Category Archives: Musings of the Zen Master

A String of Lights

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The air feels heavy right now. I am overwhelmed by the news, by the violence and bigotry that is making constant headlines. I have withdrawn to some degree which is not my usual response. I’ve turned my attention to cuddles with my youngest though it’s past her bedtime, to the clean lines of my freshly painted kitchen, to laughter with friends. And me being me, I have also played Candy Crush with an intensity that hints at my underlying need for control – matching and sorting and stacking – because I can’t do that as well with the woes of the world.

But the kids are back in school and the words have been filling up my head and I finally feel that ache to write that you hear writers speak about – that need to put words together like strings of light that will illuminate the world around me even if it’s simply the internal. So, I’m coming back to this slowly and awkwardly but I do most things awkwardly so it seems fitting.

I have so many writers in my life and each of them adds a dash of something something to my experience. They inspire me, encourage me, reassure me and challenge me. Sarah Gilbert and I sometimes have conversations about writing in the early morning hours before we have to get our kids ready for the day and, this morning, she sent me a message that said, “What are we not writing today?” It’s the perfect question, really.

What are we not writing today?

There are so many things that I am not writing but maybe I can sit down and write one thing and then another and then the soft glow of my own string of lights will lead me forward.

Yesterday, I bought a book. Not a memoir. Not a novel. Not a book about writing a memoir or a novel. I bought a children’s book published in 1972, Dooly and the Snortsnoot by Jack Kent. As a kid, I was captivated by the simple illustrations and the story of a giant who is small and only grows to his full potential through loyalty to his friends and bravery. I don’t know what happened to my copy. I’m sure it was packed up and given away as I got older but I often find myself wishing that I had it with me, a reminder of my childhood, a reminder to be fearless. This past weekend, we had dinner at a friend’s house and she pulled out her copy of Dooly. Somehow, long ago, we figured out we had this favorite book in common which must mean we were destined to be friends. She handed it to me and I flipped through the pages once again, lingering on my favorite illustration of the Snortsnoot sprinkling his victim with salt and pepper. There really is something special about books and the way they can tie us to the past and, in this case, to the polished and simplified version of my childhood. So, yesterday, I searched for a copy online as I do from time to time, expecting to see the usual prices of $100 to $250 and saw one for only $5.89 that was rated as being in good condition. Though I am too cynical for signs most of the time, I took it as one and bought it. I know that it may come to me tattered and worn and with pages that are marred but I am learning to live with imperfection.

So, what am I writing today?

I’m writing about finding joy in simplicity and about hope that costs only $9.28 with shipping.

Shadows

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My father died when he was 50 and the summer after his death, my mother had a triple bypass. I was only 20 at the time and I remember thinking that my father had lived a full life and my mother’s health problems were part of getting old.

Time, of course, provides perspective and as I face the fact that I will turn 46 this fall, I realize that 50 and 54 aren’t old at all. My dad died young and my mother’s health problems began long before they should have. There are many things to blame – alcohol abuse, cigars (his) and cigarettes (hers), and general revelry-related excesses – and I have always clung to the fact that my life has been much different than theirs.

I drink in moderation. I tried the occasional cigarette but never became hooked. My diet is low in Velveeta and high in the good stuff. I hope these basic differences will guarantee a different outcome for me because I want to live a long life, want to have an active life after my children have grown up and moved on.

I don’t want to be like my parents.

Perfection and Motherhood

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We were at a party, having a glass of wine and talking loudly to compete with the din when she told me she admired my parenting. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly so I responded with the articulate, “Huh?” She repeated her comment and I said, “For all you know, I could beat my children…” and then launched into an intellectual rant about curated lives in blogging and the cult of personality. She shifted her weight, looked at me and said, “Can you stop? Can you just say ‘Thank you’?”

I’ve thought about this conversation a lot recently, thought about all the factors that led me to so quickly dismiss the compliment. Our friendship is one that began online and has grown through stolen moments at conferences and glasses of wine shared while passing through each other’s cities. She hasn’t met my kids or seen me parent so – yes – we can talk about careful curation in blogging but she knows enough to judge my authenticity. I think about the difficulty most women have in accepting a compliment so that played a part too. How often do we dismiss them, turn conversation away from them, make jokes at our own expense to avoid the discomfort of small kindnesses? And why do we do that? I can’t answer those questions but know that I’m not alone in doing it.

But more than anything, I keep returning to the conversation from that  night because I can’t help wondering when perfection became the standard by which I judge my parenting.

When I reflect on my time in high school, I don’t think about my accomplishments. I rarely talk about the fact that I spoke at graduation or lettered in Debate but I will tell you about the B I received in Geometry and the fact that it ruined my 4.0 GPA.

When I talk about my time at Grinnell College, I will spin tales of receiving my first F on a Chemistry test and tell you that I spent way too much time writing music, playing the guitar and drinking with the rugby team. I think of college as the time when I learned about failure  yet I graduated with a B average.

Have I ever told you that I worked nights to put myself through graduate school and had a 4.0 GPA? Of course not…unless I also tell you that it was an easy program and I somehow got lucky.

