Monday, April 20, 2015

Picking Your Battles

Bubba and I are raising two very strong girls. We can't take all of the credit, to be certain. There is some part of each of them that is just that way - they were born strong and stubborn, I'm sure. But we have done our level best to offer them opportunities to share their ideas and express themselves, to find their voices and the places where they will be heard.

It is a pretty awesome thing to behold most of the time.

We encourage them to think about the things we take for granted, challenge the status quo.
We have told them that their opinions deserve to be heard as much as anyone else's (so long as they aren't nasty or hateful or shaming).
We have listened to their point of view and had some very spirited discussions and, a time or two, we have capitulated to them - realizing that they had a valid point.

This weekend, as I listened to the two of them have argument after argument over the most mundane of subjects (what the actual lyrics to that song are, whether a particular shade of nail polish is ugly or not, where the best tacos in town are), it occured to me that they are both really good at speaking up and making their point. I was annoyed but not alarmed at the constant bickering, because I was fascinated by their individual tactics and pleased that it never descended into physical violence.

However...

It is far beyond time that I started teaching them about choosing their battles. Being good at convincing others can be a good thing, and winning arguments can be as well. But I realized that they may not understand how fast people who aren't their family will run if every interaction is a contest of wills. Bosses and romantic partners probably won't appreciate how good Eve and Lola are at using their voices if they are used with equal fervor when it comes to what's for dinner and whom to vote for.

They are well-versed in standing up for what they think.
Now it's time to learn WHEN to do it.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Stephen Hawking and The Ghost Boy

Stephen Hawking. Photo by NASA
I've been thinking a lot about communication lately. I just finished reading Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. It's the story of Martin, who succumbed to a mystery disease when he was a young boy that put him into a coma for two years. When he "awoke," he was unable to speak or move any part of his body other than his eyes and some minimal movements of one hand. It took years before someone was able to assess him for brain damage and fit him with a computer device that enabled him to communicate with the world and everyone was shocked at how much he was aware of and understood during the time he was mute and paralyzed.

I have to say, the book wasn't my favorite, literarily-speaking, but it did spark a lot of thought processes in my head.  And ultimately, it led to me watching The Theory of Everything last Friday night. I have loved Stephen Hawking's brain since I first read Black Holes and Baby Universes for fun in high school. (Yes, I was that nerd). I went on to read "A Brief History of Time" and was completely hooked.  His story was different, in that people knew he was brilliant before he began struggling with the symptoms of ALS and could no longer speak or take care of himself, but I was still fascinated by how heavily verbal communication weighs in our assessment of each other as human beings.

I remember when my grandmother was rendered mute by Alzheimer's disease. Although she had been increasingly confused prior to that time, it was still confusing to me whether or not she understood the lion's share of what was going on around her. I recall thinking that I would go crazy if I were trapped inside my own head and body, unable to respond or make my needs known.

As a young mother, I recognized my infant's frustrated cries as just that - a desperate longing to tell me what she wanted and to have some control over her world.  Fortunately for her, normal developmental progression let her gradually gain that control. But until she could, I had to change my response to her by listening in a different way, paying attention to her body language and context, the time of day and where her eyes moved. I had to trust that she was doing her best to communicate with me and it was on me to slow down, change my expectations, decipher the clues.  When I came from a place of love and genuine desire to know, while it was often challenging and crazy-making, I was able to be more patient.

Some of the stories Martin told about how he was treated by caregivers in various care homes were horrifying. The lack of humanity he was shown simply because he was unable to speak or move his body the way he wanted to made me sad. And it made me think about how often we expect others to communicate with us in the ways we are accustomed to, instead of thinking outside the box. Fortunately, there are those out there who are committed to finding ways to help people like Martin and Stephen Hawking express themselves.  As for me, the next time I encounter someone who doesn't communicate exactly like I do, I hope I'll have the presence of heart to slow down and find another way to listen.

Monday, April 06, 2015

On the 40th Anniversary of Operation Babylift

I have Operation Babylift to thank for my little sister. And perhaps some divine intervention, given that she was on the plane that crashed in 1975 and killed over a hundred of the passengers - orphans and adults evacuating them.

photo from the Daily Mail, UK

To this day it is hard for me to imagine strapping scores of infants to airplane seats. We would be reported to CPS these days for doing such a thing, and I suspect if I had been one of the nurses charged with tending to the babies, I would have been a nervous wreck trying to keep an eye on them all. 
photo from the Daily Mail, UK
Every time I think about this amazing story, I can't help but feel that my sister's survival, at less than two months old, means something big. That the fact that she not only survived her birth in a war-torn country, but then lived her first four weeks of life in an orphanage, was strapped into an airplane seat with hundreds of other infants and survived a horrific crash, only to be flown across the world to a foster family who would come to discover she had a tapeworm and multiple food allergies means something big. 

