On intentions and resolutions and out with the old and all that

One of my more delightful projects, since leaving full-time work, has been facilitating some discussion series for the Maine Humanities Council at our local public library.  The second of those, just completed, was on the contemporary detective novel as social novel — we read Laurie King, Tony Hillerman, Eliot Pattison, and Katherine V. Forrest.  In each of these, there’s the age-old tension between the-way-things-have-always-been and the forces of modernity; scholars of postcolonial theory will recognize all the makings of hybridity, of a world that is many things, combined, and that therefore is more complex and less easily boxed up than we might like.  Hillerman says it best, in “Dance Hall of the Dead,” when a character mentions the motto over the entryway of an Indian reservation school: “Tradition is the enemy of progress.”  Under these auspices, kids were pulled from their families, beaten for speaking their native languages, and turned from their cultural heritage.

What the heck does this have to do with New Year’s?  I’ve been thinking about the innate violence of resolutions, the way many of us feel encouraged now to excise the warts of our being and stitch up the wounds ourselves.  Lose weight (you fat slob); lay off the booze (though you’ll be dead boring if you do); stop cursing (what the #*&^! for?); get a damn job (unless you’re actually as worthless as you seem).  It’s a tough time of year anyway, and when you add in all that stock-taking and all those toggle-switch models of change (flip UP for good behavior, DOWN for bad), well, it gets plain painful.  I am, however, a big fan of the “intention” — a gentler, kinder version of a resolution that seems to start from the premise of oneself as a decent, rational, perhaps even lovable being, with a desire to commit to certain shifts.  Intentions seem to make room for human foibles; they seem less apt to end up as “successes” or “failures.”  Perhaps this is because of the kinds of traditions they stem from — Buddhist, yogic, mindful, generous.  These are traditions that accept us unconditionally, that insist, in fact, upon us being always and only who we are, warts and all.   In my book, these kinds of traditions are the only possibility for progress, largely because they don’t make room for the concept of “enemy.”  There’s you, there’s me, there’s the world, and we’re all just trying to get along without mauling ourselves or each other too badly.  I intend, then, to be kinder and more accepting of myself and others; I intend to honor the old as well as the new, in others and in myself.  I intend to seek transformation and positive change in myself and others (like, for example, potty-training); I intend to love us all as hard as is humanly possible in the process.

On Frost and Other Calamities (or: a response to Newtown)

I was driving to Portland (Maine) today and was moved by the depth and consistency of frost everywhere, on everything.  And this came to me. After the day’s events (I wrote this on December 14th), which leave me stunned, horrified, aching, desperate in my fear and grief, I feel muted, like this is the only thing I have to say.

We are told the logic of it

the process by which moist air cools, freezes,

drapes itself over plants.

But you’d think it was otherwise, that

rime so even and so evenly

distributed could not come from the whimsy

of the world.  It must

emerge from the thing itself, from

a thin bitter core

osmosing outward to protect the plant,

to armor its arms before the onslaught,

the fracture, the glorious glisten.

This time, when warmth comes, they wilt into the soil.

But now, every surface bristles with glow, sculpted by chill.
Surely there are not so many contact points as that; surely 
we do not live quite that vulnerable, exposed 
to the air like sores.  Surely 
this armor must be necessary.  Surely 
there is a purpose to this hardness, this crystalline crust:  
the discovery of all our touchingness, every surface an opportunity
for damage, for light?

On birthdays

I have a friend named April who is my birthday idol.  She, like me, grew up in circumstances where it being your birthday only meant that you EXPECTED to have fun and be showered with love, not that you WOULD.  She, unlike me, became someone who designed her own birthdays to meet her expectations.  I, on the other hand, tend to struggle with Great Birthday Ambivalence, not wanting to have to plan it all myself but also wanting something I want.  You see the challenge? Chi's feet

This little struggle is one of many I hope to avoid passing on to my sons, and so I’m concentrating on thinking about their births, about their presence in my life, about their marvelous, miraculous specificity.  Above all, I’m realizing that their birthdays (especially the first one) are as much about me as about them.  All day, it’s: “at this time last year, we had just met you for the first time!”  “At this time last year, you were having your first mama-milk!”  Standing up from the table after lunch, I stretched tall and felt the usual tug of deep c-section scar tissue…and, of course, thought of how much my body has put up with for the sake of these beloved creatures.  Their birthdays are, really, a celebration of capacity, of generosity, of animal instinct and tenderness.  A rejoicing in who they are and what they love; an exploration of how the everyday makes room for the exceptional.  Best of all is seeing the older boy tend to the younger, leading not one but TWO rousing choruses of “Happy Birthday,” and actually honoring his new status as Owner-in-Chief of some pretty interesting new toys.

