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.

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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.

On Flailing

I’d say this has been one of those days, but I fear it’s been one of those weeks.  Or months.  Or worse.  It just feels like I can’t get ahead.  I realize some of this is chronic caregiver stuff: laundry, cleaning, cooking that are just completed when it’s time to do them again.  I try to think of these things not as goals to be attained but as the background activities of my life, the patterns of the everyday.  But it’s hard when I’m so tired some days that getting dinner on the table IS in fact a major achievement.  What’s troubling me most, anyway, isn’t the dismal routine of maintenance but instead the strange psychological adaptations that are happening.  The onslaught of winter isn’t helping, with its corollary SAD and Vitamin D deficiency, and maybe that can account for what’s going on.  But I’m somewhere between agoraphobia and hibernation, and anyone will tell you that’s a tricky place to be.  I’m CRAVING time at an office, with tasks and challenges that need my brain and expertise.  I’m lusting after adult conversation, preferably not about children.  Most of all, I want blessed quiet and my body, my space, my environs to myself.  This feels ungrateful but it’s truly not: it’s just that I, like almost everyone, am too complex to do just one thing or be just one way.  I love parenting and I love the other things I’ve done with my life, and I’m headed toward a new kind of balancing, I hope.  In the meantime: I do the strange and crazy dance a friend in college termed “full body flail” and try not to act out in public.

An actual post about Skyfall

Because the last one, though brilliant and witty and full of incisive critique, was lost by WordPress, and because I couldn’t duplicate the jaunty late-night feel of it, I offer only this:

How is it that we started out with a powerful, strategic leader (M) and a capable, daring field agent (Eve) and we ended up with a dead mother/grandmother and a secretary?  I’m all for fourth wave feminism and the power of the administrative pen, but this is the MOVIES.  M dies of a wound to the HIP?  At least she was shot, I suppose, instead of falling and breaking it.  And we did get to see a cinematic first: grandma making dirty bombs from household objects.  But the movie did such great and unprecedented things with sexuality (clearly, the director spent some time working out how best to use Daniel Craig’s thighs — and we’re glad he did).  You’d expect something more novel than M’s “at least I raised one good son” sentiment and Eve’s transformation from ass-kicker to note-taker.

Maybe this was the audience-development Bond, wherein new structures and conventions are pioneered even as old ones (like sleeping with the battered woman he purports to try and rescue) are maintained.  Maybe the next one will rock the planet.

One last note: what was up with the macro-lessons about technology?  Q lays a bread-crumb trail that either fails (since Silva shows up at Skyfall) or leads him there without the requisite corollary ambush.  Since Silva clearly uses technology (and psychology, that useful tool of field agents everywhere) to find Bond, I’m not sure the much-touted argument over Techwork v. Fieldwork really goes anywhere.  Your thoughts?

On cravings

A list of the things I’m craving today:

  1. Long phone calls with good friends in which any and all topics are fair game and support is unconditional.
  2. A cup of coffee with a good friend.
  3. A long walk in the woods with a good friend.
  4. Cheese, preferably toasted on good fresh bread.
  5. Snuggly quiet time with small people who are not trying to eat rocks, balloons, or each other.
  6. World peace, at least around the issue of toy-sharing and space-sharing (which about covers it, wouldn’t you say?).

It’s not out there, it’s in here

I’m heartily tired of that “supermom” line of discussion, but I bring it up because I actually know one.  Or rather, I know a superwoman who is also a mom, and I think that’s part of what we’re talking about here.  She posted on fb today:

In the last few minutes, while taking a break to pump, I edited a book review first proof, consulted with a colleague through the door about an e-mail, responded to my book editor about a change in an illustration, posted on Facebook to a friend, AND corresponded with Kevin about missing the deadline for Xavier’s chess tournament this Saturday (crap! he’s going to be disappointed). No wonder I feel pulled in a million directions! Just keep swimming…

The comments are even more fascinating — “I am wholly inadequate. Thanks for that”; “If you have a few extra minutes, can you solve the Israeli/Palestinian issue?”; “You are my hero.  I went to the bathroom and played Angry Birds for 15 minutes.”  It would seem that most of us don’t come close to achieving this remarkable synthesis (or at least synchronicity) of work and family life.  I wonder: do we want to?  Is there some satisfaction in keeping things cordoned off a little better?  What are, in fact, the pros and cons of doing so much at once?  I mean, of course we all THINK we want to — it would seem fabulous to have the skill, the ambition, the caring, the capacity to do and be so fully all the many things we are.  But as my friend says, there’s swimming involved.

On my “About” page I offer the age-old image of a river as a way of thinking about the forces that carry us through our lives.  This friend is among the most thoughtful, intentional, capable people I know; she has made conscious choices that take her well outside the conventions of social and professional expectations, and not in easy ways. The idea that even SHE is working hard to “just keep swimming,” well, that has me worried.

See, I envision a point of balance, or rather an act of balancing, as do we all.  And of course there’s that juggling metaphor, too, that has us perpetually in motion, arms sore and eyes strained, working not only to keep the balls in the air but to remember which, when dropped, will bounce and which will shatter. The trouble with all of these images is, as Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests in “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” that they assume surplus. But there’s only so much of each of us, in reality, and while great professional and family lives make MORE of us (Gail Godwin’s beautiful novel “Evensong” posits this as one definition of vocation), there’s still just us.

There are choices to be made.  I am in awe of people who make these choices with open hearts and curious minds. Every choice to be somewhere is a choice NOT to be somewhere else, and I for one get a little stuck on where I’m not, where I should maybe really be. People who center themselves in the many aspects of their lives do so not by some magical process of equidistancing but by embracing each aspect in its turn, or (as in my friend’s case), several at once. I picture my niece, who is blind, in a story her mother told me — she had an exciting activity at school, for which she had spent days preparing, and from which she brought home a series of artifacts.  She arranged the objects in a circle on the floor around herself and lay down, touching them one by one, reveling in their presence and the experience that they recalled.  Her mother told me that the “Happiness Project” describes joy as deriving not just from an experience, but from anticipation of and reflection on it…which makes that model of devoted time for centered celebration vital. To me, this means that doing fewer things more deeply, with more whole-hearted preparation, presence, and appreciation, seems a surer way to happiness.  And yet, and yet…if I could be working with my book editor while I pumped, wouldn’t I?  You betcha.

So maybe what we’re saying, again, forever, is that it’s not out there — it’s in here.  If we can bring the joy and attention to what we’re doing, that matters far more than what we are in fact doing. The trick, it seems, is to feel okay about merely pumping, or changing diapers, or bathing a small person, when that is what we have chosen to do, instead of absently running our fingers over the rows of what’s missing. We can do as much or as little as we can do; what we deserve is to honor our own choices by showing up while we do it.