On our most valuable commodity: time.

What are the two things we complain about most? Lack of money and lack of time.  But when you get right down to it, we aren’t even complaining about lack of time anymore.  We just believe that we have no time and live accordingly.

Money is where we focus our attention, for good reasons (often).  There is a threshold of “enough” money below which we experience real suffering: not enough food, not enough medicine, no winter boots, a car that can’t get us to work reliably.  The problem is that “enough” is a very thin line and a hard one to recognize, because a) we have no cultural standard for it (indeed, we have lots of cultural standards that say it doesn’t exist), and b) we ourselves perceive it as always receding, like the horizon.

As soon as we have enough to eat and enough to keep warm and healthy, we want a nicer car.  Then a bigger kitchen.  Then private school for the kids.  Then a little cabin somewhere on a lake, because hey, our friends have one.  Some days it’s hard to remember how fortunate we are because our cultural methodology for happiness involves training our eyes on the next thing we don’t have.  Happiness isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we pursue.  Like hounds, panting, barking, giving chase.

You could argue the same basic truths apply to the problem of time.  We have no time because we’re rushing to get everything done: meet a deadline, make the meeting, get the kids to school, run the errands.  And when we DO have time, we don’t know how to deal with the time itself OR with the fact of having it.  We figure having time means we should be doing something (and Facebook and Pinterest feel like we’re doing something, right?), and/or the fact that we actually have time means there’s something we aren’t doing, something we should have done.  And this isn’t even counting the many professional cultures where you would never dare admit that you weren’t incredibly busy, where busy is the measure of your worth.  Sigh.  It’s quite a burden we choose to haul.

But it’s also clear that many of the solutions to our many problems involve, at bottom, more time.  Organizational culture is about time together; community is about time together; all forms of education are about time together and alone; overcoming fear takes time; developing creative solutions takes time; doing all the work that needs to be done to keep our systems running takes time. Answers to poverty are in many ways rooted in time: to grow things together, to care for one another’s needs, to build relationships that help us teach and learn and share.  The impetus behind the industrial revolution was about time, a fact we conveniently forget: the goal was not to “save” time by replacing people with machines so that more of us could live in poverty and/or do more menial work for less money; the goal was to save time so that we could spend it with our families, our communities, our churches.  Imagine that instead of a small group of overworked wealthy people and masses of unemployed, we had most folks working three days a week, or every morning, or whatever the arrangement.  With the necessarily reconfigured salaries, we could actually have our cake and eat it too: rewarding careers AND a life, albeit a less monetarily-driven one.  We could play in a band. Go to soccer practice, or watch your kid’s games.  Volunteer.  Build things.

Right now, most of us either don’t have time or we’re ashamed of having it.  That’s no way to live.

I’ve struggled for a long time to come to terms with my own life choices — leaving a hectic and important full-time career for mostly mommying with part-time consulting and teaching.  I made my choices because everything else felt wrong, but that’s not to say that this felt right.  It’s taken me a long time to see that it doesn’t “feel right” for two reasons: 1. Because it IS right, for me, and I find it very hard to accept and choose to live in that kind of basic happiness; and 2. because it affords me so much time.  I have 2.5 days a week with both my sweet boys and 2.5 days a week for my writing, board work, consulting, teaching, creative endeavors, and household management.  It’s a thing of beauty, and four years in, I’m just starting to be able to describe it to others with joy and pride instead of bashfulness and self-justification.  The money part is hard, I grant (almost as hard as the gendered nature of relying on my husband’s income and insurance) but I have faith I’ll be able to bring in more when more is necessary, and meanwhile the tightness encourages lifestyles I love (mostly): thrifting, cooking, growing, eating largely vegetarian, and DIY for whatever we can.  (Talk to me in another six months when my fifteen-year-old station wagon dies, and you’ll hear another story…)

This newfound appreciation of the life I’ve chosen has led to some other useful realizations: time is precious and it is mercurial.  We imagine we can chop it up into segments (this bit for exercise, that bit for meetings), but it messes with us.  The twenty minutes on the treadmill take FOREVER (unless you have a good book and then it’s not long enough); the meeting can spend an hour in a bad twelve minutes and then fly through the next forty-eight. The gift, I find, is that time stretches when we let it, and then all kinds of life can step in and pull up a seat.

At a recent board meeting, some of us were five or ten minutes early; most folks were on time; one key leader was fifteen minutes late.  For two folks carrying great tension, the wait was visibly painful.  For those of us who always regret not having time to catch up with others, it was (I hesitate to say it) something of a gift.  We CHATTED.  About jewelry, and clothing swaps, and how we love it when an object we’ve cared for but no longer need finds a new home.  About grandchildren and winter and the sudden discovery of a loved-one’s need for heart surgery.  Suddenly we were whole people around the table, bringing all our gifts and selfness, all because we had a stray fifteen minutes put to good use.

