Monday, April 07, 2014

Shut Up and Cook

While I was working on a new essay for Demeter Press, I took a quick break and found this. It's long, but worth the time it takes to read it. I found myself nodding my head over and over again as the author lamented the new "culture of shut up" that has permeated social media.  A bit of a twist on my "sea of unknowing," but more pop-culture friendly for certain.

The essay I'm working on is for an upcoming anthology on Mothers and Food and as I sat down to take my first stab at it in the unseasonable sunshine in the backyard, I was on fire.  Chronicling my years as a child of the PopTart Generation (my name for the 1970s era of "better living through chemistry") to my early years as a mother trying to do right by my babies when it came to food, and through our gluten allergy diagnoses, I am writing about the challenges of raising healthy children when you don't know what information is real.  So many of the things I thought I knew about food have been proven wrong - processed foods aren't healthy, fertilizers do more harm than good, GMOs are horrifically frightening, rice isn't a healthy alternative to wheat if you're gluten intolerant thanks to the arsenic levels, alternative grains aren't always the best, and on and on....  The whole essay now weighs in at 2500 words and it is decidedly defeatist, so I'll have to work on finding a way to lighten it up and find the silver lining somewhere.  That said, I do often feel a little undone by the latest food news as it comes my way because it seems to create more work for me as I plan meals and shop and cook for my family.  I come from a Ukrainian great-grandmother who loved nothing more than cooking for friends and family and I inherited her inability to cook for anything less than an army.  I absolutely feel like cooking for others is a way to show them I love them and at our dinner table, the more, the merrier. But I struggle with the fact that eating is hard work these days. And don't tell me to plant a garden in my backyard because I most certainly did NOT inherit that ability from my Gram.  I'll go out and support the farmer's markets, thankyouverymuch, but only if they grow organic produce.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou!

I have been lucky to see Maya Angelou speak a few times in my life. Three times, I have written about her on this blog. I truly believe her life is a precious gift for so many people and I wish her a very, very happy birthday.

Here are links to my previous posts about this amazing woman.

Of Storms and Rainbows

Thank You, Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is My Mother


Monday, March 31, 2014

This Watercolor Life

I don't compartmentalize. Anything. Ever. I've heard it said that women don't, or at least that men do it better and more often. I don't know if that's true or not.  In my personal experience, I have observed that Bubba seems to be very adept at putting aside certain things that may be difficult emotionally so that he can go on with his work day and revisit them later.  I don't know if that means he simply doesn't think about those things at work, or if it's easier to think about them later when his emotions have died down or if he's even self-aware enough to ask those questions and answer them. He has told me that when he's at work, he isn't worried about the house or the dog's cancer or the kids or me. He trusts that we are all just fine - he has to, or he wouldn't be able to function.

A friend told me once that she believes that the reason fathers have an easier time shutting off their "father" persona at work than mothers is because they were never physically attached to their children via an umbilical cord.  I remember thinking at the time that I hoped one day someone would do a study of adoptive mothers to see if there was any truth in that supposition.  It is certainly true for me that I am never not a mother, that at any given time no matter what I am doing I am aware of my children somewhere making their way in the world, that I am always ready to answer a phone call from the school or a friend's mother in case one of my girls needs me.

But that could be because I don't compartmentalize.  My life is like a watercolor painting on some coarse, linen-like canvas, where any stroke of color you put down is likely to bleed in several directions to blend with what is already there.  Every conversation I have with a close friend is held up to the light and examined within the context of what I already know. Every time I have a fight with one of the kids or discover someone's massive screw-up, I question my entire parenting philosophy and make Bubba crazy with my self-investigation.