I don't know what it means. I can't imagine that it means the same to her that it does to me. I don't know what it's like to not know where you come from (all of the orphans' records were destroyed in the crash) and to grow up in a small town in Oregon where nobody looks like you - not even the people in your own family. 

I do know that when she arrived in our house, the local media showed up, too. I was three years old and completely unfazed by the reporter or the photographer, but I was entirely enthralled by this tiny little doll someone placed in my arms. She was so minuscule and weightless and warm with enormous brown eyes and crazy black cornsilk hair that stood up in all directions. I promptly christened her mine - a moment not lost on the reporter, as he quoted me in the article for the newspaper. 

To this day, I am still not sure what it all means, but April, 1975 is an important part of my life and it always will be. It was the month that I gained a sister. Regardless of the political or humanitarian implications of the war in Vietnam and the resulting evacuation of orphans, it forever changed the course of my life.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Less Random Monday Thoughts

Elizabeth posted this comment on yesterday's random thoughts in response to my words about condescension:

"The more I think about it, though, the more I am convinced that the particular people I wrote about are never going to budge. That doesn't depress me as much as it makes me realize that it's not about vindication and that I will move forward even as they stay put. "
Yes. It isn't about vindication at all and, if it was, we are all likely to remain incredibly disappointed by those in power who are not interested in shifting the dynamics.  For me, though, it is about being heard.

I am just naive enough (or maybe it's idealism - I've been accused of both) to think that when someone invites me to be part of a conversation, they are actually open to hearing what I think. In the case of the meeting with the Surgeon General a few weeks ago, I was also naive/idealistic enough to think that it might really be a conversation, a dialogue between him and the parents in the room, but it was more like a transaction, a sales call where he showed up saying he was interested in what we wanted and ultimately sold us the only thing he had brought to sell - his canned comments and rhetoric. I don't believe there was ever anything else on offer besides an opportunity to sit in a room and say his piece. Given the number of times he was asked a question that he failed to answer at all - instead steering his words toward another subject altogether - I am convinced that there was some preexisting agenda that included the rest of us as simply warm bodies to receive his message.

That, I am not interested in. I don't want a transaction, whereby I simply sit passively and receive the information others want me to receive. Nor am I interested in vindication - some magical moment wherein the folks in power have an epiphany and shout, "You're absolutely right! We should have seen it all along!" as they hang their heads in shame. That might feel really freaking amazing in the moment, but ultimately it doesn't do anything to - as Elizabeth says, "move (us) forward." And it doesn't do anything to alleviate the frustration and/or suffering that came for years as I tried to get anyone to listen.

Last October when I was in New Mexico with the likes of Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem, someone said (I think it was Gloria, but I honestly can't remember), "If you want to stop someone in their tracks, tell them you don't believe them." Yes. But, I would add, it is even more powerful to send them the message that you aren't even interested in hearing them. And that is the message we get when these kinds of events are scheduled, ostensibly to hear various perspectives, and the only stories that are allowed any oxygen are the ones that have been told over and over again. This is a tactic that has been used for decades - deny that there is a problem. Pretend that those voices that tell a different story belong to folks who aren't smart enough to really know what they see/feel/experience, or that they aren't important enough to pay attention to and they will eventually go away or start questioning their own sanity.

The difference these days is that we have other ears. Social media has given us the opportunity to find others who are telling the same stories and band together to raise our voices. If we can't have a dialogue, at least we can change the venue a little. Instead of continuing to hit our heads against that brick wall that the powers-that-be have put up for us to write our protests on, we can turn around and go somewhere else where we will be heard. We can validate each others' perceptions and continue moving forward, with or without them.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Random Sunday Thoughts

On self-awareness and how much I love it when my kids have it:

 - Lola got some sad news yesterday that her beloved mentor is moving to the East Coast. I braced myself for her reaction, given the fast, intense friendship the two of them developed that quickly grew into a foursome with her mentor's partner and Eve. I knew this was going to be a tough pill to swallow. When she gave me the news, her face was so sad and I had to remind myself around the lump in my throat that the best thing I can do is follow her lead and hold space for her.  I hugged her tightly and offered to hang out with her for a bit, but she declined, saying, "Nah, I'm just going to go upstairs and be sad for a while by myself. Thanks." It sucked for me because I want so badly to soothe her feelings, but I love the fact that she knows herself well enough to make sure she has space to just sit with them for a bit.

