Rocking a Baby in the Rain

I’m sitting on my parents porch listening to the drip, drip, drip from the storm that has just rolled through. I’m rocking, and the old wooden rocker is creaking, click, swoosh, click, swoosh, and I’m holding a baby. The baby looks like every other baby and yet, he's completely unique because he’s mine. And despite knowing that this is a great moment, I’m thinking about being somewhere else. We just put our house on the market again. I’m reminded how even when everything feels like it’s changing, some things are always the same. I was in that exact spot three years ago, rocking a baby, listening to the rain and thinking about moving. In some ways though, it feels like I have always been here, in this moment. Some part of me has always been a mother. Even when I told myself I would never have kids, I think this is where I was meant to end up.

Four years ago, when I left Chicago, my friends, my job, my life as I knew it---I wanted a change. I knew not what that change was, just that I yearned for something more, something different from the monotonous drone of the retail life (not that those Anthropologie discounts weren’t fun). So, in one tumultuous day, I decided, while waiting at the Midway airport cell phone parking area, with planes buzzing overhead, to leave and embrace change.

My friend asked us last night, “Where are you moving to?” We glanced nervously at each other and replied that we hadn’t a clue. Sure, we hadn't talked about a lot of places, most larger cities. And I had researched one in particular pretty thoroughly but there was still a long way to the finish line. We are jumping headlong into the unknown. And it's scary and wonderful all at the same time. Kind of like being a parent really.

It’s naïve to think everything will stay the same. I wonder if I will miss these days, this life, this me? But I know some part of me will be forever rocking a baby in the rain of the muggy deep south, and watching his rotund belly softly go in, out, in, out. This much I know is true.

All Grown Up, Still Splitting Custody

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm in my late thirties and my parents have been divorced since I was 5 years old. Growing up I never wanted my parents to get back together because I knew they didn't get along well. They did a great job of never trash talking each other to us kids, but the awkwardness and unlove was palpable between them.

My problem is, the older I've gotten, the more I wish we were one, maybe crazy, but unified family.  I split the holidays, getting some time with each parent, but if I want to have a spontaneous BBQ, I have to choose between my parents because its just too uncomfortable for everyone to be together. Then, I feel guilt on top of this because I prefer my father's company over my mom's. We just relate better to each other.

I guess my question is, are there other grown ups yearning for an un-divorced family, and what is your advice on handling choosing sides?

Help!

Torn In Two

Dear Torn In Two,

We're all grieving the family we don't have.

I have a picture of my parents in my living room, which was taken before I was born, in which they look so happy that I've considered they might be high.  Their faces squished together, both grinning, beautiful, and shining with love.  The pictures I have of them in later years are stilted, posed, in which they look like strangers to one another.

Growing up, I always wished my parents would get a divorce, because their unhappiness together fell over our house like a pallor, making everything muted, even celebratory times.  But they stuck it out, for one reason or another, and as an adult I realized that you never really know what happens between two people, even if you are living in the same house with them.

My father died when I was in college, so I never got to see what it would be like to get together with them as adults.  I find myself jealous of the parents who have grandparents around all the time, and seeing the way that my child responds to older adults, I wish I could give that to her.

But there are trade-offs to everything.  I hear from my friends who have active grandparents that they are often quite stressful to have around.  Also, I think everyone has to navigate their parents' relationship, whether they stayed together, or not.

So, Torn In Two, I don't think you are alone on this.  I think we could all use some time to grieve the happy families we wish we could have, and find acceptance for the one we’ve got.

What I suggest for your dilemma of choosing which parent to spend time with is this: make a monthly date with your mom, and stick to it, no matter what, on your end.  If she's the one to drop the ball, just wait until the following month to see her.  Then, you can let your get-togethers with your dad be more spontaneous, and you won't feel bad, because you have your standing date with your mom.

As for the guilt you feel for preferring his company, you need to let that go, as I'm sure you can find real reasons your dad and you are closer.  Guilt is spiritual cancer.  Radiate that shit with love.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Lessons from Monticello...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, You won’t find a shortage of wisdom coming from our Founding Fathers.  After all, they broke with every tradition of their time to put together one of the greatest homes for the freedoms that we enjoy.  Is it perfect? Not always, but just because something is an ongoing work in progress, doesn’t it make it irrelevant.  It just makes it something you have to do your part to improve.

But I’ll leave the lessons on democracy for the history books.  When we visited Monticello last week, the home of Thomas Jefferson, I first bristled at the fact that one could see the house only as part of a guided tour.  But in the end it turned out to be so valuable because seeing his home while hearing about who he was as an individual person brought forth its own lessons:

  • Time spent in Paris is time well spent: Jefferson went as an Ambassador (well, as a “Minister”) and had some of his most formative ideas when in Paris — whether it was the structure of his house or his meals, he was inspired in so many ways.  Time in Paris isn’t always easy but it is nearly always formative in some way.
  • A home is a place of learning too:  The house at Monticello is full of books and portraits and ideas that Jefferson didn’t necessarily agree with but the presence of those items invited discussions and opportunities to teach, especially as the house was full of visitors and children.  Having these items wasn’t about endorsement but about discussion, and about teaching individual different ideas so that they could formulate their own.
  • “Meat is a condiment …to the vegetables that constitute my principal diet”: Good health comes from eating good vegetables.  You can eat meat or other indulgences, but when you count the balance of your day, make sure that vegetables and fruits constitute the bulk of what you consume.
  • We will always live at the mercy of water:  Many people find themselves at water’s mercy because they live too close.  Jefferson found himself at water’s mercy because he was too far from a natural source for his farm.  So there were years of drought and years of difficulty, and the farm always had concern about water front and center.  I say this, not because you will likely be a farmer (though one never knows), but more to remind you to mindful of the power and importance of water.  It should be respected, and also taken care of – one of life’s luxuries is constant access to clean and reliable water.  People's lives will always depend on it.
  • If you don’t invent it, adapt it: Thomas Jefferson wasn’t necessarily a noted inventor — but he was a master of taking things he saw used once and adapting for his own needs.  For example, Jefferson had tweaked the polygraph machine (the original copier) which was designed to enlarge or scale drawings, to produce copies of his letters, so that he always have one for himself.  It’s okay if you didn’t come up with the original idea, the real question is always how will you use what you have to make it your own?
  • “Avoid taverns, drinkers, smokers, and idlers and dissipated persons generally… and you will find your path more easy and tranquil.": Jefferson gave this advice to his nephew, as he pursued studies in Philadelphia and it couldn’t be more true today.  Avoid those who attract and promote trouble, especially as you figure out your own path.  The tranquility of mind you’ll gain, you’ll use as you navigate your own way.

All my love,

Mom

Everything is Beautiful

I suppose I should start at the beginning. You want to hear the birth story, right? Whether I used drugs or did it au naturale? Was there water involved? A midwife or doctor? (Birth has become so politicized). Well, I’m not going to do that. You can imagine the details and I’ll just skip to the ending---I brought home a healthy baby boy on March 5th, one week before my toddler turned three. We named him Dash Oliver. No, we didn’t have any underlying reason. I gave my husband the parameters: one syllable, kind of vaguely preppy sounding? And he came up with Dash all on his own.

I should tell you that everything is so, so very different with this one. Everything I thought I knew before doesn’t matter. I should tell you that for the first time, it is easy. Perhaps even enjoyable? I wake up and his rounded baby cheeks greet me. He is a sweet bedfellow, all smiles and coos. I want to dress him in only white, pure and clean. I am reminded that you don’t need all the accouterments that are marketed to new moms. Just some diapers and a boob. Did I mention that I am breastfeeding this time around? Don’t worry, I won’t judge you if you didn’t, or can’t, or even don’t want to. I’ve been there. But this time, with this baby, I am breastfeeding, and co-sleeping too. It has been going well, mostly enjoyable, but mostly it just . . . is. People ask how the nursing is going, and I squint my eyes and tilt my head, “Well, I guess?” He’s eating and gaining weight and I am only slightly less exhausted than I was with bottles. I am reminded how children choose their own parenting philosophies. At the hospital, while I was trying to decide whether to breastfeed this time, the nurses kept mentioning how “he just loves the boob” and “this little guy decided he wanted to be breastfed!” I liked that. I liked that for once they didn’t make it about me, the mom. My first rarely snuggled and had a terrible latch from the beginning, and this one? Completely different in every way. Will it be like this the rest of their lives? This marveling at how genes could combine in such different varieties?

I want to grasp these early days and hold them tight. Every day he grows bigger and smiles more. My heart bursts. I tell my husband, “Did Charley smile this much? I don’t think he did.” He says he did. But I think perhaps it was the postpartum depression fogging my brain. I can’t remember any smiles because I wasn’t smiling. But this time, this time I have that new mother glow of happiness. I overflow with joy. There is none of that angry, resentful feeling I carried for so long with Charley and I am glad. Is this what those mothers at the library were feeling when I used to bring Charley after crying all morning? Those moms with the sappy grins on their faces that I just couldn’t understand. It’s as if the depression left a scar on my soul, deep and jagged, and Dash allows it to heal. Every day is better than the last. I’m not sure I will be able to say that forever. But every day is bittersweet as well since I know this will be my last. Who knows, I might just be the next controversial extended breastfeeding mom! Life is beautiful and so unexpected.

