Thursday, August 30, 2007

Wouldn't It Be Great...

Gross Domestic Product, inflation, 'Leading Economic Indicators', housing prices, unemployment rates, etc. Here in the United States we have so many ways of measuring our current status as a country. Every year, someone calculates how much money was spent on holiday shopping the day after Thanksgiving and compares it to years past in an effort to determine how the retailers will do this year. We follow stock markets and peruse mortgage rates and decide whether or not to spend our money now or save it for later.

As the largest capitalist society on the planet it makes sense that we ought to track these things. On the other hand, I have reached a stage in my life where my desires are so much less consumer-oriented than they ever have been and I found myself in the shower yesterday morning worrying about the economy. Worrying that if I downsize and begin to restrict my spending in order to align my material goods with my longing for increased simplicity in my life that might impact the economy of this country negatively. Millions of jobs count on me spending my money. Clerks in shops, manufacturers making cheap 'disposable' products, long-haul truckers bringing those goods to market, advertisers convincing me that I need the latest, greatest gadget to fulfill my exercise/culinary/gift-giving obligations, the list goes on.

Wouldn't it be great if we could somehow measure our collective wealth in less tangible ways? How about finding a way to assess one's satisfaction with the balance in their life? What if we knew at any given time whether the majority of citizens of our country were happy and fulfilled? Instead of calculating the rates of philanthropy, how about we find a way to ask why people give of themselves? How can we begin to change our mindset from that of finding success in a bank account or a huge house full of shiny new toys to finding success being satisfied with the relationships we have with ourselves and others? The older I get the more I want to find that place where capitalism fades into the background and becomes overshadowed by humanity. Instead of the news carrying 'human interest stories' of people sharing their time and money and love with others as if that were astonishing, let's populate the media with those examples and perhaps feature the occasional blurb about the richest man in the world. Wouldn't it be great?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ode to Peanut

I have been absent of late. We have friends in from South America and are so busy visiting, practicing our Spanish, and generally entertaining each other that I haven't been writing or reading blogs. I fully expect that once they leave I'll be back to my normal routine, but for now I'll post a quickie.

Because of the rotten cold weather last week, we decided to pack up the car and drive East until we found the sunshine. Once we found it, we settled in to a friend's cabin and spent the next several days swimming, horseback riding, and eating ourselves silly. By the time we were headed for home, I was missing my kitties desperately (the dog got invited along for the ride). We arrived home to two affection-starved felines who had lost all pretense of independence. They wanted some love. Lucky for them, there were seven pairs of hands willing to oblige.

As I fell into bed at the late, late hour of 9:30 my big beautiful tabby cat followed me. S. calls him my boyfriend because of his preference for my attention late at night. He settled in next to me and began purring his loud, smooth, rolling purr. I scratched his favorite spots around his ears and he repaid me by rasping his perfectly pink tongue across my other hand.

Sometime around 2:00 AM he returned. Not fully awake, I began stroking his short silky fur and he walked in long ovals, rubbing the top of his head along my arm over and over again. We spent ten or fifteen minutes in this way, assuring each other of our mutual affection and it occurred to me that a cat is the only creature who could wake me at this hour and receive praise for it. I am kind but not terrifically patient with my kids at such a time and should the dog wake me with barking at 2:00 I am generally not pleased. There is something about knowing that Peanut has sought me out that makes me feel honored. He reciprocates my affection quietly and, aside from a gentle nudge, is not demanding. He lets me know that he is pleased by purring and almost always snuggles in to fall asleep within 15 minutes. I am fully present when we spend these minutes together, not distracted by daily tasks or other people. I love that I am not worried about falling asleep again or fulfilling someone or something else's needs. In these moments the simple act of petting Peanut is completely satisfying for both of us.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Coming Clean

I am good at sleeping. After settling in to bed, pushing my pillow in to place beneath my neck, kissing my hubby goodnight and closing my eyes, the hamster jumps on to his wheel. He begins with a burst of energy as I process the events of the day and the anticipated thoughts of what awaits me the following morning. The random bits of information fly off in all directions, like sparks from the wheel. Gradually the hamster slows as sentence after sentence is purged (yes, I think in sentences - I am a very visual person), and what is left are the savory bits. The things that have stuck together during the day, forming sticky nuggets. These are the ones I love. Seemingly unrelated bits of my day that have come together and joined hands like skydivers in a circle. Often before I can even begin to understand why they are important as a group, I am asleep.

