Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Heading off to visit with Aunt Beth in Virginia for a week. I miss'em already! (But man, I sure don't want to spend 10 hours on a bus again soon!)

Think through it before you do it

Those of you who know me know that I'm a woman of faith. I don't spout scripture on the subway, or force my beliefs down the throats of others; my philosophy is that you ought to be able to tell what I believe by how I live. 

Nevertheless, one of my favorite regular freelance jobs is writing a monthly Bible club letter. It's a letter with a practical bent, a missive that aims to help people put what they believe into action. I get to choose which topics I want to write about. Since publishing works with a long lead time, I'm currently finishing up the December edition. You'd think this calls for a discussion of joy at the birth of Christ, or perhaps humility (what with the stable and all), but I've chosen to write about temptation. For most of us, there's a lot of temptation in December: temptation to eat too much, drink too much, do too much, give too much.

Here's a thought to give you pause: studies show that resolving not to do something increases the odds that you'll do it. Willpower isn't the ticket to defeating temptation. Planning is.

If you stop to ponder it, this makes sense. Most of the temptations we face are pretty obvious. They show up consistently, in predictable places, and under foreseeable circumstances. If you're going to a party, there will be food, and there will be drink, and there will be a tendency to gossip. Resolving not to give in isn't nearly as effective as planning ahead of time how you're going to keep yourself from nibbling all night, or deciding what you're going to do instead of having that third glass of wine, or who you'll stay away from (and how) so your tongue doesn't start wagging.

We all have patterns that underlie how, when, where and with whom we do things we later wish we hadn't done. Figuring out what those patterns are -- and figuring out specific strategies ahead of time for skirting that rut -- improves our likelihood of success.

As a side note, there's a temptation to think of temptations as 100% onerous, but that may not be true. If I truly want to become a better person, an inventory of my temptations can be quite helpful in showing me where I need to get to work.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Busy brain

Yesterday a friend took Snuggler and Little Guy to an event elsewhere in the city for most of the day. Dancer had a sleepover, followed by a ballet class, and wasn't expected home until about 2:30. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I had a decent-size block of time to myself.

After about two hours of working intensely, I decided to do some errands. Here is what was on my shopping list:
  1. Plaster of Paris. Little Guy wants to start a business making sidewalk chalk to sell at the playground.
  2. Masking tape, for the whole-wall marble run Little Guy is building from salvaged toilet paper tubes. 
  3. A birthday present for a 6-year old boy.
  4. Liquid glycerin. I'd promised the kids a few gallons of bubble liquid, so we could experiment with 3-D shapes with our Zome Tools. (This kit makes an awesome birthday present, though it's hard to find in stores.) I couldn't find liquid glycerin, so I bought suppositories and dissolved them in hot water before mixing in the Dawn and cold water. It worked.
  5. Grout, for some falling-off bathroom tiles. Again.
  6. Odds and ends from the drug store for Dancer's upcoming journey to sleepaway camp.
Once my errands were completed -- alone! without complaints! -- I realized I still had half an hour before anyone was due to arrive home. This never happens. Never. I went into a Starbucks, and guiltily spent nearly $4 on a Frappucino. I didn't have a book. I didn't have a laptop. I didn't have anyone to talk to or tend to. And what do you think happened?

Did I think about all the things I haven't had time to think about? No.

Did I pray about the things I haven't had time to pray about? No.

Did I relax and let the tension pour off of me? No. I sat and listened to my brain, and it sounded for all the world like channel surfing. I'd have half a thought, and then half another one, and half of a third. No one idea stayed put long enough to be pursued. It was the mental equivalent of a game the kids and I play on the subway: Twenty Nonsequiturs. Get me outta here!

Abandoning my precious seat in the air conditioning, I went outside and walked quickly, sticky in the heat. I arrived home to find Dancer already here. I sat down to do some more work, and felt myself pushing away one kind of mental noise after another. But at least I knew it wasn't someone else's fault. It wasn't that the kids were interrupting (though they often do). It wasn't that the phone was ringing (though it often does). I didn't have to go somewhere, or do something, or get more chores done. It was simply my overstimulated brain.

Somehow, I found that rather comforting.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Congrats, Eldest!

Today was Eldest's last full day of high school. She goes in on Monday to get her report card, but that's it. No graduation (she applied to college as a junior), no yearbook (she'll buy next year's edition), no party (I offered). Just a normal day, the last of its kind. I think she has some mild regrets about this unusual path, but nothing substantial. She's off playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends tonight.

