I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Month: June, 2013

Hide-and-Seek

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I am at my childhood home, playing Hide-and-Seek with a little girl.  Myself as a child?  The little girl and I go to hide while another little girl (also young sally?) counts to 60.  Or is it 50…my age?  Yes, there are two little girls.  They are both me as a child.  One is hiding and one is seeking.  Hiding girl waves to me and urges me to hide with her.  She slips seamlessly into some bushes.  Small, young, lithe, flexible – poof!  Young sally is gone.  I study the bushes.  There is no place for me in there.  I cannot hide.  I don’t want to disappoint this sweet and innocent girl so eager to play with me, so eager for a friend.  I crouch into a nook beside the house and behind the bush where hiding girl is obscured.  I know I will be found – ending the game…ruining the game.  Seeking girl’s counting is coming to an end.  “48! 49! 50!  Ready or not!  Here I come!”  I hold my breath.  Here she comes.  Humming around the corner of the house, she spies me immediately.  Yelping, “I see you!”  Exposed.  Found out.  Game over.

I am “it” – my turn to be the seeker.  I walk to the side of the house, unsure of the spot where I should count or to what number I should count.  100?  I find a spot (not sure it is the right spot), cover my eyes, and begin counting out loud.  “1!  2!  3!”  I hear everyone sneaking behind me to find their hiding place.  I raise my voice.  “98!  99!  100!  Ready or not!  Here I come!”

The sneaking footsteps were heading down the hill to the backyard.  I begin my search in that direction.

I walk toward the backyard where the swing set used to be, like the swing set my children have outgrown and that we are now passing on to a younger family.  The childhood swing set was where I bit Mary-Ellen because I was so angry and didn’t know how to deal with my frustration.  I don’t remember what I was angry about but I felt so provoked that all I could do was lash out with my teeth.  My father was furious with me.  I remember no effort on his part to discover why I was angry; to support my side of the argument; or to teach me a more constructive way to be angry.  In shame, embarrassment, and with complete humiliation, I had to face her scary and formidable father and go to her to apologize.  My father made me do it after dinner.  You can’t disrupt the dinner routine.  It was the end of my friendship with Mary-Ellen, because I didn’t know how you could be angry and still love someone.

Heading to the backyard in my dream, the swing set is gone.  In its place are cats.  Not small cats.  Big cats.  Cougars.  Pumas.  Panthers.  Sexy older women?  Cougars everywhere.  Baby Cougars.  Adult Cougars.  Slinking, Stalking, Hunting.  Frightened for my life, I become desperate to find my husband.  Where was he hiding?  I had to find him and save him.  He wasn’t in the backyard.  I run to the front yard.  More cougars.  A voice was speaking to me in my head.  “They may seem to not notice you, but they are aware of you and very dangerous to you.  BEWARE!”  I could not find my husband.  The little girls were gone also.  Just me, grown up Sally, exposed.  Heart beating with fear at the danger.

What Did You Learn From Your Father?

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I Wonder

I hope that my children will like me and my husband, their father, and that they will want to spend time with us when they are grown and we are old.

For me, I choose to spend as little time as possible with my father.  The only way I could become my grown-up self was to leave home.  Whatever love I felt for him could not coexist with the suppressed rage I felt at the life-long expectation that I be obedient.  “Children should be seen and not heard,” was his not-so-joking mantra.  I rarely visit.  I feel guilty that I don’t visit; that I don’t want to visit.  My father’s grip on me is subtle but pervasive and insistent.  I silently stay away, unable to fight his hold, unless I stay away.

For Father’s Day, as we honor our fathers and fatherhood, I am sensitive to the poignant images of loving fathers.  I wonder how many of us long for a relationship with our father that we didn’t have?  I wonder if I can allow my anger and disappointment to recede for the day so that I can acknowledge what my father has given me?  I wonder what his father did to him?

