Monday, June 25, 2018

Finding our way home in this great big universe

When we moved down to Virginia almost two years ago, I was kind of a mess. Not even kind of a mess. I was a veritable landfill of emotions, most of which were negative and centered around how much I didn't want to be here.

I'd already been here once before. Like, from birth 'til I headed off to college. When I graduated from Penn State I thought I wanted to return to my hometown and find a job and settle into all the familiar pockets. But I didn't end up getting a job here. I got a job in York, Pa. and settled in there. 

At the time, I figured York was sort of a pit stop on the road to the rest of my life. But then it took a lot longer than I thought it would to change the tires and refill the gas tank and clean the windshields and all that pit-stoppy types stuff. And before I could say hogmaw, I'd gotten married and bought a house and adopted a dog and had couple of kids– all at the place that was supposed to be Stopoverville.

I had friends there. I loved having ties to the local paper- I worked there for seven years and after leaving, still wrote articles and columns periodically. Brad was on staff. We both felt invested in our community. And it was such an interesting, quirky community. A tired factory town, we watched as York was resuscitated. In the years we lived there new restaurants, galleries and shops opened. All the sudden the downtown was filled with activity. A destination rather than a place people wanted to avoid. There was a sense of mission. A sense of purpose. 

And a short drive from the city was rolling countryside. Farmland and forests mixed with small towns. 

York had character. An identity. Not always an identity I identified with, mind you. Despite being north of the Mason-Dixon line there's a surprising number of Confederate flags flying in more rural areas. York is Trump country. It's pro-gun country. It has the habit of being suspicious of outsiders. It was these things. And it wasn't just these things. 

I mean I could list off a whole bunch of adjectives or affiliations that would make a progressive-y sort of person such as myself cringe. But you can't distill a whole population into a series of adjectives or affiliations. It's like removing the heart from the body. They get to be people, first. And they were my neighbors. And I liked them a whole lot.

So, naturally, what I did when I faced the prospect of moving back to where I grew up, was assign a whole lot of adjectives and affiliations to the people here. Like that they're materialistic and overly focused on careers and status. That there's no real personality. Just traffic and strip malls and cookie cutter subdivisions (much like the one I landed in, in fact).

For the first few months here, I'd drive around wearing giant sunglasses with tears in my eyes. And then I'd get home and bawl and bawl. I didn't want to meet people or socialize. I didn't want to figure out new grocery stores or find new doctors or figure out different routes and routines. I felt like the world's saddest automaton. Just existing in the world without a heart. My one joy was reuniting with my siblings and my best friend from high school- all who live within an hour of me now. They carried me those first few months.

And not just them. See, we landed in this neighborhood we knew nothing about- save for the fact that there was a house for rent that allowed for all our pets and the commute wouldn't be too horrendous. I assumed that it would take years for us to make friends. That it would just be a place we resided in ... but not necessarily a place we really lived in. If that makes any sense. 

But our new neighbors ... they weren't all the adjectives I'd wanted to assign to them. And right off the bat, they welcomed us into the fold. They invited us to gatherings like a pre-trick-or-treat family party and helped us navigate the new school and all the annual neighborhood traditions- the annual egg hunt and annual Fourth of July parade and the annual phenomenon that is summer swim team.

My sisters, my friend, my neighbors, time- they all sort of resuscitated me, I think. 

When we found out Edna was coming we knew we wanted to buy a house sooner than later, rather than juggling an infant and a move when the homeowners of our current house returned. To make the situation less stressful and anxiety-inducing for Brad, I kind of insisted that we find a house in our neighborhood. I mean, at least that narrowed down the search radius, right? 

I don't know that I often have strong instincts about things. And I don't often put my foot down about things. But I felt strongly about this move. We'd landed in a place that felt like home and we'd found a community we thought we could become a part of. Were really already a part of, I guess. 

