Letters from the road

Parenting

How the Deepest Massage of my Life Brought me Back to my Body.

Originally featured on elephant journal March 28, 2017

A month ago in Dubai, I had the deepest massage of my life.

As the massage therapist stretched, pulled, and pressed on my sore exhausted flesh, I immediately knew this massage was different.

Like so many of us, I often walk around somewhere up in my head and barely notice my feet meeting the earth. This tendency to live in my mind is what compelled me to play competitive sports as a child, then find yoga and dance as an adult.

Although my habit is to live up in my comfy cerebral space, my body craves being lived in. Sometimes vigorously, but mostly just actively, even if it happens in fits and spurts. I’ll spend days not doing much intentional movement and then I’ll get the itch and dream of running—sprinting down my street. Or I’ll get the taste of cobwebs on my skin and I need to move. Now. Jump. Stretch. Shimmy. Climb something until my chest heaves and sweat makes dusty rivulets down my legs.

I love massage and I’ve had my fair share of them—in seven different countries. I adore the ritual. I crave the therapeutic benefits. I need the relaxation. I cherish the self-care.

My mother introduced me to the magic of massage when I was a teenager. After getting professional massages together as a birthday treat, my mom decided on a whim to buy a massage table. Her intention was to give me and my brothers all the benefits of massage from the comforts and ease of home.

I can remember one sunny summer day she set the table up in the grass of our backyard and gave each of us a sugar scrub rub that ended with a run through the sprinkler. Unfortunately her dream was short lived. She had no real idea how to give massage and no intention to learn, but her passion for giving us positive loving touch was the most important gift.

While cocooned in the plush sheets on the heated massage table in Dubai, I realized the difference between this massage and every other massage I’ve ever had. This time, I was being physically crammed back into my body. In the midst of creaking ribs and touch that felt like it could reach my spleen, my mind finally migrated down into my neglected skin.

And it was glorious.

We often take our bodies for granted. Especially with the advent of digital everything. They’re good at getting us from A to B, sitting at desks, sitting in cars, and sitting in front of the television. It’s easy to forget what wellness and wholeness actually feel like.

Five months ago I gave birth to a happy, healthy, beautiful baby. My labor and birth were natural, quick, and I hate to say it—easy. It was the most embodying moment of my life.

And then parenting set in.

Exhaustion. The kind that steals names of life-long friends and days of the week.

In the midst of breastfeeding around the clock and slowly easing into my postpartum body, I retreated back up into my familiar head space. The sleepless nights—and days—led to blurry cuddle-filled weeks where the most active thing I did was walk up and down the stairs with baskets filled with baby laundry.

It wasn’t until the massage therapist was successfully chasing down each knot and achy muscle in my tender back did I realize I had been on body autopilot for months.

We can all benefit from positive loving touch as a way to bring ourselves back into our bodies. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder and sometimes like me, we need deep pressure to reboot and wake up the parasympathetic nervous system.

Deep pressure massage has been used beneficially for those on the Autism spectrum with sensory needs and is important in early childhood development.

Learning the physical boundaries and limitations of our bodies through physical pressure helps us define who we are and create our sense of self. Practices of embodying bodily process like Authentic Movement  and Contact Improvisation are great ways to step out of the mind and into the body and experience self through physical movement with others.

After my massage in Dubai, I can feel my feet more firmly underneath me, and I find myself breathing deeper. I feel like I once again inhabit my body—I’m not just hitching a ride anymore.

I know I’ll inevitably retreat back up into my head again, but when I do—I’ll happily be making a massage appointment with one of my favorite therapists to help ease me back into my body.

The universal joke that we all eventually become our parents is eerily true sometimes. Although I’m not going to go out and buy a massage table anytime soon, I do give my little one baby massages after each bath time. My hope is that he’ll learn and grow with the benefits of positive loving touch and will love the myriad benefits of massage as much as I do.


Mindfulness in the Pediatric Ward.

Originally featured on elephant journal Feb. 2, 2017

Being in the hospital gives me PTSD.

