Friday, December 17, 2010
On the first day of Christmas my family gave to me, a football in the Christmas tree.
On the second day of Christmas my family gave to me, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the third day of Christmas my family gave to me, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the fourth day of Christmas my family gave to me, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the fifth day of Christmas my family gave to me five toilet bowl rings. Four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the sixth day of Christmas my family gave to me, six coaches’ presents, five toilet bowl rings, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the seventh day of Christmas my family gave to me, seven teachers’ gift cards, six coaches’ presents, five toilet bowl rings, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the eighth day of Christmas my family gave to me, eight boxes from Amazon, seven teachers’ gift cards, six coaches’ presents, five toilet bowl rings, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the ninth day of Christmas my family gave to me, nine dinner guests, eight boxes from Amazon, seven teachers’ gift cards, six coaches’ presents, five toilet bowl rings, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the tenth day of Christmas my family gave to me, ten new Christmas card addresses, nine dinner guests, eight boxes from Amazon, seven teachers’ gift cards, six coaches’ presents, five toilet bowl rings, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the eleventh day of Christmas my family gave to me, eleven screaming carols, ten new Christmas card addresses, nine dinner guests, eight boxes from Amazon, seven teachers’ gift cards, six coaches’ presents, five toilet bowl rings, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my family gave to me, twelve stacks of thank-yous, eleven screaming carols, ten new Christmas card addresses, nine dinner guests, eight boxes from Amazon, seven teachers’ gift cards, six coaches’ presents, five toilet bowl rings, four dozen cookies, three class parties, two broken light strands and a football in the Christmas tree.
Monday, December 13, 2010
"Tell me the story, mom, that says 'there was a little boy who lived in a city . . .'" That's the way our bedtime begins now, with my youngest son requesting the unique story of his adoption from Guatemala. We have told his story through various picture books and memorabilia since he came to us almost three years ago, but the newest version of his story is different. My latest effort was produced via simple word processing, without pictures or embellishment of any kind. What it does have, that the earlier versions did not, is emotion. Tough emotion, like his legitimate fears, worries and sorrow upon leaving a home and people that he loved for a brand new place where he did not know a soul, did not understand the language, and could not be understood. In the past I have glossed over those pieces in the interest of 'sparing' his current feelings. I was not being truthful in my storytelling, and the center of my story knew it. No wonder he recognizes and likes the current edition much better.
I've heard that we all need to figure out our individual narratives in order to make sense of our lives. I've been trying to do this with increasing difficulty as shifting jobs, motherhood, and the swift passage of time unravel my particular narrative thread and leaving me grasping for continuity and meaning. I realized as I wrote the emotions into my youngest son's story that I was leaving out the feelings (particularly the bad ones) when I told my own history. Events do not comprise the entirety of my life; just retelling the stages and steps of my history (high school, college, jobs, etc.) removes its uniqueness. I needed the emotion: did I hate college? Love the first job? Rebel against the possessive boyfriend? How did I react and how did my emotional response help to dictate the next move? What we learn, how we choose our path . . .the deeper, murkier stuff of our pasts makes them interesting.
Maya Angelou says, "there is no greater burden than carrying an untold story." Perhaps that is the reason why 175,000 blogs start every day. And we must not confine our stories to the proper, the glorious, the successful - even if we have all of these shiny elements in our narratives. The favorite stories are always of the hero who gets knocked down - perhaps repeatedly - only to get up again and again. We cannot empathize with a protagonist who does not feel fear, who is loved by everyone she meets, or who achieves success in every venture. Why would we tell our own stories this way? I have started re-telling my own story (in my head, only, fortunately for you) and emphasizing the emotions that I felt, what I responded to or rejected, and how that dictated my next steps. I find that tracing my history in this manner makes it far more meaningful and far more coherent - "ugly" stuff and all. Now I can teach all my kids how to tell their own stories, and make sure they include all the right elements.
Monday, December 6, 2010
One of the lines that Dan mentioned in his presentation was "there are nearly 2000 miles from Friendship to Hope." This refers to the fact that the wall is being built through Friendship Park near Tijuana and San Diego; the promise for better relations between two countries broken by its construction. Almost 2000 miles away, in Brownsville, Texas, the wall is being built in a park named Hope. Ironic, sad and expensive in terms of dollars, loss of life, and loss of faith that we can work together. I tried to write a poem that lived up to some of this thought, and here it is.
Nearly two thousand miles from Friendship to Hope,
The Wall rises in cancer clusters of concrete and steel.
A dividing line between compassion and fear,
Constructed in borderlands from California to Texas
and in our dark interior spaces.
Where once porous membrane allowed ebb and flow
Rusty barriers bisect no man’s land that selectively holds
Back water, rattlers and big cats while
The siren call of dollars filters through, drawing people
Over or under, a delay of five minutes in their active transport.
Then five days’ dusty journey from Nogales to Tucson,
Broken feet stumble on rocks in the darkness as
Two thousand years ago refugees trudged
The same distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
There was no room for them, either.
What journey ends well that starts with a wall?
Can it close only in the cave of a detention cell or
A sweaty deportation bus?
White sanded bones in the desert or sterile hospital room;
There are no wise men here.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Thanksgiving comes again this week, carrying its yearly reminder to be grateful for health, family, friends, and well-being. Each year I attempt to instill gratitude in my children, frantically wedging a doorstop of thankfulness in the revolving door of "but he got more!" and "when do I get one?" and "he looked at my cereal box!" The annual prayer of thanksgiving for a completed harvest resonates today even though many of us are far from crops or food animals. We have other bounties to count and cherish, and I have recently found that opening myself to a sense of awe, wonder and mystery helps me to see my blessings in a whole new light. I've accumulated a short list of people and events that generated a sense of wonder in the past weeks:
I am in awe at the patience of my husband with the children. On Saturday he played eight games of Candyland with the youngest in conjunction with a simultaneous game of Settlers with the oldest, followed by a series of football routes in the backyard with our older son. His focus on the kids and his ability to stay cool amidst temper tantrums, petty injuries and constant requests for his time just amaze me. Yesterday he kept me from missing my one day of work per week as a teacher at the Science Museum as he worked from home in the afternoon to watch our sick child. Wonder at his gifts multiplies my sense of thankfulness for his presence in our lives.
My jaw hung open in wonder as my oldest child performed her solo in the fourth grade musical last week. Alone on stage with the plain curtain for backdrop, she sang the first eight measures with the microphone off, her voice all but muted in the large gym. The music teacher gestured for the music to stop, the microphone experts to correct the problem, and for my daughter to pause - all in front of a silent audience of more than two hundred parents, friends and relatives. Problem fixed, music re-started, she began again, her lone voice a bit tremulous but on key and supported by perfectly rehearsed gestures and inflections. I can only wonder at her self-possession and inner steel.
I wonder at deep friendships and the commitment shown by those who constantly make me a priority in their lives despite pressures and problems of their own. I wonder at the perseverance of friends and loved ones who are ill, whose grace and humor and love for their own families keeps them going past the point of endurance. I wonder at the full moon, clean water,snow on the mountains and the sound of the choir in our new church building. Any of these can move me to tears with the sweet pleasure / pain of recognition that the moment is so fleeting. All the more to be grateful for sharing, touching, hearing and seeing those amazing parts of our lives that would be invisible except for wonder.
Wishing everyone a Happy and wonder-full Thanksgiving.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
~ I know the world isn't fair, but why isn't it ever unfair in my favor? ~ Bill Watterson
“Can we play Candyland now?” Those words chase me through the kitchen as I prepare meals, out the door as I run pickup patrol, and up the stairs on our way to bed. If my son can’t find me, he begs his father to play or his siblings as a last resort. Quite often they don’t want to play with him, because up until this past week he cheated. My youngest liked to hoard the good cards: Queen Frostine, Princess Lolli, even Grandma Nutt. He would stash these ‘move ahead’ type cards in a pocket or a corner of the coffee table and hunt them down when it came time to play. Occasionally I let him get away with this tactic, but a week ago he had a Candyland marathon with his father, who turned the tables on him once and for all.
