The following four letters open a new book I’m co-writing with Michael Stone about the spirituality of family life.
Not logistical advice or slaps on the back. We were looking for something our culture rarely encourages, especially amongst expectant fathers: emotional transparency. We thought that if we could be as open with each other as possible—about our expectations, past challenges, regrets, anxieties, and joys—we’d really be able to see what we’re made of, and what all of our years of spiritual practice had actually given us.
About a year and a half ago, we found out that we were sharing a story of second chances. We learned that our partners were pregnant. We knew we needed support.
We wanted to see how yoga, meditation, and Ayurveda really fit into the most important journeys of our personal lives. What have we really learned on the mat, on the cushion, in the kitchen, through divorce, through previous family arrangements and ongoing family commitments? Where do we hurt? What are we blind to? What hidden strengths can we show each other?
The answer is yes. Let’s begin emailing back and forth and see what happens.
Last night Carina and I watched a film on Russian water births. It must have been filmed in the 70’s: wood panels, maroon-fringed things, fur hats. The film begins with a partner and his wife making out in a glass tub, him rubbing her shoulders with his young hands. Then she reaches down between her legs (as the camera films through the glass) and starts rubbing the baby’s head in small circles as it squeezes down and out into the water. Then the strange angles of the arms popping out, seemingly with no elbows. Finally you can see the umbilical cord. She rubs the mucus from the baby’s eyes, lifts the baby’s mouth from the water and brings her lips to hers and sucks out any fluids. She moves the baby through water. I replayed the part where the baby is underwater because I didn’t realize the baby could be underwater for so long because it hadn’t yet been exposed to the air.
I remember when my first yoga teacher, Pattabhi Jois, said that the first inhale is birth and that you die when you exhale. I had known that intellectually, but in the moment he said it I felt it in some way that’s never left me. Anyways, the whole film is relaxed and the commentator, a woman, is talking through the process in a feel-good tone, saying that this is the way God intended birth.
I wanted to yell out “What? Did God intend for birth to go only one way? What about all my friends with unexpected hospital trips, unused birthing tubs, blue babies, premature babies?” There are so many kinds of birth.
On one hand it was amazing to watch films of underwater births: in tubs, the Black Sea, living rooms. On the other hand, it left me in a mood all night. There’s this middle path between these beautiful and perfect births and the birth of my first son, A.
I’m a good sleeper but I was tossing and turning last night realizing that as much as we’ve talked about it, I have no idea what to do for the upcoming birth. We are due in seven months. Am I going to be in the bed with Carina, or the tub or the floor rubbing her shoulders and kissing her? Or will I be bringing tea and watching the midwives help her through? Will I be there arguing with doctors about what kind of stitches they should use after a C-section? I never thought of A’s birth as a time where I was at a distance, but after watching the Russian water births I realize I was observing the birth more than I was in it. How to participate usefully?
So the answer is yes. With us both expecting, I think it would be good to talk this process through.
When A was born, it wasn’t like I wanted to turn away—not at all. Somehow I felt like I needed to be so supportive of his mother that I lost track of what any other role would or could be. I was 28. His mother was a decade older. All I wanted was for her to be comfortable. We were surrounded by supportive women and yet there was no talk of how I, the soon-to-be father, could support and be supported, and so I turned, as I always have, to my practice: yoga asana, sitting meditation, chanting, studying texts.
I still wake up early in the morning and sit. I light incense, chant, and sway my body side to side until both of my sitz bones are plugging into the cushion equally. I follow the inhale and exhale in the channels of the nostrils and keep my gaze wide and still. As the breath settles, so does the firmness of my point of view. Viewpoints come and go. The release is slow. The mind goes on and on, trying to frame everything that comes through. Grasping, release, grasping, release—my mind oscillates back and forth between what I want and what I want to avoid. The furnace turns on and off, the birds appear at the window, my son snores lightly in the next room.
Every time I lose track of the breath I start from the beginning again.
So what do I want, and what do I want to avoid? This excites me, haunts me, thrills me, scares me, because it’s not just the flickering in my brain in sitting but it’s how I feel about becoming a father. I love being a father. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. A is turning nine. But I also see how I’ve grown cynical because my split with his mother was so painful for all of us. I thought I had healed but when I see women in the park with strollers and diaper bags I notice I’m jaded. I think they looked depressed, but it’s not they who are depressed. It’s my own eyes.