I’m rereading Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel Jayber Crow (if you haven’t read it, do), which is all about time.  I mean, it’s ostensibly about a young man’s journey to find home and build community, but that of course means it’s about time.  He’s a reader and a wanderer and a listener.  His sense of the world comes from being out in it, without rush or agenda, with instead a deep curiosity and an openness to what is.  Never mind that the voice of the novel feels as if you’re sitting at your beloved grandfather’s feet near the fireplace on a cold evening; everything about it evokes a time when we had time.  Men sit in the old closed-up town store playing an endless game of gin runny to while away the winter hours during the war.  Jayber himself, the town barber, recognizes that his shop is as much for loafing and talking as it is for the commerce of haircuts and shaves.  The land itself, through flood and storm and gentle new growth, has needs that the good farmers seek to hear and to meet, not only through work but through slow walks around their properties and long conversations with neighbors.

The writers I love, the PEOPLE I love, are those who honor time.  They stretch it out like taffy with stories and music, meditation, board games, nature walks, floating in lakes, observing birds in flight and at rest.  They unfold it like a warm blanket over anyone in their presence, with careful questions and unhurried listening.  They understand how much they don’t understand, and they are willing to listen, to learn, or simply to be present.  These are my chosen ways, now that I can see they are choices.  They fill me with hope.

 

On embracing change.

In this season of traditions it can be hard to think about change.  In a focused way, I  mean, a way that’s internal and wholehearted as opposed to, er, decorative.  But it’s as good a time as any to process those deeper questions about change.

Brian Andreas of the Story People has some good advice for successful celebration of the holidays: “1. Get together with the family.  2. Relive old times.  3. Get out before it blows.”  I LOVE this, not least because something usually does blow, and indeed we are wise to escape in advance.  Or, of course, we can work on change.  Prolonged work toward complex, deep, systemic change.  Easier, often, to eat and run.  (And yes, this is where I brag about the fabulous eight days my family just spent with my brother’s family…an unprecedented and unprecedentedly good time together.  I chalk it up to change of the scariest, hardest, and most rewarding kind.  We rock.)

In related news, I was just asked to view Jason Clarke’s TEDxPerth talk “Embracing Change,” and it’s well worth it.  Not only is he nail-on-the-head right about reasons why we don’t change and obstacles we throw up, but his models for approaching change are eminently useful.  He’s got a four-part chart, for instance, that you use in a fictional home renovation to map what you’d keep, what you’d chuck, what you’d change, what you’d add.  Nice, right?  Imagine applying this to ourselves, our souls, our lives.  In fact, this may be the new New Year’s tradition in our household, maybe in crayon on the fridge.  Keep the love!  Chuck the clutter!  Change the post-nap entertainment from tv to reading!  Add more music!

Change is hard.  It FEELS hard.  It makes us lonely and uncomfortable, both of which suggest that we’ve done something wrong.  But sometimes that itchy feeling gives way to something better; sometimes that fear of screwing it all up needs to take a back seat to the hope that even if it’s not perfect, what comes next will be better than what is.  Those of us who overthink things need extra help in remembering that, and extra cups of cocoa, perhaps, to soothe the anxiety that is a totally reasonable part of moving on.

On agrarianism.

This is a strange little post, perhaps, because I’m describing a work in progress, but it’s so darn exciting that it feels worth sharing.

So for a few years I’ve been leading reading and discussion groups for the Maine Humanities Council through their “Let’s Talk About It” program.  This time, I’m creating a brand new series for them: “People, Purpose, Place: Agrarian Novels in the USA.”

What is agrarianism, you ask?  A range of things.  But mostly a philosophy and a practice of living on the land, asking, as Wendell  Berry has put it, “what the land requires of us.”  Berry is a key voice of contemporary or “new” agrarianism, and he’s a handy figure because he’s one of the few people writing both critical AND literary work within and about the theme.

The “new” before “agrarian” is important, some argue, because the last folks to claim that title were Twelve Southerners who in 1930 published a manifesto called “I’ll Take My Stand” which was basically a rant against industrialism and a defense of a land-based, individualist and communitarian way of life.  New agrarianism similarly argues against technology for technology’s sake and is similarly committed to exploring the real, human and environmental costs of contemporary ways of life.  New agrarianism is, however, inclined to treat both women and minorities with greater respect and perhaps to more deeply understand the world as the large, complex, and interconnected beast that it is.  The new folks are also more likely to actually BE farmers; the first crew were largely poets and writers with a commitment to the idea of farming.  (And if you want more of the theory on this, see the essay collections The Essential Agrarian ReaderThe Unsettling of America; and The New Agrarianism for more.)