Like me, my father was an only child.  He describes his early childhood as being unsettled.  While his father opted to continue his education because he couldn’t find work, my father and his mother lived with her parents.  He was very close to his mother and describes her as adventurous and very smart and well-educated.  His father was absent, preoccupied, and didn’t really understand my father.  Like me, my father was a sensitive and introspective child.  He discovered the violin around the age of 12 or so and poured all his energy into learning to play.  When his father invited him to spend the summer in New York with him while he had a short-term job there, my father refused.  He wanted to stay home and practice the violin all summer.  What young teen refuses their father and what father accepts such a refusal?  Didn’t the family function as a family or was it a collection of individuals?  At a young age, my father prioritized his own pursuits over family and friends.

Music formed the backdrop of my childhood.  As a young child, I fell asleep to the sound of my father practicing his violin.  On Saturday nights, he played string quartets with a loyal foursome who formed my father’s primary social circle.  My mother and I would watch tv (The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Carol Burnett Show).  When they were done playing, they would have coffee and dessert.  When I was older, I was allowed to join.

I started playing piano when I was about 5.  Endless years of practicing, lessons, and recitals.  It’s amazing I wasn’t a better piano player.  I would complain about practicing, but my father insisted.  When I looked to him for approval after working on a piece, he would say in his undemonstrative way, “Hmmm, it was good,” which seemed the ultimate put-down.  Of course, there was the recital where I forgot the notes, so my teacher brought me the music and I had to start over.  Beyond mortifying.  I found out much later that the reason my father did not become a professional violinist was that he had severe stage-fright.

Around 7, he introduced the violin to me.  What a mistake.  Screechy and my father’s instrument.  I quit.  Then there was the year when I played the flute, around 9.  When my father revealed that violinists don’t like flautists because they compete for the same melodic line, I quit.  Later, around 11, he persuaded me to try the cello.  He explained that I didn’t have to be as much of a virtuoso to get an opportunity to play.  Somewhat of a backhanded rationale, but I complied, as usual.  More practicing, more lessons, more recitals and competitions.  It’s amazing I wasn’t a better cellist.  My mother says I was a very good cello player, that I got a deep and robust sound out of the cello that spoke to her.  My father hangs on to my cello asking periodically if I wouldn’t like to take it back to my grown up home.  Maybe next time.

When my husband and son took up the guitar two years ago, I contemplated joining them, gently strumming the guitar, picking at the notes and paging through the instruction book.  I enjoyed their lessons and usually beat everyone at “Name That Tune.”  No.  I didn’t want to practice an instrument any more.

The only time I saw my father cry (when I was a child) was when he was watching a violinist perform.  “Daddy, why are you crying?”  I exclaimed in confusion and alarm.  I don’t remember that he answered.  My mother explained that he was moved by how beautiful the music was.

I too am moved by music.  (Thank you Dad.)  The sound of a violin or a string quartet brings back the entire aura of my childhood.  But the music that moves me is music that I associate with dance, for that was my world, and not his.  Or pop music from the 70’s.  Other teens rebel by breaking rules and having fights that allow them to bond with their peers.  I rebelled by replacing music lessons with ballet lessons and by replacing classical music with Fleetwood Mac and Aerosmith.  It was the closest I could get to breaking the rules of our family, without leaving home, until I did leave home.

I wonder if his father had been able to be more present, more emotional, more tuned in to him if my father would have been less self-absorbed and more able to allow for differences and dischord to coexist with love within the family.  I wonder if something darker happened to my father to cause him to retreat into his own world, unable to express or share love in a mature way.  How much of my tendency to retreat, to go to a place of depression and anxiety is a habit learned from him and how much is cellular, genetic?  How much of the anxiety gene did I pass on to my children?  They say trauma, and how one reacts to stress, is passed on through the genes.

