Better answers to “What do you do?”

There have been a number of articles up lately about the question of “what do you do?” in polite society. I’m pleased that Elephant Journal decided to publish mine on their site! If you get a moment, take a look and tell me what you think. If you dig it and have another moment, share it!

tanks!

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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.

the problem with parenting…

IMG_8769

You might remember my feelings about “Mother’s Day.” If not, you can see my rants here

This year as we approach that day in the U.S, I’m struggling a little with that whole parenting thing. I know, what else is new?

In particular, I wonder how hard it will be to break the habit of saying “be careful” to my children whenever they get out of the passenger side of the car. I mean, I imagine that sometime, and perhaps soon, they’ll have internalized this concept. I say “be careful” to them all day long; when we’re taking walks, when they’re using scissors, when they’re making scrambled eggs. I caught myself saying it to my youngest son as he was coming down the stairs the other day, not running, not hopping, walking down the stairs. Force of habit.

It got me thinking about how useless those two words have become. Or maybe it isn’t that they are useless, maybe they are just code for something I am really thinking but afraid to say out loud. I’m slowly realizing that pretty much every time I say “be careful” to my kids (and for that matter, to my husband when he’s driving) what I am really saying is “I don’t trust you.”

I don’t trust that you’ll be safe.

I don’t trust that you’ll be able to take care of yourself.

I don’t trust that you won’t rear end that car ahead of us.

Sad but true.

The latest trend in parenting right now isn’t so much “helicopter” parenting anymore. Now, it’s what I’m hearing termed “lawnmower” parenting. These parents try to clear the path for the kids, wrapping everything in bubble wrap, sanitizing the area, sometimes literally. I like to make fun of parenting trends as much as anybody but hearing about this new trend gave me pause. As it was laid out for me, the realization dawned on me that as much as I try to get my kids to think critically, to solve their own problems, to make their own scrambled eggs, I do this. I smooth the road, I wrap the bubble wrap, I send the emails about the potential internship and the low grade gotten on a test. What I’m saying when I do this is once again, “I don’t trust you…”

So between my realization of the translation of “be careful” and the image of me smoothing the road ahead I found myself in a full on panic this week. Add to this the ill timing of my reading this story in the Atlantic about  a playground (that is actually a junk yard) in the UK and I had to admit that I would be a freaking basket case if my boys were playing in there. I mean, I WANT to be hip and cool and allow them to live out their kid-hood with some boldness and excitement but…you know…I also don’t want them to come home with lockjaw.

Reality is hard…bubble wrap is easy.

Now, I don’t tell you all this so that you’ll leave a comment assuring me that I’m a pretty good mother (obviously I won’t delete those comments if you feel so inclined.) I’m just laying it out there. I think too often I labor under the delusion that parenting is just easier for pretty much everyone but me. I think that my neighbor is doing it better, that her kids are turning out better, that her kids can get out of the passenger side of the car without tripping on the sidewalk and falling on the ground.

This is the problem with parenting…and it helps me to just put it out there sometimes, a voice shouting into the storm like Lieutenant Dan raging on that little shrimp boat in the hurricane.

In any case, this is where I’m at this week as I ponder the upcoming fake holiday celebration of Mother’s Day and I do the yearly internal assessment of my parenting skillz. Not to mention that all this is coming together as we reach the end of the school year. There will be playing outside and riding the bikes in the neighborhood. There will be stick fights in the backyard. There will be driving tests for my 16-year-old. There will be college visits for my daughter and high school choices for my oldest son. There will be pressure building and heat rising and maybe even a lawnmower leaking fumes in the wake of my parenting.

I think I’m going to need to be more careful.

Why I hate Valentine’s Day…

“What do you think Dad will get for you for Valentine’s Day?” Miles asks.
“Um, nothing?” I respond,
He puts on a shocked expression, over the top and dramatic, which fits him perfectly.
“Why not?”
I shrug.
“We just don’t do that.”
He shakes his head and wanders into the next room.
“I don’t understand you guys at all.”

I never have cared much for Valentine’s Day. I’m also grumpy about the traditional Mother’s Day and maybe even a little about Father’s Day, Sweetest Day and St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not grumpy about all the holidays, only the holidays that bring with them outside pressure to have fun and romance or deep meaning. Ok, maybe I am grumpy about most holidays.

It may be my non conformist talking here but I don’t need any more pressure to feel something at a certain moment. It’s the “you’re not the boss of me” attitude coming out. I’m a burgeoning curmudgeon. What can I say?

