With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Little Voices

No, I am not referring to my three-year-old's incessant chatter (last count, 800 "why's" in one day), my eight-year-old's tentative defiance, or my six-year-old's forceful insistence that I observe every bouncing-off-the-wall trick he performs in the house. I am referring to the little voices we all hear in our quiet moments - even in the noisy moments (sometimes most insistently then!) - the voices of our parents, friends and culture that tell us that we have not done enough, have not succeeded, have not fulfilled our early promise. This quote sums it up:

"Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, "Prove that you are a good person." Another voice says, "You'd better be ashamed of yourself." There also is a voice that says, "Nobody really cares about you," and one that says, "Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful." But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, "You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you." That's the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen." - http://www.henrinouwen.org/

I have been trying to keep moments of silence on my calendar, moments for being and not for doing. This remains difficult for me - a full calendar connotes to me a life full of purposeful activity and action, even if the activites noted are not particularly noteworthy. I need to appreciate that more growth and rejuvenation can take place in the down time and that empty slots on the calendar probably indicate more self-awareness and maturity than laziness.

One of my quiet times remains the half-hour before the kids wake up in the morning. I recently bought a year's worth of Rumi's poems and read the following nugget today while the full moon poured light in through the windows - almost negating the need for a lamp.

"Break open your personal self / to taste the story of the nutmeat soul. / These voices come from that rattling / against the outer shell. / The nut and the oil inside / have voices that can only be heard / with another kind of listening."
- A Year With Rumi by Coleman Barks (http://www.colemanbarks.com/)

How great is that? The nutmeat soul - I love it. If we can focus on that part of ourselves and listen for the small reaffirming voice that says we are loved - and that's enough - we can take pressure off of ourselves and our loved ones. Too many of us reach the middle of life and wonder if we are enough, if we missed our turn in the line for fulfillment. We turn to our children to fulfill our promise, occasionally snipe at our spouses in frustration and disappointment, and feel a sense of time passing instead of concentrating on the fullness of each moment given to us.

Thank goodness for the wisdom of those who remind us that we are enough, we are loved, we can be quiet and listen for the goodness within us.




Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ski - lift Therapy – OR – The Road not Traveled

Skiing offers many hours for discussion; if you include the rides to and from the resort in addition to hours on the lift and minutes perched procrastinating at the top of steep runs you can accumulate several valuable hours of talk therapy. We spent some of this time last Sunday discussing roads not traveled in life, or roads we traveled that had unexpected twists and turns which defied our expectations. The ultimate question being: through making imperfect choices and spending time in so-called ‘dead ends’ did we waste precious years of life and somehow miss the speedy quad chair to the point we want to be in life?

To answer that question one must first define the goal. Where do I want to be in life? I still cannot answer that question, despite several decades of wondering. I do feel that I have not arrived yet, that I am still a work in progress and have yet to help all the people I can help while using my uncertain abilities as best as possible. I get the sense, though, that we are all hurrying to get “there,” which recalls the anxious feeling of madly scribbling away in blue books for college exams. As if life is somehow like a blue book exam in which we race to finish in the time allotted, finally looking up triumphantly at all the poor bums still madly scribbling as if to say “I made it! (so sad for you).

I don’t know much, but I know that life is not a college blue-book exam. Life is an infinite number of questions to ask and answer, no grade (though there is a time limit), and more about what we feel than what we know. The journey does not seem to be linear – more circular or spiral – and the further we go the more we learn about ourselves. (For me personally this internal trajectory often feels like Conrad’s into the ‘heart of darkness’). If I am honest, my mistakes (and wow – they are many) have taught me much more about myself and what I do and don’t want out of life than the “good” decisions I have made. I struggle to be grateful for these mistakes, to recognize them for blessings and not roadblocks.