I am thrilled and honored to be writing in this space again all about motherhood and identity. Two kids is an adventure and the journey is life-altering.

Mother-in-law May I

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My husband and I met our senior year of college and got married a few years later. We've now been together for almost a decade and I still feel lucky that we happened to meet and that circumstances allowed us to grow as people and build a life together. Our families, both immediate and extended, are an important part of our lives. We hang out with our siblings often and we're happy that our two-year-old daughter can experience the joys of a close family.

Here's the problem: From the earliest days of our relationship, my husband's mother wasn't warm or welcoming to me. Maybe it's her personality; maybe it's that my husband is the oldest of 5 and she didn't have experience with how to treat potential new members of the family; maybe it's that she and I just didn't click because we're incredibly different people with very different approaches to the world. At this point, I'm obviously part of the family, so I don't think she realizes that my perspective is colored by how she treated me for the first few years of our relationship, basically until we were married.

In many important ways my mother-in-law is a generous person who certainly has the best of intentions. I recognize that and I want to focus on it, especially since my daughter adores her. Unfortunately, when we're together for extended periods of time, like family trips, I find myself getting increasingly annoyed and frustrated. We're always going to do things differently. She's always going to correct me. She's always going to insist that she's right about everything. I can't change that, so I just need to accept her and not let all these little things bother me. Any tips?

Thank you,

Throw Grandma From the Train?

 

Dear Throw Grandma From the Train,

Recently, I went to a panel discussion of faith leaders who are seeking non-violent resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.  The theme that kept coming up was forgiveness.  I rose my hand, and asked my burning question, the one I keep returning to in my life, “How do you love people that are hard to love?”  The answer I got was to try to find the humanity in that person, to separate their actions from who they are, someone worthy of love and in need of care.

I think that is what you've been trying to do with your mother-in-law.  You've been trying to see the bigger picture, be the bigger person, just enlarge everything until it all doesn't bother you anymore.  But it's not the big things that get us, with those people that are hard to love.  It's the little, petty, constant shit that wears on us until we just can't take it anymore.

I actually don’t think the key here is accepting your mother-in-law.  It sounds like some of the things she does to you are simply unacceptable.  It is not okay for her to just decide not to like her daughter-in-law, and to correct everything you’re doing in your home.  It’s okay for you to be really frustrated when she does those things to you.

But you’re right that you need to let go of them, after you feel your feelings around them.  Another thing I heard at this discussion is that holding onto resentment is like eating poison, and expecting the other person to die.

So my advice to you is: stop trying to accept your mother-in-law.  Put all of those acceptance efforts towards yourself.

Accept the way you love your husband.  Accept it so much that it can never be questioned, never be swayed even the tiniest bit by your mother-in-law.  Let it live in the swing of your hips and in your thoughts when the two of you are apart.  Love the shit out of the way you love your husband.

Accept the way you run your household.  Accept your habits, even the ones you secretly think are gross.  Accept your home just as it is.  Accept your choices for food and work and daily routine.  Meditate on your imperfections, embracing all the very things about you that she criticizes.

Accept your parenting.  Celebrate your relationship with your daughter.  Let your acceptance for how you are raising your child ooze out of you to the point that your mother-in-law’s comments about it are deflected, as if your love for your daughter is suit of armor, gleaming and true.

I say all of this as a person who has gone toe-to-toe with her own mother-in-law several times over 13 years.  Early on, I realized this woman was never going to understand me.  But she didn’t have to, because her son did.  I realized this woman was never going to agree with me about most of the choices I made.  But she didn’t have to, because I wasn’t asking her permission or even her opinion.  I brazenly made mistakes, apologized when necessary, kept my distance when I needed to, or called her every week when I felt the desire.  I know for a fact that she doesn’t accept me as I am.  But I am certain that she respects me, and even loves me.  And the reason for that is that she knows I’m not waiting for her approval, and I love her even without it.

So, you have to be your own existential detective.  What are you insecure about?  Is your mother-in-law putting her finger in some open wounds?  Then do more work in those areas, until you can shine out your acceptance of yourself so boldly that she’s blinded by it.

And for the rest, for the hurts she’s inflicted on you in the past, and the ones that she’s sure to incur in the future, forgiveness is the only sane option.  Not just acceptance, but deep, life-altering forgiveness, that does indeed bring your mother-in-law’s humanity to the fore so her actions lose their sting.

The way to love people that are hard to love, like so many mother-in-laws, might just be to love yourself harder.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

On Taking Responsibility for our Young Girls and Women

In the Balance

Like many of you, I was riveted this past week watching the story coming out of Cleveland unfold.  The rescue of three young women who had been held hostage for ten years by a brutal perpetrator is both utterly surreal and devastatingly sad.  It is virtually impossible to integrate the details of this story.  The facts of the case continue to emerge but we do know that these women were kidnapped, held for a decade against their will, starved, beaten and raped.  We know that they were bound with ropes and chains.  We know that they were not permitted to leave the decrepit house in which they were imprisoned. There is no way for any of us to comprehend the terror that they have suffered or the trauma that they have endured.  How were they able to maintain sanity or hope?  Perhaps they didn’t. I find it unbearable to even imagine their lives over the past ten years.  Denial is such a powerful buffer that I am desperate for them to tell us it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  I want them to say that they were able to at least bond with each other and never felt totally alone.  I want to fast-forward to three years from now where one of them has written a memoir in which she describes her miraculous new life where all her wounds have been healed.  But achingly, these women---girls at the time of their capture---may never find peace.

The person responsible for this unspeakable horror is Ariel Castro, a marginal being with (at a minimum) mental illness and masochistic sexual deviance.  I suspect there will be months of speculation by FBI profilers and mental health professionals around what factors contributed to his executing this nightmare.  We will feverishly seek to understand “what to look for” when it comes to identifying potential future offenders.  Possibly some of the post facto analysis will make us feel like we are learning something valuable from this tragedy about the human condition.  But what kind of lessons can we glean from the behavior of an obvious sociopath?  Perhaps energy would be better spent on evaluating the routine, daily and casual attacks that are committed against women and girls.

Consider for example, that every two minutes, a woman in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Forty-four percent of all victims are under the age of 18.  Fifty four percent of sexual assaults are never reported and by one estimate, 97 percent of rapists will never spend one day in jail.  Learn more about sexual assault statistics here.  What can we do with this information?

And what about the more subtle ways in which women are put at risk? Women continue to be regularly objectified in mass media. Such portrayals range from thoughtless characterizations of women as weak and dependent to victims of explicit and excessive violence in horror movies.  The message seems to be that women are not worthy of protection when we have ineffectual domestic violence laws on the books and inadequate community resources with which to respond to their urgent needs.  It appears that women cannot be responsible for their own bodies and must be subject to controls when we chip away at access to safe and legal abortion, Plan B, contraception and sex education (all the while, a 15-year old boy can buy condoms without restriction or consequence).  We demonstrate disregard for women’s humanity when we hold up unrealistic standards of beauty and encourage them to destroy their own bodies in the name of fashion.   We have normalized and mainstreamed pornography and disturbing video games in which women and female characters are often humiliated and treated viciously.

All of these realities are absorbed by our young boys and men.  All of these realities condition our young girls and women.  All of these realities imprint strongly on the broken mind of a potential perpetrator.

It is obviously critical that we acknowledge, investigate and unpack the horrific events experienced by these three women in Cleveland, Ohio.  Although it feels voyeuristic, I, too, feel a frantic need to understand what happened and how it might have been prevented.  What may be even more important to the larger cause of safeguarding girls and women is to address some of the more mundane ways in which we subvert and dehumanize them.  We might never be able to prevent the rare psychopath from kidnapping women, but we certainly have the power to improve social norms and strengthen legal protections.  We can teach our young girls and boys about equals rights and more generally how to treat one another.  We can empower young girls to learn about and appreciate their bodies and develop clear emotional and physical boundaries.  We can remind young women to maintain an acute awareness of danger and never accept assistance or a ride from a stranger.  The lessons coming out of Cleveland are not new---they are prompts to re-engage with bolstering the status of girls and women in this country.

 

 

To be born over and over again

over and over

By Joy Netanya Thompson Remember the song “It’s Raining Men”? Well, I’ve never experienced such a phenomenon, but for the past year it’s definitely been raining babies around here. It’s like the windows of heaven have been opened and new little souls are falling into my life everywhere I look. I no longer have a newsfeed on Facebook; it’s now a baby feed.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m 28, and most of my friends are my age and into their early thirties. It’s “time”—whatever that means. Since my husband Robert and I married a year ago, we’ve always laughed off the “so when are you having kids?” question with “oh, ten years or so” kind of answers. But the deluge of babies in my life are having an “everybody’s doing it” (literally—HA!) peer pressure about them, and I’m second-guessing the loose timeline we’ve created.

