Thursday, September 22, 2016

Vote for Andrew

It's been a long time since I've posted, as I've moved my jumbled thoughts over to Facebook.  And... as the children get older, and can remember their own stories, I've felt less pull to document it on their behalves.  

But I want to talk to Future Andrew about this one.  

He started a new school this year.  On the first week of his new school, he came home with a flier about Student Council elections.  

"I want to run for class representative, Mommy," he said, and I nodded supportively. Then I started a mom-monologue ("mom-alogue"?) about how it was the experience of campaigning... it's hard to win as a brand-new student... but it's not about winning...blah blah blah.  

About a hundred times over the next week...as we planned his campaign posters, wrote his speech, and practiced his speech...I told him how BRAVE and AMAZING it was to me, that he'd even CONTEMPLATE campaigning at a new school. That it wasn't ever about winning to me, but that I admired his inner-fire that was willing to try.  

And then...he won.  He WON.  

As I waited in the afternoon carpool line on Election Day, I saw his little Andrew-grin flash across his face, as he waited in line for me.  He was squishing it in, I could tell, but something was boiling over in him. I love his impish grin. But surely, he couldn't have won. He's a brand new kid at this school!  But what else would prompt That Look?

The moment the door closed, he breathed out: "Mom. I. WON."  

I had to pull over in the parking lot so I could:

(a) Start crying.
(b) Hug him.
(c) Call/text Steve.
(d) Call the grandparents on speakerphone.

I thought the Lesson To Learn was about being brave and still not winning, because lordknows that's a life lesson too.  But to be brave and WIN.  Well, that's even more fun. 

The gaping hole in this story is that I couldn't call my mom and tell her.  For 6 years of my childhood's student council elections, she helped me make posters. Write speeches. I practiced in front of her in the living room.  She was my campaign manager, and they remain some of the best memories of my childhood with her.  I found old campaign posters in my dad's house this summer, and grinned ear-to-ear.  

It would've felt amazing to call her and say her grandson won Class Rep at his new school.   People might be absent in our lives, but their legacy burns through our moments still.  Here she was, 8 years after death, filling this moment.  

In the Stories of Andrew, the ones I'll keep telling him on repeat throughout his life, this will be one.   Not that he won, even, although that plot-twist is an explosion of goodness in an already epic Andrew Story.  But that he had the foolhardy bravery to attempt a campaign on his second week of a new school. To try for something that (let's be honest) maybe didn't make sense to those around him.  

Some of my absolute favorite parenting moments are the times when I'm 1000% wrong. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

"There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep."

I am definitely the worst blogger ever, and while people who read it might not care, I ache to think my children will grow up thinking that 2013 barely existed in their lives.  That couldn't be further from the truth.

I could scramble to catch up the timeline.  Tell Simone about the day I read the tickets wrong on the Nutcracker Tea Party.  How we showed up a day late, and my soul broke into a million pieces when I realized I had to tell her (after she'd swept the kitchen for weeks to pay for half her ticket), that I made a mistake too large for words.  And how she cried for less than a minute -- rolling, soulful, cleansing tears. And then said, "Maybe we could go home and have a Nutcracker tea party with the boys?"  By the time we'd walked back to the car, she'd already planned for Steve to dress up like a bear. 

And how I knew in that moment, walking back to the car, that this little girl was going to be okay in the world.  That even my flighty, fragmented mothering -- the mothering that loves and cherishes them every second of every day, but misses crucial and gaping swaths of details -- wasn't going to crush her spirit. 

And yes, I paid her back for her half of the ticket.

There are so many other moments.  They were pulled into our fabrics, but I didn't write them down. When your memory is a trail of words and stories, like mine, that feels unsettling. I quit my job so I'd have more time to savor things.  Remember moments, even if I'm not writing them down.  

This weekend, I am alone with the kids in DC.  Steve is still in his busy season, so he's working 7 days a week.  Hillwood had their La Chandeleur festival, and crêpes are an important part of our family's identity.  The Chinese New Year parade is in DC Chinatown tomorrow, too, and Andrew loves anything from China.  
I fell asleep at 7pm tonight.  I thought I was being responsible and mature, fighting my instincts to stay up too late. But I confused my body and it thought I took a nap. So I've been up since midnight, doing my grad school reading assignments and staring at sleeping children. Tiny little human beings are scattered around my hotel room.  I think I needed this mode of motherhood: quiet, sleeping people. No one asking for food. No one running through the house with muddy boots. Just miraculous tinyness, stirring in their sleep. 

Like Andrew tonight, sitting up in his sleep to say: "I love you so much, Mommy." Then falling back asleep.  

Simone rolling over and saying, "Will you print out pictures of me and save them for when I'm big? Like your dad did for you?"  

And Jack. Omigod, Jack.  His sleeping features looking so grown up, but also reminding me so much of his sleeping baby self.  He still curls his hand under his face like he did as a newborn.

Tomorrow, we will get up and eat waffles at the hotel breakfast.  Explore some museums. Go to a parade and see Chinese dragons.  Ride a few metros. And then drive home.  Maybe they'll remember this weekend, maybe they won't.  But I'm grateful to have these moments with them. 

Whether written or not, I like how these moments pile up in our lives together.  My kids talk in legends about things we did ("Remember that time we saw the bear in Yellowstone?"...) and I never know what what will crop up.  Maybe someday, it will be driving to DC to eat crêpes and see Chinese dragons. Or maybe they'll still be discussing when Jack and Andrew both puked, within seconds of each other, when we looked at Christmas lights.  Or when I got frustrated and threw a silk bathrobe on the floor. They love that one.  Family histories are patchwork quilts of nonsense sometimes.  Chaos and crêpes and muddy boots and Metro rides and puke.

