Monday, May 9, 2016

Reverse Engineering

Before you think I’m a total freaking jerk because of this post, please remember that our very wily kids have both been debating (arguing) about everything from the moment they could talk. I swear Little A’s toddler tantrums came from not being able to talk well enough to argue. They practice on each other, on their very bright friends, and on us. It’s how they learn.

S. has developed her skills so fully that she reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite books, Belles on Their Toes. Anne, the oldest of twelve children, addresses her siblings.

“You all know,” she said in her best oratorical style, “that I don’t enjoy making speeches.”

This was something we didn’t know at all because there were few things Anne enjoyed more. Before she went to college, she had been the mainstay of the high school debating team, and drove her arguments home with such enthusiasm that her coach used tell her that she was supposed merely to stump her opponents, not tree them.

Our kids love to stump, tree, or otherwise shrubbery us whenever possible. So it’s only good parenting for me to, as good martial arts instructors do, occasionally dazzle them with my wicked moves and remind them that *I* am the master. (Darth Vader voice.)
From some of my darkest parenting moments often come some of my purest moments of genius.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I take no credit. Whether it’s angels, my subconscious, “those who have gone before,” or the healing energy of the universe, it usually feels like someone opens the top of my skull, drops the idea in, then walks away. I’m profoundly grateful, every single time.

We all got a little snarly before spring break. The kids felt tired and overworked, I was wrapping up a major project, and Big A. had been working hard and a lot, traveling frequently. Getting ready for school seldom feels fun under those circumstances and, on that particular day, I’d had it.

I felt like I kept walking a circle around the house, picking up, putting away, turning off, shutting, wiping, straightening, moving, and otherwise compensating for things the kids were or were not doing.

Before I totally lost my ever-loving mind (because I could see the headlight from that train barreling down the tunnel!), I remembered some classics: counting to ten, entrapment, and the Socratic method.

Counting to ten allowed me to get everyone calmly out of the house and calmly—you guessed it—trapped in the car. For the five-minute drive to the bus stop, they were strapped down in hearing distance of my voice with no excuse not to answer. Gotcha, suckers!

The Socratic method, which is, if you think about it, an educational form of entrapment, allowed me to set them up oh-so-beautifully for a huge fall. I opened slowly.

“So, guys, would you throw plastic bags and soda cans out the window right now?”

“No? Well, what about at the beach—would you put grocery bags in the water?”

“No? Hmmm, well, why not?”

“That’s great. You respect the wildlife that live there. Me, too. And you want the world to be nice in the future, for the animals and people to live in? That’s a fantastic goal.”

I continued this way for a bit, then wound up and delivered the biggest grand slam ever.

“So, do you respect me and Dad? Yeah? We respect you, too. Do you want our home to be nice to live in, now and in the future?”

I checked the rear view mirror. Judging by the slightly hunted look around their eyes, they knew they were stumped. I proceeded to fully tree and shrubbery them with specific changes I’d like to see. Game, set, match—me.

But you’ll never guess the part that really got to me. During this whole process, half of my brain was locked up in a brain room, snickering into its brain elbow. Why? Because I was using my kids’ horror at the thought of disrespecting nature to motivate them to treat their home decently!

For crying out loud, when I was born, the only reason anyone recycled anything was to get a nickel! This whole experience adds to the “reduce, reuse, and recycle” lifestyle. They forgot, “Reverse engineer motivational slogans about not littering to convince your kids to keep their actual homes clean.”

Farewell, from the home of “Give a hoot; laundry in the chute.”

If you need further reasons to believe that I’m not a jerk for enjoying that moment, please see this awesome comic that sums up our lives right now. Except that our kids do appreciate the irony. They just don’t stop the arguing!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Coming Home

Where have I been?

I’ve been coming home from my Lenten journey. 

Part of that involves the blossoming of the seeds planted as I traveled. Many of those seeds appear in my blogs, so I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that, like Dorothy before me, I’ve discovered that “If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

Walking to the cow field didn’t enable me to find peace; walking out into the world from our home did. Maybe I didn’t see it until I realized that the most beautiful sunrises happen right behind our roof, but our home holds everything I need.

