Tag Archives: children

A Seasonal Sadness: Letting Go

I am sad. I am not only sad. Not forever sad. Not stuck-in-a-rut or despairingly sad. But nonetheless, sad.

The farm is changing, or so it seems. Autumn is pressing upon us—a season of dropping off and falling away. A time of shedding and losing and letting go.

Last week I hugged our two oldest children in their newly appointed college dorm rooms and drove home. Without them. Back on the farm, I heard the silence. Within hours of returning, I removed a leaf from the kitchen table. I took chore clothes from the hooks, towels from the racks, and stuffed them into the washing machine. I moved boots, cleared clean laundry boxes, and boiled far too much pasta for our remaining three children. I noticed: less mess, less noise, less laughter. The house is no longer bursting. There is slack. Sag. Sadness. They are gone.

It is not just, however, that I am missing two of our own. Their departure marks the end of an arc in our journey as a farm family. Eight years ago, when we moved to this place, Jessica was 7 and Jordan 9. Ever since, their passions and their willingness to work, their concern for the world and their visions for how to make it better, have driven our farm’s development. Jordan wanted a cow; we bought our first heifer. Jordan wanted to train oxen; we bought a pair of bulls. Jessica wanted to ride; we rescued Marvin. Jordan and Jessica planted seeds, our garden grew. And when Kyra was old enough, she joined in.

So it was that in June of this year we were milking 4 cows; fetching firewood with a homemade sled pulled by Jordan’s oxen; rotating 9 cattle and 1 horse through 12 fenced pastures; tending 14 hens, feeding 4 cats, and weeding our largest vegetable crop to date. I was making cheese every day—hard, soft, and in between.

We knew it wouldn’t last. We couldn’t keep it all going without the oldest two. By the end of July, we sold three of our milkers, keeping Jordan’s first cow, Daisy. This week, we are drying her off too, as she is due to calve in October. This week, for the first time in years, we will need to buy milk. We have stored pounds of cheese and butter in freezer and fridge, but our half-gallon glass bottles lie side by side on the shelf, clean, dry, and empty.

Then again, it is not just that the kids are leaving and our milk flow ebbing. This summer I finished my book—the third in the series that I moved here to write. While the manuscript is still under review, I sense it slipping away, and with it the vision that drew me here in the first place—the mission that has constantly, daily animated and energized and guided me through whatever else was happening.

In writing these books I was asking questions that my previous years in the academic world had convinced me were vital to our ongoing health as humans on earth: how does bodily movement matter, why does bodily movement matter, and how and why can and should bodily movement matter in our relationships with our selves, with others, and with the natural world? And on every page, what I wrote about dance and movement was funded and formed by the vibrant life that these children have been creating with us here, on the farm. Now I wonder: what is next?

All around me, as I ponder these leavings, I see fronds browning, stalks shriveling, and seed pods falling. And I wonder. How do the plants feel—letting go of each carefully cut leaf, each red firmed round?

I go for a run on a hard packed dirt road, feeling the sadness. A couple of miles from the house, a deer bursts from the bushes, landing yards before me. I stop short, heart pounding, and remember not to forget. Life will never cease to surprise.

At home I lie down on the hard wood floor and let go. I breathe deeply and let all effort and energy drop away. I stay there, shedding, until a small smile forms in my heart, pulling at my cheeks, nearly breaking through onto my face. But not quite. Beneath it all, I know, there is love. An irrepressible spring of ongoing creation. A rhythm of bodily becoming. A bottomless pool of possibility, Geoff says, that is cooler and more refreshing the deeper you go. I yield to it.

I listen again. In reality, the house is not quiet at all. Three more children await their turn to reach for the sun. Another arc of ten years awaits before two more will leave for college, and then another four years before the youngest goes. They too will have their passions, their stories, and their adventures. What will they want from the farm? What will they pull from me? What will we create together?

Outside, in the garden, the harvest is in full swing. The plants aren’t simply dying; they are giving themselves up. Day to day, we are picking, processing, and putting away the kale, green beans, zucchini, corn and tomatoes that will sustain our bodily selves through the winter. It is abundance, in full force, in all its glory. Concrete. Real. Given and received.

