Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Greatest Lesson

Kas, Turkey
It's been almost two years since my husband and I returned from 9 months of travel around the globe that included 20 countries and 5 continents. I wish that I could say I came back with a renewed sense of spirituality after spending two months in India or a healthier body being away from the American diet and living in Asia for almost three months or a positive uplifting message for humanity after teaching English to Tibetan refugees for three weeks. I wish that I could say that I immediately came home and made slide shows of all our adventures and told harrowing and hilarious stories to all of our friends and families and that we hung our souvenirs and tapestries and framed our panoramic photographs and read through our weathered travel diaries. I wish that I could say that the experience was completely transformative and we both came back inspired and ready to start careers with newfound passions and a greater sense of purpose. I wish that we could say we now walked the earth with a stronger connectivity to our fellow man.

But, I can't.

What I can say is that traveling fills my soul in a way I cannot describe. It pushes me to become the best version of myself - trusting yet discerning, open yet skeptical, adventurous yet cautious. When I travel I feel in balance. I feel happy. I feel sad and outraged. I feel scared. I feel empowered. I feel confident and excited. I feel because I must. There is nothing to escape to when I feel all the feelings. There is no home to go back to that is mine, there is only one discomfort displaced by another discomfort. There is no comfort zone when you set out for long-term budget travel. There is plenty of food poisoning and sleepless nights and running to catch any form of transportation. But there is nothing comfortable about it. Because of this, you are exposed all of the time. You are invigorated and inspired, but tired. You are faced with your fears every single day and because of this they become very small, so small that you might just show up in a new town without a single reservation and just know that you will find a place to sleep that night. You will start to see humanity as friendly and actually very helpful. You will also see how terribly flawed we all are. 

I did not come back from world travel changed. I came back informed. I came back with a different lens through which I view the world and I came back sad... and relieved. Sad the adventure was over (for now) but so relieved when I heard the American accent of the custom's officer who was from the same neighborhood I was from. I felt overwhelmed returning to American supermarkets for groceries. Do there really need to be hundreds of choices for bread? Tens of choices for pickles? I went wedding dress shopping with my soon-to-be sister in law a couple days after returning and I was astonished at what we pay for wedding gowns and veils and shoes, even though I happily paid my price just a year and half earlier. Within days of moving back, we also decided to leave New York and move to LA, my hometown, and days later learned my mother was scheduled for a double mastectomy. Our travels were put on a shelf, a bag of souvenirs and mementos (that only recently was unpacked) thrown in a closet. Our thousands of pictures saved on a hard drive, packed away inside a drawer so we could make the most of our tight living quarters as we tried to get back on our feet in our home country.  

What we thought would be an experience that connected us with humanity on some deeper level, turned out to be isolating when we returned home and sometimes even embarrassing. No matter what your tone, talking about that time you took a balloon ride in Cappadocia or rode camels in the Moroccan desert or went blackwater rafting in New Zealand comes off pretentious. People asked us three questions: What was the weirdest thing you ate? What was your favorite country?  Did you get sick anywhere?

The answers: Unknown meats in Cambodia. Vietnam for me, Tibet for my husband. Yes - Morocco for me and Myanmar for my husband.

But a month ago, a friend from Colorado came to visit. As she bounced my 5 month old daughter on her knee, she asked me, "What was the greatest lesson you learned traveling?"

Without hesitation, the answer flew out of my mouth, "That the world hates women."

Her mouth dropped open and mine dropped a little, too. I followed it up with saying, "I also learned how happy I am that I was able to return to this country because it is my home." As someone who produced a documentary entitled Dear America that captured a portrait of post-9/11 youth, to find this gratitude for a country I spent many years criticizing was no small lesson. I am not one for patriotism or nationalism. I do not think Americans are better than other citizens of other countries. My life is not more important or more special than another's anywhere. I am just grateful that I am a woman in this country, even with its failings in parental leave policies and gender inequality and sexism and racism and homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia and so on and so on... I am not saying there is no work to be done. But I am saying that I am grateful that here I have the opportunity to fight for these things, even though there should not still be a fight for basic human rights. 

When I found out I was pregnant 7 months after returning, I knew it was a girl. I knew it was a girl because I wanted a boy. I was terrified of having to raise a girl, and yet, I knew she would be the gift I was given. How would I tell her about the statistics on sexual abuse and assaults on girls and women in this country, let alone the rest of the world? How would I teach her to love her body when I have struggled my whole life to truly love mine? How would I prepare her for the day or conversation when all of her achievements will be dismissed and she will be judged by her looks? How will I teach her to be open to new experiences but skeptical, discerning, and cautious? How will I teach her to protect herself in a world that that will not value her the way her family does or even her flawed country does? How will I save her from the pain and hurt and experiences women have been suffering around the globe for all time? 

I can't. And the weight of that is crushing. The world will keep being the world. The bigger question becomes, how can I teach my daughter to love? How can I teach her to choose love always, no matter the experience, the pain, or the loss? How can I teach her to love her body and her mind? To love the people she shares this planet with and this planet, too? How can I teach her to find love for those that hurt her and not let those that hurt or harm her become her teachers?  How can I teach my daughter to love, love, love - no matter what?

