Posts Tagged ‘motherhood’

petals

July 23rd, 2017    -    6 Comments

When my daughter was three years old she was asked to be the flower girl in a family wedding. I’d never been a flower girl, so I felt as though all my aspirations for her had been fulfilled. We’d get the fancy dress, the shiny shoes, the crown of flowers: it would be perfect. But as the date approached I was stressed. She was three, for heaven’s sake. How did they think I could keep her awake, good-humored, and adorable at an evening wedding past her bedtime without a nap? (I thought like this quite a bit.)

The doors of the hotel ballroom opened and the wedding guests turned to see a tiny girl enter with a basket. She walked forward all by herself, dropping handfuls of petals with great seriousness until she stopped abruptly just halfway down the aisle. Then she tore out running the rest of the way to the front until she could hide herself on my lap. Her basket had emptied, you see, and she couldn’t keep going without petals to throw. For years after she would say that she ruined the wedding.

This summer my daughter is 17, and she is spending a month in New York City taking classes before her last year of high school. The night she moved into the dorm, she texted me: “miss you.”

I responded immediately as if she needed me to. But she didn’t need me that night, or any other.

Over the weeks, her messages have been scant and short.

I love it.
I love my roommate.
I love my teachers.
I love NYU.
I love the city.
I love you.

They are petals, dropped on the far side of the aisle, from a full basket.

the end of my rope

July 16th, 2017    -    31 Comments

 

This post was written seven years ago when my daughter had just turned 11, what I  now recall as a particularly anxious year in the life of a girl and her mother. Truth is always true, though, so perhaps it is what you need today.

Yesterday morning trying to pry my daughter out of bed and off to school was so completely awful, so terrifyingly bad, so angry, so loud, so confounding, that I thought: she needs a new teacher, she needs a new school, she needs a new attitude, a new diet, a new bedtime, a new mother, and short of that, an exorcism. I trembled with the weight of the disaster all day after. Something big would have to change, right away, and I had no idea what that could be.

This morning was different. A radical change occurred overnight. It’s called “a new day.” I never know for sure exactly what my daughter needs, but when I’m at the end of my rope what I need is more rope.

There are a lot of contrasting parenting styles and an endless supply of dos and don’ts. You’ll find a parenting expert of the day on the daily morning shows, and that expert isn’t me. Don’t get me wrong: every bit of information that comes your way can be helpful. If I have anything to offer it’s just my ever-renewed trust that our babies will be okay. If I have anything to give you it’s just more rope.

I always invite people to stay in touch with me, to write me with their questions and concerns. Sometimes they do. They might ask about discipline, handling sibling rivalry, overcoming their own parental fears and anxieties, or how in the heck to get the kids dressed, fed and to sleep through the night. It might sound like I’m giving an answer, but what I’m giving is simply rope – the lifeline that keeps us bobbing aloft until the blessed rescue of a new day.

Do you know who makes the day new? Only you.

 

how do you mother yourself?

May 14th, 2017    -    65 Comments

One of the first readers of Momma Zen, by my timid invitation, was a middle-aged single gay man who had no interest or experience in parenting but a keen eye for content.

“This is about parenting yourself, right?” he concluded after a quick flip through the pages.

I agreed as if I knew. As if that very insight had guided my hand.

But those aren’t the kind of insights that illumine the daily life of a mother when the process is so totally involved with the continuous operation of a malfunctioning bundle, so wholly immersed in behavior management of a toddling monster or a moody teen.

We don’t see our lives clearly when we live it as though it has an external object and outcome. Judging it as if it is a foregone conclusion or – what if? – a looming failure.

Yet how we mother our children can never be anything other than how we mother ourselves, because it is all one life. So my question is not how you parent the people you undoubtedly love the most, but rather, how do you mother yourself? Because there are not two ways.

Are you kind and forgiving?
Do you give yourself quiet attention?
Permission to play?
Discipline to work?
The confidence to do things by yourself?
Are you honest with yourself?
Do you encourage yourself to go outside?
To take a breath?
To try again?
To take risks?
To be silly?
Are you hurrying toward some imagined milestone?
Do you undermine yourself with constructive criticisms?
Are you undisturbed by your apparent lack of progress?
Are you tender, careful and trusting with yourself?
Do you comfort fears, or magnify them?
Do you nourish yourself?
Laugh at yourself?
Smile in greeting each day?
Do you abandon yourself to preoccupations with the past?
Do you make new friends and forgive the old?
Do you allow that the world is entirely your own and encourage self-mastery?
Do you sleep when tired and eat when hungry?
Take a bath and splash?
Do you let yourself rant and cry for no good reason and then coax yourself back into the familiar cushion of your very own lap?

