Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A review of the preschool Christmas pageant

Merry (almost) Christmas.

On Monday, my parents graciously attended the holiday performance at Lily's preschool (i.e. terrified 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds dressed up in green and red stand in front of their overeager parents, grandparents and a sea of recording devices to sing pre-selected Christmas songs). 

It was, of course, adorable.

Though not everyone in the audience was blown away by the pageantry.

For instance, Dad. 

Now, I love my dad. And I love that he attended Lily's performance when he could've been poking around antique shops, baking scones or playing MineSweeper on his computer. He loves all 13 of his grandchildren. Truly. But the thing is, he's not always beguiled by the various rites of passage and tableaus of being small. 

The diapers and tiny clothes and amazing feats of childhood – first words, first steps, first teeth – don't seem nearly as impressive to him as they do to the rest of the family. He's more comfortable connecting with the littles by showing off his electric train set or helping out with puzzles or reading a story or taking a walk. 

He's been a father for more 46 years and a grandfather for 20 and he's still getting used to the idea that small people are interested in spending time with him. Talking to him. Or, god forbid, hugging him. He's a couple pats on the head sort of guy.

That's how he says I love you.

And he says it, too, by showing up for the things that matter to the rest of us. Even if he's not all that impressed and might rather be reading about the Founding Fathers or learning about the theory of relativity or sanding a piece of wood from an especially beautiful tree.

Ever watch "Parks and Recreation"? Dad is Ron Swanson.

So imagine Ron Swanson goes to a preschool Christmas Pageant.

I was amused watching Dad watch the show. So amused, in fact, I started taking notes. Notes that I've decided should be turned into a tongue-in-cheek review of the show from my Dad's perspective. 

So here goes:

Preschool Christmas program is exactly what you'd expect

Reviewed by DAD

We all are born into this world with certain abilities.

Some excel at nurturing their families. Some are outstanding communicators. Some are natural-born leaders. Some have the ability to grasp sophisticated mathematics equations. 

And some are gifted dancers and singers.

The latter were in short supply at Eastminster Preschool's Christmas Program Monday morning.

While a few of the performers brought energy and volume to the contrived set of Christmas standards they sang, most of the participants looked as though they were rolled out of bed, wrapped in the requisite seasonal attire and trotted out in front of their doting relatives against their will.

Suffice to say, there were no Shirley Temples lined up at the front of the sanctuary. 

(Though based on the number of parents standing in the wings taking photos like members of the White House Press Corps, you'd think we were watching Andrea Bocelli perform Handel's "Messiah." Now that is an artist.)

The show began with a fairly lackluster version of "Jingle Bells" – the children's voices drowned out by the bells they were given to ring – not in unison, I should note – throughout the song. This was followed by two lesser known "bell"-related tunes, "Ring the Bells" and "Christmas Bells." More boisterous out-of-synch ringing; still no audible singing. 

At least one child dropped her bell, cried and refused to participate in the remainder of the program. Whatever happened to "the show must go on"? The West End, this was not.

Thankfully, the bells were surrendered and replaced with what appeared to be paper ice cream cones – I am told they were candles – in a rather clunky transition. 

Enthusiasm waned midway through the program and the various teachers were forced to pick up the slack – carrying the show when the younger performers decided, inexplicably, that it was time for a break.

Thankfully, the pianist and flutist accompanying the singers were competent. As the chorus seemed to give up, these talented musicians reminded the audience that we were, in fact, listening to Christmas songs, not just off-key mumbling from a collection of children who looked as if they'd rather be watching "Sesame Street."

(Speaking of the audience, have you ever tried listening to a concert while various children -- notably the young man somewhere behind me -- screamed? While I completely understand their boredom, had they never received a lesson on decorum during their two years of life?!)

Just when it seemed the show could not be salvaged, it was time for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed  Reindeer" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Finally, a song where everyone knew more than two of the words and that was  song with gusto – especially when the choreography involved them punctuating the word "wish" with a punch into the air (though the unfortunate child in the front row who was smacked in the back of the head with an especially exuberant "wish!"). 

I was surprised that a Christmas show at a church did not include more non-secular songs. Where was "Adeste Fideles"? "Once in Royal David's City"? "Oh Holy Night" (come to think of it, I'm not sure I'd want to hear this little voices butcher the high notes in that one.) At least I have my copy of "A Festival of Carols in Brass" from the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble.

Overall, the show was exactly what I expected. 

Sometimes during the holidays, it pays to lower your expectations.

Friday, November 27, 2015

About that nose ring

A few weeks back I got my nose pierced.

Yes, I'm aware I'm not 22.

And no, I'm not going through some late-quarter-life, early-mid-life crisis.

It's something I've been wanting to do for years. I've always seen other woman with nose piercings and thought they looked so beautiful and cool. 

I've never felt all that cool. Or, all that beautiful for that matter.

