Thursday, August 21, 2014

The positives of negative space

In the late 80s and early 90s I worked in marketing, mostly in the money management sector. It was a time when there were few women in that field, and young professionals were continually told to find a mentor. I found this difficult. You see, there were very few people I wanted to emulate. Mostly what I did was look around and note the characteristics I did not want to have. I knew who I didn't want to be long before I had an inkling of who I aspired to become.

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I spent many weekends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a decade later, with my children. The Met has a superb drop-in education program; it's free with admission.

One week the program was in the Greek galleries. In addition to learning about red-figure and black- figure vases, we spent a while in front of a gorgeous funerary statue of a young man, a kouros. The instructor had us walk around the statue, noticing what we liked about it. She then talked about how a sculpture is defined by what's there and what's not. The space between the legs, for example, has its own beauty. The stone which was removed was as significant as what remained.

This idea of negative space enchanted me. We are, in part, defined by who we are not.  We do not get any say in what kind of raw material we begin with, but I can choose to carve away cynicism (or not), to excise self-centeredness (or not), to shave off fear (or not), to chisel out desires for fame, fortune or success (or not).

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And yet there are limits. Some negative space is formed simply by getting knocked around. What could have -- perhaps should have -- been there gets broken off, eroded, cracked, damaged. We don't get to sculpt everything. Though life may not be what it could have been, there is still immense beauty in it. 

When we look at a gorgeous statue that has lost a nose or an arm, what do we fixate on: What is missing, or what is there? 

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I daresay that much of what we think of as sacrifice, isn't. Most of what we give up for the sake of our children/spouse/friends/strangers is stuff we can easily do without. Often we are actually better off for the lack, since thinking of others ahead of thinking of ourselves tends to smooth out certain bulgy spots in our souls. I think the negative space that is formed from thoughtfulness is more like the silken, clean line delineating the arm or leg of that kouros than like a missing nose.


Saturday, July 12, 2014


The graduation was great, though not your usual event. It's different at a therapeutic school.

I sat in the audience, aware that every single person in the room had known deep suffering: every student, every mom, every dad, every sibling, every relative. I wondered what the cumulative number of suicide attempts had been, the number of days spent in hospitals, the number of tears sobbed, the hours of therapy logged. It was intensely moving to consider how impossibly hard these kids -- and parents -- had worked just to get to a life that approximated what others think of as normal.

If you'd told me four years ago that Big Guy would be a) alive, b) graduating, and c) going to college on a merit scholarship, I probably would have grunted, acknowledging the possibility but assuming nothing.

In the midst of dark times, placing you don't place your hope in a pinprick of light that you can't see at the end of a seemingly infinite and pitch-black tunnel that you don't know how to navigate.

In dark times, hope is about focusing on what you can do now. Hope is choosing not to see all the fears and troubles that might become realities, and instead responding to what is asked of you in this moment. Hope is about how you handle the intense mix of feelings that you would do anything to jettison, but can't. It lies in figuring out what you will do to stay strong and sane and true to what you believe, in deciding who you will be regardless of the outcome.

Hope isn't about what you want, but about the direction you will head even if you don't get what you want.

Another analogy: When your ship is in the midst of a fierce storm, wishing desperately for the clouds will part and a well-lit port will appear isn't hope. You've got work to do, crises to manage, crew to keep safe. Hope is like ballast: the stuff that keeps you on as even a keel as possible. Hope is about your center of gravity.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Problem solving, and moving on

As I shlepped home from Trader Joe's about a month ago -- a huge bag on each shoulder and one slung across my chest -- two subway lines and a five-block walk, I thought, "Next time I need to take a camera and do a blog post about this, because this is such a New York City experience!"

You see, if you have to carry all of your groceries a distance, you shop differently. Heck, you think differently! You plan ahead, and consider bulkiness and weight in addition to nutrition and cost and allergies and what-the-kids-will-eat. You ponder whether it's going to be less crowded if you take the local train downtown to get to the uptown express, or if you should take the uptown local and transfer to the express after a dozen stops (but traverse three flights of stairs.)

The algebra of living in NYC is complex. After a while you get used to it, and it doesn't bother you any more. Much. It's just what you do.

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On Monday I headed to the airport with Eldest, to fly out with her to the small city in the midwest where she'll start work next week. We weighed whether to spend $50 on cab fare (and get to LaGuardia in 40 minutes) or to haul everything on the subway and transfer to a bus and spend $5 (a 90-minute trip). This is the kind of choice car-less people have to make. We opted for mass transit, since there are already a lot of expenses in moving.

