With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Spooky Month

"It Never Rains But it Pours"

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

The Call of the Weak

"Power and strength can separate people, whereas weakness, and the cry for help, brings people together. When the weak call forth the strong, they awaken what is most beautiful in a human person: compassion, goodness, openness to another." - Jean Vanier

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

The Universe and You

"Human beings have a craving for the infinite.. . the finite will never satisfy us."

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

Venting, OR Adding Fuel to the Fire?

Last Saturday found me and six close friends on the floor around a low table, drinking mint tea and toasting a recent birthday. The subject matter of our conversation drifted like hookah smoke from the Moroccan restaurant’s menu to husbands, silly celebrity gossip, and – inevitably – our children. I made the comment that I really enjoyed cleaning up pages and pages of my daughter’s short stories, pencil sketches, and cartoons this fall, and how I had waited fifteen months to see her with enough free time to author such works. My daughter is in fourth grade this year, which is a breath of fresh air given that third grade is THE homework grade for many at our elementary school. Raising the issue of homework in a circle of mothers seems risky, I know, but my sense of gratitude at the new free time outweighed my negative emotions about last year’s homework, so I felt OK about putting that sentiment in play.

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

Autumn Retreat

Sometimes you carry your friends in your heart, and that heart beats close to the surface. After sharing precious hours with girlfriends over the past two weekends, I felt their concerns and worries tugging at my gut in the days following, even while the shared laughter and memories illuminated moments of joy like autumn sunlight catches and holds the dust motes in my (admittedly unclean) kitchen. Away from spouses and children and distractions of the to-do list and the calendar, we could focus on one another.

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.