If you’re yawning, bear with me.  This stuff makes for amazing novels, full of generosity and landscape and primal sex.  Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer was our first; Wendell Berry’s A Place on Earth came next.  In November we read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; December will bring John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War; January Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation.  Other hot contenders have included Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and Edna Ferber’s So Big.  Even on the Berry front, it’s unclear whether Jayber Crow would be a better choice than A Place on Earth; I chose the latter because of its insistence on the slow and patient pace of agrarian life and its complex ecosystem of characters and families, engaging in their lives through and across a staggering array of forces.

Some folks have said that there’s too much sadness in these novels.  Some have said that they move to slowly.  No one, however, accuses them of idealizing life on the land, which makes for a nice change from the genre of the idyllic pastoral.  In fact, it strikes me that all of them demonstrate a commitment to a kind of clear vision, a seeing of the world as it is and as it should be, that sounds almost more Buddhist than American (if we’re willing to accept as “American” the bustle and pressure and meaninglessness of advanced capitalist life).  Across the board, these writers are asking questions about value and about survival, about community and the meaning of our work and our capacity to feed ourselves, or not.  I couldn’t believe it when Steinbeck elbowed his way into this series, but there he was…you can’t discuss agrarianism at ALL in this country without understanding that historical perspective on the engineered migration of human lives and labor based on the application of corporate profit mandates to the land itself.  Plus, the ending of that novel is the most poignant statement of human resilience and generosity EVER.  (Go back.  It’s gotten better since high school.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments if you want to read along with us!  As a sometime college lit teacher, nothing pleases me more than writing and talking and thinking with others about books and what they mean…so jump on in!

On simplicity and plenty.

My idea of bliss is spacious: open fields, airy rooms, bright spaces.  I’ve always thought it was an aesthetic thing, but as I’m reading (again, in parts) Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting, I realize that’s it’s more than that.  As usual, aesthetics are also ethics, and I believe in a lifestyle that is simple, natural, deep, and direct.

Yesterday was our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and while we had a lovely night out, the day itself was hard.  I’d been looking forward to it, because I had both boys and a playdate in the morning AND a visit from another friend in the afternoon.  But the boys were more or less intractable.  We spent much of the morning in a tussle to get TO our friends’ house and the rest of it in a tussle to get back home.  I’ve never seen so much crying.  It occurs to me, of course, that what they want is simple downtime — to rummage through their toys, invent new games, lie on the floor under the table, eat an oversized apple in a particularly messy and inefficient way.

Payne’s book makes the case that such downtime is not only valuable for kids; it’s necessary.  For them and for us.  Our lives are too complicated, too fast, too crowded, too loud, and the net result is that we don’t have much space to permit our feelings, our processing, our development, our SELVES, to show up.  We feel sad about something so we put on a movie.  We have a window of time between meetings so we hit Pinterest.  Even the guilty pleasures we adore sometimes drop away from our lives, squeezed out by a sense that we don’t deserve such luxury and that anyway, we don’t have time.  Reading is like that for me.  But it’s astonishing how time stretches out when we let it.  I check the clock after fifteen minutes of reading because I’m sure it’s been an hour already.  Singing does that.  Gardening does that.  Lying on the floor with our kids does that.

Time with our kids, and SPACE with our kids, is like that.  We filled up Ezra’s walls with pictures of animals because he loves them, but before long he seems not to care about them anymore, and the room just looks smaller, cluttered, with less room for air and light.  The single bird-feeder, mounted outside his window, does far more for entertainment, learning, and connection to the animal world than the twenty pictures all over the walls.  And yet, when I try to reduce the book collection, as Payne recommends, I hit a wall.  There are a few things I don’t love, but mostly his two-shelf collection is carefully chosen and thoroughly wonderful.  How to get it down to twelve books, and why?  Perhaps a commitment to rotation more often would soothe my concerns here…or perhaps we try to winnow in other places.

Because I do think there’s a place where abundance still does mean abundance.  A collection of fabrics that I love makes me feel rich, as does a well-chosen shelf of books.  A stack of good magazines, arranged in a lovely basket, ditto.  A coffee table obscured by heaps of books and magazines, however, makes me crazy.  So the line between simplicity and plenty is a moving target for me, highly conditional, field-specific, and storage-dependent.  I revile the notion of storing lots of stuff — why?  WHY? — but I honor the desire to keep what really matters.

I come back, over and over again in my life, to the Craftsman principle articulated by William Morris: “Let there be nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or find to be beautiful.”  With kids, I grant you, that’s a bit of a stretch, but then we’re not shooting for ideal.  We’re just looking to feel at home in our lives.  So we keep tacking back and forth, then, clearing out and making way, hoping the new air and light will help us make best use and beauty of all the chosen objects of our lives.

