Thursday, December 29, 2011

Questioning ideals

My brain is swirling these days. Holidays and visits from parents aside, I have a ridiculous number of deadlines within the next week, and they're all on widely divergent topics. One's a strategic business plan for a new event promoting French food (deadline tonight); the guy I'm working for is momentarily in India, having popped through four other countries in the past week. Another project is a monthly ghostwritten newsletter on faith (due Monday, I choose the topic and write it from scratch); another is a quarterly newsletter on bipolar disorder (due the 6th or thereabouts, and I need a general interest article). I also owe a batch of posts for my other blog. And tomorrow I teach a kids' class in the park on squirrels.

Don't ask how I keep all this straight; I don't. My brain is in a constant state of either chaos or idea triage. While I tried to figure out the time zone of India (so I know when my deadline really is) I prepared for tomorrow. When I get stuck writing about gastronomy I shift to Googling various mental health topics, or pause to read a chapter in one of my Christmas books, or start cooking supper. My mom -- who has come many miles to see us -- sat down on the sofa next to me yesterday afternoon and I had to tell her, as gently as possible, "I'm not really here right now. I'm in my cone of invisibility." It's what I tell the kids when I'm hammering out a piece on deadline. And truly, I'm not there. I'm not accessible.

It's not the ideal set-up, but I'm kinda done with ideal. Or, better said, I'm past the point of thinking that ideal (or even close to it) is a prerequisite for joy, productivity, or peace of mind. Ideal is nice, but it's rarely reality. If I want to live life fully, I've got to do it even in less-than-ideal circumstances.

*        *        *        *        *

A couple of months ago I decided I was done with listening to people whine about the weather. Short of a hurricane, tornado, blizzard or life-threatening heat wave, it's not news. We might as well say, "I'm mildly uncomfortable. Are you?" I think we can set the standard for empathy higher than that.

I've sometimes wondered if people who live without air conditioning complain less than those who spend most of their days in temperature-controlled environments. And I've wondered if people are better off learning endurance instead of focusing on their comfort. Certainly there's productivity loss when you're sweating your way through 98 degree weather. But what do we lose if we never endure discomfort?

 *        *        *        *        *

Homeschoolers are fond of the Little House books. Reading them aloud does make one kind of gape at how much work kids used to do (apparently without complaining) compared to today. I suspect that's because if you were out on the prairie and didn't help weed the vegetable garden your family could die of hunger. There were very real, and very harsh consequences to not doing your share of the work, and not just because Pa would whack you with his belt for disobedience. 

In truth, there's very little that I ask my kids to do that has any life urgency to it. I may be obsessed with having the house clean before our Christmas guests arrive, but we all know that no one is going to starve if one of my kids doesn't do his or her job. The worst that will happen is that Mom will be aggrieved (again) that others didn't do their share. It's not the same as the specter of a long winter in a cold cabin only calories away from starvation.

How does one teach children how to cope with the far-less-than-ideal if one lives too close to the ideal?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I thought I saw...

an eight year old! 

I did! I did!

Happy birthday to my little cut-up! We may have to give him a new moniker soon, because he's not really a little guy any more. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Aliens took our star

Or maybe we just liked this better on top of the tree.

(Snuggler thinks we should arrange lights in a nest below it, like crop circles.)

Merry Christmas. Or Channukah. Or whatever it is that you celebrate. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Linking to my other blog, Seeds of Devotion, for a Christmas post:

It Shouldn't Be Like This


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Okay, that's weird

I'm using the new Blogger interface, and it published my new post down below the picture of Dancer. I've figured out why, but... it's still weird. I don't know how to move it up here (or am too lazy to figure it out), so you'll have to scroll down. Sorry!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dancer, left, and a friend 

Andrew whizzed down from the children's theater with Little Guy and Snuggler after the last performance of their musical, so they all saw Dancer's last show. I watched from the wings. The show was sold out (again), and the audience was great.

It's all over now. The dancers are sad. But they begin choreography for their next performance this afternoon.  

