Monday, October 6, 2014

Ride Sally, Ride

Subtitle: Why my daughter is already a better feminist than I will ever be and also not a feminist at all.

She fiddled with her hair and getting her outfit just right. She painted her nails to match her clothes instead of brushing her teeth like I asked her to. I silently raised my eyes to the sky and wondered: "WHY?! Where have I gone wrong?!" I keep it to myself.

The campus throbs with that Katy Perry song that I secretly love. She grabs my arm. "Don't. Dance." and she checks her bag to make sure she's got a notebook and a pen. We grab our free sandwiches and I make her eat before she dives into the throng of young girls. I'm all about the free sandwiches and wonder if I can go through the line again to grab some to take back to our boys at home. "Don't be tacky," she tells me just before she spots some friends and jumps up and runs across the quad. There is hugging and squealing and jumping up and down. I swallow my free sandwich and watch this little creature who does things like hug and squeal and jump up and down when she sees someone she just saw yesterday.
She hugs and squeals and jumps up and down.

Sally Ride took her historic journey into space in 1978. She was still launching with the Shuttle when I was my daughter's age. It was a big deal. A woman in space! Can you even imagine? Is there nothing we can't do? I also didn't hang with the girls who jumped and squealed and hugged and painted their nails to match their outfits.

The festival is staffed by predominately young women, the attendees are mostly girls, ages ten to fifteen. Over dinner a few nights earlier, my jBird asked: "You know that astronaut woman? Have you heard of Sally Ride?" Yes, darling, I've heard of Sally Ride. "Well, there's a science festival and I get to go to college for the day. Science. For the whole day." Casually, like this always happens. For her, though, this always does. If there's an opportunity, she ferrets it out, thrusts permission forms in my face and we all rearrange our schedules to make it happen.

She lets me trail her by about five steps while she dives into the crowd, eager to get her hands on the displays and experiments. Robotics, chemistry, physics, computer engineering, environmental science. "Grab me some free pens," I tell her, "Mama needs pens. And journals, too. Google has journals at their table." She takes her own opportunity to raise her eyes to the sky. "Get your own pens, Mom. I want to try the prosthetic arm." I wander from table to table, cramming free schwag into my messenger bag while she asks questions and tries all the different experiments. I am completely overwhelmed by all the women. I want to dance and roar. I want to grab my little girl and explain to her how completely freaking awesome this is, all this estrogen and science in one place. Instead I stuff a few more pens in my bag.

I have a secret. I am completely bored by most science. I feel the current of excitement that emanates from all these women and girls who jump and squeal about physics and I wonder if I have just been hoodwinked by the patriarchy into eschewing the "hard sciences". If I was ten now instead of in the age of Loni Anderson, would I build a simple helicopter and squeal? Or would I still be hoarding pens and journals and wondering if I could sneak off and write in them? I don't care, because I can stand uncomfortably and watch my daughter dismantle a tablet and look at how it works while a beautiful and young engineer explains all the parts to her.

It's time for me to leave. She has to go to class. "I've got this, Mom. You can go home." She checks her watch, a gift from her very best friend, Brooke. Brooke is 24 years old and just started medical school this fall. My jBird pumps her every week for the details of what she learned at med school. She wants all the goods. She's attending med school by proxy. Brooke gave my daughter a watch just like hers for her birthday back in the spring. jBird uses it to set her alarm in the morning, to time her runs and her swims, she never takes it off. She checks it now and tells me when to come back and where to meet her.

I watch her disappear into the classroom of this huge university with a few friends and a horde of friendly strangers and it's a small relief combined with those uncomfortable snapshots of the future that seem to come more regularly these days. She's chattering and excited, she's barely eaten a thing and I fear she's going to crash. I make myself walk away and drive home. I might even cry a little at this little girl who has no idea how freaking awesome this whole thing is. Well, she does, but not for the same reasons I think so.

We come back later to pick her up and laze around on the quad waiting for class to let out. I pilfer a few more journals and pens for good measure. The Hooligan is a little bit jealous and wants to go next year. He takes his own free journal and diagrams a feudal society he imagines.

The quad starts to fill up as class lets out. I'm scanning the crowd for my little girl and I finally spot her. She runs up and her face shines: "I held a human heart and a liver and a brain! Right in my hands! I got my picture taken with Wendy Lawrence, Mama! Wendy Lawrence! She's been in space and I got to meet her! We built a robot, too!" She can't get the telling out fast enough. She's on fire. She's so full of facts and stories and she shows me all the notes she took. "I can't wait to go to college! I've been so jealous of Brooke because she got to dissect a cadaver, but now I got to hold all those organs!"

I cry. I am old enough to recognize this is a step into the future that our mothers dreamed about. My little girl has no idea. It has not once occurred to her all day that there was a time when being a girl would preclude her from the kind of day she had today. She isn't the strange and "tomboyish" girl among the boys, barely tolerated for her uppity interest in all the things that make the world tick. She is completely at home and alive: surrounded by friends, by legends, by great minds, inventors, innovators and the leading edge of civilization. She does not realize her very existence roars.

I load up on free sandwiches and bric-a-brac, and she hugs Wendy Lawrence and tells her she's always wanted to be an astronaut. She carefully matches her nail polish to her outfit while I try to remember if my jeans are clean enough to wear again. She squeals and jumps and hugs while I adjust my glasses and shrink from the crowd. She hugs my arm and tells me she's had the best day ever and her lanyard is teal.

I squeeze her back and say all the silent thank yous that we live in a world that finally might be able to contain us both.

Monday, September 8, 2014

On The Naming of Cats

My bike is waiting patiently for me in the garage. The kids are on the bus, my music is uploading to my phone. Yesterday's storybook bright blue skies have given way to the more monochrome palate of Seattle in the fall and it's time for me to hit the trail.

But first, while I wait for my various electronics to do their thing, I leave you with this:

And a poem by Carl Sandburg:

THE fog comes 
on little cat feet. 
It sits looking 
over harbor and city 
on silent haunches         5
and then moves on.

Let it be known that I wanted this little fellow to be named Carl Sandburg. Let it be known that I would have settled for Chief Seattle, because he is the exact color of the sky today.

Let it be known that his name is PartyMac.

Apparently he and the Hooligan discussed it in their sleep while he sprawled across the boy's pillow and groomed his sweaty, sleeping head.

And, of course, it's perfect.

What tiny, unexpected, suddenly perfect things are making you smile today?

Thursday, September 4, 2014


In the quiet times, the times between time, my mind wanders back to this bitter news unbidden. It laps the edges of it and it tastes like tears. I wonder, as I often do with suicide, about those final moments. Those last few, completely unknown, utterly intimate moments before his life slipped away. These thoughts are ugly, familiar demons who clear the room of light and goodness and breathe out such dark, despairing loneliness. I shoo them away and force myself to breathe.

I haven't read many articles about Robin Williams' suicide. They've certainly been around, but I glide past them on my various newsfeeds the same way I skip anything about guns or homeschooling or all the things that will make you fat and die. I just don't want to think about it right now.

My husband gave me the news from 400 miles away. We shared a moment of silent disbelief and went on with our daily things. It was the end of summer vacation and there was so much living to do. There is always so much living to do.

Sometimes there is too much living to do. If you don't or haven't ever suffered from depression, that sentence might not translate. If you have, it might catch your breath a little bit. It might ignite a small fire of understanding.

Bipolar disorder is tiresome beyond belief sometimes. On either end of the spectrum, the intensity of roiling brain chemistry is just exhausting to both the sufferer and their long-suffering loved ones. I was diagnosed in my early 20's with bipolar disorder.

Have you ever had a head cold or gotten water stuck in your ears and couldn't hear very well for a few days? You know that fishbowl feeling of being trapped in your own head and the sound of your own voice echoes a little too loudly around your cranium and irritates you with its closeness while all the rest of the world is a little muffled, a beat behind and out of step with your suddenly audible, tangible heartbeat? That's kind of what depression feels like.