Will I always love a pasture more than a high rise? Sure. Do I hope someday my husband and I fulfill our dream of being hermits on an island or a mountain or just in the middle of nowhere? I sure do! But whatever world I walk through when I leave our nest, I carry our love with me. 

The other part of my homecoming is even closer to my heart—literally. I feel healthy for the first time in years. The whys and hows signify, but not nearly as much as the gratitude. I am heart-burstingly, mind-alteringly, ephiphany-creatingly thankful for so much right now!

I’m grateful that I can take a full, deep breath
And because of that, I can sleep again
And because of that, I can run again
And because of that, I can laugh again
And because of that, I can sing again
And because of that, I can remember again

A little while ago, one of the kids was hurt because I’d forgotten something important. I would never forget voluntarily, but it still stung. After all, I'm mom and mom, of all people, should remember. This time I could say, “I know I’ve forgotten more than I’d like lately. I promise I’m getting better.”

I’m eternally grateful that my mind works again
And because of that, I can work confidently again
And because of that, I can read books for pleasure again
And because of that, I can prioritize again
And because of that, I have free time again
And because of that, I feel satisfaction again
I’m grateful that my body can move again
And because of that, exercise energizes me again
And because of that, I can work without constant breaks again
And because of that, I can trust my appetite again
And because of that, I can reach the top shelf again
And because of that, I can stretch out in bed again

This isn’t even remotely a complete list! Right now, for example, Bruno and I are hanging in the kitchen waiting for the newly cleaned carpets to dry. I’m grateful the thunderstorms arrived yesterday, so Bruno’s latest Pee from Fright happened the day before the cleaning. I’m grateful for the cleaners coming on the exact day I needed and the family coming to celebrate with us this weekend. I’m grateful I work from home with a view of sunshine on forest and that it's a gorgeous, barely humid day with a breeze. It's a joy to open the windows.
It’s like a happy hydra—every time I name something I love, two more spring to mind!

Yes, it’s been a long road. Yes, I’ve felt other things. And, yes, I’m still healing. I can’t do ALL THE THINGS. RIGHT NOW. REALLY WELL.

Actually…I can. But I won’t. Here’s the thing about going from feeling really rotten to miraculously well in a matter of weeks—nope, here come a couple of things about that.

One, I ask myself constantly how I ever wasted this gift of health on anything miserable. How? I don’t know and I really don’t care because I am done with that. Done. With. That.

Two, I value this precious gift of healing and this beautiful body of mine far too much to squander now! If something feels off or draining or not good for me, I’m not doing it. I’m going to listen to one of my favorite characters in all literature: “Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.”

Three, I limped along doing only a few things, barely on time, and just well enough to get by—with a poorly functioning mind in a barely functioning body—and everyone is still Just Fine. The earth turns, the seasons come and go, people live and die, my family’s amazing. So do ALL THE THINGS even need to be done? RIGHT NOW? REALLY WELL? Apparently not. We have proof to the contrary. 

SlĂ inte, everybody! Adopt a happy hydra! Go do something you love—I will. And I promise you a fun, funny kid blog next time.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lenten Challenge Week Five

As I began the fifth week, I realized something had shifted in my perception. I may have superpowers, because I actually think I made my brain work differently.

I find myself taking—and seeing opportunities to take—more and more photos in my daily life, but especially around our home. I love coming home from the morning dog walk to see the sun rising over our home. I love the play of light in the skies above, the rich colors, and the silhouettes of the trees, pine and oak and palm.

Pollen, or the earth’s current tilt, has given us some beautiful color lately. Of all the gifts life in Florida gives, that one surprised and delighted me most when we moved here.

As I looked through my recent pictures, I can see the shift in my intention. I’m no longer seeking to memorialize one beautiful place. I’m looking for beauty in my daily life and I’m appreciating it there, especially at home.

Shortly after I had that thought, life made it physically manifest, cementing it in my mind.

I went to our neighborhood grocery store for a few things. I love the people who work there; they’re a huge part of our family’s community. In the summer, they joke with the kids and we all chat together, but it’s snowbird season now. The grocery stores are slammed—no parking, carts stacking up outside despite several people constantly bringing them in, and lines at all of the (many more than usual) open checkouts.

