Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Love vs. like

Jonathan Franzen has a fabulous piece up over at the New York Times about the problem with liking things as an alternative to love. He speaks of how easy it is to like technology, because it does everything we want it to. It makes life easy, it makes us look good. And he contrasts that with, "the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard."

He goes on to say, "The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life."

And there's value in that. Value that comes from discomfort, not likeability. Go read it.

Monday, May 30, 2011

(Im)perfect circumstances

We have a full house this weekend: Big Guy is home for an extended visit, and Eldest is back from college for the summer. The issue of feeding people flashes like a warning light on the dashboard of my life: Shop! Eat! Shop! I made iced tea three times yesterday, plus a pot of iced coffee; I made large meals and bought pounds of instantly-vanishing fruit. I'd forgotten how all-consuming teenagers can be.

It is good to have the whole family together. It is also oddly unfamiliar. There are bodies here, and big ones at that. They take over the sofas and monopolize the table. They laugh in ways that are a joy to hear -- but  also loud. Yesterday afternoon one of the bodies went off to a pool with a friend, and three others went down to the courtyard to play a game. And yet the apartment still felt loud.

Usually I am good at creating my own peace in the midst of chaos. It is a survival skill we introverts with larger families acquire. In the days when my kids were little, solitude meant an occasional trip to the store, ALONE, to pick up milk. When Eldest grew old enough to watch the younger ones I luxuriated in an entire half-hour ALONE doing laundry. Nowadays I not only get the occasional solo subway ride, but regularly go grocery shopping all by myself. And I'll admit that although I can dig deep to find quiet within when it's not readily available without, life is a heckuva lot easier when there's time and space for recharging.

Re-adapting to full-scale life means I haven't had the physical space to which I've become accustomed. It's thrown me off balance. I have three deadlines bearing down on me, and the past two days I've flat-lined in the creativity department. I'm suffering the mental equivalent of restless leg syndrome, a jitteriness that precludes productive thought.

And... so what? It is lovely when my environment is conducive to easyflowing work, but sometimes I have to pick words out, one by one, like pebbles from dried concrete. A deadline is a deadline: the only real choice is to meet it in whatever limited way I can.

Sometimes work is work. And sometimes parenting has the same quality. Sometimes I'm not at my best because circumstances don't allow me to be. But my kids need me nonetheless, and so at times the only real choice is to be the best sub-optimal mom I can be. But to be brutally honest, I wouldn't be perfect under any circumstances. So I wonder: does having an ideal environment make as much of a difference as we like to think it does?


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Literary pursuits

My husband has promised, now that he is at home, to thin out his books so we can avoid having shelves collapse at 3am. He thinks maybe he can even get all the books we have onto shelves, which would free up other flat surfaces (tables, floors, dressers) for non-literary purposes.

Admittedly, he is not the only contributor to the book-a-rama atmosphere around here.We have seven avid readers, several of whom whiz through more than a book a day, and none of whom have fine-tuned the art of habitually re-shelving books. It's a problem.

But I knew our home decor would emphasize Amazon over Martha Stewart well before I got married. When Andrew and I were dating I invited him to my apartment one evening to test whether he and I could read in the same room without talking. It was a turning point in our relationship. When the boxes (and boxes and boxes) containing Andrew's books arrived at our home-to-be shortly before we were married he said, sweetly, "Think of it as joining the Book-of-the-Month Club for life, in a single installment."

But there were further installments. We currently own about 6,000 books for grown-ups, and another 1,500 for children. If you wonder how one fits that many books in a city apartment, the answer is floor to ceiling, wall to wall, and two deep. Even our coffee table has shelves in it.

For several years we had a to-be-the-boys' room that we used as an office. I dubbed it The Room of Heresy and Error, because it housed books on Andrew's more esoteric interests. My husband is a secret escapee from a British novel; his interests are eclectic, if not eccentric. He is well-read in philosophy, theology, poetry, and world religions, but also has a longstanding interest in hollow-earth theory, alien abductions, bizarre religions, and 1940's horror movies. He can talk as easily about Madame Blavatsky as about Fichte, and can go on about the Lubavitcher Rebbe as happily as he recites T.S. Eliot. It makes for interesting conversation, but heavy bookshelves.