Things that shut down.

Happy October!  The federal government is shut down.  Or, at least, much of it.  I hear that the military is exempt; I hear that gas and oil drilling operations are exempt, and some other stuff.  I can’t imagine the calculus of deciding what our nation needs to keep moving forward, except for this: we need a government.  We need one that works.  One that is willing to honor existing laws — which, despite popular confusion, includes the Affordable Health Care Act. We need to live in a place where people are willing to have hard conversations and imagine that the folks on the other side are genuinely interested in finding solutions, in understanding different others, in forging a common welfare that sustains us all.  Who are those people?  Why are they not in government?

There are a range of obvious problems: the press eating away at anyone in public life; the unthinkably large price tags of even running for office; the broken two-party system that forces a polarization of views and a false unification of important difference.  We need, frankly, common threats to make us unite behind something.  If the Tea Party were a separate political party (and please!  When will those radical independents get the nerve to cut the apron strings?  Get off the teat!), imagine the fascinating realignments in Congress.  Heck, we might even have an actual conversation about something instead of partisan bickering.

But more than all these obvious problems are the subtler ones: our failure, as a society, to understand how knowledge works, and rhetoric, and logic itself.  We don’t know how to HAVE conversations, or even civil arguments.  We don’t ask good questions or seek to learn what we don’t know.  It’s like our fear of loss, of pain, of discomfort have left us so overwhelmingly anxious that all we can do is cling to our little bit of the world, thumbs in our mouths, rocking.

Our minds shut down — liberals as well as conservatives (whatever those terms even mean any more).  Our hearts shut down — we become unable to imagine the world from the standpoint of a hungry child, even if that child is one of our constituents.  We lose the capacity to even conceive of a greater good where my joy is bound up in your joy, where I genuinely cannot feel happy or whole unless I know that my neighbors, too, are taken care of, at least in basic ways.  A dog-eat-dog world is scary, my friends, and I don’t see the moral virtue in pretending that since you’re a big dog, the system works.  I suppose it does if you’re a dog.  But then please, stop pretending you’re a human.

As I write this, the LifeFlight helicopter passes over my house on its way to the hospital with some urgently ill patient.  I just came from a warm get-together of new friends and their family where, among other things, I learned that they lost a daughter, a sister, in a car accident as a child.  These griefs are real and immediate and timeless and tangible.  They work to shut us down, but they can’t — because we have lives to live.  Other children to raise, other patients to transport, other honorable and important work before us.  Shutting down is not an option.  It’s a child’s choice, or an addict’s, to withdraw from the problem until the problem goes away.

This position is even harder to sustain when you yourself may, in fact, represent the problem.

I want to write the word “leadership” and the word “integrity.”  I want to write “hope” and “transparency” and “faith” and “systems change.”  I want to map out the solutions, not just to this impasse (I can’t even call it that.  This is a tantrum) but to our whole broken society.  But that’s my own form of shutting down: imposing my vision instead of someone else’s.  So maybe we can ask, instead, how we can come to understand one another better, how we can try to respect a system that seems so dysfunctional, how we can begin to imagine solutions other than our own.  Maybe that’s a kind of exercise we need.  (The answer, of course, likes in books and careful, mediated dialogue…or so sayeth the lit-teacher/organizer.  Surprise.  And yes, please let me know if you’d like details on how to do this.  I consult, did I mention?)

On wading in: Day 29. The least obvious kinds of blessings.

We’ve been gardening and CSA-ing for long enough that we’re used to having fresh local food, at least much of the time.  And we’re big fans of local arts and crafts, DIY and various forms of microenterprise.  And every day that I get to grow something, buy something locally, or give to support an initiative I believe in, I am grateful that I have enough (time, land, money, energy, knowledge, compassion, community) to be able to do that.

Every once in a while, though, something shifts a little in how I view the world, and that happened today.  We were driving home from the farmer’s market downtown with a little car bursting with local goodness: cabbage, beets, turnips, red onions, raspberries, Sungold tomatoes, soft pretzels, eggs, camembert, and two kinds of pork sausage, all produced in and around our area.  And we’d enjoyed seeing our farmers and growers as well as assorted friends we run into downtown.

As we headed home, I was wishing I’d had a chance to get to my friend’s shop not far away, Downtown Handmade and Vintage.  It’s a funky, beautiful, creative place, and I’m feeling like I need a little more funk in my life.  But every time I go to buy an item of clothing from an ordinary place (like my Old Navy jeans and H&M shirt at the moment), I feel a little gross.  Just a little bit.  And I’m not suggesting YOU should; I’m just saying that it’s increasingly hard for me to reconcile my pretty minimal clothing needs with my pretty substantial concerns about global fiscal, labor, and environmental sustainability.  My clothing is part of me and yet it’s also mostly part of a culture and practices that I don’t want to support.

