With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Monday, October 19, 2009

Laughter and climate change

"Be joyful though you have considered all the facts." - Wendell Berry

On Saturday, October 24th, events will take place around the world to convince business and political leaders to DO SOMETHING in Copenhagen in December, when they meet to draft a Climate Treaty to succeed Kyoto. The events are organized under the auspices of 350.org, an organization named for the scientific belief that Earth's carbon dioxide levels need to be stabilized at 350 parts per million to maintain life as we know it. Currently our CO2 levels are at 388 ppm and many changes are occurring. (See http://www.350.org/) Melting Arctic ice, destabilizing permafrost in Alaska, severe drought in Australia and the Sahel region of Africa. . . .not a lot of happy thoughts in that list. How then, to be joyful?

Over the past 11 years, the duration of my self-conscripted time in the "green" movement, I have learned many things about the state of our biosphere, few of which elicited a laughing response. My main motivating force is not laughter but my children. The thought of their future fuels me to educate other people and to try to build a movement for positive change - change in energy consumption, buying habits, eating habits, and policies that could encourage such changes. I want all of the cute kiddos on the playground to have clean air, (enough) clean water, myriad plant and animal species to view with awe, and a stable world both climatically and politically. When I read that "without drastic action, by the time our kids reach their 40s. the Southwest will have become a dust bowl" (Mother Jones, Nov/Dec issue p4) I tend to react. Yet in the next paragraph the Mother Jones editors admit, "no one enjoys dread and guilt," and suppose that this negativity is responsible for Americans' listing climate change at Number 20 on their list of problem issues.

How then, to educate people and encourage action around climate change? The answer must surely be as diverse as there are people in the world, and I have recently seen a few unique attempts. The Maldives' Cabinet members put on scuba gear and held an underwater meeting last Saturday, attempting to highlight the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to their country, the lowest-lying nation on Earth (http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2009/10/17/maldives-climate-change.html).
The accompanying photo really was quite humorous, as they had a complete table with name cards and official looking documents to sign. Definitely smile-worthy.

Religious leaders may exhort their church members to follow the moral imperative of living simply so that others may simply live, Denver urges its residents to do just five simple tasks to live greener, artists create giant sculptures of people or fabric, or make fantastic images to show the plethora of bottles, newspapers, electronics and other objects that we discard. Artists and rhetoricians use their voices powerfully, but they are lost in the shuffle of information that bombards our lives.

I have heard that people learn better when they are laughing; if that is true the climate change issue lacks educating heft. Punch lines are hard to come by in a shifting world where climate refugees already exist and where their numbers could increase exponentially. Yet again, one must pull away from statistics, realize the gifts we Americans have of clean air, water, bird songs, autumn leaves and ocean swims. . . and be joyful though we have all the facts. Thanks to Mr. Berry for reminding us that our joy is a powerful force by itself; let us take joy in our earth and then act to preserve its wonders for future generations.

This Saturday, if you are near a 350.org event, please take part.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Gratitude

Last week a deep freeze blanched our autumn leaves, reducing their flame hues to ashen version of their best selves. Within our walls, a flu bag (H1N1 or a related intruder) similarly bleached our joyous Indian Summer spirits. The applesauce-making and leaf-collecting habits of our days halted by fevers and ear infections, we huddled inside watching shivers of snow hurry by the windows.

I kept my spirits up for a few days by holding on to a sense of gratitude. I felt gratitude for health care, kind pediatricians, prescription-strength cough syrup and a warm house.Honey and hot tea also got us through the weekend. When I finally succumbed to a lesser version of our virus, gratitude got lost in a hurry. Warm, fuzzy feelings are hard to sustain when all you want to do is put on the warm fuzzies and go to bed.

The world lost a few shades of color, the end was no longer in sight and my sense of joy had gone completely missing. Where did it go and how had I lost my 'attitude' of gratitude so quickly? In the fullness of my thirties I have come to the realization that a sense of gratitude can really affect my day. Two years ago I lost someone who meant a great deal to me in my teens - he died at the young age of 37 and the news shocked me. One of his close friends received this quote from him in his last days - I don't know if he wrote it or if it comes from another author so forgive the lack of citation:

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity.....It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace today and creates a vision for tomorrow...."

Many writers have penned meaningful quotes on gratitude but the above lines mean the most to me as they come from someone whom I loved and who suffered. It knocked me breathless to read these words, knowing that he struggled and that he lost much of what I am grateful for today.

I walked slowly to school yesterday, fighting hills and phlegm, yet feeling a familiar glow start in my chest (unrelated to congestion). Gratitude for the warmer weather, for my children back in school and for a few remaining brilliant leaves, caught me up and changed the color palette in my head. When a leaf slalomed through the air in front of me, pursuing wildly placed unseen gates on its way to the ground, joy leapt up. I think gratitude stokes the embers of joy, keeping us warm and ready to spark with appreciation whenever the fuel is placed right. The flames themselves are impossible to sustain but the coals can keep us warm even when the deep freeze strikes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Woodworking

A woodworking book arrived in the mail last week, evoking the same sort of surprise we felt when a hummingbird recently crashed into one of our patio chairs. Who in the house has ever exhibited a proclivity for making furniture - or any other wooden object for that matter? As it so happens, the name that appeared on the envelope when I pieced it back together (the children are not gentle unwrappers) was my husband's, and light dawned.

