Thursday, September 6, 2018

Coming to terms with stillness

Photo courtesy of siamesepuppy/Flickr

Baby Girl loves to be held.

All the time. 

Mostly by me.

The best is when she nuzzles her head on my neck. Her warm, goose down hair against the soft spot just under my jaw bone. That's serenity.

Jovie, also, loves rubbing her cheek against her sister's head. She and her friend have both told me they wish they could use Annie as a blanket. To which I tell them, "Sure, a blanket made of infant hair isn't creepy at all." (Note: it's totally creepy).

I love holding her. I really do. 

But/and sometimes I also like to not hold her.

I feel a little guilty even typing that. Because I've wanted Baby Girl for so long. And I know all too well how quickly babyhood passes. 

I also feel ineffective a lot of days. Because there's only so much you can do in the minutes or hours between nursing, burping, diaper changing, soothing and holding. 



With my arms almost perpetually occupied, all the doing I want to do is sitting idle my brain. Which is unfortunate, because my brain is subsisting on two-or-three-hour stretches of sleep each night punctuated by hours of the aforementioned nursing, burping, changing, etc. 

There's nothing revelatory here. Life with a newborn is paradoxical cycle of torturous sleep deprivation and utter bliss. 

It's just that I've found my brain overstuffed with thoughts and plans. And I find myself staring longingly at the dining room chairs I want to refinish and at my laptop or my journal or any random piece of paper I could dump my thoughts on to.

Apparently, this is what happens when life becomes a little mundane (or in my case, repetitive). 

According to digital podcaster Manoush Zomorodi, who became interested in the idea of boredom after giving birth to her son 11 years ago, your brain goes into what's known as "default mode" while completing low-level tasks like the ones I've been tackling over the past six weeks. 

"I learned that in the default mode is when we connect disparate ideas,we solve some of our most nagging problems, and we do something called 'autobiographical planning.' This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative, and then we set goals and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them," Zomorodi shares in her TED Talk.

These days I'm kind of in "autobiographical planning" mode. Sort of. The sleep deprivation has made it tricker to take stock of my life in a meaningful, productive way. It's kind of like I start the process of connecting disparate ideas and I feel some of that creative magic taking place and then my brain sort of sputters like a lawnmower that's run out of gas. 

While I can't seem to complete a meaningful thought, I've tried to hold onto some of the passing ideas my brain has snagged on. 

Like the dangers of doubt.  

While I was listening to "This American Life" a few weeks ago, I learned that there was a scientist named Alfred Russel Wallace who in the mid 1800s spent almost a decade in Malaysia capturing animal specimens and shipping them to England. In the midst of a Malarian fever, he worked out evolution through natural selection- completely independent from Charles Darwin. He wrote a paper about it and mailed it to Darwin- who'd also concurrently -though more famously- landed on the notion of natural selection and evolution. 

"Darwin had figured it out, too, at that point, but he had been too scared to put it out there," host Sean Cole says.

This line yelled at me. Because of the power of doubt. How it shapes history. How some guy named Alfred Russel Wallace could've been a household name instead of just some obscure British scientist who was overshadowed by a guy and his finches. 

I got to thinking of all the times I've doubted myself. All of the things I could've done that have been hampered by the fear of being wrong or seeming crazy. I mean, let's be honest, it's not as if I've figured out the unified theory of everything and am questioning whether to publish some 80-page long complex equation about it. But, whatever. There's been plenty of thoughts or actions related to life at large and my life specifically that I haven't shared or taken action on because doubt. Fear. 

How much of my life have I hampered or anchored because of doubt? 

I think I've always been committed to my doubt. It's really laid the groundwork for me to sell myself short and prevented me on following through on some life goals. Hell, it's stopped me from making clear life goals to begin with. 

Sometimes I think I call doubt another name. Sometimes it's indecisiveness. When I'm being extra lenient with myself, it's open-mindedness. Flexibility. Being laid back. Going with the flow. 

Mostly, I go with other people's flows so I don't have to figure out my own. 

After I spent some time thinking about doubt, I moved on to the blurry line between reality and illusion. In print, that last part looks kind of like the pretentious pot thoughts of a college student after a semester of Intro. to Philosophy.

Don't worry, I'm not going all that deep here.

What happened was, I was making a birthday cake for Lily and listening to this TED Radio Hour episode on the Five Senses.

One segment featured this guy Isaac Lidsky (he played some obscure character on "Saved by the Bell." As a teenager, Lidsky was diagnosed with a genetic disorder that caused a progressive die off of his retinal cells. By the time he was 25, he was blind.

He says when he was first diagnosed at 13, he knew blindness was going to ruin his life. He was convinced of it. 

But that's not what happened. Lidsky graduated from Harvard, got a law degree, worked for a couple of Supreme Court justices and launched a successful business. 

As it turns out, the story he told himself at 13 wasn't actually the story of his life. I love a story about the stories we tell ourselves. 

Lidsky shares about the transition from sight to blindness. How his vision "became an increasingly bizarre carnival fun house hall of mirrors and illusions."

He continues:

"I learned that what we see is not universal truth, it is not objective reality. What we see is a unique personal virtual reality that is masterfully constructed by our brain. Let me explain with a bit of amateur neuroscience. Your visual cortex takes up about 30 percent of your brain, that's compared to approximately 8 percent for touch, and 2 to 3 percent for hearing. Sight is one-third of your brain by volume, and can claim about two-thirds of your brain's processing resources. It's no surprise then that the illusion of sight is so compelling. Well, make no mistake about it, sight is an illusion. A hill appears steeper if you've just exercised, and a landmark appears farther away if you're wearing a heavy backpack. You create your own reality, and you believe it. I believed mine until it broke apart." 