Like actual PTSD. My breathing is shallow and fast, I start feeling trapped and claustrophobic. I sweat. The really smelly kind of sweat. My mind fills with a torrent of fear that drowns out all other thoughts.

And to my horror, when I get angry at not being heard, I cry. When the tears burn down my face, I become even angrier that I’m crying and less able to speak up. 

This is why when I told my husband a year ago that we were going to have a baby, I also told him I’d like to have our baby at home. He was already familiar with most of my hospital traumas, including the discovery that I’m allergic to two common medications—after they were pumped into my IV. Twice.

I’ve been rushed into emergency surgery 3,000 miles away from home and I’ve spent a week as a medical test subject. I also have the type of veins phlebotomists dread. It takes three sticks on average for a needle to find a suitable spot. I once sprayed a two foot stream of blood across a wide-eyed nurse. 

After a month or so of petitioning for a home birth, he finally agreed and we found the most extraordinary midwife. We had a healthy pregnancy and a dream birth at home. Six hours of calm in a safe space with no medical intervention and full-on mindful breathing resulted in a healthy, happy, eight pound, 15 ounce bundle of joy.

All of our intentional avoidance of hospitals has now flown right out the window. 

Today is my second day in the pediatric ward hovering over my three month old son as he struggles to breathe. It’s taken me two days, two long exhausting days to wake up. Entering the hospital through the Emergency Room is like being placed on a moving sidewalk. I’m whisked away before I even realized that I was no longer standing still. 

Two days ago when my husband and I first noticed our son seemed to be having a hard time catching his breath, I immediately worried his bad cold had migrated down into his chest. I’ve had pneumonia and both my husband and I have asthma. It seemed remote, and my new mom instincts were a little overreactive as of late.

A month-and-a-half ago we drove to the Emergency Room on a Saturday evening because I was worried our little one had a cold/pneumonia/croup/meningitis/the black lung. With the car parked outside the brightly lit snowy entrance, my husband folded into the backseat next to the carseat while I asked him to check our little one to see if he had any sunken soft spots on his head denoting dehydration. He didn’t. After a tense few moments while I silently debated the pros and cons of going inside, I finally relented and agreed to drive home and play wait and see.

Sometime after we got home I remembered that I may have accidentally sprayed the little one up the nose with breast milk when he unlatched during an exhaustive feeding session during the previous night. Breast feeding can be challenging. The sniffle went away in about a day. 

So when two days ago I said, “We’re going to Urgent Care, now,” my husband somewhat rightly looked a little hesitant. Instead of arguing or rolling his eyes, he acknowledged what I thought were chest retractions while we were bathing our baby, and helped me bundle him up and into the car.

After an RSV diagnosis and being told to immediately go to the ER by the physician assistant at Urgent Care, we found ourselves whisked into glaring fluorescent lights and a cold sterile room. My meditation training, my yogic training, my physical performance training all seemed to go into hibernation the moment I walked through the germ splattered doors of the hospital. Alternating between interminable waits and frenetic activity quickly brought on the PTSD. 

My husband ushered me out of the room the first two times the nurses and phlebotomist tried to put an IV line into our little one. I stood outside the room near the nurses’ station and cried heaving sobs into my hands as I listened to my sweet, normally serene little boy scream in fear and pain. One of the nurses asked if it was my baby and when I nodded without looking up, she sighed sympathetically and said, “It must be your first.” As if it gets easier with subsequent children. 

Although I couldn’t seem to think mindfully myself, each time I gathered my little one into my arms to comfort and calm him, I started with a deep breath. “Let it out sweet boy. Deep breath,” as I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. 

After the fifth IV placement, with an oxygen cannula attached to his face, and vital monitor hanging from his foot, there was hardly a place on our little one’s body that didn’t ache or have a bandage. For the next 48 hours we obsessively checked his oxygen levels in between nebulizer treatments and tried to make him as comfortable as possible in his vast hospital bed. My husband brought a few blankets and stuffed animals from home to lessen the impersonal feel of the room as we watched and waited. 