I guess congratulations of some sort are in order, no?

Eldest, you survived.
You showed up regularly, and on time.
You figured out the difference between their standards and your standards, and set the bar where you wanted it to be.
You made friends.
You learned how to be a friend.
You chose to be generous in helping others who were struggling academically.
You discovered some of your weaknesses (that's a plus -- at least you know!)
You were yourself, through and through.
Your teachers admire you.
Your friends think you have character.

I know I'm just your mom, and that I'm supposed to say nice things about you. You make it easy to do that. Even if you were someone else's kid I'd exclaim over what an interesting person you're becoming.

Happy last (real) day of high school. I love you.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I liked this post about the picture, 'Loneliness' by Gloria Neel:

For many years, Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton ranked among my favorite books. I haven't re-read it in two decades, so I don't know if I'd like it as much today as I did when I was single. I liked my solitude then, and I still like it (when I get it) now. It's the bright side of the moon of loneliness.

If you are an introvert, solitude is the stuff through which you find resilience and your peace is restored. This probably sounds laughable coming from someone with five kids; alone takes on an aura of fantasy when you're a mom. However, I've learned that what external circumstances don't provide, I can still sometimes find in pockets of my heart. There is a still, quiet place within me that can be nourished regardless of who or what is swirling around. It takes work to find that place, and to keep it healthy. I can't always go there at will. But it's there, and that's good.

I look at Gloria Neel's painting, and can imagine myself sitting in that chair, very content to be alone. I can also envision myself on a different day, bleeding with the loneliness she intended to portray. Then I can imagine myself with leg draped over the chair arm, typing away on a laptop, completely oblivious to the emptiness of the world around me. In some ways that's the most alarming idea; I wonder if and when technology will become so iconic of isolation that it makes its way into art.

Many wonderful people have reached out to me in the past week, concerned about my family's struggles. Sometimes one feels lonely in the midst of a crisis. I do not feel that way at all. There are senses in which we are very alone, but it is not because we lack for caring friends. Not at all. Thanks.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

We had a plot twist in the Big Guy saga yesterday. It's good news on one level, but hard news on another. Kind of like trading a cluster migraine for a perforated ulcer. In keeping with the general theme of the past week, there are strong mixed feelings everywhere we turn.

As that was unfolding, I took my four other children to the beach. It's a long, long trip, but the beach wasn't crowded, the weather was perfect, and the water was calm. I sat under the umbrella and let the background noises of waves crashing and seagulls squawking and little kids (not mine) crying and accented calls of Cold beer! Corona! soothe my soul. The sounds of a jazz band playing 1940's hits drifted in from the boardwalk.

At certain junctures there is something nice about being among people without having to talk to them. I read a book, and let life waft about me, and for a while I was lifted up into the realm of normal.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This morning, as Little Guy and I returned from walking Murphy the Dog for the last time, my dear son was being quite annoying. It's his way of showing he's upset, especially lately. Rather than tell him to knock it off (which doesn't usually work well, anyway, and isn't a good strategy when I'm irritable) I picked him up. This is possible because he really is a little guy, just growing out of size 4 clothes and weighing in at a mere 44 pounds.

As I walked down the street with my suddenly quiet boy in my arms, I had a visceral memory of holding Big Guy at about the same age. All in an instant the tears poured out. They came so fast I could barely see where I was walking. I couldn't think, couldn't talk. I held my six year old close, blinking rapidly, trying not to sob and upset him. I thought, "Grief is the thing that sneaks up on you."

But the phrase calls to mind Emily Dickinson, who had a much better thought:

     Hope is the thing with feathers
     That perches in the soul,
     And sings the tune without the words,
     And never stops at all,

     And sweetest in the gale is heard;
     And sore must be the storm
     That could abash the little bird
     That kept so many warm.

     I've heard it in the chilliest land
     And on the strangest sea;
     Yet, never, in extremity,
     It asked a crumb of me.

I hope that things will get better for my family, though I'm aware they might not. This leads me to think that hope is bigger than wishing for a specific outcome. Hope exists on a deeper level, contingent more on what we choose to believe about life than on what happens in a particular situation. I have that kind of hope. I hope you do, too.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Today should have been Big Guy's graduation from 8th grade. He was the salutatorian. Except he wasn't able to be there.