When faced with Valentine’s Day this year I realized that for the first time ever I would be responsible to providing treats for about 90 kids. My boys are all in “real” school for the first time in their lives and each swim in a sea of about 30 kids day in and day out. Two of the classrooms allow candy with the Valentines and one allows only paper and cheap crap that will gather dust under my kid’s bed if it’s lucky enough to make it into the house at all after school.

I’ve had this obligation on my mind for at least a month and each time it has come to mind I’ve gently wrestled it back behind that door marked “procrastination.” A few times I’ve polled the boys with questions like, “what kind of Valentines do you want for your class?” They roll their eyes, unfamiliar with this practice, certain that it would be vastly “uncool” to bring Valentines but I know better. I know, from my own school experience, the feeling of sitting in my seat, brown bag in hand, waiting for the Valentines to be passed out, waiting and counting. This is back before teachers started requiring Valentines to be handed out to ALL the kids in a class so no one would feel left out. Back in my day, being left out was sometimes the point. The memory of it drags a deep and lasting dread over me. It was never a good experience.

The memory of sitting in my seat and waiting dregs up another bad memory- 7th grade and my “secret admirer” who I thought might be the boy I had crushed on that year. I was just discovering myself, discovering how I moved in my introverted skin, how I felt about the other people around me, mainly about the boys in the class. I was noticing who was “cute” and who was “mean” and usually those two qualities paired up. Why is that, I wonder?

My “secret admirer” sent me notes and I read them behind a bookcase in Mrs Conrad’s class.  My “secret admirer” said the best things at the right moments and promised a surprise on Valentine’s Day. He said to look on the bookshelves that afternoon at recess and I looked forward to it for a week. On the appointed day at the appointed time I stayed in at recess, presumably to do some extra credit work, I made my way through the empty classroom to the bookshelves and I found the special Valentine, it was a book sized box, wrapped in Valentine’s paper; hearts and bears and cupids, oh my.

I tore into the package, unaware at that moment there were 2 or 3 boys standing behind the next shelf over, waiting to see my reaction to what would end up being a gag gift- valentine bikini underwear.

Seriously. I lived out that tired, angsty pre teen movie scene where the geeky, awkward girl is duped once again. It’s no wonder I still root for Sissy Spacek’s “Carrie” when that pig blood comes down at prom.

Still, I wanted to give this classroom Valentine’s thing a new spin, perhaps redeeming it for the boys and maybe for myself. I considered carefully which Valentines they might like as I finally stood in the aisle of the Walgreens the night before the big day. Leaving it to the last minute worked against me, obviously. We were left with Batman and Hello Kitty. For the non candy classroom we went with Batman valentines which included a crappy eraser that would most likely serve no real purpose. For the candy oriented classes, M&M mini bags with a Valentine theme. It was a half-hearted attempt on my part. No pun intended.

half hearted valentines attempts

I prodded them to write their name on each one, not even requiring they write the names of classmates. I shoved them into the backpacks and reminded the boys to pass them out at the appointed time, regretting the lack of prep as I saw posts by other parents in Facebook and Instagram about their contributions to what most people consider a fun day. I felt that holiday Grinch sigh contentedly, slapping his hands together with a “job well done” kind of satisfaction. For a brief moment I considered making a trip to the store, adding something weighty to the boys offering and dropping it at their schools.

“Am I ruining this holiday for them?” I thought to myself. How long will I hold on to this old grudge against Valentine’s day, brought on by a bunch of pre teen idiots over 35 years ago? Maybe I am getting this wrong after all.

Then, I found a note from Miles on my phone. He’d asked earlier that morning if he could write me a Valentine’s note on my phone. I handed it to him in the car saying, “Yeah, I could use a Valentine I guess, thanks!” I sat in my car thinking about the meager Valentines I’d sent with the boys, thinking about the lost opportunity to teach something deeper and better, thinking about those 7th grade boys who pranked me at such a tender time in my life, thinking about the aisles of hearts and chocolate and Batman valentines and I read Miles’ note, hoping for some redemption, some shift of my curmudgeon-y course, some change of heart-

“Happy Vaelintines Day! Buy Miles a zombie sundae from Margies Candys!”

And I was strangely calmed then for reasons I cannot truly articulate. We don’t always get what we expect at the moment we need it, but sometimes we do get just what we need and right then I needed to be reminded that I’m not 12 anymore. I’m not standing at the bookshelf waiting for a note that was never written. This is my life, these are my people and my people like ice cream. I’ll take it.

Never change, Miles.
Never change.

Letting go…

All four of my children will be in “real” school starting Monday. I’m having a bit of a freak out about that, I have to tell you. After receiving an email from the principal for my oldest son’s school, welcoming us, encouraging us, I broke down. It’s hard to let go.