It wasn't always like this.  As a kid, I was an expert at keeping things separate.  What happened at home stayed at home. I didn't talk to anyone at school about the things that went on behind the front door of our house and, frankly, I didn't think about it at school, either.  Upon walking out the door into the world, I simply became someone else, someone confident and competent, someone who didn't have a personal life beyond school and sports and my job waiting tables.  I didn't allow myself to think about anything but what I was doing in that skin and even when I got home, I tried desperately to inhabit that other person's body.  Needless to say, my worlds eventually collided. I cracked the compartment wide open and began letting light in and the things stuffed inside all tumbled out and left footprints all over everything else in their haste.  Somehow, after years of talking and writing and thinking and figuring out who I am, I have managed to integrate all of my selves: daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend, writer. I don't know how to go back and, frankly, I don't want to, but it does mean that when something painful happens, I am likely to ruminate on it for a while as it slowly spreads out into places I can't predict, changing the landscape of me. That also means that when I'm feeling particularly happy and optimistic, I have a different perspective on everything. Occasionally, I am able to step back and take a look at this multilayered, crazy textured work of art and see how rich and amazing it is with the overlapping bits of dark and light and feel a deep gratitude for this life.  Occasionally, I am prompted to reach out and stroke a particularly awful piece of memory to see if it has maintained its power to sting after many many years even as I marvel at the way it mingles with its beautiful surroundings.  Honestly, I think it is this knowledge that keeps me moving forward when I am skewered through with pain, the belief that it will thin out and become part of something wonderful in the end.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring in the Northwest

Maybe it's that I have a lifetime of memories that involve rain, having spent most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, but I truly don't mind the grey, wet days.

"I hate the rain," Bubba grumbled as he pulled on his sneakers this morning and grabbed the umbrella on his way out the door for his morning walk.

"I know."  There was nothing else to say. He knows the rain doesn't bother me, even when I have to walk in it. Especially on a day like today, when yesterday afternoon brought brilliant sunshine and I was lucky to walk under a canopy of cherry blossoms with the dog, a pink carpet of tissue-thin petals lining the sidewalk.  Everywhere I went, I could smell the sweet perfume of daphne and I watched with a keen eye for the season's first tulips in someone's yard.

To wake up this morning to the sound of the water gurgling in the gutters conjured images of fat, shiny worms making their way across the pavement. I could hear the birds in the magnolia tree right outside my bedroom window and I always imagine they are celebrating the rain, anticipating puddles to splash in and the droves of worms coming out for an easy breakfast.

I sit at the kitchen table, the house silent except for the gentle swoosh of the dishwasher and there is something about hearing the movement of water as I watch the rain fall outside that feels cozy and comforting.  The dog, still damp from our morning walk, lies breathing heavily at my feet and out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of a huge crow descending into the yard.  My first instinct is revulsion.

Ugh, crow. I think. Why couldn't it be a robin or that sapsucker I see every once in a while? But I catch myself. Why not a crow? Because they eat garbage instead of worms and bugs or seed?  Because they are big? Because their cries do not sound like songs to me? In that instant, I feel a softening and turn to watch the crow more closely.  A smile spreads across my face as I watch it hop with a little jaunt across the stones toward the planter. He has every right to be here, too.

My pants are speckled with raindrops, the bottom cuffs soaked from puddles we walked through this morning.  The cherry blossoms were raining down on us and are stuck to the sleeves of my jacket like translucent pink polka dots.  The flagstones are shiny wet and I can't resist stepping hard into the puddle that forms right inside the gate, although I do look around to make sure none of the neighbors was watching.

When Bubba comes back from his walk and leans in for a kiss, I love the way his cheeks feel cold and damp against mine.  He smells fresh from the outdoors and I close my eyes and inhale deeply. This is the scent of Spring.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Of Oil and Water and the Deep Unknowing

As I walked the dog yesterday following a particularly ill-advised exchange on Facebook regarding a vitriolic "anti-vaxxers" blog post, I struggled to tease out the strings of what bothers me so much about these kinds of interactions.  The same gut-burning, chest-tightening, jaw-clenching feelings came over me yesterday that I get when I encounter anti-choice protestors or read stories about the Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful acts against homosexuals. It seemed to me that there was some wisdom in my body that wasn't making it through to my brain.