But the truth is, I am terrified of having a baby. I’m scared of losing the life Robert and I share, of losing freedom and fun and, yes, my halfway decent figure. I pop birth control pills with the determination and discipline of a soldier—no babies on my watch. All the while in the back of my mind I hear a little tap-tap-tap, the secret code the Holy Spirit uses to let me know fear is driving my actions. This isn’t the first time—it’s my MO to draw up the blueprints for my perfect life and present the plans to God, asking him to bless them.

My reluctance to experience one of the most life-changing events possible is not surprising—I’ve never liked change. In the past, though, God has had a way of preparing me for change long in advance so I’m not a total basket case when it arrives. Back in my post-college traveling days, marriage was a totally unappealing idea to me. I wondered if perhaps I would turn out to be a single missionary after all. But I knew that deep down, one day, I wanted to be married. The preparing of my heart came so slowly and gradually that the first time I actually admitted out loud I wanted to find someone and get married, it still surprised me.

I can’t say I’ve gotten the hang of marriage yet, but I do like the feeling of getting the hang of something, be it a job or a new city or a life stage. The very nature of life, however, never allows you to stay in that place for long—knowing what’s best and most effective, how to avoid mistakes and conflict. In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, one character says, “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to die one hundred deaths.” And this, truly, is what I am resistant toward. I am resistant toward those hundred, those thousand deaths that make up a true, growing life, keeping us from stagnation and decay. The death of dependence as I walked into adulthood and learned to pay my own bills and manage my own affairs. The death of childhood friendships as we diverged into different life phases—marriage, children, singleness—and could not keep our ties tight enough. The death of dreams, of relationships, of innocence, of longtime habits and sins, of ideals and ignorance. We all die these deaths.

And yet if we have lived long enough to be marked by death, we know by now the great mystery that death brings life; all births require a kind of death. To live is to die a hundred deaths, but you might as well say to live is to be born over and over again. It is the approach to that birth that we fear and resist and see as death. But the pain of letting go of my girlish dependence made way for the birth of the woman Joy. One day, this fear and pain of giving up my independence will make way for myself to be born again as a mother—just as the literal pain I endure will bring forth my own baby. Frederick Buechner, speaking of Mary giving birth to Jesus as a metaphor for all of us, says we have every reason to be afraid of giving birth. “It is by all accounts a painful, bloody process at best…the wrenching and tearing of it; the risk that we will die in giving birth; more than the risk, the certainty, that if there is going to be a birth, there is first going to have to be a kind of death. One way or another, every new life born out of our old life . . . looks a little like raw beefsteak before it’s through. If we are not afraid of it, then we do not know what it involves.” 

And so for me, the labor pains have begun once again. It will be a long labor as I work through my fear and dread of becoming a mother, though I have no idea what that will look like. Perhaps a child from my own flesh, perhaps an adopted baby from somewhere and someone else. But the birthing process, and the first terrified and joyful weeks, will be raw, because that is an essential quality of new life. And I must labor again when I agonize over my children’s taking flight from our nest, and I must be reborn as another woman, another Joy, and learn to give birth to other ideas, relationships, and dreams. Oh God, let me never resist the deaths and the births that make up my life.

Talk to Her

me without you

For my mom’s 57th birthday, my husband, two-year-old son, and I flew to Florida to see her. Mom’s early onset dementia had progressed to the point where she couldn’t carry on phone conversations, so I made the arrangements with my teenage brother. When I tried talking to her, Mom’s light, trilling laugh would fill the receiver at odd intervals, often when I was mid-sentence. Even when she seemed to understand what I was saying, she’d become tone deaf to the easy rhythm with which we’d always talked on the phone. When it was her turn to respond, she’d go silent.

“Mom? You there?”

“Huh? Oh! Hahahaha . . . what?” And so on.

My little family and I met Mom and my brother at a sports bar. A pub probably seems like an odd place to visit your delusional parent, but any strange behavior from Mom was unlikely to stand out much in the busy, boozy atmosphere. The three of us sidled into the booth alongside them, my eyes already nervously ping-ponging to the large flat screen TVs. Since moving to Colorado in 2006, I only saw my mother a couple times a year. Each visit yielded a new milestone of degradation: first the loss of simple math skills, resulting in embarrassing customer service transactions. Next the inability to complete complex thoughts; she’d get stuck on certain words or phrases that opened like rabbit holes in her brain. Then walking was replaced by slow assisted shuffling. It became increasingly hard to meet her and really look at her, to take in the latest changes. So my eyes flitted around her like a hummingbird, knowing that the moment I rested them squarely on her, they’d fill with tears.

Mom smiled broadly and laughed easily. My brother ordered for her, cut up her food. I watched her pick up her iced tea several times, bring it to her mouth, and then, suddenly confused, put it back down. She mistook a small plate for a coaster and almost spilled the drink. She tried to participate in the table conversation, but couldn’t follow our exchanges. Instead, she interjected with unrelated half-statements and musings that were clearly better formed in her head.

“Yeah, that’s okay, Mom. Eat your potatoes,” my brother would say.

Mom held my son, Henry, several times and seemed very taken with him. At one point, she looked at me sweetly, softly touched my cheek and said, “Yes, yes, darling one. ”

Her attention turned away from me and back to some inner conversation.

These flashes of recognition and engagement were rare. Before we had a diagnosis, Mom had become savvy at hiding her inability to recall people. If you approached her smiling, she’d smile right back and chirp a cheerful and familiar “Hey!” She knew my face, but if I were to ask, “What’s my name, Mom?”, she’d get flustered and give up. She did better with simple yes/no questions, eroding our once fluid phone rapport, which slipped easily between self-analysis and questions of spirituality to piss-our-pants giggle fits. I tried brainstorming creative ways to flesh out our exchanges, but after a series of yeses and no’s and nervous laughs and responses that trailed off, I’d awkwardly wrap the conversation.

“Well, I guess I’ll let you go . . .”

Things weren’t supposed to go this way. Mom and I had one of those mother-daughter relationships that made for successful WB shows. Think Gilmore Girls, only with fewer witty classic Hollywood references and more Ab Fab quotes. We were close to a fault, the line separating “parent” and “friend” not merely tenuous but nonexistent. I imagine being pulled from the womb and handed to her and, after a moment of gazing at me adoringly, her saying, “Kid, have I got some shit to work through with you.”

I was raised like a sister. My earliest memories are of mom and me, snuggled up together in her queen-sized bed, eating bonbons and watching totally age-inappropriate prime time television. My parents divorced when I was four, and Mom remained candid with me about the life choices she made, often conferring with me as if I were an equal partner in the decision-making. It wasn’t in her to shield me from life’s uncomfortable gray areas, areas we found ourselves navigating often. As a parent, I now understand that this was irresponsible of her. But it wasn’t her aim to make me grow up too fast. She just couldn’t fake perfection, couldn’t pretend that she knew all the answers. She needed a sounding board. She respected my intelligence enough not to sugarcoat the facts and how they might affect me.

Growing up, Mom was my best friend. Of course, she could irritate and infuriate me in that special way that everyone’s mother can, could unravel my rational self and replace it with my feral toddler jerk. But I came to her with everything, and she always managed to impart some new truth about myself, about relationships, about life in a way that was both hand holding and honest. We could fight like guests on Maury, lobbing insults and foul language at each other one minute and the next, sloughing the anger entirely to discuss mundane concerns like tonight’s dinner and whether this skirt looked okay with that top. As I approached high school graduation, she joked that if I left the state, I’d find her hanging on the wing of the plane sobbing. When I imagined my future, mom was always part of it. She’d take care of my 2.5 kids while I worked and live in the mother-in-law suite attached to my sprawling ranch house with an open floor plan.

When I did leave home for college, long phone conversations became a salve for our sudden separation. I instigated many a tortured phone call wherein she gave me articulate, surprisingly wise advice about boyfriends, breakups, and English papers I had procrastinated on until the last minute. With barely a high school education and zero interest in reading anything besides Southern Living magazine, she’d listen calmly as I tried to refine the thesis for my paper on Gwendolyn Brooks.

These conversations ran the gamut of emotions: I cried, she laughed. We shouted obscenities at each other. I got frustrated when she wasn’t getting some paper topic I was wrestling with. Sometimes she hung up on me. Five minutes later, my phone would ring.

“Stop acting like a jerk and explain your goddamn thesis again.”

The dementia gradually made our exchanges staid and polite. Less stress inducing, perhaps, but vanilla. With the exception of random flashes of recognition, I am unfamiliar to her, and her grandchild is a sweet stranger. We are something I never thought we’d be: distant. I sometimes regret our past fights and my bad behavior, but I don’t regret the fireworks sparked by our tempers flaring, of being known for the neurotic, critical shit that I can be and being loved anyway.

Well, I guess I’ll let you go . . .