Do you tell yourself you are a wonderful mother and a beautiful daughter? Then let me be the first, and not the last.

How do you mother yourself?

A printable copy of this post is available here.

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this is love

April 20th, 2017    -    3 Comments

There is a certain attitude, perhaps unavoidable, that most of us seem to adopt as we grow up. It is a kind of self-satisfied conclusion that our parents didn’t love us. Oh, they might have loved us, but they didn’t love us enough. They didn’t love us the right way. They didn’t love us just so. Have your own child and you will penetrate into the utter absurdity of that idea.

About six weeks ago I heard from someone trying to find a passage I’d written that she called “one of the most compassionate and eye-opening pieces of writing I have ever read.” It was about forgiving your parents for all the ways they failed you, and she wanted to share it with a friend as soon as possible. I told her that every book I’d written was more or less about that very thing, but having long since tired of reading or remembering my own words, nothing in particular came to mind. A few hours later she wrote back, having easily found what she was looking for at the beginning of Momma Zen.

Babies seem to be coming back into my world these days—babies and grandbabies of friends, family, and readers. It’s quite a joy. Meanwhile, I am feeling the cumulative weight of my own selfish errors and oversteps as a parent. It seems like the right time to remember how easy it is to find love, and how easy it is to give.

Just go back to the beginning.

It strikes me as best to begin with love. The word will never again mean so much.

Of course you love your spouse. You love your parents and brothers and sisters. You love your friends. You love your home, and perhaps your hometown. You love your dog. You may love your work. You might attest to loving your alma mater, mashed potatoes or reading on a rainy day.

But this is love. The feeling you have for your child is so indescribably deep and consuming that it must qualify as one of the few transcendent experiences in your plain old ordinary life. It occurs spontaneously as part of afterbirth. It is miraculous and supreme and irrevocable. It makes all things possible.

There is a certain attitude, perhaps unavoidable, that most of us seem to adopt as we grow up. It is a kind of self-satisfied conclusion that our parents didn’t love us. Oh, they might have loved us, but they didn’t love us enough. They didn’t love us the right way. They didn’t love us just so. Have your own child and you will penetrate into the utter absurdity of that idea. You will love your child as your parents loved you and their parents loved them. With a love that is humbling and uncontrived, immense and indestructible. Parents err, of course, and badly. They can be ignorant, foolish, mean and far worse, in ways that you can come to forgive in them and try to prevent in yourself. But this wholesale shortage of parental love at the crux of everyone’s story must be the product of shabby and self-serving recollections. Now that you are a mother, set that story aside, forgetting everything you thought you knew about love.

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what my mother taught me

April 13th, 2017    -    12 Comments

It was an attribute of her deep faith and her final, modest confusion that my mother believed she was dying on Easter, and it was, for her. But for the rest of us it was in the dark night after Maundy Thursday, the day commemorating the Last Supper when, in facing certain death, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he had loved them. Months before this day my mom had taken quiet confidence in me, telling me what she wanted for her funeral, what she wanted for her body, and asking me to write her obituary. Permission was thus tacitly granted to each other to proceed as we must. At her funeral I rose to say these words. They were not the first thing I had ever written, but they were the first thing I had ever written for myself, to be spoken in my own voice. This is the kind of thing that a mother can teach you. I have remembered it always, and especially on this day every year.

I wanted to share a few things with you about my mother. I’m sure you already know them. They are what bring you here today.

Nonetheless, over the last few months, she said some things that I wanted to pass along. She has probably been saying them to me all my life, but I suspect I heard them, finally, for the first time.

Just last weekend she looked at me, clear-eyed and steady, and told me what I’ve come to recognize as her final instructions.

“Be yourself,” she said. “And take good care of your family.”

Now you know that my mother could never, for one minute, be anything but herself. Honest, unselfish, unpretentious, lighthearted, optimistic and, in a way, so ordinary. So ordinary that she was, in fact, extraordinary. It drew people to her, to her comfort and ease. So open and accepting. So authentic. And so happy!

She kept all the cards and notes you all sent over the course of her illness. Hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even a thousand. She kept every one and everyday, more came. She was so uplifted, and in a way, mystified at the magnitude.

