Chasing the Perfect Birthday

My sweet girl will be seven soon.

I felt myself get choked up over that fact while eating a bowl of oatmeal this morning.

But the reason my throat got caught with tears in the middle of breakfast wasn’t about her getting older.  It wasn’t because I felt overwhelmed with the passage of time or upset that life doesn’t come with a pause button.

It was about me.  My anxiety as a mother:  am I giving enough?  How can I give more?  Am I doing enough to make her childhood amazing?

Normally, I try not to focus on questions like that.  I try to keep it simple: love her, spend time together, enjoy life together, give her lots of stability and attentiveness and figure that even with the mistakes I make along the way, I am doing the best I can, and she will continue blossoming into the incredible person she already is.

But then her birthday rolls around and suddenly I feel the pressure.  It’s like her birthday, this landmark, is my motherhood report card time.  And I show up as my own most judgmental teacher, staring down my nose at myself, clicking my ruler on the desk and glaring.



I want to make her birthday really special, give her something spectacular, make her party so great that she squeals with glee when it’s over, “That was the BEST birthday ever!”

But goshdarnit, it doesn’t come naturally to me to plan a Pinterest party.  I usually rush to figure out a gift or two in the last couple of days.  Then, for the party, we have a bunch of people over for a potluck and blow up balloons.  I’ll hug her and tell her I love her a million times a day, like I normally do.

It sounds fine, doesn’t it?  It sounds splendid!  So why do I feel like I need to do MORE?  Why do I feel this pressure, this nagging feeling to SPEND more money, make MORE special things happen?

Partly I feel that pressure because I love her so darn much.  Of course.  I want the best for her.  I want to give her everything and then some in order to express just how much she means to me, just how special she is.

But there is another reason, too, a stickier one: I am anxious about it.  I worry that things as they are aren’t good enough and so I want to add onto that, and add on and add on and pile up a big pile of wonderful-ness that will be proof of how great everything is, how great our lives are, what a great mother I am, and somehow guarantee her a wonderful life.

But is that really a gift to her?  If it is coming from anxiety in me, then won’t it ultimately have the opposite effect than I intend?  Won’t it suffocate her rather than let her breathe and blossom?

too much wonderful-ness piling up

too much wonderful-ness piling up


Okay, so let me look at this.  I don’t want to pass onto her my burdensome feeling of things not being good enough as they are.  My feeling that if only we had more special toys or food or decorations, THEN we would know the good life.

Rather, I want to pass onto her this:  THIS is the good life.  We are living it.

And yes, we can dress it up for fun.  We can celebrate!  Let’s make it special, because it is a special day and she is a special person.

But let’s do it from a place of satisfaction rather than a place of anxiety.

Let’s be relaxed and warm and loving and let all those good feelings overflow into a party and gifts and another special day this year of being together and being grateful.

Maybe sneak in a surprise or two but not stress myself out with it.

Return to that simple place where loving each other and spending time together are the biggest riches in the world.  Those things in and of themselves ARE the celebration.

I want my girl to thrive.  I want her to grow.  I want her to experience special and fantastic things in this life.  Most of all I want her to trust that those things are happening already, they are inherent to her being, without anything extra being added on.

If I build up the birthday, build up the party and the presents, there is so much expectation wrapped up in that.  Expectation for her to love it, expectation for it to be better than last year, expectation for her to get everything she wants.  And what follows expectation?  Disappointment.  That strange feeling when everything is over, there is a sprawl of wrapping paper and ribbons on the floor and you realize your ideals can never be lived up to.

Holidays are a breeding ground for this post-expectation feeling of disappointment.  How many kids end up crying right about the time the cake comes out?  Or after all the presents have been opened?  Or feel slightly deflated and empty the day after Christmas?

I don't know this child personally but I feel his pain

I don’t know this child personally but I feel his pain


So I don’t want to put the pressure on her or on me.  I am done with ideals and expectations and perfectionism.

I want to keep it light and fresh.  Loving and in-the-moment.  For her and for myself.

And my sweet girl, she gets it, she understands.

I recently got her a couple of things, not related to her birthday, just a couple of things she mentioned she liked.  I gave them to her separately and casually, just to show her that I care.  And to show her that what she thinks of as important is important to me too and I want to help fill her life with things she cares about.  The two gifts came to a combined grand total of $30 or so.