So here’s what occurred to me: the ability to buy things you cherish from people you want to support in a community you are happy to belong to — this is the perhaps the least obvious and most important kind of blessing.

Herman Daly says in one of his many fabulous articles on sustainable economics that water (as in the “trickle down” theory) is the wrong metaphor for money in an economic system.  Blood makes more sense, he argues.  Because economies don’t get rained on from above; they are circulatory, with all organs needing the flow of funds and important central organs driving its pulse, pressure, and purity.  (Okay, he may not have spelled it out in such detail; I can’t remember.  Check out his work at Orion Magazine and elsewhere to find out.)  But here’s my point: when we have money to spend and the inclination to spend it locally, we are part of the heart of our community.  When we love what we buy and are grateful to its makers and growers, we are part of the soul of our community.  It’s not only a responsibility to buy local, but a privilege and a positive pleasure.

(“Duh,” you’re thinking.  Well, sure.  But still.  Right?)

On wading in: Day 25. The finite resources of attention.

This morning Ezra awoke a cheerful boy.  We watched the birds at his window feeder for a little bit; he used the potty; we headed downstairs.  Somewhere along the way, presumably in the bathroom, he remembered a set of old squirting tub toys he used to have, which were thrown away when they got all mildewy inside.  Which happened maybe 6 or eight months ago.  He spent the next hour in full-throated grief at their loss.

This is a kid who can normally marshall all kinds of resources to solve problems, especially when he knows the thing he wants is available at a store.  (And he knows these are available at a store because he’s seen them and asked for them before.)  But his sadness was so all-encompassing and his attention so focused on retrieving the lost toys (“Mama, can we ask the recycling man?  Maybe he knows where they are…”) that he could not think about replacement as an option.

Recent research into the effects of narrow “bandwidth” on decision-making is showing us that attention really is more finite than we’d like to believe.  Multi-tasking aside, the presence of stress taxes our attention and leads us to make bad decisions.

In a NYTimes article, one of the authors of an important new book discusses this phenomenon, making (unfortunate) comparisons between dieting and poverty.  His basic point seems entirely useful: the stressors restrict our available bandwidth, leading us to make poor choices.  He doesn’t seem to address adequately the difference between self-imposed choices like dieting and systemic traps like poverty, which I find problematic, but the bottom line phenomenon, he’s saying, is the same.

In related news, I’m preparing with a group of friends to throw a baby shower for another friend, and we’re planning to sing a song.  So at breakfast this morning I’m teaching the kids Elizabeth Mitchell’s version of “Three Little Birds” (of Bob Marley fame), and it occurs to us that there may be serious emotional, psychological, and perhaps, we now suspect, even financial value to being told in a sing-song melody that “every little thing is gonna be all right.”  It’s what we most need to believe; it’s what we most easily forget through grief or loss or stress or pain.  We become like Ezra, wailing at the top of our lungs, “I want my old mildewy tub toys!!” when in fact there might be something else we want more: comfort, togetherness, entertainment, reassurance.  I held him and rocked him until we could gather the energy to sing again.

On wading in: Day 24. Hilarity in the moment.

Humor is a non-negotiable in my life.  For most people, in fact, it’s what enables us to pick back up and start over again after disaster; it’s what helps us connect to other people and gain perspective on situations.

But all-out laughter is rare for us as adults.  Too rare.  Instead, many of us settle for the droll, the whimsical, the ironic.  And that’s fine, as far as it goes.  What we can’t let go of, though, what we should NEVEr let go of, is an inclination to use humor as a way in to the present.

What does that mean, you ask?  Well, a bunch of things.  It means not watering down the funny reply in your head just because the conversation you’re in involves a three-year-old.  It means allowing responses to situations to be shaped by the funny.  It means supporting the humor of those around you, even if that means a half-hour struggle to teach the three-year-old the conventions of the knock-knock joke.  (Believe me, this one I’ve tried.  It’s hard.  The interrupting cow version went particularly well, as he couldn’t grasp at all why the cow kept interrupting him: “NO, Mama!  Now I say, interrupting cow who?” as I’m moo-ing at him, falling off my bench with laughter.)

Three examples from our daily lives:

Malachi is now comfortable walking up stairs and delighted that he can routinely reach the banister.  But he also likes to have one hand on the banister and the other hand in mine.  Until it gets boring.  At which point he likes to climb his feet forward up the stairs while he hangs on to the banister with one hand and me with the other, pulling his tiny body into a horizontal position, head dangling downward.  “This is interesting,” I said, the first time I saw it.  “Not necessarily safe, though.  Here, let me interpose my body between you and certain death.”