These are times we want to snapshot, to cordon off, as if it would help us get our hands on this slippery, uncontainable life.  But like the children themselves, they move too fast for clarity, and we’re left with a joyous blur of someone crawling at high speed toward the door.

On the sense(s) of love

Ezra, in the throes of recovery from several simultaneous dread diseases, ate something close to an actual dinner tonight. This led to a significant increase in chattiness at bedtime. In the dark, as he’s supposed to be falling asleep snuggled next to me, he offers in an enthusiastic whisper: “Mama? Red-eyed tree frogs have red toes. And they’re sticky so they can climb every something they want to climb. And they can jump every jump they want to jump.” As Kingsolver once said: “It is senseless to love anything this much.”

Here’s the thing about love: it shows up in more ways than you thought were possible.  It’s in the color of your kid’s hair and eyes; the tiny muscles of his chest; the sweet rancid smell of his morning breath; the blurred speed of his words as he tells a very important story very fast; the giggle as his baby brother pats his back for the first time.  It’s in his hearty rendering of ABC’s (both “his” version and Alpha-Pig’s version) in the back seat of the car; his intense concentration on linking up his wooden train set; his fierce insistence that the LYING DOWN tiger sticker is more important than the WALKING AROUND tiger sticker.  The stone-amber of his eyes; the quick intelligence of his mind; the unselfconsciousness of his dancing.

When he was a baby, Ezra had a tendency to touch, with one hand, a mole on my chest while he nursed.  Little did I know that that habit meant my cleavage would become his “lovey,” his touchstone, his ultimate source of comfort.  For days, now, during his illnesses, he’s been ritually grabbing for my chest, despite the fact that he hasn’t nursed in eighteen months.  And tonight, as we lay reading “The Library Lion,” he said, “Hey, Mama?  Is it okay if I take a break now?  I need to use this finger to count the children.”  In the library in the book, he meant.  I have new hope for tomorrow.

On getting off one’s duff

Or, as Seth Godin refers to it in a recent blog post, “shipping your art.”

“What, exactly, are you insisting will happen before you start shipping your art?” he asks.
A helpfully clarifying question.  For me: both children will achieve perfect health, the house will seem manageable, and I’ll have a great job and an exercise habit.  Ah.  I see his point.  Plus, when the “art” you will “ship” has a great deal to do with the aforementioned living skills, well, waiting moves beyond illogical to flat-out ironic.

On gifts, especially hope

We travel to New Hampshire at most Christmases when we don’t have a brand-new baby (or the threat of one), to see my dad and stepmother.  They live in a beautiful house they designed and built, completely off-grid, on a mountaintop in the Monadnock region.  It is, I always say, a wonderful house from which to be in the world.  That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not: the house is full of windows, as its primary energy sources are active and passive solar, and out every window is a vista of striking beauty.  Just being here is restorative, but also inspiring, and the back-and-forth between the two sensations is little short of a miracle.

I’ve been thinking about inspiration a lot, lately, in all of its forms, and about miracles.  It’s hard to think of one, I suppose, without the other.  I mean the Thich Nhat Hahn version of miracles rather than the standard Christian varieties (the miracle, he says, is not to walk on the water; the miracle, he says, is to walk on the earth).  But at Christmas time, I am reminded that much of humanity heralds as a miracle the birth of an infant around this time, and his astonishing gifts of kindness, courage, generosity, and clear sight.  Having two small boys of my own is miraculous enough to me — their small hands (Chi’s fingers, I decided yesterday, measure nearly an inch now, from tip to dimple) — but that they occasionally also exhibit these larger gifts is staggering.  It gives me, in a phrase, hope for humanity.

Barbara Kingsolver’s character Codi in the unparalleled Animal Dreams struggles with hope, having learned early that loss hurts (here we remember The Princess Bride: “Life IS pain, highness.  Anyone who says otherwise is selling something).  But Codi has a sister, Hallie, who lives inside her hope: “What I want is so basic I’m almost embarrassed to say it.  Elementary kindness.  Enough to eat, enough to go around.  That kids might grow up one day to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.”  I’m paraphrasing, since I left the novel at home, but I’ve read enough times to be fairly sure I’m close.  Hallie says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for.  The very most you can do is live inside that hope.” It’s easier to live in what’s already around you, to try to welcome that or at least not fight it tooth and nail, and to try to make small differences where possible.  But this, I know, demands a shift in what Kingsolver dubs “ground orientation.”  As Codi says, “I’d spent a long time circling above the clouds, looking for signs of life.  Hallie was down there living it.”  Perhaps the hope, then, is not necessarily the abstract kind that sets lofty goals and five-year plans.  Or perhaps it might be, depending on the person.  For me, the hope seems smaller, more local, at least these days.