I read a story yesterday that really brought home the lesson of patience. Greg Mortenson tells the story of Nasreen Baig in his new book Stones Into Schools (http://www.ikat.org/). Nasreen was a gifted student at one of the first coeducational schools in the north of Pakistan. She had to leave school in 1992 at the age of 13 to care for her father and four siblings when her mother died. Later on her father remarried and she had to study at night because her stepmother’s did not approve of education for girls. After earning a high school certificate, Nasreen was offered a scholarship to attend a two-year course and obtain a rural medical assistant degree – her dream. Unfortunately, the council of elders in her village forbade her to accept the scholarship and she married instead. Let me quote: “During the ten years that followed this decision, Nasreen toiled twelve- to sixteen- hour days tending goats and sheep in the mountains, tilling her family’s potato fields, hauling water in metal jerricans, and gathering up eighty-pound bags of firewood and moist patties of yak dung. . . During this time she also gave birth to three babies and suffered two miscarriages, all without the assistance of a maternal health-care worker.” In 2008 she finally was allowed to take up her scholarship. Mortenson notes, “As for her ‘lost years’ Nasreen harbors no bitterness whatsoever, mainly because she is convinced that her experiences imparted some essential insights. ‘Allah taught me the lesson of patience while also giving me the tools to truly understand what it means to live in poverty,’ she says. ‘I do not regret the wait.’”

Ten years of waiting in poverty and servitude – no bitterness. I have a lot to learn from this persistent woman in Pakistan, though if our journeys are into the heart of ourselves they are - each one - entirely original. We cannot compare our course to that of anyone else. No need to compare, no need to race, just a requirement to be careful to notice our lives and be grateful for the places they take us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti

“How could a just God permit great misery? The Haitian peasants answered with a proverb: ‘Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe,’ in literal transaltion, “God gives but doesn’t share’. This meant, as Farmer would later explain it, “God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he’s not the one who’s supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid upon us.” (Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, 79).

The tragedy in Haiti has just broken my heart this week, as it has broken many others’, and the strength of my emotions has startled me given that I usually only cry during hormonal episodes. Each morning as I read the paper in silence the tears come, crossing the sleep lines still engraved on my face and dotting the newsprint. This emotional upheaval makes it difficult for me to handle the breakfast routine and school departure with equanimity, particularly when my three-year-old throws a temper tantrum over his cereal choices. Though I know it is absolutely ridiculous to expect him to be on good behavior because people suffer in Haiti, I still resent his ‘neediness’,’ ungratefulness’, and demands on my time when I should be in mourning, prayer, or searching the web for a good charity.

My daughter joined me at the breakfast table on Thursday, and I let her read the article on Haiti as I had already checked for traumatic photos. She asked difficult questions: “are there children alive whose parents both died? What are ‘corpses’? Do they have any food?” I answered her as directly as I could, feeling rightly or wrongly that if children in Haiti could endure their situation my daughter could probably stand to hear about it. She donated three weeks’ worth of allowance to the Red Cross and my son joined her efforts under some duress. I did some research about donating through some of our favorite organizations that work in Haiti: The United Methodist Church (www.umcor.com) the adoption agency who worked with us on my youngest child’s adoption (www.holtinternational.org) and Partners In Health, Paul Farmer’s organization that works extensively in Haiti (www.pih.org ) or (http://www.standwithhaiti.org/haiti).

The tragedy strikes so hard because 80% of the people in Haiti have no material goods, no long-term security, little healthcare, and daily instability. They struggle for everything in their daily lives, working to reap some food crops from the devastated earth, hoping for governmental stability and a stop to violence in their country. Haiti has a proud history; it’s people defeated Napoleon’s armies to become the first independent nation in Latin America. “In the hemisphere, only the United States is older. This point is overshadowed, however, by the overriding singularity of Haiti’s birth: there exists outside Haiti no other case of an enslaved people breaking its own chains and using military might to defeat a powerful colonial power.” (The Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer, 63).

Haiti became independent through a violent revolution against the French (and their European allies) which ended in 1804. The French asked for reparations for the war, and the burden of paying the debt and the resulting interest crippled Haiti in the 19th century (see again The Uses of Haiti, Paul Farmer). Again burdened by debt in modern times, $1.2 billion in international debt was just forgiven last July (http://omiusajpic.org/2009/07/01/haitian-debt-cancellation/) after requiring funds for payment of US $1 million per week. The long and tortured relationship between Haiti and the West has not helped to stabilize regimes or an agricultural economy.

