Category Archives: Musings of the Zen Master

I Am Growing Up

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I lay in bed and heard footsteps above me, the pounding of feet belonging to kids who don’t stop to think of people sleeping below them. There were seven kids in the loft, though it sounded more like seventy. I looked at my watch and saw it was early but not unreasonably so and hoped that someone had gotten up before me to make coffee. I make terrible coffee when we are at the cabin. It’s always too strong and I can’t figure out why. I adjust the amount of water and the number of scoops and still it is wrong.

I left our room and headed to the kitchen and the kids were even louder–booming laughter, shrieks of joy, shouts and exclamations–but there was coffee so I thought I could manage the assault on my morning.

But I couldn’t.

I thought about the years that we’ve gone to this cabin, thought about the kids as babies and then toddlers and now, as such a mix of young and getting older. I thought about the years of unruly noise that has filtered down from the loft and the times I have yelled and demanded and begged for quiet and order. There have been times when I have parented these children with grace and times when I most definitely have not. I stared into my coffee cup, considered my options and then decided to control the only thing I can truly control–myself.

I left.

I walked out of the cabin in my pajamas and down to the dock. I sat on the worn wood, damp with dew and stared at the blue of the water and sky, the trees across the lake just turning green. It was quiet and calm and perfect and I realized that the kids aren’t the only ones growing up–I am too. My oldest child is almost 14 and it has taken me a long time to learn that so much of life is beyond my control. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to take care of myself. But I am learning and this place where I find myself–as a parent in middle age–is like still water, a light breeze and new growth.

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I wrote a companion piece to this one for VillageQ:

We all moved in practiced ways, carrying things in from cars, putting food away, and choosing bedrooms–kids in the loft, adults scattered in the remaining spaces. On the first night, the kids sat in the loft, talking and laughing loudly while we sat downstairs, and I was struck by how much our roles have changed over the years. I remembered Pack-N-Plays and bedtime reading and putting small children to bed over and over again, and they learned to be quiet and sleep near their friends. The adults took turns going upstairs to quiet them, to sing, to rub circles on small backs until there was finally silence.

 

She Would Have Been 80

mom1After my mother died, I was talking to one of my aunts and she said, “I knew what went on in your house and I did nothing.” What went on in my house? My mother drank too much, had too little patience and left me to care for myself much of the time. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t that bad but I’ve come to understand that I’m not the best judge of that anymore as time and compassion have blurred my memories. I looked at my aunt, the guilt visible on her face and shrugged, “There was nothing you could have done.” I believe that but believe more strongly that there is no point in dwelling on the past. We can’t change it. We can only make peace with it. My aunt then said, “I’ll never understand how, after everything she did, you loved her so fiercely.” I gave the only answer I had at the time, “I forgave her.”

I’ve spent years trying to understand why I loved her so much, why I still consider her to be one of my heroes. People have asked me how I forgave her for the pain she caused and I could never articulate the why or the how of that forgiveness.

Until now.

When I went to Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago, Galit and I had hours and hours in the car and nothing to do but talk. We talked about parenting and family, past and present, compassion and forgiveness. And as the hours went by and the conversation wandered, I realized that I separated my mother from the woman she was. She may not have been a great mother but she was an incredible woman.

She grew up poor and what little her family was able to accumulate was washed away in a flood in 1952. She knew a level of economic hardship that, fortunately, I have never known. Her father was sadistically abusive and she survived by fighting back. She was smart and practical and left home and made her own life. She prided herself on her independence and raised us without much assistance from our fathers. She couldn’t go to college but worked harder than anyone I have known and retired at 50. She was pro-choice and a feminist and an old school labor Democrat. She raised me to value education and to focus on my studies rather than worrying about boys. And yes, we laughed about that bit about boys years later when she said I might have taken her too literally. Beyond all that, she was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met. She could draw you in with a story and leave your ribs hurting from laughter. You would have loved her. I know I did.

So this is an important part of the puzzle of my past and the peace I made with my mother. She was not just my mother. She was so much more. Somehow, I knew that.

My mother has been gone 8 years now and this would have been her 80th birthday. Today, I’m telling stories and I hope to throw my head back in laughter at least once in her honor. And I will parent and live and love like the strong woman she raised me to be. And maybe the lasting lesson from all of this is that we are not just mothers, we are more. So much more.

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Listen To Your Mother: The Book

IMG_2878As a little girl, I would sit quietly at family gatherings and listen as my mother and her sisters told stories. I was never center stage, always the quiet observer taking everything thing in–the stories, the laughter, the cadence of their voices, even the lessons they probably didn’t know they were teaching me. Almost everything I know about storytelling I learned from them in those moments.