Right after we arrived at the airport and got off the bus, I noticed an electrical cord of some sort dragging at the back of the 46-pound suitcase. I stopped to check, and was horrified to discover that the zipper had popped when the bag plopped off the bus.

We stuffed Eldest's belongings back into the suitcase as best we could, and got in line for check-in. I asked the woman managing the line if she could obtain any packing tape, since it was obvious that at 8am we were not going to be able to either buy a new suitcase or make our 9:40am plane unless we somehow patched up what we had. I followed her around until I got her to hand me half a roll of tape. Then I wrapped that sucker of a bag up until it was the ugliest suitcase in the terminal.

We sent the suitcase off on the conveyor belt, accompanied by many prayers. More than half of Eldest's worldly belongings were in there.

It was only after we were at 30,000 feet that it dawned on me that if we hadn't taken the bus, the bag wouldn't have had a big bump and burst before it was tossed in the cargo hold. Sometimes blessings truly do come well-disguised.

The bag made it. It was easy to spot on the luggage carousel, too. And no one else reached to take it, thinking it belonged to them.

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There's more than a bit of culture shock in finding myself in a car-oriented town. Neither Eldest nor I currently drive, so we are dependent upon mass transit. It is a bit of a challenge. We have done a lot of walking, an average of 3-5 miles a day. This is not a terribly unusual amount of walking for either of us; city people walk a lot. (If you ever come to NYC and marvel at how thin people are, this is why. And if you ever come to NYC, bring good walking shoes.)

We have used five different bus routes, thankful that there are buses (though most only run once or twice an hour). We've explored more than a mile in three directions from Eldest's apartment.

We have figured out where to buy groceries when there's no grocery store nearby. We have figured out how Eldest can get to her office, which is a mile from a bus stop.  We have taken a trip to a Target that is miles and miles away. We have ordered heavy things from Amazon Prime so we don't have to carry them. We have found two churches, one of which is only 1.1 miles from home. This is all good. And honestly, I don't know how we would have figured out all this without the kind of logistical training one gets from living in the city.

That said, we've also gotten Eldest a driver's permit, so she can learn to drive.

Tomorrow I fly home. Whatever new challenges head Eldest's way, she'll have to handle in her own way, in a mix of NYC heritage and to-be-acquired Midwest problem solving. It does seem that, transportation aside, life is a lot easier and runs a lot more smoothly here. That means a lot to this mom, since it will mean less stress for my daughter.

Here's to you, kid. I love ya.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In which we do many things, all at once

There was half a day last Thursday when I thought my brain had finally imploded. You see, on Friday some of us were going to this:
Yes! She has graduated from MIT!
But of course not all of us were going. Because one of my offspring had to do this:
Little Guy has several roles in this show, which continues
this weekend.
And another was doing this:
Dancer had performances all weekend; Eldest and I caught
the last one, the night we returned.
And the dog had to stay with a neighbor.

Snuggler and went to Boston on an early bus to help Eldest sort through belongings and pack; Andrew and Big Guy headed out on a bus four hours later, after delivering Little Guy and the dog. The rain was torrential, I had a project overdue, and we were staying at my friend Kate's house, but she was leaving to go elsewhere and was putting the keys in the mailbox. I wasn't at all certain that the logistics of the day were going to work.

And, too, there had been many, many hours already allocated that week to helping various children process miscellaneous feelings about Eldest's moving on and leaving the nest. I'd been functioning for days on five hours of sleep a night. I'd had deadlines and laundry and endless rounds of keeping people on track.

Fortunately, we were all heading to places where replacement toothbrushes and deodorant could be purchased, if need be. And all the reasons we were (literally) in six places at once were happy rather than sad. The plan didn't have to be perfect, just workable. Which it was. Eventually.

A lot of life is like that: workable... if you work at it. There is much to be said for remembering that often the only real danger in your day is likely to arise from how you handle -- or mishandle -- the stress you face.  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Magic Wands (and Lack Thereof)

Some of the kids have been feeling cranky. Others are blue. The reality that Eldest will be leaving the nest for good in two weeks to build her own life elsewhere is hitting. She is an amazing big sister. She is an affectionate and loving daughter. She will be sorely missed.