Practice, I guess.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Welcome to the World

Me and Peanut
Two years ago, almost to the date, Mike and I set off on an adventure to see the world and circumnavigate the globe. I can remember sitting in an airport in Belgium, hearing the flight attendant speaking French over the loud speaker, and feeling butterflies in my stomach. I had always wanted to travel around the world and I was really doing it and it was those French words that made the moment real.

It was not in our plans to move to Los Angeles when we were finished traveling. We both had jobs waiting in New York City. Between the two of us we had big social lives with wonderful friends, a writing group, a canoe, Sunday dinners at Mike's parents house in Jersey. We could renew our gym memberships and Park Slope Co-Op memberships and get back to the life we spent years carving out for ourselves in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

We were in Vietri, Italy for our birthdays that year, staying at a beautiful apartment we rented through Airbnb that looked out over the Amalfi Coast. When we walked in we spotted a birthday crown with the number '32' left over from someone else's festivities. Mike brought that crown to me the morning I woke up on my 32nd birthday and we marveled out how lucky we were to have found such a special place to celebrate our 32nd and 33rd birthdays. It was also the day I brought up children and Mike did not. Hours after I had put down that heavy crown and we had cruised along the cliffs edge of the rocky coast, we found ourselves in an argument. We had been together six years, married almost a year and our timelines for when to start a family were very different. We both knew deciding to travel would push back that chapter for us, but neither one of us had asked the other how far back. Had we had the fight in Brooklyn, it might have lasted much longer and ended more dramatically. But the best thing traveling gave us was the ability to drop our arguments quickly because on the road we needed each other too much to stay angry or hold a grudge. We got good at zeroing in on what we were really saying instead of staying in reaction. I felt hurt and angry that I wanted children much sooner than Mike, but wearing a crown with my age on it that morning had triggered that dreaded fear of the biological clock. Tick tock. I was scared to wait too long.
Mike & I, Amalfi Coast, Italy 2013

After Italy, we traveled through Andalucia Spain, all over Morocco, had a layover in Dubai, and traveled through central India for a month before heading on up towards Northern India to McLeod Ganj. We were staying at a little hotel in the middle of the mountains with no heat but a hell of a view and the though of having children came up again but this time it was Mike who had arrived at some moment. The fear of having children and what we could provide and when we could provide all seemed to dissipate while traveling through Morocco and India. The children we saw in these countries did not have much, but most of them were happy and all of them were resilient. We decided  together that we wanted children soon and for the same reasons, reasons based out of love and gratitude as opposed to fear.

It was towards the end of the trip in New Zealand, when staying with two friends and their beautiful and funny children that the idea to move to LA popped in our heads. After all we had seen and experienced, going back to our same lives in Brooklyn did not feel right even though it would have been comfortable. We wanted to try something else - LA, maybe even Colorado. We came home, to my home, and a few days later celebrated my brother's engagement at a bar with my whole family. Kids were running around, babies were being passed, and we felt it was the right place to be for the next chapter. We flew back to New York and packed up half of our stuff just to see how it went. (I had some cold feet.) The night before we drove back to LA, my mother told she had breast cancer and was going to have a double mastectomy.

We raced across the country to be home for her surgery and once we arrived, the race never seemed to stop. There were bridal showers and baby showers and failed job interviews and a juggling of jobs. There was a struggle to get back on our feet that without my Dad's help, would not have even been possible. As I tried to get my footing in LA, everywhere I stepped I seemed to sink just a little bit deeper. Our money was gone, our debt was rising, and all of the freedom and confidence we experienced on the road was in short supply as we tried to carve out a new life. On a whim, we adopted a dog - the best damn dog on the planet - and it felt like that ache for children was somehow soothed for the time being because clearly we would now have to put that off for a while.  A month later, we found out I was pregnant.

Maple jumped into bed with me the morning of June 18th
and licked my face as if to say, "You got this, girl."
Pregnancy was hard and long. Fear was present. How are we going to afford a baby? Where are we going to live? What will happen with my dreams to publish a brilliant piece of writing? How the hell am I going to get through childbirth?  I didn't have the answers for the first few questions but I knew the answer to the last - with lots of stretching. At 11 weeks pregnant, I started taking pre-natal yoga classes. Despite wanting children, I have always been terrified of childbirth and everything that goes with it. But I worked at it. I stretched and breathed and meditated and visualized. I hired a doula and wrote a birth plan. By 34 weeks I was ready to have a drug-free vaginal birth, which is also the same time we learned that our baby was breech and if she did not turn in the next two weeks, they would schedule a Cesarean.

I tried everything. Handstands, swimming, yoga positions, acupuncture, moxabustion, and chiropractic treatments. But the baby never budged. I was offered a version, (where they manually turn the baby from the outside) but after doing our research and paying attention to our gut instincts, we decided not to do the version, even though it meant for an increased risk of a C-section. At 38 weeks, she still hadn't turned. Hugely disappointed and now more scared than ever, I made peace with the facts and we scheduled the surgery just shy of 40 weeks. I let go of all my visualizations and anticipation for all the surprises and mysteries that labor brings to make room for a new anticipation - a definitive due date...which a couple days later was moved up to 39 weeks. We had one week to get ready.

