Saturday, November 22, 2014

Light and Dark

Yes, it's been over a month since I posted anything. I've been shuttling back and forth across the country dealing with various family crises, most of which I've been asked to keep confidential. I can say this, though: I have the best friends in the world. Food has been arriving for my family while I've been away, people have volunteered to do everything it's possible for me to offload, and someone has even donated frequent flier miles so I don't have to pay for airfare.

Light shines in the darkness. This is true in most every situation, though I think we often miss it because we're so afraid of the dark. One of the subtle perils of modern times is that unless a space is fully illuminated we think there's not enough light. We're uncomfortable when we can't flick on a switch and make it easy to see. We want the environment to adapt to us, rather than to let our eyes adjust to the environment

In truth, though, light can co-exist with darkness. We know this in many ways: from being outdoors at night under a twinkling sky, from the relief of a penlight in a subway car gone dark, from a nightlight in a bedroom.

I sometimes wonder if all light has to do in order to overcome darkness is dispel fear. We don't need as much of it as we think we do.

*        *         *         *

I have realized in the chaos and upheaval of this month that something has shifted within me over the past year or two. I am not afraid. That is, I do not live in a place of fear any longer, even when scary things are unfolding left and right.

I was talking with one of my kids the other day and mused, "Sometimes we are so afraid of what we might have to face that we invest a huge amount of energy in wanting the problem to be manageable. We desperately yearn for a ping-pong ball size difficulty, instead of trying to figure out what we're really up against. Maybe that's because we think we can manage a ping-pong ball, and are certain we can't handle a medicine ball. But if what we're dealing with is actually a medicine ball-size problem, we're not going to solve it if we focus on ping pong."

Truly, it's better to see what there is to see. Often what blinds us is our own fear of how dark it might be on the road ahead. It doesn't take a whole lot of light to pierce that darkness, though.

*         *         *        *

Last week Andrew called. "Job here," he said, with moderate cheer, as I picked up the phone. In between two other crises, one of the kids leaned on the bathroom sink and the trap snapped, sending the sink plummeting to the floor. 

I laughed and laughed as he told me. It's kind of ridiculous, you know, when the world seems to be falling apart around you and then even the sink has to get in on the act. There was a time when a sink collapse would have caused me major stress instead of comic relief.

I flew home a day or two later on an emergency visit, because a big new crisis had unfolded. The sink still lay on the floor, dripping, grit and plaster all around it. The mess was the measure of how stressful life had been at home: getting this fixed hadn't rated as a top priority.

That night when it was the kids' bedtime I asked cautiously, "Ummm, where are the toothbrushes?" The bafflement that followed made me smile in amusement: clearly no one had thought of brushing teeth for a while. Fortunately there were extra new toothbrushes in the closet. And fortunately stinky breath and fuzzy teeth are no immediate peril. I'm storing that knowledge away for a day when life isn't quite so dark and difficult, and I might mistakenly think unbrushed teeth are a major problem. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Scenes of neighborhood city life

The elderly woman walks down the sidewalk, dog leash in hand, ancient dog ten paces behind her (not on the leash). The dog stops, arthritis having halted his progress.

His owner pauses, kicks her leg out (why?) and tosses a dog treat on the ground. The dog ambles forward. Before he gets to the treat the old woman leans over and retrieves it, then tosses it ten feet ahead. The two mosey on, in perpetual but very slow motion.

*         *          *          *

I go out to buy a gallon of milk -- a daily event -- and run into three people I know, in succession. We chat about life: one has a troubled teen, one is involved in coordinating a community event, one lives in my building. I get to the store and wait in line. My cashier is Sally, who lives in my building. She tells me how her grandchildren are doing, and asks after my kids. She is pleased that Big Guy is enjoying college, and happy to hear that Snuggler is performing in Romeo & Juliet.

*          *           *          *

At church on Sunday the place is full. I look around and idly wonder (yes, I should be paying attention to other things) which nationalities are represented today. I know there are many Latinos and Fhilipinos, plus a few Italian nuns. A few families are present; when we first started going to the chapel, we were the only people with kids. New York is different that way: it's a town full of singles and couples.

The first time I went to a bat mitzvah (a common enough event here), what surprised me most was realizing that disparate people in my life knew one another through synagogue. It had never occurred to me that my good friend from the neighborhood association was friends with the young mom I knew from the playground. I was delighted to discover that the world is connected in ways I never imagined.

