With Nana and Papa

With Nana and Papa
Family Times at Flathead Lake

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wonder and Gratitude

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” G.K. Chesterton

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

The Trouble with Candyland

~ Life is not fair; get used to it. ~ Bill Gates
~ 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

Seriously, siblings . . .

The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life’s essential unfairness. - Nancy Mitford

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 soufflĂ© 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

Post-Surgery Reflections

I risk death by unforgivable curse as I write today, ducking imaginary flashes of Harry Potter magic from the children’s colored glow-stick wands, somehow left over from Halloween. My youngest bounds from the couch, lands with a practiced roll on the hardwood floor and runs screaming after his brother and sister, all memories of yesterday’s short surgery seemingly gone from his mind and body. I am not sure that I will recover so quickly, after watching him go under anesthesia for the second time and surviving his reawakening in the strange and unfamiliar surgery clinic.

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

To Which Own Self be True?

“There are people,” he said, “who are past being hurt, beyond being hurt. You should know this is true. You should try to become one of those people, to make an understanding with yourself that you are not your body, that you are something bigger.” - From Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo

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
And dignity.

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.
- Rumi