We got pre-approval for a mortgage, found a realtor and waited for a house in our neighborhood and in our price range to come on the market. We waited and waited and waited. Did I mention there was waiting? We followed up on a couple for sale signs. One house needed more work than we could afford. Another was too small. We found a beautiful home that was under budget less than a mile from where we are now- but we didn't put an offer on it. It wasn't in our neighborhood. 

I'm sure I was giving Brad large amounts of heart burn.

The weeks and months ticked by. Edna progressed from ear of corn to eggplant to cantaloupe. 

I noticed a sign go up in front of a house around the block. All neat and tidy on the outside. We looked at it the night it came on the market. It was neat and tidy on the inside, too. We put in an offer the next day. And the next day it was accepted. And for the first time in months, I felt like I could breathe (well, you know, except for the giant baby forcing my lungs to squeeze into tiny spaces of my body).

A few weeks later, I was outside the middle school lined up with the rest of the staff waving goodbye to all the buses that were taking the students home one last time before summer break. Despite how much they exhausted and challenged me over the past six months, I was sad to see them go and I was sad to turn in my badge and classroom keys. Because I'd found an unexpected community at that school- both with the other teachers and the students. Somehow, we'd become woven into each other- even if just for a few months. 

There were tears that last day. And a few hugs. Some from students I had no idea even liked me much at all. A girl who'd caused me more headaches than I could count shook my hand. The student who refused to call me by my actual name, still didn't call me by my actual name- but he also went out of his way to hang out near my spot in the back of the room that last day. He reminded me, once more, that my baby was going to be cooler than me. And I told him he was right. He would know such things- he was one of the coolest kids I'd met in awhile. 

Both students and teachers were asking if I'd come back next year. With Edna coming- subbing probably is out of the question. But I told them I'd love to come back. And I meant it. As hard as it was, as overwhelmed as I was, as bananas as the students were- I also felt as if it was the right place for me to be. It gave me a window into the other part of my community that I'm now a part of- not just my idealistic little neighborhood- but the parts crying for resources and attention. I'm glad to be aware of it. To see it. To know about it. Because when you're putting down roots, it's good to know where the soil needs help, you know? 


My friend Danny, the religion editor at CNN, was invited to give a TED Talk on the theme "Fear Itself" at a TEDx event in Virginia. 

This past winter, we'd talked a bit about what he planned to say for his talk- at the time, Danny mentioned that he wanted to use an incident from a few years ago as a jumping off point. 

In 2015, Danny had been onboard an Amtrak train that crashed, killing eight people. He'd gotten off the train one stop before it derailed. The fact that he was spared while eight people died and hundreds of others were injured haunted Danny. He used the questions that left him sleepless after that day as fodder for a column - Why Was I Spared from Amtrak Train 188's Crash?

In the piece, he interviewed a Catholic priest, a Buddhist writer, an atheist philosopher, an imam, an evangelical author and a rabbi- asking for their perspective on what had happened to him and the guilt and confusion he'd wrestled with since. 

While ultimately, he didn't reference the crash and how it affected him in his TED talk, I could hear the echoes of the spiritual voices he'd spoken with. They're almost like the structural girders in the presentation he ultimately delivered: Our Next Religious Revolution, which you can (and should) watch here: 

But wait, what does any of this have to do with you moving into a new house? You ask. I'm not exactly sure. But somehow Religious Revolution and my real estate choices are related in my brain. When Edna woke me up at 3 a.m. one morning last week with her pokey feet (or knees or elbows) I got to thinking about religion and spirituality and souls and light and my own coordinates in this vast space- Latitude 38.97, Longitude -77.39. 

In his talk, Danny shares that while one out of three millennials say they're not affiliated with any religion, that 85 percent of them are seeking out religious or spiritual content online.

That's a lot of searching. 

That's a recipe for religious revolution, Danny says. And there are people creating new religions out there- many centered around technology- like a guy in Silicon Valley building one around Artificial Intelligence. Or researchers experimenting with how psychedelics can be used to create religious experiences. 

Danny's talk got me thinking about religious revolutions. About conversations I've had with my sisters. About observations I've made in my own community and online. How we feel as if we're in a time of transition- spiritually- at both micro and macro levels. How we can't see the larger picture, but we feel the change in our bones. 

