On the generative power of dialogue. Or, learning by talking.

I’m an idea person.  I have a lot of them, and I like to talk about them.  I like other people’s ideas, too, and not much makes me happier than an exchange of ideas, especially in person.  (With good food and bev, preferably, though not necessarily.)  So when I have a big new idea, I like to talk it out.

My latest big idea is a new blog.  I’ll be announcing it here once I get it formed and fleshed enough that it’s ready for public engagement.  And in the meantime, I’m seeking out smart people to help me think about its scope and ambition.   Here’s a sampling of those conversations and what I’ve learned from them.

In a friend’s living room, with various babies crawling around, I chatted with a woman I’ve known for a long time but never really had a chance to buttonhole before.  And I’ve wanted to.  She’s an organizer who works on smart and interesting issues, always justice-oriented, always thinking about the experiences of EVERYONE, not just the mainstream folks.  She has a huge, flamboyant personality, full of hugs and squeezes and prone to sitting on the floor and touching you while she talks.  She reminds me that my own large, noisy self is usually toned down, and that sometimes I’d like it not to be.  She reminds me that it’s okay to laugh loudly and share big enthusiasms and ask hard questions.  When I mentioned my incipient blog, she said that she had one, too, and that she’d been NOT writing it for three years (hurray! I’m not the only one!) but that now she was going to begin, because you can only wait so long to achieve Full and Perfect Knowledge of your topic, and sometimes you just have to START, to get your ideas OUT there.  She cited Myles Horton, which makes me want to reread We Make the Road By Walking.  She proposed the concept paper as a way of sharing what needs to be shared, and I love it.  I love her.  I am inspired.

I talk to my program-officer husband about my project all the time, and to my amazing friend Kate who blends love and justice seamlessly in her many commitments at home, on her farm, in her paid work teaching new immigrants English, in her support of important causes.  Both of them agree that the divide between what we do at home, what our homes are LIKE, how they are run, what they contain, who they include, and what we do outside in our paid work, our board work, our volunteer work, our social commitments and attitudes…that divide is far too great and far too thoughtless.  Whether or not you work outside the home, I’ve decided, is no longer primarily a feminist question, because it’s determined by too many issues beyond our control.  But HOW we live, how we conceptualize and raise our families, those are fundamentally feminist questions, human questions, and also questions of justice across spiritual, economic, financial, social, and environmental domains.  My friend and husband help me see this.

A third (fourth?) conversation that wants to be mentioned here just happened on the phone.  My dad, who has a complicated life and who has done social and humanitarian work in a bunch of contexts and had a career with the UN, caught up with me on the phone after a bit of tag.  I caught up with him, really, as he had just finished some tractor work at his house — a totally off-grid, locally- and self-built timber-frame on nineteen acres with lots of forest, much garden, and some open field.  He sat down in the tractor bucket to talk, pleased, I think, with this rudimentary and totally available seat.  I could picture the cold wind up there chilling his phone hand; I imagine he switched hands a couple of times to warm up the other one.  We talked about jobs, and work, and writing, and my boys; we chewed on the problems of civil society and an economy that has screwed itself by overprivileging the few at the expense of the many.  He reminded me, when I mentioned my new blog and my hopes that it will serve as an idea-bank for a whole range of issues spanning love and justice, at home and in the world, that every conversation is just a conversation.  And it helps to have an introduction, and it helps to have back-up materials, but mostly it is just a conversation.  And people are kind and sometimes this conversation is their work, so get on in there.

As we hung up, he explained that he would now climb out of the tractor bucket.

Perhaps that what I’m trying to do today: have a conversation, then get out of the tractor bucket and have another.

 

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 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 22. The things I’m still avoiding.

It is clear to me that this month has involved a lot more wading into life than usual.  It shows up in the games we play with the kids, the conversations we have together, the increased singing, the greater appreciation of what’s around me, the enhanced interest in our slow-food processes of homegrown goodness.  (Today, for example, we started off with pumpkin-oat waffles; enjoyed a fabulous leftover white-bean-and-buttercup-squash soup for lunch; found a rack of lamb in the downstairs freezer that we roasted with garlic and rosemary, accompanied by sliced broiled delicata squash and kale sauteed with garlic.  It’s a hardship.)

These are the areas of life that soothe me, that fill me up and calm me down.  And I’m glad I’ve learned to love those, to try to live within them, because for much of my life I would have coded such satisfaction as “boring,” not understanding the depth of joy and contentment and the peace that they bring.

But every so often I am reminded that there’s more to me than this.  There are big important issues that I want to work on, skills and gifts that ask me to do more.  I tend, lately, to suppress those, to nod and smile while focusing elsewhere.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of facebooking while your kids are talking.  And it’s one of the things that needs to change.

See, I’ve assumed all along that the Big Important Stuff cannot peaceably coexist with the daily habits of joy.  But it also seems true that perhaps they cannot peaceably coexist without one another.  So now I ask, again, what it looks like to bring them together.