One of my favorite passages from any book, anywhere, is the one below from C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters. The set-up is that Screwtape (the devil) is writing to his nephew Wormwood, a neophyte tempter. When WWII starts up and England enters the war, Wormwood's "patient" is of an age where it's possible "but by no means certain" that he will be called up for service. Screwtape advises:''
"We want him to be in the maximum uncertainty, so his mind will be filled with contradictory pictures of the future, every one of which arouses hope or fear. There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barricading a human's mind against the Enemy [God]. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.

"Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy's will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him -- the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say 'Thy will be done' and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided. It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it: resignation to present and actual suffering, even where that suffering consists of fear, is easier and is usually helped by this direct action."
We are going through tough times around here, moaningly overwhelming times. I am trying very, very hard to stay 'in the moment', to accept what there is to accept at any given point in time -- and not to focus on whatever worries the next step may bring. Today it occurred to me that part of this involves paying close attention to the things that there are to be thankful for. For even in times of darkness, life still holds light.

We had a period of silliness today, involving Playdoh and Polly Pockets and My Little Ponies all mixed up into a ridiculous story line. There was sunlight outside when we finally emerged from where we were. There were people who could have been nasty, but instead were kind and open. A fine playground wasn't too far off, and we found a store en route where we could buy sunscreen. We arrived home in time to walk the dog before she peed in the house. (My folks were supposed to dog-sit in exchange for an apartment this weekend, but we canceled their visit because of Big Guy's crisis, and so we're now drop-in dog walkers three times a day.)

We arrived home and one friend had already dropped off supper, and another arrived with tomorrow's meal. She also brought this, because, she said, it's a good thing to have on hand when the sh*t flies:

And Dancer, wonderful Dancer, who spent the day alone at home as we journeyed into hell, went and did the laundry without being asked and made us individual chocolate lava cakes for dessert.

These are the things that I hold in my heart, even as it is breaking.

We do have choices in the midst of darkness. Know your cross. Carry it. Notice the light, and treasure it. If you can, eat chocolate lava cake with whipped cream and raspberries. And love your children and hold them close.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Advancing technology

We stopped at Goodwill today and bought a 1985-era television. Not to look at, but to take apart. After struggling with the screws to get the screen off, Little Guy removed the lid and gasped, "Look at how BIG that circuit board is!"

He'd never seen an 5"x 7" board before. It sure looked big and clunky! After clipping off a pile of wires we were able to remove it. A while later Little Guy brought the board in to me and flipped it over. "Mom! Did you see all these resistors?" I made appropriate oohing and ahhhing noises.

I ventured to ask, "What are all those other things? The big ones."

"Oh, those are capacitors."

Go, Little Guy! I'm telling you, that Electronic Snap Circuits  set is worth having around!

In the soup

Big Guy's in the hospital again. There's more to the story than that, and it's considerably more painful than I'm able to write about, but there you have it.

There are times when life is thick, and heavy, hard to move through. You can't breathe, can't see ahead. It's like swimming in pea soup.

Last night Eldest asked, "How do you get through something like this?" I thought for a bit and replied, "You just do. You keep moving forward, because... because what choice is there?"

Sometimes you do what you can, and then do the next thing that you can, and then the next thing... It's better than treading water (or soup) forever.

Monday, June 14, 2010

That little voice

The other day someone intimated that I should take on a task that seemed over-the-top burdensome to me. My initial reaction was I'm already past my limit! I can't do that! But because of the circumstances, I didn't say much beyond an incredulous, "What?!?"

My inner crowd of naysaying protesters is a rowdy bunch, and has been known to chant nonstop. Sometimes they shout so loudly it's hard to notice the tiny voice in an obscure corner of my head that whispers, "Yes, you can. You can do that." Since I often don't want to listen to that quiet voice, it's usually easy to ignore.

In this case, the task in question was something that truly needed to be done. And I was, in fact, the person for the job. So I listened to the tiny voice, sighed, and tried not to think too much about it.
This morning I got up and did the task. I didn't like it, didn't like doing it, didn't like having to do it. But it wasn't impossible. It was just another thing on my list.

We are stronger than we think we are. We can do things, and handle things, that are bigger than we assume we can manage. I just finished reading Half the Sky, and if you haven't read the book, do. It will pop you out of your usual grudges about life. It will make you realize that many of the things that weigh you down are specks of dust when viewed from a different perspective. Or maybe not: we sometimes carry genuine burdens, and at those times it helps to be able to say, honestly, without self-pity, "This is a hard thing, and I am living through a hard time."

Living through it is easier when we listen to that little voice, though.The one that says, "Yes, you can."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Exhaling, at last

Last week, glancing over my shoulder at my date book, someone asked, "How do you do it?"

