t remember what happened next. I was confused. I drove myself home. Then someone drove me to the hospital. Honestly, it’s a blur. The thing that stands out is the nurse, pre-anesthesia, talking to me before the D&C to tell me that this was happening to me because I had old eggs. Yes. ‘Old eggs.’

The next time,  I  could feel in my body that the pregnancy wasn’t viable. You see, I had already been pregnant. I knew what my body felt like in the early weeks. Painful, tender breasts. Nauseous. Hormonal. An overall feeling of slow, heavy energy grounding me – like my body had downshifted to put all forces toward the tiny life with little left over for the host. And the feeling had gone away. It just wasn’t the same. I felt way too normal for 14 weeks. So I asked the doctor to look. To see. Same jelly on the belly, same story. No heartbeat. Off to the hospital for a surgery. Back home to rest. Ginger ale and tears.

Although I didn’t want to grieve, I did my grieving in my own way.  I watched so much Bravo that I could easily guest host “Watch What Happens Live.” Hey, Andy Cohen, if you need a sabbatical, I’m in. Your shows are a mix of punishment and entertainment, a hybrid genre of schadenfreude-inspired entertainment. It was an odd choice to sit on the couch at night and vegetate into the dysfunction, but I think in time, as I look back, I’ll realize that it had its part in my healing.

Women endure. We go on. We nurture. We survive.

 

I’m No Monk: On Finding My Mindfulness

 

The word ‘mindfulness’ appeared in my life in college during a work-study job. My position was at a clinic run by Harvard Medical School doctors who ran the section on Behavioral Medicine at the New England Deaconess Hospital. During my freshman year, I had the chance to hear the Dali Lama speak when he was honored at a symposium organized by this outfit. During my work days, I saw women enduring infertility issues, HIV and cancer patients, insomniacs, and others attend the clinic with the common goal of learning to control their bodies with their minds. They did this in order to combat or endure illness, to conceive or even just to relax through meditation. This was all new to me. The research and results were recorded, the data proved the correlation between general relaxation and a positive physical response, even in the face of terminal illness.

You would have thought I would take away something profound from this job, this prolific exposure. Instead, all I can claim to have learned was to type grants on a clunky word processor at breakneck speed, interpreting them as best as possible from Ph.D. chicken scratch. Grant funding was the oil that kept the machine running.

I was offered free access to any, and all, of the meditation groups (which included one for general relaxation) but hadn’t yet realized that I am and have always been writhe with anxiety. I was hard-wired to worry and that this was the perfect antidote. It was so ingrained and I was so unaware that it took decades to recognize what it was. At age 18 I considered the fact that I had lain awake fraught with all shades of worry ever since I could remember remembering. Despite this consideration, I was still unable to realize that my suffering had a name, and its name was anxiety. I wasn’t yet able to unglue my core for self-examination. It was never even a consideration. Alas, no life lesson on meditation. Yet. After all, this was 1990 and yoga and meditation weren’t the ubiquitous duo they are today. I would even say, they were cutting edge, hadn’t yet entered mainstream America’s conscious reality. Green juices, athleisure wear, Whole Foods, Whole 30, farm to table, sugar as poison, fat as healthy – such concepts would have taken an interlude with Marty McFly and Doc Brown catapulting me forward in time to ascertain as truths. Today it sounds crude to admit that I didn’t consider working on myself and my mind via the methods that arrived so fortuitously with that work-study position. I lived a rigid life then, with self imposed blocks of time for study, exercise, work, more exercise – not mindful exercise with goals, rather, rat-on-a-treadmill running in place to burn up stress, club beats playing on a Sony Walkman- from a mixed tape made by a friend at Bowdoin, sent through the U.S. mail! Another era, right? I controlled the anxiety, unknowingly, by controlling my life, or so I thought. Eventually I broke the chains, but that’s another story to tell.

Years later, I understood that anxiety had been omnipresent in my life, taking on an out-sized role, in fact. With awareness, came change. Once I could name it, I learned to quell it with mindfulness, not through sitting meditation and yoga which I have tried, rather through my experience in sports.

Motion has forever been king for my body: running, dancing, swimming, biking, team sports, competition, and endorphins.  Today, I’m on a competitive tennis team. I also swim, focusing on improving technique and endurance with the goal of competition in either the pool or open water. Group training and one-on-one coached training sessions are a delight, really. Slowly, I began to notice that a new thing – a new place – emerged through physical work that was transferable to regular life. I learned to use razor beam focus during these sessions on the court or in the water – and when I’m done – I have to remind myself what day it is or where I have to go next. Seriously! I mentally immerse myself in a zone and can feel when I step out of it. Surely it’s microseconds in time, the walking from one thing to the other, a shift of the mind as it occurs, a “coming to” that gets me back to reality. Training my body has taught me an awareness of the immediate…mindfulness. In other words, how to train my mind.

Aside from sports, this translates quite evenly to being aware of the task at hand. When my mind isn’t racing to the past, future, the what ifs and the things that could go wrong, it’s sitting in the present. The anxiety beast retreats. I’m not saying that I don’t have moments when I need to work (hard) to remind myself how to get back to that balanced place. I’m training my mind to calm down with the same mental awareness that I train muscle groups to perform. I finally get what works for me. I’m no monk. But being aware of this moment has made those other moments stop racing back and forth and up and down in my mind and just shut the F up.

I wasn’t ready for mindfulness the first time it entered my life when I was in a room listening to the Dali Lama, weirdly enough. It took the USTA (United States Tennis Association) and some crazy triathletes to show me the way.