Some aspects of that are already in place: public humanities work that seeks to explore how we can talk civilly with different others across disagreements; other public humanities work that offers novels as a way to understand our relationships to land, culture, and food; board work that tries to open new avenues to social impact instead of just programmatic outcomes.  But there’s more.  I wonder: would more and different kinds of writing be a way in?  A new blog on the horizon, this one focused on the professional concerns I seek to address?  Who knows.

For now, I am glad to have this discipline here and this set of lenses through which to examine the life I lead.  But I also see that I can rise to the risk I set for myself.  Perhaps it’s time to pose a new challenge: go to the heart of what matters in professional life as in personal.  It was my way for fifteen years; there’s no reason it can’t be again. The fact of being a parent makes me a better person, a clearer thinker, a more compassionate human.  And it also helps me see more clearly what matters and what doesn’t.  Instead of feeling pushed out of my professional world (as most of us do, who “step off the track”), perhaps I can just speak my truths wherever I am, whatever they may be.  Scary — but after all, what’s the alternative?  I worry about arriving at the end of this stage of life and feeling that I bottled up too much, that I didn’t participate in conversations I needed.  Fear of rejection, mostly, is what keeps me mute, and fear is what I’m most ready to release.

Sigh.  We’ll see how this shakes out.

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 16. The benefits of breaking down.

Don’t worry, it’s not an all-out breakdown.  Just the sloppy, exhausted flailing of Life with sick kids, sick me, upcoming travel, house projects, and a range of professional commitments that are creeping up fast.  But two things converged today that made me want to praise that moment when things go from complicated to plain silly, causing me to just give up on trying to do it all.

One was Chi, who has been sick for days, during which time when he wasn’t nursing, he was crying.  So he was mostly nursing.  (It has made me realize, among other things, that one form of impact assessment for me is whether or not I have the privilege of wearing a comfortable bra, or whether I have to, for convenience, wear one of my aged nursing bras all day, just so I can manage the nonstop nurser.)  For much of the morning, I hoped that he would nap (he wouldn’t) or that we would go somewhere and do something, that we could jolt him out of his misery by stimulating him.  It usually works.  But today he wailed and wailed and was such a disaster that I finally just explained to Ezra that we were done trying to do anything.  As if on cue, Chi relaxed into me and finally fell asleep.  Lesson one.

Lesson two involved another form of letting go: I have two gorgeous and prolific grape vines crawling over my pergola, rich with Concords and perfectly ripe.  Every year I hope to do something with them, this year included.  But it became clear to me that I wouldn’t, and that what I hate most is not letting something go but FAILING to let it go until it’s too late.  I was not going to waste forty pounds of perfect grapes out of a misunderstanding of my own capacities.  So I had put out a note on Facebook and got a few takers.  One friend came and got a few; the other was the director of a fabulous youth gardening program in our area.  She expressed interest but we didn’t settle anything.  So I reached out again this morning and lo!  Two garden fellows and three youth gardeners came with flats and knives to harvest.  They cleaned us out, which was PERFECT, and were lovely and fun in the process.  In fact, Ezra had such a good time with them that he asked them to stay for a garden tour afterward — and when that was over, he wanted to blow bubbles with them.  And they did!  We all sat in the grass in the late afternoon sun and blew bubbles, seeing how far they would go in the wind, whether they would land in the peach tree or the grass or blow up over the house next door.   Lesson two.

Whoever said your kids are your best teachers was right — but for me, there’s even more than that going on here.  I need to be overwhelmed, to throw up my hands before I can turn something over and let it go.  A child’s misery, a vast grape harvest: these things were too much for me today, and they broke me down.  In doing so, they opened me up to greater peace, more fun, and more useful living.  I realize this isn’t news — none of it.  But it’s worth saying again, I figure.

Oh — and may I add that this little revelation was well-timed.  We’re expecting the first real frost of the season tonight, and as I speed-harvested basil this evening, I realized my usual ritual sadness at the loss of summer, of these particular plants, this particular set of joys.  I worried about Chi (aka Tomato Joe) and Ezra coming out in the morning to find blackened vines, and I suddenly realized that such mourning does not have to be private or even silly.  We can honor this turning of the seasons.  I’d even argue we should.  So I went back in and explained to the boys what would happen tonight.  Ezra teared up, though Malachi didn’t care, which prompted Ezra to say: “Looks like it’s just you and me saying goodbye to the garden, Mama.  Let’s go.”  And we did.  We found the last two Sungolds and gave them one to each boy, Ezra carefully carrying Malachi’s indoors to where he sat with Papa.  And both boys helped me strip the basil leaves from the stems for freezing, their small hands working in the bright light of the late sun.  Malachi’s chubby hands, when he reached for my face before bath, smelled of grapes, of tomatoes, of basil.  What could be more beautiful, or more perfect on this end-of-summer night?

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 9. Seeing clearly.

There are a number of things that my husband and I are not good at, and one of them is regular household maintenance.  He is genuinely relaxed about it, whereas I suffer a low-grade chronic anxiety over all the neglect.  Doesn’t matter: we don’t do a thing.