No, I'm not looking for reassurance. I'm not fishing for compliments. 


I'm guessing most of you reading this are women. And probably women with slightly less than overflowing self-esteem. For the record, you are beautiful. Full to the brim with warmth and joy and sweetness and strength. I know this. And I know you think I'm beautiful. Or, at least, not hideous.

We're in agreement about our feelings for each other. 

And I'm guessing, we'd probably be in agreement about our feelings for ourselves.

I hope we're not. But I'll assume we are.

So here we are. And here I am. 

With these cartoony eyes and deepening lines on my face and my ever-growing nose and eyebrows I always feel look a little cro-magnon mannish. I know, I know. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

And I'm not 22. Not even close. Almost 34 in fact. And wanting a nose ring for years. Because the person in the mirror isn't quite the person I feel like inside. 

But for years I told myself I could not be the person with the nose ring. Why? Because I'm a big 'ol dork is why. Because I'm normal (though in an obviously abnormal way). Because I follow the straight path from Point A to Point B. Because I always mean to do the right thing and never want to rock the boat. I care what people think.

And I always thought that if I got a nose piercing that people would think I was trying to be someone I'm not. Which is to say, the cool, edgy girl, when obviously ... not. Or, that it was an act of rebellion. Maybe if it were 1998 I could see a nose piercing being a sign of youthful rebellion. But come on. Body piercings are as ubiquitous as Starbucks now.

Maybe it's really an act of rebellion against the person I always thought I was. All those stories I've always told myself about the person I was and am and will be.

Maybe that's what a late-quarter-life, early-mid-life crisis is. 

In which case I revise my earlier statement. Maybe I am going through a late-quarter-life, early-mid-life crisis.

Crisis is such a loaded word, and I don't think it's really a crisis anyway. It's pretty great to re-evaluate my life and realize that my narrative is mine and can change based on the choices that I make. 

So a few weeks ago I chose to get a nose ring. And I love it. I look in the mirror and see myself and I like that person a little more. Not because of the stud on it's own. But because it means that the voice in my head that was telling me to be true to me was louder than all the voices outside telling me to conform to to the image of the almost-34-year-old wife and mother of two that I imagine the rest of the world has.

This is my one life. It's time to start owning it.

FAQs about my nose piercings

Did it hurt? 

Yes, a man poked a hole in my nostril with a large needle. It was hurt. But the pain didn't last long. 

Does stuff get caught on it?

If by stuff you mean boogers and snot, then yes, stuff gets caught on it. Just like stuff gets caught on your nostril walls. I was perpetually self-conscious about the state of my nose before I got the piercing. That hasn't changed. Luckily, someone invented facial tissue that can be used for debris removal.

How does it stay in?

There's not back on it, like an earring. The stud is a corkscrew shape (it looks like this). I learned this when it fell out the other day while I was taking a shower and couldn't figure out how to get it back in so then made my very patient, very kind husband put it back in. It's tricky!

What made you decide to get it?

See above.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What I learned from the Balloon Guy

Flip-Flop, Lily's new penguin.
Not pictured: Jovie's balloon animal Purpley Purple the Purple Pony.
Yesterday Brad and I took the girls to the York Pet & Reptile Expo for a little family bonding. We were promised dogs, cats, bunnies, birds and reptiles (in two show arenas!), plus it was free for kids 5 and under. Kind of a no-brainer in my mind. 

So we pay our admission and go in. The first thing Jovie spots is a kid carrying a rainbow-colored parrot made out of balloons. 

"I want balloons!" she said.

We told her we'd try to find some balloons for her, but first we were going to see if we could find any animals. 

"But I want balloons," she repeated.

I attempted redirection. 

"I heard there are pigs walking around on leashes here! Let's go see if we can find one!"

"I just want to find the balloons," she whimpered.

"OK, but first, let's find pigs."

She followed us into the show. Though with minimal enthusiasm. We saw kittens, bunnies, a pomeranian with a fuchsia mohawk and two pigs on leashes. There was a friendly blind husky and a pack of cocker spaniels and a sweet, scruffy dog named Ozzie who I think needs to come live with us. For serious. That face.

Photo courtesy of The Last Dog Rescue
And there were all the cutest puppies ever. 

Even through this abundance of adorable, fuzzy, squishy amazingness, Jovie was still pretty adamant about that balloon. A balloon, I might add, that would never cuddle up in her lap or gently lick her nose. 

Her requests for a balloon continued as we wandered into the second arena, i.e., the snakepit. 

I'd never been to a Pet and Reptile Expo before, so I really had not idea what to expect. I definitely didn't expect such an abundance of snakes. Like, enough snakes to populate the Amazon probably. All stacked in small, clear boxes (the larger ones were curled up in what appeared to be the containers used for the deli trays you get at the grocery store. Maybe I'll pick up the Boa Constrictor platter for my family's annual gingerbread house-making party. I'll garnish it with a few frozen mice, which were also available for purchase at the expo).

