Baby Sarah

My daughter is telling everyone that I am pregnant with a baby girl named Sarah. (I’m not.) After the third person at her school congratulated me on this fictitious pregnancy, I asked her why she was telling people this. She replied, “Because it makes people happy when I say that.” Yeah.

My daughter loves babies. She draws pictures of them all the time. Her second word, after ‘hi’, was ‘baby.’ When I told her I wasn’t having anymore babies, she cried big fat tears and asked angrily, “How would you feel if you wanted a baby sister and someone said you couldn’t have one?”

I told her I would feel sad.

So. There won’t be anymore babies in my belly. The how and why of that is long, complicated, and personal, but unless a baby arrives Moses-style on our doorstep (speaking metaphorically), my child won’t have any siblings who share her last name. I feel grief about this. I feel relief at finally being able to let go of the two tons of baby-parphenalia in my house. I feel down-on-my-knees-heart-swelling grateful for my daughter and the life we have together.

So, I’m working on trust right now. I’m casting out trust into the universe, into the cosmic web of connection. At this juncture, I’m trusting that if our family grows (if we even have the time and space to grow!), then it will grow in another, surprising way — perhaps even in a way that doesn’t include babies. Perhaps our family will expand to include animals (rescue pets? chickens?! goats!!), or neighborhood kids, or my daughter’s friends, or adult friends, or people united by a cause, or wise elderly folks, or amazing teams of people working on creative projects. My sweet friend told me, “you will be surprised at the ways souls come into your life to fill up the spaces in your heart.”

The spaces in my heart are waiting to be surprised.

I’m going to trust that my daughter will find her ‘soul sisters’ and ‘soul brothers’ in her lifetime. I’m going to trust that she will find and choose a ‘sister’ like my sister and a ‘brother’ like my husband’s brother. She will find and choose a sibling-like relationship if she needs one, and people will find and choose her. Already, she is lucky to have some wonderful (though faraway) cousins.

We’ll just have to wait and see how she creates and lives into her extended family TBD.

These days, as I’m trusting-trusting-trusting,  I’m also working with the notion that we create our families. I’m considering the idea that the families we are born into, the families we chose, and the families who chose us, are a construction built by the people involved.

And I am comforted by the thought that there is some latitude in thinking about how this will work for us — for the current three-people-in-a-household-family that I have.

(Yes, I know I’m really late to the party on this.) These days I’m percolating on the idea that my-little-three-person-household might loosen up our narrow thinking around what a family can be. We can make the rules; we can tell the story. We can identify the players and the relationships and the boundaries. We can choose the words we’ll use to describe each other. We can make a compact (explicitly or implicitly) to love and care for those souls in our extended family of choice, as well as in our ’traditional’ family. We can locate our village (“it takes a village”) and choose to participate in that village-life too.

We might still have a ‘baby Sarah’ in our lives — she just might be someone else’s baby we love or she might not be a baby at all (see above). We can fill those spaces in our hearts in surprising ways. This is possible. There are possibilities I’ve never considered before.

And I love possibilities.

What possibilities do you see? What is the composition of your family? What kind of a life have you created together?

One more thing:
This post is a meditation for me and a challenge to confront my blind spots. It’s an effort to dive deeper in my Year of Clarity and dig into the life I want to actively create for myself and for those connected to me.
Currently, there are legal and cultural definitions of ‘family’ that constrict and impinge on people’s freedom to fully, legally realize the families they have created. This post isn’t meant to compare my family’s situation to families who are facing shameful laws such as  NC’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. My family and I are privileged in many ways — in this case, my husband and I are legally recognized as a married couple and we receive those associated rights and benefits (including parental ones). It is wrong and deeply disturbing that these rights/benefits/legal recognition are not extended to all consenting and committed adults. Hopefully, 2014 will see that change.
 

A discussion about death over orange juice

“You’ll die first.”

My five year old daughter said that to me about two weeks ago. It was 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I was leaning into the fridge reaching for some orange juice. She was between bites of her cereal, sounding chirpy and chipmunky as she usually does.

“You’ll die first.”

Do not underestimate the creepiness of hearing your kid say that to you. Even on a bright Saturday morning while you are in your bathrobe and she is in her snowman pjs and all is right with the world — it was super creepy**. I admit I laughed, snorted and gulped at the same time wondering if I was about to have a kindergartener-exorcist-experience and marveling at how unexpected this parenting stuff is.

I aimed for an attitude of nonchalant curiosity as I emerged from the fridge with the oj. “What do you mean, honey? Can you tell me more? Do you have a question?”

Turns out that she was just confirming a logical sequence that she’d worked out in her head….it goes a little like this:

When people get really old, they die. Mom is older than me. Mom will get really old before I get really old. Therefore, Mom will die before I will die.

Mom will die first (before me). Right, Mom?

Yeah, and it was only 8:00 a.m. 

I agreed that she was right, that I would die first. Yep, yep, you bet, don’t worry about that. Knowing my kid as I do, I know she was looking for comfort and the standard assurance that if I did something first than it wouldn’t be so scary for her. That is her clear preference for how things work in our little family world — her dad and I pave the way, act things out, model behaviors, act as examples, then she feels safe enough to try for herself. On that Saturday morning, her little brain whispered something unsettling about her own mortality; she wanted to make sure that someone else was on the hook to figure that out first. That would be me….on the hook.

It is a sobering thought that your kid is looking to you to model how to approach death — even in the simplest-five-year-old understanding of that concept — yes, that is a sobering thought over Cheerios and coffee and orange juice and slippers and snowman pjs. I didn’t know I was signing up for that when I saw the double pink line on the pregnancy test, you know?

