Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Lightest Life



I’ve never been a huge fan of magnetic poetry—in the throes of postpartum frustration with my lack of time for writing or even adult conversation, I even wrote a fairly bitter poem about those poor polarized word fragments. Yet we have a set; the kids love it and even my math-minded husband has fun with it. And still, I’ve always dug in my heels—the whole glory of this insane English language lies in the plethora of words at our disposal. Why limit yourself to a couple hundred options defined by a stranger?

Today, I looked at the unused words remaining on our fridge and challenged myself. Can I express something I truly feel right now using these few dozen scraps? As it turns out, I could. I did. See above.

That I chose those words, that I might—do?—believe them, that they now will live, here and on my fridge, terrifies me. That they may be true tantalizes me.

I feel like I’ve spent most of my life building something—a nest perhaps. Tucking solid things in around me and mine, weaving tangible structures for protection, support, and stability. And every time the weather has gotten rough, every time life has shaken my tree or a storm battered my nest, I’ve rebuilt. And over the years, each repair, each rebuild has grown more frantic as I fix larger breaks, coming faster and faster, one after another.

The past two years have swept away my fantasies of fixing—both in the modern sense of repairing and the older, photographic sense of making permanent.

Two summers ago I learned that no one can afford elder care and then spent a month consumed by the specter of breast cancer. Then Hurricane Irma swept into our lives, tangibly destroying first-world assumptions of security that we had thought we didn’t have. In one sense, Irma literally sent us from one nest to another; after the hurricane, we decided to buy our forever home because…well, life is short and unpredictable and now is all we have. 

Then my siblings and I had to find eldercare, affordable or not, and we moved my mom. Then my husband and I moved our family, then, before we caught our breath, everything went wrong with our new house. For about three months, we thought no one could repair our nest. I certainly could not. Yet time moved on, we moved back in, and, tentatively, carefully, we moved forward.

Now…now we start to trust the shelter of our home again, feeling secure enough to hang the last few pictures and re-cover a few remaining cushions. Now life’s rhythm, though resting on a different—more fluid and yet, perhaps, more lasting—foundation, has resumed. I have begun to pick up my head and look around.

"a powerful healing year for you"
I’m not much of a mystic, but I think we tend to notice the astrology, numerology, and tarot offerings that we need to hear. So when I saw this prediction for 2019, I latched onto it:

In August, past the midpoint of the year, it turns out that this year might truly be a time of healing. A time after the wind rose, blowing away so much that I sheltered in, so much that weighed on me, leaving me shivering, uncertain how to move forward without a familiar enclosure. 

A time when I might learn that the lightest life can also be the deepest, the strongest, the richest, the warmest—the most of everything I love.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Growth


It's spring! It's the season of new life, growth, change, and fresh starts.

Lately, I've been thinking about how far I've come--how much I've grown. For instance, I can now keep orchids alive. (See above.) I've also decided that one of the most profound changes that's come with my age has to be a certain kind of confidence.

I've learned a lot over the course of my adulthood. And Douglas Adams had the main lesson right: "Don't Panic!" (Sorry--I don't know what font has large, friendly letters.)

--1991--

At the tender age of 18, I hadn't learned that lesson yet. I still panicked.

When I went back to school to start my sophomore year of college, I got my first-ever, very-own landline installed without the help of parents or the university. I felt extraordinarily proud of my new beige princess phone and immediately called home. I proudly conveyed my new phone number and set a time for a longer call the next day.

The next day, I waited and waited but no call came. When I finally caved and called home, I learned that my mom HAD called, while I'd been in my room. I hadn't gotten the call. My new phone was broken!

I called the phone company. “My new phone is broken; I can make outgoing calls, but I’m not getting incoming calls.”

Not long after, a technician arrived at my new university housing apartment. The big, burly, fatherly guy picked up the princess phone in one hand, looked it over, and...

...flipped on the ringer.

I died a little inside.

*****

--2019--
 
At the far more mature age of forty-six, I handle all sorts of routine, responsible things. For example, I get our piano tuned every six months. It's a pain to schedule because our tuner travels; he's only in Florida a couple of times a year. Our beloved and beautiful piano is also getting up in years, so it has sometimes needed a repair or two.