 - After a busy weekend including one sleepover on Friday night and a matinee of Mamma Mia on Saturday followed by a dinner out with a girlfriend, Eve came down to lunch today and announced that she was putting her phone on "airplane mode" for the rest of the day so she isn't tempted to answer texts or check social media. She has too much she wants to get done. Hallelujah!

On condescension and unsatisfying "conferences" or "town hall events:"

 - A few weeks ago I was invited to be in the room with the Surgeon General and MomsRising constituents to talk about the recent measles outbreak and vaccines.  I was told that I would be one of only a dozen or so folks in the room and spent the weekend doing research and polling friends so that I could go in prepared to advocate and ask the kinds of questions that get past the hype and rhetoric. I was, in fact, one of only a handful of people in the room, but it turns out that this "meeting" included nearly 12,000 other phone-in audience members and, as such, we were relegated to asking questions via index card without any opportunity to follow up or challenge misinformation. I later discovered that the Surgeon General was on a country-wide tour of cities with the lowest vaccination rates in the US and I suspect it was more of a PR stunt than any real opportunity to have dialogue with folks about their actual concerns.  (To wit; when MomsRising did real-time polls of the 12,000 people online, they discovered that only about 35% of them were concerned about the measles outbreaks in the US and that more than 50% of them are concerned about the safety and efficacy of the MMR vaccine.  He did nothing to address either the media hype or the actual concerns people had.)

 - It makes me crazy that my experience was not very unusual. Elizabeth writes here about an epilepsy conference she was invited to as a parent who could share her unique perspectives with medical professionals and other families where she was condescended to as someone who is not a medical professional (duh, that's the point) and not given the airtime she deserves.  I wonder how much the organizers of these events pat themselves on the back because they think they're providing opportunities for sharing of diverse perspectives. I wonder whether they realize that what they are really doing falls so far short of that it is laughable (if it didn't make me want to shout and cry, instead).

On priorities:

 - I had a great phone call with a friend on Thursday that reminded me how important it is to occasionally revisit the things I do on a regular basis with an eye toward whether or not they still "feed" me. On any given day, there are a number of things on my to-do list that I don't particularly love doing, but I also have a tendency to get sucked in to doing bigger things that fall in my lap one way or the other and become part of my routine. It's really easy to just keep plugging along, putting them on my list week after week without stopping to ask if I still enjoy them. And if there is an overwhelming number of things on my list that drain me, I have to also remember to populate the list with a few things that replenish me. On those days, a 30 minute power nap or a walk with a friend or sitting down to read a chapter of my book is just as important as everything else.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Fallacy of Belonging