It’s not surprising though, when I consider that this kid is watching me all the time for clues about how to live in this world and how to interpret the events and the people in it. She is all the time looking for indications about what is frightening and what is not, what is safe and what is not, how to treat people/guests/family/friends/neighbors/strangers, how to express herself, the rules of society, the rules of being female, the rules of being a child, and more…She is looking to me and the other adults in her life to model very complicated ways of operating in the world — so she knows how to be and, more importantly, what to expect.

What can she expect? What should she expect? She wants to know. Geez, so do I.

So, death. It comes up from time to time. We see dead birds or dead animals in the woods – we attended my grandmother’s funeral – her grandparents’ dog died – she hears some snippet of news or adults talking or conversation at school about people dying or getting killed. Fairly often, she comes to me with questions about people who died and what that means for them and for us and for her.

I don’t know the answers to any of this. I don’t know what it all means. Once she learns how to read my blog, she’ll know that.

So, we talk about death. We talk about how the body stops working when you die — no more breathing, playing, moving, eating, sleeping, etc. We talk about the permanence of that bodily change (she doesn’t believe in the permanence — not one bit — that’s ok). We talk about our souls and what a soul might be and where it goes after death. Once we get beyond what happens to the body, I answer almost all of her questions about death with my own question “What do you think happens?” Because I’m curious. Because I want her to think it through in a way that makes sense to her five-year-old-mind. Because I don’t know. Currently, she is certain that all souls go directly to Mars to hang out after death. Alright by me. Alright for now.

Mostly, when she comes to me with questions, she’s really asking if she’s safe, if we are going to leave her, and if anything bad is going to happen in the immediate future. I have spent a great deal of time googling ‘age-appropriate conversations about death and dying’ — what the hell, I don’t know how to talk about this — and I’m doing my best to comfort her without feeding her misinformation. I’m doing my best not to make it all sound scary (like how much it scares me) and instead to frame death as a transition, as a mystery, as an aspect of life that we all have in common. I’m doing my best to make sure that she understands that no discussion topic is taboo whether it’s dying or sex or bodies or whatever, and that emotion-laded topics are not to be feared.  In this family, emotions are not to be feared, they are to be shared…even grief, even fear, even confusion, even courage, even love.

Even as I try to comfort her and remind her that she is safe, I know that life and death cannot be controlled. Bad, sad shit happens — wrong and out of order and out of tune and way too soon. I know this. I can’t control it. I can’t anticipate it. One day, she’ll come to me with more questions that I cannot answer about life, death, meaning, fairness, fate, and the f-ed up turning-wheel-of-fortune. In those moments, I will try like hell to hold space for her and her questions, and trust that she will find her own answers over time, as we all must. (Deep breath, deep breath)

In the meantime, I guess I’m showing her how to approach life as well as death (even as I’m figuring that out for myself in real time). I’m engaging what is frightening and what is not, what is safe and what is not; I’m considering how to treat people/guests/family/friends/neighbors/strangers, how to express myself, the rules of society, the rules of being female, the rules of being a child, and more…I am wrestling with the very complicated ways of operating in the world in the presence of my daughter knowing that she can see me and she is watching me live my life. 

We talk about living during this living-alive-portion-of-my-life. Daughter, let’s talk about life! I do my best to comfort her without feeding her misinformation. I do my best not to make it all sound scary (like how much life scares me) and instead to frame life as a series of transitions, as a mystery, as something else that we all have in common.

Like death, life still happens, even if we ignore it. I don’t want to ignore either one.

Yes.

Yes, I want her to be right about me ‘dying first’ (there’s something I never expected I would say).

Yes, that is ok with me.

I plan to live to hit the triple digits. If my soul goes to Mars when I’m 100, she’ll still be a spritely 65. As far as I’m concerned, ‘first’ doesn’t mean anytime soon.

Triple digits, baby.

** Unless you are a five-year-old innocent, please be cool and refrain from repeating this statement to me.

Getting (or not getting) what you want on Election Day

Tomorrow is Election Day. It seems like a lot is at stake this year. Whew. Like many people, I will be on pins and needles hoping hoping hoping watching watching watching as the votes are tallied. My guy! My guy! My guy! I want my guy to win! Four years ago on Election Day, my husband and I took our three-month-old daughter to vote with us. A beautiful experience voting as a family for the first time.

Sure, I hope ‘my guy’ wins again, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. And no matter the outcome, a large portion of the country is going to be deeply disappointed on Wednesday. Not the majority, obviously, but still, many many people will not get the outcome they voted for.

I wonder how folks will deal with that.

Will we have graceful winners and graceful losers? Given the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy and the numerous other critical issues facing our country, will people quickly abandon the discussion of winning and losing and focus instead on stepping into a united future of the States of America? Will there be olive branches and genuine handshakes of ‘we’re all in this together’? I hope so.

I hope so, but I’m not confident that will be the case. Maybe not right away. Maybe not ever. Because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people handle not getting what they want, and frankly, people don’t handle it very well. I know I don’t. In fact, I venture to say that one of the greatest challenges in life is learning how to ‘be cool’ with not getting what we want — ‘being cool’ for real, and consistently. We are very bad at this. We are so attached — like frantic emotional octopuses (octopi?) — to the outcomes that we want and the way we want things to be.

We seem to have a tendency for grasping and clutching — or maybe that’s just me.

I know I hold much of my life too tightly. I often think there is only one right way for things to be. And based on my experience of living with a wee youngster, it seems this inability to deal with not-getting-what-we-want-when-we-want-it is a problem right from the start of our lives. It’s an on-going ever-growing challenge.

Yeah. You know what’s always caused giant tantrums in our house (ehem, from the adults and the kid)? Yeah, when a person doesn’t get what he or she wants — when expectations are not met, when the outcome is undesired, especially when that person is already stressed — it’s welcome to Tantrum City, USA.