There are other factors shaping our reality, too, he says. Like fear for one (you could probably throw in doubt, too). He says that he was convinced his life was ruined right up until he started talking about practical solutions for his blindness with an occupational therapist. He realized that his blindness wasn't an "amorphous bogeyman" His blindness was just a series of practical problems that needed solutions.

"You know, I knew blindness was going to ruin my life, but that was a reality that I was choosing, that my mind had created for me, and I was choosing to believe. And I decided to make another choice."

Just like that. Just make another choice. Choose to tell yourself a different story. 

I loved this part, too: 

"There's a lot more going on in the world around us than light striking the photoreceptor cells of our retinas, but we are built to certainly devote, you know, an inordinate share of our attention to that light... At the end of the day, our photoreceptor cells respond to about one-ten-trillionth of the spectrum of light in the world around us. And from that one-ten-trillionth of light flying around, our brains concoct this scenario that implicates our memories, our opinions, our emotions, our experiences, sort of conceptually how we understand that world."

Did you get that? We're writing the stories we tell ourselves based (in part) on just one-ten-trillionth of the spectrum of light in the world. 

So maybe we shouldn't be so convinced that the stories we're writing about who we are and what we're about are true. Furthermore (she writes waving a pointed finger in the air), we probably shouldn't be so convinced that the stories we write about other people are true. 

As someone who is perpetually paranoid that I'm angering, disappointing, confusing and/or annoying the people in her life, the fact that I'm basing so much of my perceived reality on so little information is useful. It means that not only should I be dubious about the reality I've concocted for myself, but also dubious of the realities I've concocted on behalf of others. I just don't have enough information. So why assume the worst? Why assume anything? 

The last stop on my little mental walkabout: Stillness.

A praying mantis landed on our back door recently. It reminded me of something my sister Sarah told me not long ago- that praying mantises are reminders of the value of stillness and patience. I stared at this praying mantis sitting on the glass door with the serenity of a monk. She regarded me and I regarded her. Be still, be still, she told me. (At least in my version of reality which as we just learned, is probably just an illusion. I'm just going to go with it anyway.)

These days I am still much more than I'm comfortable with. When a small being wants to be held and every couple hours cries for the food stored only in my body, well, there's a lot of sitting. 

I have to make peace with all this sitting. I've always placed so much of my worth on how hard I work. The tasks I accomplish. The floors that have been washed. The loads of laundry that have been cleaned and folded. The number of articles I've completed for a client. The hours I've spent not sitting doing nothing. 

As I'm scrolling through Facebook in the wee hours of the morning and the non-wee hours of the morning, afternoon and night, it's hard not to be overwhelmed. It's all those videos from Better Homes and Garden and HGTV and the Food Network. All of them offering ideas for dishes and projects I could make. Things I should be making from scratch. Each seemingly more elaborate and more time consuming than the last. I mean, is it necessary for me to craft a wreath out of recycled denim? Do I really need to add removable wallpaper to the sides of the drawers in my kitchen? Should I take the time to repurpose an old file cabinet into storage for garden tools?

There's a suggestion however subtle or unintended, that I do more. That I'm supposed to be this renaissance woman capable of fashioning adorable and practical home decor ala MacGyver; baking homemade strawberry poke cakes; pickling heirloom, organic produce; and staying on top of the latest news to be outraged about; all while raising kids who experience the just-right blend of helicoptering and free ranging. 

We've built an entire society worker bees. Convinced that our value can only be measured in all that we do. I know (I know!) believing this is a fallacy. What I value in other people isn't their ability to get to inbox zero or how high they've climbed a corporate ladder or whether their closets are Martha Stewart approved or their children's birthday parties are Pinterest worthy. 

My favorite people are inevitably the ones who bring me to stillness- who know the value of a cup of coffee and good conversation. People who pursue creativity in whatever form that takes for them- whether its writing, painting, woodworking or cake decorating- and inspire me to do the same. People who can find as much beauty in the dew covering their front lawn as they do in adventures to exotic locales.

We're being taught to cast a wide net to haul in our best lives, picking through the catch for the choicest bits. But lately I feel overwhelmed by that. All the piles of things. All the stuff we amass that takes up space either physically or mentally. 

I don't know that I have the energy to pull that overloaded net back in.

So I go back to stillness. Because Baby Girl forces me to be still and because maybe it's in stillness that I'll find more peace in this reality I'm in. 

Maybe the answer to the calm I'm seeking isn't an ever growing net, but a single fishing line cast out into the water and me standing on shore waiting patiently. Writing a better story for myself all the while. 

It's not as if I have a choice in the matter these days.

Because Baby Girl Loves to be held. 

And maybe holding her is all the doing I need to do right now. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Arrival of Annie and a Return of Grace and Gratitude

Edna has arrived. 

Though she's not Edna now (Brad was never going to allow that), but Annie Maureen– named for two of our favorite aunts. 

The name Annie means grace, which, as I reflect on the past (almost) two weeks she's been out in the world, suddenly seems so fitting. So perfect. I feel as if grace has been a soft blanket that has covered my family and I as we prepared for Annie's arrival and welcomed her into the fold. 

Though I hadn't realized it in the midst of my pregnancy, accepting the grace and gracious acts of others was a lesson I've been long overdue for. I much prefer to fly under the radar, to be self-sufficient, to not cause a fuss. I don't want people to have to go out of their way for me. I'd much prefer to cede space and time to others. These are all qualities I've always assumed would make me more likable, or at least fairly inoffensive. 

As evidenced by the meme my sister shared, this might be a family trait.

But pregnancy and labor and starting over as a new mom again with two kids at home has forced me to accept the help I'd long associated with feeling like a nuisance. And I've been surprised to discover, that instead of making me feel overly needy or annoying or helpless, that it's softened me. It's filled me with this enormous and robust feeling of gratitude toward others– my family and friends, of course, but also near strangers.