Beyond evil and beyond good

My good friend Liz came to see the kids' musical on Sunday. The show was about the children of Terazin, the Nazis' "model ghetto". I warned her up front that she was likely to need tissues; it's incredibly sad.

Liz, who is Jewish, replied, "I dunno. I've faced all that so many times I don't get worked up too much any more. When I held my first baby in my arms, I thought how magnificent she was -- and then I thought that in another place and time, the Nazis would have thrown her up in the air to use for target practice. Because they did that with babies, you know."

Yes. But I had never connected that atrocity with my own newborn.

The conversation reminded me of a conversation I overheard after 9/11, in which someone was terrified because "there are people out there who want us dead just because we're Americans!"  The other person responded gently, "Ahhh. Yes. Now you know what it feels like to be a Jew."

I have written here before about our neighbor Freida, who died last September. There is also Rose, a neighbor who is turning 100 this year. A while back she had to go for an MRI, and the metal detector kept going off. The good folks at the MRI center kept asking her if she had any metal on her, a pacemaker, perhaps, or hairpins. No, there was nothing. After a while, Rose's face lit up as she figured out what the problem was. "Oh!" she said, "It's the bullet!"

The bullet? It turned out that when she was young the Nazis had shot her father in front of her. And a fragment of the bullet had spun off and entered her brain. And it was still there, all these years later.

*        *        *         *        *

My husband Andrew had a wrenchingly hard time watching the show. Snuggler, who played a teacher in Terazin, is almost an exact replica of his Jewish mother. He is keenly aware that if our children had been born in Europe two or three generations ago, they would have been targeted for extermination. And given the stats -- fewer than 100 of the 12,000 children who entered Terazin survived -- our children would have died. They would have died apart from us, alone beyond alone, more alone than I can begin to imagine.

Real nightmares, the kind that people actually live (and die) through, are beyond our capability to process. We grope our way along, striving to understand, trying to give shape to what we're up against so we can grasp it and expel it. But darkness is not graspable.

It is, however, pierce-able. A pitch-dark sky is made different by a single star. Light, even when it's not as strong as we want it or need it to be, is transforming.

Gerda Weissman Klein, who was featured in an Academy Award-winning documentary about the Holocaust relates, "Ilse, a childhood friend of mine, once found a raspberry in the concentration camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night on a leaf. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to a friend."

Yes. Imagine that.

Evil isn't the only thing that's incomprehensible. There's incomprehensible love, too. We get to choose which one to focus on. We get to choose which one to emulate. Every day, we get to choose.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The fast life

Life is moving so quickly that when someone called on Thursday to see if my two youngest could play "some day soon" I literally didn't know. I didn't know if there was a pocket of time between now and Tuesday. I apologized for seeming as if I'd spent the week having a lobotomy, and told my caller to call back on Monday, when I expected a fresh delivery of brain cells.

Here's the backstory: This past Monday my younger kids said goodbye to their friend Seamus, who is moving to California. That night we called 911 because Big Guy was having a very rough night. A good part of this week was spent dealing with the fallout. (How bad was it? Snuggler, age 10, has been sleeping in her closet.)

So on Tuesday we went to a museum, because some days you just need to immerse yourself in beautiful things. We did some math, but other than learning that chess sets originally had elephants instead of knights (and viziers instead of queens), we didn't do much schoolwork. I completed two freelance projects.

Wednesday we attended our homeschool co-op's Christmas party, where the kids caroled on the street and raised $187 for a homeless program. I got my hair cut. Dancer had dress rehearsal.

Thursday Andrew took Big Guy to an intake appointment at the big anxiety/mood clinic; we are getting new doctors. Dancer had a high school interview. I completed the financial aid app for the private school to which she applied and finished a freelance project. Snuggler and Little Guy had their brush-up rehearsal for "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" (performances are today at 3pm and tomorrow at 4pm). Dancer's Nutcracker opened.