I examine the apple tree on the hill overlooking our house. With every year, its branches gnarl and its bark thickens. Wrinkles form and furrow. Every fall it lets go and gathers inward, only to burst out again in the spring, with ever more crinkly green leaves and newborn blossoms of apples-to-be.

The tree, I imagine, is feeling relief. After all that effort spent reaching to meet, greet, and transform the beating of summer rays and rains, it is letting go of work well done. Perhaps it is smiling.

I sense in my sadness a willingness to let go. It is a season to let go—and even to let go of the sadness of letting go. There are young calves in the barn, and one more soon to come. Pounds of sweet greens are filling the freezer. Seeds are falling upon fertile ground. Kai and Leif are locked in an ongoing love battle. Kyra calmly watches.

Besides, the apples are not falling far. And my deepest wish is that they roll far enough that their seeds find their own upward path to the sun.

Summer of My Son’s Brain Tumor

My sixteen-year old son is sitting at the dining room table, using needle-nose pliers to link tiny rings of seventeen-gauge steel wire. He is making chain mail. The tail end of a fresh scar peeks out from under his right ear. “It’s a beautiful day,” he says with longing as I enter the room. I agree. But it is not the summer we imagined it would be.

Back in April, when Jordan was discussing his summer plans, he was thinking about expanding his blacksmith shop; building a logging road through our woods; clearing brambles from miles of hedgerows, and training his steers to pull a plow. Every option was exciting.

Then in May came the news. The loss of hearing in Jordan’s right ear that we thought was surely due to impacted wax was not. Its cause was a tumor—a large one, too big to radiate—that was growing from the lining of his acoustic nerve into his brain. Surgery was the only option. As soon as possible. We set a date: July 6. So much for summer.

As the news settled, my partner, Geoffrey, and I made a decision. It seemed so easy to fall into tear-streaming, pulse-stopping fear. We refused. We didn’t want someone else to determine the meaning of this event in Jordan’s life or in ours. It wasn’t a tragedy. It wasn’t heartbreaking. It wasn’t going to ruin our summer.

We dared to ask new questions. What opportunities would this tumor open up? What could we do to make this summer a good one—even the best one? How could we transform brain surgery into a blessing? To do so seemed a miracle.

The first step was obvious: we had to believe we could. We had to imagine it. We had to align our thoughts and feelings and actions with what it would take to make that miracle happen. It might not happen, but if we didn’t want it, it surely wouldn’t. We had to walk the knife-edge of faith, not looking down to the left or the right, only forward to the best possible future.

From that moment on, whatever else I was doing, I had one tentacle of attention touching July 6. Every day I walked myself through the drive to the hospital, the operation, Jordan’s waking up, and his recovery, seeing us all through to Jordan’s most whole health.

Meanwhile, Jordan came up with an idea for a project he could do while recovering. He would make a chain mail shirt. He experimented, and began a length of links. He cut thousands of three-eighth’s inch circles from old fence wire, and piled them into a small paper bag for later use.

On July 6, at 5 AM, Jordan and I left Geoffrey and Jordan’s four younger siblings on the farm, and set out for the hospital. By 8 AM, a team of nine, including three surgeons, had taken control of Jordan’s bodily systems, and driven him to the edge of life. They held him there for eight hours, while they cut a two-inch circle of bone from his skill, extracted a tumor over three centimeters in diameter, and patched him up again. They left a five-inch crescent cupping his right ear. The neurosurgeon found me in the waiting room and greeted me with words I had been imagining for weeks: “It went as well as could be expected.”

For three days, Geoff and I took turns at the hospital as Jordan struggled to free himself from the monitors and fluid pathways that had sustained him during the surgery. He was in pain and nauseous. Food would not sit; neither could he. His vision was double; his taste was halved, and the right side of his face was weak. The doctors weren’t worried.