As I got older, this became my role. One time, sitting in my sister’s living room, I set up my camcorder and hit record and I remember my Aunt Wanda telling me, “You need to listen to these stories. You need to write them down.” I hope to do just that someday, to tell the stories of the strong women who brought me up to be the person I am, to tell the good and the bad and the hard and the funny.

It is through stories that we stake our claim in the world and make our experiences matter. It is through our stories that we know and understand each other. It is through our stories that we learn and change and do better.

At those family gatherings so long ago, as I watched my mother and aunts leg wrestle and play spoons and tell their stories, I didn’t know that I would someday call myself a writer but life is full of the unexpected.

In 2010, I sat with Deborah Goldstein in the front row of a panel at BlogHer and lovingly heckled Ann Imig while she presented. I had met Deborah online in 2009 but that was our first meeting in person and I didn’t know Ann at all before that panel. I had no way of knowing that Deborah and I would eventually become co-publishers of a site called VillageQ and that we would become friends with Ann, who had just started Listen To Your Mother in Madison.

In 2012, I returned to BlogHer to read my work in public for the first time as one of the Voices of the Year and the next day, Heather King approached me and said, “Hi! You don’t know me but I loved your reading and I think we should bring Listen To Your Mother to the Twin Cities.” I said, “Yes! We should!” I didn’t know then that we would, along with Tracy Morrison and Galit Breen who I did not yet know.

In 2013, I sat with Heather, Tracy and Galit in Galit’s dining room in Eagan as we cast our first Listen To Your Mother Twin Cities show and said, “I want to read.” The marriage equality fight was gearing up in Minnesota and I felt incredibly vulnerable but also believed I had something to say. They all supported me and said, “Then you should read.” It was strange to have the power to claim a spot in our show and I wanted to feel that I had earned it so I said I would write and submit two pieces to them and they could decide if either of them was a fit for the show. They chose my piece, “Not A Princess,” a story about my complex feelings about my daughter’s non-conforming gender expression.

I didn’t know then that the story would eventually be chosen to be part of a book, Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now. That book was released today and with that, I can now say I have been published in print for the very first time.

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I am grateful for the unexpected turns of the past few years, for the people in my life who support and encourage me, for all those times I sat back and listened to my mother and aunts. I am grateful for their stories and my own and the stories of others.

As my son said this morning, “Congratulations, mom! Now it’s time for your book.” And this does feel like a beginning.

You can buy the book at these booksellers and, if you are in the Twin Cities, you can come to Subext on 4/22/15 at 7 p.m. to hear me read along with Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Jennifer BallHaddayr Copley-Woods, and Mary Jo Pehl.

Tickets are also on sale for the third Listen To Your Mother Twin Cities show that will take place on 5/7/15 at 7 p.m. at the Riverview Theater. I hope you’ll join us in a celebration of motherhood and the power of storytelling.

 

 

Like Water Through A Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur house was built in 1913 and when Luisa and I had the main bathroom renovated, we had them tear out the tub that had clearly been installed in the 1950s and replace it with a claw foot tub we’d found in a store downtown, one cast in 1913.

That was 1999.

If you’ve never had an old claw foot tub, you can’t know the sounds one makes. I can sit downstairs and hear the shower and the particular hum of feet rubbing on the bottom of the tub, like a bow across strings in staccato. I can tell when someone drops something in it because it rings, a deep bass that is unmistakeable. Recently, Miguel was showering and I heard the sound of his feet sliding on that old cast iron, heard the low thump of something dropped–something smaller than a bar of soap because I know that sound well. When he finished showering, I asked him what he had dropped and he said, “The fingernail clippers.” That made sense–small, metal on metal, a different pitch.

And then I wondered when he had started to trim his own nails. It must have been some time ago because I don’t remember the last time I did it for him but I stood in the bathroom overwhelmed by this small milestone that had passed without notice. Before getting into the shower myself, I sat with the nail clippers in my hand and went to trim my own nails only to realize that I couldn’t because I had taken off my glasses and I wondered when that had happened, when I’d stopped being able to trim my nails without them.

We bought a claw foot tub in 1999 without knowing that someday, we’d bathe our tiny babies in it. We couldn’t imagine toddlers with soft, fine hair giggling and playing with boats and small rubber ducks and telling us stories with adorable lisps.

And now, we have a 13 year old son and our youngest will turn 10 tomorrow and the boats and ducks remain in a basket near the tub but the kids take showers now and the toys haven’t been touched in some time.

That day, as I stared at the tub, I thought about all we know about water and the way it can cut through a mountain in time, mapping its own course to an unknown end. Though I’ve always understood that power intellectually, it seemed mysterious and magical until that moment when I realized that time is passing and the courses of our lives are changing and yet we can’t always see it until the unexpected pulls our attention back from the details. We have been changed. The rush of water, the hum of feet, a deep bass that you feel in your chest–all of it leading us onward.