Tuesday, March 25, 2014

That's My Boy

The Monkey just came to me for interpretive assistance on a book passage he didn't understand.  He read it aloud:

"I had a clear shot right up her skirt and this time it wasn't innocent flowered underwear.  Mrs. Williams needed to go to confession for wearing those things."

He gave me a funny look like he didn't want to ask.  "...and that is?"

Me:  Thong, probably.

He didn't even pause:  "Ohh....buttfloss?"

Me:  Yep.

"Got it."  And he wandered off again...

Buttfloss.  Yep.  I've got this parenting thing down...

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Life is Not a Scorecard

At some point, a whole lot of years before now, I constructed a method of determining my value to the world.  Given the simplicity of the approach, I’d say I created it during my adolescence…and, like many childhood habits, it stuck.  The system was easy and probably seemed quite rational at the time.  If I’d had the vocabulary to be pithy back then, I might have titled it something like, “What can be counted counts!”  I basically figured out how to quantify and evaluate the things that make me who I am to determine whether or not I was “good”…
  • I could quantify “smart”…by good grades and positive feedback from teachers. 
  • I could quantify “nice”…by friendships and acceptance within social groups.
  • I could quantify “funny”…by how often and whether I made people laugh.
  • I could quantify “talented”…by being cast in plays, chorus, and orchestra.
  • I could quantify “creative”….by the output of writing, music, and crafts.
  • I could quantify “attractive”…by the size of my clothes, the number on the scale, and whether or not boys liked me.
  • I could quantify “successful”….by promotions, good reviews, and my parents’ response to me.
  • I could quantify “responsible”….by living within my means and a good credit score.
  • I could quantify “optimistic”…by the number of terrible situations I managed to overcome without (letting anyone know I was) collapsing.

I’ve spent the last 35-40 years constructing an elaborate tally sheet of my life.  I’ve automatically used it every single day to determine my self-worth.  Am I doing well?  Let’s check the list!  Survey says… 

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s bullshit.  The tally sheet is focused around externalities.  It relies on a feedback loop.  It hinges on the assessment of others…which means I’ve been linking my value to their journey (which is crazy).  You know that person who says “It’s not you, it’s me”?  There’s actually truth in that.  The way we respond to others is a reflection of where we are within ourselves…often much more so than anything relating to the person we’re responding to.  I know this to be true because I’ve experienced it:  I get more frustrated with the Monkey when I feel yucky – not because he is particularly more or less frustrating.  He could be perfectly constant, but my response changes because of where I am…what I’m feeling.

So the tally system is a recipe for disaster.  It puts me in a world in which my opinion of myself is intrinsically linked to how I’m evaluated by others…an evaluation that, at any given moment, may have nothing to do with me.  It’s a house of cards…and it’s come crashing down on more than one occasion.  For years, I’ve let my sense of self-worth diminish because I was convinced that I was getting a bad score in my own life.

But what if life isn’t intended to be a score card?  What if my value can be rooted simply in the existence of those things that make me who I am?  What if I could continue to embody all of those attributes on my list (smart, nice, funny, creative, optimistic, etc…) without the running tally….without the need for scorekeeping…without the external assessment?  What if I just accepted, fully embraced, that my value is intrinsically linked to who I am…that it is grounded in the unique alchemy of heart and mind and body and spirit that makes me, me. 

What if all I need to do is accept myself?
Acceptance is the great equalizer that stops the roller coaster of externalities.  Acceptance brings a quiet acknowledgement that negates the need for tally sheets and score cards and comparative living.  I am always perfect and I am always flawed.  I am equally as perfect and as flawed when I achieve as I am when I fail. (Let me say that again:  I am equally as perfect and as flawed when I achieve as I am when I fail).  I am smart when I know the answer and exactly as smart when I don’t.   I am beautiful when I am loved by another and beautiful when only I love me.  I can embrace the joyful complexity of who I am…the improbable odds of my very existence in this particular configuration in this place and time…for the simple miracle that it is.  I can let go of the need to have that existence validated.
And it’s not about ego.  Acceptance doesn’t mean I get a free pass to be a jerk simply because I exist.  I still have a responsibility to contribute to the world around me.  Acceptance just means that my contribution can emanate from a place of understanding, gratitude, and authenticity, rather than from some (false) competitive requirement to be named valedictorian of my own life (spoiler alert:  the size of the graduating class is one…so I’m pretty much a shoe-in for graduating both first and last simultaneously).  Absent the misguided attempts at scoring, contribution becomes a joyful opportunity rather than a rung on a mythical ladder to nowhere.

