Saturday was one of those days at the shelter. I had been hoping as I walked there that it would be a peaceful day. It was the first of the month, when the women get their checks, and usually they feel better. It was not to be. I was late. I was the only volunteer, assisting two staff members. It was hot. Rita Lou was immediately in my face, rambling on, nonstop, saliva shooting through the gaps in her teeth. She is my nemesis there, the woman who challenges my compassion, teaches me acceptance by fire, shows me the chasm that separates me from sainthood.
Rita Lou is an archetypal bag lady, layered in dirt-stained clothes. Most of the women who come to the shelter can’t wait to take a shower or bath, but Rita Lou refuses to, so her face and hands are always dark gray, and she smells sour. Her need for attention manifests as a constant barrage of words, stories that almost make sense, but never do, all shouted at anyone she sees. The other women who come to the shelter won’t tolerate her; we have to make her stay in the kitchen while we cook.
Early on Saturday morning, as I tried to figure out what to make for lunch, Rita Lou, six inches from my head, was yelling at someone, “I’m a bisexual, you know, and I saw you sleeping by the bank, and don’t think I didn’t and don’t think I wouldn’t take advantage of it. I did my dance for the policeman” (she wags her fanny in a three-foot arc for illustration), “and he told me I am a bisexual but I told him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and listen, don’t you think I don’t know what I’m talking about either.” Her blue eyes search mine for contact, they dance, she laughs, loud. “I know all about these women. Some of them are pregnant, and God knows what kind of thing they’ve been up to.”
Part of me is wondering how I can doctor up the hamburger meat that was defrosted, and part of me is wishing I could vaporize Rita Lou. I could tell her to sit on her chair across the tiny kitchen, but I know that will antagonize her and she will just pop off it and be right back.
Marcellita is making phone calls, tying up the phone in the little office, so one of the staff people asks her to hang up. She does hang up after about thirty minutes but is pissed off and shouts, “I have to call my daughter, how dare you fuckin’ tell me I can’t call my daughter who is fuckin’ for money, and I call my ex-husband but his wife hang up on me, she think I fuck him, so I have to make the call, you better fuckin’ let me make the call.”
This distracts my attention from Rita Lou, who then makes loud rooster sounds inches from my ear to win it back again. The hamburger pops and sizzles in its grease in the pan; I wonder what container to use to throw away all that grease. Sara comes over. She is eight months pregnant, but she reminds me of a sleepy child, with tousled golden brown hair and soft brown eyes. Sara likes to hug and kiss. She hugs me; she smells like grass and air.
Her voice sounds like a caricature of a child’s, slow, high-pitched, dopey. “Hi, how are you today, how are you today, how are you today? Whatcha doing? Whatcha doing?” She nuzzles my cheek.
Rita Lou pounces. “See, she’s pregnant! You’re pregnant! What do you think she’s been up to? Think I don’t know what she’s been up to? How old do you think she is, ten, maybe?” (My guess would be thirteen.) “She’s been screwing around, all right!”
I can imagine that Sara might have gotten pregnant just for the hugs or a baby to hold. Sara looks at Rita Lou. “Don’t you give me a hard time today, get away from me,” she says, in that soft, silly, squeaky voice.
Trying to distract Rita Lou while draining the six pounds of hamburger, I burn my hand. I want to scream. Marcellita yells, “Let me fuckin’ use the phone, you hear me? You tight asses better fuckin’ let me use the phone.” Three white-haired ladies from the Presbyterian church drop off some donated food. They back out the door as Marcellita shouts at them, “They won’t let me use the phone, give me money to use the phone!”
Rita Lou seems to love conflict, and she shouts back at Marcellita. Joyce, a staff member, skillfully, with humor and patience, separates them. How does she do it?
I feel like a tight ass; my face feels tight. At times like this, I always wonder what I’m doing here; it’s a situation perfectly designed to show me how different I am from Mother Teresa. For me, working at the shelter is a discipline.
Myrtle, who looks obviously homeless, another many-layered bag lady, has diarrhea and has soiled several of the layers, the chair she sits in, and the bathroom. She sits trying to rub two pieces of fabric together with her hands — deformed by arthritis — as if to clean them. I am torn between my sorrow for her plight and my aversion to the stench. She, too, spits in my face through the gaps in her teeth when she talks, but her words are always gentle. “Oh, thank you, darling, I’ve just had a bad time. I have diarrhea, had it last night, got it all over me, the waitress at the Black Angus gave me this apron to cover it up, wasn’t that kind of her, look how well-made it is, look how they’ve stitched her initials in it.”