Take your same stuffed ears and assume that you've grown accustomed to the muffled, dull madness that surrounds you and suddenly one day they pop. The whole outside world comes rushing in and you can hear it in real time and there are all these tiny things that you've been missing and they're delicious. You want to gorge yourself on all the wonder and interact with it all at once. Your own trapped head-voice can escape and wander out among all this glorious cacophony and you feel simultaneously free, elated, and overwhelmed. That's kind of what the mania feels like.

A number of years ago I decided to take all this in hand and examine my options. Accepting the bald and speckled fact that I am prone to long and somewhat predictably exhausting pendulum swings of mood and affect was the first step. Recognizing them as they came was the second. The third is what brings me to Mr. Williams' demise.

If you can't depend fully on your brain chemistry to behave in a sensible way, you have to find a gyroscope. A powerful, constant balancing force around which this other nonsense can align so that when all else fails (and eventually it will) you have a center to snap back to and tell you which way is up. For me, this gyroscope is my faith. It is not enough, however, for me to simply believe things. My trickster brain tries to get me to believe all kinds of things - both awful and glorious. It can't always be trusted. No, it's action that sets the gyroscope of my faith in motion. I have to live this faith every day so when the electrical storms of my own faulty circuitry kick up a fuss, I have some tangible touchstones, some mechanisms already in place and spinning to keep me grounded.

The bedrock of my faith is compassion. So it has been for years that I have attempted to make compassion the bedrock of my life. If I find myself with an excess of energy and creativity, I focus that on serving others. If I find myself exhausted and despairing, I focus on serving others. If I find myself simply enjoying the fact that it's Tuesday, I focus on serving others. It's win-win-win. It channels what can sometimes be the wild, impractical raging torrent of mania into something productive and useful; it gets me out of my own head and my own bed when the fog of depression takes over; it gives my whole life purpose and productivity.

I read this post about how Robin Williams' requirement for performing or making a guest appearance was that the company or organization hire a certain number of homeless people and put them to work. The comment feed on Facebook was full of hundreds of strangers chiming in with their own personal stories of how he had reached out to them in numerous generous ways. I was moved by such a laudable use of his fame and the considerable clout it wields. I was filled with a kind of familiar breathless dread.

It is fairly common knowledge that humor is often used as a coping mechanism for depression - one I often employ, not nearly as effectively as Mr. Williams did. But the sinking recognition that this deeply intelligent, hilarious man was also a generous and thoughtful humanitarian, in fact widely known for his generosity of both material things and spirit, dropped like a cold stone into the well of my consciousness. He was coping.

Plenty of people are philanthropic. Plenty of people both famous and otherwise spend their time and energy serving others in the ways that they can. I would argue that this is always a good thing, regardless of the motivation. Not all acts of kindness are motivated by a sense of self-preservation. Not all people who seek out ways to serve others are coping with their own inner demons. Maybe Robin Williams wasn't either. Maybe I project too much and he was just a really nice guy. But he was a nice guy who suffered from at least depression and probably bipolar disorder. He spent his life turning his pain into laughter and his hopelessness into service to others. This is not the whole of who he was or the entirety of why he did these things, but it rings particularly true to me. He was complex and he was coping.

He was coping and in the final moments, it wasn't enough. I sit with that and try to feel my way around it. At what point did it become "not enough"? I have no idea what was going on in his life. I would suspect that even the people closest to him didn't know the full extent of his pain. As I add him to the pantheon of people whose work I admire who succumbed in one way or another to the tumult of bipolar disorder, I have to pause and reset my gyroscope.

Well-meaning people suggest hugs, positive thoughts, believing in oneself and other innocuous remedies for those who are hurting. "If only he'd reached out..." and other such wistful and wishful thinking accompany a suicide like this. While hugs and positive thoughts and reaching out and all these other things are good and they go a long way toward staving off the ravages of depression or bipolar disorder, there is no cure.

There is only this day, with so much living to do. Sometimes this day feels like it has too much living to do and the siren's song of taking a really long nap - or maybe a permanent nap - sings a little sweeter. There is sultry seduction in the idea of ultimate quiet, of peace from the constant work of quieting the mind with all its nattering, chattering, lying, denying, belittling, elating and deflating. It is another lie that illness tells you. So you plug up your inner ears and look outward for someone to serve, a way to ease the chaos of living by giving to someone else. You grab hold of your touchstones, you locate your gyroscope, and you pray that today - just for this day - it is enough.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Snails and Snake Oil: Solving the Problems of the World

There were a few hours earlier this week where I was really, really angry. Muttering, hissing, arm-waving angry. I wrote inflammatory things all over the inside of my head. Biting, bitter, well-placed words that would sting. Not like bees, but like jellyfish - that all over under your skin can't get it off you kind of sting. I took it out on the snails that keep eating my broccoli plants. Slimy vermin. I wasn't really angry at the snails, though. They are a mild annoyance. A challenge. But they suffered the brunt of my wrath. Whatever. They deserved it. They ate my plants.

I think I'm getting old. I emailed this to my sister this morning. "I think I'm getting old." The context had nothing to do with snails. It was a glorious hand-painted chiffon wrap with an owl in flight all across the back of it. She loves owls, but feared it was a little much for small-town Oregon. "There's a part of me that gets larger every day that says 'Screw it. Just wear that sucker out.'" I told her. "I'll be like the 90-year-old ladies that you see in purple velour and rhinestones and giant sunglasses," I said. This is how we talk to each other. She knows what I'm talking about. "Do it," she said. "I will, but not with this." I'm not overly fond of owls.

Did you know that the whole "wise old owl" thing is mostly based on looks? Those owly eyebrows and stuff? That actually, as far as bird intelligence goes, they are not that bright? Crows are much smarter. And pigeons. No one says "wise old pigeon" because pigeons are inherently silly looking. And "old crow" is not much used in a complimentary way. Imagine that. We make assumptions based on appearances that are categorically untrue. Who knew? I suppose some of those assumptions about owls come from that old Tootsie Pop commercial, too. Pshaw. The media doesn't influence opinion. Certainly not advertising. Don't be silly. Ah-one... ah-two-hoo... ah-three! The world may never know.

Here's something I know: You should never decide to do a whole mess of squats and lunges "to relax" the day before you coordinate, set up, serve, and clean up after a wedding. Bonus knowledge: You should definitely not wear three-inch heels while you do all that. Here's something else I know: If you are knuckleheaded enough to do that, you should most certainly have an army of gracious, generous friends to back you up.

A good friend called me last week. I haven't actually spoken to him in about 15 years. But we're Facebook friends, so we don't actually have to speak to each other. He's trying to sell me some magic oil that will cure my scoliosis so I can run a marathon. He also wanted to tell me that he owes me a ride on his Harley because of a pact we made when we were both young and restless. I had forgotten about the pact, but I'm glad he remembered. It made it all right that he's a huckster and snake oil salesman. I love all kinds of people.

I stood in my yard and stared at the weeds and laid all the people that I love end to end like dominoes, matching the little dots where they intersect. I ran out of room. They filled up all the space in my head and pushed it all out of bounds. I love rogues and Republicans, capitalists, communists, conspiracy theorists, and conservationists. I love misogynists and mystics. I love brats and boors and babies. I love complainers and champions. I even love someone who hates vampires. These are not abstracts. I could name at least one person that I love enough to help them move to fit each of these categories. And loads more. And it's not that tight-lipped, condescending, tolerant kind of love. It's the whole heart, jubilant, let me hug your neck kind of love. And they love me, with my bad decisions and my towering private rages and my scoliosis and snail genocide.

If I didn't love a snake oil salesman because I think he's full of crap, I would not have enjoyed the sweet reassurance of talking and laughing with an old friend as if we'd only spoken last week, rather than last millennium. If I couldn't get past the vampire hating thing, I would have had to set up 150 chairs all by myself. If I eschewed people who made me angry - really, really angry - I would be all alone. And then I would have to find a way to get rid of myself, too. I don't claim the wisdom of the pigeon. I don't really need to. Because screw it, I'm getting old and there was that whole squats and lunges incident last week to prove otherwise. I believe in a higher wisdom because I know what a knucklehead I am. That wisdom, much maligned, often mocked outright, says: "As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend."