I’m embarrassed to say for those first two days I hadn’t even thought about my contemplative practice. Neither sitting meditation, movement, nor breathing exercises outside of deep breathing to calm my son even occurred to me. Watching and counting breaths should have triggered 13 years of training. I let the PTSD overwhelm my senses in the blur between hourly nurse rounds, respiratory specialist treatments, and occasional pediatrician visits. The nurse down in the ER was right. I recoiled from my little one’s cries each time he was held down to have his nose suctioned, before preparing to pick him up afterwards and comfort him while swallowing my own tears. 

It took me two days of watching my son wrestling with each breath before I remembered to take a breath of my own. With my husband’s firm encouragement, I ventured out of our room for the first time. Armed with a medical mask to protect our son from the germs of the hospital and the other pediatric patients from his RSV, I shuffled along the linoleum floors in my slippers. I hadn’t realized how stiff I had become. I was hunched over and exhausted from the past two days. I finally breathed. Deep breaths that sucked my yellow mask into my mouth. I watched my slow steps and tried to remember the cues from my walking meditation training. 

When I came back into the room after dousing myself in hand sanitizer, my chest was lighter. My body had unfurled finally and I could stand up straight. My son greeted me with his big smile. The silent giggle one that crinkles his eyes and shows the pink gums where teeth soon will be.

While walking down the hospital hallways, I realized that being here for my son’s sake has alleviated some of my own fears and allowed me to work through my PTSD triggers. He can’t speak up for himself, but I can. When the stress of meeting so many strangers and having so many treatments overwhelms him, I’m here to ground him. To hold him. To love him. To let him know he isn’t alone. 

The pediatrician just stopped by and told us that we get to go home tomorrow.

While I hold my sleeping little one with the whirring and beeping monotonously droning on, I’m thinking about venturing back out into the world. I hope to continue remembering to breathe. It’s easy to try to become a martyr for our little ones. It’s hard to remember the importance of creating the space for our own breaths. Parenting is full of fearful moments, but breathing carries us through.

I’m also starting to wake up and notice that my mindfulness practice isn’t for the easy days. I practice so that when the world is spiraling out of control, I can find refuge. A soft spot to land. My practice might not always look like it had before. For me, becoming a mother has been the most revolutionary way of practicing contemplativeness and beginner’s mind. When I feel exhausted and wrung out, our little one is teaching me to slow down. He currently likes to look at inanimate objects that I’ve never noticed before. I recently followed his gaze and spent a whole minute contemplating our bedroom light fixture. It really does refract the light beautifully.

When we go home tomorrow, I’ll try to remember to breathe. To know that mindfulness will creep in when I need it most. It may not look the way I think it should, but it will remind me to slow down. To sit with my fears. It took long enough, but while counting my son’s breaths in the pediatric ward, I finally found my own again. 


Why Does My Baby Smell Like Tapas? And Other Absurd Questions of Motherhood.

“So how’s being a mother?”

To be fair, I’m guilty of it too. Making small talk is awkward and it seems like a harmless question. I know I’ve asked it without any real idea what I was asking.

It’s really an absurd question. Each time I see someone for the first time since having little one, it’s been close to the first thing out of each person’s lips. I don’t blame them. Maybe it’s me. I never know how to answer. I get a goofy smile on my face and say “I love being his momma!”

Which is completely true. I don’t know how I feel about being a mother in general yet, but I love being my little one’s.

After that, I don’t know what to say. I kind of wrap my arms around myself in an imaginary hug of our son, or if I’m actually holding him when they ask, I look down, smile, and give him a squeeze.

Then I sort of wait. Because how do you explain motherhood in a handful of sentences in the same manner as discussing the weather? Most of the time, I get a smile and a “oh that’s wonderful!” Sometimes I get a quick peek into someone else’s crazy postpartum experience. Raw authentic words that cut quick to the heart of the transition from being Not A Mother to being A Mother. Then the moment is gone and we’re back to discussing the actual weather.

It’s absurd.

It feels like a quick dip into the swift underground river passing under all of our feet. Motherhood. We don’t like to get too deep and be whisked away-just enough to feel the force of the river and then back to solid ground. Now that I know it’s there, it’s hard to ignore.

