Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Racing toward and embracing stillness

Photo courtesy of Don DeBold/Flickr

I took the dog and the baby for a walk the other day. The sun was out and the wind not as bitter as it had been earlier in the week. 

Annie is my main conversation partner during the day- and while she can be quite chatty, there are points during the day where I crave more conversation than screeches, squeals and grunts. When I'm walking, I often remedy this by listening to a podcast- This American Life, Serial, RadioLab, TED Radio Hour- that sort of thing. That day I found an OnBeing interview with journalist and writer Pico Iyer on "The Urgency of Slowing Down," the title of which kind of makes me laugh because I feel as if my hours with Annie crawl by with not much done. But because we're in the thick of parenthood- two elementary-aged kids and an infant- time hasn't actually ebbed. The quiet hours of a school day might creep along, but the days and the weeks and the months sprint by. Life feels both urgent and slow. 

The conversation offered reminders about the power of stillness and quiet and reflection. 

Affirmation that spiritual growth is not only possible, but inevitable doing the rote work of caring for a newborn. Annie, like Lily and Jovie before her, demands I'm present. That I'm in each moment with her. She's fussiest when I'm distracted by my phone or books or tidying this and that. Happiest when our eyes are locked, acknowledging the candle glow of each other's souls. 

On a day when she seems bored with me, annoyed by the walls of our house, itchy in her skin, I tuck her into her carrier and we head outside. She quiets right away when we leave the mechanical din of the house behind for the outdoors. Even if the sounds outside our front door aren't as pastoral as I'd hope. There's always an airplane taking off. Always a chainsaw or a siren in the distance. Always a dog barking (let's be honest, often it's my own dog). It's imperfect. 

But it's where we are, so it's also where we must be. 

To get past the fact that I'm not hiking on a barely trodden trail in some untouched wilderness, I try to name as many sounds as I can. The plane and the chainsaw and the dog, of course, but also the chattering birds, the crackling leaves, the jangle of the dog's collar, my footsteps, the wind and the sound of our breathing. These sounds layered together create its own symphony and helps me stay present.

Which is the whole point of spiritual retreat anyway.

In the interview, Iyer shares about the regular visits he's made to a Benedictine hermitage- though he's neither Catholic nor a hermit– over the past 24 years. He says his time there steadies him when the world feels so tumultuous.  

“The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world,” he writes.

God I love this idea. 

Lately, I've felt as if I do so little. I mean, aside from the small matter of rearing small humans. I've jettisoned so many of the things I used to do with such fury and devotion- freelancing, subbing, yoga, writing. For years I was so busy. 

And now ... now it's just so different. My brain has retreated in a way. I feel a bit hermit like. Like the person I thought I was has dissolved into someone else. And I'm just too tired to parse who that new someone is. And maybe that's for the best right now. I'm still only getting sleep in two or three hour stretches (Yes, I know. It's shocking. Shouldn't Annie be sleeping through the night by now? Ha! tell her that. And no, I don't want to discuss sleep-training methods. Unless, you're offering a room at the Marriott while you move in to coach my kid through crying it out. We're muddling through thankyouverymuch. One day I'll sleep again.) 

The point is, I'm just going to go ahead and live the days that are in front of me the way they are. I'll do this and trust that life will shift as it needs to, when it needs to. 

Trusting this is a challenge. Because looming in front of me is having to return to work in some way or fashion- whether it's freelancing again or finding a more traditional officey sort of job or something in between. I've been shoving the prospect of job hunting into a corner in order to preserve my sanity and the sweetness of my days with Annie. And also because it's not clear to me what my next move should be. 

My resume over the last eight or so years is ... what's the word ... eclectic. I've blogged about everything from office furniture to animal prosthetics. Interviewed social media influencers on topics ranging from travel to architecture to Big Data and managed various social media accounts for various small businesses. Created a few of WordPress sites nonprofits and friends. I also moonlighted as a farmhand and worked weddings. And then I was a substitute teacher for a little bit. There's no real career path here. And I guess that wasn't really the point- I pitched in to help ends meet. I need to do that again and I just feel as if I'm back at square one. Almost 37 and still no idea what I should be doing with my life. 

I'm trying not to let panic set in. 

