Fishtailing

 

On the morning of November 9, I awoke to a flurry of news around me that was at once completely unexpected and also not. It shook me to my core, and I had no words to express my sense of confusion and dismay. At the same time, the experience felt familiar somehow, and a memory came to me that invited me to sit down to write this essay. On the third anniversary of my father's death, a month after I started to write it, the essay was completed. This is that essay.

*****

It wasn’t unheard of for the snow to accumulate eighteen inches overnight where I grew up in Western New York. Which is not to say that it wasn’t disconcerting or even worrisome, even though we knew about it ahead of time.

Roads would be torturous to navigate, even with snow plows starting their rounds at 3am and salt trucks following closely behind. Snow banks could grow to 6’ high or higher in some areas, and people would get stuck in their own driveways unless they, too, planned ahead and woke up extra early to shovel or plow.

We would still have school on those mornings when everyone was prepared for the eventuality of the heavy snowfall. We would listen intently to the radio and watch the ticker at the bottom of the morning news screen to see which schools were closed, but it seemed that it was only in extreme cases when would ours be named among them. We would wait until the very last moment, when we were in peril of missing the bus would, to drag ourselves toward the door, don our snow coats and heavy boots, and trudge down the driveway to the bus stop.

Waiting for the school bus, I recall routinely testing myself to see how high I could get on the bank before it consumed me. The answer would depend largely on the color of the coating—the darker the grey, the greater the likelihood I could get to the top without losing balance or mooring, the coarse salt having melted the snow which then hardened into a crusty coating on the outside of the bank. You had to be careful, though, if you did make it to the top since a single misstep could end badly in a faceplant against the equivalent of frozen gravel.

For my parents, work was rarely, if ever, cancelled, which meant that my dad would start toiling before daybreak to clear the driveway so that he and my mom could get their cars out of the garage and onto the thoroughfares. These mornings required him to play an intricately choreographed game with the city plows which took a tremendous trove of forethought and strategy. One miscalculation, and his pre-dawn efforts would be voided by a passing plow as the end of the driveway would quickly wall in with street snow.

But simply getting onto the road was only half the battle on those mornings, as I would come to understand fully only when I, too, learned how to drive in the snow.

My dad, who was one to explain everything in great detail so that we would learn fully and exactly how the world worked, would show us in real-time why snow tires were so important for winter driving in that climate, how they would grip the snowy road because their deeper grooves promoted the snow’s more even disbursement around them, how they, too, had limits that we were beholden to honor.

He would never miss an opportunity to demonstrate the best way to handle a car in the snow, citing the need for heightened vigilance about driving defensively and limiting trust in other drivers only to the likelihood that they would make poor decisions in moments of stress. My dad didn’t trust people, but he trusted in the nature of things. This fact always confused me since it seemed to me that people were part of nature, but, for his own reasons, he didn’t see things that way.

On particularly cold days, he would proceed extra slowly, almost tauntingly so, to honor the unspoken will of the prevailing driving conditions. It would unravel me to traverse such familiar roads so gingerly, challenging my childlike tendency toward impatience, and he would respond to my frustrations always with the same deliberate demonstration.

“See how the road looks clear?” he would gesture at a point through the windshield. “The plows have removed the fresh snow, and the salt has melted the top layers of what’s left. But the tires still don’t touch the pavement, and this means I have less control of the vehicle on the roadway.” He preferred the use of technical terms like “vehicle” and “roadway” over “car” and “street.” He was a thinker and a knower, always drawing colorful analogies to illustrate his finer points and never quite satisfied with how deconstructed more complex concepts had become in his time.

He’d wait a few seconds to avail himself of a wide berth from other cars to press ceremoniously deeply on the brakes, and the car would begin to glide in a way that felt like we were floating. As a child, I enjoyed this feeling, but my dad would quickly explain that this floating sensation was in fact dangerous, the result of a lack of control caused by the loss of contact between the surfaces of the tires and the ground below, resulting in a perilous disconnect between the steering wheel and the forward trajectory of the car. We were careening at an angle out of our lane, and the more my father pressed on the brakes, the less control he had over where we were going. I would always start to panic at this point, suddenly aware of our loss of control and of the dangers that surrounded us.

At that precise moment and as if by magic, my dad would capture my attention by righting the car instantaneously and give me the following, methodical explanation. When the car starts to veer out of control, he’d elaborate, you have to override your instinct to slam on the brakes for the exact reason the car is veering out of control in the first place—the absence of contact between the tires and the road. Under normal driving conditions, friction against the road surface creates contact so you can steer and brake normally, but, when driving on snow and ice where friction does not gain purchase, braking only serves to lock up your tires, exacerbating that loss of control. Instead, you must steer into the direction of the skid in order to right your course.

