Monday, October 22, 2012

Rules for Turning 40

1. Don't get cynical --especially about love. Stay romantic. Stay idealistic --for as long as you can.

2. Don't mistake fear for intuition.  When you have a gut feeling that everything is about to go to shit, try to remember that it could be because there have been a lot of times in the last 10 years when it has. If it's going to go to shit, then you can't stop it anyway. Keep a good supply of Cap'n Crunch around just in case and discipline yourself to enjoy the easier times.

3. Don't keep punishing yourself for your mistakes. Really,  a lot of them are understandable and all of them are forgivable. Chronic trauma makes selfish nightmares of all of us's okay. You tried really hard.

4.  Stop being so grateful to people who only offer the bare minimum. You don't have to be angry with them, but they don't need all of your gorgeous love and attention, either. You'd insist on better treatment for your closest people, so start insisting on better treatment for yourself.

5.  Extend your hand in all directions --in love, in friendship, in understanding, in rescue, in peace, in humble gratitude. Build people up when they need it (this is where you can trust your intuition) costs you nothing.

6. Keep returning to your essential self. Read, knit, sing, watch the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, write, cook, bake, take care of your home and anyone who enters it. That's who you are.

7. You don't have to die on every hill --be creative. There are brick walls in every life, every relationship, every heart. It's okay ...let them be there. You don't have to climb them or blast through them, you can just move around them; they may be tall, but they're not wide.

8.  Stop saying "I'm sorry" when what you really mean is "fuck you." A lot of us women do that. Let's stop it.

9.  Keep laughing about as much as you can.

10. Let people take pictures of you. No, you're not seventeen anymore. No, you're not 22 or even 32.  You're soft in the middle and your knees make weird crackly noises every time you go upstairs. You often have dark circles under your eyes and it won't be long until your nipples start tickling the tops of your feet. But you're still pretty and it's important that you allow people to record your presence in their lives if that matters to them. Assume it matters to your children (it does) and assume that everyone sees beauty in you that you can't see yourself.

11. Keep taking risks --big ones. Take social risks, fashion risks, emotional and creative risks. When they work out, great --that's how you gain confidence. When they fail spectacularly, even better --that's how you gain empathy and understanding.

12. Continue to let people know how much they mean to you would want to know.

13.  Stay connected to God. Sometimes you feel like He couldn't possibly be paying attention to you, but He is. He is writing this beautiful engaging story about you as you live it, filled with entertaining hypocrites to challenge you and tender heroes to inspire you. He is everywhere in your life, spinning you around the dance floor, working His magic. You're important to Him, so make sure He knows He's important to you. Listen. He is telling you your connections are strong, your family is whole, your shredded heart is healing. You are 40. That is wonderful.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Standard

"Are you proud of the work you do?"

This question, posed to me by the psychologist I go see to help me with my adorable-but-ever-so-slightly-challenging-special-needs-middle-child, immediately made me cry. I want to be...I probably should be. But I rarely feel like I'm getting it right. Maybe I made a beautiful dinner but left the kitchen looking apocolyptic; maybe Lizzie looks adorable for school but Caroline and Henry look like street urchins; maybe all the beds are made but I forgot to sign Henry's homework. So I suck.

Please believe me when I say I am philosophically opposed to how I treat myself. I lecture my friends --sometimes for hours at a time-- about feeling proud of their work. I scold them when they apologize for their perfectly lovely houses, I interrupt them when they confess that they haven't fed their children anything but peanut butter and chicken nuggets since school started. "You are doing a gorgeous, meaningful, creative, selfless job," I tell them (but not myself). "The standard is impossible."

Then I berate myself because I still haven't gotten around to alphabetizing my pantry.

I don't know too many men who do this to themselves. The back yard looks like it's covered in straw? Too much watering is bad for the environment.  Modern art? Doesn't look that hard --Mom said my paintings were just as good.  A few grey hairs, a paunch, and weird rashes here and there? Lookin' good.

I'm telling you, they're on to something.

Yesterday morning, as I pissed away at least an hour and a half playing Bejeweled Blitz on the computer, I thought about what I want my life to express. Really, everything I value can be sorted into three categories: beauty, connection, and understanding. I figure that if I cover at least one at any given time, then I can look back on the day, week, month, season, year, and eventually my life and feel good --even great -- about my time here.

That means the Bejeweled Blitz addiction must go, but the yarn and cookbook hoarding are more than acceptable. I will have to give up anti-fantasizing about the next thing that will hurt me, but I can listen to as much music as I want.  I can take up whole mornings walking around Lake Harriet with Angie or Julie. I can spend hours on the phone with Mary or Michele or Jess or Betsy --I should. For one thing, walking around Lake Harriet is a good way to trick myself into exercising. For another, I get a lot of housework done when I'm on the phone.