So I recently caught the piano tuner on his one day in town and scheduled a tuning. Later that day, our teen sat down to practice, then hollered, “The C above middle C is making that buzzing noise again!!!”

Without turning a hair or raising my voice, I replied,  “Adjust the picture frames on top of the piano.”

S. shouted back, “That’s not the problem!!! Why would it only happen with that C?”

After a brief pause and a few notes, I heard a quiet,  “Oh. That fixed it.”

Don't panic, my child.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Beautiful People


I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing human beings who come in the form of teenage girls. And I’m here to tell you something: we need these people. The world needs young women desperately—not just for who they may be someday, but for who they are right now.

I missed my teen years pretty much entirely. Maybe that’s because, as several people have told me, I was “born old.” Maybe that’s because I had bigger things on my plate than normal teen life. Maybe it’s because I spent most of my teens in the 80s, when the ideal teen girl starved herself out of existence. Maybe it’s all of those things.

Whatever happened to my teen years, it’s allowed me to see other young women as almost a foreign species—maybe I have fewer assumptions about them because I don’t remember being one. In any case, I love them!

Sure, it takes a while to get inside the world of a young woman today. There’s a reason middle school girls are considered the source of all slang—their world comes highly coded. And why not? Think of how our society views teen girls as a rule. I imagine the words “duck lips” and “selfie” popped up in your thoughts somewhere.

If the majority of humans I interacted with treated me like a vain, brainless annoyance, I’d hide my world behind a wall of private language, too.

Let’s pause here for a little disclaimer: I’m not here to generalize. Not all teen girls are fantastic human beings, not all of society treats them like useless idiots, and no, we should not all aspire to be teenagers again. But. I am here to ask some questions and provoke some thoughts.

Why do we devalue ages so much? Why do we spend our whole life racing to be adult and then trying to stay young? Well, it follows that we think infants, children, teens, and old people are less than adults “in their prime.” Ha! Just look at that phrase.

I’ll tell you what, playing with a baby or a toddler does more good for my mental health than any meditation app or a thousand dollars of therapy. Babies live in the moment naturally, every moment. Lately, we all try to force ourselves back into that state to be mentally well—without ever acknowledging that we were BORN in that state. Or that we can relearn if from younger folks.

Yep, babies and toddlers do something right, something that we in-our-prime adults do horribly. How ‘bout that. I bet they might even do more than one thing better than adults! Maybe we should…appreciate them. Maybe we shouldn’t rush them toward reading and playing competitive sports and keeping a schedule.

In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with active, vibrant, centered teen girls—enough time to see behind the wall of coded culture. And let me tell you, these people are beautiful.

It’s easier to see in the woods, when all the nitpicking of the world leaves them alone for a bit. That’s why I’m a huge advocate of camping for teens.

I’ll never forget one of my most challenging campers getting frustrated with her fellow campers on an overnight. She’d had enough goofing around. She decided to show her unit how to make a breakfast over a fire, for crying out loud. She took over entirely as I faded into the shadows. She gave orders, cooked, managed, and served. Then she sat down with a couple of pieces of bacon. Turns out, she doesn’t eat eggs. But she made them for everyone else.

I also remember the entire unit thanking her and singing her praises later than night. And I also remember her running out of the tent. She couldn’t handle hearing that much praise. She wasn’t used to it.

At the time, that made me sad on an individual level. Now my sadness—and a little righteous anger—has gotten more global. Now that I’m not even remotely a teen, but the parent of a teen, I see a bigger picture. I see these girls moving through our world, keeping their awesomeness low key, and I want to bring that awesome to the world!

Teen girls prioritize relationships—with friends and possible romantic partners. You know who else invests in relationships? The folks in the blue zones who live to be a hundred and stay healthy doing it. How about that.

I just finished volunteering backstage at the youth circus, in the girls’ dressing room, for a week. I watched thirty girls lend and borrow shoes, remind each other of entrances coming up, zip costumes, talk over acts they just finished, and do each other’s hair and makeup constantly. Tides of giving and receiving washed through the room. It was beautiful.

And about that word beautiful… You know what I did this morning? I took a few extra seconds to pick a fun dress from my closet. I checked myself out in the mirror before I went about my day. And I felt great about it.