It wasn’t until many years later, when I would learn to drive on snow-covered roadways in the dead of winter, that I would experience for myself the simultaneity of instinct to panic and knowledge to redirect. And still, since having moved away from snowy climes, I find myself searching for the correct response on first touch of an icy road after a long hiatus. But the lesson is a clear one whenever I am able to remember it: in cases of sudden and unexpected shift in paradigm, the best course to remain on track (or at least to maintain a sense of control in an otherwise uncertain moment) is to move with your momentum, even if it means momentarily steering into the fray.

******

As humans, we move through life with a series of behaviors and assumptions that guide our practices and inform our understandings. When things turn out differently from the way our expectations had framed them, we react, often instinctively. Our knee-jerk response to stop in our tracks or to avoid a challenge by moving away from it can often exacerbate that situation and precisely create the crisis we had sought to avoid. When we can apply our knowledge and deeper understandings about the way momentum works and have trust in right outcomes, even if they do not meet our original expectations, we find we can still guide our own paths even through moments of total loss of control.

Or something like that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Texting While Driving (It's Not What You Think)

After carpool drop-off this morning, I was momentarily relieved by the fact that we had eked in before we were officially “late,” and I wanted to text one of the other moms to let her know I got the kids in on time. But when I reached for my phone, I was reminded of my pledge to not distract myself while driving anymore, which then got me thinking about why people lull themselves into believing that texting while driving isn’t so bad.

I think about this modern habit so often. As I walk the dogs in the morning, I see the majority of people driving by with eyes partly on the road and partly on phones, and I realize they rationalize this behavior by telling themselves that they can see the road and their phones at the same time. But driving isn’t about what your eyes can see; it’s about being alert to your environment. And alertness isn’t simply a visual experience—it’s a receptivity to everything that is happening in that moment, to your environment and to what joins each moment to the next.

As I noticed myself deep in this thought, I found myself in the left turn lane as the light turned green. I was behind two cars. The car in front of me was riding up on the back of the car in front of it, and, as we all made the turn, the car in front of me surged ahead of the first car. It was then when I noticed that the first car was a student driver, and immediatelyIi felt compassion for that person and internalized a desire to be a good driving model and decidedly NOT ride up to his bumper in impatience as the car before me had done.

I considered for a moment whether it would be a fun job to be a student driving instructor and couldn’t immediately decide what my answer was, which brought to mind being a student driver myself, at the age of 16, when getting behind the wheel of a car carried such great import and felt foreign and overwhelming, with responsibility and things to remember about safety and speed and the confluence of events—the fact that I was operating machinery that could cause great harm to self and others if not properly driven—it was a lot to be conscious of at once.

So I slowed my speed and smiled at the instructor and gave her a thumbs up as I passed the car at a reasonable speed. The person behind the wheel was a grown man, probably 35 years old, and looked to be someone not born in this country. Again, I felt a well of compassion and empathy as I watched this man, foreign to this experience in so many ways, focus on the road and simultaneously on all the elements that created the moment he was in. When we both came to the next red light, we were side by side, and I spoke through my open window in the direction of the instructor and the student. I smiled at the instructor and commended the student for his good driving and for his attentiveness, and I told him that it would soon get easier and that he would surely be a very good driver. He smiled, but I don’t think he really understood what I was saying. And then the light turned green, and I made a right turn as they continued forward and out of sight.

Suddenly it occurred to me how driving is a metaphor for how we live our lives.

When we encounter sitting behind the wheel of the car for the first time, we are shocked and awed by the experience, by its importance and its power, by the benefits we can gain from the independence it provides us, and also by the responsibility we have to execute it properly, lest we cause harm to self or others. There seems like too much to take in, too much to attend to. The operation of the machinery as we move through space with variables created by environmental factors, movements of other cars and people, traffic lights, shifts in the way the sun comes through the windshield, sounds, thoughts passing through our minds—it all seems like too much to hold at once. Yet somehow, we manage.

As time passes, our bodies form memories of certain actions, and those actions soon become automatic. Starting the car and putting it into gear, and even checking for oncoming traffic before turning and turning around to search blind spots before changing lanes, become so automated that these don’t register as conscious actions. We subdue so many of the environmental cues to be able to execute a task and attain a goal—to get from here to there—that often we don’t recall much, if anything, about the experience of having gotten there.

For many of us, this ability to automate gives us space to do other things, like listen to the radio or talk to a passenger or, in so many cases, pick up a phone and text. As humans living in the United States in the 21st century, when we find extra space, we are conditioned to fill it with something more. We are consumers, multitaskers, overachievers. No longer is it a herculean feat to embark in a motor-driven steel tube moving at four times the speed at which the fastest human can sprint. It’s just a thing we do when we need to take kids to school or go shopping. And, in so automating, we choose to diversify with our attention and with our effort as we collect actions horizontally rather than enrich existing experiences vertically.