But even if I don't, the connection matters more. I have enough life experience to know that having a perfectly clean house and immaculate children is not nearly as much comfort when things get hard as strong, loving friendships are. I'd rather be good at the latter and I am. In a few years, when my children roll their eyes at the merest suggestion of spending time with me, I will have hours and hours to clean.

But I won't. All those chemicals are bad for the environment.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Begging the Question

We do all the laundry. Imagine if the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rockies were all connected and made out of inside-out sweatshirts, Pixar jammies, and tiny Hello Kitty panties. Now you have pictured most of our laundry rooms on most days.

We cook. We spend hours, days, weeks, months, YEARS collecting recipes, then shop for the obscure ingredients, then defend what we spent on them, then prepare the meal, then --most of the time --clean up. This is what we hear if the meal is fucking phenomenal: "Good dinner Honey!" Then someone farts, then someone burps, then everyone talks about how AWESOME that was, how they can't BELIEVE how CRAZY EXCELLENT that fart-and-burp combo was. AMAZING.  This is what we hear if it was damn good: "It's okay, but not really my favorite." This from our nine-year-old son, who tells us in the voice he will one day use to break up with unstable girlfriends.

We keep the house clean while our people work (harder than they're ever willing to work at anything else) to keep the place looking like a low-budget zoo habitat. Why is that sticky? What kind of crumbs are those? What is that weird smell? Best not to ask. Just use the education, the talent, the imagination, style and mindblowing sexiness that got you here, on this bathroom floor with this pee and these gloves (I hope) and this toilet, and get it done.

We civilize:
"That is a sofa, not a jungle gym. Please refrain from jumping on it."
"If my cooking makes you feel like you have to throw up, please do so in the bathroom. Thank you."
"I'd rather not see that far into you."
"I'm afraid you'll find that fart jokes, like houseguests and fish, start to grow old after about day three."
"Etiquette dictates that you should not finish your dinner before the person who cooked it for you has begun."
"The world is not your petting zoo ...there are some things (and people) we need not touch to enjoy."
"Try not to eat anything you found in your nose."
"You are not the center of the universe. That position is held by the sun ...the exquisitely silent sun."

This is not an exhaustive list.

We grow people. First we grow them inside of us, then push them out (I don't really want to talk about how that happens, but it's harder than it looks) and grow them on the outside. Some of us breastfeed, some of us formula feed, some of us do both. Either way, we're up several times a night feeding/diapering/burping/checking to make sure they're breathing.

When they get older, we read article after article about the scientific link between child nutrition and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between childhood depression and our shitty mothering, the scientific link between child stupidity and our shitty mothering. We make our own baby food with fruits and vegetables we grew ourselves (lots of spare time in this job) from heirloom organic seeds we found in the Sundance catalog for $700.00 per envelope. We harvest the vegetables, put them through a food mill, then a food processor, then a strainer, and finally into a ceramic personalized bowl that seemed like a great idea when we were pregnant. From there, our stupid baby (our fault) throws the whole mess on the floor.

Then we cry and give them a dusty jar of Gerbers, which they devour as if Thomas Keller made it himself.

We agonize over the right friends, the right schools, the right combination of athletics and artistic enrichment. We read to them, make sure they do their homework, sign them up for camp. We douse them in sunscreen and bugspray only to find out (at the end of the summer) that everyone else knew at the beginning of LAST summer that the brand of sunscreen we use is full of  potent carcinogens. Then we self-flagellate.

We check daily for lice, rashes, viruses, depression, tumors, drug abuse, seizures, eating disorders, anxiety, and whatever else is going around. We volunteer at school (but not too much), we get involved with sports (but not too much), we show up at every poetry reading, tipi-making event, book club, swim meet, hockey game, glockenspiel recital, and gallery opening to cheer and take a thousand digital photos, which we immediately put into custom photo books for the grandparents. We forget to order one for ourselves.

When they're sick or injured --whether it's bad or not-- we read and sing and carry them, though they're much too big to be carried and we'll need months of chiropractic work afterwards, for what feels like miles through schools or across fields or malls or museums or hospitals until they feel better, falling asleep in our shaking arms. We hold them down for immunizations or IV inserts or basic dental work. We crawl in bed with them at 3:30 am to scratch their backs while they cough so hard they almost throw up. We tell them for the thousand-and-tenth time that they're safe and cozy in their beds; the funder won't hurt them.

We do all of this --or most of it-- gladly, grateful for the experience, for the infinite expansion of our hearts and minds. But it does beg the question:

Why, whywhywhy, WHY, when people ask us if we work, do we keep saying no?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The First Season

If I were in charge of seasons, Fall would come first. I am not just saying this because I look impossibly sexy in Fall clothes (though that IS a reason). I am also saying it because it makes more metaphorical sense; for me, life begins with death.