Malachi is also at the age where he is in love with anything loud.  This has some obvious down-sides, but it also means that he is generous with his encouragement to vacuum, mow, sew, or make smoothies.  In fact, his sleeping thoughts seem governed by these forces as well; his last muttered words before bed and his first words upon waking are often related to whether or not there’s a need for vacuuming right now.  Or if Papa’s all done the lawn mowing.  So we’re trying to keep us all positive by actually DOING some vacuuming (for a change — did I say that out loud?), and doing it when he’s around to cheer us on.  And I’ve made both boys some fleecy pajama pants in the last few days, egged on by Chi’s delighted cheers.  The crowning glory, for Chi, was the day we rented a power washer (for external work, should I stipulate?), with its loud gas-guzzling engine and puffs of smoke.  Ever since, in his wistful moments, he muses aloud: “Need-it-a power washer?”  (He has somewhat Italian inflection these days: “Eat-it-a apple?”  “Read-a-the Ernie.”)  We rock him gently, smile widely and say, not right now, baby boy.  Not right now.

Len is an inherently funny person, and one of the joys of living with him is seeing his hilarious perspective on the world.  I suppose we feed each other that way.  Watching an episode of Thomas the Train with Ezra, we were appalled that the female engine, Emily, was assigned the chore of taking the dirty soccer uniforms to the laundry.  The episode is about the visit of a soccer team, and the writers are feminist enough to make Emily both a fan and a connoisseur of soccer.  As such, she is eager to help out in some substantial way, and the episode tries, I assume, to offer the message that laundry — and therefore women’s lives — is important too.  Of course, there’s that pesky complicating factor about, you know, laundry being something that even someone with a penis can do, but hey.  It’s a children’s show.  It’s for the masses.  And we’re just thrilled that Ezra got to learn about the merits of hard-working and virtuous women, whose laundering ability makes it possible for the soccer team (men, I’m sure, though it wasn’t discussed) to triumph.  Of course we’re critical, but it was also pretty damn funny to find ourselves engaged in a mutual critique of the patriarchal shenanigans of Ezra’s little train buddies.  Woot.  Or should I say, peep.

This is all to say: let the laughter flow down.  Not just for the health benefits or the capacity for connection, but because it’s the only way to manage the otherwise overwhelming realities of our lives.  As I type this, Len is returning from a quick grocery store run with both boys to buy allergy medication.  Chi is dawdling; Ezra is hanging off my arm.  Len, frustrated with the dawdling, announces that we will just leave Chi outside.  Eventually, the boy comes in, and shortly thereafter two things happen: 1. Ezra announces he has peed in his blue jeans which he agrees “is a bummer,” and 2. Chi climbs on top of his rickety workbench near the livingroom window to shout repeatedly “window up!  window up!”.  It’s 40 degrees outside.

Dinner time.

On wading in: Day 23. Transferable skills of parenting.

This has been a thing of mine for a while, this issue of the transferability of parenting skills.  Folks seem to think that when you “step off the career track” you’re losing ground all the while.  Everyone else speeds on without you.  But people don’t pay enough attention to the vast array of really critical work/life skills that parenting develops.  So I do. Some of them are these:

1. The ability to balance your own interests with those of others.  Nothing short of a screaming toddler or a third night-time waking will so thoroughly test the limits of your own needs  while simultaneously requiring you to manage the needs of someone else. It’s cruel but entirely usual, and frankly, it’s the best training I’ve ever seen for raising consciousness about the depth and dimensions of our various interests.  We have to get creative, and eventually that creativity becomes a habit.  Bam.  Leg up on the non-parenting competition.  (This obviously applies also to less-critical issues like going to the grocery store vs. going to the playground — an even better analogy for the workplace negotiations we will now be able to rock.)

2. The good sense not to ask a question if you don’t care about the answer.  Ezra, can you pick up your toys?  “No.”  Oh.  But you simultaneously develop much keener skill at asking good questions and really hearing their answers.  Malachi, are you ready to go to bed?  No.  That means he wants to nurse more, which often means he’s thirsty.  We’ve addressed that by giving him a sippy cup of water, but he sometimes forgets it’s available…so after a few more minutes of nursing, I can TELL him (not ASK) that it’s time for bed and ask him if he wants some water.  The analogy here, of course, is the workplace environment where employees are invited to think their input matters, whereas in fact it does not.  Brutal.  But good leaders and colleagues (and parents) will ask genuine questions and learn from the answers; good assessment (and parenting) asks smart questions we want answered and then makes meaningful use of those answers.  Win win win win.  Win.

