On endings and beginnings

The school year is crawling to a close. Finally.

Because of snow days this past winter, CPS extended the school year a full week and it’s evident. The kids are downright twitchy. It’s fascinating to watch in particular because it’s the first year all four of my children have been in “real” school.

We have our routine down to a science. We all know our way around our schedule now. We know our respective places in each of our environments. Summer time is when we move into some kind of weird lull, unstructured time, floating here biding our time until the new school year takes over. My kids can only see a week ahead right now. I am looking at September already because September is when college visits begin for my daughter, High School visit begin for my oldest son, a new school awaits my youngest boy and my middle son moves up to middle school.

We’re always in motion here, school years shifting, knowledge blooming, pants becoming suddenly too short, voices changing. There’s no standstill. I’m envious of my children and their short attention span, their short lens on the world.

As my children get older I find I’m in this “middle” place with parenting. When they were babies it was clear- keep them clean and safe and fed. Now, they take the reins on much of this and I’m tasked with that looking forward job. It’s no less exhausting.

I often wonder if people who have followed the more traditional approach to education (ie starting “real school” at pre school and continuing on til graduation) have it all figured out at this stage but I know that’s the trap of parenting- comparison and “if only.” It’s enough to make a parent crazy.

So today as I sit and savor the last 7 days of our lingering routine I commit to pull back from comparison, pull back from future thinking, pull back from the fear of an unstructured summertime looming. Today I’m going to be here now…at least until the second cup of coffee kicks in.

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summer…

It’s so very far from a summer day here in Chicago’s March. In the midwest we live under the constant threat that winter is just never that far away from us and can blow back in at any moment. It holds us hostage all during January but in February we begin to question it, we begin to sass back our captors a bit. In March we put on our winter coats with a grudge and sigh aloud when brief bouts of warm air greet us in place of icy blasts. Still, we know we’re not far from winter’s iron grip. It’s Chicago. We do what we must.

But a few days ago I was reminded of  a poem I love most by Mary Oliver. I was reminded not because it’s titled “The Summer Day” but because so often I feel held captive by fear and doubt, no matter the weather and Mary Oliver reminds me in this brief poem that we are all temporary here. I have only this one wild and precious life. I cannot let myself be too often bundled up and hiding away.

Enjoy this today!

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Racism 101

The first book of poetry I owned was “Those who ride the night winds” by Nikki Giovanni. It’s safe to say that the reason I began writing poetry was because that book was given to me. My early poems sounded an awful lot like a 12-year-old German Catholic white girl from Cincinnati, Ohio trying to sound like Nikki Giovanni. It was not pretty. I think I’ve gotten a little better since then or at least I sincerely hope I have gotten better.

When the AWP conference chose Chicago as its location for 2012 and I saw that Nikki Giovanni would be speaking it sealed the deal for me. I try to keep my “conference” and “workshop” attendance well spaced for the most part, but I made an exception for this one. I’ve never heard Ms. Giovanni read her work in person and there is something magical and powerful about hearing a poet read his or her own work. It was a treat to be able to hear her, to sit there in that ballroom and pick up what she was laying down.

I was struck by her ease and yet her urgency. No matter the words she used I kept thinking that here was a woman comfortable in her own skin, she embraced the space between her cells, she knew not only who she was but what this meant in the big wide world. It was both not being afraid of other people thought of her and yet caring deeply about everything before her. I envy that. I want that feeling.

And then suddenly there was something else-

I realized as I sat in that room that I am still that German Catholic white girl from Cincinnati, Ohio and perhaps I will always be that girl. I was uncomfortable then, but I could not pin down why.

For days afterward I ruminated on this. Why was I uncomfortable sitting in a room and listening to a poet and author I have loved since I was 12? Was it her confidence? Was it her talent? Was it the color of her skin or perhaps, was it the color of my own? I wanted to belong there, but I felt distinctly, “other.” I was uncomfortable. I brought that into the room with me.

And then a week or two later Trayvon Martin was killed. Unarmed, gunned down in “self-defense” in a gated community, this 17-year-old boy was killed after leaving a convenience store. The shooter called 911, reporting him as suspicious. I do not know what could have transpired in those minutes between the 911 phone call and the gun being fired.

Except, that I imagine the fear was palpable, the fear was the sweat on his lip, the shaking hands that pulled the trigger. He claims it was self-defense, but it was not Trayvon Martin who threatened this man. The threat was always the man who shot the gun.

Maybe white people cannot write about racism. That’s what I’m thinking today. Maybe that is what gave me pause as I listened to Nikki Giovanni speak at that conference. As I listened to her speak about equality and about oppression and I placed condemnation on my plate, even though she did not offer it up. I was ashamed of my ancestors. There was no retribution and at this moment I begin to wonder if there ever could be retribution in a society like ours. I begin to wonder if people so gripped by fear can enter into the redemption necessary to bring us all up. Maybe women will never be paid as much as men in our country, maybe black people will always seem “suspicious” to white people, maybe liberals and conservatives will never again agree on basic principles, maybe Christians and Muslims will never be able to see past their own prejudices.