It's hard to put all that into words, which might be why I haven't written in 3 months.



Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dear Simone. I quit my job.

Dear Simone,

I quit my job this week. My goodness, that sentence looks tiny for something So Big.  Hours and hours of conversation and contemplation went into that little sentence.  And now I have an end-date: Nov 22.  Seven more weeks to finish up this course-cycle, and then…
Full-time grad school next semester.  Baking cookies all through December.  Sleeping for two weeks straight.  I don’t know. 

Your dad starts his Busy Season in January, when he works 7 days a week until after midnight.  When I tried to make our post-January life make sense, even on paper, all I could see was pure chaos.  This job I adore would start destroying my life. 

Your “5-year-old Simone” is ecstatic that I quit. We opened up sparkling grape juice and toasted that Mommy would be home more.  Your “35-year-old Simone”?  I don’t know what I just taught you. I really don’t. 
I want to believe you learned to follow your heart – and that sometimes, following your heart can mean breaking it too.

I want to believe you learned what I’ve said (and meant) all year: “I love my job so much. But I love you even more.”
I want to believe you learned that even great things are temporary. That it’s about passionately throwing yourself into everything you do and making the most out of each situation – whether it lasts 15 months or 15 years.

But, I run the risk that you learned you really can’t do it all.  It’s  a necessary truth, and better lives come out of this authentic awareness.  But it sucks too.  Sometimes the things you sacrifice or release are the things you weren’t ready to sacrifice.
I also fear I taught you that a woman’s career (no matter how much she loves it) is a play-thing compared to The Husband’s.  That's not our dynamic, and I hope you’ll be discerning enough to sort through it all. But I do wonder about that.

You have my active mind and restless heart, Simone, and I see you watching my life, my decisions.  I want to be a good steward of that, but life is messy and motherhood is messier still… so what you often see is me bungling along and doing the best I can do.   
I want you to sort through my experiences and choose your own path. Some decisions might be similar to mine. Some might not. That will always be okay with me. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and wanted to be.  But having that version of mothering growing up, I knew I wanted something different.  That I would be my best mothering-self when I wasn’t Only Mom.

I handed Mr. A my resignation letter and said: “There is no possible way to love a job more than I love this one.  But sir, I need to quit.  The algorithm of my life isn’t computing right now.”  And I am grateful for the 30 minutes when he asked questions, probed the situation, and then nodded with agreement that this really was my only option.
Here’s the thing, Simone. It is an amazing gift that women can do anything they want. It really is.  And I am grateful that I have a dad and husband who never sent me any other message. When I wanted this job, your dad never asked who was going to do his laundry and cook his food. He just said, “That sounds perfect for you,” and lowered his standards about what I could offer at home.

And then I texted him one day and said, “I’m going back to grad school next semester.” And watched my phone as the message popped up: “I think you would love to be back in school.”
Our female ancestors didn’t get to say things like that. They didn’t get to just think up a dream and make it happen.  And there are plenty-plenty-plenty of women who still can’t. I appreciate the privilege of being overwhelmed by opportunity.  But there is a dark side to it, too.  Professor E told me, “Just because you’re smart enough to do it doesn’t mean it’s smart to do it.”  Life is currently telling me: “Just because you love what you’re doing doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

As women, we have to form our own equation – build up the pieces of our lives like Lego blocks.  If I take out teaching completely, my structure collapses.  You wouldn’t have the mother you deserve. 
I keep learning that my best mothering (and wifedom) come when I am at my fullest. And for awhile, that was this job. I was energized and more ready to be part of our family.  And when that changed – when I became a depleted, caffeinated shell of myself – it was time to re-organize.

So here we are. 
Here is what I want to overtly teach you, Simone.  You have to figure out your life, and your family, on YOUR terms. Don’t let anyone (not me, not my experiences, not society or friends) tell you what you should do.  Whether you should stay at home or work.  And then sub-categories of decisions: from home or at an office, full-time or part-time.  When you make a decision, make sure it’s right for your current situation. Not the one a year from now or a year ago.  Life will tell you when you’re aligning your situation with your authentic needs.  800 mg of caffeine a day (even before Dad’s “busy season”) told me I probably was not. 

November 22.  This will be good.  Maybe Mr. A is right, and it’s a “temporary departure.” Or maybe the path ahead of me is as unplanned as this job was.  I didn’t set out to be an English teacher for the Army, and never thought to wish for it.  And yet here I am, heart-broken to walk away from it. 
Life and womanhood and motherhood are complicated algorithms indeed, Simone.  But it’s good.  It might be like cleaning out a closet, when it looks worse in the middle than when you started -- but in the end, I think decisions aligned with our priorities will always serve us well.  And when Mom is happy, the family will fall into place.

Love,
Mom

Thursday, September 26, 2013

At a Las Vegas buffet, holding a tiny plate.

A few weeks ago, I told my friend that life felt like a Las Vegas buffet and I was holding a tiny plate.  And that all this Cool Stuff I was piling on it -- job I adore, grad school, loved ones, the occasional few hours of sleep -- were great a la carte, but still overflowing all over the floor.

I have still not figured out the Perfect Answer.  I don't want to take off the cookie...the brownie...or the piece of cake.  I'm in love with every element of my life.  Except the "overflowing all over the floor" part.