But she’s already gone. I can’t pinpoint when exactly I lost her. After years of telling me everything — too much, even — she didn’t prepare me for this. For not talking to her. For becoming a mother without my mother. For a me without her.

Finding My Story Again

finding my story

By Shelley Abreu Last year, as my daughter’s official recovery period from a bone marrow transplant drew to a close, I stopped writing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my creative withdrawal happened during the same month she stopped all of her medication.

For the previous two years, we followed a treatment protocol designed to cure her of cancer. This medical plan of attack was my armor. Even when things went wrong there was always a back-up plan. In fact, when the worst happened and her cancer relapsed during treatment, the doctors simply drafted a new protocol. Of course, it wasn’t really simple. She would need a risky stem cell transplant. It was done with a lot of deliberation, care and thought. But I felt like a warrior. No matter what the test, I had marching orders.

Whenever I felt like I was slipping into a worm hole of grief, I merely had to focus on what was next---what action would move us one step closer to her cure. I knew it was dangerous. Her protocol didn’t guarantee us anything. Still, I felt protected by the task of executing each phase of her plan. There was always something on the horizon to focus on. And with my writing, there was always something positive to report. Yes, I could write about my fear and worries, but there was always tangible hope.

This past October, after ten months of post-transplant isolation, my daughter took her last dose of cancer related medicine. It was a day of celebration. I hung a banner, and we made a special dinner. I felt elated.

Then there was nothing left to do. Suddenly, the worm hole widened its mouth---jaw chomping like a wild beast. What now, it taunted?

When I sat to write, I found myself reflecting on the past or contemplating the future. But I couldn’t bear either. I was done reliving everything we had endured. And the future carried the burden of “what-if.” All we could do was wait and see and pray that the cancer didn’t return. The battle part of the story was over. And all our friends and family were declaring victory.

“You must feel so happy,” or “you must be so relieved it’s over,” people would say. It felt like they wanted me to write the final chapter. Of course, I felt those things in part. But I’m not ready to wave the flag. I keep asking myself when will that happen? When will I feel like we’ve won? Cancer will snarl at me for the rest of my life. Sometimes I feel like I’m crouching behind a rock in a flat open field waiting for the enemy to return.

What was the point of writing anymore? Why did the story still matter if I couldn’t sum it up with positive inspiration? How many ways could I write about the endless tunnel of fear that loomed around each corner of my mind. I guess the act of not writing was my new protection, my new armor, my way of not facing the unknown.

The next few months, I began to feel depressed. Disconnected from life. Strangely, even though my daughter was doing better than ever, I felt half alive. I see now by denying by fear, and my story, I was holing up in my own emotional bunker.

Last month, our family took a spur of the moment trip to the Caribbean. It was our first vacation that required a plane ride in three years. The night before our departure, I nervously threw flip-flops and bathing suits into our luggage. I was excited but also scared. It felt perilous. We had spent the last year living safely in our home, tucked away from people and their potentially life-threatening germs. Now we were free.

When we made it to our destination, I watched my kids splash around in the pool, my daughter full of life and energy. I felt the worm hole contracting just a little bit. The warm wind hushed the snarling sound in my mind. I realized it wasn’t time to just wait and see. It was time to start living again.

When we returned home, and the kids were back in school, I opened my laptop and started to write. Why? Because I realize my story does matter.

I might not always have a happy feel-good chapter to write. But who does, really? Life isn’t about outcomes. It’s about the experience of it: the beautiful, the absurd, and the horrific. Stories teach us about living, and therefore the act of writing does too. Writing helps us shed our protective armor. It makes us vulnerable. And it leads us back to ourselves---when we are lost, we find in our words the story that connects us to the fullness of our life.

Lessons from a convention speaker...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, I’ve seen a fair amount of speakers at large conventions.  Some are better than others, but often times I struggle to really relate to the speaker since the topic has been boiled down to make sure it applies to everybody, which can mean that it’s hard to find specific guidance for anybody.  Then again, most of these types of speeches are often times not about specific guidance anyway . . .

Just this week I was at an event in Philadelphia that started with a speaker and while he spoke at a high level for the most part, there were portions of his speech that stuck with me.  So much so that I took notes right there in my programs so that I could pass these along to you:

  • Many things are complicated but acknowledging others is not:  Life moves quickly, and it seems like we can be wrapped up in so many things.  Life is complicated, the speaker certainly admits to that.  But he gave an excellent reminder that no matter how complicated we think our own lives might be, taking a little bit of extra effort to acknowledge others, to pause and notice something, to say thank you, to reach out and offer a little extra help, to congratulate someone on a job well done . . . those things are not complicated.  Make sure you do them.
  • Never forget a friend, and don’t let a friend forget you: Relationships are a two way interaction.  And it’s easy for us to keep score about who’s doing what.  But friendships are cultivated through our efforts and time---it evens out in the end.  Be present in the lives of those you’ve chosen to be friends with.  And when friends forget us, as they sometimes will, ask yourself if there is anything you can do go gently remind them---the years of friendship will be worth it.
  • You can’t ask people to serve their country without their country supporting them back: This touched on the issue of how we treat our veterans and members of the armed services.  Whether you might individually agree with a conflict or not, be sure to separate that out from the way that you think about the people who have voluntarily put their lives on the line so that others don’t have to.  There are many ways to thank those who make that choice for us---don’t let those sacrifices be forgotten.
  • You don’t owe the homeless a dollar, but you do owe them human decency: If someone is on the street asking for money, I tend to believe it is because they do not have another way to make a living.  Some people don’t agree with that.  But regardless of how you feel about giving money, that doesn’t mean that the person asking isn’t a person.  Just because someone has less than you---whether it’s less money or material goods or family or anything---doesn’t mean that you get to see right past them.
  • Ask your parents questions.  Once they’re gone, "the library is closed": The speaker used the example of parents, but this can apply to grandparents, or friends or relatives . . . The point is, take the time to get to know people, especially those that are close to you.  They are part of your history, and we tend to take for granted that we know what we need to know.  He reminded us to ask the little stuff---how your parents met, where they honeymooned, what their own parents were like, what they loved to eat growing up . . . little things that paint the picture of a whole person.  Once they pass, that opportunity to know their own version of themselves passes too.  Take the time to ask those questions while you still have it---they will be so happy that you acknowledged them enough to want to know.

And you can always ask me anything---I would love to talk to you about it.

All my love,

Mom

PS – In case you’re wondering, the speaker was a gentleman named Mark Scharenbroich.

Things Remembered Over Ragu Sauce

ragu_sauce

By Eliza Deacon I’m cooking dinner on the stove, a 3 hr slow-cook lamb ragu with a bottle of good Chilean Merlot thrown in to help it along. The kitchen is dimly lit, soft sounds on the radio, I have a glass of wine on the surface next to me. The house is surprisingly quiet; my nephews asleep, tucked up in the room that was once mine, its eaves still painted with clouds.

I’m in my father’s house in England, the house I grew up in. A house that still carries, in its very fibres, all the memories both good and bad: a happy childhood, sunlit days like old 70s images, a little faded around the edges now but still remembered, and the loss that shaped all of our lives.

I flit through memories as I stand here barefoot on the wooden floor. As I stir the pot, I can see my mother sitting at the kitchen table in front of a stand-up mirror. She deftly applies her make-up, her “modeling face”, before she leaves to catch the train to London. I watch her transform, big eyelashes that make her eyes appear huge, a perfect mouth that kisses me before she goes, her scent---Rain Flower---lingers on after she has left.

She comes home and cooks us crispy pancakes for supper, the ones with the cheese filling which we love. Kate and I are both bad eaters, fidgety and easily distracted, so Mum leaves out what she calls our “bird table”. We come and go, furtively for whatever reasons at the time; she pretends not to watch as slowly the plate empties.

She and Dad gently coaxed us through our childhood. Soft, sweet memories: a handsome father, a beautiful mother, both slightly unusual in their own ways, a little different from other people’s parents and I will always wish I had appreciated it more at the time. Dad with his wealth of stories and personas: depending on his mood he could either be a ballet dancer to rival Nureyev, a brain surgeon, a Great White Hunter in Africa (he still tells people he ‘taught me everything I know’), a Russian count, an Arabian sheikh, a BBC language advisor, hired to help radio announcers properly pronounce world leader’s names such as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Ndabaningi Sithole. Funny, I still remember all that as clear as day. He loved that people would often believe him, but Kate and I were wise, we would have him hold his left-hand little finger up in the air if he was telling the truth; needless to say we were never really that sure.

When Kate and I were new babies, and we lived next to London’s Regent Park, he used to take us there every day in the big old-fashioned double pram. “Meet my sons Tom and Jerry” he would say, or sometimes we were “Knightsbridge and Kensington”, Knight and Ken for short. Mum would just shake her head and raise her eyebrows with good humour.