Major life revelations seem to pop up at the strangest moments. I recognized the significance of gratitude (and also humility) while sitting on the toilet in my hospital room shortly after delivering Annie. It was probably 5 or 5:30 in the morning. Like Lily and Jovie, Annie decided to make her appearance in the stillness of a late night. I'd spent an hour or more marveling at my little girl– her head full of silky, dark hair. Her delicate fingers and wide indigo eyes. It was time to move from the delivery room to maternity, but first I needed to get up and use the bathroom. 

When the epidural wore off, I edged to the end of the bed and stood up on clumsy legs, trying to hold a giant pad in place between my legs. Immediately, blood splashed on the floor and on my feet. (For those of you who have never experienced the miracle of childbirth, there is a lot of blood and fluid sloshing about your nether bits for days and weeks after the baby actually comes out. They don't show that in the Johnson's Baby shampoo commercials.)

I apologized to Kristen, the nurse, for making a mess. And, as she'd been repeating all night in her soft-spoken voice– perfect for midnight laboring, she told me that I didn't need to be sorry. I shuffled to the bathroom and sat down. Kristen had turned on the water in the sink to help "inspire" my bladder to do its job. Unfortunately, my bladder was not inspired. 

While we waited, Kristen grabbed some wipes and knelt down on the bathroom floor to wipe the blood off my feet and legs. 

I was too exhausted and weak to tell her I could clean my own feet off (nevermind that I wouldn't have been able to). Instead, in this most vulnerable of places I sat boiling over with hormones and elation and weariness and watched as Kristen washed my feet. She was so quiet and gentle. Showing the same tenderness toward my body that I'd just shown Annie to hers. What was supposed to be embarrassment was washed away with wave after wave of gratitude. And actually, love, I think for this nurse's simple grace. 

You never forget the day you push your children into the world. The moment you first rest your eyes on them, searching their face for recognition only to realize you already know them- your souls already twined together. 

Forever tied to Annie's birth will be Nurse Kristen kneeling on the bathroom floor, cleaning me while I sat on the toilet. Teaching me about gratitude and humility. Reminding me that vulnerability need not be a weakness, but the taproot of our shared humanity. 

I've spent a lot of the past couple weeks feeling thankful. Thinking about all the people who've bolstered my family in big and small ways over the past couple months. 

My sister Laura for helping me pack up our rental and for showing up on moving day with my two strapping nephews to help Brad move all the boxes and furniture I was unable to. Ditto for my brother in law and best friend, Becky. For my sister Sarah for taking care of Lily and Jovie while we transitioned from one house to the other, making sure to show them the best weekend ever. 

The neighborhood social committee for including the girls and I on a tubing trip down the Shenandoah River despite the fact that I was nine months pregnant and maybe had no business trying to squeeze into an inner tube for a float down the river. For making sure I didn't get stuck, for laughing along with me when I attempted hoisting maneuvers in said tube, for insisting on carrying my tube for me. For their older daughters who took my little daughters under their wings. For giving me an afternoon of buoyancy and relaxation and silliness at the tail end of a long, hot pregnancy.

For my neighbor, Star, who insisted all babies need to be honored whether it's the first or the third, and who gathered a group of ladies from the neighborhood for celebratory pedicures. For Rosemary who shared her home so we could eat post-pedicure "Baby Edna" cake while cooing over adorable baby gear and hazing the poor high school-aged neighbor boy who stopped by looking for his buddy. For Rosemary again who took my girls home from the pool sopping wet without a moments hesitation when I had to make an emergency trip to Labor & Delivery at 36 weeks for unexplained bleeding. For Janna who was ready to do the same. For both women who sat me down that same day and asked pointedly what my plan was for the girls when I did go into labor. Who insisted I add their names to the list of people I call for help. Who we did call for help when the big day arrived. 

For Becky, who, after a long day of work, arrived at my house at 9:30 at night July 24 to watch the girls so Brad and I could go to the hospital. Who woke up at the crack of dawn ready to care for two over-eager little girls and did it all over again the next night. Earlier in the week, when I asked if she'd be willing to come over when the baby arrived she said "yes" without a moment's hesitation. 

For my sisters Jen and Laura, who showed up in the delivery room in the middle of the night to giggle with me and hold my hand and rub my back as we waited for Annie. 

For Amy who invited both girls over to play so that I could have a break. Who brought cake to celebrate Annie's "birth day." For neighbors who have brought meals and treats and beautiful handmade blankets– wrapping Annie and the rest of the family in kindness. 

For Brad's parents who drove down from the Poconos to meet Annie and drove back up to the Poconos with the girls to give us breathing room as we embark again on newborndom for the first time in more than six years.

It's overwhelming to look at the scope of all the generosity people have shared with us. I struggle with guilt- that we're not deserving of it. That there are other people who need the help more than we do. That I haven't pulled my weight enough in my family or in this community to warrant all of it. 

I have to tell myself that just as all the phases we'll experience with Annie- the up-all-night stage and the teething stage and the crawling stage and the walking stage and the Terrible Twos and Threenagerdom, etc.- that our whole life is filled with seasons. In some of them- like the one we're in now– we'll be the ones being carried. In others, we'll be the ones doing the carrying. That it all balances in the end. 

The other day, my sister Laura was feeling anxious. We had the following exchange: 

I told Laura that I feel like a burden these days. And that I've always felt kind of emotionally burdensome. She, of course, would not hear of it. That is a conversation for another day. 

If the last couple months have taught me anything, it's that we're all going to feel like burdens at some point in our lives. Humans weren't meant to be self-sufficient. If that were the case, we'd all be more like wolverines or badgers. Happy to live out our lives in the blissful solitude of our own little burrows. Viciously attacking any interlopers. (I mean sure, I have days where I want to go in full-on badger mode- summer at home with a pair of elementary-school aged children who are simultaneously always bored and always hungry has kind of fueled my hunt for solitude in recent weeks). 