3. The capacity to be patient with, and even fascinated by, processes different from your own.  This is a tough one for me because I’m an efficiency hound and I generally figure that my way is the best way.  (It generally is.  Objective studies have proven this.)  But the very small among us of course have different rules and capacities, and they’ll never get anywhere if we keep doing for them.  So breathing in and out while watching them do what they do has to become a kind of sport.  And it’s actually brilliantly amazing if you build in the room and the time and the safety nets in case of accident.  In the workplace this one is tougher because, well, sometimes there really aren’t as many ways to get a certain task done, and usually you’re dealing with adults who can reasonably be expected to both seek and attain a degree of efficiency.  But still: to be willing to watch, to hand something over, and to have planned enough that you can truly be free with it, is a rare gift to everyone involved.  No other experience teaches that as well as parenting.

4. The inclination to wonder, to question, and to celebrate.  Adult life is dull enough, thanks to our cultural training in what’s expected: sober attitudes, cautious approaches, polite responses.  And these are good.  But what happened to exuberance?  What about those glorious peals of laughter we used to emit?  What about our innate desire to spend hours face-down belly-up to a tide-pool, watching its tiny inhabitants craft their world?  Children remind us of all these things, and they remind us that life is short and sparkling and way more astounding than we can imagine.  To carry that awareness into a work environment is a thing of beauty as well as a boost to productivity.  Example: in a discussion recently about an area non-profit’s many programs, I pointed out that people receiving some services may not be receiving others.  The challenge was raised that it may not want to advertise some services where there are limited resources, like home heating fuel assistance, because we don’t want to build a market where we have no solution.  But “no solution” sounded wrong to me, trained as I am in the vagaries of childhood mentalities.  Surely a deficit of money to give to folks to buy heating oil is not the only way to help a state heat its homes?  What about creating local industries around new, high-efficiency wood-pellet stoves and the manufacture of wood pellets to burn in them?  “No solution” is an adult’s response, and one we’d do well to get past.  We may not SEE a solution; we may not HAVE one yet, but we can keep dreaming and studying and asking and working until we get some better ideas.  Am I right?

I’m sure there will be more of these as I move ahead, since it’s been such a theme for me for so long now, but I just wanted to get these off my chest.  There are a million reasons why time away from careers, devoted to parenting, is in the best interests of everyone and everything, but not enough of us talk about how it makes us better when we go back to work.  You WANT parents stepping back on the track when they feel ready: you want to hire them, to work with them, to live near them.  They bring skills and assets that just don’t have room to blossom in most full-time career-track folks.  Yes, time away is a privilege — and one that can serve all of us.

On wading in: Day 15. Impact assessment.

A friend of mine posted an article on Facebook this morning: “New Mamas Get Nothing Done (and Other Untruths)” by Anne Rust.  While its primary argument (it’s impossible to “get stuff done” when you have new little people, so we have to stop measuring our lives that way) is not novel, it is certainly true.  But lots of people write about this problem without proposing a solution: a way to measure our lives differently.  Rust comes close to doing this, in the tail end of her piece, and it’s worth holding up and elaborating on her suggestions.

The basic problem with our ordinary forms of impact assessment (and please pardon any jargon you encounter here; this is kind of a field of mine) is that most of them measure outcomes rather than processes or relationships.  So a course taught is a valuable outcome, whereas a day spent doing reading and course design is, well, extraneous.  Still worse would be a day spent talking with colleagues or practitioners in the field to help you understand new pedagogical innovations…though these things are, for any teacher, of obvious worth, they are extremely hard to document in terms of impact.  “It helped,” we might say.  “It was crucial to my development of the course concept” or “staying current in the field leads to greater teacher effectiveness.”  But when push comes to shove, what gets documented?  Courses taught; perhaps popularity of the teacher; perhaps student grades or test scores if there are any macro-measures in relevant fields.

Map this onto the lives of new parents, and you see the problem.  You’re at home all day, which means you ought to be taking at least basic care of your house — instead, the dishes are piled higher than ever and you no longer know if you even own a vacuum cleaner.  Your work life has narrowed to one particular job, so you ought to be able to master that pretty quickly, making room for other things in life (like reading novels, I mean, if you’re not going to work).  And of course there’s no excuse for basic lapses of hygiene and nutrition, because showers and grooming and shopping and cooking are all so easy to do when you have nothing else going on.  Bwahahaha.

Mercifully, Rust points out some of the many other things that ARE going on, that are unrecognizable to people who aren’t (or don’t remember being) parents of babes.  There’s the feeding, the diaper changing, the trying-to-get-baby-to-sleep, the tummy time, the walks outside, the sensory stimulation.  There’s the twenty minutes a day of reading, the twenty minutes a side of breast-feeding, and the twenty minutes or careful management it takes your baby to transition from “light sleep” where they SEEM asleep to “deep sleep” where they may STAY asleep.  All this and more is what goes into parenting the newest among us as they begin to sort their world, to learn night from day, to settle into a physical world that is no longer always in motion.

