Saturday, January 21, 2017

That Time Around the Birthing Pool

At 1:50 a.m. Thursday morning Brad woke me up. My phone was buzzing on my night stand. 

It was one of my best friends. Her water had just broken. Contractions were starting. 

Could I come?

I flopped back in my pillow. Thinking out loud about logistics – how I could manage the two-hour drive up to York later that morning, figuring out who could pick up the kids from school. Brad interrupted. 

"I can just work from home today. You can go."

That's how I found myself digging through my dresser drawers half awake – what should I wear to welcome new life into the world? Red seemed much too harsh. I went with dark purple. 

Then I hopped in Brad's car and steered into the still night. The roads were eerie and empty – hours from being crammed with morning commuters. Brad had been listening to A Tribe Called Quest's new album. I left it on. The beat and the message woke me up, felt right on inauguration eve.
"Judging steps in shoes of a path they never walkedShot down in a blaze of a phrases is how they talkDark skinned, walk with a bot portrayed villainI'm chillin', felon down to the DNA crime willin'Subliminate their youth, hyper-sexualize their womenThey ain't got the strong enough hold, so they built the prisons."
I arrived in York at 4:30. My best friend curled up on the couch in her stone fairytale cottage of a house. Her husband greeted me with a hug. Bustled around the house collecting provisions, writing a list for his run to Walmart. We were tired but elated. Contractions had been fairly steady. Today was more than likely the day.

Justin left and Kristen and I talked softly about life – just like always, just like any other day – before we lay down to rest. 

The morning wore on. The house got lighter and louder. Justin returned, he was followed soon after by his mom, a giddy, anxious storm. Our friend Brittany arrived, then Krystal popped in. The little girls woke up and stumbled downstairs all shaggy headed and sleepy eyed – 5-year-old Sophia and her 2-year-old step-sister Laila. The midwife and her assistant came to to check on progress. Justin's sister was there, too. The house was full. 
We did laundry. We needed more towels – a lot more towels. The living room furniture was moved around to make space for a birthing pool in the corner. 

Because we were all staying there. Kristen and Justin's son would arrive right in the midst of this wonderful chaos. 

Kristen and Justin retreated upstairs for some quiet. The contractions came back, stronger and steadier. Brittany, Justin and I took turns rubbing Kristen's aching back. Talking her through the pain. 

The midwives returned and the birthing pool was filled. It was time.

Laela entertained herself by draping multicolored strands of licorice around her neck. "Baby here?" she asked each time she heard the door open.

"Not yet, he's coming soon!" we reassured her.

Kristen was in the pool, succumbing to the intensity of labor pains. We took turns bringing pots of near-boiling water to fill the pool – the water heater had been emptied. 

"It's just like 'Little House on the Prairie', " I squealed, always attempting levity at inopportune times.

There was enough water. Kristen felt like she wanted to push. So we circled the pool. Brittany lay cool washcloths on Kristen's forehead with such tenderness my throat tightened. Sophia watched her mother in quiet awe. "You can do it mom," she urged. 

And she did. With this ancient force and grace and will, Kristen delivered Liam, all white with vernix and shiny, downy hair. Justin caught his son and led him up to his mother's chest where we she marveled at him. And the rest of us marveled at the three of them. 

I picked up Sophia so she could see better. "That's your brother! That's your brother!" I'm always stating the obvious. I was grinning and teary and so was Sophia. She hugged me tight. 

The room was so filled with love – it was a palpable thing. You could reach out and touch it. Read it on all our faces.

This moment was so perfectly timed in the wake of this week and this year.

I've had so many thoughts at low levels and high levels.

Like how I have a response for those Childfree Redditors who had some strong critiques of my parenting abilities after reading my last post. ("She's practically bragging about how her children run her house. Some of these 'mommy bloggers' just seem like they enjoy one-upping each other about how terrible and stressful being a mom is.")

I might have been one-upping my fellow "mommy bloggers" (why does that feel like such a loaded, specific title) but that wasn't my intention. And while that particular post was focused on some of the more stressful moments of parenthood – what I didn't share was that for every communal pooping situation, there are moments of completely unexpected and weird joy. 

And I was reminded of this while witnessing Liam's birth. Because it's instant with kids. This love. They burst into the world and upend your lives in the best ways possible. The fact is, my children have taught me more about what it means to be a good human than in the past seven years than I'd learned in the previous 28. 

Tonight at dinner, Lily spilled her lemonade all over the floor and table. She immediately started crying. And I started grumping at her because I'd reminded them a billion times about being careful and holding their cups with two hands, etc., etc., etc. There was no lemonade left for a refill. It was very dramatic. Jovie got up from the table after finishing her dinner. 

"I'm done eating, Lily. You can have the rest of my lemonade," she told her.

See?

The night before, Lily let Jovie wear her coveted Elsa dressing gown to bed. It was a simple favor, but huge for Lily who is forever fishing the gown out of her laundry basket to wear it and re-wear it. And it brought Jovie so much happiness.

Small kindnesses breed more small kindnesses. They soften our hearts. They lead to bigger kindnesses. More open hearts.

And yes, children are forever disrespecting boundaries. They tear down the walls we spend our adulthood erecting and make messes of all our neat, tidy spaces. But these broken barriers allow our worlds to expand and children's embodiment of entropy reminds us that a messy life is a lived in life*.

At some point before Liam arrived I was asked who I voted for – out of curiosity, not aggression. I didn't answer, because it didn't matter in that moment. It really didn't. See, I'm of one persuasion and maybe the others in that room at that moment were of another, but who we voted for is just one facet of who we are as a whole. And anyway, we were all there, together, for a single purpose. To love.

This is what we get, you know? We arrive in this world in our various colors and circumstances, but we're all naked and searching for the love that created us. For the security and nourishment that will allow us to survive.

No matter what path our lives follow, what shape we take, what beliefs we prescribe to, we are all rooted from the same human tree. 

And that's what Liam, in his wisp of a life so far, has already taught me. 

We live by each other. We die by each other. 

We need each other.

*I have to say, that this is just my perspective on my life. And it's not to say that those who don't have children don't have equally messy, barrier-free and/or full lives. Children were for me, but they don't have to be for everyone. And I completely understand and respect that.


