On small gratitudes.

I’ve officially hit the point where I think about work all the time. Not in a pathological way, but because it is interesting and there is a lot of stuff going on and there are good challenges to mull. But let’s face it: I think about work all the time. This is a problem for me.

However, I don’t believe in un-thinking, or in chastisement, or in turning away from interesting things; I just want to give myself something better to think about. Something more whole, more shared. Like my brilliant, beautiful, beneficent husband; my fabulous but struggling kiddos; my bizarre good fortune at having a rental situation good enough to miss when we move again in another month. But when I stack up mental lists of gratitudes, I just feel cluttered. I get overwhelmed by all the thoughts.

So this morning, when my young sons went running out into the grass at 6 am in their stripey pajamas, I was otherwise occupied. I did not in fact see their small bare feet grow wet and stain green; I did not see their glee in locating the first dandelions, nor their careful planning of a Surprise for Mama. The first I heard of it was when they came back to the open doorway, faces bright with delight, with handfuls of yellow. “LOOK MAMA! THE DANDELIONS ARE HERE! Quick, let’s get a vase.”

Even the vase-hunting process had me in busy-mode, trying to find something small enough to be convenient in our under-equipped kitchen. But at least that hunt slowed me down and made me use my eyes, my hands, to size up the stems and faces of these flowers, to consider the array of vases we have in storage, to understand again what a central role flowers (growing, picking, arranging, admiring) have in my family’s life. I breathed. I became, for a moment, just a human deeply touched by the love and givingness of others.

Then I saw it: the small green vase a dear friend had given me the day before we left. It held all my gifts perfectly. I packed up my gear for the day — my computer and backpack, of course, but also my little canvas lunch bag from another friend, holding a container of the delectable soup my husband had made the night before and a few other treats. And I picked up my little vase of dandelions. And I felt, for the first time in days, ready to face the world, bolstered by these reminders of who I am, small gratitudes in hand.

On good sportsmanship.

We recently made a brilliant family investment by purchasing Dinosaur Bingo for our sons.  It is a total blast.  We really enjoy playing it together.  And it’s educational: you learn about the dinos themselves (lots of different kinds); you learn to scan for text and image; you learn letters and counting (how many spaces do you have left?); you learn the value of close attention (“Follow your BOARD, Papa!”).

It’s all fun and games until we get to the end.  The end really is the climax of the game, not just because we get to sort the world (again) into winners and losers, but because the winner gets to throw his arms in the air and shout “TERRIBLE LIZARD!”  “Dinosaur,” you see, means “terrible lizard.”

So we are happily playing in the kitchen one morning and then Malachi wins and shouts “TERRIBLE LIZARD!” and Ezra (4) has a hissy fit about how he wants to win TOO and maybe Chi is the VERY FIRST winner but he will be the FIRST winner and Chi is protesting vehemently and I am quietly resting my forehead on the table, perhaps giving it a gentle occasional thump.  I am breathing deeply.  When I have gathered my resources, I shush the boys and begin my lecture about how people don’t like to play games with other people who are always grumpy at the end, and good sportsmanship is about being happy for other people and can’t we just enjoy the GAME and PLAYING without having to worry about the issue of winning and losing?  And in the middle of my stream of thoughtful and strategic guidance, Malachi (who is two) turns to me, raises his arms, and shouts: “TERRIBLE MAMA!”

You’d think that might be the end of our day, but really it was the beginning.  I couldn’t help myself.  I guffawed.  I laughed till I cried, and the boys laughed too.  Laughing, you see, really IS more fun than winning.

On the physics of kisses.

Okay, this post is not about what you think it’s about.

These kisses are the kind that our sons blow to us — across rooms, down the driveway, through closed windows.

They used to be content with the blowing of kisses, but about a month ago they got worried that the kisses wouldn’t reach their destination, the kissee, if you will.  Which led to a brief lecture by me explaining that they, the kissers, can only control the love they send out into the world; they cannot control how it is received.

But they can surely trust that kisses are fast and smart: they fly faster than any car and they can find their person no matter where they are. Kisses always reach their kissee when we send them out into the air.

These are some established truths at our house.

Today, however, posed some new challenges, as Len and I backed out of the driveway at the same time (me with the kids in back) and headed off in opposite directions.  The sweet boys had waited until we drove off altogether before starting to smooch their little palms, and as they took their big breaths to blow those kisses toward Papa, they realized HE WAS BEHIND THEM!  What would happen if they blew their kisses in the WRONG DIRECTION?  We revisited the physics of kisses (see above), which reassured them, and then led to this:

Ezra, after a moment of quiet reflection: “My kisses are shaped like hummingbirds.”

Mama (eyes welling up with the awesomeness of this revelation): “Wow.  That is pretty fabulous.”