As I stand in the shower in the morning, letting the warm water push down from my head to the drain below, I realize that the answer came to me as I slept. Somehow, free of all the distractions of a typical day, my brain has done it's job and twisted and turned the nuggets, looked at them under bright and dim light, found the cracks and filled them and sculpted it into something I can recognize.

Last night as the hamster jumped on his wheel I was beginning to feel as though it is time for me to talk to my parents about something important. Something I have actively hid from both of them for decades. I wanted to come clean. While I superficially understood some of the timing of this, I fell asleep knowing that there was some deeper knowledge yet to be gained.

I awoke with the clear understanding that most of my life has been spent protecting others in one way or another. I have not chosen to keep certain things from my mother and father because I was afraid of their wrath, but because I did not want them to be hurt. I was afraid that if they knew certain things they would feel as though they had not done a good job as parents.

I will tell them in a simple, loving way that the choices I made were made with my full knowledge and consent. I believed at the time, and still maintain, that I was mature enough to handle certain situations without their assistance and do not regret any of the consequences of my decisions. I do not bear any bitterness or anger, nor did I at the time. I love my parents, but I feel that in order for them to fully know the person I am, they should know certain things about my past. I am slowly but surely getting out of the business of protecting those who do not need my protection. Wish me luck.

*Sorry to be so cryptic - I know that sometimes both my mother and father read my blog and I do not want them to read the details. But don't worry, I'll continue the saga here as soon as I can.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Passing the Kudos Along

As the summer comes to a close, I've been thinking a lot about parenting. During the mad rush to find and sign my girls up for summer camps I can recall being so thrilled that the age range for most of the camps was such that they could be together. In addition to saving me extra trips running them to different areas of town, I was reassured that my eldest could look after my youngest and they would find comfort in each other's company. Approximately two weeks in I discovered my error - it's absence that makes the heart grow fonder. Togetherness just makes us all batty. Lesson learned. Purposely scheduling my daughters to spend each and every day of their summer vacation within spitting distance of each other inspired, well, spitting (think feral cats).

I was honored today to be given a "Courageous Blogger Award", courtesy of Eileen at A Life of Triggers . I am not sure I am all that she describes me as, but I'll sure as heck try. The award is given for "bloggers who are battling or have battled with physical or mental illness, those who are survivors of abuse, poverty or who have overcome other challenges in life. Those who serve in the military or work/volunteer in dangerous situations in order to provide a service or to help others. This award is for the strong, the brave and the courageous." Wow! First let me thank Eileen for her generosity in passing this along to me. Next let me express my utter dismay at having to choose one other blogger (and only one) to pass this on to. So many of the bloggers whose writing I routinely read fit this description. Many of them are mothers who are parenting children they did not envision having, those with autism or autistic spectrum disorders, foster children versus their own biological children, stepchildren they 'inherited' as the result of a marriage, children who suffer from mental illnesses, children who are relying on their mothers to be their sole parent, the list goes on. I cannot express the respect and admiration I have for these women who have not only found ways to cope with the challenges they are presented with in their daily lives, but who have discovered, within that struggle, a place of love and acceptance. A way to honor their children's unique abilities and traits and spotlight them. A way to share their difficulties and triumphs with other mothers who find themselves exhausted and frightened by their daily lives. These blogs can be found along the right side of my blog page under links and are daily reading for me. They are truly a balm for my spirit and serve to lift me up day after day.

However, in order not to avoid rising to the challenge of nominating another person whom I feel honestly deserves the title of Courageous, I will pass this along to my friend at Identity Crisis. At a stage in her life where most of us prefer to shut the door on any ugliness that exists in our past, especially if we find ourselves somewhat financially comfortable and possessing a few friends with whom we can enjoy ourselves, Suzy bravely decided to open the door. Despite many second-thoughts and a good deal of fear of the unknown, she plowed ahead and has confronted those demons, excellent sense of humor in hand. Suzy jumped right out of her comfort zone into another time zone completely and immersed herself in pursuing a better way of life. Not necessarily trusting that the outcome would be pretty, she began opening up and has shared her process with others, a feat that is brave in and of itself. Her witty,descriptive writing touches chords in me that generate ripples of love and compassion and for that, I am grateful to her. Suze - here's to you!