In the time leading up to A’s birth, now ten years ago, I lost track of myself. I was practicing vipassana meditation, and concentration was coming along. In asana, I was working through the second series (nadi shodhana) of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Krama that I was learning from Pattabhi Jois and Richard Freeman.
And yet I didn’t know how I felt about becoming a father; I had no idea what I needed for support.
I see now that I was at the thin end of a long rope. I was using meditation to get very concentrated and in that concentration I could enter a realm with almost no thinking or content. It was pleasurable and still—a relief from the constant thinking and the wild emotions that tormented me all day. I didn’t have to think about my relationships or my doubts. I was almost beyond myself. In my twenties that feeling of groundlessness was interesting to me, but in relationship, it was all wrong. I was interpreting the absence of self-reference as the goal of practice. If I could get into a state of nothing, I’d be free. That approach definitely reduced stress, but it was itself an unstable state. It wasn’t helping my relationships, necessarily. In yoga I was doing advanced backbends, but that didn’t give me the tools to connect with my relational life. I was like two people: the monk and the householder—and they certainly weren’t getting closer to one another.
Ten years later, when my relationship with A’s mother imploded, I was embarrassed that my practice couldn’t help me. My heart was still childlike. I was angry at her, at myself, at my practice. I saw that I was using these internal states to avoid myself. I wasn’t in my body.
Now I am living on the same street where A was born, in another house, in an entirely different relationship. I’ve given up concentration practices and I’m more interested in a moment-to-moment mindfulness. I’ve replaced my youthful longing for transcendence with the craft of being fully in my life. It was a long route I want to tell you about. I know you’ve taken a similar path—at least I think you have.
I think of practice now in terms of intimacy. I’m interested in other people. I’ve come to think that there is nothing other than relationships. The whole material world, which I love to no end, is nothing but relationships. They go on and on. How do I love what’s right in front of me, without holding on? I’ve come around to the beginning of practice but my interest is changed. Now my body, this city, my son, my son-to-be, the quality of life with Carina, the building of community—this is where I’m at home. It was never separate from me; but I couldn’t see it then.
The Buddha called waking up “going against the stream.” The stream of culture, moods, habits, and addictions is sometimes impossible to break. In the silent meditation retreats I teach, I’m always interested in the fear that accompanies people on the first days. It can be life-changing if one stays with it. To see the stream of fear that prevents us from being still can be such a powerful experience that people run away from meditation for years, or limit themselves to reading about it in the hope that a good sentence will wake them up without having to do the necessary work of training the body and mind to be open and fluid. Behind distraction is the fear of dropping into what’s actually happening in our lives in present experience. It seems easier to freeze. In meditation practice we summon the courage to face our lives whole-heartedly.
What does it mean to practice with a whole heart?
The question applies equally to parenting. Underneath our grand ideas of how things will go, what kind of person the child will be, how we’ll be as parents, there’s a deeper life moving in the dark. Do you feel this way, Matthew? Do you ever feel how underneath everything we’re doing, there’s a deeper life going on?
9/10/12: Windows and what we leave behind
In birth prep class yesterday, our doula asked us to draw a picture of the journey we are about to undertake. She asked us to visualize a landscape with a path, to consider what we would need, and what we knew we had to leave behind. Alix took up red and green and blue pastels and unleashed broad strokes on the newsprint, kneeling on the floor. My hand went to a small piece of black charcoal with a point sharpened by use, and started small in the lower left corner. My heart poured into the images of what I was leaving behind.
I began with a window. A writer’s window out onto the world, a frame of wood and glass. The world shaped by the frame, opening in wider angles according to my closeness, the glass cold to the touch. Every rented room, apartment, house and cabin I’ve lived in has had such a window, through which I’ve poured tens of thousands of hours of solitude. And then there is an inner window, where I’ve been watching and waiting for a part of my life to begin.
For someone to arrive.
For someone, a part of myself, to open the frame to the larger world of wind and rain.
On the desk beside the window ledge I drew the artifacts of my intelligence: letters, numbers, signs, a ruler. And books. Alix’s arm swept in long arcs of her coming labour, and I was drawing the small tools by which I had measured my ideas about life.