*          *           *          *  

A old woman shuffles, bent in half over her walker. Her sheitl is bent askew, and every third shuffle she pauses to tilt her head sideways to see where she's going. I wonder what life is like with osteoporosis so severe that one cannot ever straighten up, when your view of the world is limited to floors and sidewalks. I am somewhat in awe of her courage, her determination to get out and to the store. It is probably a three-hour affair to buy groceries, maybe more. She is always alone. I hope that when I am her age I have that amount of raw determination. She is an inspiration.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


It seems to take me an inordinately long time to ramp up to the fall schedule. Why this should be, I don't know; I have fewer kids around now, and the ones that I have are (with one exception) self-transporting. To me this clearly says Motivation Issue. But that's boring. I mean, what mom of many doesn't have Motivation Issues?

And then I had to do some new things -- things new to me -- and suddenly I found myself "in the flow" as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say. It's as if my emotional metabolism ramped up by a factor of two or three.

I guess the thing about "new" is that it can fill up your rut to overflowing, lifting you out.

*         *          *         *

That's not the only option, of course. When your rut is overflowing you can always dig it deeper, to accommodate the additional stuff coming in. Not advisable, in my opinion. But people do it.

Sometimes what's familiar (even if it hurts you) is preferred to changing (which is scary). When Big Guy was little I called this "hugging your pet porcupine". A pet porcupine rarely makes you feel better, though.

*         *         *          *

Ruts are usually caused by routine: activities, when overdone; thought patterns, when left unchecked; ways of interacting with others that cause failure to thrive.

One of the things I do to keep myself from falling into self-created ruts is to ping my bubble frequently. You know which bubble I mean: the one I create by surrounding myself with like-minded people who suit my tastes and reinforce everything that's most palatable and familiar and non-threatening. I have to fight that bubble pretty actively, much more so now that we inhabit the internet as much as the tangible world.

I do think bubbles lead to ruts, because (assuming the inside surface of a bubble is iridescent, like the outside) they reflect an image of ourselves, slightly warped, back to us. And once the world is all about me... that's a major rut.

*         *          *          *

My mother broke her knee yesterday. She fell in a parking lot, which is not the same as falling into a rut. So that's unrelated to the rest of this, except it is pulling on my heart, so I wrote it here. She has been looking forward to a trip to the small town in Illinois where she grew up, looking forward to seeing childhood friends. It's doubtful that will happen now. I am hopeful it will happen later, after the surgery and physical therapy and recovery. I am hopeful that she is not in too much pain. I am hopeful this will not be too great a strain on my father. If you are a praying person, please add Joan and Steve to your prayer list.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I went to hear Twyla Tharp speak last week. I came away thinking, "That woman is fearless."

I'm sure she's not. She's driven, which is a different thing. When you're driven toward a goal, things that might otherwise feel like sinkholes are easier to see as the bumps in the road they really are. Whatever Twyla Tharp's fears are, she can drive through most of them. And whatever Twyla Tharp's fears are, they seem invisible to me because they aren't the same as mine. We're driven by (and to) different things.

Then again, I think she probably drives faster. And harder.

As the lecture broke up and I was walking toward the door, a student behind me commented to a friend, "It's interesting how differently people of that generation think. We feel our way through, spending time pondering all the possibilities. She sees her goal and just goes toward it."

I doubt that's a generational thing. That's a meet-a-creative-genius thing. Still, the how-I-feel-about-it aspect of life does get overemphasized today. During the Q&A someone asked, "How do you work through the times when you need down time?"

Twyla blinked, as if trying to comprehend this, then said briskly, "I am always working. If I get up and don't feel like working, I work anyway. Because, you know, I might feel like working the next day, and that's what you do if you want to stay in shape."

*         *          *          *  

Last week I chatted with a woman from my building on the subway. I am not sure exactly what we were talking about. Life, in a general way.

At one point I mentioned that I'd read that a lot of people don't like to rent to actors, because of the perception that their income is unstable. Yet actors are really, really good at scrambling for jobs, and they know how to patchwork a subsistence together. This gives them a huge advantage in times of economic insecurity. You'd probably be better off renting to a resourceful actor than to a middle manager in a big firm, because if the middle manager loses his or her job, it's a crisis. The salaried person often doesn't know how to cope with not having a regular paycheck.

So the question is: does security=steady paycheck? Or does security=ability to scramble and pay the rent if you lose your job?

Is it what you already have that makes you safe... or your resilience and adaptability?

*         *          *         *

The discussion of security led to other things, and at one point my interlocutor paused and said, as if to herself, "I think I have a lower tolerance for discomfort than other people."