Dad got the Queen Frostine and the other ladies away from our little guy and introduced him to the term “shuffle.” When they began to play, Dad uncovered the Queen Frostine card while the four-year-old was dealt Plumpy, the green gumdrop-looking fellow who sends you back near Start. I could hear the resulting screams of rage and frustration from up in the bedroom where I was putting laundry away. Dad steadfastly refused to let him cop out of the game, refused to hand over Princess Lolli, and went on to win the game in a landslide. When the temper tantrum subsided Dad made the rules clear – either play by the rules or no more Candyland.
The tough love paid off. Yesterday I played and won two out of three games – with no board-tipping, screaming, or card-stealing on the part of my opponent. He did snicker with delight when I got “lost in the woods” and he was allowed two turns in a row, but he stuck to the rules and even accepted his Plumpy card with good grace. I was amazed and pleased that he had so quickly amended his definition of fairness. From “the game is only fair when I win” to a realization that “sometimes I get Queen Frostine and sometimes I get Plumpy” seems like a huge step to me, and one that I needed to reabsorb after the past five weeks of unfortunate events at our house.
We got dealt quite a few Plumpy cards this fall, in terms of household repairs, car breakdowns, and injuries. When I looked at it from another angle, however, I could see that these setbacks stood out not because they were unfair, but because we had such a good run in the few years prior. We’re lucky enough to have the house, the car, and basic good health, and to have not needed too many repairs in prior years. We didn’t “deserve” the bad luck,but we didn’t “deserve” the good stuff, either. If the world was totally fair and we only got what we deserved I doubt our life would be so full or so happy. If we occasionally get “lost in the woods” or “step on a gumdrop” and get stuck, that only means that our next card could be a double green, a Princess Lolli, or even – a Queen Frostine. The cards are shuffled for all of us, and it seems like our best hope of weathering defeats and setbacks is to realize our luck and good fortune when we have it, and know that it will come again even if we are set back to Start.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Hurray for November! As the first snowflakes fell this week and the plastic curtain dropped on all of our home repairs, I could only breathe a sigh of relief for the passage of a challenging October. I can walk on flat ground without a limp, we’ve narrowed our “needs repair” list to two items, and the cool weather comes as a holiday-appropriate relief rather than a burden (as long as the roads remain clear!) Last month cracked me in a few places, long enough for many new ideas to get in past my usual certainty and full-speed-ahead attitude. So my head is full to bursting and I have been writing a lot, feeling a tiny bit witty and dare I say – a bit more wise? – than a month ago. Enter . . . my siblings.
I am deeply blessed to have three younger brothers and a younger sister, all of whom intelligent, well-learned, and much wittier than I. They frequently remind me of this regrettable fact, and the most recent balloon-pricking occurred two days ago, while I was catching up on my email at the local library. I had to flee my home as the two workmen at my house were painting the ceilings and hung the entire downstairs in plastic. All pertinent areas were inaccessible (read: refrigerator, phone, computer, to-do list). So I opened my inbox and read with delight an email chain which included all my siblings, ostensibly planning our Christmas gift to my parents. The true purpose of many of the emails was one-upmanship, teasing, and pleas to visit. These were most fun to read, of course.
I eagerly jumped in, wittily (or so I thought) explaining my refugee situation, and spattering my email with words of Spanish – not to impress but because I had been conversing with the repairmen in Spanish all morning and had both languages bouncing around in my head. I sent the email off, with a smile on my face, and barely had to wait five minutes before my sister responded. She said (direct quote here): “I hope the lapses into Spanish don't herald a complete mental breakdown. I felt a little like I was reading an episode of Dora the Explorer-Swiper no swipey!” Well, OK. My grin flattened and my conceit fell like the soufflé I once attempted. She went on to demonstrate her superior wit with this signature line, “Hugs, kisses and awkward back pats!” I had to chuckle at that one, which she later confessed she stole from our youngest brother.
So once again, my sister and (at least one) brother get the jump on me in the wit department. I hope to demonstrate to them that my cracks are actually helping me to achieve wisdom and don’t indicate the deterioration of my mental state. In the meantime, my family keeps it real, reminding me of my extensive faults and yet including me anyway. Hugs, kisses, and awkward back pats to all.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Daniel’s surgeries (this was his second) have been a great blessing to him and to us. He had his tonsils and adenoids out two years ago, and that procedure allowed him to eat without risk of choking, sleep without terrible sleep apnea, and grow both physically and developmentally at unprecedented rates. His speech, however, remained hindered by months of ear infections and fluid-filled ear canals and so after a year of gathering data and searching for alternate solutions his amazing pediatrician and ENT doctor decided, with us, to place tubes in his ears. The decision was not made lightly, as surgery (no matter how short) is a big deal.
Watching his small body succumb to the anesthesia is like watching a small death, and I cried both times as his eyes circled wildly and closed, his arms and legs jerked and straightened, and his airway relaxed with odd gurgles and gasps that sounded terrible to me, despite the reassurances of the skilled anesthesiologist. My heart goes out to parents that have to witness serious surgeries on their children, lengthy procedures that put them under for long periods of time. It hurts to see your child stilled unnaturally, prone in hospital-issue pj’s, his little body barely raising the heated blankets.
It’s also challenging to walk back to recovery afterward and see the tear-streaked face watching you with a look of desperation, betrayal, and deep need. The stubborn bedrail temporarily prevents you from drawing your child immediately to your heart and somehow stopping their pain and confusion. I wrote in my journal yesterday to remember the feeling of my heart reaching out to my child, wanting to envelope him in love and strength. As you may have read in my earlier blogs, I am often challenged by the temperament, volume, and actions of my youngest and yesterday provided me with an opportunity to feel (from my toes to fingertips) how much I love him and want the best for him. We will hopefully avoid future surgeries, but I want to remember what it felt like to be apart for those painful minutes and how amazing was our reunion.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Occasionally I get the sense that the universe wants to tell me something. As I am a bit dense and more than a bit preoccupied, the universe often has to try really hard to get its point across. The most recent lesson came through as a variation on the same theme in four different books I read. Each book was recommended to me by a different person, in a different circle of my life, for a different reason. All centered around finding your true self, your best life (none were Oprah). The gist of all my readings is that I am not my ego, I am not my body, I am a nebulous, hard-to-define ‘true self’ – and that is the most powerful, joy-filled and wondrous part of me. The trouble is finding this true self; it’s difficult to locate under the layers of desires, demands and discontents of the ego and the hungers, fatigue, and pains of the body.
“It is important to remember, at all times, that the ego is not our true self. Our self-centered self is a false image of who we are. It is based upon the illusion that we are separate, independent, and autonomous.” – From Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom by Albert Nolan
Jesus Today was assigned as part of a class I am taking on spirituality. It is a challenging and rewarding book and one of its defining points is that our ego, while part of us and undoubtedly evolved for some good reason, has been overly encouraged by our culture and by Western thought for the past few centuries. Nolan defines the ego as our “selfish self” and I see this selfish ego in my actions every day (every hour). When impatience strikes (things are not going on MY time), when pride ejects words from my mouth before I have time to process how self-centered they are, when I resent the needs and demands of my children because I don’t have enough time for myself – my ego speaks loudly and carries a big stick.
I also identify strongly with myself as a body, one which loves to exercise, to drink, to eat and to fit into certain jeans. I follow the rhythm of its physical demands for meals or for sleep and succumb to frustration and short-temperedness every night as fatigue knocks on the door. I have identified myself as an athlete (competitive or not) for many decades now, and since I know what I look like, and have looked more or less the same for 25 years, it’s easy to see myself, to identify myself, in the physical sense. If you take away my ego, my body (including my face), the voices of my family, friends and culture that I have internalized over the years, who am I?
Nolan says that we can find our true self only in periods of silence and stillness. Periods of silence are used in many faith traditions as ways to get close to the guiding spirit of the universe, called God, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or Jesus, or another name. We have all heard of meditation, or centering prayer, and I have been resisting the call to practice this for three or more years now. But the confluence of readings, in conjunction with the class I am taking, inspire me to try to sit in stillness in order to get to know who I might really be. After reading Roland Merullo’s great book, and Nolan, and the first part of Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, it appears that each of us has a true self that is our grateful self, the one which sees wonder and experiences moments of awe, the self that loves and the self that feels regret and sorrow for mistakes we have made or for the pain of others. It appears that this self also feels its connections to other people, and to the world, far more potently than any other part of us, leading us to a feeling of belonging and union that we all want.