When I think about my 15 years as a county Adult Protection investigator, I remember the first time a supervisor told me that I had not done an adequate job on an investigation and the burnout that marked the end of my time there. I don’t think about the people I helped or the fact that I was instrumental in sending an appellate court judge to prison.

Even putting those accomplishments on the page makes me uncomfortable, qualified as they are by framing in the context of failure and falling short. This is beyond an irritating tendency towards pessimism, beyond self-deprecation. This is the legacy of perfectionism – that sense that one can never do enough – and it has crept into my parenting which should come as no surprise. Somewhere along the line, wanting to do better than my parents wasn’t enough. Being a good mother wasn’t enough. I had to be the perfect mother and I know that I’m not alone in my struggle with this ideal.

I know that part of this is that we know more about children these days, know more about how our actions impact them later in life. Did you interact with your baby enough, show them all those picture books with black and white images? Did you breast feed and introduce solids at the right time? Do you encourage but not pressure? Are you patient at all times, never raising your voice? Did you do enough crafts with your kids, teach them to properly grip a crayon and pencil? Do you read to them? Do you read so they see that behavior modeled? Do you limit their media time? Are you on your phone too much? I could list a million more things that we mothers of privilege think about on a regular basis and yes – there is privilege (education and economic to name only two) inherent in these questions. My own mother used to remark on my angst about motherhood regularly, “You think too much. When I raised you kids…” and then she’d launch into some story about independence with a little pro-spanking commentary thrown into the mix. As she spoke, I’d often think, “Yeah…you could have thought a little bit more about your parenting…” and, of course, there is truth in that too. But my mother grew up poor and raised me as a working class single mother. I am a middle class woman with a graduate degree and a partner of 21 years. I have the luxury of analysis and intellectualization that she never had and increasingly, that luxury feels like a curse as well.

I write so much about motherhood and think I write the truth – the moments when I am exactly the mother my children need and those when I am not. Lately, I think I’ve written more about those good moments, the ones when the words come easily and I say the right things to my kids or don’t but make amends. Maybe I need to write more about the struggles, the days when I raise my voice or use sarcasm to comment on their less than stellar behavior. There are those moments too. Or maybe, I should just stop for a moment and say “I am a good mother” and sit with the discomfort of that declaration knowing that “good” doesn’t have to be “perfect.”

I am a good mother.

How many of us can say that without giving in to the temptation to qualify the statement?

I am a good mother.

I’m saying it today and resisting the urge to say more, knowing that I might not be able to say it tomorrow.

PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH

Appreciating the View

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Several weeks ago, Zeca asked me if I would chaperone her class trip to the Lake Country Land School. This was her last trip with her class, her last as a third grader and it was important to her. I knew that but I must admit that the idea of spending three full days (and two nights) with 28 kids ranging in age from seven to nine was daunting.

The truth is kids scare the hell out of me.

I am good with my kids and the kids who’ve been in my life for years but I am awkward with kids I don’t know. I agreed to chaperone the trip but admitted to Zeca that I was nervous about it and she said, “Mom, you’ll be fine. Just make sure to be funny because I’ve told everyone how funny you are so they’re expecting that.”

No pressure. No pressure at all.

So, last week, I spent three days on a farm with 28 kids and survived. I moved an electric fence to create a new pasture for the sheep and llamas. I accompanied children to the tree house every time I was asked. I trudged through creeks, comforted kids crying because they were wet and cold and carried the skull of a rodent in my pocket for a kid who wanted it but didn’t want to touch it. I peeked into a bee hive and tasted fresh honey. I sat in a bird blind with kids and watched goldfinches and woodpeckers and nuthatches and an indigo bunting in silence. I stood at the edge of a pond – absolutely still – and looked for the tiniest of tadpoles.

I also learned a lot about my daughter while I watched her run through the fields playing soccer with the boys, wading fearlessly into a muddy pond and spinning in circles with a friend under a cloudy blue sky that made the world seem as large as it is. I saw myself in her in the looks she gave me when a conversation with another kid bored her. This reflection of myself was an unexpected revelation but one that will help me support her as she navigates friendship and the inherent frustrations and disappointments. I wanted to tell her, “You are much too young to be over it all, my dear,” but I smiled knowingly instead.

I saw her and loved what I saw. This view of our children as whole beings in a  life we often know little about is so different than the one we see day to day. Seeing her in that place with those other children and adults was worth the awkwardness I felt and the loss of sleep as five girls giggled me to sleep each night.

The last night, Zeca sat in my lap and a friend of hers nestled in close to my side and others lay down near me while their teacher told a story in the dim light of the homestead great room. I listened to the story but mostly to the sounds of the room – the sniffles and shuffling and the small laughs – and with my child held tight in my arms and my head resting on the little one at my side, it felt like I was meant to be there.

Of course, the next day that feeling was gone as I threatened to take away sticks and intervened in a shoving match but maybe there is a lesson there too – nothing lasts. Those perfect moments are brief but the hard ones are too.

When we got home, I asked Zeca how I’d done and she said, “Mom, you did a great job. You were nice and funny and everyone liked you.”

“Are you glad that I went?”

“Yes. Thank you so much.”

Really, that’s the review that mattered most.

PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH