So there i was, speeding down a winding country road on a glorious day last fall, running through yellow lights, completely stressed out, trying to get to the meditation hall on time. I was teaching daily yoga classes at a women’s meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, a Buddhist center in a rural valley north of San Francisco. But my beloved babysitter, Megan—a twenty-something Zen student with beads and small electronic parts woven into her turquoise-and-blonde dreadlocks—had gotten caught in a traffic jam and arrived at my house an hour late, and then I had gotten stuck in the same freeway snarl myself. As I barreled along, I kept imagining a cop pulling me over: “But officer, it’s a dharma emergency!” I burned rubber into the Spirit Rock parking lot, walked to the meditation hall as fast as possible while still appearing mindful and serene, and got there with seconds to spare, just as the bell was ringing to end the last sitting period.

12-4-83-1-1It was two days into the retreat, and I was exhausted. I would have loved to have participated in the entire schedule of this five-day silent intensive, whose title— “Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine”—hinted that it might explore some territory that wasn’t exactly mainstream Buddhist orthodoxy. But as the mother of a two-year-old, sitting a full retreat wasn’t possible. So I was flip-flopping identities: a mom all night and all morning, a yogini all afternoon and evening.

Unfortunately, Skye was cutting two molars. The previous night he had awakened me six times between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., when I finally brought him into my bed—where he thrashed around for another two hours, whimpering and talking in his sleep. (“What’s that down there? It’s . . . it’s the gas pedal!” he cried out in delight; then half woke up and began rooting at my chest, mumbling, “More gas pedal!” in what appeared to be an archetypal male conflation of the car and the breast.)

And by day, he had been in classic two-year-old mode, exploring the limits of his personal power. All was harmonious as long as I let him indulge his current obsession: sniffing and identifying every jar in my spice drawer. That morning we had sat and smelled them together for over an hour—“nutmeg! cardamom! rosemary! turmeric!”—until my nose hummed and tingled, in what felt like a practice dreamed up by a Zen master on LSD.

But when I tried to pry him away to meet another mom and child at a nearby park, all hell broke loose. All Skye wanted to do was sit in his car seat listening to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” nineteen times in a row, while taking periodic whiffs of his cinnamon bottle. I was starved for adult company, even if it was just comparing teething notes. The outing ended with the absurd spectacle of me grimly hauling a screaming, flailing child toward a playground, while he shrieked like I was carrying him off to the electric chair: “No slide! No swing! Just more ‘Love and Happiness’!”

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