With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In the Twilight

"In the twilight glow I see her
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.
As we kissed good-bye and parted,
I knew we'd never meet again.

Love is like a dying ember.
Where only memories remain.
Through the ages I'll remember-
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain."
- Written by Fred Rose, 1945 sung by Hank Williams and Willie Nelson

The twilight, when the angle of the sun's rays conveys messages beyond the mundane, so fantastical that a long-ago boyfriend's days were numbered the day I had to arm-twist him into watching the sun setting over the beach. [If a man can't find magic in a sunset and tropical twilight, romance will be scarcer than free time with three children]. Romance, sunsets, twilights . . . could this blog entry really focus on Willie Nelson's ballad? No - I admit that old Willie was a red herring to my real purpose; adding my musings to the effluence of writing and commentary on the Twilight books and movies, specifically the new movie, New Moon.

I saw New Moon with three good friends last Friday and admit that I had a magical time. Much of the glow resulted from the one (two?) glasses of wine we had prior to the show and the great conversation that flowed; I think the vulnerability we share in admitting our devotion to the Twilight books has helped to deepen our friendships. All of these women are Readers, critical thinkers and thoughtful people who just like to throw all rational thought out the window once in a while and remember . . . . remember the good old days when our frontal lobes weren't fully formed and our hormones were raging for much better reasons than peri-menopause.

We meant to arrive at the show early but were so side-tracked by our own dreams and musings that we ended up tearing around corners and dashing inside just in time to be allowed into the theater, surrounded by the (very) young women who comprise the majority of the movie's followers. However, a CNN article forwarded to me by my husband recognizes the large numbers of women in the 30s, 40s and beyond who are drawn to the film and the stories, and the actor who stars as Edward, Robert Pattinson, commented that women in their 90s ask him the same questions as girls in their teens.

What does this all mean? To hijack a phrase off the movie trailer for Letters to Juliet which played before New Moon "the best romantic tale is your own." When I read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight (the first book, particularly) the turbulent emotions of the novel evoked that first great passion and heartrending emotion of my own. The incredible rush of first love, young love, forbidden love, no wonder these are themes for the ages. After that first experience we are always more cautious, more rational, more protective - certainly positive traits but nowhere near as exciting as the roller coast ride, the big wave, of falling for another person for the first time, of realizing that someone outside of your family can think you amazing despite your flaws and foibles.

Admitting your flaws and being vulnerable - what startling and joyful gifts we can give in relationship. I find this type of gift-giving becomes harder with each passing year, each layer of varnish that hardens us to betrayal and rejection. Good actors, singers, and artists show this vulnerability as they turn their deepest emotions out for our witness; no wonder we are drawn to them. I think Taylor Lautner shows this type of vulnerability in New Moon (as well as amazing muscle definition!), and left me dreaming that night of a more personal, less photogenic pair trying on adult passions for the first time. Though Stephenie Meyer's writing is not in the same class as JK Rowling's and though the series tapers off to a less-credible finish, I have to hand it to Meyer for writing a tale that opens the door to all of her reader's memories and fantasies. Something about her tale becomes revelatory and brings us back to the passion that we had . . . that we still have . . . hidden within.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Series of Developments

Develop – 1. To realize the potentialities of / to aid in the growth of; strengthen 2. To cause to unfold gradually 3. To bring into being, make active 4a. To progress from earlier to later stages of individual maturation

Development – 4. A significant act or occurrence.

(The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Definition, Houghton Mifflin 1982)

Oddly, though stages of development and developmental milestones often connote positivity and progression, they can carry with them a perfect storm of emotions and concerns for both parent and child. This past weekend we had two of our three children deal with major milestones and my husband and I kept making eye contact across rooms – eyebrows levitated to shockingly high degree – as we watched our progeny hurdle across previously untouchable barriers. Our middle child remained a pocket of happiness and relative calm; he turned the household upside down last year with his concerns over a new brother and the beginning of kindergarten.