Which leads me to today...
  • My alarm went off at 4am. I opted out of a shower to sleep 20 minutes longer.  
  • Got ready for work and did my hour-long commute to work.  Started at 6am.
  • Took a 20-minute nap (and showered) at a friend's house on my lunch break.  
  • Adored nearly every second of a work project I'm doing, about library sources for mission command papers (blah blah blah).  Seriously, I loved it.  My job speaks to my heart on a daily basis (and yes, I know that's cheesy).
  • Left work at 4pm to go to my graduate class -- which also speaks to my heart.
  • Graded papers in the 15 minutes I waited for class to start.  
  • Told my professor I needed to leave 10 minutes early to see my son's karate belt ceremony.  I wondered what he'd think (especially since he's writing my rec letter for the program), but he got a soft smile and nodded approvingly.  I've noticed people who are later in the family-rearing phase (50-60s) *always always always* understand that family comes first.  So he sped the entire class through explaining the Case Study assignment, because "Sarahbeth has a pressing family appointment."  Not even a trace of sarcasm. 
  • 10 minutes before class was officially out, I walked out of the classroom...and then, out of view from classmates, I took off RUNNING through the campus, back to the parking ramp.  Literally running.  I half-expected an officer to stop me, thinking I was running from a rapist.  And how to explain that I was sweaty and out of breath because I didn't want to be late to my son's karate ceremony?
  • Hit traffic.  Swore a lot.  
  • Came in 5 minutes late to the ceremony, but I MADE IT.  Andrew turned around and saw me, and smiled nonchalantly. Previously, I'd told him I was going to *try* to be there, but I had class that night and wasn't sure.  I expected him to be overtly happy or surprised or something when he saw me, but he just gave a small grin. I told myself maybe that's better -- that it's a non-issue for him that I'm present -- never-mind the 4am alarms and running through campus (Later, snuggling him to sleep, he said: "I was impressed when I saw you at my ceremony, Mom, but I was trying to be focused."  Omigod, I love him).
It is now 9:45, the kids and Victoria are in bed, and Steve is working crazy-late for their auditing deadlines and won't be home until 1 or 2 in the morning. He came to Andrew's ceremony and then had to go back.  I put in laundry, dishes, and put on my pajamas. And decided to blog for the first time in an embarrassingly long period of time.  

Big buffet.  Tiny plate.  If anyone has suggestions on how to Do It All and Still Sleep (other than cat-naps at a friend's apartment during lunch), please tell me.  Someone wiser than me would look in on my life and say it's time to edit.  And I know they're right.  I just have to figure out where to edit.  Because the current places, sleep and downtime, doesn't seem sustainable. 



Monday, April 29, 2013

“You know, it's quite a job starting to love somebody. You have to have energy, generosity, blindness." (Sartre)


There are many layers to Andrew, but he doles out parts of himself only in certain moments.  Darkness.  Quiet.  When there’s just him and another person.  The sound effects, the sword fighting, the running circles in the backyard all go away – and there’s this teeny-tiny, philosophical, deep-thinking soul in its place.  You see his kindness and his twinkling eyes during the day, sense there’s something below the surface, but there’s a different version of Andrew when I tuck him into bed.  Lying there with him, his ideas and wonderings seep out of him.  I turn off the lights, wrap his comforter around him, put my arm under his head – and just wait for him to emerge.
Sometimes I feel the guilt – should I have stopped him during the day, sat down with him to let him philosophically probe?  Or maybe this is his rhythm?  I’m still not sure.

I want to bottle up those dark and quiet moments forever.   I can’t begin to describe how much they mean to me.  That I’ve created this little human being with such wonderful questions, such marvelous insights.   
Last night:

Andrew (6): “Why do bad guys and good guys always look cute right before they die?” 
Me: “Cute?  What do you mean by that, sweetie?”

He showed me the panicky face, like he was scared he might die, and then said: “They never look like bad guys when they know they’re about to die."
My brain went cold when I realized the wisdom of what he was saying. “Andrew, I know exactly what you’re saying.  And ‘cute’ is a great word for it.  Adults might call it ‘vulnerable.’  When someone is really, really scared, they become their true self.  The deepest, truest part of themselves.”

“And that part isn’t bad-guy?  I always like them right before they die.  I don’t like that they’re going to die.  But everyone seems like a good person.”
I know (I know, I know) that I’m not supposed to fast-forward through any of this.  But even as I stroke the hair of this painfully adorable small boy, I am overwhelmed with wanting to see his grown-man version.  I want to introduce  him to the Great Philosophers.  People who’ve asked questions like he asks…agree or disagree…right or wrong…I think he will love it.  Hegel, Socrates, Kierkegaard, Freud, all of them.  Give him Sartre’s Nausea, and then take him out to coffee and hear his thoughts on it.  Hand him a fresh version of Emerson’s Self-Reliance, without all my notes and highlights… because I want to see what he finds in it. 

I have no interest in training his brain to believe what I believe.  I’ll tell him my thoughts – radical honesty is our most important family tenet – but I don’t want to direct his mind.  I want him to create his own intellect, form his own questions.  And for him to know that I’m always there to help him sort through them.
Some of that is an unconditional love for him.  I just love HIM, whatever that means, whatever he believes.  But some of that is a selfish love too, because this collaboration of differences is my favorite part of parenting.  Watching them find their own essence and their own independence of mind is enthralling to me.   Hearing his questions – seeing his mind – is so much better than anything I could dictate to him.

 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

How my cubicle is like a Willy Wonka elevator

I love to travel because I love people.  Talking to them, learning about them, asking them too many questions, telling them embarrassing stories about myself.   And the people along my travels are like postcards in a big dusty photo album in my mind.  

Hulya, the Turkish jewelry maker, who invited me to eat dinner with her family in the back of the store.  We had met only minutes earlier, were mutually fascinated with each others' foreignness, and then I was sitting at her table spinning spaghetti on my fork and hearing Turkish conversation float around me.  