For few hours earlier this week I was really, really angry. I was angry at this world that judges by appearances, that believes the hype, that mocks and maligns without a shred of understanding, that babbles and chatters and says nothing, that aggrandizes itself, excuses itself, entitles itself, and that makes me feel old. I killed some snails and I answered the phone and I laughed and I stared at my weeds and I laid all these people who hold my heart end to end and there was no end in sight. No end. The whole irritating mess of them all locked together with their intersecting parts. I couldn't find a one of them that I could spare. Not even one. And they are all part of this world, too.

I'm getting old, but I'd like to stay sharp. And, as anyone who has ever taken a field trip to a colonial village and watched the blacksmith can tell you: if you're gonna sharpen iron, sparks are gonna fly. I'm sorry you got caught in the crossfire, snails. You are beautiful, but you have got to stop eating my broccoli.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kelso's Choice

My son's first grade class was lining up to go to swimming a few weeks ago. It looked like what ants do when you drop a piece of watermelon at a picnic. Mrs. F was trying to get them settled and into some semblance of order when a bit of a scuffle broke out.

"Carmello, what's the problem?"
"Alex called me a girl."
Mrs. F is a good teacher, but time was short and she just needed to get them moving.
"Well, think about Kelso's Wheel of Choices and decide how you think you should respond. I would suggest ignore or walk away."

Carmello was disappointed that vengeance was not exacted for the insult to his character, but swimming won out and he stood sulking in line.

I sidled up to him and whispered in his ear: "Kelso would probably decide that being called a girl is not an insult." He looked at me as though I'd spoken to him in some foreign tongue and quickly turned back to standing in line.

I can't go to Carmello's house and explain to his parents that they should teach their son that being called a girl is not an insult. I can't go to Alex's house and explain to his parents that not only should he not spend his time in line trying to insult other people, but that calling someone a girl as a pejorative is just wrong on so many levels. That would be incredibly obnoxious.

So instead, I whisper in a little boy's ear and plant a seed of something foreign that I hope takes hold and will mean something to him one day.

So instead, I whisper, rant, beg, plead, holler, laugh and rage with and at my own children - a boy and a girl - about what it means to treat people with respect. Equality means seeing everyone around us as people. Real people with feelings and fantasies and pasts and futures; as souls encased in bodies of all different colors, genders, shapes and sizes. The kids don't need the labels that go along with this kind of thinking. The only label they give it is "normal". I detest the word normal in most cases, but if it is normal to treat the man begging for change on the corner with the same respect you show your teacher or your preacher or your parent or the president of the United States, then so be it. If it is normal to find beauty everywhere you look, who am I to argue?

A few months ago, we went to a little party that a friend threw for a bunch of girls to get together and watch Frozen. I did a lot of eye rolling and huffing and general cursing of Disney and then took my daughter anyway, because she's a pretty smart kid. After the party, there was the chaos of picking kids up and saying good night and eating just one more piece of blue licorice when one of the moms started screaming and sobbing. Her car was stolen with her sleeping baby in it, right out from under our noses. The adults (who, I might add, were an amazing group of strong and diverse women I am blessed to call my friends) sprang into action, calling the police, walking and driving the neighborhood, comforting the mother who was standing there in a quiet suburb, living out her worst nightmare. I found out later that inside the house, my daughter gathered all the girls in a circle on the floor and held them tight and prayed through pleading tears that the baby be returned. I would be proud enough of her for that, but she continued her fervent prayer. She prayed for the person who stole the car. She prayed that he or she would soften their heart, that they would be healed from whatever had hurt them so badly that they felt the need to steal, that they would do what was right and turn around and come back, that they would find peace in doing the right thing.

I tell you this story because in a world where people still feel the need to shoot people, and belittle others on the internet and steal cars, and where little boys are still learning to insult each other by calling them girls, there is hope. Of course I think my daughter is special. I'm supposed to. But she's not that special. There are a lot of other kids like her out there, learning how to live with compassion for everyone - everyone - even car thieves and kidnappers. There are kids learning to seek out the ones on the playground that no one else is playing with and ask them to join in. There are kids learning to stand up for what is right and true in the face of mocking opposition. There are kids who apologize when they've hurt someone. There are kids who are learning to accept responsibility for their own thoughts, their own words, their own actions. There are kids who value people over possessions and know the difference between the two. There are kids who love without prejudice and who don't feel the need to hurt others to get attention. And there are parents who are working hard to raise them that way.

There are ugly, ugly problems in this world. They are huge and systemic and hard to see around sometimes. I
am not a politician or a mover on the world stage. I am a stay-at-home mom with some strong beliefs and a set of moral standards and a whole heap of faith. I am a mom who is working to raise these children I've been given to make these ugly problems just a little bit smaller, a little bit further in the past. I have very little actual influence in this world. I can rant until I'm blue in the face. I can hashtag and post the crap out of things and the fact remains that only a handful will even hear me and of those, perhaps one or two will be moved or even agree. But I have the same choices of conflict resolution every day that the first graders have: talk it out, share and take turns, ignore it, walk away, tell them to stop, apologize, make a deal, wait and cool off, go to another game. I would add that in my own life, all of these choices are accompanied by falling to my knees in tearful pleading prayers for healing and peace. And I have these kids, you see. They listen and they learn and they make it their own and they are already better people than I will ever be.

And so I have hope.

My son came home from school the other day and told me: "Alex called me a girl and I told him thank you because girls are strong." Maybe one day Alex will get the message.

And the car thief? After thirty harrowing minutes, the four-time convicted felon parked and locked the car, returned the keys to the front porch, and turned himself in to the police. He wrote an impassioned apology letter to my friend whose car and baby he stole.

Please nobody tell my daughter that she can't change the world.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What Was I Saying?

It's like a drug. I can't get anything done.

Back up. Let me set the scene.

My mom gave me a wind chime for a housewarming gift when we moved into our house two summers ago. It hangs on the corner of my house near the kitchen and catches all the breezes that try to sneak past. It's called "The Chimes of Pluto" and my mom thought that was just the sort of spectacularly hokey nonsense that I would appreciate and she was right. Whenever I hear it, I think of my mom and I think of the sound of Pluto. Poor, maligned Pluto. You'll always be a planet to me.

My dearest friend from college moved to Seattle last summer and we pulled up lawn chairs in the garage of her new house and acted like landed gentry while the movers unloaded the truck and we directed them which way to go. I got a big, lime green patio umbrella out of the deal. I've never owned a patio umbrella before. It seems such a decadent, unnecessary thing, like a fish knife or paper towels. But it thrills me and lives stuck in the hole of my picnic table on the back deck. I painted my picnic table the same bright blue as my front door last summer and I feel like a grownup lady with my matchy-matchy and my patio umbrella.

We have limited direct sunlight in our yard and a flair for the dramatic, so we planted little vignette gardens all over our property to take advantage of the sun. I have my Bad Breath Garden by the garage: chives, leeks, onions, & garlic. Next to that is my Scratch and Sniff Garden: oregano, sage, lemon thyme, basil, rosemary, lavender, mint and nasturtium. I also have a Peter Rabbit Garden (kale, lettuces, spinach, carrots), a Cheeseburger Garden (lettuce, tomato, peppers, cucumbers) and my Ina Garden (planted much more for its aesthetic quality than its actual usefulness - succulents, lavender and strawberries on a rock wall.) I cannot emphasize enough how much all of this delights me and occupies my happy thoughts.

Royal Blue Batik Bearded Iris:
smells a lot like grape soda and does not look
at all like lady parts as some have suggested.
So it's beautiful today. High 60s, sunny, light breeze. The stuff that postcards are made of, you know? And it's the first day in several weeks that I've had all to myself with no appointments, no expectations, no nothing. I will write, says I, for I have so many things about which to rant and ruminate. Someone bit my son at school. Bit him! Like an animal! My daughter turned 10! Exercise pants! Feminist things! Something else I forgot... and I just watched a chickadee eat a spider... what was I saying?

Because I'm sitting on my back deck, under my decadent, lime green patio umbrella and the breeze comes through. It rings my Chimes of Pluto and carries the smell of dirt and green and there on the very periphery, the last of the lilacs and the delicious grape soda smell from my ridiculous bearded irises. With fingers I can't even see, this breeze ties up everything like a sweet-scented sachet for me: bits of family and friends and happy memories and hard work and brilliant anticipation and grr... frustration and utter exhaustion and ambition and all this happens in one instant of inhaling. And I've forgotten everything except this. This right here. This sitting here and letting the breeze carry all this nonsense away.

