Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Things That Stir the Writer in Me

(in no particular order)

  • Books. Well-written books like the one I couldn't put down today because the language and sensibility of it were so inspiring. I'm not a huge fiction reader but "The World as We Know it" by Joseph Monninger blew me away. Phrases like "'Everything is a story. If it didn't happen right in front of you, it's a story,'" and "...after Ed released his fish, our shadows joined. Both of our shadows stretched across the water, and as he moved, I moved. Our arms and wrists worked the fly rods in the same rhythm, and our fly lines turned vaporous whirls around our heads. We might have been a coin, or a single dark cutout from the afternoon sun...I understood that we had been occupying the same outline of darkness in an otherwise bright world."
  • The way my fingers fly across the keyboard when I'm typing as if they know where to go before I know where I'm headed. And sometimes they trip and automatically add a letter where they are used to putting one, like adding a 'g' at the end of a word that ends in 'in' because they are so habituated to typing i-n-g in succession.
  • The flavors of thai basil, juicy citrus and dark chocolate (not all together).
  • The soft look on Eve's face just before I wake her to start a new day. That exhausted relaxation that comes with adolescence when the most important work you'll do all day is rest your body and mind in anticipation of the exponential growth to come.
  • Finding one pure moment to focus on in the day. A sort of tunnel vision that allows me to gain access to all of the depth one particular experience has to offer. Generally this comes during yoga or a walk with the dog when I least expect it.
Speaking of books, my latest book review can be found here.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ripples...



Just before the beginning of the school year Bubba and I had a serious conversation about moving. We live about 20 miles from Eve's school; a commute that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on traffic, the weather, and the time of day. Lola goes to school a mere three miles from home, but will start at Eve's school this fall and, as girls are wont to do as they reach adolescence, their focus is becoming increasingly outside the home. Eve is desperate for sleepovers and shopping dates with friends. She plays sports and is interested in going home with friends after school. With Bubba's travel schedule, I often have to decline invitations for her to engage in after-school activities because it means Lola and I will spend two hours in the car, round-trip, at the end of an already long day.

I started the ball rolling, knowing that it would be a difficult conversation. We live in a fantastic neighborhood on two and a half acres bordering a creek, yet only three miles from a city with all the conveniences we could want. Our neighbors are friendly and supportive without being intrusive and over the years we have added things to the house that have made it our own. Over a period of months, however, we have all come around to the notion that living closer to school would make all our lives easier. Instead of leaving the house at 7:15, Eve could sleep until then. I could attend evening Parent-Education seminars or PTSA meetings with regularity. The girls could easily go home with friends after school without major reorganizations of carpool schedules or one of them having to bring snacks and a book for the car ride to pick the other one up.

We have the luxury of time, knowing that we won't be moving until school is out in June, so I have been poking around neighborhoods near the school to see if there is one that feels right for our family. I have also had the entire inside of our house painted, the trees in the yard pruned professionally, and I have begun packing up some of the things that may seem like "clutter" to a potential buyer. Many of the photos have come down from the walls and boxes of books have gone to the local used book store. I have purged the last of the toddler toys and clothing we had lying around. But there are some things I simply cannot do on my own, so yesterday Bubba and I spent three hours in the garage making piles of garage sale items, recyclables, garbage, and things to donate. It is a beautiful sight. Never before has the garage been so clean and organized (no, not even when we moved in since the recently bankrupt builder left all of his sh*t behind when he left). Next weekend we will make a trip to the dump to get rid of all but the donation and garage sale items. I can't wait.

Naturally, last night my mind turned to thinking about what I could do next to prepare the house. I decided to hold off and revel in the feeling of accomplishment for now, telling myself that Bubba wouldn't probably tolerate another plea for marathon cleaning for a while yet.

And then, around 5AM, we heard the sump pump cycling continuously. My subconscious tried to ignore it and when Bubba got up to investigate, I reminded myself that it couldn't be anything major. Those things only happen when Bubba is out of town and I have to deal with them on my own. But by 6AM it was clear that something was happening. The closet where the trap door to underneath the house is had been entirely emptied and Bubba was crawling around down there with a flashlight and our curious cat. A pipe had come loose thanks to the hundreds of gallons of water shooting through it and we needed to shut off the power to the pump and call a plumber.

By noon the pipe was fixed and the plumber declined to charge us since he was the one who had put the defective pipe in to begin with. I couldn't believe it. What a day - first Bubba is home when something like this happens, and then the repair is entirely free! As I began replacing all of the items back in the closet, I realized the Universe had just handed me my next project. I hadn't seen many of these items (duffel bags, ski equipment, an old steam cleaner) in years. Rather than putting any of them back, I spent the next two hours sorting them in to the piles in the garage and now the closet is tidy and vacuumed and contains things we might actually use. There is no way I would have thought about this closet until it was time to move without the sump pump breaking.