So yeah, a lot of snakes. And various lizards, frogs and the smallest turtles I'd ever seen. And baby mice. That was Lily's favorite part. The vat of baby mice. Pinkies were 50 cents, fuzzies were 10 cents more. These weren't intended to be pets (the guy selling them also sold snakes), but I couldn't bring myself to tell Lily that (just like I haven't brought myself to tell her what's really going to happen to the turkeys she's been visiting at the farm almost weekly since they were babies. "They're going to a new home next week," I told her. "They bite too much.") 

We'd wander the floor to look at more snakes or meet Dargo the police dog or see the coolest chameleon ever, but Lily kept gravitating back to that box of baby mice. Her eyes wide in wonder and adoration. 

It was a little unsettling. 

(You can check out some awesome pictures from the expo – including Lily's beloved pile-o-mice – here.)

Jovie, meanwhile, was still asking about that balloon. 

So we found the balloon guy, or as he refers to himself, The Balunguy. We waited in line watching Balunguy inflate and twist balloons in every color into Macaws and dinosaurs and swords and hats and snakes (obviously). 

I chatted with him as he twisted a penguin for Lily and a purple pony for Jovie.

"So how does one end up becoming a balloon artist?" I asked him. Because really, how does someone end up becoming a balloon artist?!

Unexpectedly, he said.

Fifteen years ago his wife gave birth to their baby at just 26 weeks. Their daughter weighed only 1 pound, 13 ounces and spent 74 days in the NICU. During that time, Balunguy (OK, his real name is Tony) and his wife met another couple whose child was in the NICU. As it turned out, the dad knew how to twist balloons. Tony asked if he could get a lesson. Obviously, the hobby took. 

Business is great. He does all the types of events you'd imagine a balloon artist (excuse me, a Professional Latex Manipulation Technician) might show up at. And some that you wouldn't – in a bittersweet twist of fate, he did balloons at the funeral of the man who'd introduced him to balloon artistry all those years ago. (Note to self: add "balloon artist at funeral" to my last and final wishes.)

I asked how his daughter was doing now.

"If you didn't know, you wouldn't know," he said showing me a picture of a beautiful young lady on his phone.

I love asking people how they got to where they are. It's a reminder to me that life meanders. It's rarely straightforward and often detours you to long, winding roads you assume are dead ends. And sometimes they are. And sometimes you go into the NICU filled with fear and anxiety and the weight of the world and leave with the power to bring smiles to people's faces and make the world a sillier place. 

And boy do we need that these days.

If there's something that depression has allowed me to appreciate, it's lightness. Those moments when your soul expands and you grasp, for a second, what it means to be here and to be human. I get this feeling most often when I stop and listen and observe life in realtime with an open heart. 

I don't think we'll ever find the grand anecdote to the world's ugliness in policy or air strikes or social media. It happens on a much, much smaller scale. It starts in your home and in your neighborhood and in your city. It starts with a smile and a simple question and the willingness to listen to the answer. 

We all just want someone to hear us over the cacophony of all 7 billion of us. 

We all want to tell our story. But first, we need to listen. 

What we hear will probably be a greater gift than what we wanted to say. I'm certain of that. 

And if that doesn't quite do the trick, well, there's always puppies. And balloon animals.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Disgusting carpet gets magnificent sendoff

As regular readers of this site probably already know, I have a hate-hate relationship with my white living room carpet.  (See: the great butter vomit incident of 2013 and the rainbow regurge ... also of 2013. I guess 2013 wasn't a great year for the white living room carpet.)

The white living room carpet is not to be confused with the boring beige carpet in the kids'  room that received a makeover last spring courtesy of Lily and Jovie. Nor is it to be confused with my oft-abhorred kitchen floor, which has become much more manageable (and hopefully slightly less bacteria ridden) thanks to the steam mop I got last Christmas.

The white living room carpet's biggest offense is that it's white – something that I didn't consider a problem when we bought the house six years ago. Back then, I was just excited that the various area rugs conveyed with the house – they did such a nice job at covering up the careworn wood floors. 

But then we got the dog. 

And really, it's not the white living room carpet's fault we got a dog – a dog that has been known to use the carpet as both toilet paper and a convenient repository for his throw-up. 

Just like it's not really the white living room carpet's fault (or the fault of the boring beige carpet in the kids' room) that next, we had children. Milk spewing, juice-spilling, Play-Doh squishing, muddy footing children. Two of them. 

As it turns out, a perpetually shedding, occasionally vomiting beagle mix and a pair of perpetually careless, occasionally grubby little girls are a lethal combination to a white living room carpet.

Some might even say that it's the real victim here. 

But not me.  

I finally decided a few weeks back, while watching the dog casually drag his butt along one particularly foul corner of the white living room carpet, that it was time for it to go.