And as I write that, I realize that I’m fulfilling the prophecy of Loyd in that novel, whose brief disquisition on what animals dream about constructs the title of the novel.  “I think animals dream about whatever they do in real life…it’s the same with people…your life, what you do and all that, it’s not separate from your dreams, it grows up out of them.  So if you want sweet dreams, you’ve got to live a sweet life.”  (This section is horribly bastardized, a hybrid misquote from a longer conversation.  But you get the idea.)  So as my life has shrunk, and yet expanded in a L’Engle-esque miracle, my dreams have shrunk.  Perhaps I should say, focused. And I’m eager to see the bigger work return to center stage, because I still believe in the macro-levels of  hope that are realized from there.  And yet, at Christmas, it’s easy to be reminded as all mothers are, that in each child lie the seeds of transformation, of hope, for us and for the world.  It’s possible — I might even say it’s likely — that we are, each of us, the gift of hope, the possibility of honesty and beauty and love.

On hiding out

It’s the most exhausting time of the year.  Daylight is brief; daytime is crowded; people are hurried and harried and hard.  It’s not supposed to be like this, but it is.  Children who are otherwise fonts of light become stuff-oriented demons, and runny noses abound.  I grant you that I’m a little jaded, having been soaked in vomit (not my own) not once but twice today, but still, it’s a rough time for all of us.  Quite aside from the national trauma of Newtown, I have friends who are living their first holidays without a mother, a husband, an aunt.  And while I adore the notions of peace and joy and sugar cookies, I struggle to make room for these things in any meaningful way.  It’s as if the show takes over and the substance of our lives has to yield to the performance.

I recognize this is the opposite of what Christmas, or any holiday, or even any season, should be.  And I find myself longing for a quiet week at a little cabin in the woods, just us and a fireplace (with a nice protective barrier), some board games, and a well-stocked kitchen.  Maybe snowshoes, and the corollary snow.  THERE, I believe, I could properly celebrate the lives of those I love, the season of rest, and the birth of hope.  But out here?  I think not.  Instead, I let my three-year-old watch back-to-back episodes of “Go Diego, Go” and I bury my head in social media.  Organizing our lives seems too much for me right now, let alone enjoying them.

I figure this will stop, or at least abate, once we ease off on the doctor’s visits and get a few packages in the mail.  (Did I mention we make everyone’s gifts?  Crikey.  Photos below, if I can find my phone, which I am — accidentally? — losing a lot these days.)  But perhaps I fool myself.  Perhaps this is the test run of the general philosophy that we spend our lives how we spend our days; that peace is every step; that we can choose to live with grace and intention or we can choose to throw our hands in the air and give up.  I’m working on it, or at least I INTEND to work on it, and I hope that counts for something.

On strategizing

Work is one of those areas we tend to ruin for kids, like healthy eating and time management.  We act like we’ve got it together, and in reality, we’re just feeling our way along with a handful of principles and a heartful of hope.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?” we ask, like it’s a simple decision to make and a simple path that stretches forward from there.  Ah, for the good old days when the choice seemed feasible and easy.  A doctor.  No, today I want to be a teacher.  An ice-skater. An airplane pilot.

The challenge arises when you’re 39 with two kids, three degrees, and fifteen years of solid work in a given field under your belt, and you’re trying to broaden your thinking.  You’re just dripping with intentionality, and it’s starting to get annoying.  Not as annoying as the disabling sonar of your three-year-old’s wail or the baby’s uncanny persistence in the face of what he KNOWS is off-limits — but annoying.  Get a job, you hear some cruel voice say in the back of your head.  It’s hard to know, though, which of these that voice really means:

  1. Get paid; stop being a drain on resources.  (To which I say: do the damn math.  Stay-at-home moms are worth about $110 K/year, according to Salary.com and other sources. And yet, I miss our DINK days, no doubt.)
  2. Get validation. (To which I say: yes, please.  I could use that.  But validation comes in many forms.)
  3. Get out of the house. (Indeed. Good plan.)
  4. Get involved in work that makes a bigger difference.  (But I AM!  I serve on boards and write and am raising feminist boys, and…well, yeah, I miss that, too.)

So you need a strategy, but not the old kind, where you shake every job-hunt tree in reach and see what falls out.  No, this kind of strategy needs multiple prongs and greater strategery.  Here, you need to honor (with a straight face, if possible) the multiple facets of your life, the many skills you have, the many longings.  You need to quiet the voices of criticism and their obnoxious reminders that those wasted degrees are IVY LEAGUE degrees.  Put differently, you don’t want to end up charging full-bore at something you THINK you want, only to find out you’re wrong.  So now you do this:

  1. Job-hunt in the conventional ways, for work in your field and close to your field and close enough that you think you’d like it.
  2. Develop the writing: seek publishers and editors and contacts and assignments.  Take workshops.  Jump in.
  3. Develop the crafting: remember that not everyone is out making cool scarves from recycled velvet dresses, or sweet hats from old sweaters. You do have vision and you do have skill, and there are folks close to home who are creating markets that might sell your stuff.
  4. Network, broadly and openly, about the Search.  Acknowledge its multiplicity.  Own its complexity.  People love to give advice and to help — take it.  All of it.
  5. Work hard not to resent your children for needing you or your spouse for having a daily life that involves silence, reading, professional respect, and music of his choosing.  Work hard to stay centered and limber and whole.

