Sunday, January 30, 2011

I Feel Some Action A'Comin...


I do love NPR. In the multitude of moments when I am alone in the car, bustling between basketball practice and the grocery store or coming home from dropping a child off at school, my first act, before even putting the car into gear and pulling away from the curb, is to switch the radio from "Kid-Approved Pop Station" to my local NPR station. It is then that I can truly settle in to my seat, breathe deeply, and shift from chauffeur-mom to intelligent adult. Ahhh.

Occasionally what I hear is disturbing. Most often it is enlightening, educational and informative, but from time to time I am reminded of some of the most difficult details of life in other areas of the world. Last Thursday it was a report on the prevalence of wartime rape in parts of Africa. There are many women whose husbands have gone off to fight civil or tribal wars and are living by themselves, wholly undefended, when rival soldiers invade their villages and brutally rape them, knowing that this is a punishment more profound than death or disfigurement. For the women who have yet to be married, this effectively seals their fate, rendering them unfit for a mate for life. For those who are married, their husbands will be compelled to find another, more suitable mate upon their return home. For the women themselves, they are held in a uniquely painful place of shame for the remainder of their lives. Culturally, a woman who has been sexually violated is forever marked as filthy, used, disgusting. In many cases, these women are forced to leave their villages for fear of bringing shame on other members of their community.

Despite the knowledge that these women are entirely helpless against weapon-wielding rapists, driven by mob mentality and the knowledge that this is one situation they can find themselves in control of, it is the women that are held accountable for the despicable treatment they receive. Not ever having experienced a culture such as this, it is still not much of a reach for my imagination, knowing that so few rape victims in our "civilized" country are loathe to come forward because of shame. For those women who have been ostracized from their own families and communities and gone on to become voices of strength and power and knowledge and empowerment for other women who are suffering similar fates, I am even more impressed. Their strength and resilience and willingness to overcome the barriers in front of them is inspiring and gives me hope and somewhat of a personal mandate to help. I don't know how yet, but I know myself well enough to recognize the seed of passion for this particular issue that has wedged itself deep inside me and will soon call for action.

*photo from financialpost.com

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Something to Ponder


Do you remember that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza discovers that if he identifies his immediate behavioral instinct and acts precisely the opposite way, his life improves instantly? I've been pondering that one lately...

Saturday morning I woke up with an incredibly stiff neck and sore shoulders, not an uncommon experience now that I'm not so young anymore, but still somewhat limiting. As the day wore on, the stiffness turned to soreness and by 3pm, it was definable as pain. Saturday night I found myself unable to sleep because I couldn't find a position that would alleviate the pressure and pain. Waking up on Sunday morning, I was completely unable to turn my head to the left and I had the distinct impression that one of the vertebrae in my neck was coming unstacked like a Jenga piece. The ones below were trying mightily to stabilize the tower of my spine, but there were a few times I felt as though the whole thing was going down. As the day wore on, I occasionally tried to correct my posture by tucking my chin back a little and straightening my shoulders, but invariably, my protective measures involved shrinking down into myself and letting my head turn to the right slightly because it was the only thing that brought the pain down from an eight to a four.

I began wondering about people who suffer with chronic pain and how they cope with it day after day. Every task I attempted - cooking, sitting on the couch with a book, playing a board game with the girls, sitting at my computer - triggered some discomfort until finally, I was nauseous with the effort of trying to find something to do that didn't hurt. I tried to busy myself and distract my attention from it, I tried taking anti-inflammatories, I even tried two glasses of wine and a hot bath until I decided to stop running from it.

Going head-on into the pain and exploring it mentally, feeling it and categorizing it in each of the places it showed up wasn't terribly effective at alleviating the pain, but it did remind me that my instinctual protective measures of curling up and letting the pain be in control were exactly the wrong ones. Even though it hurt to stretch my muscles, aligning my spine and giving my chest muscles room to expand was what I needed to do. Well, that and see my amazing chiropractor on Monday....

This is not the first time in my life that I have fought to distract myself from pain or ignore it or mask it and found that it is entirely useless. Whether it is emotional pain or physical pain, often part of the solution is examining it to discover the origins and maybe causing a little more pain in order to get back where I need to be. I decided to think about whether there is a pattern in my backward instincts and, while I haven't completely figured it out yet, I do sense that the times when I react protectively out of fear, I am often only prolonging the discomfort. When I take the time to step outside of the emotions provoked by my pain and acknowledge my fears, I can usually identify some sort of solution, or, short of that, at least the fear goes away for the most part.

Now, that time when I yanked Eve out of the street in Rome because some psychotic local on a scooter was about to run her down? That was definitely fear and it was certainly instinct, but I'm also certain that it was absolutely the right thing to do. Either that or quickly locate a long steel bar to stick in his spokes, but, nah, on second thought, I did the right thing. I scared the bejesus out of Eve and she didn't forgive me for a couple hours, but she was only four, so I get it.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

HURRY UP!!!