The aforementioned corner. The Bermuda Triangle of funk.
Brad and I have been on a bit of a home-improvement binge this month – painting our bedroom and the living room, and we decided we'd refinish the living room floor while we're at it. Seemed like the perfect time to bid adieu to a carpet that has spent the past six years being saturated in multi-species bodily goo, food debris, fur and I don't even care to speculate on what else. 

Of course, being me, I wanted to do something to mark the occasion. Really send it off to the landfill in style. So I decided to throw a messy carpet party. 

Originally, I'd planned to invite a bunch of the girl's friends over to really annihilate it during an afternoon of carpet debauchery. But life has been exhausting lately and moving at a pace I'm barely able to keep up with (how is it that I'm running with the 5-minute-mile people when I should be back with the 12-plusers?). Organizing a playdate, much less a play-extravaganza just felt overwhelming.

So then yesterday the girls are playing with a friend. And they're bickering about something or other. And I'm cranky and out of sorts and tired of refereeing. I decided we all needed redirection. And silliness.

"Girls," I said. "Want to have our messy carpet party?"

And they did. So we did.

I put out paint and glitter and muddy boots and Play-Doh and fluorescent-colored snack foods and instructed that all messes had to be confined to the carpet. And that this was a one-time deal. 

So the girls went to work.

They were a little tentative at first. Unsure about how far they could take their destruction. But I egged them on. Who's going to put on these boots to stomp around in? Let me get some more glitter and "fairy dust"! Are you out of paint? Allow me to grab another bottle!

We finished off the soiree with a little hot chocolate party (on the carpet, of course). They got to pour their own beverages. 

There was nary a napkin or paper towel to be found.

"Mom! My hands are messy," Jovie cried.

"Just wipe them on the carpet!"I told her.

When my friend walked in the house to pick up her daughter, she nearly had a heart attack (maybe I should've given her a heads up that this was sanctioned...). 

It was glorious.

With all the heaviness in my head these days, it felt good to be be a little reckless. To be the fun mom for an hour. To remind myself that things are just things and that my relationship with these kids will always be more fulfilling than my relationship with my furniture. To realize that making the mess is just as important as cleaning house. 

Our new area rug is smaller, darker, cheaper and shaggier. 

It doesn't know what's coming.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In defense of antidepressants

The other day I was on a preschool class field trip to the pumpkin patch with Jovie, my nieces Pea and Hazel in tow. While learning about corn and apples and pollination and pumpkins, I watched one of Jovie's classmates who came with her grandfather. He was quiet and had the kindest eyes. He hung back when she raced ahead to walk with her friends, but held her hand when she looked tired or unsure of her surroundings. Every once and a while, a small smile played on his face as he observed the all the children or shepherded his granddaughter around the straw maze. 

The joy he soaked in from this shared time with this small person was evident. Though not loud. Not bells ringing or a tree full of songbirds. It was serene and enveloping – a blanket of snow or the sun on your face in a sweet-smelling field. 

As I pulled away from the orchard, the two of them walking hand in hand in the distance (that tender and steady love) my throat tightened. My eyes burned. I missed my grandfather. My dad. Being little and loved in such a simple way. 

This physical reaction to some unreachable emotional ache was unexpected. 

Two months ago, this was every day. Every day something would happen that would flatten me. Sometimes multiple things would happen. A passive-aggressive comment from a neighbor or that song on the radio or another story about the awful nature of humans. Two months ago I was convinced that the world was the sum total of its ugliness. 

But I've been coming away from that perspective. Slow and steady. 

Last week as the bittersweet tears started forming in my eyes, I was frantic. For a minute anyway. Not again, I thought to myself. I can't be feeling this way again. The fraying of nerves. The fragility. 

I found myself careening down the winding path into the dark woods of my psyche. I would never get out of this place. It was foolish to ever believe I could ever outrun that melancholy.

Then I realized I hadn't taken my antidepressant in a couple days.

And that's when I knew they were working. 

I took a deep breath. And another. I was OK. I am OK.

I am so grateful for this moment. 

Months ago, I knew I was depressed. It was obvious – I'd been there often enough to know. But I was in denial of it. For so long. I kept waiting for it to lift, as my low spells had in years past. They'd hang out for a few days, maybe a week. And then I'd feel more like myself.

This was different though. The longer the fog stayed, the thicker it got. I now understand why it is that people "sink into depression." That's what it feels like. The horse dying in the swamp in "The Never-ending Story." The longer you stay, the longer you'll stay.

In July or August, several months after I realized my mental health was shaky, I was on the phone with my sister and I lost it. I don't even remember what was going on that day, it didn't really matter probably. She heard it in my voice though and suggested it might be time to take care of myself. Go on an antidepressant, talk to a therapist. 

