The Cult of Andy

The last time I tried meditating, I gave up after the cat tried to swing trapeze-style from a chandelier above my head. I assume that’s what happened anyway because I heard a loud clatter and opened my eyes in time to find the chandelier swinging wildly and the cat on the floor beside me, licking one paw. 

I didn’t feel very good at meditating, and thought perhaps it was not for someone with nosy cats who is already pinched for alone time. Besides, lots of things can be meditative, like running or walking and reading and definitely writing. Being outdoors with nothing to do besides take in the sights, sounds and smells reliably takes me to a peaceful place.

Eventually the call to meditation came again, this time for my nine-year old daughter, Audrey. We’d come back from a week at the beach and too-close sleeping quarters, and being the youngest and no doubt a bit spoiled, she had trouble being back in her own room and bed. One night we heard her crying and went in to her room to find her near inconsolable. Her fears were vague but horrifying, like losing her favorite people to illness, accidents, etc. These thoughts were sudden, unwelcome visitors that snuck in and grew so big and scary they took up her mind. 

At first, we tried practical things, like reading something fun before bed or remembering positive things from the day once the worries crept in. We tried a sleep mask and then a night light and then the sleep mask and night light together. Some nights we’d hear her crying and go in to soothe and other times find tissues tucked under her pillow the next morning and know she’d quietly cried herself to sleep. One morning I woke to the idea that meditating before bedtime might help.

Not being an expert in meditation, I downloaded an app with a free 10-day program narrated by a man with a perfectly placid British accent. He introduced himself as Andy and I pictured him round and doughy with downy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The app doesn’t show what he looks like, though does feature blissful looking cartoon monsters wearing headphones. One blue monster looked especially engaging so we decided that was Andy. A week or so later, Audrey and I googled Andy to find he’s quite buff, completely bald and a former monk turned multi-millionaire. Oh, and he’s human.

Now, in full disclosure, Audrey and I meditate a bit differently than you’re supposed to. We don’t sit upright in a chair or on the floor, but lay down on my bed with pillows under our heads and, sometimes, Audrey prefers to be under her favorite fleece blanket. I know what you’re thinking, but I have only fallen asleep twice. Usually I follow Andy’s instructions to breathe slowly through the nose, filling the chest, and then exhaling gently through the mouth. Andy tells us to count each inhale and exhale until we reach ten and then start over, and this turns out to be the most helpfully concrete instruction I’ve heard on how to meditate. Andy makes meditation not only easier but something we both start looking forward to.

One evening I’m on the couch with Joe watching Season 3 of Bloodlines, which is the antithesis of meditation, but I digress, when Audrey appears and tells me she wants to meditate. I look at the TV and the clock and wrinkle my nose and say “How about tomorrow night?” She leans her face in real close, a little wild-eyed, and says “I need Andy tonight” and it sends a chill up my spine. We go upstairs to meditate and chandelier-swinging cat watches through narrowed eyes from the foot of the bed.

Soon we go on vacation again, this time sleeping in more rooms, though Audrey shares one with her older sister and so is not alone at night. Between that and sun-soaked days of swimming for so long Joe jokes we should wring her out like a washcloth before coming home, she sleeps like a baby every night. We all do. But like all good stories, this vacation too must come to an end.

Once home, Audrey asks to meditate to Andy again and we do. This time our timing is poor and we start around the same time Joe gets home from work. He enters the bedroom to change and finds us laying flat atop the bedcovers, my arms folded across my chest like someone laid out in a casket and Audrey’s loose at her side, our eyes closed tight like children pretending to sleep. The cat watches judgmentally from the floor this time. There’s an awkward moment between when I stop counting breaths and start explaining what we’re doing. Joe nods in understanding and I close my eyes and try not to wait for the jingle of his belt being hung up in the closet and then the soft clop-clunk of the door closing.

Andy tells us it’s okay to notice sounds going on around us. Sometimes he gives us permission to let our minds think about whatever it wants to think about, but in these moments I can’t think of anything and feel disappointed at my lack of imagination.