Let me set the scene at our grocery store—one, they’re collecting spring holiday meals for families in need right now. Two, there’s a screen showing your items that faces the checkout line. It’s virtually impossible, especially for a reflexive reader like me, not to see the electronic receipt of the person in front of you. Also, they love to take your cart out to the car for you. It’s policy, plus the people are just nice. It’s taken me years to convince them to let me do my own because I like it. They’re that nice!

So, on that particular morning, I got in line between two ladies, both physically unremarkable. No halos or pitchforks, just ordinary folks.

The customer two people in front of me finished up and the bagger went with her, to escort her to her car. The lady behind me immediately started huffing and grumbling about the line and the crowds and how there was now no bagger. “They don’t even have a bagger!” she griped, over and over. She was so unpleasant that I stepped as far away from her as I could; no amount of ingrained manners could make me stand still for that.

I focused on the lady in front of me, quietly going about her business. I’d stepped so far forward in my attempt to avoid the other customer that I inadvertently read her receipt. She saved a little over thirteen dollars, which I thought was pretty good. I aim for ten percent and she’d beaten that. The cashier asked if she’d like to donate a meal to a family in need. She said, “Yes, please.” And then she chose the highest of the three donation levels—a little over thirteen dollars. I smiled at the symmetry of her savings turning into giving.

Meanwhile, during the entire time it took for this nice lady to check out, the customer behind me had not stopped loudly and aggressively griping about the lack of bagger.

My turn came and I chatted with the cashier as she rang up my few items. I reached for the bags to help her, but I only had a few things and she beat me to it. I thanked her, commenting that we’d had to bag our own in Nashville, so I still feel spoiled having it done for me. She said it’s the same in England (she’s from the UK).

A bagger rushed in from the parking lot as we finished, granting us a momentary reprieve from the grumbles behind me. Then the bagger, as required, offered to help me take my things to the car. I smiled and said, “No, thanks! I’ve got it.” They know I always say that, so the bagger smiled and turned to the customer behind me.

But, in that brief exchange—the offer and the refusal—that lady had started up with the swearing and griping about no baggers again!

I want to remember that moment. It’s such a beautiful summary of the lesson I’ve been learning. We all experienced the exact same thing. We could not alter the circumstances, but the two people on either side of me made it clear that we can choose our reactions.

That’s the difference between looking only at what is missing and sharing what is present, the difference between toxic anger and joy.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Lenten Challenge Week Four

In case you're wondering--and reading in real time--this is last week's challenge. Written last week, the fourth week of Lent, but posted a week late. I have been too busy to upload pictures. Yes, that busy.

I just experienced Amanda Palmer’s new song, “Machete.” Go here.

In respect, homage, and solidarity with Ms. Palmer, I’m officially announcing my artistic goal.

I will make art that leaves people sobbing in front of their keyboards because I’ve made them hear, made them think, made them uncomfortable, made them gasp for breath, and then drowned them in the beauty and complexity of this existence.

That being said, I think I inadvertently stumbled onto the right path with this Lenten challenge. I may not be busting through the conventional restrictions on art and thought in order to make my readers beautifully uncomfortable, but I’m making myself uncomfortable. That’s a good and necessary first step.

So what’s making me squirm about this project?

Ugh. I don’t even want to type it. Here goes. Spending time on myself makes me uncomfortable.

I presented this project to myself and my family as a spiritual exercise. And it is. The world has enough hate and anger and bitterness. I don’t need to foster my own anger and bitterness until they become hatred. (Driving around southwestern Florida during snowbird season every day is a perpetual lesson in how the world needs less anger.)

I held onto a lot of those negative feelings after the county commission signed away the cow field. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like pollution, I don’t like paving over paradise. I love fresh air and peace and beauty and the cycle of the seasons. So it has been amazingly good for me to find a way to retrain my mind. I’m still fundamentally the same person with the same values, but I accept that I cannot control the world, only my reactions to it.

At least on that issue.

Here’s where the time thing comes in. I had a massive book edit due Monday, so I did nothing but the absolutely necessary as a parent last week. I made sure we had food, I drove when I needed to, I spent a little quality time with the kids (albeit while doing manual labor like dishwashing). But I did not do any of the real parenting—long conversations, cheering on the homeworkers, reading before bedtime, cooking favorite meals, washing tricky laundry…

So, when I took the dog to the cow field to shoot a few photos, I felt really, really, really…uncomfortable.

