Monday, February 20, 2017

The day the frogs came out


A Wood Frog at Riverbend Park.

This past weekend, Brad's parents fled the more than foot of snow on the ground at the house in the Poconos to visit us. 

On Sunday, to celebrate Spring in February, we took them and the girls to Riverbend Park in Great Falls. 

As we sat at a picnic table eating lunch among the other families swarming the park to revel in the unseasonable weather, Brad made a wry observation.

"It's like President's Day is the new Fourth of July."

And looking out across people grilling and kicking soccer balls and even kayaking in the dead of winter, it did indeed look like summer – save for the fact that all the trees were bare.

Earlier, we'd taken a walk on a crowded path along the Potomac River. We saw leaves starting to form on the trees. Perennials poking through the dirt. Sap running on one maple tree was covered in ants, flies and moths. 

We'd been walking maybe 30 or 40 minutes when the girls started grumbling. 

"I don't think I can walk much farther. I'm soooo hungry." "Moooooom, my legs are tired. I'm starrrrrving." "Mom. My stomach is empty. It's saying, 'I need lunch!'"

Heeding to the girls' increasingly desperate pleas for lunch we headed back to the parking lot. 

The pond.

The path took us past a pond – in the middle of the woods. A kind of magical sight on its own. As we neared the pond we heard an odd sort-of quacking sound that got louder the closer we got. Like there was an entire flock of arguing mallards – well kinda. Like, an entire flock of arguing mallards who'd just sucked on a giant helium balloon. Only when we came within view of the pond, there were just two lone ducks floating on it. And neither were making a peep.

The quacking was in stereo though. We scanned the pond and around its banks. In addition to the quacking, there were irregular plopping noises. The sun glittered off the backs of shiny things surfacing then diving in the water. 

"What are those?" we all wondered aloud. 

And then with a crackle, something leaped out of the leaf litter on the shore and splashed in the water. 

A frog on a log.

A frog. 

Then another. 

Then another.

There were dozens of them.

All swimming along the shoreline. 

The pond and the hoppin' hillside.

We looked up the hillside that lead down to the water and heard the distinct rustle of dry leaves as frog after frog jumped toward the water in an amphibious parade.

It was so very strange. 

And a bit unsettling. At least to me. I'd just read Barbara Kingsolver's "Flight Behavior" about a kaleidoscope of monarch butterflies (that's what a group of butterflies is called – a kaleidoscope – so perfect, right?) mysteriously landing in a forest in Appalachia instead of Mexico where they'd overwintered for thousands of years previously. An entomologist/ecologist arrives to study the butterflies – he blames climate change for their unprecedented behavior. The butterflies taking a winter break in the mountains of the Southeast United States is not just a strange phenomena or a miracle from heaven (as the locals in the story believe it might be); as the temperatures fluctuate between unseasonably warm to freezing, the entire swarm of butterflies is at risk of dying out, decimating the species.  

As I watched these frogs wake up from their winter hibernation and make their way to the pond on a 72-degree day in the dead of winter I had a sickening feeling. It's too soon, I thought. Too early. What happens if it the temperatures go down again and they all freeze to death? Frogs are one of those indicators of environmental health– what were these February mating calls telling us about the health of our planet? 

Still, it was hard not to delight in the moment. The reverberant frog quacking. The girls shouting in glee "There's one! There's one!" The vibrant blue sky and the sweatshirts tied around waists. 

Left up to me, I would've camped out by that pond to watch the frogs. But the girls' hunger pangs resurged as soon as their interest in the frogs flagged. We trekked onward.

But I worried about those frogs. 

At home, I pulled up pictures I'd snapped on my phone and started Googling pictures of frogs native to Virginia. I came across the Virginia Herpetological Society, which not only had pictures of different frog species, but also recordings of their calls. This made for a fun activity for the girls and me – comparing our memory of the quacking frogs to the recordings online. Eventually, we heard a match: The Wood Frog.