Her voice held regret; she clearly felt she'd missed out on important things because she'd moved away from difficulties too quickly. The A Train was not the place for a discussion about how tolerance for discomfort is something one builds rather than carries in one's DNA -- it's work.

But I can think of two things that provide the motivation to do the hard work of overcoming fears:

1) You become so sick-to-death of the limitations your fears impose that you're willing to put in the effort to change, or

2) You are so passionate about something that you plow through the rough stuff because it lies in the way of progress.

Generally speaking, passion for something bigger that yourself is the more compelling path. Just sayin'.

But it's still work.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


My eldest turned 20 last week. It was the first time she wasn't been home for her birthday, her first year of living in another part of the country, on her own.

Back when she left for college, two weeks after turning 16, people plied me with questions about whether or not I thought she was ready. "Ready in what way?" I replied drily, "There are grown men who still aren't ready for college."

I don't thing there's such a thing as ready, at least in the blanket sense. There are always ways in which we're not ready, even when we think we are: those are called blind spots. And there are ways in which we're ready, even when we think we're not: that's fear.

*         *         *          *

I was kind of proud of myself this week. I transitioned a print newsletter to an email campaign. This is something I knew I could do, but for a while I found myself balking. Then I realized, "Oh -- I'm afraid because I've never done it before." Having named the fear, I could nod at it and drive on by. 

It's unspoken, unidentified anxieties that have the ability to steer me off course. One of my kids has this Mental Floss t-shirt:

When I can name what is behind a vague sense of unease, I'm more than halfway to pulling out of it. I suspect that being ready to face our fears may be the closest we will ever come to being blanket-level ready.
*         *         *          *

The whole idea of being ready for something is kind of odd, if you stop to think about it. It carries with it the assumption that we have (or should have) a choice about when things happen. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't. 

When we say, "I'm not ready", we often mean:
  • I'm afraid I won't succeed; or
  • I seriously don't like this and don't wanna go through it; or
  • This will be way too much work to be comfortable; or
  • I'm not good enough at this to avoid looking (or feeling) inept.
It could also mean, "I genuinely need additional time to develop the skills to do this," but I suspect that's not usually the case. 

*         *         *          *

I wasn't ready for Eldest to move halfway across the country, in the sense that I was surprised at how hard it was to adapt to the idea that I couldn't hop on a bus and be at her doorstep $25 and five hours later. I'm slowly getting used to it. 

And is Eldest ready to hold down a job, live on her own, and be independent? I daresay she is far more ready than she thought she would be. She likes her job, likes her apartment, likes her town. There are things she is learning -- some because she wants to, and some because she has to -- and that's good. 

Sometimes we're ready. Sometimes we're willing. Sometimes we're able. I'm not convinced that we need all three at the same time to move forward. What we really need is an honest assessment of what's holding us back. Often it's simply fear. 

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.

*          *          *            *

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).

*          *          *            *

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? 

*          *          *            *

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.

*         *          *          *

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.

*        *        *        *
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.

*        *          *          *

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.


Saturday, April 26, 2014


Way back when Little Guy was in kindergarten, I went to parent-teacher conferences. As I sat down in the pint-size chair, the teacher smiled and said brightly, "You have a really out-of-the-box kid!"

This threw me a bit. The out-of-the-box spectrum in our family is pretty broad, and on that scale and by my reckoning Little Guy is fairly conventional. My instinct (which I did not indulge) was to reply, "Oh. How big is the box?" It's one thing to think outside a small shoebox, and another to think outside of a stone sarcophagus.

*         *         *          *

When my older kids were little and we read the Little House books, I was struck by how much Laura and Mary Ingalls did in the way of chores. My awareness of this was probably heightened because my children were not particularly cooperative about helping out. I realized that part of this was because I saw chores as a way to teach my children responsibility. I didn't actually need the kids to work to keep the family afloat the way Ma and Pa needed all hands at work.

Kids understand that kind of difference intuitively. Who wants to do work that's not strictly necessary? Who wants to do invented chores? Not me. Not them.

What my kids did need was play, so we played Little House. We used masking tape to measure out the size of a covered wagon on the floor, and then they had to decide what to bring along for the trip west, and fit it all in that rectangle. I think they did that for a full week, day after day, in costume, eating molasses on bread for lunch, and drinking cold water from a metal cup.

Eventually I asked them which chores they thought it was fair for kids their age to do in our day and age. At that point they were able to consider the question honestly.

I learned that it was better to ask "How much time do you think is fair for you to contribute to helping keep the house in order?" and "If you don't do it, then I'll have to. Do you think that's right?"