In his talk, Danny shares about the role communications technology has played in the human spiritual journey. How the first writing in symbols in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia spurred the birth of civilization. How the development of the alphabet was associated with the rise of monotheism. How early Christians who used books bound together rather than scrolls, were better able to share their faith. How the printing press gave Martin Luther a distinct advantage in spreading his ideas.

And here we are, in 2018 with the internet and social media and mobile technology that enables us to share our thoughts about everything from the best shampoos for pool hair to the plight of children on the border suffering at the hand of current immigration policies to the crap we think about at 3 in the morning when the baby in our belly is apparently going through a whole series of sun salutations in utero.

Martin Luther would totes be jellies.

He would probably also never had said totes or jellies. What's that you say? I shouldn't be using those words either? Whatevs.

So at 3 a.m. the other night I was thinking about light. More specifically the light that we're all carrying around in us. Our souls. 

I was thinking about the evolution of our spirituality as a species- how at times we've worshipped many gods and at other times we've worshipped just one God. How the human civilization is filled with individuals who've told us how to appropriately worship those gods or that God. And how sometimes these individuals are wise and helpful and sometimes they use their influence for their own gain rather than for civilization's. 

I was thinking about how previous generations seemed so focused on worshipping the light of these gods or God (or even the lights of the humans who claim to speak on behalf of these gods or God), that they neglected to honor the light within themselves. 

I was thinking about how the internet and social media has sort of reminded humans about the light within themselves. Like, the whole concept of a personal "brand" or of our personal "journeys" or even just of documenting our day-to-day lives is giving us space to kind of honor ourselves as individuals. I say "sort of" and "kind of" because, you know, sometimes we might have the tendency to be a little too self reflective (is that just me? Maybe it's just me. "If the previous 2,200-plus words is any indication, it's just you," you say.)

I was also thinking about how the internet and social media has sort of reminded humans about the light within each other. How it's created digital communities and fed non-digital communities and forced us to see both the glory and the pain of others near and far. 

And we're all grappling with this deluge of information. This awareness of all these souls that need to be tended to. Our instinct as social beings cries for us to form bonds, build communities, raise each other up. But other primitive parts of our brains react in fear- and that fear is being exploited online over and over again to fuel hate and discord. 

Change can be scary, especially religious change. 

We've seen a spike in hate crimes in Muslims and Sikhs and other religious minorities just as they're becoming a bigger part of our population, Danny says in his Ted Talk. People driven to attack them by fear. 

But the same tools that we use harvest hatred can also be used to nurture togetherness. 

"Valerie Kaur, gave this beautiful speech on New Year’s Eve, after the election in 2016. And she said something like, 'What if this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb, and America is a country waiting to be birthed, and we are being called to breathe and to push?' "

Maybe it's that I have breathing and pushing on my mind these days- but this idea stuck with me. Whether birthing a baby or birthing a new way of being in this country- it's messy. Like- epic messy. All the blood and baby and placenta and fluid and poo (well, sometimes poo). It's like the ugliest, most beautiful process I can think of. 

Maybe that's where we're at. I don't know.

How timely that this quote from Jonathan Sacks in "Becoming Wise" popped up in my feed recently:

"I think God is setting us a big challenge, a really big challenge. We are living so close to difference with such powers of destruction that he's really giving us very little choice. To quote the great line from W.H. Auden, 'We must love one another or die.' That is, I think, where we are at the beginning of the 21st century. And since we really can love one another, I have a great deal of hope."

We really can love one another. 

At 3 a.m. I had this thought that we're kind of at this place of weaving together all the layers of spiritual practice we've come to understand. Acknowledging the light of the creator, the light within ourselves, the light within each other, the light of a community, the light within all living things. How networked together it creates a map of our place in this universe. 

Then again, it was the middle of the night. Maybe I should've just focused less on trying to figure out our place on the universe and more on sleep. 

But what's an over-thinker/over-sharer to do except write?