I wonder about Myrtle’s fluid balance. Is she dehydrated? I want to run away from the smell. She is cold. I help her pull on a too-small black sweatshirt, one more layer, which she found in the donation pile. It gives me an excuse to pat her shoulders and caress her face. I bring her some water. Joyce goes into the bathroom and cleans up the mess. I wouldn’t touch it. My limits, my limits — I am ever aware of my limits.
In ten years of doing hatha yoga, I have learned to face my limits, to observe them, and sometimes accept or go beyond them. My mind and body rebel at the strength, flexibility, and balance demanded by the postures, just as they rebel at the demands of the women at the shelter. When I attempt a new or difficult yoga pose, or try to love when I feel revulsion or fear, my mind goes blank or cringes at the discomfort, and I wonder if I should be doing it. Am I pushing too hard or not hard enough? Worse, when I am “good” at a posture (or when I’ve done a “good deed,” like working at the shelter), I see myself looking out of the corner of my eye in the hope that someone is noticing and admiring me.
I hope, as in yoga, I will continue at the shelter to do as much as I can, and notice my limitations, my discomfort, my strength, flexibility, and balance; to breathe, and observe my mind and body — strong and weak, dark and pure — with patience and love.
Sometimes I learn to do a difficult yoga posture and get to know how glorious it feels to use my body that way, to tame my mind. Sometimes at the shelter there is a knowing between me and another woman, a sameness that goes far deeper than our apparently different circumstances, so I feel myself more human reflected in her eyes. Some yoga postures — and some acts of kindness — elude me, and I must learn humility and self-acceptance instead.
Santa Monica, California
Growing up, I remember my father and his never-ending stream of aphorisms, which I thought he had invented. He had one for every occasion, and most were related to self-discipline. He was wedded to a rigid view of the world, which he acquired as a child during the Depression, an era that never quite ended for him. (As he put it, “You can take the boy out of the Depression, but you can’t take the Depression out of the boy.”)
His favorite saying was, “Do what you have to do before you do what you want to do.” This meant I rarely joined the other kids playing outside after school, since I was expected to stay in and do my homework. By the time I finished, it was dark and I ended up reading alone in my room.
He also told me that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” and insisted on teaching me, when I was eight, the double-entry ledger system, so that I could account for every nickel of my allowance. Each week, he’d go over my neatly written entries and grill me on why I had spent my money so frivolously.
He bemoaned the lack of a work ethic, frequently calling himself “a member of the pushcart generation.” “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” he would say. He believed in being productive every minute of the day, and instilled in me the belief that it was unacceptable to relax. Fifteen minutes in front of the TV required doing sit-ups and leg raises.
When I would reach for a sweet dessert, he’d frown and say, “You are what you eat. You don’t really want that, do you?” I learned to withdraw my hand.
Years later, I became a very conscientious, compulsive woman. Despite perpetual guilt, however, I found myself sneaking in novels before business reports; spending money recklessly and refusing to make a budget; avoiding important duties in favor of daydreaming; and eating chocolates on an almost-daily basis (still fervently exercising, though).
The irony is that my father has changed his tune. We took a long walk on the beach recently, and he told me how many years he had wasted on unnecessary self-discipline, how he had missed out on fun for himself and his family. He apologized for the impact he feared he’d had on me. I smiled ruefully and thought, “Now, if I can only stop feeling guilty.”
Donna Greenberg Root
Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania
My inner discipline is a reliable source of order that helps me feel safe and secure and sane. It’s a legacy, perhaps, from my dance training throughout my youth. The pliés carry me through my responsibilities today as a suburban wife and mother and secretary.
Discipline also sometimes feels like a suffocating security blanket. A less disciplined dancer lives in me along with the one who can do endless pliés. She’s the “artiste,” the one who hates performing on demand, who moves on inspiration, who is passionate in ebbs and flows. This dancer would sabotage the other’s efforts; she would clean toilets only when motivated by intense filth or health inspectors, and then would clean with a fury. She would prepare dinners at midnight in total disregard for her child’s need for regular meals and bedtime. This dancer requires the other to make her dance a loving one.
