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 wading in: Day 30.

This is the last post of my September commitment, an exploration of a month-long journey to “wade in” to the currents and eddies of my life.  It’s hard, producing something every day that you’re not plain embarrassed to post; it’s hard finding meaningful ways to look at your life when you’re tired and scattered and worn down.  But like most writers, I find regular practice does in fact support more and better writing; like most mindfulness practitioners, I find regular commitment does in fact sustain clearer vision and deeper breathing.  No news here.

I thought I’d like to sift back through the posts of this month and pull together their various tools or insights, the images I liked the best, the ideas you seemed to like the best.  But then I realized that that would feel like more dodging — the kind of subtle, artful dodging I’ve come to understand as my most pernicious habit.  I’d do it under the guise of critical review, or summative reflection, or some other noble impulse, when it’s also really a way for me to avoid saying anything new.

So here are some things that have been sticking with me, in the ways that my “wading” approach to life encourages:

Our favorite farmer at the market comes from Somalia and spent years in the Dadaab refugee camp before coming here.  She participates in the market through a program called Fresh Start (formerly the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project), which engages new Mainers who used to farm back home in farming here, offering land and lessons in climate and crops.  Every week after we buy what we need, she sneaks around from behind her stall and tucks into our bag, or hands to one of our small boys, something extra: a pepper, a head of broccoli, a delicata squash.  It is a gesture so kind and familiar that every week it breaks my heart open a little.  And I want to ask her — someday I will — if during those brutal years of flight and transition, and even now in the difficult journey of her life, if she hoped to feed a family like mine.  Because she feeds us.  She is our farmer and she gives us nourishment.  I love her strength and power and generosity, and I am grateful for it, for her, for the funders and organizers and smart people who made it possible for someone kicked off her own patch of earth to nourish others from a new one.

Also, just today: my boys and I raked the driveway leaves (drier than the fog-ridden lawn-leaves) into a big pile and jumped and tossed and buried each other in the heap for a lovely warm half-hour.  Then Ezra wandered up the driveway a bit to gather a new handful and began to scream.  I turned toward him, running already, as he bent over, batting at his face and clothes and screaming, screaming, screaming.  Just a few weeks before, he’d noticed a yellow-jacket hive in the maple over the driveway, but it had clearly been there all summer and we had never had any problems, so we let it be, hoping for an early frost.  But all of a sudden, they swooped in on this tiny man, stinging him four times on the face and neck and twice on the hand.  One sting, on his eyebrow, actually drew blood.  He was sobbing and shaking in full-blown panic — of course!  — as I batted away the remaining bees and hauled him down the driveway toward safety.  It took nearly an hour for the tremors to subside completely, and an hour more for him to externalize enough to look out the window and explain that those yellow-jackets were the ones that had stung him.  His left eye is still swollen shut, but he’s back in the saddle now, and I can’t help but marvel at the resilience of his being.  A massive, painful assault, out of nowhere, in the middle of a joyful morning’s play, and he can squint his way back to a recognition that maybe they thought he was a danger to their nest.  I am astonished all over again at the courage of a human who hasn’t yet lived for four years on this earth.  (Or maybe, I suppose, that’s the ticket.)

As we leave September now and head into October, things pick up speed: our fifteenth anniversary; many, many family birthdays; various programs and projects I’m working on will move ahead more quickly.  But I want to carry this month of transition, of intention, of courage and hope, with me into the rest; I want to remember that time is both more finite and more elastic than I pretend; I want to choose more often the life-giving activities that make more of me and of us.  I want to develop my capacity to know what I’m avoiding and to look at it in clear light; I want to dive in more deeply where and when I can.  (There, I should add, is my one pleasure at releasing this commitment to daily posting: some of these ideas need longer exploration and more research, and there’s been no time on this schedule.  But soon, soon.)  Thanks for reading along on these daily posts!  I look forward to hearing from you as it all keeps unfolding.

On wading in: Day 19. The Joy Plan.

There’s the Happiness Project, Your Happiness Plan, The Wholehearted Life, The Purpose-Driven Life, Authentic Happiness, and a host of others.  They all tell you how to be happy.

Then why aren’t we?

Happiness seems a little overwhelming to me.  Like it’s a constant state of whistling and skipping, and there’s lots of yellow everywhere. There’s no room for my bad moods, for a rainy day playing hooky from all the productivity, for the kinds of mistakes I make and then brood about.  Not like it’s a hobby or anything, but still.  I don’t want to be FORCED into some kind of mandatory cheerfulness.