I hope we don’t wake up to Tantrum City, USA on Wednesday morning. I hope we all can put on our best big-girl and big-boy behavior and be friends. I hope. I hope that no matter which side we are on today,  we can be graceful tomorrow and the next day and the next day and so on…together.

However, if that’s not the case… if you don’t get what you want on Election Day, then I’m here to offer you some alternative responses (see them below). They are inspired by real-life recent examples of a four-year-old melting down when she didn’t get what she wanted. Try these on for size on Wednesday (in the privacy of your own home) if you think they will help. If I don’t get what I want on Election Day, then you can be sure I’ll be working my way down that list too.

Ideas for responding like a preschooler when you-don’t-get-what-you-want-when-you-want-it (which is NOW):

1. Whine loudly, yet incoherently, while draping yourself limply over the arm of the couch. Slide slowly, dramatically, to the floor in a heap. Roll around on the floor. Don’t stop whining!

2. Scream as loudly as you can with all of your teeth bared. Clench your fists as your face turns bright red. You, a red pepper, a four-year-old HULK!

3. Menace someone in the room (yes, usually your Mom) with the threat of physical harm. Examples: Hit the carpet as hard as you can while crawling in a circle around her; charge forward with your fists balled up boxer-style, stopping just in time; scoot along on your bottom with your feet windmill kicking — getting closer and closer, but never actually making contact; try to pinch your Mom with your toes. Be careful, if you hurt Mom, you will get an instant Time Out.

4. Destroy things! Break your nightlight; try to pull off the head of your Tinker Bell doll; knock over all of your toys; crumple your drawings in a ball; throw your books around. P.S. You’ll need to clean up this mess later, and if you actually break stuff, you’ll be in big trouble.

5. Negotiate, bargain, negotiate. Surely, we can work this out! When your negotiations go nowhere, find someone else (like Dad!) and try again.

6. Repeat each of these phrases twenty times: “I’m not your friend anymore! You’re not my Mom anymore! You broke my heart! It’s not fair! I’m berry upset with you! I’m berry serious! I want it! I want it! I WANT IT!!!!!!” When you pause to catch your breath, give your meanest Death Glare — like lasers from your eyeballs.

7. Cry — big, fat, sad tears. Point out your tears to your Mom. Go into the bathroom to watch yourself cry in the mirror. Ask your Mom to come and witness you watching yourself cry in the mirror.

8. Apologize wildly for everything that you can think of, everything that you’ve ever done in your entire life, in the hopes that the outcome will change.

9. Refuse a hug. Refuse any attempts by other people to help you feel better. Put your hands over your ears and close your eyes tightly. Refuse to move on.

10. Slam the door to the bathroom and lock yourself in. (When you get scared because you can’t unlock the door, your Mom will pop the lock and rescue you.)

11. Walk away, up to your bedroom for some alone time. Read books and sing songs to yourself until you are calm in your mind and your body. Then, come downstairs to play.

12. Sing along as your Mom quietly sings the chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

13. Hug your Mom or your Dad or your friend or your cat. Cry. Feel better. Move on. Go build something.

Happy pre-Election Day, my friends. Here’s hoping we can roll with the outcome better than most four-year-olds. Wishing you all the best, sincerely.

Vote.

Beauty fail, beauty win

A few weeks ago, I freaked out and bought some cosmetic spackle to “fill + seal” my frown lines.

Yeah.

I was killing time in the Barnes and Noble, and I wandered across an article in a fashion magazine about my ‘elevens’. I didn’t know about these until I read this article — ‘elevens’ are the two frown lines between your eyebrows.Yes, ELEVENS.

Thank you, staff beauty writer, for pointing out this problem to me. Another potential flaw with a special name that I need to vigilantly guard against. I’ll just slot that into my lexicon next to muffin top, bat wings, bra rolls, cankles, and menopot. Fab.

I first noticed my lines in college – they were easy to smooth out then — but over the years I’ve done much concentrated thinking (and ok, some frowning), and they’ve become permanently etched in my brow even in my most serene moments.

I always kinda liked mine until I read an anxious reader begging for help, “Emergency! Please help! My frown lines are terrible. WHAT CAN I DO?”

“Oh,” replied the advice columnist (well, my interpretation of the advice columnist’s reply) “you mean your ELEVENS? Your horrible vertical stick-like elevenish frown lines? Holy crap! Go immediately to purchase this spackle and that illuminator and this concealer. The spackle will fill in your cavernous wrinkles with a paste-like substance, the illuminator will create a shimmering mirage of young skin while redirecting the eye, and the concealer will smooth everything over so your wrinkles blend in with the rest of your makeupped face. These three products together will cost you over $100, but you must stop the ELEVENS! No wrinkles no matter what the cost. And, always wear bangs to hide the evidence of your thinking and frowning so you never look OLD or MEAN or SEVERE or SERIOUS…. or OLD. Your goal for the rest of your life is to appear 30 years old. Color those grays poking out from the top of your head. Drink two Diet Cokes and call me in the morning.”

Wow, I fell for it. I took that bait. I don’t know if I was having particularly low-self-esteem that day, but I did not blink, I did not pass Go and I did not collect $200; I marched myself to the Target with my daughter in tow and grabbed that recommended spackle off the shelf. In fact, I seized the remaining two boxes in a scarcity induced mania fueled by beauty desperation. On sale! Hooray! Wait, the sticker says they are discontinuing it?! No no no this always happens I find something I like then it’s discontinued what am I going to do when I run out of these two boxes oh my god my wrinkles everyone will see that I am getting older…must. have. this. product….

