The Beauty of Motherhood

I feel so rich with a big jug of fresh cider in the fridge.

We went to an apple-pressing party this morning with a group of other moms and kids in our area.  The kids were running around, swinging on tires tied to trees, sidewalk chalk out, little trucks to push around and a mini-tractor to pedal.

There were potato chips and carrot sticks and apples.  Oh, the APPLES.

We brought a wagon up the grassy hill to the one tree with the most apples.  We climbed in the tree and picked fruit from the branches, shook the tree until they tumbled down like large red/green balls of hail (watch out for your head!).  We used sticks to prod apples to the ground and climbed the ladder to pick and hand them down to friends’ waiting palms.

We got apples.  A wagon full, buckets and bags full.  A good-sized harvest for little hands to manage.

We brought them down the hill, admiring furry black-and-brown striped caterpillars along the way, back down to the old cider press our hostess had rigged up.

The motor was a bit weak but we washed the apples and chopped them up and fed them in.  The teeth grinding the apples into bits, making a big pile of broken fruit in the slotted wooden barrel below.  Then we put the round lid on and screwed it down and down and down.  Pressing.

All the juice ran out the slots of the barrel and into a square wooden tray beneath it.  The tray had one round hole and all the juice ran out of that and into a bucket underneath.  The kids were running in with their paper cups, interrupting the stream, catching all that fresh pressed sunshine and drinking it down.

We pressed again and again. Kids scattered, running back up to the walnut tree cove where the swings hung.  Or colored with chalk and crayons.  Or munched on a buffet of various potato chips spread out on the picnic table.

The sun comes out.  The water in the Puget Sound is sparkling fairytale blue.

I don’t know the other families here well.  Many I met for the first time at a picnic last week.  For a moment in our apple-pressing conversation, the topic turns to wrinkles.  One woman mentions how her mom bought her wrinkle-cream recently, to help erase the lines created when her children were up sick for several consecutive nights. She laughs and says, “Don’t pass your insecurities onto me, Mom!”  We all laugh and I look at the genuinely happy and beautiful face of the woman telling this brief story.

I think about how we moms are sensitive to our own sense of declining beauty.  How all women get trapped assessing their level of beauty, tracking changes as they grow older, but mothers have their own set of additional beauty hurdles.  As if just by being a mother they have more obstructions to clear.  While Hollywood has turned baby bumps into the new sexy, headlines also rush on about how quickly a woman is able to “get her body back” post-baby.  As if the goal is to look like we never had children at all.

But as I look at these mothers pressing apples, I see something I admire, in their blue jeans and sweatshirts and tired smiling faces:  I see their commitment.  I see the softness that comes from caring for little people day after day, night after night.  The inner strength that slowly builds from dishing up snacks and wiping bottoms.  From holding a sweaty sick child all night, praying for their health.   From kissing countless scrapes and bumps and chipped teeth, praying for their healing.  From navigating sibling rivalry, trying to stretch your time and love to embrace all the people in your home, including yourself.

I see the beauty that is created when one is deeply involved in service, in forgetting yourself for the sake of another.  It is a powerful surrender that no one can prepare you for before you become a parent.  I remember when my oldest daughter, Rose, was several weeks old and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get around to trimming my toenails.  If feels silly to write that now, but at the time it was monumental.  I’d end each day and think, “Geesh, tomorrow I will cut my toenails.”  But the next day would come and go and my nails would grow that much longer, pushing against the inner edge of the slippers I wore all day long inside the house.

I remember telling a friend that, a performance artist who asked how new motherhood was going.  She laughed when I mentioned my nails and thought I could do a performance piece just on that, the strange fact explaining so much:  What is new motherhood like?  It means not cutting your own toenails.

It means no longer tending to your own needs as top priority.  It means surrendering yourself to these bright new beings, responding to their cries and hunger and physical and emotional needs over and over again in a blur of self-forgetfulness.

No one can explain ahead of time the work it is.  No one can explain how utterly erased you sometimes feel.  How you can’t remember what you personally think or feel anymore, let alone remember to find time for your own toenails.

But I have a theory, looking at these women on apple pressing day.  I have a theory that all that self-forgetfulness adds up to something.  It adds up to a beauty, a beauty of motherhood.  The tired, smiling faces, they have a quiet glow made up of all those moments of lost self.  The extra gray hairs and wrinkles we acquire when we hold sick children through sleepless nights, or try to stay steady through trips to the emergency room, they have a power that extends beyond surface appearance.

