Thursday, January 17, 2019

Dump truck philosophy on being a wiser human

Among the things I wasn't thrilled about having to deal with upon returning to Northern Virginia was traffic. This is a universal complaint of any metropolitan area, I know. 

There's just sooo many cars down here. And they're being driven by sooo many different sorts of people. 

People who are paying attention. People who aren't paying attention. People who are brand new drivers. People who are experienced drivers but who are new to the Northern Virginia Driving Experience (which would be the worst amusement park ride ever). People who aren't sure where they are going. People who do know where they are going. People who know where they are going but still wait to the last minute to get into the appropriate lanes they need to be in thus forcing other people in the turn lane to slam on their breaks and miss the light. People who are staring at their phones. People with poor vision. People who are yelling at their kids in the way back to stop touching each other for the love of god or we're turning around and there will be no fun for the foreseeable future. People who are cautious. People who are outright terrified to be driving with sooo many other cars. People who are in a hurry. People who think they are in a hurry. 

People who aren't in a hurry but who prefer to drive at high speeds even on narrow roads where the speed limit is only 35.

I was driving in front of one such driver recently. Actually, that's not precise. I don't know what type of driver this person was. Only that he or she was in an earth-toned SUV driving on a narrow, crowded four-lane road who seemed to want to go significantly faster than I was (which was in the vicinity of the 35 MPH speed limit). I know this because said driver seemed to want to "nudge" my rear bumper with his front bumper (why else would he be driving so closely?). Maybe he or she was only trying to deliver a friendly shoulder bump or a flirtatious tap. Who's to say what was going on in his head? Just to be safe, I switched lanes at the earliest opportunity. The SUV sped past me. Then had to break behind the next car, which also switched lanes to allow it to pass. 

I found my hackles rising. My eyebrows going all Lewis Black. That delicious feeling of righteous indignation rising up from my belly. I mean this guy. THIS GUY. 

There was a horn I was tempted to honk. A finger I was tempted to wave. But I stopped myself. As I do every other time I'm confronted with an individual who seems to eschew safety and/or manners on the road. 

I reminded myself that I had no idea who that person was or the reason behind his aggressive driving. For all I knew he could've just received the call that his beloved mother was taking her last breaths and was racing toward her bedside. He could've really been craving some mozzarella sticks from the Sheetz up the road. Or maybe he was just an asshole. Who's to say? 

Not me. 

It's really easy to find things to be mad about in life. I'm the mother of three. My 8 year old, evidently, was born knowing everything there possibly is to know. My 6 year old has been known to cry despondently when tasked with such strenuous activities as returning books to shelves or putting her laundry away. My almost-6-month-old is fond of using her tiny pincer fingers to grab the little hairs at the nape of my neck and pull them into her mouth. I live on the spectrum of befuddlement to frustration to all-out rage most days. Perpetually on the brink of an indignant rant about the various dirty socks littering the house or the nightly complaints about how the dinner is either too spicy or too bland. 

I know how to get mad. 

And man. Sometimes when I'm gathering up all my mom rage I feel like Ursula in "The Little Mermaid" right after she accidentally kills Flotsam and Jetsam. The part when she starts making that awkward groaning noise and puffs up into a giant sea witch drunk on her own power.

You know the scene.

I'm all, like, "You're gonna tell me you can't clean up your room after I made you pancakes for breakfast and took your sledding and let you have hot chocolate and listened to your recite (approximately) 7 billion facts about dinosaurs and helped you build a fort and let you have a friend over? OH HELL NO CHILD. DON'T MAKE ME USE MY GIANT GLOWING TRIDENT. WHEN I'M DONE, YOU WON'T HAVE A ROOM LEFT TO CLEAN!!!!" [Uses trident to destroy Baby Alive, LOL Surprise Eggs, And all the Legos left on the floor.]

What's that? I've gone off track? Where we we? 

Oh right, the part where I don't explode into a red-faced, frothing buffoon in the wake of an aggressive driver.

Here's the thing. Getting mad about these inconsequential things is like eating too much sugar. It feels good in the moment, and you crave more of it and you feel productive because of it, but it always ends in a crash that doesn't feel so good at all.

So instead of investing my limited energy resources into fueling some dead-end sort of irritation out in the world, I've been trying to make it a practice of letting it go.

Just, switching lanes and moving forward.

And I gotta say, it feels good. It's calming. It gives me back a sense of balance to my life and the feeling of control that whoever "slighted" me might've taken away had I given into my anger.

At first, reacting by not reacting feels like being passive. Like letting the world walk all over me. I've done that plenty in my life. 

