Friday, February 6, 2015

Forty years in the desert

I think a lot about the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. It occurs to me that one benefit of the fifth decade of life is that one can nod and say, "Yes, well there are things it takes forty years to grasp!" Here's one: There is a huge difference between:
  • an annoyance 
  • an inconvenience 
  • a difficulty, and 
  • a Problem. 
Life is a lot easier when you sort these things properly. This is one of those things I thought I knew, except I didn't, really. I guess it takes having some Problems to put things in proper perspective. That's probably because in the flurry of emotion that accompanies any unwelcome event, we tend to lump everything into the Problem category.

Currently in my household we have one broken leg (Andrew), one infected foot healing (Dancer) and one surgery scheduled (Big Guy). One bathroom is sink-less (it crashed), and a bedframe splintered and broke when a large child flopped onto it. These things are all inconveniences, with the broken leg and infected foot tending more toward difficulties.

There are other things going on that count as Problems. Eventually you know a Problem when you see one: it has a certain maybe-this-won't-be-fixable aspect to it.

The good news is that I think we are turning the corner on one Problem.

*           *           *            *

One thing about the forty years in the desert that appeals to me -- in the abstract, of course -- is the fact that one had to get past the sand in the eyes and scorpions in the sandals and the same damned food every day and no escape from the annoying people in the tent next door in order to finally grasp that that's not what the trip was about.

*           *           *            *

Another thing was that it went on Far. Too. Long. I mean, really, God? Yeah, well, yes. Really. Because some basic things take a very, very long time to grasp.

I have this theory that when you're trying to teach a kid a desireable behavior, at the outset you need to say to yourself, "Hmmm, I'm gonna guess it will take 500,000 times of telling him to chew with his mouth shut before it will happen consistently." The reason for this is that when you're on correction number 298,562 you have no expectation that your child really should have gotten this by now. Then you're not so exasperated.

I sorta think that's the way God came up with the forty years thing.

*           *           *            *

I have continued to write over at my Guideposts blog during my hiatus here, and some of it has been pretty solid and intense, if I do say so. Most of the comments happen on Facebook rather than the blog page, but unfortunately you have to 'like' Guideposts as a whole in order to get the feed. My posts go up on Wednesdays. You can take a look, if that's your sort of thing.

I also finally started a professional Facebook page. I've had a personal page for a long time, but I try not to mix up friends and friends-I-don't-know. So if you want to find me there, you can.

I will try to write here when I have enough mental margin to do so. At the moment I don't know how often that will be. Thank you to everyone who has written to me privately. It's been a rough haul, and I appreciate your care and concern.

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.