June 18th // 39 weeks
We stopped organizing and "getting ready" and went to the beach with Maple. We went to dinner and saw a movie. We cuddled on the couch and watched as much comedy as possible. I cried a lot and fought off a panic or two. The day before the surgery my doctor did another ultrasound just to be sure she was still breech. Sure enough she was. For some reason I asked the doctor where her legs were and it turned out one was down in my pelvis along with the cord. She was a footling breech, (which I knew because of where she kicked)! My doctor was glad we had decided against the version, since it very likely could have ended up in an emergency C-section if they even would have attempted it. There was relief in knowing our gut instincts had been right. We did not want to force this baby into a position she did not naturally put herself in for 39 weeks. We had been right to put her interests ahead of my own desire to have a certain kind of birth - one I had spent months preparing for. I used to love the phrase, "If you plan too much, God will laugh at you." Good one, God.

That night, I stood in the shower and started to shake. The fear had finally caught up and the moment became huge. Not only was I having major surgery, we were having a baby - tomorrow. There was the tiniest bit of grief in that moment. The adventure was now really over - the adventure of Mike and me and the world. From the next day forward there would be a new adventure, one we wanted and were excited for, but one that would be different, bigger, scarier - Mike and me and Ava.

On June 18th, I woke up happy. I was ready. I was in the airport in Belgium... waiting. I was in the hospital with a hair net and an IV. I was holding Mike's hands when he whispered "I fucking love you" and then my doctor's hands as she told me to "Breathe" and I leaned over for the epidural. I was on my back, hands out and tied, open to the world and to a room full of doctors and nurses and then those words...

"Well, hello baby girl! Welcome to the world! Happy birthday!"

...And then a squawk that pierced through the haze of the drugs and the bright lights and the monitors and the voices as I felt my breath taken away and I realized that she was here. It was the single most sobering moment of my life to hear my daughter's voice cry out to the world that she had arrived. They held her up so I could see her and I was struck by how beautiful she was, even covered in the mess of it all. They took her to check her vitals and clean her up and I could see Mike holding her as my doula, the one who had coached me through countless squats and push ups and meditative intentions, held my hand. They untied my right hand and Mike brought her to me so I could hold her on my chest. We wiggled around each other's faces, trying to get a better look at each other and there she was, eyes open, the whole world in this moment in time.
Mike becomes a dad

Today, eight weeks later, Mike and I, together with Ava, walked through a memorial service for a friend's mother - a mother who truly lived each day as if it was her last - a mother who knew her greatest role in this world was being just that. They read a tiny note that she kept in her wallet:

"A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove...but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child."  (by Forest E. Witcraft)

We still don't know how we are going to afford a new baby. And although we are no longer living with my Dad, we still don't know where we are going to live once this baby can no longer sleep in a crib next to our bed. There is still the juggling of jobs for me. Their is still the worry that my dreams will stay just that. But the world is different, bigger, scarier and more hopeful, beautiful, and inspired than I could have ever imagined. My life is important. My experiences, less. My love, the single greatest gift I can give to the world.  My daughter, my everything.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

And then there were three...

...or four really, counting Maple. This Thursday it will be six weeks - six weeks since our lives completely turned inside out, six weeks of messy, raw, the good, the bad, and the ugly, six weeks of a joy that has pierced us both to our souls, six weeks of so many sleepless nights! But, yes, six weeks, since Ava Kathleen arrived and made Mike and I parents.   I have been absent on this blog for quite some time. Pregnancy made me feel more exposed than I ever wanted to be and now that I have become a mother, I am quickly learning that the exposure I felt with all the raw emotions and hormones and physicality of a huge belly ain't got nothing on motherhood. I am learning that to be a mother is to feel vulnerable all the time. There is a joy and a worry so powerful and so all-consuming, that in any given moment I'm not entirely sure which one I am experiencing. But I know that I love it - motherhood. For all the feelings and vulnerability that comes with it, also comes a fierce courage and sharpening of the instincts. Despite the fog of sleeplessness and exhaustion, there is a clarity that has also been born. Priorities align very quickly and time becomes more present than ever. When I hold that little being of light and she wraps her tiny fingers around my thumb, everything becomes very clear - this is everything I have ever wanted and everything I have ever wanted to give someone else. 

This doesn't mean I will give up on my other dreams or goals. They still are important to me and for as fulfilled as I am right now, I know that I would do my daughter a disservice to lose myself into becoming her mother only and forgetting the woman I had to become to bring me to this point. But, right now, when I hold her against my chest, our breaths in sync, her fingers around one of mine, her eyes trying to see who this woman singing to her is, everything else falls away. The restlessness stills. Becoming a mother has not been pain-free and not without sorrow carried over from the past. But, the love is so all-consuming, it really does push everything else out, at least for right now. These past six weeks have been demanding, painful, and tough AND they have been the absolute best six weeks of my life. 

More to write later, perhaps her birth story which taught me some of the greatest lessons in letting go. But for now, lullabies and nose kisses await...