Malachi: “Mine are shaped like bluebirds.  Blue and RED.”

Ezra: “Yes, because bluebirds are your favorite birds.  But not blue and red, blue and orange.”

We haven’t yet discussed whether these shapes and colors and their breathy essences always embody kisses (what a world!) or whether these particular boys have particular kisses the shape and color of small birds…but I feel sure we will.

On the unfolding of the unfolding.

PROCESS.  It’s enough to wear you right out.

All these things you want to HAVE and to BE, like gardens, and children, and happiness…and they all just stretch themselves out haphazardly through years and conversations and unfoldings, never really giving you a clear static PRESENT.  They’re always emerging and never really realized.  It’s exhausting.

Can you tell I’ve been hard at the early spring phases of gardening?  With my four-year-old?  After, oh, four years of basic garden neglect?  My soil is compacted and clayish; my nutrient levels deficient; the late spring has left two beds soggier than they should be.  My strawberries are enough to make me weep, and not in a good way: some fool (ahem) planted a sweet little feverfew in there early last year, and whadya know!  It self-sows!  Rabidly!  And then the little seedlings root deeply enough that pulling them out leaves the strawberries upside-down, root tendrils waving in desperation.

In short, it’s hard to know where to start.

But start we did, a few days ago, and did a little more today.  Wood ash and peat moss and compost and worm castings and chopped leaves and some elbow grease and the occasional back spasm…and today, thanks to my four-year-old’s intervention, some actual planting.  He has declared one of our six veggie beds “his” for the season, though he is graciously allowing me to plant some brassicas there because of my (winningly brilliant) explanation about crop rotation.  He began with radishes (four kinds spread across one short row) and moved on to carrots (only two, so far, of the rainbow of colors we intend to plant).  He was patient with my need to rescue strawberry plants rather than sow more carrots, which surprised me.  But whenever he’s outdoors with purpose and freedom, he tends to be surprisingly mature and cheerful.  Note to self, right?

So the list of what else to do stretches long, and longer since I bought a few plants at the Fedco Tree Sale last weekend.  (I was only going to pick up the potatoes I had order, and because it’s a spiritual pilgrimage for me.  I was NOT going to buy trees or shrubs.)  So now I have to open up new ground for the new raspberries; transplant an old seeded grape for a new seedless one; make space for a beautiful Arctic Blue willow and an Ellen’s Blue Buddleia; and I think there’s something else in there I’ve forgotten.  Plus, I need to move the roses that are in too much shade come late summer (and where to?  roses near the swing set just spells trouble, no?); rake and weed the asparagus bed; transplant things from the “nursery bed” (see my earlier post on THAT sore topic here).

But isn’t this just how it is?  I mean, there are gardeners I know who stay on top of it, whose soil is rich and beautiful, whose daily chores consist of the necessary work that arises in that moment.  They don’t seem chronically behind (and yes, they are retired, these legends), but nor do they look at their gardens through the lenses of deficiency.  They are asset-oriented.  This is what I strive to be, in gardening as in life.

Years ago, in a bout of depression, I used a really irritating and fabulously effective exercise to drag myself back to healthy living: you sit with a pen and paper and write down, every day, ten things that are positive.  No sweat, right?  I remember the first time I tried it.  I was staring out at the edge of the yard, where a seasonal stream separated our property from our neighbors’.  Tiger lilies were starting to sprout there, tender green shoots pushing skyward.  And yet what I saw was a reminder that the $&%*^# deer were just waiting to eat every beautiful thing around.  I was mad that I wasn’t transplanting some lilies into the fenced garden where they would be safe; I was angry that there was no way to protect them where they were in that peaceful natural setting.  It took me the longest time to circle back on myself and arrive at this: there are beautiful naturalized lilies volunteering in my yard.  I live near that.  I live in beauty.

I’m working on holding this commitment to seeing the positive, to honoring the unfolding.  It’s not that we didn’t get far enough in today’s work; it’s that we chose to rest and play rather than push on.  (And when great clouds passed with quick but soaking rains, we hid under the deck together — and what fun it was to watch the silver sheets and hear their susurrations over our heads!)  It’s not that the radishes and carrots will be uneven and disordered; it’s that my four-year-old chose to be out there with me, participating as fully as he knows how.  The work will never be DONE — at least not my work, not by me.  That’s not how I roll.  But I can make progress and I can choose when to stop.  And most importantly, I can keep working at seeing what’s beautiful and whole, even if  it’s riddled with imperfections and its beauty is fleeting and its wholeness always still unfolding.

On school choice.

This has been a rough month for a range of reasons, but one of them is that we’ve been struggling to decide what to do with Ezra in terms of Pre-K next year.