My daughter headed off to her first Girl Scout camp – a sleepaway camp which required her to be away from home for two whole nights. She had only ever had one sleepover in her life, and that was next door. I have to confess that I had a hard time weeding out my own childhood fears and dislike of sleepovers when I was counseling her about her concerns. I knew that she really wanted to attend; she had tried to go last spring but fell ill with a fever at the last minute (either viral or psychosomatic). She nearly backed out last week, too, but we discussed the situation wherein you can have two strong feelings within yourself, and you have to choose which one to really listen to / act on even while you are sympathetic to the other.

So she decided to go, and left me in the parking lot of the school in the beginnings of a snowstorm, overly bright-eyed and quivery of lip but resolute in her decision. She had a great time, and though she confessed to me “there were a few tears that first night, mom” she was so proud of herself. I am proud of her, too – over the moon, actually – and pleased that I didn’t cry, either. I felt like I was missing a limb most of the weekend and checked the weather report reflexively every time I turned on the computer, but feel joyful that she is unfolding, that her character, her desires and her motivations are becoming clearer just as a photographic image emerges through processing. (Ironically, the subtitle on the dictionary that I used for this definition of development claims it is the “The single source for people who need to be right.” That used to be true of me, but as a parent ‘rightness’ has lost its meaning and desirability. Part of letting our kids grow up is letting go of that need to be right and just holding onto the need to be good.)

While she was gone our youngest child moved through an emotional steeplechase of his own. He has two baby books of memories from Guatemala, with photos, postcards and documents of his babyhood, our first meeting, and our journey to Colorado. He has requested that we read these to him periodically over the past 18 months, showing varying degrees of interest and curiosity in their contents, but last week he picked up the professional photo book and requested it continuously. He pored over the contents, his eyes filling with tears, as he saw a sorrowful younger self in the montage of photos representing our first days together. “Why I sad?” he asked us, chin wobbly. “Where you?” We tried to explain that he was having a hard time saying good bye to his friends, that he was meeting us for the first time and it is always hard to say good bye to people and places that you love. We watched with our hearts in our throats as he grappled with the idea that he had lost something, that he had a life before us which we did not share and could not help him remember beyond our photos and the information we could procure in our short time in the orphanage. He looked at a photo of his sister by his crib and asked “where is her bed?” We had to explain that neither she nor his older brother had lived there, that their beds were in the house in Colorado. At this point he would give up the photos and launch himself at my chest or my husband’s crying “mommy, mommy” or “daddy, daddy.”

Our hearts were so full, the weight of his emotion and the depth of his loss pulling our eyes open to his reality as if our heart-strings were actually connected to our lower eyelids. We discussed what to say, how to confirm his feelings as good and right while reassuring him that he would be stuck with us forever now, that as far as we can control his changes are over. We consult friends and therapists for the right words as we continue to follow his lead in exploring his realizations and his past, which is such a large part of his young life. Even as he grapples with the knowledge of his loss and his uniqueness in our family, he develops closer ties to his siblings every day, exhibits more calm and focus in his school and his tasks at home, and puts down roots with friends and teachers. The dual prongs of development, pain and progress, function side by side in his 32-pound self and he shows amazing flexibility and depth as he incorporates this new understanding. We are so blessed to witness the growth and emergence of our children as unique individuals, each step another miracle in the chain of miracles that began with their birth.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

At the Comedor

I wrote a short piece about our church group's visit to the US / Mexico border south of Tucson, Arizona. We visited the crossing at Nogales (Arizona and Mexico), where buses drop off deported individuals on the Mexican side after the possessions and cash are taken from them. Here's the piece:

At the Comedor

We stepped hesitantly across the dusty street, warming already at 7:30 in the morning. Bypassing the line on the side of the road, we climbed a few steps into shady coolness provided by a tarp awning. Our guide said hello to the whirlwind of a woman behind a makeshift counter who was frying eggs, warming tortillas, cooking beans. Men and women shuffled slowly through the assembly line of breakfast, offering quiet thanks and moving purposefully to find a seat at one of the tables or couches randomly placed under the tent of the comedor, an oasis of compassion in the border town of Nogales, Mexico.