Little Guy curled his leggy 10yo frame into my lap last night after lights-out, seeking comfort. "Mommy?" he asked, "What ever happened to your magic wand?"

I smiled, nostalgic for the times when the kids were little and wanted water when we were on the train and there was none to be had, or asked me to fix something that couldn't be fixed, and I'd say, "I'm sorry, honey, but my magic wand is in the shop."

I said to Little Guy, "It sounds like you are feeling really sad." He nodded and let out a little sob. I let him cry a while and then said, "When you are sad you can do one of two things. You can just stay sad. Or you can be sad and keep going."

He replied, fiercely, "I'm going to do things!'  And then after a moment he added, "I'm going to FIX that magic wand of yours!"

Well, maybe. We can wish.

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There have been times in my life when I've wished for a magic wand. There have been times I've mistaken God for one. As I grow older and go through and survive more difficulties, I am less afraid of dark places and hard problems.

I still don't like difficulty. But I'm not afraid, and that's something. Actually, it's a big something.

On Monday Big Guy's allergist called to say that Big Guy had had a "generalized reaction" to his weekly shots.

"Hmmm. What kind of symptoms did he have?" I asked, curious to assess the scope of the problem. I was told he had been coughing, had difficulty breathing, his throat was inflamed... but they had given him medication and he was no longer having difficulty.

"What medicine did you give him?" I asked, still probing. Epinephrine, Benadryl, and a nebulizer. I know enough about allergies to know that this was not a minor allergic reaction. Still, he hadn't had to go to the Emergency Room, so... well, that was good.

The doctor asked us to send someone to pick up Big Guy, since he might be a bit woozy from the meds. Andrew went, and returned with my son and a prescription for EpiPens. The latter aren't exactly magic wands, but they will do nicely in a pinch.

I can be thankful for EpiPens, instead of wistful for a magic wand. At another point in my life I might not have been able to look at the situation that way.

Friday, May 23, 2014


A while back some of the tiles in the shower fell off. Clunk. It was not the first time this had happened, but the first time it had happened when we were about to put the apartment up for sale. I contemplated the mess, which included crumbling cement-like backing, and cleaned (and covered) it up for a while while my brain got around to grappling with the concept of another big repair.

When the workmen were here to do the ceilings, I had the contractor look at the bathroom and he said, "I can't even give you an estimate until we take off the tiles and see what we're up against." That is not the kind of thing one likes to hear.

One day a while later I mustered the courage to start removing loose tiles. About 20 came off. Part of the wall came along for the ride. Twenty minutes later the floor of the tub was covered two inched deep in chunks of grit, with a few pale yellow broken tiles scattered about for diversity of color. But behind the crumbling grit there was a beautiful thing: solid cement. I sighed with relief, since then I knew I wasn't facing a multi-thousand dollar problem, only a major one.

Last week I began to build up layers on the cement to make an even surface on which to re-attach tile. I didn't know what I was doing, but hey -- I'd figured out how to patch 3'x4' holes in plaster beautifully, and I knew that if I didn't get it right the first time, I'd get it right the second or third. It's empowering to go into a project with the mindset that somehow I will figure it out.

I soaked the 1933-era tiles I'd removed, and softened old glue and grout. Then scraped the tiles until they were clean. I tried multiple methods of spacing and attaching them. I worked in fits and starts, and I made progress. It looks pretty damn good. Put it this way: I would be happy with the quality of the work if I'd paid someone to do it.

I'm not sure when I last had such a feeling of accomplishment.

For many years I have returned repeatedly to a half-written blog post about how one of the challenges of parenting is that one doesn't accomplish much. There's no checking-off of the child-rearing goals one has met (good table manners -- check! taught responsibility -- check!); it's a matter of endless process. The increments of progress are so infinitesimal as to be impossible to discern.

The good side of this is that in order to have any sense that you are on the right track you have to abandon accomplishment as a goal, and focus on alignment.  You have to align your short-term behavior with your long-term goals. You have to do it Every. Single. Day.

That means you have to know what your long-term goals are. You have to know what kind of person you're trying to raise. You have to check, and double-check, how well you are modeling the behavior you hope to see in your kids.

I brought my kids into the bathroom. I showed them the newly re-tiled wall. I told them, "I didn't know how to do this. All I knew was that I needed to figure it out, no matter how many times it took me. And look -- isn't it beautiful?"