The same way we all do: I don't think about it too much. You can't stop to contemplate everything that needs to be done, or else you crash. Fact: sometimes a 'one day at a time' mindset is decidedly ambitious.

The sad truth is, my brain isn't anywhere near big enough to process all the things that have to happen in a given day. I compensate by handling things the way I would with a preschooler: I break the day down into manageable segments, so I can focus on one main thing at a time. First put away the green blocks, then the blue blocks...

The happy news is that Dancer did a splendid job at the gala. She shared the bill with some big names in ballet, and though I was not there to see her (at megabucks a ticket!), other people we knew were. She was happy.

Little Guy had his acting debut last night, at almost the exact same time Dancer was finishing her performance. He was a frog, a grizzly bear, and a goblin. I was ridiculously proud of him for overcoming his shyness and getting up there. Snuggler was in the same show (her fifth production), and was a superbly sassy frog.

Now we have no more rehearsals until Thursday. Then it's 8th grade graduation for Big Guy on Friday, and only two performances of the play next weekend. Ahhhhhhhh!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Too much to do

I've hunted around the 'net for a while to find out who this Regan person is, so I can give proper attribution, but have been unsuccessful.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Food for the soul

Lately when people have asked how things are going I've been replying, "Oh, on average we're okay... but there's a large distribution on that bell curve!" We have a lot going on these days, event-wise and emotionally.

On Monday at about 4:30 I realized I had neglected to go to the grocery store to get something to make for supper. (I had had something, but I forgot to put the chicken back in the fridge after I took it out of the freezer to thaw on Sunday night, so it was waiting for me on the counter, nice and slimy, when I got up Monday morning.) I needed to leave home at 5pm for a meeting on the other side of town, which would be followed by a 7:15 meeting back in my neighborhood. Three of my kids had just had an intense exhibition of sibling fireworks, so I didn't want to run to the store until I was sure there wouldn't be an encore. But I had only 30 minutes to shop and cook before I walked out the door.

As all this was spinning around in my mind, the phone rang. It was a neighbor, saying she wanted to bring something up. I was still trying to put my thoughts together when the doorbell rang. There was Cari, my neighbor, with a large tray covered with aluminum foil. She said, "I realize it's probably too late for supper tonight, but..."


Monday, June 7, 2010

A message from Little Guy

Threads of life

Last week I ran into a mom I know from the children's theatre. We were chatting about this and that, and out of the blue she said, "You know, I used to think homeschooling was a bad thing. Now my kids are in high school and I feel like I never had time to savor their childhood. I was always too focused on my work and my career. I turned everything over to the professionals, and I kind of wish I'd done it differently."

In between feeling taken aback and gratified, I marveled at how life sometimes brings us together with people who see the world differently. That's a good thing. It helps us appreciate how the choices we make weave the threads of our lives into very different fabric. You and I both have a career thread (call it yellow) and a family thread (call it red) and a community thread (call it green) and a friends-and-neighbors thread (call it orange) and a what-I-want thread (call it purple), and perhaps a spiritual or faith thread (call it blue). Yet what we weave from these, and the tonal values of the plaid we arrive at depends on our priorities. My life would have been notably different had I used more yellow than red, or less blue than purple.
I appreciate this woman in many ways, not least of which is that she is humble. I appreciate that she kept her (former) disapproval of my choice to homeschool to herself, instead of whipping me with it. I appreciate her introspection, and her willingness to assess where she is and where she'd like to be. I appreciate that she trusted me to listen to her rather than judge her. And I appreciate that -- for all of us -- the pattern of our future is still mainly influenced by our values and how we choose to live them  out.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The dog experiment

Historically, our forays into pets have been temporary. Each summer we are the repository for other people's animals when friends go on vacation. I consider this an almost perfect solution to the pet issue: by the time the novelty wears off, we get to return the critter. In the past we've had turtles and guinea pigs and hamsters as guests. For the past ten days we've hosted a dog.

I like dogs. I grew up with them, poured my teen angst into their fur, and cried when they died (one of diabetes, one in an accident, and two of old age). But I've always said our house would be canine-free until I had at least three kids old enough to walk a dog. That's because I have enough to pick up around here already; I'm not adding dog poop to my list.

Big Guy has wanted a dog for years. At his old school -- the awful one -- one of the few spots of light was a dog named Dilly. Dilly was so helpful in getting Big Guy to regulate his feelings that we eventually arranged to have visits with her worked into Big Guy's schedule. At his new school Big Guy talked about Dilly so much that by mid-year the social workers had convinced the administration to acquire several dogs.Now every kid at that school who wants to gets to visit with a dog once a week. It's a good thing.