Five years ago I spent a dreadful summer converting the Room of Heresy and Error into a bedroom for our male offspring. All the books (other than the ones I categorically refused to live with, like the Mormon tome Isn't One Wife Enough?) ended up in our bedroom. Some apparently wound their way to Andrew's office at work, where he stuffed them behind more professional material.

This week in the midst of the shelving clean-out, which has left stacks and stacks of books on the living room floor (awaiting transport to the Strand, or listing on eBay, or strength to figure out what to do with them) the remnants of Andrew's office arrived. I will not mention exactly how many boxes blocked our vestibule, because I lost count as I moved them to block access to Andrew's side of our bedroom.

Since then my dh has packed up four cartons worth of books to sell (yes, I do know he hid them behind the loveseat), and promised to remove the rest in the coming week. I love my husband. I love having a home filled with books. And I will love the day when I can find my spouse without feeling the search is a literary pursuit.

P.S. This post brought to you mercifully without pictures, since the kids still have 98 chores to go!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Whose problem is it?

Now that "Anne of Green Gables" is over (Snuggler was Marilla, and Little Guy had a small part) the built-in social outlet of rehearsals needs to be replaced.

I am, admittedly, a woman of minimal motivation when it comes to managing my kids' social lives. For me, playdates are like peanut butter sandwiches: you can make your own, or do without. It's not that I'm insensitive to the social needs of my kids: our schedule includes classes and enrichment activities, and I do negotiate with other moms when complicated logistics are involved. But when it comes to my kids' free time, I am not in charge of making phone calls to see if friends are available. Because I'm not the one who wants to play.

My kids will tell you I am very annoying when they want to make something my problem.Yesterday we were at the library after soccer and Little Guy dropped his tote bag on the floor next to me while he went to get a drink of water. I went to the counter to check out my books, leaving the bag on the floor. A library employee  grumbled something about people leaving their stuff all over the place. I looked up, smiled, and said, "Oh, that's my son's bag. He has this weird idea that I'm going to pick up after him. But as long as I don't let him make it my problem, it's not my problem." She laughed.

The way I figure it, my kids might work to solve their own problems, but they have zero incentive to solve mine. This is probably why they try so hard to transfer their problems to me. And this is why I work so hard not to let that happen. We have a lot of conversations that go something like this:

Child:  I'm hungry!
Mom:  Oh. What are you going to do about it?

Child:  But there's nothing in the house to eat!
Mom:  Hmmm. Sounds like you have a problem.

Child:  But I've looked everywhere!
Mom:  So what's your plan?

Like I said, extremely annoying. But (wink) that's not my problem, is it?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Posting elsewhere...

I did a guest post over at Acting Balanced on what I've learned about parenting through prayer. There's also a promotion for a giveaway of Daily Guideposts: Your First Year of Motherhood on the site, so if you're interested in possibly getting a free copy, pop over and leave a comment or two!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Happiness vs. well-being

The other day the New York Times had an article about Martin Seligman's latest research. I've been a Seligman fan ever since reading Learned Optimism a decade or more ago. In his latest round of inquiry he has explored the idea that happiness isn't everything, that it takes more than that to achieve a sense of well-being in one's life. Well, yeah. Here are the five things Seligman posits we must have:

  • positive emotion
  • engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task)
  • relationships
  • meaning
  • accomplishment
All that makes sense, no?

Now re-cast the list from the perspective of parenting. Which of these five things are we encouraging in our children, which need a boost, and which (if any) do we ignore? 

Are we cultivating positive emotions -- joy, contentment, a sense of peace -- or catering to pleasure?

Are we nourishing our kids' passions enough so that they know what it means to get lost in a task?

Where does the meaning come from in our children's lives? Where should it be coming from?

How often do our children work hard enough to have a sense of real accomplishment?

It's good stuff to ponder.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

In which we embark on new things

Two weeks ago Andrew called home with the news that he would be leaving his job. He and I will both continue writing for Daily Guideposts, but after 16 years Andrew will cease to be the editor.

In the short run this means Andrew is doing editorial consulting. In the long run it may mean he starts a publishing project of his own, or that he gets a different job, or that I get a full-time job, or that we both do a ton of freelance work. There are many possibilities. We'll figure it out as we go, even though it's not clear exactly where we're going.