Friday, August 10, 2007

What's in a Name?

Summer camp and nicknames go together. I get that. Having said that, I just want to make sure that all of you hapless adults out there who insist on giving yourself camp nicknames know the risk you're taking...

In science camp this week (no, my daughters are really not that geeky - it mostly consisted of learning about mucus and dusting for fingerprints), each of the children got a nickname that had something to do with science in some way, shape or form. The instructors, a sweet high school junior-to-be who loves children and science equally, and a stick-thin antique hippie who looked eighty but was probably actually in her fifties, indulged themselves and chose names for the week as well. The hip student called herself Scientific Cindy (her predecessors were known as Solar Sarah and Jammin' Jen). When pressed for a creative moniker to which the 5-8 year olds would respond, the older woman came up with Dynamic Dinky. Huh.

Last night my youngest came to me, toothbrush tucked into the right side of her mouth and said thoughtfully, "Mom...what's a 'dinky'?" My husband and I exchanged a look.

"Well, usually when people say the word 'dinky' it's another way to say something is small, eensy, little," I wasn't sure this would satisfy her. I was pretty sure I knew where this was going.

"Are you sure it's not this?" she asked, right index finger pointing squarely at her crotch.

"Pmfft," my husband turned away quickly as he choked on his own tonsils.

"What would make you think that was a dinky, sweetie?" I should have been an actress. It's amazing how well I've learned to hide my real reactions.

"This boy at camp. He said a dinky was this," now the finger is jabbing through the air, an exclamation point heading for her crotch.

"Well, I suppose some people might use the word dinky as another way to say penis. I would prefer that you just talk about it as a penis, though, okay?"

"When should I talk about someone's penis?" she inquires innocently. Perhaps she's the one who should be in films. I know her. I'm sure she's screwing with me right now.

"Just brush your teeth."


This morning as I signed the girls into camp for the morning, there was no sign of the older instructor. Scientific Cindy greeted them both warmly and told them they would be making their own slimy cells today. Then, trouble. I heard firm, staccato footsteps coming up the wooden ramp that leads to the door.

"Good morning, Dinky," my youngest calls in her sweetest voice, turning to smile her biggest smile at me. Innocent, my ass.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

What Have I Done?

Yesterday I was sitting in the front office of the school my kids attend, minding my own damn business when my need to 'fix' things reared its ugly head.

"Okay, somebody needs to get the spider in the storage room," E's teacher suddenly appeared at the counter, eyebrows hovering up near her hairline and her pupils magnified impossibly behind her glasses. Her arms clamped close to the side of her body, fingers clenched around a single-serving of chocolate pudding, it was pretty clear she was freaked out.

Both receptionists turned their blonde heads at the sound of her voice, but neither of them moved out of their chairs in a rush to solve the problem.

"Spider?" one asked as if she were casually inquiring about the temperature outside today.

"Huge. Ugly. Looks like one of those bad kinds," came the reply.

My senses were already heightened. Not because I'm afraid of spiders (although I am significantly more jumpy when there is one around), but because she was clearly distressed by this particular one.

"I was just heading in to get a lunch for one of the kids and there it was. It's huge. I'm not going in there again until someone gets it out."

Nobody moves.

The teacher stands there for a minute waiting for anyone to comment or come to her rescue but it doesn't seem as though there's a race to be hero. Curious, I take a few quiet steps toward her. She catches the movement and turns to lead me toward the storeroom. As we get to the doorway she puts her hand out to stop me. I feel a little like I'm a teenager in some cheap horror flick. She's actually holding me back from stepping off of the carpet onto the linoleum floor that lines the storeroom. Her head cautiously cranes around the corner to peek back behind a roll of white butcher paper, her head jerking back several times like a chicken in a farmyard. I'm not laughing, though. Even though I know this spider isn't about to jump out at her, I respect her fear.

She finally points it out to me. Yup, he's a big one. Fat brown body with dark spots, fat legs that stretch out in all directions. He's bigger than a half dollar - just sitting there compressing himself down into the crack between the butcher paper and the wall.