On the third day after surgery, Jordan’s sisters visited, and he remembered: home—on the farm—was where he most wanted to be. On the fourth day after surgery, the neurosurgeon released him to go. Jordan had held down nothing but a few cheerios. We weren’t sure he was ready. He knew he was.

He climbed into the front seat of the car, cranked it all the way back, and hummed low resonant tones for the hour and a half drive home. “It’s the only thing that keeps me from getting carsick,” he said.

Home on the farm Jordan felt better immediately. The nausea left for good. He stopped taking pain medication. He spent the first few days lying down. He slept. He read. His sister read to him. We all gathered round and listened.

On the third day home, after pouring over one of his metal working books, Jordan sighed, full of desire to make something. “I want…” he said and then stopped. He continued. “But I am glad that I want. I know what it is like to feel so badly that you don’t want anything.” Want no longer felt like lack. It felt like life returning.

On the fourth day home, Jordan sat up, ready to make his chain mail. “I’m not sure what this is about,” he said to me as he formed his links. “Stubbornness? Perseverance? What do you think?”

I paused. “Well, chain mail is designed to protect you from sharp things that cut. So perhaps you are protecting yourself too—not from a sword but from the disappointment and frustration of not being able to do what you thought you would this summer. You are making something that you can and like to make. You are protecting yourself from the cut of despair.” He was, I knew, protecting us as well.

We used a T-shirt of his to trace a pattern. He began working his way up the front of the shirt, from ribs to shoulder. As I watch him now, just over two weeks post-surgery, he is beginning the back.

Link by link, Jordan is healing. He can sit and stand and walk for longer periods of time. While fluid in his head seems to slosh when he moves, he is getting used to it. His eyes are focusing, his smile pulling higher, and his taste returning. The shirt is growing. The miracle we most wanted is happening. Link by link, Jordan is making himself whole.

Even before the surgery, the tumor had knocked out the hearing in Jordan’s right ear. It is not likely to return. Even so, I can’t help but think that this too harbors a potential for wonder. Because he has been losing hearing in that right ear, Jordan has been cultivating his hearing. He actively reaches into the world to gather its sounds. He attunes himself to what is. He pays attention. Unless his left ear is plastered with a pillow, he does not miss a beat.

Yet through this experience, it seems that Jordan is hearing far more as well. Jordan can hear the silence—the silence of himself, the silence within. He can hear the life pulsing in his want; the rhythm rumbling in his belly, and the hope beating in his actions. He knows the faith that keeps creating; and the creating that keeps the faith.

Because of Jordan, we, his family, know it too. Following his lead, we are linking our lives together and resisting the cut of despair. We are imagining and bringing into being a world in which we want to live—a world where miracles happen. We are listening for the silence—the freedom, the possibility, the love—at the heart of it all.

This summer is not what we thought it would be. It has been a miracle in the making.

Movement = Play = Love

Every time I turn around these days, Leif is standing on top of a table, grinning broadly. At sixteen months old, my son is a stealth mover, quick and quiet. If I simply look away for an instant, he pulls out a chair whose seat is as high as his chest and levers himself onto its flat expanse, using a dip of his shoulders and head to haul up his legs. He then lifts one leg to the side to bridge the span from chair seat to table top, and pulls up to standing.

Why? He’s not usually after any object in particular–he is not even tall enough to see what is up there–though once there he inevitable notices his brother’s glass of milk or an uncapped marker. He climbs spontaneously, almost instinctively, whenever a chair enters his field of perception. Or a couch; the toy box; a flight of stairs. A parental leg, or a sister’s back.

What motivates him, it seems, is less any retrievable object than the doing of the movement itself–the sheer joy of its accomplishment. He is in a phase where this urge to climb is his movement pattern of choice for connecting with his world and discovering what it has to offer him: what new sights and sensations will this chair-climbing, table-scaling move generate in me? Continue reading

Thoreau’s “Tonic of Wildness”

“Can I go for my walk?” Jessica asks the question halfway through our home-school day. The arc of her interest in geometry has waned; her eyes wander outside already. I let the rest of her go.

This will to walk is recent and new. One day she simply announced that she would. Even then she wasn’t interested in a walk, or walking per se, but in her walk, something done by her, for her, with her.