Now I see an aging man who is frightened of the end of life.  Exhausted at the amount of energy required to take care of his and my mother’s survival.  Unapologetic.  Needing me most just as I am most determined to assert my grown up self and establish severely distinct boundaries.  I wonder if I can allow my anger and disappointment to recede so that I can acknowledge what my father has given me?  I wonder if anger and love can coexist?  He did not show me how they could, being perhaps more conflict-avoidant than me, but it seems important to reconcile these emotions honestly so that I can model a better way of being for my children and theirs.  After all, they will need to leave home and become their grown up selves.  I hope they will want to visit.

M.C. “B”

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Boys and School

“You know Mom, I think the only thing I’m going to miss about 8th grade is Mr. B.”

I smile quietly, “Yes, you’ve really enjoyed Social Studies this year.”

I whoop inwardly:  YES!  Finally!  There is something about school that he likes!  YAY!!!!!!

Thank you Mr. B., energetic rapper, grandfather to another Aidan, and devoted teacher.  With your sense of humor and enthusiasm, you sparked Aidan to have an interest in politics, the electoral process, and World War 2. It was the one subject this year that neither I nor my husband needed to coach.  (I do the humanities, my husband does math and science.  At least until we get so frustrated that we opt to switch places.  My husband has assisted with writing some remarkable poems.  And everything Aidan knows about linear equations, he learned from me.)  Mr. B., you were organized and predictable, which helped him tremendously.  You listened to Aidan and allowed him to play a prominent role in the classroom, inspiring him to be more confident.   In short, you connected with him.  For that, I am profoundly grateful.  P.S.  I heard your rap was awesome.

When my son was about a year and a half, our babysitter’s husband fell ill and she couldn’t take care of Aidan.  For this period, I brought him to back-up daycare at my office.  The daycare center was well-run with good people, but it was not home and the good people were not “Grandma Phyllis.”  Day 1, I followed instructions to minimize the separation torture – ie, quick hug and walk away.  Off to work, I spent the day worrying.  I did not visit him at lunchtime – I was assured a mid-day visit would make the separation worse.  Day 2, he knew where we were going.  This little 18 month old who was hardly speaking any words yet, sat next to me on the Manhattan-bound train and gave me the silent treatment: proud, stubborn, hurt.  He looked out the window, refusing to make eye contact or snuggle with me in any way.  Enraged at the person he loves most, he stared stiffly out the window.  I took his hand and tried to explain.  He said one word:  “Home.”  This from the boy who did not speak yet.   My heart broke.

My mother tells the same story about my first day at Nursery School.  When she asked me how I liked it, I said:  “Too shy.”  Never an extrovert, I did grow to love school.  Eager to please and competitive for the A’s, I thrived at school.   I wanted my children to do so as well.  Not just for the intellectual stimulation and social life – and social validation – but because I was busy busy busy with my career and couldn’t really deal with them not fitting into the realm of “normal” school life with its structure and schedule.  I have fantasized about living a more adventurous life of travel and home-schooling them, but alas, I am very risk-averse and quite embedded in our suburban life.  My children have had no choice but to plod off to school dutifully every morning and work on their homework diligently every evening.  No breakdown in the routine allowed for working mothers, nor their children.

So the years go by.  After Grandma Phyllis, there is Pre-School, Kindergarten, Elementary School.  We are in a “good” public school district with an array of teachers.  Most of them are competent.  Many of them are truly gifted and dedicated educators.  My older daughter got the competitive-for-A’s gene and sailed right to the top of the class and has stayed there.  Because she is a girl, who is smart, funny, and obedient, her teachers adore her and encourage her.  My son is also smart, funny, and obedient, but he really has not liked school very much.  He is not competitive for A’s.  That is his sister’s territory.  His motivation stems mainly from a desire to not disappoint us, not from a burning desire to learn.  Because he is a boy, who is sensitive, distractable, and disorganized, most of his teachers have treated him like just another boy in the middle of the pack.  He doesn’t get the encouragement that the top of the heap gets, nor the attention that the truly challenged genuinely require.  There have been a few exceptions.  Pre-School was nurturing and safe, a supportive entry point.  First Grade teacher Mrs. G. whispered that he is a treasure.  Fifth Grade teacher Mrs. B. tried a tough approach, recognizing that he was smart and demanding that he actually work.  But mostly, Aidan has just wanted to come home.  Homework was a chore that took him away from more comfortable at-home activities, like tending his garden, playing with his birds, or getting lost in the stories on tv.