But sometimes I get to realizing that my life would be happier without the chronic anxiety.  And that maybe some of the things I’m anxious about are, in fact, fixable.  So every once in a while, we get all over it (see Day 7: Gettin’ it done).

What I don’t usually anticipate are the lovely results.  For the past two days, for example, I’ve been opening all the blinds on all the windows and gazing out the windows admiringly.  When teased about this behavior, I responded truthfully: “But I’m loving looking OUT the window instead of AT the window.”  Because that was what I had done for the last, oh, five years.  I’d look at the clouded, spotted, smudged surface that was supposed to be glossy clean, and I’d feel like a failure.  It was a very quiet voice and a very quick sort of seeing, but it was there.  Today, I just see the emeralds and golds and blues of this early fall day.

As ever, there’s a lesson here for me.  Letting go of, or doing away with, the obstacles to joy is a whole lot easier than I think.  It may take time, organization, and elbow grease, but it’s something, often, that I can plan for, engage others in, and DO.  What it takes most of all, though, is a willingness to see clearly what the obstacle is — and how to fix it — and, most importantly, how to honor its removal and revel in the joy of a new openness in my life.

Today was an “Ezra-Mama-Chi day,” as Ezra has coined them (in case you couldn’t tell from the order of names), from Len’s departure at 7:45 until his return at 6:45.  And it was the best such day we’ve ever had.  Why?  I think it had to do with all that clear sunlight streaming into the house and all the crystalline simplicity it brought with it.  Playground?  Why sure.  Duck pond?  Absolutely.  Hungry for muffins?  Let’s make some.  We’ve got this here zucchini and our favorite new recipe (Martha Stewart’s recipes really are, often, impeccable).  Naptime was later than usual because of all the story requests, but hey — there are worse things than extra reading.  There was one small meltdown, which I met with love (“I KNOW how hard it is to listen sometimes, but I REALLY want to read you stories before bed, and Mama can’t read to a boy who doesn’t listen…so what do you think?  Can you work harder on listening?  Let’s practice!”).   I did, of course, flash forward a few times to all the Things I Have To Do Tomorrow, but for once I could see clearly: tomorrow is tomorrow.  Let’s write those puppies down and look at the list…tomorrow.

In short, I felt powerful, loving, loved, contained, expansive, generous, whole.  My work felt new, my life fulfilling, my family part of my art.  This, I imagine, is perhaps the whole point.

On various forms of training

It’s always strange when things that are supposed to line up don’t: when the brilliant, highly verbal, well-adapted child refuses to potty-train until three-and-a-half; when the ten weeks of gradual and successful getting-back-into-running suddenly collapse in a new and constant bilateral knee pain; when remarkable patience and empathy in the face of all kinds of difficulty suddenly vanishes, leaving you astonished you ever behaved reasonably at all.  But that seems to be the bear of this thing called life: nothing is linear.  “Progress” is only ever incremental and more or less impossible to chart.  We can’t move forward efficiently unless we pause at every point where someone needs a hug or an ice pack or a listening ear.  It makes sense that we are this way; the part that doesn’t make sense is that we keep imagining our world works differently.  We maintain hopes and expectations that have nothing to do with reality, and, still worse, that we KNOW have nothing to do with reality.

And so, we are advised, we try to let those go.  We try to be here and now, accepting whatever is going on.  And I love that approach, I really do.  It opens me to all kinds of possibilities that I wouldn’t even NOTICE, otherwise.  But somewhere deep inside me is always that other set of voices, asking “really?  You’ve pooped on the potty before: you can do it again, no?”  I hear those voices, I try to nod to them and thank them for their good intentions in supporting our boy’s efforts, and then I ask them to please keep it down for a little while.  There’s someone else I need to listen to right now.  And I wrap him up tight in my arms and try to hear.

The grand irony here, of course, is that many of these myths of progress find their homes in various kinds of training: to use the potty; to follow a physical therapy regimen; to keep a household manageable; to build a career.  But those training arenas, those places of learning, are precisely where the myth of linear progress is most powerful and most damaging.  What we need is training in mindfulness, training in training, if you will: the kind of training that will enable us to see where we fall down and give ourselves a gentle hand back up.  We need to be reminded that we are always practicing and never perfect, that we all have accidents and make mistakes and that the trick is learning to accept it with grace.  So as much as supporting a potty-learner can be a hassle (yes, I was the recipient of a full stream of urine down the center of my back today), it’s also a good chance to say out loud to someone else these most vital lessons: we listen to our selves and then try to do what seems best.  We have courage if we are afraid.  We understand that everyone tries new things, that this is a big part of what life is about.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t.  But we keep on trying and that is what makes us who we are.  Like the lambeosaurus in Jane Yolen’s “How do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food” — we try things. Like the deal I make with my students in every class I teach: you trust me enough to give the work your all and I will trust you enough to really hear what you desire and are capable of.  This kind of testing, this exploration of trust, is one way we live out our faith in the world and in each other.

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?