Honestly, I feel a little foolish that it’s taken me this long to recognize such a simple truth.  My instinct, of course, is to berate myself with a lower grade (because shouldn’t I have known?  Shouldn’t this have been obvious?), but that doesn’t seem particularly useful anymore.  Instead, I’m just going to be grateful, take a deep breath, and appreciate how amazing my life will be when I’m not keeping score at all.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Christmas Looks Like

Every year I spend a little time worrying that my narrow range of holiday decorating is somehow robbing my son of his childhood.  We've never had an Elf on the Shelf.  I don't do much with the mantle or spend days stringing lights on the bushes.  Some years, I completely forget to put the wreath on the door.  (Actually, I just realized that I've currently forgotten to put the wreath on the door.  Crap.  I should fix that...)  I've had the same little 6' pre-lit tree for most of his life.  I never use tinsel or popcorn strings.  I have more than a decade's worth of White House ornaments and I rarely display them.

The Christmas trees of my childhood were very different.  Dad always got a live tree...and then spent the weeks it was in the house worrying about whether or not it had enough water (or if it would spontaneously combust while we were out of the house).  Decorating the tree was a family event.  Dad hauled down box after box of decorations from the attic.  He'd fight through sorting out the tangled lights and getting them on the tree, while Mom carefully unwrapped each ornament.  My sister and I would take turns hanging a variety of ornaments -- Hallmark ornaments and glass ornaments and ornaments my Mom got as teaching gifts and craft projects from our schools.  We'd then take turns tossing tinsel at the branches until they were a fog of silver.  Finally, the special star topper was placed on the tallest branch and we'd all sit back while Dad hit the lights.  The tree was a complete cacophony of holiday cheer, and we loved every minute.

 Decorating at my house is a little different.  The tree goes up (and is properly fluffed and lighted) in probably 15 minutes.  Stringing the lights takes a few more minutes with minimal to no cursing (thanks to how I store my lights), and then we move on to the really good part.  We always wait til it's dark, then the Monkey and I turn on Christmas music (hot beverage optional) and we decorate.

Our main tree has two kinds of ornaments (gold balls and red balls) and a string of shiny gold garland that we wrap around it.  We put up a second little (2') tree that he can decorate as he chooses.  Historically, he's had a few special ornaments that he likes to put on the tree.  A homemade puzzle piece ornament with his picture on it....a spiderman ornament...a snowman.  This year, he instinctively reached for Spiderman and then stopped himself.   Once the snow lets up, we'll be questing for some appropriately swanky "more mature" ornaments for his little tree.

The little vignette with his tree is possibly my favorite this year.  The ribbon around his tree base was attached to a gift I got a few years ago.  The giant ornament-turned-globe was an impulse buy one year when I (made the mistake of?) took the Monkey to Target with me.  He wasn't leaving the store without it -- and even this year, it was the one ornament from "his pile" that he insisted we display.  I scored the tree topper in an ornament exchange at work.  The tall candlestick in the back corner was a wedding gift.  The Pottery Barn table was an early purchase after the Monkey's dad and I moved to DC, and the mirror was a centerpiece of the first house we bought in the area.  The Swedish glass candy dish supporting the ornament was a gift from my friend Andreas on his first visit almost 20 years ago.  And the small glass ornaments on the tree were a gift from my mother from her stash of holiday decorations.  I'm not even sure how old they are (but we treat them carefully, just in case).

Every piece of this little scene has a story, spanning decades, layered together as harmoniously as the winding road that has brought us to where we are in our lives.  They tell tales of love and change and growth and evolution.  They are memories and moments.  The Monkey will add his own layer this year and I have every intention of making the process something he'll remember:  his own story to tell someday.