But for the most part, we crave community and togetherness. And I think that's a direct result of our need for each other- for food, protection, sharing resources and simple companionship. We need each other to bear witness to the happenings of our lives. 

And while being a burden isn't a great feeling, it's probably also necessary for developing empathy. Had Laura or I or anyone else never had to rely on the kindness and generosity of others to make it through a moment or a day or a season of life, I think we might not be as quick to extend a hand to others when they're facing their own trials. It helps to have tasted what it's like to need- even if it's temporary. And it inspires us to pay it forward when we have the chance and the means to do so.

I follow writer Parker Palmer on Facebook. In the past week he's posted a couple of things that resonate with me. The first, a poem by Mary Oliver you'll find further down and this piece of his that he shared today: 

"Abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole."

Finally, and maybe this is just to soothe my own ego and sense of guilt, but I think getting the opportunity to help someone else is a gift. Whether it's a small act of kindness or a grand gesture, we do more to serve ourselves when we serve others. 

See, Annie has already taught me so much in her short life. 

There are two more people I need to express gratitude toward.

The first is Brad. Years ago- probably not too long after we'd had Jovie- Brad had expressed doubt about wanting to have a third child. For all the reasonable reasons a father of two would have about not wanting to add to the brood. Our house wasn't big enough, our cars weren't big enough, our budget wasn't big enough. Our physical and emotional resources were doing just fine to accommodate the two we had. Why stretch them more?

I heard him. And understood his pragmatism on the one level. But I'm not one level deep. I grew up in a big family. I'd always envisioned a little extra chaos in my life, not the orderly sensibility that came with being a family of four. I spent years mourning the third baby I thought I'd never have.

It took Brad awhile to come around to my way of seeing things (if he came around at all or just gave up or gave in. I can wear people down). But he did. He's joined me in my elation and infatuation with this new little person. The gratitude I feel for being mothered one more time is hard to express. It wasn't just about having on more baby, but feeling as if my vision for my family has been fully realized. That we are whole now in a way I didn't quite feel we were before. I have this profound sense of peace. As if this part of my life is suddenly ordered even as it's been totally blown up. 

Annie is a gift Brad has given me and given us and I'm so grateful for that. 

And last, I'm grateful to Annie for being here. For existing at all. For being at once a blend of Lily and Jovie and also wholly herself. For being my missing piece. I'm trying to savor all the moments of her days. The ridiculous squeak she makes when she hiccups. How she nuzzles her head against my cheek. The soft folds of her elbows and knees. The dimples that appear when she happens upon a smile.

Since having her, I feel like the days yawn long without having accomplished much of anything aside from feeding, changing and gazing at her. 

It felt as if I'd been going at a break-neck pace for months and now all the sudden she's pulled back the reins and all I'm left to do is sit back and be awestruck by creation.

Which is all the work I need to do for now I think.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Stuck in the Waiting Room

Photo courtesy of Pollywog Creek/Flickr

The answer is no. 

No, Edna isn't here yet.

No. I'm not in labor.

No. I'm not sure when she'll get here.

Yes, I'm tired. Yes, I'm ready for her to come.

But here we are. In the waiting room. Edna and I. Flipping through Facebook like last month's issue of Cosmo. Flipping back and forth on the bed all night like sausages in a frying pan. I feel like I should be cooked through by now.

I make frequent visits to the restroom and have to sit down frequently after small bursts of menial labor- dish doing and floor sweeping. I picture Edna crawling around in fleece pajamas in six months and how she'll be covered in cat hair and dog hair. 

All the little clothes have been cleaned and sorted. There's a bag packed with comfortable pajamas and warm socks and clothes I wore before Edna existed months and months and months ago. Brad gave me permission to have the baby as of 2:44 this afternoon. That important meeting he had at work today - the "very business-y business meeting" with "very important corporate-is things happening. Agendas and goals and such" wrapped up. "Other dependencies have been addressed" so he says, "we can move forward to prioritize baby birth in the upcoming sprint."

Whatever all that means. 

We've been addressing dependencies for the past six months it seems. House hunting and buying and packing and unpacking. Minivan buying. Cradle building and carseat installing. All wedged into the life we were already living: School, work, soccer, musical theater, doctor's appointments, swim practice, trips to the vet, birthday parties and visits with family. Etc., etc., etc.

The squares of the calendar– which for months had been filled with stuff now yawn wide- a flat open vista as far as the eye can see. Back in May I looked at those blank spaces like an oasis. The place I'd catch my breath before the next marathon. But this giant baby is pressing against my lungs (and bladder and pancreas and ribs) and that deep breath feels impossible. The still days feel more like a sentence than a gift. 

I am frustrated by my own fickleness and impatience. My unwillingness to accept that which I have no control over. My anxiety about the future when really, truly I know the only thing I need to focus on is the perfect present and the fact that I made it here to the waiting room, finally. And that everything is more or less in order. All those massive uncertainties, those giant worries whittled away. That we got to this moment where the checklist is all checked off. 

This week, I think I need to reimagine my waiting room. It doesn't have to look like purgatory or the  line at the DMV or the doctor's office with all its sentimental photos of other people's babies. It can look like the beautiful home we'll bring Edna home to. The rocking chair in living room where I can look at photos of the girls in their babyhood and my favorite knickknacks. The shaded deck with all my wind chimes where we can all sit and giggle as we watch a squirrel leap back and forth between trees like a ninja warrior. The front stoop where I chat with neighbors or sit on as the girls ride back and forth, back and forth on the two wheelers there were convinced just months ago would be impossible to master. That crape myrtle I pass on walks with the dog where the same songbird sings and sings and sings each morning and the garden I pass on the way to the pool where tiny roses in all colors bloom like confetti. 

