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.

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On counting with children. And aging.

We’re at the breakfast table.  Ezra (3) says he has no idea how to count to twenty.  Papa says, “Of course you do!  You count to twenty all the time in your counting book!”  Ezra denies this.  He insists he has no idea.  I offer this: you count to ten and I’ll count with you up to twenty.  So we do.

At twenty, Ezra wails, “But there are lots of other numbers!”  Indeed.

So we keep counting.  At twenty-three, I realize that we’re enumerating the years of my life, and I try to recall each one.  I know I loved twenty-eight, the birthday I first held my PhD and had a job I loved and a husband and a house and two beautiful dogs and a keen sense of gratitude about all of it.  Thirty was lovely, too, building a new community of amazing friendships in a new and welcoming area.  Thirty-three and -four were stressful for a bunch of reasons; thirty-five was when I got pregnant, finally, and went through massive, life-altering and transformative changes deciding to leave my job/career.  “Thirty-six is how old I was when you were born,” I say to Ezra.  “Thirty-eight is how old I was when your brother was born.  Thirty-nine is how old I am today, and forty is how old I turn soon.”

Hurray!  Birthdays!  We love those!  A brief flurry of shouting.  And then…

“Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three…”

And I head for my computer, smiling to myself, because how can little kids offer such wisdom and perspective?  After all, that’s what this birthday thing is, right?  Another step, another day, another year, stretching out in front of us.  God willing.  I hear Ezra chanting from the kitchen: “Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six…”

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.

On wading in: Day 28. The competing priorities.

I used to be a totally type A person because that’s how I made things work for me.  And they DID work.  Really well.  Except for a whole bunch of things I didn’t really understand well, like relationships and trust and forgiveness.

As those got more important, or my failures in those departments grew more conspicuous and problematic, I changed.  It was a pretty big pendulum swing.  The main problem then became that my efforts to be “relaxed” and to let life do its thing meant that I wasn’t honoring my basic desire for structure, planning, and organization.

So I’ve been working these last few years on learning how to bring the right set of tools to the right task.  But it’s really hard because these approaches seem far more all-encompassing than just tool-boxes.  It seems like the transition from structured and planful to present-in-the-moment requires time and energy and attention that I’m not yet in the habit of cultivating.

Today is a good example.  It was a gorgeous day, a break-the-bank golden, bottomless blue day, enhanced by the crisp breeze and hot sunshine and occasional drift of leaves to the grass.  I awoke with seven hundred plans (yes, at 4 am): scrape and paint the exterior windows that need it; ditto for the old bench I want to repaint; pot up the cuttings of lemon basil that have rooted; mulch and edge garden beds; transplant the cedars, elderberries, and maybe even cherry trees that have been lounging in the “nursery bed” for years.  There were Ambitions.  But entering Ezra’s room this morning, in the dark, after he called out for me, I had that wonderful sense of Christmas.  Here is this sweet, precious gift with all his ideas and behaviors and wants and I get to be with him!  Every person in my house is a stunningly perfect blessing, and sometimes I can actually SEE that and KNOW it.  Today was one such day.  So how does anything else really matter that much?  We made pancakes and smoothies and played outside for a while and then the day got ahold of us, and we ended up doing only one actual Thing. (Well, two, but one was a mandatory grocery-store run, so that doesn’t count.)

I look at this month almost gone and I feel much the same way: where are the plans I had for building my consulting practice?  For finalizing my public humanities discussion series?  For advancing the other ongoing projects?  Nothing has languished, exactly, but nothing is taking on new momentum.  Perhaps that’s not a problem; perhaps it’s not time. But I wish I had more faith in my skill at managing these competing priorities of my life: intentionally shaping and designing it vs mindfully living in it.

On wading in: Day 26. Wading out.

I’ve decided that my capacity to control my relationship to the interwebs is waning.  I mean, the WILL is still there, as are the specific forms of revulsion that keep me out of most of it.  But apparently something has damaged my ability to wade back out of the mire that is my email-facebook-pinterest-wordpress-cool-articles-someone-posted world.

I’m a really minimal tech-user, by which I mean that I’m a strongly utilitarian tech-user. I like to communicate; work; keep up with friends; read interesting stories; find new recipes and craft/DIY projects.  I rarely get sucked into shopping; I hardly ever watch a video (except for on Netflix, which is a whole other beast and entirely under control).  But even my mighty commitment to mindfulness can’t seem to turn back ON the energy that gets cut off when I head into this little loop of consumption.

Strategy goes; creativity goes; higher-order processing goes.  The reflex action (moving to whatever screen I’m not currently on) kicks in as soon as the self-loathing alerts me that I’m stuck.  “Oh, okay.  I’ll just see if I have new email and then I’ll shut this thing and go do some work.”  Yah.

The real problem is not even the time drain.  It’s the loss of meaningful initiative and mental bandwidth.  Today, for example, walking home across a  beautiful college’s campus from lunch with a friend, I was filled with the joy of sunshine and the sense of productive possibility that a good walk and a good friend can provide.  I noted the cormorant drying its bat-wings above the water in which it lay; I saw the raggedy juvenile male mallard with his head-feathers not fully in, and I thought to myself, Adolescence is a bitch. I felt the flow of good ideas within me: scraping and painting the old iron bench; working up the proposal for the new book project; calling an old friend for a conversation about work and life.  But I get home, “check my email real quick,” and suddenly it’s 20 minutes later and I have no idea what I’m doing.

Sad but true.

Sometimes I want a sabbatical from technology, but more often I just want to reclaim the purpose of my work with it.  Perhaps post-it notes on my screen to remind me of my goals?  Perhaps giving myself permission to curl up on the couch with a novel, which is really what I seem to be avoiding most of the time?  Perhaps zen-ish questions like that on my new desk-side bulletin board (what are you avoiding?  What would fill you with joy right now?  Who do you want to connect with?)?  Maybe I’ll try them all.

Did I mention my new productivity strategy?  To preserve my freedom of choice in field of work, I’m using an old trick in a new place: distinct lists for ongoing work; new work; house work; fun/fulfillment.  My spiffy new/crappy old bulletin board will store the lists in plain sight — or maybe inside pretty cards? — so that I can have them present where I DON’T NEED TECHNOLOGY TO FIND THEM.  That’s a cruel sideline to the whole e-document system…you get in to do work and find yourself lost in the preparation for working.  Sigh.

So yes, wading in is what we’re about here, but also wading out — freedom, fluidity, and finicky discernment about what to do next.  Sometimes the next best move is to sit still with your face turned toward the sun.  But here on my computer I’ll never know, will I?

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.