I’m extremely fortunate. I had the dream labor and birth that we planned. A quick, safe, transformative experience. We have a happy healthy (barring colds-damn you colds) little boy. I haven’t experienced any trauma postpartum or PPD. I know a lot of women do. I’d like to find a better way of honoring their experiences with a better question. And the time to actually hear their answers.

So far, motherhood is full of absurd questions. Like, “is the milk stain surrounding my entire nipple area and half my boob super noticeable?” Or “why doesn’t this outfit come in my size?” Or “did you pee on me again?” Or “why does my baby smell like tapas?”

I found myself saying this last one out loud a few weeks ago. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why little one smelled like a hummus platter. I hadn’t eaten anything nearly so delicious for longer than I could remember. So it wasn’t from breast milk. That also means I couldn’t have accidentally spilt anything on him.

The smell slowly dissipated and I forgot all about it. A few hours later the smell came back while little one was practicing jumps and kicks in my lap. He was warm and I was starting to crave flatbread and small plates.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize what was causing the smell. Little one loves bath time. Sometimes I almost think he purposely has poo explosions to get back in the bath. After each bath, I make a nest of towels and give little one a baby massage. With olive oil.

Each time he was getting warm, the olive oil was too. Mystery solved. Go figure. If it’s good enough to eat, it’s good enough to put on the skin.

I blame the delayed realization on the absurdest question of all:

“Is your baby sleeping through the night?”

Bwahahahahahahahaha.


10 Things to Do Instead of Yelling at the News

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few days huffing and rawring at the news. Crying even. All of my sacred cows are being slaughtered in this new administration. I expected to be incensed, but I thought I’d get at least a few days respite in between each time I need to donate or make a phone call to my Senators or get out and protest. Apparently not.

So in order to stay sane since we are only ten days into the next four years, I’m going to commit to doing these ten things when I. Just. Can’t.