I don't want to go to the doctor, I told her. I don't want to have to call to schedule the appointment and tell the receptionist that I'm seeking treatment for depression. I don't want to have to  explain to the nurse who takes my blood pressure and temperature that the reason I'm in is depression. I don't want to have a conversation with the doctor where I tell them I'm sad and that I've been sad and that I really don't know why. I don't want to cry in front of strangers. Because I know I'll cry.

What's more. I didn't want to be on an antidepressant. Years ago, when I'd taken them they left me drowsy and made me feel slightly removed and disaffected. Like I was living above my life somehow. Not really having an authentic experience.

Laura, of course, understood. But gently pointed out that if I was at the point where I was bawling at the doctor's office. Well, it was definitely time to do something.

She was right. 

Because my depression wasn't just affecting me. I wasn't the only one who was sad because of it. I at wasn't my best for my girls or for Brad. I wasn't even at my mediocre. A family flounders or flourishes depending on their weakest link. I couldn't be the weakest link anymore.

So I made the appointment. And I went to it. And I cried in front of the doctor. Some youngish guy I'd never met before (I'd just switched practices last year). He told me he wanted me to stay on the medication for a year. That sounded like an eternity to me. In the past I lasted a month, maybe, Before I took myself off of them. 

Yeah. Yeah. I know. You're not supposed to do that.

This time I made the commitment to be responsible and give the medication a chance to work like it's supposed to. Not only that, but I was going to go back to yoga and look for off-screen activities that brought me joy – like helping at the farm.

And it's working. I feel more like myself. I laugh more than I cry. My patience has returned. My mood swings are fewer. There's more of an equilibrium between light and dark. The scales more balanced.

I think there is a sense among creative sorts – or anyone who struggles with depression, really – that medication will dampen their creativity or make them less of themselves. Will prevent them from accessing the wells of emotion so critical to art. But the biggest killer to my interest and willingness to engage in right-brained pursuits has been depression. That wall constructed in my psyche. 

Antidepressants have chipped away at that wall. 

I'm not writing fiction again yet. But I'm writing. I'm showing up here, which had been almost painful in previous months. This feels right, so this is where I am. The rest will come in turn.

I'm not immune to feeling as I always worried I would be. I still get goosebumps listening to "Girl in the War" by Josh Ritter. 

In depression all you see is gray and tar black. The colors are returning. 

There was this wonderful post on the On Being blog this week. Sharon Salzberg explores the buddhist concept of dukkha:
"One of the traditional Buddhist illustrations of the term dukkha shows a chariot with an axle that simply doesn’t fit quite right. If the chariot were to move, there would be a rub, a jolt. Maybe nothing dramatic happens as a result; maybe the wheel stays put on the chariot, and all that results from a ride is a bit of discomfort. But the rider’s presumable awareness of the not-quite-rightness shades the experience with a level of discomfort. That is duke...
"...Through my own meditation practice and through teaching, I now know that dukkha, suffering, the sense of dis-ease in our lives — no matter what you want to call it — arrives most achingly not from uncomfortable circumstances but from our reactions to them. Culturally, we are all taught to turn away from pain, to disguise it as if it were disgraceful. Or, if we don’t disguise it, we label it or judge ourselves for feeling it and become the person in the chariot worrying about the effects of the ill-fitting wheel. We feel isolated rather than seeing our pain as part of the human experience." 
Reading this helped me understand that depression begets more depression. I was depressed and so focused on my depression and the pain it was causing that the rest of my life was muted. And I couldn't really define that outlines of the depression and why it was there. What's more, I was ashamed of it. Ashamed that it made me a weaker, indulgent person. But it doesn't really matter about appearances. This is my life. My one life. So I can't spend it like this.

I won't be defined by my ill-fitting wheel. 

A while back I heard this TED Talk by Andrew Solomon on depression – it's a pretty popular one, but worth sharing to understand this ... illness? Disorder? He defends medication (why is it that no matter how many people are on antidepressants right now, it still feels like it needs to be defended? It still feels embarrassing, right? To talk about it? But it shouldn't be.) 

In it, he sums up well this new perspective I'm developing:
"The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and these days, my life is vital, even on the days when I'm sad. I felt that funeral in my brain, and I sat next to the colossus at the edge of the world, and I have discovered something inside of myself that I would have to call a soul that I had never formulated until that day 20 years ago when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. 
28:37"I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I've found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely, and sometimes against the moment's reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture."
In yoga you sink into your poses, allowing your breath and gravity to help you give in and so find more strength. I sunk into depression, and now as I work on standing up up again, I too, feel grateful for the lessons it's taught me as well.