I told her that they showed how much she was loved. “Yes,” she said, and she shook her head in disbelief. “And just for being me.” read more

the rules are broken

December 12th, 2016    -    6 Comments

Last night I saw my neighbor at the gas station in town. We didn’t recognize one another at first even though we’ve lived next door for 17 years. A sad sign of the times. We immediately fell into each other’s arms, saying what needn’t be said, that every day it gets unbelievably, horrifyingly worse and that our country is dead. I told her it feels like the flags should be flying at half-mast. She said she feels sorry for our teenage daughters, a year apart. There was a contract we thought we had, a contract with the future that depended on our effort, intelligence, honesty and decency. Did you ever feel that? It was fragile, to be sure, but it’s what we grew up believing.

The rules are broken, I said.

A night or two after the election my daughter came into my room as I was sitting. “Mom, if you let me get a tattoo . . . ” she launched into a proposition that she knew was absurd, “would you get one with me?” She explained that since she was under 18, she could only get a tattoo with a parent’s consent.

Every institution in our country is collapsing and what comes up in the middle of the fall is the tiny matter of a tattoo.

I did not straight away say no, because of the realization that has taken hold in me: the rules are broken. We’re going to have to depend on something else, you see, than what we thought was allowed. How we thought things worked.

I said yes.

I told her about a certain phrase in of one of my books that has inspired quite a few people, words that I wrote with only her in mind. I suggested that if we got identical tattoos based on that message, even though people all over the world have shared it on the internet, we would be the only two people in the world who shared it in real life and knew what it really meant.

And that dialogue has since caused piercing pain for me, but total amusement and pride for her, and considering the way the world is going, it has made us both very happy to have each other, two blossoms blooming on a branch that will never break.

the secret of a good mother

July 6th, 2016    -    9 Comments

broken We say, “A good father is not a good father.” Do you understand? One who thinks he is a good father is not a good father. — Suzuki Roshi

The quote above is often misunderstood. How do you understand it? I’ll answer for you from my own experience. One who thinks she is a good mother is not a good mother.

Zen can sound like doublespeak, but it’s always as plain as plain can be. When you think “good,” that is not good. The moment you step back from total involvement in living life as it is and go up into your judging mind to evaluate it, you are completely mistaken. Do you know that place? Have you ever judged yourself to be comfortably ahead of the game? Or woefully behind? With an edge, an advantage, a method, or for that matter, a reason, excuse or handicap? Maybe you think all those things in a single day! When you indulge in either self-congratulation or self-criticism you are no longer present. You might even say you are no longer alive. Dead fathers are not good fathers.

One who thinks he is one of the worst may be a good one if he is always trying with a single-minded effort.

I have a teenager now, as if it isn’t obvious. And in the course of writing, however vaguely, about what I am experiencing, I hear from kind-hearted people of a venerable cast, folks who have a longer view of the road we tread. They tell me about inexplicable disappointments and deep sorrows, happy turnabouts, miraculous resolutions, and ultimate acceptance of what they didn’t know then and couldn’t have guessed would happen in a million years. Life is a tricky business, and no one knows how it will go. We all know this, and yet we don’t.  Not until the illusion shatters.

From where I stand now it seems a parent’s learning curve goes like this: it starts out hard then it gets easier, and then hard, then harder, then quite a bit harder, then much harder. Humility is the face of love.

The people I take comfort from are the humble ones. They are quiet but outnumber the prideful ones a billion to one.

So how do we conduct ourselves without attaching to good or bad? I like this story about the 20th century Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah who was giving a talk on impermanence. He could be talking about anything.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

Read a transcript of the original talk by Suzuki Roshi.

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the girl on the train

June 8th, 2016    -    17 Comments

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When I was little I took a train trip halfway across the country. It was at Christmastime. I remember it as a luxury, a measure of how modestly my family lived otherwise. The train seats were upholstered. I had a bag of brand-new puzzle books and snacks. The porter brought around pillows in creased pillowcases. They cost a dollar apiece to rent. It took three days to get from Union Station in Los Angeles to Austin, Texas.

The train traveled through the empty desert and mountains, across days and nights. We stopped at unfamiliar places in the dark and snow, at old depots in dying towns. People got on and off.

I was only six years old then, in 1962. I was not afraid. My sisters were with me, and my mother was across the aisle.

We got off the train on the third night and were met by the grandparents I hardly knew. My mother’s whole family was waiting to see us. They missed her so much and she lived so far away. Only lately have I realized how hard it was for my mother to miss her mother every day for so long.

I’ve been remembering this since last night when I heard the first woman to become the presidential nominee of a major party saying she wished her mother could be with her right now, a mother who taught her that she could grow up to be anything.

You may not like this particular girl. It doesn’t matter. Some of my own friends call her corrupt, a piece of shit, a snake, things that shock and horrify me, and not because she is a girl—no, not that. They always assure me it’s not because she’s a girl.