"Is there a Mason jar somewhere we can put over him?" I ask, looking at the metal shelving lining the walls.

"I don't know. I'm outta here," she's afraid to even be within visual distance of this guy.

I watch her disappear back into her classroom and wander slowly back toward the front office. What am I thinking? I hate spiders, too, and while I don't want to hurt one, I don't really relish the idea of capturing it, either. But nobody else is doing anything and E's teacher is really freaked.

Aha! There are several abandoned water bottles and thermoses next to the pile of sweatshirts and coats in the Lost and Found area. Now all I need is a stiff piece of paper.

The first attempt doesn't go so well. This guy is fast - fueled by his own adrenaline, I'm sure. He zips across the storage room and corners himself again. My second try just sends him back behind the roll of butcher paper. The mouth of the thermos isn't much bigger than him and I really don't want to clamp it down and see one of his legs sticking out. Ugh. Now I've given myself the shivers.

Third time's a charm. I slip the paper between the thermos and the floor, trapping him, and walk purposefully toward the front door of the building. Once outside, I debate where to set him free. Not near the playground full of kids. Not anywhere in the parking lot - he'll either get squished or end up in my car as some kind of cosmic joke. I finally let him go in the tall grass behind the cyclone fence, hoping he'll thank me on some level for getting him back out in nature.

Crap! As I return to the front desk and announce that the spider is gone I realize I've just created a monster. I will forever be known as the spider-getter. This is not a role I covet. Once again, I realize the lesson here is not to assume that my job is to fix it when someone else is disturbed. Too late.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

How Thick is My Armor?

This is a piece I'm workshopping with some other Northwest writers this weekend. Thought I'd share it with those of you who read my blog and couldn't be here with us.

I am standing in the corner of the living room but nobody notices me. The room is saturated with screams, the thick, anguished shrieks of a little girl who knows she is about to be punished. She has done something wrong and the wooden spoon has come out of the beige crock on the counter. My little sister’s hands tucked into the elastic waistband of her pants, covering her bottom to add a layer of protection. She is running away, little legs churning through the fog of terror that permeates the very air of this room. Nobody is chasing her. Her punisher stands sternly and larger-than-life in the doorway, spoon in hand, a pillar of quiet anger.

“NO NO NONONONONONONO,” over and over. She sounds as if she has had splinters shoved under her fingernails. She is walking on hot coals. She is tortured. I am frozen in place, horrified that her punishment will come to pass. I can’t let this happen.

“I did it. Spank me, please,” my voice breaks as I emerge from the safety of the corner. “It was my fault. She didn’t do anything. She’s too young. I’m the one who made her do it. Please, please, please. Spank me.” An avalanche of tears rolls down my face, picking up speed. I imagine them splashing to the floor one by one, carving out paths in the dense grey air of emotions. Anger, frustration, desperation.

I know that it is my job to protect her. From the first day she came to us, two months old and smaller than my favorite baby doll, I sat in the rocking chair and held her warm little body and felt her fragility. She weighed all of seven pounds and the hospital band she wore on her wrist was no larger than an inch in diameter. Her cornsilk black hair stood straight up on her head and I declared, “I like this baby. I think I’m going to keep her.”

We share everything. Our bedroom sports twin beds with matching Hollie Hobbie bedspreads and pillows. We play together, sleep together, stick together. Nobody loves her like I do. She makes me laugh and since I began realizing that the rest of my family is falling apart I understand that it’s up to us to make sure we stay together. She trusts me to protect her. I am her Don Corleone. For her, I would break someone’s kneecaps.

I feel the same way about C. He joined our family as damaged goods, too. Eight years old, blind in one eye from a boy’s game gone wrong. He had spent his entire life in an orphanage – waiting for someone to adopt him. He was timid, hung back, and instantly sparked the protective fire inside me. His smile channeled sunlight and the songs of angels. It is up to me to keep them safe.

I am strong and purposeful. My eyes scan the world for potential dangers waiting to ambush either of them. My armor is strong. Only behind it are there soft spots, vulnerabilities. Attempt to hurt K or C and I will loom larger than life. I will attack head-on and defend them with a ferocity seven-year-old girls shouldn’t have.