Monday, October 5, 2015

On being small and temporary

I haven't been to church in years. Aside from the occasional wedding or funeral or Christmas mass. 
Growing up I went to mass every Sunday. Early. Seven or 7:30. The parking lot at the later services tended to inspire somewhat less-than-Christian sentiments from Dad. Ditto for the Costco after 10 (you had to get there before the Methodists got out). 
Sunday mornings were about the soapy smell of candles and the acrid scent of Dad's black coffee. The echoing thud of the pew kneelers hitting the floor in a near-empty church. Hymns sung acapella because most of the time the organist didn't get up that early. Cold, hard benches. Squeezing Dad's calloused woodworker's hand during the Lord's Prayer. His kiss on my cheek and a "peace by with you." How I looked forward to those moments with my father. In my mind, he was always so stern and stoic. But on Sunday mornings he was softer. Warmer. He even sang a little. 
I fell away from church in college. Because I was a disenchanted 20-something-year-old Catholic kid. It's kind of what we do. Sometimes I went to a Methodist service with my roommate. It was good to be around regular families. The pastors always spoke to my heart. There was warmth and homeyness there that I rarely observed during Mass and all its ceremony and ritual. Though as time passes I appreciate more ceremony and ritual. It's not terribly original to be an ex-Catholic. But I'm a woman raising two girls who I want to feel empowered and valued and respected and strong. I can't really square being Catholic with all that.
I haven't been to church in years. So I found a new ritual for my Sunday mornings. I wake up and pull on a pair of weathered, holey jeans. Shoes covered in mud and straw. I drive up the interstate, which is deserted, heading north to the farm. To church.
On the way there I listen to NPR. At that hour it's "On Being," perfect for a Sunday mornings designed reflection. Yesterday, the guest was author and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. toward the end of the interview, the host asks Betson to reflect on the question of what it means to be human (you know, a little light conversation for 7:30 ...).
"MS. TIPPETT: Let me ask you this. This large question, what does it mean to be human? Which is a philosophical question, it’s a theological question, and it’s an anthropological question. It’s a question your mother, Margaret Mead, and your father, Gregory Bateson, were asking. I know it’s also a huge question. How would you start to talk about how your sense of that has evolved in the course of this life you’ve lived? Perhaps in ways that have taken you by surprise or not.
DR. BATESON: I was going to give you an excessively intellectual answer about having to do with consciousness. And you made it a much more personal question. Consciousness is important. Reflection is important. Thinking about what you’re doing, and what it means, and the search for meaning. One of the things that I came to believe when I wrote that piece you referred to about my father’s death is that death is a very important part of life that we shouldn’t deny. That in spite of our terrible hubris, and greed, and competitiveness, that we can learn to see ourselves in proportion and realize that we’re small, and temporary. And don’t understand as much as we need to. And we live in a time of real urgency where we have to mine the insights of the past. I guess one way of saying it is we have to learn to use the word “we” to include all of life on earth. We have to learn to experience that as a terrible and tender beauty. And shape everything we do to protect it."
"We have to learn to use the world 'we' to include all the life on earth. We have to learn to experience that as a terrible and tender beauty. And shape everything we do to protect it."

There's no better place to learn to love the creatures great and small than on the farm – a place of endless rituals. Hauling and watering and picking and feeding and coaxing and patting. The feathered congregants are always singing. The pigs often reluctant to emerge from the cozy burrows they've dug under the straw. If they must get up on cool mornings, a back scratch or belly rub is necessary. The hooved devotees are anxious for breakfast. 
I'm empathetic. This is familiar territory.
It's just like when I was a kid. Except I'm left to derive my own homily from the sun rising over the hillside, the way Bear the cow leans into me as I scratch his back, the erratic flock of birds flying and landing and flying away, moved by the invisible rhythms of their clan. 
I am small and temporary. And grateful for the gift of all this life. Grateful to be be conscious of all the wonderful souls surrounding me. Even as the cow tries to steal my feed bucket and the turkeys peck at my ears and dust stings my eyes. 
Life is both terrible and tender. 
That's as it has to be.
My hands are becoming rough like my father's. Like him, I've been baptized in sawdust.
If we go to church to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in our community – to learn compassion and form connections and find meaning in this whole capricious, predictable endeavor – than this is a cathedral. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

My mullet and me and other childhood traumas

Lily comes out of her bedroom at 7 the other morning. All dressed for the day.

A gypsy-style brown skirt with multicolored embroidery and a brown T-shirt with a hula girl on it. On her feet are a pair of glittery purple sneakers featuring a couple of princesses – maybe you've heard of them – Elsa and Anna, and fluorescent orange jack-o-lantern socks.

I don't know what it was – maybe that she's all skinny legs and knobby knees these days, maybe the complete look of pride she had on her face about the ensemble (she's been wanting to wear those socks for months) – but it made me smile. Made me happy. 

She's 5 and so lovely. So joyful. So self-assured. So fully herself.

And I found myself feeling a little envious. I don't remember a time in my life where I've had that confidence. 

Mom recently emailed a black and white photo of me circa first or second grade. I'm staring into the camera sucking on my lower lip like a turtle. My hands are crossed under my belly. 