The scene: our little guy is smart; academically motivated; significantly beyond age-typical intellectual development; emotionally/socially about normal; very sensitive to others’ interest and approval/disapproval; EAGER to get to school.  We live in the highest-performing elementary district in our city.  I am a HUGE fan of community-based public education.  Our school has one pre-K teacher.  I have visited the class; talked with her; talked with various friends who have had kids in her class.  There’s also, 25 minutes away, a charter school rooted in Reggio-Emilia, with an emphasis on arts and sciences, and Ezra got in through the lottery.

The dilemma: our guy will be (is) a total nightmare if he gets bored.  Our local pre-K seems guaranteed to bore him (and the teacher expresses no curiosity about him nor any interest in the question of how to help kids not get bored).  Transportation to/from the charter school will be a huge hassle.  But in all seriousness, when I think about the predictable outcomes (not fear-based, but logical foreseeable conclusions) of his participation in the local school, I imagine a high likelihood of difficult behavior and (to add the fear-based pieces which are also reasonable in our culture) possible diagnoses and medication.  When you take a smart, active kid and you bore him and teach him that you don’t care about his particular needs, it is reasonable to assume that he will go haywire (and we know he can do this beautifully).

The nutshell: we have, we feel, no real choice in the matter, given the realities of our particular situation.  But that is true of many people we’ve talked to (and not true of many; I’ve been appalled to hear blanket statements like “I hate public school!” from people who don’t even know what district their kid is in).  I feel one of my jobs in life is to try and rescue public education, and I thought I’d be doing that in part as an engaged parent in the local system.  Yes, the charter is public, but I don’t even BELIEVE in charter schools, except in extreme cases.  And I don’t think we’re that extreme.  But maybe we are — maybe the “we” isn’t my family but the system as a whole.  If we have arrived at a place where our teachers are, by inclination or by rule, more interested in managing a whole class for non-disruption than in sustaining a love for learning EVEN AT THE PRE-K LEVEL, then how can we expect to participate long enough to make change?  The risk is too great: it’s not about academic “success” even; it’s about the whole life and worldview and sanity of a child.

Can you tell how uncomfortable I am with this situation?  How deep my grief is for the community I thought we would enter through participation in our local Pre-K?  How sad I am for the system I’ve seen fading for years, as more and more of my brightest, most motivated college students who WANTED MORE THAN ANYTHING TO BE TEACHERS stepped away from those dreams because they couldn’t afford to pay off their loans on a teacher’s salary, they couldn’t imagine sacrificing their ideals to the extent they knew they had to, they couldn’t condone following standards that were about a strange societal commitment to “academic” performance rather than a genuine commitment to the healthy development (and academic learning!) of whole children?  I LOVE public education.  I want to be part of it.  I want my children to revel in it.  But until they are old enough to sort out which are the sucky parts of the game you play because you have to, and which are the nourishing, life-giving aspects that we can find in the middle of the rest — well, until then, I guess they go the charter route.  And we count ourselves lucky.

I welcome thoughtful comments and perspectives, as ever!

On preparing for spring. Hahahahaha.

They say it’s spring now.  I say: we have double-digit negatives most nights this week.  They say spring is coming.  I say: we have to get through mud season first, and we’re a far cry from the kind of thaw that entails.  Basically, I’m a cynic.  It’s seasonal.  It’s Maine. It’s Vitamin D deficiency.  Whatever.

I did, however, replace a broken shop-light today so that I can start my third and fourth flats of seeds in the basement.  My onions, leeks, brussels sprouts, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers are all going strong.  (Trying cinnamon sprinkled on the soil surface this year to fight the damping-off I’ve struggled with the past two years…Have you tried that?  Is it a myth?)  I’m fired up about the parsley, the new lavender, the zinnias, the basil.  So, in essence, I’m ready for the theoretical reality of spring’s approach, but in my heart of hearts, I believe we’re stuck in sleet-land forever.

It’s this way on all fronts sometimes: you have a nice morning with one son, and that afternoon the second one pukes all over.  You book a fun new consulting gig only to learn that issues of responsiveness might be a drag.  You foolishly sign up to run a training session for a board you serve on, then find someone awesome to run it for you, and then find your leadership partners are reluctant to bring in someone else, which was the whole idea in the first place.  GET WITH THE PROGRAM, WORLD.  Enough puking and dragging-of-feet.  Let’s make some plans and get ’em done.

So I’ve got my graph paper out for the garden, and all my gorgeous books on potager designs; I’ve got a new necklace and a new lipstick for when the consulting gets its act together; I’m getting VERY CLEAR with my board partners about the limits of my available time for volunteer program design and delivery.  It might still be winter, or even mud season, in the spirit of the world, but I’m heading for the bright lights of summer.  Are you with me?

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.