Never mind that the spackle comes in a toothpaste-sized tube, and you need apply only two centimeters of it to your frown lines. My two tubes will last at least a decade. And never mind that the company was probably discontinuing this particular product because IT DIDN’T WORK. Excuse me while I wipe the word ‘sucker’ off my forehead.

So, I raced home and spackled myself. Yes, very nice. Oh, yes, much younger now! My elevens are fully camouflaged.

That evening, a propro of nothing, my daughter reached up and traced my frown lines with her lovely little index finger. Then she traced each of my eyebrows and rested her hand on my forehead like she was checking for fever.

“What are you doing, honey?” I asked.

“Tracing lines,” she said. Then she skipped away.

She didn’t seem to have a particular point of view about my lines. To her, they’ve been part of my face since the day she was born. Just lines. Completely unremarkable, really. And good for tracing. Apparently, despite my best efforts, they were still in plain view. Huh.

Shortly after my daughter was born, I stopped buying all of those fashion/women/beauty mags. I didn’t want them around the house for her to see and for me to try to explain. I’m a feminist, ok? I’m trying to raise a four-year-old feminist. Victoria Secret ads on the coffee table muddle things up. Even still, I’d eagerly look for opportunities to thumb thru magazines in the grocery store or bookstore. Furtively, joyfully, gluttonously. However, since the Spackle Incident, I don’t read them at all anymore – Mademoiselle, Glamour, Marie Claire, Vogue, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, O: Oprah Magazine, etc. — despite how much I LOVE them. Because I love them so much – so glossy and gorgeous and fantastical and young and sleek and inspirational and full of promises and comparisons and gossip and full of answers and possibilities and the BEST stuff I NEED to make myself HAPPY. I love those magazines like I love a hot fudge sundae, but they make me crazy.

I don’t need any more crazy.

I need to be myself — which is plenty hard enough, right?  I’ll trace my lines, get over them, and then spend my time, my money and my life on something that really matters. At this point in my life, as I march toward 40, I am finally waking up — waking up to my voice and my body and my self in this world. Finally, at long last, the picture of ‘what really matters’ is coming into focus. I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste my life f-ing around with my wrinkles.

Because also, this happened…

During a peaceful car ride last week, my daughter chirped from the backseat, “When I grow up, I’m going to be beautiful.” [My internal monologue = I failed to protect her from our culture’s obsession with physical attractiveness as the ultimate achievement. She is four years old and thinking about being beautiful already. Is that all she wants to be? Wait, does she have low self-esteem? Does she think she’s ugly?]

“I think you are beautiful now,” I said.

“No, mom,” she laughed, “I’m just a kid. Kids can’t be beautiful. Womans are beautiful.”

“Oh. Who’s a woman you think is beautiful?” I ask. [My internal monologue = She’s going to say one of the princesses.  Oh, here we go with the princesses. Now I’m going to have to deconstruct the Disney Princess.]

“You, Mom,” she said.

[Internal monologue = silence]

“Thank you,” I said, “Who else is beautiful?”

She listed all of the women we know — all of our friends, her teachers, babysitters, grandmothers, and the moms of her friends.  No ‘womans’ from books or DVDs or pictures. None of her favorite fantasty-play-acting characters like mermaids, princesses, fairies, ballerinas. Just real live women in her world.

My daughter’s simple formula was WOMAN = BEAUTIFUL. She didn’t rule anyone out. She didn’t mention clothing, shoes, size, shape, skin, hair, job, money, age. She believes that when she is woman, she’ll be beautiful too. Just like all the rest of us.

My heart leaps at this thought.  A reminder of the beauty in all people, not just women, but everyone. A generous application of beauty, a blanket and universal acceptance — yes, we all can be that. We are all beautiful. All of us in our different ways. Beauty-full.

What or who is beautiful to you?

Click on it

My child has been playing a lot of (too many!)  Sesame Street computer games, and watching too many (ehem) intellectually stimulating TV programs, and eating cereal for dinner on a regular basis. This is what happens when I’m in a show. And, you know, I’m cool with that. She’s fine. I’m fine. We’re all fine. It’s temporary, and when I get really honest about it, it’s not that much different than when I’m not in rehearsal.  Less TV, but probably the same amount of iPad or Sesame Street computer games and cereal for dinner…and yet the world still turns on its axis. I am a nicer and happier mom when I am making art and to me that’s more important (and that’s another post).

Anyhow, the over-saturation of computer games has become really apparent recently because the phrase, “just click on it” is now part of almost every make-believe game she creates. In a Sesame Street computer game, Grover might say, “if you see a green star, click on it”, then my kid will mouse over the green star, click the button and fireworks will appear on the screen. Magical technology! Or Elmo says, “if you want to see Elmo dance, just click on Elmo”.  Now, when my daughter and I play Babies and Monsters (a new favorite make-believe game), she’ll say, “If you want to hear the baby cry, just click on her” or “If you want the monster to stop scaring the baby, just click on it.” Full disclosure: I might be encouraging this behavior because I laugh every time she says that stuff.

It is true that I felt guilty the first dozen times she mentioned ‘clicking’ on something. Now there’s proof that I let her have too much screen time! Everyone will know that I am a terrible non-nurturing beastly mother! But I have a new rule about guilt that I’m trying to follow: I refuse to feel guilty about things that I do not intend to change. If I feel guilt coming on, then I make the decision to do something about it or make a decision to let it go, but I don’t want to carry around a backpack full of guilty distractions about stuff that I don’t really care enough about to fix. Know what I mean? Either I’m going to choose not to eat the brownie for breakfast because I know I will feel like crap an hour later or I’m going to choose to eat the brownie for breakfast and enjoy the daylights out of it. I’m not going to eat the brownie for breakfast and feel terribly guilty about it too. That feels like a waste of time and energy.