Clive, the Irish guy who came up to me at the train station in Vienna and pointed to my backpack:  "Want to be best friends and travel-mates for two days, and then never speak to each other again?" I laughed. I said 'yes.' We covered almost every square inch of Vienna.  And then never spoke to each other again. 

The couple from Mexico whom I met in Switzerland.  They taught me about the "McDonald Index" of a city.  How much does a Big Mac cost in each European city?  I offended her at first by calling myself an "American" ("Mexico is America too!")...but then she forgave me, and we talked all night over beers in the hostel kitchen, because we couldn't afford to eat out in Switzerland. 

Alexander, the Bosnian on the nightbus, who needs an entire post to explain what he meant to me. I can't believe it's been 13 years since he nervously kicked the gravel and said to me during the stop for gas: "If you need help translating, I'm pretty good at English."  And then patiently let me ask him a million questions about the war that just ended.  Does he remember that American girl sneaking into Sarajevo, wearing her turquoise Columbia coat in a bus filled with black-coated men?  Does he wonder what happened to me? 

There are three key ingredients of who I am: people and words and places.They're a Venn diagram in me, with more shared area than not.  I talk, I write, as a means of knowing people.  Sharing human experiences.  I read others' words to learn who I am.  Stir it in my mind and spill it back on the page.  I remember standing in the kitchen, rapid-fire questions to L, in my typical journalist-way, and saying: "I'm asking too many questions, aren't I?"  "No, I like it.  It's nice."  "Okay, good...because I don't really know how to stop."

I show love to people with words and food.  Sometimes the only way I know how to help is to write, and then it seems like this ridiculously empty thing after I hit "send."  But it's the best way I know how to sort through situations, connect with people. Written or spoken.  Sitting on a couch, letting words pour out to a friend.  It didn't really fix things, maybe, but it felt like it did. 

I think people want to be known and understood...want to understand...and questions and writing are how I interact with the world.  Were it not for Alex on the Bosnian bus, I would have become a war journalist.  When he told me what that meant...the voyeuristic, exploitative side of it...that part of me went away.  The formal side of it, anyway.  I wasn't going to jump out of a bulletproof van and take pictures of children's legs exploded by snipers on their way to school.  But I knew I wanted to keep exploring people.  Going places.  Asking questions. 

And then I took this job.  The English Lady for the Army. Before I learned about this position, I was 100% certain I didn't want a full-time job, and I remember wondering why the hell I was sending my resume for a job I wasn't sure I even wanted.  Then it all happened so quickly (interview and offer) that I listened to the impulse and said "yes."  We scrambled to re-configure our life's infrastructure, had several weeks of life I hope to NEVER experience again, and then the smoke cleared and I was left with this job that amazes me.  

It takes all the pieces of my life that I've gathered in my pack, and put them together in this magically contrived position.  Writing, reading, teaching -- everything I loved, but on steroids.  This week has been insane with work.  But because it's the right job for me, it just feels like more of what I love.  

That cubicle that I feared would atrophy my life?  It's actually a locus point for all these experiences coming to me. My life didn't get smaller, it got bigger.  My Allied Officers, who come from all over the world.  Bosnia! South Sudan!  Country after country, coming through my cubicle.  Reminding me of places I've been, people I met.  Places that imprinted in me throughout the years...that meant so much to me...and I shake my head in wonder that there's a Bosnian military officer sitting at my desk getting help with his paper. 

Tomorrow, I'm going to lunch with a Major in the Pakistani Army.  He was my student last term, and then he gave a presentation last week for the international students. I sat in a room filled with officers from 20 countries, crammed together in that room to hear Maj R. speak. I was squished between Ghana and Germany, staring at the back of Egypt's head. I have these dreams of working for United Nations, traveling the world to talk to people, and this job that I accepted with an impulse-yes brought everything to me.

During Maj R's presentation, I was scribbling notes as fast as I could write them.  My war journalist side was exploding out of me...out of my pen onto paper.  I had no idea why I needed what he was saying so much.  But I did.  I sent him an email afterward, telling him how much I appreciated his talk, and we went back and forth with questions.  He had them about America, I had so many about Pakistan.  

So tomorrow, we go to lunch.  Tonight, I texted a Nigerian man about his memo format...wrote back to my Turkish student about using citations...and reviewed a draft for a man from Ecuador.

Words and people and places.

I will never stop being grateful for this.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

A day in the life of marriage, texting-style.

I have reams of printed emails and handwritten letters from my early years with Steve. We found a chest of handwritten letters between my grandparents during the war. Now, my children will have to scroll through my iPhone text archives to piece together their parents’ history. Really, I’m not sure how people did any part of life – friendship, parenthood, career, marriage – before unlimited text message plans.

Messages I sent to Steve during one 24-hour period, except 3 that weren’t appropriate to share ... ;)

Can you put their lunches in the fridge at school? The spaghetti has meat. Thank you!

I’m sorry about last night. I wasn’t fair. And your singing and dancing was cute, out of that context.

Do you have $30 cash on you? That’s what we owe them today. If not, I’ll get from the ATM. No problem.

You are so talented. I really appreciate you.

Foot-long meatball sub for $3.75, baby.

While I was in the bathroom, a female soldier came in, locked herself in the stall, and started loudly bawling. I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Good luck on your haircut!

What time do you leave for your test?

So should I reserve the hotel in DC this weekend?

I posted a Simone story on Facebook.

I love you.

Had a conversation with the neighbor about the pit-bull. Ugh. We can discuss.

You are a profoundly awesome human being. I adore you.

Close-out sale on Honey Bunches of Oats, strawberry flavor. Be warned: I’m coming home with 8 boxes.

