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 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.

What are you taking care of?

Ezra, in the midst of pulling books off his shelf the other morning, turned to me and announced: “When I grow up, I am going to take care of giraffes.”  Then he turned to his brother, who was standing on Ezra’s bed with his tiny face pressed to the window: “Malachi, what are you going to take care of when you grow up?”

We are invited to think about our work in a lot of ways – what we do, how much money we make, what industry we are part of, what sector we contribute to.  But maybe this should be our core question: what, or who, do we take care of?

I used to teach a senior seminar on work as service; all the students were doing a non-profit internship of some kind as a way of exploring a field they might consider for the future.  And we all came together one evening a week to talk over readings on vocation, sustainability, meaning-making, community, and the sociology of work.  It was one of my gladdest times, one of the truest moments of vocation for me personally, because it brought together my best and favorite tools: teaching, critical reading, group discussion, exploratory writing, program-management, community partnership, administration in the original sense of caring for or ministering to.  And the seminar asked essentially Ezra’s question, though never so bluntly.  I wish it had.

As I write this, Jack Johnson’s “lullaby” version of “With My Own Two Hands” is on the stereo, and I realize that it names our common desire: to make the world a more beautiful place, a safer place, with our own two hands.  And open beside me on the scuffed blue kitchen table is Wendell Berry’s incomparable Hannah Coulter, and she is telling us of how in times of grief we stand by one another, we stand with one another: “He came to offer himself…to love us without hope or help” (55).  And eventually, she says “the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end” (62).  What we build and what we hold up only exist by virtue of love, of ad-ministration; what would it look like if we named that truth?  If we thought of our work in the world as always a taking care?

William Sullivan wrote a brilliant book called Work and Integrity: the Perils and Promise of Civic Professionalism.  In it, he traces the civic roots of the professions – business began because people needed goods; lawyers happened because people needed a system to manage disputes and to institutionalize fairness; doctors, well obviously, doctors have always existed in one form or another, though only in recent history do we carve out with such diligence the many forms and ranks of physical care-giving.  He suggests, boldly and reasonably (in fact, it’s bold to be so plainly reasonable) that we might all benefit from a return to these foundational commitments.  Yes.  Of course.  The absence of them is what makes us all so outraged, astonished, and generally speechless: when a drug company hides evidence that its medication does harm; when a financial corporation allows the loss of lifetime-savings entrusted to its care; when food crops are sprayed with poisons so someone can make a bigger or faster profit.  These are betrayals of the basic human contract and certainly violations of the unwritten code of professions.  Who, we might ask, are those decision-makers taking care of?

I know there is room for disagreement.  There always is, and there always should be.  But can we begin with better questions?  Can we learn to question ourselves and our colleagues?  Can we keep a clearer sense of what’s at stake?  Because it’s pretty big and there’s kind of a lot of it: our whole selves, our communities, our nation, our earth.  The air we breathe and the water we drink.  And, Ezra would add, “oceans and jungles and fish and gorillas and babies.”  Right.

So: what are you taking care of?

On the challenges of showing up

When I was in graduate school, I worked at a really good restaurant that some friends of mine were opening.  It was a small place, and serious about their food, drink, and service.  To support that, they made every staffer go through an intensive and prolonged training where you tasted every single thing on the menu (oh, hardship) and learned about how it’s made and how to describe it.  The wine part turned out to be especially interesting to me, because we were given the proper schooling on how to “taste” wine, and I found that I resisted mightily.  I could taste all the same things everyone else was talking about, and the descriptions all made sense and I enjoyed having a new vocabulary, especially one with such cultural cache (how the eff do you write a French accent in here?).  But I could not, and cannot, let wine roll all the way off the edges of my tongue.  It is way too intense for me.  It’s almost physically painful.  Our teacher, the wife of the team (who has since completed sommelier school at Windows on the World and opened her own wine shop) was amused — apparently there are people who are considered “super-tasters” who have these issues.  That seems too fancy a title for me, but the fact remains that I cannot abide the intensity of wine that way.  Some folks can’t drink hard liquor for the same reason; others hate spicy food.  Sometimes experience is just too much and we want to calm the stimulus or avoid it altogether.

I tend to think about mindful living in the same way, especially parenting.  I’ve realized lately that I spent much of the fall in kind of a daze, dealing with one familial health issue after another, and so rarely actually attending to the people rather than the problems.  I’m becoming aware of this as I see how much my kids have grown, how the shapes of their faces are changing, the growth of downy hair on their arms and cheeks.  We walked at the pond today and Ezra stomped puddles the whole way there, rather than riding in the stroller; Malachi wanted to get out and walk, holding onto my hands, up and back, up and back one particular stretch.  I’m trying not to avoid the anguish of their growing up anymore.  I’m trying to think of the truth I heard of a child’s first day of school: how terrified you are for them, and for you, and how thrilled you are as well.  That the two not defeat each other, or cancel each other out, seems like a major goal, or perhaps a small miracle.  So that’s how I’m trying to live these days: to see and relish the absurdity of softness and roundness that is still, for a while, Chi’s little body, and not to worry about what comes next.  Many days, that seems too tall an order, because how else do we prepare ourselves for the angst and chaos ahead?  But maybe all this mindful stuff is right after all, and the only reality is now, and the only truly great thing we can do is show up.