Monday, January 16, 2017

One Day I'll Poop Alone



So, one of the most unexpected side effects of motherhood (so far) has been my inability to poop alone.

And maybe inability isn't the right word. Certainly, I am capable of pooping alone (I don't have, like, a co-dependent colon that refuses to do anything without moral support). In fact, given the choice, I would prefer pooping alone. But motherhood has taken away that choice (well – unless I can train my bowels to release between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. every day ... and even then there's no guarantee of solitude. Not with cats around). 

The kids pretty much trail me all day. If it weren't for their propensity for whining, yelling and dressing in a dizzying variety of mixed prints, they'd make excellent PIs (Inconspicuous is not a word I'd use to describe them – except when they've snuck off with my phone to watch videos of grown men and women playing with children's toys). They're like the animals at the petting zoo – always keeping an eye out for the people with the plastic cups, because those are the people with the food. (In this scenario, of course, my children are goats and I'm a plastic cup.) 

They jockey for my attention and never allow me to go too far out of range.

And being in the bathroom with a closed door is out of range.

So what happens is, they'll follow me in. 

If I'm in the master bathroom (i.e. The en suite or  the  "we've arrived" toilet), Lily will barge in and pull up the window shade so she can see what's happening in the back yard and I can see what's happening in my neighbor's bedrooms (you know, should they also have opened their shades). When I tell her that I'm in a vulnerable spot and would rather not be on display for the neighborhood at that particular moment and reach to pull the shades down, she'll laugh in my face and put them right back up. I'm usually not in much of a position to do anything about it.

Then she'll start wrinkling her little nose and complaining about the various smells wafting through the tiny room*. I'll remind her that she could leave the bathroom at any time and that I would actually prefer that she not come in. But she, of course, will refuse. She also refuses to believe that her own excrement might emit less than pleasant odors. But that is a problem for she and her therapist to work out together in another 20 years or so.

Sometimes I'll make it into the bathroom with enough time to lock the door, only to have the girls standing right on the other side, pounding the door and screaming as if they're being hunted by a pack of deranged hyenas and I've selfishly only saved myself. 

"MAMA! MAMA!!!" They'll scream. "LET US IN!! LET US IN!!!"

And I'll understand why every once and a while an animal might eat their young.

I'll do my business and open the door and there they'll be. Waiting. Always waiting. Sometimes the dog is there, too. Usually a cat for good measure as well.

It doesn't really matter what I'm doing in the bathroom – if I'm in there, chances are they are, too. They like to play with my makeup brushes, casually using them to dust off the top of the toilet or apply eye shadow on the dog. When I'm toweling off from the shower, they sometimes pretend to milk my "udders" or blows raspberries on my stomach. 

For those of you who are horrified, I, too understand how weird all this is. I don't encourage these invasions of personal space. In fact, I tell them flat out that I'm not a cow and that my body is my personal property and not some sort of live-action sensory experience you'd find at a museum. They're mostly undeterred. 

And its not just in the bathroom, either. On any given day they'll pretend to be my baby penguins nestling between my legs with their feet on my feet and insisting I walk around the house with them. When I sit or lie down, they immediately jump in my lap or climb on my shoulders, fighting over who gets to sit where. 

"Girls! I'm not furniture!" I tell them. 

To which Jovie responds, "But Mom, you're so comfortable!"

Like I'm a La-Z-Boy or something.

The other day I was lying on the floor in the family room (which was a rookie mistake on my part). Lily bounded over to me, sat on my stomach and proceeded to play the bongos on my she-bongos. She likes to crawl into bed with us every morning around 6, which I don't mind because I love to snuggle with my girls. Only Lily can't be still. It's physically impossible for her. So she climbs all around - her sharp knees are perpetually jabbing my sternum or thighs. The other morning she jabbed her pointy elbow right into my eye socket – I was fairly certain if I opened my eyelid, my eyeball would just plop onto the bed. I started thinking about what I could use as an eye patch for the day.

They have a knack for invading any moment of respite or relaxation I attempt at home. If I do yoga, they'll leap on my back during down dog, or else battle for greater territory on the mat.

Last weekend, under instruction of my new page-a-day calendar, I took a bath. One of my children (whose name will not be mentioned because of the embarrassing nature of the conversation that follows) interrupted.

Me (hearing someone trying to enter bathroom): The door is locked what do you need?
Child: I need toilet paper.
Me: What happened?
Child: Well, I went poopy in my pants and then I went to my room to get new underwear and when I took off my messy underwear I got poop on the floor so now I need something to wipe it up.
Me (sighing heavily): Was it a lot of poop or a little poop?
Child: It's not a lot of poop. Just a little smooshed in the carpet.
Me: I'll take care of it.
(Gets out of water, dries off. Cleans up carpet poop.)

I could go on. But I imagine I've filled my 2017 quota for oversharing and stinky bodily functions. I don't mean to be gross (OK, that's not totally accurate). I guess I mean I'm not brining up all this potty talk for the sake of grossness in of itself.

I'm sharing because motherhood is intense. And it's intense in the most unanticipated ways. You know, when you are pregnant, all anyone talks about is how you're never going to sleep again. There are stories about an explosive diaper-changing incidents or the terror of watching a kid fall from great heights. But the meat of nonstop, full-contact day-to-day child-rearing cannot be translated. 

Nobody told me, for instance, that I would actually look forward to playing hide-and-seek with my children – because by finding the absolute best hiding places in the house I could buy myself a few minutes of quiet (that is, unless, the dog finds me first and barks and barks, alerting the seekers to my location ... which happens frequently).

That's right. I hide from my children. And I know I'm not alone. 

I love them. God, I love them so, so much. I love how Lily giggles when there's a certain amount of chaos (like when the zookeeper couldn't catch the bunny hoping around after her presentation on small mammals). I love how Jovie scrunches up her entire face when she tries to wink. I love their twinkly eyes, their soft cheeks. Their made-up songs and impromptu dance parties. 

I love them in the most intense and unanticipated ways.