We have been homeschooling in one way or another since about 2003. We brought our oldest home after a rough year in Kindergarten. She’s always been outgoing and friendly. She loved preschool and she liked Kindergarten, excelling in reading and math and general awesomeness but she got teased every day on the playground. She liked to play alone and the other girls in her school gave her so much grief about it she cried every day when I picked her up from school. Teacher meetings, parent meetings, long talks with my daughter, “grin and bear” it moments, all came to nothing. We’d already changed schools once going from the Montessori school to a school closer to our house. It was too late to apply or get into a third try for the coming school year, so we brought her home, always thinking we’d make a switch the following year.

All in all, it’s gone well, I have to say. As we added kids we just slid them into the homeschool routine. It worked well when we traveled, when we moved, when we were living on 18 acres in the middle of nowhere. We hung out, we asked questions, we made observations, we argued and we struggled and we cruised for a long time. For as long as I was holding things together it really was a phenomenal time and then life changed up and they all seemed to need different things, things I could not deliver with any expertise or consistency. Last year, my daughter, having been home for most of her educational life finally stepped into High School, real school, art school, as a sophomore. She loved it and it loved her back.

I wrote last year of my decision to send Henry to school. It was grueling. His way of learning was so different from my way of teaching and long story short, I was leaking out all over the place where homeschool was concerned anyway. I was losing my mojo, not keeping up with Henry’s needs, falling apart in the bathroom because I felt I was failing them. I finally enrolled him at the neighborhood school so that we could both get what we needed. He loved it and it loved him back.

We tried a “real” school with Chet last year too, thinking the “game theory” approached they offered at the Chicago charter school would be perfect for him but you know, there is no perfect and he had trouble adjusting. He did great with the work but the classroom was overwhelming for him and often the chaos in the classroom kept them all from doing the work, which was the only thing Chet really wanted to do anyway. He did not love it and it did not love him back so we brought him home and I spent last year swimming in the guilt of being unprepared, questioning everything I tried, worrying about the present and the future and the past and all the while poor Miles cruised along doing his own thing, a little lost in the shuffle.

As the youngest in our family, Miles has the cushiest position and yet the strongest opposition to falling into line. His reading lessons probably sounded like I was driving spikes under his fingernails because he hated it so much. I was already burned out and he was getting the dregs of what I had left to offer and the guilt about that gnawed at me daily. I knew I’d put them all in school this year and the pressure ramped up then to “get them ready” for it but the more the deadline approached the worse we seemed to do. It remains to be seen how things will roll when Monday comes. Even so, when I questioned him on it this week he said, groaning, “Geez, mom. I’ll adapt. I always adapt. I’ll be fine, you have to let go sometime.”

And so, there it is. I am letting go a little, reluctantly, expectantly, with great fear and trembling and excitement because I have no idea what this year brings for us all. I imagine it will be a new kind of struggle and a new kind of joy and a familiar struggle and a familiar joy too. I imagine we’ll have moments of great regret mixed with moments of great relief. I imagine that I will adapt and that I will be fine because I have to let go sometime. It’s what we do as parents. We wish for them and we hope for them and in it we are always teaching them how to be their own people in the world. Parenting is letting go, a little at a time- crawling to toddling to walking to running- hair blowing in the warm wind, face to the sun, into the future.

parenting practice…

As I rambled on about this new idea I have for a book my daughter nodded absently. I tried to catch her attention with some buzz words and interesting angles. She looked up from her phone and smiled. “That sounds great, Mom” she responded and then she was gone again. I recognize that look. I recognize that tone.

I know I have said things like this; all covered in that absent tone, that false attention. I panicked a little and caught her eye again. “Can you put down your phone a minute?” I asked and she complied. “You’re not really interested in what I’m telling you, huh?” I pressed. She sighed and patted me on the back. “It’s great Mom, I’m interested.”

It isn’t that I thought she was lying. I know she is interested at some level. And I remember the when I discovered the world outside too. I remember when I went to my first party, heard my first Dead Kennedys album, drank my first beer. I remember when I became more me and less my parents. It’s exciting, being a teenager. It kind of sucks to be the parent in the scenario.  I get all misty eyed and then I get a little narcissistic. Beating back thoughts like, “I used to be cool.”

This happens, this growing up thing. It seems as though we’re always letting go.  That’s what we’re made to do as parents. From the moment they arrive in our household via adoption or conception, raising that child is all about teaching them to live their own lives, teaching them to live outside of our body, outside of our yard. It’s a risk, you know. A grief filled, ego crushing risk.