The hum of conversation flowed around us as we stood, out of place persons among persons without a place. Desiring to hear their stories, Gene LeFebvre and I moved into a circle of couches to introduce ourselves and learn about the paths that brought these hungry folk to the Catholic Church – run comedor, penniless and rejected, but not without hope. We had just come from the actual border station on the Mexican side of the wall, walking easily from our van across the border and south a few blocks to the eating spot; a straightforward journey for us but a militarized Grand Canyon for our fellow diners.

As I perched on the arm of a couch where three slender individuals sat, they hastily moved over to make room for me and one, a handsome young man, hospitably waved me into a seat. Via a jumbled Spanglish greeting we learned that his name was Roberto, his young wife, Julia. Their seatmate was an acquaintance of the Nogales sidewalk, where they had slept the past few nights.

I reassured the three of them of our intent. “We are from a church, an iglesia, in Colorado, and we came to Nogales to meet people and learn your stories.”

“Did you walk here from Colorado?” asked Roberto in broken English.

“No, no,” I said. “We took an airplane to Tucson and drove down across the border. Did you walk here yourself?”

“We walked part of the way,” he said. “We walked across the desert at night but la migra found us and bused us back yesterday. They took our money and our backpacks so we are here in Nogales with nothing,” and he shrugged his shoulders.

Roberto told me that six weeks ago he would have smelled the aroma of tortillas over Julia’s mother’s fire in the family home in Chihuahua, Mexico. I asked how they came to the Comedor.

Julia just shook her head, momentarily closing her eyes. Her eyelids may have registered stern faces of the Border Patrol agents who had found her and Roberto huddled under the shade of prickly mesquite trees in the border country not ten miles from where we now sat. Roberto and Julia had stumbled on blistered feet to the bus and suffered a day and night in the crowded detention center before the Border Patrol dropped them off – without their savings or possessions - just across the border.

Roberto continued their short history, of how work was impossible to find in their village in Chihuahua. He had tried every day for six months to find work without success. Julia worked whenever she could, cleaning houses for $7 a day, but a week’s worth of work (each day for 12 hours) only brought in enough money to pay for milk and diapers for their little boy. He suffered from a lack of additional food and adequate shelter; future school attendance seemed impossible. As with many poor countries, Mexican school is not subsidized by the state and each student must pay for a uniform and for books and other supplies. Roberto and Julia felt they had no choice but to leave their families to find work in the States.

“Do you have children?” concluded Roberto, looking at me.

“Yes, we have three. One, our youngest son, was adopted from Guatemala.”

“If you would like another,” he said in Spanish, “he could adopt my wife. She looks young enough to be his daughter,” and he gestured at Gene, who smiled good-naturedly but looked to me for a translation.

After a quick laugh he replied, “I may be old enough, but I would have a lot of explaining to do.”

“She is 19,” said Roberto. “I am 21 and our boy is 2 years old.”

It hurt to even imagine leaving such a young child. “Where is your son?” I asked.

“He is with my parents.” Julia’s voice was quiet. “I want my son to go to school when he is five. We will need money for books and a uniform. He must go or he will have this same life.” Her hand gestured widely, capturing the comedor, its guests, and their exhaustion.

“My only dream is for my son.” She looked down. “Right now they do not even know if we are alive. We cannot call them without money for a phone card.”

