The office walls are pink and the light is soft. I pull my favorite Lion King shirt over my knees and slide down from a chair beside a table. The therapist pushes a sand tray and small rake across the table towards me. She is kind, and curious. l push the sand around, creating waves and ripples before shaking it flat again. She crouches besides me, she feels like a stranger but her voice calms me, she makes eye contact before asking questions.
“Does he yell?”
“Do you have friends?”
“Are you scared?”
One time I spilled spaghetti on the carpet and he yelled, I tell her. I answer what I can. She offers me crayons and a piece of paper. She asks me to draw my family.
“Whichever you want to, right now,” she says.
I reach for crayons and begin. A few circles in and I crumple the paper. My voice low and nervous as I ask for another. I begin again. And again discard the drawing. I glance towards the door, the clock ticks on the shelf across the room. I am hot and red faced.
“I need another piece,” I say, my chest feels like there is a rope around it, squeezing. I bite my lip and raise my eyes to meet hers, trying not to cry. Her gaze at me is soft, she has the paper moving towards me, a smile at the corner of her lips. “It’s ok,” she whispers.
I breathe deeply and divide the paper into sections. Each has a different collection of people, with no necks, round bellies and sticks for arms and legs. I draw myself with a pink triangle, yellow squiggles around my head, and I mark myself into each grouping.
When I finish, she leads me back to a hallway where my grandmother and dad sit, waiting. My grandmother whisks me out of the building and down the street to where our car is parked.
I don’t know if I ever went to see the kind therapist again. I don’t know if she ever tried to coax more information from me, lulling my anxiety with toys and crayons.
My husband and I step out of our car on a warm October afternoon to wide streets beneath a canopy of autumn colored leaves. Golden light dances across the pavement as we cross the street to a house with a wide front yard. The air is warm and earthy in a way only golden October leaves can be. I breathe in deep and stare up at a tall, wide tree, it’s expansive branches stretch across the front yard. The thick trunk, covered with flaked bark, gives way to gnarled roots that rise above the dirt and dive back down again.
I look over my shoulder at the tree as we walk up the path, hand in hand, following our realtor close behind. We wander in and out of rooms, squinting past colors we don’t love, and visualizing our favorite, worn in to perfection couch, in place of the stuffy arm chair. I keep going back to the front room. A wide picture window gives way to the tree’s commanding presence in the front yard. A bench seat stretches in front of the window, and I sit, basking in the sunlight and staring, while my husband and the realtor exchange knowing glances.
We walk away from the house and I declare this will be our home. I want the extra bedroom and the pool. I want the tree. We don’t wait to hear if our offer is accepted before making plans for a tree swing.
I head outside and kiss my kids goodbye before leaving for yoga class. I sit on my mat a few minutes before class starts, two blocks, a strap, and a bolster that I would like to nap on are set up just so and my water bottle within arm’s reach. Then I look around and rearrange them. A quick glance at the front shows me the teacher has them set up in a completely different way, so for a final time, I tweak my setup to match hers.
My therapist said yoga would be good for my anxiety.
“Just breathe for a few minutes,” the teacher instructs as she flits in and out of the dim, cool room. My eyes drift toward the mirror and I catch my own stare, my eyes dart to the ceiling, my look of unease makes me want to run. I wish the class would just start. The teacher, long and graceful with a soothing voice, positions herself in front of us and calm rhythmic music. Her guided meditation starts, drawing us into the present, urging us to find ourselves here, rooted in the moment.
All the other trees on our street fill with baby green leaves. Ours stands tall and bare. I stare out our front window. I love this tree. Right after we moved in, it needed to be trimmed. The night before the arborist showed up, I had a nightmare he cut the entire tree down. I woke up in a cold sweat.
Why doesn’t my tree have leaves yet? What if it doesn't bloom? What if it's sick?! I think of my nightmare.
I search through the house to find Brett and drag him to the window.
"There's something wrong with the tree," I insist, pointing to it and then to our neighbors’ yards.
"Your tree will be fine. It's just a late bloomer," he assures me, kissing my forehead and leaving me to list all of the worst case scenarios to myself.
I look away from the tree as I feel someone wrap around my leg. My daughter she stares up at me with her deep brown eyes.
"I wuv you all da way to outer space Mama," she declares.
I scoop her up and draw her in close. We snuggle in the window seat and giggle as the room fills. Her big brother crashes in, and Brett follows close behind, the baby in his arms. The quiet room, moments ago filled with only my thoughts, erupts into laughter and dance moves and baby coos.
Later in the week, I tuck tiny socks away in my daughter’s room. A flash of green catches my eye. I look up, there they are—buds cover the tips of branches and baby green leaves are beginning to bloom.
I breathe a sigh of relief, pushing the thought of my nightmare to a dark corner of my mind. With another deep breath in and slow exhale, just like I practiced in therapy, I bring myself to the present. My chest softens and my breaths deepen with each exhale. The tips of my fingers tingle with relief and I stare at the buds on the trees. I wonder if the branches tingle with the hope of growth. Worry dissipates into welcome anticipation.
A black rope, knotted around a fat branch, swings back and forth. I slide the window open and laughs blow in with the breeze. I look down and see all three kids piled on the swing. Brett pulls it up and then runs under as he pushes it to the sky. The kids squeal and chant, “Again!, Again!”
The class moves to child's pose. I take a deep breath and then another. I arch my back, ball my fists. Every muscle tenses. I hold my breath tight in my chest. Gentle chimes ring like church bells through my ears.
“Whatever you walked in with, breathe and let it go.” Her voice washes over me. I release the air I am holding and begin to sob.
The instructor moves into the first set of movements, but I stay folded. My arms stretch in front of me, and I press my palms into the mat with each heave of my chest. The air is hot and humid with my forehead pushed into the mat and tears streaming down my cheeks. The music and poses continue on around me as the walls of heart crumble around my exhausted body. I join into the flow halfway through.
“Take your time,” she urges me.
“Feel this and let it go,” she repeats, locking eyes with me in the mirror.
Guest essay written by Arianna Musgrove. Arianna lives in Northern California with her husband and their three young children. You can often find her reading stacks of picture books and coming up with a reason for a road trip. She writes and podcasts in the margins of motherhood. You can follow along on Instagram and www.fromthemiddle.net.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.