A snowstorm hit the area this morning, so both work and school were called off.  I turned on the lights in the early morning snow-gloom and started a pot of coffee.  The Monkey came stumbling out of his room, all sleepy and warm, and crawled into my lap on the couch.  He chatted absently about the wonders of being out of school and snow and some thoughts he'd held on to since the night before.  Then he relaxed into the crook of my arm and stared at the little holiday scene in the corner of our living room.

"I love our tree," he said.  "It's so simple and beautiful."

I hugged him a little tighter.

In that moment, I realized that he didn't feel like he was missing out on anything.  Despite the barrage of Pinterest pictures and media onslaught and my own memories of "what Christmas looks like," my narrow, simplified approach isn't depriving him in the least.  His Christmas memories will be different from mine, but they'll be no less warm or wonderful. 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Very Short Story

I had the most fantastic moment today.

I was trying on clothes in the mirror and, for an instant, caught a glimpse of a woman completely at ease.  She was tall and strong and confident.  She wasn't ashamed or critical.  She wasn't worried.  She didn't shirk or fret.  She didn't obsess about the way others saw her.  She didn't enumerate her flaws or tell elaborate stories to explain her shortcomings.  She didn't seem to need any of that...not anymore.

She simply stood there unafraid....then met my eye and smiled.

After two years and a very long, twisty road, I realized I was smiling too.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

This Sloth is Disappointed in Me

This sloth is, of course, also correct.  My task for the month is to write without distraction for two hours a day (or night or morning).  Completing this task has presented more challenges than I anticipated.  

I woke up early one morning, determined to "knock it out" in the pre-dawn hours.  It didn't take me long to discover that I'm not actually awake in the pre-dawn hours.  I didn't even make it out of bed before I realized my writing was likely to sound a bit alien at that hour.  "Mmf ungh eurgh" is cute (probably), but doesn't create any real "narrative urgency" -- except for the urgency to go back to sleep.  Which I did.

Ok, so I reset and blocked out time in the evening, but it turns out that my evenings are a bit of a cacophony.  The dog moans and paces and begs for walks (by laying his head on the keyboard). The Monkey bounces around and crawls in my lap and tells me a million random things.  Though I'm a little more coherent at 7 p.m. than 4 a.m., keeping everyone occupied so I can write is a stutter-stop process.

The point, I suppose, is that it is a process, and I'm slogging through it.  My brain and body are throwing stupid excuses at me about why I can't focus on writing (latest in the series?  I have ankle cramps!  Seriously, who even gets ankle cramps?).  I'm frustrated, for sure, but I haven't quit yet.  

The lesson in this cautionary tale of alien lingo and ankle cramps is simply perseverance.  The point is to not give up, but to keep moving forward no matter how unrelenting the silly obstacles.  The goal is to overcome the challenges.

Eventually, maybe even the sloth won't be quite so disappointed.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Quick Post: Contact High

There is almost nothing better than listening to someone describe the thing about which they are most passionate.  I had the very good fortune to be a part of such a conversation tonight and it left me feeling absolutely elated -- like I've just basked in the sunlight on a perfect day.

Do not underestimate the power of passion, friends.  

Monday, April 02, 2012

Rating Scale

It's Spring Break week around here. Since the Monkey and I don't have any travel plans, he's spending part of his days hanging with the peeps at the school's extended care program.  They're deeply into the Just Dance video games for the Wii, and tonight I found out that he's developed a rating system for the songs on Michael Jackson The Experience

Crotch grabs.

In his words... "Billy Jean is a pretty good, but the background dancers -- which I like to be -- have to grab their crotches a lot.  I won't do Dirty Diana ever (that song is just horrible).  Beat It is great, but there's a lot of crotch grabbing in it.  Oh!  But my favorite song is Smooth Criminal.  It has a major crotch-grab in it, but it's totally worth it because that song is awesome."

Hey, at least the kid's got standards!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Honest Mistake

The Monkey came into my room a little before 2:30 a.m.  I don’t remember him opening the door.  By the time I was conscious, he was standing over my bed talking in a rush...

“I had to come and tell you.  I’m so sorry.  I woke up at 2:02 a.m., but I thought it was 6:02 a.m. and I thought my friend was texting me , so I sent him a text to say that I couldn’t get online, but then I realized it was 2:02 a.m. and not 6:02 a.m., and I’m in so much trouble and I’m really, really sorry!”