M’kay. Should I keep the kids awake until you’re home?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Labyrinth minds: and the people who love them

A few background points before I unpack my thoughts: 

- I just finished reading Anne Frank's diary, in anticipation of my visit to Amsterdam this summer, which is a book I haven't read since I was a teenager. I have so many thoughts about that book, I don't know where to begin.  But this post is only loosely related.


- Steve and I have been discussing whether you could marry or befriend anyone in the world and  eventually make it work, because the innermost core of most persons is usually lovable and good.  It's the layers around that essential core that are usually difficult and complicated.  Bad upbringing, prejudices, insecurities, coping mechanisms.  Beneath all that: The very raw core of us shares more than it differs on.

- Marriage reminds me a lot of Pandora radio.  You tell about yourself, and then they act on what you tell them.  Some hits and some misses.  You keep communicating back and forth -- with effort, time, and trial and error -- until you end up with this cozy, perfectly-suited backdrop to your life.  All these contradictions about myself...Eminem, Matchbox 20, and Alabama?...and Pandora just calmly accepts it about me.  A lot like Steve.

Okay, there's more -- but those are the primary things. 

The last entry of Anne's diary, she talks about her contradictory self: the flippant and silly outer-layer, and the "purer, deeper, and finer" side within her -- the side no one ever sees.  

I remember vividly reading this as a teen, and knowing exactly what she meant.  I had my deeply private, analytical, highly-serious side that was smooshed inside of me through most of my teen years.  

It's not a side you can show to parents in those years.  Or maybe you can, but I tend to believe the teen years are about autonomy, and the need to keep sides of yourself private is part of the march to adulthood.   

I tell myself I want to be a parent that my children confide in and trust in their teens...and while I believe that's in part true, I also think the best autonomy process happens when some of you is shielded from adults.  When you get to expand into a space that no one created for you.  

I was very similar to my parents in some ways...many ways...but to become the independent adult I became, I needed to believe I was carving a path no one had ever experienced before. 

In hindsight, I wish that for my children too.  Do I want them to feel understood?  I do.  But I also think that feeling misunderstood is perhaps part of the process.  

Okay...I'm skimming through about 10 ideas that I could write an entire post about.  Whatever.  I'll move on.

Anne's core-self seemed so similar to me as to be uncanny.  I think she and I are likely more similar than not, as we're both the introverted, deep-thinking, writer-types.  But perhaps if you peer into anyone's mind, uncensored, you'll find so much shared humanity that the differences will seem insignificant?  

I write to process...I think and contemplate recreationally...so I tend to connect with other writer-minds, because they're the ones putting thoughts on paper.  Maybe it skews my sense of "normal" in the under-layers of other people.  The people who don't think/act like me aren't writing down their thoughts for me, so I can't compare notes.

Here's what I want to tell Anne...or my teenage-self, back when she read Anne for the first time...or my kids, down the road:

Being a teenager means sorting through the mess of who you are, what you love, and who you'll become.  And finding others to meld into that is complicated at best, because you're still figuring it out.  Even surrounded by friends...lovely, wonderful friends who shared my secrets...I felt a loneliness and an angst.  I couldn't find someone who connected with my deepest layers of self, because I hadn't yet figured out what those deepest layers looked like.  

As I settled more into myself, late teens and early 20s, I found friends who really shared my soul.  There are two things about those found-friendships I remember with seering gratitude:

- When I told a friend something about myself, they understood what I meant, and then added an insight I'd never considered.  To me, that's the greatest moment you can have as a human.

-  Realizing I'd found a safe place to say anything on my mind. Whether they agreed or disagreed with me, they'd still accept me and respect me.

I deeply believe that the best love and friendship happens when you find someone who helps you just be YOU.  It was a process for me to  learn how to peel off another layer, the thick outer-surface of who I was, and see that I was still accepted.

Once I saw that it was accepted by those few persons in my life, it seemed less relevant if others saw it.  I didn't need to be recognized and known by the masses, because there was this circle of persons where I could bring my authentic core -- and re-fuel for the rest of life.

I still feel this way. Last week, when mind-ramblings tumbled out of me to a dear friend, Danielle said to me: "I like knowing that about you and Steve, because if you can think like that, it means you won't judge anything about me."

My inner-self turned to goo. Deeply analytical people can be tricky to learn about, because their brain is like a labyrinth. And sometimes recreational-analysis can look like neuroses. :) It's hard to find someone who can see complicated thought processes as something other than worry or concern. That instead of trying to calm my brain, they help me unfold my ideas.

 When I find someone who will listen to the complications, understand the complications, and like me more for it -- I will adore that short-list of persons my entire life. 

The grand finale of those friendships was showing my authentic self to Steve, when we first started dating. We were young (18 and 19), bumbling, still-forming, and very new to what we were trying to do:  create an adult relationship when our brains were still growing-up. 

IT WAS THE HARDEST FREAKIN' THING I HAVE EVER DONE.  

Young love is much harder than parenthood.  We met before we wanted to meet -- neither of us were interested in meeting The One at that age -- but both sensed that this was the right person.  The ins-and-outs of those 4 years could fill an encyclopedic tome, but that's the nutshell of it.  It was the most awful, most awesomest thing ever.  And neither of us regrets any of it, although we offer deep sympathies to our younger-selves. 

A major part of what made it so awful/awesome was that process of becoming me in front of someone I really liked.  And it was important to me that he liked me back. Not just the outer-surface, but the hidden parts too. 

I handed him pieces of me -- stories I'd never told someone or things I wished away about myself -- and waited for when he'd look horrified, maybe, or just confused.  I didn't want someone confused or alarmed by my inner-self. 