My husband is an engineer; he had a double major in college of electrical and computer engineering. At one point during our dating years, I felt that perhaps we were too different; he would never enjoy Harry Potter books or romance movies with me, and I could never program a circuit or show wild interest in our TV remote capabilities. I eventually realized that our core values were so similar and our potential partnership too strong to be abandoned on the basis of these dissimilarities - though his wild support of Ohio State football nearly came between us when Michigan (my childhood team) beat the Buckeyes three years in a row. (Yes, I do realize that those victories came a LONG time ago.)

Let me come back to woodworking. Just recently my spouse showed an interest in furniture-making, and two sets of shelves and a table-top quickly resulted. The children swarmed avidly over the computer program he used to make his sketches and loved both the buying of wood and the sawing and hammering that accompanied his creative process. I spectated, as well, amazed as a piece of functional furniture emerged from a long board and sawhorse. I felt linked by our mutual creative urges.

Bemused at the parallels between our creative desires, I thought back to a conversation I had with a dear friend. Minor digressions in spousal priorities and pursuits had led us to wonder: would marriage be easier if we had a spouse with carbon-copy passions? If both advocated for social justice, for the arts, or for football, would the household be more harmonious and would our joint efforts spur us to greater achievement?

After much reflection I have to argue 'no'. Of course this arrangement can and does work for some people, but I don't feel it is a prerequisite for a strong partnership. If both my husband and I were passionate writers and social justice advocates we would have no money, and no time for the children; I doubt we would be successful. The strength of the bond comes from our support of each other's passion, and our mutual efforts toward the greatest creative act in (my) life - building a family and a community. I doubt that I will have any more lasting legacy than the relationships I build with our children, friends and family, and my husband has my back in those efforts; he has made it clear that family retains the top of his priority list, as well. Together we weave a tapestry of family rituals, adventures, travel, and visits with extended family. With this project in common, we need our own wild, specific tangents to fulfill our individual abilities, though I know I value his support and input to whatever I undertake. The kids and I will do the same for him.

Perhaps my husband's next project could be a birdhouse, for those poor befuddled hummingbirds that lunge across our patio. The kids and I will be happy to cheer him on!


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The present

"But bid life seize the present?
It lives less in the present
Than in the future always,
And less in both together
Than in the past. The present
Is too much for the senses,
Too crowding, too confusing-
Too present to imagine."
-From Carpe Diem, by Robert Frost

"Mom," said my daughter, looking up from her book report, "what do you call this time?" My head came up from email and I felt the blank look on my face.

"Homework time? Snack time?" She shook her head, frustrated by my glaring lack of intelligence.

"No, mom. Like the time before was the olden days, and Christmas is in the future and this time is the . . .what?" Comprehension dawned.

"Oh, you mean the present. The time that we are living in right now is called the present."

She nodded, satisfied, and went on to finish her book report while I mused over the fact that she had words for life both before and after the now, but not for the moment she was living.

I often make the same mistake by looking toward the nebulous "future" as the promised land where children have become magically self-sufficient, leaving me with free time in which to write the Great American Novel or volunteer for a wonderful peace and justice effort with my husband (or just take a nap). The past beckons also, as consciousness has edited the angst and trauma from those scenes.

Why is the present so crowded, so confusing, so difficult to imagine? Certainly our minds are bombarded by more images than existed when Frost wrote his lines, yet the busy-ness of our lives only clouds my real problem; accepting both the joy and pain, the delight and frustration of the moments that dot our lives like pearls on a chain. Even recognizing the value of the present (a "gift" by any other name) does not make it easy for me to embrace the flood of emotion that can overtake me when I am fully cognizant, fully aware.

Great, gulping sobs and mascara tracks don't play well in public, no matter how accepting the audience. I can overflow with emotion at any given poignant song, at any family reunion or documentary over justice issues. The tendency is to stifle the outward signs of emotion and to do that one must stifle the inner turmoil - swallow it down and present a bland front. Yet to stifle our empathy and compassion, to shrink back even from tears of joy, robs us of the ability to fully participate in our own lives.

When my book report - writing daughter was born I was both deeply joyful and traumatized. At my six-week appointment I asked my midwife why images from her birth refused to leave me, why I was stuck in an emotional well. Bless her, she did not blame my emotions on hormones or sleep deprivation. She said simply, "you were at the border of life and death." Sensing that border, feeling the precarious nature of existence, sets us free to appreciate life and live deeply. Pain and joy seem to be in a perpetual do-si-do with all of us, though I have been most fortunate to have partnered primarily with joy, or her close cousin, happiness, thus far.