I am grateful that I was able to clean this closet out before my trip to the dump. That said, I think tonight I'll just take a hot bath and not wonder what my next project ought to be. I think tomorrow will be a day of rest.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The "chair-ness" of us


I love the notion of the Platonic Ideal. I don't recall exactly when I heard the concept - probably in my Philosophy 101 classes in college - but it struck me with the weight of a 2x4 covered in goose down. A solid thwack with a side of oh.

"What makes a chair a chair and not a table?" When the professor asked the room, I'm certain we were all thinking he was high. Or at the very least that we were infinitely more intelligent than he. Honestly, who asks that kind of question?

He went on to explain and get us to think. Why is a chair a chair? Both a table and a chair have four legs. Both are often made of wood.

"A chair has a back you can lean in to," someone called out.
"You use a table and a chair differently," came another answer from the room.

As the discussion continued, we realized they weren't all that different, though. A beanbag chair has no back, but we still consider it a chair. Some kids sit on top of tables. Especially in college. Some tables don't have legs - what about a tree stump in a rustic setting? That could be used as a table, too. So what is it that makes a chair a chair? Is there some essential quality of a chair, every chair, that makes them chairs? No matter the individual design elements, we still recognize them as chairs, in some particular category of solid object that possesses some essence of "chair-ness." And if you extrapolate that out to every object, is there some seminal essence that renders each of these things exactly what they are? Is there some quality of dog-ness, car-ness, cloud-ness for everything?

What about me?

I have spent a lot of time lately trying to define just who I am. Perhaps it has something to do with recently turning 40. Perhaps it is because I am finding myself at a bit of a crossroads as a writer trying to decide which project I move forward with (or not). How can I be the best me, the best version of Kari? I have to incorporate Mom-ness, wife-ness and writer-ness, all things that encompass multiple things within them. It is a process fraught with peril. I would have thought I had some definition of myself by now - know myself well enough to know what drives me, what is important to me, which things need to fall away - but it turns out I am not as close as I thought.

Some things have fallen away. I no longer define myself as a sexual abuse survivor or a child of divorce. Those things are part of who I am but like the tree whose trunk grows around the nail placed in it as a young sapling, I have formed a scar and incorporated them into myself.

So the question remains, what is the essence of me? At my core, what are the definable attributes that make me Kari and not Bubba or Eve or Lola? Or, on a larger scale, my mother? (Yes, that is a concept to wrestle with, too, as I age.) How am I different, unique, special and, yet, the same as these other humans near and around me? What is it that makes up my inner essential quality?

As I examine this notion, I am struck that it is not as frightening to ponder as I once thought it was. What ever these things are that make up my essence, they are immutable. Whether or not I ever discover them and am able to put a name to them, they will exist. Whether or not I can excavate them and polish them to a perfect shine does not really matter. Like the chair, even though I have a special "chair-ness" all my own, I am free to express it however I want. Like the chair, I can have four legs or three, or none at all. I can be plush and velvet or carved from a redwood. It does not change my essential Kari-ness and the fun is in playing with that, secure in the knowledge that I am me. No matter what.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

SnowBound


So Eve says she is "done" with snow. Too bad for her that Mother Nature doesn't really give a rat's patootie whether or not she has had enough.

I will say it has been a long go for her at this point, though. Last Friday she left with about sixty of her classmates, teachers and parental chaperones to drive to Mt. Baker for a four day weekend. The plan was to spend most of the first day building snow caves on the mountainside large enough to sleep in that night. The following day was to be spent skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing. They would eat their meals in the lodge and sleep there for two nights and basically have a blast without their parents. At least the kids whose parents didn't decide to chaperone. Like me. Sleeping in a snow cave is not my idea of a fun weekend. I'm happy to snowshoe but I would like to come home to my own bed and a hot bath at the end of it. I am too damn old to build my own snow cave, sleep in it, spend an entire day doing physical exercise and still not come home to a massage or a hot shower.

Unfortunately for Eve, the day she came home, it had started to snow here. And by the time she woke up the next morning, I had determined not to send her to school because there was a threat of several more inches. By Tuesday night we had about four inches of snow. Not a ton, but in the Pacific Northwest, with our hills and propensity for freezing temperatures overnight, it renders our cities completely unnavigable. By Wednesday mid-day, we had ten inches of snow and Eve was tired of hanging out with Lola and I. She spent several hours on the phone or video chatting with her best friends, lamenting the fact that their neighborhoods only had two or three inches of snow. Our house exists in this strange microclimate that gets more snow/rain/cold temperatures than the metro areas. Way to live in the suburbs, I know.