Discipline helps me fulfill my intention to simplify my life, to say no to the attractive but superfluous. Discipline helps me to truly nourish my daughter, to forego the easy route of processed food and prefab entertainment.
Discipline is a challenge for us baby boomers who were materially indulged and emotionally stifled. We emerged from the Sixties, stumbling into adulthood, and eventually found ourselves married and with children. Moderation is an alien concept to us: we require intense stimulation in order to see, hear, or feel. For veterans of the drug culture, it’s hard to be impressed by the everyday routine of middle age. Some of us continue to require more and more drugs and toys to feel good — or just to feel. If we model these habits for our children, how can we expect them to be disciplined?
Disciplining children means making sure they experience reasonable yet unpleasant consequences for their outrageous behavior. I call upon my own inner discipline to keep from indulging in screaming and scolding, and to stop and think about what would be reasonable and fair. I can put aside my discomfort with being an unlikeable meany and stand firm in my stricter decrees. I can resist being lazy about helping my child develop her own discipline.
Stacy S. Miller
Durham, North Carolina
My father was strict. A career officer in the Navy, he believed in discipline, hard work, and personal responsibility. While Mom was warm and nurturing, Dad often seemed stern and demanding. His philosophy could be summed up in his often repeated admonition: “The world owes you nothing. It is up to you to earn what you want.” My father’s philosophy was more than words; he expressed it in the way he lived.
I was the oldest of three kids. Gerry was a year younger and Kathy, three years younger. When we wanted our first two-wheel bicycles, my father sat us down and said, “You are going to have to earn your bikes. I will help, but each of you is responsible for coming up with a way to do it.”
Gerry sold Christmas cards — the kind advertised on the back of kids’ magazines — to relatives and neighbors. He got a bike just like the one pictured in the ad. Kathy baby-sat to earn the money. My father made a deal with her: for every two dollars she put in the bank, he would add a dollar; but for every dollar she withdrew prior to getting the bike, he would withdraw two dollars. Kathy left her money in the bank and soon had her two-wheeler.
I got my bike for free. A friend of the family who worked at a junkyard got me several wrecked bikes. Dad and I built a workable bicycle out of the assorted pieces. I remember the two of us down in the cellar, painting it. When we finished, it looked almost new.
When I graduated from high school, Dad told me he had saved money to help me go to college. I told him I never wanted to set foot in a school again. He said, “It’s up to you, but if you change your mind you will have to pay your own way through college.” I ended up doing both.
My father died more than sixteen years ago, it has been eleven years since I finished graduate school, and the bike was long ago returned to the junkyard. But my father’s gift remains. He helped me to learn a way of being in the world that continues to support me. I frequently see people nursing their resentments, complaining because life has broken unwritten promises. Although I am often saddened by the suffering I encounter in the world, I do not feel betrayed by life. I recognized my mother’s love from birth, but it was not until I was grown that I fully understood my father’s.
It’s my day off and I’m home alone. I want to call her. Her secretary leaves for lunch at 1. If I called then, we could talk without being overheard. And then what?
Because of this affair, the woman I’ve lived with for three years has been hurt terribly. I thought it was OK to be with another woman as long as I came back; I was wrong. We’ve started rebuilding, but I’m still torn.
It’s futile to maintain a relationship with someone who’s married to another man and pregnant with his second child. She made her choice years ago, and now I’m struggling to make mine. And yet, I still love her and need to know she loves me.
I ache to talk with her, but I choose not to call, not to write, to avoid adding fuel to a fire that burns with heat but no light. Is that what discipline is — choosing to follow the head instead of the heart? Choosing to be an adult instead of a child?
When I was a child I was a slob. I could not do my homework on time, and forgot to do my chores. I tried to be disciplined. In college I tried to meditate. I thought that would help me, but my mind was too wild to empty out.
I did not learn any kind of discipline until I came to Brooklyn. Here, washing dishes became my meditation and my discipline. After a meal of steamed vegetables and rice, the round bowls and plates and the sudsy water always bring me back to the watery depths of myself — in a concrete way.
I have written since third grade. Before that I drew and painted. But then Mrs. Winetsky read us Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” and I was lost to sound forever.