All prejudices are based in fear. And we are fearful people.

As much as I’d like to hope that at some point the human race will become enlightened and embracing the differences between us, the bold truth of it is that we humans will always be afraid of something…or someone or a whole lot of someones. This is why men enslave other men, this is why we demean each other, this is why we try to wipe out entire populations. We are so very afraid, afraid at our core, of what we do not know and afraid at our very human core of being deprived of something, of not belonging, not being accepted, not being loved. In that fear we build our homes and our personalities and our world views and in that gated community we gun down unarmed teenagers for looking “suspicious” and I do not know what we can do about it.

Maybe white people cannot write about racism, maybe it’s an empty task because we do not, cannot, will not, put our money where our mouth is where matters of equality and respect are concerned.

We should be uncomfortable.

Then again I cannot help but believe that it is essential that we talk about it more. It is essential that we confront the “other-ness” we feel in ourselves, the fear we choose when faced with difference, prejudice, history, poetry.

We must talk about it, write about it, confront it, make poetry about it, no matter how uncomfortable we feel. We can’t keep living with fear as our motivator. In the end, that fear will only destroy us all.

missive: warm

Dear one

Whenever the weather turns warm I think of you.

I think of the earth inside of you beginning its thaw. Long held beliefs and fears live inside of you. They are like a child who is frightened wrapping her arms tightly to keep safe. When the winter comes, she turns to ice, she turns to stone.

But whenever the weather turns warm I think of you and the earth inside you beginning its thaw.

I imagine that child feeling the wind on her face. It is not the cold chill of winter,  the fiery frost of freezing but rather the air of hope that blows in from somewhere in the deep south, from an island in the ocean that knows nothing of fear.

I imagine the earth inside you letting go, loosening its grip, sinking back into your cells, your skin, your hair and then you are no longer stone, no longer ice. You are rich and clean and waiting for the first signs of life to spring up within you. You are the garden, you are the sapling, you are the leaves unfolding and beckoning the sun.

Whenever the weather turns warm I think of you and I’m reminded of the hope of spring, the hope that life begins again and again no matter how cold the winter.

don’t forget-

 

Mrs M

 

Never Swim Alone…

For the next 6 weeks I’ll be reposting pieces I’ve written over the years. These are a few examples of essays that will find themselves expanded with fresh air and correct punctuation then placed lovingly into the book I hope to publish through Kickstarter. If you like what you read I hope you will share it any way you can so that the book can become a reality! It’s time to flex those social media muscles and get the word  out, friends!

This piece was one I had written a number of years ago, when we had first moved to Tennessee from the big city of Chicago. As always, big shifts show all the cracks in my psyche, it’s not pretty but I think I heal up alright in the end. I still read this one aloud as often as I can so that I remember what really matters.

Never Swim Alone

Rule #1 Never Swim Alone.

This is one of my rules. When we moved out to the country a while ago I made a list of rules for the children to help adapt to our new surroundings.  The pool on the side of the house caused me a few sleepless nights so rule #1 is Never Swim Alone.

I guess I make rules and drill them into my children because of the fear.  I could theorize that I do this to help them protect themselves out here in the “wild” but really I think it’s because I don’t want to be alone in my fear.  If they end up being wiser for it then so much the better because if I’m looking for another shoe to drop I know it will.  A watched pot may not boil but a watched shoe is bound to drop and then before you know it we find a couple of copperhead snakes living in a retaining wall near the house.

Rule #2 Never touch a snake.

Never touch a snake, never put your hand or foot anywhere you can’t see into.  Never put your face into a hole in the ground, things like that.  Every day for what seems like 6 months I say this to them.  And then one glorious day while basking in the cool breeze in back of our house my 5 year old son says, “There is a snake living in here” as he points to the crevice.  My response was basically, “HUH?”  But sure, enough, there it was.  I’ve done a little research on snakes in our area and this was one of the few venomous.  Lucky us. Never touch a snake.

We made our way inside.  We played inside until the nice man from an animal control company came to claim the snake and the snake’s surprise friend.  He asked my son about it.  “What did you do when you saw him?” asked the snake man.  “I told my mom.  She said ‘Never touch a snake.’”

There you go, consistency pays off.

It’s only recently that I have begun to notice the pattern of life becoming consistent again after the unsettling move from the city life we had in Chicago. I find that I look forward to the steady clicking of the clock, the predictable measure of a schedule.  I crave the schedule. Every morning is the same, every afternoon ordered and every evening filled with ritual and ordinary time and shoes waiting to drop.