One night I ask Audrey if she wants to meditate and she says she does not. She says the bedtime worries are just as bad as before and she doesn’t think meditation is working. I ask her if she wants to talk instead and she does, but her face kind of crumbles and she needs a hug more than anything.

We talk about readjusting to spacious sleeping quarters and how the double-grandpa bed from Willy Wonka might seem cozy but probably none of them were sideways sleepers or blanket hogs like in our family. We talk about how when we try to not think about something, that’s pretty much the only thing we seem to be able to think about. We talk about habits and phases and how it feels like something bad will keep happening forever, but that rarely proves to be the case.

I remember Andy pointedly telling us that meditation isn’t about controlling our thoughts but learning to simply notice them and then going back to the breath. I tell Audrey she won’t still be having these thoughts every night by the time she graduates college because anything beyond is probably too far off to imagine. It’s a phase, triggered somehow by the fun closeness of a family trip and sleeping on a lumpy, unsupportive mattress I wouldn’t wish on anyone past 40.

She doesn’t know yet that all but the most supportive mattresses will turn on you one day and that the people you love most will die, but somehow it’s all okay, even when it’s not. She may have thoughts she doesn’t have much control over but that won’t make them come true and they don’t even necessarily mean anything except that she has an active imagination. Worry is the yin to imagination’s yang.

She can still remind herself where she is and that she’s safe. She can focus on the soft weight of her heels against cool summer sheets and count her breath by tens and maybe come to believe that.

***

Audrey asks me if I can start putting notes in her lunch bag for camp. I used to do it during the school year, eventually creating a series of illustrated notes we were both proud of, including one about a rotten pumpkin who entered a beauty contest (I want to write children’s books so bad). It’s collaborative because Audrey gives me ideas of things to write about or draw when we both get bored with the “hey, hope you’re having a great day” notes. This time I ask for ideas and she suggests creating a series around blue monster Andy (as opposed to buff human one).

I sit at the kitchen island and crank out a couple, losing myself in an almost meditative state. I’m no artist but it still feels good to channel frustration and pain into something I can share with her. I’m including one below, meant to be read in a gentle british accent.

The VIPs

At camp, the kids build a miniature city out of sticks and grass in the dirt. Audrey explains there are houses and buildings and trees and military bases and two lakes. She pauses for a moment and corrects herself, “No, three lakes”. She tells me this once we’re already in the car and now the business-like manner in which I saw her speak with another girl by the picnic tables after I’d signed her out makes sense. They were probably going over construction plans for the following day. 

She says all the kids involved in the city project have titles like President, Vice President, VIP (which makes me chuckle until I stop myself), and Major Major Major Major. Before I can ask why all the Majors she says everyone starts at Minor Minor Minor Minor, like this explains everything. I ask her what her title is and she says VIP and then corrects herself and says “I mean VP. That stands for Vice President. Next summer we’ll hold another election.” I get the feeling she’s already campaigning.

We’re riding in the car with her older sister at the wheel and it occurs to me that the kids might run out of suitable sticks near camp base and want to rummage in the woods for more. “Stay out of the woods,” I say. “There’s poison ivy.” 

“There isn’t,” she tells me. “Anyway, I know what it looks like. It’s light green.”

“No it’s not,” her older sister says. “It’s bright green this time of year.”

“It can also be shiny,” I add, knowing I couldn’t pick poison ivy out of a line-up even after suffering repeated, crippling cases of it throughout childhood. One summer when I was about Audrey’s age, I went to camp and came home with poison ivy and head lice. To be fair, we weren’t sure where I picked up the poison ivy.

I used to have a soft spot for those brown and cream striped caterpillars that are suddenly everywhere mid-summer. I’d line a cardboard box with shiny, soft green leaves picked from the woods across the street from our house. Then I’d lean sticks against the box walls like a series of intersecting catwalks and pluck dozens of caterpillars from trees and drop them into the box. I kept them as outdoor pets for a day or two or until they figured out they had always been free to climb out of the box. I took them out of the box and let them crawl across my hands and arms and even my face. I can’t tell this story now without wincing.

