Saturday, October 1, 2016

Guest Post . . . because I love books


How do you live a thousand lives,
in the span of only one?
How do you travel the universe
beneath the same old sun?

How do you sail the hero’s quest
when your ship is daydreams and air?
How can you fight off the raging hordes 
if it’s bedtime before they’re there? 

How do you meet the kings unborn
and the gods from days of old?
How do you delve the human hearts
and the wondrous secrets they hold?

Oh the things you’ll do, the places you’ll go
when you pick up a book and read -
Time and space are limitless 
if you but follow where they lead.

--anonymous (though not to me)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Happiness Is . . .


This winter—our first here in Rochester—I fell into a depression that was initially hard for me to recognize because I’d never before experienced depression that didn’t seem to have a direct cause, such as my father’s death. I therefore looked for what I thought I might be missing. Initially I thought I missed Chicago. I thought I missed being in a walkable neighborhood. I thought I missed my sisters, my brothers, my mom, my dad, and even friends I never made. But as soon as the first daffodil bloomed outside my back door and I had to squint when I stepped into the yard, I knew I had simply missed the sun.

Before spring finally showed up, my routine included too much HGTV and History Channel. It included finding reasons to be angry at Ron so I could unleash some of the blackness I was feeling. It included wondering why he ever married me in the first place, and wondering how we were going to survive as a couple after the kids all leave home, and wondering what I have to offer as a mother now that I’m no longer changing diapers or kissing scrapes or finding ways to entertain children that have figured out finally how to entertain themselves. But more than anything, it included me trying to figure out how to find happiness again.

And then I realized I don’t need to find it. It’s okay not to have it.

I’m not cynical or a defeatist. I’m a sufficer, Ron would say. I’m comfortable without an extra pillow. I’ll order the same thing every time I go to a restaurant. I don’t need to maximize every moment of my life, and I forgot this over the last several months of gray.

Until I came across a couple of scriptures: Philippians 4:11-12.

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

As an editor, I cringe at the use of the passive voice. So in these verses, I was drawn (passive voice) to “I am instructed.” Who is instructing Paul? Is it God? I thought so at first, but I couldn’t understand why God would instruct Paul to be full and hungry, to abound and to suffer need. But it’s not God. It’s Paul’s own doing. It’s his notice of the world, his partaking of it, that is instructing him. He sees the world offers him options in his decision to be content. Or not. He can be abased AND he can abound. Or he can be abased OR he can abound. He can choose whether to be full OR to be hungry. He can choose to abound OR to want. In saying he has learned to be content, he is actually saying he has chosen to be content.

Not happy: content.

I think we place too much emphasis on happiness—on our pursuit of something that may always be just out of reach.

In February, our family went to St. John. On our last full day there, we hiked for about an hour or so to reach the petroglyphs. When the Taino Indians inhabited the island, this spot was sacred to them because of the waterfall they found there, and the reflecting pool at its base. Of course, we, visiting in 2013, ended up being underwhelmed. The waterfall was dry, and even had it not been, there was nothing grand about it. The pool was stagnant, dark, and little more than a gathering place for bugs. The petroglyphs were likewise unimpressive: only a few scattered scrapings into the stone, more or less unrecognizable and certainly lacking all meaning for us.

Still, there was something remarkable if not amazing to me about the clearing, because it reminded me of how accustomed we’ve become to not being amazed. We stand in line for hours for a five-minute ride on a roller coaster, because rolling down a hill isn’t fun enough anymore. We jump out of planes to freefall for 7,000 feet before pulling the parachute cord, because jumping off a swing no longer tickles our stomachs. We go to the Virgin Islands for a week because our gloomy backyard is making us angry at our husband and making us yell at our kids and making us forget to take notice of the cardinals and the way the snow weighs down the branches and the way the ice creates patterns out of itself on the windows. We’re looking for more, because we want to be amazed and yet can’t remember how.

But if we could just find contentment . . . If we could know what hunger is and yet choose to be full . . . If we could know need and yet choose to see how much we already have . . . If I could live through the cloudy days and choose to focus on the warmth of my house, my home, my family . . .