When I told my best friend that Alix was pregnant, he grabbed me by the lapels said, “The dryness of your intellectual life is about to finally get some summer rain.” The next day, Alix’s father said, shaking and through tears, “Now you’ll know what all of the words are about, all of this mythology and literature. You’ll understand what everybody’s feeling and fighting over.”
The window will be thrown open as I leave this desk. Rain will splatter in and blur my notes and short out the laptop. I’m leaving so many things behind: my childhood, my extended childhood as an intellectual, my first marriage to a dear friend I never see any more. My love is concentrated here, but it has frayed edges, as I install this shelf above the changing table and begin to boil bone-marrow for the coming labour.
But most of all I leave behind the loneliness I have cherished and hidden myself within. I leave behind symbols as I prepare to touch the world, looking to the rest of my empty page, and then seeing in the corner of my eye that Alix has drawn a strong path through the woods to the ocean.
9/11/12: “You assholes. I don’t want another kid.”
Your letter has me thinking about desks and tools and the things with which I surround myself. When A’s mother and I split, she ended up with all the contents of the house. In response to your letter I want to say something like, “Matthew, I also know about leaving things behind.”
The truth is, I’m still haunted.
This teak desk faces a window. My office is set up with a small writing desk, a black meditation cushion, an altar with a small Buddha and incense bowl, and of course, a window. The Buddha is sitting on an almost-square stone, likely slate, that I found last month on the shore of the Hudson River, just outside Saugerties, New York.
In the first hours of the morning, the stone is a cold grey but by seven it has lines of copper cut through the edges. When the Buddha is placed on the stone it’s off-kilter, and there’s no way I can get it to stand straight. In the morning I light incense and bow to the off-kilter Buddha. As with many Chinese versions of the Buddha, the face is female and the body is male. Sometimes I think the Buddha is just an off-kilter marriage: not so holy, and not caught in the mundane either. No matter what I do I just can’t get the Buddha straight.
When Carina and I learned that we were pregnant I made plans to go to upstate New York on a silent retreat. I wanted to immerse myself in stillness, ritual, chanting, and the monastic life I love. I drove to the centre a day early and spent time in the Hudson River Valley, two hours north of Manhattan, walking, thinking, swimming, alone. I found this square slate rock there. I knew when I found it that it would make a perfect altar. It was hot and I dove into the Hudson, eyes closed, and swam as far as I could without opening my eyes. I’m not a good swimmer, but that whole day I wanted to be underwater, where I couldn’t see, going forward.
My office is small and sparse, painted the colour of dry clay, with hundred-year-old baseboards that are chipped and have probably been painted twenty times. We moved here this year and within four months of being here we conceived.
In the corner of this office, under the window, my son’s Lego is piled up. He spent all weekend building an F-14 Tomcat—a fighter jet he saw Tom Cruise flying in the movie Top Gun. In our rush to get to the first day of school on Monday, he dropped it and I stepped on it. He freaked out. We argued for ten minutes about how he had to leave it in a pile because we were late for the first day of Grade Four. He didn’t care: he just wanted to rebuild the plane that took him three days to create. So under the window we each have our own altar. His is a blue, red and yellow Lego plastic mess. Mine, I can’t get straight.
When Carina was six weeks pregnant, she went to the walk-in clinic for an unrelenting bladder infection. She had A with her, because I was teaching. It was evening. On the intake form she wrote in blue pen, in large letters:
I am six weeks pregnant. I am here with my stepson. Please do not say anything. He does not know yet.
As soon as the doctor walked in he read the chart and blurted: “So you’re six weeks pregnant.” My son sat up: “You’re six weeks pregnant?” He repeated it a few times and then slipped from his chair to the floor.
Carina called me when I was done teaching and a student drove me to meet them at the clinic. A stood there without coming towards me and then let loose every swear word he knew. Then, “You assholes. I don’t want another kid. Being an only child is the best part of my life.”
When he’d calmed down a bit we got in the car and drove west on College in silence. It was June, humid, and I watched all the young people in bike lanes, likely single, heading towards Little Italy. Riding one by one, they were dressed immaculately, upright on their bikes, the evening nothing but possibility. The sky was an open darkness and the bright buildings looked like faces. I watched the gears of the bikes, the pedals, the spinning spokes and the hubs at the centre, turning slowly.