I keep recalling this conversation I had back in college. I was working at an airport bookstore and my 12th grade government teacher stopped in on his way to... somewhere. We got to talking and he told me he had no idea wha the wanted to do with his life. Mr. Prowell will never realize what a gift this was to me- this anxious 20-something kid who couldn't quite picture the rest of her life. I'd always just assumed all adults had their shit figured out. The jobs they were doing were the jobs they were destined to do. Not so apparently. As it turns out, Mr. Prowell did not necessarily feel it was his destiny to teach AP Government. And looking back on how obnoxious I was in his class, I can't say I blame him. My one and only tattoo is this tiny speck of graphite on my wrist. I got it when I overreacted to some shenanigans of the kid in front of me and flailed my arms backward into my friend's pencil. I also remembered us singing Home Simpson's "Mr. Plow" song to him at various times (but instead of Mr. Plow, we sang Mr. Prowell... so clever.) 

Is it any wonder he wanted to pursue other ventures? 

Is it too much to ask that I find something that is satisfying, offers a reasonable work-life balance and is allows me to justify the time away from my kids in a way that feels comfortable to me? (I feel the need to note here, as I have before, that this is not at all in the slightest a commentary on working moms versus stay-at-home moms versus the moms in between and who does it better or worse and who loves their children more or less and who wins the prize for the most amazing mother/woman/human person in the universe. In my book you're all Wonder Woman fighting through the grind in a world that insists you do all the things and insists you can have it all without actually doing much at all to accommodate any of it. Be true to your heart and love your sisters in arms is all I'm saying. End rant). 

Where were we? 

Unreasonable expectations?

See, this is why I chase stillness. Because the alternative is facing the cacophony of bullshit in my brain. And really, I just want to cuddle Annie and be the one to pick up my kids at the end of their school day.

Lily told me I should open a restaurant in our back yard. This actually made me laugh out loud because Lily, a notoriously choosy eater, dislikes most of my cooking unless it features pasta and cheese in some sort of combination. She told me she'd help cook the food, but she wouldn't eat it.

I told her it was a fine idea, except I was pretty sure we'd be skirting some HOA rules in order to open the Back Yard Cafe (her name suggestion). I mean, if I'm not even allowed to keep a cow in the yard, I'm pretty sure an eatery is off the table. 

Right now I'm gathering stillness in a way. Which seems odd to write in the thick of newborndom, but there you have it. I'm gathering the stillness that I'll bring down from the mountain when it's time. And that seems just as important as all the other doing that I've neglected. I won't live in this bubble forever. But it's where I am for now.

Gathering stillness. And praying daily that whatever comes next will be what's best for my family. 

On that walk the other day, the interview I was listening to cut off abruptly. I looked at my phone to turn it back on. 

"Connection lost," it said. 

I put the phone in my coat pocket and laughed at the irony. 

Looking ahead, I watched as a heron landed in the creek. I listened to the geese honking to each other on the pond. I felt the sun on my face and smelled the warm, sweet smell of leaves decaying. 

Connection lost? Hardly.

This is the perfect present. 

When life speeds up again, as it inevitably will, I know I'll have this calm to bring into the commotion. 

Friday, November 2, 2018

Overanalyzing Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji Earrings

Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji Stud Earrings. Available at Claire's, natch.

At a Halloween gathering the other night, there was a little girl dressed in a unicorn costume wearing Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji earrings.

I marveled at them. 

To be wearing Poop Emojis as earrings is amusing on its own- that they were also vomiting a rainbow leveled up the weird/grossness factor. I told the girl that her earrings were amazing, while also wondering aloud why anyone would be inspired to turn the image of a googly-eyed fecal matter barfing an array of colors into jewelry. 

I can't stop thinking about these earrings. And today I realized it's because they actually kind of symbolize how I feel about everything from myself to the state of our country right now. 

On the surface, it's that kind of disgusting craziness that comes with being a new mother. All the dirty diapers and the spit up. The exhaustion. The isolation that makes you overthink the existence of earrings featuring Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji.

(Seriously though, somebody had a conversation with another person, during which the subject of these earrings was broached:

First Guy: "You know, Poop Emojis are pretty popular. I bet there's a kid out there who'd love to wear them as earrings."

Second Guy: "You think there's a kid out there who wants to wear a dollop of shit on their ears?"