Every time I see the advertisement on television for this product I cringe. And I thank the Lord above that I am not a new mother, sleep-deprived and desperate to make sure that my child has every possible advantage available to her. Feeling badly that I enrolled her in preschool without the ability to read, speak a foreign language and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Why are we in such a hurry? What happened to babyhood? We've already begun chipping away at childhood by giving our elementary students hours of homework and standardized tests and expecting them to go to soccer practice three days a week. Our society places a high value on getting the jump on things. The day after Christmas, the Target store in my neighborhood has ripped down the trees and ornaments and images of Santa Claus and replaced them with shiny red hearts and boxes of candy and lacy doilies. Suburban mothers are encouraged to sign their newborns up for baby swim classes and begin shopping for preschools.

By mid-February there are bikinis displayed in the kids' section of Macy's and if I wait until May to look for sandals I am out of luck. Even if I get the sandals early, it is impossible to find any without a two-inch heel. Even the flip-flops in my eight-year-old's size have a wedge heel.

Parents do mental gymnastics after playdates, wondering how they can ensure that their child gets rid of the training wheels before Johnny does or graduates to a big-boy bed before anyone else in their kid circle. And now this. Before your child learns to walk (read: captive audience), they can read. If you just buy this and sit them in front of the DVD for an hour at a time. You must capitalize on this narrow window of time when your child's brain is ripe for language and TEACH THEM TO READ NOW!!! Or what?

I can remember agonizing over whether or not to let Eve quit violin after six months. She was five. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time, I honestly couldn't decide whether I was letting her "give up" or "cop out" if she stopped lessons. I didn't want to waste the six months she had put into the violin and, even though I had only rented the instrument, it seemed as though I might be giving up an opportunity to have her truly excel at something she had shown talent for if she quit. Thank goodness some rational voice came out of the skies and said, "She's not losing any brain cells if she quits. If she isn't enjoying it, why should she do it? She's five years old. And if she regrets it, she can always start again sometime later. Even when she's forty."

And that was it. I mean, what if she gets hit by a bus tomorrow? Do I want her entire childhood to have been crammed with educational opportunities instead of mud pies and lazy days swinging at the park? When I look back at my favorite memories, they don't involve getting straight A's on my report card. I remember hide-and-seek with my cousins, climbing trees, riding my bike down the steepest hill in town and the day my girlfriends and I skipped school and drove to the beach to act like five-year-olds for the day.

I don't want my life or my children's lives to be fraught with competition, every moment measured against some arbitrary standard or some other kid's accomplishments. I don't want to be burdened by always doing more than the next guy or defending my lack of ability. If you are a new parent, let me tell you a secret: the things that your child needs to learn, they will. As you're agonizing about potty training, let me reassure you that eventually, your child will learn to use the toilet. They may be three or four or ten, but they're not going to go to high school wearing Pull-Ups. Now, do yourself a favor and substitute "sleeping in their own bed" or "sleeping all night" or "reading" or "writing their own name" or "talking" or any other milestone for "potty training" and read it out loud. In front of a mirror. These things will happen, probably regardless of your blood, sweat, and tears.

We could all buy into this notion that we OUGHT to be doing more and being more and kill ourselves each and every day to get the educational/financial/social advantages that may (or may not) come along with those things, or we pour the Kool-Aid down the drain and get a nice glass of water instead, give it to our kids, and watch their little faces light up when they pour it out and play in it. Because when I look back at my favorite memories of my children's childhoods so far, they have nothing to do with reading or writing or potty training. Nope, I remember the first time Lola discovered that her food could double as finger paint and she coated the window in butterscotch pudding and yelled "Ta-da!" I remember Eve shoving her baby doll up inside her shirt and "breastfeeding" her all hours of the day while pushing her play vacuum around the house. I remember touching worms and splashing in puddles and their first experiences with snow. I remember those moments when they discovered something nobody set out to teach them and they were first astonished and then proud of themselves. It's not rocket science. There's plenty of time for that. But there isn't enough time to be a kid and just play. The least you can do as a parent is protect this time for them.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

This Week's Links


Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success. — Henry Ford

This week's links are somewhat related, in that the founder of the first one was a featured speaker for the second group. Many of you have probably heard of TED, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading ideas that bring us together and educate us all. There is no end to the list of topics and speakers and there are new ones all the time. In fact, it is probably the single-biggest source of inspiration for me when it comes to finding new ways to talk to my girls about difficult subjects. While many of the speeches are slightly over their heads and a little too long for their attention spans, I watch them myself and pluck out the most interesting nuggets to share with them. If you haven't discovered this amazing website yet, do yourself a favor and follow the link now. You will be entertained, educated, and come up with tons of new things to talk about at your next cocktail party.