We stopped at the drugstore, and A and I waited on the curb while Carina went to get a prescription. I told him how I felt when I was his age and learned I was going to have a sister. He started asking me questions about it. Then he said: “I’d rather have a brother, though I know you and Carina are probably going to have a girl, and if you do I think you should name her Merren.”
We played around with ways to spell the name. Merryn. Merrin.
We held hands and walked to find a snack. Again I was noticing the sidewalks filled with young single people, getting off their bikes, locking bikes, some with helmets, most without. Jeans looked tight, skirts short, sweat-stained shirts from the humid air.
We got back in the car and drove home. Carina was feeling better and A was watching the city through the open window of the backseat. Carina drove the last leg home and I held her hand. Her hands are always warm.
Your doula, Sam, was my ex’s Doula. She had us do a similar drawing exercise. I drew a birth scene in which I was standing in the room but there was no ground beneath my feet. There was pencil crayon blood, a relaxed mother post-birth, lots of (paid, professional) women around to support her. But I was alone with no ground. The drawing haunted me enough that I didn’t speak about it much, if ever. I wanted to give A’s mother all the support she needed—I didn’t think much about what I needed.
On the banks of the Hudson, when I found the almost-square stone, I promised myself I wouldn’t go forward without ground to stand on. Not this time. In meditation practice I can drop into places that have no momentum, no solidity, and nothing to hold onto. Like swimming under water with my eyes closed. But going forward with my family requires a whole other set of skills.
What I’m getting at is simple: The more domestic life takes over, the more I start thinking about windows.
You think of yourself as a writer; I think of myself as a wayward monk or a priest of a temple with no walls. Not an ascetic yogi in a forest or the Buddha who left his home, struggling to figure out how Yoga and Buddhist teachings can come alive in modernity. Modernity includes my growing family, property taxes, and my love of neuroscience, art, ecology and my vegetable garden. So this is something I hope we unpack together: how does spiritual life, rooted in ancient India and the halls of monasteries in Tibet and Japan, come alive in this new cultural context?
I have no friends who firmly believe in re-incarnation. I don’t believe, like the Buddha did, that the earth floats on water. But I still I’m feel like I’m a part of this invisible lineage, this long conversation through history about how to live a flourishing life. Buddhism looks entirely different in Burma than it does in Korea. What’s this practice going to look like in this next century? Does the 21st century Buddha live in a home with solar panels? Does the Buddha change diapers? Will his or her sangha hold same-sex marriage as a virtue? What happens to these teachings in Toronto in 2013?
Since I’ve known you, you’ve had time to write and think and practice and read. Your stepchild is grown up. Until A’s mother and I split up, I found it difficult to balance practice, research, writing and dishes. Let alone getting to school to pick him up, spending long hours with him at the park, or biking through the city together (my favorite). It was never well-balanced until, funny enough, his mother and I separated. Then, as difficult as that process was, and is, I found time to be present as a father and also let the inner monk in me come alive again.
So now Carina and I are talking a lot about how to put practice first, along with our relationship, and then let our family flourish because of our commitment to each other and the dharma.
I think the saying goes something like, “a healthy relationship is two people being alone together.” I’d go further than that. In a certain way I think I can never know Carina fully. How can we really know our partners? How can we know another person? I can’t even know the full extent of my own self. We are constantly in flux. Maybe it’s in that space that love arises?
Matthew, how are you thinking about marrying your craft and your domestic duties? It’s easy to say, ‘the two are one,” but I’m not sure it’s so easy in the long haul.
9/11/12: Remembering the fold of diapers
In Ayurveda, they say to keep the windows shuttered for the first three weeks of baby’s life.
Week three introduces fire element, light, and visual form. Week one is sound and space: I bought a small finger-piano to play for baby’s first days. It has a gentle and melancholic ring. Week two is touch and air element and they say this is where baby massage begins, every day. I have all kinds of oil stocked up. Oils I advise for my clients when they are going through their own elemental rebirthing.
My mother sewed the thick curtains that will shutter the windows in our small apartment. But now she has a broken hip, and breaks into tears on the phone at the thought of not being able to climb the stairs to see baby, at looking at our drawn curtains while sitting in the car in the street below. Baby comes in October, and we’re hoping it will be warm enough to set up chairs on the sidewalk by the car, and maybe a folding table for tea.