But I've kind of decided to reframe it in my head. See, it's not passive if I'm making a choice- if I'm choosing to let the petty affronts go. In that moment, I'm actively making a decision. And better yet, I'm making a decision that will serve me. It strengthens a muscle in me- the one that demands we turn the other cheek (is it the neck muscle? The Jesus muscle? I'm not great with anatomy).

I can fight aggression with more aggression or with passive aggression, or I can volley back compassion. 

As I'm writing this, I feel like this is an act of love. Like, not a grand gesture. Or, something sentimental. But something human and earthbound. Something simple and doable. I can forgive a fault on the spot, in the moment. I can sow love on this crowded road full of all these strangers going about their days in the thick of their own lives. 

All the sudden that feels much bigger than just muttering "asshole" under my breath.

This practice is as important at home as it is out in the world. I think it can almost be easier to forgive a stranger for their perceived faults then it can be the people closest to us. With these people- our children, our spouses, our parents and siblings, our friends- our familiarity makes us assume too much about their motives and intent when they do something that frustrates us or lets us down. 

Like how I assume my children are thoughtless, unappreciative jerks who purposefully leave messes for me to pick up because they don't care about my time. When really, they're just easily distracted small people who would be heartbroken to learn I mistake their forgetfulness or their whiney-ness for a sign of poor character or worse, a lack of love for me. 

They're human- in the process of growing and becoming just as I am. 

I just started listening to the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari.

Harari writes about how, compared with other species, Homo Sapien's jump to the top of the food chain was incredibly fast. How, typically, the ecosystem has checks and balances to prevent other species like lions or sharks from getting too powerful. As lions became deadlier, for instance, gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas started cooperating more effectively and rhinos become more ill-tempered.

“In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.” 

I wonder if the only way to get past our existence in this banana republic dictatorship is to make an active choice to be better than we are. If our extraordinary brain size is the thing that has given us these extraordinary advantages, then it can also be the thing that helps restore balance to our ecosystem.

And maybe it starts by each of us as individuals making small choices throughout our day to be kinder. To empathize. To view love as a muscle. One that strengthens as much in our actions toward strangers as it does toward friends and family.

Homo Sapien means wise man (the name we "immodestly" gave ourselves notes Harari.)

Wise. "Marked by deep understanding, keen discernment, and a capacity for sound judgment," according to Merriam-Webster.

"Having or showing good judgment, or the ability to make good judgments, based on what you have learned from your experience," according to Cambridge Dictionary.

Given our propensity to repeat history, I'm not sure we're worthy of our self-assigned name yet. But maybe we can get there.

The same day I dealt with that aggressive driver, I found myself stuck behind a giant, bumbling dump truck. There was nowhere to pass it, so I was forced to go at a dump truck's pace for a few miles. 

I read the words, "DO NOT PUSH" painted on the rear of the truck.

"Do not push."

I'm not sure for whom the message was intended. Was it me? A warning not to follow too closely? Was it for whoever might need to interact with the rear of the dump truck? Maybe it had nothing to do with the truck. Maybe it was the driver who didn't want to be pushed?  The words seemed kind of unnecessary. Who pushes a dump truck?

Having dealt with an aggressive driver earlier in the day, I heeded the truck and kept my distance. It seemed like the smartest move. Even though I'm now the reluctant driver of an oxymoronic minivan (if it's so mini, why the hell do I feel like I take up half the road while I'm driving it? I prefer to remain incognito on the road. The minivan makes me feel as if I'm riding a brachiosaurus through traffic) I'm pretty sure the dump truck would win the matchup.

As I'm wont to do when ambling behind slow-moving, passive aggressive dump trucks my mind started to wander. I turned the phrase around in my head. "Do not push."

That I was seeing it at that moment, just on the heels of having kind of been pushed out of the way myself by another driver... well it seemed significant. It felt like a message I needed to hear.

In that moment, it seemed to be about slowing down. Allowing something other than my right foot and the accelerator to dictate the pace of my life. 

Maybe it also has to do with allowing what will be to be (I mean, what will be, will be, whether I have any say it in or not). Do not push ahead. Do not push your agenda. Do not push other people. 

It felt like, again, an instruction to be more passive. Which seems to run counter to everything we were raised to believe as Americans. We are not a people that accepts unwanted circumstances. That settles for less. We always push on. We always climb the next mountain. We always try to keep up. We always try to be better. 

The goal of improving ourselves and our society is noble and lofty, for sure. But maybe our methods are wrong.

"Do not push."