I translated with difficulty and our small group sat quiet, helpless to change her situation. Roberto put a dusty arm around her shoulders. The interview seemed over; we had nothing to offer them but our heartfelt sympathy and a list of places where they might find help in Nogales – agencies that might donate a phone card, Grupo Beta offices that may be able to provide transportation for part of the way back to their home. We had no way of knowing if they would attempt the desert crossing again, or what decision they might come to in this hostile no-man’s land so far away from their home, so far away from their dream.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Living up to Our potential

Report cards came home last week, pages of numbers and letters inside innocuous manila envelopes waiting to bear witness on our children’s fitness as students and our prowess as parents. The papers annoy me, remind me of my joyless student fixation with straight A’s, the potential frustration of seeing all of your efforts reduced to a subjective digit. My husband and I glanced over our children’s report cards privately, noting comments on their effort, making sure their work is done and they are grade-level appropriate, and then we put them away, dishing out a special ice cream for their hard work and moving on to different topics (what they want for Christmas, who hit whom, etc,).

I recognize our great good fortune in living near a marvelous school with dedicated, talented teachers, and raising children who have (thus far) shown some aptitude in the 3Rs and have a personality makeup relatively conducive to sitting still for six hours. As a parent I wrestle with new report card-related issues; how hard to push, how much to help, how much to protest (the 90 minutes of homework required from my 8-year-old each day), just in general how to be in relation to my children and their school. Parents are told that we are responsible for our children “living up to their potential.” It feels like a huge weight and responsibility, but what does it mean?

Here’s the thing: I pursued good grades, a good college, and a good job as if they were the key to lasting joy and happiness, if not recognition and adulation. I cannot determine how I fixed on this path as the way to nirvana; my parents never pushed me that I can recall. They did work quite hard, and each had a good education of their own with plenty of smarts behind it, but I think it was the voice of our culture that I internalized. We are taught that a job title and the accompanying paycheck will not only bring security but happiness. I checked each item off the list, with little resultant joy. When I left the working world to focus on motherhood I struggled mightily with the loss of title and salary, trying to resurrect a meaningful identity out of the ashes.

I wrestled with depression and went to therapy, trying to determine who I was and why I had spent all of my parents’ money on an expensive college education if my salary now was zero and my various job titles included housekeeper, meal-preparer, laundress and driver. One of the stories I recalled vividly at this time was a scene with my father back when I was getting a C in freshman geometry. I sat studying for the final with tears running down my cheeks, pounding his nice desk with my compass. I wanted nothing less than an A, which would require an A on the final. My dad sat to my left, wisely out of range of the compass in my right hand, and said, “You will never be the best. Even world record holders are replaced after a few months, champions at the end of the next season. Let it go and just be the best Laura you can be.”

I rejected his advice, hands down. What new-agey cr** was this? I damn well would be the best; I would prove him wrong! Yet I never forgot this moment, and over two decades later I think I finally understand him. When teachers, coaches, and family urge me to get my children “up to their potential” I have a new reply.

Each of us has a completely unique makeup; the genetics of our DNA, RNA, mitochondria as well as our metabolic rates generate a matchless wavelength of energy. As Crosby, Stills and Nash said, “we are stardust,” and each a unique star at that. Combine our one-of-a-kind wavelength with the lens provided by our individual upbringing and experience, and we have a completely original voice to go with our cool vibrations and energy. The world needs each of us; our best energy fuels relationships, solves problems and builds solutions.

Each person must find the activities that they love, which fuel their energy, so it can be sent back into the world. Of course, we also need to do things that we don’t like. In order to function in a family, a classroom, in society we often need to meet expectations, fulfill obligations on time, and help problem-solve. Yet we can do those things best when we are finding joy in whatever sustains us, be it lego construction (my son), pencil sketches of horses (my daughter), or endless writing in a blog that no one else will read (guess who).

Just as I feel a sense of tragedy when I read of children dying due to poverty and preventable diseases, their voices and talents lost forever to the world, so do I mourn when my friends and acquaintances suffer through depression and self-doubt. The standards of the world are ruthless, reducing us to common denominators – numbers like salary, age, weight and titles like CEO, VP, Teacher, Mom. We may need to function in those capacities but that is not who we are. I feel most alive when I write, go for a long run outside, discuss deep issues with close friends, hug my spouse and my children. I can feel the energy vibrating within and outward and I want to run farther, sing and dance. On these occasions I feel like a star – in the heat- and light-emitting sense as opposed to a paparazzi draw.