 

The Nose Knows

I’ve been hunting for the perfect jasmine scent. But, it’s eluding me. The latest one I bought – compulsively, impatiently – wears so horribly with my chemistry that it’s destined for the perfume junk yard along with some stinky Burberry bottles.

I sniff for a lost jasmine odeur among essential oils in head shops, in Whole Foods, in health food stores. I duck around fragrance counters in department stores, walking away with slicks of liquid on skinny shards of thick stock paper. You might think I’m a shareholder in L’Artisan’s parent company, given my collection of geometric bottles lined up at attention on a shelf in my closet. But, still, not the right jasmine. Diptyque!, you came close, I tried a few times, but as it wore its essence became unfavorable, ugly (on me).

I’ve had jasmine plants. Zone 5 sucks the life out of them. Plant in spring, pot in fall, indoors for winter, back out again. Finally, I murdered them by exposing them to frost. Maybe, subconsciously, I’d tired of tending to their precarious nature. Plus, the bloom didn’t smell like what had been manufactured and poured into that glass tube I found at a flea market all those years ago.

The jasmine I’m seeking is one I will never find an exact match for. It’s not the scent that was inside of the tiny vial that my imagination swoons over. Instead, it is the life lived during the moments I wore it that reign supreme. The memory of the oil, pungent, singular – brings vivid, almost hedonistic associations with the recollection.  My brain works to recreate a space in time when discovery, capital D, in all of its forms abounded: New culture, new language, new way to think, lust, first love, all night parties in the discotecas, booze, miles of walking, train rides through time zones to other languages and different cities, trains back to home away from home, dazzling flora, dog breeds I’d never seen, mountain goats standing on sticks on street corners – what?, castles, palaces, dazzling blue sea, more parties, sunshine ’til 10pm, dinner at midnight, warm air, hot air, no screens on the windows, history, art, a homogeneous looking tribe with endless gracious gestures, open, joyful, loving, proud. The Madrileños made me want to convert. I was in love with all of them and all of it. The whole of it perceived as a picaresque moment created specifically for the delight of me and my girls as it unfolded before us. We laughed our way through the days and nights, euphoric, delighted, grateful to be receiving the experience, to be alive, to be…young.

And I did what I had to do. I shed some skin to grow some skin.

Bye-bye crunchy granola girl with hiking boots and long locks fried by chlorine and knotted into a bun with no strand escaping, no product needed. She got left behind. The hair? Bobbed. A black, leather biker jacket with a scarf in the pocket that worked as a thick choker for cool evenings fast became a uniform.

We all wore fuck me red lipstick- by Clinique. I don’t remember its real name, but it was a shade not far from Ruby Woo by Mac, if you need a visual. You know, one of those all-inclusive, magic reds made for every shade of skin. We passed around the silver  tube, reapplying feverishly, feeling more beautiful with each layer. One friend had cold sores that cropped up, about every other week on the corner of her mouth. She didn’t share her tube. I managed to buy my own during a year when I had money to eat mainly baguettes and chocolate. I saved for taxis, a chariot home after nights out where someone else was buying the shots and bottles of ‘jota bey’. So yeah, it mattered to me, that red lipstick.

During an elongated and heartbreaking recovery from my love affair with jasmine, as I was trying wildly to recreate the era that ended with a bang the day I took a plane home to Real Life, I became reckless. Even in trying to replace the smell. I found an odor I liked enough. It was a Givenchy scent called Amarige: department store heaviness in all its glory. I found it chic, Euro. And believed dousing myself – as if I’d accidentally spilled the whole bottle on my leg – was the requisite path backwards in time. I refused to end the chapter.

One afternoon, toiling at my work-study job in a dungeon on Commonwealth Ave in Boston, making photocopies for feminist business deans, I was summoned from up above. As I remember it, one of my superiors demanded “Go home and take a shower, we can smell you from two floors up”.

I was drowning myself in a bottle of perfume, bottles of whiskey, cigarettes, and to add to the mix, I had a yogurt covered pretzel obsession. There was divorce, death, my brother’s hideous accident (he recovered, amen). It was all SO unlike the glowing paradise of the jasmine year in a foreign land with vitamin D keeping me high. Back in the real world, it was winter from October to May. It snowed mercilessly, like a real-life plague. The joints in my fingers expanded arthritically as the damp sea air corroded the city. Life shone bleak on all fronts.  I declared I would get the hell out of there right after graduation. I wanted to return to a memory that my retrospective thinking had morphed into a utopia.

An incredibly sated moment finally arrived with some haphazard planning. I stuffed 400$ into my pocket, boarded a plane with no return ticket and flew back to the sun and the bulls to study a new corner of my adopted country. When the landscape splayed below me through that tiny aeroplane window as the plane descended, my insides screamed with joy.

As I sobered up over the years, I grew up. While epic drama and impulsive decisions have been replaced with more staid living, something new has emerged. My sense of smell has gone dog wild. My body has detoxed. I eat real food now, the healthy variety. This olfactory sense has gone super-hero, letting me eavesdrop into lives of friends and strangers alike. I can sniff people’s intimate details, foods they’ve ingested, places they’ve been. It’s keen alright. Sometimes I have to cover my nose. The years I dampened the sense with hangovers are over.  But, jasmine, something about you broke through all of that and I continue to yearn for that perfect version of you, in a bottle.

Today when I open the door to my office, the layers of scents are intricate, pleasurable. Cinnamon. The antique, oak desk smell, which makes me swoon when I open a drawer. Yup, there’s a jasmine candle over there on a table trying to ring true (and failing). There’s the heat coming out of the vent – faint – almost a burnt-toast-from-afar odor. Mild dust smell.

I stumbled on an amber scent a few weeks ago that’s dynamite with my chemistry. This could be the beginning of something new.