I am terse when he calls. When he realizes that I won’t engage in a conversation as exciting as he had hoped it would be, he asks to speak with his sister. I put the speaker on, so Imani won’t press her face to every button at the same time. Imani stops climbing up and down the sofa, dancing, jumping, and darting about the room. She speaks sitting down, her fingers touching the sofa on either side, her eyes fixed on her toes, which she is wiggling, because no movement at all is not an option. Although I can’t see Daniel, I imagine him animated, in that way that reminds me of my grandfather, whom I only ever knew through his films. He isn’t rushing to get off the phone, as he usually does. He isn’t having a parallel conversation. He is completely engrossed with everything his sister is saying. He is listening, asking questions, praising her, giving advice. They talk for a good ten minutes. I have never seen or heard them so engaged with each other.
“Where are you, Daniel?” Imani asks her brother, frowning.
I ache that the reason he is not at home with us is that we desperately need some time apart. Such times are rare now, almost nonexistent. But when the anger comes, it sweeps us up and around and over until we are in pieces, and only time apart might stand the chance of bringing us back to ourselves and to each other. So for a few days, my son is with his father or grandmother or a family friend. This time, for the first time, I have resolved not to cuddle and tuck him in. I have made myself vow that no matter how strong the temptation to forget and embrace, I must show my son that he has hurt me. He has learned to say he is sorry, sometimes even to show remorse, but even this isn’t enough anymore. For years, my response to any and all aggression had been to ensure that my son knew that no matter what he did, no matter what he said, he was loved, accepted, here to stay. He knows this now. He knows no other life than to be our son. Now he must learn another, equally important lesson. So, when he asked to speak last night, I told him that the cuts inside me are far deeper than the ones on my face and arm, that our relationship will be scarred by this incident, and that each such scar chips away at a union, even between a mother and a son.
“I’m at Nona’s work,” Daniel tells his sister.
“Oh. So how is your day?”
“Good, Imani! Thank you for asking. How is your day?”
“Good. I’m having a tea party in your room.”
“Oh, cool! With mommy?”
“No, with by myself. What are you doing, Daniel?”
“I’m just doing some work. Are you being good for mommy? Are you behaving?”
“Yes, I am. Are you behaving too?”
“Yes,” my boy says, “I’m trying.”
A week ago, at a retreat in a village tucked away in the Catskill Mountains, I learned some of the principles of Raja Yoga. The belief underlying the practice is that each life experience and memory creates habits of the mind, including everything from smoking to worrying, and that these habits in turn form what becomes our familiar pasture, grazing in which is harmful. It is up to us to steer our horse away from the familiar grasses. The way we do this is by focusing our consciousness on the ultimate goal, which is unlimited peace. Each time the horse begins to graze in familiar pastures, we pull and steer, all the while reminding ourselves that it is possible. It is possible to attain perfection. I agree with this idea intuitively, in no small measure because it fits my constitution to think of spiritual growth as a matter over which I possess complete control, and of divinity as an arduously challenging, yet achievable goal. Being perfect isn’t a thing for a chosen few, all of whom happen to be dead in our time. Instead, it is something that lies at the fingertips of each mere mortal who is willing to give goodness a chance.
At the core of my parenting and teaching practices, however imperfect they may be, is my belief that it is possible. When my son whimpered and said, “mi cyan’t do it.” I scooped some rice onto my fork, brought the food to my mouth, and said, “why not? Why can’t you do this? Of course, you can. Let’s try again.” When my son stood in front of a staircase for the first time in his almost-six-year-long life, I told him, of course, he can, of course, he will, and we used all fours to get up and down, until stairs stopped being so frightening, although five years later, to this day, my son treads them cautiously and awkwardly, unsure about each next step. Of course, he will speak. Of course, he will read and write. Of course, he will be able to play with other children. Of course, he will make sense. Of course, he will be happy. Of course, he will learn to cry. Of course, he will become sure of love. Of course, he will swim, and touch a horse, and ride one. Of course, he can be anyone and do anything.
A student tells me he didn’t finish a paper because his mother is throwing him out of the house if he doesn’t get a job soon, and a friend was shot last weekend. I tell him I am sorry and ask if there is anything I can do to help. Then, I say, no, he can’t be excused from completing the paper, although I am glad to give him an extension. He protests that I have no heart, and I say, of course, you can write this paper. Nothing can stop you. And all these things happening to you and around you are all the more reason to write this paper, and to do it well. Of course, you can do this, I say, over and over again. And more times than not, it is done.
More and more often lately, I feel unqualified to make demands of possibility of my son and students, or anyone else in my life. I have an aversion to preaching what I don’t practice. And I no longer practice making things possible. It used to be that I would set goals and achieve them. I would stop at nothing to do what I wanted, or what I thought was right. I used to dream. I even day-dreamed, all the time. And so back then, even if falsely, I thought I had every right to claim that everything was possible. Two things have proven to be true since then. First, I’ve come to realize that I had never known a thing about a real challenge or a true inability. No one had ever told me or allowed me to feel that something was impossible or out of reach. In this sense, and most others, I was born and raised in privilege. Second, sometime not long ago, I entirely lost control of my horse, and have been grazing in familiar pastures even since. It is possible that mortals always graze in landscapes made of harmful sanskars, but it used to be that I at least created dreams or accepted them from whence they came. This somehow always lifted me from whatever mires there may have been. But now I have stopped dreaming. I haven’t day-dreamed since I was pregnant with my daughter, which was four years ago. I have not a single goal or desire to forge ahead, or for that matter, to move in any direction at all.
What happens to us when we retire from dreaming? What happens to the soul when the mind stops believing that it has the ability to affect any real change? Doesn’t life end when we stop creating? And with such questions swarming in my mind, who am I to insist that everything is possible? We may say what we wish, but we only impart what we are. I am demanding of my children and students the kind of will and clarity that I now only vaguely remember owning in a distant past, and the kind of peace that I have never known at all. Because of my aversion to hypocrisy, I have to either stop preaching or start practicing.
Will, clarity, and peace.
It is possible.