I have written since third grade, but it was only in Brooklyn that I became a writer. Long Island and southern California and Berkeley could not do it. But Brooklyn did. I learned how to eat well, how to wash the dishes, and from that slow, constant rhythm I learned how to be disciplined enough to keep writing when I wanted to play, or read, or smell the linden in bloom and then talk about it for hours on the telephone.
Brooklyn, New York
Now I work in a summer camp. All day I discipline kids, and they do what I say. At night, these same kids will not listen. I’m speaking of the Kids In My Dreams.
The Dream Children are terrible. They should be sent to another country, where men walk the streets in iron chains.
Why don’t they listen? Because they won’t stand still. The Art of Listening is largely dependent on standing in one place. So much of human life, in fact, is. How could Michelangelo have carved the “Pietà” if he had been running in circles all day? Or Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library, in Philadelphia? (Or was it a free library? I wish I had a good encyclopedia.)
By day I have mastered Discipline. I begin every sentence with the word if. “If you climb on that rock, you won’t have Music later. . . .” For some reason this works where “Don’t climb on that rock” fails.
Why? If is a romantic word. All day one dreams, “If I owned an airplane. . . .” “If I had married Patty Morein. . . .” “If shoes could make sounds, like trombones. . . .” It is an Oriental word, a word of splendor (though short). Rudyard Kipling wrote a slightly silly but instantly antique poem by its name.
When you say if, it entrances the mind. It presents the harplike world of Possibility, not the hunchbacked world of Duty, that of don’t.
Manhattan, New York
When I began high school, I lost my friends; at age forty-one, I still don’t know why. Maybe it was because my father was a teacher at the school. Maybe I hadn’t shown enough interest in boys to satisfy my female peers. Or maybe it was just adolescent perversity. In any case, I remember clearly my feelings of emptiness and abandonment, confusion and despair.
I began to rely on discipline to structure my days and nights. Discipline told me to practice the piano for an hour every day after school, and to retreat nightly to the comfort of books and schoolwork. Discipline reduced the anxiety I lived with by helping me to complete tasks long before they were due. In my high-school yearbook is a note from one of my classmates, saying, “I’ve always envied your discipline.” I was a straight-A student in high school, and I got a scholarship to a university. Discipline has continued to be a friend and comfort, through years of education and striving to be a “success.”
Discipline has also been my limitation. It has tried, with its insistent rigidity, to keep me away from human contact. It is jealous of my friendships and loves. And since I also love discipline (my only friend for years), I am sometimes tied to rigid routine, when a little less time spent with discipline could bring me more love and comfort.
I trust discipline. It has never left me alone. I would never let discipline out of my life, but I allow it to take vacations now and again. I don’t know if I’ll ever treasure friends as much as discipline, but I can try to stop clinging to it in order to explore other aspects of life.
New Haven, Connecticut
I used to think that discipline meant denying myself. No ice cream, it’s bad for you. No novels, you have to study. No, no, no. It’s taken me all these years to find out that discipline is keeping faith with myself.
Discipline is not like a diet, devised by someone else and placed in my hand like a sledgehammer, so that I can beat my world into shape. It is the practice of inviting in my experience, giving in to my truth. It comes, for me, in three parts: being there, recalling having been there, and remembering that I have a choice.
“No coffee, it’s bad for you” — that never works for long. Such advice comes to me only in other people’s voices. No connection, there, with my own intelligence. No respect for the little girl whose job is to crawl around and put everything she finds directly into her mouth.
But if, when I think about having coffee, I remember the last time I did — now that’s something else. The sense of a wire pulled too taut, followed by an inner collapse; the sudden sensation, twenty minutes after good-to-the-last-drop, of having been hit over the head with a baseball bat. The tripled effort it takes to get through the next paragraph, the next phone call.
That’s what I mean by being there. If I didn’t sit through the show the last time I drank a cup of coffee, there’s nothing there to remember. But if the memory is imprinted on my cells, the question becomes: why put myself through it? Discipline is thus accomplished. Not in the act of removing my hand from the freezer door, behind which the little brown bag waits knowingly for my craving to ripen. Rather, it’s in the moment’s effort to recall having been there.
It’s much easier and more pleasant, of course, to conjure only the smell of the beans crumbling in the grinder, the thick passage of cream across my tongue. The heavenly, dark flavor. It’s tempting to cleave to that memory, and edit out the painful part. That’s where the choosing comes in.