The second site was begun by a TED speaker, Karen Armstrong in an effort to help compassion bloom across the planet. There are so many great things about this site, but one of my favorites is browsing through the stories of everyday, mundane compassion written by visitors to the site. You can read the Compassion Charter, add your name, and learn about how others are applying the principle of caring for all humanity in their lives.

Both sites celebrate humanity, diversity, and strength in numbers without being divisive with respect to religious beliefs, race, sexuality, age, gender, or any other criteria. Check them out!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Jack-of-All-Trades

"Queen of the Workaround"
"Girl Scout"

Just a few of the things I've been called over the years by friends and co-workers at times when I manage to pull off something nobody else could. Whether it's fixing the printer or wrapping a bloody hand with supplies I pluck from my purse or thinking outside the box to find a solution for something that has us all stymied, there are times when I dig deep and produce a fix.

Others call it by these names. I call it survival. When you're a kid in a desperate situation, it pays to learn how to act so that you can get random adults to do what you want them to. It pays to put something together for dinner out of whatever is in the pantry so you and your siblings can eat. It pays to pretend that you know exactly how to do something so that others will leave you alone to do it. And often, once you pretend to know how to do it, you actually figure it out.

You learn early that confidence stops questions. Nosy people will stop looking over your shoulder if you can convince them that you've got it handled. A shaky voice and trembling hands invite inquiry. Shifty eyes and twitchy feet are just asking for supervision. Frankly, adults who have a lot on their own plate are ready to let themselves believe that you are wiser than your years or independent enough to take care of yourself so that they can go back to doing what they were doing and not worry about you.

Growing up, I learned to seek out the people who were not micro-managers. College philosophy classes honed my debate skills to the point where I could convince myself of just about anything. Justify almost anything. And that, my friends, is the first step in convincing someone else. I got jobs I had nowhere near enough qualifications or experience for simply by acting confident. And I brought a lot to those jobs. Innovation. Work-arounds. Simplifications.

Desperation breeds ingenuity. Independence breeds confidence. Fake-it-till-you-make-it worked for me. I did spend my share of time in classes to learn things "the right way," but knowing what I know now, I'll take my life experiences over those college courses any day in a contest to determine what taught me the most.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Just Be


There are moments when sleep is delicious. Better than any silky, creamy mouthful of cheesecake or the sharp tang of lemonade and ice in the summer. I think that it is the heaviness of sleep that I like the most. That feeling of weightlessness and immobility that occur simultaneously.

In the winter, as I lie between the worn flannel sheets under the solid weight of the down covers in absolute comfort, the perfect position, no twinges or itches to make me move, with Bubba's warm solidity next to me and the darkness outside cloaking everything, I feel heavy and still. In those rare moments when the house is quiet except for the whum of the air through the vents and Bubba's soft breathing noises and I am slack with sleep but aware, that weight is the most comforting and comfortable sensation I can imagine. In those even more precious moments when my mind is truly synchronized with my body and I am only aware but not alert, straining to see the red numbers on the clock or flexing my ears to listen for the whine of the dog or sparking my brain to begin wondering, I am at peace. This moment, this feeling, this discrete space in time is. It just is.

There will be time for waking and working and moving, but when I find those snatches of peace in every realm and don't feel the need to stretch them out (which makes them pop like so many soap bubbles) or make them last or dispel them myself before they run out on their own, I am grateful for the heaviness of sleep.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

A Reminder From the Dog...


Not everyone wants to play.

Even if CB is always up for a high-speed game of chase followed by a wrestling match in the boggiest part of the grass, not every other dog we come across on our walks is as eager to play as him. He can spot another dog two blocks away and from my position behind him, I watch the tops of his floppy ears begin to flatten out, his neck straighten, the tail wagging increases to warp speed and the most pathetic whimper stutters out of his throat. I'm pretty sure it means, "Hurry, Mom! Let's go meet that dog! Hurry up!" This is when I'm so glad I remembered to put the prong collar on him because he uses every ounce of his 80 pounds to drag me closer and closer to the other dog.

But more often than not, once we get to the other dog, they are not about to play. Either the dog's owner has decided they are out for a walk and that's it, or the dog is closer in size to my cat than CB and begins barking that "I'm Godzilla, don't mess with me!" bark, or the dog is closer in size to a horse and feels the need to eat my dog to demonstrate just exactly who is in charge. Occasionally, we come across a dog and owner who are happy to meet CB on his terms, uncontrollably enthusiastic, and we have a bit of playtime before resuming our stroll. When that happens, CB is reluctant to leave and spends the first half-block looking back at his new friend, sincerely hoping they are following us and ready for another romp. But he is truly happy. Not satisfied, but happy.