Others live with a terrible burden in the now. Dear friends face the serious illness of a child, the death of a close friend, the pain of a relationship in transition. To me these situations hint at pain almost beyond bearing. I hear from them, though, that the pain is cleaner, is bittersweet for facing it immediately and for being grateful for life's lessons. Friends, I regard you with awe, deep respect and love. Thank you for sharing your wisdom. My thoughts and prayers are with you in your 'now'.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My personal tsunami

Have you ever experienced a phase of your child's development when you dreaded waking them up? You know that your "good morning" will be the 8.0 magnitude tremor that sets of a series of tsunamis, breaking the calm of your silent pre-dawn moments. I'm in such a period with my three-year-old son; I tiptoe into his room to soak up the image of his peaceful sleeping figure before I regretfully disturb both of our tranquility with my wake-up call.

Today we experienced five temper tantrums between my "alarm" at 6:45 and preschool drop-off at 8:05. One was over oatmeal, one over the center of a toilet paper roll that my daughter was using for a microphone - and that he desperately wanted. I cannot remember the source of the other three tsunamis that swept over us this morning, but my body still holds the tension and frustration. My chest feels tight when I try to take in the deep breath that *should* calm me down.

In my Just Faith class we studied heroes of non-violence, reading Gandhi, King, and watching movies about the Polish labor movement and the Chilean people's election to remove a dictator. I felt regret that I could not be a part of such a movement, could not follow a great leader. Here again I felt the sting of my "just mom" label. Yet . . . my motherhood profession offers great opportunity to practice peace, calming influence, and defusing tensions. This morning I once again realized that my reactions are the only thing that I can control in a given situation. I certainly cannot control my three-year-old! How difficult it is to speak calming words on the fifth temper tantrum, to control my thoughts and the angry words that threaten to break past my lips. My frustration and my failure to stay peaceful in the storm taste bitter on my tongue, as if I've swallowed some of the salt water in our tsunami.

We don't spank in our household, and use timeouts and loss of privileges effectively with my older children, but my youngest is not quite old enough to understand or to negotiate for what he wants. We only have a short time left in this phase, but I pray that it will be enough time for me to calm the storm - in him and in myself. Perhaps we can channel our passions into a river: water that carries strength, that can carve rock and nurture growth, but that can absorb disturbances with only a faint ripple.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Just Mom

This morning I took a phone call and watched through the window as my three children chased each other, screaming (it was audible in the house) as they fought over a package of rice crackers. Apparently my oldest son had consumed more than his fair share, resulting in general hysterics.

My children are well-fed - to my mind, anyway - and their grasping over snacks truly upsets me, not just because they are loud and embarrass me in front of the neighbors, but also because I see accounts every day of children who die from malnourishment. Yet when I tell my children that boys and girls in Haiti make mud pies to eat because they have nothing else, they look at me blankly. "Where's Haiti?" one asked, with a mouth full of cracker.

The title of this entry - Just Mom - refers back to a class I have been taking for over two years called Just Faith. It addresses social justice issues of hunger, poverty (both local and global), environmental degradation, nonviolence and racism. The title incorporates two pillars of the class: Justice and Faith. I expect that many of the entries in this blog will deal with my struggle to incorporate my new knowledge (and resulting guilt) into a privileged lifestyle and a culture that teaches the importance of material things.

Of course, the flip side of the words "Just Mom" refers to those of us who parent as our sole or main profession. We have been dropped from the roles of legitimate careerists. No business cards, titles, or salaries attach easily to the "mom" or "dad" entry on a resume. (Many) blog entries on that to follow.

Judith Warner wrote an extremely interesting and impactful book entitled, Perfect Madness : Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead Trade, 2006), in which she discusses the struggles of American parents. To paraphrase one of her key points, parents in the US spend huge amounts of time and energy carving a big piece of the ever-shrinking pie for their children. If we all banded together and focused our energies on making the pie bigger, every child and society as a whole would benefit - maybe someday we could all relax.

Something to think about the next time I buy rice crackers.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What is a Wild Specific Tangent?

Set me free, O God,
to go off with you today
on one wild, specific tangent after another,
immersed and amazed
in the wonder
and even terror
of your immense
creative beauty.
- From Earth Gospel, A Guide to Prayer for God's Creation (Sam Hamilton-Poore, p 62)

For a Type A personality immersed in the American can-do and must-have culture, the freedom to go off on a "wild, specific tanget" seems to dance just out of reach, yet I recently began to sense that I had to have that freedom or start gasping for air.

Most of my life I have lived linearly: followed the rules, planned for success to follow effort, and left the margins blank. A few years ago, the margins blurred and I started coloring life outside the lines. Just a hint, an aura, not a full-fledged rebellion. To be sure, full-time motherhood of three children and a life in middle-class suburbia does not leave an immense amount of room for healthy rebellion, but the need for creative freedom began to percolate.

The phrase "wild specific tangent" in the prayer above actually comes from a Reflection by Annie Dillard, which is quoted on the same page in Earth Gospel. Dillard writes, "The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font." Witness that exuberance in the flaming leaves of autumn, the red glow of late peaches, the crazed bees preparing for winter. The world is not logical, not always connected in ways that we can see (though always connected) and not controllable. I pray for the ability to relax my need for control, to see the beauty around me, and to explore the wild, specific tangents that cross my path.

Hopefully this blog will give me the opportunity to do so, with partnership and support from like-minded others.