Reframing responsibility changed the shape of the box. But to change the box we all had to pretend to ride for a while in a covered wagon.

*        *         *         *

The very first day we began homeschooling, when Eldest was just-turned-five, I felt very far out of the box. It was scary and I thought I must be an Extremely Brave Woman.

By day two it wasn't so bad. We'd survived, after all. As with many things, only the first step involved bravery; often whatever's outside the box is intimidating simply because it's new.

It helps, when I'm feeling anxious, to determine how much of what I'm feeling is due to the existence of an unknown. It helps even more if, once I've admitted that I'm nervous about stepping into new territory, I remind myself, "It won't be new for long."

*         *         *         *

We have an inordinate number of boxes around our apartment these days. That is not to say that we are anywhere near ready to move. We still have a lot of painting to do before we can sell.

Anything I take out of a closet gets sorted into one of three piles -- keep, toss, give away -- and the things that are retained are boxed up before going back on a shelf. I'm intentional about what goes into my boxes nowadays.

I set aside a thing or two for Eldest, who is graduating from college a month from now, and has accepted a job at an ed-tech firm in the midwest. It is in a city I have never visited, a place I do not know.

Her move forces me to step out of a box I know and love, to let go in a way I have never had to let go before. Hopefully I will acclimate quickly to this new stage of being a mother, a mother-from-afar.

Boxes. Moving. Moving on. Sometimes the heart hurts when it's being stretched.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Self-reliance, ceilings, and learning

We've had workmen in the apartment all week. I hired them to fix the ceilings, a job I am utterly unwilling to do. A lifetime or so ago I spackled every joint in every piece of sheetrock in a three bedroom house. I didn't mind doing the walls, but I learned that the ceilings are worth paying someone else to do. They are a pain in the neck in every possible way.

I'm not sure I've ever hired someone to work before. It has been a learning experience, the kind one appreciates because it's useful to know how to do it. I have a deep aversion to hiring people to do what I think of as "my" manual labor.

Still, we have 1933-era ceilings, which means that when one scrapes a crack and a whole patch clunks off there is a real-plaster disaster. Had I done the work myself, the living room ceiling would have come partway down and I would have stared at it dolefully, wondering, Now how do I fix that?!? I am certain I would have spent three months learning how to properly repair a 3'x7' hole. Which would be fine, but at the moment it's better that I should learn to let a professional do it.

One side of my family is as classically do-it-yourself as it's possible to get. My dad grew up chipping old mortar off of used bricks after school, to use in the house his family was building (they did have help with the construction). When I was a kid, if something needed fixing, my dad looked at it and tinkered with it and ordered parts and patiently figured it out. That was good: children tend to think that adults were born knowing how to do everything perfectly and that it's just that they are inept. My dad wasn't shy about dispelling that notion, and I benefited from that. I think kids need to see their parents learning new things, and struggling to learn them. They need to see that perseverance is acquired, not congenital. (It is, admittedly, easier for some people to acquire than others!)  

Dad rototilling his garden at age 81.
Another influence in this vein was a friend in college who had an endless to-learn list. He was an architect and a mechanical engineer, a splendid photographer, a graphic artist, and a bit of a philosopher. He had languages he wanted to learn to speak (at the time he knew four), countries he wanted to explore, skills he was eager to acquire. Years later he put himself through an MD/PhD program by working as a caricaturist at corporate parties.

I thought that was cool; it hadn't occurred to me to envision a whole list of possibilities for myself of what to learn; I kind of thought one just meandered through the vague interest of the moment. To have a burning interest in expanding one's capabilities is awesome; heck, even to be willing to expand your competence beyond what you already know how to do is often unusual.

I do believe that a whole lot of our "I can't do that!" thinking boils down to "I don't know how to do that!" When you append the word yet to "I don't know how to do that!" it transforms your attitude. It shifts the focus away from the fear, and centers it squarely on something we do know how to do: learn.

So... I'm learning. This week I learned how to pay someone to fix my ceilings. Learning not to be entirely self-reliant is an important lesson, too.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A lot to do, a bit at a time

I've been busy spackling, purging closets and assessing ceilings to see what needs to be done before putting the apartment on the market. In a way this is stress-relieving: I've long had this cool idea for a vacation that involves sending everyone else away and hiring a dumpster. This is not because I'm a neat-freak, but because we  live in an apartment. There's no attic, no basement, no garage. Everything we own we live with, intimately. It is a relief to live with less.