Where others may see the lack of beauty (no make-up, no salon hair dos, no fashionable outfits, unfit bodies), I see the acquisition of beauty, the beauty of service, the beauty of motherhood.  It is a strong beauty, a humble one.  It isn’t flashy or self-conscious, in fact it is completely unaware of itself.  It is the beauty of a woman who has been pushed to her limit again and again, yet somehow finds a way to grow bigger and embrace more when she didn’t think she had anything left to give.

As a kid, I remember thinking my mom was the most beautiful woman on earth.  I loved how she smelled, her soft cheeks, the funny skin at the elbow that hung loose when her arm was straightened, the wrinkles on her forehead when she raised her eyebrows–I loved running my fingers over those again and again and my dear mother let me (thank you mom!).

I wonder what my daughters will remember about my body, about my beauty, once they are grown.  But I can’t know.  The essence of this beauty is that the one who has it isn’t entirely aware of it.  It is a beauty born of self-forgetfulness.  It is the beauty of motherhood.

And I think of all the mothers I know, the conversations I’ve had lately with other moms—we discuss our bellies, our changed shapes, the stretch marks.  The sag.  The widening.  The fact that we pee a little when we jog or bounce on trampolines or go to Zumba, we talk about changes in beauty that are usually taboo.  We empathize with each other and smile in comradery with a knowing nod.

But I think if we all looked carefully, if we all acknowledged honestly, we’d see the other beauty growing in each of us, too.  The beauty of self-forgetfulness.  The beauty of motherhood.

*        *        *

Back at our apple day, the apples we gathered have all been processed now.  They were once blossoms on the trees.  Then, they grew into fruit, were picked, washed, chopped and pressed.  Now, I bring home a jug of cider.  And I feel so wealthy.  Rich and sweet, deep gold in color, that sweet fruit transformed from stage to stage into this:  the essence of the thing itself, beautiful as the women who worked to make it.

*       *        *

What about you?  How do you feel in your beauty, in your body, in your motherhood?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I was silly and left my camera at home on apple-pressing day.  I am borrowing this image from another blog,

I was forgetful and left my camera at home on apple-pressing day. I am borrowing this image from another blog,



I’ve been wanting to write here more often than I have been so I am sitting down again to see what comes out.

I’ve been helping Rose blog over on her site (she got the idea somewhere to start a blog).  If you want to check out a couple of snapshots from our days, there are some here:

We’ve stumbled into fall here and I feel my energy changing a bit, lagging somewhat, but in a relaxed, cozy way.  I don’t fight the slowing down but try to ride it and munch a few more squares of dark chocolate after lunch.

I went to an acting class a few weeks ago, just a one-time, 3-hour workshop and it was fantastic and fun and strange to take that time away from my family on a Saturday morning and go play pretend with several people I hardly know.  But it is more than playing pretend because acting is an art, a craft, and one I can throw myself into relatively comfortably—I mean, comfortably dive into that very uncomfortable place when you are attempting to dig up every scrap of your humanity and let it loose in the most raw, honest, and un-selfconscious way you can muster up in that moment.  I really love it.

And then, last weekend, the Roshi was on the island, Shodo Harada, a Zen teacher who is Japanese, 73 years old and maybe 5’3″.  I lived and trained with him in Japan for roughly 5 years in between college and children.  Usually when he comes, he offers a weeklong retreat which I am too steeped in motherhood to attend.  He did that this time, too, but he also did something he doesn’t usually do: he stuck around for several days afterwards and any Joe Shmoe or Jane Shmane (like me) who has some history with him as a student could drop into the zendo (meditation hall), listen to him speak, sit zazen (meditation) and go to sanzen (one-on-one interview) with him.

So there I was.  I hadn’t gone to sit with him and do sanzen since I was pregnant with Rose, seven years ago.  I pull up for the evening sit, childless and husbandless, in Corey’s red ’94 Toyota pick-up truck.  It rumbles loudly up the gravel drive-way into the monastery.  I get out and quickly smooth and straighten my zazen clothes–samugi top, hakuma, rakasu–a foreign costume I feel remarkably at home in.  I walk down the long gravel path that runs from the parking area down to the zendo.

As I walk, my footsteps crunch over stones, my awareness pushes through my breath, settling onto this body hanging over my bones, feeling the sensation as each footfall meets the ground.  As I sink into being there, I have a sense of myself in bits and pieces, all that has happened to get me to this place, all that has happened since I was last here, coming to sit before a sanzen (seeing the Roshi and showing him your state of mind).  How quickly life happens, how unpredictably.