I find it easier to think about joy than happiness, because joy is always with me.  It underlies everything else, and it shows up at strange moments in the form of gratitude, pleasure, rest, peace, or harmony.  But still, joy eludes me often; it’s not a chronic state, and sometimes it shows up infrequently, leaving me to wonder harder where it got to and what I did to drive it away.

This, I suppose, is precisely the point.  Joy only shows up when you let it, and the kinds of worrying/planning/spiraling/self-loathing/anxiety-mongering behaviors I specialize in don’t give it a whole lot of room.

So I figure I should develop a Joy Plan of my own.  It will involve, first and foremost, a concerted and ongoing effort to notice when I start spiraling, sorting, “doing,” and to take a deep breath.  I want to remember, at those times, that I’m here, now, and that I get to do the other things another time.  That’s going to be my catch phrase: I “get to” do it later.  It will apply quite seriously to the aspects of my life I like, such as planning public humanities programming or finishing a novel or an article; it will apply ironically to the habitual aspects of my life I’m working to release, like self-flagellation or inventing elaborate responses to absurd and painful situations that have never happened and probably never will.  Later, I’ll say.  Right now you can play with your kids in the sun; tonight you can come back to that unpleasant FAKE argument you were having with someone IN YOUR HEAD and really finish it off with a sweet one-liner. That’ll show ’em.  Er, me.  Whatever.

The Joy Plan will also involve chocolate, which goes without saying.

It will involve more walks with people I like; more singing; more saying “yes.”  It will include baking and dancing and reading good books and making things out of cloth and yarn.  I’ve really slowed down on my crafting lately, and it can’t be good.  (I will confess, I made Ezra a pair of pajama pants from dinosaur fleece that he chose, but they’ve gone unreported because, well, they’re a little wide in the leg.  Suffice it to say that Len thinks they look like the goat leggings from Dragnet.  And he’s not wrong.)

It will involve writing more of the things I WANT to write (polemics against current policy; fake dialogues with people that really need to get out of my head and onto paper; poems, poems, poems).  I will worry less about what I imagine people want to hear and more about what I want to say.  They tell me that’s how it works best.

What else is involved in joy?  I’d like to get back into running, if my shins will cooperate — it just feels free and easy and energizing.  I can do anything when I run.
Most of all, it’s an attitude thing.  I want a list of good questions to ask myself every day: what am I most looking forward to?  What am I most grateful for?  What is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen today?  What surprised me the most?  What can we make today?  What can I help someone with today?  How can I challenge myself today?  How can I share myself today?

What other important questions are there?  What other great resources for cultivating joy?

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.

On wading in: Day 3. Breathing.

Today I’m all about the intention.  I woke before the kids this morning (which means before the light and pretty much before the birds) and lay in bed turning over all the little pages and post-its in my mind, until I realized that I was tense.  I became planful and a little anxious just in the process of sorting and sifting my commitments for the day.  I forgot to breathe.

At the gym, I was reminded how critical breathing is, though I kept forgetting to do it well or thoughtfully; on the way home, I tried singing along to Adele and realized that my vibrato has become chronic lately not because of age but because of lousy breath support.  When I breathe the way I was trained to (as an athlete, as a singer), I remember my wholeness.  My posture improves, my face relaxes, the limits of my body become both obvious and right.

I know these things.  But still, my busy little brain keeps moving me right past my body and into the next abstraction. This is not how I live best.  (For the record, it’s not how anyone lives best: see Jon Kabat Zinn and others’ The Mindful Way Through Depression or most any basic Buddhist or yogic text for more on the power of the breath.)

The agrarian writer and critic Gene Logsdon says that firsthand experience is what makes a good writer.  I’d say it’s what makes us good HUMANS — a willingness to be present, with mindfulness and intention, to whatever shows up.

So today it’s clear to me that the intention, the breath, need to come first.  And in my effort to wade in more fully to this rich and rushing life, I need to set those intentions early in the day.  Smooth stones in my pocket, I carry them with me.

On tension

Surface tension.  Also known as total serenity.

Surface tension. Also known as total serenity.

I used to be a singer, a habit which has served me well as a parent (and not just for singing pretty songs).  Four nights a week when I was in college, my women’s acapella group would rehearse for two hours, and we’d usually perform at least one other night.  It was a lot of singing and it came from a place of extraordinary joy.  Plus, my abs were things of beauty: firm, sculpted, and in perfect support of my breath, voice, posture.

Shortly after that, I started taking yoga for the first time.  I listened enthusiastically to the suggestions on breathing: “Let the air fill you up!”  I can do that!  “The fullness of your breath grounds you, connecting you to the world around you.”  Yes!  But then: “Let your belly be soft.”  WHAT?  Obviously, I said to myself, these yogi people know nothing about breathing.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I find that I have lived, mostly, in a constant state of suspension between these two ideals: tension (albeit supportive) and softness (albeit chosen, and therefore disciplined).  I suspect this has something to do with the human condition: that we are given certain circumstances and we need both to accept them (softness) and to make something of them (tension).