It's like a drug. I can't get anything done.

Maybe I'll just take another sniff of the breeze and then I'll get back to work...

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Drink It In

I only have a few minutes, but I've just got to share this.

My particular group of friends (and really, my whole city) are rather fitness-minded. Any get-together involves a lot of salad and discussions about various running injuries, upcoming races, and the best apps for tracking progress in workouts and diet, etc. It's entertaining and infectious. I enjoy being surrounded by people who constantly push to better themselves.

My phone has an app that tracks the number of ounces of water that I drink every day so that I can stay properly hydrated. I hear parents bemoan the fact that their kids don't drink water, that they'd prefer juice or milk or soda. I have a machine in my kitchen that turns tap water into sparkling water, so I can enjoy the crisp, refreshing bubbles whenever I feel like it. People spend twenty or thirty dollars on eco-friendly water bottles that don't leach carcinogens into their beverages. I can walk in my kitchen right now and turn on the tap and have as much cold, clean water as I want just flow out of it in abundance. None of these are necessarily bad things.

Here's a bad thing: there are almost 800 million people on this planet who don't have access to clean drinking water.

Here's another bad thing: unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation kill more people each year than all forms of violence combined.

While we work to make ourselves sweat and plan intricate workouts to keep the fat off; while we buy expensive gear to tote our water and ourselves around to stay fit, 800 million people can't get a glass of water that won't possibly kill them. Dysentery is not fun. Neither are parasites or river blindness or any number of nasty, nasty things that you can get from unsafe water.

I'm not going to stop exercising or counting my ounces, because this is the time and place into which I have been born. Rather than be wracked with guilt, I will take full advantage of my privilege as a citizen of a first world country. But that citizenship does carry some responsibility. At the very least, the responsibility of awareness, of perspective. It's overwhelming sometimes to think of all the huge and heartbreaking things that we can't fix. I can't fix the drinking water problem that exists over vast portions of the world. But there is this: an opportunity do do a little something to help out.

Students Rebuild is teaming up with the Bezos Family Foundation and charity : water to involve as many people as possible in raising awareness and funds for making a dent in the drinking water problem. Please take a minute to watch this short video and see if you can do something, too.

Check out the Students Rebuild website here for information on making and collecting paper beads to help raise awareness and funds for clean drinking water. 20 beads will provide water for one person in a village. Gather your own village and see how many people you can help.

On any given day, there are hundreds of causes that demand our attention. It's sometimes overwhelming and discouraging to stop and think of the staggering unfairness in this world. But when something simple comes around to do just a little bit to help alleviate suffering, drink it in.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mere Mortals

I've been reading a lot of young adult fiction lately. I've been doing other things, too, of course. But this has been my brain candy of choice since the end of the summer. It's mostly of an alternate universe, dystopian or supernatural variety and I enjoy seeing how the authors create these worlds and decorate and inhabit them. It seems that there's been a kind of hunger for these alternate universes over the last several years and different series have become wildly popular and then there are all the imitators as well. I have my theories about what that says about our current culture and perhaps some deeper hungers that we have as people, but I'll leave those thoughts for another time. Today I've got a bee in my feminist bonnet that must be released before my brain starts to go all anaphylactic.

One of the things that all of these books have in common is some kind of romantic arc, and sometimes two or three at the same time. Truth be told, I'm guessing that's part of the attraction for a lot of readers. But I'm noticing a disturbing trend in the way these relationships are depicted because in spite of the unique worlds, or the abilities of the author, the romantic components always seem to have the same story. It goes something like this:

Boy meets girl / girl meets boy / girl meets girl / boy meets boy.
Boy is oddly and powerfully attracted to girl. [Extrapolate this across all permutations from here on out.]
Boy expresses attraction to girl by avoidance, abuse or anger. Girl gets confused and butt-hurt.
Boy and girl finally confront each other, fight, and then kiss.
Boy and girl go their separate ways and are confused and repeat avoidance/abuse/anger phase, but usually with roles reversed.
Some kind of giant, tragic situation throws them together in which they magically work it all out. Previous differences and abuses and mean things they've done and said to each other are forgotten or dismissed. They make out and confess their undying love for each other.
Wackiness, mayhem, impending apocalypse ensue.

Does this sound familiar? The more I've thought about it, the more I realize that it turns up in just about every romantic comedy that I've ever seen. Where it shouldn't turn up, though, is real life. Not really.

I understand that from a literary perspective, there needs to be some tension in a relationship to keep the reader or viewer interested. We all watched Friends for a decade because of that very tension. Will they or won't they? When will that Ross and Rachel ever figure out that they belong together? It's the near misses, the bad timing, the roadblocks and miscommunications that make it all so exciting and romantic. It's a literary device that has worked since there was literature. Freshmen in high school read Romeo and Juliet every year because ol' Bill Shakespeare literally wrote the playbook on romantic tension.

Look at that beautiful girl! I must have her! I won't eat or sleep until I do! Oh no! We are from different families! We are supposed to hate each other, but we are in loooove! What shall we do?! [This may be paraphrased.]

But somewhere along the line in the last decade or so, that tension has moved from external forces that drive the star-crossed lovers apart to internal forces. It has been a while since I last visited fair Verona, but I don't recall Romeo seeing Juliet at the party, falling in love with the sight of her and then spending the next few acts pretending he hates her because he loves her so much. But that has been the basic theme in a lot of the books I've read lately.

In the Mortal Instruments series, Clary meets Jace and there are sparkling eyes and animal magnetism and increased pulses and all that, but then the remainder of the book is spent with both of them being awful to each other, insulting each other and behaving very much as though they hate each other, but always with a tingling undercurrent of sexual tension. Even in the much beloved Hunger Games Trilogy, Katniss spends most of the trilogy being extremely cold and prickly to the two boys in her life who love her and would literally die for her. Ditto Twilight. Edward loves Bella so much that he keeps himself maddeningly aloof from her (all the while sneaking in and watching her sleep - creepy!) and then leaves the country without a word to her for all of one book while she sulks around feeling like there's a hole in her guts and messes with that poor werewolf boy's head. These are just a few of the more popular examples, but the genre is rife with them.

Why does this matter? It's just pop fiction. Who cares?

The target audience of these books and movies and TV shows (bored housewives, notwithstanding) are young girls. Pre-teens and early teens. At precisely the age when girls start to learn about their own sexuality and how it relates to other people, this is the literature that is marketed to them, consumed by them, adored by them and discussed by them with their peers. They don "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob" stickers and pins and T-shirts. They are old enough to get a nice little funny feeling when they read the spicy bits, and young enough to lack the experience to discern fact from fiction in this area. They really buy into this stuff and identify with it. It's a matter of background and parenting and emotional makeup of the girl that determines exactly how much they buy into it, but even so, it's there and they consume it.

At a time of life when young girls are slurping up all the knowledge they can about their changing bodies and worlds from whatever sources available, these tense and dramatic romantic plots really appeal. But what are they learning? That true, undying, eternal love is expressed through avoidance, anger and sometimes abuse? That it's romantic for a boy or girl to act like he or she hates you because that just shows how much he or she really, really loves you? They love you so much they can't stand it. They love you so much they can't stand you. Or vice versa. Katniss Everdeen is held up as a strong female literary character for young girls to emulate. And she is, as far as that goes, a much stronger female character than some of the other offerings. But her main mode of communication throughout the series is a kind of surly snarling and keeping any positive emotions she might have completely to herself, thus confusing and hurting most of the people who care about her most. This is not a particularly strong or healthy way to relate to people.

So it plays out on playgrounds and in malls and on social media, but there is no author there to nicely offer the third person omniscient or to tie up the loose ends and sweep hurt feelings under the rug. Consider this with me: say you (or better still, your daughter or little sister) have a crush on a boy. The boy is aloof, avoids your presence. When he does speak to you, he is often sarcastic and never forthright. Sometimes he grabs you when no one is around and kisses you, but then goes back to acting like you don't exist. What advice would you give that girl? Does that sound like someone who treats you with respect? Is that romantic? or is that abusive? But imagine that you are thirteen and your head is full of Twilight and your body is full of hormones and you looooove him. How much abuse are we subtly teaching our young girls to withstand in the hope that their true love will eventually come around and express their undying love for them?