 For the nine months that my daughter grew in my womb, I was under the illusion that she was mine.  I don’t mean mine in the sense that she shared my genetic material. I mean I believed that she belonged to me.
be·long  [bih-lawng, -long]Verb phrase belong to,a. to be the property of: The book child belongs to her.
          My husband and I had knowingly, purposefully created this child.  She was housed in my belly. I was constantly reminded that everything I did impacted her tiny, developing self in a big way. Get enough sleep. No soft cheeses. No alcohol.         
         In the beginning, my fertilized egg was simply dividing, making copy upon copy of the DNA my husband and I provided.  By the time that miniscule ball of cells lodged itself in the side of my uterus, it had morphed into a core of embryonic cells with a protective shell.  A blastocyst. My daughter had formed her first layer of defense, a shield to insulate her from the outside world before that little pink plus sign even showed up on the plastic stick.  I was blissfully rubbing my belly, reading parenting books and feeling a sense of union with my child.  I was picking through the list of our traits like a bowl of cocktail nuts, gently pushing aside the too-common peanuts and the over large Brazil nuts, concocting the perfect little person in my mind.  Please let her teeth be naturally straight like her father’s. Please let her have eyesight like mine. Have his strategic mind and my compassionate heart, little one. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that her most important job from this moment forward would be to separate, differentiate, become an individual.
         My first inkling that this child might have ideas of her own came in the middle of the second trimester.  She shimmied and shook, danced and cavorted inside me, pushing against my flesh in a gymnastics routine of her own design. No matter that I was trying to sleep; she was making herself known. Within a few weeks, she began demanding fresh pineapple and German pancakes.   The burning in my gut was unlike anything I had ever known and I developed a pack-a-day Tums habit just to cope with her cravings.
         I went into labor with my little girl sitting posterior in my womb, her head pressed firmly up against my tailbone.  While I writhed in back labor, two doctors worked in tandem, kneading my belly like so much bread dough, pushing and pulling to turn her into a position where she could be safely delivered.  With each subsequent contraction, she calmly somersaulted herself right back where she had been before without regard for the work or pain she was creating.  Tenacious and precise, this little one was delivered after 40 hours of labor on her due date in the posterior position.
be·long  [bih-lawng, -long]Verb phrase belong to,b. to be a part or adjunct of: That lid child belongs to this jar her parents.
            When that miracle of flesh and blood and hair and breath and wonder slid out of my body and the cord was cut, it was hard to determine where I left off and my daughter began.  She looked exactly like I had on the day I was born – skinny and long with feathery black hair and olive skin. On the counter at home, our baby photos sat side-by-side, astonishing in their similarities.   It was easy to believe that she was a miniature copy of me. 
         And yet, this distinct, wholly formed creature had emerged from my skin firmly ensconced in her own.  She had driven the birth process just as much as my body had and the abrupt deflation of my taut belly mirrored the slump in my spirits. In the instant when she was free of the birth canal, I felt simultaneously exhilarated and bleak. I had lost the miracle of us-ness, but was thrilled to meet my child. The many months I had spent conjuring possibilities for this baby – boy or girl, small or large, somber or goofy – were now moot. She rested on my chest and our eyes met. Electricity resonated between us, the depths of which I could not possibly fathom. 
         From the instant my daughter was born she began to assert her independence in a multitude of ways.  She went from needing me to breathe and eat for her to --- whoosh --- breathing, sucking, pooping.  She ate when she was hungry, slept when she was tired, refused to conform to any schedule I attempted to impose.  
         For weeks after she was born, I felt phantom kicks in my belly.  I recalled my impatient anticipation of her birth in those last few weeks of pregnancy at the same time that I mourned the loss of our basic, elemental union. I began to realize that parenting is an exercise in opposites. The crashing together of the two most profound human emotions: love and fear, produces an energy like no other. The pure, golden light of mother-love was quickly tainted by the crushing realization of responsibility.  The sudden dawning that no class could prepare me for the weight of each and every decision made on behalf of this helpless human was accompanied by the solid weight of warmth wrapped in a flannel blanket in my arms.  I wanted to spend every second gazing down at my daughter, consumed by the sight and smell and heft of her. 
          My all-consuming adoration was tinged with pangs of absolute terror every single time I held her, touched her, looked at her ruddy cheeks or her tiny toes. That explosive burst of love existed side-by-side with the metallic ache of fear; the joy of having this thing I loved so much and the possibility of one day not having it.  
be·long  [bih-lawng, -long]Etymology, word originmid-14c., "to go along with, properly relate to," from be- intensive prefix, + longen "to go," from Old English langian "pertain to, to go along with," of unknown origin.
          More and more, my daughter began to assert herself as I simultaneously celebrated and lamented her fierce independence.  I struggled to put limits on her, as much out of fear for her physical safety as well as some fuzzy notion of what a parent was supposed to look like and yet, I proudly recognized myself in her.  Her sense of priorities, her stubborn determination to conquer any challenge she deemed worthy of her attention, those hit a familiar chord.  I identified with her and again, blurring that line between the two of us as surely as if I were reattaching the umbilical cord. 
         I watched her methodical attempts to walk, pulling herself to her feet, shimmying along the couch, practicing standing in the middle of the room to catch her balance. For days she seemed on the verge of walking, but she wouldn’t take a step until she was certain, standing and waving her arms one day, standing and clapping the next.  I do the same in yoga, starting eagle pose by entwining my arms and fixing my gaze before ever lifting my leg to wrap it around because I don’t want to fall.  Two weeks after she had begun perfecting her standing balance, Eve took off walking. She never fell.  I took credit for whatever part of her that had driven her to do it that way.  That was me.
          I had the solid notion that this child was a part of me, like one of the rays of a sea star, but she was never that. I was fooled by our similarities into believing that who I am determines the person she will be, the person she ought to be.  When Eve works hard at something, shows true generosity, laughs in a certain way, I see myself.  When she is hateful or selfish or ignorant, I take responsibility for that, too.  I worry that I have done something to create that, as if there is a dark spot on my DNA that wormed its way into every cell of her body.  I worry that I will be judged for her mistakes with the same fervor that I am praised for her accomplishments. In those moments, I believe that sharing my DNA means that she belongs to me in the most elemental way.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------        
         My father was a fierce disciplinarian. My siblings and I paid dearly for our mistakes and I often wondered why he treated us so harshly.  I know now that my father’s rage came from a place inside him where he confused my behavior with his own self-worth.  A Marine whose own childhood experiences taught him he could never be good enough, he was desperate to mold his children into something he could be proud of, something he could show off to others.  He longed to line us up like shiny gold cups embossed with his name, to somehow redeem himself for his own shortcomings. We did feel as though we belonged to him, that our behavior reflected on him and defined him to some extent.  We were his legacy. I spent too many years of my life trying not to disappoint Dad instead of forging my own path. And during the times after he and my mother divorced, when she would yell at me, “You’re just like your father!” I would cower in shame.  She hated him more than anyone. That must mean she hated some part of me that I could never be rid of. 