Be warned, I may do a lot of this wistful grieving over the next few….well, years I guess. Unless my Henry makes good on the promise he made when he was 7 or 8 to “always live in Mom’s basement” then I guess I’ll have to continue to practice letting go for a while yet.

Why I (wish I could) wake early…

I’ve been trying to get up early. I’ve never been a morning person, except, I admit that lately I’m discovering the merits of getting up before the noise in the house starts. I begin to wonder how much of my identity I’ve wrapped around this idea of being a night owl all these years. To say “I’m not” this or that becomes limiting at best. The strange reality is that my life is shifting all the time. All of our lives are shifting. Sometimes we’re the day job, sometimes we’re the night shift. Some days we’re flu ridden, some nights we’re insomniacs. We’re the late night parent, we’re the day time teacher. I wonder how much choice we really have to be “night people” or “day people.”

At any rate, I’m doing my level best to work with my circumstances and the basic truth of it is that by 8pm I’m so worn out from the day that I just cannot bring words to my brain it seems. And so, I’m trying to find myself in the mornings, in the (relative) quiet, in the sliver of time between all out and all in.

This poem from the lovely Mary Oliver came across my laptop screen today, compounding just what I’d been thinking, providing our Poetry Tuesday fix as it were.

Enjoy, good people….

 

Why I Wake Early

 

Hello, sun in my face.

Hello, you who made the morning

and spread it over the fields

and into the faces of the tulips

and the nodding morning glories,

and into the windows of, even, the

miserable and the crotchety –

 

best preacher that ever was,

dear star, that just happens

to be where you are in the universe

to keep us from ever-darkness,

to ease us with warm touching,

to hold us in the great hands of light –

good morning, good morning, good morning.

 

Watch, now, how I start the day

in happiness, in kindness.

 

~ Mary Oliver ~

 (Why I Wake Early, 2004)

whispering into the chaos…

That head cold everyone has been sporting this year finally caught up with me. I’ve been ducking it for months. Every time it came around the corner I hid, sure it would eventually give up and move into another region of the country. It’s clever, this head cold. It finally found its way into my body while my immune system was on sabbatical. I think it entered through the corner of my eye. For a number of reasons I haven’t been sleeping well. There has been an awful lot of eye rubbing and that spot is vulnerable; soft tissues, windows to the soul and all that.

I felt the head cold rush over me yesterday with the general malaise, the throat on fire, the constant sniffling. I tried to ward it off with garlic and apple cider vinegar and vitamin C but once it is in your system there is no going back. It cannot be weeded out of the body. It can only be endured. The body is treated with care; rest, water, juices, propped up head on pillows when the nose blocks up.

There is no cure for this common cold.

Today the head cold robbed me of my voice. I knew it before I even tried to speak. Even the air through my throat had no sound. The force of trying to get a noise behind the word I was attempting was laborious and even a little painful. I took the path of least resistance and so I am not speaking. I am only whispering.

There is something calming about this forced outward silence even though the people around me are as loud as ever I’m carrying this strange quiet around with me. This morning when the kids realized I could not yell up the stairs to answer their bellowed questions they’d come down to me to ask again. Each time the kids came to me with questions or problems I answered them in a whisper and they returned with a whisper too. The calm was contagious.

I may never speak aloud again.

Alright, that’s a false promise, I confess. It does plant in me a new idea, one that I am not entirely happy to admit. For as much as I complain about the loudness of my family and about my need for the silence I understand today that screaming into the cacophony can never silence the cacophony. It’s a good theory that whispering into the chaos might find me some sliver of  calm, some crack in the crazy into which I can inject a little wisdom. All this time I’ve been trying to out loud the loudness, to slam down my mighty fist on the drama machine never realizing that I am not separate from the drama machine. I’m a cog in it as much as anyone.

And then I’m struck with the idea of “control.”  Yelling louder than the thunder feels like control. Losing my cool feels like power. Becoming Mt Vesuvius feels like the all-encompassing final word…and perhaps it is. The question I find I ask today however becomes, “is that the final word I want to use?”

It isn’t really the final word though. In reality when I lose my cool and erupt the final words are actually, “I’m sorry” and “will you forgive me for losing my temper?” and hopefully “yes, you are forgiven.” And while these are good words, vital words upon which to end the scene I wonder today, in the midst of my virus induced vow of silence, what it might look like for me to be able to whisper into the chaos more often, to go there naturally knowing I have nothing to lose by leaning in, knowing that perhaps the whispering is the virus and the whispering is the cure and the whispering is the practice we need to keep our cool, to mellow the yelling, to soothe Mt Vesuvius.