I walk the dog every morning at sunrise. He’s part border collie; he NEEDS the walk. Heck, I physically needed the walk after sitting and editing eighteen to twenty hours a day. And normally my walk takes twenty minutes. So why did I feel uncomfortable taking forty minutes to walk and photograph?

I have a long list of reasons—ranging from an American work ethic that demands we do more and feel worse than the next person to our modern world doesn’t value artistic and intellectual pursuits if they don’t make money to my family needs me to work and be a parent, all the way down to I’ve gotten more practice and praise as a second banana than as the main act.

Forget that.

I’ve reached a point in my life where each moment of this journey matters so much more to me than what anyone else thinks or values. And heck yeah, my journey will include moments of art and thought and spiritual practice. 

I love these flowers. They grew in the yard when I was little.

I used to pick big handfuls, which wilted instantly, and give them to my mother.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Doing Life His Way

Love this guy!
Little A. and I had dinner together last night. After tae kwon do, we went to the store and each picked out a treat--popcorn chicken for him and sushi for me. He chattered happily, telling me about everything and holding my hand in the parking lot. As we went into the store, I relaxed my grip, preparing to have my hand dropped like the proverbial hot potato, but he held tight.

That moment exploded inside my heart.

I've been down this road with one child and I know what's coming. Lurking around the corner, peeking through the windows, waits the day when I'll realize I haven't held his hand in a long time--and I'm not likely to anytime soon, either.

So I settled in to enjoy this night of talk and food and companionship. I loved it.

I also know I'll love whatever comes next. It's the greatest privilege I know to watch our children become themselves. And Little A. has really come into his stride this year.

He loves his new school. He seems on top of who he is and how to be that guy. I love his point of view, his sense of humor, his depth of feeling, and his aplomb. I love that he's into smiling and hugging again.

Oh, sure, he has his bad days. One group of kids he at school--he calls the cliques at school "gangs" which kills me--stopped talking to him for a day or so, for no real reason. He was really bummed. I told him to hang in there; when there's no good reason for something like that, it usually goes away.

Next Monday, he came home happy as could be and told me he had a great day. After a huge list of good stuff, he added, "Oh, and Mom? Just as you predicted, it did blow over with my friend's gang."

Just as you predicted? You're killing me, kid.

Big A.'s mom came to stay for a weekend before Christmas. Among other wonderful things, she hung out with the kids while we went to the office Christmas party. Later that night, she told us how, when they were walking the dog, Little A. stopped suddenly.

"Grandma, hold Bruno's leash. I'm going to do something EPIC."

Our neighbor had several of those spotlights that project sparkly dots of red and green all over the house. Little A. struck a pose in front of the spotlight, covering himself in sparkles and creating a house-sized shadow.

Certifiably epic.

Right now, Little A. likes purple. For Christmas, his piano teacher gave him socks with blue and purple musical notes on them. He generally tries not to wear socks if he can help it (he lives in Crocs), but on Crazy Sock Day, he proudly put on his musical socks--with his shorts--and pulled those socks ALL the way up to his knees.

I don't veto creativity in clothes; I only veto for health and propriety. So all I did was ask, "Are you sure you want to wear your crazy socks pulled all the way up like that?"

He gave me the biggest "Duh, Mom" look ever. Then he said, "It's WINTER."

Stay you, son. You rock.

And I love this guy, too!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Lenten Challenge: Week Three

Well, I wish I could tell you I had lots of cool jpegs from the new camera to show you. I don't!

I do have lots of thoughts, though.

For one thing, there's still not much going on at the field. Big A. mutters "Permitting" whenever I say that. And this is where I see progress in my challenge--without much prodding for me, my brain has been scanning the area for alternatives. I look at places where humankind has intruded on nature; I look for ways to see patterns, meaning, and beauty in it. I'm developing some ideas--maybe I'll get to developing some pictures when this enormous book edit is past!

They did mow the field yesterday, so I'm thinking it would be fun to take the camera out and see if that changes anything. There's an abandoned railroad adjacent to the cow field. In the near future, it will become a walking path through the Rails to Trails project. That's something to look forward to--and the abandoned track is ripe for the photographing!