I mean, sure he grabbed me so hard that he left bruises on my arm, but that's just because his love for me is so intense he can barely control himself. I will longingly cherish these bruises as a reminder of how much he loves me while he's not speaking to me or has mysteriously disappeared.

Yeah, he belittled me and made me cry in front of a whole bunch of his friends, but that's just because he's protecting me from the intensity of his passion for me. He's very sweet and tender when no one is around.

or there's the Katniss response:

This boy is kind and generous and treats me with respect and makes sacrifices for me. He must be trying to hurt me somehow.

If you put these thoughts into the mouths and actions of real people, it's startlingly clear how dysfunctional it all is. It's frightening to imagine how much damage these scenarios can actually do, both emotionally and physically.

As adults, we have hopefully developed the experience and the ability to discern between fact and fiction; to understand what makes for juicy and salacious reading and what just will not fly in real life. I read all kinds of dark and dysfunctional books. In part, it is an escape for me because it's not real. It's a sublimation of darker urges, it's an exploration of something other, and it's entertainment. But for younger minds, who have already been saturated since birth in conflicting messages about sexuality and healthy relationships, who have yet to determine completely who they are and how they will relate to the world, those lines are less clear. In a culture that is on a desperate search for heroes and strong role models, that with one breath tells girls to be strong and accepting of who they are and with the next tells them what ideal they must resemble, the onus is on us to actively teach the difference between fact and fiction. Most of our culture is fiction - from air-brushed advertisements to celebrity marriages to 24-hour news channels. The difference between how we grew up and how our daughters are growing up is not that the potentially harmful ideas are particularly new, it's just that they're so much more readily available. We live in a petri dish of bad information in a constant stream, day and night.

I am not suggesting sheltering kids. It doesn't work. There isn't a cave deep enough or dark enough in which to hide that these things won't penetrate. Anyway, even if you found one, your kids would be all pale and bug-eyed and creepy when they did venture out into the world. But I do think we need to be aware and we need to be vigilant. We need to teach them that these things are not OK. And more importantly, I think we need to fill them with the right information.

Love is born of respect and honest communication and mutual affection. It is born of shared interests and experiences. It is born of enjoyment of each other's company. And yes, real love is hard and sometimes you hurt for and with the people you love. Sometimes, regrettably, you hurt people that you love. But that should never be mistaken for an act of love; it should never be an intentional, calculated expression of love. And when we do hurt others, there are consequences and there is damage that must be healed, not just glossed over with a heavy make-out session. Real love is a source of peace, of solace; not constant turmoil to the point of physical illness. There is more than enough external tension in this world to try relationships. There is no need for manufactured drama to create that tension. Finally, and probably most importantly, while physical attraction is definitely a component of love, it is not the sole sustaining feature of it, nor can it be the basis of any kind of lasting relationship.

Great strides have been made in feminism over the last several decades. Our girls now find themselves in a world where they can't even imagine some of the discrimination and oppression that existed not that long ago. I am proud to be raising a little girl who has no idea that her femininity could possibly be considered a factor that would hold her back from anything she wanted to do. I think the feminist work that needs yet to be done is in the macro sense. The up close and personal, day in and day out kind of way. The kind of way that teaches young girls that they deserve respect in all of their relationships and how to recognize it when they see it. Love isn't a tingly feeling in your pants, it's a series of actions and if those actions are hurtful and belittling, they are not love. The kind of way that teaches boys respectful openness with affection and expressions of genuine admiration, rather than continuing to foster the macho, predatory myth. It is not wimpy to be kind and generous and it is not strong to be rude and aloof. Above all, for both genders of all ages, abuse is never all right. Whether it is emotional or physical or verbal: it is not romantic, it is not a special circumstance that no one understands, it is not a sign of great passion, it is not love.

I have hope for a world that does not resemble the dystopian fantasies that I read. I like to read about vampires and star-crossed lovers sometimes, but I don't want to be one. I am trying to teach my kids to do the same. Whether it's explaining to my daughter that the boy on the bus who mocks her braces is not someone she needs to have a crush on, or insisting that my son resolve differences with kind words and hugs. I know a lot of parents who are actively doing the same and it gives me hope. These are small things that are a big deal to me. As long as there are teen-aged girls and boys, there will be silly romance stories. They will not mirror real life, and that's kind of their point. We need to remember also, though, to avoid trying to make real life resemble these stories. Because in real life, real people don't have supernatural healing powers, the ability to read minds, or neatly tied-up happy endings. We are mere mortals and we need to be handled with care.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


It is suddenly spring today.

I walked up the stairs this morning after the kids got off to school and growled a little bit about the wasting of electricity and rotten kids who always leave their lights on because there was a distinct glow emanating from the Hooligan's room. I reached for the light switch and realized it was already off. The glow was from the sun, unhindered by clouds, shining in his window and reflecting off the orange paint on his walls. I stopped growling, obviously. Not only did my wee boy turn his light off without being reminded, the sun was visiting in my house. The sun! We do miss it so, this time of year. I have no right to complain about the weather. We have fared well this winter compared to the rest of the country. But I still have missed the sun, if you must know.

I don't want to talk about the weather. I've always been terrible at this sort of small talk.

Here are some little sprouts of things in this early spring light that I want to share:

1. Poppies and bearded irises. I ordered myself some beautiful bulbs last fall for my very own birthday and carefully planned and planted them in the front flower bed, which was previously filled with what I call "real estate plants." You know? The things they throw into the ground and mulch with cedar bark to spruce a place up quickly? I'm not a fan. So poppies and bearded irises. Not California Poppies. Those grow like weeds in the ditches around here. Great big Oriental Poppies, in every shade available. I'm most excited to see what comes of the blue one. I have a thing for blue flowers. And the bearded irises. I ordered them as an act of pure selfishness. I love them and they make me think of Vincent Van Gogh. My husband hates them and they make him think of Georgia O'Keefe. I ordered them anyway for their happy blue and white petals that flap like sweet tongues, for the funny faces that they make. I planted a collection of blue ones, of course. My husband's only comment was, "Oh good. A yard full of big, blue vaginas." Honestly though, that only makes me love them more. And him. So now all these bulbs I planted in faith, with trepidation in the fall are starting to grow. Just tiny buds right now, but I can see them. They will stretch and bloom and they will be glorious.

2. Time. Yes. Time is growing. I have a very squirrelly relationship with time and the way it shifts and moves on me. I took last year to step back and examine my use of the time I've been given. I like to be busy. I'm always up to something or other. I don't like to be busy with things that don't matter to me. I took a long, hard look at the things that took up my time and decided that henceforth I would try to only commit to things that I felt were a productive and/or enjoyable use of my time. Hoo boy. That has made all the difference in our lives in the last several months. I actually have more long-term commitments than I did a year ago, but I am less "busy" and I get more done. I don't know how to explain it. The only conclusion that I can come to is that it's magic. But, as the spring approaches, I find that instead of my usual digging in my heels and wishing for more winter (I mean really. Who does that?!) I am ready for spring. I am ready for what comes next.

Check out the winter issue here
3. Ideas. I have battened my creative hatches right now. I'm neck-deep in several new projects and because of #2 above, there, I don't want to stretch myself into a quivering mass of nonsense. The blog has suffered immensely and I do apologize for that, but do appreciate the brave souls who read on and leave me some love. Truly. This blog has been all over the place for the last several months and you have been champs who have hung in there.

4. Drag Queens. Did you read that piece when it came out in the Burrow Press Review? Well, it would appear that editors of literary magazines like it. It was selected as one of 5 finalists in Digital Americana's 501 Word Story contest and was just published in their winter issue. This week, in honor of AWP, they are offering their digital version of the magazine for free. So, there's that. [As a side note, even though AWP is taking place mere minutes from my home, I am not there. Why? Because I'm a great big chicken. I'm OK with that right now, though.]

