Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Onto the Face of the Earth

This is the first time I've actually sat down at the computer in weeks.
Even the spammers have given up on me.
I have dropped onto the face of the earth.

Around the first of June I decided to deal in the tangible, the immediate and the things I could touch, taste, feel. I have not regretted it. I think the Internet is a useful tool, but it had become, for me, over the last several months a giant black hole. I read countless posts about managing social media, about all the ins and outs of social politics on Facebook, about the "rules" of blogging, about finding balance in your life, about dealing with kids and technology, finding time for important things and on and on. I don't think it's terribly uncommon for people to get sucked into the virtual world. Technology has improved exponentially over the last several years, getting quicker, smaller, more accessible. Sometimes I'm not sure it's entirely healthy for humans to move faster than the speed of light all the time.

The complaint du jour seems to have revolved around finding enough time in our lives that spread us so thin and run us ragged. I am no exception, really. There are all the activities and necessities and demands of an active life. But it has nagged me more and more over the last year or so that it seems that all these devices and services that we have in order to make things quicker and easier, are actually just filling up our time with more stuff; that they're not really freeing up our time, but just consuming more of it. And with what?

I am tired of quick and easy. I'm tired of a constant stream of information. I am worn out with commentary. I find that it isn't necessary for me to know what everyone I've met (or haven't) since elementary school thinks about NSA or potty training or gluten free living or their neighbors or what they had for breakfast. So I have unplugged. I temporarily deactivated my Facebook account, I check my email only for messages that are pertinent or immediate to my life, I have mostly neglected the entire blogging world. This is not a permanent solution, it's more like a cleanse. There are people about whom I care and with whom I keep in touch only through electronic means and I miss them. Rumor has it, a few people miss me, too.

But for right now, I've disconnected electronically for the most part. If you are over twenty, you probably remember a time when people wrote letters with actual pens and paper, when you had to wait to hear from someone, or when you picked up the phone and interacted with a real voice on the other end when you wanted to communicate long distance. You probably remember a time when sitting and waiting meant reading a book or a magazine or even interacting with the people around you instead of looking at a tiny computer you held in your hand. You may remember a time when the things that you did or experienced were not a status update or a post, but your real life for you and your loved ones to enjoy or despise without an audience. You may remember a time when your "friends" were people you actually knew and with whom you interacted tangibly. We'll never get that time back, and I'm not sure that I want it back. I like having gotten back in touch with people I thought I'd never hear from again. I like "meeting" and interacting with people I would otherwise never have met but for the Internet. But sometimes the best way to get perspective is to step away and view from a distance.

I have dropped onto the face of the earth.

For now, dear readers, I'll be on a bit of a sabbatical. My writing will be done the old fashioned way for a while - on paper with a pen and without the immediate gratification of instant sharing and commenting. My communication is mostly with my own vocal cords and with hugs and holding hands and laughs that people can actually hear without being reduced to a ubiquitous acronym.

Enjoy your summers, friends!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Empty Spaces

Nature abhors a vacuum.

Empty a space out completely and it will scramble to inhale debris from nearby to right this imbalance.
I have been dealing in empty spaces these last few weeks.

In my yard, I have inherited years of neglect and invasive species run amok. My husband and I have donned work gloves and overalls and cut and cleared and dug and pulled ever since the weather turned nice. Wild blackberry, Morning Glory, buttercups, dandelions, English Ivy, bamboo. We have wrestled with the roots and fingers and suckers and vines of all the many ways Nature has to fill in all the empty spaces with abundance.

It's not enough to clear it out, though. By the next morning, the insistent tiny green invaders return. I don't want these brambles and strangling vines out of control and rampant to take over my space. So I dig some more, with purpose. I plant sturdy plants with delicate names: Lobelia, Meadow Sparkle, Coral Bells, Blue-Eyed Fuschia. I set and mulch these tiny plants with great promise. They will, with the proper tending, one day be giants. They will expand to fill the empty spaces with color and scent and riotous flowers. They will stave off the wildness that encroaches from around the edges.

There are places where the Ivy and Morning Glory have won. Their roots and tendrils are so old, so gnarled and thick, so pervasive that I can't eradicate them without uprooting trees or bulldozing the fence. In honesty, I don't want to completely eradicate them. They are tenacious and beautiful as they seek light and purchase by whatever means possible. My daughter and I have erected a fairy hut under the trees. A tepee of bamboo poles, wound with twine where the vines can wander free and create magical green, undulating walls and a shady reading or picnic spot for the summer. A place to let the vines be what they are and do what they do best and where we can live in harmony.