But nobody told me that in doing this, in becoming a mother, that I would lose my autonomy. Not just my "me" time, mind you. I mean the sense of agency I have over my person. They grew in my body and came out of my body and still claim my body as their body. And they command attention all the time, which means that my brain never full seems to be my brain anymore. That becomes theirs, too. 

Georgia, my old neighbor, once said about life with her adult daughter with special needs, "I don't know where she ends and I begin." 

I completely get that. Though I'm only six-plus years into my journey as a parent. Georgia has more than three decades under her belt.

There are times I just want to pry open the clenching jaws of motherhood and crawl out through its teeth and run away from being "Hey mom? Mom? MOM?! MOOOOOOOOOM?!!!!!!!!!! MOMMMMMMMMMMY!!!!!!!"

Just to remember, even if its just for a moment that I am something else, too. You know? Just go back to being Susan. Whoever she is.

And what happens when you're in this place, when you are giving yourself over to all the household elements, the second things get quiet – the kids are in bed, the dishes are done, the day becomes still – you retreat into your den and snarl like a honey badger at anything trying to get close.

Like, your husband for instance. Who is also tired and anxious after long days at work and ridiculous commutes and who just wants to connect with his wife, who has inexplicably and inconveniently morphed into a porcupine.

The other night Brad and I went out on a date to see Louis CK in D.C. (stay tuned for his next comedy special -- it was filmed at the show we were at, which was so, so awesome in all the ways. If you listen closely, you might even hear me snort laughing all the way back in the second to last row of DAR Constitution Hall). While we were grabbing dinner I was explaining all this to Brad. How it wasn't that I was anti-intimacy or anti-marriage or anti-motherhood or anti-him – it was that I just felt ... spent. I figured that at some point the kids would get bigger and grow weary of hanging all over me all the time. There will come a day when I will actually miss Jovie randomly hugging my legs or Lily nuzzling her nose in my ear. And I don't think it will be too long into the future. Children speed up time. They make years go by in seconds it seems. 

I told Brad it wouldn't be too long before he got his carefree (though somewhat crustier) wife back. I'll go back to being a less-encumbered version of myself. 

I'll be aware of where my children end and I begin. 

Though I imagine my girls will forever be ghost limbs. I will always feel them there on the other side of the bathroom door, long after they've left the nest. 

Just another unexpected side effect of motherhood. 

 * In these situations, I'm reminded of my own childhood. When my older sisters would request my presence in the bathroom while they were ... unloading ... because they wanted someone to talk to. I'd whine and complain and get grossed out, but always ended up sitting on the edge of the tub while they took care of business. Why? Because I idolized my older sisters, and relished the opportunity to spend time with them. Even if they only ever summoned me to the throne room.

Monday, January 9, 2017

When enough is actually enough

Meet Natalie. 



She's a snowman – correction, she's a snowgirl – snow gauge. Jovie says you can tell she's a girl because of the shape of her mouth.



See, very feminine.

Jovie made Natalie in preschool. She brought her home last week, chattering nonstop about how she was constructed and what we'd use her for and wondering when, oh when, it would snow. I'd peek into the rearview mirror on the drive home and see Jovie having secret conversations with Natalie about whatever it is 4 year olds have secret conversations about. Probably poop. Then she'd catch me looking at her and Natalie would pop up in my rearview mirror and, in a high-pitched voice (so you'd know she was a girl) squeaked, "Hiya mom!"

(I guess I'm the proud mother of three now. Two human females and one anthropomorphized snowgirl snow gauge.)

Natalie came into our life at the nick of time. Because it started snowing. Not with any intensity. Like the next step up from flurries. But enough for the kids to run around the house squealing, "IT'S SNOWING, IT'S SNOWING IT'S SNOWING." At dinner, Jovie begged to go outside with Natalie to measure the snow. I was distracted -- only half thinking about the whole situation. I told her there probably wouldn't be enough to measure, but she could try. Then promptly went back to Mom business (i.e. collecting the confetti of socks strewn about the house, scrubbing dishes, probably making macaroni and cheese, you know all trappings of indentured servitude.) 

Later on, I found Jovie sobbing on the stairs wearing her coat, clutching Natalie. "It didn't work! I tried to measure it, but the snow keeps melting! I can't do it!" 

It was the saddest ever.

While Jovie had made Natalie, I'm not sure she was clear on proper snow gauge usage. From what I gather, she thought she was supposed to use Natalie to catch snowflakes and then count the flakes. But, of course, the flakes kept disappearing on her. 

We eventually calmed Jovie down, letting her know that we were sure it would snow enough to use Natalie one day soon.

The next day, the girls woke up to – well, not really what I'd describe as a Winter Wonderland, but like, maybe a Winter-esque Goodishland. I mean, if Winter Wonderland were Disney World, then Winter-esque Goodishland would be the play place at an older model Burger King with only questionable cleanliness. 

A light sheet of snow covered the driveway and deck – but the grass was still poking up through the flakes. 

The girls saw it and resumed their running about the house from the night before, "IT SNOWED! IT SNOWED! IT SNOWED! Can we play in it?" I told them there wasn't really enough to play in - not enough for snowmen or snowballs or snow forts or sledding or for measuring with Natalie the snow girl snow gauge – but they insisted on going out. They shoveled their breakfast cereal and, at 7:15 in the morning, donned their snow pants and boots and went outside to play. 

I watched them from the sunroom, chasing each other, making footprints, crawling around like woodland creatures and eating bits of snow they'd gathered here and there. Their cheeks were pink, their eyes were glittering and their smiles were wide.

I was wrong. There was enough snow. 

***

As part of my freelancing work, I end up interviewing a lot of data scientists – or at least people who work for companies that develop software targeted to storing, visualizing, analyzing and otherwise dealing with Big Data. 

Big Data – for those of you lucky enough to not be exposed to the trend du jour of business world jargon – is pretty much what it sounds like – it's all the data collected by an organization or business (at least that's what I think it is – I'm not really an expert on data science, I just play one in my side gig. If the people I interview ever pulled back to the curtain in search of the wizard of Big Data content marketing, they'd only find a wild-eyed  lady in dog-hair covered fleece pajamas compulsively checking her chin for evasive hairs while ranting about the hardened gobs of tooth paste I'm perpetually finding in the bathroom sink. In short, I wouldn't, like, site this blog on your next college paper.)