There is me: 20 years old, unexpectedly stumbling upon this monastery on the island.  Spending one day there, drinking tea, helping in the garden, eating the vegetarian lunch, sitting 15 minutes of zazen for the first time in this same zendo.

There is me: 21 years old, coming back to the monastery the next spring.  Staying for several days.  Doing the morning and evening sits.  Feeling a quaking urge to keep going with this practice, to watch body, breath, and energy, to return to my inner place of home more diligently, more fully, over and over again.  Wanting help from a teacher.

So there is me: 21, flying to Japan after college graduation to sit with the Roshi, experience sanzen for the first time, meeting Corey there, who I somewhat detest at first glance (it wasn’t until years later that I realized this was projection–the long telling of how he and I actually grew into a healthy and loving couple is another story altogether).

There is me there, in Japan, expecting to stay for three months, which then stretched into a year, which stretched into another and another and another.  To have that space to look within, to see all the layers of self-consciousness and habit muffling my own sense of inner light.  Seeing self-doubt and self-hatred where I didn’t think I had any.  The sitting practice showing me my rough edges, the ones I had been able to hide from myself until they bubbled to the surface on the zazen cushion.  To touch that core, inner light, again and again, learning how to stoke it and feel it blaze, burning the outer layers we add on to ourselves for protection.  It is a long, creative process.  And 5 years there gave me only a base, a beginning.

And now, there is me, today, 34.  Since leaving Japan I have gotten married, given birth to two children, miscarried one, moved across the country twice, and have seen friends and family change, grow older, some get sick, some die.  Me: with two children, a husband, a wonderfully blessed life.  Walking down this gravel path to the zendo.  Heart overflowing with gratitude, heart buckling under the wonder of it all, the passage of time, all that has changed, all that is unchanged.  Feeling the light burning in me, feeling the immense gratitude for being able to feel that light at all.  Grateful to the Roshi, acting as a guide.  Grateful for the unexpected opportunity to train in Japan and clarify my own self.  Grateful for my children and my husband who challenge me to keep that light burning brightly so that our life together can flow.

Here I am, going into the zendo, sitting one long period of zazen, they call it “golden hour”.  A few tears fall down my cheeks.  The heart-buckling gratitude for all that is nameable and unnameable, too.

The bells ring and I stand to go to sanzen.  There:  candlelight, the Roshi’s face flickering, my heart beating, my tears of gratitude still falling onto my rakasu, hakuma, samugi.  His words fall on me like many bright leaves, reading my mind as usual, as he does to everyone, urging me to see all the gifts the universe gives to make our lives possible.

He rings his bell and I bow out.  I crunch down the gravel path, to the red pick-up truck.  It growls loudly as the engine turns over.  Ducking out early isn’t the usual protocol, I should be returning to the zendo for another period of zazen and the ritual cup of tea and sutra chanting to finish off the night. But I must get home to my other Roshis, the two young ones, who are under 4 and 3 feet tall.   And to the taller one, my husband, my partner, who keeps me digging into the truest parts of myself and supports me to express myself from there all the time.

And when I get home to these three Roshis, there will be no bells or bowsThere will be hugs and kisses.  I’ll eat a bowl of cereal as a late dinner and snuggle under the covers with all of them.  We’ll be up later than I expect, talking, giggling, reading out loud.

The light that I went hunting for in a zendo at 20 years old, my two little ones playfully engage with it without trying.  The ability to be present, to speak and react from a spontaneous and true place, they have this mastered without effort.  And when I waver into a realm of frustration, anger, discontent, or a preoccupied, busy mind, they are quick to call me on it, to rattle me back to BEING WITH THEM.  Here.  Now.  This.  This.  This.  Every moment fresh and alive.  Every moment needing me to be real, to see and accept them exactly as they are.  Every feeling they express is uninhibited and complete.  My job is to be big enough to meet them and respond accordingly, lovingly, without the burden of my own emotional blocks and expectations, which is a lot easier said than done.  It is my practice now.  It is my life, the life I have been given.

My gratitude for this life, this gift, this very one, is huge and humbling.  I bow and kiss and hug.  I sit and laugh and I try my hardest to let it all flow through me, this light, burning up, blazing out, glowing brightly.

Photo on 2013-08-21 at 10.11