Last night, Lily was reading, "A Picture Book of Martin Luther King, Jr." to me.

It talks about how Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the "Whites only" section of a bus. It talks about how MLK Jr. led a protest of her arrest- how blacks in the city of Montgomery, Alabama refused to ride the buses. It talked about how someone threw a bomb in King's house and how King told his followers, who'd wanted to fight, to go home peacefully.

"We must love our white brothers," he said. We must meet hate with love."

Rosa Parks sat down.

Protestors didn't ride the bus.

King's followers clenched their firsts, but went home peacefully.

Maybe what looks like a passivity is actually something much greater.

For millennia we've compensated for our fear and anxieties with shows of might- taking up more space, constructing mightier fortresses, building bigger bombs, creating more sophisticated weapons, amassing more and more stuff, telling stories at greater and greater volumes about whose religion or politics or philosophies or way of life is superior. 

And here we are.

If we are really Homo Sapien, Wise Man, We need to learn from our experiences. Not do the same thing over and over, while praying for different results. 

"We must meet hate with love." That is what will transform us. Make us worthy of our name.

"Do not push."

I'm not exactly sure what I am to do with that. Or even if I need to do anything. Maybe they were just meaningless words on a truck. 

Or maybe, as with so many things in life, I'm meant to sit here with them rolling around in my head. An uncomfortable place with no real answer, no real solution, no real call to action. 

I've often found that when I'm struggling to make sense of a thought or an idea that I need to let go. Just the way I have to do when I'm struggling with feelings of anger or frustration. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Don't push it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Tag, you're it

The house is so quiet. 

Just the hum of the fridge and the white noise of the baby monitor. A clock ticking. The muffled chirping of a cardinal outside.

The girls returned to school yesterday after two weeks off for the holidays. Both were crying about how they missed Grandma and Grandpa. And how they'd miss Annie, Dad and me. How they didn't want to go to school. Mondays are tough. This week, the Mondays were on steroids.

Lily told me grownups were happy that school was back in session. "You just want a break from the annoying kids," she said.

Had she seen my celebratory "only two more days of winter break" dance the other day? Overheard me talking about how the kids just needed to go back to school?


It's not that I don't love the kids. Of course I love the kids. Not that I don't enjoy spending time with them. I do. Our New Year's Eve spent playing Exploding Kittens and Who Did It? (The No. 1 card game about No. 2) was near as perfect as any I can remember. We chatted. We giggled. We were all in bed by 10. It was glorious. 

Over break, we watched deer wandering through the woods at Grandma and Grandpa's. went on a bike ride. Walked the neighborhood to sell Girl Scout cookies. Took turns trying to get Annie to laugh. 

The time off reminded me how funny, bright and kind-hearted they are. Gave me so many moments I wanted to bottle to drink up when the kids are older and surly. 

But I just really need a break from the constant input from their output. There's been so much doing. Shopping, baking, decorating, cooking, wrapping, hosting, driving, visiting, cleaning– just an endless stream of verbs none of which seemed to include anything along the lines of "sitting" or "reflecting" or "idling." 

When the girls are home the house is lively and warm. It's nonstop entertainment for Annie. But it's also noisy and cluttered. 

There is an endless dialogue- someone is always talking. Whether it's reading stories out loud or asking when lunch is or wondering what's for dinner or lamenting the lost key to the new diary or requesting help with the construction of a Lego set or craft kit or needing a ponytail or fighting over who touched the other person's butt with their butt or singing various renditions of "Jingle Bells" that sometimes involve blood and death or screaming over stubbed toes or yelling at the Eagles to win the game.

It's all the emotions and all the sounds all day.

The other night at bedtime, as I reached the precipice of my patience, Jovie began narrating everything that had occurred in the previous 10 minutes in a breathless stream of words ("And then I put my pajamas on and then I brushed my teeth and then I tried to climb on the bed and fell out and then you read this story..." you get the picture. I couldn't get a word in. Coincidentally, the words I needed to get in were: "Please stop talking, it's time for bed."

I said already that I love my children right? 

For them, the color of December is firelight and glitter. It's stuffed with evergreens that are stuffed with a rainbow of baubles and ribbons. It's platters of cookies and stacks of wrapped boxes. It's all the hugs from all the relatives. 

As I get older, those colors have muted. Blued in the way Riley's memories become tinted in "Inside Out." The sweetness of all the joy stained with the realities of getting older and having a different awareness of the season. The exhaustion and financial strain. The familial tensions. And knowing that as they get older, my children's perceptions will evolve away from the unabashed elation they feel now toward disenchantment. 

