Embracing the Obstacle

The strength of a tree lies in its ability to bend.” – Zen Proverb

The other day my two-year-old found a Q-tip and he picked it up and started to swab the inside of his nostril. I know that kids frequently put things up their noses. After all, I wrote about the funny time my daughter put popcorn up her nose and I had to lay her on the floor, plug her other nostril and blow into her mouth. And then my toddler thought it looked like so much fun, he lined up next to her for his turn. 😊

But back to the nose swab, I’m sure it isn’t just a kid putting things up his nose – it’s all about COVID. As I was telling him not to do that, it reminded me of all that is driving me crazy. And also of the wisdom of embracing the obstacles in front our of ourselves that are our teachers.

I think the last two weeks might have been the most uncomfortable weeks of this pandemic for me. With the surging numbers that are off the charts, the constancy of COVID on the news, and with everything open so we are trying to live more or less as if its business as usual, it has brought so many decisions to my door. Trying to make friends with my experience, I am attempting to lean in to listen to all the things my discomfort is teaching me.

Uncertainty. Right now, when I am incredibly uncertain if I can schedule meetings and work because school or daycare could be cancelled, I accept that certainty has always been a mirage.  Uncertainty makes me feel disoriented but I’m coming to realize that the cure is not grabbing for more certainty but instead bending my knees as if I’m learning to surf.

Responsibility. My awareness of my responsibility to fellow humans has never been so heightened. In this era of contagion, it’s so obvious that we can spread love and light as well as disease. Smiling, laughing and joy are so infectious, especially when we are in the throes of a major surge. And learning the integrity of keeping my kids home from school, testing them, cancelling things myself when needed has been a huge takeaway for me.

Flexibility. This coming weekend we had two big things planned – a kids birthday party and a sleepover at Nana. Both had to be changed because of COVID and then all the other plans we had for the holiday weekend rearranged around them.  And it worked because everyone else is flexible too. I’m learning to accept that if they have to shift again, that too will also be fine.

 I look at what I’ve written and it’s a lot of “trying” and “accepting” and “learning.” It’s all so uncomfortable – kinda like putting a swab up your nose. Which, unlike my toddler and regardless of this attempt to embrace the obstacle, I will never do for fun!

Other People’s Writing: Dec 31st

I had a different piece of writing picked for today but then I got a piece of news yesterday that sent me to Pema Chödrön’s writing in When Things Fall Apart. Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun that writes so intimately about groundlessness, that moment when we can’t find anything solid to stand on to pretend we have it all together. Oh, how I love my life when I’m not experiencing groundlessness – but wow, how much I’ve learned when I have.

And here’s what sent me to this place. First, before Christmas my son caught the bug going around daycare so he had to be out sick a couple of days. Next I got sick. Then we were all well and the scheduled holidays with no school and daycare happened. Fine – I’ve now missed about 6 days of work in December but some of those were expected and I’m rolling with it.

Then it snows in Seattle. And Seattle is ridiculous when it snows so 2 more days of daycare for my son this last week were canceled. Then, and this was the latest, Seattle Public Schools just announced they are canceling school for my 1st grader on Monday, January 3rd so they can hand out COVID tests. <scream>

How the heck am I supposed to be responsible, professional and earn a living when the ground beneath my feet is always shifting? The fact that I know I’ve typed that question in practical terms in order to gain the most sympathy tells me that I’ve at least gained some consciousness about my situation. Groundlessness is like a patch of ice on a mountain – the trick is not to dig in and try to plant your feet but instead walk lightly across letting your momentum work for you.

For me, this COVID era has been one big patch of ice. I’ve always figured out a way through before and I know that I will again. Re-reading Pema’s words reminds me that in moments like these that I get to learn so much as I do so.

Basically, disappointment, embarrassment, and all these places where we just cannot feel good are a sort of death. We’ve just lost our ground completely; we are unable to hold it together and feel that we’re on top of things. Rather than realizing that it takes death for there to be birth, we just fight against the fear of death.

Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It’s actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. Things like disappointment and anxiety are messengers telling us that we’re about to go into unknown territory.

…How do we work with our minds when we meet our match? Rather than indulge or reject our experience, we can somehow let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we’re feeling, pierce us to the heart. This is easier said than done, but it’s a noble way to live. It’s definitely the path of compassion – the path of cultivating human bravery and kindheartedness.

In the teachings of Buddhism, we hear about egolessness. It sounds difficult to grasp: what are they talking about, anyway? When the teachings are about neurosis, however, we feel right at home. That’s something we really understand. But egolessness? When we reach our limit, if we aspire to know that place fully – which is to say that we aspire to neither indulge nor repress – a hardness in us will dissolve. We will be softened by the sheer force of whatever energy arises – the energy of anger, the energy of disappointment, the energy of fear. When it’s not solidified in one direction or another, that very energy pierces us to the heart, and it opens us. This is the discovery of egolessness. It’s when all of our schemes fall apart. Reaching our limit is like finding a doorway to sanity and the unconditional goodness of humanity, rather than meeting an obstacle or punishment.

…If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

(featured photo from Pexels)


Life was not meant to be easy…but take courage: it can be delightful.” – George Bernard Shaw

Often when I drop my daughter and our neighbor to school in the mornings, I see a man standing at the fence watching his child. He’s dropped his child off, they’ve run into the playground to stand in line before the teachers bring the kids in and the man stands there, sometimes watching, sometimes waving.

It’s an image that affects me deeply. Is he worried about the child being bullied? Or just sending him his love? Is he struggling with the separation? Whatever it is, it feels like the man is sending out his personal bubble of protection to encompass the child from afar.

And I understand it because sending my daughter to first grade in these pandemic conditions meant I had to send her off to a building that I’d never been inside of and to a teacher that I’ve met in-person once. It’s a little like sending her off to a black hole every day and then just being so thankful that she comes back out.

But that all changed last week when they finally processed my volunteer application and called me last minute because they needed help with lunch. The school has set up lunch tables outside and rotations so they can eat sufficiently spread out all facing one direction. They have hand sanitizer protocols and wipe down procedures and the kids seem to handle all these rules with such aplomb.

It felt like such a luxury to be with my child as she was playing in the playground, eating lunch and also to be able to chat with her friends. I met Will, the boy I wrote about in the COVID crush post. [He also lines up on heart number 15 next to my daughter and told her a few weeks ago that he has a crush on her.] He came up to me during the lunch service and also told me he had a crush on her. He was adorable!

In the middle of the seating our 3rd rotation out of 4, the loud speaker went off with a huge clang and announced that everyone needed to “shelter in place.” Kids had to pack up their lunches and evacuate the playground. Without any clear understanding of why, we helped these 2nd and 3rd graders return to their classrooms in a hurry.

[Eventually it was explained there was a tornado warning which is beyond rare in Seattle. Then the news came in that was intended for an area about 30 miles west of us. It was too late to get the kids back out to the lunch area so we just supported them eating in their classrooms.]

The man at the fence has come to symbolize uncertainty for me. The uncertainty that has been so acute in this pandemic era when we haven’t had access to check on our loved ones – whether they be elderly, sick, kids or even our pets as we sit outside the vet clinic. All that worry about how we can keep them safe when we can’t be involved in their care.

Finally getting to see the inside of the school helped resolve some of my uncertainty. Strangely it was the emergency that made me feel better most of all. I worked arm in arm with much of the school staff and got to see the people that make school happen every day. It was an honor and wonder to see their dedication, resourcefulness and care. I hope one day I can tell that to the man at the fence.

(featured image photo from Pexels)