By Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D.
My mother-in-law arrived the day before New Year’s Eve to stay with us for six weeks. I was excited, imagining her joy with the baby, now a one-year-old, even admitting to myself that I would be glad to have the company, someone to shop and cook and be a mother and wife with.
But things are never, at first, as we wish. That afternoon, as my mother-in-law chattered incessantly, rearranged the contents of the kitchen cabinets, and peeled carrots for an hour, I began to feel my spine tighten. Then, in the evening, when she refused to eat the dinner I had made, and instead followed my daughter as she toddled around, making the baby toddle faster and frustrating both of us with a lack of space, my spine was wound as tight as a corkscrew. After I put the baby to bed, I drank some champagne. To relax, I told myself.
Letting go of control has never been easy for me. My first reaction was to run away, which I first tried to do by drinking. My second impulse was to try to take control. Two days after my mother-in-law’s arrival, my car, the symbol of my independence, broke down. While it was in the shop, I wandered around the nearby superstore, with my daughter in a shopping cart, trying to entertain her with talking stuffed gorillas already on display for Valentine’s Day in early January.
After I had waited over an hour, I was told what the trouble was and that the mechanic who did such repairs was expected any minute, so I kept waiting, and waiting. Finally, the second mechanic came in and said the problem was so big it could take all day. I tried to call home for a ride, but the voice mail picked up. I imagined chaos building as it neared lunchtime, everyone hungry, the house a mess, and me not there to control it. So I took matters into my own hands. I left the car and walked the two miles home with a 30-pound one-year-old in my arms. It was 20 degrees out. And windy.
Along the way, several people stopped and offered us a ride. I said no. Again and again, I refused help. No. No. No. By the time I got home, my arms were shaking, and the baby’s hands were red and tears were dripping down her cheeks.
Rage was the third thing I tried, after escape and control had not worked. Days later, with my car still in the shop, my friend Pamela met me at an aerobics class and told me she had never seen me so stressed. “My mother-in-law is making me a crazy woman!” I told her. “Now that I am a mother, now that I have a baby who is mine, her interference in my house is maddening!” My voice rose. My face reddened. I tried to take my anger out on my own muscles, lifting weights and pounding my body up and down during the aerobics class. But ultimately, rage does not work, either. It only makes you mad.
On the seventh day of January, I realized I still didn’t have a calendar for the New Year. I’d ordered one, a beautiful goddess calendar, but of course it was late. The goddess is like that. She often comes late, so that we have already learned our lesson by the time she arrives.
In lieu of a new calendar, I started writing things—appointments, reminders—in the final pages of an old daybook, in which I found, in my own handwriting, the following:
~giver of vitality to all living things
~goddess of abundance
I remembered writing this. My husband had given me a brass statue of Lakshmi for Valentine’s Day the first year we were married. I hadn’t known anything about her, so I called my wise friend, Christi, who read me these traits from a book while I copied them down.
Since then, I’d thought of Lakshmi in terms of abundance only. She helped me get what I wanted. Abundance. Fertility. But domestic cooperation? There it was in my own handwriting. The goddess was arriving. Just in time.
A week and a half later, I woke before dawn, worried about money, worried about my mother-in-law’s presence, worried about my husband’s polite withdrawal. Worried about my house—my emotional, spiritual, physical house. It was not in order.
I got up, the family still asleep, and turned to my journal. I began an exercise from a book on visual journaling that my artist/writer friend, Karen, had given me at the winter solstice. I relaxed, breathed, and focused in on the area of my body that most needed attention.
My back came into view as I visualized it feeling good instead of taut, tense, terrible. Then I started to draw.
And out of my pen came a spiral. A snake. I recognized it as Kundalini energy. I hadn’t done yoga in months. When my mother-in-law woke up, I asked her if she’d like to go with me to a women’s Kundalini Yoga and meditation class at our local yoga center. She was thrilled. We planned to go. My back felt better already.
Day thirteen. I felt it, finally, again—the spirit of peace and balance I’d lost—as I sat, the house dark and quiet, just before dawn, doing yoga and watching the full moon in Cancer, sign of mothering, sign of crabbiness, setting on the western horizon.
When I asked myself what was responsible for the transformation I was feeling, I realized that the answer had to do with inviting my mother-in-law to join me on my journey, as we turned, together, to Kundalini Yoga. I had reached, somehow, what Yogi Bhajan calls Prakriti, or creation in proportion:
“When you have that state of mind, you are clean and clear. You stop searching; you start practicing. The oddness in you becomes even, and your flow becomes as vast as the universe—and sometimes beyond the universe. You have the authentic reach to yourself.” -Yogi Bhajan, 8/1/00
For me, and for other wives and mothers who learn many of our life lessons in the household, both Kundalini Yoga and the goddess Lakshmi can be called upon to teach us Prakriti—to teach us that the key to peace can be found in simultaneously letting go and paying attention to one’s emotional, spiritual, and physical houses.
The combination of letting go of the self and paying attention is a paradox.
It is a yoking of opposites.
It is union.
It is yoga.
And it is, I am learning, the ultimate source of abundant creativity within. Within us. And between us. Both within and between. Us. Peace.
Water petals on a lotus hold within them all I need:
the clear sky of leaving, the pink inside of dreams.
I call to you while you are sleeping. Wake, I say,
and go. Clean the floors of your new palace.
Become what you will know. Dig beneath the fig tree,
tearing out each weed. Pursue black dirt
until you are bleeding, your fingers red and dripping
new life onto little seeds. It is the price I ask
of your desire, the deal I make with greed:
You will work until your skin sheds twice,
until you are not who you thought you'd be.
And in this incarnation, I will give you
what your former self did plead. Instead
of crying for another, you will fall
upon your knees, now freed. Holy Lady,
you will cry, Great Sage, All Praise.
For you will know, from work and age,
blood and shedding, that what we gain here
comes from other lifetimes, and often oddly fits.
Still you know that blessing is required.
Still you know that this is all there is.
Cassie Premo Steele is a writing coach who specializes in working with women in academe. She has published 12 books and audio programs, and her coaching practice stems from her research on trauma and writing as a way of healing. As a scholar who writes and teaches on collective trauma, she helps her clients find ways to negotiate the work-life balance and also rediscover their joy and passion for their writing, scholarship, teaching and living.
Artwork by Shakti Parwha Kaur