Today the open space across the street was electric with dragonflies. Hundreds of them zooming here and there and back again. Since I was young, dragonflies have always been magic to me and I feel magic in the air. 

They are symbols of transformation and lightness and joy. 

Change is coming. It's in the air. 

It's time to exhale. 

The answer is yes.

Yes, Edna is coming soon.

Yes, I'm excited.

Yes, at this minute, I think I might be the luckiest person I know.   

Friday, July 6, 2018

When everyone is hungry, you build a bigger table

Last week, I met up with my sisters at a Chik-Fil-A. My 18-year-old nephew, Finn, and I were chatting (probably about something obnoxious) when Laura shushed us. 

"You're being too loud," she whispered.

I don't know why Laura would've thought Finn was being obnoxious.
I raised my eyebrows at her and, smirking, proceeded to ask, at a higher volume, if I was being too loud now? She shushed me some more. 

I laughed and told her I didn't think we were being especially noisy (well any noisier than three moms surrounded by nine children ranging in age from 11 months to 18 years old would be in a crowded restaurant at lunchtime.) But I could tell she was uncomfortable. She was frowning as she kept scanning the restaurant. Her shoulders were hunched and her body tense. She was worried that we were attracting too much attention. That somehow our mere presence there was akin to a three-ring circus setting up in the most inappropriate of places. 

In year's past, when we'd get together whether in public or in private, we didn't pay too much mind to how much our how loudly we talked. We didn't really worry about whether a particular topic - say, the joys of the incontinence gifted to us by our baby-ravaged bodies or how amusing it is to flare our nostrils at each, especially since we both know that we’re both self conscious about the unusually large size of our respective nostrils- might be annoying or offensive to those surrounding us. I think we kind of just figured that our self-depreciation might make someone else giggle or feel a little less self-conscious about their own leaky bladders and unwieldy nostrils. We weren’t, like, extra loud on purpose. But we’re sisters, so there was always a certain level of say, boisterousness to the proceedings.

But lately, things have been different. My sister has been living in this ongoing state of anxiety about the future. She’s a single mom of eight kids, six of whom are still living at home, and four of those who are under 10. In the past two years I’ve watched her grapple with massive change and trying to navigate a world not at all soft for someone in her circumstances. It’s all broken-down cars and doctor visits and scrambling to pick kids up from day care on time and never quite being able to make ends meet. There are no easy answers. No magic wands lying around.

Her life, she says, is just an itchy sweater. And recently, she’s been wearing that itchy sweater while living under an oppressive heat dome. 

When I asked Laura for her blessing in sharing this story, here was her response:

"I certainly don’t mind you telling this story. It might need more explanation ... all the reasons I think I’m less ... I can’t pay my bills... I am missing three teeth ... I’m heavy ... my legs are gnarled with varicosities ... I don’t remember birthdays ... I fail the people I love."

I share this not to make anyone feel sorry for my sister. She would hate that. HATE it. She acknowledges that life is challenging. But will quickly point out that it is challenging for many, many people. She would find an appropriate quote from Mother Teresa or the Dalai Lama. She would quickly change the subject to find out how you’re doing.

It’s not about pity. What makes Laura’s struggles especially frustrating for me is that I see them reshaping her as a person. It’s like she no longer feels as if she deserves to take up as much space in this world because of her circumstances. She wants to blend into backgrounds. To fold herself into small spaces. To not be seen or observed. 

Her shushing my nephew and I at the Chik-Fil-A wasn’t about us at all. It was about Laura’s worry that we’d draw attention to her. And that just by looking at her, the rest of Chik-Fil-A would know the amount of money in her bank account or the state of her home life or the entire contents of her character and they would judge her negatively for it. They’d question her decision-making and her abilities as a mother and her contributions to society and begrudge her in some way.

In a quieter voice, I told Laura that nobody was looking at us. That nobody could possibly know anything about her circumstances just by looking at her- just as she couldn’t know anything about there’s just by looking at them. I told her I wouldn’t be loud, but that it was OK that she was there- that we were there, surrounded by all of our amazing kids. That just because she felt like life was spinning out of her control, that it didn’t mean she couldn’t take up space.

I’m pretty sure she just nodded in agreement to shut me up. 

After Laura's speech at my wedding,
during which she also broke my heart.

It breaks my heart. Because my sister is right. Maybe not that everybody at the Chik-Fil-A that day was staring her down and tallying up her inequities, but that it happens. Frequently. To all different types of people. 

We’re constantly assessing each other based on limited observations and past experiences and assumptions. We do it to poor people for one. And wealthy people. Homeless people. Overweight people. Skinny people. Black people. Brown people. People who are missing teeth. People who are attractive. People with lots of children. People with no children. People in prison. People addicted to drugs. People who are physically disabled. People who are mentally ill. People with intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

People who are different than us.

It breaks my heart to think my sister sees herself as someone who should be scrutinized and criticized and ostracized into occupying a smaller portion of this Earth. And while I think about it, it breaks my heart that really anyone should feel as if they should be reduced.

I just read the memoir “Hungry” by Roxane Gay. You should probably read it, too. In it, Gay writes about being gang raped at 12 and how the trauma of that day has led her to a lifetime of eating and eating and eating. Eating her way into a body described as morbidly obese by doctors. She dissects the why behind her body- how eating allowed her to turn her body into a fortress that could protect her from the type of invasion she suffered at 12. She writes with candor and rawness about moving through this world in her body.  How for her family her body is a problem to be solved. How for her, it’s a reality she’s tried for decades to find acceptance in. How for the rest of the world, her body is something to be assessed and commented on and pilloried.