Yesterday we had free tickets to "Amahl and the Night Visitors", and Little Guy cracked his forehead on an announcement board at the theater. It bled, but didn't require stitches (by child #5 you know these things at a glance). Dancer went to her history-through-musicals class, and had a performance (remaining performances are tonight and tomorrow at 7pm). I finished a freelance project.

Today Dancer has her callback for the big performing arts high school at the same time as Snuggler and Little Guy have their call for the show. I'll drop her off, then rush uptown in time for the performance, then whiz down to work backstage at Nutcracker. I have a rush freelance project that was supposed to be in my in-box at 8am, but hasn't arrived yet.

A child has informed me that we are supposed to bring something for a cast party tomorrow.

I think I'll bring myself. Or maybe just send my kids.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The lady with the headset

I arrived to work backstage at Nutcracker tonight, and the woman in charge asked, "Are you comfortable using the headset?"

I replied, "No, but I'm okay with being uncomfortable."

So I got to wear the geeky pack on my waist, and wear the headset with one earphone and a mike, and stand in the wings and converse in a subdued voice with the guy in the lighting and music booth. He told me which scenery was up next, and I cued him when things were ready.

That was cool. I won't go so far as to say that I was cool, because if I do my kids will surely chime in to assure you that I'm not. (I warn them about this around the time they turn ten. "In a couple of years you're going to think that I'm not cool, and I want to tell you up front... I'm not," I confide, in a congenial voice, "There's a reason I'm not cool, and it's because cool is not my god. I actually choose to be the way I am."

But it is nice to feel cool once in a while. Tonight I felt like I'd acquired some secret knowledge, or at least that I looked like I was in the know. Next time I might even wear black.

Between you and me, it wasn't that hard. But don't let the folks in the audience know.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The size of the problem

I was talking to a dad of two the other day, as he held his crying 2yo in one arm and his newborn in the other. "Ah, you've learned to hold both of them already!" I laughed, recognizing the how on earth am I supposed to manage this? look on his face. He wasn't sure he'd accomplished what I thought he had, and he asked how one does manage two, and I advised, "Oh, there's no right way. Half the trick is not to think about it -- just do it."

The good thing about most I-don't-know-what-to-do parenting crises when your kids are young is that they last a whopping five minutes. Which means you don't really need Calgon to take you away; what you need is a five-minute block of patience, or endurance, or lip-zipping. You need to let that wave of frustration or insecurity wash over you, instead of giving in to the feeling that you're drowning.

There are any number of times in life when we feel we are going under when in reality we're just being smacked in the face with a wave. We're facing a five minute problem. Or an hour-long problem. Or a two-day problem. Or a $100-a-month problem.

Which isn't to say that we have the resources at that moment to manage through the next five minutes or come up with another $100. But figuring out the size of the problem can help keep it in perspective. We can say to ourselves, "Okay, so I can't see a way out of this now, but this is a [length of time] problem. It will pass. It will pass. And I will figure it out."

And usually it does, and we do.

*        *        *         *         *

There are other kinds of problems, of course. The other day the mom of a 20-something boy who is off at college wrote to a listserv I'm on, to say she's terrified because her son is deeply depressed. She can't persuade him to go to the psychiatrist. He won't exercise or go out or shower. He doesn't want help, and he definitely doesn't want her help.

Another woman on the list, whose adult daughter had been severely anorexic wrote in reply that when she was terrified about her daughter she told a therapist, "It's my job as her mom to keep her alive!" and the therapist gently replied, "No. When she was little it was your job to keep her alive. She's an adult now. And that's not your job any more. It's hers."

Sometimes it's not in our power to change things we desperately want to change. Sometimes we are relegated to the sidelines to flap our arms helplessly. Much as we'd like to, we cannot climb into the mind of the depressed person and change his thoughts. We cannot make choices for the person prone to rage or alcohol abuse. We cannot force a self-centered person to choose a more thoughtful path. We can present options, make recommendations, pray feverishly, ache terribly, bring the person to professionals who can help. But we cannot be that person and do the things for him or her that are needed.