Since then she has owned her walks. And when she returns from the fields and forest, the glow in her eye and the ray on her cheek tell stories her words sometimes match. She shares tales of the chipmunk she saw nibbling nuts, the stick that took shape beneath her whittling knife, or the dreams of the garden she plans to plant that formed in her mind.

Is this how Jessica should be spending her home-school time?
I am rereading Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s account of his two-year “experiment in living” simply and deliberately on the shores of Walden Pond. Though I read him many years ago, I am startled this time by how familiar the work seems: he launched his experiment for reasons that resound through our family’s move here to the farm. He wanted to establish a perspective on contemporary society that would allow him to evaluate its values and practices, with an eye to making improvements. He wanted to wake up his senses, free his thoughts from their ruts, and live a life he loved to live. We do too.

For his part Thoreau was concerned that the obsessive-consumptive habits of society were dulling people’s senses and enslaving them to a quantity and quality of labor that failed to nourish their best selves. As he laments, “The better part of man is soon plowed into the soil for compost,” with predictable results. While the production of goods and services and the technological mechanisms for making and marketing them all flourish, individual humans don’t. Depressed by the sense-numbing pace of life, people crave distraction from expensive entertainment that ties them ever more tightly to their treadmills.

In Thoreau’s memorable words: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind… There is no play in them.”

Here on the farm, we share his concern, especially when it comes to kids. Teen persons in our culture have no purpose but to be educated for enterprises they will not be able to accomplish for another ten years. They scramble to compete for grades, awards, and victories that have no immediate bearing on their daily lives. Otherwise, they exist to be entertained. So separated from their bodily selves, they are easily seduced by virtual visions of pleasure, and quickly addicted to the rush they get by plugging in and pulling away from their connectedness with natural world. Is it surprising that so many teens feel alienated and depressed? Is it so surprising that they too, like the rest of us, cast about for the quick fix?

Addressing his contemporaries with prophetic wit, Thoreau asks: “What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented?” Thoreau’s response expresses the same intuition that guided us here: the only possible pill comes from grandmother Nature’s medicinal chest. The tonic of wildness.

Why Nature? Nature, according to Thoreau, awakens his senses in ways that feed his thoughts; Nature thus entices him participate in the ongoing work of creation—his own included.

For sure, Thoreau is interested in natural phenomena in general. An avid observer of plants and animals, earth, pond, and sky, his book chronicles changes of seasons and the cycles of a day. Yet he doesn’t go to Walden to observe nature per se. He seeks a time, space, and experience that will help him to a true account of life in all its manifestations. Human life included. He wants to sink beneath the surfaces of social doing and find a rocky real on which to stand.

What does he find? What a body knows. He finds endless movement—an ongoing movement of universal creation creating itself in him, around him, and through him. The rhythms of the natural world train his senses to see and smell and hear and taste the waves and trajectories of life’s becoming.

Further, once trained by Nature to notice Her movement, he sees and senses his own participation in it. He too is part of Nature’s ongoing work; Nature lives through his currents of feeling, his arcs of sensations, and the meandering of his own daily walks. Most importantly, for Thoreau, Nature lives in and through the rooting and unfolding of his thoughts. To live like Nature, then, is to find the freedom to think the thoughts that make of the day what it can be. As he writes: The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions… let us spend our lives in conceiving them.”

Nature, then, for Thoreau, is much more than a beautiful context or convenient set of metaphors for human pursuits. Nature is teacher and guide. Nature offers him the sensory education that he needs in order to be able to think about anything—whether railroad or woodchuck—with the same careful attention to its value relative to the “necessaries” of human life.

Our family moved for this same enabling proximity to the natural world so that we might bring our senses to life, find our freedom, and learn to live in love. Our mission: CliffsNotes to Walden.
Jessica comes back from her walk with tales of being stuck in a tree. She ventured out on a branch that led her onto another tree, and then found that the path was one way only.

“How did you get down?” I ask.

“I slid like a sloth down the branch and then dropped.” She smiles as she sits down to write. I smile too. I’m grateful. She is in good Hands.