P.S.: I started this post a week ago- in the midst of packing up a house and moving to a new house and cleaning the old house and going to the doctor's and the dentist and to swim meets and swim practice. It was longer and more ramblish than normal. And that's really saying something coming from me. So. Apologies for all that. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The mother unloading

It's been awhile since I've been pregnant.

I mean, obviously, I've been pregnant for the past eight months, but before that. It had been awhile. Like five years. And with Jovie, it was such a blur because I spent so much time scrambling after Lily who was just a toddler. And before that with Lily I was working full time and was eight years younger and it was ... I don't know ... folding origami. Scrutinizing each step, being so methodical, so precise, obsessing over each crease. It was all such a mystery and then with one last push- a whole baby.

There's a lot about pregnancy I'd forgotten about– all the heartburn and the aches in odd places (I'm talking to you right-side under-boob and lower calves). I'd forgotten just how challenging it was to find a comfortable position to sleep in. I'd forgotten how wonderful and utterly absurd it feels to have an entire person rolling around inside of you. Like, is that a foot rammed into my pelvis? Or a shoulder? What's jabbing my ribs right now? 

I'd forgotten how grounding the whole experience is. Or maybe it's just that I wasn't as grounded the last couple times. Maybe being a few years older with two kids under my belt has allowed me to sink into this one a little more. I don't know. Somehow it's just different this time.

One of the biggest revelations has been being nice to myself. Being forgiving of myself. Being less judgmental of myself. Taking my time getting up the stairs. Telling the lazy eighth graders who ask me to get them a pencil because "they're too tired" to get their own damn pencils (minus the "damn" part, of course. That's more of a mental add-on) because I'm seven months pregnant and don't need to be their pencil wench. Driving to pick up the girls from school when I'm too worn out to walk. Going to bed at 8:30. Taking naps. 

And rather than being stressed about the weight gain and all the rounding out taking place, I'm feeling kind of, I don't know, in awe of my body. Like being a woman that can grow an entire human is pretty damn badass.* 

I had this thought today that I wished I could maintain this general feeling of self acceptance all the time. Like that long after Edna** is out of my body and out of diapers and out in the world, I could still find room for being kind and caring to myself the way I've been the last few months. 

And I also kind of wish all woman would do this. 

Like, we should treat ourselves like we're pregnant all the time. 

Giving ourselves space for physical or mental expansion without judgment. Forgiving our clumsiness or absentmindedness. Not second-guessing or fighting through our fatigue, but instead recognizing our exhaustion as a cry from our bodies and brains to stop. Stop saying "yes." Stop feeling guilty about saying "no." Stop taking on more. Stop believing we are somehow less worthy of a person when we reach maximum capacity. 

Take a breath. Put your feet up. Take a break. Take a nap. Go to bed early. 

It's OK to create a protective bubble around ourselves. Kind of a grownup amniotic sac. 

So it's true, we'll never be in a state of perpetual pregnancy (and you know what, thank God for that), but there is one human we are responsible for the caring of and tending for for the entirety of our existence on this Earth: Ourselves. 

Too often I think moms overlook that. Or diminish that.

I mean, geez, I feel like in the past week or two I've had multiple conversations with women who are fighting exhaustion and defeat with an arsenal of guilt and self-doubt– which is a pretty shitty arsenal if you ask me. 

Let's just start by acknowledging that motherhood alone – keeping another small, helpless person alive – is really hard. Then throw into that keeping multiple small people alive, and not just keeping them alive, but also trying to help them lead enriching, fulfilling lives, while also juggling full-time jobs or volunteering or pursuing a college degree and maintaining a homestead and relationships with family and friends ... and and and. Or or or. I mean, there's all the things. And it's not just really hard. It's every day standing at the bottom of Mount Everest without the help of a knowledgeable sherpa. Half the time we're our own damn sherpas. 

We're not setting ourselves up for success here, I feel. 

And the thing is most women I know despite the massive loads they carry want to be able to do more. By nature we want to be the helpers. The people doing the kind gestures that make the world nicer. And we get kind of sad when we can't be that person, I think. At least I know I do. 