Where were we? Oh, right. Big Data. 

So, apparently, according to those who seem to know a lot more about such things than I do, Big Data is the future.

Forward-thinking enterprises are racing to find the tools that will allow them to turn all the data they're collecting from clients, customers, employees, partners and vendors in the form of everything from emails to Facebook interactions to Tweets to phone calls to texts to website visits to purchases to "boost engagement" and become more "agile" and "efficient" (why yes, those quotes are substitutes for eye rolls. Just. All. The. Jargon). 

Big Data is responsible for Google knowing that when I start typing "How to stop my preschooler" I'm going to finish with "from whining" and Facebook knowing I will click on any and all videos related to goat tomfoolery and thereby filling my feed with all manners of goat-related hilarity.

Anyway, Big Data allows organizations to make smarter predictions so they can make more well-informed decisions related to whatever their mission is – whether that's selling more small, hard plastic toys for me to step on or helping Syrian refugees.

So what's this have to do with my kids and their snowy(ish) romp? Stay with me here.

See, with all the reading I do about Big Data, I have this creepy feeling that in the end we're all going to be reduced down to numbers. That the entirety of humanity will be added to some infinite spreadsheet based in "The Cloud." That our worth and place in life will be based on precise measurements of aptitude at any given task. In the eyes of the future, we will cease to be the unique, prescient beings. All of what we are as individuals and a race reduced down to 1s and 0s in a giant server humming along on some remote Pacific Island.

That's not to say that there aren't tremendous benefits from being able to collect and analyze large data sets (obviously) – I mean, you can make safer cars and predict where to build schools and hospitals and track the spread of disease and improve social services, and, and, and. So many possibilities.

But when we all become just the sum total of our digital interactions, well, something gets lost, right?

Because its not completely accurate. It can't possibly account for exactly how much snow is needed to entertain a 4 year old and a 6 year old before school one January morning. (Well, maybe it can -- I suppose as I type someone could be developing an algorithm that compares snowfall totals with the amount of pleasure derived among children >6.)

Data couldn't predict that my 6 year old would tell me that, "today is the best day ever" or that my 4 year old would show me all the different ways you can use a snowgirl snow gauge.

***

As usual, I've wandered off course. I started writing this post because that moment the girls found so much joy in our little dusting of snow stuck with me. This idea of "enough." What is enough?

I spend a lot of time thinking about things that I never seem to have enough of – time, sleep, motivation, desserts that contain both chocolate and peanut butter. But I've lost sight of what enough is. What that really means if I'm being honest with myself.

Enough is probably much less than I already have of so many things. 

My fear for our collective digital future is that computers will be able to anticipate all the things we think we want or think we need and it will inundate us with reminders of these things. Luring us to seek these things and using methods we ourselves taught the computers from our repeated interactions with them.

I worry that we will become so swallowed up in the endless vat of data and desire and presumed need that we will forget what it means to be satiated. There will always be something other thing, some other improvement, some other tweak. 

That we will lose sight of the one word that will actually serve us best:

Enough.

If you need something to measure that, well, I might have a snowgirl snow gauge for the job.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Searching for the Sounds of Silence


So yesterday, Brad and I thought we'd attempt to jumpstart a family New Year's Day tradition by taking a walk together as a family.

We headed for a path that wends its way through the peninsula of trees dividing various suburban enclaves of Herndon.


Inspired by a recent episode of "On Being" about the power of silence, I suggested to the girls that we try to walk without talking.


"Let's be quiet and use our ears to listen for sounds in nature," I said attempting the sweet-but-authoritative voice I'd heard Lily's kindergarten teacher use to wrangle her class.


In my dream scenario, I'd imagined the girls nodding soundlessly in agreement – small smiles playing on their lips as the spirit of adventure and discovery danced in their eyes. We'd be like a family of Muirs or monks communing with the wonders of the natural world and filling our souls in the process. 


I imagine right about now you're doing what my neighbors -- more seasoned parents -- did when I told them about what actually happened on our New Year's Day walk -- which was laugh loudly (while probably inwardly rolling their eyes) at my general naivety and stupidity.


Because they knew what was coming, even before I did.


Which was not silence.


Kind of the opposite of that, in fact.


My girls made it, maybe five seconds (if I'm being generous) without uttering a sound. Jovie broke the short-lived serenity of our contemplative stroll by roaring like a wildcat and suggesting that she and Lily pretend to be characters from the "Lion Guard" chasing each other down the path while barking orders at each other to watch out for hyenas and marauding wildebeests. When they tired of that they picked up sticks to use as wands and broomsticks but began frantically yelling when we got too far ahead of them and thought my suggestion that the small branch they were holding between their legs might be hindering them was absurd. 


The day was unseasonably warm, so we stopped so they could hop the stones that crossed the creek. They announced that they were now puffins and – going full Method – proceeded to squawk with the volume of an entire colony of puffins.


When they started toeing the creek water I suggested that it was time our little birds migrate on down the path and brought up again how I thought it might be fun to try walking without talking ... just for a little bit. And again I was ignored.


They poked holes in the dirt of an uprooted tree, demanded that we stop and count the rings on a stump (120 in case you were wondering) used another downed tree as a balance beam, tried to walk on my feet as if they were baby penguins, all the while chattering away and despairing about the endless walk back to the car, which they predicted would take forever. And I kind of agree, the whole endeavor felt like an eternity.


To be fair, even if they had humored me, our quiet walk really wouldn't have been all that quiet. Airplanes flew overhead, a chainsaw rumbled in the distance, dogs barked as we passed by. What did I expect really? We were smack dab in the middle of modern civilization. Always moving. Always rushing. Always noisy. 


Several times I swallowed the frustration creeping its way up my throat and sighed. I accepted that the rejuvenating excursion we'd devised to welcome 2017 with clear hearts and minds was just not meant to be. 


Maybe I will attempt it again another day. I should probably bring duct tape for their mouths. They'd probably be all for it (and look less like kidnapping victims) if I got the fancy tape at the craft store with the pink and the glitter. 