You know why? Because I just spent a week with people who do that. Teen girls try new products—whatever type they love, be it hand cream or shampoo or a new blush palette. They wear clothes they like. They give themselves a onceover in the mirror before they go. (They also wear pajamas all day and pack for a weekend in a backpack as needed. I seriously love these girls!)

There’s nothing beautiful about being obsessed with appearance, but loving yourself and caring for yourself is GORGEOUS. We cheer when gay men or French women do it—they get book deals and tv shows. Yet teen girls walk in our midst, modeling self-care left and right, and we dismiss it.

Well, I am here for you, teen girls. I’m glad you exist. I love the avenues of life that you explore. I want to bring a little of your values into my life and into our world.

Thank you for doing you! You’ve helped me do me a little better.

Beautiful food and photo by our beautiful teen!

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Kids Are All Right, II


The first present under our tree? Made by Little A in July, all by himself. He's all right.
So, if you've read Part I, you know what has worked for us in terms of teaching our kids independence, confidence, and resilience. It’s getting a little trickier for me these days with a new teenager dipping her toe in the world of dating and setting her own class schedule, but I see signs that the kids are all right.

When August came, the kids could not wait to get their class and teacher assignments from school. They’d been anticipating this moment for at least a month—yes, they love school. They just do! In any case, we stopped by the mailboxes on the way home. The kids tore open their envelopes in the backseat and S found out that, once again, she will not have any of her close friends in any of her classes this year. Even as she said, “It’s okay. I’m used to it,” I could hear the disappointment in her voice.

We all separated to unpack from our weekend away; I figured she needed time to process alone anyway. Next time I saw S, she had cleaning supplies and was headed upstairs to clean the bathroom, her weekly chore. Then, when I went over to the sofa to fold the four loads of laundry sitting there, it took me a minute to figure out what I was seeing. All the laundry had been folded. I’m super picky about my laundry, so I usually hog that chore, yet here it was, done. I knew it hadn’t been either of the boys, so it must have been S.

I thanked her for doing it and she shrugged me off, so I called in her dad for reinforcement. At bedtime, he casually said, “Thank you for folding my laundry.” And our daughter’s reply blew us both away. “I felt sad. When I feel sad, helping makes me feel better.”

When my brain caught up to her amazingly insightful comment, I let her know that she’d spoken a deep truth and that a lot of people have to grow up a lot more before they find that way of coping. Internally, my mom-brain kept asking, “HOW did she learn that? What did it?” I still don’t have an answer. Somehow, somewhere, enough adversity crept into her life—without my planning or arranging it—to teach her that altruism is one of the most effective ways to improve our quality of life. Damn. That’s amazing.

On a lighter note, both our kids are enjoying the freedom of our new neighborhood. With great sidewalks, walking paths, and a few dirt roads and without the traffic of our old neighborhood, they’ve ridden their bikes constantly. Toward the end of summer, Little A’s bike bought it—the back end of the chain assembly warped so that it was sticking through the spokes. (We found out later it had been assembled with the wrong tension.) Anyway, the bike couldn’t be ridden or walked. So S told her brother to walk her bike, while she picked up his bike and carried it a quarter mile home.

That beautiful, precious, and—let’s face it—unnecessarily difficult solution touched the heart of this ‘80s child. That moment could have happened to any of us who grew up with long summer days of being “neglected”—at least by today’s standards. And maybe our kids didn’t take the easiest option, so maybe we did mention that S could have left her brother with his bike, ridden home, and gotten an adult with a car to come get both brother and bike, but what we said over and over—what I hope stuck—was, “You made it work. You did it. You took care of each other and got it done.”

And I still don’t know what experience gave S that internal gear. Was it all her attempts, failures, and ultimate successes in circus? Spending time at an outdoor, overnight summer camp in the woods? Seeing the fruits of her faithful piano practice? Doing “adult” chores alongside her parents? Living with parents who stumble and screw up all the time but never give up? Some peer drama I don’t even know about?

If I’m honest, I think it comes down to attitude. Whatever we parents seek in our children, we will find. Maybe it’s because her dad and I look, ever and always, for strength, empathy, responsibility, and perseverance in our children. Maybe it’s not so much the quality or quantity of the challenges that fall into their lives, but how we ask them to respond. Maybe it’s the confidence we have in them, the confidence they borrow until they have enough of their own.

S voluntarily spent hours at Halloween using her circus skills to spot other kids on the rings. She's all right.