At this passage, I found myself tearing up:

"Part of disciplining the body is denial. We want but we dare not have ... My body is wildly undisciplined, and yet I deny myself nearly everything I desire. I deny myself the right to space when I am in public, trying to fold in on myself, to make my body invisible even though it is, in fact, grandly visible. I deny myself the right to a shared armrest because how dare I impose? I deny myself entry into certain spaces I have deemed inappropriate for a body like mine- most spaces inhabited by other people, public transportation, anywhere I could be seen or where I might be in the way, really. I deny myself bright colors in my daily clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself certain trappings of femininity as if I do not have the right to such expression when my body does not follow society's dictates for what a woman's body should look like…

"…Punishment is, in fact, one of the few things I allow myself. I deny myself my attractions. I have them, oh I do, but dare not express them, because how dare I want. How dare I confess my want? How dare I try to act on that want? I deny myself so much and still there is so much desire throbbing beneath my surfaces."

Just as my girl Florence Welch belts in her new single: We all have a hunger.

Though I’ve never been much more than a few pounds overweight, I heard my voice in Gay’s lamentations. Because of all the times I’ve wanted to fold myself up in public spaces for one reason or another. Because I didn’t look a certain way or have the right degree or just because I’m a woman in a world often hostile to woman. Mostly, when I’m out in the world, I want to not be seen, lest anyone get the false impression that I think I deserve to be seen. Lest anyone look too closely and actually see the disastrous person lying just under my scarred up skin. 

And I hear Laura’s voice, too. Laura who denies herself and shrinks herself because she believes the state of her affairs right now makes her some how inferior. Second class. I actually hear the voice of a lot of women I know. People who for this reason or that accept less. Expect less. Minimize themselves out of habit. Because of this feeling of futility that the world will ever make space for a person like “X.”

In “Hungry” Gay writes about the time she shared a stage with Gloria Steinem. How there was a sign language interpreter on stage and how audience members were grumbling about her for blocking their view of one of the world’s most famous feminists. Because of her own experiences, Gay reassured the interpreter. She told her she should stand exactly where she was in order to be the most visible to the people in the audience who needed her services. 

Reflecting on the incident, Gay realizes the power her body gave her.

"… This was one of those moments when I had a greater sensitivity that could only be brought about by the realities of my body. It was a moment when I understood that all of us have to be more considerate of the realities of the bodies of others."


“All of us have to be more considerate of the realities of the bodies of others.”

And not even just bodies that are overweight or blind or wheelchair bound or poor or frail, though certainly those people.

But the bodies of anyone we encounter.

This whole idea of the space we allow ourselves to occupy- the space we believe others should occupy- got me thinking about the state of the world. Actually, the state of our country.

Because this is at the root of so much of our conflict right now. 

Actually, it’s probably at the root of all conflict in all the history of the world. Humans are nothing if not consistent when it comes to our conflict making. 

But way back when the colonists set sail from Europe to the new to them world, well that was about (among other things) not having space to be who they were, where they were. So they found a different place to be. 

Sadly, their experiences being ostracized in their homelands did not prevent them from ostracizing others in theirs. Americans have spent generations being less than considerate of the realities of the bodies of others. (See U.S. History chapters on Indigenous people, African people, female people, Italian people, Chinese people, Irish people, Japanese people, etc., etc., etc.) 

We have such long memories of our altruism- an entire nation built on the idea that all men are created equal. Where the huddled masses go to realize their dreams. The land of the free and the brave and all that. 

But the memories of the times we’ve failed to live up to our stated creeds … well … we have some collective fogginess. A little amnesia about it. 

So it happens again and again and again.  

Like right now, for instance. 

I have to believe that if we were able to be more considerate of the bodies of others, that there wouldn’t be thousands of children waiting to be reunited with their parents near the border. That we’d collectively dig into our own histories of feeling forced to shrink into the space given to us by other people’s judgment and assumptions about who we were as people and we’d find a solution that didn’t involve inflicting short and long-term trauma on children and their parents. 

I know, I know. 

I’m always doing that.

Being like, “hey ya’ll, I’m gonna talk all about my personal life and books I like and stuff I heard on the radio” and then all the sudden I’m off on a tangent about our immigration policies and you’re, like, “Whoa, slow down there Tater” (for some reason the “you” in this scenario has kind of a twang. Did I mention I'm reading "Hillbilly Elegy"?) 

Anyway, I all the sudden got self conscious about my weird extrapolating. 

It’s just that in my head, our experiences as individuals are connected to our experiences on a larger scale. As neighbors and cities and states and countries. It’s all fluid. It all relates to each other.

How we see ourselves as individuals, how we treat each other as individuals is just a microcosm of who we are as a collective. 

And I think we can all do better for ourselves and each other and the rest.

We need to remember that, as much as it feels like the space we occupy currently is ours and ours alone, our time here is impermanent. That none of it is really ours. Or was ours to begin with. That thousands of years ago, something else claimed this space. And hundreds of years ago, another something claimed this space. And decades ago, something else. 

It’s all shared space. It’s a shared existence. 

There’s room for everyone. 

And if you start to feel self-righteous about a particular person or circumstance. Start to feel your eyebrow doing that twitchy thing it does when someone different than you does something other than you would do, don't assume the worst. Try to put your body in their body.

My sister Laura says it best:

"In my mind .. as soon as you begin to understand someone it is much harder to not love them."

Monday, June 25, 2018

Finding our way home in this great big universe

When we moved down to Virginia almost two years ago, I was kind of a mess. Not even kind of a mess. I was a veritable landfill of emotions, most of which were negative and centered around how much I didn't want to be here.

I'd already been here once before. Like, from birth 'til I headed off to college. When I graduated from Penn State I thought I wanted to return to my hometown and find a job and settle into all the familiar pockets. But I didn't end up getting a job here. I got a job in York, Pa. and settled in there. 