That sounds really melodramatic. It's just that Lily is already so practical. At 8 she's looking ahead at her life and aware that school will only get tougher. That her days of freedom and endless playing are behind her. Jovie is both perpetually innocent and instinctively wise. She looks at Snacks' graying face and worries about how many more years we have left with him.

It all goes by so fast. Lily's reading the same chapter books I did as a kid. Jovie is asking for makeup. I mean ... gosh ... aren't I still the child? How else could I remember so clearly riding the new peach-and-gray-colored 10-speed around my cul-de-sac on Christmas Day when I was in fourth grade? How excited I was about that bike. How could that have been 27 years ago?

At the Jennings' family annual Christmas party, I was chatting with Brad's grandmother. Grandma's 93. The past couple of years have been tough for her. Failing health has caused her to move from an apartment near friends where she'd lived independently to a room in an assisted living facility. She's been in and out of the hospital for various falls and ailments. A couple months ago she fell and hit her head. She developed a brain bleed and needed brain surgery. Brain surgery. At 93. She's recovered from it more or less. A long scar showing through her snowy hair the only obvious sign of what she'd been through. The surgery hasn't seemed to affect her memory or lucidity. Or her sense of humor for that matter.

Two weeks ago she moved into a shared room at a nursing home where she'll be able to receive 24-hour care. 

Brad's family is relieved that she's been able to find a bed in place that would meet her needs. His mother and aunts had been taking turns staying with her to keep her company, ensure she was eating properly and not getting up to walk around without help- her independent streak the culprit of many of her falls. Everyone's nerves had been frayed with worry over Grandma. 

"I heard your new place is pretty nice," Brad said to her during the party.

"Oh yeah? Who told you that?" Grandma replied, making clear her feelings on the matter.

I told her I imagined it was hard moving into a new place. That she probably felt like she'd been shuffled around a lot recently. She just shrugged.

I remembered not that long ago, back when she was living in her apartment, there was a discussion about whether to get rid of a chair that was eating up some space Grandma needed for her new walker. Grandma was insistent that the chair stay. It's the chair her longtime companion Paul would sit in. Paul rented the apartment next door, but basically lived with Grandma. He passed away several years ago. I think the chair helped her feel close to him. Looking at it reminded her of him and maybe made it feel as if he were still in the room.

The chair went. Not that it mattered, because pretty soon Grandma would move and have to downsize most of her belongings anyway.

I know she's frustrated by what's happening to her body. She arrived at the Christmas party in a wheelchair. It had been a year since I'd seen her last and she looked so tiny and sunken. She can't eat solid food anymore. Her voice is hoarse and strained. 

I see her trying to fight for agency. She didn't want Brad to skimp on her serving of the birthday cake Aunt Ann made for Brad's cousins and sister. She was annoyed when, during the White Elephant gift exchange game, someone selected a gift for her while she was in the restroom. I get the sense that she's weary of her children and grandchildren trying to dictate her comings and goings. It's not as though she's not aware of her limitations. Or that everyone just wants to keep her safe. 

Her eyes are still bright though. Her mind sharp. She heckled Uncle Bill for taking too long to pick a gift during the game. When I brought Annie over to meet her for the first time the two studied each other quietly and intently. Annie reaching for her great grandmother's scarf (probably to chew on it). Grandma stroking her cheek. The memory of that moment warms me.

"I heard you had a big bingo win this week," I told her over raspberry punch.

"It was only a $1.50," she replied. 

I asked her what the most she'd ever won playing bingo was.

A thousand dollars.

She went on to recount the story of her big win from years ago. How she hadn't even planned on playing bingo that day, but a friend talked her into it. How there was a bit of a snafu over the chair she sat in- apparently some other bingo regular had claimed Grandma was sitting in her usual spot. How she was nervous about calling "bingo" for such a big pot lest she not have the right numbers and embarrass herself. 

I asked how she spent her winnings. Did she treat herself to something nice? 

"I probably just used it for groceries and bills," she said. She didn't need to do anything fancy.

Later on in the night, I was talking with one of Brad's cousins or maybe his nephew's wife about nursing (there have been five new babies added to the family in the past two years. A bit of a baby boom. It's hard to keep track of what kid-versations I had with whom). Someone had asked about what to do when your baby bites you while breastfeeding. I said that when Jovie had bitten me, I'd yelped, pulled her off and gave her a stern, "no." 

Grandma chimed in that when Brad's mother bit her- she bopped her on the head. This made me laugh out loud. Because I could totally relate to her reaction. Getting gouged in the nipple by a prickly little infant tooth is not pleasant. And here she was remembering something that happened 70 years ago like it was yesterday.

