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 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 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 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 the challenge of being yourself

If you’ve never watched the movie “Center Stage,” you should.  It’s cheesy and beautiful and uplifting and all the right people get what they deserve.  It’s a dance movie that functions perfectly as a metaphor for life: dance the dance you have inside you, with all the effort and discipline you can muster.  And recognize when you’re trying to dance a dance that’s not your own.  And of course, roses and standing ovations follow immediately when you have the wisdom to be yourself.

But here’s where I’d add a few things: it’s not just about wisdom.  It’s just as much about opportunity, and foresight, and connections, and plain old good luck.  It’s about having sufficient freedom from constraints that you can actually DO the kinds of movement your own self demands.  And for most of us, absent full-time child-care and a perennially healthy bank balance, we just don’t get that freedom.  So what do we do?

I hate that all the best answers seem to revolve around “patience” and “self-love” and being “mindful.”  We need an Action Plan.  A Career-Planning Mom action figure.  She’d be a myth, like all the other super-heroes, but she’d have her s*#t together.  Perhaps I need a costume.