Then I don’t need to be amazed. I don’t need year-round sunshine. And I don’t need happiness or joy or elation when I can choose to be content. I don’t need a feast, when, as the saying goes, enough is a feast. And I have enough. I have plenty.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Wire Monkeys and Cloth Monkeys

This past week, I visited my family 9 hours away for my mother's 80th birthday. It was the first time all 8 of us kids have been together since my father's death almost 9 years ago. Hopefully my mother didn't think too much about that fact over the course of the week. And no one brought it up in front of her. I didn't count up how many grandchildren (and great grandchildren) were at the party, but my sister-in-law's house probably held about 40 of us at any given point. We're a loud, talkative, animated family for the most part, so any stranger walking in would more likely have thought the crowd was double that size. But we're civilized for the most part and tend to know when to either not start talking about a certain subject or to deftly change the subject when someone else does talk about it--"it" being religion, politics, or who my mother's favorite child is (my younger brother!).

My husband couldn't make the trip due to work, so my 16-year-old sat in the front with me and kept me awake and engaged during the long drive home. Needless to say, our conversation was filled with talk about family--family dynamics, family function and dysfunction, personality differences, and so on. He's taking a psychology course this year and had a lot to offer by way of insights.

The insight that's really stuck with me is this one: I'm a wire monkey. Civilized, sure, but nonetheless, a wire monkey. He didn't tell me so directly, but I could read between the lines.

He explained that back in the 50s, an American psychologist named Harry Harlow conducted an experiment on children's attachment to their mothers, using rhesus monkeys, wire monkeys, and cloth monkeys. Harlow was looking to counter the argument that babies form attachments to their mothers solely because mothers provide nourishment. So Harlow created a wire monkey with the ability to dispense milk and created a cloth monkey with no such ability. In short, the rhesus monkeys preferred the cloth monkey when it needed comfort. They only visited the wire monkey when they needed food. Or their laundry done. Or a decent home-cooked meal. Or a ride to a friend's house.

My kids don't have obvious preferences between my husband and me these days. But that was so far from the case when they were babies and toddlers. When my oldest couldn't even talk yet, he'd stand at the back door and wail as my husband headed off to work in the morning. Distraction and efforts to cuddle with him were useless, so I eventually had to just let him decide after 10 minutes of standing there that he'd just have to make do with me until dinner time. When I was pregnant with my second child, my oldest--then almost 2--practically hated me. Or at least that's how it felt when he refused to acknowledge my presence any time my husband was around. He'd go as far as to lean away from me almost violently in order to bury his head in my husband's shoulder. I recall breaking down and crying one evening and saying, "This next one is going to hate me too! What's wrong with me?"

The answer is that I'm a wire monkey.

What other explanation could there be? Child number 2 preferred my husband. As did child number 3. And child number 4. Of course, by the time 3 and 4 rolled around, I was able to tell myself, "That's okay. They love him. I want them to love him. And then I get a break in the evenings. It's fine. Really." I'd ask my friends if their children preferred their husbands. "I wish!" they'd answer, not knowing, of course, what they were wishing for. "I'm the one that's with them all day. I'm the one they're used to, so I'm the one they go to for comfort. I can't seem to shake them."

They, apparently, were cloth monkeys in the version of the experiment that also held the bottle.

Harlow also showed that the cloth monkeys gave the rhesus monkeys confidence and courage in the face of fear--a loud, noisemaking teddy bear. The monkeys would eventually approach the stuffed animal, provided it (the monkey) had previously been in physical contact with the cloth mother.

I asked my oldest if maybe I might be a cloth monkey that gave him and his siblings the courage to face the loud, noisemaking teddy bear. He laughed. I took that as a no.

But here's the thing: as I mentioned earlier, my husband wasn't with me for this trip. So even a wire monkey can eventually make something of herself. Or the rhesus monkeys perhaps just figure out, "Hey, she might not be so bad after all." The wire monkey never hurt the babies--never criticized them or even withheld affection. She just wasn't as soft as the cloth one, through no fault of her own. It's how she was made. And I'm sure she did her best. I know I do.

About a week ago, we took turns going around the dinner table and saying at least one nice thing about everyone else at the table. My 8-year-old--my 4th and final child--told me I was his "snuggle pet."

And my 16-year-old is willing to sit next to me for 9 hours . . . and actually talk to me that whole time.