When we were saying our goodbyes, I told Grandma I was so glad she was able to come to the party. That I always enjoyed visiting with her. She gave me a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek, but her reply saddened me. 

"I can't do much." She seemed more disappointed in herself than anything else. 

Her comment made me think of her friend Paul, who, in his 90s, was blind and hard of hearing. Paul was so kind. He doted on Lily and Jovie when they were infants. Loved petting Snacks even though Snacks is a total spazz. I only ever knew Paul as an old man, but Brad's family told me he was a pilot in World War II who'd become a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down over Germany. He was sent to Luft-Stalag III (the POW camp depicted in "The Great Escape"- a movie I loved watching with my dad as a kid). After the war, he raised a family and worked as a bookbinder for more than 40 years. 

Years ago at this same party, Paul made a similar comment to Grandma's. He, too, felt like he couldn't contribute much to the party. 

I think about Paul's warmth. His gentleness. How even though he was blind and deaf in his later years, his presence filled the room. I think about his empty chair at Grandma's. How even when he wasn't physically there anymore, his spirit kept her company.

I told Grandma her presence was important. That it was more than enough. 

"You light up the room," I said. My eyes getting teary, because I'm always a little too earnest and I love her so much. Both my grandmothers died years ago. She's been my surrogate for a decade. Always so welcoming and sweet to me. 

I tried to add, clumsily, that if it weren't for her- the whole party wouldn't even exist. She's responsible for raising such amazing daughters, who themselves have raised such cool, fun, generous-hearted children (my husband among them). 

And here we are, attempting to raise her great grandchildren. Brad's nephew and his wife had a baby this year- so she's officially a great-great grandma now. I look at all our babies and see time stretching out in front of us. In years of first teeth and first steps and first days of school and first dates and first jobs. And I listen to her stories and see time stretching out behind us, too. 

I see us all as these little blips of light on this endless spectrum that wraps around and around and blankets us. I imagine the physics of all this is questionable. But the heart of it feels true.

This year, in particular, I feel more weighted down and aware of just how fleeting our time here is. Several friends and acquaintances lost loved ones in the last month. All the sudden, I feel as if I've entered a phase of life where loss will become more commonplace than in the years before and I feel utterly unequipped to deal with it. 

A friend who works as a nursing assistant in a hospital was visiting on New Year's Eve. We were talking about aging and the struggles of navigating the end-of-life decisions faced by the elderly and their families. She told me that over and over again, her elderly patients give her the same advice: Don't get old.

This advice is as heartbreaking as it is impossible. It begs for followup questions and re-examination of how we're aging as a society. 

I'm so grateful that my parents and Brad's parents and Grandma and our aunts and uncles continue to get old. Selfishly, their longevity means more time spent with them. But I hate to think of them aging regretfully. To get to a point when they only feel their only contribution is to take up space in a room. To be the ones telling their nurse, "Don't get old."

I find myself needing to surface from under the swell of the holidays. The decadence of all the memories floating in and out of my brain. The indulgence of all this time together.  

I want to take a deep breath in the crisp freshness of January. To clear my head of all the noise. 

Strangely enough, it's Jeff Bridges who helped shake me back into the day.

During his rambling acceptance speech for the Cecil B. deMille Award at the Golden Globes last night (during which, he was pretty much The Dude), he talked about wanting to back out of a role he didn't feel right for. And how the director told him, "Jeff, you know the game tag? ... you're it." He says he's used that perspective in all his movies and in his life.

"I guess we all have been tagged, we are all alive right here, right now," he said. "We are alive, we can make a difference. We can turn this ship in the way we wanna go, man. Towards love, creating a healthy planet for all of us."

The Dude sounded, frankly, a little stoned. But his observation made me smile. Because his pointing out the obvious- we've all been tagged. We're all alive right here, right now- is what I needed to hear. What I need to hear every day. Our life isn't what happened at the holiday party and it isn't all the plans we have for the upcoming year. It's what we have right now. It's who we are right now. 

And all of us- young, old and in between- we've all been tagged. As long as we're here. As long as we're alive on this planet. 

I'm not much of a resolution person (clearly, I'm a few days late on that anyway). But this year, I'm going to be more aware that I'm it. And I'm going to make it a habit of letting other people know- whether they're young or old or in between, that they're it, too. And that they're enough just as they are.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

When it's hard to get into the spirit

My nephew Finn's amazing Recycled Christmas Bulb wall hanging. 

Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, my sister Laura hosts a gingerbread house-making party for our family. My siblings and their kids and usually a family friend or two or three fill Laura's house. We bring food (heavy on all the carbs) and candy (for gingerbread house decorating) to share. The girls' cousins (now 13 strong, ranging in age from 6 months to 23 years old) race around in various states of over-sugared glee (the younger-than-12 set anyway). The older ones vie for baby cuddles and crack immature jokes with their equally immature aunts. 

Laura's oldest kids festoon the house with snowflakes and paper chains and various Christmasy festoonery. It's noisy with laughter and pattering feet and conversation. It smells piney and gingerbready (Laura makes all the houses from scratch!) and it's all warm and toasty. By the end of the party the floor around the dining room table is covered in icing and crushed bits of peppermint and M&Ms. 

It is one of the most anticipated days of the year in our household. Why? Because cousins! Candy! Presents! And Candy and Cousins! 

At one point during this year's party, I'd retreated upstairs in search of a peaceful spot to nurse Annie. We'd settled in, when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. "Oh, I'm sorry!" my 12-year-old nephew said when he spotted me. "I was just looking for someplace quiet."

I swiveled the office chair I was on so that my back was to him.

"You're not bothering me," I told him, figuring he'd make a hasty retreat from the awkward horrors of a breastfeeding aunt. 

Annie and I returned to our business. 

It was quiet again for a couple minutes.

Then I was surprised to hear a voice.

"It's hard to get into the spirit."

I looked over my shoulder. There was my nephew, sitting on the top step, looking pensive and withdrawn.Not quite sure how to proceed. I wanted to know more, but thought he might spook easily. What with him being a sixth grade boy and me being a lamish 37-year-old minivan driving mom type.

"Like, hard to get into the holiday spirit?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. 

"This time of year can be tough," I responded. "Because sometimes you feel like it should be more than it is."

"Yeah," he said again. And then he elaborated. How a couple years ago, making gingerbread houses was fun. But now he wasn't into it. How he didn't go trick-or-treating this year, even though some of his friends went. How he just wasn't into the things he had been into. 

Man, did my heart break for this kid. 

I remembered this place. Walking that tight wire between childhood and adulthood and feeling so wobbly and gawky. So lost.

Twelve, 13, 14. Middle school. I thought I'd left that place behind (twice now!) but it keeps popping up. 

I feel as if there are several camps in middle school.

There are the kids who embrace getting older. Overnight, they start caring about fashion and makeup. They seem to know about music and pop culture and memes.

There are kids who seem to walk the line gracefully- neither leaping head first into adulthood or wallowing in immaturity. 

Then there are the kids who cling desperately to childhood. Or maybe they're not even desperately clinging. Maybe they didn't even realize they were supposed to change until it was abundantly apparent that everyone else seemed to be changing.

With my "Animaniacs" T-shirt, a rubber frog named Newton and a Tic-Tac Box named Bob in my pocket, you can guess which kid I was. 

It was like I knew, I knew, life would never be like it was before. The silliness. The earnestness. The innocence. It was all going to evaporate into an after school special haze of gossip, crushes, fights and/or threats of fights, substance abuse and drama. Drama. DRAMA.

I wanted none of it (with the exception, of course, of crushes which had to resemble every Disney movie I'd ever seen. Basically, some mild flirtation, a romantic song and maybe (maybe!) a chaste kiss). 

My nephew's not like me though. He engages in casual conversation with adults. He has a easy sort of worldliness about him that is probably 80 percent B.S. right now but contains traces of the man he'll become. 

He told me he feels like he's at a place where he's figuring out who he is as a person.

While that is exactly what every middle schooler is doing to some degree or another, I'm all but certain I had no awareness about my own journey of self-discovery. It just felt as if everyone else was moving on to mysterious teenagery things and I was left behind.

When you're 12 and 13 and 14, identity seems to be associated with a bunch of external labels. Whether you're popular or a jock or a theater kid or a student journalist (a title reserved only for those at the uppermost echelons of the social hierarchy, obviously). When you are in school, it felt super important to have a series of words to use to describe who you are as a person. 

Actually, as adults it's the same really. Except now it's called branding which makes it feel like it's more important. But let's be honest, today's #mommyblogger was yesterday's emo/goth kid. (And probably mommy blogging is an out of date reference... Because those people are so yesterday. Maybe it should be true crime podcaster? What are the cool kids doing these days? See! I still have no idea!) 