Many people (maybe most?) define marriage as fidelity or loyalty or commitment.  The certificate or the vows.  But my definition has nothing to do with the legal documents or convenant..  It's about this place in my life where I've been ripped open, parts spilling everywhere, and being able to think every single thought out loud.  Radical honesty.  Being, doing, and saying nothing that he can't know about...and doesn't know about.  Maybe those things would freak someone else out, but they don't freak him out. The rest just falls into place, it seems.  Or has so far, 16 years into him. 

So my marriage advice is: 

"Marry someone who isn't freaked out by your authentic self."

Could you just drop any spouse into my life and make it work?  If the core of ourselves can connect, if you just search someone deeply enough to know their Essential Being?  Sixteen years into this relationship we've made, based on radical honesty and split-open innards of Self, it's hard to imagine finding someone else who so unblinkingly accepts me.  And thinking back to myself in the "Anne Frank" stage of my life...that wandering soul looking for definition and clarity...I am deeply, deeply grateful that people came into my life.  Steve, yes, but also...that short-list of persons who peered into my deepest layers and stayed my friend. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Why sometimes, I don't mind being the worst mother in the world.


My children are currently obsessed with two topics: civil rights and the Jewish holocaust.   Really and truly, I understand if you judge that my 8, 6, and 4 year olds know about these.  You can unsubscribe from my blog or de-friend me.  But hear me out on a few key details:

(1) They are not scared by these topics.

(2) I only answer questions they ask, and only read them books about it because they want them.

(3) All 3 of the kids see these topics as “what can we do?” instead of feeling like they are bad things that we can’t control.
 

I know I trend more towards honesty with my kids than some persons are comfortable having, and I don’t mean to imply that NOT telling your 4-year-old about the holocaust is dishonest.  I just mean, I tend to give transparent answers to questions that others might think are age-inappropriate.
 

Feel free to judge this, too:

I took them to the Holocaust Museum on Friday.  I’ve been a docent there, so I knew the exhibit. I was only going to show them parts of it, maybe because I was too sheepish to plan on the entire thing.  The ticket-man and the bookstore-woman were both deeply concerned that I brought my kids.  I understood.  But I’d spent weeks of them asking for so many details about it that I knew it would be okay.

And it was.  It was more than okay.

In the end, they saw every exhibit there.  The Richmond Holocaust Museum is different than some, as you walk through the experience.  The ghetto, the train car, all of it.  Even the crematorium.   It’s not just pictures of emaciated persons; it’s the re-enactment of the experience.   It’s as “child-friendly” as a museum about the holocaust could hope to be, although it *certainly* depends on the child.
 

All three children were reverent and sincere.  I never once had to ask them to not run, to talk quietly, anything.  They asked a million-and-three questions.  They were mesmerized by the knowing and learning.
 

Somehow, this is part of their Essential Core.  I can feel that from them. They wanted to see and know everything.  


I ended up going back to parts I’d skipped, because they were hungry for all of it.  At the end, they were all disappointed that “it was already over” – and each of them asked, independently from each other, if we could come back the next day.

In the bookstore after we’d seen the exhibit, the same woman who’d initially given me judging looks for bringing my kids came over to me.   Apparently, she’d heard our conversation, when the kids talked about how the Nazis needed to use the Golden Rule and judge people by the content of their character (thank you, MLK Jr.).   I think she sensed I hadn’t just ruined their lives by bringing them to the museum. She suggested a few books, tousled their hair, and told them she hoped to see them again soon.

Here’s the thing: If it was scaring them, I wouldn’t do these things. But the more they learn, the more empowered they seem to become.  That fascinates me about my children.  Maybe it’s all Tiny Humans, but these are the 3 I know best.

On the car ride home, Simone (4) said: “If I were President, I would change the laws for Jewish people.  So Naomi could eat shrimp.”

Jack (8): “But Simone, that’s a law they WANT to have. They choose that one.”

Simone: “WHAT?  I thought the Nazis told them that?"

Jack: “Hmm. Well. There aren’t really Nazis in America these days.  We have to change the world in different ways. ”
Between you and me: I had to pull the car over to cry.  That moment is why I took my young children to the Holocaust Museum.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Art museums, wearing socks to bed, and other parenting mysteries