When I was younger, lack of certainty bothered me. Now I ignore it 95% of the time and am terrified of it the other 5%. Paying too much attention to how I feel -- especially when I'm afraid -- would prevent me from doing what I need to do, and paralysis is the last thing I need.

So, onward. And if you have specific ideas on projects either Andrew or I should be considering, let me know!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My preschool method of dealing with life

As a mother of five, I've always thought the "one day at a time" motto is a little... ambitious. I mean, an entire day?!?  Without having a nervous breakdown? I feel like a genius if  I can wrap my brain around a two-hour span of time. Really.

People sometimes assume I'm competent, but the truth is I'm limited. I cope with the messiness of life -- both physical and emotional -- the way I taught my preschoolers to clean up a playroom: by breaking things into manageable pieces. I put away the green blocks. Then I tackle the red ones. When the yellow and and blue blocks are in the box, I can think about putting the dress-up clothes away. Or something like that. The point is that when I carve out one thing to focus on, the task is clear, the scope is workable, and progress is tangible. And I'm not paralyzed by the enormity of what needs to be done.

This may be a byproduct of having fewer functioning brain cells than children. But when the vista of what needs to be done overwhelms me, it helps to narrow my focus.Even if that means my motto is 'one thing at a time' instead of 'one day at a time'. (With interruptions.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

The elegance of saying no

I've been reading a book about product ideas called In Pursuit of Elegance. It says that to produce something of elegance, you have to think in terms of subtraction instead of addition.

We know this with fashion (no frou-frou, please) and in math (where an elegant proof covers everything in the smallest number of steps possible). But in most of the rest of life, we habitually assume that more + more + more = better. We think that to improve something we need to supplement or expand or provide additional options.

But if elegance is a matter of distillation, then getting things on our to-do list done requires making a don't-do list. The author quotes Steve Jobs who said, in the wake of introducing the iPhone,

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of many of the things we haven't done as the things we have done.
I think this is completely true. I read it and wonder what elegant parenting would look like. What are the hundred good ideas that moms need to say no to? Are they all things that compete with parenthood? Or are they popular ideas about parenting that are add-ons, non-essentials, frou-frou?

What would you put on your don't do list?

And what does it mean to be a person of elegance?  

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Another blog

A couple of months ago Guideposts asked me to blog for them about devotional practices. For those of you who are interested, the pieces generally go up on Wednesdays. This week's entry is How Focusing on the "Bright Spot" Helps Prayer and Devotion.

Letting go

A friend emailed, asking me for my post about life skills for heading off to college. Hard to believe, but next week I pick up Eldest at the close of her freshman year. 

A lot of people asked me this year what it’s like to send a 16-year old off to college. Generally what they meant was, Aren’t you scared? 

No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t worried Eldest would suddenly morph into a wild party girl. I was reasonably certain that her faith was important enough to her that she’d turn to it for grounding. And academics? – pshaw! That’s why she wanted to go. College was her desire, not mine.

So what was on my worry list? Things like how she’d handle the stress of her (very) high-pressure university, and whether or not she would get help if she needed it. How she'd react when she did poorly on a test. Whether she'd become an isolated grunt, or decide to have a life. If she'd find friends with whom to laugh.

Here's the update: There was a grand total of three times that Eldest called home because she was upset this year. That is an awesome number for any 16-year old. Utterly awesome. She had a few glitches (some of which felt major to her, but none of which were life-damaging) from which she recovered quickly. She was extremely wise about selecting extracurricular activities and balancing them with academics. She joined a Bible study group. She made friends with some very witty and fun people. She survived.

And how did we do at home? The first six weeks sans Eldest were rocky; after years spent cultivating sibling relationships, I learned (via the kids' grief at losing their sister) that I'd been successful. But eventually we got used to the new family configuration.

Or so I thought. About a month ago I was surprised to be hit by my own wave of grief. I'd mentally kept loose track of how often Eldest called home as an indicator of how well she was adapting, and one day realized that fewer calls were also a measure of how far she'd gone from my side. Eldest and I have always been close, but she doesn't need that closeness as much now.