I am certainly bothered by the Us vs. Them mentality - the assumption that there are only two sides to these issues and the disregard that there might be a shared goal.  No, neither pro-life nor pro-choice activists think killing babies is okay. Yes, both think that it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions. Neither folks who vaccinate their children nor those who choose not to (or slow down the regimen or ask question after question before deciding) want horrible diseases to take over mankind. Yes, we all want healthy, thriving children.  And regardless of your sexual preference, each of us wants to live a meaningful, happy life shared with people we love.

But beyond that, I honestly think that there is a bigger issue. At least in these three instances, one group recognizes the need for individual allowances within the whole and supports a diverse population of choices and the other believes they are Right and everyone should just do what they say.  It is truly pro-choice versus anti-choice and the pro-choice contingent has a much more accepting, understanding, dare I say compassionate view of humanity. It is inclusive.

Being pro-choice (whether in relation to vaccinations, reproductive rights, homosexuality, etc.) means that I am floating in a vast sea of unknowing. It is scary sometimes and floating does not equal passivity. I must still often tread water to keep from drowning and often things come up from the deep to bite me in the ass.  It is difficult to find information and validate it and from time to time I have to seek out other people who are floating for support.  Residing in the vast sea of unknowing means that I have given up absolutes, I forego imposing my will on others, I admit that I don't know what it's like to be you.

The folks who have already decided - those who are certain they are Right - stand on the beach, firm in their own footsteps and throw rocks at those of us floating in the sea. Some of them might dip a toe in the water from time to time ("I get how you might think it's okay to ____________, but if you listen to me you'll see why I'm Right") but without fully giving over to the idea that maybe there is more they can't comprehend, their feet stay firmly on the ground. Others never even venture close to the water's edge, sunk deep into the sand and their convictions that Homosexuality is Wrong or People Who Don't Vaccinate are All Idiots or Being Pro-Choice Means You're a Baby Killer and just keep throwing shit and yelling.

But compassion means that my views have to include these folks, too.  As I walked, I puzzled on the idea of some sort of Venn diagram that might illustrate it, but there isn't one, because that would imply mutual acceptance or overlap of some kind.  In my ocean of "I don't know all that I can and I accept that others know differently than me and that's okay," I am okay with someone who chooses not to abort an unintended pregnancy or vaccinates their kids on the doctor's schedule or exhibits their heterosexual tendencies, because I accept the notion of choice and I know that what is right (without a capital R) for me is not necessarily right for another. So instead of a Venn diagram, my vast sea of unknowing encompasses everyone's choice including those folks on the beach. The beach-dwellers' circle is a little like a puddle of oil sitting atop my circle without accepting it or incorporating it.

In the sea of unknowing there are people who slowly stepped in foot by foot, cautiously examining what it might be like to float out there and truly not know; folks who were willing to entertain the idea that there are circumstances about which they know nothing that are part of the lives of other human beings every day. There are also those who were thrust into the water by a traumatic event - instantly faced with a horrible choice or a life event so jarring that it made them examine everything they thought they knew before. Others may have been born into it.  Don't be fooled, we are all afraid. There is something about not knowing that runs counter to the way we think and many of us continue to search for knowledge and investigate so that we are not consumed. The thing about lying back in the water and relaxing into the idea that there are things I cannot know is that I have no need to prove anything to anyone else. There are some questions for which there isn't a Universal Answer that applies to everyone and if we can't all share in the Right Answer, then at least we can share in the pursuit of a common goal, a shared humanity.

The beautiful thing about seeing these issues as diverse and complex is that it means we can progress. If there were only pro- and anti- camps (pro-vax/anti-vax, pro-abortion/anti-abortion, pro-homosexuality/anti-homosexuality), it would be like flipping a coin over and over again. There is no forward movement, no growth, only switching back and forth between views. If the definition of one group requires the certain annihilation of the other, there is no ground from which to work. The recognition that there are really not two distinct "sides" to any of these arguments gives us the opportunity to define a shared goal and work toward it.  Not that I think that will happen anytime soon, because it is far too tempting to stand on the beach with the sand beneath your feet and believe that you Know. When you can define the threat as something "out there," all you have to do to eliminate it is walk away and ignore it or stand on the shore and throw rocks at it. When you don't have to take the uncomfortable step forward and question your own knowing, why would you? I understand. But standing in the water doesn't mean you've given up what you believe, it just means you're willing to accept that not everyone sees the same horizon you do.