‘Click on it’ falls into the category of stuff that I have decided not to feel guilty about because really I don’t care if she plays age-appropriate games on the computer. I care what other people think about that, and I worry that I’ve been more tired or distracted than usual during our ‘quality time’ (issues that I am actively working on), but www.sesamestreet.org is not going away in our household. Sometimes I need to take a nap, and God bless Elmo. So click on that.

Actually, I’ve begun to appreciate ‘click on it’ as a way to signal decision-making points and active opportunities in my life. Now, I have Sesame Street voices in my head: “If you want to drink another cup of coffee and stay up all night, click on it.” “If you want to show your kid that you are paying attention, click on her.” “If you want to have stronger abs, click on some sit-ups!” “If you want to waste another 30 minutes spacing out on the internet, then just keeping clicking on it.” I often convince myself that I am a kind of passive victim of circumstances, that I have so little agency, but when I break it down, I begin to realize that I am clicking on things every moment. I am making little choices to do or not do all the time.

Other reasons I’m embracing “click on it”:

*’Click’ is such a great word so saying it often is aurally and orally satisfying.

*Telling someone to “CLICK ON THAT!” (even if it’s just in my mind) makes me smile.

*The idea of ‘clicking on something’ feels like a discovery or opening a present. Like, “What’s behind Door #1? Open it and see!”. When playing a game on SesameStreet.org, kids don’t always know what will happen when they press the button — it’s a great surprise for them. I like the idea of carrying that over into life. Oooo, what will happen when I click on that?

*And finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone needs to be ‘clicked on’ sometimes – to be intentionally seen, recognized, chosen, touched on the shoulder, paid attention to – even for a moment. “If you want your employees to be happy, click on them.” “If you want your friend to think you care, click on him.” Maybe this is something that only works in my brain, but the days seem happier when I intentionally set out to ‘click on’ everyone. I’m happier on those days too.

So, what about you? Thoughts about the guilt rule? Thoughts about clicking on things? Just click on it. Come on, really, click on it.

I want pizza: Losing ourselves in the Atlanta airport

The mother of all tantrums. You know, the one when you and your kid totally lose it? The one that you fear as a parent?

THE GIANT LENGTHY EXTENDED RE-MIX OF ALL THE PREVIOUS TANTRUMS TURNED UP TO ELEVEN ON THE VOLUME KNOB — THE MOST PUBLICLY HUMILIATING SCREAMFEST COMPLETE WITH VIOLENT FLAILING TO HIGHLIGHT AND UNDERLINE YOUR INEPT PARENTING – IN THE AIRPORT AND THEN ON THE AIRPLANE WHERE YOU CANNOT ESCAPE – DURING WHICH YOUR USUALLY LOVELY CHILD GIVES HER BEST IMPRESSION OF THAT KID FROM THE EXORCIST WHILE SCREAMING “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME. DON’T TOUCH ME. I WANT TO GET AWAY FROM YOU. I DON’T WANT AIRPLANE. NO NO NOOOOOO AIRPLANE” – AND YOU TRY ALL SORTS OF CALM AND LOVING SOOTHING MOM-TRICKS BUT NOTHING THAT YOU TRY WORKS TO CALM YOUR CHILD AND STOP HER SCREAMING —  PEOPLE STOP AND STARE AND WONDER IF YOU ARE KIDNAPPING OR HURTING THE KID AND THEN THEY WONDER WHY YOUR FOUR-YEAR OLD CHILD WHO IS NOT A BABY ANYMORE IS COMPLETELY LOSING IT AND THEN PEOPLE GET OUT OF YOUR WAY AND LET YOU CUT IN LINE SO YOU CAN HAUL YOUR CHILD (WHO IS KICKING AND HITTING YOU) INTO HER SEAT AND YOU HOLD HER DOWN AND BUCKLE HER IN. AND SHE KEEPS KICKING YOU AND SCREAMING UNTIL YOU GRAB HER LEGS AND ARMS AND SAY IN YOUR SCARIEST MEANEST TEETH-BARED SQUINTY-EYED MOM WHISPER, “STOP THAT RIGHT NOW. STOP IT.” And then your kid stops screaming because you scared her speechless with your violent-sounding whisper. Then she starts quietly crying with very sad eyes. She says, “Mom, you scared me. I didn’t like it when you said bad words to me. You hurt my feelings, Mom. You broke my heart, Mom.” You unbuckle her seatbelt and she climbs into your lap for a hug. And everyone feels like crap.

You know that tantrum? Yeah, that was last Saturday. Apologies to the people in Terminal A of the Atlanta airport and to my fellow passengers on the flight from Atlanta to Raleigh-Durham. I would have beamed us the hell out of there if I could have. And I tried everything I could think of to stem, re-direct, or wrap up our mutual misery, but this tantrum was a boulder rolling down hill — it kept picking up speed until it hit the bottom.

Upon reflection, on the scale of No-Big-Deal to Completely-Awful, I’d say that experience was 100% Completely Awful. Yes, she’s had tantrums before. God knows, ‘the year of living with a two-year old’ was full of fits, but this was definitely the biggest. And it was the second part of a horrible tantrum double-feature because the night before she had a massive meltdown during bath time. So, on airport-day we were starting with a rather depleted emotional reserve.

Next time we are in the airport, I will miss our connecting flight so that we can buy pizza for lunch instead of opting for the snacks in my back-pack. The decision to get out of the Pizza Hut line (which wasn’t moving at all and they didn’t even have the pizza that we wanted in the express area so they were going to have to cook a fresh pizza just for us and our flight was boarding!)…um, the decision to leave the Pizza Hut line was the precipitating and unacceptable incident that set us on the wild ride to Crazy Tantrum Town. Thanks for nothing and screw you, Pizza Hut.