I remember the parties they gave where my sister and I would sit at the top of the stairs listening to the strains of Lester Lanin at the Tiffany Ball whilst the guests mingled below us. Trips to the sea where we ate hot sausage sandwiches and walked for hours through “elephants graveyards”, the rock pools exposed when the tide went out. I remember we were always wrapped up in many layers of clothing, or perhaps we never went there in the summer, although I’m not sure that would have made any difference knowing the vagaries of British weather.

As children we were given a free rein, far more than is considered common sense now. But this was the 70s when playing in the woods near our house never raised even a thought of the horrors that it does now. As a teenager I used to cycle for an hour each morning, leaving the house pre-dawn to go and ride my horse, a flighty thoroughbred, bareback through the fields; no hat, no saddle, no cares in the world.

All this I remember clearly, like I’ve only just walked backwards a few steps to find it. This house that is the caretaker of all our memories and carries them physically and soulfully: pictures on the walls, Mum’s modelling finery in the closet, cloudscapes on the wall. In this evening light, it all blurs, then slides into sharp focus then blurs again. Beautiful, soothing, healing. I know I’m home.

This piece was originally published here and is being republished with the author's permission.

Meet the Local: Lisbon, Portugal

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we meet Jose, a former teacher who is making a new living in tourism after being laid off during the economic crisis.  

Meet the Local Jose Guerreiro

What do you like about the place you live?

I don’t really know how to explain…I just feel like it’s here, where I belong.  I lived in Spain for a few months, I lived in Romania for a few months, but I always feel the need to come back home.  I feel I have my family here, and I have everything here.  I really feel at home here.

What don’t you like so much?

The politicians.  Because they do all of this to our country.  The economic situation of Portugal, I think it’s their fault.  Because we work, we do all of the things we have to do, and they ruin everything.  I think this is very common in Europe, the politics are each time less credible, so the people don’t really trust anymore in politicians.  In Portugal, 40% of people don’t vote.  So the people who do vote don’t really represent anything, and the politicians can do whatever they want, because the people don’t care.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Three slices of bread with butter and chorizo.  Coffee with milk.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I was a teacher, teaching sports.  I really like to work with children.  It was nice, I was doing something different than other people, because I used to work in summer camps too so I was taking the way of teaching in summer camps inside the school.  So I was not teaching sports, I was teaching games, and I was trying to teach values with those games.  First I would read the story, then I would do a game, and then I would relate the game with the story and real life.  I went to a small village to teach, but I was not from there, so when the crisis started, the people who don’t have friends are the first to leave.  So they asked me to leave.  Now, I do tourism, I run a walking tour company.  I really like it, because I can stay in Lisbon where I like to live.  I meet a lot of people, so even though my friends are leaving to get jobs in other countries, I can make new friends.  Of course, it’s not the same thing, but it’s okay.

What do you do for fun?

I go out at night, I go to the cinema.  I like to climb, but I don’t climb anymore, since I started the tours.  Because most of my friends that climb, they do normal jobs so we don’t have the same schedule.  I also like to run with my father, my father and I run together.  And travel.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I live with my father.  I see my mother one or two times a week, just to talk with her.  I see my sister when I see my mother – they don’t live together, but she’s always there.  My grandmother also lives with us.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

Right now, I don’t have many dreams.  I just want to make sure the situation doesn’t get worse, or at least the tours keep running as they are now so I can at least have a stable life.  Some of my friends, they are really bad in their lives.  They were married and have children but are living back at home with their parents, or they have moved to other countries and don’t really like their jobs or the conditions that they live in and I don’t want that to happen to me.   So I don’t have a dream, I just don’t want to have a nightmare. But if I had a dream, I would want a small house with a small garden where I could sit in the plants.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

Here.  When I was younger I always wanted a house with wheels---a mobile home---so I could travel, but I think if I had that now, I would always come here.

What are you most proud of?

Now, it’s the tours.  When I came on and my friend was running them, they were almost dead.  Nobody would trust them---if you asked someone about our tours, people would say, “don’t go!  It’s terrible!”  And now we’re the sixth most popular thing to do in Lisbon on TripAdvisor, and I’m really proud of that.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

From 0 – 10, I would be a 6.  I think everything is going well in my life, but I would like to have more friends, and a girlfriend.  My friends left---but the girlfriend, well, I’m a bit shy.

Check out previous answers from a local in Sarajevo, and a local in London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Lessons on working out...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

As the cold days of winter lift away, so do many of the layers that we became comfortable in.  The layers that keep us warm when the chill hits, but also the layers that provided just a little more room to hide under.  Maybe everyone doesn’t hide under them, but I do.  And as the weather gets warmer, I realize the extra layer isn’t always just in the clothes.  So in celebration of the more gorgeous days outside, and in anticipation of the layerless summer to come, this is when I get out and get moving.  Or at least I try to---the transition to a more active lifestyle isn’t always an easy one for me.  Here’s what gets me up and out the door:

  • Just put the clothes on: Once you have your workout clothes on, you’ll feel like a clown if you don’t make at least some of use of them.  Get up and get them on, and everything else will fall into line.
  • Make the time, figure out the money: The easiest thing to say is that you don’t have the time to work out.  Make it.  Figure out how to squeeze it in---walk to school or work, get off the computer earlier, take the stairs.  The second easiest thing to do is to blame it on money---new shoes, a gym membership,whatever is holding you back.  If you really need it, then you need to budget for it; but chances are, we look for things that we don’t need to make it easier to explain why we’re not doing something hard.
  • Find something you enjoy:  Anything that is going to take up time has to be enjoyable to some degree.  With workouts, that can get confusing because the starting in part is sometimes less enjoyable, so we stop doing it altogether.  For me, I learned to love swimming.  I love that I’m not distracted by music and TV and sounds and people---I love the repetitive notion of swimming and that I can’t tell if others are looking at me---and it’s become some of my most valuable thinking time.  Something about the quiet of being underwater . . . But see what works for you, find at least one active thing that you enjoy, but don’t give up on trying new things.
  • When in doubt, walk more: There are lots of fancy things that we can do to keep ourselves interested in working out.  And it’s good to give them a try and change things up, but chances are, a lot of our physical and mental needs could be met if we just walked a little more and sat a little less.  Do you  have the right balance?
  • No matter how slow you might go, you’re still running laps around the person sitting on the couch: I saw that on poster recently and it made me tie my running shoes right back on.  Running isn’t my most favorite exercise, but I love its efficiency.  I ran a lot right before you came along to get better at it, and then never went back because of how slow I had become.  But this reminded me that my speed isn’t want really matters, it’s dedication to movement itself.
  • You owe it to more than yourself: For a long time, I thought that working out and being active was just my business.  That it was for me to decide where and when.  And part of that is true---I can decide where and when, but the decision on whether to do it at all doesn’t impact only me anymore.  I want to be a good example for you . . . And I want to set myself up for the long run to be as healthy of a mother, daughter, wife, and hopefully grandmother one day.  Some things about our health will always be beyond our control, but for the things that are in our hands and our hands only, it’s a responsibility to take care of them.

All my love,

Mom

An Adopted Dad

adopted dad

By Cindy WaiteRead the first piece in Cindy's series here

I never planned out my wedding. I didn’t imagine the decorations, or the finger foods, or even my dress. I told my family, defiantly, that I’d wear jeans and a sweatshirt on my wedding day because, “Ew, dresses.” I made the sour milk face you’re envisioning. Then I did back flips on my mom’s bed, made mud cakes in the backyard, and fell asleep reading, a flashlight hidden under my covers. I was maybe a strange child.

I always said I wanted a chocolate cake on my wedding day.

“No, honey, that’s what the groom has. The bride’s cake is white,” My mom impatiently told me, again. I made my sour milk face so contorted I might have passed out from disgust.

I can see her now, my Mom, at our scratched wooden kitchen table, the plastic covering pulling over the edge, the kitchen garbage pail at her feet, a Russet potato in one hand and a peeler in the other. She would have looked up at me without missing a beat with the potato.

“Why can’t I have a chocolate cake, too? Who said only boys can have them? I’m going to have a chocolate cake.”

It made all the women around me laugh whenever I said things about my chocolate cake and jeans wedding, so untraditional was I, so my cake grew in brown, sugary divinity each time the conversation arose.

“It’ll be a BIG chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms, with chocolate sprinkles on top of that.”

Then I bested myself, “It’ll be a three layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms and sprinkles on top.”

I didn’t spend my young years daydreaming about my nuptials, but I did spend a lot of time wondering who would walk me down the aisle.

I call Rob, my mom’s best friend, “Adopted Dad.” He spoils me. He got me my first perfume, “Romance” by Ralph Lauren, for my birthday because I smelled it in a magazine and liked it. I liked the name as much as the scent.

I’m moderately more graceful than a baby giraffe, only slightly lighter on my feet than Shrek. I smelled Ralph Lauren’s newest scent when I peeled back the bulky page in Seventeen, and I saw myself transform from my not-quite-or-at-all-grown-into-myself body to a romantic heroine starring in my own meet-cute love story. I’d be sophisticated. I’d be urbane, a word so sophisticated, saying it put me in a new class.