It took me a minute to process, and by this time he was crying.  I checked the clock (2:27 a.m.) and then replayed the conversation back.  You got the time wrong (yes).  And you sent him a text message (yes!).  Are you sure you actually sent it and didn’t just dream it (yes).  You only sent one, right (yes). 

He was curled up next to me in bed in a little ball, face down in the mattress sobbing.

I was, thankfully, remarkably coherent for that hour of the morning.  I calmed him down with lots of hugs and kisses and told him that everything would be alright.  We decided that he could apologize to his friend at school and I’d send a note to the parents to explain what happened.  We also decided that texting should probably only happen when it’s really daylight outside, no matter what time you think it is. 

The Monkey and I have invented a “mistake script” that helps us when we realize we’ve done something wrong.  It’s a simple three-step process that pretty much covers the bases:  1) Admit that you did something wrong; 2) Apologize, if you’ve hurt someone else; 3) Decide what you’ll do differently next time.  The unspoken fourth rule of the mistake script, and arguably the most difficult part, is then to let it go.  Once you’ve done those things, there’s no reason to hang on to the guilt of that mistake anymore.

We went through the three parts of the script in the middle of the night, and then we went back to bed.

The Monkey’s honesty is a thing of beauty.  He spent twenty long minutes in bed last night agonizing over his mistake before finally getting up to come and tell me.  He’s not even reached his first decade and he’s already realizing that honesty is the better path.  He was still feeling guilty this morning, but those feelings quickly abated as his friend rushed up to greet him at school.

Parenting is difficult and it’s easy to feel like I’m getting it all wrong sometimes.  I’m hyper-aware of every minute I’ve been impatient…every time I’ve snapped when I should have listened…every lesson lost or moment missed.  I worry that I’m not strict enough, not regulated enough, not present enough.  I worry that my own shortcomings as a human being are going to do irreparable damage to this amazing little life I’m trying so hard to nurture.

And then, in a moment of complete honesty, I realize that no matter how many mistakes I feel like I make, maybe everything is going to be ok.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Risk Taker

At lunch on Saturday, Cheryl pointed out (twice!) that I’m a risk taker.  I nearly argued the point, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she’s right.  With full knowledge of the risks, I dated a 45-year old, never-married guy who lived two thousand miles away (and we made it work for a year and a half).  Even realizing that the housing bubble was at its peak, I bought a house in a great neighborhood that’s crazy expensive for a single-income family (and I’ve made it work for four years now).    I embarked on grad school while working full time and parenting full time (and I won awards for my performance in the program).

Of course, I haven’t jumped on every opportunity that’s flitted across my radar.  I’ve agonized over what to do when I could see the reward even though I wasn’t comfortable with the risk.  In those moments of struggle, I feel like a coward clinging to my safe decisions.  In retrospect, maybe those risks were just ones I simply wasn’t meant to take.  And despite my extensive deliberation with myself, maybe I knew I wasn’t meant to take them.

I’m working on a homework assignment for a writing class I’m taking from Joshua Fields Millburn.  We’re submitting answers to 29 questions that span the gamut from the poignant (Why do you write?) to the absurd (Would you rather ride on a train, dance in the rain, or feel no pain?).  One of the questions I struggled with today is “Why did you sign up for this class?”  The truth is that I don’t quite know.  (How’s that for crazy?)  I gave a few hundred dollars to an author I’d barely read for a class with no syllabus and very few details on content except that he would teach us to “write better.” 

On the surface, that sounds like a pretty boneheaded risk.

But the thing is?  I know it’s the right decision, even if I can’t quite quantify why I know.  When I saw the announcement for the class, I didn’t hesitate.  I confirmed my availability (and the cash) and signed up for it on the spot.  Making the decision to take the class was instinctive and effortless…just like the decision to buy my house, to give it a try with a guy across the country, or to add the work of grad school to an already-full life. 

So maybe it’s not that I’m “not a risk taker.”  Maybe, in fact, I’m actually a fairly skilled risk taker with a strong instinct for what is and is not a good risk.  And the definition of “good risk”, by the way, doesn’t have to mean that every detail works out forever.  Relationships change.  Houses need repair.  School is exhausting.  But it’s all worth it.  Had I not listened to my gut, had I passed on these risks, I never would have understood the depth of their rewards.