Good plan, no? The devil (or at the very least, the wee cherubs and their noiseful chaos) is in the implementation.

The candle that lights the others

I’ve been stewing in my own juices lately over this whole question of work — how exactly do I envision my life, and how do I know if my vision is lousy or wholly unrealistic?  Am I drawn to what draws me because it is “right” for me, or is it just history, degrees, pathology?  When I ask my facebook friends what I should do, they all mention my handcrafts — which I believe has to mean something.  But I have lived a life of teaching.  I have BEEN, I like to think, I have been told, the candle that lights the others.  I love that work.  I want to do more of it.

We all have activities we enjoy and goals we pursue and ways of being that feed us.  Vocation, we are told, is “the place where your own deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Buechner); it is also “the thing you can’t not do” (Godwin). But I am a slippery fish: I learned early to do and not do what worked for those around me, and to be more or less happy with that.  I am like Kingsolver’s character Ada in “Poisonwood Bible”: I can make anything fit anywhere.  I recognize that I HAVE deep gladness, and of course I realize that the world has many deep hungers, but I find many fields where the two cross paths.  This infuriates me and gives me hope.

What seems ultimately clear to me, though, is that I take pleasure in facilitating learning or inspiration.  I love helping people to see what they could not before.  Heck, I even love when someone ELSE does that.  Last week, we were at a local festival of artisans and craftspeople, and I fell into conversation with a fiber artist in a mixed-media gallery.  As we talked more, and as I mentioned my husband’s photography, she realized who he was, and she turned to him, full of light: Oh! You do those layered images!  You had one here (she points to a corner of the wall), it was beautiful.  It inspired me.  And then followed a technical conversation about how he achieves this effect and what she has tried so far. I could not have been more pleased.  And it had nothing to do with me.

So: back to teaching? Back to the work of empowering college students to engage in their communities for better learning and positive social change? Back to influencing the flow of money toward bold innovation that promises solutions to intractable problems?  What do you do? How does it light you up, or help you light up others?

On Resilience and Repetition

Yesterday my eleven-month-old began the arduous process of learning to stand upon his own two feet.  I don’t mean hauling himself upright using whatever available leverage he can find (a couch, a bookshelf, my nipple), but rather gathering his legs beneath him and using their muscles to lift.  It puts me in mind of yoga, of the tree pose in particular, where we reach from one foot, planted in the ground, through open hips and chest up toward our hands which point skyward.  The smallest adjustment and attention can locate great power or make us aware of instability. The point is less to achieve balance than to return, again and again, to balancing. This repetition of action and intention is pretty close to magical.  We learn to fall with grace, indeed to expect to fall. We try to see the falling as another chance to perfect the art of getting up again (or, let’s get real: it’s a chance to rehearse the reasons why, in that moment, yoga totally sucks).  If you’re less than a year old, you don’t really get mired in the how and why of the fall; we are where we are, it seems, in any given moment of this little cycle, and that includes leaning, adjusting, straining, reaching out for support.  In Malachi’s case, it involved ending abruptly on his cushiony bottom over and over again until something else became even more magical than standing.  Oh, look!  A bird stuffie!

I suspect that this is a parable for something else, that the resilience an infant shows in mastering the arts of daily life is something we must draw on more intentionally than we do.  It means moving out beyond what’s comfortable; keeping laser focus on the task at hand; understanding that setbacks are less about you than about the forces of gravity and inertia in the world.  It also means crawling back to a space of nurture when the nurture is needed.

I’m re-reading “Love Walked In” by Marisa de los Santos, a beautifully-written book of rather extraordinary depth, despite its “chick-lit” label. One of our heroines, eleven-year-old Clare, is struggling with her mother’s new and undiagnosed mental illness, and her coping strategies are developed through careful analysis of the experiences of orphans in literature.  She concludes that orphans get listened to in one of two ways: through “pluck” or through being attractive and likable. These are indeed powerful forms of resilience — to speak boldly one’s own truth and/or to identify and appeal to the truth of the other. Our life’s balance, it would seem, hangs somewhere in between the two…and fortunately, we have endless opportunities to keep trying.  What was that Evian ad a few years ago?  Every day is a new chance to be healthy, or some such thing?  Not just every day, every minute.  For Chi, standing is the new challenge…for me, perhaps, getting my ass off this couch and into some healing yoga before the chaos of the day is full upon me.