I see so many people doing so much. All the things. Baking for all the bake sales. Volunteering for all the school events. Cooking dinners for the families dealing with illness or injury. Collecting things for the needy. The list of good deeds and do gooders is endless. 

And while I appreciate the kindness of others, I also allow guilt to bounce around inside me like a pinball. Flipping it back up and over. Collecting points for being the bad human who didn't raise my hand for all the requests. 

I hate it. And just as much as I hate feeling like a failure for all that I don't do, I hate how quickly I forget or discount all the things I do, do.

I know so many women who do this as well. On top of feeling mentally and physically and emotionally drained, we feel like we're just not enough. That we're lesser than the others who do all the things (or even some of the things). 

A couple weeks ago this video was making its rounds on Facebook.

This woman had found a wingless bumblebee in her garden and, concerned for its safety, adopted it. After spending time out in her garden observing which flowers the other bees seemed to favor, the woman, Fiona, created a little protected sanctuary for Bee. She offered Bee sugar water when she seemed lethargic and brought her inside on the days the weather was bad. Bee would crawl out of the foliage to greet her and crawl around on her hand each time she'd go to check on her. The woman formed this undeniable bond with Bee. To hear her talk about this tiny creature is among the sweetest things I've heard in a long time. 

I think the story of Fiona and Bee resonates because of its simplicity and smallness. 

Woman rescues bumblebee. 

It wasn't labor intensive, world changing or grand in scope. Fiona didn't set out to do the most good, instead she offered another living creature the chance to live out its short life in safety and comfort. What she did was doable. For any of us. And not only was it doable, it offered dividends. Companionship, levity and good, earthy soulfulness. It was mutually beneficial in the way our most important ventures should be. 

See, because it's OK to make choices about how you spend your time and invest your energy based on what also fills your cup. It's essential even.

The rest of the world cares not when your cup is empty. Like my beloved eighth graders, it's kind of self-centered and will continue making demands of you without regards to your  physical, mental or emotional wellness. 

It does not do us any favors.

You'll have to forgive me for a moment, because I need to go off on a bit of a tangent. I woke up at 4:30 this morning with the sort of self-righteous rage that makes it impossible to go back to sleep.

And here's what spurred it.

I have this friend who's nearing the end of her maternity leave- a much-too-short two or three months of recovery and readjustment from the physical strain of giving birth and trudging through newborndom and the accompanying mental fatigue.

We were talking about schools- specifically my thoughts on our local middle school- and the reasons why our local middle school is the way that it is. I talked about having a high population of low-income families, and the challenges for a child when both parents are working full time at multiple jobs. How the lack of involvement or supervision at home seems to result in more behavioral issues at school. I said all of this not as judgement of these poor parents who I can only assume are doing their best. Or on the kids who are also struggling. Or on any working parents in general- because it's so damn hard. And in this area in particular, with such a high cost of living, it's even harder. 

I was explaining my reasoning for why things are the way they are (and probably not doing a whole lot to reassure anyone about the state of the local middle school their children will one day attend)- and I saw my friend's eyes kind of getting a little red and glassy.

And I realized that this is not the conversation to be having with someone weeks away from returning to work after her maternity leave. Because even though I was talking about a school her kids are years away from attending, she was focused on the present- the impact of her going back to work on her infant and her first grader. She is already feeling the guilt, full force.

And then I had flashbacks to seven-plus years ago. Bringing Lily home from the hospital and every day, every day, weeping about the day I'd have to drop her off at day care and go back to work. I don't feel like I'm being over dramatic when I say for me, the entire experience was traumatic. Like, the panic and ache I felt that first morning at drop off is still palpable. Settling her tiny body into an infant swing. Fumbling with the bottles of breast milk I'd managed to accumulate over session after session of pumping with minimal results. Realizing it had all spilled. Bawling, bawling, bawling.

It was awful.

And I think it's a cruelty we inflict on mothers in our country. 