As I scanned information about the Wood Frog's hibernation and mating habits, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

"This species is adapted to the cold and ranges farther north than any other North American amphibian or reptile. It appears very early in the year, and males are often heard calling before ice-out on the ponds."

It's not unusual for males to start quacking for mates in late January or February. 

I had not witnessed the frog-pocalypse, as it turned out. At least not that day.

Wood Frogs are found in northern forests in Canada and Alaska where winter temperatures can dive to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. And here's where things get interesting: in order to survive these temperatures, the frogs don't do what I do, which is dress myself in seven layers of wool and fleece and spend winter under a cozy throw blanket sipping tea and refusing to leave the house. 

No, when they hibernate, Wood Frogs bury themselves in leaves (unlike other species that hibernate underwater). As the air temperature dips, so does the frog's body temperature. And when air temperatures hit freezing, so does the frog's body temperature. 

"Yet wood frogs have evolved ways to freeze solid for up to eight months each year," according to the National Park Service.

You should check with NPS to learn how all this goes down, it's pretty interesting. But basically, they're these little cryogenically frozen frogsicles (their hearts stop beating, they stop breathing). And then one day in winter, they start thawing from the inside out. Their brains wake up, their legs start wiggling. Then, with fire in their loins (I presume) they start hopping in search of love (well, probably more of just a hookup. I suspect Wood Frogs are more Tinder than eHarmony if you catch my drift ...). 

I'm not exaggerating when I say I felt celebratory at learning that these frogs were just doing what they always do, instead of being the harbingers of climate doom I'd feared them to be.

Of course, that's not to gloss over a crisis in our midst. It is odd to see daffodils almost in bloom. Buds on trees. Songbirds greeting the morning from trees covered in buds rather than huddled around a snow-covered feeder. It was 72 the other day– I had to dig out summer clothes for the girls. It all feels very premature. Even a bit ominous. 

But there was some small peace in the constant chaos of our existence right now, that the day the frogs woke up doesn't have to be spoiled by all that. It can be this marvelous little island of a moment floating in the raging seas of my psyche. I really needed that, too. I mean, we really need that don't we? 

Magic in our midst. 

It's there, you know. It's right there under the leaves waiting to jump out and be noticed.

Stay vigilant.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Transforming pain into compassion

Photo courtesy of Flicker Creative Commons

The heart is a muscle.

It starts beating at 150 (or so) beats per minute when we're growing in our mother's womb. It slows to 60 to 100 beats (or so) per minute as we head into adulthood. But it's always beating. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.

It beats and beats and beats, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, until the day it stops beating.  

I've been thinking about hearts. How constant and steady they are. And how we have to take care of them – giving them the right food and exercise and all that. And even if we're not all that great at tending to our hearts, they still muddle through. 

I've been thinking about how our physical hearts relate to our metaphysical hearts – that part of ourselves that dreams, creates and loves. How it thirsts for goodness. Both metaphysically and physically. It feels warm and full when it gives or receives kindness. It feels cold and empty when it gives or receives hatred. 

Our hearts thrive when there's peace. And suffer when there's stress. 

Physically and metaphysically.

I had this thought that just like our physical heart, our metaphysical heart is a muscle. It's the steady beat of our subconscious. And it can be strengthened and weakened based on our actions. And that the stronger all our metaphysical hearts are, the stronger we'll all be.

***

This past weekend my sister sent a text to my family. Her neighbor's home was on fire -- flames shooting out of an upstairs bedroom. She was worried and sad for the family who lived there, so she went across the street as the emergency crews were working and told her neighbors gathered out front they were welcome to come to her house if they needed a place to stay.

Not wanting to be in the way of the firefighters, she returned home to prepare for friends who were coming that evening. 

She told me the next day she didn't know where the family ended up. She felt guilty for not going back outside to find out if there was anything she could do to help them, she'd gotten distracted by dinner preparations. She felt badly that she didn't do more for them.

I pointed out that she had done something. She'd reached out to them during what must have been a terrifying ordeal and offered them a place to stay. 