Adopted Dad is divorced. He’ll be happily remarried in a few years, when I’m 17 or 18. He’ll stop being Adopted Dad then, but I’ll hold on to the title for keepsakes. Divorced Dad can be a Dad to me; he has room and time in his life to adopt me into it.

Adopted Dad lets me drive. He’s okay with me behind the wheel, guiding me from the passenger seat. He doesn’t grip the door handle and dashboard until his knuckles turn white---that’s Mom’s job, and she should get a pay raise she’s so excellent at it.

I’m driving out to Six Flags with Adopted Dad and his 10-year-old son, my babysitting charge. Adopted Dad took the day off, and he handed me the keys. I didn’t know my palms could produce sweat so fast, but those keys felt like they were dipped in oil they were so slippery. I drove through Newnan straight on to 85 North, headed for Atlanta.

I’m on the interstate, driving through Spaghetti Junction---six, eight, fifteen lanes twisted like noodles, my heart racing with nerves in the snaking, speeding traffic. This is my opportunity to prove my maturity.

I’m 16, but I swear it’s more like 20-something because that’s what everyone says. I’ve grown up in single parent years---that’s 1.5 for every 1 normal kid year. I sort of get how dogs feel, passing everyone by.

Rob tells me, “It’s okay to speed,” as matter-of-factly as though he’d said, “There are cars on the road right now.” I stare at him out of the corner of my eye, my peripheral vision stretched as I also try to keep both eyes straight ahead, my hands at 10:00 and 2:00 and my heart from fluttering straight out of my chest onto the console.

“If you have the money to pay for a ticket, then you can take your chances exceeding the speed limit,” he continues. “You can choose to break the rules if you know the consequences and accept them.”

I feel immensely loved in this moment.

This is real dad advice. This is a life lesson that seems absurd on the surface---one a Mom would yell about, eyes bulging out of her head, demanding to know what on earth he was thinking telling a 16-year-old something so irresponsible. But Dad would know that he has a smart daughter, one with a head on her shoulders that got it, that gets him, that will be a more responsible driver and person because now she’s empowered with choice and the weight of responsibility.

I’m choking up because he said this and I’m imagining that scene, and a car cuts in front of me, and my reflexes jerk the wheel enough for us all to notice, but Adopted Dad doesn’t critique. And I’m calming down now because I can do this.

Men bonded with Chris mostly, growing up. What’s a boy without a dad? They went fishing and hunting, and he learned to tie knots and change a car tire, all while I played beneath the towering oak tree in the front yard. Men lent me a lap to crawl on when I was little and reassuring, big hugs as I aged. Men taught Chris and comforted me.

But Rob took me on busy Atlanta interstates and taught me to trust my gut. He taught me the tools of the Dad trade---lecturing me on too much time spent online talking to boys and wondering if I’d like to learn how to change a tire, after all.

I still wear Ralph Lauren’s Romance. I still think of Adopted Dad when I spritz it, pushing my shoulders back and my head high and entering the mist as any urbane woman might do.

I put Adopted Dad in the “maybe” column to walk me down the aisle.

Lessons on hitting a wall...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Some days won’t be great days---I’d be misleading you if I said otherwise.  Specifically, some days you’ll feel a little stuck, like you’re a small wind-up toy that has come up against the wall.  And because there is nowhere to go, you just keep hitting the same spot over and over again, despite the fact that this doesn’t help you actually move forward.

The work days have been long recently---it’s a confluence of deadlines and projects and trips and communications.  It just happened that everything has been hitting at once, and sometimes it’s easy to feel that because you’re trying to give answers to everything, you don’t end up with good answers to anything.  So here are the things that have helped me most on these kinds of days:

  • Prioritize what needs to get done: Make a list of the critical stuff, and then put the things that can wait on a separate list.  Or list them in order of due date.  Sometimes the first step in managing tasks so that we can actually move forward is to sort them out, so that you can move forward in small batches at a time.
  • Get up, walk around: When we get caught up in “doing”, the hours often go by without us noticing.  And pretty soon we’re writing the same sentence over and over again, or looking at the same spot on the computer screen for minutes at a time.  If you’re not getting anywhere, get up, take a walk around the house or the building, or better yet, go outside . . . even if it’s just for five minutes.  That visual break often times makes the space you need for a new idea to make its way through.
  • Look at something new and beautiful: A book of photographs, some flowers outside, an exhibit if you have time.  It doesn’t have to be related to what you’re working on, it just has to be completely different.  When we look at something new to us, it’s a bit like taking all the things that are already inside of our head and giving them a bit of a shake.  When everything lands again, the new order allows for new ways of thinking about the same problem.
  • Go to bed early: You’ll have phases when this feeling can go on for days, and it makes us exhausted.  My natural reaction is to keep working, but if the work coming out isn’t that good, then I know it’s time for a change.  When you go through busy and sometimes numbing phases, be kind to yourself.  Make the space for rest---you’ll feel better in the long run, and your work will be better on the first iteration around.
  • See you: When the daily grind becomes something I question, I try to make extra time to see you during the day.  There is something about your curiosity and laugh and willingness to play around with new things, that inspires me all over again.  And it reminds me what the daily grind is all for, as well as where it fits into the overall scheme of what’s important.  When you’re younger, I hope that you get the same feeling from your friends; when you’re a little older, from your love; and then when you’re even a little older from someone just like you.  That little person will be forever the light of your life, and a few extra minutes with them will always set you on the right path.

All my love,

Mom

Burmese Children

word traveler burma

Before leaving to Myanmar, I had read so much online about it. Mostly, I was concerned about traveling safely in a country where traditions are so different and the political situation quite unstable. We all have heard a lot about Myanmar lately, and not all of it is good news. It seems that Myanmar is heading toward a more democratic government, but still in the outer provinces, those areas that are out of reach for tourists and seem so forgotten, ethnic fighting is happening. While gathering handful information, I learned that Myanmar is quite a bit more conservative than other countries in Southeast Asia, which means I packed t-shirts with leaves and long pants for those days. Knowing that the medical system and the pharmacies are still underdeveloped, I stocked up all the medicines I thought I may need. I learned that banks don’t exist, not to mention ATMs, and that dollars should not be folded or crumpled, or they will not get accepted anywhere. Last but not least, a friend of mine told me that during a trip over there a few years ago he tried to discuss about politics with his Myanmar guide, but there was no way the guy would even start to express his opinion about anything, and he mainly remained silent and looked embarrassed. Therefore, I decided it was wiser not to get involved in a political discussion in public. These tips being absorbed, I considered myself quite prepared to live a nice trip in a mostly mysterious country.

But nobody, no blog, no article, no friend, had prepared me to the real experience and the feelings I would feel once there.

Some journeys leave you the same way you were before, they give you memories of fun things, wild landscapes, or even new recipes. You take tons of pictures, and maybe sometimes you know you will never look at them again. They are stored in your computer, and that’s enough.

But other journeys change you, for they are really meaningful–they touch your heart so deeply you instantly feel will never fully recover. It’s a weird and precious feeling, and this was the first time it happened to me. I started to think: Was this place waiting for me? Will I be the same person again when I go home? How can I tell my family all the details? Can I leave Myanmar and go back to my country like this was a regular fun vacation? Is there anything I can do to give back to these people what they are giving me?

Before leaving, I had also gathered information about orphanages and schools, and learned that Burmese kids are not even eligible for adoption. Myanmar isn’t the only country in the world with such rules, but still my heart skipped a beat when I read this. The only thought that adoption is not a possibility made me feel powerless, impotent. In Myanmar there are some orphanages, and sometimes international foundations are taking care of collecting donations or organizing volunteering experiences (for instance http://www.burmachildrensfund.org.uk/). They support the future of these children in various parts of Burma, and provide kids with shelters and education.

One day Husband and I visited a school at Inle Lake. These students were from two to six years of age, and they had families to go back to at the end of the day. They looked happy, they screamed and laughed all together while the teachers were quietly watching over them. We were strangers at first, but it took them a few minutes to show us how they would push each other on the swing.

And that’s when I started to wonder–those poor children who don’t have parents or don’t know who they come from, can they be this happy? Coming from a Western country, where human and natural rules are quite different, I realized I shouldn’t judge the situation with my old eyes. Instead, I should keep my eyes open while I was there, learn as much as possible about these people and maybe change my way to consider things. It didn’t take long to learn the most important and shocking lesson–Burmese are so welcoming to foreigners, and they are even more welcoming to their own people. There might be severe ethnic fighting going on in some areas, but to me that’s an unfortunate, huge mistake. I saw something inside them, something special I had never seen in others before. I saw families, made of mothers, fathers and children who may be quite unaware of what’s outside their country, but who are still happy, they KNOW how to be happy and enjoy the simple things in life, some authentic way of living that we think we have but in fact we have lost. I had never, ever seen and felt this peace inside myself. So, putting aside my initial reaction towards the adoption issue, I wondered. Would adoption be the best choice? Growing in a natural and beautiful and uncontaminated environment, where relationship bounds are tight and pure, growing in your own country and having the chance to know it and make it better in the very near future… isn’t this the better option? After all, there are so many other ways to help, if we really want to.