In this home-schooling venture, I’ll take all the help I can get.

Parenting, Writing, Blogging, and other Radical Acts

I just can’t do this!! The thought blasts through my brain at least once each day in those hours before Geoff comes home. It’s my fault, for sure. There is so much I want to do, so much I have to do, and so much being asked of me moment to moment by the four of our kids I agreed to home school this year that I go through the day feeling like I have one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake. I lurch and buck and careen, and yes, sometimes crash.

This arrangement seemed like a good idea at first. I have an infant. My 12 and 8 year-old daughters, Jessica and Kyra, were begging to learn at their own home-spun pace. I would do my work in the cracks, around the edges, and after Geoff and our 14 year-old arrive home; 4 year old Kai would come along for the ride.

As for the reality: I’ll be discussing the “Declaration of Independence” with Jessica, interjecting asides to Kyra on short cuts for multiplying nines, while trying to nurse and nap infant Leif, when Kai demands, with every amp of his ample wattage: SOMEBODY PLAY WITH ME NOW! At least I am sitting down.

If all the pieces of the mighty puzzle line up and I manage to write down a thought, it is highly unlikely that I will succeed in placing a second before someone wakes up, gets hungry, has a question, or needs a wipe. By our 3:30 hand-off, my work is curdled into an icky pit in my stomach. It wants out. I want out, now!

It is confusing. All of our best decisions have landed me here. How come it is so hard?
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are in the news again, this time with his contribution to the burgeoning genre of Parenting Lit. In twin memoirs (hers appeared in the spring), this team of mom and pop writers tell tales of what they are learning from life with their four children, ages 14, 12, 8, and 6. At back to back desks, they weave the personal and the public, family and work, coupling and parenting into vibrant texts, written and lived.

Reading about their life, a pang of recognition hits: Geoff and I are making similar moves. We aim to co-parent and co-create, side by side reinventing family life, though in rural New York rather than Berkeley, California. We moved here to create a way of living, of being family, that works for us, for our kids, for him, for me, where each person receives what he or she needs to become who he or she is. So why does their situation sound so idyllic?

The stories of Michael and Ayelet remind me: though I may feel like I am alone in the trenches, I am not. A veritable rash of writers, male and female, are sharing their kid-funded knowledge in books and blogs to a chorus of critics and congratulators. So what of it?
I ponder the question as I spread peanut butter on home-made bread for a hungry Kai. Last week’s news offers a key. In addition to reviews of Chabon’s book, we have been feasting on reports about how much has changed in family life since the 1970s. Marriage is at an all time low; single moms and stay at home dads at all time highs. More parents cross the chasm between workplace and home than ever before, while childhood stretches towards twenty and beyond.

While the realities are shifting dramatically, however, it is also evident that the ideals shading family life are not so quick to turn. We are still contending with visions of the good mother and providing father, as well as those of passionate life-long love and a happy childhood, that loom over us as critic and judge.

Wiping the counter for the third time in an hour, I think back to Tuesday’s article on toxic parents as a case in point. As the author writes, “whining about parental failure, real or not, is practically an American pastime that keeps the therapeutic community dutifully employed.” In the deluge of responses the article produced, a pattern emerged of kids protesting narcissistic parents and parents complaining about ungrateful kids. Lurking in the shadows was an ideal of parenting that hardly anyone seems able to attain. Why?

In the light of these reports, the significance of Parent Lit appears. We, as a culture, are in the process of reinventing family life. That reinventing is happening household by household, and reading and writing about such experiments is helpful and necessary, though not without its dangers.

Hearing stories about how other parents tackle inherited expectations of rearing and raising reminds us that there are options. We have options, and we are not alone in wanting to find them. Ways of being family that worked for someone at sometime in some context may not work now for me or for you. I write to find my freedom.

Sharing stories is also necessary, given the nature of the change. We are exiting an era in which cultural authorities did not pay much attention to children as having anything to offer discussions of who they should be and become. Such reflections were the provenance of experts wielding scientific tools over and against nubile bodies. Stories remind us that we have something to learn from (our) children about how best to relate to them. I write to remember the creativity involved in creating relationships.