And she says to me this afternoon, “Those two things are my only birthday presents mama, and THAT’S FINAL!”

She said it so definitively and simply.  She felt satisfied.  She feels full.

And her confidence in that helped me.  I instantly relaxed.  And gave her a hug.  And returned to that place of simple satisfaction.  Of she and I, together.  Letting go of the pressure, the report card, the self-judgement and aniexty.  Into the quiet space of being her mother, being present, shining love.

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What about you?  How do you go about planning parties or special occasions for your loved ones?  How do you make it special without stressing yourself and everyone else out?  Or do you stress yourself out but it all feels worth it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Life Lessons from a 2 Year-Old

There are days when I want a break from everything.

Like today, for example. When I want someone else to convince my two-year old to wear a diaper when we go out, because the resistance she puts up to it is LOUD, and I am out of creative ways to respond to her.

And can someone else please convince her to wear shoes and socks and a jacket because it is cold outside?  And figure out a way to fit her fairy wings on and fit her into her carseat, please?  Because that is what she wants.

And those plastic dress-up high heels she likes to shuffle around in, can you please follow her around while she wears them and make sure she doesn’t trip and fall while she runs down the wet concrete sidewalk in her sundress and fairy wings in the rain?

Yes, some days I want a break.  I want an imaginary second me to show up and deal with all the things I am too frazzled to do anymore. But of course, that isn’t an option.

What is an option is choosing in this moment to see her more clearly, to be with her more attentively.  To give more.  Go more deeply into being with her.  Surrendering.  This heals everything.  It even erases the desire to have a break.

My daughter: she is two.  She is marvelously self-assured.

She knows what she wants.  Her will is iron strong.

And matched with her iron will, she has these golden curls.  They fall down her back delicately, perfectly, so lusciously.

Her skin is golden, too.  And her smile is so big as she opens her arms to the sky and throws her head back when she dances and twirls (“My balleriiiiiiiiinaaa!”).  It’s just enough to make your own heart spill out of yourself and rush towards her in pure love.

It’s just enough to bring you deeper into this moment of being with her, willing to help her as she moves through the world.  Even if it means doing the illogical: high heels and fairy wings and a sundress on a cold, windy, rainy day.

Even if it means tending to all these things and so many more, day after day, minute after minute.  The creative work of being her caregiver.

But I do it.  I do it because I want her to fly.  I want her to keep her big laugh and carefree way of interacting with the world.

I want to support her.

I want to help her navigate the world in a way that feels true to her.

Yes, supporting her is far more important to me than convincing her to obey me.

Because the more helpful and respectful I am with her, the more helpful and respectful she is with me, with her sister, with the world.

So, l run back into the house and grab her fairy wings when she asks, because that’s a helpful and kind thing to do and it brings me joy to do that for her.

I help her find the high-heel shoes because I see how wonderful she feels when she’s wearing them.

I wash her favorite summer dress over and over because that is the one she wants to wear.  And I watch her put it on HERSELF (it usually ends up backwards and inside-out) because she feels so independent and beautiful in it just that way.

I bring her jacket along, too, because eventually she may get cold and ask for it.  Then I will help her put it on.  I won’t say, “I told you so.” I will just say, “Here, honey.”

And I dance with her–how could I resist?–as she grabs my hand, “dance wid me mama, you balleriiiina!”

I want her to feel that I am on her team.  That I am behind her 100 percent, helping her explore the world.

I want to help her with all the little things that feel big and important to her because I want to be a part of her big things, now and forever.  And her big things will just keep getting bigger and bigger from here on out.

She is fierce.  She is gentle.  She knows what she wants and how to move towards it, why would I want to be a damper on that ability?  It will serve her well her whole life long.

So I take a deep breath, I take a step back.  I try to see the world from her point of view.

And what a view it is:  fairy wings, rain drops, dancing feet, brisk air, special dresses, golden curls down her back as she spins and spins, delighting in the shear fact of her own big-hearted existence.

How precious I can be a part of that.  How precious that I can witness and assist.   And by being with her, I am reminded, by her example, how to know what I want in this world, how to be myself unabashedly.  How to access that carefree, big-hearted, fierce and gentle part of myself.  Thank you, dear one, for that gift, for these life-lessons.  Fairy wings, rain drops, high heels and all.



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