The Advent of social media bios have made this identity thing feel even more important. We all must be ready to deliver an elevator pitch of our innermost selves at any given moment. As if the words foodie, nomad, lifestyle influencer, wife, mom, teacher, coupon lover, feminist, crafter, dog lover, et. al. get to the bottom of who we are as individuals. It's so much pressure. And I'm just as guilty as succumbing to this pressure as anyone else. Remember how excited I was when I finally decided to call myself a writer, like, five minutes ago? Like the designation changed anything about who I was as a human being. Ahh, but it all felt so important!

I just finished reading "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose" by Eckhart Tolle. I came across it somewhat randomly. I was reading an interview with RuPaul in Entertainment Weekly in which he was asked the question, "What book have you read over and over again throughout your life?" (Great question! Not that you asked, but "Where the Red Fern Grows".)

RuPaul answered:

"Because I’ve read it so many times, I listen to Eckhart Tolle’s "A New Earth" on audio book every night before I go to bed. I fall asleep to it, so it goes into my subconscious…. It’s life-changing and it helps you understand who you are and what you’re doing on this planet, and it also allows you to forgive other people, usually because other people are working out of their egos and fears. It gives you an opportunity to forgive."

RuPaul seems to be a person who is true to himself- and so probably a person worth listening to. Also, the idea of knowing what I'm doing on this planet and finding more opportunities for forgiveness both seemed like really good reasons to read the book.

So I did.

Tolle writes about how our egos are bossy and insistent that we define ourselves by what we have and what we do and is in a tireless search for affirmation and self-fulfillment. This fruitless quest leads to things like anxiety, depression, anger and jealousy. It damages our relationships with ourselves and each other and fails to helps us find the inner peace we're really after. Our sense of self is really an illusion, he writes. A story we tell ourselves over and over based on our memories and thoughts. 

At least that's how I read it. Tolle says the only way to move to a higher state of consciousness is to quiet our egos and live in the present moment. That our truest self is the person we already are right at this moment. 

Basically, if "A New Earth" was required reading in middle school where self awareness really starts to take shape, humans could probably avoid a lot of angst, crappy behavior and dumb fashion choices. 

On the other hand, life's a journey, right? Why should deny our youth their years of suffering? "Little Miss Sunshine" taught me that.

I told my nephew he already was the person he needed to be. A realization I've only just recently had for myself, but one I wished I known earlier in life. I'm fairly certain this  flew right over my nephew's head. And that's just fine. Because there's really no way to go through the weeds but going through the weeds and there's a lot to be learned when you're entrenched. 

My nephew talked about about how he himself wasn't popular, but that he was friendly with popular kids. He wondered how his little brother, who'd be joining him in middle school next year, would handle it. Would he be shocked about the fights? That there were kids who were using and dealing drugs? 

He talked about a kid he'd been friends with a couple years ago who'd drifted away since he started high school. He talked about his best friend and how he knew their friendship was important. How it was good they had each other to lean on and talk about "stuff" with. 

Stuff. That vague little word that encompasses all the emotions. All the craziness. All the small things. And all the big things, too, that are hard to put words to. 

I'm glad he has a buddy to talk about stuff with, too.

Because growing up ain't easy. Going from one year looking forward to gluing candy canes and gummy bears to a cookie house to the next just wanting some peace and quiet is confusing. Mourning the loss of that specific joy that comes with being a child at Christmas. Wondering whether you'll feel it again.

"You'll find the joy again," I told him. "It's just different when you're older."

"Like when you have kids?" he asked.

Sure, getting to relive your childhood through your own children is pretty sweet. But I'm not sure that's quite what I meant.

And maybe it has nothing to do with being older. Maybe it just has to do with being present, no matter what age you are.

That is to say, there's the potential to find as much joy in a Tuesday afternoon, as there is on Christmas. That is to say, joy is a constant. It's at our fingertips. It's in this breath. It's at the tip of your tongue always, I think. But. But! You can only see it if you're willing. Is "willing" even the right word? Maybe if you're open to it? Ugh. That's not quite right either. 

Joy isn't the lights or the gifts or the gingerbread houses. It's never the things. It's that moment of awareness about them.

I don't know that people experience more joy during the holiday season. Actually, despite the frenzy of lights, glitter, songs and sweet things, people often seem to feel less joyful this time of year. Or else we're more acutely aware of how we don't feel the holiday spirit we're supposed to be feeling.