*         *          *         *

I used to hate household chores. I'm still not fond of them, but I've made significant progress from my days as a single working woman, when I loathed doing laundry so much that I would buy extra underwear rather than waste a Saturday morning at the laundromat. The buy-more-undies attitude doesn't work when you have five kids.

I've long aspired to look at housework in the way I look at brushing my teeth: something I don't necessarily like, but can do without anguish or rancor because, well, it just needs to be done. One mindshift that's helped has been to think of chores as filler, rather as a separate (and hence onerous) list of things to do.

Honestly, this did not come about as a stroke of genius, but in a surge of desperation. (This is true for most of my ideas.) As I had to cram more and more (paid) writing into my day, I had less and less time to tend to the house. I found that whenever I came up against a mental logjam while writing, if I took a 10-minute break and tossed in a load of laundry (or wiped down the toilet and sink, vacuumed the living room carpet, etc), two good things happened. The first was that the physical labor cleared my mind so I could return to writing productively. The second was that things got done that needed doing.

The advantage of having formed this habit is that now when I get overwhelmed by the thought of moving, I can deal with the feeling effectively by plastering a crack in a wall. It's gratifying to transform stress into progress.

*         *         *        *

Still, moving is stressful. No one here wants to go, and I find myself in the position of having to drive the troops forward, relentlessly. I do not like having to do this, but I am intent on keeping things (and people) on track. Perhaps I am also finally old enough to be (mostly) past getting annoyed about having to do things I don't want to do.

My heart bleeds at odd moments. I cauterize the wounds by doing productive things. Do more, think less, I command myself. Focus on what needs to be done. There will be time to grieve later.

I used to say that one reason God made days 24 hours long was so that there would always be a 2 a.m. in which mothers could cry. For the next month or two I will be too tired to be awake then.

*        *         *         *

I am just entering the busy period of the spring. I am editing eight masters' theses and a PhD thesis proposal in the next six weeks, writing a quarterly newsletter, and doing my usual monthly and weekly projects. There's also Eldest's college graduation to think about, then Big Guy's high school commencement. Did I mention we're moving? Homeschooling? Eating?

Make it smaller, I tell myself. Look at just a little bit at a time. You can do this. You will do this. 

And then, as my inner child starts to whine that it's hard, too hard, and I don't wanna, I get out the putty knife and spackle, and fix another crack in the 1933-era wall. It's the nice thing about cracks: you can only fix one at a time. And when you've fixed one, things actually do look a bit better.

Monday, March 10, 2014

We have news

We will be moving.

Not far, probably. But we have to sell our apartment. We'll rent, we hope, in a neighborhood just north of here.

Several times a day Little Guy blurts out, "I'm distressed!" Andrew is unhappy. Big Guy is unhappy. Snuggler is unhappy, but at least she's busy with tech week for Oklahoma! Dancer is more matter-of-fact about the move, not thrilled but not miserable. I emailed Eldest about the news, but she didn't respond; she's probably more concerned about her last term at college and job interviews.

As for me, I have a ton of plastering and painting to do, so my energy is focused on keeping things moving forward. And frankly, I'm so relieved to have a plan in place that will finally resolve some of our financial issues that I am not thinking that much about the loss.

*         *          *          *

Big Guy has been accepted into a good local college. He is waiting now to find out if he was accepted into the honors program. This would be a big deal on many levels. For a smart kid who has never believed in himself, who has struggled with huge anxiety, who is just beginning to feel he can make it -- well, the honors program would be a huge vote of confidence from someone who's not Mom. Then, too, the honors program would mean free tuition. That would be a huge help, too. The decision will be mailed on the 15th.

*        *         *         *

I worked backstage most of this weekend at Dancer's spring workshop performances. Yesterday I slipped into the theater to watch the second half of the show. Brian Reeder choreographed a new piece for the school, and I wanted to see it from the front.

That man is so creative. He has choreographed a piece for the school for each of the past three years, and each one has been incredibly different. Decades ago I saw a cartoon in which two people were walking down the street: a regular shmo and Beethoven. The regular guy had a thought bubble above his head with a few simple notes in it. Beethoven had an ear worm, too, but his consisted of two clefs and multiple, complex chord progressions. Some people (not me!) think in complex harmonies. Others, like Brian Reeder, think in visual harmonies. Impressive.

The other wow about seeing the piece was realizing my daughter has made huge progress this year. I knew that already, in the way that mothers do, in a view-from-the-wings kind of way. I'm not the type to be lavish with praise. But y'know: she was good.