This gives us very little to point to in terms of productivity.  As my sister-in-law once said: “Some days its enough for me to say I kept somebody’s butt clean.”  Well, sure.  Some days that’s true.  But I HATE those days.  I confess that I am a relentless impact-assessor, and my forays into mindfulness have helped but not healed that tendency.

So you can imagine my joy when Rust suggests that we “Take a deep, slow breath. Close your eyes and measure your day not as tasks, but as feelings, as sounds, as colors.”  This feels, to me, like impact assessment for the mindfulness-beginner.  This is measurement for those who aspire to outgrow measuring.

Or, more pragmatically, this REAL impact assessment for the first time.  This is a form of evaluation that really seeks VALUE rather than benchmarks.  And it’s enormously significant because that kind of evaluative practice eludes us all.  Interestingly, good and experienced mothers (who, I might add, are rarely if ever considered experts on anything beyond their immediate domain, which is absurd) may well have the inside edge on impact assessment practices that the social sector has been striving to develop for a long time: how to measure relationships and development and feeling and heart.

Pick an activity someone might want to assess, like education or social service.  You can measure classes taught or meals served, but how do you measure the relationships that build between teacher and student,  between soup-kitchen volunteer and meal recipient?  How do you begin to understand the value of smaller-scale enterprises where the synchronicity between outcomes and impacts more than doubles the intended effect?  How do we explain (to funders or legislators or would-be participants) that our work makes a difference not because we’re giving someone a meal (which of course we are) but because we are engaging with them in a way that honors their basic dignity, makes room to hear their needs, and holds open the possibilities of their own growth into a better life?

These are the things we do for and with our children, but the scale is so long and the outcomes so expected and so standardized that all we notice are the failures.  My kid isn’t eating; my kid can’t roll over yet; my kid is a lousy sleeper.  We are not invited to imagine these truths in a different register, held up to a different light: my kid would rather spend time feeling every texture of his food than eating it; my kid giggles hysterically when he lies on his back and I tickle him and he can’t escape; my kid has the capacity to sit quietly in a dark room, alone, for nearly an hour (I know because I hear him humming from time to time).

So yes, with Rust, I’d advocate for measuring our days differently.  Maybe it’s an image in memory, words or picture, that stays with you.  Maybe it’s that pitcher of hydrangeas on the kitchen table that small hands helped you bring in and arrange.  Maybe it’s the moment that your elder son tried to help up his little brother when he fell down in the orchard.  Heck, maybe it’s the three UNBELIEVABLY delicious pumpkin donuts you ate at said orchard (of course, I’m just making this up).  But whatever it is, there are elements that make up our lives, alone or in family, with kids of any ages, and short of memoir we have few ways of recording or valuing them.

So I propose this, and I’ll call it a mindfulness practice here though I’d call it impact assessment in my professional life: every day, take a few notes.  Poems, pictures, specific memories.  Discuss them at meals or bedtime; record them somewhere you won’t lose them.  Date them.  (And yes, Facebook counts.  If it is worth anything it all, it is as a space for piecing together the mosaic of our lives.) Colors, feelings, images, songs, smells, experiences, laughter.

If we were to treat these things as data, we’d go back after a period of time and see what we’ve valued.  We’d find patterns and repetitions, and these would tell us who we are and how we’ve lived.  The green days, I would note — those days of heavy rain and overwrought lushness that we’ve had so much of this summer.  And the recent return to baking as the weather cools.  The funny things my children say.  The soft down on Malachi’s back and the delicious softness of his cheeks.

“Doing nothing” does not mean doing nothing.  It means not doing the things that are regularly assessed and counted, the things that are valued by a system both patriarchal and action-oriented.  In fact, many practitioners of mindfulness juxtapose the “doing” state of mind with the “being” state of mind; the idea is that when we live in a place where “doing” is all that matters, we get depressed and stay that way.  The solution is to learn to occupy a “being” state of mind, to simply be, which in turn frees us up for quiet, peace, recovery, compassion, wholeness.

So rather than a lose-lose, we mamas have here before us a win-win.  We can yield the floor and say yes indeed, I am NOT doing; I am being.  Watch me thrive.  Or we can invite our measuring, critical questioners (often ourselves, I know) to look more deeply, to use different, truer eyes and alternate methods of documentation.  I love the idea of the first, but I am eternally grateful for the second: “being” is not always my strength, but “doing” in the service of love and presentness, well, that I can do.