When we come across another dog that doesn't want to play, CB cocks his head in that questioning way all dogs have and looks at me as if to say, "Doesn't that dog know he's a dog? Doesn't he know playing is what we do?"

He's right, you know, but it's not for us to pass judgement. Some want to play. Some are in the mood to play but circumstances prevent it. Some aren't in the space to understand play. Some are frightened or intimidated or just don't get it. But some do play and when they do, it is wholehearted and enjoyable and fulfilling. And CB is grateful. And then he comes home and has a drink and takes a nap. Today, I'm taking my cues from him. I'll be on the lookout for people who want to play, but if they don't or can't, that's okay. I'll just smile and move on. And when I find someone to engage with, I'll do it 100% until I'm done and then I'll get a drink and relax.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Resolution, Shmesolution


I gave up on making New Year's Resolutions in 2010. My last memorable resolution that I actually achieved was in 2007 when I threw myself a bit of a Nerf ball in saying that I was committed to perfecting the cheesecake that year. That being said, I did actually bake dozens that year and I think I did achieve Cheesecake Nirvana at some point. Once completed, it lost its luster. Or it could be that I was good and sick of cheesecake. No matter, once I was diagnosed gluten intolerant in 2009, it was a moot point, anyway.

Since then, I've learned that once I start thinking about things I want to improve about myself, it's hard to stop. I have this habit of scrolling through an interminable list of self-defined flaws that I wish I could just fix with a tube of spackle and a putty knife and after a half hour and the beginnings of a good belly-ache, I grind my teeth in frustration and resolve to think about it another time.

Slow down.
Simplify.
Play more.
Eat healthier.
Exercise more.
Pay more attention to the dog.
Keep a cleaner house.
Sell my manuscript.
Pay more attention to my writing craft.
Spend more time with Bubba.
Take fewer shortcuts in life.

It goes on and on. And when I decide to take just one thing and focus on it, I can't seem to pick which one is the most vitally important for right now, so forget it.

That isn't to say that I'm completely giving up on doing things to improve myself and my life. I am committed to moving forward and growing, but I'm hoping it's possible to do that without labeling those things as "Resolutions" and putting them out into the Universe to be checked off (or not - thereby producing that horrible feeling of failure to accomplish something I said I would).

And in all of this resolution-mining, I'm wondering what happens if I take a minute to list the things I DON'T want to change about myself. Have I ever really started a New Year with a list of those things? I'm pretty damn sure I haven't. So, here goes:

Stay compassionate and caring.
Continue to enjoy cooking.
Continue showing my girls that they are important to me.
Continue striving for balance in life.
Continue learning about new things.
Continue finding humor every day.
Continue caring about myself.

That's a good start. I think you should make your own list. Come on! Do it. I dare you.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

New Year's Shout Out


I decided to start 2011 out by sharing a couple of my favorite things with everyone. In an effort to become more aware of the positives in the world, I hope to make this a weekly feature of the blog. I'll endeavor to discover organizations or stories that are uplifting and shine light on the ways we help each other to grow and come together and put them out here for others to see.

The first one that I've recently become aware of, thanks to a new writer friend is here. I've written before about wishing that the United States could shift its view of "wellness" from an economic model to a more holistic, soul-satisfying one. This project seeks to do just that. While it isn't exactly going to revolutionize our way of living/spending/being in financial crisis after crisis anytime soon, I love that the focus is on Gross National Happiness. I get that we can't eat, live in, or drive happiness, but I do embrace the notion that when we put all of our eggs in one (money) basket, and that basket is emptied, our feelings of self-worth plummet and fear skyrockets. Learning how to be happy independent of this thing we call financial wealth has so many other benefits that we may want to give it a go.

The second item I want to highlight is a publication and associated website called New Moon Girls. It began as a magazine targeted to pre-adolescent and early adolescent girls, free of all advertisements and focused on helping them navigate the increasingly media-saturated world as hormonal beings. The magazine is largely written by the girls themselves, featuring their stories, both fictional and non-fiction, poetry, artwork, columns where the girls solicit advice from their peers, and articles by older teens and women sharing their stories. The website is a safe, adult-moderated place for the girls to express themselves, play games, and chat with each other online (not in real-time, thus the 'moderated' aspect) about everything from food to siblings to politics. The girls share their ideas about environmental issues, activism, bullying, recipes for their favorite snacks, crafts they like, and write book reviews for each other. They are encouraged to speak candidly about everything and look for positive, inspirational stories to share. I love the magazine so much that I bought my girls a subscription as well as sending one to the local public school library and two of their friends. The subscription includes access to the website and all that it includes.

Please share your inspirational, positive stories in the comments section. I'd love some new things to talk about and spread around.
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