A week later I found myself at the doctor’s office with a case of poison ivy so bad I needed steroid injections. My mother cut up old pillow cases and wrapped them around my hands at night so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep. She applied wet oatmeal and witch hazel and calamine compresses at all hours, but nothing stopped the itching. 

We had already planned an overnight trip to New York City and I wore blocky dark sunglasses to disguise my swollen, misshapen face. The subway attendant took tokens for my parents and brother but frowned when he saw me and said “She can ride free.” We joked afterwards that maybe he thought I was blind or had Elephant Man’s disease, and I fought the urge to run back and explain I was just a normal kid. The only blindness I had was an inability to distinguish poison ivy from other leafy green plants.

I never played with caterpillars again after that summer. They were still everywhere – chugging along at a maddening but determined pace across sidewalks and dangling helplessly from low branches – but they became invisible until just a few years ago. I had been jogging along a paved path when I noticed a few crawling across and thought “Oh!” in delight and then “Oh” in a more guarded way.

***

“Just watch out for plants with leaves of three,” I tell both daughters in the car, satisfied this is the best advice I am qualified to give. I still don’t know how I got the job of teaching our older daughter how to drive. Years ago I struck a deal with my husband that he would teach Vanessa and I would teach Audrey. I may have planned on seven more years to prepare, but life happens and his work schedule doesn’t align with hers. Weeks slip by with no driving practice while her expectations about getting a license and buying a car with the money she’s been saving are still there. I start taking her to drive tentative circles around empty parking lots. 

The first time I take her out on a real road, I grip the passenger side armrest until my knuckles ache. I bark things like “Slow down!” or “STOP!” as if a child has just wandered out between two parked cars, when really it’s nothing more than a pair of red taillights up ahead, not even that close. Part of the dread I feel towards these driving lessons comes from my own poor reactions. 

Vanessa doesn’t quite get up to the speed limit and a white SUV tails too close behind. I think to myself Vanessa is driving too close to the right shoulder but keep quiet (miraculously!) until she brushes against an overgrown hedge by the elementary school. I say “Pull Over” in what I mean to be a calm tone but couldn’t be. She remembers her turn signal at the last minute and sheepishly pulls into the school lot while the hovering white SUV blares its horn and speeds past.

I consider cutting her lesson short and putting myself back in control. I don’t remember going out to drive much with my own parents when I had a learners permit. I do remember the time I borrowed their car and swiped a parked car and then lied about it, poorly. My parents figured it out the same day and I wasn’t allowed to drive for weeks, which felt more like a gift than punishment.

I take a deep breath and tell my daughter to get back on the road and try to drive closer to the yellow line, though not too close, obviously. I try to give shorter instructions and watch my pitch and volume. Once we are safely home, I feel shaky and weak but not relieved. It feels like the time I got chased by a dog through a neighborhood I shouldn’t have been walking through late at night in the first place and managed to hurl myself over a fence just in time.

I go online and browse car magnets that say STUDENT DRIVER in bold black atop a bright yellow background. I see some that also include Please Be Patient! underneath but already the regular ones remind me of those Baby On Board signs that were popular in the 80s. Even as a child I wondered why the safety of a stranger’s baby was more important than my own infant sister hurtling through peril in our unmarked car.

I usually take the time to read a few customer reviews and questions before buying anything. This is where I might learn, for instance, that the 3-pack of Student Driver magnets I am considering don’t actually stick or maybe they are only 3-inches wide. My eye draws to a question someone posted: “Do you think three of these will be enough? I’m tempted to cover my car in them. I don’t want anyone honking at my precious angel.” I laugh out loud and add the magnets to my cart and only then feel something like relief.  

My baby’s first 5K

I stopped timing myself when I run. This started in early winter after I’d gone a long stretch without running at all. My fitness level felt like I’d slid backwards from Queen Frostine to the Peppermint Forest, and rather than get totally discouraged, I decided to lower the bar. It worked. I’m still running. No idea how quickly or not-quickly, but speed never was the point. I run because I feel good afterwards. I run because the simple act allows me to eat cookies. I run to connect with nature and other people.

Last weekend was the 5K I signed up to run with Josie, a great sober blog and race buddy. Thanks, Josie, for the heads up on this race and for this photo of us before the start.