There are two categories of parenting that can equally shock: When your child is like you in ways that are inexplicably specific, and times when they are completely disconnected from anything you could have imagined.  Genes pour together into a vat, get stirred up a few times, and come out all kinds of unpredictable chaos.
Similarities:
Simone (4) said in the National Gallery last weekend, with wide-eyed awe: “How are these paintings even possible?”  This is nearly identical to something I said to a friend at the National Gallery last fall: That I loved the Dutch Realist painters, where you can’t even fathom that it’s possible to paint it.  I have never said that sentence to Simone, but her emotional computer created the same feeling and articulated it in nearly the same way.
There was a buzzing brain-sizzle as I stared down at this tiny, blonde, Shrunken-Down Version of Me, standing in the museum corridor. She collects words like me, drags books around the house and begs me to teach her how to read them, starves for sentences and ideas, and authentically loves art museums.  Not to make me happy, but to make herself happy.  If I apply zero pressure to steer her path, I will still have created a word-loving literary child.
Or the littlest things: Like when Jack told me he likes to wear socks to bed, because the best feeling is waiting a little bit and then taking them off,  so you can feel the cold sheets on your feet.  I do the same thing.  For the same reason. 
It’s oversimplified, I know.  There are 100 ways they’re different from me. With Andrew, there are 1000s. More on that later.
But still.
So to go back the Gene Vat analogy: You reach into the vat and scoop out a soul, with its pre-wirings and interests and proclivities.  And then you create an environment around it. 
In some ways, Jack seems like the Me I wish I’d been.  Or rather, a version that I’d be if I could take multiple paths at once.  Life is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, and you have to make choices along the way.  Not like the current me: I ask him what he did in school today, and he asks if I want it in French or English.  And he is not joking around.  That’s not Me because it can’t be me.  But I understand that side of him, because he got it from me. But…born into a different era, different situation, different parenting strategies. 
You always have to choose, as a parent, which experiences to give your children.  It’s like reading.  When I think of all the books out there, it can shred my heart that I will never read them all.  You just can’t. It’s not humanly possible.  I can live to be Very Old, and I will still die with countries unseen, movies not watched, museums not explored, books not read.  It pains me on some level, but it’s also a comfort.  You choose.  You do your best.  And you fill life the best you can in the time you have.
When my children pack their bags for college, there will be so many things I haven’t done with them.  We’ve made travel a focal point of their childhood, and my 4-year-old has been to 30 states.  But in doing that focal point, there are other things that haven’t happened for her.  She never once went to a Mommy-and-Me class. J Or: I can send them to French immersion school and Russian camp for Jack, and that still means hundreds of languages not learned. 
But it’s only partly what I pour into their lives, too. There is a library at work, a floor down from my office, so I come home with books for the kids most days. They love biographies.  We read about Helen Keller, Ben Franklin, whomever. They aren’t picky.  I got one about Vivaldi the other day, and was reading it to Jack before bed.  Apparently, Jack already knew Vivaldi.  Heard his music at school.  Knew he was called the Red Priest. And that he taught orphan girls music.
These tiny moments leave me breathless.  I’ve created this person who is of me and like me, but with his completely independent path through life.  He’s already learned and will learn things that never came my way. 
There are echoes of me in Jack and Simone, in ways that are eery, disturbingly exciting, and profoundly fascinating.  Andrew is a near carbon-copy of Steve, so Steve has baffled wonder moments more often with him.  We swapped out Steve’s cautious analysis with my fearless impulsivity, so those parts of Andrew resonate with me.  Most times, though, I filter through Andrew dilemmas through the Steve-filter.
I thought motherhood would be just about loving these little persons, and ohmygod, I do. But the exploration of another human being…that’s this completely unexpected element.  Learning about them, guiding them, watching them unfold.  I can’t choose what interests I pass down to them – whether through genes or dragging them on my outings – because you can’t predict or steer whatyour child becomes. 
I can set good examples and give them values and teach them how to treat people, and all the Parenting 101 basics.  But at the end of the day, the individual they become is their own masterpiece. I hand them the brushes, buy the paints, make suggestions, tell them I like how they made that tree over there.  The painting is all theirs, though, and I just get to observe the scene unfold in front of me.
***
Basically unrelated, although still under Musings About My Children… and things I want to remember for them:
Andrew (6): “What if all this is a dream?  Our whole lives?  What if I’m just in the dream?”
Me: “Andrew, did you know some of the greatest minds ever have asked that same question?”
***
Me: “So guys, what was your favorite thing about our trip to DC?”
Simone: “Learning that even if I’m as cold as an ice cube, I can STILL DO IT.”
I.love.this.so.much.

 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Turns out, I DID come home un-crabby.

I have so many things I want to say about my children right now.  And not a single sentence I can write could describe this feeling in the pit of me -- the gratitude, love, joy, excitement -- that these little persons are mine.

I left on Sunday morning to take the kids for 2 days in Washington DC, solo due to Steve's work schedule.  As we were leaving, Steve said to me: "Thank you for doing this for our children."

"Ah. Maybe thank me when I get home.  Make sure I'm not crabby on the other end of this."

Steve, with complete calm: "Oh. I have NO expectations that you'll come back un-crabby."

The way he said it, with absolute acceptance, twisted me in a lovely way.  I felt like he was giving me permission to react authentically to what could have been a very complicated weekend. I really appreciated it.  And in a strange way, it poured a confidence into me -- like no matter what happened, it would be okay.  I would make sure it was a great weekend. 


We went up there because I wanted to take the kids to the National Gallery.  As I posted on Facebook: "My art-loving younger self never predicted researching the National Gallery website for paintings whose artists share a name with Ninja Turtles. But when Andrew said after the Michelangelo exhibit, “Can we go see Leonardo ones next?” -- all I could hear was his excitement about art, and I didn’t care about the source. Honestly, I’m kinda in love with the way family members meld their interests to make something bigger and better than any individual. Yes, we’re going on the Ninja Turtle themed tour of the National Gallery this weekend – but we’ll still see some amazing art. And my superhero-loving little boy is excited about it. That means a lot to my art-loving current self."

We drove up early that morning and had brunch with Prilla and Curt, left our car at their place to take the Metro, spent a few hours at the National Gallery, then walked to Ford's Theater, then to the White House, then to the Metro station again to come home.

That's the simplified version. The more accurate, unedited vision involves blasting cold wind, hurting feet, no open restaurants for long stretches of time, not being able to find taxis when we needed them (hence all the walking), the Metro station being closed when we finally arrived, and one child wetting pants because no building with a bathroom was unlocked.

But you know what else it doesn't include? 

That NOT ONE of my children whined at me.  We all talked about how effing cold it was (Simone: "I have never been so cold, but I am TRYING REALLY HARD not to freak out right now!").  But everyone talked about it like it was an unalterable entity...a necessary evil to do what we were wanting to do...and with no whining or irritability. 

I felt like we were all in this together.  Bonding through the misery of cold, hurting-footed hunger.  One of us with wet pants.

Every few freezing blocks, I'd crouch down at their level, tell them they were travel warriors, and we'd all do a group hug.  Partly for moral support, partly for shared body heat.  You'd think we were climbing Mount Everest together, not walking urban DC.  But for tiny persons, quite honestly, it might be about the same level of triumph. 