And here our perception of the size of the problem whacks us upside the head in a different way. For failing (refusing?) to recognize what's outside our control means we don't see that the problem is bigger than we are. We take on more responsibility than is rightly ours. And this causes us to suffer even more.

A single mom of two, whose children both have developmental delays and numerous psych diagnoses, also wrote to the woman of the depressed man. This woman's teenage daughter has had suicidal thoughts daily for over two years. She offered this insight:

Pain x Resistance = Suffering 

Wishing fiercely that we didn't have the problems we do, or denying they're as bad as they are, or getting angry that this is happening only multiplies our suffering. The more we fight reality the harder it is. And it's hard enough. Really.

*        *        *         *         *

A few weeks ago Big Guy and I were coming home on the train and he flew into a rage. He stomped off down the car with the black scowl that I recognize as the physical marker of his entry into a will-we-need-to-call-911 mood. I let him alone, knowing that anything I said would feed the dragon. There are times when the best thing you can do is step back; doing nothing is better than making matters worse.

Ten minutes later we had to change trains, and Big Guy got off at the other end of the car and strode fiercely out of sight. I reminded myself that technically there was no reason he had to travel with me: he's 15, old enough to get home on his own. But when I arrived at the other platform and glanced around, he wasn't there. For a variety of reasons I decided he was probably somewhere nearby and didn't want me to see him. After a few minutes I spotted him pacing further down the platform.

I waited out of sight, wondering what state of mind Big Guy was in. Was he calming himself down, or had he accelerated into despair? I didn't know. And then it hit me: If he tries to fling himself in front of a train, I cannot stop him. He is bigger than I am. He would take me with him.

I inhaled sharply and let the thought sink in. I felt the overwhelming weight  and piercing pain of it. And then I felt the freedom of it, too: It's not up to me. It is not up to me.

For better or worse, the size of the problem was bigger than I could solve. I had to own the part I could own, and let go of the (bigger) part that I could not. And as I grasped this the train came in.

Thankfully, there was no screeching of brakes.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Video footage of Dancer's Nutcracker

She's not in the cast shown in this, but she's doing some of the same choreography:

The Knickerbocker Suite

Fun stuff!


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Year Two

Eldest called on Monday night; her laptop died. She's taking two computer science courses (one of which has a huge term project due next week), so this was a bit of a crisis. However, before she called me she'd taken her computer to tech support, found out it was a hard drive problem, learned that everything was covered under warranty, and resigned herself to a computer-less life until Thursday. I commended her on how she'd handled it... and suggested she steel herself for the possibility that the computer might not be up and running on the anticipated schedule. Delays happen. I know.

Then Eldest called last night. Since she'd had to go to the computer lab to do her work she was efficient about it. Browsing through FanFic sites when someone is waiting for a computer isn't cool. And so 9pm rolled around, and she unexpectedly had a whole evening ahead of her. No onerous problem sets to keep her up until midnight. Oy, what to do?! (I should pause to explain that Eldest attends one of the geekiest schools in the nation; everyone has too much work, and if they're not doing p-sets they're squeezing in an extracurricular activity.) My heart sang hallelujahs that calling home to talk to the family qualified as a good way to fill time. Though I did suggest that later perhaps she could do something novel, like read a book.

Year two of having a child in college is a lot easier than year one. It's akin to the second year of parenting: when the raw newness has worn off, you realize that you can actually do what's required with some illusion of competence. You've amassed enough data points that you grin when you fly only half-blind. The relentless letting-go-of-my-child ache is ameliorated by knowing that every string that has been cut is being replaced by new connections that will allow you to relate as adults. And all that is good.

Love that girl. I just love her and love her and love her.


Monday, December 5, 2011

A question for you...

What was the most thought-provoking book or article you read this year?

Not the book you liked the most. The book that made you chew on ideas for a while, or think about life from a different perspective.