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Josie’s the one with the fancy-colored hair. You know, I’ve always said I wanted pink hair and completely blew the chance to get it. Wth?

It was a beautiful day and the run was in a lovely, historic town. I love races through small towns because neighbors come out on their lawns to wave and cheer and occasionally spray garden hoses in the street for us to run through and cool off.

My two daughters also joined us for this race. My oldest is 13 and she found her own pace and beat her previous finish time by an impressive amount. I’m really proud of her and beamed when she told me she wants to keep running and possibly sign up for track next spring.

My youngest daughter is six years old. A 5K is 3.1 miles, which is a long distance for someone with little legs! She’s a determined little whipper snapper though. She told me two Decembers ago that she wanted to race with me. She even had her outfit picked out down to a purple jacket that she promptly outgrew. This particular race was very kid-friendly, so we signed her up and practiced walk-running 3.1 miles and got covered in tar for good measure. We were ready!

Her strategy was a zig-zag pattern of too-quick sprints and walk-dragging, with an occasional skip through friendly-neighbor hose spray.  She did wipe out coming off a curb near the water table, but she didn’t cry due to an emergency bandaid in my pocket and the kindness of a volunteer who saw the whole thing and brought her a cup of water and told her she was “very brave”.

She popped back up and walk/ran/skipped to the finish line, and both daughters are still talking about the post-race bagels. I have no idea where this love of food comes from.

Here’s a couple of pictures, stitched together, that my husband took just before my youngest crossed the finish line. She’s in yellow, I’m in gray.

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The split rail fence was already here when we moved in years ago.

“It’ll be perfect if we get a dog,” one of us said. Still no dog, though we haven’t given up on the idea. We’ve also never treated the fence and so watched it silver and soften and thicken with lichen.

Lichen are not one organism but a fungus and an algae growing together in a symbiotic relationship. On Saturday morning, I tackled the fence with a paint scraper, carefully prying up each one in what felt satisfying in a mindless, meditative way. I also felt a bit like a monster destroying tiny, perfect worlds.

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british soldier lichen on a rail

Nature abhors a vacuum, which is never more evident than on an old rotting fence. Take away one thing and another fills in. I scraped and thought how true this is for vices. Love is the only thing that truly fills, but even love isn’t without pitfalls.

After the fence scraping and lunch, I scrapped plans to run on a trail by myself and brought my littlest kid along. In June, I’d like her to come along on a 5K I’m planning to do with a couple sober bloggers. I wanted to see if 3 miles is doable for pint-sized legs.

We were full speed ahead for the first mile. The second mile saw more breaks to rest upon benches, peer down ominous looking grates, pet a giant poodle, and stare in fascinated horror at one long-dead deer that appeared to be melting back into the ground.

The third mile is when we both got covered in tar. Tar! One second we were leaning over a bridge to get a better look at trout wiggling in neat rows in the stream below and the next my little girl said uh-oh and raised her chubby arm to show it was coated in shiny brown tar.

I decided it would be best to wash it off in the creek, which is really code for “here, you can’t keep all that tar for yourself – let me smear some on my hands so they’ll stick to the steering wheel!” Not only was I unable to clean off any tar, I sunk my new running shoes into a thick stew of mud.

On the rest of the walk back, my little girl held her tar arm behind her back when we passed others. “What if it never comes off?” she asked. In her mind, she had already graduated kindergarten and gotten married and raised a brood of babies, all with a gummy coat of tar on her good arm.

“We’ll get it off,” I said and smiled to show her I meant it.

“But what if you can’t?” she asked, already wise to the fact that parents can’t fix everything, especially ones with muddy shoes and sticky tar all over their driving hands.

We made it back to the car and a canister of wet naps, which occupied her until we reached home and warm, soapy water and a good scrub brush.

Now, if I’d just gone those 3 miles on my own like I’d planned before scraping lichen, I guarantee I wouldn’t have come home covered in tar. I also wouldn’t have noticed the melting deer or pet a giant poodle with my little girl. Relationships are messy, and we are richer for having them and letting our hands get dirty.

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lichen love

 

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