I believe that every risk comes with a lesson – an opportunity to learn something.   Whether the writing class actually makes me “write better” remains to be seen, but I know I’ll get something useful from it.  I know I’ll ultimately be very glad that I took the risk.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Defense of the Feminine

Yesterday brought some much-needed girl-time with Cheryl.  I always look forward to our outings because, no matter how long it’s been since we’ve seen each other, we take the conversation to the good stuff almost immediately.  We talk to each other the way I talk on this page – openly and from the heart.  We have twin spirits and similar struggles, which gives us the ability to be honest and unguarded with each other.  I would call the experience “restorative,” but that’s too pale a word for the intense feeling of healing and wholeness that always seems to cling to me after our visits.

For a long time, I was afraid to have deep friendships with other women.  My early experiences with female friendship were not particularly healthy and left me seriously gun-shy about engaging with other women.  I generally preferred to hang out with guys.  Guys are relatively easy to be with.  They’re complex in their own way, of course, but there’s a face-value quality to men that I’ve always appreciated.   Granted, male-female friendships are subject to their own potential perils (When Harry Met Sally was right – the sex can totally get in the way), but I was always more comfortable with that threat than the risk of some ridiculous drama ruining the relationship.

Despite my fear, I’ve thankfully developed a few incredible female friendships over the years, and the older I get, the more I appreciate these women.  I’m grateful that they understand those things about me that are uniquely female.  They don’t balk at my complexity or my need to talk things out.  They know how to strike a balance between talking and listening.  They’re able to empathize with me from a place of knowledge and experience.  And I am able to do all of these things for them as well.  These relationships are an amplification of the “common thread” idea I talked about previously.

Cheryl and I spent some time discussing a story out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed:  A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.  As part of her travels, Gilbert spends some time in a Hmong village in Vietnam talking to the local women about marriage.  She was nervous about her own nuptials and decided to interview women on the topic.  Her findings in this village were particularly fascinating to me (in her words):

Watching the Hmong women interact with each other, I got to wondering whether the evolution of the ever smaller and ever more nuclear Western family has put a particular strain on modern marriages. In Hmong society, for instance, men and women don’t spend all that much time together. Yes, you have a spouse. Yes, you have sex with that spouse. Yes, your fortunes are tied together. Yes, there might very well be love. But aside from that, men’s and women’s lives are quite firmly separated into divided realms of their gender-specific tasks. Men work and socialize with other men; women work and socialize with other women. […]

If you are a Hmong woman, then, you don’t necessarily expect your husband to be your best friend, your most intimate confidant, your emotional advisor, your intellectual equal, your comfort in times of sorrow. Hmong women, instead, get a lot of that emotional nourishment and support from other women – from sisters, aunties, mothers, grandmothers. A Hmong woman has many voices in her life, many opinions and emotional buttresses surrounding her at all times. Kinship is to be found within arm’s reach in any direction, and many female hands make light work, or at least lighter work, of the serious burdens of living.
Of course, it is unlikely that Westernized society will transition back to neatly-stacked gender roles, nor is that required.  I don’t think the point is necessarily the amount of time that men and women spend together so much as it is the expectations of the partnership.  The lesson Cheryl and I discussed is that just as it “takes a village to raise a child,” perhaps it also takes a village to make a person.  We need all of our relationships – male and female – to deal with our complexity, to reinforce us when we’re weak, to celebrate our achievements, and to shoulder our burdens.  No one person – particularly not one’s life-partner – should have to fill all of those needs alone.  It’s far too much to expect.  Perhaps others know this instinctively.  I, as always, seem to only understand through the slow accumulation of thoughtful experience (and lots of conversation/writing).

And so, as I considered this revelation and the conversation with Cheryl that solidified it, I’m realizing anew a profound sense of gratitude.  I’m grateful to have friends, both male and female, who willingly lend their unique perspectives to my life.  I’m grateful to have people with whom I can be fully myself.  And I’m absolutely grateful that I have forged healthy connections with other women.  My life is made much, much richer for it.