On the restlessness

You know the restlessness I mean.

The one that shows up at inappropriate times, times that you’d been looking forward to, like vacation or other brief eras of freedom in the midst of our pressured lives.

It’s a sudden and unwelcome thing, the byproduct, perhaps, of a sudden sense of possibility and too many ways to take it.

I myself have done a surprisingly good job staving off that restlessness after my decision to devote the fall (at least) to not teaching.  I have a bunch of other projects and a much larger pile of hopes and desires, and now, two days after submitting summer grades, they all seem elusive.

I’m back to unpleasant chore lists (call and haggle with the health insurance company!  Clean the basement!) interrupted by occasional fits of checking out (complete with Netflix and chocolate cake).  This is not what I had imagined.

The amusing part is that it IS, in fact, exactly what I had foreseen, and I’m only really surprised that it took me this long to fall in the hole.  I am a structure person, you see, and I seem to do best when I have clear windows of time and neatly delineated tasks.  Getting comfortable with freedom, in fact, is my greatest struggle.  And it’s one I’m diving into today.

How’s that going?  you might ask.  Well, there’s tea and chocolate; there’s a measure of compassion; there’s a great deal of planning.  There’s even quite a bit of productivity.  But I have this illusion that the in-between times are also somehow supposed to be Perfectly Satisfying, that we move fluidly from Great Achievements to Profound Relaxation.  And back again, of course.  And that’s a bit tricky.  So overall, I’m trying to be happy with the long to-do lists that aren’t getting done (let’s be real: they are less lists and more repositories of all the many things in life and work that need to be done, unsorted by priority or purpose).  Indeed, I’m rather proud of myself for Doing Things and then, if they weren’t on the list already, putting them down so I can cross them off.

But I’d like for the FEEL of these days to shift.  Perhaps I’ll try a project-based approach, where there’s a little task-time but most of it is devoted to a particular project.  Or maybe I’ll get into Pomodoro, or some other time-management strategy.  It’s delightful that I have the freedom to try it a couple of days a week.  Now the hard work is quieting the guilt and managing the expectations.  But we’ll be fine.  Right?

On parenting and patience

A dear friend and I talked today about the alarming uptick in irritation with our kids lately.  Naturally, we were unable to really HAVE the conversation because of the galloping and hollering of said kids.  (Climb the tree, climb the tractor, run barefoot into the barn; I want to SWIM but I won’t put my head under; Mama milk!  Mama milk!  You get the idea.)  So I sat down this evening to write out the rest of what I wanted to say, and it is this:

Dear Kate,
I’ve been sitting with your concerns about parenting and patience, not least because they are also mine.  I feel like maybe I hit this particular wall (at least, most notably, most recently) earlier this summer, so by now I’m both more cynical and blessedly more tolerant.  Of my own failings, that is.  I don’t like them, but I accept them and continue to work on trying to change them.

What’s trickiest for me is this: the circumstances that lead to shortness and eruptions are partly about me (have I scheduled the time I need for myself; am I using that time to best advantage; am I taking proper care of myself in all the textbook ways; am I feeding my creative energies; am I nurturing the relationships that I crave…) and partly about the world as I see it (am I using my gifts productively in the world; am I addressing problems I can see and help with; am I contributing to my kids’ lives in the ways I’d like to; am I speaking my truths to the powers that I humbly submit need to hear them).  It makes me crazy to have this bifurcated diagnosis.  I’d like to imagine that a renewed commitment to mindfulness as a practice would solve everything.  Truth is, it would help, but not solve.  I’d like to believe that finding meaningful paid work would fix things.  Truth is, it would help, but not solve.  In fact, it would create a host of other issues by draining away some of that vital attention that I now try to direct to my boys (which is, all by itself, getting harder as I get more interested in more and different things).  I suspect this is in part the curse of the smart, dedicated, socially-conscious parent: we engage with our kids and are fascinated by them, but there’s so much else that also engages and fascinates us that it’s hard to keep focus.  I feel like the theory of part-time work is beautiful, and sometimes it works out that way in real life as well.  But other times, we spend our days checking the clock or checking our email or jotting lists of things we’d rather be doing.  Of course we don’t hear everything the kids say.  They aren’t the only ones we’re listening to anymore.  And that’s hard for all of us.

Sometimes I wonder if shifting to full-time work would be a better plan.  Sometimes I wonder if giving up on work altogether and pouring myself into the kids, including home-schooling of a sort, would be a better plan.  Often I think that one or the other is an absolute necessity.  Now.  Today.  But my reality is that while I am not skilled at tacking back and forth between critical, engaging priorities, I seem to NEED it.  So I try to imagine that THIS is my work: this daily, excruciating, exquisite practice of loving everyone and everything I love according to their needs and my capacities.  That means it doesn’t always look the same, and some days feature a lot more cursing than others.  But I figure my kids must be learning some key lessons about the preciousness and precariousness of our lives, and they sure as heckfire are learning how to read and work with the moods of others.  I need to believe there’s value in that, too.