Even though they didn't come, that gesture meant something. It should not be diminished. 

But we do that all the time, don't we? When faced with the problems of our family or our community or our country or the world, we always feel as if we're coming up short. That we never do enough.  

I feel this way all the time. After reading "The New Jim Crow" last year, I remember just feeling so defeated. Here I am the picture of white privilege with the blinders ripped off my eyes with no real direction on what I could do to fix the broken system. 

Or, like, watching the news of Syrian refugees. All those people – all those children – being slaughtered or dying trying to escape. What could I do to heal that? 

It's all around us, this despair and worry. How do we solve homelessness and poverty? How do we save the polar bears and the chimpanzees? How do we help our veterans plagued by PTSD? How do we stop gun violence? 

In the face of all these enormous problems, I find myself paralyzed. I can't fix all the things, so I do nothing.

But when it comes to compassion, the rule doesn't have to be "Go big or go home."

Our metaphysical hearts are muscles. They're ready to be compassionate, just as our physical hearts are ready to beat. It's the thump-thumping of our metaphysical hearts that makes us human.

The more we tend to our hearts, the more compassionate we will be. And just as we wouldn't expect our physical heart to be able to successfully run a marathon with no training, I don't believe we should expect our metaphysical hearts to solve all the problems of all the world on a moment's notice. Rather, as with all the hard things we want to accomplish, we have to take it one step at a time. One deed at a time. And even the smallest of gestures counts toward that step. Because compassion begets more compassion. We can strengthen those muscles with each deed. 

I was reminded of this while reading a Facebook post by a former co-worker.

He's a TA with an English-as-a-Second Language class in a Pennsylvania town "where three months ago about 3 million people voted for a man who said he’d build a wall between America and Mexico and protect people who live here from people who don’t." 

Bill recently shared a story about a field trip the class took to a local coffee shop to practice using English. He described how the large group of immigrants arrived in a Starbucks 20 minutes before close, how they apologized, telling the guy behind the counter they were an ESL class. 

The barista told the group it wasn't a problem. He'd been an ESL student himself. Another patron, an old man, chatting with the students despite the language barriers. At closing, the cashiers gave the class armloads of free pastries. 

This next part gave me goosebumps:

"Someone with a long beard and torn clothing asked one of the students for money. 'I have to go to Rite Aid,' he said. 'Sure,' said Xiomara. She plucked a dollar from a thin wad of cash in her pocket. 'I always give,' she whispered in Spanish to the teacher. 'It doesn’t matter what they do with the money. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to give.'"

My responsibility is to give, I thought. Such a simple, beautiful sentiment. 

When you're fostering a compassionate heart, there doesn't need to be a scale on which your compassion is measured. You do what you can whenever you can. The act of giving, not the amount of that giving,  is breeding grounds for more compassion.


*** 

This is important, to point out I think, because we are a culture obsessed with data. And as such, we are always comparing ourselves to the work of others. But we sabotage ourselves when we do this. We sabotage the compassion already glowing within us. Because it stops being about the act in of itself and starts being about the magnitude of that act. And when someone else inevitably does more, we inevitably feel smaller. 


Now, I'm going to go out on a Zen limb here (sorry, I hit up that section of the library recently...) but bear with me.


In "When Things Fall Apart," Pema Chodron writes about the importance of learning how to be kind to ourselves and to respect ourselves. She says that when start to look into our own hearts and begin discovering what is confused and what is brilliant or what is better and what is sweet, we're discovering more than ourselves – we're discovering the entirety of the universe. We learn that everything and everyone is awake. Everything is equally precious, whole and good. When we can perceive our thoughts and emotions with humor and openness, then that's how we perceive the universe. And this liberation isn't limited to the individual - but the communities we live in, how we help our families, our country, the world, even the galaxy and beyond.


Whether it's ourselves, our lovers, our bosses, children, or the political situation, she writes, "It's more daring not to shut anyone out of our hearts and not to make the other into an enemy."