It’s a good theory, anyway.

 

And dream of waffles…

I have these crazy anxiety inspired dreams sometimes. They come whenever I find myself in an emotional clearing in the woods. After a long couple of months of emotional ups and downs, conferences, workshops, projects kicking up, projects winding down, kids puking and people visiting, this weekend is the first open space in my schedule. No place to go, nothing to do.
I probably should have expected that my unconscious would choose last night to fire off the free floating angst I’ve been stuffing away for the last 8 weeks.

I dreamt I was in a grocery store with my daughter and I was making waffles. I was making really amazing waffles. The belgian waffle maker was placed on the floor near an inflatable mattress. Riley and I had slept on that mattress the night before, it seems. I was groggy, well in need of a shower and a cup of coffee and I was wearing a poofy skirt that was much poofy-er on than it looked on the hanger moments earlier. Somewhere in my dream I knew that my husband had 2 of my sons with him on a trip but I was struck with panic when I remembered that my middle son, Henry didn’t know where Riley and I had gone and that he had been home alone all night.

In my waking hours I develop a story that we were trapped in the store, that I had not intended to leave Henry home by himself but in the dream I was just panicked. I looked for my phone and could not find it. The waffle maker burned a hole in the inflatable mattress as I watched. The waffles burned to a crisp. The customers were entering the store and I had no idea what to do. In the dream I felt as though I could not get air into my lungs, they deflated like the air mattress against the hot waffle maker. I looked for Riley but could not see her. I asked store employees to help me but they were all busy. I grabbed random customers to help me find my phone and just as I reached my breaking point I saw Henry, sitting on a counter, playing a game on my phone.

I grabbed him and hugged him close. “Are you alright? Were you scared by yourself at home?” He shrugged and then handed my phone to me. “Yes. I tried to call you a lot of times.” I looked at the phone and saw that he had called 53 times. My “parental confidence” shrank to nothing and I apologized over and over.

Then I woke up.

This morning I told Henry about my dream. I harbored an awful lot of guilt for a person who did not actually leave her 9 yr old son home alone in real life overnight in favor of burnt waffles. He thought the dream was funny and frightening. I just thought it was frightening.

I have these angst ridden, guilt dreams more than I care to count, I guess. They almost always involve me leaving a child somewhere, forgetting someone important or missing some big event. It’s possible that dreaming is just a random firing of unconnected thoughts, unexpressed desires or simply showing our anxiety-ridden slip, so to speak. It’s possible that dreams mean nothing, that we should be able to laugh and shake off nightmares, pizza dreams, poignant images that come to us in the night.

But I pay attention to the dreams I cannot shake the next day. The ones I cannot shake always seem to be the ones in which I am failing as a parent, the ones in which I have made a terrible error where my kids are concerned. Maybe it’s important for me to wear those around a little, to not shake that free of my pajamas so quickly. Maybe letting my unconscious have a voice in the night is precisely the cure for the anxiety I carry around during the day.

Keeping anxiety and fear locked up in my skin cells means it cannot help but come out through my pores. Dreaming is the purge. Giving the anxiety a moment in me during the day is important then; a moment where I admit that life is difficult and dangerous, parenting is difficult and dangerous, breathing is difficult and dangerous. Admitting this, knowing this, I come then to the conclusion that overall, this difficulty and danger is more than worthwhile, it is vital. It is the reason we get out of bed in the morning after a rough night, a rough week, a rough couple of months. In the end, the point of anxiety dreams isn’t to make me feel guilty when I wake up but simply to bring what is unspoken but felt into the realm of waking life.

The reality is that we’re all ok- Henry didn’t spend the night by himself, Riley isn’t lost in a supermarket, the waffles are not burnt and the mattress still has air. As those dreamt images cling to my clothing today though they do remind me that I am afraid and that I want to do this well and it reminds me to pay attention, to keep track of my self, to listen to my children and to never place the waffle maker close to an air mattress.

revelation

“And the the ocean was no more…”

revelation

when she asked me about revelation I stopped
onions half chopped crowding my cutting board
the scent assaulting me
I stopped
to answer
to tell
stories of world’s end and
horsemen and
books and beauty in chaos
that train-wreck prophet
I always picture with wild eyes
soft lips
arms ready to embrace or evade
like onions
before heat
and oil
when she asked me about revelation
I stopped
her eyes wild
lips soft
arms ready to embrace or evade
like a child
gone missing
this young woman having taken her place
some panic, some evidence rising
to my gut, my heart, my face
then wet and streaming
it was the onions
I’m explaining
and the ocean was no more

©2012 adc