Today I am tending an empty space that used to be filled with grief and sadness. It would have been my father's 67th birthday today. It's a date that I cannot, will not, ever forget. It's a date that, for a few years, brought keening grief and a remembrance of things lost. But today it brought me quiet contemplation and gratitude. I held my pruning shears in strong hands, protected by my tough leather gloves and saw my dad in that. I taught an art lesson to small and excited children, using words and concepts too difficult for them to grasp and then letting them free with huge black paper and sidewalk chalk, succumbing to the joy rather than the technicality of art. I saw my dad in that. I prayed and meditated on Scripture, and I saw my dad in that. I looked in the mirror at my unruly graying red-brown hair and my wide and crooked smile and I saw my dad in that. I see him in my husband's strong and intelligent gentleness, in my son's sense of humor and the dimple in his chin, in my daughter's sense of discovery and passion for experimentation, in the paintings that hang on my walls, the books that sit on my shelves, in the very words I write.

I have inherited a wild space within. It is easily overrun with the invasiveness of bleak emotion. It can be strangled and choked with thorns and brambles if left untended. I get this expansive, barely controlled heart from him. This fertile ground where worries and crippling compassion can volunteer, out of place, overnight. From him I also received the tools to keep these empty spaces full of color, full of life, and full of promise. He left me his faith, his creativity, his passion, his dedication and his belief in hard and necessary work.

He left a giant empty space when he died; a space that for a while, I believed would swallow me whole. But after several years of clearing and tending, there is no empty space. His presence runs like vines through my entire existence. And I spent today quietly continuing to train those vines into their places, appreciating their presence without allowing them to overtake my whole life. Creating a place where I can be who I am, do what I do best, and live in harmony with my loss.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Parenting With Pop Music

I have made two startling discoveries about myself in the last few years. These have nothing to do with mysterious lumps.

The first is that I have friends. Actual, real-life people whose company I enjoy and who appear to enjoy mine. People who, for whatever reasons, seek me out rather than just tolerate my presence. It has taken rigorous mental training on my part to stop wondering what kind of massive interpersonal issues they must have to want to be my friend and have more or less just accepted that some people just have eclectic tastes.

The second discovery hinges on the first. On occasion, these friends not only seek out my company, but my advice. Again, there is a tremendous amount of internal self-control involved on my part not to ask them if perhaps they don't know anyone else or if they are just trying to make me feel better by pretending that I might know something about being a human.

Several of my friends have children who are younger than mine, so to add horror upon horror, they ask for parenting advice sometimes. I look around to make sure they are talking to me and then proceed to tell them that I know nothing about the things they are asking. It occurred to me today as I was puttering around my garage with toxic chemicals that it's not that I don't know anything, it's just that they are asking me the wrong questions.

How did you handle potty training? Well, the jBird potty trained herself and the Hooligan pooped on his own foot one day by mistake and was so horrified that he never used his diaper again.

How did you wean your children? I went out for coffee while my husband held them and cuddled them through the withdrawal and they went to sleep.

How do you get them to eat their vegetables? I feed them fruit and hope they discover the wonders of kale instead of beer in college.

How do you get them to clean their rooms? I chase them with the vacuum cleaner.

How did you get them to sleep through the night in their own beds? They are supposed to do that?!

No, all of these standard, run-of-the-mill kinds of normal parenting things are still a mystery to me and I have nothing useful to offer anyone who comes to me looking for a bona fide system or sticker charts or honestly, I don't know what.

I had a lengthy conversation with a friend just the other day whose children are four-years-old and seven months. We chatted about a lot of things, but she's a planner, so she's looking ahead to when her children are the same ages as mine and peppered me with questions about the practicalities of daily life. Never once did she ask me which song I use to get my kids out the door to the bus in the morning. Nor did she ask me which song I preferred for settle-down time in the evening. She didn't even ask what our cooking song was.

How do people parent without pop music?

I am not a morning person. It takes at least three cups of coffee to get me up to my fighting speed. When there are breakfasts and lunches to be made, homework folders to be signed, and shoes to be found, sometimes the coffee has to wait. My Hooligan is much the same way, except without the coffee (come on! I'm not that bad a mom!) The jBird is relentlessly awake in the mornings and getting her off to school has never been an issue. Mostly it involved her standing by the door, ready to go with her backpack on while I stumbled around looking for some pants to wear. When the Hooligan started this year, I was shocked to discover that he was a little less eager to be up and at 'em in the mornings. After a few weeks of tears and "I can't do it" and all that, I decided that I needed to get a hold of myself.

One morning, the Hooligan was explaining to me that he couldn't find two shoes that matched, so he had to just stay home today and I explained right back - No way, José. He insisted We can't make it to the bus in time. I insisted We can. And, because he's in Kindergarten and they encourage curiosity (of all things!) he asked Why? As I answered him on infuriating maternal autopilot Because we can, some kind of random, pre-coffee brain tumbler fell into place and a new tradition was born. Every morning at 8:07 on the dot, I reach for my iPod that's connected to the speaker in my kitchen and press play on Because We Can, Fatboy Slim's raucous can-can number from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack. No matter what the monkeys are doing, they stop and shimmy and jiggle and dance to their shoes and into their backpacks and out the door as soon as they hear the first crashing notes. No more yelling, no more tears, lots more dancing and Jim Broadbent re-mixed over a dance beat. What's not to love?