At times like these we all ask “where is God?” I don’t believe that God interferes with the events of humankind – after seeing this tragedy how could one believe that – but I do not understand the extent of tragedy that some people have to endure while others simply, do not. I do believe that we have to help; we need to offer any financial assistance that we can along with our prayers, and pay attention to developments in our neighboring country. I also believe what Jim Wallis said in his Sojourners email this week:

“My God does not cause evil. God is not a vengeful and retributive being, waiting to strike us down; instead, God is in the very midst of this tragedy, suffering with those who are suffering. When evil strikes, it’s easy to ask, where is God? The answer is simple: God is suffering with those who are suffering.” (http://blog.sojo.net/2010/01/14/god-is-suffering-with-those-who-are-suffering-in-haiti/).

They are in good company, then, and waiting for us to help divvy up the loot.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dancing in the Snow

I forayed up to Breckenridge yesterday with a friend and three children, all requisite ski equipment , food and beverages necessary for their pleasure, and cell phone( inserted like a pacemaker in my inner jacket pocket) for their first day of ski lessons. Though the temperature read 6 degrees Fahrenheit after we disembarked in the Gondola parking lot all spirits were high and feelings generally positive as the kiddos met their ski instructors, deposited their sack lunches in the collective backpack and prepared to meet the mountain – all by 8:40 am. Glorious sunshine and good snow conditions blessed us as I prepared for my first adult day of skiing in a decade.

With a stomach made queasy by worries over the children and fear for my own life and limbs, I wedged myself into my own gear (let us not question why ski gear always seems too tight) and we took a bus to the top of the mountain. It was a crystal-champagne glass kind of a day, even viewed through a forest of skis and dingy bus windows. After a great first run and successful mount of the lift I was feeling better . . . until the cell phone rang. I nearly lost a glove and knocked a neighbor off the lift in my efforts to reach the phone, still not managing to open it until the message was left by my children’s ski instructor.

“Um, Mrs. Dravenstott, Dave here, I’m your kids teacher, and I just, well, it’s not an emergency by any means, but your kids are skiing at really different levels and I know that you requested they be together so I’m not sure what to do. One is ready to go up the mountain with the class and the other is definitely not, I’d like to move him down but had to check in with you first.”

Terrific. My stomach pitched to a new level of unease as I madly attempted to find and redial the ski instructor’s East Coast cell phone number while hanging on to my glove and keeping an eye on the lift to make sure I did not have to dismount mid-phone call. I reached the instructor on my third attempt and we both rapidly talked over each other trying to resolve our mutual dilemma.

“Dave, hi, it’s Mrs. Dravenstott. I got your message, and I think it is fine to split them up.”

“Mrs. Dravenstott, it’s Dave. Just wanted to make sure that it was OK to split them up since you specifically requested they stay together.”

“Dave, it’s OK, I just wanted them to start that way – it’s been a whole 90 minutes so I’m sure they’re fine now.”

“Not sure how you feel but they don’t seem overly attached and I don’t want to hold the older one back. I know you wanted them together but your daughter would never get on the mountain if she moved down and she’s ready . . .”

“Dave, I know what I wrote, it’s fine – just split them up! I’m sure my son will behave much better for you than he would for me.” My voice reached toward the octave of hysteria as we neared the end of the lift.

“OK, great. I’ll catch up with you at the end of the day.”

As I juggled equipment and nearly lost the phone to the mountain I envisioned my younger child weeping and bemoaning the loss of his sisterly support and original teacher in addition to loss of pride. I crossed all of the fingers and toes that were not crushed by ski regalia and prayed for a safe and happy conclusion to the day.

Despite repeated perusal of the cell phone – which I generally loathe – no further messages appeared and I relaxed and had a great day. I felt like I was dancing down the mountain though probably looked like a drunk trying to waltz across a tilted floor. The sun was glorious, and though my view was impeded by the disintegration of my 20-year-old ski goggles, the mountain vistas were clear. The ability to use our bodies in the outdoors and the freedom from immediate responsibilities combined in a heady elixir. We swooped and flew to our heart’s content and regretfully returned to the parking lot early to make sure we were ready for the return of the instructees.