Rumi’s poetry eloquently sums up what I have been attempting to say, so I’ll finish with the poem I just read – a little sledgehammer from the universe in case I had not picked up on the first five – or ten – messages:
Birds Nesting Near the Coast
Soul, if you want to learn secrets,
Your heart must forget about shame
You are God’s lover,
Yet you worry what people are saying.
The rope belt the early Christians wore
To show who they were, throw it away.
Inside you are sweet beyond telling,
And the cathedral there,
So deeply tall.
Evening now, more your desire
Than a woman’s hair.
And not knowledge.
Walk with those innocent of that,
Faces inside fire, birds nesting
Near the coast, earning their beauty,
Servants to the ocean. There is a sun
Within every person, the you
We call companion.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
To say that October has been challenging for our family would be an understatement. The breakages, outages and brokenness began with an episode during Rob's business trip to Ohio. Sitting alone (with three sleeping children) in the dark house at about 8:30pm, I watched a leak from the master bath pour through the entryway ceiling in three places. Panicked, I called Rob, and several plumbers on my mad dash through the house to turn off the house water and the hot water heater water. Fast forward to 11:15pm when the kind 24-hour-plumber fixed the leak, determined that our hot water heater was so far on its last legs it teetered on toenails, and recommended that I call a restoration company to dry out all of the damage to the ceiling, and you see just the beginning of our trials.
We got a new water heater, discovered that the master shut-off valve in the house was broken, which led to our discovery that our shut-off valve at the street was "missing." After a week which included several visits from plumbers, multiple estimates, and several other small breakages, we dug up the driveway to find that shut off valve, then replaced it and three others in the house. The same night the work was completed we broke the upstairs toilet. During this time period we broke and fixed the garage door and discovered that the gas fireplace was on the fritz. For me, the most serious insult was destroying my ankle while running in the dark, requiring an Urgent Care visit, an air cast and a referral for Physical Therapy. Apparently I will continue to have a front-row seat to all of our repairs while I sit on my derriere and refrain from serious exercise for another six weeks.
Why am I telling you all this? To vent, perhaps, but also to laugh at the craziness of it all. To own anything is to borrow trouble. Possessions (especially a house, apartment, or other kind of shelter) are necessary, I suppose, but the fancier or bigger they are the more trouble they are. I wonder if we could simplify our lives and de-emphasize our possessions, if the situation would be easier to tolerate. In addition, this month has made me very aware of our greatest blessing - our basic good health and the steady growth of the children. Granted, I am temporarily a bit of a physical mess, and it has depressed me and made me a bit self-absorbed, but hopefully this will pass and become a memory. Certainly I am more empathetic to those who are in pain, who suffer from injury, and who continually come to bat against misfortunes that are no fault of their own. And if anyone in the neighborhood needs a good plumber, excavation company, restoration specialist, or garage door repairman . . . I know who to call.
Friday, October 15, 2010
As I type - my sprained right ankle in the air- I am relieved by Vanier's defense of weakness. I have been nothing but weak for the last five days, and I cling to this novel idea that weakness can deepen relationships and can call out the best qualities in another. Since I hit the pavement on a morning run (in an awesome feat of gracelessness) I have received loving support from my husband, friends, and family. Help with babysitting, bag-carrying, even walking, enabled me to attend a spiritual retreat which inspired me in many ways.
In the western world we celebrate the strength and independence of the individual and rarely acknowledge any debts, needs, or failings that we acquire along life’s journey. I am this way still, though I jumped off that train to some degree after I had my first child, and was smacked so hard by the awareness of my failings that I could never quite recover my strong, proud, go-it-alone mentality. The truth is, I cannot possibly raise my children without the help of my community, and I rely heavily on extended family and friends for fun, exercise, support, and listening ears. Still, “weakness” was not a word that I would have used to describe this interdependence. Certainly I noticed that I was drawn to mothers who could confess difficulties and admit failures. Sharing stories about losing our tempers, allowing too much TV or too many sweets, forgetting playdates or teacher conferences we forged our relationships. Such offerings of our own limitations were the currency that we exchanged in ever-tightening bonds of friendship.
But the Vanier’s words about the weak do not truly refer to me, or my friends. I have health, economic means and the pathway to participate in the economy of political system of the most powerful country in the world. I have a voice – and my family has a voice. Vanier speaks to us with means and power about those who have none: the physically or mentally ill, the poor and hungry, the lonely and alone. If we can reach out to those who are weak, the benefits will be mostly for us, for they will call out what is most generous and loving in our hearts. An infant is weak, and calls forth adoration from all who see him. The weak who live on the streets, who are ill, or who speak a different language are not so cute or immediately appealing, but they can be just as needy and just as deserving of our care. Vanier himself lives in community with intellectually disabled and non-disabled adults; he founded a movement based on this model called L'Arche (http://www.larcheusa.org/)that now has 137 communities in 40 different countries, including 16 in the United States.
Everyone wants to be heroic and strong, and they can be, some of the time. Strength certainly has a place in our culture, in families, and in our communities. Yet no one can be strong all the time, and perhaps our recognition of our own weaknesses can provide a path to help those who are truly weak, through no fault of their own. Perhaps we can find commonality in our weakness and work together to lift each other up, so that more can find strength, and no one will be alone.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
I've heard this sentence before, in reference both to human desire for spiritual understanding and with regard to our endless consumer desires. Yet this past weekend I encountered the statement in a new context that "rearranged my mental furniture" and created a path for new understanding. It was a rare light bulb moment for my sedentary brain, brought into focus by a better sense of what cosmologists call "the new science" and a study of the human need for belonging.
The "new science" refers (in this context, anyway) to quantum physics and to better understanding of the "big bang" which most likely started our universe on its path to greatness. New theories of small particle movement are revolutionizing science, moving us far beyond the understanding of motion that Newton provided us back in the 17th Century. My "a ha" moment, however, was brought on by a short video sequence about the big bang, showing all the matter contained by our universe compressed into a tiny dot, smaller than a tear, and then exploding into magnificent diversity of light and color. The rate of the universe's expansion is perfect for continuing its development; any slower and the universe would collapse, and any faster and gravity would not be able to hold galaxies together.
Glowing galaxies and stunning star - births were still before my mind's eye when we moved to the next subject and the next video, about the human need for belonging. The organizing principle of this video was the statement, "We need more to belong than to be loved." (Jean Vanier) After viewing a montage of statements by people in all walks of life regarding their sense of dislocation and their desire for unity, I turned to my workbook and encountered this question: "How does the story of our fragmentation and hunger for belonging connect with the universe story?"
What a new and striking metaphor! Every organism and object in the universe started out as an infinitesimal part of one small dot, and after it exploded into ever - separating glory we all became minute fragments of space and time. Our uniqueness and diversity are beautiful and stunning when viewed as a microcosm of our universe, but also isolating and marked by separation. No wonder we crave one-ness and belonging, with other humans, with Nature, and ultimately, with the far-flung wonders in space. With such a glorious conception in our subconscious, how can we be satisfied with our separate lives, our isolating homes, commutes and workplaces? We have a genetic blueprint for connection to all things.
Just as the universe continually expands, our spiritual journey hopefully takes us from closed, self-absorbed focus to openness and acceptance. Ideally, our movement takes us from selfish infant to mature adult whose embrace can include all types of peoples, cultures, languages and religious practices. This ideal seems hard to master, certainly, but the most certain way to happiness and peace. Our desire for belonging often traps us in small groups with limited understanding and acceptance of others, but ultimately this smaller sense of belonging robs us of our connection with the infite - the connection that we most want and need.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Let’s just say I erred. The dual threads of homework (especially mountains thereof) and lack of free time acted as tinder to our conversational fire. We jumped a few fire breaks and kept on going until the rhetoric got hotter than my lamb kebab on saffron rice. After lunch, I staggered into the house with an emotional hangover, feeling lower when I returned than when I left. I told my husband that I had started a firestorm of conversation and felt terrible, to which he offered the conciliatory (but ultimately unhelpful), “But you didn’t mean to.” I called to apologize to a few friends and later finished the job on email, and everyone kindly let me off of the hook. One friend talked about the importance of letting emotions out, how it is important to vent in a safe places so that you can ultimately return to a state of equilibrium to deal with the problems.