You don't have to make that face --I'm not talking about being Saved. I'm talking about the way nature works, both in the physical world and the human psyche. If I start with Spring, with babies and tender shoots and open windows present from the start, then I am taking it all for granted; it's merely the scenery, a given. But if I start with the death of an aunt, whose high musical giggle returns in the baby, if I start with a withering plant whose seed is at the center of a fresh plant, or if I start with  a closed window that someone or something must open, then there is no mere scenery because everything is always growing, connected, telling the story. That feels true to me.

Something is always dying back --sometimes dying altogether-- so that a newer, more resilient something, fed and strengthened by whatever has been lost, can grow in its place. A bird, a tree, a daffodil whispers everything it has learned about survival to the egg, the seed, the bulb and then falls back, generously gives way to the new thing.

The same evolution happens in a healthy human spirit, right? Ideas, relationships, plans and philosophies die back to engender new ones, which die back to engender new ones, which die back to engender new ones. That's us growing, even after we stop growing taller. Everything that's living --in the world and in us-- is made up of everything that has died. That's much more hopeful, if you think about it, then the idea that life, the moment it appears, begins winding its way inexorably toward death. That's depressing.

If I were in charge of the calendar, Spring would be the third season. The warm sunny days, the baby animals, the soft colors, the daffodils would mean almost nothing if they didn't follow Winter's blank, frozen months. The snow, the chill --that's what gives Spring its context, its value.  We open the window, we watch to see what grows back to reassure us, what grows fresh and new to delight us. We remember what was there before and are grateful to see its influence, its contribution to what has grown in its place. Spring is as much an ending as a beginning.

And Fall is as much a beginning as an ending. I'm seeing the trees begin to change color, the plants and flowers starting to dry out and die back. I'll be watching to see what's new next Spring, even in the trees, which we humans regard as constant. They are indeed more constant than a lot of things, but they still allow their leaves and dying branches to drop every year. They still allow themselves to bend, to fall, to be struck by lightning, to burn, even to die if that's what it takes to grow something new.

Fall is my favorite season, my new beginning every year. It is the season of letting go, which I am never very good at, so I learn from watching Nature, who is very good at it (just think of all She's lost). Every Fall, I practice dying back: I stop trying to revive withering plants outside, I let dying branches drop. I close windows. I allow parts of myself to bend, to fall down, to be struck by lightning, to burn, even to die. It's fine, it's good, it's the beginning of something new that will grow there --a fresh idea or relationship or plan or philosphy. Every fall, I am the bird, the tree, the daffodil, whispering what I know to the egg, the seed, the bulb. I am also those. I am growing, connected, telling the story.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Post Day Change

Dearest loyal readers ...

If you are one of those lovely people who checks my blog on Fridays for new posts, please note that I am switching to Tuesdays. That gives me the weekends to think and Mondays to write.

Thank you so much for reading. I wish I could express how reckless and gratifying writing can feel and how reassuring your devotion is.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Change of Season

I get ambitious this time of year --the gorgeous peace and quiet from the kids being back in school makes me high and I forget how hard it was in August to do just about anything. In September, I start looking at elaborate recipes, consider Hoarders-level organization projects, and blow-dry my hair. Back in August, the house and I both looked condemned and my family was lucky if I threw a handful of raisins at them for dinner.

When September comes around, I loosen my grip. I fall back in love with my babies and start watering my plants again. I tune back in every Fall to the central mystery of my life: the people who keep circling back, showing up to restore my faith in love, family, friendship and the power of shared history. I stop chasing and let myself be found.

Summer is never my season. Some women become golden, dewy goddesses when the weather gets sticky (how do they do that? Bitches) --my summer look is more pale, resentful, sweaty washer woman. I'm not saying it's a look that's caught on, I'm just saying it's my look. By the time August rolls around, I'm moving as little as possible, guzzling down a gin and tonic every day about 5:30 to galvanize myself for the dinner/bath/bedtime triathlon, and telling my potted plants that I'm sorry but I just don't have anything left to give. August is for picking fights and self-pity.

There is always a moment at the end of the summer when I look at myself, look at my family and friends and house and garden and all of it, and feel utterly lost, like I have forgotten everything I ever learned or taught myself, everything I need to know. I let that lost feeling soak into every cell of my body and then cry really hard for a really long time. I cry about all the people I have lost, my need to explain things that shouldn't require explanation, my occasional deep loneliness, my inability to let go of old wounds, my unguarded history.

Then clarity. I remember who I am, who I have always been --an intense girl, an emotional girl, also a strong and brave girl. I'm going to be fine, better than fine. The kids will go back to school and the air will thin and dry out. I will have quiet in the mornings and time in the kitchen. I will bake and knit and get some exercise and read novels. I will confess more vulnerable secrets in my writing and let strangers and friends make their judgements. I will return to myself and remember everything I need to know. Every August, after my Sweat Lodge Cry, I believe this again.