Right, it wasn’t Pizza Hut’s fault. We’d just had a wonderful and exciting trip out West to see cousins with lots of fun activities and little sleep. We were both off our routine, tired and sad to leave family. We’re both introverts who’d engaged in a lot of extroverted behavior, and we both have some challenges transitioning from one thing to the next. Can you see what this adds up to in the Atlanta airport when we were starving for pizza but we didn’t have time for pizza because our flight was boarding and one of us is a four-year old who doesn’t understand the concept of time but does understand the concept of not having food? Yeah. I totally botched the transition from pizza line to airplane and then botched trying to explain it in a way she could understand and then it was too late so I had to drag her onto the airplane and scare her into silence. Bad bad Mommy.

My experience of parenting = one humbling experience after another.

On the airplane, in a calmer state of mind and firmly buckled in once more, my daughter began to repeat, “But if I got lost, then I’d miss my mommy,” and she’d cry a little. I couldn’t figure out what getting lost in the airport had to do with the hell we’d just gone through, so I asked her about it, and she’d cry and repeat again, “But if I got lost, then I’d miss my mommy.” [One handy thing about my kid is that she just keeps repeating herself until I figure out what’s going on. She gives me lots of chances.] Finally, I got it. “Oh, you were so mad at me in the airport that you wanted to run away, but you didn’t because you were afraid that you’d get lost.” She nodded.

Oh wow, even four-year olds want to run away and get lost…and are afraid that getting lost means they will not be found.

“Honey,” I said, “if you get lost, I will miss you right away and then I will find you. Don’t worry about that. It’s ok to be angry at me sometimes. And if you get mad or if you get lost, I will find you.” The the airplane took off, and we were on our way home.

Sigh. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

I get lost a lot and it’s scary. I don’t know if I find myself or she finds me or if I just wander around until things start looking familiar again.

My experience of parenting = losing and finding myself, my kid, my mind….over and over and over again.

My heart is haunted: silent, spoken, sung

I’ve been haunted by a story all week.

The story sits in the room with me, trails behind me as I walk, hovers over my spooned-in oatmeal, perches on my nightstand as I sleep. When I wake in the night I see it gazing at me hazy and shimmering. Waiting. My neck-hair prickles. My fingers feel numb. It’s wonderful. Wonder-full.

This is a true story, heard on a recent NPR podcast, Krista Tippett’s On Being. Tippett interviewed Terry Tempest Williams, an author of creative nonfiction, activist and naturalist. Before this week, I’d never heard of Terry Tempest Williams. Now I am obsessively reading her book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Me, caught up in her writing and her stories, the way I was caught up in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on The Body (oh, so many years ago). I feel feverish, tasting words as I read like blood in my mouth or ash or tears.

In When Women Were Birds, Williams explores the gift of her mother’s journals. Here’s an excerpt of the podcast transcript from On Being:

Ms. Williams: When my mother was dying, I was in bed with her, rubbing her back and she said, “Terry, I’m leaving you my journals.” And I didn’t know she kept them. And she said, “But you must promise me one thing: that you won’t look at them until after I’m gone.” And I gave her my word. She passed. A month went by. My father was gone, my brothers were out of the house. I was cleaning and I thought, “Today. Today’s a good day to find my mother’s journals.” And I found them exactly where she had said they would be, hidden in the closet. Three shelves filled with journals, each one handpicked, each one bound in cloth, gingham, denim, flowered, so on and so forth. And I took a deep breath — my mother was such a private person — and I thought, “Finally, I will be able to know what she was thinking, where she was.” And I opened the first journal and it was blank. I opened the second journal; it was blank. As was the third. All of my mother’s journals were empty.

Ms. Tippett: How do you understand that?

Ms. Williams: I don’t. And that’s the mystery, that’s the, you know, I don’t know. And that’s what’s got me thinking about voice. You know, what is it? How do we find it? How do we keep it? How do we use it?

Does that blow your mind or what? Does that make you feel faint? Your imagination is off running and spinning in all directions, struggling to make meaning? Me too! Oh, me too! Less than half-way thru Williams’ slim book (on variation twenty-four), I already find her journey into voice to be broad and deep enough for diving, and refreshingly, without answers. We are left only with questions like the ones she mentioned in the transcript above. She doesn’t know the meaning behind her mother’s gift. No one living ever will. The beauty, the gift, is in the struggle to make meaning, to understand, to frame the concepts of voice and legacy and relationship – to find the meaning we make for ourselves and to position ourselves in relation to that.

We know her mother gave her a gift. The way you explain that can tell you a lot about yourself.

I think often about my voice in relation to my daughter — how I express myself to her and in her presence, how I define myself as her mother, as a woman, a person, an artist. What am I saying, why, and how? What do I share and what do I keep private? Do I need to document my life in order to make it real, to be remembered, or I can trust my friends and family to remember me as they will? How do I encourage, stifle, ‘manage’ my daughter’s own voice? What is she learning about speaking and about keeping silent? How do I make myself known to her — is that something I even need to do? Can I let my child make her own decisions about who I am? What legacy of self-expression am I leaving behind? Is this all-consuming effort to nail down and declare who we are really a worthwhile endeavor? Maybe the worthwhile endeavor is looking out rather than looking in – spending time in relationship and letting others define the edges of ourselves, and what’s ‘inside’ is simply a mystery? I don’t know. I really don’t know.

The not knowing feels heart-breaking and beautiful.