Eldest's independence is good and right and normal and wonderfully healthy -- as is, I suppose, my sadness at realizing she is now more herself than she is my child. Sometimes the mixed-feelingness of life is a challenge. I think most of us try to cope by putting 'good' things on one end of our emotional see-saw and 'bad' things on the other, as if that's what balance is about. But equilibrium comes more from letting all our conflicting feelings sit side-by-side, like a bench full of chattering children, acknowledging each one in his turn.

Or at least that's my experience.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Connecting to others

I popped up to see Eldest's choir concert at college on Sunday, following Snuggler's opening performance in Anne of Green Gables on Saturday (she was Marilla; Little Guy has a small part).On the bus I read The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale. Good read, funny writer, worth getting.

The concert was good. As my mind effortlessly wafted between the music (Haydn's Creation) and other worthwhile (and not worthwhile) thoughts, it occurred to me that the anti-gravity thing that happens in with my brain during a live concert doesn't occur with recorded music. And I wondered why that might be.

Part of it is that seeing the source of the music -- the seventy singers and forty orchestra members, the three soloists, the conductor -- makes a difference. Maybe not the difference between eating a McChicken sandwich (if one does that sort of thing) and raising/killing/plucking/cooking a chicken oneself, but sight + hearing means we're engaged with real people, not just their output. We see the joy on the faces of the singers, and we wonder about this one's blue hair or that one's glasses, and somewhere in our being we are aware that those other beings are like us and different than us and are doing something for us.

Then there's the matter of being in an audience. A concert is a different thing than "me and my playlist" or "me and the people who act and think like me" (a fact driven home by the wondrous rapture of the man sitting next to you or the teen texting in front of you). There's an "us"-ness that we lose when we live in the isolation of our preferences.  And maybe that's something we want to lose from time to time, but I daresay, in light of reading The Winter of Our Disconnect, that often when we connect almost-exclusively to our desires we inadvertently disconnect from other things we deep-down need. Like... each other.

Friday, May 6, 2011

In which we deal with choices and challenges

We're facing a problem that I'm not, as yet, at liberty to describe. It's one of those gut-groaners, the kind that makes other folks go a bit blank when you tell them. Not life-threatening, but life-altering. There are ways to work on it, ways to deal with it. So that's what we'll do. I mean, what choice do we have? [Insert Jewish mother's voice here:] We should run around like headless chickens?

I've often suspected that despite our nationwide addiction to having abundant choices on everything from vacation destinations to nail clippers, most of the real decisions in life are T-intersections. You can rise to the task at hand, or not. You can knit your family closer together, or let people drift apart. You can grow closer to God, or push him away. You can be generous of heart, or fold in on yourself. You can learn how to cope, or expect others to cope with your lack of coping. '

Hence I find that having a few simple rules of life helps with making good choices. Back when I was single and life ran on a spectrum from self-centered to self-indulged, I had one rule of thumb:

Never do anything you wouldn't want to see in a headline in the New York Post

It kept me out of a lot of trouble.

When I got married I made up a simple rule of thumb for conflict:

Always do what will strengthen the marriage in the long run. 

It's made apologies and tongue-biting a lot easier. It's shortened the sulk-cycle, and improved my forgiving-ness.

When it comes to dealing with major crises and thorny problems and eye-crossing difficulties, my rule of thumb is this:

The question isn't what's the best thing to do, but what's the right thing to do.

Maybe it's age talking here, but I am utterly certain that I don't know -- can't know, will never know -- the best solution to any given problem. I do all the necessary legwork, and gather all the right information, and figure out what I think is the best path. But I am not omniscient. Invariably I find out information later that would have colored or changed my decision. I know: it's happened many, many times.

So I've kind of given up on getting too attached to particular solutions.I've learned that it's far, far better to focus on being the kind of person I want to be than to hyper-focus on the kind of outcome I desire. I do the best I can with the information I have, and then to say my most-often-used prayer:

Here's what I think. If You have a better plan, make it clear, Lord. Just make it clear.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blast it!

Today's round of chores consisted of washing the windows. Our apartment is several stories up, so windows are a bit tricky. There's the business of flipping in the recalcitrant windows (and making sure the kids don't flip themselves out), and we're still learning  the lesson that if you don't do a job well you get to do it twice. Or more. (Even I often have to do windows more than once. Those streaks are annoying.)