My hair ... my hair is thick, coarse and unwieldy. An uneven line of bangs hangs over my somber eyes and it pokes out on the sides and in the back. 

I have a mullet. I'm a 6-year-old girl with a mullet.

My cheeks are round and pillowy and my arms are full and fluffy. It was the period of my life when my older brother called me Refrigerator Perry (or just Fridge). Sometimes I was Piggy Sue. 

That I loved food was something I don't think I was ever ashamed of. I'd tell my brother I wasn't fat, just soft. And I was.

I'm wearing this dress my mother made me. It was my favorite dress. Kelly green with a fine floral print, those puffy sleeves and the giant, white collar featuring a pair of bunnies my mother had embroidered. What I loved about this dress were the ruffles on the skirt. They made me feel beautiful. Like a princess. Those ruffles were magic. I wore that dress almost every day. Until the fabric was so thin, it was near tearing. 

My mom told me this is one of her favorite pictures. But when I stare at it now, at 33, it is not one of mine. I groaned when it showed up in my inbox. 

For me, it feels like a reminder that I've always been this kind of awkward, odd-looking little person. With out-of-proportion features and out-of-control hair. And though I've long outgrown that green, bunny dress and its glorious ruffles and I don't have a mullet or that baby fat – this is the person I will always see in the mirror. It's who I've always been and always will be. The truest picture of me. 

Gabby, Jovie and Jovie's mini mullet.
But maybe this is Mom's version of Lily in her pumpkin socks and purple sneakers. A reminder of this split-second moment in time when life was uncomplicated and sweet. The softness of Jovie's skin after a bath. The contagiousness of Lily's giggle. The moment when two small hands reach for each other. For her, the unruly hair and the ample tummy and the big cheeks are what makes it wonderful.

We spend our entire adult lives searching for this perspective. This happiness that we were born with as children. Sometimes we're looking so hard for it, that even when it shows up in our inbox, we miss it.

Last week, I got this text from Brad, who had taken Lily to her third dance class:

It wasn't especially shocking that she had an accident. The conditions were ripe for such an occurrence – the fact that the class is at night when she'd usually be taking one last pre-bedtime potty break, the fact that she didn't know where the bathrooms were at the dance studio and is probably still to shy around the teacher to ask; the fact that the leotard and tights are not designed for emergency potty situations.  

My heart broke for her. I thought she'd come home in tears. Embarrassed and crushed and reluctant to dance ever again. I was ready to console her with a hug and tell her it was OK and that these things happen. 

But I didn't need to.

Lily rushed into the house, anxious to show me how she learned to walk with her shoulders back and head held high. She was excited about the black leotard with the skinny straps her teacher had loaned her. She did mention that she had an accident, but there was no undertone of shame or sadness, really. Maybe she was a little embarrassed – as embarrassed as a 5-year-old can get anyway. 

What Brad and I thought would be this monumental event in her young life, was just a footnote to the day. The opportunity to wear a fancy new leotard.

As she sauntered out of the room, she paused to look in the mirror. Smiling at her reflection. 

Because, when she looks in a mirror it's not to search for flaws but to admire herself. Smart girl. 

Every day, my children teach me far more than I will ever teach them. Despite unforeseen circumstances and challenging situations, Lily decided to stay on the dance floor, so I will, too.

That's me on the left. Normally, I hate pictures of myself. But I really like this one.
I always have loved a great dress. Maybe this is a truer picture of me.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Big D

Photo courtesy of Carlos Martinez/Flickr

Tonight as I was tucking her in Lily gave me some advice.

"Mom, you know what I think you should do? You should take a nap. Maybe if you took a nap you wouldn't be so angry."

"I'm not angry," I sighed. Embarrassed and defensive. "I'm just cranky."

"Well, maybe if you took a nap, you wouldn't be so cranky."

And what I wanted to say was that maybe I wouldn't be so cranky if every stage of bedtime preparation didn't involve a negotiation. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if they just cleaned up the various glittery plastic playthings littering their bedroom floor instead of flopping around the floor and whining that "it would take forever" before telling me that it was my job to clean up their room. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if, when I asked them to put on their pajamas, they didn't stand naked in front of their open bedroom window and flash the neighbors. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if they didn't fight over who would get to hold "Little People: Let's Go to the Zoo!" (over 40 fun flaps to lift!) and then be subjected to an extended pre-bedtime session of fun flap lifting. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if there wasn't an argument over who got the first piggyback ride to the bathroom. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if they didn't act as if I was attacking their mouth with barbed wire and spinach-flavored toothpaste every time (every time!!) I needed to brush their teeth and if they made even the smallest effort to spit into the sink.

I wouldn't be so cranky if two minutes after I tucked her in and five minutes after going to the potty, Jovie creeps out of her room and tells me that she needs to go potty again. 

I didn't tell Lily any of this. Instead I thanked her for the tip. Kissed her goodnight.