But here's the thing. Our knowledge of anything is never complete. If it were, Pluto would still be considered a planet and doctors would still be writing prescriptions for Thalidomide for pregnant women with morning sickness.  But we learned. We evolved. We questioned.

Once I fully succumbed to the pull of the deep unknowing, I couldn't imagine going back to shore. The richness and diversity of this place is amazing and I learn something new every moment. Being willing to suspend Knowing has allowed me to forge connections with brilliant, passionate, articulate people who agree that there is more to our lives than Black and White, Right and Wrong. And floating in this sea surrounded by others who will not judge my ideas and experiences because they, too, have accepted the unknowing feels safer than standing on that slowly shifting sand throwing rocks out at the sea.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I Just 'Unliked' Your Facebook Page

My (online) world is shrinking. I am doing my best to be open-minded and deliberate about it because I don't want to turn into some old curmudgeon who only listens to and reads things that reflect my point of view.  That said, I'm tired. I'm sick of seeing things on my Facebook feed that are designed to create controversy in order to drive 'clicks.' If I never see one more link to an article about "anti-vaxxers" or "mommy wars" about breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, I might live a little longer. All of these blog posts and articles that would have us believe that important, complicated issues are black and white and we need to PICK A SIDE, ALREADY make me tired.

I occasionally forget what is good for me and enter into the fray, generally to point out that there are few issues that are truly black and white and degenerating into (or starting out with) name-calling doesn't move the conversation along at all. And then I get called a "libtard" and my motives and intelligence get called into question and I get a stomach ache and have to take the dog for a long walk to remind myself not to do that again.

Lately, my recourse has been to take note of those organizations who repeatedly highlight contentious issues and pretend that they are doing so to "create conversation" and 'unlike' them on Facebook.  I simply am not willing to support groups who are only interested in causing mayhem in the pursuit of clicks and, thus, advertising dollars, even if I agree with much of the rest of their content.  (ThinkProgress, I'm talking about you.) While this is nothing new in the world of social media, it either seems as though it has kicked into high gear of late, or I have finally hit my tipping point.  I am so much more interested in thoughtful, respectful, educated exchanges with people who are genuinely willing to listen to others and perhaps take a mental walk in someone else's shoes. Call it compassion. Call it open-mindedness. Call it what you want, but I'm building some boundaries around my world to keep out the folks who are more driven by being Right than they are by being Human.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Best Parenting Advice You Will Ever Get, Teen Edition

So, Lyz Lenz wrote this about how to parent babies and toddlers and I'm pretty sure I peed my pants laughing because I'm just that lucky not to have children that young anymore and if I did, I would certainly stop seeking parenting advice from anyone but her because, well, you just have to head over there and read her advice.

Ironically, something that happened to me today was that a local parenting magazine published an essay of mine that was essentially....wait for it...giving advice on how to choose a school for your child. You can find it here if you're interested.

And so, after having my advice appreciated enough to have it published, I was feeling as though I ought to follow Lyz's example and offer some tongue-in-cheek advice for how to parent your teenager. Please note that I am not nearly as hilarious as Lyz, but I figure I have to beat her to the punch because it's only 11 more years until she has her first teenager and if I wait, well, you know. So, here goes.