First Guy: "Well, when you say it like that ... maybe if we made them a little bit more feminine and sparkly?"

Second Guy: "How 'bout adding a rainbow?"

First Guy: "Better yet, how 'bout the Poop Emoji is puking a rainbow?!"

Second Guy: "Genius!! Let's get China on that."

First guy: Calls China

My current status is kind of tacky and ridiculous. 

Today, for instance, while I was in line at the Salvation Army purchasing, among other things, a T-shirt featuring Pinky and the Brain from "Animaniacs," a kind lady behind me in line pointed at Annie's backside, where mustard-colored poo was seeping through the unicorn face plastered on the bottom of her pants (note to self: Look into manufacturing Unicorn Poo earrings...). That poo made its way to my hand and arm. Annie was fussy and the poo was smeary and the line was long. The kind lady helped push the stroller through the line. Her friends chattered behind me, cooing at Annie- who they still said was cute despite the screaming and the fecal matter. 

These days I'm all covered in cat hair and dog hair and spit up. I fear I'm losing my ability to carry on normal, adult conversation. And also that I'm losing interest in carrying on normal, adult conversations.

At that Halloween party, I had random attacks of anxiety. Was I talking too loud? Why did it seem like everything I was saying was rambling, lame and irrelevant? Like verbal diarrhea. I hid behind the stupid Grouchy Marx glasses I bought earlier that day. I made small talk with second graders. I honed in on a 6 year old's Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji earrings. A real conversation piece. 

Beyond feeling like a walking version of Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji earrings, I have this growing dread inside that the whole phenomenon of Poop Emoji and its various incarnations is indicative of how we've sort of given up as a society.

Stay with me here.

It's not meant to be judgmental.

My parents would be the first to tell you I have been inciting poop-centered and poop-adjacent conversations for decades. I embrace scatological jokes, mostly because my sense of humor never evolved past that of a 10-year-old boy.

But, like, in moderation.

(Hehehe. I said but).

Poop Emoji has shown up on everything from pillows to Christmas ornaments to, oddly enough, air fresheners. It's so pervasive it's mainstreamed the naughtiness of poop-versation and made it- dare I say- less funny to talk shit. It's just what we do now. And it's kind of sad to me.

Poop Emoji is the symbol of our national dialogue. Nothing surprises us anymore. Nothing shocks us. We now operate day to day expecting shit to hit fan. We're both incredulous about ALL THE THINGS and simultaneously resigned to them. We expect ALL THE THINGS to happen on any given day. And yet, because we're plucky, ever-optimistic, pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps Americans we're forcing ourselves to locate all the silver linings. 

Our dog has recently become obsessed with eating crayons. This has resulted in the backyard landmines looking like colorful confetti bombs. How whimsical! How hilarious. But, you know, still poop. Years ago I wrote about the time Jovie vomited a technicolor array of foods all over our white living room carpet. It was kind of pretty and sort of like something you might find hanging up in a museum of modern art. But, you know, still puke.

We took the silliness of Poop Emoji and had to elevate it with rainbow puke. Sure it's excrement spewing another type of excrement, but isn't it kind of pretty? We could do something with that... like turn it into earrings!!

Glittery rainbows make most things easier to stomach. 

I imagine no matter where your politics lie these days you could apply this image to the rhetoric of your opponents, right?

In fact, my first instinct here was to suggest that Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji would make a really great campaign logo for certain candidates. However, that doesn't really solve any problems or further any dialogue now does it? And it kind of needlessly insults regular folks across the spectrum who just want to feel like they have a stake and a voice and a future in this country.

I have no interest in slinging mud (or Poop Emojis for that matter).

I mean, if there's one thing we can all agree on in this country, it's that Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji is kind of funny, right? 



Just me?

It's also gross. 

But silly. Especially silly when it shows up on the ears of adorable first graders.

It's gross, silly and absurd. Absurd and kind of desperate. 

Like, I feel like we're all in the need of a good laugh. The perfect, universal Dad joke. Or, the ridiculousness of Melissa McCarthy seducing an air marshal in "Bridesmaids." We all need to laugh together in a big, meaty, guttural way. Not just writing LOL. But actually laughing out loud.