But what would happen if instead of reaching laterally, we chose instead to reach more deeply into where we already were? What if, each time we got into our cars, rather than try to automate driving actions so that we could undertake new ones (like texting or eating or applying make-up) WHILE we were driving, we opted instead to feel more connection with the actions we were engaging in and with the environment that surrounds us and interacts with us (like loosening our grip on the steering wheel or feeling the fresh air coming through the windows)? What if being alert and present, seeking depth of experience over collection of experiences, were the norm?

I don’t think there’s a “right” answer, and, if there is, I certainly don’t have it.

I do know, though, from my own experience, that I have seen and felt what collecting looks like. I know all too well how the automation of behaviors can yield a sense of detachment from the magnitude of each of the actions that I take in this world and how my sense of detachment fuels a disconnection and a depth of loneliness and solitude that often aggrieves me. And I also know that when I choose to expand a moment with depth of experience over diversification of my experiential portfolio, my connection with each of my experiences is so great that the jab of loneliness finds no purchase. My sense of self as “separate from” is so supplanted by my sense of connection with all, that a simple ray of sunshine touching my forehead can imbue me with a feeling of gratitude unlike any task completed or object obtained.

My preference is therefore for depth of experience over collection of experiences—absorbing life with the mind of a beginner—because, however seemingly familiar, each moment is unique, as is our potential for experiencing its fullness.

And my take-away?

Automate less. Experience more. Don’t text and drive. The life you save will certainly be your own.

 

Be . . . The Glass

It’s 11am, and I’ve already found at least 9 ways to procrastinate, yet again, getting on my mat for my yoga practice. The past few months have provoked me in that regard as I find myself in a constant state of struggling to find work, keep financially afloat, stay positive, find motivation to do the regular things I need to do to be healthy and sane. The demons of fatigue, self-doubt, anger, frustration, impatience, crisis of faith, these little fuckers visit me daily—hourly, even—and challenge my nature to a duel at point-blank range. It’s all in the mix, every day. I feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” but with neither Angie McDowell as my straight man nor the predictably happy ending.

One last scroll through the Facebooks, and up I go to my yoga space to start my practice. Two minutes in, I have to stop the process to clean all the pet hair off the floor which is driving me to distraction. That intervention complete, I return to my unfocused focus to resume my practice. Today’s practice involves a visit with my gluteus medius—standing balance poses with lifted and abducted legs moving through triangle and half-moon poses and finishing in an arm balance with extended, abducted legs.

As I follow the video and move through my teacher’s instructions, I catch my reflection in my balcony window and fix on a roll of skin that has taken residence on my side when I lift my leg sideways in the air for my half-moon pose. Inner focus moves immediately into dread as my mind swirls with a flurry of hateful epithets that bubble up in my consciousness like cartoon dialogue. “Fat shit.” “You’ve totally lost it.” “Nobody wants to see that.” “NEVER take your shirt off in a real yoga class.” “You’re not aging well.” “What the hell are you doing with your life?!” This critical inner voice can be such a total Mean Girl.

Thankfully, the pose shifts to a standing forward fold, and I can no longer see my reflection. I keep moving through my practice as if that previous moment hadn’t even happened. But it did. And it does.  A lot. My inner Mean Girl hews a pretty wide swath in my psyche. She and my inner Perpetually-Dissatisfied Parent (“You’re wasting your life.” “You’re not trying hard enough.” “You’re dreaming if you think you can be happy and successful.”) are besties. They flank each other with arms crossed and eyebrows knit, ever firm in their harsh criticism of my deepest flaws.

Inhale, look forward. Exhale, bow. Inhale, reach arms overhead. Exhale, hands to prayer.

With breath comes space. With space comes relief. The inner Meanies poof gone.

The practice builds to its crescendo, and I set up for my final pose—eka pada koundinyasana 2. I’ve done this arm balance hundreds of times, but each time it challenges me anew and beckons me to rise to its occasion. As I plant my hands and bring my left knee to my elbow, I shift my body weight forward while my right leg extends behind me. I reach through the crown of my head and lift my gaze slightly.

And just as my eyes focus on a point ahead of me, I’ll be goddamned if I don’t catch my reflection in the window again where all I can see is the cellulite on the backs of my upper arms, mocking me like the “HOT DONUTS NOW” sign in the window of the Krispy Kreme. My inner Meanies are about to go to TOWN on this sad excuse for humanity that I have clearly become, when I suddenly remember the Facebook meme my cousin posted that I happened to “like” just moments before I went up to practice yoga.

‘”If you see your glass as half empty, pour it into a smaller glass and stop bitching.”

Like a warrior princess astride a magical, rainbow-festooned unicorn, my inner Fangirl intercepts the Meanies and stops them in their tracks before they can utter a single nasty word.

“For fuck’s sake. Give the woman a BREAK. She’s in a freakin’ ARM BALANCE, you wicked old witches! You don’t get to be here anymore. Now, piss off!”

One more deep inhale. Then exhale. I stretch a little bit longer, taking up just the tiniest bit more space in all directions, and I know I’ve found my right-sized glass.