My friend’s son – the best skier of the group – returned first with happy face and all equipment intact. He staunchly stood in the meeting area to look for my son, who was (of course) the last child on the mountain to return. In the meantime, my daughter returned with glowing cheeks and eyes and a heady excitement over her achievements of the day. Her teacher assured me of her progress and took me aside to praise her for helping her brother make the transition to a new class. Apparently he dissolved upon hearing of his demotion and she accompanied him to the new class and stayed with him until lunch, until he was ready to separate. Dave said, “she is really a mature kid, I was impressed.” After bestowing extra kisses on my oldest we finally caught up with the little black sheep, who returned covered in the glory of learning to start and stop on command. Though emotionally and physically drained from the events of the day he ended on a high note (what blessings!) and proceeded to giggle (almost) the whole way home.

All of us are looking forward to next week, to new improvements, fresh vistas and safe enjoyment of the slopes. I’ll still take my cell phone but can’t wait for the day when I can drop it in a crevasse, assured of my kids’ safety and enjoyment in the high-altitude heaven of the mountains.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dreamscape

A friend (fellow scribbler and long-ago English major) told me recently that she occasionally writes down her dreams to give the writing process a jump-start. Strangely, I rarely dream and when I do it takes an act of Nature to help me remember what has occurred overnight. My doctor told me in the spring that my lack of dreaming relates to a lack of serotonin or other related chemical in the brain – no surprise there – just one of the brain functions that I lack after 8 years of motherhood and three children. I did have a dream the other night that registered a 6.0 on the strange subconscious scale so I thought I would share. If anyone has a clue as to what this means, please let me know . . .

In the dream I was preparing for a triathlon, stretching out my towel and supplies in the transition area next to my bike. People came and went around me, taking no notice of my individual preparations, until I suddenly went into labor. Looking down, I realized that I was nine months pregnant and apparently the baby wanted out immediately. After a blurred transition to the hospital I was joined by my husband and other friends and family who encouraged me through the process as I quickly gave birth to a . . . large, perfectly browned and basted turkey! Apparently no one thought this was strange, or if they did they hid their emotions well and even congratulated me on bringing a new daughter into the world (it was a female turkey).

My only concern was rejoining the triathlon. Another blurry dream sequence later I found myself back at the transition area sans baby turkey, friends and relatives. Unfortunately I had missed the swim portion of the race and nearly the entire field had taken to their bikes already. I hastened to my transition spot, only to realize that riding a bike competitively moments after giving birth represented a painful feat of near-impossible proportions. The dream ended thusly with the disappointment of not being able to compete.

A few thoughts: a TURKEY? Am I secretly distressed beyond comprehension over my inability to cook? The triathlon I understand, having recently made training plans and tentative racing plans for 2010. But giving birth in general is not on my mind these days so caught me off guard, and though I was greatly relieved to wake up to my normal shape and lack of pregnancy belly, I have to admit to a moment of wistfulness about that dream-baby daughter. Anyone, a little help?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Your Precious Voice

"You try to make something from catastrophe and loss, a monument of words. You memorialize your subject, and in the process you memorialize the act of writing and understanding. Then if you're good enough, and lucky, you might stamp on the world a small thing that can remind you and others of the delicate fact of existence, and why we hold it so dearly."

Over the weekend a friend and I went to see the movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (www.weareallprecious.com) - leaving us emotionally bankrupt and shaken but profoundly grateful to have seen the film. The magnificent acting and storytelling gave us reason to feel gratitude despite the soul-shattering violence and trauma that Precious undergoes in 1987 Harlem. Leaving aside the major themes of violence, racism, incest and systemic injustice, one thing in particular stuck with us: Precious' teacher urging her students to write. When Precious breaks down (the only time in the film) in her alternative-education classroom, all her teacher says to her (can say?) after hearing the tale of horrific abuse is "write, just write."