A friend of mine lost her daughter Allison to cancer recently.  She was 7 years old. I followed Allison’s progress for most of her illness through email and phone calls and occasional visits.  Sandy and I had met a few months earlier for dinner in fact. Hearing her talk about the daily regimen of treatments, medications and tests made my head spin.  There was an order to it but each medication and each treatment was utterly dependant on how her body responded in any given moment.  They seemed to be at the mercy of this illness and then she said something amazing.  She told me she was coaching her son’s soccer team that spring.  In the midst of the struggle she was coaching soccer.  When I walked her to the car I saw the mass of soccer balls in the backseat.  How ordinary it seemed to me. Ordinary Time.

For Allison’s funeral I sent sunflowers because they reminded me of her.  I imagined her sitting across from me at American Girl place the day we met there, smiling broadly, missing a couple of front teeth and most of her hair.  She beamed with joy.  Sunflower beaming.

Some things even my “rules” will not cover.  Never get cancer. Never die young.  So many things are out of my control that to be “consistent” seems an unearthly task.  I suppose it is, in fact.  I comfort myself late at night with the thought that only God is consistent.  Words fail, bodies fail, people fail…

The truth is that I simply cannot protect my children or myself.  I cannot protect anyone it seems from the reality of life on this broken planet.  I can be as consistent as possible.  I can make rules and give instruction.  I can confront my fears and pray for release from them.  I can do all these things but is it enough?

Never Swim Alone.

The reason we never swim alone is that we might drown and no one would know we were missing.  No one would know we were in trouble.  No one would be there to go for help, to add us to their prayer chain, to bring meals when we are too tired to cook, to offer to babysit for us when we’ve been at the hospital all day, to give a word of encouragement, to send sunflowers because they remind us of someone we’ve lost, to tell us we are not alone when we feel utterly helpless and no one there to pull us up when the water begins to cover our head.

So, Rule #1  Never Swim Alone.

the waiting place…listen and pray

I got the call at six o’clock in the morning
hearing that voice tell me all I had to know
I knew it then
there’s no one he would turn to
all I could do was listen and pray
because he didn’t ask
and I couldn’t offer
I’m breaking this habit that could hurt us both more
I’ll cradle my guilt in this broken vessel
and I’ll work it out
in the waiting place.

I’m not sure when it first became clear that my younger brother had a problem with his drinking. I suppose it was when he began making a series of very poor judgments. We did the usual thing with whispering to one another, using code to speak about it. None of us wanted to say that we thought he was an alcoholic. None of us wanted to think that he was not in control.

At one point I remember sitting in my apartment worrying about what would come next. He’d already lost his marriage and had gotten into tangles with the law. He was falling further and further down and being 300 miles away I felt unable to help.

The six o’clock in the morning call was the one I dreaded but thankfully have not received. It was the one I anticipated over and over though for many years. I suppose it’s the call we all dread while in relationship with someone who struggles with chemical addiction.

My brother has come a long way since this was written. He has stabilized and picked up the pieces. It’s only God’s grace that keeps us all here…and the realization that sometimes all I can do is listen and pray.

And in the end we hope it is enough.

Just Wait

***caution****parenting rant****

I’m tired of fear talk. I’m tired of hearing people place their fears on top of me like a death shroud. I am especially tired of this as it pertains to my parenting. This is a friend who tells me all the horror stories of parenting. They are the “Oh, just wait” parents. The ones who temper all my good stories with, “Oh, just wait, they get worse…”

For example a dialogue like this:
me- “Oh, my gosh, Miles is hysterical…yesterday he wanted to ride the dog…”
her- “Yikes, you know that could really hurt the dog!”
me- “No, no…I was right there, I didn’t let him do it…the dog loves Miles.”
her- “Yeah, well, you know…that can turn the dog mean and then pretty soon he starts to bite little kids…”
me- “Erm….hey, so I gotta go….”

It’s this kind of “fear” thinking that makes me mental, as a parent. I’m all about the process of discernment as it concerns pretty much everything. I’ll ask questions, do research, seek advice and look for the best route as far as I’m able. I’m just not about “fear.” Discernment means walking INTO situations with eyes open, questions asked, heart studied, fear abated. It does not mean sitting around thinking about all the bad things that can happen. I can do all the research and ask all the advice I can muster but basically, in the end, I’m discovering it’s not really ALL I need to be an effective parent. I need more if I’m to live in the real authentic community I crave.

In the hard situations that surround parenting I needs lots of affirmation and encouragement sandwiched gently in love. I need that. So I’m giving that out…free of charge.

I’m starting this new trend….it’s my own version of “just wait.” I’m going to make sure to employ it, in particular with every new parent I meet. It will include statements such as, “Just wait….it gets even better.” and “Just wait, someday he’ll do that on his own and you’ll be so proud” and “Just wait, it won’t always be this hard.” I think I shall add an order of love while I’m at it.

That’s where I’m at on it these days.