I feel like Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji is kind of this cheap attempt at eliciting that type of laughter. But it's not hitting quite the right note. It's all over-the-top and zany and needy. 

We need the kind of cleansing laughter you get from an afternoon sitting around with siblings reminiscing about the time dad got so annoyed over the amount of stuff being packed in the station wagon for the family vacation he started coming out of the house with obviously unnecessary items. "Should we pack this, too?!" you recall him yelling as he attempted to tie a rocking chair on the roof of the car.

What Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji gives us is the type of laugh a sleep-deprived mother of three with an infant makes when the oldest kid laments the fact that our house doesn't have enough "spook" ahead of Halloween and why can't we just add acquiring and hanging up an array of creepy Halloween-related decoratives to the list of things to do behind all the laundry, cooking, shopping, cleaning and infant care that needs to be done. 

Seriously, Mom, why don't you just get on that? 

The mom is laughing, sort of, as she scans the house littered with toys, shoes, unmatched socks, dog, hair, cat hair, chip crumbs, baby spit up and fruit flies and points out to the oldest kid that they kind of already live in a house of horrors. 

That's the kind of laughing we're all doing right now I think.

It's uneasy, unhinged and unsettling to pets and small children.

Like Clark Griswold hanging up Christmas lights or visiting Wally World.

That's where we are right now.

Anxious and angry and sad and afraid and frantically searching for news that it's all going to be OK.

We know that Rainbow Barf Poop Emoji is kind of ugly and immature and pretty gross, but we're also aware that silliness is hard to come by. When nothing seems funny anymore, this is funny, right? It's in the wheelhouse of funny? It's Funny's neighbor Ned Flanders- maybe too earnest and too obvious.

I don't know. 

Considering I just used 1,400 words to reflect on a first grader's choice of accessories, maybe I'm the one who's trying too hard.

Which is why I think maybe the best place for me to be for the foreseeable future is holing up in my house. Giggling as I watch Lily attempt to make Annie laugh or watching Jovie twirl around on the front porch as it pours.

"Mom," she says, "when you dance, can you not feel rain as much?"

"What do you think?"

"I think yes."

Gosh these kids are so darn cute. 

Some might say I barfed a rainbow when I had them.

Going incognito.
(True story: moments before this picture was taken, Jovie told me I had an eyelash in the corner of my eye and that I should make a wish on it. Only, after several attempts, we couldn't get the eyelash off. "Hmm," she said, "Maybe it's just you being tired." So. My wrinkles have taken on eyelash levels of severity. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Night at The Anthem with Florence– My Spirit Guide

Out of the blue a few weeks back, Brad handed me a pair of envelopes. The first contained a card with a note that said I was "killing it" in the motherhood department. The second, this piece of paper:

The man gets me.

He'd gotten me a pair of tickets to see Florence + the Machine in D.C. I could take anyone I wanted. 

Naturally, I teared up. Because I love Florence. 

Brad knows I love Florence because anytime a song by Florence comes on I get all moony-eyed and sigh, "I love Florence."

The girls know I love Florence because anytime a song by Florence comes on a turn the volume up on the radio and sing along. Loudly. Frequently while dancing. 

"Is this Flo?" Lily will ask. Embarrassed and unimpressed in equal measure.

"Just listen," I tell her. 


"The dog days are over
The dog days are done
Can you hear the horses?
'Cause here they come."

Lily can only shake her head. She's much too practical for all this fuss.

I love Florence because her voice is both the mountain and the caverns underneath the mountain. It contains both the strength of a thousand mothers and the delicacy of a thousand butterfly wings. She's ethereal and earthly at once. And over the years her songs have girded both moments of joy and stretches of depression. Her voice has instructed me to let go of self-doubts and old hurts. Has called me to love deeply and widely. Both myself and others.


"Hey, look up!

You don't have to be a ghost,
Here amongst the living.
You are flesh and blood!
And you deserve to be loved and you deserve what you are given."

She's forgiven me when I haven't been able to forgive myself


"And the arms of the ocean are carrying me
And all this devotion was rushing out of me
And the crashes are heaven for a sinner like me
But the arms of the ocean delivered me."

I'd seen her live with my sister a while back when she was on tour for her album "Ceremonials." The venue was in the woods and the gathering was like church with Florence a whirling priestess. We danced, sang and celebrated being alive and being together. 