I’m not sure what the answer to my questions might be, but I’m sure of one thing–Myanmar is a country that can change you deeply. I changed over there. Like a snake, I left my skin behind, and soon was ready to get warmer under new sun rays, free from the past, eager for a new future and willing to learn how to make a day out of a single smile.

These are more links of interest, to support children in Burma, or just gather information.

The Burma Orphanage Project: http://burmaorphanageproject.org.uk/about/

Myanmar Orphanage: http://www.myanmarorphanage.com/

Stichting Care for Children: http://www.careforchildren.nu/en/

"For millennia women have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the task of nurturing, protecting and caring for the young and the old, striving for the conditions of peace that favour life as a whole. To this can be added the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women. But it is women and children who have always suffered most in situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary historical role imposed on us of sustaining life in the context of the home and family, it is time to apply in the arena of the world the wisdom and experience thus gained in activities of peace over so many thousands of years. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all."

Aung San Suu KyiOpening Keynote Address at NGO Forum on Women, Beijing China (1991)

 

Nobody Puts Baby Under a Cover

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm the proud mama of a 2-month-old little boy, and I'm happy to be exclusively breastfeeding him.  I'm often in public places when it's time for him to eat, and I'm generally happy to feed him (without a cover, as I find them annoying and difficult) wherever we find ourselves---be it a park, cafe, or friend's home.

However, my husband feels uncomfortable that I do this, and it has sparked tension between us.  I don't much care what random observers think about my practice, but I do respect my husband's opinion.  On the other hand, I feel as though he's being prudish and controlling...

Signed,

Baby Mama

Dear Baby Mama,

Honey, you gotta let those girls fly.  Take the puppies out of the basket.  Give your boobs some breathing room.  Breastfeeding is hard enough---what with the pumping and the cracking and the soreness and the wardrobe restrictions---you can’t also be worrying about what your husband thinks about Rando Calrissian seeing a nip slip while the baby is getting his lunch.

I can see your husband’s perspective---up until 2 months ago, your breasts were highly sexualized body parts, and, even if you are currently not thinking of them that way, what with the bleeding and leaking and all, he might still be.  He is certainly worrying that other men are.

But just to put it in perspective for him, here is an incomplete list of all the men I breastfed in front of, in my 15 month stint: my priest, my father-in-law, all my male friends, my dance instructor, the guy who cleans the laundromat, everyone at every park and restaurant in my neighborhood, the dude sitting horrifyingly close to me on an airplane, my boss, and my city’s entire baseball team.  They could all sing to me that snarky little song Seth McFarlane thought was so clever at the Oscars, “We saw your boobs!”  And how many shits would I give?  Zero.  I would give none of the shits.

I found breastfeeding to be alternately the greatest thing ever and shockingly isolating and difficult.  So, I began brazenly breastfeeding everywhere I went---I mean, how many dicks have you seen in public, when men whip them out to pee in a corner/on a bush/by the side of the road?  WAY too many.  Why should they be allowed to relieve themselves wherever, whenever, when I was just trying to give my child some nurturance and get her to stop wailing, for everyone’s sake?

I have no idea how my husband felt about this.  It was actually not something he was allowed comment on.  It was my body, and I was working so hard to give our baby food from it that my husband would never dream of saying, “Honey?  Could you cover up a little?  Homeboy behind the counter is giving you a stare.”

But that is my relationship, and this is yours.  It is fine for your husband to state his opinion, and sweet of you to care.  However, what I’m not game for is him inflicting any kind of shame on you about your choice.  Body shame is serious problem, and the oversexualization of women’s lady bits has led to a society rampant with the kind of prudish, controlling behavior you suspect your husband of on the one hand, and a violent underbelly of objectification and rape culture on the other.

Your body is your own.  Your breasts are only yours, and what you choose to do with them, especially when you are quite innocently feeding your baby, is your business.  I hate to say it, but welcome to the contradictory experience of being a mother, where you’re damned if you stay at home for being too smothering, and damned if you work full-time for being abandoning.  You’re damned if you breastfeed in public without covering up, but you’re damned if you pull out a bottle of formula as well.

Like Bob Dylan said, everybody must get stoned.  You might as well embrace it now, and get used to mothering this child however you want, making peace with yourself despite those (in this case, including your husband) who may not always understand or agree.

In Mammorial Solidarity,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Lessons from a circus baron...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

They say that the circus is the greatest show on earth.  I remember several from when I was growing up---at the last one I attended, my parents let my brother and I ride the elephants on a loop around the tent.  I don’t know when that was though, it seems far away.  Part of the reason is that I’ve gotten older of course, and part of the reason is that I think there seem to be less and less opportunities to see a circus.

But legends associated with the circus and the traveling families that work in them always seem to be so strong; I always find the stories fascinating.  So when we traveled to Florida a few weeks back, I made sure that we made a stop to see the Ringling mansion and museum in Sarasota.  There is a circus museum there, full of the beautiful train cars from the railway days, and more information about how that particular “greatest show on earth” came to be.  But the estate is so much more than the museum---there is a beautiful Venetian palace that was the winter home of the owners, as well as a magnificent art collection housed in a villa.  While walking around, I couldn’t help but take away a few things from the rich history:

  • If there’s a boom, there’s a bust: The Ringling family ended up owning every traveling circus in the United States.  And the youngest brother bought a tremendous amount of land in Florida.  But eventually economic happenings outside of their control caught up with them in the form of the Great Depression.  If things are going well, by all means enjoy them, but you have to always be mindful of the fact that the good days can always end.  Always make sure you have a reserve and never over-extend.
  • Where you start doesn’t define where you end: The Ringling brothers came from very humble beginnings yet ended up being one of the most powerful families in the business.  The brothers had modest educational beginnings, but the youngest still taught himself about the greatest European art masters.  He started his life in the Midwest but divided his time between New York City and the Sarasota Bay.  All of those show that where you start in life doesn’t necessarily have to define where you end---changes in life are your prerogative to make.
  • Know what to fight for: When economic difficulties caught up with the youngest Ringling, he had to make some very tough decisions.  But in the end, he considered it one of his greatest accomplishments that he was able to hold on to his artwork masterpieces and his home to house them, not for himself, but because he had wanted to will them to the state of Florida.  Those pieces are open to the public today to enjoy, admire and learn from.  He died with only $311.00 in his bank account, but still held on to these pieces, even though he could have sold them for more personal funds.  Sometimes, you have to know what to fight for, even when it makes things harder for you.
  • It’s hard to compete with a lifetime love: John Ringling was married to his wife Mabel for a quarter of a century, and frequently referred to her as the love of her life.  After her death he remarried for a brief time, probably too soon, and the relationship was seemingly doomed from the start.  Perhaps it was his fault, perhaps it was hers, an outsider to any relationship will never fully know.  But you will meet people, who, in their heart are still in love with someone else, regardless of whether that person loves them back or not, and there’s no competing with that.

All my love,

Mom

Lessons from Springtime...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

We thought it would never come but sunnier days, warmer breezes and little shoots of green are finally on their way.  After winter seemed to return again and again this year, I think springtime has finally arrived.

When I notice the days finally getting longer, I become a happier person.  It’s a gift to see the seasons renew right before our eyes and here are a few things that help celebrate the coming spring season:

  • Go outside on that first really gorgeous day: Drop what your doing. . . sneak out of work early. . . cancel that evening you planned to spend inside cooking or studying or cleaning.  This is the time to enjoy the fresh air, to grab sandwiches and enjoy lunch in the park, to walk the long way home. Inevitably, the winter chills always pop back once or twice after we see the first signs of spring but if you make the time to enjoy it, it will stay springtime in your heart.  Don’t let those first warm rays of the season pass you by.
  • Clean out your closet: Go through and assess what doesn’t work for you with the change of the year, and figure out what won’t work for you at all anymore.  If it’s too old, needs too many repairs or needs too many pounds one way or the other, lose it.  You’ll feel better going into spring when you look at items you actually wear in your closet---somehow with less things, we often have more options.
  • Buy something in color: Now that you have all that room in your closet, you can afford a little treat.  We spend so much of winter in practical blacks, browns, greys. . . at least I do.  Celebrate spring by buying something in color---it might be a shirt, or a scarf or a necklace. . . it doesn’t have to be big, but just a small thing that helps you celebrate the fresh start of spring.
  • Take a walk in the rain: While what we often appreciate most about spring is the sunshine, the thing that really makes spring possible is the rain.  When living in Normandy, I couldn’t wait for the rains to stop until someone reminded me that if it didn’t rain so much, we wouldn’t have so much greenery to enjoy.  Make the time to enjoy a rainy walk and just look around to see how much it feeds the colors and growth around you.  Take that same walk in the sunshine afterwards and you’ll appreciate a whole new world around you.
  • Have a happy new year: Your Christian roots will teach you to celebrate this time of year as a renewal in the church calendar; your Persian roots will teach you to celebrate spring as a new year of new beginnings.  Like January for calendar years, and September for school years, use this variation of a new year to wipe the slate clean and reset yourself for a fresh start.  If you made New Year’s resolutions, check in with them to see how you’re doing---where you need to refocus, and where you need to reframe.  The beautiful thing about new years of any kind is that they are full of new beginnings, take advantage of that.