Chodron then questions how we can communicate to the heart in a way that allows a stuck situation to ventilate? 


"How can I communicate so that things that seem frozen, unworkable and eternally aggressive seem to soften up, and some kind of compassionate exchange begins to happen?"
It starts, she says, with you. With being compassionate toward the parts of yourself that you feel are unworthy of existing on this planet.


Our hearts are muscles.  When we strengthen our own by loving ourselves, then we are better able to strengthen the hearts of others.


She then quotes another Tibetan Buddhist. 


"You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion." 



See, even if you're harried, time-strapped or penniless you can strengthen your metaphysical heart by using your breath as a metronome to transform the hurt in the world into love.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.



Later on in the book, Chodron shares about a Buddhist practice called Tonglen – creating space, ventilating the atmosphere of our lives so that people can breathe freely and relax. 

"Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy."

***

The idea of walking this world with an open heart can be intimidating. At least, it's been for me. Because you're vulnerable, right? I find myself worrying about how even the smallest gestures will be received – that I'm too awkward and weird and clumsy. That for all my best intentions my overeager interactions with the world will be viewed as lame, disingenuous or desperate. 

Was that waiter offended that I told him it looked as if he'd had a long shift and could use a break? Was it weird that I told a complete stranger on the street I thought her lipstick color was really cool? Did my Muslim neighbor think I was too earnest and overdramatic when I asked how his family was doing and told him I was appalled by the recent travel ban? 

I fumble every day with compassion. I'm this gawky, hyperactive golden retriever with a ball who just wants someone to play with. Like, just relax about the ball dog. But whatever. I'll figure it out. I guess. I'm building this muscle -- there's bound to be a few aches and pains along the way.

For those, like me, who obsess over these minor interactions with others, I'll go ahead and close by going full-on Buddha with a quote from the Dalai Lama from "The Art of Happiness." 

"I think that this is the first time I am meeting most of you. But to me, whether it is an old friend or a new friend, there's not much different anyway, because I always believe we are the same, we are all human beings. Of course, there may be differences in cultural background or way of life, there may be differences in our faith, or we may be of a different color, but we are human beings, consisting of the human body and the human mind. Our physical structure is the same, and our mind and our emotional nature are also the same. Whenever I meet people, I always have the feeling that I am encountering another human being just like myself. I find it much easier to communicate on that level. If we emphasize specific characteristics, like I am Tibetan or I am Buddhist, then there are differences. But those things are secondary. If we can leave the differences aside, I think we can easily communicate, exchange ideas, and share experiences." 

We all share the same human hearts. Let's open them to each other.

Photo courtesy of Sadie Hart/Flickr

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

No Hard Feelings



The other night, after we tucked the girls in, Brad asked me what I was up to.


"I don't know," I sighed, flopping on the bed. "I kind of want to blog, but I don't know what to write about."


Instead, we ended up chatting about the news of the day and about what was happening on our social media feeds. I read some from this Buddhist book I picked up from the library and fell asleep. I figured the new day might bring some clarity to all the thoughts banging around my head. 


First, I thought I'd write about the weekend's misadventure to D.C. with my sister, Laura, two of her kids (16-year-old Finn and almost-2-year-old Callie in a stroller), Brad, our two girls and me. The one where what should've been a 45-minute(ish) Metro ride into town for the Chinese New Years Festival at the Smithsonian American Museum of Art ended up being a two-hour slog on three trains and a stop-and-go shuttle crammed with, apparently, all the people. How we made it to the museum, which was also packed with all the people, and were able to watch Chinese acrobats juggle hats, drums and an impressive seven lime green balls as well as see a performance of a lion dance. How we made paper lanterns and roosters. How we giggled on the trains and in the shuttle. How while, devouring over-priced cheeseburgers at the Hard Rock Cafe, we discovered that Laura and Keith Richard's have eerily similar handwriting. And we got this picture of my ridiculous nephew. All was not lost.