Succeed in harming either of them and I will be destroyed. I would have kept this secret under lock and key had I known about it. It would have been my greatest fear. As it was, I didn’t consider the possibility. I believed myself smarter, more vigilant, and capable of loving them so much that no harm could ever come to my ‘children’. To think that my own mind would betray me in one case and my age in another was impossible. Too traumatized to acknowledge that K needed to be protected, I failed to save her. Too young and powerless to stop the adults from taking C away, I failed in my duties again. I cannot be trusted to protect those in need.

The cars are lined up for the morning dropoff. Minivans, SUVs, a few fathers in their sports cars, eager kindergarteners strapped in to their carseats. I drive past them and park in a shady spot.

“E, get your school bag and your coat, please,” I speak over my shoulder as I unbuckle my seatbelt and wink at the baby. Walking around the car to her side I breathe deeply through widened nostrils and fill my chest to bursting. As I exhale in a loud ‘whoooooo’ I drop my shoulders and try to relax my neck muscles.

We walk E inside to PM Kindergarten every day. Her teachers smile as we swing the heavy door open and make our way past the children hanging their bags and coats up at the short hooks to her cubby. Bending down with the baby on my hip, I squeeze her to me tightly and firmly kiss the top of her head, swallowing against the lump in my throat. Other children greet her with smiles and some of her girlfriends run up to give her a hug. E squirms away from me, ready to giggle with her gang, all of them in dresses and hairclips hugging each other in a big moving mass.

Walking back down the hall toward the car I bounce the baby up and down, “What shall we do today, just you and me, huh? Shall we play with Play-Doh? How about some fingerpainting? Too cold for the park, I think, sweetie pie, but we’ll have some special time just you and me.”

I drive slowly the three miles home, sneaking glances at the mirror to see if she’s falling asleep. The music is low, my speed steady, I speak only when she forces me to. I want her to fall asleep. I feel so guilty. I should play with her – give her the focused attention her sister got before she came along. What I really want is to sleep. Sleeping makes the time go faster and before I know it, it will be time to get back in the car to pick E up from school. L hates it when she falls asleep on the way home only to wake up in time to get back in the car. She feels cheated and I understand.

I hate it when E is gone. She went to preschool last year and it was fine, but this year I am afraid. It’s silly. She’s perfectly safe. What could possibly happen to her? How many times did my mother ask herself that? Or did she not even think to ask it because she had no frame of reference to even fathom that dangerous people existed on our block? I can’t take any chances.

This fear is like a prickly ball churning around and around in my stomach, bumping up against the walls and sending shock waves of nerve pain through me. K was five when Clayton began molesting her. Molesting us. E is five. I feel jumpy, edgy, my clothes are sandpaper but I can’t change them. I don’t have time to take this fear out and examine it.

I drive home and construct puzzles, read board books, color with my youngest daughter. Living with the prickly ball makes my molars crunch against each other and my shoulders hover up around my earlobes. It makes me color inside the lines with a precision that is unreal. I watch the clock arms snail by until the moment I can scoop up the little one and fasten her into her car seat to pick up her sister.

We always arrive early. I like to spy on her in the classroom or the playground and see her smiling at the teachers or bending over her work with intense focus. Sometimes she sees me through the window and grins, waving us in. The little one is always eager to join the circle of older children and sit next to her sister, mimicking her to be a part of the group. As we all settle back in to the car for the ride home, I spray her with questions like buckshot, wanting to soak up every detail of her day. I want to know what she did, who she played with, what songs she sung and whether she’ll do the same tomorrow. She can never remember it all, but with each crumb she gives to me, the prickly ball is worn down and slows its frantic whirling.

I sometimes wonder how long I will watch her like this. Will there come a time when I stop expecting her to be abused? I am terrified that someone will hurt her and she will blame me for not having protected her. I will blame myself for not anticipating the danger and preventing it. The more time elapses with her safe and healthy, the easier it is to think she will be safe. But will it come when I least expect it?

How many times a day do they say men think about sex? Every seven seconds or so? That’s how often the fear of dying and abandoning my daughters appears in my mind. Now I know what kinds of horrible things can happen to children and if I don’t at least try to keep them safe, who will? I don’t think anyone else grasps the seriousness, the risk involved in being responsible for other people. I can’t abandon them like I abandoned K and C.

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