5. Something else. Rebellion is fomenting. Revolution.

What's growing on your patch of the planet? Do tell. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Do you remember those lists of questions that everyone - well, I don't know about everyone. My mother-in-law used to send them to me a lot - used to forward around on the email and you were supposed to answer them and forward them to 10 more people and so on.

Do you have any tattoos? Yes
Coke or Pepsi? San Pellegrino
What's your worst fear?
My worst fear is mediocrity. It's being dull. It's being a horrible, bitter old person who walks around thinking I'm awesome and wondering why people don't want to talk to me. It's being commonplace. It's being a chore. It's being tedious and merely tolerated.

My second worst fear is being vomited on by a stranger in public.

All the Photoshopped slogans tell me to do what I fear most.
No thank you.

Excuse me, sir. I noticed that you just cannonballed a forty of Old English and ate a chicken wing and half of a shoe out of a garbage can. Could you please vomit on me? I need to grow, here.

I'm pretty sure that's not what Ralph Waldo Emerson was talking about when he said "Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain."

Except one time I was playing airplane with the Hooligan when he was a baby and he threw up all over my face and it got in my mouth. I lived. That's different, though.

So, Mr. Emerson, what are you talking about?

I've spent the morning examining my two worst fears, along with some navel lint. What it boils down to is this: I am afraid of the perceptions of others and I am afraid of things I can't control.

How tedious. How utterly dull and commonplace.

So now I've done it, Mr. Emerson. I've done the thing I fear. I've 'fessed up to my absolute mediocrity. My fear is not dead. Not yet. It's only mostly dead. [10 points if you catch the reference]

Is there ever such a thing as a certain death of fear? Should there be? My own fear of mediocrity compels me to work hard at doing something, being something. My fear of how others might perceive me forces me to stop and consider the alternatives, to look at things from different perspectives, and to really think about how much I actually care what people think in any given situation. The vomit thing, well, that's just self-preservation.

If those fears were dead, what would I do?

Now that I think about it, what would I do?

Does fear hold me back sometimes? You betcha. Do I make excuses for my fear and rationalize it away? Of course. Do I cozy up to my fear and stroke its warm, furry pelt and keep it as a bodyguard instead of fighting it like a monster? Who doesn't do this, I ask you? But I also ask you this - in all sincerity and without actually knowing the answer to the question - don't we sometimes just need to feel safe?

I have been charging around these last several months with a whip and a chair and big boots on. I have been working at taming my fears across the spectrum of my life. I find the more I fight, the more exposed I become, the more the same fears keep popping up in different outfits and playing a little bit of "nanny nanny boo boo" with me and I'm not taming fierce lions, I'm playing whack-a-mole. I feel all courageous and strong, an Amazonian warrior with my bloodied sword standing atop the heap of my conquered foes, but really I'm just some fool with a big foam hammer, pounding away at giggling rodents who, by design, elude me. Whack-a-mole. A roadside attraction.

Maybe it's because Whack-a-mole and the internet hadn't been invented yet when Mr. Emerson was writing, so he's a little dated.

I'm going to keep wrestling with my fears. I'm going to keep being so utterly and ridiculously commonplace until I'm all right with that, or until I die. Which ever comes first. But sometimes I wonder if all this conquering and whacking and whatnot isn't a little bit with the windmills and the tilting. All this whack-a-mole makes me feel  a little unsafe. And naked. Isn't it OK to hide sometimes? I don't know.

I don't have any answers today or any conclusion to all this nonsense, really, so I've kind of wasted your time. I leave you with a parting gift. A little something for your Pinterest boards.

Friday, February 7, 2014

That's My Song

Really bad phone picture from
when I went to see them in September
Check this out.
It's awesome and it made me cry a little.

Click here

The National are one of my favorite bands. "I Need My Girl" is one of my favorite songs by them. I sing along to it at least once a day. At the top of my lungs, under my breath, in harmony, on pitch, making up my own counter-melody, off key, on repeat. However I feel like it. I eat the songs I like. I consume them and make them mine, all mine.

So did these people. But they did more than that. They practiced, they played guitars, they got their friends, their kids(!) to help them out and they recorded them. Watch a few of the videos. The little girl rocking the giant xylophone in the "Family Band" one is enough to just break your heart. This guy played it only on household items! They moved past just singing in their living rooms, their kitchens, their bedrooms. They opened their doors and they let us see in.
They recorded them and they submitted them to this contest. That takes courage. That takes a little something extra.

It's so completely awesome, I'm just crying about it. The band sees all these people eating their songs in their own ways and they think - "Let's reward this. Let's give them some exposure and some money." That's really cool. They could have gone all Metallica on them and sued them. "THAT'S MY SONG! NOT YOURS!"

But they didn't do that. And now I got to spend a few minutes this morning watching total strangers interpret one of my favorite songs. It's extremely post-modern and lovely with the YouTube and the website and all that.

But this kind of thing has been going on since there were people to sing. It was how stories were told. It's how information was passed from generation to generation. It's how people have rejoiced, have mourned, have prayed, have shared for always. Each story gets changed in the telling; each person who takes and eats it, makes it into their own. This is so overwhelmingly beautiful. I'm nearly speechless.

One of my favorite bands created a beautiful song. It tells a story that's personal to them. I hear it and it reminds me of my personal story in some ways and I love it and listen to it. All these people all over the world are doing the same thing, but they are taking the extra step and they're sharing it. So, full circle, the band gets to see their story told in a thousand different voices, making the story a little bit different, a little bit new.

Sometimes I sit and I pound on my keyboard and I think terrible things.
What do you  have to say that anyone wants to listen to?
Why is this story important to anyone except you?
Why are you wasting your time?

I will probably never stop thinking those things completely. But listening to these raw and lovely renditions of one of my favorite songs this morning, I remember why I do this. And I thank the people who showed some courage, did a little something extra, and opened their doors.

We all have stories to tell. The wise man says "There is nothing new under the sun," and I believe him. All our stories could be boiled into the same basic parts with very little variation. We could all sing the same song. And often, we do.

But look what happens when we do.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


The lizard is molting.
A face only a mother could love

She molts every two weeks. No one told me this ahead of time. No one informed me that one of the members of my household would audibly eat her skin twice a month. I can hear her right now, carefully peeling and munching her skin.

My jBird will come home from school and drop everything and go and fuss over her and ask to give her a warm sponge bath to help her get the tricky bits off without losing a toe. I will probably agree to this, depending on what I've had for lunch.

A few weeks ago, my daughter handed me a wad of disembodied skin.
"Can you throw this away for me?"
Does it go in the compost? The trash? Recycling? Why am I holding a wad of skin?! What am I supposed to do with this?!
I can barely look at her and I've turned up the music so I can't hear the tiny ripping sounds. It's off-putting and revolting and just so very biological.

"It's good, Mom. It means she's growing." My daughter is exasperated with my squeamishness.

My whole world is molting. So is yours, actually. Our society is in the throes of growth. Humanity itself is always in some way, somewhere, morphing and changing and growing into something else. Maybe it's a friend of yours, a family member, a neighbor, a child. Maybe it's your school or your church.

Maybe it's yourself.

The skin that fit our lives just fine last week or even yesterday is suddenly a little too tight and uncomfortable. The new skin starts to peek out from underneath and that old, dead skin starts to flake and peel. It's not a pretty process. Most of the time, no one wants to hear about it. It's hard to watch. It's off-putting and it seems kind of private and wrong. So maybe we go and hide in our little hidey hole and rip and munch. Maybe we go and do the best we can to quietly tear up the bits of us that no longer fit and internalize them while people around us shudder and try not to look.

Maybe, though, someone sees us - really sees us. Maybe someone sees that we've got horrible flappy bits hanging in front of our eyes and doesn't want us to go blind. Maybe someone sees that we're tripping around over the parts we can't reach on our feet and wants us to be able to walk uninjured. Maybe someone drops everything that is important to them and spends time gently helping us through the transition, even when we're scared and we protest and try to get away.

I asked my daughter what leopard geckos do in the wild when they molt. "They don't have people to give them sponge baths," I told her sagely, "It's a natural process. You should just leave her to it."
"Well in the wild, Mom, they just take care of themselves. They are often deformed or blind or they just die. But she's not in the wild. She's mine."