Most days, I think a little more structure would help; I turn to Pinterest for more ideas about creative play and how to get a handle on our lives.  Every day, I think a little more mindfulness would help; even a tiny practice like a three-minute meditation while the coffee brews has helped me enormously in the past.  It gives me distance from my life, in a way, and lets me see myself and my struggles in the vast context of the universe — and that, of course, lends me a little more humility and tolerance than I might otherwise be able to find.  I’ll take what I can get.  Mostly, these days, I’m working hardest on letting myself off the hook.  It feels a little like defeat, but hey.  Defeat and acceptance are siblings, I hear, and I’m trying not to ruin my life for the sake of some macho Western illusion.

Anyway.  This is all to say: I feel your pain.  Holy SMOKES, I feel your pain.  And for what it’s worth, I think you are an extraordinary parent: creative, loving, attentive, compassionate, smart, nurturing, supportive, concerned.  Your soft voice and obvious enthusiasm for your kids are models to me, as is your willingness to say yes, to follow them where they need to go, to give them the room to be themselves (within safe limits).  If I could cultivate your patience, I’d imagine myself a ten times better mother.  But I know how you feel, and that’s part of the point: the feeling is not necessarily well-calibrated to reality, and when it is, it just makes us cringe.  So we try to keep our eyes clear and our heads (and hearts) in the game and put one foot in front of the other.  And as we do it, we try to sing a little song, or pat a little cheek, or generally hold our whole selves open for the ridiculous beauty that just keeps showing up.

On ventriloquism

Huh?  you say.  But YES.  YAH, DAHLING (to quote that hilarious guy from Love Actually).

Ventriloquism.

Here’s why:

I’m a curser.  A big-time, all-out, catastrophic-scale potty-mouth.  It’s not my fault; it’s how I was raised.  My mother swore conversationally, peppering her stories and questions with a truly impressive level of profanity.  I am generally less extreme, thanks to my years working as an educator, but staying home with the babes has brought it all back.  I mean, of course it has, right?  What better opportunity for a good “thirty-minute cuss” (Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth) than when you’re sleep-deprived, starving, on the edge of round three of mastitis, and the person you’re holding has just puked all down your front?  Plus, you figure, they don’t say much yet, so they probably don’t understand much, so it’s pretty much free and clear.  Right?  Right?

Sure.  Until they turn verbal.  And then it all comes flooding back at you (though in lilting, lisping baby-tones that make it actually kind of adorable) and you begin to worry about social services or at least the in-laws stepping in.

These were my reflections on the plane today as I sat wedged into the aisle seat, nursing Chi nonstop while the flight attendant attempted to pass his dangling feet (or skull) which flopped into the aisle.  Ezra, of course, was too wired to sleep — has been ever since his 5-am excursion into the well-lit, third-floor-of-a-grand-staircase-at-his-aunt’s-house hallway to hunt for us, as we lay six feet away.  It’s been a long day.  But more than tired, I found myself enraged.  By anything: the rough poky spot on my airplane ginger-ale cup; the absurd commitment of the Delta desk agent to NOT give in and help us (he’s no enabler!  No sirree!); the fact that the toys we had carefully bought and hidden from the kids for airplane emergencies were in the WRONG BAG, the only one that had actually fit into the overhead compartment.  For chrissake, people, THIS is how it’s all going to be?  And then Ezra starts swatting Chi on the head and laughing loudly, obnoxiously, when I ask him to stop; and then Len tries to discipline Ezra for something else, thereby waking Chi who had finally fallen asleep on his shoulder…you know what I mean.  There was a BLUE STREAK coming out of me.  Under my breath, hopefully too low for even E to hear (especially given his demonic cackling), but WOW.

The third time all my buttons got pushed (this was all on a 1.5-hour second-leg flight, by the way), I happened to be holding a small fleecy sewn finger puppet of a parrot.  As I gritted my teeth and cursed fluently, I found myself staring through hard, unseeing eyes at the damn parrot.  Its wide-open wings gave it the air of someone making a proclamation, and just then, I thought maybe it was cursing at me.  No, I thought: maybe IT’S doing the cursing.  Maybe all this ranting is coming from the PARROT.

You see where I’m going with this?  (And no, I’m not certifiable; I’m aware I was the angry, cursing one.  But who’s going to pass up an opportunity to displace that kind of rage and verbal abuse?)  As the idea formed, I just started to laugh.  For the first time, I was external to my anger and irritation, and the cursing actually had a chance of being merely one response among many.  Not mine, of course, but the parrot’s.

So now when something ridiculous happens that makes me want to cuss intensely, I ask Len, “where’s that parrot?”  Or one of us announces: “the parrot would say: that’s a totally unacceptable crock of @&*$”.  See how well that works?  And then when you lose it anyway and holler something atrocious, you can add sheepishly, “or, that’s what the parrot said, anyway.”

The longer I run with this post, the weirder it becomes.  So I’m going to stop.  But seriously.  Consider it.  Ventriloquism has never been so fun.