Our neighbour is an old Portuguese lady dying of cancer. Everyday her middle-aged children come an sit with her on the front patio in plastic chairs. I’m sure they’ll lend us their chairs. If it’s a Sunday they might offer us barbecue chicken. Maybe I’ll try to have mom and dad come, especially on a Sunday.
Sometimes Alix wants to talk with baby inside. She lies on the couch with her eyes closed and her hand holding the underside of the bump. After a while I’ll come and play the thumb piano beside her, and baby will roll and thump.
My brother was born when I was A’s age, and I remember being the diaper-folder. I have a visual memory for many things, but I can’t picture exactly how the folds go. I think when they deliver the diapers this week I’ll pick one up, close my eyes, and fold it by feel. My hands will remember, and I know I’ll be able to change baby in the dark. I’ve been reaching towards these semi-conscious actions: maybe within them I’ll find a rounder intelligence.
Stacks of diapers, stacks of unread books on my desk, and a stack of empty moleskin notebooks as well. It’s the diapers that will be opening now. Yes, I have had time to read and research since you’ve known me, but there’s been something hollow about it, perhaps because books have deferred a deeper need. Even the stuff I’m most entranced by—reading phenomenology and neuroscience through my years of asana and meditation practice—has left me blank on many days. I would open a beautiful book (someone else’s life-work and baby) and feel distracted, as though my flesh was being asked to set aside its own task. And this is where I feel the paradox embedded in the ethical prescription of svādhyāya: the word carries the sense today of “self-contemplation”, but it originally meant the study of “scripture”. But I have always felt a yawning gap between what’s happening in my life and every language or model that attempts to describe it.
The only scriptures I remember are those that tell me somehow to close the book.
I’ve been chafing at something else. Self-contemplation puts a strange ceiling on learning. It turns windows into mirrors. In my dreams now I hear a baby cry, and I rush to do something, or I calm myself down, knowing I can’t help in the way my instinct tells me. My unread books sit closed in the sun this morning. But the cry in the night will open something else. It won’t come from me, and it will open a part I do not know or did not choose to open. I’m ready to not choose. Funny, now that neuroscience is deconstructing free will: perhaps I am also more ready to sink into this choiceless condition.
Through the bustle of your own family life you have seen me blessed with a lot of time, and this is true in a stopwatch sense. But it was also time burdened by self-direction, and I’m looking forward to what the new boss will have me doing, and what essential thoughts will squeeze out through the gaps in laundry.
I want to string a laundry line from our second-floor porch to the struggling oak tree in the yard. I remember hanging my brother’s washed diapers on the line at my parent’s house. In the winter they would freeze stiff and flat as book boards, smelling like the sky.
When I was a baby, my mother wrote her Master’s thesis while I napped in the afternoon. I know another woman writer who discovered her daughter would sleep for an extra hour if she kept her awake by running her in the stroller through Trinity-Bellwoods park. She finished a book of stories before baby turned two. And my ex-wife, who wrote fragments of novels while my step-daughter, O, slept or made drawings.
O, with her tousle of straw-coloured hair and tiny industrious fingers, and D, scratching out a sentence with her right hand and reaching for the teapot with her left, pouring without looking, her heart full of words, her flesh split between the child and the page.
You didn’t know me in that other family, which continues in broken form. Part of me is a divorced step-father with an empty nest. O is twenty-three years old now, and living in England.
Running that stroller and writing while playing with baby are stories of parents in their twenties, I think. At forty I don’t feel this confluence and conflict of private and domestic arcs. I’m sure I’m speaking too soon, but I think I have less to accomplish now.
Here’s how I think I know: for as long as I can remember, I have had two or three manuscripts in my head, fully formed, creating pressure, because writing them out takes an irritatingly long time. My discipline towards writing often reached a fever-pitch of anxiety. I would think: “I may die before I finish this book, and then I will be completely invisible.”
The morning after Alix and I discovered she was pregnant, I woke up strangely relieved of that anxiety. I was never self-made, but now I really feel it. Perhaps I don’t need to finish anything for now. Someone else will take this torch.
We started writing these letters, and we couldn’t stop. We’re publishing this excerpt in support of the release of this book in June of 2014. You can preorder the book here.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
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