Thursday morning I woke up to what I thought was rain falling on the skylights and thought this was it for our snowbound selves. Whew, enough. By the end of the day, we can go back to doing what we normally do and the kids can go to school on Friday. I fell back asleep for an hour. When I awoke at 8:00, I realized I could still hear the sound of 'rain' falling, but the skylights weren't any clearer. That was when I got up and realized the sound was actually ice pellets hitting the snow on the roof. Those continued for about two hours, building up a nice, crunchy layer of ice on top of our now 12 inches of snow.


Since then it has turned to snow and we've accumulated another two or so inches. And as much as I'd like to say it is driving me crazy, I can't. We have plenty of food in the pantry and fridge. The power is still on (for now - there are lots of folks in our area who haven't had power for eight hours or more). And although the girls are about to skin each other alive, every time I look out the window and see this lovely, fluffy white stuff falling with abandon, softening the edges of everything it comes in contact with and insulating the world from sound, I feel calm. Despite the occasional crack and thunder of a huge tree limb succumbing to the weight of the snow and ice, it is incredibly peaceful. Yesterday I found bear tracks trudging across my front yard. Stepping out on to the deck, the only noise comes from the hungry cries of the stellar jays in the trees. And as soon as I retreat back in to my warm nest, I realize I am safe at home with my girls. I feel cocooned here, knowing that I can't change what is happening outside and I needn't even try. The boundaries of my world have shrunk and closed around me like a snug blanket. Everything inside this perimeter is real and important and tangible. Making warm meals. Snuggling with the cat. Playing board games with Lola. Being.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Food and Memory


Eve discovered grapefruit about a year ago. She was helping me unpack our weekly CSA box and as she pulled two pockmarked peach-colored fruits out of the box she exclaimed, "These oranges are huge, Mom!" My brain flooded.

At first, I was astonished to realize that she was eleven years old and had never eaten (or seen) a grapefruit. I had a moment of shame before my own memories of grapefruit rushed in to wash it away.

My mom standing at the kitchen counter, small curved-blade knife in hand, cutting in to each segment of a halved grapefruit to release it from the thick casing separating it from its neighbor. This knife was created specially for this purpose, down in to the segment she plunged it and with a curve of her wrist, she expertly pivoted it in a teardrop shape before lifting the blade and moving on to the next segment, turning the fruit slightly like the minute hand on a clock so that her hand was always in the same spot. She would place each half-grapefruit in a shallow bowl, dust the tops with sugar and hand them to us on Saturday mornings. I hated it. The bitterness assaulted my mouth and made it water uncontrollably until I thought I'd drool. The sickly-sweet sugar sitting on top of the bitter flavor made me shudder. I soldiered on, seated next to my father who ate his with the kind of pleasure generally reserved for things related to cars and soccer. He ate quickly, sometimes groaning with pleasure, and then grabbed the fruit in his freckled hand and squeezed it over his spoon to catch every drop of the juice. Squeezed it over and over again until it looked like a deflated football, the segment casings glistening white like the skeleton of the fruit. It was his favorite weekend breakfast. I would eat as much as I could and hope for a distraction as I tossed the rest so I wouldn't get busted for wasting food.

I had to use these grapefruits. And I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce Eve to something new. I remembered seeing something on a cooking show about sprinkling brown sugar on the top of a grapefruit half and putting it under the broiler for a few minutes to caramelize it. Eve ate both halves and asked if I would do the other one for her, too. I considered for a moment showing her my father's trick for getting the juice, but using my hands in the same way he had used his was too painful to consider. Instead I described how to get the juice out. She squeezed it into her bowl to mix with some of the brown sugar bits and asked for a straw.

In the last few weeks I have rediscovered grapefruit. This week two enormous Texas Ruby Reds showed up in our CSA box and Eve was out of town with her classmates for four days. I used a small paring knife to free the flesh of the grapefruit and stuck it under the broiler with some brown sugar. As I ate the segments, warm and crunchy on top with brown sugar, cool at the core, I lamented my technique and considered buying a grapefruit knife. Too much flesh left behind clinging to the skin. I didn't cut closely enough in my effort to avoid the bitterness of the pulp.