My children are not exactly sure how old I am. On a Mother's Day activity at school recently, my Hooligan listed my favorite food as lasagna (which makes me gag) and said I liked to wear shorts (which I hate and never do). The jBird thinks that I have never had a job other than to clean up her messes and forgets sometimes that I have a brother. But if you ask either of them, they can unequivocally, without a doubt, tell you that my favorite ABBA song is Super Trouper. So much so, that I received a Star Wars themed card from the Hooligan with a large picture of a Stormtrooper which he explained he drew especially for me because it's a "Super trooper". They also know that when they hear that opening falsetto with lovely Swedish cadence, it's time for them to decide which of them will get the napkins and which one will get the silverware to set the table for dinner.

Justin Townes Earle or Lucero means that Mama's feeling weepy and nostalgic.
Eminem means that Mama probably has writer's block.
The Beastie Boys mean that Mama's working in the yard and The National means Mama is lost in thought.
Fitz and the Tantrums means that we're probably all in for some house cleaning.

I will never be invited to host a radio call-in show to give practical answers to everyday parenting questions. I frequently leave my friends scratching their heads and wondering how on earth I'm even allowed near children. Hospitals and community service centers will likely never hold Tangled Lou Method classes for new parents. But the other day as my kitchen filled with sunshine and the smell of dinner on the stove, I hoisted up my baby girl who is now nearly as tall as I am so that we could touch the sky together and my son executed his strange, robotic white-boy dance moves around our ankles, I couldn't help but feel the lyrics of our new "Bad Day Reset Song".

'Cause I'm on top of the world, 'ay
I'm on top of the world, 'ay
Waiting on this for a while now
Paying my dues to the dirt
I've been waiting to smile, 'ay
Been holding it in for a while, 'ay
Take it with me if I can
Been dreaming of this since a child

And I know it's hard when you're falling down
And it's a long way up when you hit the ground
Get up now, get up, get up now.

And another startling discovery about myself: while my methods may be unorthodox and don't translate well into practical advice for others, I may know at least a little something about this parenting thing after all. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Safe Passage

I woke up this morning in a sweaty heap, my children each clinging to my sides like barnacles to this ageing ship I navigate through life's storms and sunsets.

I sent them to bed last night with tears and inadequate patches on hurt feelings and wild, untamed emotion. The world of grown-ups and frustration and darkening shades of gray overwhelmed me yesterday and turned me inside out and upside down. I work so hard to protect them sometimes from the nagging relentlessness of these things that I come unbound and unleash the ugliness of things through the filter of myself.

I frighten them or confuse them and then retrace my steps and try to explain in words I think they understand and forget that they understand a lot of these things without the words, that what they need from me is not protection, but an even keel, and I go to bed with tears of my own.

But in the dead of night, half-sleeping, lost in dreams of their own, they seek me while I sleep. They look for the explanation without all the words. The warm spots next to my heart, against my egoless, sleeping soul that breathe the words "I love you and I'm always here for you" with my arms flung out around them, unconscious and holding them close with limbs and breath and hair entangled.

I want to tell them I am trying. I want to tell them that I'm so flawed and so frightened half the time that all I can hear is the surging of the ocean in my ears and my screams are the cries of a drowning woman. I want to tell them about the still, quiet places where I see them clearly and wish the world for them and know they already own it. I want to explain to them all the ways I try and fail every day. I want to stretch myself out over them so they can see the play of light through the dark spots in my soul and not be afraid. I want to beg their forgiveness for all the things I am, for all the things I am not. I want to collect all of their tears and show them how they can float on them, steering with the winds of change. I want so much and I take it all on as ballast and so often I start to sink.

But they find me here, in the dead of night and we float wordlessly together, warm and safe, holding each other up and hanging on. It robs me of actual sleep, but it rests my soul. I breathe in their salty, sweating aroma. They smell like sunshine, like the trees and the earth and like life itself. Their hair tickles my nose and mouth like incense and I breathe silent prayers for their safe passage. Through this night, this day, this time, this life. And they sleep the sleep of children who know that all is well, who hear the gentle lapping of my heartbeat and breath against their tiny, resilient hulls and know they can moor there with me, safely for the night. And I know in these gray, pre-dawn hours that they know all these things I want; they understand them in the rhythm of our days, that they will weather the troughs and peaks of this sometimes tumultuous existence and that they will sail taller, longer, stronger, farther than I can imagine.

It is these moments that preserve my life. These quiet, sleepy blessings are tossed to me when I think I can't tread water a moment longer and it's up to me to be aware, to have the strength to grab hold and hang on, to let go and lie back, to take a break from my working and churning and wearing myself out, and to simply float. It is these moments, if we seize them, that will give us safe passage.