This morning I read an article about this girl’s mother, the one who inspired in her daughter such determination and courage. Her mother, you see, was once a girl on a train. Abandoned by her parents at age 8, traveling with her sister to live with people who didn’t want her. By 14 she was on her own again, cleaning houses for strangers during the Depression.

And so today I ask myself this: what do I inspire in my daughter? Do I believe she can go anywhere and do anything? Do I trust, admire, and uplift her? Do I console and encourage her? Am I good company on her long trip to a destination I will never see? Have I taken every opportunity to give my daughter the reassurance my mother still gives me?

Because, you see, a mother may disappear, but a mother never leaves. She is at your side, just across the aisle, for a billion miles across the empty sands. She buys you snacks and books and a fresh pillow. She stays awake through the long night hoping that you will rest. She weeps in humility at how little she can do, and infinite pride at who you have become.

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because it is impossible to hold

May 9th, 2016    -    1 Comment

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Because it is impossible to hold, I hold it.

Because it is impossible to hold, it is a word.

Because it is impossible to hold, it fills everything.

Because it is impossible to hold, it falls down.

Because it is impossible to hold, it stands up.

Because it is impossible to hold, it breathes.

Because it is impossible to hold, it lets go.

Because it is impossible to hold, it never leaves.

Because it is impossible to hold, it never ends.

Because it is impossible to hold, love keeps forever.

so many mothers

April 13th, 2016    -    19 Comments

So much love.

The neonatologist, wheeling us out of NICU for the drive home: “Don’t worry. She’s strong and full of life.”

My mother, wearing a wig after chemo, holding my daughter for the first time: “I never thought this would happen.”

The pediatrician, about my difficulty breastfeeding: “Don’t let this come between you and your baby.”

The best friend, whenever I needed it: “She looks like you.”

The babysitter, on her first day: “We love each other already!”

The grandmother at the park, remembering life with her twin babies: “I had to get the laundry going every morning by 9.”

The nursery school teacher, before she had words: “She is a genius.”

The stranger watching her hoist herself to the top of the slide: “She’ll be a gymnast one day.”

The kindergarten teacher, on our first visit to the classroom: “I’d say she’s ready.”

The teacher at the parent conference: “She’s friends with everyone.”

The gymnastics coach: “You can be on our team.”

A fellow parent confronting the mystery of sixth grade math: “I have faith that they will figure it out.”

The Algebra teacher: “You know you can do it. Just give yourself time.”

The friend, after her admission to art school: “It’s what she was born to do.”

The English teacher, even after her panic attack in the classroom: “She’s the kind of student who will do well anywhere.”

Her counselor, when she had been frightfully sad, lonely and confused: “What an amazing young woman your daughter is.”

My mother, knowing her time was near: “I’ve often thought she came to take my place.”

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Remembering so many mothers on the anniversary of my mother’s passing April 13, 2001.

I’m here

February 10th, 2016    -    12 Comments

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Years and years ago when I was young and busy and my mother was alive, I would rarely call home. So when I did, it was a sign. If my father answered, he wouldn’t stay on the line for longer than a minute because he knew something was up, and my mother would have walked into the kitchen and looked at him questioningly.

“It’s Karen,” he’d say as he handed her the receiver.

Then she would get on the line and say, “Karen.”

And just like that she was there, all of her, for me, which was why I called, and I would start crying.

I called because I was going to make a C in Contemporary American Poetry. Because I’d totaled my car. Because I was going to get married. Because I was going to get a divorce. I had called because I needed her, which happened a lot more than just the times I called, but I was the one who isolated herself, the quiet one, the one who stayed away. And she always let me.

One time in my early 30s, I had to have surgery for endometriosis. This is a diagnosis that doesn’t need major surgery these days, but in those days it meant a week in the hospital and six weeks at home. When I woke up a day after surgery she was sitting in a chair opposite me and although I’m sure this was part of the plan I couldn’t imagine how she had transported herself to my side. She had a bag of books or magazines or work papers with her and she was settled in and I knew that she wouldn’t leave. She stayed a week with me in the hospital and a week at home where she brought me soup and crackers in bed like it was nothing and she asked nothing. She always knew how to ask for nothing.

Later on, older and married again, I moved to another state and I was for some time unbearably sad and afraid of what I’d done. I called that time and asked if she would come for a visit.

“I was just waiting for you to ask,” she said.