Or not. 


Maybe when they're older. Or come down with laryngitis. 


Quiet is a "think tank of the soul," said acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hampton, the guest on that episode of "On Being."


Ever since I heard that, I've been craving silence. Though not really finding it -- quiet is hard to come back during Christmas vacation. 


It's not just the kids though, I've found myself filling silent moments with noise. Whether its music, busying myself with cleaning or cooking, or the visual noise of all the apps on my phone. 


Why is it that quiet feels like wasted time? When I slow down or sit down in silence and stillness I feel useless and listless and anxious. Doing nothing feels lazy. Idle hands are the devil's workshop and all that.   


It's such a destructive way of thinking.


I had this thought the other day that silence is where you go to listen for inspiration. That's where musicians go to hear music. And artists go to create art. And writers go to write. It's solitude and silence where you have the opportunity to be open to new ideas and fresh thinking. If we run away from silence, we run away from the truths inside ourselves. 


If we can't be silent with those around us, we're running from their truths, too.


And where has that gotten us?


It strikes me that the past year was so noisy. Our thoughts and our phones, TVs, radios and conversations crammed with headlines, photos, videos, comments, Tweets, tirades, pleas – all the agony and rage of existence 24-7. And are we really hearing any of it over the screams of our own confused, exhausted brains?


I don't think I've been listening. Not truly. 


And I want to change that. I'm not big on resolutions because I have terrible follow through. But if I were to make a resolution, it would be about shutting up and listening. About seeking out opportunities to be quiet in the natural world, and also quiet in the busy world in which I live. Not an antisocial quiet, but a companionable silence. Or one that invites the words of others. 


"I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it," Hampton said.


But what we really need is a silence without expectations or preconceived notions.


"Real listening is about being vulnerable," host Krista Tippet said on the show.


A silence without knowing. 


A curious sort of silence.


From Hampton: 

"The ability to see is not essential for survival. There are blind animal species in the back of the caves, in the bottom of the oceans and stuff like this, but sound is so important that every higher vertebrate species has the ability to hear. And sight is such an affordable luxury that eyelids evolved. We can close our eyes. OK, that’s enough of that. I’m just going to close my eyes and take a break. But not once in the fossil record do we have any evidence that a species evolved earlids. That would be far too dangerous. Animals must listen to survive." 
To survive as a person, as a country, as a species – it's time to start listening. 
Unless you're my children. In which case you should probably continue pretending you're a talking honey badger while poking your dad in the ear with a stick. Just don't be surprised if a crazed woman covered in cat hair and the stench of desperate expectations comes after you with glittery pink duct tape.

It's really your call. 
Happy New Year. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

How My Girls Showed Me that Life is the Shit

Photo courtesy of J.H. Fearless/Flickr

My children have recently embraced the potty-mouth phase of childhood with a dedication they've only ever reserved for macaroni & cheese, "Frozen" and leaping on freshly folded piles of laundry (Lily calls it taking a walk through laundry forest. I call it infuriating).

Their craptivities usually revolve around the word "poop" and with a butt reference here or there. Peak potty-mouth generally hits after Lily gets home from school until bedtime – giving me a full three- to four-hour window to document just how many times references to No. 2 can be made. Jovie, in particular, has turned poo and bottom references into an art form.

A recent (fecal) sampling:

Jovie: Lily, Pretzel pooped on my head. (No, the cat did not defecate on my child.)

Jovie: What are we having for dinner, Poo-getti?

Jovie: If you do that, I'm going to poop on you.

Jovie: Lily, wanna have a poop fight? I'm gonna spray poop at you from my butt.

Lily (Looking at Facebook): Is that a picture of Papa?
Jovie: You mean Poopa?

Jovie: Knock, Knock.
Lily: Who's there?
Jovie: Pencil sharpener.
Lily: Pencil sharpener who?
Jovie: I'm a pencil sharpener that pooped.

Then there's been the festive array of holiday-related references, too ('tis the season!):

Jovie: Merry Buttmas!

Lily (to the tune of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"): We won't go until we get poop.

Jovie: Jingle poop, jingle poop, jingle all the waaaay!

As you can see, the potty talk isn't clever so much as prolific. Still, there are moments when I can't stop myself from giggling. Like that time when Lily referred to one of their favorite fast-casual dining establishments as Poo-nera. Or, when Jovie singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" in the voice of an angel, trilled "A star, a star, dancing in the poopy ..."

In the realm of developmental stages, the crapload of poop references I hear on a daily pale in comparison to the days of their infanthood when I was wiping up actual excrement from their tiny behinds or the days of their toddlerhood when I'd periodically have to fish out floaters from the bathtub. I try not to put up a big stink about it – only asking that they limit their pooversations to our house or the car – definitely not in school or in public or around strangers or grandparents. They've been granted a deuce-pensation at certain friend's houses whose parents, like me, have crapped out on enforcing manners.

Sometimes as a parent, in order to keep your shit together, you have to pick your battles.

And of course, as adults we're not immune to talking toilet for shits and giggles. When those Poo Pourri commercials first came out my sisters and I were rolling in laughter (I imagine one or two of them were ready to buy company stock, too). You can imagine my glee when during closing for our York house (we don't need to talk about that right now) our real estate agent started sharing about a traumatic experience from his childhood (complete with pantomimes) whereby he had to use a shared toilet in the middle of the nursery school basement while a line of 20 or so kids stared at him.

Then, of course, there's a a tale that will go down in the anals -- err annals -- of family lore about the time when my sisters and our cranky kids all went to a water park at the beach on the hottest day of the year and chose to not make eye contact with a little log leisurely floating across the pool. Don't judge us. Earlier, as soon as we'd arrived at the waterpark and slathered sunblock on the kids (and you know that's no picnic) they closed the pool on behalf of a wayward doodie. By the time they reopened the supposedly clean pool, the kids were bouncing off the walls. We soon discovered the pool wasn't clean. But by then we were all in. Did I mention it was really hot? I mean, it was a big pool. Like, a really big pool. And we kept our distance from the uninvited guest. As far as I know, nobody suffered any gastrointestinal distress afterward. 