My mother has commented many times over the last several years that she wasn't as good a mother as she wishes she had been. But who is? I'm sure she would see herself as a wire monkey--or as having been one as a young mother trying to figure out her role. What matters, though, isn't what we're made of, but what we make of ourselves. Wire, cloth, plush, or fiberfill, it's all the same. We start from where we are and we keep going. Sooner or later, we--and our children--can find we're soft enough.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ferris Wheels

When I started this blog (yes, it still exists . . . I just haven't had anything to say that I've considered share-worthy), I intended the "vent" portion to be there for me when I was frustrated or simply irritated or needed to grumble. Today "vent" means just saying what I want to say because I can.

So skip back to the parenthetical aside up there: I've decided I rarely have anything share-worthy to say. That's not self-deprecation; it's the nature of human communication. We say a lot more words than we need to in the course of a day, not because those words are vital for us to say or for someone to hear, but because we can.

I've journaled on and off throughout my life, beginning in 6th grade. When I met my husband, I stopped. I just felt that entry after entry of "I'm so happy, he's so great, life is so wonderful" would start to annoy even me.

But not too long after I had my oldest child, I started journaling again--this time for him. And then for my next son, and my daughter, and my last child. I've written about their milestones, their perhaps-only-amusing-to-the-parents stories, how much I love them, how much they drive me crazy even in the midst of that love.

But they're all old enough to keep their own journals now, and they all have kept them at some point and to whatever degree of regularity. So do I keep writing in the ones I started? Will my kids, as adults, care to read about how I felt about them getting their drivers permits, starring in a play, starting middle school, making new friends?

If I'm being honest with myself, the answer is no. For one thing, I'm one of those people who says many more words in a day than is necessary. They've all said to me more than once (or 20 times), "I know, Mom. You've told me that story before." So I picture them reading their journals years down the road, getting to the part where they are now in life, and saying to themselves, "Yep. I've heard this one before too. In fact, I remember it."

And that's kind of where I am today: struggling to know what to do for my kids when they can do for themselves, feeling as if the routine I've found myself in is "yep, I've heard this one before, Mom," trying to figure out how to accept that my usefulness to them has changed--as it should.

I was telling a friend the other night that I've never looked at myself as being a great mom, though I've had great mom moments. I've excelled at my role at times. Other times, I've failed miserably. But it's the role I chose, and as long as my kids can forgive me for screwing up on occasion, I can forgive myself as well and still be incredibly and ridiculously grateful they've let me have this role.

My friend asked if my issue now is that I don't have anything distinctly mine anymore--now that I've had to acknowledge my kids aren't merely extensions of me but have their own wills, their own plans, their own opinions--their own journals. And the answer is yes, absolutely. Any mother will admit she views her kids as "hers," as having sprung from her body alone, without the help of anyone else--not the father, not the grandparents, not anyone else whose dna those children might share. They. Are. Mine. All. Mine.

Until they're not. And the days, months, years following that realization are cloudy days--like Upstate New York in the winter, or our vision blurred by cataracts. I'm waiting for spring. The occasional days of sunshine are promising. But they're not spring.

I heard a poem on NPR this morning that choked me up. It's not meant to be about motherhood, but it is for me. It's by Dunya Mikhail:

"The Shape of the World"

If the world were flat
like a magic carpet,
our sorrow would have a beginning and an end.

If the world were square,
we would lie low in a corner
when the war plays "hide and seek."

If the world were round,
our dreams would take turns on the ferris wheel,
and we would be equal.
It's "our dreams would take turns on the ferris wheel" that got to me.

I know it's time for me to move on from the kind of mom I needed to be when my children were babies and toddlers and on to the kind of mom they need me to be now that they're older. And just like I know spring will eventually make its way here, I know I'll be glad for the ride.

My 16-year-old just texted me to ask me to put money on his lunch account at school. And after I hit "publish" on this post, I'm going to call my mom to see how her cataract surgery went--not because she needs me to call, but because I need to call her. After all, the world is round.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Childhood Bedroom

My beautiful and creative friend Iuliana is doing a "find your voice" blog-writing challenge. I think I have my voice, but I often lack the blog ideas to back up that voice. So although I may not get around to using all of her prompts, I figure using a few of them might help me get back into the swing of things.

Her first day's prompt was "Describe your childhood bedroom."