And every September, I'm right about myself. People close to me worry, I think, about this cycle. They worry that I won't be able to sweat it out, cry it out and be restored this time, but I am always able to. I think I will always be able to, you will always be able to, anyone who needs a change of season will always be able to. We're all doing this to one degree or another --getting lost, forgetting, circling back, remembering. This is my central mystery: the people who keep returning, the girl who keeps returning, circling back to restore her own faith in love, family, friendship, her own unguarded history.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Getting Better

I think I am finally seeing signs of recovery --better sleep, a gradual move out of my dark crowded head and into my senses, a return to novels, my kitchen, a social life. It's happening, but not fast enough.

A couple of days ago, I complained about this to my dear friend Ellen, who quoted Julia Cameron: "It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time." I know that's true but my pride is suffering. Much of it had already been stolen from me by Algebra II and a series of adolescent crushes on boys who to this day remember nothing of me except my boobs and the fact that my dad was the principal of our high school. Then I had children and lost more pride. Then I tried yoga and lost the rest of it.

There's nothing for it --I'm determined to heal fully. That means surrendering to my Gypsy temper, my penchant for teary speeches, my need for support, my tendency to refuse support when it's offered, my eternal struggle between wanting more time alone and wanting more time with friends, the way I beg for love, understanding and appreciation from those either unwilling or unable to give it.

I'm going to get better but I'm not going to look good doing it. I'm going to be moody and weepy and angry. I'm going to hide out one week and make bold, self-destructive moves the next. I may spend whole weekends in my bathrobe, singing along with Taylor Swift and eating Cap'n Crunch. Purchasing a complete teen wardrobe for myself at Abercrombie & Fitch is not out of the question, nor are a Meryl Streep tattoo and a very graphic love letter to Severus Snape. I'm telling you, I'll do what I have to do to get to the other side.

Do you want to know the hardest part, besides finding a current street address for Alan Rickman? The hardest part is granting myself pardon for all of my little (and big) dingbat mistakes, the sloppy work I've been doing in some areas of my life so I can give my energy and talent to the parts that can't wait.

Open House at the kids' school was two days ago. In 45 minutes, I was to find all three classrooms in a building best described as Catacombs-meets-corn-maze, quickly brush my grubby children's hair before someone influential saw them, and saunter in. That was the easy part. Next, I had to fight my way through the room mother types in full hair and makeup who were taking photos with tripods and studio lighting kits for their library-of-Congress-grade scrapbooks. Finally, when introducing us to the new teachers, I had to remember my kids' names.

While I was waiting for my face time, I was supposed to drop off school supplies. By "drop off," I mean sort into forty different bins in one classroom, knowing intuitively (everyone else did) which supplies were to be labeled (this folder, not that folder; this pair of Fiskars scissors, not that one). In the next, everything had to go in the desks --nothing was shared. In Lizzie's classroom, the directions were to ignore the forty different bins (some kind of trap?) and put everything in a cubby instead. I did not follow these directions.

So I gave most of Lizzie's school supplies, none of which were labeled, to the wrong kindergarten teacher. Shame, shame, shame. Luckily, I'm so self-actualized that I'm only thinking about this bullshit four days later for twelve minutes per hour at the most. Healing, Dear Reader --I'm talking about how well I'm healing.

The difference between the pain of breaking down and the pain of rebuilding can be subtle --it's easy to mistake one for the other. Today, while I was getting a pedicure with Elise, I started crying talking about Caroline and how fucking hard it is to parent her. The stakes always feel so high, I never know what I'm doing, and I often feel some combination of love, resentment, gratitude, and guilt. The fact of Caroline's developmental delays isolates me; I'm so tired of explaining when she gets terrified of someone's dog or poops in her pants at a birthday party.

My tears surprised me (Elise, who has known me for years, took them in stride). My first reaction when I started crying was disappointment; I had thought I was doing better. I don't embarrass easily, but I have gradually become self-conscious over the last year or two about being so constantly at the mercy of my grief and fear. I hate how long it's taking to feel strong again and I hate that I can't have dignity and recovery at the same time. That's a significant design flaw in the recovery process.

But I can have other consolations. I can have the past 24 hours with Elise and Ann, drinking wine and giggling about camp. I can have songs to remind me I'm not alone. I can have beauty, connection, belonging. I can have the people I have had to let go for now in the form of memory or music. I can have the work I have done and how hard I have tried and my strong heart, still capable of love and resilience. Still capable of getting better even if I don't look good, even if it doesn't happen fast enough.

I'm finally starting to weave back together everything that started unravelling the day my cousin Kyle died. It may take me the rest of my life. I might always feel like the girl who's crying, processing, begging for love, understanding or appreciation. I might lose my dignity over and over again. That is the pain of rebuilding --it is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.

I choose getting better. Luckily, I don't embarrass that easily ;-)