That is a Freudian take on emotions, and certainly has great validity in that you cannot suppress negative emotions (or any emotion, really) or it will leak out in unintended ways. I do agree with that, but when the ‘leaking” is replaced by full-throttled venting, I don’t think it works well. I turned to Google to do some quick research and found an interesting article on venting by David McRaney on a website called “You are Not So Smart,” a perfectly titled source in my situation. McRaney says the following: “Common sense says venting is an important way to ease tension, but common sense is wrong. Venting – catharsis – is pouring fuel into a fire.” http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/08/11/catharsis/. He cites research done by psychologist Brad Bushman at Iowa State in the 1990s where Bushman discovered that “belief in catharsis makes you more likely to seek it out” and that acting on feelings of rage by hitting a punching bag, for example, just added fuel to the emotional fire and prolonged the sense of anger and encouraged participants to act out angrily against their perceived aggressors.
I am not a psychologist, nor am I an expert in anything except my own behavior (and even that claim seems dubious). I do know that venting, at least prolonged and heightened venting, leaves me with a bitter aftertaste, a sense of exhaustion, and a somewhat darker outlook on life. Quick bursts of frustration made to an unbiased party (like my husband or sister) seems to work well – and I do that often enough. But starting a vent session with a group of people who agree violently will not be my MO in the future. As McRaney states, “The more effective approach is to just stop. Take your anger off of the stove. Let it go from a boil to a simmer to a lukewarm state where you no longer want to sink your teeth into the side of buffalo.” In my case it was lamb that received the brunt of my tooth marks, but I get his point. Next time I will move on to deep breaths and crossword puzzles rather than blister my friends with a sense of righteous indignation ( I promise to try, anyway!)
Friday, October 1, 2010
Conversation ranged from the frivolous (college drinking experiences, anyone?) to the fears that snake through our stomachs in the wee hours of the morning. We talked over family members, hopes for our children and our own ambitions. We discussed priorities, bemused over the shift from titles and salaries per annum to the bottom line of health, happiness, time spent outdoors, and strong emotional bonds.
One group’s idea of heaven was hiking 8 miles at 9500 feet, trekking through the dusty trail in the hot fall sunshine, sidestepping rocks and intrepid mountain bikers. We caught the convective drafts of pine needle perfume, stopping to stare at mountains and to pray that no one lit a match anywhere in the near vicinity. The pace was rapid, driven on by political debate, training techniques, and – in the end – hunger pangs that signified an urgent need for lunch.
I hope everyone’s week went well, that illnesses spent their course, that home maintenance issues got resolved, that sore muscles and pinched toes returned to normal. As the leaves down at a pedestrian 5600 feet start to turn – weeks behind their alpine cousins – a sharp contrast of gold or red on blue sky can cast me back to those mountain retreats, valuing the bonds of friendship, the rare gift of honesty, and the priceless intoxicant of laughter.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
The root of my problem, I know, grows in my head and not in my parents or their genes. Several factors work together these days to depress my mood and ripen my self-doubt. First: I turn forty in March. Intellectually I know this is not a big deal – I have friends five to ten years older than I who can run or walk circles around me, accomplish five times more in a day and remain absolutely beautiful inside and out. But somehow, the echoes of Vogue or Mademoiselle articles (last read in college) whisper in my ear, and I feel old. What should I do now? If the first half of my life is done, what will I do with the second half? I don’t feel like buying a sportscar or getting a facelift, but I wouldn’t mind a sense of my new direction.
Compounding my anxiety is the fact that my youngest child will go to all-day kindergarten in the fall. I will have TIME for the first time in ten years. I often catch myself thinking in terms of Meg Wolitzer’s book about motherhood, The Ten Year Nap. If I’ve been napping for ten years (with a few nightmares thrown in) what do I do when I wake up? My resume is out of date, my transcripts are so old that they probably need to be mounted to photocopy (do schools even accept photocopies anymore?) and I still cling to the hope of being home in the mornings and in the afternoons when my children get out of school. Add to that a less-than-robust economic outlook and you can see how the options shrink before my eyes.
I used to be a businesswoman, then a teacher, then a coach, then a mom. I wonder which title could be complementary to that last one, which is a permanent fixture on both paper and psyche. I’ve enjoyed writing a great deal this past year, but could I do it well and consistently? Could I call it a job? Could I make any money at it? You can see how the questions multiply. If I were patient, I would put the questions aside and keep my eyes open for opportunity over the next year or so. I would work to improve my writing skills, listening to my own voice while simultaneously researching graduate schools and weighing the pros and cons. (The problem with listening to my own voice: which voice will I hear? Will it be a productive voice or will it be a DJ from the radio station in my head that Anne Lamott calls KF****D?) I may yet end up waiting – and faking patience - but in the meantime I want to know NOW, and can anyone clue me in as to how this story ends? If only I could cheat and skip to the last page . . .
Thursday, September 16, 2010
That is a lie. I never realized how hurtful a lie it was until this week, when I saw a girl on TV react to being called "queer." Words hurt; they can twist your insides, hammer through your mind, change your perception of yourself. Words can be hard to forget, hard to shake loose, like a burr stuck to your wool hiking sock. Two nights ago I found my junior high year book while cleaning an old bookshelf. Some of the faded, loopy, handwritten entries contained my least favorite label, which was "smack." It was applied to kids in advanced classes, and was sometimes offered in the form of an offhanded compliment, but the underlying implication was "weird, uncool, not fun to hang out with." I worry now for my kids and the labels that will be thrown at them. I hear through the grapevine that some of the kids on the elementary school playground may have tossed out "you are too smart to play with." I don't know what was said or who the target was, but I think, 'and so it begins.'
Of course we can overcome our labels, work through heated discussions and redefine ourselves. But this takes work, and the process can hurt. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read on marriage was to think very carefully before you spoke to your spouse. Don't let anything out of your mouth that you will want to take back. I'm a bit scattered these days, and forget anything that's not written on a sticky note and pasted in front of me at the table, but I have never forgotten that piece of advice, and my husband and I really try to live by it. It takes a long time to forget hurtful words, as we all know by this point in our lives.
Words can also lift us up, define our sense of self through cultural reflections or reactions, restatements of universal truths, and works of spiritual guidance. The tremendous uproar over the pastor in Florida who wanted to burn the Koran caught my attention. Words printed on a page; it seems so simple. Yet the symbolism is powerful enough to change - even end - lives. I just read a quote that cogently addresses the topic of book-burning: "There, where one burns books, one in the end burns men."
(Heinrich Heine). Words should be respected for both the good and the harm they can accomplish, and for how dear they are to the hearts of men, and women, and children.
I know one thing, I'll never recite 'sticks and stones' to a child ever again. I'd almost rather someone threw a punch; it's cleaner, less personal, and often easier to rebut. (Not that I'll tell the children that.) I hope everyone encounters good, strong and uplifting words in their day, today and all days.
Monday, September 13, 2010
“Yours, Mother, why you are never angry!” And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.
“I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.” (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Nelson Doubleday: New York, pp 65-66).
“When asked for an example of a Good Mother, the women I polled came up with June Cleaver and Marmee, from Little Women. Both of whom are by necessity, not coincidence, fictional characters.” (Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman. Anchor Books, 2010: p 11)
I first read Little Women at the tender age of nine or ten, an age at which analytical thought is not yet developed. From the time I read the book, I loved it. I – like many girls – identified strongly with Jo, and also loved the figure of Marmee, whose image I carefully extracted from the book to place on my mental trophy shelf as the prototype mother figure. As my own mother joyfully sacrificed for the five of us and rarely lost her temper (at least in the years after I developed my long-term memory), the actions of my real mother supported my election of Marmee as model. Though the book is so moral that even Louisa May Alcott failed to love it upon first reading, and all of the characters are idealized to some extent, it did not dawn on me to ever critique Marmee. I never saw a word against this beloved figure until reading one of Ayelet Waldman’s books. I cannot recall which book it was, but the heroine’s mother said something to the effect of, “Oh that Marmee, I just couldn’t stand her!” After nearly falling out of my chair in shock, I had to admit that it was a relief to read that someone did not like Margaret March.
Strangely, the things we read, hear, or see in childhood help to shape our world despite the obvious flaws which could be discerned from even a haphazard critical analysis. We are just not suited to perform such analysis in childhood, and by the time we reach our teen years and develop a healthy skepticism and/or cynicism, it is usually directed at events, persons and authority figures of that time, not our earlier years. At least that is how it went with me . . . whose believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus outlasted that of all my peers. Perhaps we just don’t want to be critical of our beloved constructs.