So, first of all, we moved around a lot when I was growing up. My parents are (my dad was; my mom is) wannabe vagabonds.They moved from upstate New York to Tucson, Arizona, on little more than a whim, and a wish for warmer weather. Then they moved from Tucson (where I was born) to Virginia on the same sort of whim, this time with a desire to live near more trees than cacti and nearer the older pages of American history. Once in Virginia, we stayed put, but moved from house to house to house for various I'm-sure-they-thought-were legitimate reasons. Maybe the "wannabe" part should be deleted.

Wait. I should probably say from camper to house to house to house, etc. I've likely mentioned this before, but since surely no one has read ALL of my posts, I'm going to repeat myself:

When we moved to Virginia, my dad didn't have a job. Or a house. So for eight weeks, we stayed in a truck camper and a tent at a state park that had a lake. We kids (there were 6 of us at the time; my oldest brother was married and had stayed back in Tucson) thought it was a great vacation, swimming every day, getting those strawberry eclair ice cream bars, and playing Olivia Newton-John on the jukebox at the concession stand.

 A family friend informed us a number of years ago that we were actually homeless. Yep. I guess you could look at it that way, but it takes away some of the charm of that summer.

I never minded all the moving though--probably because I didn't have to do any of the packing. I just recall living in one house and then suddenly another. And another.

But the room I remember the most was the one I had in high school, probably because, come on, remembering something that happened at 14 is a lot easier than remembering something that happened at 4.

It was a basement bedroom, and HGTV would be mortified by it. My brother had the bedroom in the basement that had been finished and lived in before we moved into the house, and my dad then erected a wall in the unfinished portion for me. He put down some remnant carpeting--not tacked down and without padding. He put shelves on the wall so I had something resembling a closet. And then my mom hung a curtain across it. I imagine I had paint on the walls as well, though I don't recall. I at least had a window. I remember that much because I was always sure--yes, even in high school--that I heard something out there.

But what I remember most about the room were the racks I used for my books. My parents let me bring home a few wire spinner racks from the bookstore, and I loaded them up with Stephen King and Piers Anthony paperbacks--my two favorite authors when I was a teen. (The Stephen King fanaticism probably has a little something to do with the noises I was sure I heard outside that window at night.) Tacky? Absolutely. Did I realize it at the time? Kind of. But I also thought they were cool, because who else would have wire spinner racks in their bedroom?

 And do you know how much those wire racks cost now? A lot. As in a lot more than a wooden bookshelf would cost me today. In fact, I bet I was just cool way ahead of my time. Not tacky at all.

Maybe I can talk my husband into putting one or two in our new bedroom. The description of the one I found for sale even called it "classy."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Time Keeps on Slipping . . .

I’m feeling the passage of time pretty keenly today. Not sure why. Could be the lack of sleep over the last couple of months. Could be the fact that my youngest will be 8 years old before too long. And then 9 and 10 and 13 and 15, and before you know it, he’ll be more wrapped up in his music and his girlfriend and his favorite sports teams than in my arms. It’s all as it should be, of course, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the years slipping by. 

Or it could just be the hole in the sleeve of my favorite long-sleeved tee, and the realization that the company doesn’t make this style anymore.

I was at the grocery store this morning, and the woman working the register next to the one where I was checking out my $190 worth that fit into 5 small bags said that her register wasn’t working right. It was telling her the price of an item, but was not ringing the item up. Earlier this morning, a customer had complained, because she was in a hurry and the whole process was slowing her down.

As an editor, I come across sentences like that last one all of the time: a “because” that needs a comma in front of it, which is something I grew up believing was never necessary—commas before “because.” But without the comma, the woman was complaining because she was in a hurry. She wasn’t complaining about how slow the process was.

But, really, I think the woman was complaining because she was in a hurry. It’s one of our biggest complaints, and we take it out on others around us: other drivers, other family members, other customers in line before us. We’re in a hurry to get to wherever we absolutely needed to be 10 minutes ago. 

I commented that the inconvenience of waiting for a cash register glitch to get straightened out is still more convenient than growing your own food or milking your own cows. Thank heavens for grocery stores and broken-down registers and for everyone who does the work before me so I can get on with all the very important work of my own day.

Like figuring out how to replace this shirt of mine. The company may not make this style anymore, but that doesn’t make it out of style. It just makes it more valuable to me. Like patience and time and my 7-year-old hugging me before he gets on the school bus. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review of "Dear Bully"

I used to think I was bullied in middle school. 