Monday, April 28, 2014

Four questions, many answers, lots of links

The quirky and wonderful Magpie has tagged me for a blog tour titled, "My Writing Process". This is not the type of thing I usually do, but hey -- it's worth a try. Maybe I'll learn something. Or perhaps you will.

1. What are you working on?
Way, way too many things. Last week I finished four editing projects that will pay most of this month's bills, and I have two books-in-progress of my own (one fiction, one non). I also write a weekly blog for Guideposts, the quarterly newsletter for the Mood Disorders Support Group, and a monthly direct mail letter. I have contributed to Daily Guideposts annually for the better part of two decades. I write a lot.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?
I love to connect disparate ideas. One of my key beliefs about life is that there's always another way to look at it. This gives me the courage to pick up a problem or thought and turn it over and over and peer at it from many angles. I step into it, I step back from it, I walk around it. To me, life is very much like an impressionist painting, and I find that what seems entirely dark and blotchy up close may have context from a distance.

3. Why do you write what you do?
Because it might be helpful (or at least interesting) to someone else. I used to journal regularly, but haven't for 15+ years. I find writing for myself is boring. I have to listen to myself all day long in my head, anyway; it's more productive to think outside myself, to try to move from a specific issue to a meta-problem.

I also think that being transparent about my struggles is sometimes the one way I can bring something good out of what appears to be bad. Parenting is sometimes very hard. Having a child (or children) with a mental illness is awful; having a husband who is clinically depressed is an enormous challenge; being in financial straights for year after year is draining. I'm not the only person who goes through tough stuff, and even if you haven't gone through the exact same things, if my inch of progress translates into a single millimeter of making your life easier, that helps us both.

I also write because I get paid. This may not be a lofty reason, but feeding my children is not a crass goal. They have a way of wanting to eat, every day.

I write the way that I do because it's through wrestling with words that I gain clarity of thought. Seeing words written out makes me weigh them: do they ring true? Are they an accurate picture of what I believe? Can someone who doesn't have the same beliefs still understand what I'm writing about?

4. How does your writing process work?

Since I work on many projects at once, people tend to assume I am a master multitasker. I am not. Multitasking is like letting all my kids talk at once: it's inefficient. What works for me is to be 1000% attentive to one thing at a time. What's unusual (I guess) is that I can handle disparate projects in rapid progression. I am good at working intently for even a 10-minute block of time; much of the thinking and organizing happens when I'm not at the computer. This is partly a matter of temperament, but mostly a matter of self-training. I usually don't have time to be inefficient. I have a lot of back burners.

Most of my writing is non-fiction that ranges from 300-1200 words. Most of it is centered on my own ideas, not facts. This means I have to generate ideas constantly, and distill my thoughts so each piece has no extraneous thoughts in it. 

Many people think that writing is about wordsmithing, but for me the hard work lies in thinking clearly and organizing ideas well. I prioritize flow over phraseology; it used to kill me to have to toss out exquisite lines, until I realized craftsmanship is about the overall message, not individual sentences. 

People occasionally note that I don't provide a blogroll on this site. I actively rotate the sites I follow so I do not live in a bubble of my personal interests. I currently follow Scouting NY (by a guy who scouts movie locations), Mind Hacks (neuroscience), Hack Education (education reform), Katya's Non-Profit Marketing blog (what it says), the British Library's site on medieval manuscriptsPsych Central News and the philosopher/teacher/author Diana Seneschal

Another reason I don't have a blogroll is because I dislike being labelled. I am a practicing Catholic whose three best friends are a liberal Jew, an athiest, and a conservative Protestant. When I write on this blog I want to be able to communicate with any thinking person, not just those who share my faith or political beliefs, or personal interests, or...

As part of this blog tour I'm to tag two other writers. The first person I want you to visit is Elizabeth Duffy, a mother of six who lives in rural Indiana and blogs for Patheos. If you're not Catholic, read her anyway; she's thoughtful and strong and honest about her weaknesses.  

The second person is -- well, I didn't find one. I asked several writers who shied away from wanting to "tag" someone for the next round. Then there are a couple of wonderful writers who either don't have blogs, or have lives that so full right now that I didn't want to ask (Maggie May Etheridge, I loved this poem.)

Perhaps that makes me a dud on the blog tour. But there are many wonderful authors out there, and perhaps you can share some of your favorites with me. That will expand my world. 

Oh -- and go visit Magpie's blog. She tagged me for this shtick. And she's a great human being.