You know what? Let she who has never had an unfortunate poopcident cast the first turd.

***

Moving on.

It occurred to me in the midst of this recent kid-induced shitstorm that my sense of humor had returned. I'm not claiming to be any sort of comedian. Only that I have the ability, once again, to laugh at my little shitheads instead of just feeling like shit all the time.

The depression I'd been experiencing earlier this fall had completely flushed my ability to be silly. There was no space for joy in my brain. It was too cluttered with darkness. And there was no hope that the darkness would ever, ever go away. It felt like a permanent state of being.

I wrote in my journal that I felt as if my soul had left my body. That the fire that used to fuel me had been extinguished – or at the very least was the smallest of dying embers. I know this all sounds very overdramatic. Very 16-year-old theater student discovering the true depths of Hamlet's grief or something. So many feelings. All the feelings. Well, not really. Actually just a select few of the feelings – Sadness, Desperation, Apathy, Hopelessness – building pathetic outposts and miserable little settlements around my brain. All allowed to grow unfettered like the crabgrass in my old back yard.

In yoga today, we were asked to think about contentment. About being content in this moment. Allowing that feeling of contentment to roll over our tongue, down our throat and fill us. 

Our instructor asked us to reflect on contentment. Several people raised their hands and offered thoughts about finding inner peace or making the choice to be optimistic. Without thinking too much I raised my hand and started talking about moving and depression and the realization I had recently that I was OK. I had a bit of mouth diarrhea (sorry couldn't resist). But saying out loud what I had been thinking in that space really helped affirm its truth. 

I'm OK. 

As we were breathing through different poses, our instructor made sure that we paused. Sometimes we'd pause in an uncomfortable place, but we'd pause just the same and look for contentment in that moment. And often I'd find it. 

It occurred to me that in the midst of depression, my brain tells me I'll feel awful for always. Like it was where I would always land. And that in moments of happiness, my brain always seems to remind me it's fleeting. 

This contentment our instructor spoke of, it felt both lasting and fleeting. I could feel it in moments of discomfort just the same as I could feel it in moments of happiness. It could be my new baseline. I could laugh and land back there. Or, I could be sad and land back there. And that feels like a huge gift.

***

Earlier this week, the girls and I were decorating sugar cookies. They frosted and sprinkled for a record amount of time, but, as is usually the case, got tired of the job before all the cookies were done.

First Lily told me she was done. Then Jovie.

"Here we go again," I whined. "Every year I get left to decorate the rest of the cookies all by myself." 

Jovie paused on the stool she was about to hop down from. And then you know what my little shit stirrer did? She looked me in the eye and said, "Not this year mom," and decorated with me until every last cookie was covered in technicolor sugar.

My girl might be full of shit, but she's also made of sugar and spice.

She's always reminding me that while there are plenty of times when life is crap, it's also a pretty wonderful life.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Treating Myself to Myself On My (Almost) Birthday

Here's a picture of me with Amadeo.
I generally hate pictures of myself and
 avoid sharing them, but I like this one.  

It's the eve of my birthday, so naturally I'm feeling a bit reflective. I'm also feeling like a bit of a flight risk as  Santa's Marching Band has been in full concert mode for the past 20 minutes, Jovie's shouting about her plans to defecate on Lily in between begging for candy and Brad (i.e. bringer of sanity) just texted to tell me there's an hour-long backup on his drive home. 

And this is all after I spent 15 minutes running back and forth in front of my house in the dark attempting to apprehend an escaped cat who is lately obsessed with bounding out the front door each time it's been opened. He'd dart across the two yards to our right, forcing me to sneak up behind him like a total creeper (I mentioned it was dark, right?) while praying that particular homeowner was not so fanatical about his second amendment rights. Then, just as I'd get close, he'd leap away in the opposite direction. 

I'm sure I offered fantastic entertainment to the family next door sitting in their car on the driveway as I dove into bushes, tripped over the tethers of our giant inflatable yard snowman and generally made an asshole of myself trying to nab a cat who, apparently, has no interest in being a member of our pride. I grabbed the cat twice, only to have him wiggle free of my grip, tearing away for vagabond adventures in the wilds of the Northern Virginia suburbs. 

Meanwhile, the girls were sobbing at the front door afraid that I would never return from my pursuit down the block and also concerned that I'd give up the chase completely and return without the cat. 

It was all very suspenseful. 

I apprehended the cat, eventually, scruffing him and tossing him back into the house to the relief and delight of my children (who, between crying, I could hear shrieking in laughter inside the house each time the cat hightailed past the front door with me calling in my sweetest voice the phrase cats worldwide willfully ignore: "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty"). 

This is (almost) 35. 

And, like, I know it's no big deal. People in their 70s would say 35 is young and people in their 20s would say 35 is eons away and people like my children would spit water across the dinner table at hearing I'm almost 35 (yeah, that also happened tonight). Like I just told them that I was really the Princess of Herdondale and I'd only pretended to be a grumpy, hairy, perpetually exasperated stay-at-home mom. Or, that this Christmas, everyone was getting unicorns.

I'm not so fixated on the age thing, truly. In fact, I've always sort of felt that my spirit animal was a mini-van driving soccer mom in her mid-30s, even when I was younger. When I asked my sister what age she thought represented her truest self, she said she felt like a 7-year-old boy trapped in a grown woman's body.

If anything, I'm finally coming into my own. 

But the past couple years haven't felt so much like that. I felt like I've been warring with myself. Frustrated and angry and sad that I haven't figured out what it is I should be doing down here, feeling as if I've failed at the things I thought I was supposed to be doing down here. I'm not sure what came first, the war or the depression. They keep each other company in some sort of twisted, dysfunctional sisterhood.

We're kind of programmed to find significance in anniversaries, right? So every year that swings by of my life, I check in on the state of affairs. And the past few years the answer has been kind of the same. Still under the cloud. Still unable to locate the joy. Still finding plenty of reasons to be disappointed with myself.