*        *         *        *

Snuggler's Oklahoma! performances are the next two weekends. We've heard rave reviews from the director, which is unusual. It's the older kids' production, so they're doing three-part harmonies. If you want details on performance times, email me. Snuggler's in the chorus, so she's in every cast. And it's the director's last big show before he leaves... to become a monk.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Control, self-control, and what to do when it's lacking

One of the more useful skills I've acquired in the past decade (or perhaps mostly acquired; I'm still inconsistent) is the ability to live with uncertainty. This is something that was not on my bucket list. Then again, most of what I've learned and most of the ways I've grown in the past decade weren't on my bucket list. Eventually, perhaps, one learns that "What I want to do with my life" is a pretty useless concept. "What kind of person I want to be" is a goal that's more adaptable to the variety of circumstances that life sends your way.

Uncertainty is difficult to deal with. We are human and terrestrial: we don't like being up in the air. Of course, we're almost always up there -- we just don't perceive it that way. One can argue that we need the illusion of being in control, but that's an oversimplification. There are things within our grasp, things we need to control: tempers and spending and the rate at which water flows into the bathtub and other such stuff.

There are also things we'd like to control, like careers and children's behavior and whether or not people we love return our affection, or are capable of returning it. We'd like to control the outcome of health problems and mental deterioration, of birth defects and learning disabilities.We'd like to control pain, discomfort, and the suffering of others.

I suppose we'd like someone, somewhere, to take control of the people who take guns to malls or drink before driving. Probably we don't want to have to do that ourselves, because it might put us at risk. The idea that someone else's problems might wreak havoc with our semi-orderly lives is terrifying. I supposed because we have no way to control that.

*         *         *         *

The other day I read a passage from Made to Stick to Little Guy about military planning, and it included the Army adage, "No plan survives ten minutes of contact with the enemy." He liked that. We talked about why it's important to make plans, but foolish to expect things to go as planned. We make plans so that we've thought through the issues and options, and are familiar with the problem to the extent that we can see it.

Little Guy also liked the idea of Commander's Intent, which is a succinct directive designed to allow anyone at any level to understand the goal, yet modify action as circumstances require. A large part of success when you're under fire (whether in battle or parenting) is determined by being able to keep the goal in sight, as you use your judgment in figuring out how to reach it.

Commander's Intent acknowledges that we can't control all circumstances; what we can do is respond to changing conditions in a manner that's in keeping with our objectives.

*        *        *        *

I sometimes ponder how people adapt to situations over which they have minimal or no control. How does one deal with living in a war zone? What does a woman sold into white slavery do to find the courage to go on? How does the mindset of a street orphan in Cairo differ from mine?

I recently read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal. (I am, in fact, reading a half-chapter aloud to Little Guy and Snuggler a couple of times a week as part of our homeschooling. It's truly excellent.)

One subchapter tells of the Nobel prize winning physiologist Archibald Hill, who explored the issue of exercise fatigue. He proposed the idea that we don't get tired because of muscle exhaustion, but because our brain sends a message that screams "STOP!" to prevent exhaustion. The thing is, just because the brain tells you you're too tired to go on doesn't mean you've reached your limit. It's a trick.

Interestingly, the same concept applies to self-control. Our brains tell us we can't stand to be patient a moment more -- and we believe them. But if your child's life depended on your patience, you'd find a way to curb your temper. We can stand far more than we want to. We can handle far more than we expect. The trouble arises when we start to believe we're trapped or stuck or have reached our limit before it's true.

*         *          *          *

Sometimes the answer to a difficult situation lies in flexibility rather than in control.

Sometimes the answer lies in patience.

Sometimes it is found in endurance.

And sometimes it simply isn't found. Sometimes what's asked of us is  to keep taking whatever steps we can take for as long as we can take them, even if we don't know where we will end up and don't think we can do it. If you can do that and still be true to your Commander's Intent, you are probably a hero even if you never become famous or your problems never go away.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Birthday news

Today was my birthday. It started auspiciously: Andrew announced, "I caught you a mouse!"

This was good. We have been battling mice for six months, and though the battle has been in our favor for a while, the sightings lately have begun to exceed the captures.

Then my husband gave me a gift certificate for a massage. This is unusual on so many levels I cannot begin to enumerate them.

My mom sent two pairs of jeans, and not only were they in the right size, they fit and are comfortable. I can now consign my forlorn, ripped pair to the back of a drawer, for dirty jobs. It is a good thing to be able to wear clothes that are not embarrassing. I can be thankful for that.