Writing about experiences is also dangerous for we run the risk of suggesting that one size fits all. There is a temptation to celebrate sentimentally our kids’ eternal cuteness, and another to wax nostalgic for childhoods lost. When changes breed fear and doubt, we tend to cling to the way things were. Sides polarize and we forget what anyone who cares enough to engage in these discussions shares: desire. We share a desire to do the best for our children, for each other, for ourselves, and, for the worlds in which we live. I write to find the wisdom in my desire.

Reading and writing, we learn to trust our dissatisfaction as teaching us how to move in ways that will not recreate the pain we feel. I write to discern what it is my body knows.
Yesterday morning I lost it. I was shredded to a pulp by competing pulls on my attention. During precious writing time, I return to the scene. What do I find? It’s the ghost of the good mother, haunting me: It is your job to meet your children’s needs. This all-too familiar noose of a notion strangles me. I erupt in anger when I can’t, furious with myself. Furious with them.

Of course, I know theoretically that I cannot meet my children’s needs. Even if I had only one child, I would not be able to meet his or her every need. But still, I want to. Why? Because I want to be a good mother! But is that what being a good mother means? It’s what I have learned to believe.

The tip of my pen draws out the hook. If I am to slip free of this need to meet my children’s needs, I have to let go of a lingering expectation that my parents should meet mine. They can’t. They don’t exist to meet my needs.

I reflect back again on the blog complaints of narcissistic parents and ungrateful kids and see two sides of the same ideal that is haunting me. To the parent caught up in needing to meet needs, the frustrated child appears as a living, breathing reminder that the parent has failed. To the kid encouraged to believe in this ideal, the defensive parent appears as an obstacle to happiness. When the frustrated parent (inevitably) lashes out at the (unhappy) child, the child complains (rightfully) of abuse. A cycle of escalating disappointment (and sometimes horrific violence) sinks its teeth into the relationship and shakes. What do we want to create?

I return to the place of my pain and affirm the desire at its core. I want to meet my children’s needs. A new move appears. I want to meet their needs because I want them to have what they need to become who they are. The pain releases; another impulse appears. I write it down. I want to help my children learn to meet their own needs, and to do so, in part, it is my job to demonstrate to them how I meet my own.
Today is different. I make new moves. Leif falls asleep in my lap. I lay him on the couch and turn to the older three. Recess everyone! They run outside into the bright fall air to invent some game involving horses, harnesses, and humans.

I sit at my desk and begin to write. My heart fills with gratitude. I adore my kids. They are teaching me how.

Movement Manifesto, Part 2 of 2

Cats of all kinds are famous for it, after their notable naps. Cows do it too, after hours curled cud-chewing. I see human babies doing it, and know I can’t live without it. Even so, I was somehow surprised to realize that chicks do it too. Chicks stretch.

Our twenty-six fluff balls are now three weeks old and sprouting tufts of feathers from all sides. One by one, while otherwise peeping, pecking, and pooping, a chick pauses. A ripple of movement begins in its shoulder, fans through its feathering wing, leaps to a lengthening leg on the same side, and spills out through a perfectly pointed toe with such intensity that its wingtips tremble. Chicks stretch.

It makes me think. For these birds, each stretch spreads through a range of motion that the bird needs to fly. The stretches bubble up spontaneously, improvised yet patterned. The moves are obviously pleasurable (or perhaps I project). If birds could smile…

It makes me think. Why stretch?
Cultural conversations about stretching reflect our attitude towards bodily movement in general. As noted in the last post, discussions about movement are dominated by the language of exercise and fitness. Stretching, in this regard, is something you do to your muscles in order to have a better workout or race result. Stretching is a physical means to a physical end.

From there fierce debates ensue over how, when, whether, and why. Does stretching weaken our muscles or prevent injury? Does stretching disperse lactic acid for a speedier recovery or put undue strain on fragile tissues? Does stretching increase flexibility or merely preserve it? Should it hurt or not? Should you bounce or hold or resist? What seems to count most are the measurements—how fast, how far, how much. Can you touch your head to your knees? Your hands to the ground? Hey, how’s your split?