Precious does write - slowly and painfully mastering the letters of the alphabet at age 16 - putting down her fears and concerns and personal history in a $1.89 journal that you can pick up at any grocery or drug store. Yet these simple journals work magic on the students, their blank pages providing fuel for ambitions, room to grieve and protest, space to grow. As the students learn the basics of grammar, reading and writing they also learn something more important - they have a voice and someone is interested. I love the quote at the top of this entry because it expresses what the gift of writing can mean; through our stories we can remind each other both of life's fragility and pain, but also of its power and beauty and originality. This comprehension binds us together as shipmates on a strange voyage.

We are a species that relies on stories to give meaning to the roller-coaster joys and sorrow of life. Memorization and verbal oration of the Quran was the only way that these holy words were passed down before scribes began to write them (In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta A. Ahmed, MD). The Bible's authors relied on oral traditions and aboriginal cultures still rely on storytelling to explain the origins of earth, of the origin of men and women, and why bad things happen in our lives. Live theatre, music, movies all serve to tell our stories, reprising the grand old themes of love, loss, longing, joy, in new ways that fit our times and places. Without the ability to tell, sing, write or act out stories something potent and beautiful would be lost.

Precious virtually gives birth to the self she imagines in her head through the power of writing down her hopes and ideas. The life she led, the novel it generated, and the movie based on the novel has now reached millions of people and made an impact the size of which no one can truly know. Not every story will reach out in the same way, with the same magnitude, but each story will ripple out and affect those who hear it, if we have the courage to write them down, act them or sing them out loud.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's Cooking

Last night we observed a three-year family tradition of dining with the kids at a local Mexican Restaurant (3 Margaritas) and richly enjoying the chips and salsa, lemonade (children) and margaritas (mom and dad). We returned home for our annual "dance party" in the living room, alternatively grooving to 80's hits, children's favorites, and salsa. As predictors go, this night works for me as an indicator of health, happiness and fun in 2010. We enjoy sharing the night with our kids - and I really enjoying going to bed early as staying up to midnight is hardship duty for me these days!

Unfortunately my dancing abilities were impaired by my one margarita and by the cheese sauce that adorned my enchiladas espinacas. Dietary issues formed an ongoing blockade to enjoyment of holiday meals (both literally and figuratively) for all of my stomach-challenged family. Nearly all of my four siblings suffer from a form of gluten and/or dairy intolerance and I have both celiac disease and the inability to process casein. My children show intolerance to gluten and to dairy - I have tested one child and he shares my genes for this failure - sorry, honey. All of our problems with processing made it ironic and sad to watch "Julie and Julia," which we did last night after the kiddos went to bed.

I'd love to make it a New Year's resolution to become a better cook - all victims of my recent dinner invitations and potluck contributions will recognize that my cooking skills require an upgrade. I need to protest that I used to be an able enough cook, but am worn down by the scarcity of ingredients we can actually consume (a relatively new hurdle) and by lack of time in the family's hectic calendar. I feel defeated by the fact that none of the pre-prepared meals at CostCo are digestible by me or my crew - the breathing space allowed by these meals used to give me time and space to create something edible from scratch at least twice per week. Now that I am on the hook virtually every night with few prepared meals or restaurants to help out my creativity sags, my interest wanes, and my poor husband looks at my evening offerings with sorrow.

At least we're healthy and not overfed, I often tell myself, but my cooking indicates to me a lack of success as a mom and occasionally as a neighbor, when I have to stoop to Safeway chickens and prepackaged rice as a gift meal. I tell myself that I will be able to cook one day, when the children leave home and I have more time, but who knows if that will come to pass, or if my husband will still be here. The temptation to leave me for a leggy chef like a 2010 Julia Child would probably be great! Perhaps I will settle for "Julie's" blogging success and abandon the cooking expertise displayed in the film. Certainly our waistlines will be preserved if I focus more on writing than cooking.

Whatever you decide to focus your efforts on in 2010 I wish you luck . . . and health . . . and happiness.