And here I am. 

Lily's right, I could use a nap. An early bedtime anyway.

But yesterday I went to the York Fair and ran into one of my old coworkers. And his wife told me she loved this blog. And that I should update it every day. 

So I'm taking Heather's request. Well. OK. Not quite. I mean, I probably won't be doing daily updates or anything. (I think the internet just sighed with relief) But I decided to show up tonight anyway.

Lately, it's been hard to show up here. I feel as if I've run out of things to say. I said as much in my last post, I guess. The past few years had been so fertile with ideas and self-expression that this particular drought feels somehow significant and unsettling. I feel as if my creative mind has gone from being a full orchestra to a single violinist playing with broken strings in a subway tunnel at a distant station.

I don't want to write about this feeling though. The futility. The hopelessness. The selfishness. The ingratitude. The stillness of this place. 

I don't want to write about depression. 

I don't want to write about depression, because I don't feel as if I've earned the right to be depressed. The foundation of my life is sound. These beautiful children and my thoughtful husband. A delightfully obnoxious dog. A delightfully shiesty cat. A cozy house. Food in the pantry. Good friends. Sisters (how anyone survives without sisters, I don't know). My needs are met. There are millions of people in the world who have earned the right to feel melancholy. I'm not one of them.

And yet here I am. I feel indulgent and lame and cliche.

If anyone expressed these sentiments to me about their own mental health I would tell them that they feel how they feel. That it's their life. Their experience. That judging themselves for being sad doesn't help them get better. In fact, it only compounds the problem and muddies the process of healing. That they need to be kind to themselves. 

Do as I say, not as I do. 

See, I told you. Cliche.

I don't want to write about depression, because it's too damn depressing. And I don't want the world to be weird around me*. I feel awkward enough as it is. I want to go back to posting pictures of squirrels and sharing stories about how I creep on my quirky neighbors and am kind of obsessed with Louis CK

Remember those days? I was more fun back then, right? Or maybe I was just more delusional? 

But then I end up circling back to this decision I made a while back that when it comes to writing I want to be vulnerable. That's where the real meat of life is. That's where we come together in a meaningful way. 

Usually, I save those narratives for after I have some type of resolution. The problem has been solved. The lessons have been learned. I've moved on, richer for the experience. 

Like any good optimist, I wait for the happy ending.

But the reality is, when you're in this place sometimes you can't wait for the happy ending. Sometimes you don't actually think there will be one.That this is just how you'll feel for the remainder of your existence. That you'll float through this life until it's over and that the whole exercise was pointless. That your time here was meaningless and your impact minimal. 

When you're in this place, sometimes you find yourself staring at your dog and thinking, you know what, humanity isn't all it's cracked up to be. Next time around, I'd like to be an over-coddled beagle whose biggest concerns are breakfast, dinner and that strange dog walking by the house right now. 

See what I mean? Nobody wants to read about that.

So I'll wrap up with this: 

Yesterday, I finally went to a yoga class after a months-long hiatus (why was I on hiatus you ask? Have you not seen a Pristiq commercial? Clearly, I've lost interest in everyday activities I once enjoyed.)

Anyway, I went to this class at Ignite studio while the girls were at preschool. The space was warm and cozy, incense was burning, a fake Eddie Vedder was chanting from an appropriately zen playlist. 

I figured the class would be rough because it'd been a while. But all the rhythms and poses were rote. Just like they were before.

Toward the end of practice as we're settling into half-pigeon, Jason the instructor tells us to observe the discomfort of the pose. Like maybe there was purpose in the awkwardness of that moment. I wasn't totally paying attention, because my hips were fussing at me. Then he says something that grabbed me. 

"A shitty day does not make a shitty life."

And in that moment, in that place, in that position, this was profound to me. I might feel shitty for now, but that won't necessarily translate into a permanent state of shitty. 

At the end of class he pointed out that we are different people than when we entered. That our cells are constantly dying and forming and changing. And he was right. I'd transformed into a hot, sweaty mess. But a happy hot, sweaty mess. 

Then I listened to this TED Talk by psychologist Dan Gilbert (I've been hitting the TED Kool-Aid pretty hard lately. Call it self medicating), in which he shares research about "the end of history illusion."

"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished," he says. 

While most people don't believe they change much as they get older, in reality, time transforms our preferences, values and personalities. Nothing is constant.

"The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you've ever been."

This is reassuring. Tomorrow I will be different. Even if just slightly different. For Lily's sake, hopefully I'll be less cranky. Just to be safe, I should probably hide that lift-the-flap book. And go to bed.

* Seriously. Don't be weird around me. Weirdness makes me cranky. And Lily will tell you, you don't want see me cranky. So, you know, just pretend like I'm a normal, well-balanced human. Unless, of course, you are an abnormal, unbalanced human, in which case we should talk.