When I had eaten every last segment I lifted the fruit and squeezed the juice into my spoon, noting how my hands have freckled and aged over the years and look a little like his did. Tasting the bittersweet, sitting in the quiet, I shared breakfast with Dad.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Acknowledging the Darkness Within


There is a little girl that lives inside of me and when I least expect it she shows up to remind me that the world is a scary place. She reminds me that I ought to be wary and protective and that it might just be best to crawl in to bed and hide for a while.

When she comes I get frightened. Even though she is small and nobody else can see her, she reminds me of what it feels like to be powerless and alone. She tricks me in to believing that I can't trust anyone and that I need to be taken care of. Because she wants to be taken care of. Because she feels like she never was. And she feels like she never will be.

Over the years I've learned that the best thing I can do is comfort her and remind her that she is okay. In years past, I have alternately slammed the door in her face and become her - to the point where I did actually climb under the covers and retreat from the world for a bit. Unfortunately, denying her existence only makes her scream louder and look for more profound ways to grab my attention. Becoming her pushes me over the edge in to that deep, dark hole with no way out. And so when she shows up, I have to keep my wits about me and try to come from a place of love instead of a place of fear. That doesn't mean that I don't worry that she will get bigger if I 'feed' her. But if I can remember that I am not her and offer her love and understanding I feel safer.

Today, with the help of a good friend, I came to yet another plane from which to see her. As we talked about those parts of us that feel dark and scary, those parts that we don't show to the world, I mused aloud whether there was a way to acknowledge those pieces of us that are just as vital as the rest and see them for what they are. If I think about it that way, this little girl is amazing. Despite the sexual abuse and trauma she endured, she found a way to survive. Her protective instincts not only spared me the pain of living each and every moment of the abuse by walling it off in my brain until I was ready to remember it, but she set up a strict criteria by which to decide who could be trusted as I moved through life. True, she over-reacted in most cases, but with her 8-year-old intellect and intuition, she led me to a place of independence and strength I needed to deal with my parents' divorce and the loss of my foster brother and other difficult times in my life.

As I began to understand just how central a role this frightened little girl has played in my evolution, I was amazed at how much I owe her. And as I move away from defining myself as a sexual abuse survivor, her existence is threatened. As I begin to heal some of the deepest wounds I have, excising her from the essence of who I am is not an option. Instead, I must honor her for the role she played in protecting me and reminding me how important it is to tell the truth about my experiences in order to help others heal. That doesn't mean I need to allow her to have power over my life as an adult, but it does mean that she deserves to feel safe and validated. I hope that as I continue to process all of this I can finally give her the rest she has earned and neither of us has to be scared of those things that happened so many years ago.

Monday, January 09, 2012

More Life Lessons With Lola


One day as Bubba and I were walking and discussing a particularly thorny parenting issue with regard to Eve, I expressed my fervent hope that Lola would be easier on us as a tween. Or that we at least would have learned enough from working with Eve on difficult issues that it would feel easier. Bubba, with his uncanny ability to assess personalities, replied that Lola is who she is.

"I don't think she'll get any harder as she grows up. I think what we see in Lola now is simply a smaller version of who she will eventually be. I think she has laid it all out there for us from the beginning."

He is right. For all of her quirks and overflowing cup of personality, Lola is comfortable in her own skin. She is much like her father in that way - she knows who she is and isn't apologetic about it. In all honesty, neither of them could be any other way if they wanted to.

A few days later when we returned home after a week at the in-laws' to discover Lola's pet hamster wasn't looking so good, she laid it all out again. The four of us were distressed as we gathered the little one up for a trip to the emergency vet and as we waited for the veterinarian to assess the situation, Lola alternately sat on her own and watched the doctor intently and crawled into my lap to bury her face in my shoulder. At one point, she knew she couldn't process any more and excused herself from the room to peruse the quiet, dark waiting area with its photos of previous patients and skeletons of exotic pets like snakes and chinchillas. She solemnly ran her finger over the bones and breathed deeply and took her time coming back.

When it became clear that the hamster would have to stay overnight she nodded her head and walked to the car quietly. At home she required some assurance that her baby would be well-cared-for overnight and expressed her sadness that we had been away when she fell ill.

Over the next two days as the hamster got progressively worse, I knew it was time to have a "quality of life" discussion. I wasn't even sure whether it was appropriate or not for a nine-year-old, but I knew I had to try. Turns out Lola had been thinking about it on her own.

"Mom, if she is hurting, I don't want her to. If they can help her without hurting her and she can get better for a long time, let's do that. But if they're going to do surgery and she will hurt from it as she heals for weeks and then dies a couple weeks later, that's not a good life."

After we made the painful decision to let her go, Lola once again clambered up in to my lap (not a simple task given that she stands as high as my shoulders all of a sudden) and cried a little.