Every year, we are all relieved when Summer arrives and the school routine ends.  No more checking the homework, coaching the hard subjects, organizing the backpack.  No more nagging – “Did you remember:  your library book, your lunch, your homework, your essay, your permission slip, your housekey, your instrument, your gym clothes.”  Constant nagging. We try to encourage Aidan to read and write and practice math over the summer, but I really don’t have it in me to insist.  September re-entry is rough.  It’s a long uphill slog until December.  He gets grounded January – April and then really catches some wind and sails through to June.  Here we are at June.  I am so proud and so relieved.  Finals still to go and then graduation from Middle School.  I remember Kindergarten orientation where I had to leave the room with a lump in my throat after the Principal said:  “Don’t blink!  Before you know it they’ll be on their way to college!”  Sure enough, I blinked, and my daughter is beginning the college admissions process and my son will soon be embarking on high school.

And so, as I wonder how to help my son navigate the choppy waters of puberty and high school when all he really wants is to be home, I thank the teachers who muster their entire arsenal of professional and personal experience to connect with their students – recognizing and encouraging what is unique about each individual in the hope that they will shine forward and become a fully realized human being, even if they are not competitive for the A’s.

Yogini Guru

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Help!  Get Me Out of This Tight Spot!

I am angry.  At my yoga teacher, Yogini Guru.  Which is a little like being angry at your therapist, or your most honest and compassionate best friend, or even a generous stranger doing you a favor, when they hold you accountable and don’t cater to your neediness.  Because they love you and want you to be your true self.

I have decided that identifying that I feel anger is a positive sign of personal growth.  Instead of numbing low-grade depression or frenetic ruminating anxiety, I now feel anger!  At everyone!  Constantly!  Is there a diagnosis of Generalized Anger Disorder in the new DSM-5 just released?  Because I am angry at the ubiquity of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and ready to free myself of that label – the one that has been with me for 30+ years – ready to free myself of being a good girl seeking the approval of others.

Yogini Guru doesn’t know I am angry.  I haven’t told her.  She probably would not be surprised.  She knows me pretty well.  I imagine her laughing knowingly or hugging me with acceptance and compassion or simply wondering why I wouldn’t just talk to her directly.  My reasons are based on old habits and are constructs in my mind.  I have twisted what she has said and fabricated what she is thinking in my mind and haven’t given her the opportunity to be her self.  For what it’s worth, Yogini Guru is petite, funny, self-deprecating, inclusive, loving, supportive and not at all austere.  I want her to tell me I’m good, a good yoga teacher, but she knows I need to feel my worth without her validation.

After graduating from the 200-hour yoga teacher training program that she directs – essentially a masters degree without the bells and whistles of academia – and apprenticing with a more experienced teacher, I auditioned to teach for Yogini Guru.  I was nervous, serious and stiff.  She stopped me after just a few minutes and we discussed what I needed to work on.  Chagrined (and angry), I wondered if I would ever be a teacher worthy of teaching at her studio.  This is the type of obstacle – feedback that suggests I am less than perfect – where I feel overwhelmed and give up.  Rejected! Fuck You!  I quit!  But I love yoga.  I love Yogini Guru.  I knew this was another crucial crossroads where I have given up in the past.  I had to fight through it.  It was time to move past depending on others’ evaluation of me to feel good about my self.  It was time to feel good about my self.

What I imagined I heard from Yogini Guru:  You are a terrible teacher.  Worse than I realized.  You are a failure.