All my love,

Mom

Cursing in the Var

in a strange land

By Kayla Allen The day started auspiciously enough, with a visit to the Villa Noailles, a modernist structure designed in 1923 by Robert Mallet Stevens.  My three children romped in the triangular cubist garden.  I wallowed in the view from the hillside, a span that stretched above the ancient city of Hyeres and out to sea, beyond the Iles d’Or, the three islands punctuating the coastline.  Our annual summer trip to France had rolled around and in this Eden-like setting I felt smugly serene.  I vowed to the wind, water and sky: this vacation, I would get along with the Var-ois.

I had previously lived in the region that runs along the Riviera and stretches to the vineyards of Bandol, with a hefty Provencal overlap into the Luberon.  But my two year stay in Hyeres was marred by grumpy bigots and xenophobes who would wag their fingers at this lanky blonde American and her dingo-like dog any chance they got.  I revealed my nationality simply by saying a warm Louisiana “bonjour” to whomever I passed on the street.  People wouldn’t respond, they’d stare back, mortified.  The residents of this region of France are notorious, even among their countrymen, for an acute grouch factor, totally incongruous with the calm waters of the Mediterranean and the perpetual sun.

In the late 1800s Hyeres drew crowds as a hopping winter escape for British and Russian aristocrats.  Robert Louis Stevenson made an extended pit stop and later remarked, “I was only happy once, that was in Hyeres.” But his stay came nearly a century before Jean-Marie LePen set up camp in the region with his extreme right Front National Party.  Jean-Marie LePen has managed to hold various elected offices while spewing vitriolic messages of hate, with poisonous arrows sometimes aimed at American foreign policy and culture.  When I am in town, it seems I always bump into his staunchest supporters.

I was happy to leave Shreveport, pleased to be back in Europe and determined not to let my husband’s cranky compatriots interfere with my trip.  After my blissful morning at the Villa Noailles, I made a trip to Geant Casino, France’s version of Wal-Mart. Mia, my three-year-old toddler, six months out of diapers, tagged along.

We strolled through the produce section, Mia contentedly following along, pushing a cart tailor-made for her height.  She reveled in her independence and her alone-time with me.  As we entered the bread department she stopped in her tracks and announced,  “I need to pee-pee, Mommy.”  Her timing could not have been worse.  I instinctively knew French grocery stores did not have toilets.  If they did, they would be like all public restrooms in France, covered in mulch of an undetermined nature.  No toilet paper to be found, possibly a tiny sink that might offer a sluggish stream of cold water, and certainly no soap.

“Honey, can you wait?”  I calculated how much time it would take us to return to our rental.  But just as I asked, a small yellow rivulet zigzagged down her legs, creating a puddle at her feet.

“Accident, mommy.”

No problem.  I searched for an employee and magically found an amiable enough Produce Guy within seconds. I explained in my acceptable French that my daughter had had a mishap.  I even offered to clean it, if he had a few extra paper towels handy.

As he nipped off to find suitable products, I asked Mia not to move in order to keep the mess contained.  Meantime, another shopper treaded dangerously close and I warned her in my most cordial voice.  Here’s how it translated:  “Excuse me – please be careful, my daughter had an accident.  It is better maybe don’t promenade upon it.  I’m waiting for some wiping material now.”

This woman, a traditional Var-oise whose skin had been baked to a leathery crisp, looked at me as if I’d just sucked down a Big Gulp and followed it with a whopping Yankee belch.  Her mouth turned down at the corners and her nostrils flared like she was the main attraction in a bullring.  She pushed her dyed black hair out of her eyes, leaned over to grab a loaf of bread and whispered “petite salope.”  Huh?  Had she called my daughter or me a little bitch?

My hackles shot straight up.

The nice Produce Guy came with the towels and I started cleaning Mia while he mopped the innocent mess. I turned to the woman.  “Vous avez une problem, madame?”  I asked.

She emitted an evil glow and smirked. “Put a diaper on her, alors!”

Defending oneself against rude inhabitants in foreign countries only amounts to extreme tedium. But when unjustifiable insolence is directed at the most perfect three year-old girl in the world, rage follows.  I was dazed by my indignation.  In stunned silence I checked Mia and told her everything was okay (she sported quick drying nylon pants).  Next, I approached this monster before she left our section and in my best negative-adrenaline-rush French spouted, “Why would you speak something like this?  Why would you insult my child in such a way?  She made an accident, which is normal for a person of this age!”

She responded with an irritated shrug, “She had an accident but someone else must clean it up.”

I said, “That’s not your problem.  You are mean.  You are very very mean.”  I grew frustrated at my tragically impotent communication skills.

I should have left it at this, and God knows I tried. I looked at precious Mia standing behind her toddler cart.  If I’d had the capability to actually think, I could have mused on whether or not allowing her to see my increasing anger was a good idea.

But instead, every Gallic affront I’d ever suffered accumulated in that instant at Geant Casino.  And while I’ve enjoyed many wonderful moments during my Francophile years, my mind reeled back to insults hurled, starting in the 80s.  Then I first journeyed to France as a neophyte model and magazine editors balked at my size 4, saying I was “porcine.” I thought about the malicious queue-breakers at museums who laughed with disdain when I protested.  All the catty shop-girls and condescending waiters I’d ever encountered morphed into a clichéd montage of scornful pointy-noses and mono-brows. I rifled mentally through the piles of hurt and feelings of inferiority from years past.

“O! Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven; keep me in temper; I would not be mad!” I called on Shakespeare for calm, but I could not reason with myself.  My earlier vow to avoid getting riled disappeared and my ire switched to high beam.

I took a moment for inward reflection and breathed deep.  I tapped into my inner stash of French curse words, honed from years of stoned, drunken nights with my favorite Eurobuddies in bars and hostels across the continent.   And I told myself Mia couldn’t yet understand the language, at least not in the way I intended to abuse it.

I strode two aisles over and found Bullwoman examining cheese. “Oh you again?” she said casually.

Yes, me again.  I would make it so that she never forgot me.  She’d never nonchalantly slur others.  Besides debasing my daughter, she’d offended my mothering skills.

I addressed her using the informal “tu-tois”, already an insult. “Toi, tu est une grosse conne.”  You are a large idiot.  With the right tone it could’ve sounded worse, but I was just getting warmed up.  I checked Mia’s whereabouts.  She lagged behind me, not in earshot.

Bullwoman responded, “You should learn to speak French, alors.”  She followed that with an aside: “Etranger.  C’a ma fait chier.”  The Var-ois have an irritating habit of hissing “foreigner” whenever a foreigner is around.  But to tell me I was annoying her?

The time had come to throw down.  My passionate response:  “nique ta-mere.” Not only a vulgar way of implying she should have intercourse with her mother, but also the name of a popular rap group from the Paris suburbs.  I followed that with a quick “va te faire enculer” implying she should have sex with herself, but via a non-traditional route.

“Casse-toi,” she replied.  A simple “bugger off” to which I could not muster a rebuttal.

I returned to Mia, totally dry by now, barely smelling of sweet baby pee.  I tried to focus on my shopping, as I stocked up on gruyere, creamy yogurt, and cornichons.  I fumed my way through saucisson and jambon.   The gall, the Gaul!

People are so polite where I come from that if a little girl accidentally peed in public a stranger would rip off a shirtsleeve to help clean it up.   They’d sponsor a bake sale at their church to buy billboard space stating to the world what a great job I was doing as a mother, and as a human being on Planet Earth.

But I languished in the Var.

As I paid for my goods and headed for the exit, I couldn’t help but turn and scan the check out lines for my Var-oise nemesis.  It was easy to spot her pernicious aura.  Instinctively, I wheeled my cart back inside, resolute in my desire to have the last word.  Plus, I was having fun.  In the words of Montaigne, “No one is exempt from speaking nonsense, the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

When she saw me coming she rolled her eyes.   Good, I thought, I’m getting to her.  I smiled.  “Madame, je comprends tres bien ton problem,” in a low voice and with deliberate calm, I continued in French.  “Tu a besoin d’etre bien baiser, mais il ne personne qui veux.   Bonne chance.”  Translation:  “Ma’am, I know what your problem is.  You need to get laid but no one will have you.  I wish you the best of luck.”  Her response: a simple jaw-drop to the scuzzy linoleum-tiled floor.

And with that, I marched triumphant to my car. Without the likes of Bullwoman I would have never have broken past years of suppressed anger.  Now when a Var-ois behaves offensively, I smile, shrug my shoulders, and head to the nearest beach.