***

When I go to a retreat like the one last weekend in Massachusetts, the group of us, mostly strangers, sit with one another in a silent room for five or six or eight hours a day, and there isn’t any conversation. We sit in the quiet, and walk around in the quiet, and follow the schedule to show up at certain times and be quiet together again. And after awhile or certainly by the end you might realize that you have been sitting in a net, and that you are actually part of the net that’s holding you and everyone else up. After all that time and right before you go home you have the chance to speak. Someone will say something like this:

This is the first time I’ve ever done this. I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve read all of your books and they’ve helped me so much and I always told myself that if I ever had the chance I would come to one of your retreats and then I saw that you’d actually be here and I couldn’t believe it and I had to come.

There are usually tears by then and not much more to say, but so much more you can’t even say, and I want them to know everything my mother wanted me to know if I ever asked.

I’m here.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Los Angeles
Sunday, March 20
More info here

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the transfiguration of the bathrobe

January 22nd, 2016    -    5 Comments

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The robe my mother wore was blue, quilted, ankle-length, with three-quarter sleeves. She had other robes during my years at home, but this is the one I remember. I remember that she wore it when she got up every morning to make breakfast, and had it on when she opened my bedroom door in the dark and said, “Time to get up, Karen.” I remember her in the robe while we ate our breakfast at the kitchen table—scrambled eggs and toast or cereal and milk—and then we hurriedly got dressed and went to school and her, to work.

My mother did her very best at everything. I would have called her excellent. Our house was small and clean. Sometimes if you looked closely you could see that things were not always so nice. When she wore the blue robe everything seemed warm and safe and reliable. The days began in the same way. There was always breakfast. We were always on time. My mother wasn’t sentimental or silly about anything. She was at all times grown up and good.

None of this may have happened the way I tell it except for the blue bathrobe and the feeling of being loved.

***

There is a lull that opens up between a mother and a daughter. A trench, a sinkhole, a grave and terrible silence. Feelings are overwhelming. Conversation is impossible. Words are dangerous. The truth can seem unbearably close and yet a million miles away.

***

I saw a plush pink bathrobe hanging in the window of a store in town and I knew I would have to buy it. It was expensive but I didn’t care. I took it home and laid it on my daughter’s bed so she would see it the minute she got home.

She put on the robe that night. Then she put it on every night. She would say that she was about to take a long bath and if she washed her hair would I dry it? She would tell me that she was going to take a break and Facetime with a friend. Have some tea with honey. Toast before bed. And twice, seeing me, she would smile, come over and embrace me in a plush hug, suddenly so grown up and good, a mother to a child.

None of this may have happened the way I tell it except for the pink bathrobe and the most excellent, unforgettable feeling of being loved.

***

noun trans·fig·u·ra·tion :  a change in form or appearance :  metamorphosis :  an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change

Jim Dine, 1984: The Robe Following Her

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it will be OK, mom

November 23rd, 2015    -    16 Comments

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Last week I walked into my 16-year-old daughter’s bedroom, an occasion equivalent in a teenager’s life to an armed invasion. There I sat down, wound myself up, and started in on it.

I had allowed — indeed, encouraged — her to join the brilliant cast of a marvelous play with two weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of performances, and now I was afraid. Yes, I want her to pursue her passion, realize her potential, follow her heart, live life, have fun, be herself, yes, yes, I want all that, but the sky was suddenly clouded by the ominous shadow of late nights, missed school, botched tests, tardy term papers and the pitch-black importance that is modern high school.

I questioned how everything was going to get done, doubting whether she could avert the threat of regret and failure. Maybe not, but it’s possible I was this paranoid when she was in kindergarten or third grade, when she was 6 or 8 or 12, and perhaps I was. Good grief, I think I was.

She sat there and let the storm subside, let my every qualm and warning wash over her and then she said a few words.

I think it will be OK, mom.

Sometimes I regret having written so much about parenthood for these many years, to have implied that I knew anything about doing it differently. The process has revealed itself as one step forward, two steps back, one step forward, ten steps back, one step forward, ten billion steps back, back, back, until it’s just you with your lonely fear and worry ’til the day you die. My first Zen teacher Maezumi Roshi said that worry was a mother’s occupation, and that occupation isn’t the kind that pays. It doesn’t bear fruit or fulfillment; no, it’s an occupation that consumes you day and night until you are just a stalking, zombie husk of a mother that scatters every living thing within her doomed reach to seek the wide shelter of an opposite shore.

Those few words of hers, so simple, comforting and kind, sounded like what I might have said once, and should say, and will say, and hope to say in some future moment of selfless grace and faith, when I get the chance, if I get the chance, to be her mother again, when it will all most definitely be OK.

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