At the time, I figured York was sort of a pit stop on the road to the rest of my life. But then it took a lot longer than I thought it would to change the tires and refill the gas tank and clean the windshields and all that pit-stoppy types stuff. And before I could say hogmaw, I'd gotten married and bought a house and adopted a dog and had couple of kids– all at the place that was supposed to be Stopoverville.

I had friends there. I loved having ties to the local paper- I worked there for seven years and after leaving, still wrote articles and columns periodically. Brad was on staff. We both felt invested in our community. And it was such an interesting, quirky community. A tired factory town, we watched as York was resuscitated. In the years we lived there new restaurants, galleries and shops opened. All the sudden the downtown was filled with activity. A destination rather than a place people wanted to avoid. There was a sense of mission. A sense of purpose. 

And a short drive from the city was rolling countryside. Farmland and forests mixed with small towns. 

York had character. An identity. Not always an identity I identified with, mind you. Despite being north of the Mason-Dixon line there's a surprising number of Confederate flags flying in more rural areas. York is Trump country. It's pro-gun country. It has the habit of being suspicious of outsiders. It was these things. And it wasn't just these things. 

I mean I could list off a whole bunch of adjectives or affiliations that would make a progressive-y sort of person such as myself cringe. But you can't distill a whole population into a series of adjectives or affiliations. It's like removing the heart from the body. They get to be people, first. And they were my neighbors. And I liked them a whole lot.

So, naturally, what I did when I faced the prospect of moving back to where I grew up, was assign a whole lot of adjectives and affiliations to the people here. Like that they're materialistic and overly focused on careers and status. That there's no real personality. Just traffic and strip malls and cookie cutter subdivisions (much like the one I landed in, in fact).

For the first few months here, I'd drive around wearing giant sunglasses with tears in my eyes. And then I'd get home and bawl and bawl. I didn't want to meet people or socialize. I didn't want to figure out new grocery stores or find new doctors or figure out different routes and routines. I felt like the world's saddest automaton. Just existing in the world without a heart. My one joy was reuniting with my siblings and my best friend from high school- all who live within an hour of me now. They carried me those first few months.

And not just them. See, we landed in this neighborhood we knew nothing about- save for the fact that there was a house for rent that allowed for all our pets and the commute wouldn't be too horrendous. I assumed that it would take years for us to make friends. That it would just be a place we resided in ... but not necessarily a place we really lived in. If that makes any sense. 

But our new neighbors ... they weren't all the adjectives I'd wanted to assign to them. And right off the bat, they welcomed us into the fold. They invited us to gatherings like a pre-trick-or-treat family party and helped us navigate the new school and all the annual neighborhood traditions- the annual egg hunt and annual Fourth of July parade and the annual phenomenon that is summer swim team.

My sisters, my friend, my neighbors, time- they all sort of resuscitated me, I think. 

When we found out Edna was coming we knew we wanted to buy a house sooner than later, rather than juggling an infant and a move when the homeowners of our current house returned. To make the situation less stressful and anxiety-inducing for Brad, I kind of insisted that we find a house in our neighborhood. I mean, at least that narrowed down the search radius, right? 

I don't know that I often have strong instincts about things. And I don't often put my foot down about things. But I felt strongly about this move. We'd landed in a place that felt like home and we'd found a community we thought we could become a part of. Were really already a part of, I guess. 

We got pre-approval for a mortgage, found a realtor and waited for a house in our neighborhood and in our price range to come on the market. We waited and waited and waited. Did I mention there was waiting? We followed up on a couple for sale signs. One house needed more work than we could afford. Another was too small. We found a beautiful home that was under budget less than a mile from where we are now- but we didn't put an offer on it. It wasn't in our neighborhood. 

I'm sure I was giving Brad large amounts of heart burn.

The weeks and months ticked by. Edna progressed from ear of corn to eggplant to cantaloupe. 

I noticed a sign go up in front of a house around the block. All neat and tidy on the outside. We looked at it the night it came on the market. It was neat and tidy on the inside, too. We put in an offer the next day. And the next day it was accepted. And for the first time in months, I felt like I could breathe (well, you know, except for the giant baby forcing my lungs to squeeze into tiny spaces of my body).

A few weeks later, I was outside the middle school lined up with the rest of the staff waving goodbye to all the buses that were taking the students home one last time before summer break. Despite how much they exhausted and challenged me over the past six months, I was sad to see them go and I was sad to turn in my badge and classroom keys. Because I'd found an unexpected community at that school- both with the other teachers and the students. Somehow, we'd become woven into each other- even if just for a few months. 

There were tears that last day. And a few hugs. Some from students I had no idea even liked me much at all. A girl who'd caused me more headaches than I could count shook my hand. The student who refused to call me by my actual name, still didn't call me by my actual name- but he also went out of his way to hang out near my spot in the back of the room that last day. He reminded me, once more, that my baby was going to be cooler than me. And I told him he was right. He would know such things- he was one of the coolest kids I'd met in awhile. 

Both students and teachers were asking if I'd come back next year. With Edna coming- subbing probably is out of the question. But I told them I'd love to come back. And I meant it. As hard as it was, as overwhelmed as I was, as bananas as the students were- I also felt as if it was the right place for me to be. It gave me a window into the other part of my community that I'm now a part of- not just my idealistic little neighborhood- but the parts crying for resources and attention. I'm glad to be aware of it. To see it. To know about it. Because when you're putting down roots, it's good to know where the soil needs help, you know? 


My friend Danny, the religion editor at CNN, was invited to give a TED Talk on the theme "Fear Itself" at a TEDx event in Virginia. 

This past winter, we'd talked a bit about what he planned to say for his talk- at the time, Danny mentioned that he wanted to use an incident from a few years ago as a jumping off point. 