As an objective, outside observer, I know that the stories I'm telling myself are just that, stories. Depression loves a good tragedy. But, unfortunately, day to day, I'm not an objective outside observer. I'm very much entrenched in my life. So, as logical as I try to be, I'm entering my 36th year annoyed by the fact that my mental health hasn't fixed itself. That I'm back on antidepressants. That I'm unpublished and uninspired. That I haven't figured out suitable alternative aspirations.

"Oh, we're still doing this?" I'm asking myself. To which myself replies, "Looks like it!"

I just started reading "Furiously Happy" by Jenny Lawson based on the recommendation from a friend and the ridiculous grinning taxidermied raccoon on the cover. 

In it, Lawson writes about her own experiences with being "a bit crazy." It's both really, really funny and really, really relatable. And today I felt like she was writing to me specifically when she discusses using medication to treat her depression and anxiety:

"We hear it from ourselves. We listen to the small voice in the back of our head that says, 'This medication is taking money away from your family. This medication messes with your sex drive or your weight. This medication is for people with real problems. Not just people who feel sad. No one ever died from being sad.' Except that they do. And when we see celebrities who fall victim to depression’s lies we think to ourselves, 'How in the world could they have killed themselves? They had everything.' But they didn’t. They didn’t have a cure for an illness that convinced them they were better off dead. 
"Whenever I start to doubt if I’m worth the eternal trouble of medication and therapy, I remember those people who let the fog win. And I push myself to stay healthy. I remind myself that I’m not fighting against me … I’m fighting against a chemical imbalance … a tangible thing. I remind myself of the cunning untrustworthiness of the brain, both in the mentally ill and in the mentally stable. I remind myself that professional mountain climbers are often found naked and frozen to death, with their clothes folded neatly nearby because severe hypothermia can make a person feel confused and hot and convince you to do incredibly irrational things we’d never expect. Brains are like toddlers. They are wonderful and should be treasured, but that doesn’t mean you should trust them to take care of you in an avalanche or process serotonin effectively."

Now, I feel like I should reassure people (i.e. mom) that I'm not suicidal. And I feel like the rest of the world should feel reassured, too. Because we're all a bit crazy. It's not a statement of our character or our abilities or our sturdiness in this life. It's OK. And it's OK to talk about. 

Lawson's reflections seem perfectly timed for my end-of-year check-in with my psyche. An early birthday present, really. 

If I can be gentle with myself about the depression, maybe it's also time I stop berating myself for not having figured out my purpose on this Earth. Because maybe that's a question that's already been answered anyway. 

I was listening to an interview with Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest (apparently he's well-known, I'm not churchy), on "On Being" (where else?). 

In it, he reflects on how he was called to the priesthood (he started out his professional life in business) and how the rest of us can figure out what we are called to do.

"Everyone has a vocation. I mean, the most fundamental vocation is to become the person whom God created. And it’s both the person you already are, and the person that God calls you to be. And I think we find that out through our desires. What moves us? What touches us? What are we drawn to? Part of that’s career, but only part of it. I mean, it’s really who you are called to be, and that’s why that question really spoke to me. But yeah, there’s a popular misconception that having a quote/unquote 'vocation' means that you have to be a priest or a sister or a brother. But a vocation is your deepest identity, and as well, being called to married life, or being a lawyer, or a teacher."
OK, so for me at first read/listen, the phrase "God calls you to be" comes off as a bit, you know froufrou and the glowing haloed white Jesus cuddling with lambs. That disembodied voice in burning bush telling Charlton Heston what's up in "The Ten Commandments." 

"Susan, thou shalt be a catcher of wayward felines..."

But while I might not be particularly churchy these days, I do absolutely believe that we are constant communication with the stuff of creation. ("Whoa, Sue, let's just go back to cuddly Jesus," you say.) We do each have a purpose. Just as each cell that makes up our whole being has a purpose. And Father Martin's direction to discover what that is through our desires feels natural and intuitive, and therefore probably spot on.

I've been thinking about the times I felt moved, things that I've been drawn to. And I feel like my heart sings the most when I'm able to connect with people -- whether they're family or old friends or near strangers -- about the things we don't always feel comfortable talking about. And creating that space for conversation. 

I think two of the most soul-filling moments of the past year have been the day on the beach when I used rocks in the sand to express the Love I felt for our world and the evening I shared my story about that day on the beach. Both moments were magical -- the first because I learned that big sentiments can be shared in quiet ways, not just grandiose ways. The second because I was able to share a message I believe deeply in my heart with a community of people who are out there in the world expressing their messages of love in their own ways. 

In thinking about this and thinking about Father Martin's words, I realized that I'm already doing the things that move me. Right here in this space. And I'm attempting to in my conversations with people I meet in the world. 

I started this blog more than four years ago with the goal of holding myself accountable to finish that novel I was working on at the time (remember all the way back then?). I finished the novel, but this site has persisted. And transformed into something I hadn't expected. A home for sharing the ridiculousness of child-rearing and sorting out the difficult questions I'm facing in life. I always look forward to coming back here and writing about what's happening in my world in hopes that I can find kindred souls who can help carry me through this adventure. And I haven't been let down.

Perhaps that question about being the person I was created to be has already been answered. 

I just need to be myself.

So maybe this year I'll give myself a gift. Remember that that's enough. That I'm enough.

And so are you.

Monday, November 21, 2016

God bless this American mess



Last week, the girls and I met up with my friend Ellen at the National Building Museum in D.C. to check out a dollhouse exhibit.

We were talking about the election while wandering through another exhibit that showed artifacts from decades of home life -- old wood stoves and vacuum cleaners, pink flamingos and baby pools, grandfather clocks and sleds. Everything felt blanketed in coziness and safety – scenes from simpler lives in simpler times. 

Of course, that wasn't the reality. It's so easy to look to the past so wistfully while sitting in the hideous present. It's always been complicated here. Always messy.

As we were museuming, Ellen requested I write a blog post about the election results. I groaned and told her I couldn't. I've specifically avoided the topic, for what I feel are obvious reasons. Also, because I don't know that anything I have to say about it would be especially original or novel or insightful. There's been so much said already. All combination of words have been used to try to make sense of what happened two weeks ago. (It's already two weeks ago? Can you believe that?)