Haunting these debates is an assumption that a muscle is a mechanical piece prone to harden over time like a rubber band or an old shoe. Keeping “it” toned and tuned is the responsibility of some one called “I”—someone armed with science’s best results. Yet according to science, the verdict is out. No one knows. Or do we?
Leif wakes up from his nap with a big smile. It was a good one. I watch as his fists ball, his elbows bend, his knees tuck up, and his back bends in an arc of intensity that shudders through his small self. His body is yawning, opening, releasing his limbs to move. He smiles again, waving his legs, extending his joy through the tips of his toes. No span of sensation escapes the awakening. All here and now he is.
We are missing the point about stretching because we have lost a sense of our bodies as the movement that is making us. Even while neuroscientists plot body maps in the brain, most people remain convinced that movement, aside from a few involuntary processes and reflexes, is from the top down. Brain drives; Body follows.

However, our brains are bodies too, and the bodies we are are not ours. If anything, we are theirs. The muscles we move move us, and they are alive, ceaselessly recycling, replenishing, and regenerating energy that exists to empty itself along a string of similar cells. Like a plant wants the sun, our bodily muscles want to move.

Moreover, this muscle movement that we are is not simply physical. Muscles don’t just move bones. They move our senses—the eye that scans, the ear that cocks, the nose that nears, the digit that fingers. How we move determines what we perceive, what we feel, and what responses we can imagine. The movement of our muscles also orients us in space and time: time is how long a movement takes; space is where it gets us.

It is the action of our muscles, grunting or groaning, that draws into sensory awareness a lived experience of ourselves as agent “I.” Approach or withdraw? Tangle or resist? Grab or release? My “I” is the one who did and can and will again make that move.

How we move our bodily selves, then, provides the basis for everything that our brains have to do in the realm of the executive “I.” Organizing, abstracting, calculating, reasoning, conceiving, planning, and carrying through are all mental movements predicated on and predicted by the earliest contraction and release of our bodily selves.

Stretching is an impulse to move. Stretching we bring our senses to life, animating the planes and surfaces of our sensory awareness so that we have at our fingertips what we need to participate consciously in making the movements that make us who we are.
I lie down on the floor. The congestion in my brain, the tension in my shoulders, the stiffness in my limbs are all letting me know: it is time to move. I breathe down into the ground and lift one knee towards my chest. Holding it with laced fingers, I exhale down into my bent hip and out through the leg lying along the floor. I do it once and then again. Suddenly a hamstring releases, seemingly of its own accord. My lower back sinks into the ground. Ribs lengthen, and ripples reorganize the bones of my spine. The front of my forehead eases and thoughts begin to flow.

Ah yes, that is what I was forgetting while sitting at my desk. While it is true that I begin the stretch, soon enough the stretching is stretching me past patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting, and into a present place where I am free to respond anew, in the moment and for the moment.

More is being stretched than muscles here–I’m stretching my sense of self. It is my “I” that is in danger of becoming hard and rigid, unyielding in its beliefs. It is my sense of who I am that must remain elastic, flexible, and free, not identified with the past patterns of movement that I have become, but rather with the process of making those patterns that “I” am. That’s the point.

It’s all about love.
Stretching I find ground, or ground finds me. A sensing center of self emerges where I can discern what will keep me moving and loving based on how I have moved and where I am now. My bodily self knows.

It is this finding and feeling that feels so good I want to do it again. I want to be this awake, this resourceful in every moment of my life, regardless of how restricted my reach may be. If I am beating and breathing, my movement is making me, and there is an infinite range of increasingly subtle sensations to discover.


Who’s In Charge of Me: You or Me?

“What does everyone want for lunch?” I turn to my kids one by one, making sure to ask Kai last. Kai is four. We all joke that his middle name is “I want what you’re having.”