  1. Hug my little one. With the overwhelming despair that comes crashing down on my shoulders each time I open BBC News or the NYT or my Facebook feed–I’m recommitting to spending quality time with our three month old. During the day too often I turn to my phone, or CNN, or my laptop for a distraction. After the first few weeks of breast-feeding a newborn at all hours of the night, I stopped turning to my phone while nursing at night. For one, my googling was diagnosing my new baby with all manner of rare disorders and second, I was having a hard time getting back to sleep in between feedings. When your little one eats every hour and a half at night, those few minutes of sleep are precious. I’m fortunate to be able to stay home with our son. Even when I’m exhausted and my nipples are sore, I have been peed on for the second time in two hours, and my hair is a frazzled halo around my head–I’m trying to stop and remember that these precious moments won’t last. I’m savoring them while I have them. No matter what is going on in the world, taking the time to make my little one giggle is good for both of us.
  2. Eat. As a new mom I’m good at forgetting this one. I was good at forgetting this one when I was working before baby came too. Having a small child just compounds the consequences of not putting something in my mouth. Now. I get hangry. Niall is good at gently suggesting food or even better, putting something in front of me when I get so hungry that I think I’m no longer hungry and I feel weepy because the world is a disaster and everything hurts and I just don’t know what to do. Food. Put. It. In. My. Mouth. It’s simple and I guarantee that when I eat, the sun also comes out. The world is easier to handle on a full stomach. Preferably a slowly made, organic, free-range, in season, artisan meal. Or just a pickle. Really, I practically live off of condiments at the moment. That’s what I have time for. Surefire way of waking a sleeping baby? Make a cup of tea.
  3. Watch comedies. Seriously. I read constantly. I read a lot of depressing things. Niall is quick to point that out when I start telling him about all the things I’ve been reading. For my sanity’s sake I watch funny tv, funny movies, funny news shows.  Top of my list at the moment:@ Midnight, Blackish, Modern Family, Sherlock, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. I also sprinkle in The Daily Show, Top Chef, Project Runway, and lately a healthy dose of turning off the tv. I listen to podcasts too. Mostly Radio Lab, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and This American Life. Alright, they’re not all comedies, but they do nourish me. Watch, listen, read for nourishment. Laugh. We have to laugh right now. Also, it’s all just filler until the next Outlander season starts.
  4. Surround myself with good people. Sounds obvious right? Spending time with people that bring out the best in me is good for everyone. They can be family, chosen family, even complete strangers in a place you feel welcome. At the Women’s March, I looked around and said “Yes! You are my people.” There were 1000 people marching in our small Palmer and I knew most of the them. It’s a comforting feeling to know that so many of my neighbors share my values. Even the complete strangers were good people. That includes online communities too. Fighting on social media tends to lead to fights in my real life. I take my online frustration out on those nearest my computer or my phone. Laugh with real people in real life. When our little one spit up all over Niall’s face while he was playing “Super baby!” I laughed so I hard I think I added five years to my life. Children are good for laughs. So is The Onion and Waterford Whispers News. 
  5. Make a list of my priorities. I’m not talking about a clean house or groceries or whatnot, I’m talking about my political values. I write them down. I sometimes create a hierarchy when it helps. I also add what I can do about them and organizations I care about to donate my time and money. Also get to know your elected officials so they can enjoy hearing about your priorities. Here are a few of mine:
    1. Reproductive health: Planned Parenthood
    2. Immigration: ACLU
    3. Refugee assistance: RAIS
    4. Community building: Radio Free Palmer
    5. News: NPR
    6. DVSA: Alaska Family Services
    7. Global education: Alaska World Affairs Council
    8. Community gardens: Grow Palmer
  6. Dress up. This is one from my incredibly insightful Momma. When I was sick growing up, her advice (after drinking a glass of water) always included putting something nice on. Something that made me feel good. Because when you look good, surprisingly you feel better. She was unwittingly channeling Chögyam Trungpa and his teachings on personal drala. It’s similar to ‘fake it until you make it’ and I can attest that it works. I always feel better after a shower and putting on an outfit and jewelry that I love. It’s like magic. When I lived alone and I was up in the middle of the night, I’d try on my fanciest clothes just because it felt good to do so. Now, when I can’t possibly drag myself off of the couch and out of my pjs, I put on a cute dress and earrings that hopefully I can a) breast feed in or else I flash whoever else is nearby and b) my baby doesn’t rip out of my ears. Sometimes I can only wear said outfit until the next hungry cry or watery burp, but even those few minutes are enough to shift my mood for the better.
  7. Move. Any kind. When it’s -25 degrees F, I dance around the house with my little one in my arms. Sometimes I ski. Sometimes walking up and down the stairs fifteen times to get another baby outfit or wash another load of baby blankets is enough. When I have a cooperating little one, I practice yoga. With or without the baby sitting on my sternum. I try to get outside as much as possible. Fresh air is almost as important as moving. But not when it’s psycho cold out, that’s what the treadmill is for.
  8. Make something. It can be anything. I excel at approx. 10 rows of stitching. The last thing I knitted to completion was a baby hat two days before our little one was born. The keys to its completion were that I had a pretty fast approaching deadline and that it only took me about an hour. I’m a fan of surrounding myself with pretty things. I like to make journals with old magazines and some cardboard and a lot of blank paper. Sometimes I sketch, mostly I make plans to make something, but when I do–oh the feeling is like a mini victory. Mini because I usually only have time for something small. Sometimes I arrange the magnets on the fridge into a pleasing pattern and that feels like enough.
  9. Clean my ears. This is probably just me, but cleaning my ears with a q-tip is one of my absolute favorite things. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it feels as close to swiping out the cobwebs from my brain as I’d like to get physically. There is something just decadent about cleaning my ears in the middle of the day. I also have to pause and stand still for a moment. I’m not the type to clean on the go. I really savor those few seconds. Especially when I don’t get a whole lot of alone time these days.
  10. Sleep. Haha. This one is a joke. Sleep. Yeah, everyone knows that sleep is necessary/divine/better than sex–elusive. This is wishful thinking on my part. 

I’ll be practicing these ten. They’re good for the soul even without the shadow of the next four years looming.

Gahhhhhhh! I just made the mistake of looking at the news. I’m going to go do #9, #1, and maybe, just maybe #10. Here’s to retaining my sanity and maybe becoming a better person in the process.