My sister called. A gazillion people said "Happy Birthday" on Facebook.

Dancer cooked a delicious Spanish veal stew (we haven't had veal in a decade) and made a French vanilla cinnamon creme for dessert.

Big Guy did the dishes.

And then I realized the most amazing thing had happened. My husband replaced the screws on the toilet lid, so that it doesn't fall off when you sit down.

I feel utterly pampered. I mean, a working toilet seat! A real meal that *I* didn't cook! A clean kitchen!

We listened to the new Sandra Boynton CD after dinner, and laughed and laughed. I could never have been half the parent I am without Philadelphia Chickens and Rhinoceros Tap.  (Really -- you need these songs!)

Life is good today. Part of what makes life good is appreciating today, instead of assuming the goodness of today will extrapolate to the future.

And to add to that, my alma mater has been in the news lately because of a statue, which some of the students find offensive.

I was vastly relieved to learn that the opportunity to dress this poor man in new outfits daily has not gone untapped. I find it highly amusing that the campus police are assigned the task of undressing him to his tighty whiteys every night. It is good to know that students today still have a sense of whimsy.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Word of the day: Lapse


 noun \ˈlaps\
: an occurrence in which you fail to think or act in the usual or proper way for a brief time and make a mistake
: an occurrence in which someone behaves badly for usually a short period of time

Years ago one of my daughters neglected to do something she should have, and ended up in a bit of a mess. As she wailed about her situation she finished with the moan, "...and now you'll never trust me!"

The good part, of course, was that she clearly wanted to be trustworthy. The funky part was the blanket statement. Never?

"Oh, my," I said, as gently as I could, "There are many things I can trust you with. I trust you to choose good friends, I trust you to be basically truthful, I trust you to brush your teeth at night, and I trust that you want to do the right thing here. The fact that you didn't do this one thing doesn't mean you're a total failure, or that you're completely untrustworthy. It means that in this one area you had a lapse of judgment, and in this one area we need to do some work."

Blanket statements can be smothering, yet we all make them at times. After I snarl at a child, I throw on the blanket statement that I'm a bad mother. The truth is that I'm not a bad mother; probably all that happened was that I had a good-mommy lapse. After forgetting something important on my to-do list, I may throw on the blanket statement that I'm an idiot. And yet I'm not an idiot, I've had a memory lapse.

Remembering to draw a distinction between an incident about which I feel bad and a perpetual state of being is huge. If I label myself as a failure, a fool, stupid, irresponsible, a bad parent, or lazy, I attribute a permanence to a behavior that isn't actually justified. What's more, once a label is in place, confirmation bias takes over. Confirmation bias is that "I think A, therefore I start to notice A all the time" thing that happens to all of us. The problem is that when we start seeing A, we tend to stop seeing B. If we label ourselves as, say, a failure, then we become more aware of every event which confirms our opinion, and we overlook information that would disprove (or at least balance) it.

Similarly, if I decide that someone is a jerk, chances are that he or she could change for the better and I wouldn't even notice. I'd be too busy noticing every negative thing that person does.

There are people whose pattern of behavior is so pervasive that it's almost impossible to avoid concluding that the person is, in fact, a jerk. But the odds of getting that person to stop acting like a jerk go way up when we notice his or her occasional non-jerky behavior, comment upon it, and thus reinforce the good.

If we want to be better parents, or to at least have a shot at becoming better human beings, it's worthwhile to learn to pay attention to when we berate ourselves. If you wouldn't let someone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself, STOP. Feel bad for a while, but remember that most of the time, in most situations, you aren't the bonehead you've just accused yourself of being.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Perspectives on human experience

Every now and again things happen in life that are a bit unsettling. I don't mean bad-news stuff, but events that take me outside my normal worldview and cause me to re-realize that my perspective is limited. I had two of these happen over the weekend, back to back.

The first was meeting a man who had just donated $10 million to a cause. He was a normal, unassuming human being. This is, of course, far more disorienting than if he'd had horns and were crassly capitalistic; it's harder to demonize the 1% when you realize they are human.

I met this man in passing, at an event which I attended courtesy of a family I've known for years. More precisely, I've known the mom for years, but had never met the dad. We were invited because Little Guy is friends with their younger son, who is some years older but belongs to the same scout troop. The dad, I should add, was tagged as Romney's top pick for a key position if Romney had won the last election. So there I was, sitting next to the dad -- who was also humane and gracious -- and then he had to go say hello to this other man, and when he came back he mentioned the news about the $10 million. Later the donor stopped by to chat for a while.