Sometimes I choose to remember the pleasure, and I grind up the coffee and pepper the filter with cinnamon, savoring the aroma. This has nothing to do with discipline. It is simply noting the price and deciding to pay it.
At least, then, coming down afterward isn’t complicated by remorse. It’s more a rueful recognition of my physical limitations. When I was twenty, I could drink a whole potful and never feel a thing — at least, I think so. Maybe I just wasn’t being there.
The opposite of discipline isn’t indulgence. It’s denial.
The boy was five years old. His father asked him to climb the ladder and fetch something out of reach. As the boy turned to descend the rungs, his father called up, “Jump, boy, I will catch you.”
The boy leapt toward his father’s outstretched arms. His father withdrew his promise and arms and stepped aside. The boy hit the ground, knocking the breath from his lungs. Stunned and hurt, the boy looked up at his father. “That will teach you, boy, never to trust anyone.”
That boy was my father.
Pregnancy was the best time of my life. I glowed, even through the nausea of the first trimester, in the magic of carrying another human being inside myself. I didn’t know what it would be like when the baby was actually here — the utter exhaustion of giving all I had to an infant who hated the change from the buoyancy inside me, where he could dance and wiggle, to the helplessness of not being able to move a muscle, gravity pulling against his newborn muscles. I never gave up loving him, trying to help him feel comfortable. He never gave up crying.
From the beginning, I thrived on the sight of him sleeping next to me. Nursing him to sleep, I basked in wonder. He didn’t fall asleep without nursing — ever — a total dependence which suited me. As he grew, the more he could do for himself, the happier he was, and the more I enjoyed being a mother. By the time he was one and a half years old, I knew that motherhood had changed me unalterably, as I had meant it to do.
He’s now three and a half. I’ve been having abusive feelings toward him for months. It is disturbing that this little being, who is my favorite part of life, can also engender such hate. I learn that I must take care of myself to take care of him, that I have to have fun. Pain from my own childhood starts coming up for me, and it causes tension between us. I spend days on the phone interviewing therapists.
It will take time to sort through the leftovers of my old self, but I’m ready to take this on. It’s getting in the way of my new life with my own family. At this point in my life I have everything I want — a home, a husband, a child — but I’m not happy. It’s time to heal.
He means to get to me and he succeeds, I think. I wake up to the sound of his whining. It’s too much to face in the morning, after too little sleep, with these abusive feelings. I pray for gentleness and think of how to comfort him. I ask if he wants his stuffed dog. He does. I bring it and ask if he’d like Pooh. Soon the bed is full of turtles and skunks and monsters and cars and marbles and flashlights and balls and, in the abundance, he feels love.
I keep experimenting. I trust completely that he is a holy being, so his brattiness must be a part of that. I try to answer his unruliness with kindness, and when I persist with this, he is finally responsive. Encouraged, I keep trying this. Sometimes I am struck by the purity of his own kindness. Once, he actually bends down and kisses my toes. The days continue, hellish when we turn our anger against each other, heavenly when I stay at my highest level of being, making room for him to be at his.
I learn that his misbehavior is sometimes a valid complaint. I tell him to hurry, to get in the car so we can get to where we’re going. I realize he turns into a brat when I take from him his right to calm. I begin to join him in being here all along the way. Tension begins falling away from my life.
In learning how to discipline my child, I learn to discipline myself. As a mother, I am beginning to heal.
Jan Olsen Stone
Saint Paul, Minnesota
My boyfriend has said that Discipline should be my middle name. Perhaps it’s my Oriental heritage — the ability to work, wait, and see small movement that others who are in more of a hurry can’t see. Perhaps my parents molded me in such a way. I do not really know. I do know that in doing what I must, I am liberated. I am not a slave to my thoughts, which always protest, no, I don’t want to run, or make that call, or take that risk.
In the word discipline is the word disciple. I am a disciple to the godself, to the best that I can be. It takes courage and discipline to obey the deepest call from within; that call has always brought me to unexpected joy, grace, clarity, and blessings. As Carl Jung once wrote, “Free will is the ability to gladly do what one must do.” For me, discipline is freedom, the wisdom to embrace one’s fate and oneself.
My Hanh Nguyen