Being able to see her again in the midst of dirty diapers and long nights and laundry was a huge gift.

Finding someone to go with, however, proved to be a bit challenging. 

I'd initially asked my sister. But she wasn't able to find child care. Actually, none of my sisters were. I called various friends, but everyone had plans. Finally, I asked one of Brad's co-workers- a woman who I'd only hung out with a couple times before, but whose warm personality and sense of humor I connected with. Holly was game. As it turns out, Florence + the Machine was a bucket list show for her.

So Saturday night I donned my best shirt not covered in spit-up. I left my hair down and curly. And I put on uncomfortably bright red lipstick. Actually any lipstick is uncomfortably bright for me because I rarely wear it. But an occasion like Florence called for some red lipstick, I think.

Rare pre-show selfie. The fact that there's no spit-up
and that I'm wearing mascara must mean it's a big night.

Holly and I got on the road. I figured if we couldn't find something to talk about we could always fall back on the faithful standby: our kids. Holly has two adorable little girls. But, as it turns out, we didn't need to worry about conversation. 

We touched on everything from police shootings to the Holocaust Museum to the Senate's vote on Brett Kavanaugh. Apparently, we're both terrible at small talk. 

We also talked about how we'd both had conversations with our husbands in recent months in which they'd expressed how as white men, they increasingly felt as if they were under attack in our country. We both felt as if we were able to empathize with our husbands- because as women we'd felt as if we'd been under attack for millennia.

How fitting it was that we were going to see Florence– who captures the pain and power of women all at once. 

For me (and I'm pretty sure for plenty of others), The Anthem Theater in D.C. was like a pop-up sanctuary. A safe space for women and LGBQT and broken folks to sing and dance and frolic about– gauzy dresses and flower crowns optional. After the excellent opener Beth Ditto wrapped up her set, I found myself getting stupidly giddy. Like, I wasn't even trying to play it cool. 

By the time the band (The Machine?) walked on the stage I was jumping up and down yelping with glee. A guy nearby me was doing the same. 

"You look how I feel!" I yelled over growing cheers. 

"I love her!!" he gushed bouncing up and down like me. We were both a little misty eyed.

I'd warned Holly about the potential for these sorts of display. Luckily, she didn't judge.

I only got dorkier as the night wore on.

The band opened with "June" - the chorus "Hold on to each other" setting the tone for the night.

Part way through the show, Florence talked about the need for kindness and togetherness in the world right now. She was not overtly political and spoke in generalities- though given we were in Washington D.C. just hours after the senate approved a man accused of sexually assaulting multiple woman to the Supreme Court- it was hard not to feel as if she was referencing the day's events. 

She instructed us to hold hands with the person standing next to us. This was easy on my right side, where Holly stood, palm extended. To my left though was a middle aged man whose eyeballs I could feel rolling back into his head. He wore a baseball hat and a plaid shirt. Clearly his wife had dragged him to the show. He was grumbling to her about the whole charade. About how he didn't like being told what to do. I decided to ignore his crankiness. In the spirit of inclusion, I rested my hand over his wrist (he was balancing a couple of plastic cups). 

"Is this weirding you out?" I asked hoping to melt a little of the awkwardness.

"Nah. Takes a lot more than this to weird me out," he sniffed. Though his stiff body language said the opposite. 

We survived the hand holding. 

During an introduction to "Patricia" Florence said the song was written about Patty Smith- except for the middle bit about toxic masculinity. The room erupted at the reference. 

"You're a real man, and you do what you can
You only take as much as you can grab with two hands
With your big heart, you praise God above
But how's it working out for you, honey?
Do you feel loved?"

The guy in the hat next to me bristled, glaring at the stage. 

I could hear him complaining to his wife at the end of the song. How he didn't come to the show to be preached at. Something about how he had three daughters and how he wasn't a bad guy and how he wanted to leave. It was as if he thought Florence was throwing the phrase toxic masculinity right at him. 

Part of me felt bad for the man. Clearly he felt out of place. Clearly he felt vulnerable being in a room full of people whose beliefs he assumed were opposite his. His defenses were up. 

Then, of course, part of me wanted to tell him that having three daughters didn't give him an inherent understanding of what it was like to be a woman right now. That while I guess it was his right to be offended by the bit about toxic masculinity in the middle of the song, living with it as a woman was 1,000 times more offensive.