I want my children to feel this energy, to function in the world and in society without accepting society’s labels or the trap of thinking that a good college and a good job are the sole requirement for lasting happiness. I want them to hear their inner voice, recognize and embrace their uniqueness and bring their own celestial energy to explore, solve problems, create and love. Somehow I think their report cards fall short of capturing this potential, that lists and rankings are feeble constructs before the star-like radiance of my children. Dad, it took 23 years, but I finally got it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teaching kindness

I received a thoughtful email from a friend today, noting that her daughter recently commended mine for her kindness. My friend added, 'congratulations on raising a nice girl!' My daughter has also been noticed for her recent kindnesses in Sunday School, on vacation with relatives, and by the mom of another friend. All of the folks who kindly relay the acts and the commendations to me also add their congratulations and/or approval of my spouse and myself. I have to cringe inwardly while honestly telling them that my daughter is a kind person because it is her innate nature - she probably learns more of what not to do from me.

One example that literally leaps to mind transpired when we traveled as a family to Guatemala to meet our youngest son and bring him home. My daughter was only 6 when we traveled to Guatemala City, a relatively timid first-grader. Both my son and daughter enjoyed playing with their new brother and his friends at the orphanage, a loving place nonetheless confined to a small concrete building, courtyard and diminutive play structure. Our youngest was not quite two years old, quite attached to his friends and caregivers at APIF, and desperately opposed to being left alone with us. All of the photos from our first day show him in a corner, searching for a way out, his big brown eyes wide over tear-streaked cheeks.

The trauma of the situation made a big impression on my two older children, who attempted vainly to woo their new brother with toys, balloons and balls. At the time of our trip I had contracted a kidney infection and my primary memory consists of the cold concrete floor underneath me as I watched the children at their lopsided play, wondering how on earth we would move forward.

Later that week we dined at a McDonald's within walking distance of our hotel in Guatemala City. Our little guy clung to his dad as he did the entire week, recognizing and quite logically hitching his star to the stronger, more rational and stable parent. The McDonald's entrance was guarded by a machine-gun wielding soldier, young and petite but nonetheless frightening to North American children (and parents). I collapsed at a table between the high chair and my daughter, holding on to my composure by the width of a french fry as I battled another 102 degree fever (note the litany of excuses - more to come).

Midway through the meal a young woman came into the restaurant, momentarily freed to enter by the brief absence of our guard. I could not understand her verbal request but her open palm, beseeching stare and young child on her hip made her need for money rather obvious - even to my children. As the young lady passed our table with her request, I looked at her and shook my head. "Lo siento," I said - I'm sorry. My purse was across the table in the diaper bag, my new toddler boxing me in on the left side, my desire to help swamped in self-pity.

She gathered pesos from several tables, mostly occupied by Guatemalan citizens, then fled as the soldier returned with decided disapproval on his face and a swing of his weapon. My daughter turned to me and said, "Mommy, why didn't you help that girl? Everyone gave her money except for us."

I was branded by her stare. Heartsick, I tried to explain, going through all of the excuses I have listed here for you. She just shook her head, noting "the baby looked hungry." So I compounded my error but asking my spouse for pesos, pressing them into her hand and saying, "Go under the table and head toward the door to see if you can catch her. I'll be right behind you."

Go running through a restaurant in Guatemala City under the nose of an armed man? That was not her idea of a mission, though when I finally extricated myself from the trap of McDonald's seating she was game to head out a few feet in front of me to look for the young woman. We went outside and around the corner together, but she was gone. Gone in our vision, gone for my daughter, but never far from my mind, especially when I hear compliments about raising children to be kind. I know what I did that day - and it was not an example of kindness.

Father Dan Groody has a great quote about kindness. He relates traveling near the border and viewing a man in great need, probably an undocumented person. His traveling companion, an elderly priest, friend and mentor, taught him a profound lesson. Groody writes that his friend saw the man and stated," 'I never take chances with people like that.' Surprised by his words, (Groody) said, 'What do you mean?' He replied, 'That's Jesus over there, and we need to welcome him.' " (From "Testimony of Being a Good Samaritan, Rev. Daniel G. Groody, in Trails of Hope and Terror, de la Torre, 2009).