In case you have not made Marmee’s acquaintance through Alcott’s books, here is a quick summary of her character from the (not-so-analytical) experts at Shmoop.com:
““"Marmee" is the affectionate name that the March girls use for their mother, Mrs. March, whose real first name, like her eldest daughter, is Margaret. Mrs. March is essentially the perfect mother: she works hard but is never too busy to console and counsel her daughters; she cheerfully does charitable work and helps out with the war effort; she's an ideal housekeeper, a loving mother, and a highly principled woman. She never loses her temper, she never misses anything, and she protects her children while still allowing them to make mistakes and learn their own lessons. “
You can see how a mother operating under that blueprint might occasionally get a bit down on herself. In a recent fit of Google-mania I searched high and low for criticism of Marmee. I got many positive and simplistic character analyses like the one above, feminist criticism warmly noting Marmee’s strength as a woman in a virtually single-parent home who had a strong educational influence over her girls, and a note about the “realism” of Alcott’s books, which were ostensibly ahead of their time by twenty or so years. When I searched specifically under the key words ”criticism of Marmee” I had only typed the capital M before I saw “criticism of Mother Teresa” but when I finished my original thought I had exactly zero hits. So either I am alone in my past reverence of Marmee or there truly has been very little written about the negative influence she has had on modern-day motherhood.
To wit: I can recite nearly word for word the dialogue between Jo and her mother about losing their temper. I have even borrowed the phrasing, telling folks that I try to hide my temper and “hope not to feel it” in another forty years. Now that I have nearly reached forty, and fail remarkably at hiding my temper every day, it seems that I finally have to admit that I am not as perfect as Marmee. This is a bitter pill to swallow. Instead of trying to attain her level, I will have to try to replace Marmee as my image of perfection. Roseanne Barr, anyone?
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
- from an interview with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run (courtesy of Amazon.com)
I attended Back to School night last night, and came away with a brain chock-full of knowledge. If my children learn even one half of what was explained, outlined, and scheduled last night I will be duly impressed and possibly overwhelmed. The comment that won my highest praise and lasting gratitude, however, related to recess. As background information you should know that my children only get two recess breaks per day and both are quite short. They even lost five minutes of recess from last year; to what purpose those minutes were snatched away I do not know. To add insult to injury, a school policy regarding late or missing homework places the offender at their desk or "on the wall" during recess, resulting in the loss of precious time when they could be burning off energy and frustration.
My son's second grade teacher explained that she had a new policy regarding late work; if a first-time offender, the individual retains their recess and has to take a warning note home to the parents. The note and the missing homework need to be returned promptly, or recess may yet be lost on a succeeding day. However, she understands that more time spent burning excess energy equates to more time sitting still and focusing in the classroom. Such good sense and excellent judgment can be difficult to find in any institution, and I am thrilled to hear that recess is a priority for someone (besides my son) at the elementary school.
My internal review of recess time sparked a connection to Christopher McDougall's excellent book, Born to Run. In the book, McDougall presents research and argues for the hypothesis that humans evolved to run. Our weird two-legged gait, forward-leaning spine, and odd hip joints all serve a purpose: to hunt in packs and to escape predators. As he says in the Amazon interview, "According to a new body of research, it’s because humans are the greatest distance runners on earth. We may not be fast, but we’re born with such remarkable natural endurance that humans are fully capable of outrunning horses, cheetahs and antelopes. That’s because we once hunted in packs and on foot; all of us, men and women alike, young and old together."
Last autumn I read his book and got so fired up to run that I upped my mileage and started trying to run barefoot, an option which McDougall and Harvard University espouse (http://www.barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu). Unfortunately, I got ahead of myself and hurt my foot trying to do too much too soon. (The foot problem was followed by a serious IT Band issue, and resulting physical therapy.) I am still not positive that I, personally, was born to run, but I know that my sons and daughter and their friends can hunt and chase with the best. It seems cruel to move from hours of exercise each summer day to a scant forty minutes of daily recreation during the school year; one of my biggest hats as a mom is the "coach" hat where I make sure to get them all outside and running around. After all, if I can't hunt or run from predators, I had better make sure that someone in my family can!
Thursday, September 2, 2010
My sister read me this quote from her co-worker’s bulletin board. They are fourth-grade teachers, and it is not surprising that I found the advice relevant since I am newly the parent of a proud fourth-grader. It dawned on me recently that my daughter has only two years left before she has to take the bus over to middle school, and her father and I decided that a little responsibility and independence would come in handy. The prime example of this would be asking the two older children to walk home from school, as their final bell rings very shortly after their little brother’s preschool gets out, and it makes life much easier if we can all meet at home instead of at the elementary school playground, as we did last year.
The children love to walk. The weather thus far has been beautiful; many friends, parents of friends, and neighbors line their path, and they only have to cross two streets on the way home – neither major. I started walking to and from school when I was in kindergarten, and my route was about twice as long as my children’s. Many of my friends had the same experience growing up, and many of these same individuals have to pick their jaws up off the floor when I tell them my second and fourth graders are now ambulatory and solo after the final bell.
As one perceptive individual stated, “My first reaction is to say that the world is different now . . . but really it isn’t. It may even be safer.” It’s common knowledge to any parent that the media preys on our fears with countless stories of abducted or terrorized children, but if we can step back out of the frenzy we realize that the children do have to grow up and they have to learn the skills that will make them strong and independent. I have taught the children about cars, crazy drivers, driveways, not to talk to strangers, what type of person to go to if they need help, etc. I keep my cell phone on me during their walk home in case a friend needs to get in touch with me (the children do not have a cell phone yet). I am definitely a product of the age, but I tell you what scares me more than hypothetical bogeyman on a sunny walk home is the specter of pre-teen and teenage boys sexually harassing my daughter on the bus on the way to school. I have multiple firsthand accounts of this type of danger, and the only way for me to combat that is to create a strong, independent, and confident child (who will report such behavior to any responsible adult in power and be able to keep her father from beating up the offending children.)
As I scribbled the notes for this blog entry in Starbucks yesterday, I stared across the aisle at two young moms who supposedly met to chat, but whose true focus stayed on the two car-seated babies next to them. The babies were young, round, darling, with lopsided figure-eight yawns and dimpled toes. They drew their mom’s gaze like a magnet, and every movement precipitated a helpful response. I remember those days so vividly; the children’s dependence was overwhelming and total. It was hard to envision a night when they would be able to go eight hours without eating, or a day without diapers, let alone an entire seven hour period when they could navigate academics, social pitfalls and travel without your influence. The baby / mom quartet across from me brought home the difficulty of letting go. . . .we bond so tightly in the beginning by having to anticipate and fulfill their every need, and already (not a decade later!) they want us to step away.
But step away we must, for the path takes them in new directions, and we cannot make the way smooth, at least not forever. Better to give them some navigational tools and provisions, and get ready to welcome them home.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Oprah: I think a lot of people interpreted it, or misinterpreted, that article that you wrote…when you say I love my husband more, I think a lot of women heard you don't love your children.
Mothers in the discussion: Why can't you say to them I love your daddy different? Why is there such an obsession of putting somebody before the other?
Ayelet: [In the article] I was responding to what I have seen as a replacement. And what I say is I'm in love with my husband but I love my children. I mean the truth is, yes, of course you love people differently. But what I'm saying is I don't think what we're seeing nowadays is people loving differently. I think we're seeing people loving more.
(from http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/A-Mothers-Love_1/, captured 8/28/2010)
I love Ayelet Waldman. What’s not to love about a woman who gets booed on Oprah for declaring her love for her husband? Or for writing a series of excellent novels based on her “maternal ambivalence”? (That has to be my new favorite phrase). Yet, reluctant as I am to turn from Waldman and her stance on all things maternal, the focus of this blog entry centers on the quantification of love. As the “mothers in discussion” at the Oprah show asked, “Why is there such an obsession of putting somebody before the other?” Waldman noted “I was responding to what I have seen as a replacement.” My interpretation of this statement is that our culture has replaced the ability to love differently with a scale on which the balance of love could be measured, some receiving a fair quantity, and some found lacking.