The bonds a mother forms with a baby are deeply rooted. Cells from all of my children have passed through the placenta and now reside in my body and will for years to come. Studies show that bonding with a mother in infancy is critical to a child's early brain development and their lifelong success and happiness. British studies have shown it can take a woman up to a full year to recover from the rigors of pregnancy, childbirth and baby rearing. Researchers have found that mothers who have shorter maternity leaves risk higher rates of depression- returning to work too soon affects their mental health. On the flip side, those who took more than 12 weeks of leave reported fewer depressive symptoms.

Despite what studies show and what we know, as women, is true- we live in a country where the default expectation that mothers separate from their children at tender ages. That lengthy maternity leaves are a luxury reserved for the wealthy or families willing to take a big financial risk as we eventually decided to do when I left my full-time job. We're expected to just go along with it and get over it. 

I even had the "luxury" of banking extra time off so I could take 11 weeks versus the six weeks offered to many mothers, who can't afford to take additional time off. 

Should we really be all that surprised that politicians are suggesting that a reasonable approach to managing illegal immigrants is separating mothers and children? 

I want to emphasize that I am in full support of working mothers. Working mothers are no less mothers than stay-at-home mothers. A mom's a mom a mom. And I'm not being critical or judgmental of mothers who have their babies and look forward to going back to work. Let's all just agree to be kind and supportive of each other. And not judgy. Nobody likes judgy people. 

Because again, for a mom, it's all hard, even if it's what you want.

Going back to work full time is hard. Making the choice to stay at home is hard, too.

I wouldn't trade the years I've stayed at home with Lily and Jovie. I'd love to stretch out that time for Edna, too, but circumstances (i.e. Northern Virginia real estate) means I'll have to shift to being a working mom sooner than later. Already I'm apprehensive and exhausted. 

I'm also pre-emptively annoyed about the idea of a job hunt in which I'll have to explain a "gap" in my resume where between child-rearing and freelancing I'd worked harder than I ever had in my previous job. And I'm concerned that I'll probably never reach the same "earning potential" I would've had I stayed working full time, despite the myriad skills I've gained since staying home not the least of which are better time management and interpersonal skills.

In the past seven years through motherhood, farming and subbing, I've learned to successfully wrangle toddlers, eighth graders and goats. I've interviewed hundreds of professionals, written hundreds of articles, built a few websites, led a bunch of farm field trips and helped set up and work a bunch of weddings,  that should all count for something, right? 

But somehow I think the lack of a clear career path will cause potential employers to squint and pause and move on. But now I'm off topic, I think. What was the topic, again?

Edna tells me that I don't need to focus on job hunting. That right now, it's time to focus on her. Oh and moving. 

We're doing that soon, too. Just around the block from the house we're currently renting. 

I know, it's a lot. Here's why I'm going to cut myself some slack. Because my whole life situation right now is a bit ridiculous. And there's only so much I can do right now. And that's OK. 

It's just a season, right? We won't be in a perpetual state of packing boxes and transitioning houses. I won't be pregnant forever. Questions about what the next stage of life will look like will be answered just by puttering along and living my life one day to the next.

In the mean time, I'll try desperately to hang on to this weird sort of peace I have with myself as my body balloons and performs all sorts of magic.

It's the same peace I'll wish for all the worn-out moms I know out there. Just treat yourself as if you're pregnant. Lord knows you've already carried enough life to justify it.

* Well. Since we're talking about asses, I'd be remiss to ignore one area of body image struggle this time around. Which is this: Why is it that pregnancy has all the sudden made my bottom melt into my legs like a drippy wax candle? Like all those floppy clocks in that Salvador Dali painting? I feel like it's just giving up on life. Like it's thrown up a white flag and allowed gravity to take over. It's like the saddest butt ever. OK. End rant. Resuming positivity protocol.  

** For those of you calling to question the "Grandma-ish" nature of our baby name, rest assured it's just a placeholder until we pick the actual name. Although, I have to say, the more I refer to her as Edna, the more it's growing on me.