We're not in the wild. No one should have to live in the wild. No one should have to grow with no one there to help. How many of our own to we just "leave to it" because we can't bear to think about it? How many who walk among us end up needlessly hurting and broken or dead because we were put off by the processes of their lives? There are a lot of people molting out there. They are not in the wild. They are mine. They are yours. We belong to each other. We have to. Even when it's revolting.

When all this disgusting skin-eating is over, Jubilee will have fresh, unblemished, new skin. Her colors will be bright and vibrant. She'll be frisky and alert and out standing in her water dish instead of lurking in her dark little hidey hole, suspicious and snappish. She will smile her silly little perma-grin and beg for crickets. She will, in her own little lizardy way, be beautiful.

Look around. Somebody is molting near you. Near me. How can we help them get through the tricky bits? What is underneath the off-putting outer layer of difficult change? How can you help them find their beautiful? And know this: it will probably turn your stomach a little bit, it will not be what you wanted to do most today, you will think didn't we just do this? and we did, it's time to do it again. And someone will hand you a wad of something you don't want to hold. Stare at it in fascination and then get rid of it. It's not yours to keep.

And look around and do it again.
And again.
And again.
And again...

This is the way that we all become beautiful.

*I'm not going to give the lizard a sponge bath. I will continue to turn up the music so that I can't hear her eating her own skin. I have my limits. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Entertaining Angels

Photo courtesy of the morgueFile
It must have been right after Thanksgiving. It must have been, because we still had all those cookies. We decided to make cookies instead of pies and the kids and I went a little insane with it, like it wasn't just the four of us for dinner, like any other day. We had more leftover cookies than we could ever eat. It was afternoon, but dark. Bitterly cold in that freaky freeze we sometimes get the end of November, where it acts like real winter with frost and hard, crunchy ground, visible breath in the air and numb fingers and toes. It was laundry day, too. Whatever day that was. Wool sweaters were drip-drying all over the kitchen tables and chairs. I was getting ready to start dinner and it was that gloaming time. Not full dark, but dark enough; homework time, but not quite dinner, Daddy not yet home from work. It was that itchy time of day where we're all a little sleepy, almost done with being productive, but not quite ready to settle in for the night.

A knock on the door around Thanksgiving isn't all that odd. Usually it's the UPS man, knocking quickly and running back to his truck. Probably cursing the housewives who sit in yoga pants and do their Christmas shopping online. But the knock kept coming and my daughter interrupted her cello practice to tell me that there were two men on the doorstep. The "men" were little more than boys, standing bright and clean with pink, smooth cheeks in their crisp white shirts, dark ties and name tags. Missionaries.

I smiled and listened and praised their efforts. My usual patter when they come to my door. "I appreciate your zeal. No, I'm not Mormon, but I am a Christian. Godspeed." My daughter stood just under my heels, peeking through my armpit. The boys outside smiled politely through chattering teeth, nodded at my own spiel meant to preempt theirs. The taller one, Elder P, finally said, "Well, is there anything we can do for you? Hang your Christmas lights?" My daughter giggled and tugged at the back of my shirt. These young Elders tugged at something less visible than my shirt.

"It's freezing out there, do you want to come in and have some coffee?" Duh. Crazy lady, offering the Mormon missionaries coffee. "Or some decaf tea?" I recovered. The boys prevaricated and the smaller one, Elder G, cocked his head, "Hot cocoa?" Deal. And I let them inside. My daughter skipped and squealed, always thrilled to have visitors. She's a natural-born hostess and would fill the house daily if she had her way. In another era, she would host a salon in our living room, I'm sure of it.

I apologized for the mess and scooped sweaters off the table and went about the business of cocoa. My daughter filled a plate with those cookies - so many cookies! - and the boys started to thaw out and open up. We chatted about their mission, about their lives. Elder P was Utah born and bred. He could trace his ancestry back to the pioneers. This was his birthright, a foregone conclusion long before he was born. Elder G was from Las Vegas, a recent convert. Raised Jewish and discontent, he searched for something to keep himself out of trouble in high school and found it in his new faith. "I think what sealed it for me were the families. I never had a family like the ones I saw among the Mormons." My little girl ran and got her Bible, read her favorite verses to the boys and asked a lot of questions while plying them with cookies. When the cocoa was gone and their fingers and toes had warmed up, the Elders stood to leave. We packed up more cookies for the road and some boxes of mac and cheese. I let them out the back door, the one for friends and family, and sent them on their way into the full dark cold with our phone number and names, in case they found themselves in need.

"That was fun," my daughter said as we closed the door. "That was good."
"Yes, it was. Now go practice your cello." Back to business as usual. I thought we'd done our good deed for the day and helped make their evening a little more interesting and that was that.

A few days later, the kids and I were waiting at a stop light, on our way to an orthodontist appointment, when suddenly, my son squealed: "Look! It's the missionaries!" And there they were, walking down a busy street in the cold. The kids rolled down their windows and hollered to them and were thrilled when they came and poked their heads into the car and gave us an invitation to the Ward Christmas party. What an odd coincidence, we marveled together. How fun.

For the next several weeks, though, it was not at all uncommon to hear a knock in the early evening and find what the kids had come to refer to as "our missionaries" on the doorstep. We celebrated Elder G's 20th birthday, we got updates on their families from their precious Christmas phone calls home; we talked about our respective faiths, about Santa Claus, about music, about flame throwers, and about their adventures in the mission field. My husband entertained them with silly stories from his childhood and commiserated about the filthiness of Paris; my kids showed them their new toys and the lizard, they talked Star Wars and Jesus and the best way to eat Ramen noodles. I mostly listened and bustled in the kitchen, because that is what I do. We always sent them home with food of some sort and my little girl tried to give them her allowance when Elder G bemoaned spending too much of his stipend on Christmas cards.

These boys. They would cringe to hear me call them that. They are technically adults, twenty and twenty-one. But so young, and so clean, and so fresh-faced. My daughter was besotted and flitted like a fairy when ever they came around. My husband called them my adopted sons. If I'd started early, I am old enough to have been their mother, I suppose. It was for their own mothers that I took these boys in. We see them everywhere, we sometimes make jokes about them. But those two shivering boys on my doorstep, just after Thanksgiving, were no laughing matter. At a time in their lives when most of us were out making a royal mess of things (or at least I was), they forgo home and security and most material things and head out to where ever they are sent, knocking on doors. Whether you agree with them or not, they show a kind of courage and a kind of steely backbone that most of us only aspire to. They believe in something, so they sacrifice. They believe in something, so they are out there getting it done. I respect that, and I respect their mothers for letting them go. For hoping their babies are all right while they disappear for two years, only to be heard from on special occasions. The faith involved on all fronts is staggering. Even the faith to step into a stranger's home and accept a cup of cocoa, when there is no reason to trust me.

My phone rang the other night. An unfamiliar, local number.
"This is Elder G. I wanted to let you know," his voice faltered a little, "I wanted to let you know that we are both being transferred. We leave on Tuesday." I knew this would eventually come, but I didn't really know that it would feel like a punch in the gut. They have both been transferred to a notoriously rough suburb south of here. "I'm a little scared," Elder G whispered, sounding every bit the young boy he is, "I wanted you all to know, though. Pray for us."

My life is littered with people to whom I've been attached for a season, never to see again. It is the legacy of my own upbringing, as the child of a different kind of missionary. I have been transient most of my life and have learned, along with how to pack a bag, how to love and leave with minimal fuss. I have rarely allowed myself the luxury of missing people. I know how to say goodbye. I am finding, though, that... is it age? is it that I'm more settled now than I've been in my entire life? I am finding that these ghosts cling to me. It has begun to sting a little to let people go, even as I know full well I must. It is uncomfortable and new and it makes me want to keep people on my doorstep with my preemptive spiel: "I have enough, thank you. Please go away."