An empty lot on one of my regular drives has become a dirt depot for the county. The mountains of dirt, oaks loaded with Spanish moss, and earth-moving equipment look awesome--prehistoric. We have another construction site just a bit further from the house; the colors of the machines have caught my eye from a distance. I'd like to try to photograph them from nearby.

That's great--the creative juices flow on. The deeper growth I'm hoping for does as well.

I am coming to embrace two huge concepts through this challenge. One is that the most beautiful things I see become even more beautiful in relation to our home. Sunrise is gorgeous, but sunrise over our home makes miracles. Everything looks better on my way home.

The other thing I'm learning is that the human eye and brain see things no camera ever can. Yes, I know my photography isn't up to par. Still, our brains can see layers simultaneously and in various relationships. We can see directly and peripherally. The light behind us affects the vision in front of us. And the input of our other senses informs and enriches what we see. Some things simply need to be experienced live. To share them, we need to experience them together.

Some things cannot be captured for later. Some things are simply now.

Dog, hydrant, and moon at dawn.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Wear Your Ring

Today I dashed to the store to frantically stock up on a few necessities between my morning run/family breakfast and time to leave for the bus stop. In full efficiency mode, I found, selected, and picked up the items we needed. And then a song came on.

I'm plenty old enough to hear songs I loved in my youth while shopping. Bless Publix--they play the real songs, not muzak, so I still love to hear them. Today, the real (yay!) shopping music for (not quite) old people gave me a gift: "Anniversary Song" by the Cowboy Junkies. The first few notes hit my ear and something changed. Instead of just feeling frantic and efficient, I breathed. I smiled. I felt grateful.

I felt an overwhelming love for my husband.

Of course it's a beautiful love song. And, yes, he put it on a mixed tape for me. And I am so proud to share my life with him over a cup of coffee--and to wear his ring. But there's so much more.

As I left the store, I wanted to hear the song again. Now, I had never consciously heard a Cowboy Junkies song before I got to know my husband, so I don't consider myself a fan. But he loves them. So I hopped on iTunes to listen to the song again as I unpacked groceries--I discovered that we own TWELVE of their albums. I worried that I wouldn't find the song fast enough, but then, as I scrolled through the albums (113 songs!), I realized something amazing. I know all these songs.

Thoughts piled into my head on the heels of that realization. I'd heard maybe two Jimmy Buffet songs before I fell in love, now our joint property includes 37 of his albums--441 songs--and I know most of the words. Then we both learned to love country together when we lived in Nashville, home of the songwriters who produce some of the tightest, most powerful poetry sung these days.

I used to hate jazz, but how could I resist Big A. teaching S. to identify Louis Armstrong versus Louis Prima over pasta dinners? For crying out loud, she named her pink paper flamingo craft "Ipanema"....when she was two.

Anyone who knew Big A. in college knows his goal has always been to be able to think of a song he wants to hear, then play it. He spent hours combing through the used CD store in our small college town, not to mention the bargain bins in any music store we came near. At last count, we wall of CDs. Hundreds. In the "downtime" (aka the baby was sleeping so we couldn't go anywhere) after our second child was born, Big A. manually put all those CDs into the computer. I have no idea how much music we've added digitally since then.

I do know that I've mostly tolerated this hobby of my husband's. Frankly, sometimes I just want to make dinner, not take the time to select the perfect soundtrack for making dinner first. Now, with twenty years of making dinner together to look back on--dating, engaged, married, without and then with kids--I'm so grateful to have a beautiful score running through our life.

Jazz for making pasta, Gaelic Storm or Nickel Creek when I make big weekend breakfasts, INXS for one of his projects (S. kicked in time in utero), Patty Griffin for another, Mary Chapin Carpenter for S. as an infant, Jimmy Buffett for cleaning the pool and swimming, 80s hits (hair bands and alternative) for driving around with the kids--I could go on. Music has given our life so many shades and nuances.

And that's really why I love "Anniversary Song." Not only did my husband give me the gift of hearing that beautiful song, he gave me the gift of understanding the lyrics:

Well I never thought that I would be the one
To admit that the moon and the sun
Shine so much more brighter when
Seen through two pairs of eyes than
When seen through just one