Love eludes easy measurements such as height, weight or length. It cannot be regarded as a particle or a wave, either of which can be pinned into numbers by enterprising physicists. Perhaps it can be defined more closely as a piece of music, as variable as a symphony in which hundreds of instruments are employed. Between two different people whose own harmonies are unique the interplay of sound must have an infinite number of possible dynamics, and the relationships between a wife and her friends, parents, siblings, spouse, children must have exponentially more probable manifestations. There is no possibility of comparison, no right, wrong, or equal.
When people say to their children, “I love you all the same,” I hope they are not lying or being purposefully dense, but just simplifying the truth for their offspring. The truth – for me – being that it is impossible to love three different people the same way. I love each of my children passionately and with my whole heart, but I do not love them the same. They are different individuals at different stages of growth, and it would be impossible to say that each tugs on my heart in exactly the same way.
It also troubles me when people say “I love my child through adoption exactly the same as I love my biological children.” How is that remotely possible? My relationship with my biological children began in my body, where they grew attuned to my rhythms and preferences and I began to understand theirs. My relationship with my youngest child began through dreams and photos, progress reports and prayers, only beginning in person when he had reached the age of 23 months. For my two older children I am, for better or worse, the only mother figure they have ever had and they have no doubt or mixed feelings about my permanence. I am the third mother-figure in my youngest child’s life, and I doubt that I represent the same type of permanence and constancy to him, though I hope that I will over the long haul.
I have no favorites among my children; though my journey with my biological children has been easier in some ways, it has not been “better”. On any particular day, in any particular month, one child has more needs than another, one skips through her days while another trudges. The situation can always be reversed; in the blink of an eye their fortunes, and their outlook, can change. Our love does not waver with these changing conditions, but it can be stretched and challenged by the needs of the children, the needs of husbands or wives. Love relationships that are tested by circumstance can emerge stronger, like arm muscles flexed in carrying a baby or a toddler.
I suppose what people really mean when they say “I love my children the same” is that they have no favorites. Good enough, I suppose, but in the interest of truth and honesty let us say that love relationships between different people are of necessity different. Each relationship has its own issues, pressure points, hot spots and soft spots. Let’s forgive ourselves for loving each person differently, our spouses and our children, our siblings and our parents. Life should not be characterized by amount and sameness, but by quality and by uniqueness.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Yesterday I had two and a half hours of completely uninterrupted quiet time. Emails disappeared, to-do lists shrunk, meals virtually planned themselves and the junk draw got cleaned (OK – not that last one). I can safely say that I have not been so productive in over two months, and was relieved that such a level of productivity was still within my grasp. Our summer was wonderful and full of adventure, but so replete with exhausting activity and distracting demands that my head whirled like a kaleidoscope – eyes full of swinging, scrapping sun-screened kids and ears full of their cacophony – bickering challenges, shouts of joys, cries of frustration. I profoundly missed the time to concentrate on one task and the energy to see clearly what needed to be done and how to accomplish it.
Now that school has started I have approximately ten hours per week to myself, and another fifteen hours with just one child. I have plans to write, read difficult books, teach a few classes, and train for Spring Swimming Nationals (at the Masters level – a 40th birthday present to myself). As I planned and plotted for this time, anticipating its arrival as our fish quivers for its three daily morsels of food, I tended to place school-day stillness on a pedestal and ignore the benefits of summer’s “kaleidoscope mind.” A line from John Elder Robison’s (http://www.johnrobison.com/) book, 'Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's' poked me to the benefits of unfocused time:
“As I recall my own development, I can see how I went through periods where my ability to focus inward and do complex calculations in my mind developed rapidly. When that happened, my ability to solve complex technical or mathematical problems increased, but I withdrew from other people. Later, there were periods where my ability to turn toward other people and the world increased by leaps and bounds. At those times, my intense powers of focused reasoning seemed to diminish.” (208)
Robison writes about his particular journey with Asperger’s and the fine line between his amazing gifts with circuitry and sound, and his ability to socialize. Yet I found his words applicable to my situation, as well. When I give myself over to my children, their friends, our extended family and our family friends, as I do in the summer, I lose the ability (and time) to focus on a specific task. Yet I gain flexibility, better relationships, shared memories, and new experiences. In the past I have had a tendency toward tunnel vision: over-focusing, if you will, on the task at hand. I have prioritized goals and accomplishments over relationships and pursued depth rather than breadth in my life. I take a rebuke in this statement Robison also wrote, “Creative genius never helped me make friends, and it certainly didn’t make me happy. My life today is immeasurably happier, richer, and fuller as a result of my brain’s continuing development (toward relationships)” (210).
So here’s to well-roundedness, and in particular the quiet time of school days. Let’s hope the muscle memory of slower-paced summer days stays with us as we launch into a new season of focus.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Our intrepid band of hikers embarked early Saturday morning - to the distress of fellow campers still holding on to sleep - and tackled Mt. Sherman, which is the 'easiest' 14,000 foot peak to climb, according to Rob's guide book. We drove to 12,000 feet and tackled the trail, which rapidly ascended and turned from dirt to rock. We had five children with us; a 9-year-old, an 8-year-old,and three 7 - year - olds, as well as five adults (for whom age is irrelevant). Everyone in our party climbed as high as the ridge and benefited from amazing views over the surrounding mountain ranges. When the cold wind hit and threatened to blow off the lightest member of our party, half the group called an honorable retreat.
I was surprised and pleased, though a bit worried, when our 7-year-old son took off up the mountain without hesitation, outstripping his father and even leaving us entirely to hike with a good friend when we waited for his sister. She was tormented with anxiety about the steepness and the windiness of the climb, and though I assured her we could call it a day with all virtue intact, she saw her brother and father ahead and decided to persevere. I held her hand, and abandoned all my own anxiety for her sake (this works for me in flying, too; amazing what kids can get you to do). She pushed on up the mountain with tears in her eyes and a quiver in her lip . . .I don't think she enjoyed it much but she accomplished the peak and prevented her brother from holding this achievement over her head.
I am amazed by the children and so pleased that they can accompany us now on almost any adventure. We do have a few more years to get our four-year-old up to speed, but now that I know it can be done, I am confident that he'll be climbing and hiking with us soon. Blessings to all and thanks for a wonderful summer. Now off to school for the kids and back to some focused intellectual activity for mom!
Friday, August 13, 2010
On our last day of vacation we took our two oldest children down the river in canoes; I piloted with our daughter aboard and Rob captained the vessel with our older son. Both paddled well, though still struggling a bit to get the oar in the water at the proper depth and over the edge of the boat without clunking their arms or torquing their small bodies. As they weigh substantially less than we do, the front of the boat could act like a sail, catching the wind and blowing ceaselessly to the shallows. Needless to say, it was a good workout for the adults in the family, and that was before the wind picked up and the lightning flashed in the distance.
As the storm rapidly bent down on us, my husband called for our trio of boats (his brother and girlfriend were also with us) to get off the water. With some difficulty I made to join them; it is hard to steer and paddle with storm blow against you! My daughter and I left paddles, socks and water bottles aboard the canoe, dragged it out of the water and went to join the rest of our team in a make-shift tent. We had a tarp which we anchored in between the other two canoes and underneath the rippling, crackling tarp we stayed mainly dry. The kids' eyes went wide as saucers and they teetered between glee and fright. The needle tipped to fright when my husband and his brother peeked out of the tarp to see our third canoe blow right out into the river - and flip over. "We've lost it!" yelled my brother-in-law, and my daughter burst into tears. "My socks!" she said.
I assured her that we could buy more socks, and we played "I made a cake but I made a mistake . . ." while their dad went abroad in the storm to find the canoe and bring it back, if he could. As the wind died down we felt better, though I battled with my worry about Rob outside in the rain and lightning. (This happened ten years before at the same family reunion, though upriver, and he had stood beneath the river cottonwood trees during the storm. We all thought he would be crushed by falling branches, but he didn't move. Stubborn, for sure).
In the end, the canoe was recovered with the help of a kayak in our larger party, and Rob half paddled, half dragged it more than half-mile upriver back to our hiding spot, where the storm was finally ending. With glee we resumed our journey, even spotting a final bald eagle in the last hour. The canoe trip put an underline to my thought for the week; being out in the park and the big sky areas of Montana makes me feel small, and that feeling is not unwelcome. It's a relief to recognize how little control we actually have in this world; the best we can do is prepare like crazy and then go with the flow. I need to carry this thought, and this feeling into other areas of my life. At home, in my house, where a storm might bring a power failure but little else, we rule as demigods and then are surprised when things don't go our way. Outside in more untamed parts we are reminded that Nature has the upper hand.