          But I am not my father any more than my daughter is me.  From the moment Eve was created in a heady mix of genetic material twined together in a way that could produce only her, our daughter embarked on a journey of actualization. She is not simply a combination of flour and water and chocolate and eggs; some cake that turns out the same way every time. She is something more.  That fact both frees me and frightens me.  I am tasked with building and minding the levees of her childhood, much like a womb in the world until she is ready to break free, but how she swims in those waters is hers to determine.  The truth is, she never belonged to anyone but herself. I am simply given the gift of watching her navigate her own journey. 

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Mindful Parenting as Taught by My Tween

It has been a busy time. Bubba was in Australia on business for a week (yeah, I know) and I'm getting  the word out about The SELF Project and attending high school musical productions and basketball games and feeding kids and doing my best to make my way through the state health exchange and all its software glitches that leave them asking me to verify my 12-year old's monthly income (seriously) or telling me that Bubba's social security number has fouled things up and it might be a few days before they can fix it....

In the last week I also made the final edits in the chapter I wrote for a new book called "Mothers and Food" for Demeter Press and prepared for a town-hall style meeting with the Surgeon General here in Seattle that took place on Tuesday. I spent yesterday writing a lengthy description of the meeting after it went oh-so-disappointingly (politics ruled the day, to put it mildly). My girls are in the rut they get into every so often that pits them against each other in all ways big and small and leaves the grit of discontent fouling every surface in the house, and this lack of Winter we had here in the Pacific Northwest has sent my seasonal allergies into a tailspin three months early.

So all of that could have made me a little on edge. Perhaps. Maybe just a little bit overwhelmed and irritable. And I'm definitely mindful of that, noticing the extra bit of tension I hold in my chest and stomach and jaw and trying to be curious instead of reactive. Measuring my responses the best I can.

If you read my last post, you know that Lola, my youngest and generally affectionate and engaged child, has recently discovered the joy of hanging out in her room alone, either texting her friends or playing guitar or watching goofy YouTube videos. When Bubba was gone last week and Eve was constantly either in rehearsal or performing in the musical, I felt her absence keenly. And while I got a lot of writing done and read two books, I was sad that she doesn't seem to want to hang out or go for walks with me anymore right now.  I remember this stage with Eve and I know that it isn't about me. I also know it won't last forever, but it still sucks.

Last night we were all four in the house at the same time for the first time in over a week and I enticed the girls down to watch Modern Family. Eve took the recliner and Lola sat in the kitchen having a snack while Bubba and I sat together on the couch. Pretty soon, I realized that we were the only two laughing at the show and I looked over to see Eve texting someone and caught Lola doing the same thing from the table behind us. I may have forgotten to be mindful of my feelings at that point. I may have succumbed to the sadness and frustration and made some sarcastic comment about how nice it was to have us all do something together.  It may have gone over like a turd on a dinner plate. Yup.

This morning as I drove Lola to school, I did it again. "Hey, you did a nice job straightening up your bedroom last night, dude......." I paused a beat, "Even if you were totally ignoring us afterwards while we were trying to have some family time."

"Geez, Mom. I get it. You said it four times last night and it pissed us off then. Did you think saying it again this morning was going to be any better?" (This was all said in a very calm, very kind tone of voice, lest you think Lola is the most insolent, rude child on the planet. You should also know that on more than one occasion, I have praised this child for calling me on my BS - if I try to shame them or guilt them into something, if I tell them about the dangers of using superlatives and then turn right around and use one myself, etc. So I have only myself to blame if she continues to point out my inconsistencies.)

I took a deep breath. Or four. I thought about what it was like to be a teenage girl and how my bedroom and my friends seemed like the only safe haven. I thought about how much I hate it when people are passive-aggressive with me instead of just saying how they feel.  And then I spoke, "You're right. I'm sorry. I will try to do better. That was a pretty back-handed way to give you a compliment. You did do a nice job on your room and I appreciate it. And I miss hanging out with you even if I know it's perfectly normal for you to be doing what you're doing and it will pass."

She looked at me, nodded her head, smiled, and flipped on the radio.

"Thanks, Mom."


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