We've been contemplating getting Big Guy a dog, so Jojo is our trial run. Here he is:

I think he's a Bichon Frise. He's small and likes to sit on your lap, aloof but cuddly, like a cat that barks when someone comes to the door. Jojo thinks I'm the alpha male, which is amusing and mildly gratifying; at least someone listens to me now!

I've been pleasantly surprised at how easily Jojo has become part of the family. Big Guy has been getting up 20 minutes earlier (not easy for him!) to walk the dog before school, and has taken Jojo up to the dog run for half an hour each evening. One of the girls usually walks Jojo after lunch. I've had to feed him a couple of times, establish house rules, and monitor the younger kids when they get overly affectionate. But it hasn't been hard, especially relative to the peace of having a comfort animal around. We will be sad when it's time for him to go.

Maybe it's time to get a dog of our own. Not a puppy. A dog.

Length: 60cm
Head: 18cm 
Ears: 8cm long, 5 1/2cm wide. 
Legs: 23 cm
Tail: 20 cm
Waist: 40 cm

Weight: 13.8 pounds

* as measured by Little Guy, as part of his schoolwork for today.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I had a rough day today. It wasn't anyone's fault; early on I had to make a major re-adjustment to my plans, and it aggravated me to no end. As is sometimes the case, once the fire of annoyance was lit it caught easily on the tinder of other, minor issues lying in the vicinity.

Fortunately, I had to run out to drop off a medical form at the pediatrician's, so I had a few minutes to myself. I sputtered aloud for the four blocks there and back. As I arrived home I heard myself and thought, Oh! I get it! This is how my kids feel when they're disappointed! I promised I'd hold on to that thought for the next time I'm dealing with a disappointed child.

I'm usually pretty quick to regain my equilibrium, but it never quite happened today. That's okay,  I guess. Not every day has to be great, or even good. Whatever was 'off', it's not as if I'm starving in a concentration camp, or have had a child abducted, or am facing a relentless future of white slavery, or have contracted the plague. I'm not a fish living in the middle of the Gulf oil spill. When I add up all the unpleasant aspects of today, I arrive at this: the worst thing I had to deal with was my mood.

*                    *                    *                   *                  *                  *

The other day I had to run out to the store shortly after 8am, which is when the neighborhood delivers its children to the school across the street. One thing I love about where I live is that going out for a dozen eggs turns into four conversations. I run into people, and we chat, and I don't have to plan how to be neighborly. I am not good at orchestrating a social life; I'd rather live my life, and let it be sociable on its own.

No sooner had I left my building than I saw a mom from the building next door with her daughters. One child was snarling, "STOP IT!" to her sister, and the other began to whine. I saw the look pass across the mom's face, the one we all know internally. It's that my-head's-going-to-pop-if-these-kids-don't-stop feeling. I've been through the crabby kid scenario first thing in the morning; some days it would be less complicated to pack for a three-month trip to Paris than to get children fed and out the door to school. I went over and gave the mom a hug.

"Five minutes," I said sympathetically, "You've just got to hold on for five more minutes." A few moments later her girls spied some friends, and were happily headed into school.

*                    *                    *                   *                  *                  *

I've been thinking since then about how many I'm-going-to-go-crazy situations resolve themselves in five minutes, if we keep our cool and our perspective. I suspect that most frustrations that stick around longer than that remain because we hold on to them, rather than because they have a death-grip on us.

When I can't shake a feeling of frustration, it's usually because something has pushed one of my buttons, and the button has gotten jammed. It buzzes in my brain, a maddening inner housefly batting against the wrong side of the screen. I swat at it, and get disproportionately cranky at its persistent low-level noise. I am uncomfortable, and ill at ease.

Though I sometimes blame others for pushing my buttons, the truth is that they are my buttons. Ultimately, I'm in charge of unsticking them, or eradicating them entirely. That's work.

Before I got married a friend told me, "Allow yourself to choose three things to get aggravated about a year. They can be that he leaves his socks on the floor, or that he blows his nose loudly, or whatever bugs you most. You can switch what's on your list, but remember: if there are more than three things that drive you nuts, it's not him. It's you."

Good advice. If we define our days by what didn't go right, or our relationships by the other person's flaws, we are driving ourselves into an abyss. We don't have to go there. Lousy days and lousy feelings generally pass... if we let them.