Something to keep in mind as we head up to camp at 10,000 feet this weekend and hike a 14,000 foot mountain - I'll let you know how that goes.
Friday, July 23, 2010
When she arrived, we spoke for a few minutes and then I went to the bedroom to make a call while she played with my daughter. I talked with a friend, and I confided that my antennae were up and quivering with this woman; I was not thrilled about leaving the kids with her. My friend said, “Oh, it will be fine, just go.” So, reluctantly, I did. When I returned, the kids were fine, though in the same positions in which I left them. I left my purse on the counter to check on the kids and came back out to pay with a pre-written check. After the hasty departure of our sitter I held my daughter close and asked how things had gone.
“Wee-hem cried,” she said. “Why was he crying?” I asked, concerned. “He was in de crib a yong time,” she said. “Where was the lady?” I asked. “She on computah” said my daughter. So I went to the office and found the computer off – the keyboard and monitor wet from something spilled on them. With growing alarm I checked my purse and found all my cash gone. Fortunately no credit cards were stolen. After my husband recovered our computer and we talked with the police we found that this woman had attempted to use our computer to create false resumes for more babysitting sites. We felt she spilled on it purposely to hide her movements, but my husband could find every site she went to and every document she created (he’s in technology). This woman was wanted by the POLICE for stealing people’s resumes and references, and she had scammed several families in San Francisco out of thousands of dollars by taking deposits for nannying their infants – and then fleeing.
Words can’t describe the sick feeling I had, the horror and the shock. I left my babies with a criminal. For ninety minutes their safety had been doubtful. I had tried to do my best to vet a good person, but the references I called knew only about the real individual on the resume, not the person who had stolen her name. Several weeks later, this woman was arrested and put in jail. The arrest was big enough that it made the newspapers. We never heard of her again, and I did not leave my children with anyone other than a family member for a whole year. No doctor’s appointments, haircuts or nights out without the children, or unless my husband was home.
I tell this story as a follow-up to my entry on finding oneself. I have told perhaps three people about that incident as my embarrassment, shame and lingering horror drive me to hide the experience. I tell it now to emphasize that we can love our children so passionately and completely, but because our society does not help us, parenting can become soul-draining. Many people lose jobs when their children get sick because they have to stay home with the child and have no childcare safety net. I have the luxury of staying home to “protect” and raise my children myself while my husband earns enough to feed them daily and keep a roof over the heads, but many don’t have that luxury.
Despite the fact that our basic needs are met and we live in a safe neighborhood, there is a feeling that the children are really not “safe” and that it is up to us to guard them from every type of harm. Our home can be viewed as a haven but also as a fortress that isolates. Once we raise the children to adulthood, it becomes our responsibility to get them to a good college (pay for it), help them graduate and find a job, and live happily ever after. This is too much pressure. As a friend recently said to me,” I would jump in front of a bus for my child, but I don’t want him to BE the bus.”
I realize that I have to let go – of fear, of control, of perfection - so that my children and I can be happy. I have to trust in their basic safety, and let them gain independence at a normal rate, and they need to develop life skills and trust in themselves. Their growth will enable all of us to have adventures, either individually or with each other. Staying safe and stuck in a comfortable routine will stifle everyone’s growth, and won’t make anyone’s life better or more fulfilling. But . . . I am still very careful about babysitters.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Several nights ago we dined with a group of friends on an outdoor patio overlooking the mountains. The view was beautiful and the temperature warm; it was the kind of night where you risk sliding off your chair if you stand up suddenly, and have to glance behind at your pants/skirt/shorts to ensure that the sweat stains don’t reveal too much. During dinner two friends regaled us with stories of their week-long cruise to Bermuda without husbands or children. I laughed at their funny quotes and people-watching experiences but their account was moving on a much deeper level. Both of these women, who are passionate, beautiful, artistic and funny, felt that they were seen and appreciated as individuals for the first time in years. As a result, they could see and appreciate their own selves for the first time in a long time. We discussed how we all lose ourselves in the roles of ‘mom’, ‘dad’, ‘wife’, ‘husband’, ‘professional’ and forget to listen to the rhythms of our own desires. The main question being: how do we find our “selves” again, and keep them?
The topic has been on a lot of minds lately; I opened the Raising Happiness July newsletter by Christine Carter (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/) and saw “Are You a Miserable Parent? I love my kid. I hate my life.” In her email Carter refers to the article “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting” (New York Magazine, http://nymag.com/news/features/67024/). The article is fascinating, though a bit depressing. In brief, children take more than they give, and when you have children later in life you know what you are missing. Every parent has to give up most of their external sources of joy when they have kids, particularly between the kids’ ages of 0 and 6 (I hear adolescence is no picnic, either). I’ve read a lot of advice on how to capture your Self again, and not just for one week every five years. Anne Lamott recently wrote:
“I’ve heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour. I promise you, it is there. Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day.” (Sunset Magazine, http://www.sunset.com/travel/anne-lamott-how-to-find-time-00418000067331/).
I agree with Lamott that quiet time for reflection reinforces our self-awareness, but if you are stuck in the hamster wheel of your habitual worries, grocery lists, and calendar planning, quiet time does not help. (I understand – from a number of sources – that I am laughably bad at being quiet, so perhaps this issue lies mainly with me.) For me, satisfaction and renewal most often come from new challenges, new people, and adventure. I reflected on this for the past two days and realized that in the last five years I felt most alive when I volunteered in the Arizona desert with unique individuals (who did not know me as a mom or a wife); when I rafted the Royal Gorge with my husband and a few close friends; when I went downtown to take Spanish classes from amazing immigrant women at El Centro Humanitario; and when I aspired to athletic competition normally beyond my grasp.
I think that to recapture ourselves (or our Selves) we have to break out of our routines and get outside our comfort zones. Regularly we need to meet new people who challenge us and who look at us in new ways. We need to leave our children behind occasionally (though a welcome reprieve this is always so difficult to do) and complete a physically, or emotionally, or mentally challenging task. Daniel H. Pink write in Drive that people most often found satisfaction when challenged, not in mere relaxation. Don’t get me wrong, parenting and maintaining relationships remain two of my biggest challenges, but they are habitual challenges and as such they lose their power to jolt my awareness.
I welcome any thoughts or input on how to keep growing, keep redefining oneself. It takes time and energy to put ourselves in those situations, but the energy and passion that we receive make the investment more than worthwhile.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
As I showed wedding pictures to a close friend yesterday I was surprised at how lovely and happy we all looked. The fatigue created by eight nights in a hotel room (OK – for five nights we had two rooms that connected) blurs the edges of my memory and renders the happy events slightly out of focus. I’ve had similar feelings when I view pictures of my oldest as a baby – if ever I look happy or together in the photos (this is, admittedly, rare) I’m surprised. All I remember is colic and sleeplessness.
I shared our trip with a close friend who said their family declared, ‘no more hotel rooms’. I'm not sure we can make that statement, but it has a certain appeal. (If anyone out there can reassure me that hotels get easier as the children get older, please do so now!) I have to believe that in the future I won't be jumping up in the night at every cry or complaint that comes to my ears; scolding children running across the hotel floors, jumping off the beds, crying at top volume in the hallway or elevator; or trying to find gluten-free food in the morning breakfast offering (which we usually attend VERY early as someone always rises prematurely and awakens everyone else).
We are so lucky to be able to travel at all, I know. I also realize that four or five nights of quality REM sleep will cause all the happy events to come back into focus and the fatigue to recede. Events like the magical corn-hole game - this needs to be introduced to suburban Colorado – which I occasionally managed to win; fishing at the town pond and watching my daughter catch a sunfish independently; spying as the cousins captured ants and spiders together. (On one occasion they put an ant and a spider together in a jar so spidey could have dinner. When he declined they were affronted. “But the ant looks so delicious,” they said seriously.)