The one thing I haven't ever figured out is how to wash the screens. We have child guards on the lower portion of our windows, which prevent pulling the screens in. I'm not about to dangle out the upper portion of the window to scrub anything. However, we seem to be making progress in the resourcefulness department, because today Dancer and Little Guy came up with a solution:

The screens are nice and sparkly now. And the plants in the courtyard below are watered, too.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Dumpster dreaming

It's feeling like spring today, and I'm feeling like renting a dumpster. Maybe it's because the kids are doing my spring cleaning for me this year (they're now on chore #23), but I'm dreaming of disposing of things. Other people fantasize about vacationing in Disneyworld; my ideal holiday would be to send everyone away and toss a third of our belongings.

It's not that I'm an ascetic. And it's not that we have a lot of belongings compared to, say, people who live in 2500 square feet of space. I'd just like to turn down the volume on the stuff component of life. It weighs on me. Unfortunately, I'm in the minority here.

My kids do play with almost every toy we own. They tend to use many things at once. It's no fun to play with just Playmobil or just Legos or just stuffed animals or just blocks. I suspect their satisfaction rating depends primarily on how much floor space is obscured, or how many outfits can be worn in an hour. And of course the more complex the set-up, the more compelling the argument that it really has to remain intact (to be stepped on at midnight by a sleepy mom, or ruined by ignorant siblings who don't realize that you can't sit in that chair!)

The truth is, if all my kids had to play with was a handful of rubber bands and three paper clips, they could find things to do for hours. A bit of clay this week, a few popsicle sticks the next, some paper and scissors... there's a certain creative appeal to minimalism. At least, there is to me. But my kids revel in excess, in choice, in the use of kitchen implements in unusual ways that prevent further use as utensils.

So I repress the impulse to call Goodwill for a van-size pick-up. I sort through belongings and books and clothes with an eye toward who needs these things more than we do. I surreptitiously give away the few things I think no one will miss. And now that we've finally succeeded in passing on our board books and baby toys, I have a glimmer of hope that some day we'll downsize. And perhaps some night I'll be wistful for those times when, half-asleep, I stepped on a tiny Lego on the way to the bathroom.


Monday, May 2, 2011

A mom's game of 20 (or more) questions

Will Dancer get into the ballet school for which she auditioned?
Why hasn't Eldest emailed me back?
Why so snarly yesterday?
When will I have time to talk to Andrew?
[Reminder to self: check up on Big Guy's high school applications]
How am I going to...?
Can we afford four more weeks of art class?
When's the best time to talk to the kids about...?
[Reminder to self: call your mom on Mother's Day]
Which week do we get paid?
When will Snuggler learn to...?
Should I relent, or stick to my guns on that?
[Reminder to self: Buy paper towels if you want the kids to wash the windows]

Do I fly to Detroit with Dancer to get her to the summer program, or have her go alone and save the money?
Did I send in the proofs for that newsletter?
What time is Snuggler's soccer game on Saturday?
Did I write down the date of...?
[Reminder to self: buy fruit]
What was it I just forgot?
[Reminder to self: recharge phone]
When was the last time I made Little Guy write in his journal?
[Reminder to self: check bank balance]
Should I buy Little Guy the supplies to make that circuit board, or not?
[Reminder to self: make kids pick up before bed]
[Reminder to self: too many carbs in the meals today]
What will I make ahead for dinner when I go visit Eldest? (Will they eat it?)
[Reminder to self: ask the super to snake the tub]
[Reminder to self: buy tiles for bathroom]
Where will Little Guy sleep if Big Guy returns home?
Where are we on kids' toothpaste?

How am I going to...?

And you? What do you ask yourself?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A thought blew through...

The weather report said it would be 60 and sunny yesterday; at 9am on the soccer field it was 48, cloudy and gusty. As I huddled around my cup of tea and chatted with other parents, my mood rose and fell in inverse proportion to the wind. When the sun came out and the wind died down it was as if I were a different person on a different day. And then more clouds blew in, and the temperature -- and my spirits -- dropped again.

It was kind of amusing to observe how quickly my feelings shifted. I wondered: did cave men and women go through this? Is it an age-related thing? Does it matter which part of the country you come from? Are some people more susceptible than others to the weather?