But if you can't see the joy on a nondescript Tuesday- in the crows strutting to the peanuts you left for them on the front lawn. In your baby poking her little pink tongue out at you. In the giggles as your kids finally start getting the "grownup" jokes during your annual viewing of "Elf." If you don't see the joy right this instant. If it's something that will only come when the cookies are all made and the presents are all wrapped and you have the perfect ugly sweater and just the right recipe for eggnog- than it's futile to start looking in the noise of mid-December. Because you're looking in the wrong place. Or you're looking in the right place, which is to say right now, but you're wearing a pair of gray-tinted glasses. Your ego whispering in your ear, "is this it? Is this all there is?" 

This is it, folks. This right now. 

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance,” Tolle writes. 

If you need perspective on the significance or insignificance of the rest of the stuff- I recommend picking up a copy of "Astrophysics for People in a Hurry." 

“There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived,” writes Neil deGrasse Tyson.

From a cosmological perspective, the fact that you still haven't found a gift for your kid's piano teacher really isn't a big deal. 

We are these wee things in this vast, vast place.

Tiny. But still made of the stuff of stars expelled at the Big Bang and inextricably connected to one another.

“Every cup that passes through a single person and eventually rejoins the world’s water supply holds enough molecules to mix 1,500 of them into every other cup of water in the world. No way around it: some of the water you just drank passed through the kidneys of Socrates, Genghis Khan, and Joan of Arc. 

How about air? Also vital. A single breathful draws in more air molecules than there are breathfuls of air in Earth’s entire atmosphere. That means some of the air you just breathed passed through the lungs of Napoleon, Beethoven, Lincoln, and Billy the Kid.” 

Here is where I find joy. 

Adorable branch snowman made by my crafty nephew Finn.

It is hard to get into the spirit of season, because we've been lead to believe the spirit of the season has to do with wish fulfillment and a checked off to-do list. It has to look a certain way. Be filled with certain things. Include certain people. That happiness is wholly dependent on external elements falling into place. 

I gotta say, I'm not buying it. As I write I'm surrounded by four little girls singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in their screamy-est voices. They are, apparently, bursting with the Christmas spirit. Oddly enough, their intensity, their stretched-taut anticipation of Christmas has not made the season any cheerier for me. I can do without listening to "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" for the 833rd time this week. It's not so much fun hearing Lily lament about whether Santa will deposit an American Girl Doll and a ginormous Harry Potter Lego set under the tree this year (spoiler alert: there will be disappointment come Christmas morning because, reality). They are just so loud right now. All. The. Time.

"Do less," I find myself telling them. Even though I know at their age I was exactly the same.

I feel like I just went off on a complain-y sort of tangent. Which kinda means I'm not following my own advice to find calm in the present moment.

You know, serenity now.

Right now.

It's tough to do all the time. 

I know this. My sister Laura (hostess of the aforementioned Gingerbread party) is drowning in stress. She has five kids at home (and a few more not at home). She drives a school bus full time, bringing the younger four along with her, which means they all have to be up and ready to go at 5:30 in the morning. Every morning. She's perpetually exhausted. And also perpetually worried about how ends will be met every month. And that's wording it gently. She burden she bears on her tired back is massive. 

When she texts me in a panic, I generally respond by telling her to breathe and reminding her that life won't be this way forever. Your basic mental triage. 

But there are days when that can only go so far. And the reality confronting her can't be remedied by trying to stay in the moment. 

She was in this place recently, in a tailspin. She wanted none of my reminders to breathe. None of my reassurances that whatever she was confronting at that moment would be resolved. So instead, I told her that I knew it was easier to reign in spiraling emotions when you feel a sense of security and are able to find quiet moments in your day. 

I know that in periods of my life when I've felt frayed and overwhelmed, trying to stay present felt almost impossible. 

So yeah, even though it's free and effective and it takes no more effort than pushing away all those racing thoughts about the crappy decisions you made decades ago and the looming crises you'll have to solve tomorrow, I know there are times when finding the joy of the moment is a luxury.

Certainly, reflecting on it in long rambling blog posts is a luxury.

I get bossy and self-righteous about life sometimes.
Especially, apparently to despondent nephews and stressed out sisters.

Laura and I came to an agreement recently. That when we were concerned about the other person, we'd simply pray for peace. That if it's answered, that prayer should solve whatever was ailing her in the exact right way. 

Anyway, you feel like you're falling short of the type of person you want to be right now and/or if the spirit of the season is evading you as it does so many people this time of year, you're not alone. Remember first and foremost you're already all the you, you need to be in this universe. And second, if you're willing and able, take note of your breathing in and out (I mean, you're gonna be breathing anyway... mine as well get more out of it ...) and give that little glowing spirit already inside of you a squeeze. 

Repeat as needed.

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.