So I'm not going to write about the election. Not really. But I will write about some thoughts I've had since the election. And while you're welcome to read them, too, you don't have to. They're for Ellen because she asked so nicely (and because she indulged my kids by pretending to be a waitress in the middle of the museum and because she didn't steal their pizza when we were in the bathroom – something I know was really, really hard for her.)

Dear Ellen,

Thanks so much for meeting up with us in D.C. The museum was a great suggestion - the girls still talk about how they want to go back an play restaurant again, I appreciate you humoring them. It's always funny to see how they react to different people in my life – they took to you as if you'd been friends for years – they've always had a good barometer for kind hearts. 

Remember how you said you wanted me to write my thoughts post-election? Well, I've been thinking about it. I have wandering thoughts. 

I find myself wishing I could talk to my grandmother who passed away when I was in high school. Nanny was born in 1913, which meant she witnessed two world wars, the Depression, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. She lived through Prohibition, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, the Kennedy Assassination, the Moon Landing, Watergate, Woman's Lib, the War on Drugs and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was Lily's age when the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women – her own mother – the right to vote.

We like to put ourselves in the center of the universe. To magnify the problems of our world to the 100th power without the context of all that happened before. We want to know the hindsight of history while we're still living it. Which is, of course, impossible. For better of for worse, we have to just wade through it.

So here we are, wading through the stuff our own grandchildren will want to ask us questions about one day. "What was it like?" They might ask. "What did you think about it?" And what would we tell them? "It was a total surprise." "People were protesting in the streets." Will we remember where we were when we found out the results of the 2016 presidential election the same way we'll always remember where we were on 9/11? Maybe. But I think our memories will be sanded down by years of experience. Reshaped by what happens next. What feels massive today will be tempered by passing time.

Life is short and precious. It's just as short and precious for Trump supporters as it is for Clinton supporters. For Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus. For straight people and gay people. For black, brown and white people. Right?

And so here we all are, shaped by our various families, cultures, religions, countries and history itself, doing the best we can to make the most of our short precious lives along side the 7 billion other people trying to do the same. Sometimes we're pretty good at it. Sometimes we let the car into our lane and spend an extra five minutes listening to a co-worker gush about her obsession with bulldogs. And sometimes we're not so good at it. We spend more time looking at our phones than looking at the people surrounding us. We spout off awful things about people whose political views don't match our own. 

Ideally, overtime, we grow as a society. But this growth is painstaking. We want it to happen at the speed of the next iPhone release, but it's slower – more like at the speed of a generation. Right now it feels as if we're stuck in the adolescence -- all raging hormones and self righteousness. But we'll settle into our acne-prone skin. Our voices will change from shrill to steady. And the mood swings of our youth will stabilize. 

Months ago, in the midst of my move, I wrote about that yoga class I took where the focus of the class was transition and the lesson I learned was that I was exactly where I needed to be. I was reminded of this again, when a new friend handed me a gift that was unexpected, but well timed:


This is applies to me as I settle into my new life in Virginia, but I think it also applies to our country as a whole. We are exactly where we are supposed to be. That's not to say we're exactly where we want to be. Or exactly where we will be forever. It's just where we are right now, and right now there is work that can be done.

If the past two weeks -- or the past year or more even -- have taught us anything it's that there is a lot of pain in our country. There are voices of all stripes that are aching to be heard. People who feel as if they haven't gotten a fair shake. Haven't been able to live out their short precious lives in a way that's fulfilling for them. 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We, as a country, feel as if the very foundation on which our country was built is being shaken. But maybe we need to be reminded that we can't take these ideals for granted. They're a skill to be learned, not just written about. Sometimes the most important lessons can happen in the most painful ways. We've all just put our hand on the hot burner. Now we need to heal. 

We can all take part in this healing. And we all need to take part, because it is our country - no more Donald Trump's than Hillary Clinton's, Bernie Sander's, Gary Johnson's or Mickey Mouse's. We are all pieces that make up this whole. 

Yesterday, I read this interesting piece in the Washington Post about how Derek Black, the founder of a white nationalist site for children came to the decision to separate himself from his family's racist agenda. Black's father, Don Black, founded the country's first and largest white nationalist site and Derek seemed destined to assume the mantle of the next generation of white supremacy in the U.S. When his college classmates learned his identity, Derek was ostracized for a time. But then one of his classmates, Matthew Stevenson an Orthodox Jew, invited Derek to a his weekly shabbat dinners where guests were white, black, hispanic, atheist and Christian. Derek began to question the beliefs he'd held since childhood and eventually rejected them.

The lesson is a simple and age old. We do this work by listening. By being genuine and open. By following the example of the quiet leaders among us. The ones whose tribe is a tapestry of people who don't have to look, talk or think like them. The Matthew Stevensons of the world.

They're doing the work already. 

I know I'm not sharing anything new, Ellen. Everyone's writing about how we need to listen to each other more. Instead of writing about listening more, all the people writing about listening more (like, say, me for instance) should probably just listen more. We'd probably get somewhere.

I took the girls to visit my sister, Laura, Saturday. The weather was so strange Saturday, wasn't it? One minute it was 70 degrees and sunny, the next, the sky clouded and the wind started howling. We all went inside to grab our coats. As the storm blew in, these gusts of wind whipped leaves off trees and blew them over to the swing set the girls were playing on with their cousins. Lily looked up in the sky with such wonder on her face – we were inside this cyclone of leaves. Like a snow globe. It was magic. 

Then the rain came. But just as quickly it stopped. The world was bathed in this red-gold glow. Like an Instagram filter -- but reality. And Lily, looking out the back door began jumping up and down and screaming, "A RAINBOW! A RAINBOW! THERE'S A RAINBOW!"

And there it was – arching across slate-colored clouds.

There can be beauty in the chaos. 

We have to navigate life with this in mind. It's the only way to pursue that happiness we're always looking for. We won't find it in utopia. We'll find it right here in this mess. The mess that we, as Americans, have the privilege and responsibility to wade through.

So that's what I think, friend. We have to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open. 

And on the days the work feels exhausting and futile, just go have pizza with a friend (her kids will probably just let you eat their crusts).

Let's get together again soon, OK?

Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 

Sue