I was all bluster and practicality when I told my little girl with her big-hearted crush that the missionaries were moving on. "It is how it works. They chose to do this and they have to go where they're told." She nodded solemnly and her eyes were just a little bit brighter, her voice just a little bit smaller as she said, "I know. But I will miss them. I hope they're OK." As always, she reminds me that my heart is not my own. If I had truly never wanted to be touched, to never feel the sting of loss, I would not have joined my life to her father. I would not have brought her and her brother into this world to pry open the parts of me that no one else is allowed to see. She is small and settled in her life. She has the security to say "I will miss them," and to know that life goes on. To give away small bits of her heart to the people she meets and trust that in so doing, her own heart will expand. I held her hand while she prayed for their safety and said thank you for letting them into our lives. And I thought of their mothers, doubtless on their knees day and night, praying for the safety of these pieces of their hearts that wander strange streets and knock on doors. I said a prayer for their mothers, too. It is not an easy or comfortable thing, letting all these strangers in.

But this is part of the promise I have made. It is a battle in the war I have declared. It is a door that must be thrown open and I thank those two shivering boys, so sweet and earnest in the gathering dark shortly after Thanksgiving, for knocking. Their faith drove them to knock that night, and I find it was my own faith that drove me to invite them all the way in.

"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, 
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."
Hebrews 13:2

Monday, January 13, 2014


We're all around back to Monday again.

The days have begun to blur together with the ribbons of icy rain that have filled our drainage ditches and nearly drowned my little rock wall of hardy succulents. Too much of a good thing. Over the weekend the wind just howled and brought the rain sideways and mixed it with sleet. Or is it hail? I can never remember. It's all little ice rocks that fly from the sky. When the wind kicks up, it has behind it the full force of the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes the North Pole. It funnels through our little valley here and rips the trees apart and scatters them around the road. Days like those, it's a firm reminder that we live here in borrowed space in the laps of mountain ranges and hanging onto the edge of the country.

Last week brought three momentous occasions for me, all in a row.

Elvis' birthday on the 8th, whereupon he would have been 78. I was stranded in Elizabethtown, Kentucky once; a hundred years ago in a brutal winter snowstorm, in a brutal time in my life, on the birthday of The King. It's a story I'll tell another time, but every year on the anniversary of his birth, I find myself taking care of that young girl who thought she was all grown up, shivering there, stuck and clawing at the snow.

Audrey's birthday on the 9th. She is my best friend from high school's eldest child and she just turned 13. I met her mother the year we both turned 16. We were both in a new school in a foreign country and I started my period in her swimsuit the first time we ever hung out. When something like that happens, you are either friends for life or you never really speak again. I am blessed to say it was the former and her daughter was the first born of my close friends. I remember the awe as I beheld my friend there in the hospital, a new mother, exhausted and happy. I had no interest in being a mother at that point and she was like a warrior or a saint, treading ground I dare not touch. Now her baby girl is officially a teenager and my friend soldiers on ahead of me as I continue to watch in awe.

My darling true love's birthday on the 10th. He says the day is cursed. He doesn't like to celebrate. Ever since his 8th birthday when his dog died and no one showed up for his party. I cry and want to hold that small, sad boy. This year he spent it shuttling the kids to and from a birthday party and running errands while I lay in a fevered heap on the couch and my heart broke for him again. One year, though, the year we first met, he bought me a new dress - all shimmery maroon velvet - and took me to see Christoph Eschenbach conduct the Houston Symphony in Beethoven's 9th. Ode to Joy. Shortly after, he asked me to marry him. Which, of course, I did. For our honeymoon, we took a road trip to Graceland and I made my peace with Elvis.

It all comes full circle.

I wrote last week about our two faces. If it's all a circle and you are looking in both directions at once, you will eventually come around and meet yourself again. We think in opposites as absolutes. We think they are opposed, rather than part of the whole. Our rain and wind have softened today into tentative sun. I have pictures in my head of how this works. I will draw them for you sometime.

For now, another momentous occasion on the very near horizon:

Tomorrow, The Burrow Press Review will feature one of my pieces. It's a little different from what I write for the blog, but not. It is a tiny snapshot of my history, embellished with words. So here, now, in the bold sunshine of my current life, a whisper of that frozen time all those years ago will see the light of day. It's a strange thing to consider, as I could not be who I am now without having been all the things I didn't want to be.

This life is not an arrow, rising on its own trajectory until it ends. It is a doodle. An intricate design that winds in and out through pain and growth and joy and triumph and change. It folds in on itself and expands, it crosses itself and traverses new ground. It is a symphony. The theme keeps recurring. Sometimes in a wild crescendo, sometimes quietly in the background, but always there is harmony. Keep listening, keep doodling. My last days have been full of gray and relentless rain; sadness mixed with celebration. Today, the sun glances through clouds. It all comes around again.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

When In Rome...

Photo credit
Janus has two faces. The one that looks behind and the one that looks ahead. He guards the doors of our lives; keeping track of where we've come from, looking ahead to where we're headed.
He presides over war and over peace. He looks after entrances and exits, births and deaths, comings and goings. He gave us January.

I wonder if Janus approves of the grocery store in his special month. In our neighborhood store, the escalator comes down slowly through a vista of the entire store. The escalator bisects the seasonal items and I stand like a captain, surveying the seas of consumer goods around me. To my left, shiny new displays of organic and "healthy" foods. All green and white in their carefully marketed finery. They flank the throne-like center display of juicers, fat-free grills, and exercise accessories. To my right, the clearance Christmas candy, tattered and picked over in jumbled heaps, with the luster lacking like prom dresses the morning after. Sometimes it seems we all stand like Janus on this descending escalator, a head in both directions, wondering which way we'll turn when we reach the solid ground. Mercury and Ceres know this, I think. Commerce and harvest join hands and catch us no matter what we choose.

It seems I spend half my life in grocery stores. They become a microcosm of our great teeming American life. They know us well. They know what sells. It deflates me that we fall for this year after year. Soon the New Year diets will be discarded, just in time for the Super Bowl and Cupid's mad celebration in Mylar and chocolate. The clean lines of green and white will be shoved aside for great towers of beer, salty chips and disposable dishes shaped like footballs. Barely a few steps out of January and the keen resolve of so many will be broken. The clean, fresh calendar a forgotten whim as televised gladiatorial events take precedence. Are we really so fickle a lot?

In ancient Roman culture, Janus had no particular feast days or specified priests. His two faces were invoked at the beginning of everything, regardless of the occasion. The Romans of antiquity, it would appear, knew what was up. We stand with both our faces in the beginning of all things. Holiday foodstuffs aside, we know this is true in the deepest of our natures. We spend a lot of time looking in two directions at once. Where I've been and where I'm headed. Who I am and who I want to be. What I should have done and what I'll have to do now. What will end if I start this new thing? We invoke Janus throughout the year, regardless of the month, because what is life if not a series of beginnings and endings of things? We really are so fickle a lot.

I have made no resolutions this New Year. I rarely do, in fact. There will be no new calorie counting or Stairmaster regimen in my coming weeks, mercifully. I will not be eating what I imagine the cave men ate, nor will I learn to dance the Tarantella. A trip down the escalator in my grocery store is evidence enough of how that is all so much marketing. My calendar, decided all those centuries by Pope Gregory, tells me that it is January, the beginning of a new year. January, named for Janus, the god who swings both ways. In honor of this new year and every new year for the last several years, I choose a guiding theme, an idea to cling to in the center while my Janus self looks this way and that, watching my back and scouting ahead.

My theme is personal and will remain so this year, but I share these thoughts on our two faces as we launch into the new year. In ancient Rome, the temples of Janus kept their doors open when the Empire was at war. In peacetime, the doors stood closed. I believe there are times for closing doors, keeping the world at bay, retaining the peace within. But with the doors shut tight, you'll never get out or in; you'll never go anywhere. To consciously open some doors is to invite conflict and unrest into your life. We are, I believe, conditioned to avoid this. But perhaps it was with greater understanding of our nature that the Romans invoked the god of two faces, the god of gates and doors, at the beginning of all things. The god whose one face understands and accepts peace and the god whose other face knows the necessity of battle.

So it is, that I start this new calendar, in the month of Janus, by recalling the words that William Shakespeare put into the mouth of another illustrious Roman, Julius Caesar:

"Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!"

It's time to open some doors.