When we finally found a Marriott (after blocks upon blocks of closed office buildings), we ducked in, dried off wet pants, bought a round of hot ciders, and then I said: "Do we still want to walk to the White House?"  I assumed it'd be a unanimous NO, but three sets of eyes lit up and shrieked YES.

I fought back tears, pushed forward by some yet-to-be-named emotion that is a large percentage pride...but also just wondrous awe at these persons.

I LOVE THEM SO MUCH.

It was an amazing two days.  They loved the art museum.  Andrew loved that he planned our Sunday (Ninja Turtle artists...where Abe Lincoln was shot...and the White House -- all his itinerary for us).  I think he grew a foot taller yesterday.

On Sunday night we stayed at a hotel, as we went to Mount Vernon on Monday for Washington's birthday events and to see his personal copy of the Constitution.  I woke up this morning to see the bathroom light on, and Andrew playing in there.  "I didn't want to turn on the lights and wake you all," he said.  And then a few beats later: "You know what, Mommy? You're an awesome mommy." 

Sometimes, motherhood is complete un-fun.  If you are a parent, I don't need to explain this.  Sometimes, in fact, it can be pretty damn miserable.  And then other times, you're standing in your pajamas in a hotel room in Alexandria, wiping away tears about this sweet little boy standing in his underwear in the bathroom, holding a Spider-Man, handing you one of the more beautiful moments you've ever had. 


 


Friday, February 8, 2013

On being a siblingless-sibling.

I don't really know what it feels like to have a sibling relationship, despite having two brothers, which might not make sense if you didn't have mentally handicapped brothers. It's not like being estranged from a blood sibling, or not getting along, or having different personalities.  It's a completely unique recipe of caretaker-mentality, similar biological age, but a huge gap of mental age that mimics decades of chronological age.  Mimics, but not the same.  As even with a decade or two of chronological age difference, at some point you can catch up and have some peer element.

I'm not saying one is harder or easier or anything qualitative.  It just is.  This is my experience, the only one I know.  

Peer-dynamic is the part missing about my sibling relationships. I think the mix of only-childness, but components of siblinghood, is what makes being a "special-needs sibling" such a complex definition.  

I wouldn't change it. I don't wish it away. There's no internal whining or wistfulness when I think about it.  I don't have a longing or an ache for a sibling relationship, but I do have a curiosity. 

I watch my children play together, talk together at the dinner table, and wonder...deeply and passionately...what that feels like to have someone who shares your blood, your mental abilities, your age, your home.

What does that feel like?  I want to put it in double-italics, underlined and bolded, maybe flashed in neon.  Because in my mind, it tumbles out like a hungry, ravenous begging. 

I want to interview my children along the way.  When they call each other... from college...or as adults cities apart...what will they say to each other?  What do you tell a sibling?  My brothers are barely intelligible on the phone.  I have no concept of calling up a sibling to talk...as a peer...whether to pass on information or anything else.

Being their sister shaped me in incredible, indelible ways.  It gave me a confidence, this feeling like I could do anything...along with a sense of responsibility, like I should do everything I can do.  But it stripped me of any ability to be arrogant about it all, because my mind doesn't belong to me.  I have nothing to do with my ability to construct thoughts and ideas.  My DNA gave it to me, and it could have just as easily taken it away from me.

So there's this crazy concoction of awe and appreciation and profound humility, about something inside of me that doesn't belong to me.  I escaped my genetic coding with a normally-functioning, non-handicapped mind... that gets to read Hemingway and write down thoughts and psychologically probe Mein Kampf with William. All these things I've shoved into my neurons over the years -- they have nothing to do with me.  I was just given a bigger cup to hold it all than my brothers.  I wasn't holding more water because I practiced pouring.

We wonder about raising siblings, Steve and I, because we don't understand it.  He had two much older half-brothers...and while the dynamics are different (they are now peers), we share an understanding of having Official Brothers but feeling like an only child in many ways. We don't always know what to do in our children's sibling-moments, and so we fumble around and hope for the best.  

We gave our children siblings in a tight-cluster of age, and nature gave them closely aligned intellect.  We've moved them from place to place, so they've become bonded as one of the few constants in each others' lives.  

When we were in the Grand Tetons, we took a tour of a tiny one-room cabin where a pair of brothers lived in a harsh Wyoming winter.  The tour guide said, "Who here would want to live in this TINY room with their sibling ALL winter?"  My three children were the only ones among 20 people, adults and children, who raised their hands.  I laugh even now, remembering it.  I remember looking down at their tiny heads and raised-hands, and loving that they had each other.

Yes, I know...I had and have brothers.  I'm not saying I didn't.  I have snapshot-memories of being in head-locks, raiding cabinets of junk food while our parents slept in on Saturdays, and long bike rides with Craig.  In the beginning, too, the differences weren't so vast.  But I kept growing up.  And like Peter Pan, they stayed the same age.  I read Separate Peace while Craig, 2 years younger, kept reading Berenstein Bears.  He still does, for that matter.

I became a peer to my parents instead.  Told them secrets you might normally tell a sibling, came to them for advice.  But then as my mom's mind splintered and dissolved in her last decade of life, from the same dystrophy that splintered my brothers' minds from birth, I became a siblingless-sibling and a motherless-daughter.  

I had brothers, but no peers in my family.  And I had a mom who adored me, but couldn't keep her cognition straight to be an authority figure and guide.  Sentences were jumbled, logic made no sense.  I had to help put on her shoes, because her physical shell was dissolving too.

I'm not really getting to a point. I guess there really isn't one. I have some blended up thoughts about trailblazing elements of parenting -- the attempts to do a good job when there's something you don't really understand.  But mostly, this is just what's on my mind tonight.