The chances that I will ever own $10 million, even cumulatively in my lifetime, are probably non-existent. Consequently, I felt no envy: I can't conceptualize dollar amounts that big. Similarly, because I was face to face with a real human being, what struck me wasn't "Hey, can you share some of that?" but the humanity of this man. He had, and he gave. It is going to take me a while to wrap my head around that.

*         *        *         *

It's that season; for the next several weeks, Dancer will head to auditions for summer programs following her regular classes and rehearsals. On Saturday she began ballet at 10:30 a.m., and headed home at 7:30 p.m.

Yesterday she auditioned for a small program run by an iconic Balanchine ballerina. Because it was at a studio Dancer hasn't been to often, she asked me to come along. As we stood in line to check in I noticed the ballerina, who is now nearly 70, sitting quietly at the table, absorbed in looking at some papers. I'd read her autobiography several years ago, and my brain scrambled to take the facts that I knew about her and integrate them with the human being in front of me. The disconnect was huge. Sometimes, I think, the two don't mesh much at all; in order to have any real sense of the person-ness of a person, we have to temporarily discard the facts we know about him or her.

After the audition began I chatted with a woman whose daughters have gone to this particular summer program for years. Our kids were ballet classmates for a long time. The woman is one of the most generous human beings on the face of the earth. She is also one of the most toxic people I know. It's a complicated and challenging mix, and in certain ways I like her as much as (in other ways) I am wary of her. Talking with her is exhausting, since I have to weigh everything she says, gauging how much is true, how much is manipulative, how much she is digging for information and also, thankfully, how much is genuine interest in what I have to say.

Some people move in worlds where toxicity is the social standard. I don't. On the other hand, if I don't talk to people like this woman, how will she ever know that not everyone thinks like her? And how will I remember that not everyone thinks like me?

It's very easy for any of us to think the spectrum of human experience lies mostly within our own. But it's just not true.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A new year, considered.

To tell the truth, I didn't much like 2013. It wasn't as bad as 2011, true. But the series of back-to-back crises and overlapping crises (many of which, frankly, I didn't write about online) was emotionally erosive. I told Andrew recently that if I could just have six weeks without a new crisis, I could probably regain my equilibrium. That's not going to happen. The six weeks part, I mean. The equilibrium I'll have to figure out, regardless.

Sometime last fall I realized that one of my bedrock assumptions of my life is that if I'm sensible and hard-working and enduring and a creative problem-solver, eventually things will get better. That positive outlook has helped me through many things. However, I'm aware that I probably wouldn't hold this view of life if I were a medieval serf, a slave in 18th century Alabama, a present-day resident of rural Vietnam, or a single mother in the South Bronx. After all, not all circumstances are escapable without significant outside intervention. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can't create our own futures or pummel the world into being what we want it to be. Sometimes we simply have to be the best people we can be, regardless of the circumstances.

I guess that could be a bit depressing, yet I find it strangely comforting. For when you hunker down and confront the assumption that things will all work out well in the end, you end up asking different questions. For example:

How would I live my life differently if I knew my circumstances would never improve?

What changes would I make?

How would I keep my stamina up, my soul healthy, and my attitude positive?

What kind of person could I become, that I could be proud of?

*         *          *          *

In my head, in my self-talk, when I run into "I can't deal with this!", one rebuttal I often use is, "Yes, but people do. There are people who deal with this problem and survive. It's not impossible, it's just that I don't know how to do it yet."

Some people live with far less income than I have. Some face far more suffering. There are people who are battered by war and death and illness and unexpected catastrophes, who live their whole lives between rocks and hard places. None of that negates whatever hardship I'm going through, yet remembering that I am not exceptional in having to face difficulty helps to keep me from slipping into the mineshaft of self pity.

It is a mercy, I think, that we don't know what the year ahead holds. If we could see the challenges that await us, we might gasp, "I can't do that!" and give up before we learn that yes, in fact, we can.

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In December we had three performances of Honk!, eight of Nutcracker, a visit from Eldest, two visits from my mom (one from my dad). We were off of our school schedule, off our diet, off our social routine, basically off balance. My dental problems continued. Eldest went through a high-stress period. In the midst of over-excited and then coming-down-from-the-high kids, I was working far too many hours and was utterly spent, exhausted, with no more to give.

What happened was that others gave to me. Generously. Unexpectedly.

You never know what's coming at you, or to you. In a way it doesn't matter, as long as you're open to it all, grateful for the good, and patient with the bad. A new year's simply a gift. May you use yours well.