On the subject of food: With all of the scary chemicals and things out there in our food supply, it is important to feed your teens only organic, fresh, "real" food, not things that are laden with preservatives or ready-made. While your teen looks huge, he is really still developing and who knows how harmful those genetically modified organisms and pesticides are? Plus, you are setting up eating habits for life, here. Of course, now that your child is a teenager (and they tend to run in packs), they can inhale $14 worth of organic grapes in approximately 49 seconds and, mouth stuffed, complain about being hungry. So, with the price of organic fruit, perhaps it just makes more sense to just head to Costco and buy the party-size bags of potato chips and 800-pack of fruit roll ups so that you don't have to take out a second mortgage to give them enough calories to keep growing. The added bonus of this plan is that you can teach them the all-important life lesson of cleaning up all the wrappers they discard on the TV room floor so that when they get to college, their roommate doesn't stab them in their sleep for being such a slob.

And, speaking of teaching them to clean up after themselves, you must remember that even though they say they don't want anything to do with you, your teenager most certainly is craving boundaries. Yes, now that he or she is older, you can certainly begin to relax things, but you want to remain diligent for any sign that they are pushing things too far. The portion of a teenager's brain that is responsible for impulse control is not fully developed yet and you have to stay on top of them. Except that they are very clever and know so much more about social media tools than you do, so this tactic is most certainly doomed to failure. And, also, teenagers are programmed to despise any idea that comes from their parents, so whatever you tell them they cannot do, they will strive to do. And if they think they will be punished for doing it, they will work really hard (harder than they do on their homework) to ensure that they don't get caught. So, at this point it's probably easier to pour yourself a glass of wine and say something like, "I trust you to make good decisions. I love you," in hopes that a little guilt will go a long way.

Because your teen's brain is still developing, it is vital that they get at least 10 hours of sleep every night, so you should impose an early bedtime and you should ban all electronics for the last hour before bed so that they get in the habit of doing something quiet that will prompt melatonin production. However, it is likely that your child will yell and scream because (a) he or she has homework that has to be done on the the laptop so you can't take it away and (b) the homework will take hours and hours so a bedtime of 9pm is altogether unreasonable. Please realize you have no recourse at this point even though you know that while your child is doing homework, he will most certainly be listening to music or watching YouTube videos or texting friends or all three simultaneously and THAT IS WHY THE HOMEWORK TAKES HOURS AND HOURS. Also, you're screwed because it's a well-known fact that teenagers' brains don't produce melatonin until about midnight which means that even if you have the most well-behaved teen in the world (damn, your guilt trips are awesome!), she will be lying in the dark for three hours staring at the ceiling and waiting to get tired before she ever falls asleep. And unless she has a will of steel, she will probably develop some deep-seated neurosis about her insomnia and it might push her off the deep end. So, again with the wine.

I will only give you one more piece of advice and that is regarding driving. If you are lucky enough to live in a big city, don't let your teen get her driver's license. In our case, there is a bus stop one block away that will get her nearly everywhere she needs to go eventually. Driving is a risky business and with cell phones and GPS and friends in the car, there are too many distractions. I have heard way too many stories of entire carloads of teens ending up in tragic accidents to think that my child ever ought to drive. Of course, that means you will spend the rest of your days schlepping your children everywhere they need to go - three lacrosse practices and two games a week, ballet practice, the high school football game/dance, to the mall to hang out with friends - and you can't implore anyone else to just "run to the store for me and get more chicken stock while I finish cooking dinner." So, basically your life will suck until they leave home and maybe you ought to give yourself a break and send them to driver's ed. Please be aware that most cities now require your teen to enroll in driver's ed through some private company that charges a thousand dollars (no shit), and your kid will never learn to drive a stick shift which is important if she ever finds herself at a party where everyone but her is drunk and the only way to get home is to borrow someone's car but IT'S A MANUAL TRANSMISSION! But, freedom. And so, go ahead and let your teen get a driver's license so she can drive her younger siblings around and you can have more time to drink wine.

Thanks, Lyz, for letting me point out how utterly ridiculous it is to try to figure out the "best" way to parent your child - baby, toddler, tween, or teen. I think I'll go to Costco and buy a case of wine so I can at least relax at night and know I took someone else's advice about self-care.  
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