What she actually said:  I like your theme.  Your assists are good.  Your students trust you.  Eliminate the repetitive language so that you are more succinct.  Keep practicing.  You’re not ready yet.  Have fun and be joyful.

Another year later.  (Personal growth takes a long time.)  I am teaching once a week at a near-by gym refining my teaching skills and my teaching style and nurturing my growing group of beloved students.  I have signed on to take a 30-hour continuing education module of teacher training.  With Yogini Guru of course.  One of the requirements is that I video myself teaching a class and critique it.  Then she critiques it.  Good God.  This is torture.  What if I am still not good enough?  I schedule time in her studio to video myself, inviting some of my regulars to be my students for this videoed class.  I succumb to my anxiety and tense up.  The class is well-designed, but flat.  I am too mechanical.

I reach out to Yogini Guru:  What is the goal of this video?  Can we work with my stiff anxiety or should I keep trying?

I wanted reassurance:  Oh Sally.  I can’t wait to see your video!  I am sure it will be fine.  Don’t worry if it’s not perfect.  We’ll talk about it.

Instead, she is holding me accountable for the decision and not catering to my neediness.  She said it was my decision.  After spending three days alternately fuming, panicking, and on the precipice of giving up – which would sabotage my potential for success – I videoed a second class – my regular class at the gym.  It’s not perfect and it is a less well-designed class than the first video, but I was my self.  And that is all I can be.  My anger (at least at Yogini Guru) is resolved.  After all, she has done nothing except be true to her self and compassionate to me.  She deserves the same from me.  Besides, if and when I teach at her studio, there will always be another challenge, another obstacle, another achievement, another rejection.  I need to do this for my self.  Not for her or anyone else.  Which changes my perspective on the process.  If I am not attached to her evaluation of me as a teacher, what is my goal for teaching?  Can I enjoy teaching for the sake of sharing my yoga with others and feel confident, in my grounded self, that yes indeed I am a good teacher?

Thanks on the road to personal growth goes not only to the teachers, therapists and coaches, family, friends and enemies (they always have lessons), but also to the random strangers who help you along the way.  The other day, as I was leaving an early morning session with my therapist – who was encouraging me to voice my anger in a safe and constructive way – I discovered that my car was blocked in.

I had the new car and had carefully parked it in a corner spot where it had less of a chance to get a ding (and less of a chance to incur the anger and dismay of my husband who adores this car).  I fumed and panicked.  My instinct was to call my husband.  Help!  Get me out of this tight spot!  My instinct was to run in and implore my therapist to find the offending parker.  Help!  Get me out of this tight spot!

I took a breath.  I spied a woman in the car parked next to mine and asked her for help.  She willingly jumped out of her car to direct me out of the spot (such a good woman).  I maneuvered carefully back and forth.  She assured me that I could do it.  I fumed, panicked and was on the precipice of giving up.  She went into the building to fight my battle for me (such a good woman) – to find the offending parker.  No luck.  Back to the maneuvering, she assured me that I could do it.  I fumed, panicked and was on the precipice of giving up.  Then it was my turn: I went into the building to find the offending parker.  No luck.  When I reemerged, she had left.  My alter ego was gone.  I fumed, panicked and was on the precipice of giving up.

On the verge of a panic attack (does this nascent feeling of anger lead to increased anxiety?), I took a breath.  I decided to trust her confidence that I could do it.  I decided to trust my self.  I got in the car.  Maneuvered back and forth.  Got out of the car to see how much room I had.  6 inches.  I got in the car, maneuvered back and forth, got out of the car to see how much room I had.  5 inches.  I did this a seemingly endless number of times, not quite sure I was going to succeed – kind of like personal growth.  And then I was free.  I inched past the obnoxious, self-absorbed car who had parked in the non-spot blocking me.  The relief flooded over me.

Who was that woman who helped me?  I didn’t get her name.  Generous woman in a black dress – I thank you.

Image is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

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