If Jordan is having pasta, Jessica a grilled cheese, and Kyra oatmeal, Kai will want some of each. All together. Sometimes mixed. If there are five cereal boxes in the cabinet, he will want some of each, in the same bowl. If there are four cartons of ice cream in the freezer (our record is eight), he will want some of each. And if you refuse, you will regret it. It takes longer to quiet his response than to honor his obviously reasonable request.

Options on the table, I focus on Kai: “OK Kai, what will it be?”
There is much discussion these days about social influences on human behavior. Spurred by the publication of the book Connected, we are being asked to consider whether happiness is contagious and whether our friends make us fat (as in this NYTimes Magazine article). Books on the food industry by David Kessler, Michael Pollan, and others are teaching us how food is manufactured (with high levels of salt, sugar, and saturated fats), marketed (as the ultimate pleasure), and sold (in packages with promises placed at eye level) in ways that cause us to buy and eat more than we should of foods we think we want that are not good for us.

The message reverberates: you are being deceived, manipulated, or otherwise adversely influenced by others.

We greet the words with a measure of relief. It is not just me. For too long we have been led to believe that whatever is wrong is our individual fault. If I am fat, I should eat less. If my relationships don’t last, I should commit more. If I am depressed, I should pull myself up and decide to be happy. Yet, as the record reveals, in all of these cases will power doesn’t seem to work.

Now, however, given the new evidence, we can blame someone else. Perhaps more to the point, we can now turn to someone else to help us achieve the results we want. So we rely on the city council to ban soda machines from schools, or a pharmaceutical company to pop us a mood-altering pill. Someone else will take care of me.

Is it true?

No, but the answer is not to swing back to blame the individual either. For these strategies for curing a problem—whether targeting will power or external influences—are flip sides of the same coin. Both perpetuate the same way of thinking about our human selves that lies at the roots of the problems themselves.

How so? Both approaches assume that our minds—our thinking, judging, executive selves—are the strongest resource we have for getting what we want. Both assume that our minds are in charge, or at least should be. Both assume that our minds work by exercising a power over our bodies, mastering or controlling our desires for food, for sex, or for happiness. If our individual mind is not up to the task, then we can rely on a collective mind to limit our choices.

Whether we place our faith in the individual mind or the collective mind, the logic is the same: mind over body. Yet this logic itself is part of the problem. We have learned to think and feel and act as if we were minds living over and against bodies. In the process, we have learned to ignore what our bodies know. We have cut ourselves off from the sources of wisdom in our desires–wisdom capable of guiding us to make decisions that will enable our health and well being.
Kai looks at me. He pauses, feeling my question hanging in the air. He looks around at his siblings and back at me. “I want a grilled cheese with tomato.”

“Please,” I reply.

“Please,” he repeats. I smile. No one else asked for a grilled cheese with tomato. Kai is finally making his own request. He is learning to discern for himself what he wants: he remembers having it on a day when Geoff had one too. Now the desire is his.

I start making the sandwich and decide to make half. Even though he was quite clear in his request, it is likely that he will begin to eat the sandwich and then see something around him that he wants even more. I will have to remind him that this is what he wanted; and he will reply, “But Mommy, it isn’t what I want!”
Kai is teaching me about our desires—about how malleable, teachable, and ultimately creative they are. For the fact that we can be and are influenced by what surrounds us—however frustrating it might be for a meal maker—is precisely what enables us as individuals to discover and become our singular selves.

We are connected, and we are singular. We are singular because we are connected. For what defines our singularity is the unique mesh of bodily relationships we are and create with the people, places, and things that are supporting us in becoming who we are.

How then are we to find our way?

It is not by blaming ourselves, nor blaming the social influences upon us for our actions. It is not by revving up our mental will to master our bodies, nor seeking external solutions.

Rather, we need, as best we can, to open up the sensory awareness that the unique matrix of relationships that we are has enabled us to develop. We need to feel what we are feeling so that we can learn over time to make decisions that align with the trajectories of our health and well being.

We need options. We need information, and we need to be willing to participate consciously in the process of finding the wisdom in our desires. It is the process of doing so that yields the greatest possible pleasure.