I offer many thanks to my mother-in-law for her gracious hospitality and efforts to support me and the kids whenever she could, especially during the days our menfolk were gone to bachelor party activities. Much fun was had with my sister-in-law, with whom I shared a sneaky computer viewing of “The Bachelorette” and later caught up with the show on ihategreenbeans.com. (Check it out if it’s not too low-brow for you – so funny!) Family connections were re-made and reinforced; a new family made through marriage, and my own family bonded by both the good and trying moments. Not a bad eight days, on the whole. Congrats to John and Katie and thanks for a great party!
Monday, June 28, 2010
- From Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
In Colorado we witness many types of storms this time of year. During the four days of my sister’s recent visit we offended her Californian sensibilities with vigorous thunder and lightning, sheets of rain, hail, and even a final hot day offering flurries of cottonwood tree cotton. Today the mercury will hit ninety-two degrees and the draining heat makes it difficult to meet the challenges of mothering – and almost impossible to face the larger troubles spelled out in newspaper headlines or internet news briefs. Natural disasters, ongoing wars, recovery efforts and partisan bickering leave me gasping for fresh air, looking for some mental and spiritual refreshment. In recent days I have found my “lemonade of the soul” in Daniel Pink’s book, Drive.
Pink’s work addresses the science of what truly motivates human beings. Studies dating back decades reveal that monetary rewards are not the best motivators. Beyond a certain income baseline, people are most fueled by autonomy, mastery and purpose. For a quick video overview, you can visit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&feature=player_embedded).
In the most recent chapter I’ve read, Pink focuses on the number of baby boomers reaching sixty. He offers, “at the beginning of the twenty-first century, anyone who’s healthy enough to have made it six decades is probably healthy enough to hang on a fair bit longer” (132) as in twenty or more years. (Are you reading this, Dad?) How does this relate to my heat and headline trauma? Read on . . .
Pink notes that anyone who has the accumulated wisdom of sixty or so years learns past to look past the profit motive and search for work with a purpose: work that will change the world. I can provide my father as an example; his work for his city and county takes him to meetings every day on a volunteer basis and he has enabled the local area to build a brand new food pantry to feed those living in hunger. He finds and writes grants, raises money, and educates himself and others to the need around him. Thanks to folks like my dad, I can sit here writing with a cup of tea and feel like the world won’t totally go to pot in my mental absence.
Here’s a thought: “the planet very soon will contain more people over age sixty-five than under age five for the first time in its existence, (and) the timing couldn’t be better.” (144) I promise not to abdicate my own volunteer responsibilities at the thought of vast armies of purposeful, talented and experienced individuals taking on the plight of the world, but I am grateful for the thought of these reinforcing armies. I am relieved to think that the science proves humans are intrinsically motivated by purpose. I am hopeful that – as summer heat and window-clogging cotton will eventually relent – the troubles of the early 21st century may be washed away in a thunderstorm of purpose.
Additional thought: In a follow-up to my post on the Tom Petty concert (Rocking Out - A Rare Late Night), I wanted to post this quote by Willie Nelson as written in Sunday (6/29) Parade Magazine: "Death is not the end of anything. I believe all of us are only energy that becomes matter. When the matter goes away, the energy still exists. You can't destroy it. It never dies. It manifests itself somewhere else."
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
is a jungle. Sometimes wolves
dominate. Sometimes wild hogs.
Be wary when you breathe.
At one moment gentle, generous qualities,
like Joseph's, pass from one nature
to another. The next moment
vicious qualities move in hidden ways.
In every instant a new species rises
in the chest - now a demon, now an angel,
now a wild animal, now a human friend."
- From "The Inner Workings" by Rumi
This poem broke through my hazy consciousness pre-dawn yesterday morning when my four-year-old inexplicably felt the need to rise hours earlier than normal. I was stunned to think that this poet, born 800 years ago, somehow knew me. Certainly in the first two weeks of summer my innards have resembled a jungle where peace and tranquility form a rare oasis as the children readjust to endless hours of togetherness and forced sharing - their toys, their snacks, my attention.
A lion emerged from my chest when the youngest fell into the baby pool during my volunteer shift at the older kids' swim meet. His ensuing screaming temper tantrum required my full attention, and my abrupt retirement from duties. He refused all offers of dry clothes and managed to draw the attention of nearly every adult in the pool and parking lot area before finally calming in the arms of my recently arrived husband.
Then again at a swim meet, I felt rather bearish when trying to watch my daughter swim in her final relay. The boys, who had been sitting calmly behind me, started to fight. Two lovely individuals called to me to address my poor weeping children (who were only fighting over a spot on the lawn chair), and one mom from the visiting team came up to my little one saying, "Oh honey, where is your mom? Are you OK?"
"I'm right here!" I offered through gritted grizzly teeth. "I have two crying and one in the pool, but it's FINE." She could obviously see the wildness in my face and quickly moved to the side.
I have been as stubborn as a goat, loving as a llama (I did not pick that combination for alliteration - after reading Is Your Mama a LLama? for years I actually think of llamas as loving), quick-tempered as a snake. Sometimes I despair that these negative qualities exist in me at all; in my working years as a single or newly married adult I never felt this range of emotional responses. Only young children (MY young children) seem equipped to bring out these reactions. Yet I have to own the menagerie that abides within, breathe out the various responses, and hope that once emerged from their cages, they have a hard time finding their way back.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
“ If you think that the Truth can be known
If you think that the Sun and the Ocean
Can pass through that tiny opening called the mouth.
O someone should start laughing!
Someone should start wildly laughing –
- The poet Hafiz, as quoted in Change Your Thoughts - Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao by Dr. Wayne Dyer
Today is the last day of school. For a child, summer vacation beckons wildly with orange flags, waving him on to homework-free days of swimming, park visits, sand and dirt wallowing, and tormenting his siblings. For a mom, this day indicates an end to rushed mornings and lunch-making, also the beginning of constant companionship, loss of structure, and a temporary end to personal time. As I sat in sun-dazed stupor on our porch last weekend I realized that writing will become a bit of a chore over the summer. It will be hard to wrest control of the computer or gather any time for thought. I sighed, picked up my book, and read above poem by Hafiz. Dare I think that I had anything meaningful to say? Dare I believe that my words have meaning? Ha! Someone should start laughing now, I read, so I did.
The poem comes from a section of Wayne Dyer’s book, Change Your Thoughts – Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao. I really like the book, and it is unusual for me to say that about any self-help type of writing. (I gave up the genre after finishing my tenth book on childrearing and breastfeeding and realizing that none of it helped.) The section I read over the weekend deals with the 22nd verse of the Tao, focused on flexibility, a trait that I am short on both physically and mentally. In this section, I embody everything that can be wrong and have none of the traits desired. I started laughing with Hafiz and laughed the whole way through the chapter – not cynically or disbelieving, but because I am a freakshow of inflexibility.
Dyer writes, “to be in harmony with the Tao is to be free of goals, immersed in all that you’re doing without concern about the outcome” (106). Be free of goals? I spent Friday evening doing a sprint triathlon in 90 degree heat and Saturday morning at my children’s swim meet, shouting myself hoarse. By Saturday night I had planned a trajectory of age group excellence in my triathlons and team stardom for my children. I don’t actually think Dyer is wrong about goals and outcomes, but I am not sure how to detour my way over to that path from my current career of competition.
Next I read, “Let go of having to win an argument and being right by changing the atmosphere with a statement such as ‘You’re very likely correct. Thanks for giving me a new perspective.’” (106) Honestly, what a great thing to say. The only problem lies with getting those words to actually emerge from my mouth, particularly in any discussion that includes religion, politics, childrearing, athletics, etc. I will try to start small, perhaps with flavors of ice cream.
Lastly, I read the following pearl of wisdom and psychological insight: “As rigidity appears, notice that as well, allowing the wind to blow as you exercise the Tao in place of ego! Seek to uncover the root of your stiffness and achieve greater flexibility in the storms of life.” (107) This phrase was underlined three times, and not just for the phallic reference. What is the root of my stiffness? Why does rigidity appear the minute that my children bring toys up from the basement, fight over brushing their teeth, scream at me to turn on the television? Should I not just notice this rigidity and let it pass? That would be delightful, I’m sure. I think that my need for control arises from my ego, and well, from my need for control. I’d love to let go of that, but I’m not sure how to accomplish this goal without letting the children run wild, dirty, over-tired and sugar loaded. Tell you what, my homework on this summer vacation will be to uncover the root of my rigidity, let go my ego, and survive the process. I’ll let you know how it goes.