Sunday, December 4, 2011


It's getting to be that time of year. Dancer's Nutcracker is December 15-18. It's a whimsical, one-hour version, with more family-friendly prices than the big one. It's all centered in New York City; the Chinese scene (which she dances in the Friday show) is done like Chinese take-out, while Marzipan (which she's in all days except Friday) is a thoroughly enjoyable scene of pigeons in the park. The choreography is fresh and clever, and the dancers are from the pre-professional division of Dancer's school.

The theater is relatively small, so there are no bad seats. Let me know if you're coming; I'll be backstage most nights except Saturday, when I'm on call for Snuggler and Little Guy's musical in a different part of town.

We're back

At times, when people ask, "How's the family?" I reply, "On average we're fine... but the distribution on that bell curve is pretty wide!"

Similarly, on average, the trip to see Eldest was fine. For one thing, we actually got there as planned. For another, it was very, very good to see her. The concert was lovely. And we stayed with my good friend Kate, who is one of my favorite people in the world. The challenging parts of the trip were... yes. Yes, there were challenging things. But we made it through and now we're back.

In my absence Andrew taught the younger children a variety of Allan Sherman songs, beginning with Camp Granada and ending with Don't Buy the Liverwurst. My third grader, who labored to memorize the multiplication tables for months, effortlessly mastered the lyrics to a good half-dozen ditties in an hour. Funny how that happens!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Finding composure

Big Guy and I are supposed to leave tomorrow morning to visit Eldest. Her choir concert is Saturday evening -- they're singing the Faure Requiem -- and since Big Guy has never been up to see Eldest at school, it seemed like a good thing to bring him along.

Tonight I'm not sure if we'll be able to go. Big Guy is working very hard to make it impossible. He has been doing well the past month, better than we've seen him in a long time. Tonight he had a minor disappointment, and he refused to move beyond it. If I told you what caused it, and how many hours of drama ensued, I guarantee you would not believe me.  In fact, you would be appalled.

When Big Guy is in the throes of feeling bad, he compulsively wants to feel worse. Unfortunately, he has a  compulsive need to make other people miserable, too. And he's very resourceful.

Ina crisis like this I run through my mental checklist: safety first, don't react, breathe deeply, pray silently. It is hard, hard work to let the outrageous provocation slide off for half an hour, an hour, two. I make mental notes on every hard object that could be thrown, every semi-valuable that could be intentionally damaged. I casually find my cell phone in case I need to call 911. I make sure the other children are safe: "Don't feed the monster," I say quietly to Little Guy, "Go into another room and ignore everything he says. Don't respond to anything." (Later, when I see Little Guy curled up in a ball on the sofa, head under a blanket, my heart sinks: he doesn't feel safe. I tell him gently to go sleep in my bed, and he eagerly complies.)

Eventually, some time after 10pm, Big Guy wears out. I am glad; you never know which way things will go. He (or we) could have ended up in the ER.

I sit on the sofa with my head in my hands, praying and thinking and suppressing the fear that we are back where we used to be. Andrew and I talk quietly about what has happened. We agree that we need a new plan, because we cannot allow this to occur again. But we're too worn out to think of one.

I get in my pj's and climb into bed. Little Guy is sleeping peacefully. I inventory my whole day, so that I can keep the past few hours from being my sole memory. I remember that I awakened at 5:30 in a state of surprising hope and optimism. I had cornbread made and laundry in the wash before 8am, we did our homeschooling, and I worked on a piece for which I had an afternoon deadline. I took a break from writing to put up Dancer's hair for ballet (she can do it, but she likes me to do it anyway). I brought the younger ones to play rehearsal, and raced back to finish my writing piece.

I am suddenly intensely grateful for the surge of hope this morning; I am not sure I would have made it through the evening without that buoy. I am glad the laundry is done. I think of all the good things, including seeing six stars over the river this morning, a veritable galaxy in the skyglow.

Before heading to bed I open the door to Big Guy's room. He stirs, so I know he's awake. "Good night," I call quietly, and then take a deep breath and add, "I love you."

Big Guy rolls over. "Good night, Mom. I love you, too."

I let the day close as it began: in the dark, with hope, and no real knowledge of what lies ahead. It's enough.