"I am so confused. I don't know how to feel. I'm happy she doesn't hurt but I'm sad she's gone. And I'm happy I got to be her Mommy for a year and I know I was a good Mommy and I gave her a good life, but I don't want her to be gone."

I was amazed at her ability to articulate her feelings. I was more amazed at her lack of anger or sense of unfairness. Hell, I'm 40 and it felt unfair to me!

I told her I was so sorry she was in pain and that, as her Mommy, I often wished I could give her a life without sadness or emotional upset. That it hurt me to see her unhappy.

She sat up and looked me in the eye, "That's silly, Mom. I know that seems nice at first, but I wouldn't want a life that didn't have upset or sad or angry feelings. That would be like having the sun shine all day long every day - no night, no rain, no snow. How boring!"

Bubba's right. This little girl has it going on. She has a deep knowledge of her own life and emotions. She feels things deeply - period. No going beyond into ramifications and consequences. She allows herself to feel what she feels and is able to express her emotions without censoring them. She is a one-of-a-kind, our Lola.

It has been two weeks since her baby died and, other than acknowledging that she needed someone else to clean out the cage because it was too painful, Lola has not expressed a desire to move on quickly. She has not asked for a replacement pet. She cries every once in a while and asks to be held while she mourns her hamster. She passes by Eve's hamster's cage reverently and offers this little one treats, relishing her role as auntie without jealousy. She is simply feeling what she feels and honoring it. I am in awe of her ability to be exactly who she is without self-criticism or judgment. Thank goodness I have her as one of my teachers.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

My "Duh" Moment

I'm fairly certain that growing up in the 1970s and 1980s was, for me, the moral equivalent of being sold a mirage in the Sahara. Coming of age in that era of instant-gratification and get-rich-quick schemes and ever-present celebrity news (MTV, anyone?) gave me the impression that life comes in bursts and at any moment I could expect all of my wishes to be granted simultaneously, thereby changing my life forever in a millisecond.

I still sometimes believe that.

Turns out that what actually comes in bursts (at least for me) are the revelations that this is all nonsense.

For so many years I believed that goals were seminal events. That to accomplish one of the milestones I set out to reach would profoundly change the landscape of my life going forward. With a few exceptions, that is total BS. But somehow, I manage to hold on to the exceptions in my mind as reality. Marriage was one of those exceptions, or at least I used to think so. In all honesty, though, Bubba and I lived together, sharing expenses and household duties for nearly a year before we actually had the wedding ceremony. And while the honeymoon rocked, when we returned to our tiny apartment with our two cats and our full-time jobs, except for the part where I had to stand in line forEVER at the DMV to legally change my name on my driver's license, nothing much changed.

Having babies changed our lives markedly. I'll give you that one. And graduating high school and college necessitated a drastic shift in the way I spent my days. Beyond those things, though, when I stop to think about it, there aren't many things I can point to that created dramatic change in my daily life. And even the build-up to graduations and childbirth were gradual, so I can't really say that any of those things came all at once.

So why is it that when I fantasize about a particular writing project or personal milestone, I expect things to change radically for me? When I finished my first manuscript I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment - the culmination of three years of research and two years of writing and re-writing. But the next morning, I still got up, made breakfast for the girls, had my latte and drove them to school. Even if I had sold the manuscript, my life wouldn't have become unrecognizably altered.

I have a few friends who successfully published their work in the last year and while I was tremendously pleased for them and a tiny bit jealous, I have to admit that their lives are still essentially the same as they were before. Yes, maybe they are getting more exposure in the literary world. Yes, I suspect they spend some portion of each and every day selling or marketing or talking about their writing. But when it comes down to it, the most basic parts of their lives are still the same - raising children, finding time for self-care (or not), struggling to write new material. So where is that Shangri-La? That, "Oh. My. God. I'm famous. I have 'arrived.' I am [fill in the blank]!"

It doesn't exist. That is truly the exception. If it even happens. Because I suspect that even those folks who become famous overnight or win a trillion dollars in the lottery ultimately revert back to who they really are. If you loved junk food and reality TV before you were elected governor of your state, you might move to the mansion the day of your inauguration, but I won't give you long before the cupboards are full of cheesy poofs and Oreos and someone has set the DVR to catch "Survivor."

Much like the lesson I learned from looking back on 2011 with Eve and Lola, I am reminded that it is the daily things we do that add up. Those moments where we are truly ourselves, doing what we do best without pretense or expectation determine the path our lives take.

Call it a "Duh" moment. I'm pretty sure it doesn't qualify as an "Aha."
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