This book makes me dream of a series of short performance pieces – variations on voice – inspired by When Women Were Birds. Perhaps drawn from multiple performance mediums – visual art, dance, film, theatre, music. Perhaps as a result of collaborations between multiple artists. Perhaps framed as a festival. Perhaps an opportunity for a community to come together to explore voice and silence, legacy and relationship.  I’m dreaming about all of this accompanied by the haunting of Williams’ story. What does it mean? What will it mean?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions…

Press fresh

Recently, my husband did something unexpectedly old-fashioned and sentimental – he pressed a rose for my daughter. He slid the rose we gave her for her first dance recital between the pages of an enormous volume of William Shakespeare’s unabridged works, stacked a dozen heavy books on top of that and let it sit in a warm dry closet for two weeks. The rose emerged dime-thin and lovely. It’s framed in my daughter’s room with a little note that says, “Your first performance. June 2012.”

Because we aren’t in the habit of pressing flowers (or making potpourri sachets or needle-point for that matter), he fired up ye olde internet to research the DIY of smushing petals.  As you can imagine, there are many variations and dos and don’ts associated with the art of the flower press.

For example…Tight buds don’t work as well as opened blooms. The flowers must be dry (picking them in the afternoon is better than the dewy early morning). And, most importantly and interestingly to me….flowers should be pressed when they are fresh.

Make sure you press flowers when they are fresh, and preferably without moisture.

For us, that meant my daughter’s rose resided in a vase for a day or two and then disappeared into the homemade book-press. Honestly, I was surprised to see the rose reappear preserved and framed in her bedroom; I thought my husband had thrown it away.

Since then, my imagination has been captured by the ideas of preserving mementos when they are freshest, and pressing memories at their peak before they lose their bloom. Switches and levers are being pulled in my imagination about… The physicality around pressing a moment in time, pressing it into my body, my heart, my mind. Pressing a memory by breathing it in, stamping it on, layering it fresh between the pages of my conscious mind and squeezing so the color remains.  Intentional snapshot-taking. Recognizing that something wonderful is happening in the moment and fully taking it in. Leaning into life, pressing into life, being present to life, remembering life….as it’s happening.

Generally, I am a future-oriented person. I don’t pay attention to the present and can’t remember the past. There are some great upsides to being future-oriented – planning ahead, being ahead, moving ahead and thinking strategically; seeing new possibilities on the horizon; getting excited about what’s coming; etc. However, there are days – whole days – when I’m simply not present in my life. I turn out the light at bedtime and think, “What did I do today?” and I won’t be able to remember. Or I feel like it happened at a distance to someone else.  Often I’m in such a rush to get thru one day so I can get to the next day, to get thru with that day to get on to the next thing. I hear myself saying, even about experiences that I really like and look forward to —  “I’m gonna do it, get thru it, and then it will be over.”  Cross it off the list, onto the next task/moment/experience/commitment. Sure, this can be a result of over-scheduling and having tough, challenging or unpleasant tasks to slog thru. But for me, pushing hard thru life with blinders on is often about self-protection (if you can’t catch me, you can’t hurt me), maintaining iron control, and the desire to ignore what’s really bubbling under the surface of my mind (doubt, confusion, guilt, regret). And there’s the very real and secret fear that I am too small – too small to survive a full-on embrace with the beauty, awesomeness and awfulness of life.  But none of us is too small, right? We are all just the right size. And our spirits, our selves are enormous.

I want to change the way I experience my life. It’s not a race to the finish. I don’t want to spend all of my time in some detached head-space of ideas, future occurrences, phantom anxieties, and hyper plan-making. Life is too short not to live it, right? It’s time to acknowledge that life is happening…right…now.

Especially now that I have a wee one who’s changing before my eyes.  She will never be 2 days old again, 76 days old, 365 days old, or 1446 days old again. The size of her hand in my hand will change; the way she sings to herself, holds her pencil, jumps into my arms, uses my shoulder as a napkin, asks me for help – all will change. Her childhood will bloom and fade naturally, like mine did, like all adults.  Do I really want to miss that? Or can I make the decision to press all of those memories into my body, heart, and mind, as they are happening? Can I pause, take a mental snapshot and savor the essence of that time? When those moments are freshest, will I recognize them, breathe them in and press, press, press into life?

How are you at pressing moments?  How do you press into life?

Yearning for all

You’ve likely heard something about the article in The Atlantic Magazine by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It’s titled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. It received so much attention that the website crashed. Cool. If you haven’t read it, then please do. It takes awhile because of the length, but it’s worth it. After my trek through it, I feel like I’ve been dowsed with a bucket of ice water and handed an open can of worms. Whew! Periodically, I’ll be dropping in posts that have been stirred up as a result. (Don’t worry, in between, my posts will be just as random as ever). Here is my first musing related to “Having it All”.* (see little footnote below).

Since I’ve become a parent, my creative life has suffered. My professional life and my relationships have suffered. My identity and the opinion I have of myself have suffered. (Perhaps, I should say they have all ‘transformed’ or ‘decelerated’. The fact that I judge these as ‘suffering’ is telling anyway.) I’ve declined exciting opportunities because of the way the world of work and theatre-making is structured, and because I want to be present and available to my child and my husband. When I tried to maintain the pace I’d set before having a baby, my parenting and my marriage suffered. I couldn’t figure out ‘how to do everything’ so some things had to go. That’s what moms do, yes? That’s what people do when their life circumstances alter dramatically, right? That’s life.

I’m grateful I still have a job. I’m grateful for what I can do. I am always aware that this is my choice. It was my choice to have a baby. It has been my choice to spend time with her that I could have spent making art, making money, advancing my career (or going to the gym, visiting friends, taking a shower, dating my husband).