In sixth grade, an eighth-grade boy on my bus used to threaten to rape me, and the bus driver would just laugh and shake his head. But that boy never touched me. Was it funny? No. Was it bullying? No. It was intimidation and stupid and harassment and even criminal today. But it wasn’t bullying. It wasn’t so persistent and relentless that I couldn’t eat or sleep or function or get through my day without biting my nails to nothing, imagining ways I could hurt him—or myself. I hated him, but I was never afraid of him.

In seventh grade, one group of eighth-grade girls hassled me on an almost daily basis, threatening to beat me up, leaving notes in the locker room about what they were going to do to me. But I never felt alone or ostracized. They never laid a hand on me, never cornered me in the halls. They hated me because the ex-boyfriend of one of their friends liked me. They were taking part in solidarity. I wasn’t a victim so much as a temporary target. It all ended when another eighth-grade girl who was only slightly more intimidating told them to lay off me. They did. The leader of that band sent me a friend request on Facebook last year. I accepted it. She seems to be a perfectly lovely person today, someone I might want to hug if we ever saw each other again. I mean that sincerely. 

By eighth grade, I was pretty clear on who my friends were, who my enemies were, and all the girls in between who had no feeling about me one way or another. High school was more of the same. JG was my arch enemy, though I couldn’t tell you why today. She said hateful things about me, but honestly, I didn’t treat her any better. I could say she started it—and she probably did. But it’s irrelevant now. I simply learned you can’t be friends with everyone. You’ll always rub someone the wrong way, tick them off, make them clench their jaws when you walk into a room. Them letting you and everyone else know exactly how they feel about you doesn’t make them bullies. It just makes them adolescents. 

This last point is one I’ve been trying to make clear to my kids recently, particularly my 12-year-old son, who is definitely an on-the-outskirts kind of kid and always has been. I suspect he always will be. He’s been bullied in the past, and the popular kids won’t be inviting him to hang out any time soon. But he has friends—really good, loyal, I’ve-got-your-back friends. He may not always like school, but he’s not afraid to be there.

I read Dear Bully this weekend. It’s a compilation of 70 YA authors’ personal stories about bullying—when they were either the target/victim or the one doing the bullying. Some of the stories were quite poignant (Laurie Faria Stolarz; I’ve never read her before, but I will now--plus, look at those covers!), but most were instances of authors calling apples oranges.

Having your best friend decide she isn’t your friend anymore? That sucks, but it’s not bullying.

Having the popular kids ostracize and ignore you when you were once part of their crowd? Again: not bullying.

Having a manipulative friend? Not bullying.

Being the subject of rumors? Not bullying.

Lauren Oliver (whom I have read, and I love) addresses this last issue in her chapter, in which she is speaking more to kids than to adult readers like me. She talks briefly about how she wasn’t bullied in high school, but she was the victim of rumors. She goes on to talk about the importance of embracing ambiguity and differentness not just in others, but in ourselves. I agree completely that if a child can accept himself, he won’t seek acceptance from others. How to get from A to B is the difficulty.

I think it’s vital that we not call every hardship between peers bullying, so I appreciate Oliver for making this disclaimer. Because once we do slap one label on all of it, we trivialize what so many children go through on a daily basis—the kids who are afraid to go to school, not just the ones who are uncomfortable there. No amount of self-acceptance can erase fear. No amount of saying, “I like who I am and I won’t change” will stop someone from shoving you against a locker or from kicking you when you’re on the ground after being tripped. And I know bullying extends beyond the physical. The name-calling and the well-planned and well-executed daily attacks can erode what thin wall of protection you’ve managed to build up around your fragile adolescent psyche.

Bullying is the strong preying on the weak and the weakened. So it’s those two groups—the weak and the weakened—that we need to focus on, because they’re the ones who lack the support necessary to get them through the hell years.

Sure, middle school was rough for me. It’s not much better than rough for most people. But to tell a child who feels painfully alone and vulnerable every single day that I understand what she’s going through is the equivalent of me telling someone with lung cancer that I know what they’re going through because I had bronchitis when I was younger.

Is this book worth a read? Some of the chapters are. But others are just reminders of how difficult empathy can be when our experiences provide no basis for comparison with others’.