In 2015, Danny had been onboard an Amtrak train that crashed, killing eight people. He'd gotten off the train one stop before it derailed. The fact that he was spared while eight people died and hundreds of others were injured haunted Danny. He used the questions that left him sleepless after that day as fodder for a column - Why Was I Spared from Amtrak Train 188's Crash?

In the piece, he interviewed a Catholic priest, a Buddhist writer, an atheist philosopher, an imam, an evangelical author and a rabbi- asking for their perspective on what had happened to him and the guilt and confusion he'd wrestled with since. 

While ultimately, he didn't reference the crash and how it affected him in his TED talk, I could hear the echoes of the spiritual voices he'd spoken with. They're almost like the structural girders in the presentation he ultimately delivered: Our Next Religious Revolution, which you can (and should) watch here: 

But wait, what does any of this have to do with you moving into a new house? You ask. I'm not exactly sure. But somehow Religious Revolution and my real estate choices are related in my brain. When Edna woke me up at 3 a.m. one morning last week with her pokey feet (or knees or elbows) I got to thinking about religion and spirituality and souls and light and my own coordinates in this vast space- Latitude 38.97, Longitude -77.39. 

In his talk, Danny shares that while one out of three millennials say they're not affiliated with any religion, that 85 percent of them are seeking out religious or spiritual content online.

That's a lot of searching. 

That's a recipe for religious revolution, Danny says. And there are people creating new religions out there- many centered around technology- like a guy in Silicon Valley building one around Artificial Intelligence. Or researchers experimenting with how psychedelics can be used to create religious experiences. 

Danny's talk got me thinking about religious revolutions. About conversations I've had with my sisters. About observations I've made in my own community and online. How we feel as if we're in a time of transition- spiritually- at both micro and macro levels. How we can't see the larger picture, but we feel the change in our bones. 

In his talk, Danny shares about the role communications technology has played in the human spiritual journey. How the first writing in symbols in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia spurred the birth of civilization. How the development of the alphabet was associated with the rise of monotheism. How early Christians who used books bound together rather than scrolls, were better able to share their faith. How the printing press gave Martin Luther a distinct advantage in spreading his ideas.

And here we are, in 2018 with the internet and social media and mobile technology that enables us to share our thoughts about everything from the best shampoos for pool hair to the plight of children on the border suffering at the hand of current immigration policies to the crap we think about at 3 in the morning when the baby in our belly is apparently going through a whole series of sun salutations in utero.

Martin Luther would totes be jellies.

He would probably also never had said totes or jellies. What's that you say? I shouldn't be using those words either? Whatevs.

So at 3 a.m. the other night I was thinking about light. More specifically the light that we're all carrying around in us. Our souls. 

I was thinking about the evolution of our spirituality as a species- how at times we've worshipped many gods and at other times we've worshipped just one God. How the human civilization is filled with individuals who've told us how to appropriately worship those gods or that God. And how sometimes these individuals are wise and helpful and sometimes they use their influence for their own gain rather than for civilization's. 

I was thinking about how previous generations seemed so focused on worshipping the light of these gods or God (or even the lights of the humans who claim to speak on behalf of these gods or God), that they neglected to honor the light within themselves. 

I was thinking about how the internet and social media has sort of reminded humans about the light within themselves. Like, the whole concept of a personal "brand" or of our personal "journeys" or even just of documenting our day-to-day lives is giving us space to kind of honor ourselves as individuals. I say "sort of" and "kind of" because, you know, sometimes we might have the tendency to be a little too self reflective (is that just me? Maybe it's just me. "If the previous 2,200-plus words is any indication, it's just you," you say.)

I was also thinking about how the internet and social media has sort of reminded humans about the light within each other. How it's created digital communities and fed non-digital communities and forced us to see both the glory and the pain of others near and far. 

And we're all grappling with this deluge of information. This awareness of all these souls that need to be tended to. Our instinct as social beings cries for us to form bonds, build communities, raise each other up. But other primitive parts of our brains react in fear- and that fear is being exploited online over and over again to fuel hate and discord. 

Change can be scary, especially religious change. 

We've seen a spike in hate crimes in Muslims and Sikhs and other religious minorities just as they're becoming a bigger part of our population, Danny says in his Ted Talk. People driven to attack them by fear. 

But the same tools that we use harvest hatred can also be used to nurture togetherness. 

"Valerie Kaur, gave this beautiful speech on New Year’s Eve, after the election in 2016. And she said something like, 'What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb, and America is a country waiting to be birthed, and we are being called to breathe and to push?' "

Maybe it's that I have breathing and pushing on my mind these days- but this idea stuck with me. Whether birthing a baby or birthing a new way of being in this country- it's messy. Like- epic messy. All the blood and baby and placenta and fluid and poo (well, sometimes poo). It's like the ugliest, most beautiful process I can think of. 

Maybe that's where we're at. I don't know.

How timely that this quote from Jonathan Sacks in "Becoming Wise" popped up in my feed recently:

"I think God is setting us a big challenge, a really big challenge. We are living so close to difference with such powers of destruction that he's really giving us very little choice. To quote the great line from W.H. Auden, 'We must love one another or die.' That is, I think, where we are at the beginning of the 21st century. And since we really can love one another, I have a great deal of hope."

We really can love one another. 

At 3 a.m. I had this thought that we're kind of at this place of weaving together all the layers of spiritual practice we've come to understand. Acknowledging the light of the creator, the light within ourselves, the light within each other, the light of a community, the light within all living things. How networked together it creates a map of our place in this universe. 

Then again, it was the middle of the night. Maybe I should've just focused less on trying to figure out our place on the universe and more on sleep. 

But what's an over-thinker/over-sharer to do except write?

P.S.: I started this post a week ago- in the midst of packing up a house and moving to a new house and cleaning the old house and going to the doctor's and the dentist and to swim meets and swim practice. It was longer and more ramblish than normal. And that's really saying something coming from me. So. Apologies for all that.