Maybe had we been able to chat more, I could've told him how I understood what it was like to feel vulnerable. About the other day and how I was out for a walk in the broad daylight in my own neighborhood with the dog and Annie and how I passed a man I didn't know walking his dog. How the man randomly stopped and I walked on ahead. How I kept looking over my shoulder to see if he was following me. More than likely, he was letting me walk ahead so that Snacks would not continue barking at his dog like an idiot- but I didn't know that for sure. How originally, I'd planned to walk on the path through the woods because its prettier and cooler but how I decided it would be safer to stick to the neighborhood sidewalks. So I changed my route. And shortened my walk. How I always questioned myself for walking in the woods during the day with my dog and my baby. Was I putting myself at risk? We had, after all, had a flasher in the neighborhood in recent months. He'd been arrested and charged, but still. There could be others out there. And if and when I was victimized, how people could point out that I was, in fact, a woman walking in the woods by myself. And how that probably wasn't the smartest thing to do. Even though I brought my dog. Even though I wasn't wearing headphones in order to be able to be more aware of my surroundings. Even though it was the middle of the day. 

How only recently I'd come to understand how warped it is that I have to feel so guarded while moving about the world. That a man like him would likely never have to question the way he navigated this world- except for maybe the rare moments he's in rooms like these filled with women finding the power of their own voices. 

How angry I am for myself and my sisters and my girlfriends and my own three daughters and the women I know, that multiple accusations of sexual assault, a history of alcohol abuse and a lack of decorum while speaking in the U.S. Senate doesn't prevent a man from becoming a Supreme Court Justice. 

I could've told him about all that. 

But I didn't. 

The night was about Flo.

The man kept threatening to leave the show and his wife kept telling him not to. Trying to lighten the mood, feeling sorry for his wife I told the guy that it would be a shame to leave such a beautiful lady by herself at the show. He told me he liked the music, but didn't like that Florence chose to get political (she hadn't). I told him that even though he felt out of place, he was fine in that room. Nobody was out to get him. He then introduced me to Shelly and asked if I would keep her company while he went to the bathroom and to get a drink. And I said of course I would, because I could tell Shelly loved Florence as much as I do and that made us kindred spirits. I told him to make sure to come back. He said he would.

So Shelly and I danced like fools to "Ship to Wreck" and he left for a bit.  

After the show Holly and I talked about the man. She didn't have as much sympathy for him. She didn't have much patience for his behavior. She pointed out that Florence had not been political that she had walked the line well. (There is so much she could've said that night in that room. Instead, she celebrated love and togetherness.) Holly said that maybe if the guy felt stung by references to toxic masculinity, than he was someone who was most in need of being called out. She was right. 

Florence closed the show with "Shake it Out," which was perfection.

"Cause I am done with my graceless heart,
So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart
'Cause I like to keep my issues strong
It's always darkest before the dawn."

And just like that she was gone - in a flurry of glitter and lace. The house lights came back on. The show had ended.

My voice was worn. My legs shaking. I was sweaty and that bright red lipstick all but gone.

Yesterday, I was back to being a mom. Grocery shopping and laundry. Covered in spit up. As Annie fussed at me, I sang "Cosmic Love" and "Dog Days are Over" to her. She'd calm and smile at me. I remembered the night before. How as I sang "Happiness hit her like a bullet win the back" the face I thought of was Annie's. 

Florence's new album "High as Hope" is lovely. While it doesn't have the grandness and mysticism of her first couple albums, I find I relate to it so much more at this stage of my life when the giant emotions and elations of my 20s have been replaced by the grounded steadiness of my 30s. She's reflective and wistful and grateful, I think, for simplicity and small joys.

In "No Choir," the last song on "High as Hope" she sings:

"And it's hard to write about being happy
Cause the older I get

I find that happiness is an extremely uneventful subject
There will be no grand choirs to sing

No chorus could come inAbout two people sitting doing nothing."

Inevitably, I think about my sisters. And how I wish they could've come with me to see Florence. But how the moments we tend to cherish the most with each other involve a cup of coffee and small conversation as our children laugh in the background. 

How lucky we are to have each other to hold on to.

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.