This is the essence of Saul Alinsky’s principle, that we have to live in the world as it is and work toward the world as it should be.  It is also the essence of productivity: understand where you are that you might move forward (and the kind of non-acceptance that manifests as self-flagellation doesn’t help).  It’s the essence of teaching: start where the students are and go on from there.  And of course it’s the essence of parenting, of love, and creativity: compassion, for ourselves, our kids, our world, must undergird every disciplined effort to build and teach and grow.

All the love is making this dog tense.

All the love is making this dog tense.

We can all agree that breath (and for “breath,” from here on out, read “love,” “openness,” “curiosity,” or “spirit”) fills us up, that it simultaneously grounds us and lets us fly.  The musculature and intentionality that produce such breathing are real and profound: such breathing is our natural state (as in sleep), but in the world of our realities, pretty much everything gets in the way and messes it up.  So between nightmares and day jobs, childcare and health care, commuting and computing, we end up – most days – tangled beyond recognition.  For most of us, it takes a walk in the woods (which we don’t take) or a round of meditation (which we don’t get) to rediscover our core.  When we do, we can begin to parse our lives with a little more clarity.  Without clarity and rest, we tend to experience stress (which might be considered tension with an attitude problem).

But here’s the thing: tension itself is not bad.  Tension is a kind of discipline or structure, and its manifest in both.  There are many ways to good posture, or effective work habits, or appropriate human interaction, and tension is a part of them.  I am reminded of the persistent knee and hip pain I experienced in graduate school that stopped my running habit, and of the excruciating SI joint issues that developed in my first pregnancy and didn’t resolve long after the second.  I had worked out and stretched diligently through the first but learned in the second that rest was the only solution, so by the time I sought expert help I was not the strongest person you know.  I was, however one of the more flexible.  And that turned out to be the problem.  I didn’t have enough tension!

You maybe can't tell, but this is a tension rod holding up our puppet theater.  Tension promotes play.

You maybe can’t tell, but this is a tension rod holding up our puppet theater. Tension promotes play.

Hahahaha, she laughs, only slightly hysterical – two babies under three years old and mounting fiscal pressure that made it important to get more work and find more daycare…but it’s true.  That kind of emotional tension was keeping me from the strength-training that my body needed in order to create the muscular tension that would hold my bones in the right places.  Roughly.  Part of the pain was from too much tension; part of it was from too little.  Sound familiar?

It’s the same logic with our lives: an absence of tension doesn’t mean smooth sailing: it means we aren’t learning or pushing or changing or MAKING change.  Of course it’s delightful when in the midst of complications something goes smoothly (I still remember, as do all women who have delivered a baby vaginally while conscious, that moment of exquisite, whooshing relief when at long last that tiny body fully squeezes out of your own).  The trick to managing tension in the rest of our lives, I’m finding, is that damned balancing act.  We need some tension, but not too much; we need resilience and self-care for when we are overwhelmed by too much tension anyway; we need the right kinds of tension, at the right times and places, to keep us alert and accountable; we need counterbalancing forms of relaxation to remind us of our natural state and to help us recalibrate.  This is to say, we need the sturdy muscles of our singer’s core to give us voice, to help us run.  And we need to know how to release that posture to assume a gentler one for the yoga mat.  We need to relieve that tension through twisting core stretches and maintain it with vigorous exercise.  But what we can’t do, it seems, is sidestep the question entirely.  Which I’ll admit makes me a little grumpy.  Because I like the idea of smooth sailing.  I’ll let you know how that works out for me.

And another thing I’m learning from the kids

I’m greatly impressed, lately, by the power of silence.  And not just the kind you think I mean, where the noise finally subsides and we can hear the ringing in our ears and take a deep breath before it all starts up again.  No, I mean the kind of silence that is intentionally made and kept as a conscious choice.  My older son, Ezra, likes to ask for silence in the car on the way home from daycare.  And tonight, as I lay next to him at bedtime and asked if he wanted a song, he said, “Not yet, Mama.”  And he lay quietly for a good long while.  I used to listen, in the silence, for the things I wasn’t hearing: the music, the conversations, the stories.  I used to plan for what would come next or imagine what might have been.  But lately I’m just trying to do what he does: to hear the world as it is and his own presence in it, without comment or contribution.  Just listening to all that comes in on the breath and noticing all that goes out with it.  The world is a full place indeed, and those places of quiet are one of my son’s many gifts.