And yes, it has been worth it. For me, being a mom is mind-blowing, soul-shaking, beautiful, awe-full, and metamorphosing. I haven’t exactly transformed from a caterpillar into a butterfly over these last few years, but I do know that I am not the person I was before I had my daughter. And all of that is my choice. So, yes, I chose that and I’ll stand by it because opportunities will come again and when a door shuts, a window opens, and it’s all worth it and suck it up and take responsibility and make the hard choice and get over it and be grateful and all those other things that I say when I don’t think I have the right to complain about whatever it is that I’m complaining about. I know to do all of that. And, thankfully, as my daughter gets older, the work-life balance becomes easier (hence, the blog!). In many ways I am finally coming up for air and re-entering my creative-work-groove. That’s great.

However, for the last three years, I’ve felt terrible guilt as I alternated between blaming myself, blaming my husband and blaming my child when I couldn’t do everything that I wanted with my life since becoming a mom. I still do this, and it feels terrible. And I tell myself that I have no right to be upset and no right to complain about anything because I am so lucky to have what I have and to be a mom and etc. I still feel that way. And I remain uncertain about how to sort out ‘my rights’ from this tangled mess.

But after reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, I’m questioning the way I think about this. I’m tweaking my assumptions a little. Is it really complaining when I say “I wish I could be part of that creation/conversation/project/opportunity/experience”? To say, “I want to participate, but I don’t feel like I can”? To say, “I’m sad because I can’t figure out how to be the mom I want to be and the professional I want to be, by my definition, on my own terms”? Because that’s really what I’ve been saying. I want to be at the table with the movers and shakers. I want to indulge my creative imagination and make more art faster, higher, harder. I want to accelerate, not maintain. I want to be included in the things I was included in before I was banished to Motherland — banished by the choices I’ve made. Because like many women, I believe I have something to add to the conversation, creation, experience, project, opportunity, and because I enjoy the work. Oh, and I want all of that in addition to building, nurturing and participating fully in my family life. Sigh.

Is this yearning really the same thing as complaining? Is it acceptable to feel gratitude for what I have and to yearn for additional fulfillment at the same time? Can I have compassion for the way I feel about this complicated situation?

As a community, can we have compassion for moms, dads, women, all people who feel the pain of giving up what they love for something else they love? Saying yes to one, means saying no to another. That choice-making is painful no matter how much it feels like the right choice. We all know sacrifices must be made as a part of life. That is reality. But I wonder if we could offer compassion, tenderness, support, and dare I say it, make accommodations for people confronted with the reality of choosing between their family-life and professional-life, rather than offering what they already offer themselves — “You can’t compete. It’s your fault. Suffer the consequences.” I wonder if I can do that for myself.

To be continued…

How do you talk to yourself around choice-making? What’s really underneath the ‘complaining’ you do? What comes up when you must “say yes to one, and no to another”?

*Anne-Marie Slaughter states very clearly in her article that she is writing from a position of privilege. Although not nearly at her level, I am aware that I write from a position of privilege as well. My husband and I are a dual income, middle-class family. My friends, co-workers and family support me in the work I do inside and outside the home. I feel grateful for those things, for the luxury of choice that I do have given my circumstances, and for the opportunity to have this conversation.

The role of a lifetime

My grandmother died last Friday. She was my last living grandparent. Now I have none.

Three grandparents were living when I got married five years ago, when I had a baby three years ago, when I was at Christmas two years ago. And now there are none.

There’s been a shift in our family as my parents are now the grandparents, my sister and I are the parents, and our children are….well, they are who we have always been….the kids. So I am not one of the children, the kids, the youngsters. No place for me at the kids’ table anymore — my daughter’s sitting there.

This weekend, I traveled back to the Midwest where I grew up. I traveled with my daughter and introduced her to some family members she’s never met before, including my deceased grandmother in her casket. My sweet daughter said that G.G. (Great-Grandmother) was “beautiful in her bed”. She especially liked her beautiful glasses and her beautiful white hair. She asked when G.G. was going to wake up. I said that when people die they don’t wake up. She asked if she could see G.G’s feet. I said no. All of the little kids wanted to touch G.G. I said no to that too, but couldn’t figure out how to answer their questions about why not. My daughter’s thoughts about her G.G. (a woman she’d never met before): “I love her. I miss her so much.”

As you can imagine, it’s been a crazy few days. Crazy-fun, crazy-beautiful, crazy-sad, crazy-confusing and just plain crazy. It was nice to see my extended family, some of whom I haven’t seen in a decade or so. They are good people.  It was strange and sad to say a final farewell to my 93-year-old grandmother, who’d been telling folks that she’d “lived a good long life and was ready to go.”

I wrote “final farewell” above, but that’s not really accurate because there is no final really for me, I think. The people I know who have died, well, I’m still working out my farewells with them, which have turned into extended negotiations of “I’ll see you later.” And I don’t even know what I think about that really — I don’t even know what I think about what happens after we die, because nothing about it makes sense to me, but I often say to myself, “I can’t wait to tell her about that. I have to ask him about that. I wonder what she’s doing these days.” Like those folks-who-have-passed-away are all functioning happily in parallel lives or somewhere in another town. Just like when they were alive, but I don’t see them as much anymore.

So this is hard, and I don’t have a ‘take-away’ this week other than to offer what I struggle with these days. A strange gift to give, yes?

My friend and I have often joked that “This is not a play. This is really happening.” We aren’t playing characters in a story. We can’t stop the action, re-wind, re-do. We don’t get awards for Best Dramatic Performance 2012 — “the role of a life-time”. This is the role of our life-time, the only one we’ve got. We are all marching forward in the same direction — for real. The choices that we made or didn’t make, the missed opportunities, the mistakes, the triumphs, the peaks, the valleys, the moments and the moments and the moments ticking by….the moments have ticked by…disappearing like smoke… all marched by like little tin soldiers, many of them not even noticed by me.

And my questions for myself, the questions that keep me up at night, become “What does that mean? Knowing that, what do I do? How do I respond? What do I say, how do I interact with those around me? Now…what?”

What do you think? Now, what?