In a Guatemalan McDonald's I failed to welcome Jesus, failed to give pesos to a hungry young woman and her child, failed to show my child an example of kindness, and failed myself. That's a lot of failure to fit into a 45-minute dinner outing, and don't think I plan to forget it. When people compliment me on my daughter, I truly thank God for the person she is and believe that she inspires and teaches me more than I can ever teach her.


Monday, November 2, 2009

A people fast

"There is a great need today to learn to fast from people. Most of us have a tendency to devour others and usually we get severe heartburn from it." - Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity p175

Having just returned from a joy - full family vacation to San Diego, I find my mind returning to this quote – a favorite. Over the past eight days I overindulged in food - a prerequisite of vacation - and folks. Creating sunshine-bathed memories of beaches, zoos, SeaWorld, LegoLand and relatives certainly fulfilled me and my husband. Watching the children scamper from one miraculous new experience to another, feeling the warmth and light on my face while Denver suffered through a 50-hour snowstorm that brought 2 feet of the white stuff to our back porch – well, we are extremely lucky people.

Can you sense the big “however” coming? The flip side of full days and busy children are tired, whiny hours in the late afternoon and evening, a dearth of naps for the 3-year-old and a complete absence of free time for mom and dad. As the week progressed I felt my internal strings tighten and twang with each late-afternoon temper tantrum; I looked at my unread book with longing, and managed to record only four or five sentences in my journal.

As wrinkles line up to decorate my face I crave free time and quiet more than diamonds, more than chocolate, almost more than a workout (cheating - is actually free time!). It seems that the only way to refill my store of energy is to take time to sort through my thoughts and emotions, take deep breaths, and indulge flights of fancy and occasionally philosophy. In the one evening I did find time to read my book, I came across this revealing quote:

“Wasn’t it terrible that after all the work one put into finding a person to spend one’s life with, after making a family with that person, even in spite of missing that person, as Amit missed Megan night after night, that solitude was what one relished most, the only thing that, even in fleeting diminished doses, kept one sane?” - From “A Choice of Accommodations,” Jhumpa Lahiri in Unaccustomed Earth, (Vintage Contemporaries, 2008).

When I read this paragraph I knew in my bones that Ms. Lahiri was a parent as well as an accomplished writer (true - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jhumpa_Lahiri). The joys of solitude are hard to appreciate when one is single, with solitude to spare, or when a couple is childless, with ordered home and rooms of silence. After spending a charged week with three children and a spouse that I love dearly and would, in fact, die for, I am enjoying a spellbinding morning by myself, appreciating the time with my family only in the bas-relief of my time alone.

In contrast, the one thought I managed to record in my journal over our vacation was a sentence about the movie “Into the Wild” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Into_the_Wild). I watched the film the night before we left for San Diego and it moved me deeply. The protagonist, a gifted young man named Christopher McCandless, flees a painful past and constrictions of modern society through an epic road trip, and finally, a dramatic stay in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilds. The recorded description of the film – which I read prior to watching - notes that the young man’s trip is doomed, so I watched scene after scene, increasingly enthralled with the young man and ever more reluctant to watch his demise. Toward the end of the film, McCandless writes in his own journal (which was recovered by moose hunters) something to the effect that happiness is only worthwhile when shared. He comes to the realization too late to share the joy of new experiences with friends and loved ones, and forfeits the opportunity to reattempt his life with this new lens.

As with anything in life, then, balance would seem to represent the key to peace. Time spent with loved ones, sharing new thoughts and experiences and giving of oneself, balanced by time alone in meditation and reflection. These are not new thoughts, but as I process the reality of life with three children, pursuing a path to peace and self-mastery, the awareness feels new every day, immensely valuable and precious.