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 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. 


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.