But I don't know. I've written that story before. The one about bright spots on a crappy day.


Then, after reading a comment thread on Facebook about getting older as a woman in a beauty-obsessed culture, I thought about finally writing that rant on body hair upkeep. The one where I'd bemoan all the time I devote to waxing, plucking, shaving and brushing just to maintain socially acceptable levels of body hair and how futile it is because the second I catch the rearview mirror in my car on a sunny day I realize there's no escaping looking like an adolescent boy with all the haphazard hairs sprouting from my chin and upper lip.


But that seemed too trivial. Especially in light of how tumultuous this week has been. I haven't really wanted to write about the unrest, because it feels a little too unwieldy to make sense of and also because everyone else is writing about it. But I can't stop thinking about it. And well, for me, writing helps make sense of things. 


So here goes ...



***

I've been careful about following the news lately. I've found it's a rabbit hole I can easily get swallowed in that is damaging to my mental health and so is also damaging to my interactions with my children and others. I can't be angry all the time, you know?


That's not to say I'm trying to remain blissfully ignorant or anything. I'm following what's happening in our nation right now. Just not obsessively. Not all day. 


I know enough to feel like maybe I should be thanking our new president. I'm not being disingenuous. For all the fury he's ignited by all those executive orders he's signing, he's also been a catalyst. He's awakened the lions in our hearts. He's opened our eyes to how precious our democracy is. How it straddles the line between fragility and durability and how it does so based on our actions. 


It is not a constant. Not something we can take for granted. It lives and breathes as we all live and breathe. And I can see it now, better today than ever before.


I want to be careful though. Which I is why I digest news in moderation. I feel if I allow the outrage of this past week to sink too deeply, that it will start to darken my heart. And I think what we really need right now is open hearts. My friend, Debbie reminded me of that. 


She's been traveling down South and posted on Facebook about a walk she took around Charleston, S.C., hoping to visit some tourist spots. She stopped a man to ask if she was going the right way and he gave her directions. They were about to part ways when she looked over her shoulder and saw a church.


"I said, 'Is this the church where the shootings took place?' He paused, looked over at the church and then back at me again, 'Yes, ma'am, it is.' We then had a lovely conversation. I asked if he knew anyone who was killed and apologized that this happened. We had an AMAZING conversation about things happening in the world. He told me that people need to stop worrying about what people look like because we all bleed the same. ... 
The other day someone asked me how I find the people and experiences that I do. Without hesitation I said, 'Because my heart and mind are open.' My hope is that more people will open their hearts and minds to others. Live in love and not react to fear. I choose to believe and operate on the premise that people are good and it is proven to me time and time again. 

Choose love. Look into the eyes of others and listen to their story. Choose connection and community. Change the world one conversation at a time." 

See, what happened at that church the day of the shooting, what happened the day Debbie stopped by, what's happening in our airports, it's all part of the same story. 

Today I took the dog for a walk and listened to Krista Tippett's recent interview with Rep. John Lewis. During the interview, they talked about the Beloved Community – Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision for a world that does not tolerate poverty, homelessness or hunger.


"... You live that you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house. If you visualize it, if you can even have faith that it’s there, for you, it is already there." 


I can see it happening right in front of me. In photos from the Women's March. In the more earnest, impassioned conversations I'm having with friends, families and neighbors. And in posts like these from Lily's teacher:




The key to the success of our Beloved Community is inclusiveness and openness, not only for other races, religions and cultures, but also other viewpoints. 

Even those we disagree with. Those that frighten us. We have to listen so we can understand what's behind it. 


At the library last week I picked up this book "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times" by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun (you can draw your own conclusions on why the book might have appealed to me. ;) 


Chodron relates a story told to her by her spiritual teacher, Trunga Rinpoche. In it, Rinpoche was traveling with attendants to a monastery he'd never been to before. As they got close to the gates, they saw there was a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes, that growled at them and struggled to break free from the chain that held it. It looked as if it was going to attack them. They walked through the gate, keeping their distance as they passed the dog.

"Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could – straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away."
The lesson of course is age, old. You have to face your fears. Confront them. See them. It's interesting to me that Lewis had a similar message in his interview. That as part of his training in nonviolent protest, he was told to make eye contact with whoever might be harming him. Confronting the fear in himself, but also creating a human connection.
"...You have to grow. It’s just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being."
I've been thinking about this idea – finding the spark of the divine in my fellow humans. Especially the humans I find most frustrating right now. Even if I can't quite locate the divine, I can at least find the humanity in the people whose behavior I struggle with.

Like our president, for instance. I found myself wondering about his obsession over the crowd numbers at his inauguration. Like, he can't let go of it. He can't accept the idea that maybe fewer people showed up for his inauguration than at previous inaugurations. And it's easy to laugh it off or say he's being silly and ego-centric. It doesn't seem fitting behavior for a grown man who is now leader of the free world. 


But it's also sad, too, right? I find myself feeling sad for this man whose own worth is tied so closely to the number of people who show up to watch him being sworn in, to the amount of money he has or the number of celebrities he calls friends. Here's where I find the humanity. 


We've all been this person one time or another who wants to be popular and wants to be liked. We've all felt like we had to prove ourselves worthy of love or admiration. 


I keep thinking about a middle school cafeteria. A microcosm of social hell if ever there was one. I picture our adolescent president sitting on the fringes of a table full of the popular kids desperately trying to get their attention. To be one of them. And maybe they humored him because he was a rich kid or because he knew people who knew people. But they never really liked him. And they laughed about him when he wasn't around. They tolerated him only as far as he was useful to them. They certainly didn't stand up for him in public (see these two).


Having been on the fringe of my own middle school lunch table I understand this feeling. Fortunately for me, I also managed to navigate out of it and found some true friends along the way. 


But I don't think our president has. And so I have to wonder what happened to him as a child. How did he become the man he is today? Because I can all but guarantee that whatever happened was very painful. It's the bullet that has nestled deep into his heart, the thing he can't reveal for fear that this golden tower he's (kinda literally) built around himself will collapse.


Finding compassion for our president doesn't mean I've found acceptance for him or his policies. I haven't. But I won't demonize him. Doing that only hardens my own heart. 



***

We have a long way to go in all of this. I don't think we'll ever reach a point when we've arrived. We'll never get to rest on our laurels and congratulate ourselves for the utopia we've spent generations creating. Just as we as individuals never stop growing, learning and becoming, neither does our society or our democracy. This period we're in now is a growth spurt, I think. Painful and awkward, but still a step ahead of the day before. 


I mentioned this idea to a couple of friends who were visiting the other day. That our nation is waking up to the fire that had never actually gone out (Billy Joel, anyone? anyone?) -- OK and I wasn't all that poetic during our conversation. That is neither here nor there. My friend Danny made a really good point. He agreed that this groundswell of activism is positive, but it's also painful for the people directly affected by our president's actions. 


This might seem like an obvious thing to point out – I mean obviously there is pain for the 5-year-old who was detained at Washington Dulles International Airport for hours waiting for his mother. Pain for any individual who learns that the country that they sought refuge in and call home might no longer want them here. And this pain comes despite all the protestors who come out in droves to welcome them home and decry these executive actions. It's painful and scary.


So while we can celebrate our new-found activism and passion for justice and progress, we have to do so while being mindful of the pain and discomfort of those whose behalf we are fighting.


For those of you who are still with me, I apologize. I've rambled a lot. Maybe I should've just stuck with writing about Chinese New Year or Chin Hair (did you know you can call them chiskers! My friend Kristen told me that. It's like I'm morphing into a cat! An insult to cats everywhere!)


Maybe next time I'll stick with less ambitious rambling. 


Either way, I love you really and truly.


I'll close with this song by the Avett Brothers that I've been listening to a lot lately and that I also feel is inexplicably relevant.



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.